Introduction

Black Friday around the corner and it's also nearly time for the holiday shopping spree. Our last smartphone buyer's guide for 2014 will hopefully come in handy when you out there trying to find a smartphone present for your closest ones... or for yourself.

Our last Smartphone buyer's guide came out in August and we've seen plenty of action since then. IFA 2014 took place in September and we saw the introduction of a myriad of new devices. And most of these are already available to purchase now.

There were a few flagships announced at the IFA 2014 (such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, or the Sony Xperia Z3) but the majority of the newly announced devices fit in an expanded mid-range segment. In this segment HD screens, quad-core processors and quality cameras are the norm now. You can even find new advancements like an ARMv8 64-bit processors and, of course, when it comes to Android, everything pre-KitKat simply doesn't cut it.

Smartphone Shopping Guide November 2014

While the mid-range offer arguably the best bang for the buck ratio, the sub-€100 market has a lot to offer, too. Continued pressure from Microsoft has driven KitKat phones to double-digit prices, but Lumias still have the upper hand (and lower price). The Lumia lineup begins with a quad-core processor and a 480 x 800px screen and builds up from there.

Outside of the IFA announcements, we also have a handful of flagships, which were all announced earlier this year. They are soon to be replaced at next year's CES (January) or MWC (February) so their price has tumbled making them an even better deal. The LG G3 can pick a fight with any flagship, yet it won't hurt your wallet much.

And it's already getting Android 5.0 Lollipop, almost as fast as the Nexus devices. The fast track update schedule and the continued support are both becoming an important differentiators as in recent years the hardware way outlives the software. Today's €200 phones have 2012 flagship specs, yet the new, cheaper devices run better because makers rarely update their older phones past the two year mark. The Galaxy S III never got to KitKat, but the cheaper Moto G is still flying high on the latest Android, and both have almost identical hardware ticking inside.

You can read the guide page by page or just jump to the price range you had in mind. Perhaps, it will be useful to check out the pages before and after your price group - perhaps you can find what you're looking for at less cost or something considerably better for just a bit more.

Unlike the previous installment, this smartphone buyer's guide goes over the €500. While you can't go wrong buying from the top shelf, we tried to listen to the brain more than the heart here.

  • Under €100
  • €100-€200
  • €200-€300
  • €300-€400
  • €400-€500
  • €500 and above
  • What didn't make the cut

In this edition we've also included a page of devices that didn't quite make the shortlist of recommendations, but still deserve to be mentioned. You can think of that page as... our reserve list. The devices featured on it are excellent devices on their own and they have their particular selling points that just might click for you even though the price premium can come as outrageous. For one, we know many of you will be seduced by metal unibodies and won't care if you can get better specs for less.

Nor should you you can have a whole list of excellent phones to choose from at around €300-400 with great screens, great cameras and a variety of connectivity options. So to pick anything for more money than that, you must be really listening to your heart rather than your head. We are far from judging anyone, we only mean to make a point that we've covered that group as well.

Under €100

We have to admit it felt uneasy looking for under-€50 smartphones - those do exist, it's just that none of them is any good. If you really want to pinch pennies we'd recommend going the second-hand route, even a banged up proper smartphone will work better than €20-€30 device from eBay.

As for the rest, we'd strongly recommend forking over €10-€20 more to get KitKat out of the box. Android 4.4 has been optimized to run on low-power devices and there's a sliver of a chance that they may get one update - Lollipop.

Even if they don't (low-cost devices are not a priority update target), most Google apps and many third-party apps have been reskinned with Material design and a KitKat _phone_ will feel current for another year or two. There are no compatibility issues with Jelly Bean, but again, KitKat works better on low power, 512MB devices like most of the handsets in the sub-€100 category.

Note that the phones here are roughly listed by price in ascending order.

We kick off with the LG L3 II - it's a fairly old device now but there are still units left over in stores. It's a 4.1 Jelly Bean device, but it's just about the cheapest workable smartphone we could find. The similarly-specced Samsung Galaxy Star enjoys a bigger popularity among our readers and is priced the same as the L3 II, but we think the LG is the smarter buy.

Here are a few quick tips for cheap devices. Look for an IPS display for the superior viewing angles, they have better viewing angles. Also, the Samsung records 320p@15fps video - unusable for anything other an MMS - while the LG L3 II captures 480p@30fps - not great but passable. It also has 3G (data plans are getting cheaper each year) and a bigger battery. Both phones have dual-SIM versions if you need the functionality.


LG L3 II
Pros Cons
  • 3.2" 240x320px display, IPS
  • Single-core 1GHz CPU
  • 3.15MP camera, 480p@30fps video
  • 1,540 mAh
  • Old Android version, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean
  • Low-power hardware
Hands-on

Part of budget shopping is avoiding the badge markup - well-known manufacturers ask more for similar hardware. Sometimes it's worth it, but opposing brands have gone up in quality while staying low on price, to make up for the lack of brand recognition.

Not that Huawei is unheard of, it has been putting out some attention-grabbing phones like the Ascend P6 and the Mate7. But they also offer more modest and affordable devices such as the Huawei Ascend Y330. It features a bigger screen than the LG - a 4" FWVGA display that's twice as sharp (but it's not IPS). And it has more than double the processing power available with a dual-core 1.3GHz processor.


Huawei Ascend Y330
Pros Cons
  • 4" 480x854px display
  • Dual-core 1.3GHz CPU
  • 3.14MP camera, 480p@30fps video
  • 1,500 mAh
  • Old Android version, Android 4.2 Jelly Bean
  • Non-IPS display

We mentioned that data plan prices are dropping but that's not true for some countries - there are regions that still pay out of the nose for data, or even simple voice calls and texts. Spreading out the three services (voice, text, data) over two different SIM cards sometimes presents an alluring price advantage.

