Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide fall 2012 edition

Shopping for a smartphone can be an exciting and arduous experience. Along with the promise of something new and fantastic, it brings the fear of commitment, and even worse, the prospect of saddling yourself to a lousy device for two years. Fortunately for you, Engadget spends tons of time playing with the latest gear and we're constantly on the lookout for what's coming next. If you're wanting to take the pain out of shopping for a smartphone, you've come to the right place. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide: your one-stop resource to finding the best and most exciting handsets on the market today.

Before you dive in, however, we've introduced a few changes to the buyer's guide, so take a minute to prepare yourself for what's in store. First and foremost, you'll now find alternate selections to supplement our top picks. This should already be familiar to many of you, which is the same format we use for our seasonal gift guides. The next one is a biggie: we've dropped the QWERTY selection. By and large, manufacturers and carriers alike have shifted their focus away from keyboard-equipped smartphones, and you'll rarely find more than one option on any given carrier. That said, if you still insist on the tactile experience, you'll always find everything you need to know in our reviews. Finally, whenever possible, you'll now find prices from Amazon Wireless, which allows us to provide you with more compelling budget selections and highlight the substantial savings that you can score by circumventing the carriers. It's not like they need your charity, anyway.

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

HTC One X

DNP TEST HGG

Five months have passed since its debut, and as a testament to its staying power, the HTC One X remains our top pick for AT&T. Not only does it combine excellent performance, a large and beautiful 720p display and a fantastic camera into one stunning handset, but at just $0.01 through Amazon Wireless, it also represents the very best value on the market today. A near-term release of Jelly Bean promises to bring a new lease on life to the venerable One X, and the only consideration that keeps it from being a no-brainer is that its successor has already been announced. Still, this is an amazing value by any measure, which qualifies the One X as our unequivocal budget pick for AT&T -- or any carrier, for that matter.

Key specs: 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 4.7-inch HD (1,280 x 720) S-LCD 2 display, 8MP rear / 1.3MP front cameras, 16GB built-in storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $0.01 at Amazon Wireless

You might also like...

DNP TEST HGG

Apple iPhone 5

It's no secret that the iPhone 5 is among the most compelling smartphones on the market today, and for good reason: it brings snappy performance, a top-notch display, commendable battery life and an excellent camera to the table. We're also particularly fond of its beautiful enclosure, and all things told, the iPhone 5 is the best choice on the market for those who insist on a compact smartphone.

Price: $199 at Apple

DNP TEST HGG

Samsung Galaxy Note II

While the Galaxy Note II certainly isn't for everyone, many users will absolutely adore the additional functionality that comes with the S Pen stylus. What's more, it currently leads the pack in terms of raw performance, and it packs a spacious, beautiful display and amazing camera to boot. Better yet, upon its release, the Galaxy Note II will come dashing out of the gate with Jelly Bean.

Price: TBA

You might want to wait for...

DNP TEST HGG

HTC One X+

While the One X remains awesome to this day, power hungry shoppers may prefer to wait for the One X+, which combines a quad-core Tegra 3, a larger 2,100mAh battery and 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. As another reason to smile, it'll ship with Jelly Bean from the get-go. Keep in mind that you'll likely need to pony up a decent chunk of cash to snag this untamed beast, but if you insist on living on the bleeding edge, it could be well worth it.

Price: TBA

DNP TEST HGG

Nokia Lumia 920

If you've never developed much of a fondness for either Android or iOS, it goes without saying that Windows Phone deserves your attention. Set to debut later this year, the Lumia 920 packs some serious treats for camera junkies, which offers superb low-light performance and peerless optical stabilization technologies -- a boon for those who tend to shoot shaky videos. In all, the Lumia 920 promises to be a thoroughly premium smartphone, and it'll even offer wireless charging via a pillow, of all things.

Price: TBA

Sprint

HTC EVO 4G LTE

DNP TEST HGG

Those in search of the best smartphone on Sprint need look no further than the EVO 4G LTE. A retooled version of the One X, it combines much of what we love from the original and adds to it a dedicated camera button, larger battery, removable storage and a handy kickstand. What's more, its $30 price positions it as the best value on Sprint and similarly qualifies it as our budget pick. That said, unless you know for certain that Sprint will soon bring LTE to your area, you're guaranteed to have a more rewarding experience with the One X and AT&T's vastly superior network speeds and LTE coverage.

Key specs: 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 4.7-inch HD (1,280 x 720) S-LCD 2 display, 8MP rear / 1.3MP front cameras, 16GB built-in storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $30 at Amazon Wireless

You might also like...

