Phone of the year 2014: the winners

The Phones of the Year 2014

More pixels. More screen inches. More power. Faster mobile internet, and all for less cash.

2014 saw the capabilities of phones expand in both directions. As ever, the ceiling for power and camera performance in phones was raised, while the expectations of what you can get for under £100 and under £200 have changed completely.

But who won the smartphone war that really matters: the one the top-end phones battle out every year? Samsung didn't get a sniff this year, despite the Galaxy S5 being a top-notch, high-performing mobile. The competition was incredibly fierce.

This year also saw the beginnings of a few phone innovations that'll become common next year. LG set the bar with the first widely-distributed phone with a QHD resolution screen, which is four times the resolution of a 720p phone like the Moto G.

And while screens have got bigger once again, the extra space taken up by a phone's bezel has been trimmed. We're pretty close to all-screen mobiles now.

This was the year that even normal people who wouldn't consider spending hundreds of pounds and hours of research on a phone embraced big screens. When Apple goes with an idea, you know it's finally mainstream.

HTC One M8

Best Flagship Phone: HTC One M8

Best phones 2014

What's special about our winner? The HTC One M8 is a phone that seems to consider what it's like to use on a daily basis in almost every aspect. It's not just about one-upping the competition with a bit more spec here, some more tech there.

The design has a lot to do with it too. Like the HTC One (sometime referred to as the M7), it's made of aluminium, but HTC took the curved back a step further, making an incredibly smooth handset that feels great to handle. It's not small, but its ergonomics are more-or-less faultless.

You also get the BoomSound speakers we loved so much in HTC's other top-end phones, getting you much beefier sound than just about any other phone maker's mobiles. These two bits alone make the HTC One M8 a pleasure to use.

But there's more too. HTC plugged one big hole of the One M8 by adding microSD card support, while the camera adopted a dual-lens system that lets you create photos with artsy-looking blurry backgrounds. A gimmick? Perhaps, but the HTC does it better and quicker than any of the competition. And it's a sure way to get you a few more likes in Facebook with any portrait shots.

Also consider:

Phone of the year 2014

LG G3

It's not often that a phone combines a 'first' with standard-setting value, but that's just what the LG G3 did. It arrived cheaper than arch rival the HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5, but was also the first big-name phone to use a QHD screen.

Next year's top-end phones will almost all offer this grade of resolution, but the humble LG G3 got you that all the way back in mid-2014. Did it get credit? Not as much as Apple would have for pulling the same trick. Meanwhile the LG G3 is still far, far sharper than the iPhone 6 Plus, despite costing half the price.

We don't love absolutely everything LG does, but we'll hand it to the company: it really pulled it out of the bag with the G3. Screen quality is far from the only benefit too. You get OIS in the camera, infrared, NFC, expandable memory. The list goes on.

Not everyone instantly falls in love with the way LG puts the volume and power buttons on the back of its phones, but even if you actively dislike the design, you'll get used to it in days. We still find ourselves regularly recommending the LG G3. We're often met with eyes rolling at the idea of buying an LG phone, but the G3 proves LG is back and deserves to be taken seriously.

Phones of the year 2014

iPhone 6

Apple's iPhones have gotten bigger. The iPhone 6 makes the iPhone 5S look like a toy, and it's the smaller of the two new iPhone models. However, it's also the better choice for many people.

You get an alarmingly thin body, whose increased size does not remotely feel like a practical compromise now we're all so used to much larger phones. Where the iPhone 6 Plus has come under fire for possibly being a bit bendy should you put too much pressure on certain parts of it, the iPhone 6 is a very solid design. And one that has all the power of its bigger sibling.

So why isn't it our phone of the year? Quite a lot of the key technical improvements were made in 2013. The iPhone 5S already had a fingerprint scanner, a 64-bit CPU and as ever there's nothing too specific to the iPhone 6 when it comes to software, which is shared with all recent iPhones.

Much as people always want Apple to drop the ball each year, though, it hasn't with the iPhone 6.

Galaxy Note 4

Best phablet: Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Best phones 2014

The Galaxy Note series has, since its beginnings, been the flag-bearer for those who think gadgets should have the latest tech. A giant screen, a stylus, loads of power and high-end specs across the board mean it can't really fail to draw in the enthusiast crowd.

Samsung hasn't messed with the Note philosophy too much this year with the Galaxy Note 4. You still get a large screen, this time 5.7 inches, and the fantastic S-Pen, which now offers a whopping 2,048 pressure sensitivity levels.

The Note 4 is also the first Samsung flagship to use QHD resolution, making it a good deal more pixel-packed than the Galaxy S5 despite having a much larger screen. There are two variants of the Note 4 and only one of them offers a native 64-bit processor, but we take this as a sign that Samsung doesn't think 64-bit is quite a necessity yet. And the Snapdragon 810 CPU Samsung's lead phones will use isn't available yet.

