2013 has come to a close, but as we usher in the new year, let us take a look at last year’s best gadgets – a complete rundown of noteworthy smartphones, tablets and laptops. Last year was a blockbuster year of technology, with new devices coming out once every month. Each of us here at Twenty First Tech has chosen devices from the high, mid and low end categories to spend your remaining savings on. We present to you the gadgets that made 2013 truly shine.
HIGH END SMARTPHONES OF THE YEAR
Apple iPhone 5s (Chosen by Timothy)
+ 64-bit architecture and iOS7 make for a very beautiful and seamless experience
+ Thumbprint sensor that actually works!
+ Still one of the most reliable cameras on the market
– Looks just like the iPhones that came before it
– Screen is too small at 4 inches
The iPhone 5s has been widely panned by critics who slam the lack of innovation on Apple’s part. We’ve shared our thoughts on the iPhone 5s earlier in the year (read more about it here). And while we admit that it looks exactly the same as everything coming out of Cupertino, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Instead, Apple has made significant inroads into useful software as well as hardware improvements which only enhance the user experience. With the iPhone 5s, Apple cements its name as a brand which delivers nothing but a top-notch experience to all who swear by it, and provides certainty in a world where the smorgasbord of technical details increasingly means less and less. For these reasons, it is my choice for flagship phone of the year.
Google Nexus 5 (Chosen by Fabian & Shiv)
+ Flagship specs at half the price
+ Runs stock Android 4.4.2 smoothly with no bloatware
+ Latest Android updates direct from Google
– No expandable storage; only comes with 16GB/32GB internal storage
– Not available in Singapore yet
The Nexus 5 is one of the most eagerly anticipated smartphones of 2013, and along with it came Android 4.4 Kit Kat. As with all Nexus devices, the Nexus 5 will receive the latest Android update straight from Google, as soon as it is released from Mountain View. It comes packed with a 4.95″ 1080p screen at 445 ppi, a 2.26 GHz Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor, an Adreno 330 GPU, an 8MP shooter with Optical Image Stabilization, and a 2300 mAh battery – all flagship level specs, for half the price of other flagship devices. Though the camera may not be the best one out there, it should suffice for the average day to day usage. Battery life is not too great either, but should last you a full day under moderate usage. Nevertheless, with powerful performance and a stunning display, this phone sums up what was achieved in 2013, for a bargain price.
Nokia Lumia 1520 (Chosen by Nicholas)
+ First Windows Phone phablet with an unprecedented 1080p retina-busting 6″ display of 367ppi and to support a quad core 2.2Ghz Snapdragon 800 processor
+ Battery life is out of this world
– Phablet is heavy for its size, especially when compared to the likes of the Note 3 and the Z Ultra
– Lack of software support from Microsoft to provide a more phablet-friendly experience (one-handed keyboard, etc.)
The Nokia Lumia 1520 (review here) is Nokia’s first phablet. Being the first Windows Phone with a quad core processor and 1080p screen, the Lumia 1520 is the leader of the Windows Phone pack, and a worthy contender to the likes of the Note 3 and Z Ultra. With a price of $899 off contract (New Year’s promotion), it really is worth considering for the phablet lover or Windows Phone lover. Not to mention, this phablet has a battery life that is absolutely astounding.
Sony Xperia Z1 (Chosen by Shikhar)
+ Ridiculously fast, UI is the cleanest and best looking with least amount of bloatware
+ Camera is comparable to standard digital cameras
– Viewing angles are limited
– Top and bottom bezels are too large
The Sony Xperia Z1 (review here) is a device that is the perfect Android smartphone. With looks that will leave you speechless, and the premium glass and aluminium unibody construction will make this device feel like the king in your hand, which it is. The Snapdragon 800 that powers it may score less than others in synthetic benchmarks, but in terms of the actual user experience, it is the fastest non-Nexus device available. The Sony UI looks extremely crisp and clean, and has very little bloat. The crown jewel of the Z1 is the camera, while not as good as the Lumia 1020, performs at the same level as a compact digital camera. Also it’s waterproof certification that you can snap photos and videos underwater and don’t run the risk of ruining the device if a liquid is spilled onto it. Its battery life is also ridiculously good.
