Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

Despite the sweltering heat waves, our spirits are high at Engadget, and for good reason: it's time for our summer edition of the smartphone buyer's guide. Here, you'll find our top recommendations for the best smartphones across several US carriers, along with the best QWERTY and budget alternatives. In many ways, it's now easier than ever to find a world-class smartphone, but unless you've developed a strong brand preference, choosing one is likely more difficult than ever before. It's no secret that the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III have firmly cemented themselves as the premier smartphones of the day, but if you're torn between the two, we'll reveal our preference in this latest installment.

Summertime also brought a bit of a shock, as Microsoft revealed that Windows Phone 8 apps won't be compatible with the current generation of Windows Phone hardware. For this reason, we've excluded all Windows Phone handsets from consideration in the latest buyer's guide. While the future of Microsoft's mobile platform looks incredibly bright, a purchase now would guarantee obsolescence in the short-term. Instead, all prospective Windows Phone purchasers must wait for the next generation of handsets to become available -- you'll regret it otherwise.

Naturally, there is no shortage of rumors surrounding the next Apple iPhone, and given the handset's current lack of LTE connectivity, the iPhone 4S is certainly showing its age. While cautious purchasers may choose to bide their time, the iPhone remains top-notch in many other respects, and its arrival at a number of prepaid carriers brought a breath of fresh air to an otherwise stagnant environment.

If you're curious to see how it all unfolded -- and we know you are -- join us after the break, where we round up the very best smartphones of the season.


AT&T

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

Do you believe in love at first sight? If so, then let us introduce you to the HTC One X. The handset is currently the top pick amongst a number of Engadget editors, and many of us have adopted it as our daily driver. Yes, the Samsung Galaxy S III is excellent in its own right, but we've taken a particular liking to the sharp S-LCD 2 display, stunning build quality and superior software environment of the One X. As with any premium smartphone, you can expect a drool-worthy camera, top-tier performance, LTE connectivity and solid battery life. If you're in a position to choose any phone on any carrier, go with the One X on AT&T and never look back.

The iPhone 4S is, in many regards, a premium handset, but its lack of LTE connectivity makes it inappropriate as a future-proof solution. What's more, we believe that a near-term refresh is now inevitable. If you simply can't wait for Apple's next smartphone, however, make sure to get the iPhone 4S ($200 - $400) from AT&T. Only this model supports 14.4Mbps HSPA+ data speeds, and while the technology is no longer considered fast, it easily shames the slower EV-DO counterparts at Sprint and Verizon.


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

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

Even though QWERTY handsets are quickly being relegated to an afterthought in the smartphone realm, the Captivate Glide is still a relevant option that provides a sufficient level of modern amenities to those who insist on a physical keyboard. One of the few omissions that may steer users toward the Droid 4 on Verizon Wireless ($200) is the lack of LTE connectivity on the Captivate Glide -- fortunately, its nimble HSPA+ 21Mbps data speeds should 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 a thoroughly solid smartphone.


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

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

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 $0.99, 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

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

We need to have a very frank conversation. If you're currently a Sprint customer and it's time for renewal, you need to start evaluating other carriers. While we're huge fans of the carrier's commitment to unlimited data and aggressive pricing, the truth is that its LTE coverage is painfully small. Sprint's latest smartphones no longer support the 4G WiMAX network, and as is -- even with the most advanced phone on the planet -- the majority of consumers can expect data speeds that barely exceed EDGE performance. That said, if you have a strong loyalty to Sprint (or are one of the lucky few with LTE coverage), your best bet for a new smartphone is the HTC EVO 4G LTE. The phone combines much of what we love about the One X on AT&T and adds to it a dedicated camera button, larger battery, removable storage and a handy kickstand. Make no mistake, the Samsung Galaxy S III is also a thoroughly excellent smartphone, but it doesn't quite match the overall quality and numerous improvements of the HTC EVO 4G LTE.


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

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

Want a QWERTY handset on Sprint? Don't bother -- at least not right now. 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 introduces an updated smartphone with a physical keyboard, 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 -- which may come sooner rather than later, in the form of the Motorola Photon Q LTE.


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

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

Normally, we'd delight in the ability to highlight an LTE handset that's free on contract, but like the HTC EVO 4G LTE, the LG Viper 4G LTE is a solid smartphone that's in search of a network. While we're big fans of the Viper's near-stock Android implementation, its competent performance and NFC capabilities, Sprint customers that are due for an upgrade would be better served by the Pantech Burst on AT&T. The Burst combines a dual-core processor with a price that's nearly free, along with access to an LTE network that's quickly expanding its coverage.


