Gift Guide: Navigating maze of phone, plan choices

By Annick Jasdanun | 12/13/2013, 6 a.m.
So you're ready to buy a new smartphone for your loved one. Which do you choose?
A sales person pulls out an iPhone 5s for a customer during the opening day of sales of the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5C, in Hialeah, Fla. AP photo.

• Looking for big? HTC's 5.9-inch One Max is a larger version of the 4.7-inch HTC One. The Max also has a fingerprint sensor, though not a reliable one. Samsung's 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 3 is much more than a step up from the 5-inch Galaxy S4. It has a stylus and several note-taking features. If you want even larger, Samsung's Galaxy Mega is 6.3 inches, but is weak on display quality and other specs.

• Looking to multitask? Samsung phones let you display two apps at once. The Note 3 extends that with Pen Window. When you're done with an app, just minimize it into a small dot and move it out of the way. One tap gets it back. LG's G2 phone lets you make two apps semi-transparent while working on a third. All of these features work only with selected apps, though.

• Looking for a hands-free experience? With Motorola's Moto X, you can activate the Google Now virtual assistant entirely by voice command. You usually have to push a button first. The Nexus lets you activate Google Now by voice, but only from the home screen. The Moto X feature works even when the phone is idle, and it responds only to your voice.

• Looking for a great display? Several phones offer high-definition screens capable of displaying video at 1080p. The Nexus, the S4 and the regular One are among the best, with resolution at more than 440 pixels per inch. I like the richer colors on the S4's AMOLED screen, but the LCD screens on the others aren't bad. AMOLED is also available on the Moto X, though that display is limited to 720p.

• Looking for an unusual design? How about having the volume and power buttons on the back of the G2? Or the ability to customize everything from the colors of the power button to the message on the back of the Moto X? Waterproof options include Sony's Xperia Z and Samsung's Galaxy S4 Active.

• Looking to take pictures? Samsung's Galaxy S4 Zoom has a 16-megapixel camera with a real zoom lens, offering up to 10 times magnification. Other phones magnify images using software, which degrades image quality. But the Zoom's pictures are average, and the lens makes the device bulky and impractical. The standard S4 and the Note 3 are both at 13 megapixels, among the highest. The Moto X is at 10 megapixels and lets you launch the camera by twisting the phone like a doorknob.


Nokia offers phones with good cameras for low-light settings, including the Lumia 1020 and 1520.

The downside: Both run Windows Phone software, which doesn't have as many apps yet. It does offer good compatibility with Microsoft services such as SkyDrive storage. A bare-bones version of Office is included. With iPhones and Android, that requires a $100-a-year subscription.