While its name is youth-oriented, the Samsung Galaxy Young 2 makes for a fine budget device even if nobody has called you young for a while now. This chap runs Android 4.4 KitKat (one of the cheapest phones that do) on a single-core processor and is a dual-SIM phone. The screen isn't as good as the Ascend Y330's but it's still a bit bigger and sharper than the LG L3 II's.


Samsung Galaxy Young 2
Pros Cons
  • Dual-SIM
  • 3.5" 320x480px display
  • Single-core 1GHz CPU
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
  • 3.15MP camera, 480p@24fps
  • Low-power hardware
  • Non-IPS display
  • 1,300 mAh

The Sony Xperia E1 combines the screen and processor specs with Sony brand recognition and a KitKat update (initially launched with 4.3 Jelly Bean). The _phone_ has a 4" WVGA screen with scratch-resistant glass, a Snapdragon 200 chipset and Sony's attractive design. There's an Xperia E1 dual, if you need an extra SIM slot.


Sony Xperia E1
Pros Cons
  • Optional dual-SIM
  • 4" 480x800px display
  • Dual-core 1.2GHz CPU
  • Android 4.4 KitKat update
  • 3.15MP camera, SVGA@20fps
  • 1,700 mAh
  • 20fps video doesn't cut it
  • Non-IPS display
Rerview

Last time around we recommended the Lumia 520 over its replacing Lumia 530, but the Lumia 520 supply is running out and finding a good price is becoming increasingly difficult. Meanwhile a Nokia Lumia 530 Dual SIM can be had fairly cheaply - the cheapest quad-core phone with a recognizable brand name around.

The Lumia 530 Dual SIM has other advantages over the Xperia E1 too - like a 5MP still camera (still capped at 480p@30fps) plus free offline navigation. The Lumia 520 is single-SIM only but has an IPS screen and can record 720p video. It's dual-core Krait CPU is no slouch either, but again units are becoming scarce. It's still a good buy if you can find one.


Nokia Lumia 530 Dual SIM
Pros Cons
  • Dual-SIM phone
  • 4" 480x854px screen
  • Quad-core 1.2GHz CPU
  • Windows phone 8.1
  • 5MP camera, 480p@30fps video
  • Free offline navigation
  • Non-IPS display
  • 1,430 mAh

The Samsung Galaxy Ace Style brings many improvements over the Young 2, enough to put it against the likes of Xperia E1 and Lumia 530. An advantage here is that its 5MP camera records 720p video. The phone itself runs Android 4.4 KitKat on a dual-core CPU. There's NFC too, which is finding its way on consumer devices to make pairing easier for things like Bluetooth speakers and headsets, although we hardly consider it essential.


Samsung Galaxy Ace Style
Pros Cons
  • 4" 480x800px display
  • Dual-core 1.2GHz CPU
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
  • 5MP camera, 720p video
  • 1,500 mAh
  • Non-IPS display

€100-€200

In the €100-€200 category we were overwhelmed with choice of new brands and models that might be hard to find in retail stores. If you're okay with doing some Internet shopping you can grab one of those, but established brands have some heavy hitters in here too.

As an example of a great deal you can find on the net, the Huawei Honor 3C Play is barely more expensive than the Galaxy Ace Style, but promises some really impressive specs. It has a MediaTek chipset and runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean - as many affordable, MT-powered phones do, it's a common disadvantage to look out for.

Still, you get a dual-SIM phone with a 5" 720p screen and a quad-core processor with 1GB of RAM, plus 16GB of built-in storage. It has an 8MP camera and a 2,000mAh battery to boot. Finding an Honor 3C Play in brick-and-mortar stores can be quite a challenge though.


Huawei Honor 3C Play
Pros Cons
  • Dual-SIM phone
  • 5" 720p screen
  • Quad-core 1.3GHz CPU
  • 8MP camera
  • Old Android version, Android 4.2 Jelly Bean
  • Hard to find in stores
  • 2,000 mAh

Phones like the Honor 3C Play are of a pie-in-the-sky deal, and a more grounded option is something like the HTC Desire 310. It boasts the same chipset, though in some regions it only comes with 512MB RAM) and the problem of the older Android version comes up again.

Besides HTC's familiar design, there's a 5MP/1080p camera, a front-facing camera too. The screen is decent (4.5" FWVGA) and there's a 2,000mAh battery. There's a dual-SIM version of the Desire 310.


HTC Desire 310
Pros Cons
  • Optional dual-SIM
  • 4.5" 480x854px display
  • Quad-core 1.3GHz CPU
  • 5MP camera, 1080p video
  • 2,000 mAh
  • Old Android version, Android 4.2 Jelly Bean
  • Non-IPS display

While Android is technically open source, a large portion of the experience comes from proprietary Google services. Mozilla is on a mission to create cheap, open smartphones to give people in developing countries access to the Internet. While there are €30 devices out there already, they are hardly usable as smartphones.

However, you can get on the Google/Microsoft/Apple escape train with something like the Alcatel Fire E. It's not the cheapest, but it's fairly competitive compared to similarly-priced Androids (which is not usually the case).


Alcatel Fire E
Pros Cons
  • Open-source Firefox OS
  • 4.5" 540x960px display, IPS
  • Dual-core 1.2GHz CPU
  • 5MP camera, 1080p video
  • Firefox OS has limited third-party apps available compared to mainstream mobile OS’s
  • 1,700 mAh

Xiaomi has been enjoying an amazing exponential growth recently and has already overtaken ailing mobile phone giants like Sony. The ambitious company is taking steps to expand its availability and recently entered the Indian market. It's also making its way to Europe - most often through unauthorized resellers who sometimes are selling the Chinese versions of the phones, which lack Google's service integration. Despite that fact, Xiaomi phone in Europe are still a good deal and we suspect their sales they will continue to enjoy a healthy growth.

