Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide: spring 2012 edition
Springtime is here. It's a season of renewal, and similarly, an ideal time to replace your aging phone with one that you'll adore. With this in mind, we give you Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide -- your one-stop resource for selecting the best handset that fits your desires and budget. This time around, we're doing things a bit differently. In addition to naming the top phones for each provider, you'll now find more comparisons across carriers. This should help you find the best possible handset -- regardless of network -- if you're willing to make the switch. Also, you'll no longer see limited-time offers as our budget picks -- they'll still get a mention, but now, only phones that commonly retail below $80 will qualify for this coveted spot. Naturally, new smartphones are always coming onto the market, so before you make your final selection, be sure to consult our reviews hub for the very latest recommendations. With that in mind, read on as we round up the best smartphones of the season.

AT&T

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AT&T has no shortage of amazing smartphones to choose from, so fortunately, picking a good one is somewhat akin to shooting fish in a barrel -- it's quite fun. Our top pick for the network remains the Skyrocket, which adds a larger screen and LTE connectivity to the carrier's original Galaxy S II ($100). For those of you who've yet to receive AT&T's LTE service in your own hometown, we still recommend choosing a handset with this capability as a good insurance policy for the future. Another LTE phone that we adore is the Galaxy Note ($300), but its unorthodox size prevents it from being the most appropriate choice for the mainstream -- not to mention that AT&T's version lacks the raw horsepower of the international model. If you're able to delay your smartphone purchase just a bit, be sure to watch for our review of the One X. Its arrival at AT&T is just around the corner, and it has a good chance of becoming the carrier's premiere smartphone.< /> Even though it doesn't offer LTE, we'd encourage all users wanting an iPhone 4S ($200 - $400) to go with AT&T. Unlike the models on Sprint and Verizon, which offer a relatively slow 3G data technology known as EV-DO, AT&T's iPhone 4S offers appreciably better data transmission thanks to an improved technology known as HPSA+. Also unlike Sprint and Verizon, iPhone users on AT&T have the unique advantage of being able to talk and surf the web at the same time. Those looking to go the Windows Phone route will currently find an excellent option with the Titan ($200), but due to its lack of LTE connectivity, we recommend holding out for either the Lumia 900 ($100) or the Titan II ($200), both of which will be available on April 8th. There's no telling which handset we'll ultimately favor, but they both promise to be quality options and will add LTE to AT&T's Windows Phone repertoire.

If a keyboard is what you're after ...

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Even though QWERTY handsets are quickly being relegated to an afterthought in the smartphone realm, the Captivate Glide bucks this trend with an extremely competent option that can hold its own against the big boys. It and the Droid 4 ($200) from Verizon are currently the two most desirable smartphones with physical keyboards. One of the few omissions that may steer users toward the Droid 4 is the lack of LTE connectivity on the Captivate Glide -- fortunately, its nimble HSPA+ 21Mbps data speeds should more than satisfy the majority of consumers. We were a bit disappointed by the call quality of the Captivate Glide during our review, but otherwise, it's an outright winner.

If you're looking to squeeze every penny...

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As you've seen, we've been talking a lot about LTE in smartphones, and thanks to the Burst, you won't need to empty your bank account to join the fun. For a mere $50 layout, you'll be treated to a proper LTE handset that gives the Skyrocket a run for its money in terms of performance. Just let that sink in for a minute -- no longer do you need to spend a fortune to run with the big dogs. The Pantech Burst is the best value by a country mile on any network, and while you'll need to forego niceties such as premium build materials and a stellar camera, we think it's a trade-off that you'd be mad to refuse.

Sprint

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Want the best Galaxy S II handset in the United States? Go with Sprint. Of all the domestic models, it (along with AT&T's Galaxy S II, but not the Skyrocket), remains closest in spirit to the original with its blazing Exynos processor. In many ways, the Epic 4G Touch is an improvement from the original Galaxy S II, thanks to its larger display, extra battery life and handy notification light. In fact, its only downside is the lack of international support -- in which case, the Photon 4G ($100) remains a viable option. It's also worth a brief mention that Sprint is the only carrier that offers unlimited data for the iPhone 4S ($200 - $400), which could be a boon to some. Still, given Sprint's relatively slow EV-DO network, we feel that AT&T's still the most appropriate choice for the majority of iPhone 4S users.

If a keyboard is what you're after ...

