This story, originally published September 14, 2012, updates often to reflect the arrival of new phones.
"Which phone should I buy?" This is the single most common question readers like you ask us phone reviewers every day. With the launch of a new BlackBerry Z10 smartphone and upcoming BlackBerry Q10 joining the Apple iPhone 5, a legion of excellent Android handsets, and the rise of Microsoft's Windows phones, the choices are more numerous than ever before.
On the bright side, options are a good thing -- if you're armed with the knowledge necessary to make smart shopping decisions. Sit tight as we lay out what you need to find the right mobile platform and model for you.
Which operating system is for you?
iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry. Each has its own pluses and minuses, and will appeal to people differently depending on what they want. While a unique phone design might lure you to a new OS, many people prefer to start with the platform and go from there.
Android is the most customizable and a wonderland for tinkerers. However, most manufacturers and carriers add a specialized twist, which can lead to slower OS updates, and to an interface that's less easy to use from the get-go.
Windows Phone 8 is building in features that make for good higher-end phones. Its fresh, simple interface is appealing, but power users won't find it as deep or as flexible. A thinner-but-growing app ecosystem is another weakness for the app-crazy.
The newly rebooted BlackBerry 10 OS will win back longtime fans with its rich communication, e-mail, and security features. However, its gesture-based navigation isn't the most intuitive, and the nascent OS lacks a killer feature that will propel happy users to switch from another OS.
Before you begin choosing your OS, there are a few things to keep in mind. With Android phones in particular, you have to think about the OS version and level of extra software customization. Android phones suffer from fragmentation, as carriers and manufacturers add their own software layers that sometimes get in the way of an update to the next generation. As such, we'd avoid any new phone running Android 2.3 Gingerbread or older -- stick with the now slightly older Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich or preferably, pick a phone with Android 4.1 or Android 4.2.
Of course, true Android devotees should spring for the latest Google Nexus handset, the LG Nexus 4, which runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. Higher-end phones, and Google Nexus devices especially, are typically the first to receive OS updates.
We'd also completely bypass Windows Phone 7 handsets, even if they're inexpensive. They just won't see software advances. Buy a Windows Phone 8 device instead. Not only will you receive OS updates, you'll also be more likely to get a phone with a faster processor and sharper screen.
iPhones have the advantage of receiving the same OS upgrade at the same time, and the newest OS is usually available on multiple devices. iOS 6, for instance, will work on the , , and iPhone 4, but not on the iPhone 3GS or earlier.
Best iPhone: In the easiest pick of this entire list, choose the iPhone 5 (multiple carriers).
Best BlackBerry: In the U.S., both the Z10 and keyboard-equipped Q10 are expected in the March or April time frame. The Z10, however, is already available in some parts of the world.
Do you shop by phone or by carrier?
If you're happy with your carrier, or if you're within an upgrade window, you'll probably pick from your carrier's choices. However, if you're off-contract or in between contract cycles, the world is your oyster.
Things you have to consider include: contract or no contract, a small data plan or a large one, and which carrier covers your area best.
In the U.S., national and regional carriers sign you on for a two-year contract (this is three years in Canada), have a strong retail presence, and offer phones at a subsidy (hence they're cheaper). They also typically have the widest coverage and the lowest up-front costs, and offer premium phones.
However, every national carrier also has a prepaid option. Some, like, T-Mobile and AT&T, offer a different, usually cheaper, range of phones. Verizon lets you buy nearly any phone at retail value and then pay month-to-month; T-Mobile has a hybrid with its cheaper-in-the-long-run Value pricing. Sprint manages prepaid options through its Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile brands.
Depending on how you use your phone, a prepaid service could work out to be cheaper over time. You also won't have to worry about breaking your contract and paying a fee.
Several prepaid carriers operate on their own networks as well, like MetroPCS and Cricket Wireless. These providers have regional footprints and are sometimes slower to adopt premium phones and improve on their technology. MetroPCS was first with LTE, but its network is much slower and its coverage area is smaller. Cricket doesn't have 4G, but it does offer a unique music service.
U.S. Cellular is a regional network with both prepaid and postpaid options. There are many more carrier services as well. Get to know them better here.
Voice and data coverage are also key. There are carrier maps you can look at to see roughly if your area is taken care of, but asking neighbors is usually more reliable. All carriers are still rolling out 4G LTE networks, but Verizon is far ahead of the others. Sprint has the smallest number of markets, currently, and T-Mobile is using the pretty fast HSPA+ for 4G.
