Best 10 smartphones at the close of 2014

There are a number of excellent high end smartphones available today and most will satisfy buyers. Matthew updated his September list with some new candidates and a bit of reshuffling based on hands-on experiences.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

Back in mid-September, I posted my top 10 smartphones for this holiday season. It turns out the industry had a couple of surprises left and this updated list reflects my hands-on experiences with all but one of these top ten phones.

The smartphone is one of the most-used devices today and finding the right one is important. While you may not agree with my particular order, I think most will agree these are the top ten high-end smartphones available today. There are also plenty of good low- to mid-range smartphones, such as those in my recent list of phones less than $350.

I have the opportunity to use phones from every mobile operating system so it is tough to pick just one. My litmus test for picking the top phone in these lists is figuring out which single phone I would own if I could only have one. Given this condition, it is fairly easy for me to pick the best Apple iPhone.

1. Apple iPhone 6 & 6 Plus

Best 10 smartphones at the close of 2014
Image: Apple

Apple surprised me by launching a device as large as the iPhone 6 Plus, but after spending nearly two months with it I am convinced the iPhone 6 Plus is nearly the perfect device for me.

I decided to include the iPhone 6 in my number one pick since it's the same device as the iPhone 6 Plus, except for the size, battery capacity, and optical image stabilization in the camera. I suppose I could have gone with these iPhones as picks one and two, but the size will really drive which one buyers pick up and they are both excellent choices.

The elegant hardware design, industy-leading app store, vast accessory market, and consistent user experience make the iPhone the top choice. I've discovered that the camera is also tough to beat, both in terms of quality and usability. While many other devices offer compelling camera experiences, Apple's implementation of time-lapse videos, slow motion, and HDR are incredible.

The Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus remain the most expensive smartphones available today with full prices ranging from $649 to $949 and two-year contract subsidized prices ranging from $199 to $499. For those of us who use our smartphones daily as an essential tool, the cost is justified.

2. Sony Xperia Z3

One of the reasons I returned my Sony Xperia Z2 was because it wasn't available on a US carrier. Thankfully, Sony was able to launch the Xperia Z3 on T-Mobile and I bought one after taking the eval unit for a spin.

Image: Sony

US carrier support brings stronger RF reception and carrier enhancements, such as Wi-Fi Calling. I was also able to spread the cost out over a period of time rather than coming up with the $630 right away.

The Xperia Z3 is waterproof, has a solid camera, offers a nearly pure Google experience, and has an amazingly premium fit and finish. Specifications are at the top of the Android line with a fast 2.5 GHz processor, 32GB integrated storage, 3GB RAM, 20.7-megapixel camera, microSD expansion card slot, and 5.2-inch 1920 x 1080 display.

My T-Mobile SIM switches between the Z3 and iPhone 6 Plus, with the Z3 often getting more time in my pocket due to its waterproof capability that lets me run with it in the rain, the fantastic audio experience with the active noise-cancelling earbuds, and the ability to access everything on the device through the Android operating system.

3. New Moto X & Droid Turbo

Image: Matt Miller/ZDNet

The 2014 Moto X is one of the best Android devices available with plenty of custom case options, nearly pure Google experience, and fantastic Motorola experience enhancements. The Droid Turbo is a slightly larger Moto X with a few tweaks made by Verizon Wireless.

Motorola continues to price the Moto X at a very reasonable $499 no-contract cost, with subsidies dropping it as low as $99. You can customize the Moto X with features such as a leather back and various colors. The Droid Turbo can be ordered with a unique carbon fiber back.

Some people are concerned with the 2,300 mAh battery on the Moto X. Even though this is a rather low capacity compared to other modern high-end smartphones, I have been able to consistently get through a long day with the Moto X. The Droid Turbo has a massive 3,900 mAh battery, but the high resolution display (2560 x 1140 pixels) ends up providing less than the two days that Motorola advertises.

4. Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Image: Samsung

The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 was last year's high-end Samsung device and the Note 4 does it again. Samsung finally improved the construction with a metal frame rather than the plastic chrome finish used in the past.

The Galaxy Note 4 is powered by a Snapdragon 805 quad-core processor, with a 5.7-inch 2560 x 1440 Super AMOLED screen, 3GB of RAM, 32GB internal storage with support for a microSD card, 16-megapixel camera, 3.7-megapixel front-facing camera, and large 3220 mAh replaceable battery.

If you like using the S Pen for productivity, then the Note 4 is clearly a number one pick for you. After seeing my wife's Galaxy S5 act up continuously after several months of use, I am a bit apprehensive about buying a device with the TouchWiz software.

5. Google Nexus 6

Image: Google

Google released the Nexus 6 with an initial availability of devices that lasted for just a few minutes. Carrier launches have been delayed and it may be difficult for people to buy one in time for the holidays.

