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Five Best Smartphones of 2014

Although the growth of the high-end segment has declined of late, there have been some truly remarkable devices launched over the course of the year. Here are the five best smartphones of 2014:

New Moto X

Moto X 2014

The new Moto X is larger, wider and more feature-filled when compared to last year’s version. While the first-generation Moto X was highly regarded for its in-hand feel and comfort, this year’s models eschews ergonomics for a larger screen, a trend that is becoming more and more common among high-end devices of late. That doesn’t mean that the new Moto X is too unwieldy to use one-handed; far from it. The thin bezels and curved edges mean that the device fits in your hand better than others that also feature large screens. Also, the aluminium frame around the device adds to its premium nature and highlights the overall design.

While offering a near-stock UI, Motorola has baked in enough custom features that serves to differentiate the Moto X from devices running vanilla Android. The Active Display feature is so intuitive that it should be offered as standard across all devices. With this feature, the device lights up whenever a notification arrives, allowing you to quickly look at it without having to unlock the screen. Active Display combined with an always-on listening mode – which sees a dedicated digital signal processor actively listening for the hotword – are the two best features to be included in a device of late. While the first-gen Moto X had this feature through a middle-man service, Android 5.0 natively allows this functionality, which gives quicker access to voice-enabled actions.

Moto X

The Moto X from 2013 did not feature the latest hardware available at the time, but this time around Motorola has included the latest available specs with the new Moto X. Under the hood, there’s a 2.5 GHz Snapdragon 801 SoC, 2 GB RAM, 13 MP camera, 2 MP front shooter and Wi-Fi ac connectivity along with a 2,300 mAh battery. The battery life was a major concern in last year’s handset, and while the 2014 Moto X does not fare much better in this segment, at least there is the ability to charge the device quickly due to Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 technology, which is leveraged through a unique charger.

The 16GB version of the smartphone is available for $499, and can be customized heavily through Moto Maker. Should you wish to do so, you can get a leather or wooden back variant for $25 more. The sheer number of customization options combined with the exclusive features like Active Display make the new Moto X one of the best devices available today.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Galaxy Note 4

The Galaxy Note 4 is unlike any Samsung (KRX:005935) flagship smartphone thus far in that it actually looks like a premium handset. Samsung has finally decided to use metal in the construction of their devices, and in the case of the Galaxy Note 4, this is in the form of a metal frame that runs around the sides of the device, adding rigidity to the structure as whole while providing aesthetic value.

Another first is the 16MP camera sensor, which now comes with OIS, a feature that has been long-requested by loyal fans. The imaging sensor is from Sony (NYSE:SNE), and comes with Samsung’s customizations on the software side of things. The 5.7-inch QuadHD AMOLED screen is outstanding, and is one of the best displays on a Samsung handset yet.

TouchWiz, long criticized as one of the worst manufacturer skins, has also received a facelift. However, Samsung has not cut down on the gimmicky features, and in fact found new “health-oriented” utilities that will allow you to track your daily activities better. The result is that a device with a quad-core 2.7 GHz Snapdragon 805 SoC (octa-core Exynos 5422 in some markets) stutters during the loading animations. Turning off animations entirely makes things better, but if there is a single drawback to the Galaxy Note 4, it is the software. Samsung needs to re-evaluate its stance of software design and focus on things that matter to users instead of just bundling every single utility it has made over the course of the last five years into its devices.

Galaxy Note 4 2

That being said, there are a few features that stand out, and serve to distinguish the Galaxy Note series from other phablets out there. The most useful is Multi Window mode, which as the name suggests allows you to run two utilities side by side simultaneously. There’s also a similar mode for video as well that allows you to run two videos side by side, but that once again falls into the realm of gimmicks. The stylus has also been tweaked to offer better sensitivity, and comes a lot of features that boost its functionality. For instance, Photo Note is a utility that scans images and lets you make changes to them using the stylus.

Overall, the Galaxy Note 4 is a move in the right direction for Samsung. The device is easily the best-looking Samsung flagship we’ve seen, and the stellar hardware means that you will not be encountering any lag (barring those caused by TouchWiz, of course). With carrier subsidies in effect, the device comes down to $199, although the off-contract pricing of $800 is not astronomical considering the features you’ll be getting. There’s also the Galaxy Gifts promotion, through which you stand to get over $300 worth of digital services for free from Samsung.

OnePlus One

OnePlus One

If there is one device that can be categorized as the best of 2014, it would be the OnePlus One. Nothing comes close to the device in the sheer number of features it offers for the price. Sure, novel utilities like double tap to wake, ambient display and camera software tweaks are missing, but when it comes to the basics, the OnePlus One smartphone gets everything right. Though the device features a 5.5-inch 1080p display, non-existent bezels and a clever design – which sees the display slightly raised from the rest of the device – lends to a form factor that allows you to use the device one-handed.

