Mobile Trends and Predictions: 2014 mid-year update

One of the things I like doing at the beginning of each year is forecasting what events are likely to happen in the upcoming year. For 2014, I forecasted 10 events that I thought would shape the mobile market. Here’s the mid-year update of how I’m doing with my prognostications for the year.


  1. Apple releases a bigger phone
    As far as predictions go, this one was a layup. We’re on the verge of seeing a 4.7″ iPhone, which was I figured was coming. The 5.5″ size surprised me, but recent production issues could delay that model until later this year or 2015.

  2. Android and iOS continue their OS dominance
    Once again, this one wasn’t a stretch. It wasn’t so much as a bet on Android and iOS as much as it was a bet against Microsoft. Based on recent reorganizations within Microsoft, I don’t think you’ll see significant traction from Windows Phone in the market until 2016 at the earliest, if at all.

  3. Apple and Samsung continue their smartphone dominance
    I certainly made lots of safe predictions for 2014, and this was another one. Although Samsung is starting to falter a bit due to market saturation, they’re still the dominant smartphone manufacturer along with Apple. In fact, I expect Apple to have a really strong end of the year with the release of the iPhone 6 that could really pad their market share numbers.

  4. Chrome OS appears on mobile phones
    I took a bit more risk on this one, and it looks like it’s not going to happen. Talk of Android apps running on Chromebooks came out of the Google developer’s conference, so I still believe that Android and Chrome OS will merge. In other words, it’s not a matter of if it will happen, just when.

  5. Amazon enters the mobile phone market
    This was another one of my “gimmees” as Amazon had been foreshadowing its phone development since late 2012. While I predicted the phone, it didn’t come with everything I thought it would. I figured they’d offer multiple models and some sort of phone service linked to Amazon Prime. That didn’t happen at launch, but it’s certainly possible they could be features on the Amazon roadmap.

  6. Nokia explores Android
    As I suspected, the rumors were correct and Nokia released their X-series, a low-end line of phones running a Nokia version of Android. Likewise, as expected, Microsoft killed the initiative as part of their recent reorganization and will force follow-on devices to Windows Phone. Personally, I think this is a mistake, but what do I know. I’m not the one getting paid to make these decisions.

  7. No contract and prepaid plans go mainstream
    Prepaid plans are gaining momentum, but they’re not mainstream yet. While T-mobile has gone all-in, AT&T, Verizon and Sprint are still clinging to the contract model. I suspect it is only a matter of time before all the major players have a strong prepaid, no-contract offering, especially as the smartphone market saturates and the upgrade cycle lengthens.

  8. The phone connects to the car
    As expected, both Apple and Google have strong car initiatives in the works. Apple is calling their version CarPlay, and Google is bringing Android Auto to market. It’s looking like next year’s cars will have at least one of these available as a feature, if not both.

  9. Mobile payments gain traction
    Mobile payment initiatives seem to have stalled. I still think people are taking the wrong approach by trying to force all payments through the phone. I just don’t understand why the major credit card companies aren’t developing applications that will allow us to use our phones as a secure authentication device with our existing cards. I can only figure that I’m either missing something or oversimplifying the problem.

  10. The new design buzzword – mobile-optimized
    The design community is a stubborn bunch and is still clinging to responsive design as the solution to all that ails mobile. While it is does have its place, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. I’ve seen too many poorly implemented responsive sites that compromise the mobile user experience to satisfy using a buzzword, and those that are implemented properly are often bloated and more expensive than hybrid solutions. It’s like hiring a carpenter who only knows how to use a hammer. Of course they’re going to suggest that everything should be held together with nails. I’m still confident that things will swing back once more “mobile-optimized” sites come online and designers realize that by expanding their toolbox they can build and deliver a much richer and more effective mobile experience to their clients.


I’ll do my usual mobile year in review at the end of the year which will take a look at how these predictions fared and other key events in 2014, which will be followed by my trends for 2015. Even though there are only six months left in the year, I expect a lot is going to happen. It’s going to be fun to watch!

