Smartphones are not all alike, nor are smartphone users. Subtle differences in the design, user interface, and services make some smartphones better suited for certain tasks than others, while the demands on moms, dads, and grads vary significantly. For example, the Apple iPhone has a small display, which is great for one-handed operation, but frustrating when it comes to productivity. Should professional moms, dads, and productive grads on the go consider something larger, like a Galaxy Note?
Of course they should. Users spend upwards of two years (and maybe longer) with a device between upgrades, and little compromises and frustrations mount in that time. Why not get the perfect smartphone tailored best to personal usage for mom on Mother’s Day, dad on Father’s Day, or the recent highschool or college grad?
Best Overall Smartphone
HTC One M8
The HTC One M8 launched in March 2014, and immediately raised the bar for handset hardware. The Brighthand review summed it up nicely. “The One is immediately the best looking and most premium-feeling of all Android handsets at the time of this review, and its performance should only be equaled, not surpassed, by the end of the year.”
Compared with the other flagship released at the same time, the Samsung Galaxy S5, the HTC One M8 has a better design and better Android implementation. Its bloatware is “relatively contained,” according to BH, and the HTC Sense UI overlay, “doesn’t feel noticeably worse than stock Android in practice.”
These are good things, as is the HTC Advantage program, which covers cracked screen replacement for the first six months of HTC One M8 ownership, an HTC promise to keep “up to date with the major Android updates for 2 years from the launch date of your HTC device,” and 25GB to 50GB of Google Drive cloud storage space for two years.”
As of April 2014, the HTC One M8 is the best Android smartphone, and the best overall smartphone. It will be hard to top, as well.
Best Smartphone for Everyone Else
Apple iPhone 5s
Mom, dad, or grad new to smartphones or haven’t upgraded in years? Need an all-purpose handset? Then go with an Apple iPhone 5s. It has great hardware and iOS is absurdly user friendly. On top of that, with more than half a million offerings, the App Store is the absolute best.
A 4-inches, the Apple iPhone 5s is the smallest flagship smartphone, making it the most pocket friendly, and the easiest to use with one hand. This may frustrate those looking for a productivity device, particularly when it comes to pounding out long emails, or viewing and editing PDFs and spreadsheets. But for just about everything else, the iPhone 5s is good enough to great.
The caveat for all that simplicity is that iOS and the iPhone are both relatively rigid. Apple’s mobile platform doesn’t have live widgets like Android and Windows Phone, and users can’t install third-party keyboards. The iPhone also lacks a USB input, and it has no microSD cardslot. It does support many Bluetooth keyboards and there are adapters for some accessories, but it’s not nearly as robust as Android.
Best Smartphone for Productivity
Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Use this 5.7-inch Android smartphone for a week, and you’ll never want to use those other puny handsets again. Let others snicker at its largeness as you enjoy the best browsing and video experience offered on any device, and then blow them away with an active Wacom pen and excellent Samsung software for unparalleled note taking and text entry.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is a phablet, and it’s the only phablet worth considering. The active pen sets it apart from the competition, and Samsung’s heavy-handed Android tweaks help users take full advantage of its size with true multitasking, S Pen hover actions, and the excellent S Note app. For Office work and note taking, there is no competition, as the pen also provides the necessary precision for proper navigation and operation, which can’t be duplicated with a mere Touchscreen on a smaller device.
Sure, it’s too big for pants pockets, and is way too awkward for standard voice calls, but for those that need to get things done, it’s a small tradeoff.
Best Smartphone for Windows Users
Nokia Lumia Icon (Verizon)
Quick note: the Nokia Lumia Icon is the best Windows Phone as of this writing, and it’s exclusive to Verizon. AT&T customers can snag the larger Lumia 1520, which is nearly as good, but Sprint and T-Mobile customers may want to consider jumping carriers if they want a Windows Phone 8.1 device with a discount.
That aside, why Window Phone? Because it’s an excellent operating system with a feature set that matches anything found in Android and iOS. Because its app catalog is strong enough that it is no longer a liability. Because the Nokia Lumia models arguably have the best smartphone camera hardware. Because Windows Phone 8.1 is tightly integrated with the desktop version of Windows 8.1, making it extremely useful for Windows users and Surface tablet owners.
This is especially evident with OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage offering. Sharing documents and images across Windows devices is effortless and requires no changes to workflow.
There’s a lot to be said for sticking to one platform for mobile and desktop computing, and Microsoft makes stronger case than both Google and Apple for its operating systems.
Best Replacement Smartphone
LG Nexus 5
Users with dead devices between upgrades once had two choices: pay full price for a replacement, or scour eBay for a used smartphone. It was so unappealing, that carriers offered pricey insurance policies for replacement devices. However, those were loaded with fine print and restrictions, and hardly ever worth the cost.
That’s no longer the case thanks to the rise of relatively inexpensive off-contract devices, particularly those sold directly by Google.
The LG Nexus 5 is one of the older devices on this list, but there is no better replacement smartphone for any carrier. And it’s not just because the Nexus 5 is relatively cheap, costing only $350 off contract, compared to the $550 and up the other smartphones on this list cost. It’s the best because it has stock Android, which users love for its clean user interface and lack of unnecessary bloatware, and competitive specs, including a 5-inch display with 445 pixels per inch, high-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, and LTE.
In fact, the LG Nexus 5 is a great smartphone on its own, and users may want to keep it long after they are due for a discounted upgrade.