ReadWriteReflect offers a look back at major technology trends, products and companies of the past year.
Every year smartphones and tablets get better, and 2013 was no exception. Competition has pushed the top manufacturers to create ever better devices and—with the exception of Apple—sell them at lower prices.
Not that the big phone makers didn’t also do their best to distract buyers with what we can only call gimmicks. Each flagship device came with so many bells and whistles intended to “differentiate” their products that it was hard to make straightforward comparisons.
While some of the gimmicks are useful (the iPhone 5S Touch ID fingerprint sensor or the Moto X’s X8 voice-control system), many of them are not. So If you bought a new tablet or smartphone, you probably got a lot of bang for your buck—and maybe a little disappointment. All that makes any “best of” list an especially subjective exercise this year.
See also: Top 11 Mobile Trends Of 2013
Which, of course, isn’t stopping us. Here are our top choices below.
1. HTC One
HTC’s flagship smartphone was announced back in February and didn’t hit stores until more than a month later, and yet many people still consider it the best Android smartphone of the year. The phone’s internals are still near the top of the market and HTC’s Sense 5.0 launcher/skin has lots of fans (even if you can’t delete the BlinkFeed reader from the homescreen).
Where the HTC One really shines is its aesthetic design. The aluminum unibody and 4.7-inch screen make it, in my opinion, the most beautiful smartphone released this year. That, its specs and the fact that it launched with Android Jelly Bean made the HTC One a great blend of style and functionality.
The phone’s camera hardware is not as good as many of its rivals, though it makes up for it with a smart oversampling technique that’s great in low light situations. Several other manufacturers also took the route of adding better optics and sampling technology (iPhone 5S, Moto X, Lumia 1020) to improve their cameras without necessarily adding megapixels.
And then there’s Sense 5.0. Yes, some people like it, but it takes over a lot of screen real estate, and BlinkFeed is just plain intrusive. While it’s always possible for users to disable it, many people never realize that. To HTC’s credit, it also offers the HTC One Google Edition, which offers only the stock Android interface instead of a gimmick-laden manufacturer skin.
2. Apple iPhone 5S
Apple’s latest flagship smartphone integrates one of the first mainstream ARM 64-bit processors into its hardware. That may not be all that important right now, but 64-bit will future proof Apple’s processor hardware for some time to come. The iPhone 5S also introduced the first popular fingerprint sensor to a smartphone with Touch ID.
The phone’s M7 motion coprocessor was a nice addition, and the camera has both some of the coolest gimmicks we have seen in recent years—slow-motion mode, anyone?—while and some of the most sophisticated optics on the market.
Under the hood, Apple did a notable job tying all the improvements of iOS 7 (and its 1,500 new application programming interfaces) to the hardware. Apple excels at hardware/software integration and the iPhone 5S is its best performance to date.
Of course, you could also say than the iPhone 5S is basically just an iPhone 5 with a minor bump in hardware and a new operating system. There’s a degree of truth to that (it’s even more on-point if you consider the iPhone 5C). That said, the iPhone 5S continues Apple’s six-year tradition of making one of the best smartphones of the year.
3. Google Nexus 5
Google’s flagship Nexus 5 (manufactured by LG) device has two killer features: The first instantiation of Android 4.4 KitKat and a killer price.
The Nexus 5 has high end hardware comparable to other top smartphones released this year—though not the absolute best—and runs KitKat 4.4 with “the Google Experience” that integrates Google’s own services tightly into the device. It has a plastic body that is nonetheless light and attractive and easy to hold. Android purists will automatically gravitate to the Nexus 5 and not be disappointed.
And at $349 without a contract, no other high-end smartphone can beat the Nexus 5 on raw price with no carrier subsidy. Since it will work on just about any carrier network, the Nexus 5 gives users the most freedom of any smartphone this year.
The camera on the Nexus 5 could use work both in terms of hardware features and software control. Given the phone’s bang for the buck, though, the camera’s shortcomings are something of a secondary concern.
4. Apple iPad Air + iPad Mini
Apple’s new iPad Air tablet trimmed its size and weight relative to its predecessor this year, making it the most powerful and attractive tablet on the market. It also shares a lot with the iPhone 5S, as it uses the same 64-bit ARM processor and M7 motion coprocessor. It maintained the same battery life as previous generations and features a 9.7-inch screen with 2048×1536 pixels (264 pixels per inch).
See also: The New iPad Air vs. The Old New iPad
The iPad Mini with “retina display” corrected many of the shortcomings of the first iPad Mini. It got a minor hardware bump from the original Mini and the same number of pixels as the bigger iPad Air, though its pixel density is thus higher (326 per inch.)
The knock against both of these tablets is price. In a world where Amazon and Google make quality tablets for less than $300 (in some cases, less than $200), the starting price for the iPad Air at $499 is still awfully high. The 7.9-inch iPad Mini, starting at $399, doesn’t compete on price with rival tablets either.