Personally, the only gripe I have with it is that it has very narrow viewing angles. The bezels do not phase me, but I would have liked Sony to utilize space better.
MID RANGE SMARTPHONES OF THE YEAR
Apple iPhone 4S (Chosen by Shiv)
+ Still really powerful
+ Retina display. Most mid-range phones do not have good displays at all, and the iPhone 4s’ display colours and resolution stand out as among the best even today. Okay, maybe not resolution, but it’s still Retina, which is good enough.
+ Can be free on contract (For Singtel, $328 on SuperLite, $178 on Lite, free on Value and more expensive plans)
+ Excellent build, looks amazing, still a great phone 2 years later
– Display is really small, most budget and mid range phones have at least 4 inch screens
– Lags a bit on iOS 7, and it will be hard to get a 4s without iOS 7 now.
– No LTE
– Only 8 GB option sold now, at least from carriers
– Pretty overpriced without buying from a carrier
Apple has always built amazing devices which look good at the time of their debut, and stay classy. With great hardware and software integration and optimisation, the iPhone 4s still has a bit of life left in it. It has a great app ecosystem, Siri, and iOS 7 has updated it greatly, giving it more features than it had when it debuted. Sadly, only the 8GB option is sold now, but if that is not a problem for you, or if you are looking to get it from the grey market (second hand), this phone would be pretty worth it. It’s only $340 for the 16 GB option, and $380 for the 32 GB option, from WhyMobile, so for the budget conscious, it’s a good deal.
HTC Desire 601 (Chosen by Timothy)
+ Cheapest mid-range smartphone around with more than comparable specs
+ MicroSD support and 4G LTE
+ Has HTC sense 5.0 and numerous other higher end features for a fraction of the One Mini’s price
– Sub High-Definition screen resolution (960 x 540)
– Running on the older Adreno 305 GPU
HTC has been mostly out of the picture in the smartphone race. Its marketing is a far-cry from the likes of Samsung and LG , which increasingly pepper every nook and cranny of MRT stations and billboards. However, its nice aluminum design and one-piece chrome finish for what is essentially a mid-range smartphone, makes it not only visually appealing, but also a device worth noting. It is largely based on the higher end HTC One series, and it doesnt exactly lose out in any of the specs compared to that flagship model. So, if you do not need a workhorse of a phone, you will definitely get a bang for your buck with the Desire 601, whilst enjoying the same top of the line feel of Sense 5.0
Nokia Lumia 925 (Chosen by Nicholas)
+ Sleek, light, and refreshing aluminium design
+ Stunning camera
– Aged hardware of late-2012 flagship phones (processor, etc.)
– Hardware isn’t exactly very resistant to knocks and drops
The Lumia 925 may have some aged hardware, but that isn’t an issue for the Windows Phone OS. Plus, with a really cheap price ($599 off contract with tons of goodies, including a free wireless charging cover and wireless charging plate), you’ll be able to get what is arguably the sexiest Windows Phone on the market. On top of that, you get an amazing camera that performs great in low light, plus all the bells and whistles that came with the Lumia 920. Only difference is that this revamped 920 is much thinner, lighter and sexier. For those who don’t want the camera prowess of the 1020, or the huge screen of the 1520, this is definitely the best WP8 device to get. (It really is a steal)
Sony Xperia SP (Chosen by Fabian & Shikhar)
+ Fastest mid-range Android device at a cheap price
+ Looks great, UI is clean too
– Struggles with viewing angles just like the Xperia Z1
– Not the best battery life out there
Mid range devices dominated most of 2013, as many budget conscious people chose to go for cheap phones that could still run basic tasks for day to day usage. The Xperia SP was one of them, and boy, it does shine. With a beautiful exterior and a clean user interface, the Xperia SP sets the benchmark for many other mid range devices to follow, like the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini, the HTC One Mini, and the Nokia Lumia 625. It comes with a 4.6″ 720p display at 319 ppi, a 1.7 GHz Snapdragon S4 dual core processor, an Adreno 320 GPU, an 8MP camera, and a 2370 mAh battery – which are quite good specs for this price, enabling it to run Android 4.1 Jelly Bean smoothly. However, battery life was quite a disappointment and you would be lucky if you were able to make it through one full day under moderate usage. Nevertheless, the Xperia SP has everything the average user wants and needs.
