It has been another good year for Android. According to IDC, Android was on 81 percent of all the smartphones that shipped in the third quarter of 2013. The platform has driven real innovation, with new form factors, and accessibility, with affordable handsets. Google has rolled out many new features, improved its services, and kept optimization for lower-end hardware in mind, which could prove to be the path to conquering fragmentation. The number of apps in the Play Store sailed past 1 million in the summer. There has never been a better time to own an Android phone.
Whether you’re ready to choose your next Android smartphone, or you want to buy one for your nearest and dearest, we’ve been weighing up the highlights from 2013’s frenzied release schedule. We’ve broken them down into categories with a focus on what the buyer might be looking for.
Without further ado, here are the best Android smartphones of the year.
Best smartphone for gamers – Nexus 5
A stunning 4.96-inch 1080p display, a lightning fast 2.3GHz quad-core processor, and an Adreno 330 GPU, the Nexus 5 is ideal for gaming. It also rocks the latest version of Android, 4.4 KitKat, and updates will be rolled out here first. The feature set and connectivity tick all the boxes. According to Basemark X the Nexus 5 comes in third behind the iPhone 5S and Xperia Z1, but it’s a tight race. Google’s LG manufactured smartphone is much, much cheaper, which leaves gamers with plenty in their pockets to buy games and hop on board with the next-gen consoles.
Check out our Nexus 5 review for more.
Runner up – The Sony Xperia Z1 is worth considering if you can stretch to the bigger price tag; it has a longer battery life, a far superior camera, and a microSD card slot.
Best smartphone for workaholics – Galaxy Note 3
Business people and hard workers of every kind, demanding a productivity boost from their smartphones, can’t look beyond the Galaxy Note 3. Samsung popularized the phablet form factor with the original Note and it continues to lead the field. The S-Pen allows you to write and sketch on that huge 5.7-inch display. A speedy processor is backed by 3GB of RAM and, combined with features like Multi-Window, this device becomes a multitasker’s dream. Samsung’s software features seem to make the most sense on the Note 3 and this device could easily be a contender in other categories, but in terms of productivity it is unparalleled.
Read our comprehensive Galaxy Note 3 review to find out what makes it so special.
Runner up – The LG G2 is smaller and lighter than the Note 3 and it has a range of handy software features like QuickMemo and QSlide, but it doesn’t have the S-Pen or a microSD card slot.
Best smartphone for entertainment lovers – HTC One
Love to watch movies and listen to music on your smartphone? We have to recommend the HTC One, mainly for its superior audio. The 4.7-inch 1080p display is great, and high brightness makes it suitable for outdoor viewing, but it’s the forward facing BoomSound speakers that clinch the deal. Not everyone likes to wear headphones and on the HTC One you can comfortably watch a movie without them and still enjoy decent sound. Beats Audio is designed to improve the audio quality further, but if you want to mess with an EQ yourself then grab something like PowerAmp.
Our HTC One review will give you the full picture.
Runner up – The Samsung Galaxy S4 arguably has a superior screen for movies. If you’re watching in the dark you’ll enjoy deeper blacks and higher contrast, and there are also settings to tweak, which the HTC One lacks.
Best smartphone for students – Moto G
Money is tight when you’re studying and you don’t want to be locked into an expensive contract; the best option is the Moto G. This smartphone should really make the short list for anyone seeking a budget device. It blows the low-end of the market away completely. The Moto G packs a 4.5-inch 720p display, a 1.2 GHz quad-core processor, and Android 4.3 (with a promise that 4.4 KitKat will be coming soon). The compromises — lack of LTE, 1GB of RAM, and a 5MP camera — should not be too hard to bear, and they are mitigated by the improvements in the Android platform. Load up QuickOffice and Evernote and you’ve got productivity on a budget.
Runner up – If money is no barrier then the Galaxy Note 3 will serve you well.