The OnePlus One has hardware that is often found in devices twice as costly: there’s that 5.5-inch full-HD display, 3GB RAM, 2.5 GHz Snapdragon 801 SoC, 13 MP camera at the back with a Sony MIX214 sensor (the same that’s used in devices like the LG G3), 5 MP front shooter, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac connectivity and a 3,100 mAh battery.

OnePlus One 1

The device features a custom CyanogenMod skin, and the differences from stock Android are immediately noticeable. The theme engine, which allows you to modify all facets of the UI, is a great feature to have for users looking to customize the handset to their liking, and the settings feature the most comprehensive list of options we’ve seen on an Android device. Another point of differentiation is the quick rollout of updates, with the OnePlus community constantly listening to consumer feedback and providing quick fixes for commonly found issues.

Talking about issues, the only major drawback with the device is availability, although getting hold of an invite has gotten relatively easier over the last few months. Retailing at $349 for the 64GB Sandstone back version, and just $299 for the 16GB variant, there are few devices that match up to their billing. The OnePlus One is one of the few devices that manages to do so successfully.

iPhone 6 Plus

iPhone 6 Plus

After years of making snide comments about phablets, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has decided to join the game with the iPhone 6 Plus. The device is not being called a phablet, but a handset that allows you to do more. The more is in reference to the screen size, which at 5.5 inches is larger than most Android flagship devices out there today. The resolution has been increased to 1080p, and the hardware has also gotten a boost.

Powering the iPhone 6 Plus is the Apple A8 SoC, which has a dual-core version of a Cyclone architecture CPU clocked at 1.4 GHz along with a PowerVR GX6450 GPU. Other specs do not matter much, connectivity as the software is tuned to run on whatever hardware is current-gen. With the iPhone, it has always been about the experience, and this time around it is no different. The iPhone 6 Plus comes with a new design that is being heralded as the best ever, is thinner and has a more premium look to it, and runs iOS 8 out of the box. That is one of the things it is meant to do well: get going out of the box without having to fiddle around with a bunch of settings (or as Android users like to call it, customization).

iPhone 6 Plus 1

Of note is the 8 MP camera at the back that now comes with OIS, which is in fact one of the reasons to go with the iPhone 6 Plus instead of its smaller sibling, the iPhone 6. The device is available in memory variations of 16, 64 and 128GB, with each increment costing $100 (on-contract) more. The cost of the device varies based on the territory, but the entry-level handset is in the vicinity of $800.

One of the major talking points during the launch of the iPhone 6 Plus smartphone was the introduction of NFC, which allows customers to pay for services using their mobile devices using a digital payment system called Apple Pay. Currently available in the US but facing backlash from a variety of retailers including CVS and Walmart (who are in the process of introducing their own digital payments service called CurrentC), Apple is looking to launch the service in additional countries. If you’re looking to go with iOS, the iPhone 6 Plus is the handset to get.

Lumia 930

Lumia 930 1

The Lumia 930 is the last flagship device to bear the iconic Nokia (NYSE:NOK) name, at least for this decade. Now that the Finnish manufacturer’s acquisition to Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) is finalized, the Redmond giant’s logo will be used on future Lumia models, like the Lumia 535 that was announced last week. For now, Microsoft seems to be content targeting the entry-level and mid-tier segments with its latest device launches, as evidenced by the announcement of the Lumia 730, Lumia 830 and now the Lumia 535.

What this means is that for this year, the Lumia 930 smartphone is your only real choice if you’re looking to get a Windows Phone in the high-end segment. There is the 6-inch Lumia 1520 that was announced last November, but considering we’re already more than 12 months into the life cycle of the device, it is not being recommended. Also, the form factor of the Lumia 1520 does not make it a comfortable device to use on a day-to-day basis.

Ever since the Lumia 1520 was announced, fans of Windows Phone have been clamoring for a device with similar hardware in a 5-inch form factor, and the answer is the Lumia 930. The device comes in color variations of white, black, green and orange, and carriers on Nokia’s ethos that is clearly visible in all Lumia handsets. The build quality is excellent, there is a camera shutter key on the right side, and the camera itself, a 20 MP PureView sensor, is one of the best imaging sensors you can get in a handset.

Lumia 930

Furthermore, Nokia’s exclusive utilities like HERE navigation services (which Microsoft is now licensing for the Lumia series) are a standout in this category thanks to features like offline turn-by-turn routing. Then there are the host of camera-centric utilities, as well as the music and video services. But the best feature of all has to be Cortana. It may not be as accurate as Google Now, but it is the most fun to use among all voice-based assistants available today.

The list of features that can be handled by Cortana is increasing on a weekly basis, and the assistant excels at getting the basics right, which can be said of the platform itself as a whole. With Windows Phone, you may not get Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOGL) services, but Microsoft is starting to add enough functionality that you don’t have to.