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2015 has been all about the flagships so far, we have seen new flag waving smartphones from HTC, Xiaomi, Samsung, Sony, LG and others. However, not everyone can afford a flagship, even in blue chip markets where handsets are subsidized, so how do you get high end kicks or flagship build quality otherwise? We would like to qualify that we think the mid-range market is getting better and the budget market is vibrant, but we still think there are some older flagships that provide better alternatives.
The thing about a flagship that is hovering around two years old is that it delivers premium design even today and still comes with mid-range specs. On top of that, virtually all of them will be upgraded to Android Lollipop, so they are futureproof for at least the short term. It is also worth noting that these handsets are also very affordable these days, even against high mid-range smartphones being launched.
So, what are some of the older smartphones worth taking a look at? We are discluding 2014's flagships mainly because they are still relatively expensive and we would class them as high end even if they are not flagships. Instead we went way back to 2013 to find some ultra-affordable former flagships that still stand up today. We also tried to not include devices we thought may not be supported in the long run such as the Xiaomi Mi 3, instead preferring to choose smartphones that can run the latest versions of their platform.
While the LG G3 released in 2014 was the flagship that really placed the company among the smartphone elite, the 2013 G2 certainly got the ball rolling. It pointed LG in a new direction in terms of design and quality and was the most rounded smartphone the company had built at that point. It was well spec?d, looked good and had a high end sprinkle, featuring a 1080p HD screen, a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, and a 13 megapixel camera. Its software was a little boggy compared to the light and airy experience we have on the G3 and G4, but it was far from being a deal breaker. These days you can expect to pay between $200 and $300 for the handset unlocked, but we have seen it for under $200 on Amazon a number of times.
HTC One M7
Truly a game changing smartphone and an all-time great. Indeed, we think pound for pound this is a better handset than the One M8 and One M9 that succeeded it, although all are admittedly quality. HTC simply got everything right with the One, and the company also showed that Android smartphones could match the iPhone and be truly premium in aesthetics. The now legendary design holds up today and even now you would own one of the best looking smartphones available. In terms of specs, the 1080p screen, Snapdragon 600, and 4MP UltraPixel make it a slightly poorer performer than the LG G2 for example, but it still deals with Lollipop admirably and is certainly not sluggish. For under $200, this is a bona fide bargain with a solid user experience and a design that is iconic and still to die for.
Galaxy Note 3
Samsung Galaxy Note 3
We were tempted to include the Galaxy S4 in this list, but ultimately it has aged more than the flagships we have already included. For us, the Galaxy Note 3 is a more appealing option, even if it is slightly more expensive than the other smartphones we have listed so far. Costing over $400 in some cases, the Note 3 is still a pricey proposition for those looking for a good deal or those on a strict budget, but the handset remains a powerhouse. It is not two years old yet and for our money is better than the Galaxy S5 that followed around six months later. The Galaxy Note 3 comes with a Snapdragon 800 processor, a 5.7-inch 1080p screen, 3GB of RAM, a micro SD card slot, and a 13 megapixel camera. On the software front, TouchWiz is a little boggy (although better with Android Lollipop) and with the Note 3 comes the S Pen; this was the first handset from Samsung where the stylus like peripheral hit a home run in terms of functionality.
Sony Xperia Z1
Sony's Xperia smartphone range may be struggling, but the company is still making good high end flagships. However, if the Xperia Z3 and Xperia Z4 feel a little stagnant and in need of a revamp, the Xperia Z1 felt fresh and was arguably the last truly compelling flagship the company made. Released in the fall of 2013 it came with the best specs of the day; 5-inch 1080p screen, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 with 2GB of RAM, and a very good 20.7 megapixel rear snapper. The Xperia Z1 looks the part too with its glass construction, and did we mention it is waterproof? Sony's take on the Android OS is light enough to not be annoying and while we could take or leave some of the company's baked in apps, they are not too obtrusive. The device now costs around $300 on Amazon.
Apple iPhone 5
The problem with including Apple on a list of this nature is that the company's smartphones are still fairly expensive years after release. The iPhone 5 is hardly affordable (it will still set you back $400) and it is nearing three years old. The iPhone 5s is a better bet of course with its fingerprint scanner and 64-bit processor, but that is just way too expensive for this list. That's not to say the iPhone 5 is bad, it simply isn't, even today it looks good and feels nice, while it is a solid performer too. Admittedly in terms of being a spec juggernaut, it is a step below the inclusions we have listed above, but simply put if you want iOS then this is a compelling choice. Two caveats, firstly the iPhone 5c is more affordable and newer, but it is essentially a redressed iPhone 5 and we would rather the all-aluminum of the 5 compared to the funky plastic of the 5c. Secondly, Apple is unlikely to support this handset with future software, so iOS 8 could be as good as it gets in this case.
Nokia Lumia 930 (Icon)
We debated included the Lumia 1520 instead, but that frankly enormous handset will not be for everybody because of its sheer size. The Lumia 930 is a more manageable size and essentially has similar specs to the 1520, so it gets our vote. It does make us a little sad that this device is over a year old and it is still the best representation of a Windows Phone flagship outside of HTC?s One M8 for Windows. That said, the 930 is a 2014 device, making it the newest on this list, although it was around a little bit before as the Verizon exclusive Lumia Icon. This was the pre-Microsoft Lumia and was the most powerful smartphone Nokia had made with a 5-inch 1080p screen, a Snapdragon 800 with 2GB of RAM, and a spiffing 20 megapixel camera. Essentially an Android quality flagship running Microsoft?s tile based Windows 8 platform.
Google Nexus 5
A flagship bothering device that was extreme value for money when launched, the Nexus 5 is perfect for those who are serious about Android. It has held its price well, but is still a good grab for around $300 and with this handset you know you will be among the first inline to get new Android updates. The LG made Nexus 5 runs stock Android and is already rocking Android Lollipop 5.1 and will likely be supported by Google for a few years yet, despite actually being discontinued. The device comes with a 5-inch 1080p screen, Snapdragon 800, and 2GB of RAM. For all that stock Android goodness there are some compromises, such as an underwhelming 8 megapixel camera and a rather ropey battery.