The Xiaomi Redmi 1S (aka Hongmi 1S) is enjoying great popularity among our readers and it trumps the HTC Desire 310 on several fronts - it's dual-SIM by default, it has a bigger, sharper 4.7' 720p screen (IPS too!), plus a faster Snapdragon 400 chipset and an 8MP/1080p camera. It's still a Jelly Bean device, but Xiaomi has been promising a KitKat update for a while now.


Xiaomi Redmi 1S
Pros Cons
  • Dual-SIM phone
  • 4.7" 720p display, IPS
  • Quad-core 1.6GHz CPU
  • Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, KitKat on the way
  • 8MP camera, 1080p video, 1.6MP/720p selfie camera
  • 2,000 mAh

As another viable alternative to the Desire 310, you can check out the Nokia Lumia 630 Dual SIM. It features a 4.5" IPS display with FWVGA resolution and Nokia ClearBlack tech. It has a quad-core processor and the latest Windows phone 8.1 (with free offline navigation), though the video capture is capped at 720p.


Nokia Lumia 630 Dual SIM
Pros Cons
  • Dual-SIM phone
  • 4.5" 480x854px display, IPS
  • Quad-core 1.3GHz CPU
  • Windows phone 8.1
  • 5MP camera, 720p video
  • Free offline navigation
  • 1,830 mAh
  • 512MB RAM
Review

The Motorola Moto E has single and dual-SIM versions and as part of Moto's lineup has a ticket for early software updates (it's headed to Lollipop as we speak). It's not quite as capable as the HTC Desire 310 - it only has a dual-core processor and its camera is sub-HD (480p), but some would still go for it just to get pure, recent Android.


Motorola Moto E
Pros Cons
  • Optional dual-SIM
  • 4.3" 540x960px display
  • Android 4.4, 5.0 Lollipop on the way
  • 5MP camera, 480p video
  • 1,980 mAh
  • Only dual-core CPU
  • Only 480p video
Review

The first Microsoft-branded Windows phone handset is a reality, the Microsoft Lumia 535. The phone is an improvement over both the Lumia 530 and the Lumia 630 with a big 5" screen and 5MP selfie camera, matching the 5MP main camera. It uses the same quad-core processor but has 1GB of RAM. The phone is currently on pre-order, but units should ship in early December.

There's a dual-SIM version too and it's definitely worth the little extra cash over the Lumia 630, which doesn't even have a front facing cam, unless size is a concern, of course. Do check out the older Lumia 625 first - it has LTE connectivity and its main camera can record 1080p video and it has LTE. Its screen isn't quite as good as the 535's and it only has 512MB of RAM, but it should drop in price as the Lumia 535 arrives.


Microsoft Lumia 535
Pros Cons
  • Optional dual-SIM
  • 5" 540x960px display, IPS
  • Quad-core CPU, 1.2GHz
  • Windows phone 8.1
  • 5MP camera, 480p video
  • 5MP selfie camera
  • 1,905 mAh

Huawei returns with another great but hard-to-find offering - the Ascend Y550. It's one of the cheapest phones with LTE and one of the cheapest phones with a 64-bit processor (it's a Snapdragon 410 chipset). The Cortex-A53 cores inside are the next-generation replacement of the Cortex-A7s found in most cheap quad-cores, plus the chipset brings the updated Adreno 306. The new GPU offers the same performance as the 305, but uses less power.

The Ascend Y550 currently runs Android 4.4 KitKat, but should it get updated to Lollipop, it will see alleged speed enhancements related to its 64-bit nature, which would remain out of reach even for some current flagships. The screen on the Ascend Y550 isn't as impressive as that of the Honor 3C Play though.


Huawei Ascend Y550
Pros Cons
  • LTE
  • 64-bit quad-core 1.2GHz processor
  • 4.5" 480x854px display, IPS
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
  • 5MP camera, 720p video
  • 2,000 mAh

While 720p screens are available in the €200 price range, most devices make do with qHD or less. The LG G2 mini fits a 4.7" IPS display with qHD resolution in a fairly compact body. Like the big G2, this phone uses the trademark button arrangement on the back.

The phone packs a Snapdragon 400 chipset, running Android 4.4 KitKat, LTE connectivity, an 8MP/1080p camera and a relatively big battery in its smallish dimensions. The LG G3 was updated to get Lollipop before certain Nexus devices, so LG G2 mini's update future is looking good.

Note that there are some regional variations with dual-SIM (and no LTE) or with a Tegra 3 chipset.


LG G2 mini
Pros Cons
  • LTE
  • 4.7" 540x960px display, IPS
  • Quad-core 1.3GHz CPU
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
  • 8MP camera, 1080p video
  • 2,440 mAh
  • Screen is not the best LG has put out

The HTC Desire 510 isn't as compact as the G2 mini and the still camera goes down to 5MP, but in Europe it comes with the new Snapdragon 410 chipset, same as the Ascend Y550. It's pricier than the Huawei, but it records 1080p video with the main camera and you get other perks like double the storage (8GB), NFC (region-dependent) and HTC's brand familiarity and design.

Note that in the US the Desire 510 is based on Snapdragon 400, so there you'd be better off with the more compact LG G2 mini.


HTC Desire 510
Pros Cons
  • LTE
  • 4.7" 480x854px display
  • 64-bit quad-core 1.2GHz processor
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
  • 5MP camera, 1080p video
  • 2,100 mAh
  • Regular Snapdragon 400 chipset in some regions
  • Camera and screen not as good as G2 mini's
Review

From a mini to a phablet - the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4G stretches the Redmi 1S to a 5.5" 720p screen and adds LTE connectivity plus Wi-Fi 802.11ac. It has a slightly better 13MP/1080p camera and is powered by the same Snapdragon 400 chipset, but with 2GB of RAM. There are non-LTE versions with octa-core MediaTek chipsets too.