Google threw the reasonable Nexus pricing model out the window with the Nexus 6, which disheartened many people looking for a device as good as the Nexus 5 for a price less than the iPhone's. The Nexus 6 is priced at $649 for 32GB and $699 for 64GB, which is still less than the iPhone 6 Plus, but $250 more than the Nexus 5 last year.

Unlike previous Nexus devices though, the Nexus 6 is not really lacking in any specification. It has a large 5.92-inch x resolution display, Snapdragon 805 processor, 3GB RAM, 32/64 GB internal storage, large 3,900 mAh battery, 20-megapixel camera, Qi wireless charging, and water resistance. This is the one device I have yet to test, but reports are that the camera is rather lackluster and the massive capacity battery does not perform as well as it should.

Keep clicking through to see numbers 6 through 10.

6. HTC One M8 for Windows

Image: HTC

HTC releases amazing hardware designs and I was pleased to see them take the exact HTC One M8 Android hardware and release a Windows Phone version. The HTC One M8 for Windows is one of those rare Windows Phone devices with support for an IR blaster too so you truly do get the full HTC One M8 experience with a different operating system.

The HTC One M8 for Windows launched on Verizon, but has since come to AT&T with T-Mobile rolling it out soon as well. The camera experience is good, but like the Android version it captures limited detail with the UltraPixel lens. Since most people use their phones for social networking and online sharing, this may not be a concern for the masses.

The metal design feels great in your hand, the LCD display looks fantastic, and the device is very responsive.

7. BlackBerry Passport


I honestly thought I would never include another BlackBerry in a top ten smartphone list, but the BlackBerry Passport seriously impressed me (check out my full review). I purchased my own after reading early reviews and am glad I did. The BlackBerry Passport has specifications that beat nearly every smartphone today and comes in a unique form factor that is optimized for productivity.

Amazon's Android AppStore is included on the BlackBerry Passport and it is also easy to sideload the Snap application for access to the Google Play Store. Although there are very few missing apps thanks to support for Android, not all are optimized for the square display and performance can be poor at times.

The BlackBerry Passport has a 4.5-inch 1440 x 1440 pixel resolution display, full hardware QWERTY keyboard, 13-megapixel camera, 3GB RAM, 32GB internal storage, microSD card slot, and large 3,450 mAh battery.

If unified communications is important to you, then it will be tough to beat the awesome BlackBerry Hub. You can pick up the unlocked BlackBerry Passport for $599 to use with T-Mobile or AT&T in the US.

8. Nokia Lumia 1520

Image: Nokia

The Nokia Lumia 1520 remains the best Windows Phone available today and has just about everything you could want in a smartphone. This includes one of the best cameras available on a phone, microSD expansion card slot, large high-resolution display, Qi wireless charging, extremely long battery life, and the latest version of Windows Phone 8.1.

Unfortunately, it is only sold on one US carrier (AT&T) and at select online retailers, so it will not be purchased by the masses. The app gap continues to shrink with Windows Phone 8.1 and lately I have been impressed with releases like SmartThings and Alaska Airlines.

Windows Phone 8.1 itself is a satisfying OS with the best personal assistant in Cortana, a very functional Action Center, nearly perfect folder implementation on the home screen, and more. I bought the unlocked 1520.3 and could not be happier with a Windows Phone device. It is a bit sad that we have gone a year without any new high-end Lumia devices or further rollout of the Lumia 1520.

9. LG G3

Image: LG

LG was the first to launch a smartphone with a quad HD display and I purchased one for myself after taking it for a test drive. It turns out that I like other 1080p displays better and returned the LG G3.

The LG G3 is still a great choice with the microSD card slot, removable battery, fantastic camera, and innovative rear button design. You get a massive 5.5 inch display in a reasonable form factor thanks to some of the smallest bezels you can find on a smartphone.

The LG G3 is available now on all major US carriers and since it has been out now for several months, you can find some good deals and plenty of accessories.

10. HTC One M8 Android

Image: HTC

The new HTC One (M8) Android is a nice upgrade to the M7 in most regards. It is one of the fastest smartphones available today. The camera is often referred to as the Achilles heel of this phone, but honestly the photos are just fine for social networks and sharing photos online with family and friends.

HTC improved its Sense 6 UI so that it honestly enhances, rather than detracts from, the Android experience. They continue to upgrade it with their new Eye Experience and an Android Lollipop update likely to come in early 2015. There is just the right amount of customizations, settings, and features without being overbearing like Samsung tends to do.

You can purchase the One M8 on all carriers and it remains an excellent choice.

As I stated in the beginning, we all have our preferences and you may have a different order for these high-end smartphones. I think this list covers the full top ten, but if you have another recommendation I would love to hear about it too.

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