Shopping for a new smartphone can be overwhelming. Even after you’ve chosen a wireless carrier, there are so many phones – many of which look almost the same – that you might not know where to begin. The choice is made even more difficult by the constantly shifting sands of the smartphone marketplace and this year has already seen a number of major new players enter the fray. So how do you sort through it all? Look no further, as Gizmag breaks down the top smartphones of (early) 2013.
Update: This version of the guide is now obsolete. For the latest version, check out our (early 2014) Smartphone Comparison Guide.
If we included every smartphone, you’d need to read this on a wall-sized computer. So we narrowed it down to a field of eight. They are (pictured, left to right):
- Samsung Galaxy S 4
- HTC One
- Apple iPhone 5
- LG Optimus G Pro
- BlackBerry Z10
- Sony Xperia Z
- LG/Google Nexus 4
- Samsung Galaxy Note II
We tried to include at least one phone from the biggest manufacturers. The biggest omission is Nokia and Windows Phone, but stay tuned for separate comparisons that give Lumia phones some love.
Specs aren’t everything, but they can suggest what a device can do. We organize our comparison by the measurable, but we also try to put our fingers on those harder-to-define intangibles. If a phone is greater (or lesser) than the sum of its parts, we want you to know that too.
So, without further ado, let’s break down the top smartphones of early 2013.
For this comparison, we’re lumping smartphones and phablets together. You could argue that half of these phones are phablets, but the Galaxy Note II and Optimus G Pro are the only two that are no-question, through-and-through phablets.
The iPhone 5 looks positively puny in this group. BlackBerry’s Z10 isn’t much bigger. This is where the balance of hand size to screen size comes into play:
Are you uncomfortable holding a giganto-phone? Then the iPhone might be the best bet for you. Don’t mind some bulk if it gives you more screen real estate? Then phablet ahoy, matey.
If you’re still on the fence, hop into a store, pick a few of these up, and see how they feel in hand. And don’t be afraid to refer back to Gizmag when the wide-eyed salesperson tries to push you in a commission-friendly direction.
Glass, aluminum, or plastic? Those are your choices when it comes to external build materials. The build of the phone’s chassis can affect how it feels in hand. Since you might be gripping this phone in your hand for the next two years, it’s an important consideration.
The iPhone 5 is – by far – the lightest phone in this group. If you want something that will disappear in your pocket, it wins that prize hands-down.
The Note II and Optimus G Pro – the fabulous phablets of the group – are the heaviest. Considering their hulking sizes, though, they should still feel relatively light. The Galaxy S4 also feels extremely light when you take its size into account.
In the last few months, the pixel counts in high-end smartphones shot into the stratosphere. The only caveat is that your eyes probably won’t notice a huge difference between 330 pixels per inch (PPI) and 430 PPI. It’s extremely sharp vs. ridiculously sharp.
If you want the very best display at any size, then the HTC One probably wins that prize. The Galaxy S4 is right up there too. Even the Note 2 – with the lowest pixel density in this group – doesn't have a bad screen.
If you aren't so picky about display quality, then your decision may come down to size. Here too the iPhone is the smallest, and the two phablets the biggest – they each sport an enormous 5.5 inches of real estate.
Much like screen size, the iPhone and BlackBerry are the only throwbacks to the days of dual core processing. We wouldn’t worry too much about performance with either of those phones though. Their hardware/software integration (made by the same company) helps them to squeeze more performance out of a dual core chip than you might expect.
The Galaxy S 4 has two processors listed, because that will vary depending on where you live. U.S. customers get the quad core version, and much of the rest of the world will get the octa core (yes, eight cores) edition.
Honestly, we wouldn’t worry too much about this category. Like pixel density, processing has gone past the point of concern. Every phone in this batch is going to be very fast ... some just push that a little farther. There are much bigger differences to think about – like size, software, and app selection.
