Picking the right smartphone

November 16, 2012
iPhone 5

Pro: Apple’s App Store and elegant design

Con: Requires a new Apple cord (comes with phone; an extra cord costs $20)

Best for: Apple fans, those who like to keep it simple

Retail price: Starts at $199

Apple’s latest smartphone is its thinnest and lightest ever but is, in some ways, playing catch-up with the rest of the industry. Apple increased the screen size on the phone to be better for Web browsing and video — following its competition, but kept it to a thumb-friendly four inches.

While Apple may be moving a little late in pumping up its display, the iPhone 5 is nearly unbeatable when it comes to quality. Its aluminum and glass construction is simply lovely. Its screen, while smaller than competitors, is crisp and bright. And there’s no arguing with the caliber and variety of apps that come with the phone.

It does have its weaknesses. For example, Apple customers who have become accustomed to keeping a spare cord around for all their iDevices will be sad to hear that this phone has a new dock connector and requires its own cord, or an adapter. The aluminum casing is also prone to scuffs and scratches, so users will probably want to buy a protective case, too.

The iPhone won’t be the best choice for everyone, and is certainly most useful for people who already have Apple products. But it’s also a strong candidate for a first smartphone and worth an upgrade if you have one coming to you. For simplicity, quality and portability, the iPhone 5 is an easy choice.

(Google) Nexus 4

Pro: Fast and trendy Con: No LTE support

Best for: T-Mobile’s top customers

Retail price: $299.99 and up

Google’s Nexus 4 is the latest smartphone the company has put out from its Google-branded line, meaning that it will be on the fast track for Google updates. Its screen is a generous 4.7 inches with a high-quality display that’s very nice for video. And even though it has a plastic body that doesn’t feel as polished as an iPhone, it still has a high-quality feel.

The quality in this phone, really, is in the software. It makes the most of Google’s latest version of its Android operating system. It’s very easy to customize, letting users change the home screen to feature the apps and updates that matter most to them at a glance. It charges wirelessly on a charging pad. And typing is a breeze on the phone, which lets you slide your finger from key to key instead of the hunt-and-peck-and-tap method necessary on so many on-screen keyboards.

It’s a bit bulkier than competing phones, though the heft may be more comfortable for those who don’t like their phones too light. It is a bit big to fit in cozier pockets, however.

Of course, it’s not a perfect phone. The biggest flaw with the Nexus 4 is that it won’t run on the nation’s fastest 4G LTE networks and therefore won’t appeal to the techies who like to be on the cutting edge. It’s also available on T-Mobile, though you can buy a (somewhat pricey) $299 version that will also run on AT&T.

Samsung Galaxy S III

Pro: Beautiful screen

Con: Can be a bit too big

Best for: Video nuts

Retail price: $199.99 and up

The Galaxy S III is Samsung’s main competitor to Apple’s iPhone and has worked to outpace the phone with a few key features.

The most noticeable difference is the smartphone’s 4.8-inch screen, which is fantastic for video. Samsung clearly took advantage of its roots in making screens when it designed this phone. It’s also speedy and powerful, so its users shouldn’t have to spend too much time waiting for their phones to think.

The phone’s big screen can be a little too big and it’s probably not ideal for people with smaller hands — though its super-slim profile makes it feel much smaller than it really is. It also runs through a fully charged battery fairly quickly, so users should remember to keep a spare cord around. The phone has a voice-recognition program similar to Apple’s Siri, though users may find themselves repeating the occasional command. It’s still early in the voice-recognition game.

The phone also has some neat features such as the ability to share information through a technology called “near-field communication,” meaning that playlists, photos and other files can be swapped by tapping two Galaxy S III phones together. Overall, the S III will appeal most to serious mobile Web-surfers and video-lovers who like to have great viewing options in their pockets.

Nokia 920

Pro: Great camera

Con: Only on AT&T

Best for: The business-minded

Retail price: $99.99 and up

The Nokia Lumia 920 is a Windows Phone, meaning that it’s running Microsoft’s dark-horse operating system, Windows Phone 8.

That distinction comes with a couple of shopper caveats. For one, Microsoft’s mobile app store isn’t nearly as comprehensive as Apple or Google’s. Secondly, while certain phone apps will communicate with the apps on your computer or Windows tablet, not all will.

As for the phone itself, the Nokia Lumia 920 looks a lot like its predecessor the Lumia 900 — a colorful plastic slab with sharper edges and corners than the curvy iPhone or Galaxy S III, but still comfortable to hold. The 920 is a very solid-feeling phone, well-built around its 4.5-inch screen. It is a bit heavy compared to its pencil-thin competition, but is by no means too heavy for comfortable use. It also comes with wireless charging, which is nice for those of us who a hate rat’s nest of cords. The camera is a major selling point here — Nokia has put a top-of-the-line sensor in this phone that takes great snapshots.

Microsoft has improved its system, making it easier for users to organize and customize the main screen of the phone. And the system has greater integration with the company’s newest systems for computers and tablets, making it a good choice for people who manage Office files across their devices.

HTC 8X

Pro: Great speakers

Con: Has a limited app store, for now

Best for: Music fans

Retail price: $99.99 and up, depending on carrier

Another Windows Phone, the HTC 8X is available on Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, making it a much more available phone. Well-designed and distinctive, the phone’s bright colors and sleek form will likely make you want to show it off.

The 8X is also a powerful phone, designed to run smoothly and to handle several tasks without breaking a proverbial sweat. That’s great for Microsoft’s target audience of folks who want a device that can work and play.

And play it does. The fact that the 8X is made by HTC means that it comes with speakers from Beats Audio, a point the company is quick to point out to potential buyers. The audio quality on the phone combined with the 4.3-inch screen make it ideal for watching video as well.

The 8X also comes with all the features and weaknesses of Windows Phone 8. It, too, has a limited selection of apps to choose from, though it also has the great customization options that let Windows Phone users show a bit more personality.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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