LOW END SMARTPHONES OF THE YEAR
Moto G (Chosen by Fabian, Shikhar & Shiv)
+ Two year old flagship specs for S$318
+ Instant updates from Motorola
+ Near-stock Android
+ Retina-class display, at least in terms of resolution (326 PPI)
– Will not last more than 2 years
– Camera is poor, but should be able to make the cut for its price
The Moto G, a less powerful variant of the Moto X, offers great value for money. It comes with a 4.5″ HD display, a 1.2 GHz Snapdragon 400 quad core processor, an Adreno 305 GPU, a 5MP camera, and a 2070 mAh battery. Though these specs are quite outdated in 2013, it is still priced competitively at S$318 in Singapore and just S$227 in the US. The phone comes with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, with Android 4.4 Kit Kat already rolling out in some regions. However, the camera is quite a let down, but we cannot complain much, especially at this bargain price. If you are looking for a cheap smartphone for basic daily tasks, then the Moto G is the right device for you.
Nokia Lumia 525 (Chosen by Nicholas)
+ Extremely affordable at $249 off-contract
+ Comes with 1GB of RAM, and hence support for all apps and games in the Store
+ Runs very smoothly
– Screen is still not ClearBlack, and is disappointing
– Lack of flash for the camera
We have reviewed the Lumia 525, and have found that it runs extremely smoothly considering its price, and is in general, one of the phones that offer the best value around, in competition with even the Moto G. It has a sub-par display and camera, but those can be overlooked considering the price ($199 off contract). As a simple and basic smartphone, this is extremely good. For $199 off contract, it really is worth the money.
Samsung Galaxy Ace 3 (Chosen by Timothy)
+ Very decent technical specifications
+ Comparatively premium build quality
– Not the cheapest low-end phone around
– Not the prettiest looking
The Galaxy Ace 3 (review here) continues Samsung’s low-end range, and is their best low-end offering yet. Based on Samsung’s 2012 Flagship model, the Galaxy SIII, the Ace does not disappoint in all departments. Its build quality is very decent, and its specs are more than reasonable for the S$398 asking price. You will not go wrong with the Galaxy Ace 3 at this price point, and you are essentially getting the same hardware that was in 2011’s flagship, the Galaxy SII. Its day to day performance is snappy, and it performs decently in just about everything the consumer wants it to do. For a low-end phone then, it is a simple, quick choice, especially if one wants to see firsthand what the Samsung brouhaha is all about.
TABLETS OF THE YEAR
Apple iPad Air (Chosen by Shiv & Timothy)
+ Wonderfully light and compact (Less than 500g)
+ 64-bit architecture and iOS7 continues the Apple brand of a seamless user experience
– Expensive, even within the Apple family
– Limited multitasking support (no split screen features that Samsung offers)
– No TouchID, which almost certainly will be included in future iPad revisions.
The Apple iPad Air is really an easy choice for tablet of the year because it’s insanely light. Apple managed to pack full 64-bit architecture, a marginally longer battery life (based on real-life tests), that same stunning retina display, and that zippy user experience, into a device thinner than a pencil. At less than 500g, and a brilliant form factor, I simply cannot think of a better device for all my day-to-day needs. And now, I dont have to strain my wrist holding it around. It is truly the first large screen tablet that is optimized for one hand usage. In making an already perfect product even thinner, lighter, and faster, Apple takes the tablet category for me.