T-Mobile

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

While we're genuine believers in the HTC One X as the ultimate smartphone of the day, the Samsung Galaxy S III comes in a very close second and competently trounces the competition on T-Mobile. Make no mistake, the HTC One S is an excellent mid-range smartphone, but the Galaxy S III provides a superior HD display, NFC capabilities and removable storage. The extra screen real estate never hurts, either.


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

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

Suffice it to say, but those wanting a quality QWERTY smartphone on T-Mobile are currently facing a grim situation. Our previous pick, the myTouch 4G Slide, is no longer part of the carrier's lineup, and while the myTouch Q ($100 before $50 mail-in rebate) is set to debut on August 8th, its keyboard is lousy. All of this amounts to the BlackBerry Bold 9900 4G being our de facto selection. Archaic software aside, the handset is impressively built and feels premium in many respects. What's more, it remains an excellent choice for those who place productivity at the top of their list. Unfortunately, the Bold 9900's high price is nothing short of an insult, and we think that most users will be better served by the Droid 4 ($200) on Verizon or the Captivate Glide ($50) on AT&T.


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

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

We were previously staunch supporters of the Nokia Lumia 710 as the most well-rounded budget offering on T-Mobile, but the fact that the handset won't run the next generation of Windows Phone apps can't be ignored. Meanwhile, the Samsung Galaxy S 4G is sure to appeal to those searching for a solid smartphone yet aren't able to splurge on a more expensive offering. That said, the phone is rather outdated by current standards. If you're willing to be patient, your best bet is to hold out for a promotion from T-Mobile that features either the Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G or the HTC One S at a price that's in line with your budget. Alternatively, if you're willing to switch carriers, both the Pantech Burst ($1) on AT&T and the LG Lucid ($50) on Verizon each represent relatively modern smartphones at prices that are delightfully modest.


Verizon Wireless

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

Like AT&T, Verizon Wireless is currently awash in excellent smartphones, though with a more diverse lineup, you're more likely to find a phone that caters to your specific needs. The Galaxy S III is easily our stand-out favorite of the bunch, which retains (almost) everything we love about Samsung's premiere smartphone, including its excellent camera, fantastic performance and solid battery life. Unfortunately, it also features an encrypted bootloader, which means that if you're even remotely interested in custom ROMs, you should avoid the Galaxy S III from Verizon. It's worth mentioning that Samsung will sell the Galaxy S III Developer Edition to circumvent the carrier, but its $600 off-contract price will deter many.

If the Galaxy S III isn't for you, the Droid RAZR Maxx remains an excellent candidate for those who insist on maximum battery life above all other considerations, and the Galaxy Nexus is a solid go-to smartphone for those who prefer a stock Android experience. We're also quite happy with the Droid Incredible 4G LTE, which is your best bet if you want a compact smartphone. Unfortunately, we cannot recommend the iPhone 4S on Verizon Wireless due to its EV-DO limitations.


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

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

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 ($50) 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 ...

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

We need to qualify our recommendation of the LG Lucid as it's one of the few handsets we've yet to review. While we can't speak to its quality, the Lucid features many of elements that we look for in a smartphone, and it appears to be the clear-cut choice for Verizon Wireless. To begin with, it's the only option that offers both LTE connectivity and a price that doesn't exceed our $80 limit. Beyond that, the Lucid features a 1.2GHz dual-core CPU and an IPS display at 800 x 480 resolution. LG has already committed to Android 4.0 for the Lucid, which is a good thing -- as is, the phone ships with Android 2.3.


Boost Mobile

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

The EVO Design 4G had a difficult time making a name for itself at Sprint, but it easily distinguishes itself as Boost Mobile's premiere smartphone. Not only is the EVO Design 4G the carrier's only WiMAX handset, it's also the only one to offer Ice Cream Sandwich. Likewise, its higher-res qHD display is heads and shoulders above the competition. If the high price of the EVO Design 4G stands as a deterrent, you'll also do well for yourself with the LG Marquee ($250) or ZTE Warp ($180), although we can't recommend descending any further down the food chain.


