Our smartphones are the single most important devices we own. They're the tools we use to communicate with our loved ones, our offices made mobile. They're our game consoles, our conduit for watching and reading anything the internet offers. They've also become the remote controls to our televisions, our homes, our cars, and more. Smartphones are the hub for everything we do, everywhere we go — there's no more intimate, more personal, more important piece of personal technology.
Not long ago, there were good phones and bad phones. But the industry has matured so quickly that it's all but impossible to find a device that flat-out can't handle making phone calls, texting, casual web browsing, and the occasional Netflix binge. Now, when you shop for a cellphone, your selection is more nuanced. Five things matter above all: design, battery life, ecosystem, software, and camera. Every buyer balances those criteria differently, and which you care most (and least) about could completely change what you buy.
This is a device you'll use all day, every day. It's hard to find an out-and-out bad phone, but it's easy to not get the right one. And if you're looking for the best mix of the five things that matter most, there's one choice that stands out.
The iPhone has always been at the cutting edge of smartphone technology. When it first launched in 2007 it was an entirely new kind of device, and it has informed the way nearly all of its competitors looked and worked in the seven years since. But even as others have caught up to what Apple's doing, there's still simply no better phone than the iPhone. For most people, the iPhone 5S is just the best smartphone you can buy.
The 5S' appeal begins with its design. Its rounded metallic body feels precious and high-end in a way few phones can match. Its 4-inch screen is a little small by today's standards, but it makes the device much easier to use in one hand and far more pocketable. Its camera is best-in-class, an 8-megapixel shooter that takes crisp and clear photos that no other cellphone camera has ever been able to replicate. Battery life is the 5S' weakest spot — it'll last a day but never more — but it's nowhere near enough to be a problem.
The iPhone 5S runs iOS 7, which is somewhat polarizing both for its design and functionality, but with that software comes the best ecosystem of apps and services you'll find anywhere. iOS has hundreds of thousands of beautiful, powerful, polished apps; it gets the best apps before any other platform, and has a huge selection of games and tools that Android or Windows Phone users never see. (With iOS 8, it's also about to become the center of your smart home and your health.) Even if the iPhone's not perfect for you out of the box, there's almost certainly something in the App Store for everything you need.
Other devices may have particular advantages — a bigger screen or longer battery life — but they all come with complications and trade-offs. The 5S has none. If you want a smartphone you know you'll love, that you'll never have to worry or think about, the iPhone 5S is the best you can buy.
HTC ONE (M8)
But let's say you want a bigger phone. Or you want something with totally stress-free battery life. Maybe you just really hate that Safari icon on iOS. If so, you should take a long look at the new HTC One (M8). It's hands-down the best designed Android phone on the market, a gorgeous curved slab that feels big and classy and like it's made to last. A phone's design doesn't always seem important, but the One engenders a sort of emotional attachment that almost no other smartphone does.
It has a beautiful 5-inch, 1080p display, plus a set of front-firing BoomSound speakers that are shockingly better than any other phone on the market. The new One also has great battery life and great performance, plus the latest version of Android and one of the cleanest and most attractive customizations of Android you'll find.
Its single problem, the One's only enduring weakness, is its camera. HTC insists on its UltraPixel-style cameras, which uses big pixels to try and capture more light with each shot. It does work, and you get impressively bright shots in bad light, but the One just doesn't take sharp photos — in any light. It's a decent camera, fine for most things, but it's not even in the same league as the iPhone 5S. But if you don't care about taking top-notch smartphone shots, the HTC One is a tough device to beat.
There’s really nothing wrong with the iPhone 5C, but the price difference between it and the flagship 5S isn’t big enough to warrant the compromises you’ll make. (You're essentially buying a year-old phone in a new, colorful shell.) The 5S has a much nicer design, faster processor, better camera, and Touch ID. You’ll have to spend slightly more to get the 5S over the 5C, but two years from now, you’ll be happy you did.
Samsung does a lot right with the Galaxy S5. It has a good screen, waterproof design, good performance, and a good camera. But the device itself feels cheap and plasticky, which matters deeply on a device you'll use so often. Plus, Samsung's software is so riddled with features and options that it can quickly become difficult and overwhelming. It's pure function over form, quantity over quality, and for all it can do, you'll never love this phone like you might another.
The Nexus 5's biggest problem is how it's sold — for $349 unlocked, direct from Google or a third party. That could cause some customer-service problems, and there's no denying that you're paying more up front than you will for almost any other phone. And the Nexus 5 does have an occasionally finicky camera and inconsistent battery life. But it has pure, unadulterated Android, a lovely design and a beautiful display; if you're a Google purist don't look anywhere else.
The Moto X is full of good ideas, like the glanceable Active Notifications and the powerful voice-activated Touchless Control. It's just the right size, too, perfectly comfortable for average hands. But between its 720p screen and last-gen processor, it's very much a midrange phone — and it's going to feel woefully outdated by the time your two-year contract is up.
Big phones should do big-phone things, and Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 is untouched in that respect. The Note 3's 5.7-inch display makes it huge — too big for most pockets, and most people — but it has excellent stylus support and plenty of software tweaks to take advantage of all that space. Don't buy this unless you know what you're getting into, but from a pure mobile-productivity standpoint the Note 3 is as good as it gets.
Nokia’s biggest Windows Phone handset is also one of its most attractive, with cool colors and a striking design. But the Lumia 1520's 6-inch, 1080p screen doesn't get much from Windows Phone 8 except a little more space — there's not much truly optimized for such a large screen, not enough to make it worth the size. If you want a phablet, Android is really the only compelling game in town right now.
Verizon's go-to Windows Phone is a decidedly average device. The Nokia Lumia Icon is neither especially well-designed nor even interesting-looking. It's not exceptionally powerful, and doesn't even make phone calls especially well. It's average in every sense. The Icon's calling card is its four-microphone array for shooting video, and its 20-megapixel camera. Neither is enough to make this the best Windows Phone on the market — or to make you ignore that Windows Phone 8.1 still doesn't have the apps it needs to compete with iOS and Android.
Sony's slowly but surely making progress in the smartphone game, but the Xperia Z1 (called the Z1S in the US) doesn't quite deliver. It has a 20.7-megapixel camera that is capable of taking truly gorgeous photos but doesn't always do so; its industrial design is striking but a little uncomfortable; and its 5-inch screen is big and sharp but has bad viewing angles and washed-out colors. The Z2 is better, but it's not in the US yet — Sony's one to watch but not yet one to buy.
Sure, you want a physical keyboard, but this is really simple: don't buy a BlackBerry. The platform's few advantages — in typing, in email, in security – have all but disappeared over the years, and its ecosystem severely lags behind every other major platform. Even the physical keyboard on the Q10 holds less weight in the world of Swype and predictive typing. There's no good reason to buy a BlackBerry anymore, not a single one.
Battery. Battery, battery, battery. That’s the message with Motorola’s Droid Maxx: if battery life is all you care about, the Maxx offers it in spades. But aside from that, it’s not a very compelling phone. The design doesn’t compare to the top phones in the field, and Maxx has the same midrange internals, display, and camera as the nicer Moto X. You’d be better off buying a better phone and an external USB battery than going for the Droid Maxx.