Our lives revolve around the tiny supercomputers in our pockets. We stay in touch, read the news, play our games and ignore our friends on devices barely larger our hands.
But smartphones have changed a lot in the past year. They are faster and more powerful — and in most cases, bigger — but 2014 has opened up a world of choice to those who want good cheap phones, good big phones and, in a declining segment, capable small phones.
Here are our picks for the essential smartphones of the year.
Note: We’ve added a number of category labels below each device to emphasize certain attributes. If the device is available unlocked, for example, we let you know. If it’s got a superb screen, or excellent battery life, we’ve shown that as well. These labels are not definitive, and should not be taken to say that devices without those labels don’t have those attributes — they just didn’t stand out as much.
OnePlus refers to its first smartphone as the “flagship killer,” and with good reason. Unlike the majority of today’s flagships, which cost upwards of $700, the OnePlus One is priced under $300 USD and has few, if any, major compromises. It balances performance and value for money with more than respectable hardware: a 5.5-inch 1080p display, 2.5GHz quad core Snapdragon 801, 3GB of RAM, a 13MP rear camera, a 5MP camera up front, and a 3,100mAh battery. If you’re looking to avoid signing a contract and want to spend upwards of a thousand dollars on a phone, the OnePlus One is for you.
Price: $299 – $349 (USD) outright
The Nexus 6 is Google’s latest “pure Android” experience smartphone. That means no bloatware, no carrier lock, and (if you buy direct from Google), no contract. It is also Google’s biggest phone, and one of its best features (aside from all that Lollipop goodness right out of the box) is stamina. With a 3220mAh battery, the Nexus 6 just doesn’t quit, and any power user would be hard pressed to drain its battery before bedtime. It doesn’t compromise on performance to get there, either. With a 2.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 805 chip, 3GB of RAM, up to 64GB of storage, and a 13MP camera, the Nexus 6 can stand up next to any flagship phone — and it gets updates straight from Google.
Moto G (2nd-gen)
The Moto G 2014 is Motorola’s second crack at an unlocked phone with an unbeatable price. Last year’s model lit the budget space on fire, and this year, Motorola has jacked up the screen size, added a higher resolution camera and front-facing stereo speakers. For $249, you get an unlocked phone with a 5-inch 720p LCD display, 1.2Ghz quad-core Snapdragon 400 chip, 1GB RAM, 8GB storage, 8MP rear camera, 2MP front camera, 2070mAh battery, and Android 4.4.4 KitKat with a guaranteed Lollipop upgrade. At that price, the Moto G is hard to beat.
Nokia Lumia 635
The Nokia Lumia 635 is probably the best Windows Phone deal you can get right now. It’s not the most powerful device on the market, but Windows Phone 8.1 has been designed to run on lean hardware. Available at around $250 unlocked, it’s a great starter smartphone, and will continue to receive updates from Microsoft with improvements like Cortana, Office and many other Windows features.
Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
Sony’s small-but-mighty flagship doesn’t skimp on specs. The 4.6-inch screen may seem small by today’s flagship standards, but two-day battery life and a 20.7MP camera, combined with one-handed usage, makes this the tiny phone to beat.
BlackBerry might not be the smartphone giant it once was, but the Passport proves that it can still make exciting hardware. With a square 4.5-inch screen and a three-row touch-enabled QWERTY keyboard, the Passport is one of the most unique phones released in 2014. It’s also big, but that size brings with it productivity, including all the features in BlackBerry 10.3: Hub, Blend, and the voice-friendly Assistant. The Passport is also the first BlackBerry device to ship with the Amazon Appstore, in case you want to add a touch of play to your work.
Apple iPhone 6
The iPhone 6 is Apple’s crowning achievement, a beautiful combination of curved glass and aluminum. The 4.7-inch display sports a crisp display that, while not as high-resolution as its Android peers, sports near-perfect colour reproduction and low reflectiveness. With an upgraded 8MP rear camera, the iPhone 6 continues Apple’s dominance of the smartphone camera market, and iOS 8’s new features extend the platform’s app ecosystem lead over Android. The iPhone 6 also addresses former Apple devices’ biggest pain points: battery life.
Apple iPhone 6 Plus
The iPhone 6 Plus, with its 5.50-inch 1080p display, takes Apple into the world of phablets. Though some might argue that the iPhone 6 Plus is too large, it’s the device many have been waiting for. It has a big, beautiful screen with software that makes one-handed use slightly more bearable, with a battery that really does last two days. Like the Note 4, the iPhone 6 Plus is big enough for short burst of work on the go, and the camera’s optical image stabilization lends itself to even better photos and video than the iPhone 6.
