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2014 Smartphone Comparison Guide

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April 24, 2014

Gizmag compares some of the best smartphones you can buy today

Gizmag compares some of the best smartphones you can buy today

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Are you shopping for a new smartphone, and wondering which ones are the best? Maybe you've heard the buzz about the latest Galaxy, iPhone, or Nexus, and can't quite figure out which one is for you? Look no further. Gizmag is here to break down the features and specs of some of the best smartphones you can buy today.

There have been a few changes since we ran our last Smartphone Comparison Guide. Our new list, for early 2014, brings back a few oldies and also adds a few big newbies:

When you make these kinds of lists, there are lots of intangibles and subjective calls involved. But, with that said, we think this group represents the current cream of the crop. And yes, there are a few notable omissions. We could have easily included the iPhone 5c, Lumia Icon, or the LG G Pro 2. Hell, even older phones like the Galaxy S4, HTC One (M7), and Lumia 1020 are still worth a look. If you don't find what you're looking for here, we certainly wouldn't blame you for checking out some of those handsets as well.

Without further ado, let's compare nine of the top smartphones you can buy (so far) in 2014.

Size

Our group ranges from the relatively tiny iPhone 5s to the huge Lumia 1520

We have quite the variety here, ranging from the (relatively) tiny iPhone 5s to the enormous Lumia 1520. Generally speaking, you'll want to look at smaller phones if you want a light and compact device that leaves a small footprint in your hand or pocket. And of course the number one reason to consider a bigger phone is because it's also going to give you a bigger screen (more on that in a minute).

Weight

The iPhone 5s is the lightest in this bunch, while the Lumia 1520 is the heaviest

It shouldn't be too big of a surprise that the smallest phone is the lightest and the biggest phone is the heaviest. But if you want the best combination of the two, then you might want to check out the Nexus 5. It gives you a big display while tipping the scale at just 130 g (4.59 oz).

Build

Primary external build materials for each phone

Plastic seems to be OEMs' build material of choice these days, even in this group of (mostly) high-end handsets. The only plastic holdouts are the unibody aluminum HTC One (M8) and iPhone 5s. Another (very unique) exception would be if you ordered the wood or bamboo-backed editions of the Moto X.

Though they're still plastic, the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Note 3 both have soft-touch faux leather backings that are very comfortable in hand. The Lumia 1520 is made of a smooth and solid polycarbonate that has a more premium aesthetic than most plastic phones.

Colors

Color options for each phone

Remember a few years ago, when all smartphones were black? Well, manufacturers have livened things up a bit, with most of the phones in this group offering several different color options.

If variety of colors is your thing, then the Moto X is the undisputed champ. Order one from Motorola's Moto Maker website, and you can customize it in one of 620 color combinations (once you take the phone's front, back, and accent colors into account).

Display (size)

Display sizes (the percentages denote relative screen area, compared to the Lumia 1520)

We have quite a variety with screen size too. Those percentages you see above show how each screen's area (a much more telling measurement than the diagonal measurements) compares to the largest in this group, the Lumia 1520.

Navigation buttons

Phones with physical (and/or capacitive) buttons don't waste any screen area on navigation...

When you're comparing the display sizes above, you'll need to take navigation keys into account. The Galaxy phones, the iPhone, and Lumia 1520 all have physical or capacitive keys living below their screens, rather than onscreen. That means they'll always let you use 100 percent of their displays for apps and content.

The rest of the phones have virtual (on-screen) navigation keys, which means you'll only be able to use their full screens when Android's Immersive Mode (which temporarily fades out the navigation keys) kicks in. Right now, Immersive Mode is limited to videos, image galleries, and a few other apps, like Pocket, Instapaper, Google Play Books, and several games.

Display (resolution and pixel density)

Display resolutions

1080p is the resolution of the day, with only the iPhone and the two Motorola handsets going with different (lower) resolutions. All the phones here are pretty sharp, but the 1080p screens are going to look noticeably crisper.

Stylus

Only the Galaxy Note 3 ships with a stylus

Unless you go with the Galaxy Note, then you'd better like tapping and swiping your screen with your meat hooks. Samsung's phablet is the only phone in this group that ships with a stylus.

You can buy third-party styluses that will work on any touch screen, by simulating the touch of a finger. If you count those, then all of these phones are technically stylus-ready. But those pens typically have fatter tips, are less accurate, and lack the stylus-based software and hover-based features of the Galaxy Note's S Pen.