DNP TEST HGG

Apple iPhone 5

While the iPhone 5 is an excellent handset, only those under unique circumstances should choose this model. For example, if you know that your area will be covered by Sprint's LTE service and you're looking to take advantage of its unlimited plans, then go for it. Other than that, however, you're more likely to benefit from the iPhone 5 on Verizon Wireless, which offers access to a much larger LTE footprint in the US and accepts international nano-SIM cards without issue.

Price: $199 at Apple

DNP TEST HGG

Samsung Galaxy Note II

Sure, you could pick up a Galaxy S III for Sprint today and be completely happy, but if you're not sold on the EVO 4G LTE -- which is the better of the two smartphones in terms of software, overall quality and value -- then we seriously suggest you wait for the arrival of the Galaxy Note II. Not only is its large display in a class of its own, but the phone also offers raw horsepower and unique functionality that no other phone can currently match.

Price: $300 at Sprint on October 25th

You might want to wait for...

DNP TEST HGG

LG Optimus G

If the Galaxy Note II isn't your thing and you're still keen on owning the very latest gear, then you'd be wise to wait for our review of the Optimus G. Not only will it be among the first smartphones on the market to wield a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, but it'll also boast a large IPS HD display and a rather unique 13-megapixel camera. While we can't yet recommend the Optimus G, we have little doubt that it'll be among the most intriguing smartphones to emerge in the coming months.

Price: $200 at Sprint on November 11th

T-Mobile

Samsung Galaxy S III

DNP TEST HGG

While most of us prefer HTC's high-end offerings at AT&T and Sprint, that's not to suggest that the Galaxy S III isn't an excellent smartphone in its own right. More importantly, its our pick for the majority of subscribers at T-Mobile. Unfortunately, this Galaxy S III is also the most expensive of all the major carrier variants, which means that shoppers will need to find value in T-Mobile's unique offerings such as free WiFi calling and unlimited data usage to make the handset a worthwhile purchase. Despite the carrier's lack of LTE coverage, its 42Mbps HSPA+ network offers excellent data speeds in areas where it's available.

Key specs: 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 4.8-inch HD (1,280 x 720) Super AMOLED display, 8MP rear / 2MP front cameras, 16GB or 32GB built-in storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $280 (16GB) or $330 (32GB) at T-Mobile

You might also like...

DNP TEST HGG

HTC One S

The HTC One S isn't quite as impressive as the One X on AT&T, although it offers roughly the same level of performance and the same excellent camera. The most glaring weakness of the One S is its inferior qHD display, which is less pixel dense -- and thus not quite as sharp -- as the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II. That said, it's still an excellent smartphone and is nearly ideal for those who'd prefer a more compact handset.

Price: $150 at T-Mobile

DNP TEST HGG

Samsung Galaxy Note II

While we certainly wouldn't consider the Galaxy Note II a phone for the masses, it's our selection of choice for power users who demand either blazing fast performance or maximum screen real estate. We're also fans of the extra functionality that it offers, which includes the ability to quickly jot down notes and annotate photos. Like other carriers, the Galaxy Note II isn't yet available at T-Mobile, although we expect that to change in short order.

Price: TBA

If you're on a tight budget...

DNP TEST HGG

Nokia Lumia 710

If you're stuck in a situation where you absolutely must have a new T-Mobile smartphone today and you can't afford to spend much, the Lumia 710 is far and away your best option, although it comes with one gigantic caveat: it's incompatible with the next generation of Windows Phone apps. Unfortunately, T-Mobile's other smartphones are sorely deficient in the budget realm. We recommend either switching carriers or waiting until the One S, Galaxy S II or Galaxy S Blaze 4G are sold at a promotional discount that's in line with your budget.

Price: Free at T-Mobile

You might want to wait for...

DNP TEST HGG

HTC Windows Phone 8X

If you're looking for a phone that absolutely oozes personality, there's a good chance that the Windows Phone 8X will fit the bill. By coordinating the enclosure with the software, HTC is looking to give smartphone owners a clean break from the buttoned-down black monotony. We also have reason to believe it'll be a serious hardware competitor: the phone boasts a 720p S-LCD 2 display, and HTC has been talking up its quality camera and superior audio -- both good signs.

Price: TBA

DNP TEST HGG

Nokia Lumia 810

While the Lumia 810 will undoubtedly be somewhat of a mid-tier offering when it lands at T-Mobile, it'll offer one key advantage over all other smartphones: Nokia's finely tuned suite of apps. This includes advanced camera features, augmented reality, an e-book / news reader, a transit planner and the best offline navigation system we've ever come across. Not to let HTC have all the fun, the Lumia 810 is a downright colorful creation in its own right.