Google Nexus 7 (Chosen by Fabian & Shikhar)
+ Instant updates from Google
+ Extremely cheap
– No expandable storage; only comes with 16GB/32GB internal storage
– Hardware is a little dated
The Nexus 7 kickstarted the wave of cheap Android tablets to hit the stores in 2013, offering great value for money for first time tablet users. Equipped with a 7.02″ 1920×1200 display at 323 ppi, a 1.5 GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro quad core processor, an Adreno 320 GPU, 2 GB of RAM, and a 3950 mAh battery, the Nexus 7’s stunning display and powerful performance leaves many other Android tablets in the dust. However, since this tablet was released in the first half of 2013, its specs are a bit dated, but it can still meet your needs with no difficulty at all. For its price, this tablet has a leading edge over other competitors and receives a thumbs up from our editors.
HIGH END LAPTOPS OF THE YEAR
Aftershock XG13 (Chosen by Shikhar & Timothy)
+ Extremely light
+ Performance that rivals high-end desktops for just $1615
– Design is uninspiring
– Thick dimensions
Even though the XG13 is thick, it makes up for its bulkier dimensions by being the only notebook in its class to offer a Full-HD (1080p) IPS display panel and by being highly customizable. This is a boon to users with specific requirements, and it also means that it is possible to spec the XG13 with a faster processor, more memory and greater flexibility when it comes to storage. Almost everything else can be customized, right down to even the thermal compound used on the CPU and GPU. Also, the ability to customize keyboard backlights and wraps for the XG13 is also much welcomed and adds much needed spice and pizzazz to an otherwise plain-looking notebook. The XG13 is a champion with class-leading performance, a wide range of customizable options and an appealing price that is sure to be attractive to discerning gamers who know what they want.
Dell XPS 15 (Chosen by Shiv)
+ Nvidia GeForce 750m graphics card means that pretty much every game now will be playable on medium to high settings (same card as the highest end Retina MacBook Pro 15 inch).
+ i7 Haswell processor means that it is incredibly fast and power efficient
+ Better-than-Retina 3200 x 1800, 15 inch, 10-point touchscreen, with an edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass NBT display
+ Only 2.01 kg, which basically means that this is a direct competitor to the Retina MacBook Pro 15 inch
+ Upgradeable, unlike the rMBP15, which is extremely unrepairable.
– Rather expensive, though not as expensive as the Retina MacBook Pro 15 inch. Frankly this is a moot point, because it’s an Ultrabook, and Ultrabooks, being both light and powerful, are expensive as a rule.
– Trackpad will never be able to compare to the rMBP15 (I’m comparing it so much to the rMBP15 because this was designed to compete against it) because it’s gesture support is so pathetic compared to MacBooks. However, I hear that the trackpad as a navigational tool (moving the cursor) is pretty good, and there is a touchscreen after all, so this could also be a moot point depending on where you stand on the touch screens on laptop fence.
– High resolution display support on Windows is still not that great. This is a pretty big problem, for now at least. Chrome takes quite a bit of work to set up for hiDPI screens like this, and most apps are not updated yet, which means you will not be able to take advantage of such a lovely screen until apps are updated. Once again, a moot point, as apps will be updated. It’s the price of being an early adopter.
– The battery life is not that good. PCMag reported that it’s battery life in their battery rundown test was nearly 7 hours; the rMBP15 scored near 9 hours, and this was the highest end option, which included a bigger battery than the “mid-range” option, which had a smaller battery but a dual hard drive configuration, so this is something worth noting if you are considering this computer. It’s also disappointing to know that while the Dell XPS 15 is claimed to have up to 11 hours of battery life, it falls short of this by 4 hours, while the rMBP15 is claimed to offer only 8 hours of battery life, but in the battery test, it exceeds the stated battery life by nearly a full hour (52 minutes to be precise).
Frankly this is the best 15 inch Retina-class Ultrabook money can buy. It can game very well, looks amazing, and is very portable for a 15-incher. If you love the Retina MacBook Pro 15 inch but don’t like OS X and can afford such a computer, this is for you. If you love the rMBP15 but cannot afford it, yet can afford a computer a few hundred dollars less, then this is for you. Basically, if you can afford it, want a 15 inch Ultrabook that can game, and prefer Windows, this is for you. There is pretty much no better Ultrabook than this, and only the Retina MacBook Pro 15 inch can compete with it. If you had to choose one or the other, I would recommend choosing based solely on the operating systems.
