Beyond the Samsung Galaxy S4

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon advises a reader to wait a bit longer to see what other smartphones will come on the market after the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4.

Waiting is never easy. And in the fast-paced smartphone market, it feels like you can wait forever before buying a new phone, because there's always a better one around the corner.

For the smartphone consumer, it's a delicate balance in deciding when to pull the trigger on the next smartphone purchase. While the upgrade cycle of devices seems nearly constant, I've noticed that the spring and summer have become the sweet spot for the introduction of most of the year's hottest devices.

In this Ask Maggie, a reader is already content to wait for the Samsung Galaxy 4, which should be announced next week. And I offer some advice about waiting a little bit longer to see what other devices are likely to come to market in the next few months.

I also offer some insight to a reader, who has found a sweet deal on a new Samsung Galaxy Note 2 from Verizon's retail partners. He wants to know if there is a catch to Amazon's and Best Buy's aggressive pricing.

Waiting for my next smartphone

Dear Maggie,
I really appreciate your practical, no nonsense, reviews; especially in the mobile phone arena. For me, the race is coming to a head March 14. Will it be the HTC One or the Galaxy S4? Both are terrific phones. I'm not one to switch phones every year. I've had my HTC Hero for more than three years, and it has served me well. Family members have the Galaxy S3, and they are very satisfied. Which one of the new phones actually noses out the other?

Also, since my HTC Hero is still working fine, I don't really need to buy a new device right away. Are there other smartphones on the horizon that I should wait to consider?

Thanks,
Larry

Dear Larry,
If you are in the market for a new smartphone and you love new technology, the next six months should be a very exciting time for you as there will be several new, high-end devices hitting market.

First, let me start by answering your initial question: Which is better the HTC One or the Samsung Galaxy S4?

Samsung Galaxy S4

As you know the Samsung Galaxy S4 hasn't yet been announced. Samsung is planning a special event in New York City on March 14 , where it will release all the details about the new phone. So I can't realistically compare it with the HTC One, which has already been announced.

That said, I can tell you that the rumor mill has been churning. And in general what's expected from the new Samsung is a faster processor (probably a quad-core processor, previous rumors of an eight-core processor may not be true), an improved camera (some rumors say around 13 megapixels), a crystal clear screen (likely Super AMOLED) and the latest version of Google's software (probably Jellybean 4.2).

The latest rumors also indicate that Samsung has really focused on improving the software on this phone. And the New York Times reported that Samsung will use a new technology that will track a user's eyes and automatically scroll the screen when you are reading longer text.

Unlike the iPhone and the HTC One, Samsung isn't expected to make this phone out of metal , which could give it more of a quality feel. Instead, some experts believe it will share a similar design and materials to existing Galaxy devices, which means plastic.

HTC One
HTC has also been busy updating its flagship device. And this time, it's going for gold by introducing just a single device to take on Samsung and Apple.

The HTC One X (AT&T) should see Sense 5 UI in the coming months. CBS Interactive

The HTC One was announced last month. It's an all-aluminum smartphone that CNET Reviews editor Jessica Dolcourt described in one of her posts as a "gorgeous" smartphone . The phone comes with the almost-up-to-date Android software Jelly Bean 4.1, dual audio speakers, a new Beats Audio feature in BoomSound, and a rebooted version of the HTC Sense interface that includes a new element called Blink.

It sports a 1.7GHz quad core processor, 4.7-inch LCD screen, and a 4-megapixel camera, which the company claims is still superior to other cameras because of its UltraPixel technology. UltraPixel is a marketing term for a new light sensor the company uses. HTC decided that for this camera the current standard of 8 megapixels is overkill for a camera phone, and so it is sticking with a 4 megapixel camera. But HTC has enhanced the camera with the updated ImageSense system, new ImageChip 2 hardware, and the revamped light sensor. The result is a camera that HTC claims can capture 300 percent more light than competing camera phones.

The phone is expected to hit the market in March on T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint. It'll cost $199.99 for the 32GB version and $299.99 for the 64GB version with two year contracts.

Other options
The HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4, when it's announced, are likely to be fantastic choices for your next smartphone. But the truth is that there will soon be a lot more options to choose from as other manufacturers also roll out their latest devices. And if you're going to wait for the Samsung Galaxy S4, then it might make sense to wait just a bit longer to see what other smartphones will soon be available.

Here are a few more devices you should keep in mind. Some of these smartphones have already been announced. And some are merely expected to be in the pipeline and may be a little further out. But they are all worth considering.

BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry Q10: These phones were announced in late January and are the first devices to use the new BlackBerry 10 OS. The BlackBerry Z10 is a 4.2-inch touch-screen device. It is expected to go on sale in the U.S. this month and it will be offered by Verizon Wireless on its 4G LTE network for $199.99 with a two-year contract; T-Mobile and AT&T also confirmed plans to carry the smartphone. But it doesn't look like Sprint will get the phone.