Price: TBA

Verizon Wireless

Samsung Galaxy S III

DNP TEST HGG

Verizon Wireless is currently awash in excellent smartphones, and while it's a tough call, the Galaxy S III is our favorite of the bunch. In addition to its spacious and beautiful display, it offers an excellent camera, fantastic performance and solid battery life. It's also an excellent value at Amazon Wireless, which positions it as the best bang for your buck. Our only major grievance with Verizon's Galaxy S III is its encrypted bootloader, which means that you'll need to jump through a few loopholes to load custom ROMs on the device. Additionally, while the carrier has promised an update to enable international roaming support, it's yet to deliver on the promise.

Key specs: 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 4.8-inch HD (1,280 x 720) Super AMOLED display, 8MP rear / 2MP front cameras, 16GB or 32GB built-in storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $149 (16GB) or $199 (32GB) at Amazon Wireless

You might also like...

DNP TEST HGG

Apple iPhone 5

Unlike the Galaxy S III, Apple's latest iPhone offers unrestricted global roaming, which should be at the forefront of your list if you make a habit of traveling abroad. Siri also boasts superior voice control, which is a distinct advantage for those who make regular use of the feature. Given the iPhone 5's snappy performance, excellent camera and dependable battery life, the decision is a no-brainer if you prefer Apple's iOS. It also goes without saying that the iPhone 5 should also be on your short list if you prefer a compact handset.

Price: $199 at Apple

DNP TEST HGG

Samsung Galaxy Note II

The Galaxy Note II not only wields a wicked fast quad-core processor, but also boasts a stunning HD display and the latest version of Android. The phone is an excellent choice for shutterbugs, too, as the massive display also doubles as a viewfinder, and it combines the same camera as you'll find in the Galaxy S III and adds additional software features that you won't currently find on any other model. The Galaxy Note II combines the best features of a smartphone, tablet and sketchbook into one genuinely compelling device.

Price: TBA

You might want to wait for...

DNP TEST HGG

HTC's rumored 5-inch 'DLX'

As far as HTC and Verizon are concerned, this phone doesn't exist. Still, we've seen a number of rumors that suggest an epic smartphone is in the carrier's pipeline that wields a 5-inch, 1080p display, a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro and a lofty 12MP rear / 2MP front camera combo. There's no certainty that this supposed beast will ever see the light of day, but if you're willing to wait for something that may not exist, then you're probably not in much of a hurry to make a purchase, anyway.

DNP TEST HGG

Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx HD

If gobs of battery life is at the top of your smartphone desires, you'd be wise to hold out for our review of the Droid RAZR Maxx HD, which promises to lead the pack for overall endurance. Like its predecessor, it boasts a massive 3,300mAh cell, but more importantly, it's keeping up with the times with a speedier processor, higher-res display and a (hopefully) better camera. While the phone will debut with Ice Cream Sandwich, Motorola has promised to deliver an update to Jelly Bean in short order.

Price: $199 at Amazon Wireless

Boost Mobile

Samsung Galaxy S II 4G

DNP TEST HGG

It may cost more than you were hoping to spend, but those in search of the best smartphone at Boost Mobile should look no further than the Galaxy S II 4G. The handset is the very same as the Sprint model that we absolutely adore, which includes a dual-core Exynos processor, a fabulous Super AMOLED Plus display that boasts a traditional RGB (non-PenTile) matrix and a camera that still impresses to this day. Even if you have to scrimp and save for a few months to make it happen, all Boost Mobile customers should choose the Galaxy S II 4G, as it's well worth it.

Key specs: 1.2GHz dual-core Exynos, 4.5-inch WVGA (800 x 480) Super AMOLED Plus display, 8MP rear / 2MP front cameras, 16GB built-in storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $370 at Boost Mobile

Cincinnati Bell

HTC One S

DNP TEST HGG

Cincinnati Bell has the unique luxury of acquiring hand-me-downs from T-Mobile. Unfortunately, it's yet to visit the figurative thrift store as of late. Suffice it to say, while the lineup is aging, the One S is still an excellent smartphone, which offers the same top-notch performance and camera as the One X, yet within a smaller enclosure that some will find preferable. We're also happy to see that Cincinnati Bell has lowered the price of the One S, which is now slightly more competitive than T-Mobile.

