Which phone should you buy?

An embarrassment of mobile phone riches makes this a terrific -- and confusing -- time to buy. We'll help you figure out where to start depending on what you want.

A big ol' pile of smartphones.
A big ol' pile of phones. Josh Miller/CNET

This story originally published September 14, 2012, and 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 phone reviewers like us every day. With superb devices such as the Nexus 5 , Motorola Droid Maxx , and Lumia 1020 hitting shelves alongside Samsung's Galaxy S4 and Note 3 , not to mention the HTC One, and Apple iPhone 5S, 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?

Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry. Each has its own pros, cons, and draw depending on what you want. A unique phone design might lure you to a new OS, but most people we know prefer to start with the platform and go from there.

The strengths of iOS are its well-integrated ecosystem, a very full apps marketplace, and a fairly intuitive interface, but you're pretty much locked into iTunes for content.

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.

For example Google's most recent iteration of Android, version 4.4 KitKat , debuted on the new Nexus 5 but is taking its sweet time to arrive on other phones. So, at the moment look for a phone running Android 4.3 , 4.2, or Android 4.1 . Devices with the older Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich are best avoided.

True Android devotees should spring for the latest Google Nexus handset. Higher-end phones, and Google Nexus devices especially, are typically the first to receive OS updates. The new Nexus 5 may be the first smartphone to run Android 4.4 KitKat but Google has plans to bless the older LG Nexus 4 , which runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, with fresh KitKat software. Another option is to go with Google Play Editions of either the Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC One .

If you love Windows and are deeply addicted to Microsoft's corporate and personal computing solutions, we know there are plenty of you out there, then Windows Phone 8 is the mobile OS you seek. It may not have the sheer number of apps that iOS and Android enjoy, but it has strong integration with Office and Microsoft's other services.

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 7, for instance, will work on the iPhone 5S, 5C, 5, 4S, and 4 but not on the iPhone 3GS or earlier.

Best iPhone: In the easiest pick of this entire list, choose the iPhone 5S (multiple carriers).

Best Android phones: HTC One (multiple carriers), Samsung Galaxy S4 (multiple carriers), Motorola Droid Maxx (Verizon), LG G2 (multiple carriers), Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

Best Windows phone: Nokia Lumia 1520 (AT&T) Nokia Lumia 928 (Verizon), Nokia Lumia 920 (AT&T), Nokia Lumia 925 (T-Mobile).

Best BlackBerry: If you're a QWERTY diehard, pick up the Q10 . For a larger screen, the BlackBerry Z30 is your newest and most compelling choice though in the U.S. its only available on Verizon. You'll have better luck locating the company's Z10 device which is sold on multiple carriers.

Blackberry Z30
The Z30 is the largest-screened Blackberry ever. Sarah Tew/CNET

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 US, 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 they offer premium phones.

However, every national carrier also has a prepaid option. T-Mobile is all no-contract, with down payments and monthly payments over time. AT&T has a different, usually cheaper, range of phones. Verizon lets you buy nearly any phone at retail value and then pay month-to-month, and 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.

Six carrier logos
CNET

Several prepaid carriers operate on their own networks as well, like MetroPCS (but this is transitioning to T-Mobile) and Cricket Wireless. These providers have regional footprints and are sometimes slower to adopt premium phones and improve on their technology. Cricket is slowly building up 4G along with its roster of top phones and provides 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 all the carriers 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 and T-Mobile have the smallest number of LTE markets.

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 offers unlimited data plans, and T-Mobile has gone completely off-contract.

Favorite AT&T phones: Samsung Galaxy S4, Apple iPhone 5S, HTC One, Nokia Lumia 1520 , Samsung Galaxy Note 3, HTC One Mini , Google Nexus 5.

Favorite Boost Mobile phones: Apple iPhone 5C , ZTE Warp 4G ,Samsung Galaxy S3, LG Optimus F7 , HTC One SV .

Favorite Cricket Wireless phones: Apple iPhone 5 , Samsung Galaxy S4, Samsung Galaxy S3.

Favorite MetroPCS phones: Samsung Galaxy S3, LG Spirit 4G , LG Motion 4G .

Favorite Sprint phones: Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Apple iPhone 5S, Samsung Galaxy Note 3, Google Nexus 5.

Favorite T-Mobile phones: Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Apple iPhone 5S, Google Nexus 5, Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

Favorite U.S. Cellular phones: Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Apple iPhone 5S, Motorola Moto X , Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

Favorite Verizon phones: Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Apple iPhone 5S, Motorola Droid Maxx , Nokia Lumia 928 , Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

Favorite Virgin Mobile phones: Samsung Galaxy S3, Apple iPhone 5S.