Xiaomi Redmi Note 4G
Pros Cons
  • LTE
  • 5.5" 720p display, IPS
  • Quad-core 1.6GHz CPU, 2GB RAM
  • Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, KitKat on the way
  • 13MP camera, 1080p video
  • 3,200 mAh

At the upper end of the €100-€200 segment are to Moto G's - the Motorola Moto G (2014) and the Moto G 4G. The new model has a 5" 720p screen surrounded by stereo speakers and is quickly getting updated to Android 5.0 Lollipop. It has a slightly better camera than its predecessor - 8MP/720p - but the same Snapdragon 400 chipset.


Motorola Moto G (2014)
Pros Cons
  • Optional dual-SIM
  • 5" 720p screen, IPS
  • Stereo speakers
  • Quad-core 1.2GHz CPU
  • Android 4.4 KitKat, Lollipop soon
  • 8MP camera, 720p video
  • 2,070 mAh
  • No LTE
Review

The older Moto G 4G is smaller with a 4.5" 720p screen and while it may lack the stereo speakers, it has LTE connectivity. Both the Moto G (2014) and Moto G 4G have microSD card slots (the original G did not). This one is on KitKat currently and will be getting Android 5.0 Lollipop later on as well.


Motorola Moto G 4G
Pros Cons
  • LTE
  • 4.5" 720p display, IPS
  • Quad-core 1.2GHz CPU
  • Android 4.4 KitKat, Lollipop planned
  • 5MP camera, 720p video
  • 2,070 mAh
Review

If you want an alternative to the dual-SIM version of the Moto G (2014), you can check out the Asus Zenfone 5. It packs a 5" 720p screen and an 8MP/1080p camera. Regional differences can be quite big though - it has either a 1.6GHz or 2GHz processor (a dual-core Intel Atom in both versions) and 1GB or 2GB of RAM. Pricing also varies quite a bit by region so you'll need to do a bit of research before deciding in favor of the Zenfone 5 or the Moto G (2014).


Asus Zenfone 5
Pros Cons
  • Dual-SIM phone
  • 5" 720p display, IPS
  • Dual-core 1.6/2GHz CPU
  • Android 4.3, 4.4 KitKat update available
  • 8MP camera, 1080p video
  • 2,110 mAh
  • Some regional variations have merely 1GB of RAM
  • No LTE
Review

€200-€300

There are two types of people - those who pay extra to get a flagship the moment it comes out (knowing it will be great for a couple of years ahead) or those who wait until it falls in price (knowing it's still good enough). The second type will enjoy this price segment more as it covers several former flagships and the better part of the current mid-range offers.

Note that we're not listing LTE as a pro anymore (it's a requirement) and we're switching to chipset names as frequency and core count don't tell the whole story. For example, the difference between a Snapdragon 400 and an 800 is as big as the numbers suggest, even if both have four cores.

Microsoft took a while to fill in the mid-range gap in the Lumia line, but the two new phones are great. The Nokia Lumia 735 is close to mini territory with a 4.7" AMOLED screen with 720p resolution. It has a 6.7MP main camera with Carl Zeiss lens, but the phone is selfie-oriented with a 5MP/1080p front-facing camera.

The Lumia 735 is fairly thin, but has built-in wireless charging and exchangeable back covers for easy customization. The Lumia 735 is an LTE-enabled device, but there's also the Lumia 730 Dual SIM variant (3G-only though).


Nokia Lumia 735
Pros Cons
  • Optional dual-SIM
  • 4.7" 720p display, AMOLED
  • Snapdragon 400 chipset
  • Windows phone 8.1
  • 6.7MP Carl Zeiss camera, 1080p video
  • 5MP/1080p selfie camera
  • Free offline navigation
  • 2,200 mAh
  • No LTE on the dual-SIM version
Review

In the previous guide we offered the Sony Xperia Z Ultra phablet as a great deal and while it hasn't moved in price much, it's just over €200 for a large 1080p screen (6.4") in a super-thin 6.5mm aluminum and glass chassis, all powered by a Snapdragon 800 chipset. Like the other Xperia Z devices, this one is IP-certified too, surviving immersion in up to 1 meter of water for half an hour.

It's big though, really big. It easily dwarfs Galaxy Notes and iPhone 6 Pluses, so portability can be an issue. For the more tech-savvy, there's a Google Play Edition and the pure Android software can be installed on the Sony-customized version too.


Sony Xperia Z Ultra
Pros Cons
  • 6.4" 1080p screen, IPS
  • 6.5mm thin, IP58-certified
  • Snapdragon 800 chipset
  • Android 4.4 KitKat, Lollipop incoming
  • Google Play Edition version
  • 8MP camera, 1080p video
  • 3,050 mAh
  • Large, even for a phablet
  • No flash for the main camera
Review

While Microsoft has solid business credentials and the Lumia 735 is a fine device, but BlackBerry is the original business darling and governments still use its services and devices. The BlackBerry Z10 was the first of the new generation and still offers good specs for its price. Again, this is more about security than specs.


BlackBerry Z10
Pros Cons
  • Government-grade security
  • 4.2" 768x1280px screen
  • Snapdragon chipset
  • BlackBerry OS 10.2
  • 8MP camera, 1080p video
  • The platform is well behind the three big players
  • 1,800 mAh
Review

If the Xperia Z Ultra is too big for you, the Sony Xperia T3 is much more manageable though it offers less bang for the buck. It has a 5.3" 720p screen and is powered by a Snapdragon 400 chipset with Android 4.4 KitKat out of the box. There's no water-proofing though.