 

Thoughts on Amazon’s Fire Phone

Amazon Fire Phone LogoAmazon announced the latest addition to their product line yesterday, a smartphone named the Fire. It didn’t come as much of a surprise. I’ve been expecting them to release a phone for sometime now. In fact, I thought they were going to release one during 2013 (see my prediction here). Now that the Fire is official, here are my thoughts after seeing the announcement and reading reactions from across the web.

Overview of the Fire

The Fire looks a lot like any other smartphone. According to Jeff Bezos, it was designed with one-handed operation in mind. It’s reasonably sized at 4.7″, which compares favorably to the 4″ screen of the iPhone 5s but not as large as the 5.1″ screen of the Samsung Galaxy S5. The processor and memory is in-line with upper mid-range smartphones on the market today, and the screen has a resolution of 720p, which is fine for viewing photos and watching video. The biggest difference in the hardware design is the presence of four front-facing cameras. These cameras track the users eye and facial movement and play a key role in Dynamic Perspective, one of the Fire’s many innovative software features.

The Fire Phone App Grid

In fact, software is where the Fire differentiates itself from other phones on the market. In addition to Dynamic Perspective, the Fire also has a service called Firefly for identifying phone numbers, website, email addresses, music, movies and more. It comes with Amazon’s Mayday service for offering on demand help. It also comes with a full year of Amazon Prime, which I would contend is one of the best values money can buy. Given the ho-hum design of the phone, it’s pretty clear that Amazon is trying to differentiate itself through the software and service offerings available on the Fire.

The good

  • Fire Phone Hand Firefly IconIntegration with Amazon Prime service
    As I mentioned above, Amazon Prime is one of the best values out there. At $99 for the year, you get unlimited access to streaming video, streaming music, the Kindle lending library, and free two-day shipping for Amazon purchases. The Fire integrates with all of these services and includes a one year subscription to Amazon Prime. You don’t need the Fire to take advantage of Amazon Prime, but the tight integration with the phone will let you get even more for your money.
  • Firefly
    Firefly is a cross between Google Goggles, Shazam, and a barcode reader. The application can identify phone numbers, web and email addresses, music, movies, and tons of household products. Sure, it’s another way to help funnel you into the Amazon purchasing machine, but what’s wrong with that? If you’re already using Amazon to purchase a lot of products, Firefly will help streamline the process.
  • Mayday
    One of the biggest issues with most phones is figuring out how to use them. By coupling the Fire with its Mayday customer help line, Amazon is hoping to help customers learn the Fire’s features faster.

The not so good

  •  AT&T exclusivity
    I don’t understand this decision. I’m sure AT&T paid a lot of money for this right, but it severely limits the available market. Didn’t Amazon learn anything from Apple and its AT&T exclusivity? Once the iPhone became available on additional carriers, market share for the iPhone really took off. If this a long-term exclusivity, Amazon may come to regret this decision.
  • Fire OS
    I get it that Amazon has invested a lot of money in their own version of Android, but it just isn’t as polished as the true Android experience. I’ve had a Kindle Fire for the last 18 months, and while the OS is capable, it’s not as full featured or as smooth as my Nexus 7 Android tablet. For starters, the lack of Google services such as Maps, the Play Store and Play Music would be a serious issue for me. It’s not a big deal on the tablet, but it would be very noticeable and inconvenient on a phone.

Dynamic Perspective: Game-changer or Gimmick?

Amazon is making a big deal out of Dynamic Perspective – the ability of the phone to respond to how you hold, view, and move it. At this point, I view this feature as more gimmick than game-changer. Until developers are able to work with feature and create some unique user experiences and interactions, I don’t see what the big deal is. Sure, it’s kind of cool, but it’s not a necessity. My guess is that it’s a neat trick that people will play with for a bit when they get the phone, and then they’ll rarely use it after that.

