We haven’t done this in a while, but it’s time to start a new series where we provide you with the best advice on buying a new smartphone. It’s tough to recommend devices, especially when someone wants a specific app, feature or price point. That’s why we’ve split this list up into an easy-to-read guide that goes over our top choices, the best phone for new buyers, a recommendation on what not to buy, and a wild card phone that should still be considered. We’ll be following this guide with new ones for Sprint, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile in the coming days, so stay tuned for more advice.
1. Our Favorite – Samsung Galaxy S III
The Samsung Galaxy S III on AT&T is our absolute favorite phone right now. It’s so lovely; in fact, that we’ve argued it’s the best smartphone currently on the market. The Galaxy S III has a design to die for, an amazing HD Super AMOLED display — although it’s admittedly hard to read outdoors and not as bright as the screen on the One X — NFC support, 4G LTE connectivity and a fast Snapdragon S4 processor. Samsung developed several of our favorite features on the phone, too. Buddy Share allows you and a friend to snap photos with different Galaxy S III devices and save them in a shared photo stream on each device. The camera also takes amazing pictures in rapid fire, can automatically tag your friends, and there’s a unique face-detection feature that keeps the screen on when you’re still using the phone. S Voice is a Siri-competitor, and it doesn’t work very well, but it’s good enough for checking the weather on the fly. Solid battery life, an enhanced TouchWiz user interface, expandable storage, physical Home button (something most Android phones lack), Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and two awesome color choices (white or pebble blue) round out the features on this top dog smartphone.
2. Closest Alternative – HTC One X
The One X was our favorite smartphone before the Galaxy S III landed and, to be honest, it’s really a matter of taste. That’s why the One X is the closest alternative that you should consider if you’re interested in the Galaxy S III. It offers similar features to Samsung’s flagship, including ImageSense for rapid fire photos with its 8-megapixel camera, a Snapdragon S4 processor, 4G LTE connectivity and more. Some buyers might prefer its rock solid and slim design to the plastic build of the Galaxy S III, but unfortunately you can’t remove the battery or add a microSD card. Sense 4 is an incredible Android 4.0 overlay and it allows you to customize the lock screen, comes with 25GB of free Dropbox storage (a decent alternative to a microSD card), a read-later feature in the browser and much more. We also really dig the Beats Audio support for an enhanced music experience and the phone’s brilliant and bright 4.7-inch 1280 x 720-pixel resolution display. You really can’t go wrong here, folks.
3. Best Phone for first-time Smartphone Buyers – iPhone 4S
The iPhone 4S is the phone we most recommend to first-time smartphone buyers, and, often times, even those looking for a no-hassle device. It’s not as customizable as the One X or the Galaxy S III, but Apple’s iTunes App Store is to die for. If your friends are all playing a game or using a specific app, chances are it was first published on, and is definitely available for, the iPhone. The iPhone 4S will also receive Apple’s brand new iOS 6 operating system with new Maps, enhanced Siri support, Facebook integration and much more, which means your phone won’t be too outdated even when the iPhone 5 hits store shelves this fall. Our biggest gripe is that it doesn’t support AT&T’s 4G LTE network, so you won’t get the fastest data speeds available. You will, however, get a phone with a top-notch camera, great battery life and access to a bazillion accessories.
4. Don’t Buy – Sony Xperia ion
It pangs me to say this because the Sony Xperia ion offers several decent features, including a bright 4.55-inch HD display, NFC, 4G LTE support, expandable storage and a decent form factor. Still, it runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which is about to be two-generations old, and has the worst battery life of any smartphone we’ve tested in recent memory. We had a hard time getting the phone to last into the late afternoon under moderate usage, for example. Sony has, admittedly, said that the device will be upgraded to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but we all know how long carrier approval for those updates takes. We’d recommend you stick to the latest software and a smartphone that can get you through a full day of use.
5. Wild Card – Samsung Galaxy Note
There’s some beauty to this $250 beast. The Galaxy Note phablet is definitely still worth considering. It’s also not yet running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but it offers a totally unique experience thanks to its S Pen for taking notes and its massive 5.3-inch HD Super AMOLED screen. It also comes with S Memo, an excellent note taking and sketching application, Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface, great battery life, a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 4G LTE support and much more. You might look a bit goofy placing phone calls on the Galaxy Note, but we have a special place in our hearts for it.