Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

Old Man Winter's reaching deep into his bag of tricks this season, but we've found the perfect escape from his world of rosy cheeks and frosty trees: just step into your local electronics store. Here, you can bask in the glow of the latest smartphones, each clamoring to join you for a new year of fun and adventures. Naturally, making sense of the dizzying array isn't an easy task, but our smartphone buyer's guide is here to help you find a handset that's sure to thrill.

As you've probably noticed, a number of today's best smartphones are now available on multiple carriers. Likewise, we're introducing a new section that highlights devices that are available from three or more providers. The carrier section is also receiving a slight tweak, as you'll now find our top picks of carrier exclusives. Naturally, more smartphones than ever also means you'll find more choices than ever, but regardless of your budget or needs, you're sure to find a number of thrilling selections. So grab a cup of cocoa and join us after the break, where we round up the most exciting options of the new year.

Unlocked

Nexus 4

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

Carriers are certainly an important part of the smartphone world, but they're hardly necessary for purchasing a great handset. If you've ever been frustrated by long-term contracts, expensive service plans and devices that are locked to specific networks, then we seriously recommend that you purchase a phone outright that's not locked to one carrier. Then if you really want to roll like a pro, look to MVNO's such as Simple Mobile and Straight Talk, which offer "unlimited everything" plans that range between $40 and $50 per month. Welcome to the sweet life.

So long as we're talking about good decisions, have you ever heard of the Nexus 4? It's only the most desirable unlocked phone on the market today, and there's a huge backlog of orders to prove it. The phone combines a pure Android experience -- our preference, by the way -- along with a fast quad-core processor and penta-band HSPA+ 42 connectivity. With the Nexus route, you're also sure to be first in line for Android updates, which is something that manufacturers with custom skins simply can't match.

The primary downside of the Nexus 4 is the relatively limited onboard storage and lack of expandable storage, but this should be less of an issue if you're willing to keep your photos and music in the cloud. The phone also lacks support for many common LTE bands, but hidden support for LTE band 4 (AWS) gives reason to hope that it'll operate with T-Mobile's forthcoming LTE network. In the meantime, HSPA+ 42 is more than sufficient for most needs. Without question, the Nexus 4 is one of the best smartphone values on the market today, but its incredible popularity means that you'll need to wait in line for the opportunity to purchase one for yourself.

Key specs: 4.7-inch WXGA (1,280 x 768) True HD IPS display, 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, 8MP rear / 1.3MP front cameras, 8GB or 16GB non-expandable storage, Android 4.2.

Price: $299 (8GB) or $349 (16GB) from Google

Multiple carriers

Apple iPhone 5

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

The iPhone 5 is one of the most beautiful smartphones we've ever laid eyes on. It features quality construction, an excellent camera with a fantastic panorama mode, and it's easily among the most desirable handsets on the market today. Internal storage is another big win for the iPhone 5, which is available in 16, 32 and 64GB options, and its battery life is also solid. You might find that typing within portrait mode is a bit difficult, however, as the handset retains the same narrow screen width as the 4S.

Of all the carriers, Verizon is particularly noteworthy for iPhone purchasers, as its handset comes unlocked for use with GSM / HSPA+ networks. Otherwise, you might consider the unlocked iPhone 5 (A1428) for reasons mentioned above, which features quad-band GSM / HSPA+ radios, along with AT&T friendly LTE connectivity over bands 4 and 17. Here, the unlocked route should be of particular interest for T-Mobile subscribers, as the carrier is actively repurposing its 1900MHz network for HSPA+ access.

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

Price: $199 (16GB), $299 (32GB) or $399 (64GB) from Apple

HTC 8X

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

The HTC 8X is our favorite compact Windows Phone 8 handset on the market today. It shares a lot in common with the popular HTC One X, all wrapped within a premium enclosure that's delightfully colorful and unique. We're also very happy with its ability to capture beautiful photos, although the camera software within Windows Phone is more simplistic than you'll find in HTC's app for Android. The HTC 8X delivers wonderfully responsive performance, excellent battery life and its high-res display is a pixel-dense delight. Its storage is a bit limited, however, and you'll find no expansion options, but this is partially offset by deep integration with Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud storage service.