What it will take to succeed

The smartphone market is dominated by the iPhone and Android devices, so Amazon has a lot of work ahead of it. In my view, here’s what they will need to do to succeed:

  1. Drop exclusivity, quickly
    Long-term exclusivity is not a winning formula for a phone. It might get you some short-term cash, but it won’t buy you market share long-term. The Fire Phone needs to be available across as many carriers as possible, as quickly as possible.
  2. Developer support
    Whether manufacturers like it or not, the success of their platform is dependent on support from developers. If developers aren’t building apps for your platform, you’re toast – just ask Microsoft and BlackBerry. Amazon will need to continue to market hard to developers and make it as easy as possible for them to develop for Fire OS. In particular, they need to make sure that  popular mobile apps such as Evernote and Dropbox are available on the Fire Phone.
  3. Google services
    While Amazon might not want to admit it, they would be smart to work out a deal to include Google services in the Fire OS. It could help bring across a lot of Android users who otherwise would be hesitant to switch, such as me.

Would I buy a Fire Phone?

I’ll admit that I’m a fan of Amazon. I use Amazon for a lot of services, am an Amazon Prime member, and own a Kindle Fire. The Fire Phone appears tailor made for me, but I don’t plan to buy it. Since I’m not an AT&T customer and don’t plan to switch anytime soon, that eliminates me as a possible customer. The lack of Google services and app selection are also deal killers.

At this point, I wouldn’t recommend the phone unless you’re heavily invested in the Amazon ecosystem and Amazon App Store. Even then, I would suggest that you hold out and wait for the second version of the phone. I’m certain Amazon will make a lot of improvements in the Fire Phone hardware and software once it gets used by the general public. Unless you like being out on the bleeding edge of technology, waiting is a wise move.

Overall, I’m not expecting the initial Fire Phone to be a success. It might even fail spectacularly. However, I don’t advise betting against Amazon. Bezos and crew do not enter a market without a long-term vision, and I expect they are in the market for the long haul. I expect that Amazon will learn from its experience, and they will use that knowledge to come out with a stronger version 2 offering next year. I don’t see Amazon challenging iOS or Android for market supremacy anytime soon, nor will they challenge Apple or Samsung for smartphone market share. What I expect is for Amazon to grind away and carve out a significant market share over time with a phone and services that appeals to its most loyal base of customers. It’s a plan that they’ve managed well with their Kindle line of tablets, and one that I suspect will work well for them in smartphones as well.


For further reading about the announcement, here are a sampling of articles from my favorite technology sources:

Choosing a mobile carrier

Since I spend a lot of time working with mobile devices, one of the questions I consistently get is “which mobile carrier should I choose?” It’s a good question, and one that you should answer before you decide which phone to buy. The best phone in the world is worthless if you can’t get service on it where you use it most.

Recommendations for choosing a carrier

  1. Coverage
    Network CoverageAbove everything else, you need to choose the carrier that gives you the best coverage where you use your phone the most. Make sure that you get excellent coverage at your house, your office, and all of the places where you spend a lot of time – including coffee shops you frequent, relatives’ and friends’ homes, and favorite vacation spots. I don’t know of anything more frustrating than a phone that doesn’t get service in the places where you spend the most time.The first step is to check the coverage maps for the carrier, but don’t rely on these. While they are mostly accurate, these are an important factor in the carrier’s marketing and may be enhanced a bit. More importantly, take advantage of the phone return period, which is generally 14 days or longer. Be sure to try the phone in as many of the places you frequent as possible and verify service quality. If it doesn’t meet your needs, take it back and try another carrier.

    I can’t emphasize enough how important coverage is. In fact, it’s so important, that you should treat the next three points as secondary factors in making your carrier decision.

