The best smartphones and tablets of 2014

Sure, there were lot of mobile flops this year, but that makes these winners even sweeter

It was too easy to find mobile flops this year. As mobile devices mature, it's harder to come up with true innovations, and as a result, many vendors turn to gimmicks and half-baked ideas. That slippery slope leads to flops like the Amazon Fire Phone.

But in the sea of dubious products were islands of excellence that comprise the best mobile products of 2014. Here, I focus on the smartphones and tablets that should be at the top of anyone's list, especially for professionals who need more than a media playback and communications device.

Best smartphone: Apple iPhone 6

Apple iPhone 6 Apple

Apple iPhone 6

Apple's newest iPhone is not merely larger — a welcome but obvious change — but smarter in ways that matter and push mobile technology forward in relevant ways.

Most tech products seem designed for 20-somethings, with UIs that penalize older adults. The Zoomed View mode option for the iPhone 6 is a hallelujah feature; you can have the iPhone enlarge everything, so you're less likely to need reading glasses. Also, you can pack more pixels into the larger screen to get more, if smaller items onscreen. The iPhone 6's new GPU takes care of the scaling in hardware, so there's no performance penalty for zooming your screen's contents.

The biggest advances in the iPhone 6 are for groundbreaking capabilities: Apple Pay and Handoff, both of which combine specialized hardware and standard protocols.

In a single stroke, Apple Pay does for the languishing mobile payments industry what the iPhone did for the static mobile phone industry in 2007: make it real. Apple's Secure Element hardware works with several standard standard approaches to payment transmission and authorization, with the goal of of further improving the payment industry's best practices.

Handoff is the first cogent example of liquid computing, where workflows can move as needed across devices, even without an Internet connection. It's one of those features whose Eureka moment comes when you actually use it.

Runner-up smartphone: HTC One M8

HTC One M8

HTC One M8

HTC has had several nice-looking Android smartphones, such as its original One. The One M8 builds on that legacy, offering strong hardware, a polished look, and a clean user interface.

That clean focus and sophistication is especially welcome in a year where Android industry leader Samsung has largely tarnished its smartphones with design compromises and partially baked software. By contrast, the One M8 is smartly finished.

Runner-up smartphone: Apple iPhone 6 Plus

iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus Jason Snell

Apple iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus

Although I personally find phablets too large, they appear perfectly sized for people who want a microtablet that can make calls. If that's you, the iPhone 6 Plus is the best phablet on the market, offering the strengths of the iPhone 6 with extensions that allow it to work well as a microtablet. 

Runner-up smartphone: Samsung Note 4

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Brian Sacco

Samsung Galaxy Note 4

The granddaddy of phablets is of course Samsung's Note, now in its fourth generation. It's Samsung's best smartphone, with a smart approach to one-handed use and a convenient if underutilized built-in stylus. However, the fingerprint sensor can be difficult to use and won't work at all if your Exchange server or mobile management server enforces password policies, as almost every business does.

Runner-up smartphone: Motorola Moto G

Motorola Moto G Rob Schultz

Motorola Mobility Moto G

Not everyone needs or wants a phone that functions as a computer -- that is, like iPhones and high-end Android smartphones. For those whose smartphone needs center around communications, Web usage, and core apps, I recommend the second-generation Motorola Mobility Moto G. It's inexpensive (about $200 without a contract) but solidly built and nicely designed.

Its specs are middling but more than sufficient for how you'd use it. (If you're outside the United States or in a country that has extensive LTE cellular network coverage, go for the cheaper, 3G-only, but otherwise equivalent Moto E instead.)

Best tablet: iPad Air 2

Apple iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 Apple

Apple iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3

I called the iPad Air 2 a flop a few weeks back because it doesn't really move the needle in innovation -- the addition of the Touch ID sensor is a duh addition. That's still true, but it's also unquestionably the best tablet on the market. If you need a new tablet, this is the one to get. And if the 9.7-inch-screen iPad Air 2 is too big, the 7.9-inch-screen iPad Mini 3 is perfect, with the same capabilities as the Air 2.

Runner-up tablet: Samsung Galaxy Tab S

Samsung Galaxy Tab S Mikael Ricknas

Samsung Galaxy Tab S

Android tablets are often cheapies that end up collecting dust, as usage data from various sources continues to show. But periodically, an Android maker tries to compete with the iPad on quality and style. The Galaxy Tab S is that kind of tablet: beautiful to view, pleasing to hold, and plenty capable.

It comes in both 7- and 10-inch versions, so you can pick the size that's right for you. Where the Galaxy Tab S falls short is in its balky fingerprint sensor (also used by the Note 4) and the lack of a cellular model for most carriers.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.