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2013 was a big year for the Android smartphone ecosystem.
In 2013 smartphone hardware became consistently great. Flagship smartphones run at about 2GHZ or better and are compatible with LTE 4G, displays are full HD, and GPS is finally power-efficient.
Smartphone maker competition shifted from hardware to user interfaces (UI) and design because faster hardware isn't a significant differentiator. And nowhere did this competition pick up more than in the Android world, different handset makers battled to differentiate their products from others in the Android ecosystem. Here are the 10 best Android phones released in 2013.
Motorola Moto X
Motorola's "touchless" activation, which awakens the Moto X with the "OK Google Now" voice command, makes it unique. Using a very low-power DSP, the Moto X is always ready to search, navigate, send a message or open apps. The unlock pin can even be spoken. The Motorola Skip wearable NFC clip authenticates the Moto X, replacing the need for touch-entered PIN. It is a nice addition, providing privacy, quick unlocking and long passwords.
The display's 316ppi LCD pixel density is nearer the iPhone 5s 326ppi display than the HTC One's 468ppi. The Moto X's hardware and software are solid. It feels good in the hand and can be ordered online with user customized case colors.
LG Nexus 5
The Nexus 5 hardware is impressive. Even more impressive is its $350 off-contract price for this unlocked smartphone. Endowed with Qualcomm's 2.26GHz quad-core Snapdragon S800 processor, a sharp 445ppi 5-inch HD screen and LTE 4G plus Android KitKat 4.4, there is not much else to wish for. The large LCD is housed in a thin, one-third-inch housing that fits comfortably in the hand. Apps running on the S800 processor, combined with the more efficient Android KitKat, are noticeably faster, lightning fast to someone upgrading from a two-year-old Galaxy Nexus or Samsung Galaxy S3.
If the Nexus 5 could match Motorola's touchless activation, it would top this list.
The aluminum case is one of many design and engineering features that will put the One at the top of every ranking. Powered by a Snapdragon 600 Processor with a 468ppi 4.7-inch screen, starting with 32 GB of memory, the One's hardware is responsive. It boasts a unique camera design with highly rated picture quality and two front stereo speakers equipped with Beats sound.
The One comes with the proprietary HTC Sense UI, letting users personalize it and create a feed of apps and integrated messaging in the foreground. A stock Android version is also available from the Google Play Store.
If the Sharper Image sold a smartphone, it would be the One.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3
The Note 3 is designed for visually oriented consumers. It may be oversized, but it is only a third of an inch thick. The 13-megapixel Camera is matched with a brilliant 5.7-inch 386ppi screen to showoff 4128x3096 pixel photos and 1080HD videos at 60 fps. To relieve users of tedious input tasks, it has a stylus and an improved S Pen interface. It includes a slot for the stylus. The Note 3 also followed the trend of packing flagship devices with the Snapdragon 800 2.3GHZ processor. The 3,200mAh battery is oversized to match.
By moving the buttons to the back, LG squeezed a 5.2-inch 423ppi display into a smartphone that can still be operated with one hand. The Snapdragon 800 2.3GHZ makes it super responsive. To match the display density, the G2 has a 13 megapixel camera.
The G2 has a unique proprietary UI with a lot of productivity, navigation and personalization features. To name a couple, the screen has eye detection and stays on when looked at, and the six home screens can be configured into a personal workflow, with the ability to add extra screens as well.
The G2's help tips will lead the user to appreciate and use this unique UI.
Samsung Galaxy S4
Announced last March, the S4 set the standard for its competition, and every new smartphone is compared to it. The S4 hardware compares favorably to the Nexus 5, the LG G2 and the HTC One. One of the most successful smartphones, Samsung has shipped an estimated 20 million units per quarter.
Samsung's Touchwiz UI separates the S4 from the rest of the pack. Hand gestures and eye movement can control the S4 - wave a hand and answer a phone call, look away and pause a video.
A stock Android version is available from Google Play. The S4 is a good choice for those planning a custom rom because of its broad developer community support.
Sony Xperia Z1
The Xperia Z1's hardware components and exterior design are similar to the high standards of the HTC One. The aluminum and glass exterior makes a great impression, almost as impressive as the HTC One.
The Xperia Z1 is water-resistant to a depth of 1.5 meters. The headset jack, loudspeaker, volume, power and camera buttons have internal seals. Plastic flaps cover the micro-USB port, and the SIM and microSD slots have plastic covers. Some people have successfully used the Xperia Z1 as an under-water camera, though it's not clear that Sony recommends this.
Motorola Moto G
The Moto G's hardware won’t compete with any of the flagship smartphones. But its specs are reasonably good. It has a 1.2GHZ Snapdragon 400 processor and a 4.5-inch 326ppi HD display. With the performance improvements of Android KitKat, it's fast with no noticeable lag using gestures or apps. Although it looks like the Moto X, it does not feature the same touchless controls or notifications. With an off-contract price of $179, it is a good value for a big brand smartphone.
Fairphone is a socially responsible organization that manufacturers an Android smartphone without gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten, considered to be "conflict" materials that are produced in areas of conflict and contribute to them. Fairphone builds its smartphones under fair labor conditions. The device is shipped with minimal packaging and comes without a charger because most chargers are duplicates. It's also designed to be recycled.
The Fairphone is powered by a 1.2GHZ Mediatek processor. It has a 4.3-inch qHD display. It lacks LTE and retails for $433. It's the preferred choice for those who prioritize sustainability and who want to set an example for other smartphone manufacturers.
The HTC First, aka The Facebook Phone
The HTC First is notable because it is one of the innovations that came out Facebook's dramatic shift from web to mobile. Those who use Facebook a lot will love it, because it brings Facebook content into the foreground and optionally on top of the lock screen. Many of Facebook’s feed, notification and messaging innovations were first developed for the HTC First. Its hardware was designed to be as good as or slightly better than the iPhone 4s, so it does not compete with the current flagship smartphones, but it is a nice size that is comfortable in the hand and was built sturdily.