  2. Plans
    Carrier PlansSince we’re conditioned to shop on price, it seems counter-intuitive that plans would be a secondary factor. Sure, some carriers offer lower prices than others, but is saving $10 per month worth it if you can’t get service on your phone when you need it? Trust me on this one, you’ll regret that you saved that $10 per month when don’t close a deal because of a missed call or email.Plus, carriers are aware of their competition’s pricing. With only four major carriers in the market, all of them watch each other’s pricing and will quickly move to match pricing changes. In other words, if AT&T is $20 cheaper today, it’s likely Verizon will move quickly to match them.

    Finally, if you’re able to afford the up front cost for a device, I would strongly recommend looking into a “no-contract” plan, particularly on AT&T or T-mobile. It’s one of the best ways to save money and allows you the flexibility to easily switch carriers should better coverage or better pricing become available in your area. Check out this article I wrote earlier this year titled, Should you go “no-contract”?, for more information on the benefits of avoiding a two-year commitment.

  3. Speed
    Network SpeedAgain, you would think speed should be important, but who cares how fast the network is if you can’t access it due to poor coverage. The speed of the network is a don’t care if you can’t access it.Also, carriers are regularly working on upgrades to their networks, so differences in speed between them is usually temporary.

  4. Phones
    Carrier EquipmentIf you’re entering into a two-year contract with a carrier, you’ll want to make sure you get the phone you want. Luckily, the differences in devices between carriers are virtually non-existent. Gone are the days when you had to go to AT&T to get the iPhone or to Verizon to get the best Android (Droid) devices. Manufacturers, particularly Apple and Samsung, make their devices available to all carriers on the date of launch. There may still be a few minor differences in phone selection between carriers, but nothing significant enough to justify choosing a carrier because of a specific device. My advice on phone selection is simple – choose a device that you like and that you feel will make you the most productive.If you’re looking for phone suggestions, check out our latest phone buying guide which is available in the Mobile Hardware section of our blog.

Comparing carriers

Even after reviewing this list, I still get asked which carrier is best. It varies by region, but generally speaking, here is how they stack up:

  • Verizon – It is has a big, fast network with strong coverage in most areas. They’re plans tend to be more expensive, but it’s worth it in most cases.
  • AT&T – Overall, its network isn’t as good as Verizon’s, but there are areas where their coverage will be better. When choosing between AT&T and Verizon, it’s a personal decision based on where you use your phone.
  • T-mobile – It is very aggressive on pricing, especially for data plans, and offers great equipment. Its Achilles heel is its network. They’ve made a lot of improvements lately, but coverage can get spotty if you spend a lot of time outside of populated areas. If T-mobile’s coverage works for you, it’s a great way to save a few bucks. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had very good experience with T-mobile for the past seven years, but I don’t spend much time off the beaten path)
  • Sprint – It’s as aggressive as T-mobile on pricing, but its phone selection is limited and their network isn’t as robust as Verizon and AT&T. As with T-mobile, it’s a good way to save a few dollars if the coverage works for you.

Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO)

Finally, if you haven’t heard of Mobile Virtual Network Operators, better known as MVNOs, you may want to take a look. They rent network capacity from the major carriers and resell it. Popular MVNOs include Straight Talk Wireless, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Republic Wireless, Simple Mobile, GoSmart Mobile, and Net10. A few comments with regards to MVNOs should you decide to investigate one as an option:

  • They rarely have contracts, so service is month-to-month. This allows you to switch between carriers if you run into problems with network coverage, network quality or customer service.
  • Their prices are normally better than the major carriers since they do not operate brick and mortar stores or subsidize phone purchases. The downside is that you have to pay full price for your phone up front, or bring your own device, and get all of your setup and customer service questions answered online or over the phone.
  • Some MVNOs require phones specifically designed for their mobile service, such as Republic Wireless which relies heavily on Wi-Fi. The downside is that you cannot easily switch carriers since your phone will not be compatible with anyone else’s network.
  • Because many of these MVNOs lack storefronts as mentioned above, you can be on your own with regards to technical issues. Therefore, I usually do not recommend an MVNO for the technically faint of heart.
  • If you get really serious about switching to an MVNO, here’s a review of some of the top services from Android Headlines.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend an MVNO if you rely on your phone for business. As a personal phone, or for a teenager/child, an MVNO can be a great way to save some money. For business, it can be a bit risky, especially if you start to run into network quality issues or phone problems.


