The 10 Coolest Smartphones Of 2013, Plus A Bonus

Smarter Smartphones

It's getting harder to tell these things apart. Most of today's smartphones are multicore and megapixel rich. They've all got sensors for motion, proximity, geo-location and orientation. As a result, it's increasingly necessary to look at the little things to set them apart.

Here are 10 of the year's biggest smartphones, and the little things that differentiate them, plus one mobile-related product that could turn the smartphone industry on its ear.

iPhone 5S

What's cool about Apple's iPhone 5S is a little thing called the Apple A7. Actually, Apple's 64-bit processor is a big thing in a small package, just as an iPhone 5S would be under the tree. Archrival Samsung and others are working on their versions, but so far, Apple is the only company offering a phone with this kind of power, which speeds everything up exponentially and increases its upper RAM limit. The 5S also has a vastly improved camera and automatic security thanks to a home key that doubles as a fingerprint reader. It's probably not worth upgrading from the iPhone 5, but anyone with a model prior to that will welcome the larger screen, faster performance and future-proof design. And like all iPhones, it's available for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.

Motorola Moto G

With the Moto G, Motorola (the part owned by Google) delivers many of the best features of high-end smartphones at a price that's affordable without betrothal to the carrier. Moto G is built around a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 quad-core SoC running at 1.2 MHz with 1 GB of RAM. Both of its 5 MP rear and 1.3MP front cameras capture 720p video at 30 fps and Moto G also can play back video at the same rate through its 4.5-inch 1280 x 720 display. As of now the unit runs Android 4.3, but a January update to 4.4 KitKat is promised and there are no UI overlays. Coolest of all, the 8 GB model can be had unlocked for GSM networks for $179. Colorful cases are sold separately.

BlackBerry Z30

Despite some very good devices, the once-mighty BlackBerry (formerly the once-mighty RIM) has lost most of its juice. Its latest smartphone, the Blackberry Z30, is a beautiful and capable device with a 5-inch 1,280-x-720 (395 ppi) all-touch Super AMOLED screen and 25-hour-rated time between charges. It's built around a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro 1.7GHz dual-core SoC with 2 GB of RAM. It's a little lean on factor storage options; it comes only in a 16-GB model, but an internal microSD card slot supports the addition of as much as 64 GB to the Z30's storage capacity. Its 8MP main and 2MP front cameras are standard fare. There are two other major drawbacks to BlackBerry's latest: It's on Verizon only (for $199 with a contract) and it lacks a wealth of apps.

Samsung Galaxy S4

Samsung continues to dazzle the world with its top-selling Galaxy S4, which in some parts of the world is endowed with Samsung's Exynos octa-core SoC running at 1.6GHz. Here in North America, it's built around a paltry quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 at 1.9GHz with 2 GB of DDR3 RAM. Samsung's flagship smartphone also delivers an impressive mixed-use battery life that goes on for days. Its 5-inch display puts out full HD -- an amazing 441 ppi at 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. Also impressive is its 13MP rear camera with 4x digital zoom, which takes beautiful, vibrant photos. Both of its cameras can capture 1080p video at 30 frames-per-second, and both can record video or take pictures at the same time. And Samsung's smartphones are still the only ones that can display more than one app on the screen at a time. The Galaxy S4 is available for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon for around $49 with a contract.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini

After hitting it big with the Galaxy S4, Samsung went small with the Galaxy S4 Mini, a shrunken version of its top seller that also deflates many of that machine's stellar specs. Its 4.3-inch LCD displays exactly one-quarter the resolution -- 960 x 540 pixels -- of its larger counterpart (hence the qHD designation). That's 256 ppi. The processor is a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 running at 1.7MHz with 1.5 GB of RAM. And its 8MP rear and 1.9MP front cameras also are standard fare. The Galaxy S4 Mini is available for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon for around $99 with a contract or unlocked from AT&T or T-Mobile for $599. The S4 Mini is a decent smartphone in its own right, but its name sets an unrealistic expectation.


Now this is what the Galaxy S4 Mini should have been. The HTC One has a 4.7-inch diagonal screen measurement, close to Samsung's S4 Mini, but a resolution of 1,920-x-1,080 pixels, the same as the full-sized S4, making its pixel density a whopping 468 ppi. What's more, this diminutive unit contains the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 SoC as S4, but at a slightly slower 1.7GHz rate. Also like S4, HTC One has 2 GB of DDR3 RAM for running Android Jelly Bean and apps, and it has high-end cameras and capture capabilities. It's available in 32- and 64-GB models for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon starting at $199 with a contract or $479 without (for GSM carriers AT&T and T-Mobile only).

