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Top 5 Android Phones of 2013

moto x htc one galaxy s4 nexus 5 g2

At the end of each year, it’s easy to find ourselves both looking back at all that happened over the past 12 months, trying to reflect on it, and then looking forward to what’s ahead. The “what’s ahead” is about to hit us with a right-cross in a couple of weeks when CES arrives, so I’d say that I’m still very much in the reflection stage at this point. Which brings me to this post and my thoughts on the top 5 Android phones of the year.

The year 2013 was filled with the most incredible smartphones the world has ever seen. 1080p displays became a standard (for the most part), cameras grew increasingly better, battery life is now measured in days instead of hours, customization was introduced, and prices may have started to decline across the board. Phone manufacturers also seem to have figured out winning formulas for the most part in terms of hardware, but only one still has the marketing side (or budget) on lock. All of that helped shape this list. 

And speaking of this list, it is 100% my opinion, an opinion I hope you are open to disagreeing with in the comments below. The whole point here is to spark conversation, so let’s get to it.

moto x

1.  Moto X

No surprise here, right? Even though I handed the top phone award to the Nexus 5 in our last DL Show, that was mostly just to give a different answer from the across-the-board opinion of the team, which was the Moto X. Back when this phone first launched, I penned an article stating that the Moto X would be my daily phone until the next Nexus came out, because I assumed that the next Nexus would supplant it on my desk. And you know, that actually happened. The Nexus 5 arrived and I loved it for the most part, outside of a camera that would later be fixed. But the entire time, a wandering eye always seemed to focus on the Moto X, as it looked for a way to get it back into my pocket. And then Bamboo happened and it has returned, probably for good.

The Moto X tops this list for many reasons, but there are two in particular that make it stand out to me:  choice and Active Display. With the Moto X, you have a choice in how it looks, how much storage it has, which carrier it works on, and if it’s a developer edition. You can’t say that for any other phone on the planet. The Moto X that sits on my desk today has a one-of-a-kind Bamboo back and works on Verizon because that’s the carrier I wanted it on. But I could have gone green with yellow accents, chosen T-Mobile, and unlocked the bootloader to tinkerer to my heart’s desire. No matter what, the customization of phones is a ground-breaking idea that Motorola brought to life. I just hope they have seen enough success with it to keep it going.

The other reason I can’t get enough of the Moto X is Active Display. I’ve talked about this feature a lot, but having my phone show me timely information every single time I pick-up my phone or pull it out of my pocket without having to hit a button is the single greatest software invention of the past couple of years for smartphones. I no longer have to interpret blinking LED lights or fumble over the power button thousands of times per day. Whenever I pick-up another phone to test, this is the first thing I miss.

The Moto X may not have the best display or camera, but I’m willing to deal because everything else it offers I can’t live without.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read our Moto X review.

nexus 5

2.  Nexus 5

Just because I show constant love for the Moto X doesn’t mean that the Nexus 5 is somehow a distant 2nd place. In fact, because of its display, power, and ties to Google, it is closer than you might think. Nexus phones will always rank very high in lists like this from me because they are Google’s vision of Android, they ship open (SIM unlocked and unlockable bootloader), seem to work on more wireless frequencies each year, and sell at unbelievably low prices for the hardware involved. I gave you two major reasons why the Moto X tops this chart, but for the Nexus 5 at a close 2nd, there is one:  price.

At $350 off-contract, you can have a phone that works almost everywhere (just not Verizon), matches the most powerful phones available spec-for-spec, and runs the newest version of Android before anyone else has even sniffed it. Other phones that compare to the Nexus 5 all sell through carriers at almost double that price without a contract. When the Note 3 first debuted, it was selling for $299 on-contract.

If you want another reason outside of price, I’d say that Google came oh-so-close to creating the perfect smartphone. With last year’s Nexus 4, Google gave us a poor camera, awful battery life, and no LTE. This year, they tried to step their game up in all of those areas with the Nexus 5, while producing a hardware design that feels and looks as good as anything on the market. Battery life is good enough and LTE is included on a variety of bands. The only issue I still have to do this day is the camera, even after its latest camera-fixing update. You were almost there, Google.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read our Nexus 5 review.

galaxy s4 google play edition

3.  Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition

Before the Moto X entered my life, I was using a Google Play Edition Galaxy S4 and loving every second of it. I 100% despise Samsung’s TouchWiz Android skin, but actually enjoyed the build of the Galaxy S4 when it was released with its svelte body that feels as good in hand as the Nexus 5. So with a GPE phone, there is no OEM skin, only 99.9% stock Android with regular updates. What’s then not to like?

