There was a time when shopping for a cell phone was ridiculously simple. You’d waltz into the nearest Radio Shack, browse through a handful of demo devices anchored onto the wall, and spend a good four to five Benjamins on a BlackBerry 8700 or RAZR V3 (or the Nokia with the changeable covers, which was awesome). What hasn’t changed: we’re enslaved to our mobile devices. What has: the field of competitors.
Over the past few months, we’ve seen new entries from every major smartphone manufacturer spread across all four mobile platforms: Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and believe it or not, BlackBerry. With companies like Apple sticking to its one-phone-per-year blueprint, Nokia releasing several updated renditions of its popular Lumia series, and Samsung dropping the “next big thing” practically every other month, choosing the right smartphone can be an overwhelming decision at the moment. Well, we took the liberty of breaking down the top handsets on the market to help simplify the process. Here are the 10 best smartphones we recommend using your upgrade on.
Editor’s Note: As of July 2013. We’ll be updating this list as new and improved options hit the market. Until then, upgrade away.
Best overall smartphone: The deciding factor when buying a smartphone isn’t the design or hardware: it’s the ecosystem. And until Google and Microsoft make the efforts to perfect their respective operating systems, Apple will continue to be the victor. On top of having a more robust feature set that includes Facebook integration and a Panorama camera mode, iOS 6 is smoother, runs faster, and executes commands with finesse. One can only imagine how the phone will perform once iOS 7 becomes available this September. But there’s more to the fifth-gen iPhone than just an updated software package and limitless app store. Hardware-wise, the phone features a bigger, high-res Retina Display, improved FaceTime front-facing shooter, and Apple’s new speedy A6 dual-core CPU. Its sexier form factor looks great and feels even better in your palm, too. Need we say more?
Samsung Galaxy S4
Best high-powered smartphone: Just when you thought Samsung couldn’t make the Galaxy series even more prolific, it finds a way — with the feature-heavy Galaxy S4 — to supersede performance expectations and make every other smartphone look like a one-trick pony. Qualcomm’s 1.9GHz processor proves to be the most powerful mobile processor on the scene, generating unprecedented benchmarks and ridiculously fast results. You can speed through the UI and run close to eight programs in the background without noticing any lag. A colorful 5-inch FHD Super AMOLED display and 13MP camera with awesome customization options sound like great additions, but everyone wants the GS4 for its motion-gesture and enhanced productivity talents. Two of the most popular are Air Gesture and Air View, each making it possible to answer/ignore phone calls and execute commands (open emails, scroll pages, etc.) by waving a hand across the screen. That’s only a fragment of what the GS4 can pull off.
Best multimedia smartphone: Despite the executive implosion and financial struggles currently occurring at HTC, the reviews and sales on the HTC One have been positive. We like to think of it as a luxury supercar in the form of a smartphone; it possesses the dynamism to match its stunning beauty. Most known for pushing design boundaries, HTC’s machine was built from the ground up, chiseled from a solid block of aluminum to create the desired look of an affluent and durable mobile. Sense 5.0 acts as the cleanest and most intuitive Android skin yet, welcoming awesome features like the Flipboard-inspired BlinkFeed homescreen, which secures recent news updates, and burst-shoot HTC Zoe camera mode. Its alluring 4.7-inch LCD panel with 468 ppi makes watching videos and playing games surreal, whereas the new front-facing BoomSound speakers pump out massively loud audio from the bottom speaker grill. The superior Snapdragon 1.7GHz quad-core processor does a great job of playing enforcer and managing all tasks without any performance hiccups.
Best enterprise smartphone: BlackBerry might still be labeled the laughing stock of the mobile world because of its blatant refusal to adapt with the times, but it’s somehow managed to weather the storm of condemnation and deliver quality in its BlackBerry 10 OS and next-gen handset, the Z10. How’s this possible when the phone carries the same spec sheet found on most mid-level handsets? Like in every other BlackBerry to come before it, all credit goes to the company’s industry-leading enterprise software. The inclusion of dual profiles (Personal and Work) lets you separate business from pleasure. Then there’s the BlackBerry Hub, a universal inbox that aggregates all notifications (BBMs, phone calls, emails, etc.). BlackBerry’s also gone out of its way to add some ultramodern flavor to the Z10, bringing touch gestures, an innovative camera burst mode, and a super-accurate virtual keyboard into the fold.
Nokia Lumia 928
Best camera smartphone: It took longer than expected, but the Finnish mobile staple finally brought its flagship Windows Phone 8 device to Verizon with a number of upgrades intact — including a slimmer chassis, 4.5-inch AMOLED display, and Xenon flash to accommodate low-lighting photography. The Lumia 920’s biggest attraction was its marveling 8.7MP shooter, and the same goes for its step-sibling, which captures images with unrivaled details. Microsoft’s dynamic OS plays nicely with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 1.5GHz dual-core to promote solid benchmarks. Plus, Nokia’s decision to drop the LCD panel in exchange for an AMOLED is a sweet payoff that rewards owners with an uncompromised outdoor viewing experience. The inclusion of Nokia’s custom app suite (Nokia Maps + Drive, Music, etc.) compensates for the weak Windows Phone Store selection; the device’s hotspot functionality might be its most underrated aspect.
It’s What’s Inside that Counts
Love the speed and power of your smartphone? Thank Qualcomm. Their line of Snapdragon processors dominate today’s crop of elite mobile devices. If you’ve been reading carefully, you might have noticed that Snapdragon chips power 10 of the devices on this list; we don’t see that trend changing any time soon, thanks to the launch of the Snapdragon 800. The company’s latest flagship mobile CPU is slated to ship with the next generation of premium mobile devices, bringing a variety of new features not seen to date.
