Part one of our three-part series on the best smartphones of 2013 listed the best smartphone design, performance and display of the year, and then part two covered the best fit and finish, the best smartphone value and the best phablet of 2013. Now, in out the third and final installment of our series, we cover the biggest categories: Best Android Phone, Best Windows Phone and Best iOS Phone, and Best Overall. Each category had competition that was more intense than ever before (especially the iOS phone category, which had competition for the first time ever) and picking winners certainly wasn’t easy. Picking an overall winner for the title of Best Smartphone of 2013was particularly difficult since so many great handsets launched this year, but there was one phone that managed to edge out the competition (and it has the sales numbers to prove it). With that, it’s time to wrap up our three-part series on the best smartphones of 2013.
BEST ANDROID PHONE
This was easily the most difficult category of the year.
Android extended its global market share beyond the 80 percent mark in 2013 and while cheap low-end phone sales in emerging markets played the biggest role in Android’s gains, it was a banner year for high-end Android phones as well.
Samsung’s Galaxy S4 quickly became the fastest-selling Android phone of all time, thanks in no small part to its gorgeous display and slim design. But its cheap feel and feature spam problem forced us to look elsewhere when naming the best Android phone of the year.
The HTC One is by far the most premium feeling Android phone we have ever testing, and it has a beautiful HD display and the best audio quality of any smartphone out there. But its relatively poor camera quality and lackluster specs compared to current market leaders are big strikes.
LG’s G2… Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3… Sony’s Xperia Z1… Motorola’s Moto X and Droid Maxx… they’re all fantastic phones that were definitely contenders for the crown.
But our pick for 2013′s top Android phone is the Google Nexus 5.
The big picture was key here. The HTC One features a sleeker design and a much more premium feel. The Galaxy S4 has a much more impressive display. The Xperia Z1 outshines the Nexus 5 when it comes to performance tests.
Pound for pound, however, nothing beats the Nexus 5.
The value is unprecedented — Google’s new phone is hundreds of dollars cheaper than comparable phones. The performance is outstanding — only a handful of high-end Samsung and Sony smartphones best the Nexus 5 on popular benchmark tests like Geekbench 3 and GFXBench. The look and feel are fantastic — the Nexus phone’s soft-touch rubbery plastic feels much better than the glossy plastic on phones from Samsung and LG, and the design is terrific.
The full HD display is very good, the Android 4.4 software makes it one of the only phones to include the latest and greatest features from Android, the camera is actually pretty decent following Google’s most recent software update, and the software features Google Now (perhaps the best thing about Android) more prominently than ever before.
BEST WINDOWS PHONE
As difficult as it was to choose this year’s best Android phone is as easy as it was to pick the top Windows Phone of 2013.
The first Windows Phone that was more than just a Windows Phone is also our pick for best Windows Phone of the year: The Nokia Lumia 1020.
Nokia’s emphasis on cameras in its smartphones as a key point of differentiation dates back nearly a decade (remember how awesome the N90 was?), but never has the company managed to put together a camera phone that even approaches the Lumia 1020.
Good light, bad light, low light or no light, the 1020 takes pictures that are far better than anything we’ve seen from any competitors’ devices. In fact, this is the closest any vendor has ever come to releasing a phone that can replace a wide range of dedicated digital cameras.
The Lumia 1020′s 41-megapixel camera takes remarkably clear photos that can then be zoomed like no other smartphone photos. A bright xenon flash, Carl Zeiss optics and Nokia’s revolutionary proprietary optical image stabilization round things out on the hardware side while Nokia’s leading camera software adds DSLR-like controls that are easily accessible.
But the Lumia 1020 is more than just a camera. The big, bright AMOLED display is absolutely gorgeous and the phone’s smooth polycarbonate case looks and feels great. Performance is just as fluid as we’ve come to expect from Nokia’s Windows Phones and tripping it up while multitasking is next to impossible. It also features all of the great apps and services we’ve come to love on Nokia phones, such as HERE Maps and Nokia’s free navigation app.
The 1020 is hands down the best Windows Phone of 2013 — in fact, it’s one of the best phone’s of the year, period.
BEST iOS PHONE
We can actually have a “Best iOS Phone” category now that Apple has multiple smartphone models. And the winner is… the iPhone 5c!
We’re joking, of course.
Apple’s iPhone 5s isn’t just the best iOS phone of the year, it’s the best iOS phone Apple has ever made. That said, the margin between the iPhone 5s and last year’s iPhone 5 is narrower than the gap between any two iPhones has ever been.
Toss iOS 7 into the mix and 2013 was a great year for Apple fans. The latest version of the company’s mobile software gave the iPhone 5s a fresh new face and Apple’s new Touch ID gave us a taste of things to come as Apple increases its focus on security. The 5s also offers dramatically improved battery life compared to the iPhone 5, and the display is still among the best in the business, though it’s looking smaller than ever before next to various beastly Android rivals.
The iPhone 5c is a nice option for those looking to (barely) save some money, but the iPhone 5s is the obvious choice for iOS phone of the year.
OVERALL WINNER – BEST SMARTPHONE OF 2013
This was a tough, tough choice. Apple fans will obviously argue that it’s the obvious choice and Android fans will obviously argue that it’s the wrong choice, but Apple’s iPhone 5s is our pick for the Best Smartphone of 2013.
Interestingly though, the biggest deciding factor in the end turned out to be Apple’s ecosystem.
Android is better than it has ever been and the gap in quality between iPhone apps and Android apps has narrowed recently, albeit slightly. But there is still a gap. And it’s still pretty big.
Look at any experience available on both Android and iOS, and the iOS version will almost always be superior. Find the best Twitter app you can on Android. Falcon Pro, perhaps. It’s a terrific app, without question, but it can’t even hold a candle to Tweetbot 3. How about a nice RSS reader for Android phones? Nothing even comes close to approaching Reeder on the iPhone. Big-name apps like Facebook, Instagram, Evernote, Clipboard, Twitter, Spotify, Netflix and countless others try to offer similar or even identical experiences across their Android and iOS apps, but they’re never the same; the iOS versions inevitably looks better, perform better, or both.
It’s also about hardware, not just software. The all glass and aluminum iPhone 5s has no equal. It looks and feels better than anything else out there by a wide margin.
Apple’s iPhone 5s isn’t just sleeker than rival phones, and it isn’t just built from better materials. It’s also more powerful. In tests performed by Anandtech, the iPhone 5s positively clobbered rival smartphones in nearly every key category. With a dual-core processor clocked at 1.3GHz, Apple’s smartphone crushes quad- and eight-core rival devices that are clocked at 2.0GHz and beyond.
It has looks, it has a premium feel, it has power and it has the best quality apps on the planet — and that’s why the iPhone 5s is our pick for best smartphone of 2013.