Tap-on display

The LG G2 and HTC One let you wake up their screens by tapping twice on them

LG has a feature called Knock-On that lets you wake up the G2 just by double-tapping its screen. HTC added a similar feature, part of its Motion Launch series of sensor-based shortcuts, in the One (M8).

Fingerprint sensor

The Galaxy S5 and iPhone have fingerprint sensors

Fancy having a passcode-locked phone that you can unlock with your fingerprint? Both the iPhone 5s and Galaxy S5 deliver. The iPhone's is slightly more user-friendly, as you can register your print by just resting your finger on the home button. The GS5's scanner requires a swipe over the home button.

The GS5's sensor does have an extra perk that the iPhone's can't match. Samsung's scanner lets you login to PayPal or even authorize PayPal transactions with your finger. If biometric sensors are the future of mobile payments, then consider this a preview.

Heart rate sensor

Only the GS5 has a heart rate sensor

The Galaxy S5 also has a heart rate monitor on its backside, just below the rear camera. No other phone in this bunch has one of those.

Water resistance

The GS5 has IP67-rated water resistance

While we're talking about the Galaxy S5's killer features, we can't ignore its water resistance. Its IP67 rating means it can sit in 1 meter (3.3 ft) of water for 30 minutes and keep on ticking. You'll just want to make sure its battery and charging covers are tightly sealed before you take it for a dip.

Software platform

This is a very Android-centric party

All but two of our phones run Android. Of the Android handsets, only the Nexus 5 runs 100 percent stock ("Pure Google") Android. The two Motos run almost stock Android, with the stock UI and just a few Motorola extras thrown in. Samsung's phones have its TouchWiz UI plastered on top, the One features HTC Sense, while the G2 sports LG's (curiously similar to TouchWiz) LG UI.

The iPhone's App Store and Android's Google Play Store both have mature app libraries, with thousands upon thousands of great phone apps to keep you entertained. Windows Phone is a terrific platform, and its store is growing, but its app selection still isn't in the same league as iOS and Android. It's also the only one of the three major mobile platforms that doesn't have official apps from Google.

Voice assistant

Voice assistants in each phone

Soon after Apple launched Siri in late 2011, voice-based virtual assistants started to pop up on all kinds of smartphones. All recent Android phones bake in the excellent, if somewhat invasive, Google Now (which adds predictive contextually-aware notices that Siri doesn't have). The iPhone also supports Google Now, via the App Store's Google Search app ... though it isn't quite as convenient to get there on the iPhone.

Windows Phone doesn't yet have an equivalent voice assistant, but it will soon. When the Lumia 1520 gets updated to Windows Phone 8.1 later this year, it will get Cortana, Microsoft's answer to Siri.

Battery

Battery capacities for the smartphones in our comparison

Higher battery capacities don't always mean longer battery life, as there are about a million other factors that can come into play. We've run most of these phones through our standard test, where we stream video with brightness set at 75 percent, and the Galaxy S5 and HTC One (M8) lasted the longest – by a wide margin.

Ultra/Extreme Power Saving Mode

The Ultra or Extreme Power Saving Modes in the Galaxy S5 and HTC One can take a tiny bit o...

The Galaxy S5 and HTC One (M8) both have an awesome feature that lets you stretch just a tiny bit of battery life into hours of extra uptime. Samsung's Ultra Power Saving Mode and HTC's Extreme Power Saving Mode (if you're curious, Samsung's came first) both shift your display to black & white and severely limit background processes to keep your phone up and running. It lets you stay on the grid with only a spec of remaining battery life.

The only catch is that HTC's version of this feature hasn't yet rolled out to all versions of the One M8. If you want it ASAP, then you'll want to check with your carrier to see if it's pushed the Extreme Power Saving Mode software update. All versions of the Galaxy S5 ship with its Ultra Power Saving Mode on board.

Infrared (IR blaster)

Several of the phones have infrared, which lets you use your phone as a remote control

Samsung, HTC, and LG all put infrared in their phones. IR blasters let you use your phone as a remote control for your TV and cable or satellite box. It's perfect for those times when you're just too damn comfortable to get up and walk across the room to pick up your dedicated remote.

Camera megapixels (rear)

Megapixel counts for the phones' rear-facing cameras

Megapixels are an imperfect measurement of camera quality, but the Lumia 1520's 20 MP PureView shooter still might be the best in this bunch. Just know that most of these phones have very good rear cameras on board.

