The holidays are upon us, which means it might be a nice time to surprise a loved one with a new smartphone. You don’t have to splurge too much if you don’t have a new upgrade, either, thanks to some affordable unlocked smartphones that have hit the market recently. If you do have an upgrade on your family plan, though, and you want to pick some of the best new smartphones, we have a few ideas you can consider. 

In this guide we’ll go over some of our top picks for buying this holiday season, and we’ll try to cover all shapes and sizes, though we don’t want to skimp too much on specs for the on-contract phones, since your loved one will need to live with it for two years. Let’s dive in!

Moto X

I talked about the Moto X at length recently and why I’m still in love with it. Motorola quickly brought the highly customizable smartphone up to Android 4.4 KitKat, and you can choose any color that you think a family member will like most. Better yet, Motorola has continued to offer updates in the form of fun games such as Windy Day and even small updates that turn the boot logo into a holiday-themed animation. I still use this frequently as a daily driver because I love saying “Ok Google” to execute a quick search, and the Active Notifications on the lock screen that let me peak at a notification before unlocking the device. At $99 with a new two-year contract, it’s a steal.

Moto G

The Moto G is my absolute top choice for an unlocked handset, and I think it’s great for kids or parents who don’t really need a 4G LTE network but might want a new device and are still on a contract. It’s better than some two-year old devices, for sure, and again you can choose to customize the phone’s color by choosing a back panel. It sports a 720p screen and will run Android 4.4 KitKat by January, so you won’t even be left in the dust in terms of software features. You don’t get the Active Notifications or voice commands that the Moto X has, and the 5-megapixel camera isn’t great, but with a starting price of $179 it’s a perfect choice for anyone who wants to skip a contract.

Galaxy Note 3

The Galaxy Note 3 is still my favorite phablet on the market. While I don’t find myself using the S Pen often, I love the huge 5.7-inch 1080p screen for watching movies, playing games, and firing off emails. Plus, it can multitask better than most devices, allowing you to run two applications side-by-side at the same time. It’s also loaded with a first-class Snapdragon 800 processor, a 13-megapixel camera, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage that’s expandable with a microSD card slot, and a huge battery for all-day phone use. It’s available from all of the major U.S. carriers, too, so you should be able to pick it up for anyone.

Nexus 5

The Nexus 5 was the first phone to hit the market with Android 4.4 KitKat, though you can also pick up the Moto X if you want that experience. I’m still fond of the phone because it offers a pure Android experience, but my main reason for the recommendation is that it’s a powerhouse at an affordable unlocked price. It packs a Snapdragon 800 processor, a 4.95-inch 1080p screen, LTE support, wireless charging, 16GB or 32GB of storage, an 8-megapixel camera and a 2,300mAh battery, making it a real steal at its entry-level price of $349. This is perfect as an upgrade for someone tied into a contract, or for anyone who doesn’t want a contract, but it’s a lot more powerful than the Moto G.


The G2 is really similar to the Nexus 5, but you get a few additional features and a unique form factor. LG placed the volume and power buttons on the back, giving it a real chic look. It also packs an IR blaster, a larger 5.2-inch 1080p screen, a better 13-megapixel camera and a larger 3,000mAh battery. The only drawback is that it still runs on Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, instead of Android 4.4 KitKat, but it’s a more feature rich device than the Nexus 5 and can be purchased at a lower cost if you’re willing to sign a contract. If you’re on Sprint, you get the added benefit of support for its new tri-band 4G LTE “Spark” network, too.

Lumia 1520

The Lumia 1520 is the best Windows Phone device yet, and while it’s truly monstrous in size, it’s a real pleasure to use and is equipped with next-gen specs that seem to be future proof for upcoming versions of Windows Phone. You’ll get a 20-megapixel camera, a Snapdragon 800 processor, a beautiful polycarbonate body, a 6-inch 1080p screen and a huge 3,400mAh battery. With apps like Instagram, Vine and others now available, Windows Phone is more of a pleasure to use now than ever, and the Lumia 1520 cuts through apps like a hot knife through butter. The added screen real-estate also allows you to setup three tiles across the home screen, so you can see more than ever at a quick-glance. If you haven’t checked out Windows Phone before, now is certainly the time to do so.

iPhone 5s

The iPhone 5s is an amazing smartphone, but I think its true potential has yet to be realized. We’re now starting to see new apps that take advantage of its M7 co-processor, but we still don’t know what kind of features its 64-bit A7 chip will enable in the future. TouchID works wonderfully for making payments in the iTunes Store or unlocking your phone with a quick tap of your finger, and the overall build is matched by few other phones in the industry. iOS 7 now offers more than a million apps, too, so you have the largest choice of software available out of any ecosystem. Plus, you have the added benefit of knowing that Apple will keep you in the loop with future updates in the coming years, which adds a ton of value to the phone.

Final Thoughts

Buying a smartphone can be a tough task, especially when it’s not for yourself. Try to get a feel for the type of operating system your loved one might like and consider your budget. Once you’ve figured those two aspects out, hopefully our choices above make it a bit easier for you to pick the best device. And remember, most carriers offer a 30-day return window, so you can always return it later if you need to. Happy holidays!