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Back to School 2014 Buying Guide: Smartphones


Classrooms at schools of all types are filling up across the nation this week, as students once again return for another year of classes.

As students prepare for another year of learning, retailers  slashing prices on the tools and toys that students will need to get through another school year.

To help guide your back to school purchases, VR World and Bright Side of News contributors have put together a back to school guide for 2014 to help you buy the top tablets, smartphones, dorm room TVs, premium notebooks, low cost notebooks, and gaming systems for your 2014 back to school shopping.

Top Five Back to School 2014 Smartphones

1) LG G3


With a quad-HD screen boasting a resolution of 2560 x 1440, the LG G3 is one of the best smartphones available for purchase today. The design of the LG G3 speaks volumes about the shift LG has witnessed in the way it handles product design. Although the G3 does not feature a metallic back, the brushed metal finish and the curved edges exude a sense of class that Samsung has thus far failed to achieve with its Galaxy S line of devices. Although the G3 features a 5.5-inch screen, the narrow bezels and the curved back design means that it is comfortable to hold and use one-handed.

A more interesting change from other mainstream handsets is the placement of the volume and power buttons, which are at the back of the G3. LG started this trend with the G2 last year, stating that the placement of buttons at the back of a device was “intuitive” and was more comfortable for users in the long run. As is often the case with such decisions, the placement of the buttons is subject to individual taste. There are many who like it and make the switch, and then there are users who cannot get accustomed to the change. What is clear is that it makes the device easier to use one-handed, as you don’t have to reach all the way to the side to switch on the device. It is likely that most users will not even bother using the power button to switch on the device thanks to LG’s Knock Code, which allows you to unlock the device by tapping on the display. The latest version of Knock Code allows you to set your own unlock combinations for switching on the screen.

Under the hood, the LG G3 features a Snapdragon 801 SoC, which has an Adreno 330 GPU and a quad-core arrangement of Krait 400 cores clocked at 2.5 GHz. In terms of memory, LG is offering two variants of the device, one with 3 GB RAM and 32 GB internal storage and the other with 2 GB RAM and 16 GB internal storage. The 13 MP camera sensor at the back features a laser focusing system that allows the G3 to focus faster than other devices in this segment, and comes with the ability to record 4K videos. In terms of connectivity, the G3 boasts LTE Category 4 (150 Mbit downstream, 50 Mbit upstream), Wi-Fi ac, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, NFC, IR blaster and microUSB 2.0. The 3000 mAh battery is the only area of concern in an otherwise great smartphone. If you’re looking for the absolute best in terms of hardware, this is the device to get.

2) HTC One M8


Design is one of the key areas of interest with the One M8. HTC has won numerous awards with the aluminum design of the One M7 last year, and with this year’s flagship, the vendor focused more on tweaking the design than overhauling it. The result is that the One M8 features a curvier design, is taller but not much wider thanks to narrower bezels, and features an aluminium back that has 90% metal. The device is taller as it has to accommodate a larger 5.0-inch LCD3 full-HD display, which is backed by Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3.

HTC has not sacrificed anything when it comes to internal hardware, and as a result the One M8 holds its own against other flagships of 2014, like the Galaxy S5 and the LG G3. Under the hood, the device features a Snapdragon 801 (MSM8974AB) SoC, which has a slightly lower clocked 2.3 GHz CPU instead of the 2.5 GHz variant found on the G3. The difference is barely noticeable, and is essentially negated considering the One M8 has a full-HD screen whereas the G3 comes with a quad-HD screen. The One M8 also has 2 GB RAM, 16 GB internal memory, microSD card slot to extend memory to 128 GB, Wi-Fi ac, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, LTE Category 4 connectivity, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, USB OTG and microUSB 2.0.

The One M7 saw a paradigm shift in the way HTC tackled imaging sensors, with the Taiwanese vendor choosing to go with a larger sensor instead of one with a higher megapixel count. This time around, HTC has doubled the number of camera sensors in what is called Duo Camera layout. The second camera is used to add a layer of depth, which allows you to change focus to photos and videos. While Google and other vendors have started offering a software-based version of this feature, HTC has decided to go with the hardware route. At the front, the One M8 comes with a traditional 5 MP shooter.

HTC has continued its focus on design even in the software realm, with Sense 6 boasting numerous enhancements and feature additions. The user interface is more modern, and is a far sight better than what other vendors like Samsung and LG offer. Running on a base of Android 4.4.2 KitKat, manufacturer-level additions by HTC like BlinkFeed and Zoe are actually useful without feeling gimmicky. Also, the One M8 features on-screen navigation buttons, becoming the first HTC device to do so.

With the recent launch of the device for Windows Phone, you can now choose between the Android variant and the Windows Phone version. Not since the Palm Treo has this choice been available to consumers. Both versions of the device feature the same hardware as well as most exclusive HTC utilities (Zoe isn’t available for Windows phone yet), and if we were to pick one, we’d go for the Windows Phone version, just because the design of the handset ties in well with the tile-based interface of Windows Phone.

3) Motorola Moto X


If running the latest hardware isn’t as vital as ergonomics, the Moto X is the ideal device for you. Easily the smallest device in this list, the Moto X comes with a 720p 4.7-inch screen that makes the handset very comfortable to use one-handed day in, day out. The internal hardware in the Moto X is more similar to that of the Nexus 4, and may seem outdated by today’s standards, but the device functions with nary a stutter thanks to the way it is set up by Motorola. Instead of throwing in the fastest hardware available, Motorola decided to optimize the hardware so that it just works.

