TSR 2014 Techy Christmas Gift Guide: Smartphones!Watch
Gaming | Tablets | Headphones | Smartphones
2014 has been a big year for smartphones (and, coincidentally, it’s been a year for big smartphones), and as Christmas rolls around the selection of potential phones to purchase is as wide and varied as it has ever been. This is our roundup of the best phones available right now for you to ask Santa to leave under your tree or to spend that hard earned Christmas card money on!
Best Value Smartphones: Moto E, Moto G series, Nokia Lumia 735
Gone are the days where getting a cheap phone meant buying a tacky, chunky brick with a screen you had to squint at, these days there are high quality smartphones that border on qualifying as a stocking filler. Starting at the cheapest end we have the Moto E, which can be picked up for as little as £60 on the high street and even less online (Vodafone are currently selling it for £45!). Unlike the hundreds of crappy phones that have filled this price point in the past, the Moto E offers decent performance, a very nice screen for the price, good build quality and an uncluttered, up to date version of Android for you to tinker with.
Step up a gear and you find some of the best phones to ever grace the sub-£200 price point, the Moto G series and the Nokia Lumia 735. These phones all offer very similar and very tempting core specs- high quality 720p displays, powerful Snapdragon 400 processors, 1GB of RAM and MicroSD slots for expandable storage. The key difference is the operating system, the Lumia runs Windows Phone 8.1 while the Moto G series run Android 4.4 (with 5.0 Lollypop on the way). The Moto G can be found in two main flavours- the 2013 edition (don’t let it’s age fool you, it’s equally powerful as the 2014 edition and Lumia) which has a more compact 4.5” screen and 4G connectivity, and the 2014 edition with a larger 5” display, better camera and louder front facing speakers. The Lumia sits between the three phones with a 4.7” display, and also has LTE connectivity. Which is right for you? That depends what you want. The Lumia 735 is excellent hardware but is let down by its software, which is still well behind Android in terms of apps and features. The Moto G 2013 is the most compact of the three phones and is the only Moto G model with 4G connectivity for those after the best internet speeds, while the big display and better speakers on the 2014 edition make it a better entertainment focused phone. Whatever you choose, all three phones currently sell for under £150 and for such a small amount of cash you’ll feel awfully close to owning a much more expensive flagship phone!
Best “Small” Smartphones: iPhone 5S, Moto G (2013), Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
Buyers speak with their wallets and for the last few years the message has been clear: bigger is better. Phones have been creeping up in size for years now, with smaller form factors being relegated to the domain of cheaper, less powerful and generally naff phones. Demand still exists for smaller sized phones though, and there are a couple of shining lights for those who don’t want to compromise on quality. Cheap among them is the iPhone 5S, arguably the last flagship quality phone ever made to be truly tiny. With a diminutive 4” screen it is dwarfed by even mid-sized Android handsets from the last couple of years, but it still packs a hell of a punch. Excellent screen with great resolution for its size, powerful internals made better through Apple’s rigorous optimisation, top-tier camera and the solid smartphone experience iOS provides, all come together to make the iPhone 5S a very attractive option for those looking for the daintiest phone possible.
The Xperia Z3 Compact is, by comparison, huge. However here the term “small” is all relative, and while it dwarfs the 5S in size it’s the smallest flagship-quality Android phone on the market by a long margin, sharing its specs almost entirely with Sony’s top-end Xperia Z3. Powerful processor, best in class camera (more on the Z3 cameras later), fully waterproof, it packs more tech under that 4.7” display than any other Android phone on the market. The distinctly lower end 2013 Moto G makes it into another category in this buyer’s guide as a teenier Android option, but don’t let its low price tag confuse you as to why it shares the company of two more powerful phones, as mentioned previously its combination of build quality, screen quality and pure Android OS make it feel a lot more premium than its price would indicate, and would not feel out of place in the hand of a demanding user.
Best Big Smartphones: iPhone 6 Plus, LG G3, Samsung Galaxy Note 4, Nexus 6
There’s no subjectivity when it comes to describing these phones, they’re all huge. Dwarfing the 5-5.2” displays found on the more conventional lineup of smartphone flagships, these phones all pack huge displays and huge amounts of power to match!
The LG G3 is notable for being pretty sleek for a big phone thanks to its tiny bezels, despite having a 5.5” screen to match the iPhone 6 Plus it’s closer in size to the 5.2” screened Galaxy S5 than its “phablet” bedmates (man I hate that word). It was the first phone to make it onto the UK high street with a class leading 1440p display and generally packs specs in line with any self-respecting Android flagship from the first half of 2014 (note that the other big android smartphones in this category are more powerful, this is more in line with the following category when it comes to raw specs). The iPhone 6 Plus is Apple’s acknowledgement that even if they thought small screens are the best, people aren’t listening anymore. The screen resolution is a far more pedestrian 1080p, but that aside it’s been loaded with powerful specs and features to make it more a match for the other big boys, including one of the best cameras to grace any smartphone (more on that to come). It also has some of the most well thought out features for making using such a large phone more manageable, making it the most accessible big phone for converts from the now ant-like earlier iPhones.
