Shopping for a new smartphone can be overwhelming.
So many good phones are available that upgraders may feel swamped with options. Never fear: I've picked the best ones on each of the four major carriers. And since the smartphone world moves incredibly fast, I'll also tell you about phones not yet out.
[ Free download: The mobile security survival guide ]
Worth noting are two upcoming phones I'm excited about but can't yet recommend, because we don't know enough about them. One, the Samsung Galaxy S III, will debut in Europe before arriving in the United States. Most carriers likely will get a version of the S III, though so far none of them have confirmed that they will. Another wild card is the fifth-generation iPhone, which hasn't even been announced yet but is eagerly anticipated.
In the meantime, here are the best smartphones for each of the big four carriers. (Find a summary of this roundup in the chart at the end of this article, on the second page.)
AT&T has a diverse lineup of phones, ranging from Windows Phones like the Nokia Lumia 900 to the iPhone 4S to a slew of powerful 4G LTE Android handsets. One of our favorites is the Samsung Galaxy Note ($300 with a new two-year contract), a one-of-a-kind smartphone that enables you to take notes and draw sketches using a stylus-like Wacom "S Pen."
As you might expect, the Galaxy Note also has built-in software and special gestures designed for the pen. One handy app, S Memo Lite, lets you jot down notes from pretty much anywhere in the phone. If you have another app open, the notepad appears on top of it, allowing you to switch back to the original app easily. You can open a fuller version of S Memo from the apps menu. In this fuller version, you can add color to your drawing or text, or insert pictures and shapes. In addition, the Wacom pen mimics its nondigital cousins: The harder you press down, the wider your lines will be.
Writing on the Galaxy Note takes some getting used to, but once you master it, you'll find it's a lot of fun. The Note can also convert your handwriting into text; it does a pretty good job, though it made a few errors in my testing. Trying the Galaxy Note before you buy it makes sense, however: With its 5.3-inch display, the Note is an unconventional size, bigger than most phones and smaller than most tablets.
(For more on the Note, click on the infographic below.)
Another hot Android phone is the HTC One X ($200 with a new two-year contract). The models in HTC's One line of phones have three features in common: a high-quality camera with HTC ImageSense (HTC's new camera software), built-in Beats Audio for better-sounding music, and a premium design. The premier phone of the One line, the One X has the best specs of the bunch, including a large, 4.7-inch, 1280-by-720-pixel Super LCD 2 display. Super LCD 2 screens, according to HTC, reflect less glare and offer better viewing angles than the displays on older HTC models.
Like all of HTC's top-of-the-line phones, the One X feels well constructed. The polycarbonate body seems durable but looks attractive. And according to HTC, the One X is scratch-resistant--though we haven't tested that claim yet.
Unlike the global version of the One X, which shipped with an Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core chip, the U.S. version has a Qualcomm S4 dual-core processor. (Nvidia's processor was not yet compatible with LTE networks when the One X was manufactured.) Despite having fewer cores, the U.S. HTC One X sped through all of our testing benchmarks.
(Note: At the moment, a patent dispute may keep the HTC One X from being available to U.S. customers.)
If Android isn't your cup of tea, then consider the Nokia Lumia 900 ($100 with a new two-year contract)--its OS is Windows Phone 7.5. I like the Lumia 900's unique, stylish design; its stunning display; and its good, 8-megapixel camera. It is also quite speedy, thanks to running on AT&T's 4G LTE network.
If you can wait to upgrade, consider the Sony Xperia Ion, slated to join AT&T's LTE lineup later this year (no official date has been announced). I saw the Ion at its CES 2012 launch, and was impressed by its svelte design and high-end specs. The Ion includes a 4.6-inch display, an HDMI-out port, and a superthin design. It also has a 12-megapixel camera, which took great photos in our brief hands-on tests.
Sprint's LTE network hasn't launched yet, but that isn't stopping the carrier from releasing 4G LTE phones. The first of these, the LG Viper ($100 with a new two-year contract), is an environmentally friendly Android Gingerbread phone with a solid camera and an affordable price.
