We know what you're thinking. Making three picks for the best smartphone of 2013 instead of crowning one ultimate winner is a total cop out. It's like awarding Miss America to the best swimsuit body and the blonde who wowed the judging panel with her CPR rebreathing skills during the talent show. It even pushes the total number of items in a list of 100 beyond the century mark. So why in the world did we opt for the trio? Has a fear of fanboy rebellion cowed us into a non-decision?
Our job here was clear: highlight innovations that benefit us all as users of smartphones. It's not about commenting on the optimal strategy for mobile domination. Mobile technology has reshaped our world forever and, in hindsight, may be deemed the single most important driver of change for humanity this century. We owe it to ourselves as consumers to foster an environment of competition where technology is allowed to thrive or die based on the merit of its ideas rather the ubiquity of its platform or the size of its app store.
Ultimately the user experience in the mobile world is dictated as much by software as it is by hardware, especially in a day where powerful chip sets, lightning-fast 4G/LTE connections and pixel dense displays have become the new standard. Apple has continually served as the poster child for vertical integration and controlling both sides of the equation, but the explosive growth of Android proves this isn't the only path to glory. Microsoft's Windows Phone has followed Android's lead to date, but considering the company's recent decision to purchase Nokia's handset business (and Windows Phone's best hardware partner to date), it may be changing course. We value each approach, because their continued co-existence encourages innovations on both sides of the aisle.
If there's one defining comment to draw from our award winners below, it's that a deliberate collaboration between hardware and software -- regardless of which side winds up leading the conversation -- is critical to creating an excellent mobile device. Each of the phones below pushes the boundaries of consumer technology and attempts to redefine the mobile experience in its own way.
Nowadays the quality of a phone's camera is right up there in priority with its ability to make calls. Considering we live in a mobile world where phone calls have increasingly become secondary to photo- and video-sharing interactions via popular apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Vine, this trend will only continue to grow. While most of today's top cellular manufacturers like Apple and HTC continue advancing their camera technology, no other company has made strides like Nokia. Their Lumia 1020 ($150+) Windows Phone 8 handset transforms even novice smartphone users into proficient mobile photographers. By improving the popular 41MP camera previously found on the acclaimed 808 PureView, Nokia bred dynamic range with outstanding image stabilization. To save on storage space and improve capture speed, the camera also automatically creates more wieldy 5MP images through a technique called oversampling, which leverages several pixels to act as one, resulting in photos that are simply some of the most beautiful ever seen on a camera phone.
However, this shooter's insane 6x digital zoom truly sets the phone apart. Those ridiculous zoom capabilities make the Lumia 1020 a trump card for outdoor events and turn otherwise incomprehensible shots into crisp close-ups. 1080p video recording is just as impressive, and the integration of a new built-in microphone ensures great sound, too. Tack on a built-in, ultra-bright Xenon flash and a physique that's still pocket friendly, and the Nokia Lumia 1020 makes the strongest case yet for ditching standalone point-and-shoot cameras forever.
Of course, every great smartphone needs a capable software/hardware package, and there's no denying that Windows Phone's application ecosystem is still playing catch-up to iOS and Android. The absence of Instagram (gasp!) in particular is the ultimate achilles heel for many would-be buyers. But when given the choice between documenting all of life's great moments with the best mobile camera hardware around and Nokia's powerful Pro Camera app versus accessing a fun photo filtering app, we'll always opt for the former -- especially when you take into account just how swift and responsive Windows Phone's streamlined and personalization-centered OS feels behind Qualcomm's 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 CPU. Windows Phone still has plenty of room to grow as a platform, but the Nokia 1020 blazes an encouraging trail worth following.
"Smartphone" is a descriptor we use liberally to refer to the increasingly powerful mobile computers attached to our hips. But is it really accurate? Spending some quality time with the Motorola Moto X makes it clear that the age of smartphones is really just getting started. That's because Google's recently acquired hardware arm has designed a device built just as much for listening as it is for talking. Touchless Control, one of the device's many notable features, puts users at the helm of a variety of tasks -- like sending a text, scheduling an appointment or navigating to a point of interest -- via voice alone after uttering the key phrase "OK Google Now", and it works even if the phone is asleep. Motorola Assist is another software tweak that can intelligently access your calendar and automatically limit interruptions from your phone during meetings and sleeping hours. It even senses when users are moving at driving speeds and nimbly adjusts to a hands-free experience where texts and incoming phone calls are dictated out loud.
