Best U.S. phones late 2012

We've said it a number of times the past few months -- never before have we seen a time when there are so many good Android smartphones on so many U.S. carriers. We've practically been tripping over them all year. 

From T-Mobile to Sprint to AT&T to Verizon, most of the major manufacturers are represented. But when we get down to it, we're going in the same direction as we did in our international picks.

Best of the Best in the U.S.: Samsung Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2

Our all-around winner(s) for best smartphone remains the Samsung Galaxy S3, and its larger sibling, the Galaxy Note 2. OK, so that's two phones. We're adding the Note 2 here because it really is in a category all its own.

Samsung Galaxy S3 and Note 2Back to the Galaxy S3, though. It's got the design. The whole "inspired by nature" thing is Samsung's most personable, fluid design yet. It makes a large, 4.8-inch phone feel good. The specs, while maybe not on the bleeding edge anymore, remain more than good enough for most smartphone owners. The inclusion of microSD storage and a removable battery give flexibility that other phones don't. (Those features have been trending off in the majority of other devices. And while we don't ding them for it as much as we used to, you can't overlook the fact that it's better to have a microSD card and removable battery and not need them, than to not have the option.)

What's more, the Galaxy S3 is the only phone on every major U.S. carrier (and a few of the regionals as well). The experience is largely the same whether you're on T-Mobile or Sprint or AT&T or Verizon, network issues aside. The camera is among the best you can get. The software remains on the newer side of things, with the phone starting to get its upgrades to Android 4.x Jelly Bean. Samsung's TouchWiz user interface isn't our favorite way to get things done, but, again, for most smartphone users, it makes life easier. 

OK. The Galaxy Note 2. It's also available on every major U.S. carrier. Picture the Galaxy S3, only bigger. Some 5.5 inches, to be exact. Take all the features Samsung's put into the Galaxy S3, and add some excellent pen input mechanisms and dual-screen viewing, and you've got another winner, hands-down.

So should you bother to look at anything else?

Absolutely.​ If we have to pick just one phone, the Galaxy S3 takes it. But as we said at the outset, there are a number of excellent options on each major carrier.

These aren't also-rans. We're not picking other phones to make their manufacturers feel good about themselves. The phones we've listed after the break are the phones that our in our pockets. They're the phones that we use day after day. We live with them. We work with them. We travel with them. We rely on them to document our lives. And we recommend any one of them.  

The best of Verizon Wireless

Verizon WirelessVerizon probably has the deepest bullpen of the U.S. carriers. That's by design, of course. Verizon also has the most robust 4G LTE network in the country, hands-down. Its "Droid" line remains the cream of the crop, even if the name is getting a bit stale. At year's end, pair of phones stand out, along with the GS3, of course. One is from HTC, the other from Motorola.

HTC Droid DNADroid DNA by HTC

Gorgeous 5-inch display with a 1080p resolution. Anemic storage at 16GB, however, with no microSD card. It is Qi-compatible for wireless charging, though, which is good because it's got an annoying door over the microUSB port. The battery is non-removable. Read our full review.

Motorola Droid RAZR MAXX HDDroid RAZR MAXX HD by Motorola

Still right up there in terms of power, has an ample 32GB of storage, and the 4.7-inch display is decent. But it's the 3300 mAh battery that's the talker here. It's not removable, but with as much juice as it has, that's not a deal-breaker. Read our full review.

The best of AT&T

AT&TAT&T's Android lineup falls off pretty quickly. That's not to say it'll full of horrid phones, it's just that its top shelf isn't as populated. Aside from the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2, we recommend:

Nexus 4Google Nexus 4 by LG

Technically, this one's not a carrier device. That is, you can't walk into an AT&T store and buy it. But the Nexus 4 is one of our favorite phones, even if the Galaxy S3 beats it out for the all-around title. It's "Pure Google," meaning you're going to get updates quicker than anybody else. And it's got some of the newest hardware available. Basically, it's an LG Optimus G on the inside (which is why AT&T's Optimus G doesn't make our list here), with a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor. The camera is decent, though not the best. While it works just fine on AT&T, one thing it's missing is LTE data. You might have read that a few locations are able to pick up LTE, but that's few and far between, unofficial, and Google's likely to squash that (officially, anyway) in a future update. Do not buy the Nexus 4 if you have to have LTE. Read our full review.

