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The best smartphone: what to buy on every carrier

Smartphone buyer's guide fall 2012 hero

Late last year, we told you just about everything you need to know to buy a smartphone: how to choose a carrier, form factor, operating system, data plan, and more. We gave you the tools to make an educated choice, but we still left the final decision — actually choosing a phone — up to you. What if you’re just looking for a specific recommendation, though? What’s the best phone for your hard-earned dollar?

We’re going to tell you exactly which phone you should buy if you walk into your carrier’s store today. We’ll also tell you what phones you definitely shouldn’t buy. We’re confident about these choices — we use many, many phones over the course of the year. We can’t exactly offer you a money-back guarantee, but fortunately, your carrier can.

Additionally, we’ll share our picks for the best “budget” phone available on each carrier, devices that currently retail for as little as $0 on a new plan. Bear in mind that over the course of a two-year contract, the upfront cost of the phone is often less than 10 percent of your total outlay, but if you’re looking to spend as little money upfront as possible, you’ll be glad to know that there are still some fantastic picks available. You can frequently save even more money on the price of the phone by purchasing it through a third-party retailer like Amazon Wireless or Wirefly, but remember that you’ll usually be subject to two separate early termination fees — one from the carrier, one from the retailer — if you end your contract before your two years are up.

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Verizon

Verizon

Top Picks

iPhone 5

Galaxy S III

Budget pick

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

This stalwart of the Android portfolio is now a year old, and at under $100 on contract, it’s still a pretty easy recommendation. The Verizon version of the phone has a reputation for weaker battery life and a dodgier radio than its GSM stablemate, but LTE support and the promise of stock Android 4.2 (eventually) are strong selling points.

Don’t buy

HTC Trophy

This handset, Verizon’s first Windows Phone, is inexplicably still sold for a whopping $179.99 on contract — and it won’t even get Windows Phone 8! Under no circumstances should you buy this one, particularly now that Big Red is selling HTC’s new 8X.

AT&T

AT&T

Top Picks

iPhone 5

Galaxy S III

Budget pick

Nokia Lumia 920

Windows Phone still has a few nagging functionality gaps against its bigger rivals and is missing a fairly significant swath of important applications, but the 920 has some appeal: the camera performs absurdly well in low light, it’s available in a selection of great colors, and the excellent display uses new technology that allows it to work even when you’re wearing gloves. $99.99 is a great contract price for the hardware — it’s just a question of whether you can get by on Windows Phone.

Don’t buy

Sony Xperia TL

It’s not so much that the Xperia TL is a terrible phone — it’s not — but that there are better phones you can buy for the $99.99 that AT&T is charging.

Sprint

Sprint

Top Picks

iPhone 5

Galaxy S III

Budget pick

HTC EVO 4G LTE

It wasn’t long ago that the EVO 4G LTE was one of the flagship models in Sprint’s lineup, but the carrier has priced it aggressively going into the holiday season (more aggressively than the Galaxy S III that it was designed to compete head-to-head with). And as the name implies, it’s got LTE support for Sprint’s budding network along with HD voice.

Don’t buy

Motorola Admiral

It doesn’t matter how badly you want a portrait keyboard on your smartphone — this forgotten relic runs Android 2.3, lacks both LTE and WiMAX, and has a single-core processor. You don’t want it at any price.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile

Top Pick

LG Nexus 4

Though the lack of LTE and CDMA support makes this an inappropriate choice for Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon, the Nexus 4 is an appealing option for T-Mobile — it supports DC-HSPA for speedy 42Mbps service and can be had off-contract for as little as $299. Android 4.2 is stellar, as is the Nexus 4’s hardware. It’s an easy recommendation for all types of users.

Budget pick

It depends

T-Mobile changes its deals on an almost weekly basis, but a couple standouts can be had for little (or no) money upfront depending on when you walk into the store: HTC’s One S and Samsung’s Galaxy S II.

Unlike the larger One X available from AT&T, the One S is made from metal — it simply looks (and feels) great. The Galaxy S II, meanwhile, is a classic: it was one of the first widely popular phones with a dual-core processor and has a stellar camera. You won’t get the newer S III’s 720p display, but you’ll be paying a lot less.

Don’t buy

Nokia Lumia 710

Though “free” is an appealing sticker price, the 710 was never a great phone, even when it was brand new a year ago — it’s cheap and plasticky compared to its higher-end cousins. And since it launched on Windows Phone 7.5, it’ll never see an upgrade to version 8.

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