Regardless of your carrier, smartphone options range from excellent to pretty great, especially if you are willing to pay a few bucks. But as there is not much to separate the best from the other best, deciding on which new smartphone to buy can be difficult.
Assuming you know which carrier to go with (maybe you’re due for an upgrade and are happy with the service, or maybe your company provides a discounted rate), as it stands in October 2013, smartphone buyers have three main options: iPhone (iOS), Android, and Windows Phone. While the TechnologyGuide team loved BlackBerry 10 and the QWERTY-toting Q10, there is no reason to buy a BlackBerry handset at this time (or more likely, ever again) given BlackBerry’s financial situation.
Aside from operating system and carrier, screen size is another effective way of narrowing down your choices. Most flagship devices sport a display of around five inches corner to corner, give or take. Want something smaller? There are two “best” options across the carriers. The iPhone 5s has a 4-inch display, and for those looking for an Android smartphone, the Motorola Droid Mini has a 4.3-inch display. The new iPhone is available on all major carriers, but unfortunately, the Droid Mini is a Verizon exclusive.
There are other smallish phones, including the iPhone 5c and various Android-based “minis” like the HTC One Mini, and those are good, but decidedly mid-tier handsets.
For those looking for something larger than five inches, like a phablet, there is really only one choice: the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. It has a 5.7-inch display and excellent stylus to boot. It’s available on all the major carriers probably has the most productivity potential of any handset on the market.
Verizon is loaded with great 4G LTE smartphones. In addition to the aforementioned iPhone 5s and Note 3, there are half a dozen other flagships. In fact, it’s hard to pick the best between the HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4, and LG G2 if you are looking for an Android device. Sure, one may have a crisper display, while the other offers a longer battery, and the third sports better camera, but no one device stands out, and reasonable experts can disagree on which is the best.
This is why actually trying out the phone at BestBuy or a carrier store is so important. You may like the LG G2’s unique button layout, or the HTC One’s excellent design, or even the Samsung Galaxy S4’s removable battery and TouchWiz Android features. Whatever it is, smartphones aren’t cheap, and you’ll be bound to this unit for two years if purchased on a subsidy, so trying before buying is strongly recommended.
The Motorola offerings are a bit different. The Moto X, Droid Ultra, Droid Ultra Maxx, and Droid Mini are basically the same phone with differently-sized screens; 4.7, 5, 5, and 4.3 inches, respectively. Their specs are closer to the mid-range than their flagship label would suggest, but they have some innovative elements that vault them to the top of any best smartphone list, including a nifty voice-activation feature that learns a user’s voice and unique method for delivering alerts. For TG’s money, they are all good to great phones, but the Droid Ultra Maxx is the best of the bunch, given that it has about double the battery life compared to the others. It’s also the most expensive, as of this writing.
Verizon users looking for the best Windows Phone handset have one option: the Nokia Lumia 928. It launched last spring, and is due for a refresh, but it still produces some of the best low-light photos of any smartphone.
AT&T’s Android offerings are similar to Verizon, sans any Droids. For flagships, you have the LG G2, HTC One, and Samsung Galaxy S4. But, there’s also the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active, which is a slightly bulkier, dustproof, and waterproof S4 variant. All things being equal, the size tradeoff is worth it and the S4 Active is a better smartphone than the standard Galaxy.
AT&T also has the Moto X, and it’s customizable if ordered through Motorola (color and accents, mostly). This is AT&T exclusive as of this writing, but the customization feature should be rolling out to the other carriers in the coming weeks.
For those that one something really big, there is the 6.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Mega. However, it’s hard to recommend that behemoth over the slightly smaller Galaxy Note 3. The small-phone buying advice in the intro applies for AT&T’s offerings, which include the HTC One Mini and Apple iPhone 5s.
AT&T Windows Phone users are in luck, as the carrier has the best current Windows Phone device on the market: the Nokia Lumia 1020. It has the most impressive smartphone camera by far, with an incredible 41-megapixel resolution, and high-quality output to boot. It’s almost enough to make a WP user switch carriers.
Pickens are slimmer at Sprint. For Android, there is the HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4, and Moto X. The iPhone 5s is the only small phone worth considering, and the Note 3 is the best large smartphone available on the carrier’s network.
There is only one Windows Phone worth mentioning, and that’s the Samsung ATIV S Neo. It’ll do the trick, but it’s on the low-end of mid-range, and not nearly as good as the Lumia models available from the other carriers.
T-Mobile also has a similar crop of Android devices. That includes the HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4, and LG G2. The Moto X is also available, but only through Motorola, and at a non-subsidized price. T-Mobile also offers the water-resistant Sony Xperia Z, but that’s beginning to show its age and no longer considered a flagship device.
For big and small smartphone fans, it’s a similar story as with the other carriers, with only the iPhone 5s and Galaxy Note 3 worth considering.
The T-Mobile Windows Phone situation is similar to Verizon’s, and T-Mobile offers the Nokia Lumia 925. It’s basically the same exact smartphone as the Lumia 928, with some cosmetic differences.
Time to Upgrade?
That’s the main question, right? Obviously, it all depends on your current situation. If you are rocking a Droid Bionic with a broken screen and horrid battery life, then yes, it’s time to upgrade. But, some of the former flagships still have plenty of life left in them, including the Samsung Galaxy S3, Galaxy Note 2, Google Nexus 4, LG Optimus G Pro, and Apple iPhone 5. Granted, the allure of new hardware is tough to resist, but the leap from the S3 to the S4 is not enough to justify the cost. Be patient. Nokia is due for a new line of Windows 8 smartphones, and new Android devices from HTC, LG and Samsung should be coming just after the holiday season, in time for Mobile World Congress in February.