... but with that said, the octa-core version of the Galaxy S 4 is the fastest phone in the world right now. The quad-core version is probably the second fastest, with the HTC One hot on its heels.
It’s 2 GB of RAM across the board, with the iPhone 5 the lone exception. Again, though, there isn’t much to worry about with it – the Apple integration between phone and software makes performance zippy and smooth.
Do you keep full-length HD movies, thousands of photos, and console-quality games on your phone? If so, you’ll want to max out your storage.
For most customers, though, 16 GB is probably a safe mark to shoot for. Remember you can store lots of apps and data in the cloud, so it isn’t likely you’ll need to have everything stored on your phone all the time.
Also remember that the phones with microSD slots let you store much more than their internal memory suggests. Typically you can add up to 64 GB with an SD card.
Take these numbers with grains of salt. When you’re making an easy-to-digest visual about camera specs, megapixel count is the best metric to use.
But it’s an imperfect measurement. Sensors, pixel sizes, lenses, and lots of other factors also play into actual image quality. The HTC One, for example, has a crummy megapixel count, but it uses larger pixels. So image quality might be quite good.
The best way to make up your mind here is to take some shots yourself, and look at them on a high-res display. Failing that, look at some full-resolution sample shots in reviews from Gizmag or another reputable tech site.
Here’s another spec that’s not exactly cut-and-dry. The amount of juice a phone holds is extremely important. But processor, display resolution, and software can also play into actual battery life.
There shouldn’t be much to worry about with any of these phones. With regular use, they should all last a full day.
Several of them also have removable batteries: the Galaxy S 4, Optimus G Pro, BlackBerry Z10, and Galaxy Note II. Notice anything? Yep, it’s the phones with plastic bodies: a nice bonus that aluminum and glass phones don’t provide.
LTE – the fastest and best 4G technology – is now the norm with high-end smartphones.
The lone holdout here is the Nexus 4. The politics of selling a phone without carrier intervention led to Google passing on LTE. If it’s available in your area, though, the Nexus 4’s HSPA+ is a pretty fast 4G network in its own right.
It’s possible some of the other phones here won’t ship with LTE radios in your region. The best avenue here is to check with your local carrier.
The best questions to ask: “does the phone I want have LTE radios?” and “Does my area have LTE coverage?” Failing that, “is HSPA+ available?” If the answer to all of these questions is no, then you’ll be stuck with 3G (or worse) speeds.
This is one of the most important questions to ask in your smartphone buying decision. Do you want iOS, Android, Windows Phone (not included in this edition of our guide) or BlackBerry?
... and if you choose Android, which manufacturer-specific software do you prefer? Samsung has TouchWiz, HTC has Sense, LG has its own Optimus flavor, and Nexus devices run “pure Google” (stock) Android. Each offers something a little different on top of the Android core.
Each platform also comes with its own app store:
Apple’s iOS App Store and Android’s Google Play Store have the best selections. Apple’s is still a little better for games. It also often favors simple, user-friendly apps with minimalist designs. Google Play has a leg up with customization-oriented apps and tweaks that Apple wouldn’t allow in its store.
BlackBerry’s App World and the Windows Phone Store have a lot of catching up to do. Finding your favorite apps might be a crapshoot in their app stores.
Mobile operating systems have come a long way, and get better every year. We’d recommend tuning out all the fanboy fanaticism and playing around with each. Find your favorite, then narrow down your search from there.
Most device-making companies like to keep their plans secret. And for good reason. If customers know that a new iPhone is coming in September, they’re less likely to buy the old model in July. Secrecy has financial ramifications.
But you can often make a pretty solid guess just by looking at the older version’s release date. If a phone gets upgraded once a year, the safe money is on its follow-up arriving at around the same time. The dates above show when all of these smartphones originally shipped.
The Galaxy S 4, HTC One, and Optimus G Pro are still hot off the press, so it’s a safe bet we won’t see their follow-ups for quite a while. But we could see a new iPhone and Galaxy Note by August or September of this year.