Key specs: 4.3-inch 720p (1,280 x 720) S-LCD 2 display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 2.1MP front cameras, 8GB or 16GB non-expandable storage, Windows Phone 8.

Price: $100 (AT&T) at Amazon Wireless; $100 (Verizon) or $120 (T-Mobile) at Wirefly; $200 at Cincinnati Bell

Samsung Galaxy Note II

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

The Samsung Galaxy Note II is a brilliant choice for all those who'd like a device that brings more functionality to the table than your run-of-the-mill smartphone. It features an advanced stylus known as an S Pen, which allows you to quickly jot down notes, annotate photos and capture / preview content on the device. The Galaxy Note II legitimately earns a designation as a superphone, as it brings a fantastic jumbo-sized display -- with the ability to run two apps side by side -- wicked-fast performance and a generous 3,100mAh battery. This also means that you might find the Galaxy Note II a bit unwieldy or excessive, especially if you're searching for something smaller and more simplistic. We're least fond of the Galaxy Note II for Verizon, which features the carrier's ugly and obnoxious graffiti branding on the device's home button -- it destroys the appearance of an otherwise attractive handset.

Key specs: 5.5-inch 720p (1,280 x 720) Super AMOLED display, 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4412, 8MP rear / 1.9MP front cameras, 16GB / 32GB / 64GB expandable storage, Android 4.1.

Price: $140 (Sprint), $250 (AT&T) or $280 (Verizon) at Amazon Wireless; $300 (T-Mobile) at Wirefly; $300 at US Cellular

Samsung Galaxy S III

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

It's no coincidence that the Galaxy S III has been a runaway hit for Samsung throughout 2012, as the device provides an excellent combination of performance, features and widespread availability. When compared to newer offerings, it's hard to consider the Galaxy S III on the bleeding edge of smartphone technology, but it remains one of the most well-rounded handsets on the market today. High points of the Galaxy S III include its excellent performance, display and call quality, along with expandable storage, solid battery life and a camera that delivers beautiful shots.

Key specs: 4.8-inch 720p (1,280 x 720) Super AMOLED display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 2MP front cameras, 16GB / 32GB expandable storage, Android 4.1.

Price: $100 (Sprint), $100 (Verizon) or $140 (AT&T) at Amazon Wireless; $230 at T-Mobile; $130 at US Cellular; $399 (MetroPCS) at Wirefly; $480 at Cricket

AT&T

HTC One X+

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2013 edition

The venerable HTC One X remained our favorite smartphone for most of 2012, and now it's been enhanced with a quad-core processor, 64GB of integrated storage, a larger battery, a better front-facing camera and Android 4.1. The One X+ earns our tip of the hat as the best smartphone that's exclusive to AT&T, but it can't match the flagship Droid DNA at Verizon, which features an improved 1080p display and comes unlocked for international use. As another consideration, if you're not completely sold on the improvements of the One X+, the older One X is a substantially better value, as both phones feature the same excellent 720p display and camera.

Key specs: 4.7-inch 720p (1,280 x 720) S-LCD 2 display, 1.7GHz quad-core Tegra 3, 8MP rear / 1.6MP front cameras, 64GB non-expandable storage, Android 4.1.

Price: $170 at Amazon Wireless

LG Optimus G

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

The LG Optimus G is a flagship handset that exists in an exclusive realm as one of the finest smartphones on the market today. It shares a good deal in common with Google's wildly popular Nexus 4, which includes blistering performance -- thanks to a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset -- along with excellent battery life and a premium enclosure. We're also quite pleased with the phone's high-res display, although the One X remains superior in this regard. The camera is also very good, but we prefer the 13-megapixel version on Sprint and we found the continuous autofocus feature to be a bit frustrating.

Key specs: 4.7-inch WXGA (1,280 x 768) True HD IPS display, 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, 8MP rear / 1.3MP front cameras, 16GB expandable storage (w/ 16GB microSD), Android 4.0.