This BlackBerry Z10 mixes secure, encrypted work tasks with ordinary personal use by using a security chip made by Secusmart.
This BlackBerry Z10 Stephen Shankland/CNET

The BlackBerry Q10 has a 3.1-inch screen and a full Qwerty keyboard, which should appeal to die-hard BlackBerry fans. No launch date has been released for this phone, but it's expected to start selling globally in April and will likely come to the U.S. a few weeks later. Pricing will be announced at a later date. AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless have each announced they will carry the phone. T-Mobile has only said it will offer the Z10.

BlackBerry's Q10 smartphone.
BlackBerry's Q10 smartphone. Sarah Tew/CNET

I wouldn't say that either of the new BlackBerry phones is likely to be any better than the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4. But for people who really like BlackBerry, these devices are a reason to wait. After months of delays, BlackBerry finally has some products to show off using its new software. And it will be interesting to see if the company can keep or even reclaim some of its former Blackberry customers.

Sony Xperia Z or (Sony Xperia ZL in the U.S.): Sony took the wraps off the Xperia Z at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and showed it off again at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. CNET Reviews editor Brian Bennett has called it an impressive phone with a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and Android 4.1 Jelly Bean software. It also has a 13-megapixel camera with a backside illuminated sensor. The phone is supposed to work well under low-light conditions. The camera also comes with additional features, such as burst mode, panorama, plus a bevy of special filters and effects.

Sony Xperia Z

The phone is made for the global market, so it will work on GSM carriers in the U.S., such as AT&T and T-Mobile. The U.S. version, the Xperia ZL, includes 4G LTE, which means it will likely work on AT&T's 4G LTE network. But Sony has not announced a U.S. carrier partnership for this device. So it's likely that it will be sold unlocked and without a subsidy on Sony's Web site. It's not yet available for sale in the U.S., but execs say it's coming soon. Pricing is also not available yet, but the price tag is rumored to be more than $700. You can check out Sony's Web site to be notified of when it will be available.

Motorola X Phone: Finally, Motorola is expected to make a splash this spring and summer with the announcement of the new Motorola X Phone . This is rumored to be a phone designed from the collaboration between Google and Motorola. (Motorola is now owned by Google.) The phone is expected to debut at Google I/O in May. While some are saying it may not offer much "wow" factor compared with other devices on the market, it is still likely to be a solid device that should meet or exceed the specs of some of the other devices on this list. And while Motorola has had a rough go of it in past years, there are some customers who are loyal to Motorola because they consider the hardware to be better quality than other Android devices. Plus it's expected to be the first smartphone to sport the new Google Android 5.0 Key Lime Pie software.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3: I know it feels like the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 just came on the market. But people are already talking about the next version of the super large smartphone. And why wouldn't they? The Galaxy Note franchise is a hit. Samsung reported that it sold more than 5 million Galaxy Note 2 devices worldwide in the first two months the product was on the market. Apparently, some people really like oversize phones.

Rumor has it that the next version of the "phablet" will be available this summer. In terms of specs, the third generation of this device is rumored to have a 6.3-inch Full HD screen display, 8-core Exynos 5 Octa processor, a stylus and finger hovering feature, and a 16-megapixel rear camera with auto-focus plus LED flash. And it will run Android 5.0 Key Lime Pie. The rumors also suggest it will come in three memory sizes: 32, 64, and 128 GB internal memory.

iPhone 5S/ iPhone 6: Rumors about the next iteration of the iPhone start bubbling up shortly after the latest iPhone is released. And since the latest version, the iPhone 5, came out in September, nearly six months ago, we are right on track for iPhone rumors to really heat up again.

As with any speculation about a new iPhone, people want to know when it will come out and what new features will be added. The truth is, nobody knows when or what we'll get until Apple CEO Tim Cook reveals it on stage later this year. But my CNET Reviews colleague Scott Stein has made some educated guesses about what is likely.

He says the odds are strong that the immediate successor to the iPhone 5 will debut in the summer to autumn time frame, which means anywhere between June and October. And the release will likely coincide with the release of Apple's next version of software iOS 7. If Apple follows tradition, as it's done the past several cycles, the new version of the device will look a lot like the iPhone 5, but with some tweaks to the hardware and software on the inside.

Scott also says other things that might be upgraded include the resolution on the cameras and perhaps memory. Now that there is a 128GB iPad, Scott thinks there is a chance Apple will offer a 128GB iPhone, too.

Other than that, it's really hard to say what else is likely coming when it comes to the iPhone. But one thing you can be sure of is that a new one is coming. It's just a matter of when.

Don't forget about the software upgrade cycle
Another thing to keep in mind is that the two phones you are currently considering are Google Android devices. And they will each hit the market before Google introduces its next big software update, which many expect to happen in May at the Google I/O developer conference.

