Engadget's back to school guide 2013: smartphones

Welcome to Engadget's back to school guide! Today, we've got a killer selection of smartphone recommendations. Head to the back to school hub to see the rest of the product guides as we add them throughout the month. Be sure to keep checking back; in early September, we'll be giving away a ton of gear, including one of the picks in this very guide.

Engadget's back to school guide 2013 smartphones

Apart from the laptop that churns out your term papers, there's no more essential device than your smartphone. From keeping track of your class schedule on the go to helping you make after-hours plans, a handset is your go-to mobile gadget, so you'll definitely want a good one. Luckily, you have plenty of great options across budget categories, operating systems and screen sizes. We can't promise that your next smartphone will help you make the dean's list, but it might make you the envy of everyone on it.

On the cheap


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The HTC 8X ranks among our very favorite Windows Phone 8 handsets on the market today, and its low price makes it quite the steal. The phone sports a premium enclosure that's refreshingly colorful and unique, and we think you'll dig its ability to capture beautiful photos. The HTC 8X delivers responsive performance and excellent battery life, and its display is a pixel-dense delight. Internal 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: 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 CPU, 4.3-inch 720p (1,280 x 720) S-LCD 2 display, 8MP rear / 2.1MP front cameras, 8GB or 16GB non-expandable storage, Windows Phone 8.

Price: $0.99 on AT&T

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HTC First

The HTC First is a solid mid-range phone that's available for a bargain-bin price. It's known for its unique Facebook Home interface, but you'll also have the option of using a stock Android 4.1 launcher. This reasonably compact smartphone features a quality 720p display and good performance. The camera is somewhat of a letdown, but that's forgivable given the handset's low cost.

Price: $0.99 on AT&T

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Apple iPhone 4

The iPhone 4 features superb construction, an impressive camera and the fantastic Retina display. Overall, you'd be hard-pressed to find a much nicer phone for the money. That said, the iPhone 4 is showing its age: it lacks LTE connectivity and doesn't support Siri, panorama mode or FaceTime over cellular.

Price: Free on Verizon Wireless; $0.99 on AT&T


LG Optimus G Pro

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If you're dreaming of a super-sized powerhouse that's available at a surprisingly affordable price, look no further than the LG Optimus G Pro. Its extra-large 1080p display is a sight to behold, featuring crisp, vibrant images and good viewing angles. The Pro also includes a 13MP camera, which captures detailed shots that'll satisfy most users -- so long as you're willing to look past the color balance issues. The Optimus G Pro may be too large for some -- and its battery life is mediocre -- but if you're on a budget and want a phone that can run with the big dogs, it's your best choice.

Key specs: 5.5-inch 1080p (1,920 x 1,080) True HD-IPS + LCD display, 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600, 13MP rear / 2.1MP front cameras, 32GB expandable storage, Android 4.1.

Price: $100 on AT&T

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Samsung Galaxy S III

The Galaxy S III is no longer cutting-edge, but not everyone needs all of the gee-whiz features of the Galaxy S 4. If you're looking for an affordable smartphone that's widely available and offers a good balance of features and performance, the GS3 is an excellent candidate. With a vibrant 720p display, a good camera and responsive performance, it's better than many smartphones on the market today.

Price: $100 on AT&T, Sprint and US Cellular; $50 on Verizon Wireless; $528 on T-Mobile

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Nokia Lumia 920 / 925 / 928

Now that Windows Phone is gaining traction amongst app developers, the Nokia Lumia 920 family is more compelling than ever for those wanting an alternative to Android and iOS. Our favorite of the trio is the Lumia 928, which is more comfortable to hold and offers better battery life. Regardless of carrier, each phone features a camera with optical image stabilization, which results in steadier videos and better nighttime shots.

Price: $100 on AT&T and Verizon Wireless, $530 or $50 with an installment plan on T-Mobile

Money's no object

Samsung Galaxy S 4 Google Play edition

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It doesn't come cheap, but if you want to score the best phone out there for running stock Android, the Galaxy S 4 Google Play edition is where it's at. Compared to the HTC One Google Play edition, the GS4 features superior battery life, Google Wallet and AWS connectivity for T-Mobile's HSPA+ network. As another huge bonus, the phone is unlocked, which means you can use it throughout the world on your carrier of choice. Combine this with the traditional Galaxy S 4 hallmarks such as a great display, expandable storage and a quality camera, and you have a true Android powerhouse that'll strike envy into the hearts of others.

Key specs: 5-inch 1080p (1,920 x 1,080) Super AMOLED display, 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600, 13MP rear / 2MP front cameras, 16GB expandable storage, Android 4.3.

Price: $649 from Google Play

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Apple iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 is an outright winner if you're looking for a compact smartphone. It boasts snappy performance, a top-notch display, an excellent camera, commendable battery life and gobs of internal storage, along with a beautiful enclosure. The phone is almost due for a refresh, however, which may be reason enough to put off your purchase.

Price: $200 to $400 on AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless; $600 on Cricket; $648 on T-Mobile

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The HTC One fuses exemplary design with chart-topping performance. It also sports the finest mobile display we've ever seen and a versatile camera that excels in low-light situations. You'll also appreciate the One's Zoe camera functionality, which weaves still pictures and short clips into 30-second creations that bring life to your photos.

Price: $200 on AT&T and Sprint; $300 on Cincinnati Bell; $600 on T-Mobile