Smartphones are no longer luxury items -- they are, these days, practically a necessity. You need them to keep in touch with your friends, family and business associates via email, social networks, texting and (what a concept!) voice; you need them to check your calendar, research your report, catch a YouTube video or take time out for the latest edition of Angry Birds.
If you're planning to present your favorite giftee with a brand new smartphone, we've got suggestions for fans of iPhones, Windows Phones and Android devices. We've also got a recommendation for those who want a really big display.
But there's more to gifting than just the phone itself. We've got recommendations for cases, chargers, game controllers and a variety of other gadgets that will make a smartphone owner happy.
We've tried (when possible) to include a range of prices as offered by various vendors. Be aware: Prices fluctuate, especially at this time of year. (And as always, be careful of false deals and scams.)
Android: Motorola Moto X
These days, it takes something special to make a smartphone stand out. In a sea of fine but forgettable slabs, the Moto X manages to deliver an interesting and compelling user experience.
Direct price: $100 (16GB) or $150 (32GB) with contract from a major U.S. carrier
The most alluring thing about the Moto X from a gift-giving perspective may be its personalized design: With Motorola's online Moto Maker utility -- now available on all major U.S. carriers -- the phone can be special-ordered to look any way you want.
You can customize the phone's back color, front color and accents. Motorola says you'll even be able to order the phone with a real wood back before the year's over. (If you're not sure of your giftee's tastes and make a mistake -- or the color combination turns out to be not quite what you envisioned -- you get 14 days to exchange it.)
Visuals aside, the Moto X just feels good to hold. At 5.1 x 2.6 in. and 4.6 oz., the phone is relatively small by modern-day standards. It has a softly curved back that ranges from 0.2 to 0.4 in. thick and fits nicely in hands both big and small. Despite its svelte frame, the phone packs a great-looking 4.7-in. display that offers 1280 x 720 resolution, or 316 pixels per inch. It's no slouch in the performance department, either -- the device is plenty speedy and keeps up with anything you throw its way.
Then there's the software: Built on Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean), the Moto X has a clean and easy-to-use interface that sticks closely to Google's own base Android design but adds some innovative and practical extra features. The phone's Touchless Control function, for instance, lets you wake the device any time with your voice and then control it by asking questions or issuing commands.
The Active Display function, meanwhile, puts pertinent info like the time, missed calls and other notifications on your screen when you need them -- before you even press a single button. And the Assist program lets you configure the phone to recognize when you're driving and alter its behavior accordingly.
The Moto X is a complete package -- and the kind of gift most people would be delighted to receive.
You might also like: The Nexus 5 from Google ($349 for 16GB or $399 for 32GB) provides high-end hardware at a ridiculously low off-contract price -- no carrier contracts or costly service plan commitments required. The phone is the first to run Google's new Android 4.4 KitKat operating system and shows off Google's pure vision for Android with excellent hardware and a minimalist design.
-- JR Raphael
iOS: Apple iPhone 5S
The smartphone that will be at the top of many people's wish lists this year is the iPhone 5S, which keeps the 4-in. Retina display, aluminum and glass design, and 4G/LTE networking introduced in last year's iPhone 5 and adds a slew of major improvements.
The iPhone 5S features a powerful Apple-designed 64-bit processor, a fingerprint scanner built into the Home button called TouchID (used for purchases and logging in), and an updated camera system capable of burst photography as well as recording 120 fps slow-motion HD video. The iPhone 5S also sports a built-in motion coprocessor, called the M7, designed to track activity without taxing the battery -- perfect for fitness apps.
The iPhone 5S measures 4.9 x 2.3 in. and weighs a hair under 4 oz. The 4-in. 1136 x 640 high-quality Retina screen features a dense 326 pixels per inch. For the body itself, you can choose among three separate trim colors: black-framed Space Gray, white-framed Silver and new champagne Gold, also framed in white.
Running on the new iOS 7, the 5S includes access to iCloud, Apple's online service that offers free email, automatic backups and automatic data syncing between your other devices. FaceTime, the popular videoconferencing technology, now lets you make free voice calls to another Mac or iOS 7 device.
The iPhone 5S has full access to the iTunes digital ecosystem for music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, the App Store and the iBooks store. Entire curricula can be found for free on iTunes University. As a bonus, since Apple checks the applications found in the App Store, malware or sexually explicit content is harder to sneak through.
You might also like: The new iPhone 5C takes what made last year's iPhone 5 a great buy, upgrades the camera system and wraps it within a solid plastic shell. Available in five distinct colors, the iPhone 5C (16GB for $99 or 32GB for $199 with a two-year contract) is for those who want a more expressive, less expensive alternative.
-- Michael deAgonia