Price: $100 at Amazon Wireless

Nokia Lumia 920

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

With a floating lens and sensor, the Lumia 920 wields one of the most advanced cameras in a smartphone today. This unique hardware design brings unparalleled image stabilization when shooting video, and it's also responsible for the best low-light performance we've ever witnessed in a smartphone. We're a bit disappointed that the camera delivers overly soft images, but Nokia has promised this'll get better with a software update. The Lumia 920 is a flagship Windows Phone 8 device and stands as one of the best values on the market today. It features excellent build quality and a number of small, but worthwhile refinements like a curved display that's easily readable in direct sunlight, wireless charging capabilities and a touchscreen that can be controlled with fingernails or gloves.

Key specs: 4.5-inch WXGA (1,280 x 768) PureMotion HD+ IPS display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8.7MP rear / 1.2MP front cameras, 32GB non-expandable storage, Windows Phone 8.

Price: $100 at AT&T

HTC One VX

DNP Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2013 edition

If you're dying to kick your current smartphone to the curb but can't afford to put much of a dent in your bank account, then the HTC One VX deserves genuine consideration. For $50, you'll be treated to a phone that provides snappy performance, a lovely display, expandable storage and a rather attractive enclosure. The One VX also includes a camera that's a step above others in the price range, even if it's not quite up to par with HTC's higher-end offerings. As it stands, the phone is loaded with Ice Cream Sandwich and a heavy dose of non-removable software from AT&T, but an update to Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) is said to be in the works.

Key specs: 4.5-inch qHD (960 x 540) S-LCD 2 display, 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus, 5MP rear / 0.3MP front cameras, 8GB expandable storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $50 at AT&T

Sprint

LG Optimus G

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

The mighty LG Optimus G is currently available at both AT&T and Sprint, but we genuinely prefer Sprint's version. Here, you'll find a superior (and higher-res) 13-megapixel camera, less carrier bloat and a more attractive handset that's also easier to hold. The phone is wicked fast, offers solid battery life and features a top-notch display that falls just shy of the One X / EVO 4G LTE. We're a bit disappointed that this high-end handset is currently saddled with Ice Cream Sandwich, but LG insists that an update to Jelly Bean is in the pipeline. Likewise, its non-expandable storage may be a sticking point for some, although 32GB of built-in storage should be sufficient for most users. Unfortunately, the phone doesn't support international roaming, which may be an important consideration if you're a frequent traveler.

As you're likely aware, Sprint is currently behind AT&T and Verizon in its LTE deployment, and speed tests indicate that its LTE network is slower than its peers. Nonetheless, Sprint is a very attractive option in regions with LTE, which is thanks to its unlimited data plans. If you're currently looking at Sprint, we recommend you ask your local sales rep whether an LTE deployment has been announced for your area. If not, you're sure to have a more rewarding experience with a different carrier.

Key specs: 4.7-inch WXGA (1,280 x 768) True HD IPS display, 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, 13MP rear / 1.3MP front cameras, 32GB non-expandable storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $100 at Amazon Wireless

HTC EVO 4G LTE

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

The EVO 4G LTE no longer carries the torch as the most advanced smartphone on Sprint, but it remains a thoroughly excellent choice that's sweetened by its amazing price. The phone is a retooled version of the One X, which was one of our favorite smartphones throughout most of 2012. It brings a top-notch camera to the table, along with a display that remains slightly superior to the Optimus G. Uniquely, you'll also find a dedicated camera button and a handy kickstand. Likewise, you might consider the EVO 4G LTE over the Optimus G if you demand expandable storage. Unfortunately, this phone also lacks support for global roaming.

Key specs: 4.7-inch 720p (1,280 x 720) S-LCD 2 display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 1.3MP front cameras, 16GB expandable storage, Android 4.1.