Sony Xperia T3
Pros Cons
  • 5.3" 720p display, IPS
  • Snapdragon 400 chipset
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
  • 8MP camera, 1080p video
  • 2,500 mAh
Review

The LG G2 turned heads last year, it showed just how compact a phone can be even with a 5.2" screen. The price premium over the Xperia T3 is balanced with late-2013 flagship specs. The screen has 1080p resolution, the phone has a Snapdragon 800 heart, a 13MP camera with 1080p video and a beefy battery.

There's no microSD card slot though, so we'd really advice you to get the 32GB version as 16GB of storage can be very restrictive.


LG G2
Pros Cons
  • Compact body
  • 5.2" 1080p display, IPS
  • Android 4.4 KitKat, Lollipop coming
  • Snapdragon 800 chipset
  • 13MP camera, 1080p video
  • 3,000 mAh
  • No microSD, so you have to get the pricier 32GB version
Review

The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact enjoyed a long reign as the king of the minis and if you didn't get it when it carried a flagship price tag, maybe now's your chance. It's fairly small with a 4.3" 720p screen, but it's the 20.7MP camera that is the main attraction.

It records 1080p video and is powered by a Snapdragon 800 chipset, same as the LG G2 above, but in a much more compact package. This one has IP58 rating to boot (submersion in 1m of water for 30 minutes).


Sony Xperia Z1 Compact
Pros Cons
  • 20.7MP camera, 1080p video
  • Compact, IP58-certified body
  • Android 4.4 KitKat, Lollipop coming
  • Snapdragon 800 chipset
  • 2,300 mAh
Review

€300-€400

Aside from 2014 flagships there are few phones worth buying that go over €400. Here we have an arrangement of 5 or so inch devices with great camera specs. 5" is about the biggest phone most people are willing to handle, though there are a couple in here for phablet fans as well.

The LG G Pro 2 proved very difficult to find in stores for some reason, but with some digging it's possible to get a unit at a great price. There are plenty of young makers offering great specs at a killer price, but often in this price range people prefer to stick to a brand they know.

As far as phablets go, the G Pro 2 is a solid upper mid-range offering with a 5.9" 1080p screen, a Snapdragon 800 chipset, a 13MP camera with OIS and 2160p video, all in a relatively compact body. It's not going to dethrone the Nexus 6 but it comes close enough, especially when you account for the price difference.


LG G Pro 2
Pros Cons
  • 5.9" 1080p display, IPS
  • Snapdragon 800 chipset
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
  • 13MP camera, 2160p video, OIS
  • 3,200 mAh
  • Limited availability in stores

In late 2014 Samsung put out a refreshed Galaxy S4 with a Snapdragon 800 chipset, usually called Galaxy S4 LTE-A or S4 Advance (model number for both is I9506). It is otherwise the same device as the regular S4, but you can find it in Black Edition, which features Galaxy Note 3's faux leather back that is more attractive than Samsung's usual glossy plastic of the period. The Galaxy S4 LTE-A is something to look at as an alternative to the LG G2.


Samsung I9506 Galaxy S4 LTE-A
Pros Cons
  • 5" 1080p display, AMOLED
  • Snapdragon 800 chipset
  • Android 4.4 KitKat, Lollipop coming
  • 13MP camera, 1080p video
  • 2,600 mAh
  • No 2160p out of the box (can be enabled by software hacks)

The LG Nexus 5 did not get replaced this year, the Nexus 6 is in a different category both in terms of price and size. It boasts pure Android with quick updates to the new version and is a solid alternative to the Galaxy S3. It has other perks too, like an OIS camera and built-in wireless charging.


LG Nexus 5
Pros Cons
  • Pure Android, fast updates to new versions
  • 5" 1080p display, IPS
  • Snapdragon 800 chipset
  • 8MP camera, 1080p video, OIS
  • 2,300 mAh
  • No microSD slot so you should get the 32GB version
Review

Yet another 5" phone with OIS is the Nokia Lumia 930. It sticks close to the Androids with a 1080p AMOLED screen and a Snapdragon 800 chipset and challenges Sony's top dogs with a 20MP optically stabilized camera with Carl Zeiss lens and great audio capture.

Note that the Nokia Lumia 830 also has a 5" screen and optically stabilized camera with Zeiss lens, but it's only marginally cheaper - not nearly enough to compensate for its 720p screen or 10MP camera resolution.


Nokia Lumia 930
Pros Cons
  • 20MP camera, 1080p video, OIS and Zeiss lens
  • 5" 1080p display, AMOLED
  • Snapdragon 800 chipset
  • Windows phone 8.1
  • Free offline navigation
  • 2,420 mAh
Review

The Sony Xperia Z2 is pricier than the Xperia Z1, but we think it adds enough to justify the extra cash. For one you get a slightly bigger screen with better viewing angles and stereo speakers around it, 2160p video mode (still camera is otherwise the same) and a slightly faster chipset.

The Xperia Z2 is also a direct competitor of the Lumia 930 - no OIS for the camera, but again 2160p video, an IP58-certified waterproof body and better battery life. Both phones boast metal rims for a more premium build quality.


Sony Xperia Z2
Pros Cons
  • 5.2" 1080p display, IPS
  • 20.7MP camera, 2160p video
  • Stereo speakers
  • IP58-certified body
  • Snapdragon 801 chipset
  • Android 4.4 KitKat, Lollipop coming
  • 3,200 mAh
  • Bigger than most 5-5.2 inch phones
Review

The LG G3 has already slipped below the €400 mark and it can tackle pretty much any 5.5" phablet or late-2013 flagship out there. In a body about the same size as the Xperia Z2 LG has managed to cram a whopping 5.5" screen with QHD resolution.