MID RANGE LAPTOPS OF THE YEAR
Apple MacBook Pro with 13″ Retina Display (Chosen by Shiv)
+ Retina Display, incredible viewing angles and colours
+ Well-priced for it’s category, being about the same price as other equivalent (13 inch and similarly specced) Ultrabooks out there, possibly cheaper than some
+ Intel Iris 5100 Mobile integrated graphics. The most powerful graphics you can get in a thin, 1.56 kg body.
+ Light, at only 200 grams heavier than the MacBook Air.
+ Apple’s laptops are known to be extremely long-lasting and made with high quality parts. It is likely that this will last you anywhere from 4 to 6 years, which means that you may effectively spend less than if you had bought a Windows Ultrabook. This is subjective though, and really depends on you.
+ The best trackpad ever, with amazing gestures, and 3rd party applications like Jitouch and Better Touch Tool allow for customisation of gestures, and custom gestures, something you will never get on a Windows computer.
+ Battery life is superb, at 9 hours, and Apple does not lie about this.
– Similarly specced Ultrabooks have managed to be lighter, as light as the MacBook Air, such as the new Asus Zenbook Infinity, which is only 1.4kg (30 grams heavier than the MacBook Air) and packs in the same graphics card and simiar internals as the rMBP13 into its body. Oh, but the Asus Zenbook Infinity also costs about a thousand bucks more than the rMBP13 for the same specs, so……
– Battery life under Windows is terrible (about 5 hours if you are lucky), so if you want to get this, Bootcamp it and solely use Windows, think again.
– Not repairable easily, and not user-repairable.. You would likely not have to repair anything if you are careful, but if you do break something, you have to bring it to the Apple shop and get it repaired. If your warranty’s up, you’re going to have to shell out quite a bit more than usual just because all the parts are so hard to get to. If you are careful, you won’t break anything, but eventually, your battery will run down. It has 1000 charging cycles, so it is likely that you will have to replace it one time, which will cost at least $300, which is ridiculous.
-Not upgradeable by the user. The RAM is soldered to the motherboard so no upgrading in the future. The SSD is a special PCIe-based one, which means that it will be some time before those become available to buy elsewhere. Technically you can replace the SSD and upgrade it… there just aren’t any parts out there for it yet. The RAM and SSD upgrades at the time of purchase are also expensive as they are from Apple.
– Unlike new hybrid laptops, this has no touchscreen or fancy new features like the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro.
This is, in my opinion, the best 13 inch Ultrabook-class laptop today. It’s light, sturdy, and very powerful for its mass and size. You will not find a better 13 inch laptop other than the Retina MacBook Pro 13 Inch. It has a beautiful screen for any kind of media, you get iLife free (as usual for Apple computers) and now iWork is free too. OS X Mavericks makes an amazing operating system even more amazing, nearly perfect even, the same of which can’t be said about Windows 8/8.1, and the trackpad alone brings this laptop a level higher than all other laptops today, because the gestures are incredibly convenient and useful, and you cannot even replicate that with the touchscreens on Windows computers, which I honestly find to be rather useless and lacking in functionality. The biggest problem with this is that once you use it, you will be spoilt and will never move back to Windows.
Dell Venue 11 Pro (Chosen by Nicholas)
+ Light, portable, with various docks and keyboard accessories (as well as a removable battery)
+ i5 Haswell variant is rather powerful and can be used as an Ultrabook substitute
– Might not be powerful enough compared to some of the proper Ultrabooks out there (Y series processor)
– The folio case might be too flimsy, while the proper keyboard dock adds too much bulk
The Dell Venue 11 Pro is Dell’s answer to Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2. And while the i5 4210Y processor might be less powerful than the Surface Pro’s 4300U, but it is lighter, and comes with a removable battery, which you don’t see in most tablets these days. Plus, you’ll be able to get an LTE variant of the device. Those who do not need so much horsepower can opt for several cheaper versions running on BayTrail processors (or an i3). But for those who want a work machine, Dell promises that the higher end of the Venue Pro spectrum has the “performance of a desktop”.
