Purchasing or upgrading a smartphone can be an intimidating experience. The state of the art is always changing as new phone models seem to come out weekly, if not daily.

The Aumnia Mobile Phone Buying Guide is here to help. Once a quarter, I’ll take a look at what’s available and provide guidance as to what I feel are the best devices.

I’d like to start off this edition by noting that we are entering what I like to call “upgrade limbo”, meaning that now is not the best time to upgrade to your device. Manufacturers tend to release flagship devices twice a year – once in the fall in preparation for the holiday buying season and again in the late spring/early summer season following their phone announcements at the January Consumer Electronics Show and February Mobile World Congress. It makes the best times to upgrade your phone the April – June or October – December timeframes.

Unfortunately, there are times when you can’t wait, like a device that’s lost, broken, or decided to go for a swim in your toilet. So if that describes your predicament, or if you’re just interested in making a purchase, here’s a look at the best of the bunch.

On Contract Devices

Carriers used to get exclusives on devices, meaning that device availability varied depending on who provided your mobile service. Thankfully, those days are over, and nearly all devices get released across all four major carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-mobile) at roughly the same time. Unless otherwise noted, the devices listed below are available on all carriers.

Best all-around Android device: Samsung Galaxy S4

Samsung Galaxy S4Samsung’s Galaxy series has come a long way since the original “S”, and the S4 continues to uphold the legacy. It is a great balance between size and weight, offering an impressive 5-inch screen that is exceptionally vibrant and clear in a light package of less than 5 ounces. In addition to all of the standard Android features, Samsung has included a number of customized features to improve the usability of the device including floating touch, where you can control the screen without touching it, and Dual Shot, which allows you to take pictures with the front and rear cameras at the same time.

The downside to the customized features is that it can delay updates to the latest Android operating system, but Samsung has been doing a better job lately of getting updates out in a timely manner.

Runner-up Android device: Moto X

If the Samsung Galaxy S4 is too big for your liking, then I’d suggest the Moto X. It’s been my daily driver for the last three months, and I’ve been liking it, a lot. The size of the screen is a bit smaller at 4.7 inches, but it doesn’t compromise on functionality. I tend to like the smaller size because it fits into my pocket a bit easier. I also like some of the context features of the Moto X, particularly the one that lets you see the time without having to turn on the device – it’s quite handy.

The other plus of the Moto X is the hardware customization. You can order the device directly from Motorola and get the device color customized to your liking. It’s a cool feature that doesn’t cost anything extra. Speaking of cost, Motorola has gotten aggressive with the pricing of the device, and in most instances you can pick one up for as little as $99, and in some cases free, on a two-year contract.

Best iPhone device: iPhone 5s

iPhone 5sIf you prefer Apple, the iPhone 5s is the device you’ll want to get. Although you can get the iPhone 5c at a slightly cheaper price, I wouldn’t recommend purchasing one over the 5s model for the following reasons:

  1. The 5s has a 64-bit processor and a special co-processor called the M7. While apps aren’t taking advantage of these features yet, when they do, you’re cheaper model will quickly become obsolete. I also wouldn’t be surprised if one of the next versions of iOS requires a 64-bit processor.
  2. The 5c is simply last year’s iPhone 5 package in colored plastic. The insides of the device are not new, meaning you’re purchasing a device that has technology that is over a year old, which in smartphone years is equivalent to about 5-7 years of technology advancement.
  3. While the build quality of the 5c is good, it’s not as good, nor does it look as sleek, as the 5s.

If you’re torn between choosing an iPhone or Android device, my simple recommendations are as follows:

  • If you’re happy with what you are using, stick with it. The interfaces and app choices are not as different as they used to be, and the only compelling reasons to switch are hardware variety (Android has more, like bigger screens), ease of use (iPhone tends to be more intuitive), and technology control (Android allows for more customization).
  • If you use a lot of Google services – Gmail, Calendar, Voice, etc., then an Android device will serve you better. While Google Apps are available on the iPhone, the integration with Android is tighter.
  • If you are heavily tied into the Apple ecosystem – Mac, Apple TV, iTunes, iCloud, etc., then pick-up an iPhone for the same reasons as above.

Best “phablet”: Samsung Galaxy Note 3

If you’re interested in a large screened device, then the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is the best choice. Samsung was the first to explore the “phablet” market, phones that weren’t big enough to be considered tablets but not small enough to be true phones. They’ve built a number of custom features for their Note line of devices and include a stylus, called the S pen, for better input control and even handwriting recognition.

Pre-paid, Bring-your-own, Off-contract devices

In the past, the only way to buy a phone was through a two-year carrier contract. These days, phone subsidies appear to be coming to an end with T-mobile and AT&T embracing no contract plans where you buy the smartphone outright or bring your own device. The benefit is that the phone service is significantly less expensive on a monthly basis. It’s becoming so popular that I suspect Verizon and Sprint will be following suit soon.

If you’re interested in exploring no contract options, or would like to get even more aggressive on your monthly costs by exploring a prepaid carrier, here are the devices to consider.

Best phone: Nexus 5

Nexus 5the Nexus 5 should be at the top of your list. It’s a top of the line smartphone that is purchased directly from Google for as little as $349. Keep in mind that’s the full price. There’s no two-year contract or early termination fees meaning you are free to shop around among carriers, including aggressive prepaid options like Straight Talk Wireless.

Runner-up: Moto G

The best thing about the Moto G is its price: $179 for an 8GB model. It’s a full featured smartphone that runs Android with no compromises. I believe this is the best phone out there for teenagers (or pre-teens) who want a smartphone or for users who aren’t interested in all of the whiz-bang features of the latest Samsung or Apple device. The Moto G provides all of the features you need in a smartphone (phone, text, apps) in a well designed phone that won’t break the bank, or break your heart if you happen to lose or break it. The only downside is that the device is only available for use on AT&T and T-mobile networks at the present time. It’s due out on Verizon later in January as an option for their prepaid plans.

Should you decide the Moto G is right for you, I’d suggest the following:

  • Get the 16GB model. It’s only $20 more, and the extra storage might come in handy if you start using the device to consume any type of media, such as photos, music, or video.
  • Do not purchase this if your are under contract. You’ll want to use this device on one of the off contract plans at T-mobile, AT&T, or a prepaid service provider.
  • Get aggressive when looking for plans. There are a number of plans that offer unlimited voice, text and data for as little as $45/month. There are also plans available from T-mobile for as little as $30/month if you’re OK living with limits on number of minutes, number of text, or amount of data you consume.

Windows Phone and BlackBerry

At this point, I wouldn’t recommend either Windows Phone or BlackBerry.

Windows Phone still suffers from the “app gap”, meaning there are a lot of apps that have not made their way to Windows Phone yet. I suspect that Windows Phone still needs another 6-12 months of maturation, at which time I would still recommend proceeding with caution.

As for BlackBerry, it’s in complete disarray. Unless you’re being forced to use it by your employer, I would stay away from it. Not only do they suffer from the “app gap”, but they’re also falling behind on the hardware side of things. The best case scenario for BlackBerry is to get acquired by one of the more stable players in the market.

If you have questions about any devices, feel as though I left one out, or have personal experience with any of devices that you’d like to share, please share your thoughts in the comments.