HTC One X+HTC One X+

You'll need to pay a little attention here. The original HTC One X is on sale for, like, $1, depending on where you look. But its newer cousin, the One X+, is the one to get at this point. It's a little more powerful and has 64GB of storage, and a slightly larger battery. Plus, it still has one of the best cameras we've used in an Android phone. Read our full review.

The best of T-Mobile

T-MobileWe'll be perfectly honest here -- T-Mobile is still selling phones we'd forgotten even existed. (And a couple we had to look up again in the first place.) Like AT&T, there's a pretty big gap between the penthouse and the ground floor. Aside from Samsung's finest, we recommend: 

Google Nexus 4 by LG

For all of the reasons we listed for AT&T, plus it's available in a few T-Mobile stores, and on contract as well. If you're in a good T-Mobile coverage area, chances are you won't even miss LTE data.

HTC One SHTC One S

It's not quite as powerful as the HTC One X. Its display isn't as high-resolution. And its battery isn't quite as big. But the form factor. Lordy, this phone just feels good. It's not too big, not too small, and has curves that go on for days. Plus it's got the same camera improvements as its big brothers. Read our full review.

The best of Sprint

SprintJust about every phone we've reviewed on Sprint this year had the following line: Great phone, struggling network. Unfortunately, we're still waiting on its 4G LTE network to gain some legs. It's taking longer than probably everybody would like. Here's what we like that's not called Galaxy S3:

HTC EVO 4G LTEHTC EVO 4G LTE

This basically is a tweaked version of the HTC One X. (Not the One X+.) Sprint changed the design and added a kickstand and microSD card. Otherwise, same hardware, same great camera, and same gorgeous display. The phone's not the youngest, but we should have another four or five months before we see its replacement come out. Read our full review.

Motorola Photon QMotorola Photon Q 4G LTE

It's been a while since we saw a phone on Sprint with a full QWERTY keyboard, and the Photon Q was a surprising little gem. The display's not the best. And the phone's not the thinnest. But there was just something about the Q that burrowed a place into our hearts. Plus, that keyboard was pretty damn good. Read our full review.

LG Optimus GLG Optimus G

This might well be the closest you get to having the Nexus 4 on Sprint. The design's a little different, and LG's software is ... well, it's special. Let's just call it that. But it's thin, it's powerful and it's got a really good display, with a decent 13MP camera on the back. Read our full review.


So that's it. The best of the best in the U.S. as we window down 2012 -- and get ready to do it all again in 2013. Look for a new update come springtime.

 
There are 52 comments

tramsay09 says:

What about the best Android smartphones on Canadian carriers?

piizzadude says:

ok i take back a little of what I said on the bumper story...

...but pure google is not a selling point to most people...

mwara244 says:

Pure Google is becoming popular, especially with the Galaxy Nexus was the largest selling Pure Android sold to date. More people are aware of the Google experience with the nexus brand. I wish all manufactures either gave you an option for pure android or at least Made ! phone with pure android every year I bet those would outsell the crap with their skins

MrSmith317 says:

You're fooling yourself if you honestly thing Vanilla Android is a selling point. Piizadude got it right here. People know "Android" they don't know stock vs Touchwiz vs Blur vs Sense unless they've been through several phones and actually spent time trying to learn. And that's just not most people. Don't get me wrong, I do agree with the sentiment that vanilla is better than any of the UI's but it's just not common knowledge.

QMaverick says:

Why is LG's software "special?" I've got an Optimus G (just bought it a little over a week ago), and the software isn't too bad. It's lightning fast (hardware), and I'm not wild about the icons/color scheme.

Other than that though, I've found few complaints. Though, I have to say, the way it syncs contacts is messed up.

OK, so two complaints. Lame color scheme and silly way of syncing contacts. I've fixed both problems with a little customization that didn't require root, and man is it good hardware.

arvj says:

hi,if you don't mind,can you explain a little to me about your problem with syncing contacts on the OG?i just got this phone last week and haven't had a chance to use it much yet.I'm still using my old phone for now.just a little heads up please

Yeah I got the LGOG on AT&T and I think they got it backwards. Instead of listing the Nexus 4 and not the LGOG, they should have listed the LGOG and not the Nexus 4. The Nexus 4 isn't even an AT&T phone, sure it's Unlocked GSM but compare the two and the only thing the Nexus 4 has that the LGOG doesn't is updates straight from google.

