Smartphone buyer's guide: the best phones for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and more!

Chris Ziegler
C. Ziegler|12.10.10

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Smartphone buyer's guide: the best phones for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and more!
It's true, picking a smartphone is incredibly difficult these days. Gone is the time when your options were limited and your choices simply between the lesser-of-evils. The market has exploded, and the decision-making process of finding the best device for your cash can be one of the most daunting tasks you'll ever undertake. Android, iOS, webOS, and Windows Phone are all better than they've ever been before, carrier lineups are bigger, and even choosing a plan can be a daunting process if you don't know what you're looking for. But hey, don't let the stress of deciding between a Droid X and a Droid Incredible put a damper on the excitement of getting a truly awesome gadget -- we've got your back!

We've broken the choices down into two groups for each major carrier in the US after the break -- the top pick when money is no object, and the thriftier budget choice. We've also included our top selections for some of the smaller carriers throughout the US, and our ultimate pick if cost and carrier don't stand in your way. In putting together the list, we were shocked to see just how many Android devices made it, but that's a testament to the openness of the platform (and voracious consumer adoption of smartphones). 2011 is going to be a crazy year, but if you're in the market right now, the options are amazing -- so read on to see our picks.


Amazed that a phone launched way back in April is still on top of the game in December? Us too, us too -- but seriously, HTC's heavily-tweaked rehash of the Nexus One for Verizon with a better camera and an optical pad remains one of the best Android sets money can buy, regardless of whether you get your hands on the early AMOLED version or the newer SLCD style. And who can argue with red accents, anyway? With that $50 you save over the Droid Incredible's pricier counterparts, you can afford an extended battery pack -- battery life is one of the phone's few glaring weaknesses.

If you've got to have a keyboard...

The Droid 2 Global from Motorola is your best option, thanks to its insane 1.2GHz processor, Android 2.2, choice of colors, and -- of course -- the support for global roaming, which is something that most Android buyers on CDMA don't currently get. The customized UI isn't for everyone, sure, but the company's definitely made leaps and bounds in smoothing out the wrinkles since the CLIQ first launched last year. Look for it at $199.99 on contract.

We love phones based on LG's Optimus One, and although you wouldn't know it by the name, the $80 Vortex falls into that category. Unfortunately, the phone is one of the devices afflicted deeply by Verizon's partnership with Bing, which means that all traces of Google search and maps have been replaced by their Microsoft-supplied equivalents, but if you can move past that, the Vortex is the best smartphone you can get for under $100 on Verizon at the moment.


The iPhone 4 may be a divisive device along the fanboy battle lines, but there's no questioning its sheer power and prominence in the smartphone world. Sporting one of the slickest and most sophisticated designs we've ever seen in a piece of consumer tech, the snappy A4 CPU, Apple's stunning Retina Display, and the much-improved iOS 4, the phone is a force to be reckoned with. Despite the drama of Antennagate (which now seems to have been the product of a very vocal minority) and AT&T's recurring network issues, the iPhone 4 still stands above other competitors in the market, offering a tremendous amount of power, utility, and just plain fun for AT&T customers.

If you've got to have a keyboard...

AT&T doesn't have any stand-outs in the landscape QWERTY arena, but if you're willing to give Windows Phone 7 a try, the LG Quantum's specs are hard to beat: 1GHz Snapdragon, 16GB of internal storage, a 5 megapixel camera, and a 3.5-inch WVGA display; it'll run you $199.99 on contract. And if you're feeling even more adventurous, you could take a look at Palm's unlocked Pre 2 -- it's intended primarily for developers, but if webOS is your bag, it's the only game in town for webOS 2.0 at the moment. Yours for $449.99, and you don't need to worry about a contract.

HTC's Sense UI isn't for everyone, but the cute Aria remains one of the best Android devices you can buy directly from AT&T because it combines a modern processor with hip design and HTC's usual engineering prowess. Seriously, where else are you going to find a phone with a blindingly yellow battery compartment? At 4.1 x 2.3 inches, it's among the smallest mainstream smartphones on the market today while still offering HVGA resolution, which is good enough to run pretty much any app you come across; some cheaper devices in the same size range use a QVGA display, which tends to limit compatibility (and makes Android's UI generally more clumsy). Oh, and most importantly: at $10 on contract for a refurb, it's a good deal.


Like the Droid Incredible, the EVO 4G is old enough so that it's technically "aging" in this ridiculously fast-paced Android market, and yet it's still turning heads and showing practically no signs of slowing down. Sprint and HTC did a reasonably good job of bringing Froyo to the EVO in a timely fashion -- and it's hard to ignore the draw of WiMAX with mobile hotspot capability if you're in one of Sprint's launched markets. In fact, it was only very recently that Europe finally got an EVO doppelganger in the form of the Desire HD... so yeah, this puppy's got some legs left.

If you've got to have a keyboard...

The great thing about the Epic 4G, really, is that it's pretty much an EVO with a keyboard. Okay, that's not exactly true: the display's a bit smaller (and a lot better), it runs Samsung's TouchWiz UI instead of HTC's Sense, and it feels a bit cheaper in the hand, but that's not to say it's a cheap phone by any stretch. Most importantly, you still get access to Sprint's awesome WiMAX network -- and the device should be the first Galaxy S-branded handset in the US to get blessed with an official Froyo upgrade. Cheers to that! $249.99 on contract.