The 13MP camera is an improvement on the LG G Pro 2 camera, including the addition of Laser focus - an active focus system that makes fast, accurate locks possible even in the dark. Something to keep in mind is that the LG G3 comes in multiple versions - with 2GB or 3GB of RAM, which is tied to the storage (and thus price) in some regions.


LG G3
Pros Cons
  • 5.5" 1440x2560px display, IPS
  • 13MP camera, 2160p video, OIS, laser focus
  • Snapdragon 801
  • Android 4.4 KitKat, Lollipop already rolling out
  • Compact for the screen size
  • 3,000 mAh
  • A pretty big device, even if it's all screen
Review

€400-€500

At €400 and above we hit a wall with the recommendations. There are great devices in this price segment to be sure, but for most of them the cost is on par with the features. You can check out our reviews for in-depth detail on the flagship you're drawn to, here we aim to list devices that stand out from similarly priced offerings.

The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact is a great mini, but the Xperia Z3 Compact brings enough improvements to justify its €100+ price premium over its older sibling. For one the bezels have been shaved and now a 4.6" screen fits in the same footprint with room left over for front-facing stereo speakers.

The new Compact phone is also thinner and lighter than its predecessor, while packing a bigger battery (it's an endurance champ). Note that the sides are now covered in plastic (the chassis is still metal), which we felt was a bit of a downgrade.

While the upgrade in chipset performance isn't much, the camera can record 2160p video. If you're not the type to shoot a lot of videos or listen to music without headphones then the price premium becomes harder to justify - the Xperia Z1 Compact really has aged gracefully.


Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
Pros Cons
  • Compact, water resistant body, IP68
  • 20.7MP camera, 2160p video
  • 4.6" 720p screen, IPS
  • Stereo speakers
  • Snapdragon 801 chipset
  • Android 4.4 KitKat, Lollipop coming
  • 2,600 mAh
  • Exterior is all plastic and glass
Review

Not far off in price is another water resistant phone, the Samsung Galaxy S5. Other than the IP67 rating, the biggest improvements over last year models are the camera - a Samsung-made 16MP sensor with phase-detection autofocus and 2160p video - and the fingerprint reader.

The Snapdragon 801 chipset is faster than the original S600, but the difference melts if you look at the Snapdragon 800-powered Galaxy S4 LTE-A. That one is capped at 1080p video, plus photo quality is a generation behind and autofocus is slower.

The heart rate monitor is good for the sporty types (who will also appreciate the IP rating), but the fingerprint reader is the bigger deal - between Private mode and KNOX, the Samsung Galaxy S5 offer government-certified security similar to what BlackBerry has to offer. Though we gotta admit that using it on a daily basis is a cause of a lot of frustration - it simply doesn't work as reliably as the iPhone's and usually requires multiples swipes to recognize the fingerprint


Samsung Galaxy S5
Pros Cons
  • 5.1" 1080p display, AMOLED
  • Water resistant, IP67
  • Snapdragon 801 chipset
  • Android 4.4 KitKat, Lollipop coming
  • 16MP camera, phase detection AF, 2160p video
  • Fingerprint reader
  • Heart rate monitor
  • 2,800 mAh
  • There are cheaper phones with 1440x2560px screens
Review

€500 and above

With a heavy heart we had to cut many excellent devices off the list. With the LG G3 under €400, a device needs to really brings something special to earn a recommendation. A particular device may appeal to you for personal reasons - the design or another aspect - but that goes the opposite way of a blanket recommendation.

The new Nexus 6 is an imposing 6" device, but is also a match made in heaven - high quality build with pure Android. The 6" AMOLED screen with QHD resolution dwarfs even the new Galaxy Note Edge, those two some of the few Snapdragon 805 devices on the market. The Snapdragon 805 uses the latest Krait 450 processor core and Adreno 420 GPU

The Motorola-made Nexus 6 is launching with Android 5.0 Lollipop, too - Android feels mature enough to offer a full user experience without the need for vendor-made add-ons.

Both phablets have optically stabilized 2160p cameras, but the Nexus boasts a dual-LED ring flash. It also has stereo speakers on the front and basic water-proofing (it's not submersible, but will survive splashes).


Motorola Nexus 6
Pros Cons
  • 6" 1440x2560px display, AMOLED
  • Android 5.0 Lollipop
  • Snapdragon 805 chipset
  • 13MP camera, OIS, 2160p video
  • Stereo speakers
  • Basic water-proofing
  • 3,220 mAh
  • A really large device
  • Non-expandable storage
  • 32-bit processor
Review

The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 has a metal rim (just like the Nexus 6), but is more compact - as far as phablets can be compact - and has the trademark S Pen stylus. Samsung has also enabled many multitasking features (split-screen, floating apps). TouchWiz still offers some perks over pure Android, but the cost is staying on KitKat for a while longer.

Slower updates aside, the Galaxy Note 4 is available in both Snapdragon 805 and Exynos 5433 versions. The Exynos variant has a 64-bit octa-core processor and Lollipop has optimizations specifically for 64-bit platforms. That's why we listed it as a con for the Nexus - the Google line is supposed to showcase the cutting edge of Android and the ARMv8 instruction set (often reduced to a "64-bit CPU" label) is a big deal.

While video capture is on par, the Galaxy Note 4 still camera is better than the one on the Nexus, the Samsung phablet also adds expandable storage, removable battery, a fingerprint reader and a heart-rate sensor over the Google phablet.


