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Best & Worst Smartphone Brands 2013

Whether you're upgrading your existing smartphone or buying one for the first time, there are lots of factors to consider. Screen size, operating system and other considerations come into play, but, ultimately, the brand behind the phone is most important. That's why we set out to name the Best & Worst Smartphone Brands for 2013.

Each smartphone maker has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, from design and camera capabilities to special features. So, how do you know which one is best? For our first annual Best & Worst Smartphone Brands report, we rated nine companies (Apple, BlackBerry, Google, HTC, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung and Sony) across nine categories to separate the winners from the also-rans.

Best and Worst Smartphone Brands 2013

How We Graded (100 Points Possible)

LAPTOP reviewed more than 50 smartphones during the last year. We dug into those reviews as well as reviews of handsets that are older but still for sale. Then we did more testing, comparing cameras and speakers and more across flagship devices. The results, weighted by category, add up to a possible 100 points. We evaluated each brand using the following categories.

Reviews (15 points)

By examining reviews from June 15, 2012, to June 15, 2013, this category is weighted heavily to reflect the average star ratings and performance scores from a given company’s handsets. Extra points are offered for Editors’ Choice Award-winning machines. By the same token, we take away extra points for any review that earned 2.5 stars or less (not recommended).

User Interface (15 points)

The software and user interface included with a brand’s phones determines not only how easy the devices are to use but also how engaging and customizable the experiences are. From lockscreen shortcuts to the way brands handle notifications, we looked closely at UI across both low- and high-end handsets.

Battery Life (15 points)

Because you need your smartphone to work all day, few things can top the importance of this category. We compared a brand’s battery life average against the smartphone average (using LAPTOP’s own battery test) to see how it compares.

MORE: 10 Smartphones with the Longest Battery Life

Special Features (15 points)

By sneaking a few tricks up its sleeve, some smartphones find a special place in our hearts. And if you’re not innovating, other brands will lap you. Special features can range from unique apps pre-loaded by the brand to camera modes to the ability to use your smartphone as a TV remote.

Display (10 points)

A fast or long-lasting phone doesn’t mean much if you don’t enjoy viewing content and apps on the screen. Is the display brighter than average? Does the company pack in the pixels? What size options are available, and do those big screens offer wide-enough viewing angles?

Camera (10 points)

We not only looked at the quality of shots taken with each brand’s flagship across nine different categories, we also dug into a brand’s special features to determine a winner in this round.

MORE: Smartphone Camera Shootout 2013

Design (10 points)

No one wants a drab slab of a phone. That’s why we looked at each manufacturer’s build quality, materials, ergonomics and overall aesthetics. Drab slabs brought up the rear.

Audio (5 points)

Each of the flagship phones for all nine brands were compared side-by-side both with and without any extra features turned on. We also examined the general call quality and built-in technologies.

Selection (5 points)

If you can only get a specific brand through one carrier, the customer loses. That’s why we took into account how many phones a manufacturer produces and carrier availability.

Best and Worst Smartphone Brands 2013

Best and Worst Smartphone Brands 2013: Full Scorecard

 1st Place: Samsung

By taking top honors for user interface, special features and selection, Samsung wins big as the best smartphone brand of the year. In fact, Samsung placed first, second or third in every category except design. During the last year, we’ve praised Samsung for offering excellent and helpful extras that redefine what a smartphone can do, from pen input and split-screen multitasking to innovative gestures and camera modes. And we expect to continue to see great things from this brand in the year to come.

MORE: Galaxy S4 Tips

2nd Place: Apple

There’s no doubt the smartphone race is a tight one at the top, and sales of the iPhone 5 prove that this brand hasn’t lost its luster. Apple took top prize in the reviews, design and camera categories, and it placed among the top three for user interface, battery life, display and audio. Only a relative lack of special features held Apple from the top spot, tying the brand with HTC for second place in our overall showdown. However, iOS 7 and the next iPhone could catapult Apple past both HTC and Samsung.

MORE: 11 Battery Tips for Your iPhone 5

2nd Place: HTC

A best-in-class display, a toned-down Sense interface and excellent audio on the HTC One helped this brand earn a two-way tie with Apple for the silver in our first showdown. A second- or third-place finish in every other category (including cameras) didn’t hurt, either. HTC also does a fairly good job juggling multiple platforms. The Windows Phone 8X proved to be a quality device both in terms of design and performance.

MORE: 10 Best HTC One Cases

4th Place: Nokia 

Having made the commitment to Windows Phone 8, Nokia's Lumia phones look and feel unique in the marketplace. And Nokia adds plenty of value to Microsoft’s easy-to-use platform with its PureView camera and useful apps and services. Nokia placed in the top three for both special features and design, helping the brand to place 4th overall. While lackluster battery life and weak audio performance held Nokia back, we expect much better things from the company’s next crop of phones.

5th Place: LG

Special features such as QuickRemote and Video Wiz separate LG from some other brands. Sadly, below-average camera performance and design prevented this brand from earning a higher score. The Optimus G Pro proved to be a solid big-screen phone, but middling battery life and a lack of widespread availability put LG smack in the middle of the smartphone pack.

6th Place: Sony

Not known as a top-tier smartphone maker in the United States, Sony’s middle-of-the-road performance in reviews, user interface, special features and battery life resulted in a ho-hum sixth-place finish (out of nine). Sony does offer very good cameras, and we like that the Xperia Z is water-resistant, but the company should really work on display viewing angles and carrier distribution. 

7th Place: Motorola

While the long battery life of the RAZR Maxx HD was enough for the brand to earn a second-place finish for that category, poor cameras held Motorola back from a better showing in the overall rankings. The fact that the now-Google-owned Motorola didn’t release a compelling device in the last nine months didn’t help matters, nor did its lack of carrier support. We hope the upcoming Moto X Phone will turn things around.

8th Place: BlackBerry 

A company cannot come in dead last for its smartphone reviews, battery life and displays and expect to do well overall, as BlackBerry can attest. The company previously known as RIM has had a tough year, in which a lot was expected to happen. BlackBerry 10 hasn’t proved to be the panacea the Canadian-based smartphone maker had hoped. All that combined with a lackluster showing in the camera and design categories relegated BlackBerry to second-to-last in our smartphone brand showdown.

MORE: 14 Essential BlackBerry 10 Tips

9th Place: Google

At least for now, Google produces only one phone, the Nexus 4, which is made by LG. And, sadly, that phone didn’t score well across multiple categories, leading Google to the very bottom of the barrel in terms of smartphone brands for 2013. Also, now that you can get a pure Android experience from Google Play Editions of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4, the Nexus line is less relevant. Here’s hoping Google does better next time around. 

Best and Worst Smartphone Brands 2013