Cincinnati Bell

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

Cincinnati Bell has the unique luxury of acquiring hand-me-downs from T-Mobile, and as luck should have it, the HTC One S is the carrier's best inheritance yet. While the phone doesn't reach the high echelons of its larger sibling, it offers the same excellent performance and camera within a smaller enclosure that some will find preferable. It's worth pointing out, however, that Cincinnati Bell currently charges the same price for the One S as AT&T charges for the One X, and unlike T-Mobile, you're unlikely to find any substantial promotions with the regional carrier. All in all, the HTC One S at Cincinnati Bell is an excellent smartphone but a poor value proposition.


Cricket

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

How does an unlimited smartphone plan for just $55 per month strike you? Throw in contract-free wireless service and you're sold -- right? That's the selling point of Cricket, which requires that customers purchase their phones outright in exchange for a lower monthly rate. In the past, the carrier has struggled to offer top-tier smartphones to its customers, but all of that changed with the introduction of the iPhone 4S. Now, the only question that remains is whether you're willing to pony up for it. While the $500 price tag may seem difficult to swallow, the latest iPhone exists in a league of its own at the prepaid carrier. For those unable to afford the iPhone 4S, we recommend the Huawei Mercury ($200).


C Spire Wireless

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

The Samsung Galaxy S III is said to arrive at C Spire Wireless later this year, but for the moment, its older, less powerful sibling -- the Galaxy S II -- is where it's at. Customers who want the very latest and greatest should undoubtedly wait for the new arrival, but it's difficult to know exactly when that'll be. Meanwhile, at just $100, the Galaxy S II is quite compelling in its own right. Most similar to the Epic 4G Touch ($100) on Sprint, the phone offers the same beautiful display, quality camera and excellent performance that we've known and loved for the past year. It's also worth mentioning that C Spire is also a tempting destination for Apple fans, as the carrier generally offers its iPhone 4S for a full $50 less than the competition.


MetroPCS

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

At first blush, you might mistake the Connect 4G as another re-badged version of the Optimus Black, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Instead, it's most similar to the Viper 4G LTE on Sprint, and just the same, you'll find an excellent IPS NOVA display that's paired with a dual-core processor and LTE connectivity. We haven't subjected the Connect 4G to a full review, but it certainly impressed us during our hands-on time with the device. Better yet, the phone easily bests its more expensive sibling, the LG Esteem ($379). Although MetroPCS recently debuted the Activa 4G ($199 before $50 mail-in rebate) as its least expensive LTE smartphone, it's also a weakling that most users are likely to outgrow rather quickly.


US Cellular

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

Not only is the Galaxy S III the best phone on US Cellular, it's the only choice for those who demand both cutting-edge performance and LTE connectivity. As Samsung has proven rather stringent in its dealings with carriers -- allowing little to no modification -- we feel comfortable recommending the phone without hesitation, despite the fact that we've yet to review US Cellular's variant. Meanwhile, the carrier's only other LTE smartphone, the Galaxy S Aviator ($130 - $200), is a clone of the Droid Charge from Verizon Wireless. Although the Aviator remains a fine handset in many respects, its unjustifiably high price makes it a relatively poor choice.


Virgin Mobile

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

How low can you go? That's the angle at Virgin Mobile, and so long as you don't exceed 300 voice minutes within a month, you can score a plan that includes both unlimited messaging and data usage for just $30, which is possible with the carrier's $5/month auto pay discount. As with Cricket, however, there's a downside, and this time, it's more severe: the 16GB iPhone 4S will set you back a full $650. Naturally, this means you'll need to keep the handset around for quite some time before you realize any savings. If you're unable to afford the iPhone (or simply prefer Android), we recommend you grab the HTC One V; while it's not the most powerful smartphone you'll come across, at just $199, it represents the best balance of price vs. quality at Virgin Mobile.


Unlocked

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide summer 2012 edition

When Google introduced the Galaxy Nexus into the Play Store at just $349 -- with a full warranty, mind you -- the smartphone immediately became the no-brainer decision in the unlocked scene. Unlike most handsets, the Galaxy Nexus includes a pentaband HSPA+ 21Mbps radio that supports both AT&T and T-Mobile, along with a wide number of Canadian and European carriers. For this reason, the Galaxy Nexus is an ideal solution for globetrotters. Even better, it also holds special distinction as the only smartphone to currently offer Android 4.1 (otherwise known as Jelly Bean). While the Galaxy Nexus is no longer on the cutting edge of smartphones, it remains a perennial favorite around these parts due to its stock Android OS and hacker-friendly approach. For those looking to cut costs, carriers such as Simple Mobile and T-Mobile offer financial incentives to those who bring their own handsets, with unlimited plans that start at just $40 per month.

0 Comments

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide: summer 2012 edition