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What began in 2011 as a brand-new phone category has flourished into one of the most popular in the world. Smartphones with big screens (phablets, to some) are now ubiquitous, but it all started with an odd device called the Samsung Galaxy Note. At 5.3 inches, it was a behemoth for its day -- and yet, it sold like hotcakes thanks to its unique S Pen stylus, which provided users with extra functionality, and a copious amount of screen space.

Four iterations later, the Note series has continued to grow, mature and dominate the genre. Not only does the latest version, the Galaxy Note 4, come with the snazziest spec sheet on the market, but it also ushers in a fantastic new direction in Samsung's design. It sure sounds like an improvement over last year's model, and it is. Now that Apple's ready to tackle the Note with a large-screen phone of its own, however, is Samsung's baby still the best in its class?

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Pop quiz, hotshot: When's the last time you saw a Sharp phone in the United States? The Sharp FX from years back? Maybe the FX Plus? If you're anything like me, your mind will hearken back to chunky clamshell classics like this one. Long story short, it's been ages since Sharp has had any kind of mobile presence around these parts. That's something the Japanese company is finally ready to change, and it's aiming to do it with a splash. Enter the AQUOS Crystal, one of the most striking phones you'll ever see. It's finally available for $149 on Boost Mobile now and Sprint will get it come October 17th, but we have questions -- so many questions. Has Sharp figured out a way to crack the all-too-fickle US market? Are we looking at a classic case of style over substance?

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When a company names one of their products after the first letter of the Greek alphabet, it means business. Take Samsung's Galaxy Alpha: The name alone exudes confidence. Although the term typically signifies the first in a series, the Alpha obviously isn't Samsung's inaugural Android phone; rather, it ushers in a completely new design direction for the company. It's not a top-of-the-line flagship device on the inside, but what matters is that it actually looks like one on the outside, thanks to its premium aesthetics, metal frame and sleek body. Samsung has every reason to be confident in the Alpha's design. As always, however, there's more to a device than meets the eye.

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When you're trying to compete in the phone-making game, there are certain challenges. On the one hand, you want to dazzle customers with innovative features. On the other hand, you want to keep the suit-wearing shareholders happy with growth and strong, continued sales. The bottleneck in this equation is often technology. You can't force it to progress. So once you've more or less caught up, you're left with a choice: Innovate with software/hardware design, or take a risk with gimmicky features. Any of the above will do in lieu of the (unspeakable) alternative -- not releasing a new model this year.

We're not trying to preload this review of Sony's new Z3 flagship, which arrives barely six months after its predecessor. Or maybe we are. What we're definitely doing is spelling it out right here in the intro: The Z3 looks a lot like the Z2, and after a quick glance at the spec sheet, you might argue it sounds a lot like it too. This is pertinent because, by its own admission, Sony isn't doing very well at competing in the phone-making game. Given the above, is the Z3 going to tempt existing customers to upgrade? Or perhaps lure those over from other brands? T-Mobile will be stocking it this fall, though the price isn't yet known. Currently it's £550 in the UK -- a touch above the HTC One and Galaxy S5. Let's have a look, shall we?

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Whether it's government agencies, identity thieves, opportunistic hackers or marketers, everyone wants your personal data. As we live more of our lives than ever online, we're increasingly aware of how much data we produce, and the need to protect it. With smartphones playing a key role in our always-connected lifestyle, there's a new breed of services and devices for consumers who want to stay off the grid without going offline. Leading the charge is the Blackphone, a $629 handset that prioritizes privacy over everything else. Running a custom, secure version of Android and shipping with a wealth of privacy tools preinstalled, it claims to be an "unparalleled product" where data protection is concerned. Thanks to the awesome folks at online retailer GSM Nation, who were kind enough to send one for review, I've been getting to know the device and finding out how it keeps data safe from prying eyes.

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Moto G review (2014): still the best budget smartphone

Last year's Moto G took us all by surprise. Sure, we knew Motorola wanted to reinvent the cheap smartphone experience, but the very first device in the company's cost crusade was even better than we expected. Let's be honest, though: The G's greatest asset was its small, small price tag. For $180 off-contract, it became awfully easy to forgive the thing for not being the quickest, the prettiest or the smartest. Still, it was one of those gadgets that wound up being more than just "good enough"; between the price and performance, the Moto G was one of the best cheap smartphones you could own, period.

Here we are less than a year later, and we've got a sequel to play with (one with the same name, no less). If you took a quick peek at what it brings to the table, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Motorola wanted to play it safe the second time around -- the new Moto G isn't a game changer, and it doesn't have to be. Does this year's model clear the "good enough" bar once again? And just how far will $180 take you this year?

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To say that Apple's doing things differently would be an understatement. With the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, the company introduced two new high-end phones at the same time, both with a complete redesign and a much larger screen size than any iPhone that came before. Gone are the days of 3.5-inch and 4-inch phones that, at one time, seemed to provide more than ample amounts of screen space. Now, the new iPhones make their predecessors look like the tiny handset Ben Stiller used in Zoolander. The market has changed, and it was high time Apple did the same.

Even though this is Apple's first attempt at building large phones, it's not breaking new ground -- in fact, it feels more like the company is catching up than innovating. To be fair, finding a fresh take is a difficult thing to do in this crowded space: Samsung's Galaxy Note series, which started out at 5.3 inches and is now up to 5.7, is selling by the millions, and most competing flagships aren't much smaller. Basically, Apple would be leaving money on the table if it didn't address this segment of the market. So how did the company do on its first try at large phones? Pretty well -- mostly.