Feel free to ask any questions in the comments, and happy shopping!

 

Should you go “no-contract”?

There’s a new trend in mobile – going no-contract. It’s being led by T-mobile, which unveiled their no-contract Simple Choice plans last March. For $50 per month, you get unlimited voice, text and data – the first 500MB at high speed. T-mobile’s plan was a major success. They added an astonishing 4.4 million subscribers in 2013. It’s been such a success, that rival AT&T launched their own no-contract Value plans in December, and I suspect that Verizon and Sprint will be following with plans of their own soon.

I’ve been off contract with T-mobile for two years now, and it’s been a liberating experience. My first no-contract phone was the Nexus One, and I’ve since purchased a Galaxy Nexus and Moto X off contract. The up front cost of purchasing a phone off contract is higher, but over the life of what would be a two year contract, I save a significant amount by paying lower monthly rates. Plus, I’m free to upgrade my phone or switch carriers whenever I want without having to pay upgrade or early termination fees.

The benefits of going no-contract

In the past, there weren’t any significant benefits to going no-contract with the major carriers. Plan prices were the same whether you bought a subsidized phone or brought your own device. In other words, you were paying the phone subsidy every month regardless of whether you were on contract or not. With these new plans from T-mobile and AT&T, the plan pricing is independent of the phone price.

I’ll go into more detail below, but in addition to the money savings, there are a number of other benefits of going no-contract.

  1. You get the flexibility to upgrade your phone when you want
    No longer are you stuck waiting two years between upgrades, nor do you feel like you have to upgrade every two years. You can switch devices every 6 months, every year, or go four years (or more) between upgrades. It’s your choice!
  2. Switch carriers without penalty, or try the prepaid route
    Since you’re not locked into to a contract, you can switch carriers on a month-to-month basis based on who is providing the best deal. You can also try any number of prepaid carrier options, such as Straight Talk wireless. The prepaid providers lease space on the major carriers’ networks, so you get the same service at a more aggressive price. For example, Straight Talk wireless has a $45/month all you can eat voice, text and data plan.
  3. Swap sims, have multiple services, travel internationally
    If you purchase your phone outright, you can get it unlocked. An unlocked phone means you can swap sim cards at your convenience. This allows you to have multiple services at the same time. While not a big deal domestically, it becomes a huge deal if you travel internationally on a regular basis. You can swap sims to the local carrier of the country you are in and pay much cheaper rates for phone calls, text and data service.
  4. Easier to hand phones down, or to keep spares around
    There are some great no-contract phones, or even used phones, that can be had at attractive prices. For example, the Moto G is a great Android phone that retails for under $200. Plus, it’s easier to keep older phones as hand me downs for kids or as spares in case a phone is lost or breaks.
  5. Cheaper long-term since you avoid the “upgrade tax”
    If you keep your phones for longer than two years, then no-contract will be a huge savings. Traditional carrier plans had a phone subsidy built-in that you paid whether you upgraded your phone at the end of your contract or not. In other words, if you didn’t upgrade your phone at the end of two years, you were paying for a new phone through your plan even though you still had your old device.

There is one caveat to going no-contract for original AT&T iPhone owners – unlimited data plans. If you are on a grandfathered AT&T unlimited data plan, make sure to evaluate your monthly costs carefully before switching to a no-contract plan. If you’re a heavy data user, it may make more sense to stick with your unlimited iPhone plan.