Samsung Galaxy Note 4
Pros Cons
  • 5.7" 1440x2560px display, AMOLED
  • S Pen stylus
  • 16MP camera, OIS, 2160p video
  • Snapdragon 805 -or- Exynos 5433 (ARMv8)
  • Android 4.4 KitKat, Lollipop coming
  • Multitasking enhancements
  • 3,220 mAh
  • Competing phablets already on or getting Lollipop
  • No waterproofing
Review

What didn't make the cut

That's it for the recommendations, now it's time to address why we left off some fan favorites. The Apple iPhone 6 is already one of the best-selling phones in history and so it doesn't need our recommendation. It won't get it either - don't get us wrong, it's quite popular in our team, but we can't help but point out it's double the price of the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, which is better in a number of aspects.

Same goes for the iPhone 6 Plus - if you want a recommendation for a large, metal phablet with a 1080p screen and a quality fingerprint reader the Huawei Ascend Mate7 meets those demands at nearly half the price of the Apple product.

The Ascend Mate7 itself was left off the list since it's in the price range of QHD screens and 2160p cameras. The LG G Pro 2 offers more bang for the buck and knocked the Huawei out of the running. Here's the thing though - the Ascend Mate7 has a lovely metal chassis and if you can afford it (and can live with some of the specs) it's a great device to have. Its fingerprint reader is also one of the fastest we've seen.

Apple iPhone 6
Apple iPhone 6 Plus
Huawei Ascend Mate7

Apple iPhone 6 • Apple iPhone 6 Plus • Huawei Ascend Mate7

The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is thin, light and has roughly the same specs as the iPhone 6, with a noticeably lower price tag. While that's another point against the Apple phone, the Alpha lacks the battery life, the water resistance and stereo speakers of the Xperia Z3 Compact.

A phone that does have those things is the big Xperia Z3. It's a temporary sittuation, but at the moment the Sony Xperia Z3 is priced €100 or so above the likes of Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One (M8). We'd recommend waiting for a Christmas deal before grabbing a Z3.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha
Sony Xperia Z3

Samsung Galaxy Alpha • Sony Xperia Z3

The HTC One (M8) was on the list at first, though that changed by the time we were done listing what it doesn't have. Again, the metal unibody is exquisite and if you can afford it you'll enjoy one of the best-designed Androids.

It's not very compact though, not waterproof either, it costs more than devices with QHD screens and high-res 2160p cameras. Really, if you take away the aluminum unibody the HTC One (M8) has little left to brag about, other than its stereo speakers (the Xperia Z3 has those too, if not quite as good).

There's a Windows phone version of the device, HTC One (M8) for Windows, but the Nokia Lumia 930 is cheaper and gets exclusive Lumia perks from Microsoft, making HTC's belated WP effort a hard sell.

There's also the HTC One (M8 Eye), which upgrades the still camera to 13MP, but it's not widely available. A plastic, water-resistant HTC Desire Eye is another option, but it comes up against the Xperia Z3 in terms of price. It only launched this month and its price will drop, though HTCs don't depreciate quickly.

HTC One (M8)
HTC One (M8) for Windows
HTC One (M8 Eye)
HTC Desire Eye

HTC One (M8) • HTC One (M8) for Windows • HTC One (M8 Eye) • HTC Desire Eye

The Moto X (2014) is in a similar boat - Motorola did a great job of improving the build quality since last year and offers unique customization and materials, however the 16GB model (with no memory expansion) is a good €100 above the homely Galaxy S5. Again, paying extra for a premium build is up to you.

The Samsung Galaxy Note Edge is a unique device that has the potential to start a new trend in smartphone design. It's mainly targeted at early adopters though and as we found in the review, the more conventional Galaxy Note 4 still has its advantages for daily use (not the least of which is better battery life).

Motorola Moto X (2014)
Samsung Galaxy Note Edge

Motorola Moto X (2014) • Samsung Galaxy Note Edge

Other devices were skipped due to other considerations - we write for a broad audience around the world and some devices are limited to only certain regions or launch periodically in small batches. We generally preferred to put up devices you can buy from your local online shop and even do a quick hands on at the store.

There are quite a few other smartphones that were left out of this buyer's guide, most because there was an alternative that offers better bang for the buck. The phones we listed above are just the high-profile targets.

Final words

Sometimes we fall into a vicious cycle of waiting for upgrades. Waiting for an expensive flagship to come down in price is smart, but in the meantime a new, hotter device comes along and we start wondering if we should maybe wait a bit longer and get that one instead.

Other times we know what we want right out the gate and head to the checkout quickly. Inevitably, buyer's remorse starts to creep in after. We're sure we're not alone in this and what we've found is that it helps to be well prepared - to know what's out there, how much similar devices cost and what's around the corner.

That's exactly the goal of this smartphone buyer's guide, we did most of the heavy lifting in terms of research with cheat sheets for each phone. You just have to figure out what you want and how much you are willing to pay for it.

Smartphone Shopping Guide November 2014

This guide also contains a few helpful tips, things a sales assistant might not mention. We've reviewed many of the devices on the list so you can go into as much detail as you want. Another helpful tool is the Compare link under a phone's picture - it allows you to put two phones head to head and we used it extensively while preparing the guide.

Even with all this info it could be difficult to judge the merits of some devices. Like, are €20 more worth it for a slightly better screen? And how much is slightly, anyway? For devices we've reviewed you can look at the bottom of the specification page for a summary of test results and links to more info - we test the screens, cameras, chipsets, audio and battery - which can help you out if you don't have an opportunity to see the device in person.

One last bit of advice - the phones are listed by price category, but with Black Friday and the holidays incoming, some (especially older) devices can move down a category for your specific market. Not to mention all the carrier deals. As usual, prices can easily vary by €20-€30 between stores so it always helps to shop around a bit (especially helpful on the low-end).

We hope you've enjoyed the latest edition of our Smartphone buyer's guide and you've already picked your new smartphone. If not, well, make sure you can check back for next edition, due sometime in February next year.