With the Galaxy S4, Samsung packed in best-of-the-best specs, an amazing mobile camera, and probably 2013’s best smartphone display until the Note 3 came along. Couple all of that with a guarantee of updates and TouchWiz’s bloat out of the way, and you have yourselves an amazing smartphone. It really was my phone of choice from the minute it was released until Motorola handed me a white Moto X in late August. Had the Moto X not existed, it would have remained my phone until the Nexus 5 arrived.

At $649 without a contract, the phone is by no means a deal. But if the Nexus 5 and Moto X aren’t fulfilling your every need, this is a great choice.


4.  LG G2

I have got to admit that from the moment the LG G2 was announced to the minute I finished my review, I did not think this phone would make my top 5 list for 2013. I was so put off by the rear button placement and greasy backside, that even though it offered so many other positives, I just had to push it aside. And then one day I realized I needed to pick-up a phone to use on my Verizon line (Moto X was on AT&T at the time), so I grabbed the VZW LG G2 through a ridiculously timely Amazon discount (screw-up).

Once my SIM was inserted, I immediately remembered what I’d loved about the phone and quickly looked past the two negatives. If you want the ultimate performer, I’m not sure there is a speedier or more powerful phone than the LG G2. Its touch sensitivity is the best in the game, it sports a class-leading FHD LCD panel, and probably houses my favorite smartphone camera with its insanely speedy, multi-point autofocus. Sure, it has a questionable Android skin and doesn’t yet have Android 4.4, but you know what, I’d take it any day over Samsung’s TouchWiz. LG also included useful multi-tasking tools and has dropped the price regularly since launch.

The LG G2 is a great phone.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read out LG G2 review.

HTC one

5.  HTC One (Unlocked or Developer Edition)

To wrap up this short list, I’d have to go with the unlocked or developer editions of the HTC One. Not the carrier versions, I’m talking specifically about the versions sold directly through HTC’s store. These make the list because in 2013, updates rule the world. I own the unlocked HTC One, and it is already running Android 4.4 “Kit Kat.” The carrier and global models could be weeks if not months away from receiving a similar update. With no middle man, HTC has been able to update their 2013 flagship in the timeliest of manners, which Android enthusiasts like myself can appreciate.

You may remember that I also claimed this was my phone of the moment at one time, that was until the GPE Galaxy S4 came along of course. But the HTC One has a lot to offer. With its amazing sound experience (BoomSound), set of specific stand-out camera tricks (Zoes and Highlights), performance with high-end specs, and all-metal body, it set a standard for 2013 smartphones that seemed to have raised the game to a new level. You’ll still find techies to this day that will claim the One as the best available phone, even with its successor a few months away and phones like the G2 and Moto X out.

2013 may have been a terrible year for HTC, but I don’t think anyone can deny the quality of the One.

If you were looking for a full top 10, here is how mine would play out:

6.  Galaxy Note 3
8.  Galaxy S4
9.  …ummm
10.  …ummm

And now, it’s time for you to give us your top 5. Who you got?

  • J R Tur Pineda

    This post should be titled Top 5 android phone BACK COVERS of 2013 :-))

  • Eric Hong

    I’m a techophile. My family has HTC One, iPhone 4S, IPhone 5 and Note 2 (me). I just got a Moto X few weeks ago and honestly I can say that Moto X tops all those deices. It has amazing cell/WiFi/BT radios and GPS (much better than my Note 2). Touchless control and active notification are fantastic Moto assist and trusted devices are very useful. I used all the Moto X features every day. Now I’m really appreciate the stock android experience compared to the sense 5 and heavily skinned TouchWitz. I tried to duplicate Moto X’s features on my Note 2 with apps and mods but they are just not comparable to the real thing. Moto X is the best smartphones I’ve ever laid my hands on!

  • MartinH

    How does the motto x make #1 on your list and the Droid maxx #7? The maxx has all the features of the x and adds the best battery on the market along with built-in Wireless charging? And is the bamboo back really betterthan the kevlar back of the maxx? I understand the x customization features are nice, but it is not better than the maxx!

    • Steve B

      The Maxx looks like a turd. The X doesn’t.

  • John T. Wildman

    S4 crushed every other phone on this list, combined!

  • Orlando

    I replace my GS4, for my moto x, best move ever.

  • Orlando

    I love my moto x, best phone ever….

  • Cesar

    I just got my Moto X on Verizon, and I couldn’t love it more! Definitely smartphone of the year!

  • courtland

    I own a moto x and must agree it is hands down the best phone I have ever owned and love every second of it, in fact I am writing this review of it. I also love the almost vanilla android experience

  • Grasshopper239

    Your #1 phone doesn’t even have wireless charging, Fail. It is a nice phone, I bought one for the wife, but any flagship phone made this year should have wireless charging.

