So you’re in the market for a new top-shelf smartphone? We’ve got you covered. We evaluated over 500 phones, compiling reviews from the experts (CNET, PC Mag, Wired.com, PC World) and evaluating each device based on over two-dozen features and specifications (battery capacity, camera quality, CPU speed, pixel density, etc.). Here’s what we found:
Overall Scores (out of 100)
|Samsung Galaxy S4||97|
|HTC One (2013)||96|
|Apple iPhone 5||96|
|Samsung Galaxy S3||96|
|Motorola DROID RAZR MAXX HD||96|
|HTC One X+||95|
|Motorola DROID RAZR HD||95|
|Samsung Galaxy S4 Active||95|
|HTC One X||95|
|LG Optimus G||95|
A visual breakdown of the methodology
Note that these are the best of the best—you can’t really go wrong with anything on this list. (For perspective, several phones scored in the 30s and 40s.) But for those who need a little more guidance, here are some tips for picking the best phone for you from among the top scorers.
(Rear-)Camera Quality Is Now the Least of Your Worries
Four years ago, megapixels were a good point of comparison for camera quality. For example, you might have had a choice between a 3-megapixel iPhone 3GS and a 5-megapixel LG Expo. The iPhone was the better overall phone, but for aspiring photographers, the low megapixel count was a legitimate drawback.
Today, all the top phones have at least 8 megapixels.* Unless you’re blowing up your smartphone pictures on a giant canvas the size of your refrigerator, more than 8 megapixels won’t make a difference. Instead, pay closer attention to specific camera features like image stabilization and autofocus.
*The HTC One actually only has 4 megapixels, but they are much larger pixels (HTC calls them ultrapixels.) The result is a phone whose camera quality is roughly on par with its top-shelf peers.
Front-Facing Camera Quality Still Varies
Flip your phone around and it’s a different story. Most front-facing smartphone cameras reside back in the 1 – 2 megapixel range—in other words, the range where bigger is still noticeably better. If you never take “selfies” (pictures of yourself with the camera at arm’s length), and you don’t do much mobile phone video chatting, the front-facing camera hardly matters.
If you video chat with your mom three times a day, however, note that popular phones like the iPhone 5, Motorola DROID RAZR and LG Optimus G have moderately worse front-facing camera quality than their Samsung and HTC counterparts.
Understanding the Difference Between Talk Time, Standby Time and Battery Capacity
Smartphone makers love to advertise “talk time” and “standby time,” but these numbers are easy to manipulate, and there’s no truly accepted standard.
One glance at this Talk Time chart, and you’ll assume the iPhone 5 is garbage—by far the worst of the lot.
The same could be said of this Standby Time chart:
The problem is that most of these manufacturers don’t test talk and standby times in realistic settings. They tend to turn off Wi-Fi, shut off 3G and 4G, lower the brightness, turn down the volume all the way, and so on. The phone might last over 20 hours in these extremely strict conditions, but wouldn’t last half that when used the way most people use their phones (brightness blazing, volume maxed, 4G on).
Apple’s testing standards come closer to real use, so the discrepancy you see between the iPhone and Galaxy isn’t nearly as significant.
The closest thing to a fair comparison is “battery capacity,” tested in milliamp hours (mAh). This number gets you closer to the actual capacity a battery has to handle the combined stress of texts, calls, browsing, music playing and video streaming.
Here, the Motorola DROID RAZR MAXX comes out quite well, and iPhone 5—while still last—is closer to the pack. If you have a regular charging schedule (you plug your phone in every night, for example), any of these phones will work, but if you need to go a few days without plugging in, consider a DROID RAZR or Samsung Galaxy.
All Phones Are Pretty Thin Now
For a while, the iPhone had claim to “thinnest phone” status. Then the DROID RAZR temporarily took the crown. The iPhone has reclaimed its top spot (at least among these 10 phones), but at this point, it hardly matters. All 10 of these phones measure in at under a single centimeter.
Weight Varies a Bit More
Most people overlook weight when buying a phone. They’re all fairly light anyway, right? Depending on how you use your device, a very light phone can be a huge benefit over time, whether you listen to music on hikes and runs, read for an hour a day on the subway, or just don’t want a brick weighing down your pocket or purse.
All that battery capacity in the DROID RAZR MAXX comes at a bit of a cost. It just depends on what you value more.
Unlike weight, nearly everyone has a preference on screen size. Most of today’s top phones hover right around the 4.7-inch mark. Once again, the notable outlier is the iPhone 5. At 4 inches, it’s now within range of its competitors (previous iPhones were 3.5 inches), but it’s the smallest by a considerable margin.
If a large screen size is much more important than thickness or weight, consider the Samsung Galaxy S4.
Weight Per Inch of Screen Size
Finally, let’s take it step further. What would happen if we took each phone’s weight, but factored in screen size? In other words, how much does each phone weigh per inch of screen real estate?
We now see that the iPhone is right back around average: its low weight is largely a function of its small screen size. The DROID RAZR MAXX still proves to be the heaviest, but surprisingly, the Samsung Galaxy S4 ends up being the most “efficiently light” of the bunch.
So we’ve presented you with the top 10 rated phones, and dipped into some of the key specifications. But what should you buy? Here are a few recommendations based on the data:
For the outdoor enthusiast: Snag the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active. With a solid camera, good battery life, and a rugged design, the S4 Active is a no-brainer for people who wear backpacks more than they carry briefcases.
For the tech geek: Get the Samsung Galaxy S4. It’s got the biggest screen size, and respectable marks in nearly every other category. If you care about the spec sheet behind your gadgets, the Galaxy S4 is an easy choice.
For the everyday consumer: Go with the Apple iPhone 5. It may not have the top specs, but it’s got the best intangibles. Light, thin, and compact, it’s the right choice for consumers who just want something simple and unobtrusive.
This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.
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