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Top phones for a new school year

These student-friendly choices run the gamut of cheap and cheerful to flashy and top-of-the-line.

Jessica Dolcourt
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Top of the class

There's no such thing as one kind of phone, or one kind of student. Like everyone, you have a range of must-have features and budgets. That's why our top picks for back-to-school include phones that blast music, phones that make friends with your wallet, and even phones that help you take notes in class.

2 of 11 Andrew Hoyle/CNET

​​Motorola Moto G 4G LTE

In the budget Android department, it's hard to beat the Motorola Moto G 4G's $220 off-contract price. You get Android 4.4 KitKat, a quad-core processor, and a quite decent 5-megapixel camera. Sure, the 4.5-inch phone scales back on things like internal storage to keep costs low, but it's our all-around favorite for the dough. In the US, you can buy the Moto G LTE directly from Motorola's site.

3 of 11 Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung Galaxy S5 Active

On the other end of the pricing spectrum, AT&T's Samsung Galaxy S5 Active (and Sprint's very similar Galaxy S5 Sport) wraps up the best tech that the industry can offer. It includes a 16-megapixel camera and a heart-rate monitor -- and this handset is tough enough to skip a case. (Just don't skip the screen protector.)

4 of 11 James Martin/CNET

Huawei Ascend Mate 2 4G

$300 may seem like a lot to plunk down up-front for a cell phone, but in reality, off-contract phone ownership isn't cheap. If you love a big screen, the humongous 6.1-inch Huawei Ascend Mate 2 4G is a great buy for an all-around hard-working handset. Its surprisingly long battery life and selfie-dedicated front-facing camera are extra perks. You can buy the Mate 2 in the US from Huawei's site.

5 of 11 Josh Miller/CNET

Nexus 5

The Nexus 6 may be right around the corner (we hope), but if you need a phone nowGoogle's Nexus 5 is a terrific Android choice that promises to get you all the latest updates as Google releases them. If its 5-inch screen, quad-core processor, and 8-megapixel camera don't win you over, how about its $350 unlocked cost at Google's Play Store?

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Back on the upper crust, the US is anticipating the arrival of LG's G3, which is already available in other countries. This is an Android flagship through and through, with a huge display (with an incredible 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution), a killer camera, and polished rear controls. With top-notch specs, it truly rivals Samsung's Galaxy S5.

7 of 11 Josh Miller/CNET

Nokia Lumia 635

For a budget-conscious smartphone of any OS, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than the Nokia Lumia 635, the LTE-ready version of the Lumia 630. Nokia has made a name for itself pairing eye-searing, well-built hardware with the right specs for a satisfying combo. T-Mobile and MetroPCS sell it for about $170 (and $100 as part of a promotion).

8 of 11 Sarah Tew/CNET

Motorola Moto X

Motorola's Moto X is one of those all-around smartphones we just really like. It's comfortable to hold, and the specs are good (4.7-inch screen, dual-core processor, 10-megapixel camera). Yet it's the ability to design your own look through the Moto Maker tool that is the cherry on top. The Moto X cost $200 when it first debuted, but is now free on contract.

9 of 11 Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

If price is no object and a large screen is a must, the 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 3 comes with all the high-flying specs you could ask for in a smartphone. Plus there's a stylus to help take notes in class, if you feel like leaving the laptop at home for a couple of hours.

10 of 11 Sarah Tew/CNET

HTC One M8

When it comes to blaring beats in your room or out on the quad, the HTC One M8 is an audio beast, and does double duty if you don't have a wireless speaker. Sprint's flashy gold-tinted Harman Kardon version pumps up the jam with some specialized hardware and software tweaks. Beyond that, the One M8 is a terrific high-end Android phone.

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iPhone 5S

iPhone fans, this recommendation is a little trickier for back-to-school. The iPhone 5S is a great phone, and one of our top picks overall, for anyone. But it's also receiving an update after the school year starts this fall. That should make its successor, almost certainly called the iPhone 6, a more appealing choice for the $200 on-contract top end. The 5S should drop down to be Apple's discount phone at $100 on-contract, and the iPhone 5 will probably be free on contract. If  you're a devoted Appleite, it's better to wait.

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