Now the LGOG (AT&T) has LTE, Expandable storage up to 80GBs and a much nicer screen/design. Plus the dev community will be on fire once the kinks get worked out since the Nexus 4 and LGOG are the almost the same. Oh yeah it's only $99. Big fail on PocketNow IMHO.

a2Squard says:

While I agree with your statement describing the the dev community being all over this phone, I disagree with your other statements; The screen is exactly the same on both the Nexus 4 and LG Optimus G. As far as the design being "nicer" on the Optimus G (not picking fights) but I prefer the soft touch curved edges of my Nexus 4, but that's my opinion.

AT&T will always find some way to slow down the updates I personally hated the fact that this happened with their other phones (though the dev community will help in that area which is awesome). Also the AT&T LGOG doesn't have one partition for storage (see HTC One X+, Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4 to name a few) so you're still limited regardless of having an available 64GB of storage via microSD. Lastly, the phone technically isn't 'only' $99 for you're now locked into a contract with the blue deathstar for upwards of $75 monthly (LTE data plan + minutes) whereas GSM Nexus users (Galaxy Nexus AND Nexus 4) can pay $55 monthly [total] for service with unlimited minutes and 4GB data (before getting throttled) at LTE speeds.

can you do a sum up of best phones for the small carriers like boost, virgin, metro pcs, straight talk, etc...
i understand that they didn't have any good android phones (if any at all) in the last year or two but it seems like they are building up great arsenals...

return_0 says:

It'd be the Nexus 4 for all the GSM ones (like Straight Talk).

MERCDROID says:

+9000 And if you can't get a hold of the Nexus 4, the Galaxy Nexus would still be a good pick.

wezra says:

Just moved from the HTC One S to the Samsung Galaxy SIII on T-Mobile. Absolutely no comparison... the GS3 completely blows the One S away... in every aspect. I waited and waited for the 4.1 upgrade for the One S and then finally figured it would make little difference... So I made the move the minute my phone full upgrade hit over this past weekend.

The good news was that I was able to sell the One S for $200 and the GS3 cost me $189. So a no brainer in that regard. That said, if anyone on T-Mobile is wondering if it makes sense to switch over... the answer to that is, without question, yes!! This is, by a very wide margin, the best smartphone I have ever had.

hmmm says:

Motorola's launcher is really bad. My wife had a Photon Q for a couple days. You can only swipe one way. The home screen is the farthest to the left and cannot be changed without changing launchers which then you lose the nice widget. That is a terrible design if you have like 5 screens filed with icons or widgets.

Also, it was very stuttery when you would swipe homescreens, even on replacement launchers.
I'm sporting the EVO LTE with Cyanogendmod 10 and couldn't be happier...well until LTE is actually available to me which is should be in a couple weeks.

ongre10 says:

The ADW Launcher solves all those problems. Beautiful Widgets add a lot to the experience.

redhawk24 says:

I can upgrade my Sprint line on January 1, so this couldn't have come at a better time. I was leaning towards the GSIII or GNote2, so it's nice to see them top this list. I'll probably go with the GSIII, but I want to see how the GNote2 feels in my hand before I count it out.

However, the potentially bigger question is this. Should I upgrade my Sprint line to one of the Samsung phones on January 1, or should I wait until my contract expires on March 3 and switch carriers, which would likely be Verizon? A few details that matter, I am currently on an HTC Evo 4G and am having issues with my touch screen (phantom touch, etc). I also live in Oxford, OH (Miami University) which is just outside the range of the current 4G WiMax.

hmmm says:

Honestly, if switching really is a possibility to you I would check out s4gru.com. Find out when LTE is hitting your area. Once you have LTE on Sprint there is really nothing Verizon would have to offer unless you really like one of their Droid phones. But, if your area isn't getting it for a year or something maybe switching would do you well. You can always switch back next contract if Verizon's prices or limited data start bothering you.

redhawk24 says:

How many miles away from the city does the LTE actually work?

Oxford is about 40 miles away from Cincinnati.

When I am home from school, I am 35 miles away from Columbus.

According to s4gru.com both markets are supposed to get LTE on Sprint in early 2013 (I may be reading it wrong however)

vansmack says:

It's $10 per month left on your contract to cancel with Sprint. WiMax never panned out for me (and I was in a WiMax area!) so I didn't even bother giving Sprint the opportunity to deliver LTE to me, whenever that would be.

