If you’re going for something more practical and less personal this holiday season, giving the gift of gab isn’t a bad idea. There’s no talisman of personal technology more indispensable than the smartphone—and, given that they’re designed to stick with us for up to two years at a time, none more agonizing to choose.
We’re firm believers that there is no best smartphone. Rather there is a best fit, based on a matrix of needs that can be weighted differently depending on how and when you use your device. We’ve approached this list with that mindset to help you choose a smartphone that isn’t just the best, but also the best for whoever is on the receiving end of the wrapping paper.
Note: Pricing and carrier availability changes frequently, so we haven’t included them here. Obviously those things can be a game-changer for a gift purchase, so be sure to check with your carrier of choice.
Powerful: Flagship phones
These are flagship smartphones that hit a sweet spot between compact and full-blown phablet. If size isn’t a factor and you want the best performance in a balanced package, start here.
Apple iPhone 6
Apple’s iconic new smartphone changes up the well-loved design that’s evolved from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5S, opting to smooth out corners and flatten the display into a thin, smooth 4.7-inch canvas. The result is as polished as we’d expect from Apple, but it’s worth noting that even the smallest of the two new iPhones is really quite large. That’s a great thing for showing off apps in Apple’s ecosystem, which is where iOS devices really shine. Unless you hate iOS, you can’t really go wrong with the iPhone 6—it’s an excellent phone, though a considerably more massive one, for better or worse.
Moto X (2014 version)
Motorola’s 5.2-inch updated flagship Android device gets a boost in size, speed, and screen quality over its well-loved predecessor. The Moto X is a great option if you want a version of Android with less to worry about than Samsung’s Touchwiz, packed into a customizable package. Like the original Moto X, the new version can be customized with different backplates, like one made out of the leather used for footballs. It’s a surprisingly novel idea in smartphone design, and well executed with the new Moto X.
HTC One M8
For the last few years, HTC’s One line has offered a premium Android experience in some of the best looking phones on the market. The HTC One M8 is no exception, and now shoppers can even choose which operating system they’d prefer in the One M8’s attractive package: Windows Phone for anyone tied deeply into Microsoft’s ecosystem or good ol’ Android.
Other options: Nexus 5, Samsung Galaxy S5, Nokia Lumia 930
Huge: Meet the phablets
The category known as the phablet, once a running joke, has hit the mainstream. These smartphones offer more screen real estate than anything short of a tablet, all with plenty of power to boot. They blend the best features of tablets with the smaller stature and calling capabilities of a phone. Phablets aren’t right for everyone, but there lots of options for huge, awesome smartphones if you believe bigger is better.
Samsung Galaxy Note Edge
Samsung pushed the phablet toward mainstream adoption and it continues to refine the concept. With the 5.6-inch Galaxy Note Edge, Samsung applies its longstanding expertise in this mini-tablet category and adds a twist: a curved display on the side of the device that acts as its own zany little menu. The result is cooler than it is gimmicky, combining classic Galaxy Note offerings like the S-Pen stylus with some pretty out-there smartphone design. Notably, the display easily bests Apple’s excellent iPhone 6 Plus display, with 515 pixels-per-inch (ppi).
Google Nexus 6
With a huge 6-inch display, Google’s new flagship Nexus device has firmly entered phablet territory. If you want a big, beautiful phone running the newest version of Android, the Nexus 6 is the device of your dreams. As always, the Nexus line of phones gets its software updates straight from Google, so you’ll always be a step ahead on stock Android, which is a huge plus for this huge phone.
Apple iPhone 6 Plus
Apple swore it would never make a phablet… and then it made a phablet. The 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus is a gorgeous device and an amazing way to experience all that iOS and the App Store has to offer. If you don’t need a stylus, aren’t fond of Android, and want as much screen as you can get, the iPhone 6 Plus is a no-brainer.
Other recommendations: LG G3, Samsung Galaxy Note 4
Compact: Pocketable and powerful
If you’ve been frustrated with the trend of smartphones spreading out into massive, unwieldy monsters over the last three years or so, this section is for you. Apple might have joined the big phone bandwagon this year, but other manufacturers seem to have figured out that a sprawling screen isn’t for everyone. These relatively compact phones don’t require any major compromises and hold their own with their plus sized peers.
Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
Sony’s compact version of the Z3 smartphone scores points for its modest size, ruggedness (it’s waterproof!), battery life… and you can even hook it up to your PlayStation 4 to play games. Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact and the larger Xperia Z3 mean you shouldn’t overlook Sony smartphones these days, and the company’s version of Android is known to be simpler and more streamlined than something like Samsung’s Touchwiz.
HTC One Mini 2
The smaller version of HTC’s iconic flagship phone, the HTC One Mini packs a 4.5-inch screen and runs on HTC’s remixed version of Android, known as Sense. The One Mini 2 has the premium feel of HTC hardware, though like others in the compact category, its camera is far from best in class.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha
Samsung isn’t known for build quality, but the Galaxy Alpha, running Samsung’s version of Android known as Touchwiz, breaks away from the pack. With a 4.7-inch display edged with metal reminiscent of the golden era of Apple industrial phone design, the Galaxy Alpha doesn’t feel like the plasticky Samsung phones we’re used to—and that’s a good thing.
Other recommendations: Apple iPhone 5S
With something for everyone here, but there’s no shame in doing a little smartphone shopping for yourself while you’re in the holiday spirit. Your secret is safe with us.
Photo via Jimmie/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)