Looking for a deal on a red-hot smartphone? You've come to the right season. Carriers and big-box stores like Best Buy, Target, and Walmart slash prices to entice you to fill your shopping cart. For high-end devices hat are typically backed by a lot of dollar signs, a seasonal buy-one, get-one deal or other deep discount could be enough to put a smile on your face, and a new smartphone in that lucky someone's pocket. That lucky someone might even be you.
Samsung Galaxy S4, a study in mass appeal
It may not be the pinnacle of smartphone craftsmanship, but what the approachable Samsung Galaxy S4 lacks in designer appeal, it makes up for with...just about everything. A superpowered processor; large, bright 5-inch screen; and 13-megapixel camera that consistently churns out clear, detailed photos makes this widely available superphone a real crowd-pleaser. As a bonus, Samsung has crammed in enough software extras to make power users' hearts skip a beat.
The gorgeous, finely tuned HTC One has everything you'd want in a smartphone, and then some: Android 4.2.2; a 5-inch, HD display; and the same high-powered chipset that revs up the Galaxy S4. Like the Galaxy S4 and LG G2, the One packs in an IR blaster to remotely control the TV. What's more, the One doubles the GS4's storage, doling out 32GB instead of 16GB, for the same on-contract price. In true HTC style, the classy, nimble One blows competitors out of the water when it comes to the rich audio flowing through its large, capable speakers.
We expect understated elegance and a sophisticated color palette when discussing Apple's flagship smartphone. Apple's iPhone 5S delivers, coveted champagne gold shade included. Though not as groundbreaking as previous models -- in fact, Apple plays a little bit of catch-up here -- the house that Jobs built has still turned out a top-notch device that fires on all cylinders...and gives security nuts a thrill with a home button that also doubles as a fingerprint scanner.
The stylish Nexus 5 wins points not just for its specs (which include a Snapdragon 800 processor, a 1080p screen, and the latest Android 4.4 KitKat), but also for its value. At just $349 (16GB) or $399 (32GB) unlocked, Google's flagship gives users a top-notch device for a killer off-contract value.
You have to love either its gargantuan 5.7-inch display or its sensitive stylus for Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 to float to the top of your wishlist. But if you do yearn for the pricier Android 4.2.2 phablet, you're rewarded with new multitasking smarts and a revamped note app that makes freehand a lot more fun. Even if you brush aside the S Pen wand, top-tier features that include an unprecedented 3GB of RAM align in a stellar smartphone as philosophically opposite to the iPhone as you can get.
$200 on-contract with AT&T gets you Nokia's fastest phone yet, the quad-core Lumia 1520. Outfitted with a 20-megapixel camera and a 6-inch HD phablet screen, this sumo-size smartphone delivers a lot more screen real estate for the same price as a smaller premium handset.
Long-lasting battery life isn't the Motorola Droid Maxx's only claim to fame. The upscale Android handset gets its edge from touch-free voice controls, a twist-to-start camera, and Kevlar vestments. A Verizon exclusive, the battery-packed Maxx without a doubt lives up to its name.
From the mouth of CNET's camera editor Joshua Goldman to your ears: the Nokia Lumia 1020's crazy 41-megapixel camera takes the technically most proficient photos of any smartphone camera. Controls aren't perfectly intuitive, and the 1020's camera module keeps it from being exceptionally slim, but that large sensor makes smartphone photo artistry shine.
It takes a lot to nail that elusive balance between software features and comfortable design. While it isn't a superlative performer in any category, the combination of Android features and an unapologetically contoured form in Motorola's Moto X nevertheless get mighty close to that sweet spot. Touch-free controls and a customizable color scheme (for AT&T) will bring you even closer to crafting your Goldilocks phone.
Let's be clear about one thing: the next two entrants made this top list not because they represent the pinnacle of smartphone engineering, but because even at the middle range, they still put in an impressive performance. The HTC One Mini is only slightly smaller than the one, and has fewer aluminum elements, but it retains everything you love most about the original, just on a more modest hardware scale across the board. Style, and a rich, engrossing Android experience? Check and check.
Smaller, cheaper, but still plenty capable, Apple's colorful iPhone 5C is poised to bring the essential iPhone experience to far more people worldwide. This playful iOS 7-running reboot of the iPhone 5 is less expensive (significantly so on-contract) without feeling cheap, and boosts the camera experience.