Smartphone buying advice 2013

Not many consumer electronics advance as fast as do smartphones, with manufacturers updating their flagship devices at least once a year. Having so much choice is great news for consumers, but it can also make it incredibly difficult to work out which handset to buy – particularly if you'll be tied into a mobile contract for up to two years. Here is where we take you through all the key areas you need to consider when buying a smartphone this year

See 15 best smartphones: The best phone you can buy in 2013

If you don't want an iPhone, arguably the most popular handset on the market, it's likely you'll buy a device running Android. There are also plenty of decent devices running BlackBerry and Windows Phone, and a handful of smartphones running platforms such as Sailfish, Firefox, Tizen and Ubuntu coming soon. See also What's the best Android phone you can buy in 2013?

Whereas once Apple's iPhone set the standard in terms of hardware specification, this is an accolade most smartphones can hold on to only for a month or two before something bigger and better comes along. The iPhone 5s was, however, the first smartphone to offer a 64-bit processor.

The iPhone runs iOS 7, the recently updated version of Apple's mobile operating system. It's had a makeover since iOS 6, but continues to offer a simple and effective experience. The App Store is abundant as ever, and many developers still write for iOS before Android and other OSes. There's little in the way of customisation, mind, so it's largely Apple's way or the highway.

Apple's key rival, Android, has come a long way and is now a mature platform. Android devices can be had with screens that match the resolution of your TV, while some models boast cameras with more megapixels than your DSLR. Some devices are also waterproof and feature hi-fi-quality audio.

Android has gone from strength to strength, with Google ironing out problems, improving performance and introducing innovative features. You can chop and change almost anything, and the Play store has all the major apps.

Windows Phone and BlackBerry continue to lag behind iOS and Android. Microsoft's mobile OS has shown encouraging signs of growth and the most recent version supports better hardware. BlackBerry, meanwhile, has found itself in all kinds of trouble in attempting to sell the company. Its future may be uncertain, but the BlackBerry 10 OS is smooth and great for email and multi-tasking.

A down side to both Windows Phone and BlackBerry is their lacklustre app stores: third-party developers who want a turn a profit will always favour the most popular platforms.

Here, we've rounded up the best smartphones on each platform. Each is more than fast enough for any user's needs, so the user experience is arguably more important than the results of our processor- and graphics benchmarks – particularly given some handsets' alleged ability to ramp up performance in certain scenarios.

A good way to pick a smartphone is to choose your preferred operating system, then find a handset that offers all the features you want and a design you like that remains within your budget.

How we test

Smartphones are tested and rated for build quality; hardware and performance; quality of cameras; the operating system provided; and battery life. As well as the subjective opinions of our experienced team of smartphone reviewers, we utilise independent testing software such as the Geekbench 2 performance benchmark, the SunSpider web-browsing test, and the GLBenchmark 2.5 gaming framerate graphics test. Not all tests run on Windows Phone and BlackBerry, unfortunately. Then, considering all the above, our editors rank each phone for build quality, features, performance and value, before arriving at an overall score that reflects the quality of each smartphone at the price it is offered.

Conclusion

Despite having the best camera on a smartphone we've ever seen, the Nokia Lumia 1020 uses older hardware and pairs a high price with a poor app ecosystem. The BlackBerry Z30 also suffers from a lack of apps, and its spec is lower than that of its rivals here.

Phones have increased in size over the past couple of years to the point that some of the devices in this group are on the verge of tablet dimensions. The jumbo Galaxy Note 3 and One Max are difficult to use day-to-day, but might make sense for those unable to afford both a smartphone and a tablet.

Sony has produced yet another great smartphone in the Xperia Z1. Although it's big for a 5in handset, it's got buckets of style and substance, plus a dust- and waterproof design that you won't find elsewhere on the market.

The Nexus 5 earns our Recommended badge on the basis of its sheer value for money. This smart and desirable smartphone offers everything you need at a frankly ridiculous price.

Apple's iPhone 5s deserves a Best Buy award for being an all-round fantastic phone, combining great build, hardware, software and features. LG's G2 is our Best Buy Android smartphone, for offering a similarly excellent package with outstanding value for money. This handset offers innovative design, top-end specifications and clever software features at a great price.