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.

Samsung Gusto 2
Simple phones aren't going away. Josh Miller/CNET

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'd 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.

Best high-end phones: Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Apple iPhone 5S (multiple carriers), Nokia Lumia 1520 (AT&T), Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (multiple carriers.

Best midrange phones: Samsung Galaxy S3 (multiple), HTC One Mini (AT&T), Nokia Lumia 820 Nokia Lumia 822

Best basic phones: Samsung Gusto 2 (Verizon), Kyocera DuraXT (Sprint), LG Rumor Reflex (Sprint), Samsung T159 (T-Mobile).

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 colorful iPhone 5C really stands out. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Pantech Discover features dual 3D surround speakers and a comfortable contoured design. HTC's One has a gorgeous all-metal body and luxurious screen. The ultramodern-looking Nokia Lumia 920 also flaunts numerous and wild colors.

We still love the elegant, industrial designs of Apple's iPhone series, as well as the Samsung Galaxy S4'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).

Favorite stylish phones: HTC One (multiple carriers), Motorola Moto X (multiple carriers), iPhone 5C (multiple carriers), Pantech Discover (AT&T), Nokia Lumia 1020 (AT&T).

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 Mega, which features a whopping 6.3-inch display. ( Huawei's Ascend Mate has a 6.1-inch screen, but doesn't have carrier partners yet.).

The Nokia Lumia 1520 , with a vast 6-inch LCD, is the biggest Windows Phone handset yet. HTC has jumped into the gargantuan phone arena too. Its One Max pushes the company's signature metallic design to staggering proportions. Our favorite phablet though is the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 which boasts an excellent 5.7-inch OLED screen that's sharp, colorful, and has extremely high contrast.

The Samsung Galaxy S4, Nokia Lumia 1020, BlackBerry Z10, and LG G2 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.

Galaxy Note 3
The Galaxy Note 3 is a superb tablet-phone hybrid. Sarah Tew/CNET

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 Moto X with an edge-to-edge display that, despite its slim, compact chassis, features a vibrant 4.8-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.

Best "small" (4 inches and under) phones: BlackBerry Q10 , iPhone 5S (multiple carriers).

Best "medium" (4 to 4.5 inches) phones: Motorola Moto X (Verizon), Apple iPhone 5S (multiple carriers), BlackBerry Z10 (multiple carriers).

Best "large" (4.7 to 6 inches) phones: Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (multiple carriers), Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One (multiple carriers), Nokia Lumia 1520 (AT&T), Nokia Lumia 928 (Verizon).

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 928 kills it with low-light performance. Samsung's 13-megapixel shooter also take some consistently great shots, even in automatic mode.

Nokia Lumia 928
The Nokia Lumia 928's xenon flash helps it take good shots. Its low-light performance is fantastic. Josh Miller/CNET

The iPhone 5S 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 new "Ultrapixel" camera takes photos with alarming speed, and while the picture quality is good and colors look natural, it isn't the best of the bunch. 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'.

Best camera phones today: Apple iPhone 5S, Nokia Lumia 1020 (AT&T), Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Nokia Lumia 928 (Verizon).

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 marketing chief Phil Schiller touts the advantages of the A7 processor used in the iPhone 5S.
Apple's A7 processor ups the silicon arms race to 64-bit. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Apple has introduced its 64-bit A7 processor, which doubles the speed of the previous A6. Samsung's GS4 goes quad-core in the U.S. and octa-core in some markets, and other powerful Android and Windows Phone handsets still by-and-large use Qualcomm's quad-core and dual-core Snapdragon processors. Currently the most robust Qualcomm CPU is the 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 found in the Galaxy Note 3, Nokia Lumia 1520, LG G2, and Nexus 5.

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.

Blazing quad-core specimens: Nexus 5 (multiple carriers), Nokia Lumia 1520 (AT&T), LG G2 , Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

Dual-core smartphone speed demons: Samsung Galaxy S3 (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile), Motorola Droid Maxx (Verizon), Motorola Moto X (multiple carriers).

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.

With its 3,500 mAh battery, the Droid Maxx is the current king of runtime. Sarah Tew/CNET

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 2,300mAh 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.

Phones with superior battery life: Motorola Droid Maxx (Verizon), Kyocera DuraPlus (Sprint), Pantech Discover (AT&T), Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (multiple carriers).

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.

Phones with great keyboards: BlackBerry Q10 , Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE (Sprint), Motorola Droid 4 (Verizon).

Final tips

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.

 

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