What this means is that either of these phones may be considered "out-of-date" in terms of software, once Google announces Android 5.0 Key Lime Pie. While Samsung has already said that the Galaxy S4 will be on a path for whatever upgrades Google announces, those upgrades will likely take a while to go through the manufacturer and carrier testing process. For example, some versions of the Samsung Galaxy S3 are only now just getting Google's Jelly Bean update, which was first introduced last June.

Apple is also expected to release a new version of its iOS software this summer. While the software tends to be immediately upgradeable to some previous versions of the iPhone, it could still turn out to be an important update and could offer some iPhone users a reason to wait before upgrading. So keep an eye out for that.

The bottom line
So what should you do? It's a dilemma that every smartphone consumer has every time he is ready for an upgrade. Do you buy what's available now, or do you wait a little longer for something better? What I tell people is that if you absolutely need a phone right now, then just buy what's available today. That said, because we are so close to the launch of some really good phones, if it's at all possible, if you can duct tape your ailing device or keep it together with some gum and string, you probably should.

If your existing phone is working perfectly fine and you aren't in a hurry to buy a new phone, and if you plan to keep your next phone for a long time, then definitely wait. In just a few months, we'll have a better idea of how the market will shake out. In the end, you might still end up with either the HTC One or the Samsung Galaxy S4. But maybe you will be wowed by the upcoming Motorola phone, or you may finally be lured into Apple's ecosystem with the new iPhone and updated iOS.

The bottomline is that you are going to have a whole slew of products to choose from in a relatively short time frame. So it makes sense to wait just a little longer.

I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck!

Does it matter where I buy my smartphone?

Dear Maggie,
I'm in the market for the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 from Verizon Wireless. I have been a Verizon customer for many years and have always purchased my phones directly from Verizon. However, both Amazon and Best Buy are offering the same phone priced $100 cheaper than Verizon. As of this writing, Verizon says that they do not match prices. Someone told me that Best Buy and Amazon are able to offer these lower prices probably because they buy in larger quantities. That surprised me. So, this time I am seriously considering not getting the phone from Verizon. But I still want to keep my Verizon service. Are there any "gotchas" of which I should be aware before buying the phone from a reseller instead of directly from Verizon?

Thank you,
Ed

Dear Ed,
As far as I know there are no "gotchas" when you buy a device from a retailer, such as Best Buy or Amazon. You are still expected to pay the monthly service fee set by the carrier. And you are still expected to adhere to the carrier's contract terms.

Honestly, if you can find the device $100 cheaper from one of these retailers, then go for it. You have got yourself a bargain.

But there is one thing you should know. If you end up canceling your service within the first six months of your contract, you will be subject to an additional early termination fee from Amazon. According to the AmazonWireless policy, when you buy from its website it passes along an instant discount based on a commission paid to AmazonWireless by your carrier. The penalty is pretty hefty. It's $400 per smartphone or tablet and $200 for any other device if the service is canceled or significantly altered within 181 days of your purchase. And Amazon says it can collect this fee directly from your credit card if you cancel your service.

Considering you are only getting a $100 discount on the device, if you cancel the service within 181 days, then it's not such a good deal for you. That said, Amazon does give you 30 days to decide if you like the phone and the service. So if you decide you don't like your new phone and you want to return it, you won't be charged Amazon's early termination fee until after 30 days. But since the carriers only have a 14-day return policy, if you decided to return your device between days 15 and 30, you could be charged an early termination fee from your carrier. You would not be charged Amazon's additional fee until after 30 days.

The bottom line is that if you plan to keep your service, which it sounds like you will since you are a long-time Verizon customer, then I don't see any reason not to buy the cheaper device.

I also double-checked with Verizon to see if it had any warnings for customers about buying from one of their resellers. Here is what a Verizon representative told me in an e-mail:

All of our agents are independent businesses and while there are parameters on how they represent Verizon Wireless products and services, they create and implement their own marketing and sales strategies. The customer gets the same Verizon Wireless network service and is treated as any other Verizon Wireless customer when it comes to service pricing. The phones these agents sell are approved for the Verizon Wireless network but how they choose to price those devices is well within the scope of managing their businesses to meet their strategic goals.

She added that she was also not aware of any "gotchas." She suggested checking with the individual retailers to see if there is any fine print to the deals they are offering. And I agree, other retailers may also have additional restocking fees if you return a device or they may have added early termination fees if you cancel your service. But as far as Verizon is concerned, she said that the company works with its retail partners to protect the Verizon Wireless brand.

"We want our customers to have a quality experience regardless of where they purchase the service, which is why you see the leaders in the retail industry (selling our phones and service.)"

My advice is take the discount. A $100 saved is a $100 earned!

UPDATED 3/7/13 8:25 a.m. PT: This story was updated with additional information about AmazonWireless's early termination fees if service is canceled within 181 of service activation.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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