Price: $100 at Amazon Wireless

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2013 edition

In addition to the horribly long name of the Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE, it includes two distinct features that you won't find on our other selections from Sprint: a sliding QWERTY keyboard and global roaming capabilities. To its credit, the physical keyboard offers excellent tactile response that's reminiscent of the Droid 4 for Verizon. As for roaming, the Photon Q offers tri-band (850 / 1900 / 2100MHz) HSPA+ 21 Mbps and quad-band EDGE support, but the SIM card is embedded, which means that you'll likely incur high roaming fees while abroad. In this sense, if international capabilities are an important aspect of your smartphone purchase, you're best off avoiding phones from Sprint.

Key specs: 4.3-inch qHD (960 x 540) LCD display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 1.3MP front cameras, 8GB expandable storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $0.01 at Amazon Wireless

T-Mobile

Nokia Lumia 810

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

The Lumia 810 isn't the most advanced smartphone at T-Mobile -- the HTC 8X, Galaxy Note II, Galaxy S III and Nexus 4 all come to mind -- but this mid-range Windows Phone stands as our favorite handset that's unique to the carrier. We're particularly fond of its elegant enclosure, excellent camera and optional wireless charging capability. Unfortunately, its mediocre display is perceptibly inferior to the carrier's other Windows Phone 8 device: the HTC 8X. Nonetheless, if you're struggling to decide between the two, Nokia's unique software additions may tip the scale toward this mid-ranger. Here, you'll be treated to voice-guided, offline navigation and music that can be freely streamed and downloaded. As another consideration, the Lumia 810 also features expandable storage, which is wholly absent from the 8X.

Key specs: 4.3-inch WVGA (800 x 480) ClearBlack AMOLED display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 1.2MP front cameras, 8GB expandable storage, Windows Phone 8.

Price: $80 at Wirefly

HTC One S

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

The HTC One S isn't quite as impressive as the One X, although it offers roughly the same level of performance and the same excellent primary 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 yet remain hesitant to jump ship to Windows Phone.

Key specs: 4.3-inch qHD (960 x 540) Super AMOLED display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 0.3MP front cameras, 16GB non-expandable storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $140 at Wirefly

Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G

DNP Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2013 edition

Don't expect it to go toe to toe with our other budget contenders, but the Galaxy S Blaze 4G is an excellent value for T-Mobile customers. The phone offers robust performance that's on par with the Galaxy S II, along with phenomenal battery life, excellent call quality and a truly respectable camera. Unfortunately, the Galaxy S Blaze 4G features an excessive amount of crapware and an update to Ice Cream Sandwich requires manual installation through Samsung Kies.

Key specs: 4-inch WVGA (800 x 480) Super AMOLED display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S3, 5MP rear / 1.3MP front cameras, 4GB expandable storage (w/ 4GB microSD), Android 4.0.

Price: $20 at Wirefly

Verizon Wireless

HTC Droid DNA

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

Verizon Wireless is now the proud home of HTC's most advanced handset in the US. Along with a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro that leads the performance charts, the Droid DNA blazes new territory with a mind-blowing 1080p Super LCD 3 display. The device also sports a gorgeous unibody enclosure that supports wireless charging and its camera is every bit as nice as you'll find in the HTC One series. You'll find Android 4.1 is another reason to smile, and even better, the device comes unlocked for use with GSM and HSPA+ networks -- both domestic and abroad.

There are a few downsides to the Droid DNA, however, as the handset is limited to 16GB of non-expandable storage, its battery life is lackluster and you'll need to contend with an obnoxious amount of bloatware. Likewise, Verizon excluded a software feature that allows the app switcher button to double as a contextual menu button. This was a big mistake that could be remedied with a software update, but for the moment, poorly designed third-party apps will display an ugly, space-hogging virtual menu button at the bottom of the screen. Despite the short list of drawbacks, the Droid DNA is the most powerful, awe-inspiring smartphone that you'll find on any carrier today, and yes, you'll be forgiven for drooling.

Key specs: 5-inch 1080p (1,920 x 1,080) S-LCD 3 display, 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, 8MP rear / 2.1MP front cameras, 16GB non-expandable storage, Android 4.1.