After months studying common smartphone habits, Motorola realized the constant urge to check on notifications was a serious waste of battery life and time. Their response was Active Notification, which cleverly leverages the Moto X's integrated accelerometer to flash the time and important alerts whenever the phone is flipped over or removed from a pocket. Thanks to the magic of AMOLED displays, the entire process lights up only a small portion of the phone's screen, putting a minimal burden on battery life.
The X's hardware prioritizes experiences over benchmarks. Though its spec sheet pales in comparison to the raw horsepower found in the superphones made by Samsung, LG and HTC, an average consumer interacting with the device is unlikely to notice. Instead, they'll be too busy enjoying impressive all-day battery life and a 4.7-inch HD screen that still fits comfortably in one hand.
These calculated exercises in restraint don't carry over to the phone's exterior, and that's a good thing. Rather than producing a handful of standard color options, Motorola gives buyers an unprecedented amount of freedom to customize the phone's exterior. Specifically, the online Motomaker tool gives users control of everything from the front and back shell colors to the metal detailing on the volume rocker and power buttons to the welcome message that appears on screen when the phone powers up. The result is a personal device that's finally personalized. Incredibly, customizers are guaranteed to receive their creation in four business days or less.
And that brings us to the X's most notable claim of all: it's the first smartphone to be assembled in America. Motorola's marketing materials certainly tug on patriotic heart strings, but the move makes good business sense too. The proximity of its Dallas-Ft. Worth assembly plant is the reason customized phones can be built and shipped so quickly.
In short, Motorola's innovation, design and approach as a whole to the X puts people back at the center of the smartphone conversation. Here's hoping the rest of the industry follows their lead.
Apple's "tick-tock" approach to product releases has become as reliable as the tides. Tock years coincide with the "s" releases of the iPhone and focus on refining the device's micro-architecture rather than revolutionizing the manufacturing process. It's a sign of how spoiled we've become that improvements to the world's most popular mobile device inspire less fanfare at these tock years, but the iPhone 5s breaks this jaded cycle.
Cupertino is calling its newest creation "the most forward-thinking iPhone yet" for good reason. Unlike previous "s" generations, almost all of the phone's guts were improved upon, save the LTE antenna and wi-fi. The handset's new A7 chip is the most obvious upgrade, doubling computing and graphics performance figures and making possible features like the camera's 10-frames-per-second burst mode as well as slow-motion video capture. The new chip also happens to be the world's first mobile processor capable of 64-bit operation -- the same standard used by laptops and desktops. That's a great claim for marketing purposes, but tech experts agree that consumers are unlikely to see immediate benefits from it, largely because developers must rewrite their code to take advantage of the upgrade. Even then, the phone's lack of RAM still prevents 64-bit processing from playing a major role. Still, the A7 is a clear signal to developers that iOS and Mac OS will become closer than ever, and that Cupertino expects the computing potentials (and therefore software) of mobile devices, laptops and desktops to reach greater parity in the future.
Aping the Moto X, Apple's addition of the M7 coprocessor, which collects, processes and stores sensor data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass in a far more efficient manner (even when the phone is asleep), now allows the iPhone to discern what users are doing. For example, it can tell whether you're walking, running or driving and will adjust turn-by-turn directions accordingly.
The new Touch ID fingerprint security system embedded in the home button rounds out the device's future-focused upgrades and brings personalization of a different stripe to the smartphone world. As of now, it allows users to bypass the traditional passcode lock screen using only their fingerprint. The same biological security measure can also be leveraged to make iTunes and App store purchases. For now, Apple has worked hard to make the system incredibly secure and not accessible by developers, limiting Touch ID's full potential. Should our collective concerns over personal security and privacy decrease in time, this feature alone could finally break through the dams currently hobbling mobile payment adoption -- particularly in the US.
Taken together with incremental but welcomed imaging improvements like a slightly a larger 8MP camera sensor, a true tone flash and an HD front FaceTime camera, it's abundantly clear that Apple has completely changed the mobile landscape yet again. We'll never doubt you again, tock years.
Excellence, innovation, craftsmanship, and an unwavering desire to challenge expectations -- these are the constants that have captivated our attention since Gear Patrol's inception in 2007. This year we're proud to announce the next step in our role as a champion of quality in product design and execution: welcome to the GP100. Our inaugural product awards are dedicated to honoring the 100 best consumer products released during the calendar year by companies of all sizes and scope.
The GP100 is not a ranking or a contest. These selections represent the collective expertise of our entire editorial staff, who have scoured every corner of the vast product universe -- from automotive and electronics, to men's style essentials, home goods, spirits and outdoors -- to find the inspiring and the practical, the ground-breaking and the traditional, the priceless and the accessible. In short: products that define or defy their respective categories to better the life of the modern man.
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