  • Dirk Wangston

    I disagree with the Moto X being on this list. It took me all of a week to decide it wasn’t worth the money even with the black friday discount. The main points that people want to argue that make it better are just garbage. First, the screen is awful. My Nexus 4 screen is nicer than it. The active display was ok, but my phone is in my pocket the majority of the time therefore rendering it useless when it came to missing notifications. Plus I tried to schedule it to turn off while I was sleeping but that option never worked so it just sat there and flashed all night. The “Ok Google now” with the screen off NEVER worked. I looked like a damn fool trying to get it to work. The battery life on it was terrible. I used it right along my Nexus 5 and at the end of the day, the Moto X was nearly dead & my Nexus always had over 40 percent left. Plus I used my Nexus for most internet browsing & gaming. Motorola tried to burn me again with the moto x. I swore I would never buy another moto phone after what they did to me with the Bionic but after all the rave reviews of the X I thought I would give it a chance. Happy to say I shipped it back and am just waiting for my refund so I can get a high end smartphone.

  • Newton Nganda

    Moto G 🙂

  • Rob Schoenfeld

    S4 Hands down. With the exception of some gimmicks and touchpiss, the replaceable battery and sd card expansion slot wins hands down.

  • JMonkeYJ

    I’ll just give my top 3 since these are the only ones I’ve recommended or bought this year. In case it isn’t obvious, I’m highly biased towards a vanilla Android experience.
    1. HTC One GPE. As a phone addict I’ve been eager to replace my One with something better, but in my mind nothing beats the combination of its features for my uses. And I can’t live without vanilla Android and quick updates, so GPE is a must.
    2. Moto X. The physical customizability and extra features put this *barely* above my #3 choice.
    3. Nexus 5. You can’t go wrong with a Nexus.

  • joejoe5709

    I’ve modified some choices of mine and come up with this:

    Looking for the undisputed biggest and the baddest? Note 3 (non-phablet: LG G2)
    Looking for the best bang for buck? Nexus 5 (Verizon? Droid Maxx or LG G2 on-contract)
    Looking for the best for the average consumer? LG G2 or Galaxy S4
    Looking for the best for Android newbies/non-techy? Moto X or Nexus 5
    Looking for the best for tinkerers/enthusiast? LG G2 or Nexus 5 (GS4 is popular choice)
    Looking for the best for business use? Note 3 (smaller: Droid Maxx/Moto X)
    Looking for the best performance/specs? LG G2 or Note 3
    Looking for the best future-proof choice? Nexus 5 (Verizon: LG G2 or Note 3)
    Looking for the best (out-of the-box) software? Any new Motorola (Nexus 5 for stock)
    Looking for the fastest (non-Nexus) software updates? Any new Motorola (kudos!)
    Looking for the best camera? LG G2 or Note 3
    Looking for the best screen? LG G2 or HTC One (oversized: Note 3)
    Looking for the best speakers/multimedia? HTC One
    Looking for the best battery life? LG G2, Note 3, or Droid Maxx
    Looking for the best ergonomics? Moto X
    Looking for the best build quality/design? HTC One
    Looking for an SD Card slot? Note 3 or GS4
    Looking for the best/most accessories? GS4 (Moto X closely behind)
    Looking for the best phablet/large screen: Note 3 (duh)

    Worst bang for buck: Moto X, Note 3 or GS4 (GS5 is right around the corner)
    Worst screen: Moto X and Droid Maxx/Ultra (720p at 4.7″+)
    Worst battery life (still 12+ hours though so should be fine for most): HTC One or Moto X
    Worst camera: HTC One (and pre-update Motorola/Nexus phones.)
    Worst (out-of-the-box) software: Anything Touchwiz or HTC Sense (LG not far behind)
    Worst for software updates: Ummm well anything other than a Nexus or Motorola
    Worst specs/future-proof (among flagships): Moto X and HTC One
    Worst build quality: LG G2 (controversial rear keys, greasy plastic, and larger size)
    Worst for newbies/non-techy: Note 3
    Worst universal availability on all carriers: Nexus 5 & LG G2 Verizon-only Qi charging

    Looking for the best jack-of-all-trades/all-around package/least compromises?
    LG G2 (Nexus 5 tied for first if not on Verizon)

    Honorable Mentions: Droid Maxx worth a look if on Verizon. Obviously Note 3 if you want a phablet. Galaxy S4 is still solid, but it’s worth waiting a couple more months if you can.