Price: $150 at Amazon Wireless and Wirefly

Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx HD

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

If you're willing to sacrifice the shock-and-awe factor of the Droid DNA for better battery life, then you're sure to enjoy the Droid RAZR Maxx HD, which includes a massive 3,300mAh cell and provides nearly double the battery life of most smartphones. Moto's premiere offering also includes 32GB of built-in storage, which can be expanded even further with a microSD card. We're similarly impressed with its 8-megapixel camera, and we're also delighted that the phone recently received an update to Jelly Bean. Naturally, the display of the Droid RAZR Maxx HD isn't in the same league as the Droid DNA, but it remains a solid option in its own right. Like other high-end Verizon smartphones, this one comes unlocked for global use, but it's also littered with an unsightly amount of crapware from the carrier.

Key specs: 4.7-inch 720p (1,280 x 720) Super AMOLED display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 1.3MP front cameras, 32GB expandable storage, Android 4.1.

Price: $150 at Amazon Wireless and Wirefly

Motorola Droid RAZR M

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

The Droid RAZR M is among our very favorite compact smartphones on the market today, and at just a penny, it's one of the best deals that you'll come across. Like the more robust Droid RAZR Maxx HD, the phone recently received an update to Jelly Bean, and its camera and overall performance are every bit as admirable. Battery life is also surprisingly good with this one, which can deliver more than a day's worth of heavy use. The Droid RAZR M also supports global roaming and will accept SIM cards from international carriers. Sadly, the phone's qHD PenTile display is a step down from top-shelf handsets, it's cluttered with a boatload of non-removable apps and its onboard storage is limited to just 8GB -- which is thankfully, expandable. While it's no high-end device, the Droid RAZR M is a well-rounded creation that's managed to find a soft spot in our hearts.

Key specs: 4.3-inch qHD (960 x 540) Super AMOLED Advanced display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 0.3MP front cameras, 8GB expandable storage, Android 4.1.

Price: $0.01 at Amazon Wireless and Wirefly

Nokia Lumia 822

DNP Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2013 edition

When it was born, the Lumia 822 fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. That said, if you're willing to look past its homely design, you'll find a smartphone that's genuinely worthy of your attention. The Windows Phone 8 handset offers good performance, solid battery life and an excellent camera. It's also a great value and provides a removable battery and microSD slot, whereas the higher-end (and more expensive) HTC 8X doesn't. We're also big fans of Nokia's home-brewed apps, which add voice-guided, offline navigation and a music service similar to Slacker Radio that lets you create personalized mixes and download tracks for offline listening. All Windows Phone devices allow users to uninstall bloatware from the carrier, which is how Android should operate, but doesn't. You'll also find global roaming capabilities in the Lumia 822, but the SIM slot is locked, which means you'll be stuck to Verizon's international partners.

Key specs: 4.3-inch WVGA (800 x 480) ClearBlack AMOLED display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 1.2MP front cameras, 16GB expandable storage, Windows Phone 8.

Price: Free at Wirefly or $0.01 at Amazon Wireless

Boost Mobile

Samsung Galaxy S II 4G

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

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 adored, 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 the price.

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

Price: $370 at Boost Mobile

Cincinnati Bell

HTC One S

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

Cincinnati Bell has the unique luxury of acquiring hand-me-downs from T-Mobile, and it scored a doozy lately in the form of the HTC 8X. Somewhat unique to the carrier, however, you'll also find the HTC One S, which remains a great choice for those who prefer Android. Yes, the One S is starting to show its age, but it still delivers the same excellent camera and fantastic performance as the One X, yet within a smaller enclosure that some will find preferable. Cincinnati Bell's pricing for the One S is a bit unnecessarily steep, but if you need to stick with the carrier and you demand an Android smartphone, look no further.

