Smartphone makers stepped up their game in 2013, and for good reason. With so many Android devices to choose, picking the best one has become more and more difficult. To that end, device manufacturers began to experiment with their devices this year to help set them apart from the crowd.
Phone makers stuck buttons on the backs of phones, pushed their screen sizes past six inches, made them water resistant, gave them incredible cameras, and much, much more. These are the five Android smartphones (listed alphabetically) that stand above the pack for being exceptional, each in its own way.
The HTC One is one of the finest pieces of Android hardware ever crafted. The aluminum and polycarbonate design is elegant, classy, and beautiful to behold. It's also strong and durable. The One puts plastic smartphones to shame. Each phone is milled from a single block of aluminum. Beyond the stellar design, the One offers an incredible array of software that makes it a powerful device. The 1080p HD screen is among the best of the year. The Ultrapixel camera produces stunning results. Its Sense 5.5 user interface introduced a wide range of useful and helpful tools, such as BlinkFeed and Zoes.
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LG Nexus 5
The Nexus 5 is a bit of an enigma. Nexus devices are highly coveted by tech geeks for their stock Android user interface and access to frequent system updates. That alone gives the Nexus 5 a leg up on the competition. The LG-sourced hardware, however, isn't the best on the market. The 1080p HD screen may be great, and the Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor is among the fastest available, but the plastic shell forming the outer skin of the Nexus 5 comes off as flimsy. Why include it in this list? Simply put, there is no better Android smartphone for the price. The Nexus 5 is available for the low price of $350 -- unlocked and without a contract. That's about half the cost of competing smartphones with similar specs. The Nexus 5 offers a lot for a little.
Motorola Moto X
Motorola attempted to do something novel with the Moto X: Consumers can design it themselves with an online tool called Moto Maker. This has never been done before. It's assembled in the US, to boot. The device is of middling quality when it comes to specs and hardware, considering the 720p HD screen and the resin construction. But the ability to choose from more than 2,000 color combinations lets people make the phone their own in a way no other phone can. Include custom engravings, personal messages, and even unique wallpapers, and the Moto X isn't just a smartphone, it's a personal statement. Beyond the nifty design tools, the Moto X went further with software customization than any other device this year. The Active Display provides ongoing alerts without draining the battery. The Touchless Control function lets users wake the Moto X from sleep and issue commands anytime. The Moto Assist tool will automatically change alert profiles when the user is driving, sleeping, or in meetings. It's a powerful smartphone, to say the least.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3
The Galaxy Note 3 is the pinnacle of Samsung's large pile of phones. It's Samsung's best effort by far. The Note line of devices brought phablets (i.e., large-screened phones) to the masses, and none is more accessible than the Note 3. Samsung managed to reduce the device's footprint while increasing the size of the screen to a whopping 5.7 inches. Samsung also made it thinner, lighter, and classier than ever, thanks to the faux leather back and tasteful chrome accents. As impressive as the hardware is, Samsung went all-out with the software. The Note 3's large screen lets it run two apps at the same time. The S Pen opens up an incredible array of input options. The productivity tools are among the best for a mobile device. Toss in the good camera and speedy performance, and you have a workhorse that still knows how to have a good time.
Samsung Galaxy S4
The GS4 is a category killer. Though the Note 3 is perhaps a finer device, it is too large for many people. The GS4 is the Goldilocks phone that has it all. It is thin, light, and powerful. It still includes a class-leading display. Samsung's design language for 2013 was defined by the GS4, which includes chrome-colored accents, attractive color options, and improved build quality over previous generations. It also pushed the boundaries with new features, such as automatically halting video playback when a user turns away from the screen, opening message previews when the user hovers a finger over the screen, and camera modes that let a user shoot with the front- and rear-facing cameras at the same time. When you add an aggressive marketing campaign and worldwide distribution points, you have a device for the ages.
These are my picks. What are your favorite Android smartphones for 2013?
Eric Zeman is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies.
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