    My personal choices:
    LG G2>Nexus 5>Note 3>Galaxy S4>Droid Maxx/Moto X>HTC One>any GPE or Developer Edition (buy a Nexus or learn to ROM if you want stock)

  • Bionicman

    whats important to me (and i understand that these things may not be that important to other folks), is 1.) battery 2.) call quality and 3.) features 4.) build quality. The note 3 does all of these really well. i get that the Moto X has a great form factor and is buttery smooth even with its mid-range specs but for me there are too many compromises. btw i also love the Active Notification feature on the Moto X and thats why i use Dynamic Notifications from the Play Store on my Note 3.

  • kayne

    Note 3>everything else

    • JeffColorado

      Too bad it is polluted with Touchwiz. Vendor skins need to die.

  • Bruce Kraft

    Majority of reviewers as well as you guys spoke well of the note 3. I’m surprised its not on your list.

    • TowelieMeBanana

      It’s #6…

      • Bruce Kraft

        lol thanks now i feel like such a dolt lol i scrolled down to the bottom after i saw your response twoeliemebanana

        • TowelieMeBanana

          No worries! I watched a review on the Note 3 last night out of curiosity. That thing is a beast but way too large for my taste. Love my Moto X. The features are absurdly nice.

          • Bruce Kraft

            If you dig deep enough, the majority of the features are the same, but the note 3 has more features. The only feature that the moto x has is active display. but there is more feature spam on the note 3. Like voice assistant (that is on both). But the stylus and the scrapbooking and writing features are unparalled, especially for sharing socially.

          • TowelieMeBanana

            Yeah but S voice has nothing on Google Now. And I’m not lugging a giant around. Active display is incredible.

  • Steve

    Not sure I understand, you have Moto X as your number 1 and Droid Maxx as numerous 7. This confused me a little. Other than the ability to customize the look of the phone, they are nice same phone, only Maxx has much better battery life. Does the ability to change look of phone really make it that much better than Maxx????

    • JMonkeYJ

      Off the top of my head, some differences besides the ones you mention are: different from factors, higher DPI on Moto X, faster updates on Moto X. You might disagree on how important those differences are, but there are several differences.

      • akhnaten

        Can’t you just side-load the Moto X updates onto the Droid Maxx, since they are the same phone underneath?

        • needa

          you for sure cannot with a locked bootloader.

          • akhnaten

            Thanks for the clarification.

      • Steve

        While I do agree that the X did receive Kit Kat faster than the Maxx, what good does it do to have any of the things that differentiate the Maxx or the X if the the battery life isn’t as good. I know there are some differences and the X may have slightly better specs but the fact that the battery life on Maxx is that much better and the main features most will care about are built into both phones it doesn’t make sense that if you are going to make the X number 1 then the Maxx should be obvious choice for at least number 2.

  • TowelieMeBanana

    Got my Moto X on Monday. All I need to say is wow. Anyone that is focused on specs is not paying attention. Absolutely love it.

  • paul_cus

    Almost forgot the Sony Xperia ZL.

  • Jeff C

    note 3 is considered by DL to be a niche phone. so im not even that butthurt that it’s out of the top 5. that topped with touchwiz wont win over their hearts. although if it’s your #1 (or 2 or w.e.) then thats all that counts. i have one and it’s my #2 only cuz i wish i could get an N5.

    • crazed_z06

      Ridiculous that they’d consider the Note 3 a niche device when this happened.. http://www.engadget.com/2013/12/10/samsung-note-3-10-million-sold/

      On the other hand, the Moto X which was the phone that was supposed to bring balance to the force only did this, http://www.theverge.com/2013/11/12/5097532/moto-x-only-500000-devices-reportedly-sold

      Which one is really the niche device?

      • joejoe5709

        Sure, the Note 3 is selling well and that’s great. But phablets in general are still considered to be a little bit on the outside of mainstream. Anything beyond one-handed usage and you almost have to start making compromises for the phone when compared to phones like the LG G2 and the GS4. You wanted a screen that large because you love media. Or you’re a business jet setter and the Note 3 helps you daily. Or the stylus holds some appeal. Or you want a ridiculous phone just for the sake of being ridiculous. Whatever the case, the Note series is a flagship beyond other merely mortal flagships. In some ways that’s awesome but in other ways it keeps the phone from being #1 in a lot of lists.

  • Erich

    Xperia Z1, nobody?

  • Timothy Robinson

    I am really happy to see all the G2 love on here. I recently had to switch carriers (Verizon from Sprint) and the G2 has made my transition great. Even without root and 4.4, if you throw a good launcher on the phone then it is near perfect to me. I agree the buttons can be frustrating and the back is greasy and gross but the display is just immense and the camera is by far the best out there, and my god the battery life is life saver. It seems like there is a good number of these phones making there way into peoples pockets and long may it continue. I love this phone and I am happy to see others agree.

  • jim

    and head and shoulders about all those phones is the Note 3

  • Dave

    Traded my G2 for a Note 3 and never looked back. #noregrets