Before we look at the design philosophies behind each of our contenders, it's important to note that regardless of differences in size and weight, build and finish, we're talking quad-core Snapdragon 800 each, battery capacities of around 3000mAh and 1080p screens with still cameras of 13MP or above. These are the base ingredients you need for a top-of-the-line droid, but each manufacturer packaged them differently in the cases of our three smartphones today.
The LG G2 did almost feel like a freak of nature at first. Holding it in hand you'd never expect what's to come at you full speed - you unlock straight into a jaw-dropping edge-to-edge display. The LG G2's screen sits comfortably in the middle - bigger than the Sony Xperia Z1's and smaller than the Samsung Galaxy Note 3's but in a shell that's brilliantly compact - smaller than both.
But the surprises the LG G2 has in store don't end there. The volume controls and the power button are placed at the back, below the camera lens and right under your index finger. While some might find it difficult to get used to, the button layout is quite comfortable and really enhances the streamlined feel of the device.
The build is entirely plastic with a glossy finish to it, which isn't everyone's cup of tea but it doesn't feel cheap or tacky.
Samsung's Note 3 has angular design, which is pretty much free of embellishments. Samsung delivered a much better Galaxy Note than last year's model without making it bigger or heavier. The Note 3 packs a bigger screen, more robust battery, better camera and processor, and has kept the three button layout and the S Pen compartment, all while shedding some weight and making the phone thinner.
The Galaxy Note 3 easily stands out among most of the recent Samsung flagship phones that have been criticized for their glossy plastic finish. For the back panel of the Note 3, Samsung decided to forgo hyperglazing in favor of a textured plastic, which emulates leather, complete with the stitching. And while emulating the looks is nothing to write home about, Samsung also got the feel right and the Galaxy Note 3 oozes refinement and quality.
Deservedly taking pride in the design of its top-shelf phones, Sony have wisely decided to keep the all-glass front and back. The glass is shatter-proof and scratch resistant, covering a frame carved out of a single piece of aluminum.
The Sony Xperia Z feels really firm and well-built and doesn't seem to mind being unwieldy and heavy. It's 2 g heavier than a Galaxy Note 3 and almost as big. Some of that can be credited to the water resistance while the large camera sensor and module has certainly contributed too.
While there's no denying the Sony Xperia Z1 is a big phone it does back it up with some serious specs.
Held in hand, it's more than obvious which is the most comfortable phone in the group. The LG G2 wins this one by miles by being both the most compact and lightweight of the bunch. The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is very comfortable for its size and weight with the Sony Xperia Z1 giving you the most difficulty for the least amount of screen real estate.
The biggest phone here is also the thinnest but by as little as 0.2 mm. The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is 8.3 mm, followed by the Sony Xperia Z1 at 8.5 mm and finally, the LG G2, which is 8.9 mm at its thickest.
When it gets to the controls, the LG G2 stays true to its minimalist design. The sides of the phone are completely bare save for the ejectable SIM tray on the left. Otherwise the edges are nicely sloped and totally clean.
The Galaxy Note 3's sides hold the power button on the right and the volume rocker on the left side. The plastic rim around the front and back has a silvery, faux aluminum finish and the edges have recessed lines, resembling remotely the pages of a notebook.
The Sony Xperia Z1 has a dedicated camera button, placed in the lower right corner, a single-piece volume rocker above it and the now typical prominent power button on the right. The microSD card slot is located under a flap on the right side. Across on the left, there are two plastic lids covering the microUSB port and the microSIM card slot.
The top of the LG G2 features nothing but an IR blaster.
The Galaxy Note 3 has an IR blaster of its own too, and it sits on its top along with a 3.5 mm headphone jack and a noise-reducing microphone.
The Sony Xperia Z1 also features the 3.5 mm headphone jack at the top, thankfully, not under a sealed lid like with the Sony Xperia Z.
On its bottom, the LG G2 has little grilles for the speaker and the main microphone. There's a 3.5 mm headphone jack at the bottom along with the microUSB port.
The Galaxy Note 3 has a few surprises at its bottom side. Along with the main microphone and speaker grille, it features the world's first microUSB 3.0 port on a phone, and the S Pen compartment.
The Sony Xperia Z1 has no functional elements at the bottom.
Moving over to the back where the cameras are. The LG G2 has a lot going on there, it is not just the imaging-related stuff. The volume keys are either side of the power button, which has a "breathing" LED under it. Then there's the optically-stabilized 13 MP camera lens and a single LED flash.
The back panel of the LG G2 has a hyperglazed-like finish with a pattern underneath that plays with light - the pattern changes depending on the angle you are looking it. Finally, there's a brushed-aluminum LG logo at the bottom.
The textured plastic at back of the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 would really have you believe the finish is actual leather. The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 comes with a 13MP still camera capable of 4K video recording. Unlike on the other two, you can pop the back cover open to reveal the 3,200mAh battery along with the microSIM and microSD card slots.
The Sony Xperia Z1 has a very clean but premium-looking all-glass back. The 20.7MP camera lens is nicely recessed within a steel ring. The single LED flash is right under it.
Now, splitting the win three ways isn't just us going the way of least resistance. All three obviously have their flaws but we do believe they're vastly outweighed by the benefits. The LG G2 hasn't got a memory card slot, the Z1 is too big for its screen size, and the Note 3 is a phablet - which is to say, way too big for many people.
Yet, clever optimizations for single-handed use make the Note more comfortable to operate than some phones with far smaller screens. The edge-to-edge screen in a package as compact as the LG G2 will make it easier for many users to live without memory expansion. The looks and feel, and the water-resistance of the Z1 will probably make you forgive the overly ample bezels.
Yes, compromises have been made by all three manufacturers but could have they done a much better job? We don't think so.
Winner: LG G2. That kind of screen real estate in a body this size. Enough said. In terms of screen to surface ratio and pocketability, the LG G2 is deservedly the winner. The experiment of moving the hardware controls around back worked out fine and the solid battery backup in a compact body is another point earned.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy Note 3. It's a phablet and you cannot hold size against it, but even so, the fact that it packs a bigger screen and battery into a smaller body than the previous generation is admirable. More importantly though, although it accommodates a stylus and has a USB 3.0 port, the Note 3 is still slimmer than the Xperia Z1. The Note 3 is also the only one with a removable battery, and has expandable memory, which the LG G2 lacks.
Winner: Sony Xperia Z1. If you're paying for a high-end gadget, it'd better look like one. Easily, the best looking gadget of the three isn't obviously the one with the best ergonomics, but aluminum and glass is a combination none of the others can match. There's memory expansion here too, which is no small feat considering the Z1 is water and dust-resistant. There you go, premium build and looks and IP58 certification are as good arguments as any in favor of the Z1.