Samsung Galaxy Note 4
Simply the best phablet currently available, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 ups the resolution, boosts the camera and significantly improves the build quality, but is otherwise the device you know and love. Samsung adds some impressive one-handed capabilities as well, and fixes the faux-leather stitching from the Note 3. All-told, it’s one of the more impressive smartphones available — but it’ll cost you.
HTC One M8
As the smartphone industry trends towards larger devices, the HTC One M8 keeps things sane with a beautiful 5-inch display. This puts the phone just inside the boundaries of what could be considered a one-handed device. Its gorgeous construction offers a sleek aesthetic to go with HTC’s refined software customizations. And let’s not forget the company’s dedication to providing swift software updates (the M8 has been promised Lollipop in the next couple of months) and its commitment to improving the camera features.
Sony Xperia Z3
The Xperia Z3 is Sony’s fourth Z-series phone in under 18 months. While that’s probably not great for Sony’s bottom line, the Z3 features many of the refinements we’ve been waiting for with each iteration. We recently crowned it ‘one of the best choices in a very crowded Android ecosystem’ (along with baby brother, Z3 Compact). The screen, camera, and battery life (the three most important features for most smartphone users) are all excellent. In this regard, you’d be hard-pressed to find another phone that balances all three quite so well.
The unbreakable smartphone, the Sonim XP7700 is the company’s first Android device and a shoe-in for the most utiliarian ever made. It’s not a looker, but the dust-proof, shock-proof, waterproof device is going to appeal to employees in many verticals that hard-working, thick-skinned Canadians are used to.
Samsung Galaxy S5 Active
Samsung has long been criticized for its ‘throw enough mud and it’ll stick’ strategy when it comes to smartphones. But this tactic has resulted in several devices that no other manufacturer would deign to build. The Galaxy S5 Active is a perfect example and is one of few smartphones manufacturerd with a heavy focus on ruggedness and durability. Equipped with physical navigation buttons, the Active ditches the S5’s fingerprint scanner but is otherwise identical in terms of specs. That means you’ve got the same Snapdragon 801 clocked to 2.5GHz, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, an excellent 16MP camera, and a 2,800mAh battery. On top of that you’ve got Mil-STD-810G certification (shock/water/dust-resistance) and a tough rubberized shell to protect against knocks and drops on any surface.
Huawei Ascend Mate 2
The Ascend Mate 2 is a phablet solution for the budget-conscious smartphone shopper. It’s also got the best battery of any smartphone, period. While its Android 4.3 software isn’t particularly modern-feeling, its 6-inch 720p display gets the job done, especially for the $400 price tag. Not only does its 3900mAh battery last two days, but the phone can charge other devices. Share the battery-flavoured love this holiday season.
Price: $0 – $249 on-contract; $299 outright
Availability: Wind Mobile
Samsung Galaxy Alpha
The Galaxy Alpha is Samsung’s first attempt at a phone with metal construction, but you’d never know it. This is easily one of the most beautiful Samsung devices we’ve ever reviewed. At 4.7 inches, the Alpha also eschews the current trend of larger-than-life displays and fits comfortably in one hand. This, combined with its affordable price tag and a respectable spec sheet (720p display, a 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, a 12MP camera, and a 1860mAh) make the Alpha a great pick for those concerned with style and price.
One of the first devices with a Quad HD screen, LG’s G3 is one of the most compact large-screen devices on the market. The Korean OEM has cleaned up its Android software with a flatter design, while speeding up camera focus with a specialized laser. With a removable battery and expandable storage, the G3 offers some of the best value in the high-end smartphone space. It’s also one of the best-designed phones on the market.
Moto X (2nd-gen)
The last device on our list doesn’t appear to hit the same individual high points as many of the others, but its the sum that makes it so compelling. The second-generation Moto X is no longer the diminutive giant of the Android world, but thanks to a metal frame (on which the Nexus 6 is based) and considerate, deliberate additions to Android, rises above the rest. This year’s model improves on the original in every way, with a bigger, sharper screen, a better camera and much-improved touchless voice controls.
Price: $100 on-contract; $600 outright
Availability: TELUS, WIND Mobile (coming soon)