Key specs: 4.3-inch qHD (960 x 540) Super AMOLED display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 0.3MP front cameras, 16GB non-expandable storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $150 at Cincinnati Bell

Cricket

LG Optimus Regard

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

Cricket is home to two premium smartphones: the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S III. Of the two, we give our tip of the hat to the Galaxy S III, which is available for an amazing $330 through December 29th and features LTE connectivity, whereas the iPhone 5 doesn't. Still, if this is a bit more than you're able to afford, the LG Optimus Regard is another relatively future-proof selection for Cricket, as it's the carrier's only other smartphone to include LTE. Unfortunately, we've only had a hands-on opportunity with its sibling at MetroPCS, the Motion 4G. Overall, it's a snappy performer that includes Ice Cream Sandwich, but its puny HVGA display is a serious drawback. Still, we wouldn't dare go with a phone that's limited to EV-DO phone when LTE is available, and neither should you.

Key specs: 3.5-inch HVGA (480 x 320) TFT-LCD display, 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 5MP rear / 0.3MP front cameras, 8GB expandable storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $230 at Cricket

MetroPCS

LG Motion 4G

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

The Galaxy S III is far and away the best handset at MetroPCS, but if $499 is more than your wallet can handle, the Motion 4G is certainly worth a look. Granted, this isn't the most premium smartphone you're going to come across, but neither is its price. The Motion 4G sells for just $149 outright, and yes, it includes LTE connectivity. The most serious downside you'll find with this one is its low-res display, but Ice Cream Sandwich is a worthwhile addition compared to many of the carrier's Gingerbread-flavored devices, and it's also a snappy performer. Meanwhile, the better-specced ZTE Anthem 4G may look good on paper, but our impressions of its unresponsive touchscreen suggest it's a flawed piece of hardware. If you're willing to spend a bit more cash, the LG Connect 4G is mildly worthwhile in its own right, but its $349 price positions it as a poor value.

Key specs: 3.5-inch HVGA (480 x 320) TFT-LCD display, 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 5MP rear / 0.3MP front cameras, 8GB expandable storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $138.88 at Wirefly

US Cellular

Motorola Electrify M

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

If you're a US Cellular customer and you're not in the least bit giddy about the Electrify M, then something is seriously wrong with you. The phone is a re-badged version of the Droid RAZR M, and depending on where you live, you can snag it for as little as $100. Naturally, this means you can expect the same excellent battery life, robust performance and top-notch camera as its Verizon counterpart, even if there's not as much Kevlar this time around. Sure, the Droid RAZR M doesn't quite measure up to the mighty Galaxy Note II or Galaxy S III -- which are also available at US Cellular -- but it's certainly an attractive alternative for those who'd like a more compact handset.

Key specs: 4.3-inch qHD (960 x 540) Super AMOLED Advanced display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 8MP rear / 0.3MP front cameras, 8GB expandable storage, Android 4.0.

Price: $50 at US Cellular

Virgin Mobile

Samsung Galaxy S II 4G

Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide winter 2012 edition

Like its counterpart at Boost, you're not going to do better at Virgin Mobile than the Samsung Galaxy S II 4G. Both phones cost the same and each provides access to Sprint's adequate (albeit antiquated) 4G WiMAX network -- if you happen to live in its coverage area, anyway. It should come as no surprise that this phone is another rebadged version of the Galaxy S II from Sprint, which means you can expect the very same dual-core Exynos processor, fabulous Super AMOLED Plus display and beautiful 8MP camera.

Outside of special promotions, the Galaxy S II costs the same at Boost and Virgin, which makes the differences in plan tiers all the more important. Here, Virgin Mobile is a bit cheaper out of the gate with an unlimited data plan that includes 300 minutes for $35, whereas Boost's one-size-fits-all plan costs $55 but adds unlimited voice minutes into the mix. Meanwhile, your monthly payments will remain consistent at Virgin, but Boost Mobile features a unique scheme known as Shrinking Payments. Under this structure, for every six on-time payments, your monthly bill will decrease by $5 before bottoming out at $40 for unlimited voice and data. Not too shabby, indeed.

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

Price: $330 at Virgin Mobile through January 7th



Andy Bowen, Brad Molen and Myriam Joire contributed to this guide.

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Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide: winter 2013 edition