Key specs: 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 4.3-inch qHD (960 x 540) Super AMOLED display, 8MP rear / VGA front cameras, 16GB built-in storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $100 at Cincinnati Bell

Cricket

Apple iPhone 5

DNP TEST HGG

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. While the carrier continues to struggle with its premium smartphone selection, there's one that stands head and shoulders above the rest: it's the iPhone 5. Now, the only question that remains is whether you're willing to pony up for it. Yes, the $500 price tag may seem difficult to swallow, but the latest iPhone exists in a league of its own at the prepaid carrier. Unfortunately, it's not yet available on Cricket's website, which suggests the carrier is struggling to get sufficient inventory. For those unable to afford the iPhone 5, we recommend the HTC One V ($210).

Key specs: 1.3GHz dual-core A6, 4-inch Retina (1,136 x 640) IPS display, 8MP rear / 1.2MP front cameras, 16GB, 32GB or 64GB built-in storage, iOS 6.

Price: $500 at Cricket (pending availability)

MetroPCS

LG Connect 4G

DNP TEST HGG

While we're not particularly taken with any smartphone on MetroPCS, if we were forced to throw down our own money on one, we'd most certainly walk out the door with the Connect 4G. 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. As for the carrier's other smartphones, the Galaxy S Lightray 4G is certainly its most premium device, but you'd be a fool to throw down $459 for what amounts to a clone of the Droid Charge. Similarly, while the Anthem 4G ($199) may look good on paper, our experience suggests that it's a seriously flawed piece of hardware.

Key specs: 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon S3, 4-inch WVGA (800 x 480) IPS display, 5MP rear / VGA front cameras, 4GB built-in storage, Android 2.3.

Price: $349 at MetroPCS

US Cellular

Samsung Galaxy S III

DNP TEST HGG

It shouldn't come as much surprise that we recommend the Galaxy S III as the best overall smartphone for US Cellular. As Samsung has proven extremely stringent in its dealings with carriers, we feel comfortable recommending the phone without hesitation, despite the fact that we've yet to review this variant. If the Galaxy S III is outside of what you can afford, we recommend you snag the Galaxy S Aviator ($50), which is a clone of the Droid Charge, and like the Galaxy S III, is one of the few smartphones within US Cellular's lineup to support LTE. Naturally, the Galaxy Note II ($300) will be another exciting option, which will arrive as the carrier's most powerful smartphone and the only one to ship with Jelly Bean.

Key specs: 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 4.8-inch HD (1,280 x 720) Super AMOLED display, 8MP rear / 2MP front cameras, 16GB or 32GB built-in storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $199 (16GB) or $249 (32GB) at US Cellular

Virgin Mobile

HTC One V

DNP TEST HGG

Yes, the iPhone 4S is without a doubt the most well-rounded smartphone at Virgin Mobile, but we think it's a crime that anybody should be forced to pay $650 for yesterday's hardware. Instead, we recommend that all potential Virgin customers snag the One V, which is the carrier's most aggressively priced option. Sure, it's not the fastest smartphone on the block, but it offers a better display and similar camera to the higher priced Galaxy Reverb ($250). Meanwhile, the EVO V ($240) stands as the only smartphone at Virgin to offer 4G (WiMAX), but its poor battery life and lackluster camera are too significant to ignore. So, yes, that leaves us with the One V. At just $160, think of it as something to tide you over until a better option comes along.

Key specs: 1GHz single-core Snapdragon S2, 3.7-inch WVGA (800 x 480) S-LCD 2 display, 5MP rear camera, 4GB built-in storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $160 at Virgin Mobile

Unlocked

Galaxy Nexus HSPA+

DNP TEST HGG

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. While it's no longer on the cutting edge of smartphones, this Google-inspired creation remains a perennial favorite around these parts due to its excellent value, stock Android OS and hacker-friendly approach. That said, we expect a new Nexus smartphone -- or possibly several -- to appear in short order. So, unless you need to make a purchase today, we recommend waiting to learn what will come next.

Key specs: 1.2GHz dual-core OMAP 4, 4.65-inch HD (1,280 x 720) Super AMOLED display, 5MP rear / 1.3MP front cameras, 16GB built-in storage, Android 4.1.

Price: $349 at Google Play

You might want to wait for...

DNP TEST HGG

LG's upcoming Nexus 'Mako'

The cat's out of the bag: LG is making a successor to the Galaxy Nexus. While we may ultimately discover many Nexus handsets, all reports -- and even a review -- suggest that this smartphone will be a significant improvement over its predecessor. The device brandishes a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, a 4.7-inch HD (1,280 x 768) IPS display and a much-improved 8-megapixel camera. The handset is currently being tested with Jelly Bean, and as history has proven, Nexus smartphones are your best bet for gaining access to the very latest Android releases. Naturally, we're now curious to know whether LG's phone will maintain support for a wide range of wireless bands, which is one of the primary reasons we love the Galaxy Nexus so dearly.

Price: TBA

0 Comments

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