Pay the $30 and switch carriers as your New Years Resolution.

jcastag says:

I think you are confused, the ETF for carriers is usually 350 dollars minus 10 dollars for every month you're into your contract. Not 10 dollars for every month you have left

just_trev says:

Well actually sprint ETF(early termination fee) is actually 200 and it decreases 10.00 every month after the 6th month in the contract so if he has 3 months left its 50 dollars because thats the lowest it will get unless you wait the contract oout and cancel after.

DWR_31 says:

Sprint = unlimited and slower(outside of its LTE markets)
Verizon = a low amount of capped shared data that gets used extremely fast and keeps costing you an extra $30 every time you hit the cap. Or you can just stop using your phone for the 25 days that are left in the month...

Immolate says:

So essentially you're saying Sprint has a great personality. I get that.

QMaverick says:

For me, it's worth sticking with Sprint for unlimited data. I use A LOT of it. I know the NE Ohio (where I live) is getting the 4G rollout pretty soon--next on the list in fact. There is some evidence to support that preliminary work is starting now. For Oxford? I dunno.

That being said, I bought the Optimus G on Sprint because the hardware is much better than the GS3. I also can't stand TouchWhiz, but that's another story. For me, it was the killer hardware.

nokedimyo says:

I really enjoy the RAZR m. It has a great feel and great battery life. Granted, I am not a "power user", so battery may be worse for others. In terms of bang for your buck, I think it can't be beat.

Rob White says:

Not a bad list. But I got to say, as one of the 4 phones in our family of smart phones (soon to be joined by my son's Droid Razr M for Christmas... shhh don't tell him) the Galaxy Nexus (yes the Verizon version that everybody here loves to hate) is still quite the capable device even a year later. Yes it's not up to the most immediate release of Jelly Bean & it has a whole 2, count em 2, teeny tiny Verizon apps that are actually useful to most customers. But the phone absolutely screams in day to day operation.

Also let's get real. Based on the horrendous update history of all the others listed here, I'm looking at you Samsung (virtually every phone you have flooded the market with) & HTC (the One series & Rezound, Incredible 2, 4G, etc) are all still waiting on updates as well. So Verizon customers, and ALL of the wireless carriers customers truth be told, should be used to this. Virtually every phone listed here is going to dropped into the waste & bargain bins in a matter of months if not weeks & never heard from again. We all know that.

codiusprime says:

Yep, my fiance still loves hers and it STILL gets updates faster than any other phone on Verizon. I have no real issue switching between my DNA and my CM10 Galaxy Nexus.

mazzmoney95 says:

redhawk, if you dont have 4g, leave. Seriously. I had an evo lte (and the other two also) and while if was good and all, 3g killed me. I switched to the Nexus 4 on T-Mobile and never looked back. So much better. If you're gonna switch to Verizon, even better as its faster and more reliable then T-Mobile. I suggest you do it, especially sine their lineup is that much better then Sprints (no optimus g but they have the DNA, which is arguably better).

DWR_31 says:

@mazzmoney95

I get the feeling that you use less than 2Gbs of data per month?

My Sprint bill doesn't change whether I use 2 gigs or 30 gigs. And yes I'm in an LTE area.

jian9007 says:

Well, he said he's currently on T-Mobile, which charges no overages. For $20/mo on value plan the data is unlimited (unlimited 4G plan) with no throttling or overages. It's the plan I have for my Nexus 4 and I can blow through 10GB+ easily. T-Mobile & Sprint both now have unlimited, no throttling or overages plans. So for $69.99/month on a T-Mobile value plan, you get unlimited talk/text/data with no overages or throttling. That's not bad at all, as the same unlimited plan on Sprint costs $109.99.

MatroxD says:

Also, please be noted that in the recommended att g note 2, before anyone else gets trapped like myself, the multi-view function is not enabled. I did not know this prior to purchase. There is no indication that a Firmware update will be released after speaking with Samsung and Att (their reps don't have a clue).

So, if multi view is important, just BE WARNED of the situation with att. Their fb Page and forums are pretty much ignored also.

Just placing emphasis that if you decide to go this route by choice, realize your going to be frustrated.

sucks for you but thats what the greatness of custom roms is all about... nothing is ever disabled...

JxPops says:

A while back, if i remember correctly, a Samsung rep told me that, domestically, that feature is only enabled on Sprint's version.

