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What We Looked For in Smartphone Reviews

To make our recommendations, we consulted smartphone reviews from various experts who have done hands-on testing with a variety of models. Reviewers look for speedy smartphones -- any lag or stuttering is a clear shortcoming in the phone's performance.

Displays should be bright and colorful, with good detail and sharpness. Smartphones increasingly pull double-duty as cameras, so photo quality is another big factor in reviewer ratings. When it comes to battery life, the expectation is that a phone should get through the day on a single charge.

Nimble Performance.

Smartphones are sophisticated devices that essentially function as mini computers. The best cheap smartphones have powerful quad-core processors, although some phones with dual-core processors can also zip through apps and games with no lag. The latest mobile games may push a phone's processor, but the best models still run smoothly. You should notice very little stuttering or sluggishness when opening applications, switching apps, or performing other tasks with one of the models we recommend. For the most part, smartphone reviews conclude that our top picks deliver broad functionality without sacrificing speed.

Reviewers particularly praise the powerful LG G2 (starting at 1 cent), with its top-of-the-line 2.26 GHz, quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chip. It impresses a reviewer at Phone Arena, among others, with its incredible speed. The Samsung Galaxy S4 (starting at 1 cent) and HTC One (2013) (starting at 1 cent) are also high-powered phones that use quad-core Snapdragon 600 processors. Experts from CNET and Tech Radar review praise the S4 for its fast, 1.9 GHz performance, which was nearly unmatched among the phone's rivals when it was reviewed in mid-2013. On the other end of the spectrum, a reviewer from Digital Trends observes that the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini (starting at 1 cent) occasionally lags or stutters when opening apps or fulfilling other duties.

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High-Quality Display.

A smartphone screen should be bright, colorful, and easy to read even in bright daylight. Most displays meet reviewers' expectations as far as brightness and color are concerned. Be aware that some smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the Motorola Moto X (starting at 1 cent), use AMOLED screens, which produce much more vibrant colors than the typical LCD screen. Some users like the oversaturated colors on these displays, but others don't.

Even a high-quality, bright display can be hard to read in bright daylight. That's one of the few criticisms the CNET reviewer levels at the Galaxy S4. The HTC One, on the other hand, is easy to read in bright daylight, according to an Engadget reviewer. A PC Mag reviewer knocks the screen on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini for showing less-than-crisp text, no doubt a product of its low resolution.

Capable Camera.

Thanks to higher resolutions and advanced features, the quality of images shot with a smartphone camera is inching closer to what you get with a dedicated digital camera. All our top picks can also record HD video. Photos from a good smartphone camera should have accurate colors and good detail. Ideally a camera would snap good-looking photos in low light without the aid of a flash, but that's a tall order even for the better models out there. Smartphone reviews gripe that indoor photos taken with the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini look fuzzy, for example. Most of the smartphones we reviewed have snapped at least respectable, if not excellent, photos in expert testing. A reviewer from Tech Radar expresses frustration with the Moto X camera, however. Oftentimes it shoots very nice-looking photos, but some inexplicably turn out poorly.

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Good Call Quality.

At the end of the day, a smartphone is still a phone and should be able to conduct a seamless conversation. Certainly the reception from a service provider has a lot to do with that, but the handset also plays a role. Voices should be loud and clear on both ends, without static or background noise. Generally speaking, the smartphones we looked at satisfy experts' and customers' expectations for call quality. Even the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini, which struggled in other respects, draws praise from PC Mag.

Long Battery Life.

Smartphones are power-hungry devices that place a lot of demand on their batteries. The length of time you can go between charges depends greatly on how you use your smartphone. Heavy users put their phones to work throughout the day, streaming music, shooting and posting photos, texting, emailing, and so on. Most of the smartphones we recommend can meet these demands for most of the day -- nine hours or more -- but you should expect to recharge your phone every night. Even moderate users, who can get a bit more mileage out of their phones' batteries, should prepare to measure a phone's battery life in hours rather than days. The LG G2 has the biggest battery of any smartphone on our list, at 3,000 mAh, but also the brawniest, most demanding processor and display. The Motorola Moto X has proved a model of efficiency. It has a smaller battery than most competitors, at 2,200 mAh, yet demonstrates excellent battery life in testing by Laptop, among others, outdoing both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One.

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