The phone's body is 50 percent recycled plastic, according to Sprint. Such Earth-friendly phones aren't generally stylish, but the Viper is an exception. A chrome border on the phone's edges nicely complements the piano-black face. The silver plastic backing has a "brushed" finish, giving it a sophisticated look. The Viper feels a little chunkier than other recent smartphones, measuring 4.59 by 2.44 inches and 0.46 inch thick, but it weighs a manageable 5 ounces.
The Viper might be easy on the wallet, but it's no slouch. Powered by a dual-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 processor, the Viper feels snappy. In our tests, it ran three games--Osmos, Edge, and World of Goo--smoothly and without a glitch. One drawback: The Viper ships with the older Android 2.3 instead of the latest version of the OS, Android 4.0 (also known as Ice Cream Sandwich).
You don't have to be on Sprint to get the Apple iPhone 4S ($200 with a new two-year contract), as it's also available on AT&T and Verizon. But iPhone owners on Sprint can take advantage of the carrier's Unlimited Data plan, which offers unlimited data and text along with 450 voice minutes, for $70 a month, plus a $10-per-month "premium data add-on charge."
We love the iPhone 4S's premium design, upgraded camera, and faster processor. And like its predecessor, the iPhone 4, the 4S has a stunning 3.5-inch, 960-by-640-pixel IPS display. The iPhone 4S also introduced Siri, Apple's sometimes-helpful virtual assistant.
If you'd prefer to have Sprint's next great Android phone, look to the HTC Evo 4G LTE, which should be out by the time you read this. (Note: Like the HTC One X, the HTC Evo 4G LTE is in a patent dispute that may make it unavailable for the time being.)
The $199 Evo 4G LTE is essentially a Sprint-branded version of the HTC One X, but it also promises some unique features, such as HD Voice (see below). The Evo 4G LTE carries a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 chip, a 4.7-inch HD IPS display, and the Android 4.0 operating system, along with HTC's Sense 4.0 user interface and Beats Audio to make music sound better. In addition, like the One X, the Evo 4G LTE has HTC's ImageSense software for improving and sharing your phone's photos.
The Evo 4G LTE will be the first phone on a U.S. carrier to come with HD Voice, a technology that significantly decreases background noise. The handset's built-in kickstand, a design feature we've seen on other HTC Evo phones from Sprint, makes watching video on your phone easier. And as the name implies, the Evo 4G LTE will also be on Sprint's LTE network, once that gets up and running.
Sprint will launch its LTE network initially in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, and San Antonio starting midyear. The carrier hopes to expand to more cities by the end of the year.
Next: Phones for T-Mobile and Verizon.
The top PHONE on T-Mobile is the HTC One S ($200 with a new two-year contract). It packs a high-end camera, the latest version of Android, and a powerful dual-core processor in a swank, superslim design. HTC phones are generally both easy on the eyes and well constructed, but the One S exceeds those expectations with a classic aluminum unibody design that incorporates contrasting slate and blue-gray panels. However, you can't remove the battery, and the phone has no MicroSD slot.
The 8-megapixel camera supports an F2.0 aperture and several shooting modes, including high dynamic range (HDR), macro, and panorama. My photos taken in automatic mode looked excellent, with good colors and crisp details. Most of the shooting modes worked quite well, too, especially the macro mode.
The HTC One S is also a superb gaming phone. This handset performed extremely well in PCWorld Labs benchmarks, including GLBenchmark, which measures a device's graphics performance.
If you're looking for an alternative to Android, give Windows Phone 7 a try. This OS is on the HTC Radar 4G ($100 with a new two-year contract), which has a stylish and compact unibody aluminum case and a crisp display. The body is almost all white--quite striking against the bold color-block look of Windows Phone.
The Radar 4G has the Mango update of Windows Phone 7. An overall success, Mango finally delivers true multitasking with third-party apps, and it has a new browser, Internet Explorer 9. Microsoft completely made over its Bing search engine, too; the new Local Scout feature uses GPS to recognize where you are and provide hyperlocal search results based on your preferences. Mango also includes Xbox Live, the Zune media player, and a full mobile version of Office to create, edit, and view Excel spreadsheets, Word docs, and PowerPoint presentations.
