When money is no object and you can have any smartphone you like, you will of course expect top-notch specifications and a high quality design.
But if you’re reading this more in hope than in the possibility of affording any of the phones selected as our top premium handsets of 2013, then you might take some satisfaction from the fact that even when you spend £500 or more on a Sim-free phone, you may not get everything you might wish for.
However much money phone makers have to play with to buy components, there’s going to be some sort of compromise made, or some decisions about design and features that may not sit precisely as you might like. This is, after all, the real world and not a dream.
Still, as the saying goes, the cream rises to the top, and inevitably some premium handsets are better than others. Five smartphones launched during 2013 sit right at the pinnacle of the premium category – and here they are…
Apple iPhone 5S (£549)
The iPhone 5S is Apple’s flagship handset, and it needs no introduction. Today’s trend for larger and larger screens is not one Apple seems to recognise, and the iPhone 5S is a compact handset with a thin 7.6mm profile and a 4in screen. Its 1,136 x 640 resolution might sound below par, and indeed it is the same as last year’s. As a result, even though it is sharp, bright and readable, this display still feels like a second-best specification.
Overall, the iPhone 5S is very similar to its predecessor in terms of aesthetics. It is the same size and weight, the buttons are in the same places, and only an eagle eye will spot the dual LED flash in place of the single one on the rear.
You’re more likely to notice the absence of the square symbol in the Home button – the button is now a fingerprint sensor. This works surprisingly well for login, being accurate and pretty much seamless (and it will accommodate five fingers).
At the top-end you might expect every feature going, and of course there’s 4G support. There’s no NFC here, though. The A7 processor is extremely impressive, though – don’t worry about it only being dual-core because this 64-bit beast flies very fast indeed.
HTC One (£490)
HTC had to do something special with the HTC One to help resurrect its failing fortunes, and the company came up trumps. This largely aluminium built handset feels great in the hand.
The HTC One is large – its 4.7in screen plays a part here and with 1,920 x 1,080 pixels it is a pleasure to look at. Twin speakers sitting above and below the screen give the handset a slightly tall profile, but they belt out loud and high quality sound, making this a good handset for mobile gaming, video and music fans.
HTC’s BlinkFeed news and social app dominates the main screen and can only be got rid of by designating a different screen as the main one. Even then BlinkFeed sits on a sub-screen. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but later refinements have added more control over it.
32GB of built in storage translates to 25GB free, but there’s no microSD card slot for adding more. The specs are all top notch with MHL and NFC both here. There’s infrared, too, so you can remotely control your TV – and there’s an EPG app on board. Finally, the quad-core 1.7GHz processor is very nippy indeed.
Sony Xperia Z1 (£479)
Sony's Xperia Z1 is an update to the extremely popular Xperia Z, a handset that did Sony a power of good as a superb flagship phone. The Xperia Z1 shares its predecessor’s water-resistant capabilities, but with slightly higher credentials. The IP58 rating suggests it will withstand water depths below a metre for more than half an hour.
The physical design is quite straightforward but attractive for the most part. Glass on the back does attract fingerprints, and there’s a rather unsightly dock connector on one long edge which muddies the otherwise clean lines. But the rest of the design is attractive and there’s a camera button for underwater photographers. The 5in screen has a generous bezel all-round making the Z1 a slightly taller and winder handset than it ought to be.
Headline specifications really impress. They include 20-megapixel stills and an ultra-fast Qualcomm 2.2GHz quad-core processor. There’s also support for Sony’s SmartWatch 2, if wearables are your bag.
However, those who like to use their handset for listening to music (or watching video) might be disappointed in the single bottom-mounted speaker which is lacklustre in both volume and quality of sound. There are lots of apps specific to the Sony ecosystem on board here, and the headline 16GB of storage is reduced to 11GB available. There’s a microSD card slot here, though, which some top-end handsets lack.
Samsung Galaxy S4 (£499)
It was way back in April that we reviewed the Samsung Galaxy S4, but it remains one of our top handsets of the year. It has received a mixed reception with some critics thinking that all the gesture and non-touch based features are simply overload – way too much functionality that nobody really needs. The granularity of the user interface does mean you can enable and disable these to your own preferences, though.
And there are other features to play with such as NFC, infra-red for TV remote control, and the ability to use two apps side-by-side. The screen is just big enough for this to be worthwhile.
Samsung manages to get away with a plastic build, and an appearance and size which are very close to the Galaxy S3, this handset’s predecessor. The screen is larger this time round, though, being a 5in 1,920 x 1,080 Super AMOLED display that is punchy and bright.
The 1.9GHz processor isn’t quite the fastest in this group, but it is still blistering. A rarity in this premium category is a removable backplate – but it is very flimsy. The microSD card slot sits under this allowing you to augment the internal memory.
LG G2 (£450)
The LG G2 is the cheapest handset in this selection – it’s a full £100 cheaper than the iPhone 5S currently, yet it is still a stunning phone with lots of plus points. The screen bezel is minimal so that the 5.2in display fits into a remarkably small chassis, and this alone makes it look great.
The quirky positioning of the on/off and volume buttons on the back doesn’t pose a usability problem once you get over a short learning curve, and if you do find the power button a pain when resuming you can double tap the lock screen instead.
Like all the other handset makers in this group, LG skins Android, and adds some useful touches like being able to decide on the positions of the three softkey buttons, and being offered a selection of appropriate apps when you plug in a headset. It’s all about ease of use, and there are other features in this vein such as pop-up apps.
The 2.26GHz processor is very efficient, and you can even shoot a photo from the front and back cameras at the same time, putting yourself in the photo. The only irritation with this handset is the lack of a microSD card slot.