The carrier's pricing structure is also something to think about. Verizon and AT&T have pooled data plans that could be better or worse for you or your family, but AT&T's aren't mandatory for existing customers. Sprint and T-Mobile offer unlimited data plans.
Which experience: Premium or functional?
One big question to ask yourself when choosing a mobile phone is how you plan to use it. If you plan to use your phone as your primary camera; play a lot of graphically rich games; stream a lot of data; store a lot of photos, videos, e-books, and audio files; and stare at the screen for hours, then a premium smartphone is best for you.
The cream of the crop will usually have a big, high-definition screen, larger storage capacities, a higher-resolution camera, longer battery life, and a faster processor. Power doesn't come cheap, since top-tier smartphones typically run anywhere from $199.99 to $299.99, though there are promotional deals.
As nice as the premium smartphones are, for some people, they're just overkill. All the operating systems bring their software power to handsets of all shapes and sizes, which means that hardware capabilities are often the only thing that separates the tiers. If you're less picky about having the best of the best, you could walk away with a smartphone that runs all the same apps as the big boys for half the price. These phones typically cost from $0 to $150, depending on the carrier and the promotional deal.
For those looking only to text or make calls, each carrier offers messaging phones (many with keyboards) and simple phones (many with a flip design). These phones might seem pricier than you expect because the carrier isn't helping subsidize the cost, but the upside is that you won't have to fork over money for a pricey data plan each month. You can find simple phones for between $15 and $80.
Design: Blend in or stand out?
A phone is such a deeply personal product, you might find yourself strongly drawn to one style or another. If you prefer a low-profile phone, good news. Most are black or dark-gray shingles, though white has become a popular color choice. Others come in edgier colors like red, cyan, and yellow, or with distinct shapes, edges, and backings.
The Pantech Discover features dual 3D surround speakers and a comfortable contoured design. HTC's Droid DNA is very thin despite its massive 5-inch screen, sports flashy red metallic trim, and has a comfortable soft-touch back. The ultramodern-looking Nokia Lumia 920 also flaunts numerous and wild colors, as does the svelte HTC Windows Phone 8X.
We still love the elegant, industrial designs of Apple's iPhone series, as well as the Samsung Galaxy S3's thin, molded-from-plastic, smooth, and attractive curves, but the design of these phones has become ubiquitous (and therefore stand out a little less).
Do you like a large, medium, or small screen?
A phone's single most important physical element is its screen size. You'll find the largest screens within the Android camp, the most massive one available belonging to the tabletlike Samsung Galaxy Note 2, which features a whopping 5.5-inch display. (Huawei's Ascend Mate has a 6.1-inch screen, but doesn't have carrier partners yet.) Meanwhile, the HTC Droid DNA also sports a gargantuan 5-inch display as well, complete with a sharp 1080p HD resolution (440 pixels per inch).
The Samsung Galaxy S3, Nokia Lumia 920, BlackBerry Z10, and LG Nexus 4 also offer outstanding viewing with high-resolution displays of 4 inches or greater. As you can imagine, looking at everything from Web pages and photos to movies on these devices is an awesome experience.
Still, others prefer a smaller device that's more pocketable, and there are plenty of those to choose from. There's the medium-size Motorola Droid Razr M with an edge-to-edge display that, despite its slim, compact chassis, features a vibrant 4.3-inch screen.
For those with small hands or seriously tight pockets, the compact 3.1-inch BlackBerry Q10 is a solid choice. Not only does it sport a high-contrast OLED screen, it runs the recent BlackBerry 10 software and has a well-designed physical QWERTY keyboard. Another superb pint-size option is the iPhone 4S, which, thanks to the iPhone 5's arrival, has dropped markedly in price.
Best "large" (4.7 to 5.5 inches) phones: HTC Droid DNA (Verizon), Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (multiple carriers), Samsung Galaxy S3 (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular), Nokia Lumia 920 (AT&T), LG Nexus 4 (T-Mobile, unlocked).
How often will you use the camera?
If you're like us, your smartphone camera has become your primary shooter for casual, day-to-day moments. It's also a chief selling point for any phone.
Nokia, Samsung, Apple, and HTC are our go-to manufacturers for smartphone cameras, not quite in that order. Nokia's 808 PureView pretty much wows with its 41-megapixel sensor and some clever "cropping" techniques. However, the Lumia 920's 8.7-megapixel camera, which uses PureView processing algorithms (but a different lens), isn't quite as good.