The Radar 4G's 5-megapixel camera snapped pretty good pictures. The camera has an F2.2 lens and a backside-illuminated sensor, which helps produce good shots in low-light conditions.
Finally, in a world of dual-core phones, the Radar 4G's single-core, 1GHz processor may seem a bit dated. But don't let those specs cloud your judgment: The Qualcomm Snapdragon processor was zippy enough in our testing for browsing the Web, handling multiple open apps, and gaming via Xbox Live.
If you're looking for the pure Android Ice Cream Sandwich experience, you'll love the Samsung Galaxy Nexus ($300 with a two-year contract), which runs the OS with no interfering overlay. The Galaxy Nexus also features a slick design and a powerful processor.
Its glossy display, piano-black bezel, and textured back are all standard Samsung design elements. But unlike other Samsung Galaxy phones I've reviewed, the Nexus feels durable and sophisticated. It has no hardware keys on its face. Instead, the touch-sensitive Back, Home, and Search keys are built into the display as soft keys.
Most of the core Android apps have been updated in Ice Cream Sandwich with some sweet new features. For example, Gmail gets a face-lift, with a new context-sensitive Action Bar at the bottom of the screen. The bar changes depending on where in the app you are. When you're looking at an email message, say, you'll see options to archive it, trash it, label it, or mark it as unread. And the browser in Ice Cream Sandwich is just about as close as you can get to a desktop one: You can set it to request full desktop versions of sites instead of the lesser mobile versions. In addition, you can sync your bookmarks from the desktop Chrome browser to the Browser app in Ice Cream Sandwich.
Unfortunately, the Nexus's camera just isn't as capable as the rest of the phone. The photos I shot with the Galaxy Nexus's 5-megapixel camera looked a bit flat. Colors seemed a touch washed out, and details were a little fuzzy. But even if your photos don't come out perfect, you may be able to salvage them with the OS's suite of photo-editing tools. You can apply an array of filters (similar to those in Instagram), adjust the image angle, remove red-eye, crop, and more. Any edits you make to a photo will create a copy, in case you want to revert to the original.
If you're tired of carrying a phone charger everywhere, check out the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx ($300 with a two-year contract). Practically identical to the Droid Razr, also on Verizon, the Razr Maxx offers one huge improvement: longer battery life. The original Razr's battery seemed to drain before your eyes, a common problem among the carrier's 4G phones. In PCWorld Labs battery-life tests, the Droid Razr ran for 6 hours, 49 minutes when connected to the Web via Wi-Fi. The Droid Razr Maxx, on the other hand, lasted 12 hours, 29 minutes--almost double the life!
Besides its insane battery life, the Droid Razr Maxx has a lot going for it. At 0.35 inches thick, the Razr Maxx is incredibly thin--on a par with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. It has a soft-touch back made out of Kevlar, a material found in high-end speedboats, bulletproof jackets, and bicycle tires; Motorola says that Kevlar is five times stronger than steel. The phone also has a stainless-steel core, giving it a feeling of sturdiness and solidity. On top of that, a splash-guard feature protects the phone if you get caught in a downpour or spill something on it.
The Droid Razr Maxx comes with a service called MotoCast, which lets you access files on your PC remotely without having to upload or sync them. You can access everything from PowerPoint files to your iTunes playlists on your Razr Maxx. In addition, Smart Actions, a new app, lets you set reminders to indicate when you should recharge your phone (for example, when you go to bed). If you forget to plug your phone in, you can set a Smart Action called "Nighttime Battery Saver," which adjusts your phone's network and screen settings to make the battery last longer the next day.
The Prepaid Alternative
Don't want to commit to a two-year contract? Go prepaid. Contract-free carriers now have better phones and faster networks than ever before. Some of these carriers, such as MetroPCS, even have 4G LTE networks. We gave both of MetroPCS's new phones, the Samsung Galaxy Attain and the LG Connect 4G, positive reviews.
One drawback of going contract-free: You may not get the latest smartphones. For instance, Straight Talk, a prepaid service sold at Walmart, sells the LG Optimus Black and the LG Optimus 2X. They debuted at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show)--in January 2011.
This story, "The best phones from every carrier" was originally published by PCWorld.