The older phones listed here are still among the cream of the crop. But this is something to keep in mind, especially since newer models usually ring up for the same prices that their predecessors sold for.
So what about everything else? Those harder-to-define intangibles, and extra goodies that each phone brings to the table? Let’s break down a few things to consider about each phone.
The Galaxy S 4 has a ridiculous amount of new software features. Some of them might be gimmicky, but you don’t have to use any of them – so no harm done, right? Some of the more notable S4 features are Smart Scroll (scroll emails and web pages with facial recognition), Smart Pause (automatically pause a video when you look away), and S Translator (translate foreign tongues in real time).
The HTC One probably won't come close to outselling the Galaxy S 4, but that doesn’t mean it’s an inferior phone. Some have knocked Samsung for sticking with a plastic design and relatively minor updates for the Galaxy S 4. Many of those same people are cheering HTC for the One’s bold new design, amazing screen, and terrific user experience. It’s one hell of an effort from a company that desperately needs a hit. We think it and the GS4 are in a league of their own, battling for Smartphone of the Year honors.
Then there’s the iPhone 5. Apple’s recent “troubles” have been blown out of proportion, but I think that stems from a general impression that its product line is growing stale. The iPhone – once the revolutionary groundbreaker in the field – has become the solid, reliable, “you know what to expect” candidate. Still, millions of customers embrace this familiarity. The iPhone is smooth, simple, and easy to use. It may no longer be on the forefront of innovation (at least for the time being) ... but everything just works.
Of the two 5.5-inch phablets, the Optimus G Pro has the better specs: 1080p screen, faster processor, higher-res camera. But it is missing a stylus, making for a very different experience than using the Note 2. If you want cutting-edge specs and a stylus, you might want to wait for the inevitable Galaxy Note 3.
BlackBerry finally delivered an iPhone/Android competitor in 2013, with the Z10. It runs BlackBerry’s slick new OS, BB10. Apart from the company’s reputation for business use and security, it offers some cool gesture controls. No home button, no on-screen navigation keys. Just a few simple swipes to get where you’re going. Gesture controls aren’t for everyone. But once you get the hang of them, you can get a nice swipe-centric workflow going.
Sony’s Xperia Z (and its U.S.-bound sibling, the Xperia ZL) got a lot of buzz at CES 2013, but got quickly overshadowed by the One and Galaxy S4. It’s still a solid Android phone, though. Its killer feature just might be its water and dust resistance. You can soak it in a bowl of water for half an hour, and it will come out as good as new. You won’t want to try that with any of these other phones.
The Nexus 4 just might be the best dollar-for-dollar buy on this list. You can order one from Google Play for US$300. Yes, that’s the off-contract price. No commitments or subsidies: just a terrific stock Android phone with no strings attached.
As we already touched on briefly, the Galaxy Note II is the only smartphone/phablet on this list that uses a stylus. Samsung did some truly innovative things with its S Pen. Scribble notes from anywhere. Scroll through pages by hovering the stylus over your screen. Take full advantage of the huge display by opening multiple apps in multiple windows. The Note 2 is a productivity beast, but also pretty fun to boot.
Wrap-upThe Smartphone market moves quickly. Six months ago, we did a similar comparison – and most of the phones were different. If we do another one six months from now, there will probably be an entirely new line of high-end phones competing for your dollars.
The bottom line is that there will never be one single phone that’s the be-all-end-all for everyone. Even if it looks like there is, something else will come along a month or two later to push it out of the spotlight. Technology is always moving on to something bigger, better, faster, stronger.
So find a phone that you love, and enjoy your two years (or however long) you spend with it. Hopefully this guide makes it a little easier to find one worthy of that long-term relationship.
... and if you want more on the two biggest Android phones of the year, check out our in-depth – and hands-on – comparison of the Galaxy S4 and HTC One.