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Want a QWERTY handset on Sprint? Don't bother. While the Epic 4G was once a fine option in its heyday, it's now a miserably outdated handset with a price that's nothing short of an insult. Until Sprint begins giving the Epic 4G away for free, you should steer clear at all costs. If you want to upgrade today, your best bet is to jump ship to either AT&T or Verizon. Otherwise, the only sane option is to wait for Sprint to get its act together.

If you're looking to squeeze every penny...

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The Conquer 4G is positioned as a low-cost WiMAX handset on the Sprint network. While we appreciate its responsive performance -- thanks in large part to the near-stock implementation of Android -- we have serious misgivings about its subpar, low-res HVGA display. Most importantly, the XPRT Conquer 4G is nothing short of a steaming pile in comparison to the Burst ($50) on AT&T. Those looking to stay with the Now Network should avoid company stores and seek out third-party resellers such as Amazon Wireless, where quality devices such as the Epic 4G Touch and Nexus S 4G can often be found for a mere penny.

T-Mobile

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In many ways, T-Mobile's Galaxy S II is the runt of the litter. Despite its use of the same chipset as the Skyrocket, it performed significantly worse in our benchmark tests and pulled up the rear in terms of battery life. To its credit, it's only when compared to the other Galaxy S II handsets that T-Mobile's version appears anything less than excellent. In practice, it offers quick performance, dependable battery life, a beautiful display and a solid camera. Depending on your region, T-Mobile offers three different classes of HSPA+: 14.4Mbps, 21Mbps and 42Mbps. Sadly, not all handsets can access the speediest tiers -- which offer blazing performance -- but T-Mobile's Galaxy S II is more than capable of riding in the fast lane. Put simply, it easily rises head and shoulders above the rest of the Magenta clan, and unless you insist on the absolute cream of the crop among smartphones, T-Mobile's Galaxy S II is a fantastic choice.

If a keyboard is what you're after ...

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We're not gonna lie, we have some serious reservations about the myTouch 4G Slide. Yes, it's the best QWERTY handset that you can find on T-Mobile, but you can do better elsewhere. Despite its dual-core foundation, the device offers sub-par performance, its star feature -- the physical keyboard -- is overly mushy, and its battery is bound to check out on you sooner rather than later. Sure, it has a fantastic camera, but its high price makes the myTouch 4G Slide a laughable choice when compared to its rivals at AT&T and Verizon.

If you're looking to squeeze every penny...

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If you're loyal to T-Mobile and need to save some cash, look no further than the Lumia 710. The handset offers consistently snappy performance that's characteristic of Windows Phone, and its support for T-Mobile's HSPA+ 14.4Mbps network translates into a nimble web browsing experience. Outside of its finicky camera, the Lumia 710 can go toe-to-toe with considerably pricier handsets, thanks to a foundation that's nearly identical to the Lumia 800. The Lumia 710 is set to receive hotspot capabilities in a future update, but if you want this feature today -- or simply insist on Android -- then the Exhibit II 4G ($70, before $50 mail-in rebate) is another great value proposition. Keen shoppers should also note that T-Mobile sporadically runs online promotions where some of its finest handsets are offered for next to nothing.

Verizon Wireless

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Motorola has won us over with the Droid RAZR Maxx by offering blistering LTE performance inside a svelte handset that simply refuses to give up the ghost. It's a pricy option, for sure, but who among us has ever complained that our phone's battery lasted too damn long? In this sense, the Droid RAZR Maxx is appropriate for anyone that can afford it, and its massive 3,300mAh cell is a clear enough advantage to unseat Verizon's previous king, the LTE-equipped Galaxy Nexus ($300). For those unable to swallow such expensive medicine, the Rezound ($200) is a worthy alternative that offers an absolutely stunning display, admirable performance and a set of premium headphones -- in fact, the only area where it comes up short is battery life. Ironic, isn't it?

If a keyboard is what you're after ...

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If you insist on having a QWERTY keyboard in your smartphone, then you're in luck. Of the two handsets on the market that we're willing to recommend, one of them just so happens to be on Verizon -- it's the Droid 4. The phone hits many high marks, thanks to its speedy performance, LTE connectivity and impressive battery life. Perhaps most importantly, its keyboard is absolutely fabulous. Our only noteworthy gripe with the Droid 4 is its relatively lackluster display. In this regard, we prefer the Captivate Glide ($150) on AT&T for its higher quality (albeit, lower-res) screen, along with its even faster performance and longer battery life. Neither option is completely without sacrifice, but if you're content to stick with Verizon, it's a safe bet, indeed.