5. Nokia Lumia 1020
Nokia made the best smartphone camera … ever. It’s hard to imagine that any other manufacturer—Nokia included—will attempt to match the 41-megapixel camera that is in the Lumia 1020. The Lumia takes both a 34-megapixel shot and a 5-megapixel shot at once so it’s easier to share pictures from the monster camera. Even with the condensed 5MP version in the Nokia Pro Cam app, the Lumia’s sensors and camera hardware deliver the best photos on the market.
While the camera in the Lumia 1020 is second to none, the smartphone itself is not that special. Running Windows Phone 8 (with all its advantages and limitations), the hardware outside of the camera is designed more for a mid-market device than a flagship smartphone. The camera itself gives the Lumia 1020 a huge bump on its back, which can be annoying when laying the phone on a flat surface.
6. Motorola Moto X
The Moto X is one of the most inventive smartphones to hit the market this year—not surprising, since it’s the first full flagship smartphone that was made in collaboration between Google and its Motorola subsidiary.
For starters, you can design it yourself through the Moto Maker website. That lets you to pick the color of the case and buttons while also choosing carrier and storage options.
What makes the Moto X unique are its body and the X8 Mobile Computing System. The composite casing material is curved and comfortable while still framing a 4.7-inch screen. It looks smaller and feels smaller than it actually is. A friend of mine called it a “champion of ergonomics.”
The X8 system, meanwhile, controls the phone’s “active display”—which shows you the time and notifications without requiring you to actually pick up and wake up the phone—and its “touchless control,” which allows users to voice-order the phone to make calls, open apps or read out text messages.
All that gives the Moto X the best hardware/software integration of any 2013 phone outside of the iPhone 5S.
7. Samsung Galaxy S4
It’s hard to keep Samsung out of the discussion these days, even when its flagship smartphone for the year was met with a universal “meh.” On paper, the Galaxy S4 has some of the best hardware this year, just trailing the LG G2 and Galaxy Note 3, which were released later in the year and did not make this list). The Galaxy S4 is light (though plastic), slick and reliable. But while Samsung blares that the Galaxy S4 is the best of the best, its experience comes as more “thorough” than exemplary.
With the S4, Samsung is also guilty of packing the most ridiculous gimmicks into any smartphone released in 2013. With the hands-less Air View, Air Gesture as well as the facial monitor smart scroll and Smart Stay, Samsung pushed the envelope on unique smartphone features this year. If only they all worked as well as they do in the commercials—and they don’t—the Galaxy S4 would be much higher up this list.
8. Nokia Lumia 2520
If you want a large-screen tablet with cellular LTE connection for under $500, the Lumia 2520 is your best bet. The slick tablet is Nokia’s first entry in large-form mobile devices, and it’s a good one. Like most Nokia Lumia products, the aesthetic design is excellent and provides some of Nokia’s own interesting additions to the operating system including its HERE Maps and Nokia Music.
The only drawback of the Lumia 2520 is that it runs on Windows 8.1 RT, a capable if limited operating system from Microsoft. If you want a Windows RT tablet more oriented toward work, you may want the Microsoft Surface 2 (though it doesn’t have LTE connectivity, which the 2520 does). If you want a more attractive, consumer and mobile friendly Microsoft tablet, the Lumia 2520 is the way to go.
9. Google Nexus 7
The best Android tablet this year once again comes from Google and Asus. For a small tablet (7.02-inches), the Nexus 7 packs an excellent screen at 1920×1200 pixels (323 ppi) and a price to match, starting at $229. A 32GB version with LTE data connection will run $349, knocking the iPad Air and iPad Mini out of the water on sheer price.
Like any Nexus device, the Nexus 7 features tight integration with Google’s services, and will also receive the newest versions of the Android operating system as soon as they come out. Between price and power, the Nexus 7 is an excellent option for people looking for smaller tablets.
10. Amazon Kindle Fire HDX
Amazon continued its Kindle Fire tablet line this year with three new versions of its tablets, the best being the Fire HDX. Like the Nexus 7, it features power and performance at an attractive price.
The 7-inch Fire HDX starts at $229 just like the Nexus 7 and has a 1920×1200 screen (323 ppi). The processor on the Fire HDX is better than the Nexus 7, and you can get it with LTE data connectivity. If you prefer a slightly larger tablet, the Fire HDX at 8.9-inches provides some of the best tablet hardware available at its price level ($379 to start).
The new Kindle Fires also unveiled a service called Mayday that give you a real, live human on your screen when you need questions answered. The Mayday button is a real customer-service innovation, one of the most interesting we’ve seen.
The drawback of the Kindle Fire family is that they lock the user into Amazon’s walled garden. The Kindle Fire tablet us Android, but Amazon modified the OS in order to shut out Google apps like the Google Play app store, instead requiring you to use Amazon’s own substitutes. Amazon wants people to buy the Kindle Fire tablets specifically so they’ll spend more money at Amazon.
That’s smart business, though the resulting experience may not be for everyone. Still, Amazon does provide a decent curated app store and one of the biggest digital-media libraries in the world.
Images by Dan Rowinski and Madeleine Weiss for ReadWrite