Lenovo IdeaPad Z400 (Chosen by Shikhar & Timothy)
+ Quad-core i7-3632QM and Nvidia GeForce 740M for just $1100
+ 2.1 kg weight with a disk drive
– Low resolution (1366 x 768) display
– Poor battery life
Student and a gamer on a low budget? Look no further than the Lenovo IdeaPad Z400. With a base spec of a dual-core i5-3230M, or the i7-3630QM with a $200 top-up, the Nvidia GT 740M offered with the laptop is a really powerful card for the native display resolution, being able to run Crysis 3 on High at 30 FPS with 4x AA. The issue is that the native resolution is not very ideal for high-quality gaming – it’s a little over 720p. It’s battery life is not the most stellar either, managing a little over an hour on High Performance, and about 6 hours Word processing on Power Saver. A redeeming quality is that it has a VGA port, one USB 3.0, two USB 2.0 ports, SD card slot, ethernet port, 3.5mm headphone jack and a disk drive, but weighs just 2.1 kg. It also looks quite decent.
LOW END LAPTOPS OF THE YEAR
Lenovo IdeaPad U330p (Chosen by Nicholas, Shikhar & Timothy)
+ Very light even with touchscreen option
+ Powerful specs
– Lack of disk drive, very few I/O ports
Out of the many things of the U330p, the case leaves a good impression. Aluminum is quite rare in this price range and gives the U330p a noble and more expensive appearance. It also results in a better stability, at least at the base of the unit. The anti-reflective display surface is also an advantage over the old IdeaPad U310. The battery runtimes leave a mixed impression though. It’s light weight is really nice, as well is the added touchscreen, which makes Windows 8 a breeze to use.
Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (Chosen by Shiv)
+ Light, at only 0.9 KG
+ Active digitiser stylus and palm rejection technology, coupled with Microsoft’s accurate handwriting-to-text “keyboard” makes jotting down notes easy if you want to use it that way, and if you’re an artist, it doubles as a good drawing pad. I’m not sure if Photoshop supports
+ Full Windows 8.1, unlike the Surface 2 which only has Windows RT.
+ 1080p Full HD touchscreen display with Corning Gorilla Glass 2, which is quite good considering the screen size.
+ Good battery life
– Screen can be a bit small for real work, and the keyboard does not work that well on a lap
– Kickstand is not customisable the way a laptop’s screen is, and there are only two settings. These should get you through most use scenarios, but it’s always nice to have the option, and this does not offer that.
– Touch Cover keyboard is pretty terrible in my experience. The Type Cover keyboard is decent though, but both of them cost quite a bit, at around $150 to $200 each. Both have terrible trackpads.
– Windows 8/8.1’s Desktop mode really is not built for touchscreens, so using this on the go will be a problem until Microsoft sorts that out. Not only this, Microsoft Office is not even built for touchscreens either. If it were, the Desktop mode not being optimised for touchscreens might just be forgivable or at least easier to overlook, but it’s not, and I don’t need to finish my sentence for you to understand and complete my syllogism.
All in all, this is a pretty great device to carry with you to work everyday, especially if you like writing by hand and don’t like typing, and if you want a tablet form factor. I would not recommend getting the Surface 2 simply because it runs on Windows RT, which has a startling and oftentimes crippling paucity of apps. Due to this dearth, pretty much only thing the Surface 2 is only useful for is media, Office 2013 and web browsing, so if your work only requires you to use the web (and no, you can’t install Chrome on it and use Chrome apps, so I mean the web alone with no paraphernalia) and edit documents, then you’re fine, but otherwise, stay away from Windows RT. Back to the Surface Pro 2, it’s actually pretty good and does not cost that much, so for work, it’s a really good device. Just be prepared to buy a monitor to leave at your workplace so that you don’t die from neck pain and myopia due to the small screen, as working for long hours with this can be very bad. A mouse is a must as well, and do not ever buy the Touch Cover. The Type Cover is slightly heavier and less cool, but it’s so much better.