Samsung's 8-megapixel cameras also take some consistently great shots, even in automatic mode. The Galaxy Note series and Galaxy S3 phones seem to share the same camera characteristics, and we're not talking about the fancy sharing software, just photos in the raw.
The iPhone 5 camera is also at the top of the class, and pumps out consistently good photos in macro and low-light scenarios without you having to fuss with settings. It also packs a panoramic mode with 28-megapixel resolution.
HTC's camera takes photos with alarming speed, and while the picture quality is good, it isn't the best. However, HTC's track record is far better than Motorola's, which produces 8-megapixel cameras that can't quite get shots as sharp or as colorful as its competitors'.
How fast a phone do you want?
The mobile phone arms race is as hot as ever, and much as with desktop computers of old, manufacturers constantly vie for performance bragging rights. Similarly, elite smartphone shoppers pore over spec sheets and feature lists in a quest for the ultimate handset.
Apple has introduced its A6 processor, and at launch little was known other than the promise that it's two times faster than the A5 chipset in the iPhone 4S. We can now say the dual-core A6 chip does help the iPhone 5 feel faster and more responsive. Powerful Android and Windows Phone handsets still by-and-large use Qualcomm's dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus or S4 Pro processors.
Manufacturers, however, have really begun to snap up LTE-ready quad-core chips into U.S. smartphones. The first was the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, which uses Samsung's own quad-core Exynos processor. Other phones such as the LG Nexus 4, HTC Droid DNA, and LG Optimus G have Qualcomm's latest quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro chip. (Sadly, the Nexus 4 lacks 4G LTE support.) HTC's One X+ draws its considerable computing power from quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 silicon.
Honestly, though, a phone's clock speed is a relative value. A slower CPU can make efficient software fly while the opposite is true of a handset weighed down with useless apps.
For example, the old Samsung Galaxy Nexus running pure Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is one of the swiftest-handling phones we've ever used, while the iPhone 4S has been buttery-smooth.
On the other hand, the HTC Droid DNA is loaded to the gills with Verizon bloatware plus HTC's Sense UI on top of Jelly Bean yet is the fastest Android phone we've ever tested. Check out our quad-core smartphone shootout to see just how much faster quad-core phones really are.
Will you use your phone for calls?
These days, calls are often the last thing on a phone owner's mind, but if you care about talking in addition to your texts, games, and e-mails, you have a bit of a chore ahead.
Unfortunately, call quality is the hardest attribute to consistently pin down, since it vacillates so widely based on network strength in your location, your building, and even the time of day. We test call quality in each phone review, but what's good for us at the CNET offices in San Francisco or New York might be terrible in your neighborhood.
Our best advice is to make a test call from a retail location (even if you're buying online) to check the call quality, and to ask your neighbors for an assessment. Some people still write us saying they can't get reception in their signal-blocking homes, but they can get it on the street.
How critical is long battery life?
Even the most high-octane superphone becomes a fancy paperweight when it runs out of juice. Compounding the problem are the swelling screen sizes and multiplying processing cores cropping up in modern CPU chips. Then there are 4G LTE radios that suck down data at lightning speed, but if abused, will soak up electricity like a gaggle of thirsty vampires.
That said, a few handsets manage to sagely balance their energy consumption with swift performance. Other devices are also equipped with large-capacity batteries of over 2,000mAh or more, providing a deep reservoir to draw from.
Here's a list of phones we've tested personally that have demonstrated outstanding longevity or that likely will based on their components. Read more about the future of smartphone battery life here.
The keyboard question
Now that BlackBerry is back with the Q10, people who aren't ready to break their physical keyboard habit have another option from the best in the business.
Yet, if the BlackBerry OS isn't your cup of tea, things get tricky. The number of smartphones with actual keyboards is rapidly shrinking, and there's no iOS or Windows Phone device that's QWERTY-equipped. Even worse, many phones that do fall into this category come with shoddily constructed keyboards and painful ergonomics. That said, there are some modern keyboard phones we think are worthy of recommendation. Here are our top picks for devices that provide a pleasant typing experience.
In the end, whether you choose the newest thing or pick something more practical, we recommend two more tips. First, keep an eye out for seasonal deals, especially if you're buying phones for the family. Also, carriers love to suddenly offer special (often Web-only) discounts, typically around holiday weekends.
Second, it's a good idea to know how much time you have to return a phone without penalty, just in case you need to switch devices after your initial buy. Carriers usually offer a 14- to 30-day return window, though you may have to pay for calls and data usage during that time.