The 4 MP sensor in the One M8 looks terrible on paper, but we found that its larger pixels ("UltraPixels") made it shoot brighter and more colorful low-lit shots than most other smartphones' cameras.

Camera megapixels (front)

Megapixel counts for the phones' front-facing cameras

The One M8 is the 2014 Selfie-Taking Champion. Its 5 MP front shooter makes for higher-res self-portraits (as the old folks used to call them) than most other phones.

Dual-LED flash

Three of our phones have dual-LED flashes

The second flash that you'll find on the rear of the HTC One M8, iPhone 5s, and Lumia 1520 can help make your flash photography shots look more colorful and balanced, and less washed-out.

Depth sensor

The HTC One (M8) has a second rear camera devoted to sensing depth

Three of our phones have two flashes, but what about two rear cameras? Only the One M8 carries that honor, with its second lens devoted to sensing depth. It's mostly a gimmicky feature, but it does open the door to blurred-background shots, that simulate a narrow depth of field from a much better camera (with varying degrees of success).

Slow-motion video

Several of these phones have options for recording slow-motion video

In 2013, we started to see lots of phones popping up with slow-motion video recording capabilities. All but three of these phones have the feature baked in. You can download third-party apps that will (sort of) do the trick for the Nexus 5 and LG G2 as well.

NFC

Most of our phones have NFC chips inside

Near-field communication hasn't caught on the way some had expected, but it does still have a few uses – like easy pairing with accessories and tap-based settings toggles. All but two of our phones have NFC chips inside.

Front-facing speakers

The HTC One's front-facing speakers are the best in the business

Do smartphone speakers need to be great? Probably not. But HTC went the extra mile nonetheless, with its BoomSound speakers in the One. Not only do they face forward, but they put out the best sound I've heard from a smartphone. For whatever that's worth.

Storage

Storage options for each handset

Internal storage options are pretty standard across the board. Four of these do, however, let you expand that with a micro SD card.

Processor

Processors

Just about any high-end phone you buy today is going to be as fast as you'd need it to be. All of these handsets fit that bill, with Qualcomm's beastly Snapdragon 800/801 CPUs popping up in 2/3 of these phones.

The iPhone's A7 system-on-a-chip has the only 64-bit processor in this bunch, though that means much more for the future of iOS (and smartphones in general) than it will for your experience right now.

RAM

RAM totals

These are the RAM totals for each phone, with the iPhone and Moto G standing as the only 1 GB phones in this group. The Galaxy Note 3 is one of the few ARM-based mobile devices with 3 GB of RAM.

Release date

Original release dates for each phone

These are the original release dates for each phone. Mobile devices typically release on annual cycles, so we should see updated versions of seven of these phones in the second half of 2014.

Starting price (off-contract)

Starting off-contract prices

If you're buying your phone at full retail, then most of these are going to cost you a pretty penny. There are, however, three notable exceptions.

The Nexus 5 gives you high-end specs and the latest version of pure Android for a mere US$350. Ditto for the Moto X, though it cuts back a little on the high-end and adds some innovative sensor-based features in its place.

Pricing is the main reason we included the Moto G in this comparison. Its hardware is far from the cutting-edge, but we've never seen a phone at its $180 price point that's anywhere near this good. It's a rock-solid mid-range phone for a rock-bottom price – and one hell of an overall value.

Still torn? Then perhaps our individual reviews will help to clear things up:

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About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin covers consumer technology for Gizmag. He's previously written for Android Central, Geek, GottaBeMobile, Android Police, and The Huffington Post.
He lives in New Mexico, U.S., with his lovely wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
18 Comments

I believe we are missing a crucial phone here. One of the best phone (not currently on the market) that I believe should be included is the Oneplus One. It is the flagship of startup company that blows other flagships our of the water with specs, design, and price combination. Please include it.

TheOneWhoCriticizes
24th April, 2014 @ 08:07 pm PDT

No Xperia2? Hardly a definitive guide is it?

Greg McDavid
25th April, 2014 @ 01:10 am PDT

While I'm not particularly an Apple fan, the more modest size of the handset is beginning to look better and better to me. My Nokia Lumia 920 is gigantic compared to the 5s and phones do not seem to get smaller any time soon.

Thijmen
25th April, 2014 @ 01:54 am PDT

Wonderful round-up...so many good choices. My wants flicker left right and centre.

Great cameras, screens, memories and apps; but which one makes the best phone as in a telephone? Are any of them a great computer?

