Best 10 smartphones for the 2014 holiday buying season

We've seen plenty of new devices unveiled in the last few weeks. Matthew Miller's updated list includes the best Android and Windows handsets now available, as well as -- surprise! -- that new plus-sized iPhone.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

The smartphone world continues to fascinate and excite me, especially when I look around on the train and see just about everyone using a smartphone  — even as manufacturers continue to push the limits of technology.

While we all have our personal preferences, and there's no one phone that is perfect for everyone, I think we can generally agree what models may be considered for the top ten. Because several new phones have appeared since my last list was published in June, let's take a look at my current ten best picks. Feel free to chime in with your opinion on how the list could be shuffled.

1. Apple iPhone 6 Plus

Image: Apple

The new iPhone 6 Plus was just announced this week with preorders starting early this morning. I placed my own preorder for a 6 Plus to use on T-Mobile and cannot wait to get my hands on the device. People have been looking for Apple to launch a large smartphone and they finally delivered.

The iPhone 6 Plus has a 5.5-inch 1920 x 1080 resolution display, internal storage capacity up to 128GB, NFC with Apple Pay support, advanced A8 chip and M8 motion coprocessor, new 8 megapixel iSight camera with optical image stabilization (OIS), the TouchID button, and significantly increased battery life. Those on T-Mobile also now get WiFi Calling and VoLTE support, which were functions we have only seen on Android in the past. The specs are top notch and with iOS 8 powering the device we can rest assured performance will be solid.

There are always a few things missing from every device and I was hoping to see wireless charging, waterproof capability, and infrared remote control support. These are niche desires, though, and the iPhone 6 Plus will easily appeal to the masses who might have went with a Note 4 or other large screen Android device if Apple did not go big. Apple already reports that the initial stock of all iPhone 6 Plus variations in the US have sold out.

The iPhone 6 Plus is clearly the most expensive smartphone available today with full prices ranging from $749 to $949 and two-year contract subsidized prices ranging from $299 to $499. For those of us who use our smartphones daily as an essential tool, the cost is justified.

2. New Moto X

Image: Matt Miller/ZDNet

I just posted my full review of the new Moto X and consider it the best Android smartphone available today. It might not have some of the niche functions seen in other Android devices, but the user experience, quick software updates, and core functionality cannot be beat. It really is like the iPhone of the Android world.

Unfortunately, you cannot yet purchase the new Moto X and we have not yet been told when it will be released. The price is right, though, at just $99 with two-year contract and $499 with no contract. Compare that to the lowest priced iPhone 6 at $649 and you can quickly see the value in the Moto X.

Motorola offers some fantastic features that provide a better overall daily usage experience than any other smartphone. I debated about giving the Moto X the top spot and could easily be convinced to make that switch, but went with the iPhone since apps always launch on iOS first.

3. Nokia Lumia 1520

Image: Nokia

The Nokia Lumia 1520 is the best Windows Phone available today and has just about everything you could want in a smartphone. This includes the best camera available, 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, but there are still holes and it is pretty rare to have brand new apps launch directly on Windows Phone.

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.

4. Apple iPhone 6

Image: Apple

Apple also announced a smaller iPhone 6 with a 4.7 inch display. That is the same size as the display on my original Moto X and makes the iPhone 6 a device that will be easily pocketable.

I imagine the majority of people will choose this iPhone over the 6 Plus due to the form factor.

The iPhone 6 display is 1334 x 750 pixels and also gets the new processors and iSight camera. You will not get OIS or as much battery capacity as the 6 Plus.

The iPhone 6 is priced $100 less than the iPhone 6 Plus with two-year contract prices ranging from $199 to $399 and full prices from $649 to $849.

5. HTC One M8

Image: HTC

The new HTC One (M8) is a nice upgrade to the M7 in most regards. I keep putting my SIM card back into it since 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. There is just the right amount of customizations, settings, and features without being overbearing like Samsung tends to do. You won’t find a better designed smartphone and HTC did a fantastic job improving on an already great device.

You can purchase the One M8 on all carriers and it is an excellent choice. You can also now purchase the One M8 for Windows on Verizon and it has the exact same hardware as the Android version so if Windows Phone is your preferred OS then look at this device.

Keep clicking through to see numbers 6 through 10.

6. Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Image: Samsung

The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 was one of my favorite devices, but also quite overwhelming. Samsung just recently announced the upcoming Galaxy Note 4 that again features the best of Samsung in a device optimized for the S Pen experiences.

The Note 4 is powered by either a high end Snapdragon 805 quad-core processor or Samsung octa core, has 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 battery.

If you are looking for the smartphone with the highest specifications available then the Note 4 is for you.

7. LG G3

Image: LG

LG was the first to launch a smartphone with a quad HD display with the LG G3 and I purchased one for myself after taking one for a test drive. The display is excellent and the LG G3 offers just about everything you could want in a modern smartphone.

The LG G3 is a great choice with the display, 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 most carriers and I have considered buying another one because there is a lot to offer here.

 8. Sony Xperia Z3

Image: Sony

The Sony Xperia Z2 was one of my favorite device purchases this year, but the large top and bottom bezels made the device a bit too long for me personally.

Sony did not change much in way of the form factor with the Xperia Z3, but it will be coming to T-Mobile USA so it will have WiFi Calling and VoLTE support, along with antennas optimized for this network.

The Xperia Z3 is waterproof, has a solid camera, has a nearly pure Google experience, and an amazingly premium fit and finish.

Specifications are solid with a fast 2.5 GHz processor, 3GB RAM, 20.7 megapixel camera, and 5.2 inch 1920 x 1080 display. I am disappointed they continue to only include 16GB of RAM and find that unacceptable for high end smartphones.

9. Samsung Galaxy S5

Image: Samsung

Samsung’s latest smartphone is available from all US carriers is one of the top two Android smartphones. I purchase one for my wife and she absolutely loves the Galaxy S5.

It has some new features over the S4, such as a fingerprint scanner, heart rate monitor, upgraded 16 megapixel camera, and water resistant design.

I had one for a few weeks, but grew a bit tired of all the Samsung apps and services found in TouchWiz so I sold it on Swappa.

Family and friends are always commenting on my wife's S5 and many plan to upgrade to it from their current iPhone or Samsung when their contract allows them to.

The camera on the Galaxy S5 is one of the best available today so if photography is important to you then you may want to consider this smartphone.

10. Nokia Lumia Icon/930

Image: Nokia

Nokia announced the Lumia 930 a couple of months ago and the US version of this device is known as the Nokia Lumia Icon from Verizon Wireless. It offers up the perfect mix of screen size, 5 inches, with great internal specs and a fantastic camera.

You can’t beat a high end Nokia Lumia camera on a phone and the Icon doesn’t disappoint.

The Lumia line keeps getting better thanks to Windows Phone updates and Cortana cannot be beat. If there was a Lumia 930 available for T-Mobile then I would consider one, but I am not pleased it lost the microSD card and Nokia Glance support.

There were a couple other devices I considered placing on this list, including the Huawei Ascend Mate 7 and BlackBerry Passport. BlackBerry has not officially announced the Passport yet and the Mate 7 was just revealed at IFA. We may also see a new Google Nexus announced before the end of the year, but this list should hopefully help you pick out a solid smartphone for someone, or yourself, this upcoming holiday season.

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