OffSpot2 says:

Thanks for putting the Note 2 in there. I know that hurt a little - but thanks from all of us in that category of our own...

gothdroid says:

I have to personally say that after using both the SGS3 and the Nexus 4, the nexus blows the SGS3 out if the water. I am in an area where I get excellent T-Mobile coverage and don't regret at all selling the SGS3 for the Nexus

I'll play Devil's Advocate and say the Sony Xperia TL should be mentioned as one of AT&T's best branded Android devices..

paul-c says:

This.

Wolfgar2k says:

Personally I think the LG Optimus G should be a little more prominent on this list. I bought one on the Rogers network, and man is it fast. The interface looks fine. I changed the theme to colours that are a bit more appealing.

It does have one big thing that is a deal-breaker for the Nexus 4. LTE. And not just regular LTE, it has the 2600 band LTE. My download connection is lightning fast. (Of course that means I'm gonna end up burning through my 6GB plan a lot quicker.) And the battery life is pretty good even on LTE. Better than my old Captivate.

kinster02 says:

Although I don't have one yet...Note 2 FTW. It will be mine for Xmas and the EVO LTE will be on Craiglist.

crxssi says:

>"HTC EVO 4G LTE: This basically is a tweaked version of the HTC One X. (Not the One X+.) Sprint changed the design and added a kickstand and microSD card."

And a larger battery
And a dedicated camera button
And a metal case

Just saying...

blessedred says:

The S3 AND GNote 2 don't get the right of being the best in the US in my opinion. Honestly not even close.

Eddster says:

Why is that?

I upgraded to the EVOLTE last Tuesday. I live in Dallas and have downloaded over 5 gigs of Data this month on LTE. The phone is great and the unlimited LTE is better! I have absolutely no complaints.

crxssi says:

My complaint is the total lack of Sprint LTE and WiMax, and even decent 3G speeds in my area. :( The EVO LTE, however, is great.

wonkman says:

I agree with this.

Put a custom ROM on the Verizon S3, and you have one nice phone. Considering I still have unlimited, I expect to be using this phone for a while.

The only thing I really don't like is how slippery it is. Had to put a case on it which defeats the thinness.

Joe C2 says:

The fact that the S3 is totally useless in sunlight places it far behind the spectacular one x+.
To sweeten the deal the + has a more responsive power button compared to the former model.

hotice says:

Great right up! I think I even agreed with all your choices which I feel like I rarely do when I read things like this.

You neglected to note one major difference between the HTC One X and the Evo 4G LTE. The Evo 4G LTE has a 2000mAh battery instead of the 1800mAh battery in the One X. With that 11% larger battery and the SD slot it's much better than the One X!

I got a new phone recently and went with build and battery life. I'm loving my Droid Razr Maxx HD!

GrooveRite says:

I understand how many think that a removable battery doesn't matter anymore but what about when the life of that battery starts to die down? What if you put away that phone when you upgrade and store it as a back up. In case you have to use it again, a non-removable battery WILL most likely die and never come back rendering the phone useless BUT a removable can be easily replaced. I'd hope that 10, 15 or 20 years from now, I'd be able to fire up my SGS3 and show my future children what we had back then!

MrSmith317 says:

I'm really happy to see the SGS3 and Note 2 sitting on top of the pile. I knew I spent good money on those phones for a reason.

tp72 says:

I never physically compared the GS3 to the Note. It's like the commercial comparing the iPhone to the GS3. The screen on the Note is as big as my GS3. WOW. I've only had my GS3 since that fabulous sale Sprint had for Black Friday. I gotta say I love it!

wilfreb says:

Totally agree, the GS3 is the best overall phone of the year, from the fully feature packed TouchWiz to that amazing camera, it's just superlative.

AdamOutler says:

I can't believe anyone would recommend the Nexus4. Pure google means nothing without decent hardware to run it on. It's prone to breaking internally and externaly. This new device is experiencing problems from random reboots to button failures and not to mention it's fragile as hell.

The Nexus4 need not be on this list. As a hardware guy, I can't recommend it based on it's design characteristics. LG cannot build a good phone. Google builds great software! But LG cannot build a good phone.

fivesterr says:

The fact is that a "name" brand phone is not always the best quality. I have found many unlocked android devices at www.flumongu7s.com . I purchased one and used the Straight Talk SIM card and it works great.