Therefore, while Motorola could have added a full-HD display to the Moto X, it chose not to, as that would mean considerable battery drain and undue strain on the GPU. For a device with a screen size matching that of the Moto X, the decision has paid off as the AMOLED screen is one of the best things about the handset.

Specs include a modified Snapdragon S4 Pro (MSM8960) that offers a dual-core 1.7 GHz CPU, Adreno 320 GPU and two additional cores – one for contextual computing and the other for natural language processing. These cores allow you to access Moto X exclusive features like Active Display, Quick Capture and Touchless Control, which allow you to issue voice commands even when the screen is off. The voice command feature and the ability to customize the device to your heart’s content via Moto Maker differentiate the Moto X from every other device available in the market today.

If a spec list is what you want, that’s what you shall receive: 2 GB RAM, 16/32/64 GB internal memory, 10 MP camera, 2 MP shooter at the front, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, LTE Category 3 connectivity, Bluetooth 4.0 and a 2200 mAh battery. Although the battery size may not inspire much confidence, the Moto X easily lasts a full day on a single charge. Still interested in the LG G3? Fine, but we suggest buying an external power bank just in case (that quad-HD screen needs a lot of juice).

As for the Moto X, a successor dubbed the Moto X+1 is scheduled to be unveiled next week, but that doesn’t meant that the original device is any less alluring. If anything, it’ll drive the price of the Moto X down, which is a good thing.

4) OnePlusOne


OnePlus created a lot of hype with the OnePlus One, and while most of the time the final device fails to live up to its expectations, the OnePlus One delivers on all fronts. Featuring a 5.5-inch full-HD display, Snapdragon 801 SoC (MSM974AC), 3 GB RAM, 16/64 GB internal storage variations, LTE Category 4 connectivity, Wi-Fi ac, Bluetooth 4.0, 13 MP camera with a Sony Exmor IMX214 imaging sensor and a 5 MP front shooter along with a 3100 mAh battery, the OnePlus One is blazing fast.

The design of the device is understated, like the Nexus 5. There aren’t any manufacturer additions that are often found in high-end handsets, like the laser guided camera focusing system on the G3, or the fingerprint scanner on the Galaxy S5. The OnePlus One is designed to be a minimalistic device, and as such does not offer any extraneous utilities that usually tend to make things harder at the manufacturing level (ahem, Duo Camera on the One M8).

On the software side of things, OnePlus has collaborated with Cyanogen in launching a custom version of CyanogenMod for the OnePlus One, called CyanogenMod 11S. Based on Android 4.4.2, the custom ROM comes with many additional features that are not included in the stock version of Android, like a theme chooser, secure messaging and slow motion video recording.

The $299 price tag for the 16 GB version is just the icing on the cake. Since OnePlus is selling the OnePlus One at near manufacturing cost, one avenue where the manufacturer is looking to make money is through accessories like back covers. Called StyleSwap covers, these back covers serve to customize the OnePlus One even further. A bamboo variant is scheduled to launch later this month, which will be priced at $49. While everything about the OnePlus One is stellar, whether it is in terms of overall design or the internal hardware, there is one drawback that is a huge cause for concern for potential customers: availability.

Instead of launching the OnePlus One on its store, OnePlus created an invite system, which makes getting hold of the device challenging. Since its launch, it has become easier to get a hold of a OnePlus One, but the additional effort required in getting one is unnecessarily cumbersome. It is worthwhile though? Yes. While other value for money devices like the Nexus 5 suffer from a bad camera and substandard battery life, the OnePlus One has no such shortcomings. It is a high-end smartphone that is being offered at a mid-tier price.

5) Lumia 930


In a world filled with Android handsets, the Lumia 930 aims to offer users something different. Launched earlier this year in the year as the Icon, Nokia has launched and international version of the device with a handful of enhancements and addition of global LTE bands.

The design of the Lumia 930 is not as flamboyant as other Lumia designs, although the device does come in various color variations. The sides, like the Lumia 925, are backed by aluminium, with the back featuring a polycarbonate construction. With a 5-inch full-HD display, the Lumia 930 boasts the highest pixel density of any Lumia device at 441 ppi. The contrast as well as viewing angles are great, and the inclusion of Nokia’s ClearBlack technology means that the screen is readable in bright conditions.

The Lumia 930 features a 2.2 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 SoC that excels at powering the device, seeing as how Windows Phone devices aren’t as harsh on system resources as their Android counterparts. Other specs include 2 GB RAM, 20 MP PureView camera with OIS, dual-LED flash and a 1/2.5-inch sensor size, 1.2 MP front shooter, Wi-Fi ac, LTE Category 4, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, microUSB 2.0 and a 2420 mAh battery.

The Lumia 930 is the first handset to come with Windows Phone 8.1 out of the box, which features a significant array of new features like Action Center, Cortana, customizable tiles in addition to Nokia’s exclusive suite of utilities that include Nokia Camera, Creative Studio, Storyteller and more.

Android has Google Now, iOS has Siri, and with Windows Phone 8.1, there is now Cortana. Lauded as the most natural sounding voice assistant, Cortana uses Bing’s search results to offer recommendations, weather results, nearby location information and a wealth of other data, with Microsoft steadily adding more features to the service. One of the main factors against recommending a Lumia was the lack of content available for the ecosystem, but that isn’t the case anymore.