Just like Verizon, Sprint's version of the LG Optimus One -- the Optimus S, in this case -- makes an appearance in our guide. What can we say? It's just a solid, good-looking, basic Android phone (available in your choice of two colors, no less) that's surprisingly fast running Froyo with support for tethering and mobile hotspot. And you'll pay a little less than you do for Verizon's version, too: $50 on contract ain't bad.


Android smartphones with QWERTY keyboards are still oddly hard to find, but fortunately, HTC's hit the T-Mobile G2 (also known as the Desire Z abroad) out of the park. It's taken a few knocks for having a loose, over-engineered hinge, but overall, it's one of the best, most capable handsets on the market today -- particularly with the latest software update that adds mobile hotspot support and WiFi calling capability. Add HSPA+ data into the mix, and you've got a winner.

If you've got to have a slate...

T-Mobile's in the running with Verizon as the most Android-friendly carrier in the country, which means you've got modern, high-end options like the myTouch 4G and Vibrant at your disposal -- but let's be honest: it's the Nexus S you've been waiting for. We'll talk about it in a little more depth down below.

Windows Phone 7 still needs a little more time to mature -- both from a hardware and a software perspective -- but we just can't hide our excitement for Dell's beautiful Venue Pro that's finally shipping this week. Between the 4.1-inch curved glass display and the all-too-rare portrait QWERTY form factor, this one could be a keeper... and it's already had people lining up in front of Microsoft's handful of retail stores around the country for its ultra-limited presale several weeks ago. And considering the impressive spec sheet and the drop-dead good looks, T-Mobile's $99.99 subsidized price on contract is extremely aggressive, making it our surprise budget pick this holiday season.

US Cellular

The Desire's certainly not the freshest phone in the guide, but it's a phone that's aged extraordinarily well: keep in mind that this is basically an HTC-customized Nexus One, and goodness knows how many Nexus Ones are still in daily use right now among Android enthusiasts. This particular version of the phone is a little odd just because it's CDMA -- no other major CDMA carrier has launched it, meaning the overwhelming majority of the Desires you'll encounter are GSM. That inhibits global roaming, of course, but otherwise, this is a faithful reproduction of the SLCD-equipped European model -- and we mean that in the best way possible.


MetroPCS -- traditionally a voice and text value brand -- is still finding its smartphone footing, so the pickings are slim at the moment. Fortunately, one of the company's three offerings is the Optimus M, which might actually be the most stylish of the many Optimus variants we've seen (most of which we're recommending in this guide). And at $229 contract-free, it's $20 cheaper than the considerably less-powerful Samsung Code (running Windows Mobile 6.1!) and BlackBerry Curve 8530 that sit alongside it in the lineup.


It's not the prettiest (nor the fanciest) Android phone on the block, but we were pleasantly surprised with the Ascend when we had a chance to play with it back at CTIA in October -- and at $109.99 off-contract, it's a pretty extraordinary deal. Pair it with Cricket's $55 all-you-can-eat voice, text, and data plan and call it a day: no overages, no sweat. Perfect for that special someone in your life whose budget is exceeded considerably by his or her ability to keep their head buried in their phone all the way through dinner.

Virgin Mobile

Like MetroPCS, Virgin's smartphone lineup is quite slim, but the $249.99 off-contract Samsung Intercept is a solid midrange choice, particularly for heavy texters who prefer landscape QWERTY keyboards. On Virgin, though, it's not really about the phone, it's about the insane plan pricing: just $25 a month on prepaid nets you unlimited messaging and data paired with 300 voice minutes -- which, let's be honest, you probably don't use anyway.

Any carrier

If you're free to join up with any carrier you choose, you've got a tough decision ahead of you. Devices like the EVO 4G and Droid Incredible are extremely tempting, and the market is changing nearly week-by-week. Still, when you line up all of our smartphone contenders against one another, the best of the best is still Apple's iPhone 4. Matching pure specs, application availability, design and build quality, and customer service and support, it's tough to find a phone that hits every mark the way Apple's device does. That's not to say it doesn't have its problems -- AT&T's network can be tremendously troubling for some customers, and the device is prone to cracks and breakage due to its glass casing. But for sheer power, fit, and finish, the iPhone 4 holds the crown right now.

If you just can't take the plunge on Apple / AT&T, we get it -- some people just aren't going to come around to the iPhone or its partner carrier. But the good news is that there are a lot of great alternatives. Any of our top choices are excellent smartphones with loads of features and utility. Additionally, a device that deserves a nod is the new Nexus S -- a pure Googlephone with the latest version of Android (2.3). It's an excellent device which can be paired with a T-Mobile contract for $199, or purchased totally unlocked for $529. Microsoft is also offering a handful of Windows Phone 7 devices with a lot of potential -- if you're on AT&T, the Focus is a strong alternative to the iPhone or an Android handset. Regardless, no matter what device you decide on, there's never been a better time to shop for a smartphone, or more excellent choices to pick from.

Joshua Topolsky and Ross Miller contributed to this report.

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