Phone of the year 2014: the winners

Buying Tips for Christmas 2014

Need to buy someone a phone this Christmas? It's a great idea, especially now that you don't have to pay anything near a top-dollar price to get a great phone.

However, you need to do some research and abide by a few rules to make sure you don't spend more than you should, or end up with a dud.

1. More than a 5-incher? Time for a test drive

For most people, the point at which phones can go from seeming big to 'too big' is somewhere between five and six inches. It all depends about how big your hands are, and how used to smaller phones you are.

A good general rule to live by is to test drive any phone with a screen of five inches or larger. Almost every high street is littered with phone shops, or at least shops that stock them. Even a dummy model with give you a good indication of whether you might find a phone too big.

2. 'PAYG' gets you better deals than SIM-free

Pre-pay deals are phones sold with SIM cards, while SIM-free phones are generic models without any carrier associations. You'll almost always get a lower price with a pre-pay or Pay As You Go mobile, and there's actually no commitment to spend any money with that network.

The only limitation is that the mobile phone may be locked to the network it's bought from. Most phones can be unlocked without too much trouble though.

3. Mobile gamers beware of Windows Phone

Windows Phone is a great system, one that in most respects is a great alternative to iOS and Android. However, serious mobile gamers should think twice about buying into the operating system.

There are loads of games available for it, but if you want to check out that latest mobile phone game you keep on hearing about on Twitter or down the pub, there's a good chance it won't be available for Windows Phone. It's generally much lower down the porting priority list for developers, meaning games and apps generally come to the system a good deal later, if at all.

4. You can unlock phones

If you buy a phone locked to a specific network, you can normally get it unlocked to work with any carrier. You'll often have to buy an unlock code though.

This generally costs £10-30 depending on the model. You'll find spots that sell these codes online (Google is your friend) or some shops on the high street offer an unlocking service. It's normally the sort of shops that offer a colour photocopying service and an 'internet cafe' that is just an ancient PC hooked up to a CRT monitor. But, hey, if it gets the job done…

5. There's nothing wrong with buying 2013 models

2014 saw relatively little development in terms of core phone hardware. Chips have gotten new names, but the top CPUs of 2014 and the top CPUs of 2013 really aren't worlds apart.

It's a good idea not to rule out some of the phones released in 2013 (particularly the Nexus 5 and LG G2) because if you're willing to shop around they offer better value these days than 99% of phones released in 2014.

6. Import phones from China without getting stung

If you want to get a phone that's completely different from your mates' mobiles, you might want to consider importing from China. There are several solid brands that aren't really distributed here, but flourish over there. The most important is Xiaomi, the third-biggest phone producer, and one you'll currently never see on the shelves of your local phone shop.

Want to import? Rule number one is to make sure the site your order from is legit. A dodgy site may nick your credit card details, so check it out on a user feedback site like TrustPilot before even considering placing an order. Also, be sure to read their terms and conditions as you will also be liable for customs charges. Some sites mark orders as 'gifts' or 'samples' to try to avoid these charges.

7. Android vs iOS? notes on the big decision

Android or iOS? It's a question we've been asked regularly for six years. The answer is not simple.

If you want a cheaper phone, Android is definitely the way to go. Unless you want a phone that's scratched to death and possibly stolen, there's no cheap route to iPhone bliss. There are loads of good, cheap Androids. However, iOS still has the edge for apps and games, with titles generally coming to iPhones first if one platform is to get the jump on another.

8. 4G or 3G?

If you're buying on a budget you need to decide whether you need 4G or not. Some of the best-deal budget phones still do not have 4G connectivity.

Is 4G the future? Absolutely. The present, if anything. However, it's important to know the truth about 4G. Most carriers do not offer anything approaching the sort of speeds the standard is capable of because — as usual — mobile networks are crowded, and 4G isn't much use unless you have a pretty generous data allowance. Factor this in when deciding whether you need 4G. Other factors may be more important if you're working with a very tight budget.

9. £130 is all you need to pay for a great phone, £80 for a good one

Our top pick budget phone is the Moto G, and it's available for £140 SIM-free. If someone tells you that you need to spend £500 to get a great phone, they're talking nonsense. For most people, the compromises involved in a phone like the Moto G are relatively minor. It can do most of the key things a £500 model can.

You can get a perfectly good phone even cheaper, too. The Moto E costs just £80 and we'd be happy to use it as our main phone. You don't always have to spend the earth on a mobile

10. Buying someone a contract is no gift at all

Want to get someone a phone this Christmas? Whatever you do, don't go getting someone a contract deal: stick to pre-pay deals or SIM-free phones.

The one time when a contract might be a good idea is for parents buying phones for their children. A contract comes with the burden of paying the monthly fees for the whole term — usually two years. So if you're not going to pay that too, you're not doing someone any favours by buying them a contract phone.

The TechRadar hive mind. The Megazord. The Voltron. When our powers combine, we become 'TECHRADAR STAFF'. You'll usually see this author name when the entire team has collaborated on a project or an article, whether that's a run-down ranking of our favorite Marvel films, or a round-up of all the coolest things we've collectively seen at annual tech shows like CES and MWC. We are one.