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Out with the old, in with the new. That was the theme of last year's iOS update, known as iOS 7, which ushered in a flat new design. Although Apple threw in some new functionality as well, it was clear the company was mainly focused on giving its mobile OS a face-lift and setting the stage for future updates -- the first of which is coming out tomorrow. iOS 8 builds on last year's software with a plethora of new features, including third-party keyboards, camera controls, widgets, home automation, health and fitness tools and the ability to interact with other apps. (Yes, it's hard to believe these are just arriving on iOS.) Here's what to expect.

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When it comes to wearables, fashion trumps function. That's the mantra Motorola went by when it designed and developed the Moto 360, and judging by the enthusiastic response the watch received when it was unveiled earlier this year, plenty of people agree. The Moto 360 is undoubtedly the best-looking of the three inaugural Android Wear watches (the LG G Watch and the Samsung Gear Live are the other two), with its premium leather strap, chamfered glass and circular design. As Motorola designer Jim Wicks said in an interview, "We wanted to hit that 'Whoa!' mark." And so it did. But is that enough? In the past few days, I struggled to like this watch, even though it's the best Android Wear device available today. Allow me to tell you why.

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I'll be honest with you: When the first Moto X came out last year, some early apprehension soon gave way to unwavering fondness. It wasn't because of the sheer horsepower (there wasn't much of it) or a stunner of a screen (it was fine, at best). No, it was because the Moto X smacked of pluck. You could customize it to hell and back. It tried to improve on stock Android with software features that were actually quite useful. And the icing on the cake? It was a pure joy to hold. Motorola -- a company that basically jump-started the premium Android phone movement with the Droid before getting lost in an endless loop of modest annual upgrades -- seemed to have a pulse again. So here we are, one year later, and the X has finally gotten an upgrade to match the rest of the mobile big boys. Is it enough to make the new X a winner? Is Motorola really back? Read on, dear friends, and we'll see.

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Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 Nook review: good for reading, but hardly the best budget tablet

There was a time when Barnes & Noble was so big, so dominating, that even Tom Hanks managed to look like a jerk when he played a book-chain executive. But times have changed, and as people began to order their books online -- or even download them -- B&N found itself struggling to keep up. After losing a lot of money last year, the company decided it was time for a change: It vowed to stop making its own tablets, and instead team up with some third-party company to better take on Amazon and its Kindle Fire line. Turns out, that third party was none other than Samsung, and the fruits of their partnership, the $179 Galaxy Tab 4 Nook, is basically a repackaged version of the existing Galaxy Tab 4 7.0. Well, almost, anyway. The 7-inch slate comes pre-loaded with $200 worth of free content, and the core Nook app has been redesigned to the point that it actually offers a better reading experience than the regular Nook Android app. But is that a good enough reason to buy this instead of a Kindle Fire? Or any other Android tablet, for that matter?

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Since Windows Phone's humble beginnings, Microsoft has been the underdog in the wireless industry. Four years later, nothing's changed -- except, perhaps, a few more percentage points of market share. Even then, it's got a long way to go before catching up to Android and iOS. Let's give the company credit for pushing forward, improving its platform and not giving up, though: When I reviewed the last major OS update, I said I could finally use Windows Phone as my daily driver. The one element that Microsoft continued to lack, however, was buy-in from large phone makers. They put more focus on Android products, which meant anyone interested in Windows Phone had a small selection of devices to choose from.

For Microsoft, it's time to experiment with a new, simpler approach. The software giant has buddied up with HTC to convert the One M8, its Android flagship, into a Windows Phone. That's all there is to it. There's absolutely no change to the hardware -- and it's a fantastic idea. If it fails, neither company loses much from the deal; since they're using an existing phone, the cost of design and engineering is far lower than it would be on a standalone device. If it's successful, it may inspire other manufacturers to follow suit, resulting in a market with a wide variety of Windows Phones to choose from. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, right?

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There's mounting evidence that HP, once the leading PC maker, does not know what it's doing. After announcing plans to cut up to 5 percent of its work force, the company is basically throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Recent experiments include a luxury smartwatch, Chromebooks, a $199 Window notebook and now, a laptop running Android. Here's the sales pitch, and bear with me if this doesn't make sense: The SlateBook 14, according to HP, is for students and teens who already use Android on their mobile devices. In other words, they already own a Galaxy S5 or what have you, and they should have an Android laptop to match. The idea is that they might choose this over a Chromebook because it has more apps, and because it's more familiar. Ditto for Windows laptops -- except, you know, Windows actually has lots of apps too. Setting aside HP's flawed logic (they never said Windows users should stick to Windows Phone): Why would you pay $430 for a laptop running an OS that was primarily meant to be used with the fingers?

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Nokia Lumia 930 review: like the Icon, but better

Microsoft's acquisition of Nokia is now bearing fruit, but as often happens when big companies merge, there aren't enough jobs to go around. More than 10,000 former Nokia employees are due to be laid off by the end of the year, but their legacy will live on for a time in the Lumia 930: one of the last all-Nokia creations. If you live in the UK, then you already know where to get the flagship Windows Phone, but the more important question is whether you want one. We've already taken a deep dive on the 930 in our review of the Lumia Icon, which is essentially the same phone, just exclusive to Verizon in the US. Let's revisit the good, the bad and the competition.

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The "Swiss Army knife of electronics." That's the best way Sprint can define the LivePro, a touchscreen projector/Android hotspot made by Chinese manufacturer ZTE. The device, which goes for $300 with a two-year contract, is the first in a brand-new hybrid category -- and depending on how successful it is, it may well be the last. Although the LivePro has a wide range of capabilities that make it useful on many different fronts, its demand will be incredibly niche. What kind of person needs such a unique device, and is it good enough to even attract them?

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