Which one is the best phone as well as the best computer? Maybe tablets need to include a phone, or soon a phone will be a computer. The holy grail is just around the corner...no-no, the other corner.

Threesixty
25th April, 2014 @ 02:50 am PDT

No Xperia Z1 Compact...

John Lacson
25th April, 2014 @ 06:03 am PDT

Whaaat! Why didn't you put the Lumia 1520 in the tap-on display if it is the most famous characteristic form the Nokia Lumias?!! You need to know the phones you are comparing!

Dany
25th April, 2014 @ 06:26 am PDT

Wow Will!!

This is the super magnum comparison.

Amazing what Steve Spawned.

The forthcoming "big" iPhone will reveal the depth of the creativity now.

Will the clocks read to the second?

Will there be a decent bidirectional Calendar that records your time?

Without those it will be sameo sameo.

Bill

Island Architect
25th April, 2014 @ 08:30 am PDT

TWO Samsungs and TWO Motorolas: but not a single Xperia?? I bought my Xperia based on reviews and comparisons in Gizmag - now you've forgotten them altogether: what gives? :0/

Arsecati
25th April, 2014 @ 08:55 am PDT

Threesixty - In one of the innumerable S5 vs M8 reviews I read they mentioned the M8 as having the best call quality. I don't remember if they were comparing the M8 to just the S5 or to all the top contenders out there.

BenWaB3
25th April, 2014 @ 09:04 am PDT

I agree that battery capacity isn't as significant as actual run times, but why aren't they listed for all the phones? That's going to be an important factor when I choose a new phone this summer but not my only one. Knowing the S5 and M8 are the best is nice if that's the only factor, but if the third best option checks my other priorities it might be a better choice.

Keith Lamb
25th April, 2014 @ 10:43 am PDT

Sony Xperia Z should be considered

Daniel Mutch
25th April, 2014 @ 11:58 am PDT

What is your problem with Sony guys? Pretty much every time you do anything phone-related, which is often, you totally snub (ignore) everything sony-related.

The Z2 claims the worlds best cameraphone, and cameras are most peoples priority feature, so how much use is this guide?

christopher
27th April, 2014 @ 06:48 pm PDT

In an echo of BenWab3 's comment. In this wealth of comparative data there were none on the ability to use each device as a phone! I live out in the sticks and have noticed a huge difference in handsets' ability to pick up a signal (with the same provider).

Is there a quantitative way to measure this..... Can we see it??

Billy Sheds
29th April, 2014 @ 12:48 am PDT

So you include the 2 sub par Motorollas but not a single Sony? The Z2 out classes a lot of these phones.

Heinrich J Nel
29th April, 2014 @ 12:52 am PDT

By excluding the Sony phones you are really demonstrating a lack of commitment to the pursuance of objectivity which begs the question of whether you are trustworthy/credible. I'm not even a huge fan of Sony, I'm just curious and I came here to read about it. It's quite shocking that you purport to be the champion of the smartphone consumer, and leave more than just a few commenters wanting a more in-depth or perhaps, balanced approach to a review.

Tl;dr : Where the heck is Sony?

Meshuggah
7th May, 2014 @ 06:09 am PDT

Nice comparison guide, but I also think Sony Xperia Z2 should be in there.

In my opinion, it´s much better than the iPhone 5S when it comes to specs. On the other hand, the design of the Xperia Z2 is not as impressive as the iPhone design.

Josephine Picard
15th May, 2014 @ 09:06 am PDT

Great post. Thanks. It is crazy how far phones have come in such a short period of time. Features like voice assistant, Infrared (IR blaster), and depth sensor were not major considerations or even possibilities until recently. In every phone there are unique features that are often a blend of components created by various companies around the world that are then assembled and offered as one branded object. In many phones, the Infrared (IR blaster) is made by the Schott Glass Company which contribute to other assembled products like: some of the largest telescopes in the world, other hand held devices, stove tops, commercial refrigerators, solar, automotive and planes. Over the course of 125 years in business, Schott's innovative ideas have contributed to many industries.

Nora Lee
29th June, 2014 @ 06:34 am PDT

Why is the BlackBerry Z30 not mentioned. I've used both Samsung Galaxy and iPhone, and I can trully tel you that the Z30 is a better mobile device. The OS is more efficient and effective the hardware and software is well optimized for longer performance. BlackBerry 10 in under rated at this stage and the consumer is being misled by the media.

Fabian Barlow Brown
20th July, 2014 @ 11:17 pm PDT
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