So, what can you expect?
– Encoding and decoding 4k video at up to 30fps, complete with the latest 7.1 channel DTS-HD and DD Plus audio standards
– A 50% increase in graphics performance thanks to an Andreno 330 GPU
– Lower idle power consumption and up to 75% faster battery through Quick Charge 2.0
– True 4G LTE speeds of up to 150 Mbps
– 802.11ac wi-fi (aka 5G wi-fi) for wireless connection speeds of up to 1.3Gbps
– Chip-based voice activation for controlling and waking up your phone, even when it’s asleep, without pressing a button
So, in the words of Randy Bachman, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
– Ben Bowers
LG Optimus G Pro
Best phablet: Upon entering the smartphone spectrum, LG was never recognized as a mobile threat. Then the South Korean electronics maker made naysayers choke on their skepticism: they produced the most pure Android smartphone ever created in the Nexus 4. Now that phablets have become the next big craze, LG’s adopted the bigger is better mantra and looks to steal Samsung’s shine with its Galaxy Note II competitor. Entertainment buffs will find solace in the Optimus G Pro’s enormous, stunning 5.5-inch HD IPS display with 401 ppi. A phone of such massive proportions needs the horsepower to fuel it, and Qualcomm’s 1.7GHz Snapdragon quad-core is a pure multitasking beast. LG’s interface might not be the most favorable Android skin, but like TouchWiz, it offers a number of productivity apps to take advantage of all the visual real estate the Optimus has to offer (QSlide, the most popular, allows users to open several applications like a video player, calculator, and notepad simultaneously). Many would argue the Note II is the better handset, but updated hardware has this device speeding across the phablet finish line first.
Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx HD
Best Battery Phone: For over three decades, Motorola’s solidified its legacy as the definitive pioneer in cellular engineering. Take a second to reflect on some of its game-changing designs, from the StarTAC to the original Droid, before conceiving a rebuttal. Since becoming Google’s latest billion-dollar acquisition, Moto has showcased its latest strides by assembling a handset that could achieve something previously thought unimaginable: hold a charge past 24 hours. The Droid RAZR Maxx benefits from the manufacturer’s game-changing Smart Actions software, which opens the backend for customized settings and trigger sets to help owners squeeze every bit of juice out of the built-in 3,300mAh battery. Now you can go all beast mode on Candy Crush Saga, stream Netflix content and run the GPS throughout the day and still get a good 8 to 14 hours of battery life. A vibrant 4.7-inch Super AMOLED HD display, fast LTE connection and great call quality complete the package.
Samsung Galaxy S III
Best pre-paid smartphone: OK. So the GS3 has been out for over a year, and chances are everyone is using their upgrade to pick up the GS4. But to see the highest-selling Android phone of all time hit the contract-free circuit is a huge win for both prepaid subscribers and carriers like Boost Mobile. It’s the exact same phone found on the major networks, only this version runs on Sprint’s new LTE network, meaning you can expect brisk data speeds and web browsing. The same zippy 1.5GHz dual-core processor lies under the hood as well. Videos look sharp on the 4.8-inch (1280 x 720) display, and the integrated MicroSD card slot grants memory expansion past the pre-installed 16GB limit. With selections like this to choose from, it’s obvious that there’s no shame in going pre-paid.
Samsung Galaxy S4 Active
Best rugged smartphone: Casio and Motorola are the only two manufacturers these days producing damage-centric Android phones, with Moto’s Kevlar-coated Droid RAZR series being the most successful option. Riding high off of the Galaxy S4’s sales momentum, Samsung’s made the decision to jump in the same lane by giving its flagship device the IP67-certified treatment. That means this badass S4 is dustproof and waterproof up to 1 meter in H2O. The Active carries over the 5-inch full HD screen, Snapdragon 1.9GHz quad-core CPU and all the fancy features promoted in the original GS4, though weighs a bit more and replaces the coveted 13MP camera with an 8MP shooter. Sammy’s way of making up for the downgraded camera is through the use of a new feature called Aqua Mode, which allows users to snap photos when submerged underwater. Not a bad tradeoff.
Best keyboard smartphone: CrackBerry conformists have yet to embrace a full-touchscreen BlackBerry. Could you blame them, after they endured the BlackBerry Storm and Torch? Thankfully, the company formerly known as RIM hasn’t completely strayed away from its traditional mobile pedigree, equipping its second BB 10 handset with the signature QWERTY keyboard. Keys are solid and tactile feedback is responsive, making one-handed BBM-ing a breeze on the fly. Key shortcuts are still present and remain the same as on previous devices (example: pressing “N” will show your next message). Considering the handset carries the same guts as the Z10, the Q10 seems to be the faster performer and offers better touchscreen responsiveness. The recent 10.1 software update brings along better copy and paste control, HDR photos, PIN messaging, account-specific notifications, landscape calendar view, and much more.
Bonus: Sony Xperia Z
Best unlocked smartphone: Sony’s Android-fueled smartphone doesn’t receive the same adoration in the U.S. as it does on the international front. That doesn’t make it any less of a premium mobile. This unlocked powerhouse sports a masculine design enclosed in fiberglass, flaunting sleek curves that hide a variety of performance facets underneath. Multimedia playback and gaming are flawless thanks to the dominant combination of Qualcomm’s 1.5GHz quad-core CPU and an Adreno 320 GPU. It also boasts an eye-catching 5-inch TFT display powered by Sony’s Bravia Engine 2, which offers 10-finger multi-touch capabilities and delivers ultra-sharp visuals. However, it is the phone’s ability to be immersed underwater without sustaining any damage that makes the Xperia Z a remarkable piece of hardware.