Under €100

We have to admit it felt uneasy looking for under-€50 smartphones - those do exist, it's just that none of them is any good. If you really want to pinch pennies we'd recommend going the second-hand route, even a banged up proper smartphone will work better than €20-€30 device from eBay.

As for the rest, we'd strongly recommend forking over €10-€20 more to get KitKat out of the box. Android 4.4 has been optimized to run on low-power devices and there's a sliver of a chance that they may get one update - Lollipop.

Even if they don't (low-cost devices are not a priority update target), most Google apps and many third-party apps have been reskinned with Material design and a KitKat phone will feel current for another year or two. There are no compatibility issues with Jelly Bean, but again, KitKat works better on low power, 512MB devices like most of the handsets in the sub-€100 category.

Note that the phones here are roughly listed by price in ascending order.

We kick off with the LG L3 II - it's a fairly old device now but there are still units left over in stores. It's a 4.1 Jelly Bean device, but it's just about the cheapest workable smartphone we could find. The similarly-specced Samsung Galaxy Star enjoys a bigger popularity among our readers and is priced the same as the L3 II, but we think the LG is the smarter buy.

Here are a few quick tips for cheap devices. Look for an IPS display for the superior viewing angles, they have better viewing angles. Also, the Samsung records 320p@15fps video - unusable for anything other an MMS - while the LG L3 II captures 480p@30fps - not great but passable. It also has 3G (data plans are getting cheaper each year) and a bigger battery. Both phones have dual-SIM versions if you need the functionality.


LG L3 II
Pros Cons
  • 3.2" 240x320px display, IPS
  • Single-core 1GHz CPU
  • 3.15MP camera, 480p@30fps video
  • 1,540 mAh
  • Old Android version, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean
  • Low-power hardware
Hands-on

Part of budget shopping is avoiding the badge markup - well-known manufacturers ask more for similar hardware. Sometimes it's worth it, but opposing brands have gone up in quality while staying low on price, to make up for the lack of brand recognition.

Not that Huawei is unheard of, it has been putting out some attention-grabbing phones like the Ascend P6 and the Mate7. But they also offer more modest and affordable devices such as the Huawei Ascend Y330. It features a bigger screen than the LG - a 4" FWVGA display that's twice as sharp (but it's not IPS). And it has more than double the processing power available with a dual-core 1.3GHz processor.


Huawei Ascend Y330
Pros Cons
  • 4" 480x854px display
  • Dual-core 1.3GHz CPU
  • 3.14MP camera, 480p@30fps video
  • 1,500 mAh
  • Old Android version, Android 4.2 Jelly Bean
  • Non-IPS display

We mentioned that data plan prices are dropping but that's not true for some countries - there are regions that still pay out of the nose for data, or even simple voice calls and texts. Spreading out the three services (voice, text, data) over two different SIM cards sometimes presents an alluring price advantage.

While its name is youth-oriented, the Samsung Galaxy Young 2 makes for a fine budget device even if nobody has called you young for a while now. This chap runs Android 4.4 KitKat (one of the cheapest phones that do) on a single-core processor and is a dual-SIM phone. The screen isn't as good as the Ascend Y330's but it's still a bit bigger and sharper than the LG L3 II's.


Samsung Galaxy Young 2
Pros Cons
  • Dual-SIM
  • 3.5" 320x480px display
  • Single-core 1GHz CPU
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
  • 3.15MP camera, 480p@24fps
  • Low-power hardware
  • Non-IPS display
  • 1,300 mAh

The Sony Xperia E1 combines the screen and processor specs with Sony brand recognition and a KitKat update (initially launched with 4.3 Jelly Bean). The phone has a 4" WVGA screen with scratch-resistant glass, a Snapdragon 200 chipset and Sony's attractive design. There's an Xperia E1 dual, if you need an extra SIM slot.


Sony Xperia E1
Pros Cons
  • Optional dual-SIM
  • 4" 480x800px display
  • Dual-core 1.2GHz CPU
  • Android 4.4 KitKat update
  • 3.15MP camera, SVGA@20fps
  • 1,700 mAh
  • 20fps video doesn't cut it
  • Non-IPS display
Rerview

Last time around we recommended the Lumia 520 over its replacing Lumia 530, but the Lumia 520 supply is running out and finding a good price is becoming increasingly difficult. Meanwhile a Nokia Lumia 530 Dual SIM can be had fairly cheaply - the cheapest quad-core phone with a recognizable brand name around.

The Lumia 530 Dual SIM has other advantages over the Xperia E1 too - like a 5MP still camera (still capped at 480p@30fps) plus free offline navigation. The Lumia 520 is single-SIM only but has an IPS screen and can record 720p video. It's dual-core Krait CPU is no slouch either, but again units are becoming scarce. It's still a good buy if you can find one.


Nokia Lumia 530 Dual SIM
Pros Cons
  • Dual-SIM phone
  • 4" 480x854px screen
  • Quad-core 1.2GHz CPU
  • Windows phone 8.1
  • 5MP camera, 480p@30fps video
  • Free offline navigation
  • Non-IPS display
  • 1,430 mAh

The Samsung Galaxy Ace Style brings many improvements over the Young 2, enough to put it against the likes of Xperia E1 and Lumia 530. An advantage here is that its 5MP camera records 720p video. The phone itself runs Android 4.4 KitKat on a dual-core CPU. There's NFC too, which is finding its way on consumer devices to make pairing easier for things like Bluetooth speakers and headsets, although we hardly consider it essential.


Samsung Galaxy Ace Style
Pros Cons
  • 4" 480x800px display
  • Dual-core 1.2GHz CPU
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
  • 5MP camera, 720p video
  • 1,500 mAh
  • Non-IPS display