For pure phone royalty you can't do much better than the Note 4.

Also consider:

Phone of the year 2014

iPhone 6 Plus

Apple's move into the 'phablet' market seems quite awkward at first. Apple has always made small, super-accessible phones but now, with the iPhone 6 Plus, it hasn't gone with half measures. Thanks to its 5.5-inch screen it's much bigger than much of the large Android phone brigade.

It really is competing with oversized Androids like the Note 4, which have always had a slightly niche appeal. Apple going for a niche with one of its main products? Perhaps it sees more big-screen potential than even us.

The launch of the iPhone 6 Plus has been beset by a few niggles though. First there was bendgate, where it was claimed the phone could bend by being put in your pocket. We've not experienced this ourselves but there are plenty of claims online. There are also rumours of scratch-prone screens and crash bugs. But what Apple launch would be complete without a bit of controversy?

Sony Xperia Z3

Best Compact Phone: Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

best phones 2014

There's only one company that makes smaller versions of its phones that don't end up feeling compromised in most core respects: Sony. The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact is a fantastic, palm-friendly phone, and one that offers the same high-end hardware as its bigger sibling the Xperia Z3, aside from the display.

You get the Snapdragon 801 CPU, IP68 water/dust resistance and a seriously impressive-sounding 20.7MP 1/2.3-inch camera sensor. Some 'mini' phones barely seem better than budget models. This one is a real high-end device in a small body.

The one bit of hardware you might want to try and poke a hole in is the screen itself, which is 'just' 720p resolution. With QHD screens around, why can't we pack a 1080p display into a 4.6-inch screen?

Well, it's still very sharp, while well-saturated, vivid colours mean only pixel obsessives need worry.

Also consider:

Phone of the year

HTC One Mini 2

The HTC One Mini 2 is more of a traditional take on the 'mini' version of a flagship. It looks the same as the HTC One M8, feels similar, but the hardware has been cut down a bit to get the price (and the profits, no doubt) to the right level.

HTC's Sense UI arrives intact, and performance is generally very good, though, making it a sound choice if you're not too bothered about pure specs. Several of the HTC One M8's design benefits are here too.

Those BoomSound speakers we raved about so much in the One M8? You get them in the One Mini 2, alongside the cool and expensive feel of aluminium thanks to that smooth brushed metal body. It goes a long way towards excusing that you're arguably paying a fair bit for such a middling phone in pure spec terms.

We're tech pedants though. Plenty of people will use the HTC One Mini 2 without even noticing the cheaper bits.

Moto G

Best Budget Phone: Moto G

best phones 2014

The Motorola Moto G was the budget king of 2013, and Motorola has pulled off the trick again in 2014 with… the Moto G. We're not giving another award to the same phone, though. Motorola has actually released two updates to the phone in 2014.

First we saw the 4G version of the 4.5-inch model announced in May, then Motorola gave the design a full refresh in September. For around £130-140 you get a 5-inch 720p screen, the sound Snapdragon 400 processor and a much-improved camera.

There's just one issue: it doesn't have 4G. We expect to see a 4G version announced, which some of you may want to hold out for.

There have been a few attempts to steal the Moto G's thunder, for example the Asus Zenfone 5, but none have been quite as good. And none of the major manufacturers even seem to have tried. Their phones are either a lot more expensive, or simply nowhere near as good.

Also consider:

Phone of the year 2014

EE Kestrel

4G phones used to be expensive, but the EE Kestrel proves you don't need to pay too much to get on-board with high-speed mobile internet. £99 on a pre-pay deal gets you a 4.5-inch QHD screen, Snapdragon 400 CPU, dual cameras — the works, really.

The design won't get many excited, but if you want 4G and you are on a budget this actually gets you even more than the Moto G in some respects, for less cash.

Huawei actually makes the phone, and it has a lot in common with the Huawei Ascend G6, a very similar but not quite as cheap mobile.

What's wrong, then? Screen resolution isn't as high as the Moto G's and it uses Huawei's infamously quirky Emotion UI. You can tweak out most of the odd little bits in the EE Kestrel, but it does take a little bit of effort and know-how.

Phone of the year 2014

Sony Xperia M2 (and Aqua version)

The Sony Xperia M2 was one of the most convincing budget 4G phones, and one of the only ones from the real big players. It costs Pay As You Go-grade money, but gets you good-looking design, 4G and a big screen.

Sound battery life is another solid bonus, making this a phone that's extremely easy to live with. If you want even more of a carefree style, there's the Sony Xperia M2 Aqua. This is a waterproof version of the M2, using similar rubbery flaps to the Sony Xperia Z2 and Z3: a recipe for bath-time Netflix bliss. Makes us feel all warm just thinking about it.

The screen's not as good as the Moto G's, and despite having a relatively high-res sensor its camera photos are pretty rubbish. As such it's not quite on-par with the Moto G. But if you just can't get on with Motorola's budget baby, this is a good second bet.