Recommended no-contract phones

There are quite a few phones that can be purchased outright that work well on any no-contract plan. Here are the four that I would recommend:

  • iPhone 5s
    Moto G - no contract
    If you want the iPhone experience, I would recommend buying the device directly from Apple. It’s a bit pricey starting at $650 for the 16GB model, but that’s roughly equivalent to what you pay over the course of two years on a subsidized carrier contract plan.
  • Nexus 5
    Google’s Nexus line of device are among the highest performing, lowest priced Android devices. The Nexus 5 is a competitive high end device that you can purchase directly from Google for $349 for a 16GB model.
  • Moto X
    The Moto X is one of my favorite devices. It’s not the lightest, or best performing, but it has just the right mix of features, customization and size at an attractive price point of $399 for a 16GB model. You can buy it directly from Motorola and customize the colors of the device as you like.
  • Moto G
    The Moto G has to be one of the best kept Android secrets. It’s a budget phone at $199 for a 16GB version, but it performs as good as any mid range device on the market priced at double or more. I purchased this as a gift for a member of my household recently, and there hasn’t been any complaints regarding device functionality or performance. It can be purchased directly from Motorola and can be color customized through different device backings and accessories.

If you’re a real bargain hunter, you may also be able to score some sweet deals on auction sites. People who upgrade their devices on a regular basis will often put their lightly used devices on these sites at a substantial discount over what you’d pay for them new. It’s worth checking out.

Comparing no-contract plans

Below is a table that compares the total cost of the phone and service over a two year period for AT&T’s no-contract Value plan, T-mobile’s Simple Choice no-contract plan, and Straight Talk’s prepaid wireless plan. I assumed a 16GB version of each device, a single line of service, and 2GB of high speed data. I’ve also included a traditional AT&T 2-year contract plan as the last entry for comparison purposes. You may want to do a similar analysis if you use a family plan or have an account with multiple lines as there may be substantial differences compared to the table below.

iPhone 5s Nexus 5 Moto X Moto G
AT&T Value Plan (no-contract) $2,570 $2,270 $2,320 $2,120
T-Mobile Simple Choice Plan $2,090 $1,790 $1,840 $1,640
Straight Talk Wireless $1,730 $1,430 $1,480 $1,280
AT&T Value Plan (2-yr contract) $2,479 $2,380

Keep in mind that you should always take into account carrier coverage and performance when selecting a plan. In other words, if T-mobile’s service does not work in the places you frequent, then saving $500 over AT&T is pointless. Make sure that you choose your carrier on performance first, and then use price as a deciding factor if the service is equivalent. It’s worth noting, that as I mentioned above, once you go no-contract, you can try a carrier for a month or so, and if the coverage is not adequate, you can always switch to a different carrier since you aren’t locked into a long-term contract.

You should also do some research on other prepaid service options offered by T-mobile, AT&T, and the other prepaid carriers. For example, T-mobile has a seldom advertised prepaid plan that is $30/month for 100 voice minutes, unlimited text, and unlimited data. If you don’t use your phone for voice much (which describes my teenage kids), then this prepaid plan could save you upwards of $30/month.

No-contract is not a fad, it’s here to stay

As I mentioned in my mobile trends to watch in 2014, no-contract and prepaid plans will become mainstream this year. I suspect that subsidized plans will become a relic of the past over the next 2-3 years.

With the move to no-contract plans, competition among the major carriers will surely increase. I suspect they will get more aggressive on their pricing and offerings to attract and keep customers. They will also run promotions to encourage customers to switch, such as the recent announcement by T-Mobile to pay the early termination fees for customers wanting to make a change. If T-Mobile has success with this campaign, don’t expect the other carriers to sit on their hands. I’m sure they’ll be launching their own customer incentives as well.

The bottom line, the cellphone market has become saturated. The carriers are no longer battling over new customers. They have to keep their existing customers, try to steal customers from their competitors, and offer more and better services. I expect that it will make for an exciting 2014 and beyond in the mobile market as the carriers duke it out. As one of one of my favorite Star Wars characters would say: The wireless carrier wars. Begun, they have.

 

Mobile Phone Buying Guide: January 2014

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.