If you're looking to squeeze every penny...

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In the ten months that've passed since the Droid X2's arrival, it's since been relegated to the carrier's value bin -- which makes it quite a steal. While, sadly, LTE isn't in the mix with this smartphone, it brings many premium features down to a price that was previously unthinkable on Verizon. The X2's high points include solid performance, excellent build quality, respectable battery life and a nice, high-res display. For those who absolutely insist on having LTE and refuse to pay a premium, the Pantech Breakout ($50) is your one-way ticket to speed -- at least in terms of data. Don't be fooled, though, because the Breakout doesn't nearly approach the performance of the Burst, and users must also contend with its sub-par battery life and a similarly lousy camera. If you're able to act before March 31st, Verizon is offering a limited-time, online promotion that'll fetch you a Droid Charge for free. Unlike the Droid X2, it packs LTE, and unlike the Breakout, it offers an excellent camera and battery life. We're also particularly fond of its display, and its only major omission is the lack of a dual-core processor. For those of you able to act quickly, Verizon is also selling the Rezound for a mere $50, now through April 9th -- quite a steal by any measure.

Boost Mobile

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Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile are both owned by Sprint, but unlike Virgin, Boost offers some rather nice handsets. If you're able to afford it, our favorite among the bunch is the Marquee, which offers a superior IPS NOVA display and a better camera than its closest rival, the Warp ($200). Both are reasonable performers, however, thanks in large part to the near stock implementation of Gingerbread (save for Sprint ID). If the desire to save some cash outweighs the Marquee's advantages, you'll be safe with the Warp, although we can't recommend descending any further down the food chain.

Cincinnati Bell

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How about a little more love for Windows Phone? The Radar is one of the most well-rounded smartphones we've come across in a good while, which offers solid performance, dependable battery life and an excellent display. We're also quite fond of its build quality and camera. Granted, the Radar can't match the spec sheet prowess of the LG 2X -- our pick if you insist on an Android phone -- but we find its $300 price tag (before $100 mail-in rebate) an absolute crime.

Cricket

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Good news for the Cricket folks: the pre-paid carrier finally has a phone that we genuinely like, and better yet, its price really can't be beat. Known as the Mercury, it's a rebadged version of the Honor, which delivers a solid display, very good performance and top-notch battery life. It's utterly without peer on the low-cost carrier, and given its relatively low cost -- after rebates, anyway -- you'd be genuinely remiss to purchase any other handset from Cricket.

C Spire Wireless

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Speaking of handsets without peer on a particular network, let's talk about the iPhone 4S on C Spire. Curiously enough, if you happen to live within the carrier's relatively limited coverage area -- primarily in Mississippi, Memphis and the Florida panhandle -- you can pick up a subsidized version of Apple's latest smartphone for $50 less than any major network. While we generally prefer larger displays and LTE connectivity, it's hard to dismiss the mass appeal of the iPhone 4S, which is redeemed by its fluid performance, pixel dense IPS Retina Display and fantastic camera. For those with a general aversion to Apple's ecosystem, you can also pick up the Milestone X2 -- a rebadged version of the Droid X2 -- for a mere $70, which also makes it a great pick for those on a budget.

MetroPCS

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At first blush, you might mistake the Connect 4G as another rebadged version of the Optimus Black, but that couldn't be further from the truth. While it retains the excellent IPS NOVA display of its forebear, the Connect 4G brings a dual-core processor and LTE connectivity to the mix. We've yet to subject the phone to a full review, but it certainly impressed us during our hands-on time with the device. The Connect 4G easily bests its similarly priced sibling, the Esteem ($349, before $30 mail-in rebate), and absolutely buries our previous pick, the Admire ($80, before $30 mail-in rebate). If you want to save some cash, we recommend the Wildfire S, which has now dropped in price to a very palatable $119 (before $30 mail-in rebate).

US Cellular

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Remember how we said that the best domestic variant of the Galaxy S II could be found on Sprint? Well, that's also quite true of US Cellular. The only appreciable difference that separates this handset from the Epic 4G Touch is US Cellular's lack of a WiMAX network -- otherwise, this version is every bit as awesome. Unfortunately, this Galaxy S II costs a full $130 more than Sprint's version, which is absolutely ridiculous.