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

For a while, owning a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 was the only way to use Samsung Gear, that "two-way wrist TV" the world has been waiting for since 1964, when Dick Tracy upgraded his radio-watch. Gear also now works with the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy S4 Mini, but content creators might prefer Note 3. With the included stylus and specialized apps, the Note 3 excels at note taking, digital editing and drawing. It converts handwriting to text, numbers into formulas and rough shapes into perfectly formed ones. And Samsung's palm rejection software allows the stylus to operate consistently regardless of where the hand is resting. Samsung's included pressure sensitive S-pen brings precision to graphical content creation and editing. Depending on markets, it's available with a 2.3GHz quad-core or 1.9GHz octa-core processor, and its 5.7-inch Super AMOLED screen puts out full HD (1,920 x 1,080). Pricing starts at $199 for 32 GB with an AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon contract. A microSD slot supports 64-GB cards.

Google Nexus 5

Among the first devices to come with Android 4.4 KitKat, the Google Nexus 5 is a thing of beauty. Its 5-inch full HD (1,920 x 1,080, 445 ppi) IPS Gorilla Glass 3 panel flows uninterrupted from top to bottom and is wrapped in a black or white plastic enclosure. It's built around a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core Krait 400-based SoC running at 2.26GHz, which leads the industry. The sub-5-ounce marvel is also equipped with an Adreno 330 GPU at 450MHz, SlimPort for monitor sharing, 2 GB of RAM, wireless charging, dual-band Wi-Fi and NFC. Cameras are average at 8MP and 1.2MP. It's available in 16- or 32-GB models for Sprint or T-Mobile starting at $149 with a contract or $349 without.


Atop the leaderboard with Google's Nexus 5 is the LG G2, which shares many of the same innards, including its Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core Krait 400-based SoC running at 2.26GHz. But outside, the two's likeness diverges in a number of important ways. Like the Nexus 5, G2 faces the world with a full-HD IPS display, but its larger 5.2-inch panel spreads its 1,920-x-1,080 resolution at 423 ppi. LG also builds in a beefier 13MP front camera with two-axis stabilization, multipoint focus, sapphire crystal-covered lens (for scratch resistance) and 1080p capture. Taking a queue from Samsung, the G2 adds an IR emitter to permit control of electronic A/V components, and its "slide-aside" feature mimics the company's multiwindow feature. A rear key is a nice touch; it simplifies picture taking and left- or right-handed operations. The G2 runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. Pricing starts at $99 for 32 GB with an AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon contract or around $499 without.

Nokia Lumia 1020

Nokia has clearly won the megapixel war with the Lumia 1020, but its display falls well short of victory. This update of the Lumia 902 and 925 models boasts a whopping 41 megapixels, which is at least three times that of its closest competitors. It's also equipped with a 6-stage Zeiss optics lens, 1080p video capture and up to 6x digital zoom. And while its 4.5-inch 1,280-x-768 panel is Retina level at 334 ppi, it's a good deal shy of HD. The 1020 packs Bluetooth 3.0 and a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 dual-core SoC running at 1.5GHz, just like the 900's. But the 1020 brings 2 GB of RAM instead of 1 GB. And this model runs Windows Phone 8; prior models were unable to upgrade. The Lumia works on AT&T only and starts at $199 with a contract, 32 GB of storage and a 7-GB cloud account.

Samsung Galaxy Gear

One of the most anticipated technologies of the last century (after the flying car) has been the picturephone, or more precisely, the wrist-worn two-way picturephone immortalized by the Dick Tracy cartoon character. Samsung makes it a reality with Galaxy Gear, a technology that's best described as an extra monitor, webcam and speakerphone that connects via Bluetooth with an existing Samsung smartphone. From its 1.6-inch (320-x-320 resolution, 277 ppi) color touch screen, Gear can answer calls, access email, text messages, tell time and weather, and record voice memos. If a trip to the phone is in order, whatever is displayed on the wrist is relayed to the phone. Gear also can activate sounds and/or vibration to locate its misplaced counterpart, and vice versa. If the two get separated by more than a few feet, an automatic lock engages and disengages when the two are again in proximity. Inside, Gear sports an 800MHz processor, 512-MB RAM, 4 GB of storage and Bluetooth 4.0, plus accelerometer and gyro. Galaxy Gear works with the Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy S4 and S4 Mini. It lists for $299.