Now we get to the real giants. The Note 4 takes the screen size up yet another notch to a colossal 5.7” (the same size as last year’s Note 3 though- Samsung obviously feel a line should be drawn somewhere!). As with the other phones its specs are top tier in every respect, with the Note 4 bringing an additional feature unique to this product family- the S Pen sylus. Coupled with the WACOM digitiser under the screen and extensive software features this is nothing like the tacky styli you may have bought off eBay. Samsung also implement multi-window apps for doing different tasks at once without having to switch. Finally there’s the phone that makes all other phones look puny- the upcoming Nexus 6. Six inches of 1440p is plain insane and will not be for everyone, but for those who have been looking for bigger phones at every turn, prepare to have your eyes light up. Rocking bleeding edge specs and the absolute newest version of Android in its purest form, it’s definitely one for the most power hungry of power users.
Best “Standard Flagship" Smartphones: Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One M8, Sony Xperia Z3, Moto X 2014, iPhone 6
Calling these smartphones “standard” feels like I’m doing them a disservice, when in actual fact they’re among the best on the market. They may not be as large or quite as powerful as the titans occupying the previous category, but they’re unmistakably high end devices designed to showcase the best their manufacturers have to offer in a form factor that will appeal to the masses. All five of the phones listed here share a lot of the same key features that make them best of the current stable of flagships- excellent displays, super fast specs, great build, tons of features, and up to date operating systems. However each of them has unique perks and drawbacks that make choosing which is right for you a more personal choice- hence why this category is a bit crowded!
The Galaxy S5 offers a well rounded package of superb screen quality, excellent camera, packed full of software features and waterproofing. However Samsung’s hardware and software design choices here aren’t particularly attractive, bordering on tacky and cheap feeling to some people, and while some of its software additions are useful a lot of it isn’t and risks seeming like it’s full of bloatware. The HTC One M8 brings what is arguably the most attractive external body of any Android phone ever and pairs it with what are truly the best speakers of any smartphone full stop. However the camera is undeniably mediocre in all but very low light situations and the software skinning is very love-hate. The Xperia Z3 brings tremendous battery life, better waterproofing than the S5 and a camera some point-and-shoots would be jealous of. However the display doesn’t quite match the other phones in this category. The 2014 Moto X offers an excellent display, almost pure Android experience with some awesome yet unobtrusive software tweaks, is affordable and offers a huge amount of visual customisation when bought through Motorola’s Moto Maker, which has found its way to the UK. However the camera is lacklustre compare to the best of the bunch and battery life could also stand to be a little longer.
Finally there’s the iPhone, which comes with all the perks and deficits iOS has over Android that will only ever be settled by each buyer’s personal preference- iOS is more secure, has more apps and will likely have a better lifespan of new versions before the phone gets outdated than any Android phone, while Android offers customisability and freedom to tweak while most high priority apps now span both systems. The iPhone also brings excellent screen quality and design, the best implemented fingerprint ID and health ecosystems of any phone to date, and a superb camera. On the downside it uses a proprietary port for charging and accessories and has an uninspiring “750p” screen resolution.
Best Camera Smartphones: iPhone 6 Plus, Sony Xperia Z3/Compact, Nokia Lumia 1020
Smartphones have all but killed the compact camera market and with millions of people using their phones as their only cameras, they want them to be the best they can be. If that sounds like you, look no further. The iPhone 6 Plus camera doesn’t have any unique or notable features that make it better than the rest of the pack, it’s just an excellent camera that creates stunning photos and awesome slo-mo footage, with the Plus model winning over the vanilla version because of the added optical image stabilisation. The megapixel count is lower than virtually every other high end phone on the market, but that can help reduce “noise” in pictures and when all you’re doing is sharing photos through social media, 8MP is plenty. One major downside, however, is the lack of 4K video support. The Xperia Z3 (and its Compact little brother) is arguably capable of taking even better images, with a comparatively huge sensor that’s the same size as the ones found in the majority of traditional point-and-shoot cameras. Sensor size dictates a camera’s ability to gather light and bigger sensor means better detail and low light performance. Coupled with Sony’s excellent camera sensor and lens technology the results are stunning. 4K video capture is also present. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem Sony could find space for optical image stabilisation, meaning worse performance than the 6 Plus in low light.
Finally there’s the camera phone with a spec sheet that puts all other phone cameras to shame, the Nokia Lumia 1020. The biggest marketing point for Nokia was the enormous 41MP megapixel count, however the good stuff doesn’t stop there. The sensor is larger than the Z3 family’s and even some enthusiast-grade compact/interchangeable lens cameras, the potential for gathering light and detail is unrivalled for a smartphone. Add on the high quality lens, Xenon flash (which functions more like the one found on actual cameras than a generic LED) and optical image stabilisation and you have a combination of features that mean unrivalled image quality among smartphones. The huge megapixel count has a few advantages, namely downsampling to smaller, low-noise photos and unrivalled scope for cropping- lack of good quality zoom is the key thing stopping smartphones from taking over point-and-shoots completely, but with so many megapixels to play with you can “4x zoom” by cutting down and just a quarter-sized piece of an image file and be left with a perfectly usable 9MP file. Yet for the superlative spec sheet on the camera, it’s not all rosy elsewhere. The 1020 is over a year old at this point and is behind the rest of the flagship market when it comes to performance, is limited by Windows Phone as an OS, has no expandable storage, and is pretty chunky. This is one for people who want a camera that makes phone calls rather than a phone that takes pictures.