Virgin Mobile

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As it stands, the only reasonable choice offered by Virgin Mobile's brand is the Optimus V, but before you run to the store, let's have a little discussion. Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile are both owned by Sprint, and as such, they each use the same network and offer similar pricing tiers. Our advice is to shop each brand as if it were one. While at first blush the Triumph ($280) is the superior choice on Virgin, if you're willing to spend that much cash, you're much better off grabbing the Marquee ($280) with Boost Mobile -- see how this works? Similarly, the Optimus Slider ($200) compares poorly to the Warp ($200). In fact, the only category that Boost Mobile doesn't properly address is the low-end. Meanwhile, the Optimus V is a perennial favorite of ours, and it's the only phone offered by Virgin Mobile that Boost simply can't match. That said, it's also the only phone on this list that clocks under 1GHz. Make Virgin Mobile your choice only if you can't afford to spend more.

Unlocked handsets

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There are many amazing smartphones on the market today, but if you're looking for the most powerful, awe inspiring handset among the bunch, there's no need to form a search committee -- simply choose the One X. This is the new smartphone to beat, and for the moment, it bests the competition. Not only is the phone insanely fast, but it's a stunner and feels wonderful to hold. Early adopters will be among the first to experience its high-quality, pixel-dense, 4.7-inch HD display and superb camera. You'll find HSPA+ 42Mbps connectivity on the 2100/1900/900/850MHz bands, along with support for the 1900/1800/900/850MHz bands for legacy GSM and EDGE networks.
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Our favorite handset for the unlocked scene remains the Galaxy Nexus, thanks in no small part to its pentaband HSPA+ 21Mbps radio. For this reason alone, it's an ideal solution for globetrotters and those who appreciate the freedom to use any number of carriers. It also holds special distinction as being one of the few smartphones on the market with Ice Cream Sandwich, and most importantly, it offers Android 4.0 in all its glory -- untouched and straight from Google. Our only major grievances with the handset are its relatively lackluster camera and its lack of support for USB Mass Storage mode. Those beefs aside, it remains one of the best smartphones on the market today.

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The Galaxy Note LTE recently caused quite a stir with its arrival at AT&T, but if you want a phone that really rocks, go with the international version and never look back. The Samsung Exynos SoC delivers blazing performance, but due to its lack of LTE support, you'll only find the Exynos in the HSPA+ model. Combined with the Galaxy Note's blazing performance, you'll also be treated to its impressive 5.3-inch display, excellent battery life and top-notch camera. We've also found its S Pen (a stylus on steroids) to be incredibly handy, which is bound to become only more useful once the handset receives its upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich. Sadly, the international version doesn't support T-Mobile's 1700MHz (AWS) band -- which makes it slightly less competent than the Galaxy Nexus -- but it's perfect for AT&T's network, along with the 2100MHz and 900MHz international bands.

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If you find the large size of many top-shelf Android phones a bit disagreeable, then the iPhone 4S is nothing short of a golden ticket to the world of premiere handsets -- all in a form factor that you can easily grasp. With an unlocked model available directly from Apple, it's also an excellent choice for frequent travelers. It'll give you the ability to use micro-SIMs from a number of carriers while abroad -- thanks to its quadband GSM (850, 900, 1,800, 1,900MHz) and HSPA (850, 900, 1,900, 2,100MHz) support -- all without incurring any nasty roaming charges from AT&T. Naturally, we think users are bound to appreciate the iPhone 4S's excellent Retina Display, nimble performance, quality camera and app selection that simply can't be beat.

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For those that want to buck the Android / iOS trend, the Nokia N9 remains your best bet on the unlocked scene. It offers pentaband UMTS / HSPA (14.4Mbps) support, along with quadband connectivity for GSM and EDGE networks. While we'd really love to see Nokia integrate such versatile radios into its Windows Phone handsets, for the moment, not one member of the Lumia family can match the flexibility of the N9. Thankfully, this phone is awesome -- due in no small part to its unique OS, beautiful enclosure, excellent ClearBlack display and very solid camera. Our advice? Get the white one. After all, there's nothing quite so special as owning a unicorn. Just watch your kidneys on the next trip to Candy Mountain. Editor's note: There are many outlets that sell unlocked phones, but we recommend including Expansys, Negri Electronics and NewEgg in your search. They've always treated us fairly and we're pretty sure they'll do the same for you. Good luck in the hunt, everyone!