Best smartphone for outdoorsy types – Sony Xperia Z1
This idea that rugged features or durability is a special niche that should be catered for out of the flagship line has been rejected by Sony, and that’s great news for outdoorsy types. Not only does the Xperia Z1 have Ingress Protection 67, which means it can deal with water, dust, and shock, it is also a cutting edge Android smartphone that’s awesome in every department. We’re talking about a 5-inch 1080p screen, 2.2 GHz quad-core processor, 20.7MP camera, expandable storage, and all the extras. Sony’s minimalist touch in terms of UI is refreshing and largely limited to things that are actually useful. The display is also very bright and the screen’s not too reflective, so sunlight legibility is good.
Read our Sony Xperia Z1 review to grow more tempted.
Runner up – The Galaxy S4 Active is basically a rugged S4 with some slight differences, most notably an 8MP camera instead of 13MP and LCD instead of Super AMOLED. It is also IP67 certified and some people might be interested in Samsung’s software extras.
Best smartphone for trendsetters – LG G Flex
If you have to be seen with the latest and greatest in smartphone technology then you’ll want to be pulling a LG G Flex out of your pocket. The next big development in mobile could well be flexible displays, which will enable manufacturers to create more interesting form factors. The LG G Flex is a small step in that direction, with a huge 6-inch display that curves from top to bottom using LG’s plastic substrate OLED technology. It also has some self-healing properties, though it didn’t fare that well in our LG G Flex drop test. If you’re concerned that the curve might be a gimmick, you needn’t worry, because the G Flex also packs a seriously impressive set of specs. The 2.26GHz quad core Snapdragon 800 processor is backed up by 2GB of RAM and performance is lightning fast. The 13MP camera is also very similar to the one in the G2 and it won our photography category.
Runner up – The HTC One rubbishes the assertion that the iPhone is the most premium device around. It’s one of those phones that you just want to stroke all the time.
Best smartphone for gadget lovers – Moto X
Being at the cutting edge is about more than just the specs and no Android smartphone generated more excitement this year than the Moto X. The hardware is perfectly respectable, but it won’t top many benchmarking charts. The real killer feature here is the fact that your phone is listening for your command. It can be sitting, apparently asleep, on the other side of the room, and you can wake it up. There’s something beautifully advanced about that and improvements in Google Now are fast elevating it beyond gimmick status. The disappointment that the potential of hands-free voice controls has not been properly realized, because you have to preface every command with a button press, is relieved by the Moto X. Motorola also added some nifty, forward-thinking software features in the shape of Assist and Connect.
Find out more in our Moto X review.
Runner up – The Galaxy S4 is a real all-rounder with a huge number of unique software features and cutting edge specs.
Best smartphone for photographers – LG G2
This category was tough because the HTC One proves that megapixel count is not where it’s at, and the Xperia Z1 goes the opposite direction with a camera that could improve with software updates. The 16MP Galaxy S4 Zoom is Samsung’s attempt at an amazing camera phone, but it’s horrible as a phone. We would assume most photography enthusiasts have a real camera, so a phone is for grabbing shots when you’ve left the camera at home. In that case, the 13MP G2 with OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) won’t disappoint. The usual modes, Panorama, HDR, and Burst shot, are present and correct, and there’s access to a host of options allowing you to tweak ISO, exposure, white balance, and more.
Check out our LG G2 review for example photos.
Runner up – With a 20.7MP camera and Sony’s know-how in the photography space, the Xperia Z1 is the runner up here. It also boasts some great features, but the image quality could be better.
Best smartphone for Android purists – Nexus 5
If it’s important to you to experience pure, unadulterated Android just the way Google intended, then there’s really only one choice right now and it’s the Nexus 5. It has Android 4.4, KitKat, and it will be the first device to get Google’s next platform update. In fact, Android 4.4.1 just rolled out, drastically improving the camera performance of that 8MP shooter, which has been one of the few complaints about the device. Built by LG, it’s also an extremely powerful phone at an extremely attractive price point. No bloatware, no manufacturer meddling, no carrier crap, just Android.
Runner up – The Moto X shouldn’t be far behind with updates thanks to Google’s ownership.
The best Android smartphone of the year depends very much on what you’re looking for. Let us know what gets your vote and why in the comments. If you’re done with that, check out the Best Android Gifts under $50!