I get asked this question a lot. On one level, it’s a difficult question to answer since I haven’t actually tried all the models out there (and in the Android world, there are a TON of phones available). On the other hand, I read a lot of reviews, and I know which ones to avoid and the ones that have a consensus of favorable ratings. I always get a little tripped up by the whole “Android versus iPhone” debate – while I am an unabashed fan of Android, I do understand why iPhones would make better options. But at the same time, I’ve seen people who I thought would love Android deciding to move back to iPhone while people for whom I was concerned about end up fully embracing the Google operating system. It’s really kind of a crapshoot.
Before we go over some choices, let me make this very, very clear — do NOT buy the phone that’s free with a two year contract. Free is great. Free is tempting. But in this instance, free will just be frustrating. And not just merely frustrating — it will be frustrating for two whole years. Struggling with your phone for 24 months will chip away at your soul and your sanity – the $200 it costs to get the latest and greatest is totally worth it when you consider this is $8.33 per month to have something that works. To have something that isn’t handicapped by a multitude of limitations. To have something you will love instead of disdain. I’m not trying to trivialize $200 – it’s a lot of money. But let’s do the math – you’re going to be spending $2000-$3000 over the course of your two year contract. You can either spend another $200 and leverage the resources you’re paying handsomely for, or you can go with free and barely make use of your $2000 investment. It would be like paying for the complete HD Digital cable package and watching it on a 19″ set from 1995. Except a nice HDTV will set you back way more than $200.
What’s the difference between free and $200? Typically, a phone is free because it’s cheaply built. It has internals that are two or three years old and runs software that’s at least a year old. Nothing about the phone is cutting edge, and halfway into your two year contract, your free phone is already obsolete. Can you make calls and texts? A little email? Some web browsing? Yes, yes, yes, and bare minimum. Can you run the newer apps? Many times, no. Can you load it up with music and take photos? Again, due to cut down storage in these free phones, you will be running out of space a lot. The photos will suck. And keep in mind that carriers advertise free phones to pull people into stores. They would rather sell you a newer phone, which is why every free phone has some huge deal breaking weakness. But that may not be entirely evident to you if you’re distracted by the word, “FREE”. What will happen is this: Sometime into your two year contract, you will come to the realization that you would gladly pay $200 right now to upgrade your phone. But you can’t — you have at least a year to go. The only way out is to pay an early termination fee and lose your phone number, or buy a phone off contract, which will set you back somewhere in the neighborhood of $600. It’s a terrible feeling to carry around with you for the rest of your contract.
Okay, so let’s say I’ve convinced you to pay the $200. What phone should you get? I would say across the board, the Samsung Galaxy S3 is a top choice for it’s large screen, slim profile, highly rated camera, and light weight. If your battery can’t seem to last a day, you can get either a spare battery or an extended life battery (which nets you a spare battery as well). And if your music and photos are bursting your storage capacity storage at the seams, you can always pick up relatively inexpensive microSD cards to pick up the slack. How inexpensive? 32gb cards are routinely available for under $25. Compare that to the $100 Apple charges you to move up to 32gb. For a quarter of that price, you end up with 50% more storage. Need even more storage? The S3 takes up to 64gb microSD cards (around $60-$70). Furthermore, the sheer ubiquity of the Galaxy S3 (30 million sold and counting) means there’s a plethora of options when it comes to custom accessories.
However, I would argue that the Galaxy Note 2 is the better phone on Sprint. The reason is that the radios on the Note 2 are amazingly good, allowing you to access their 3G network with usable speeds. And voice is loud and clear on the Note 2. Considering it may take anywhere from 6 months to over a year before Sprint’s 4G LTE network is available in most areas, adequate 3G is a huge area of need for any Sprint phone.
In fact, the Galaxy Note 2 comes out as a close runner up to the GS3 on all carriers. Battery life is 50%-80% longer with the Note 2, and it will likely get newer operating system updates first. Plus, the SPen is great for Draw Something, and it’s just crazy smooth and fast. Of course, it comes with a heftier price tag (around $100 more than the S3) and it’s rather ginormous. I’ve been able to acclimate to the size as I believe most people would, but if you think the 4.8″ Galaxy S3 is already a little to big for you, the 5.5″ Galaxy Note 2 comes off as comically large.
Then there’s iPhone (although T-Mobile still doesn’t carry the iPhone). There’s nothing wrong with getting an iPhone. It’s clearly not my cup of tea, but it’s a mass market people pleaser. I’m not fond of its limitations, namely lack of storage, sealed battery, and small screen size. The operating system is rigid and locked down. Maps are a disaster. And it’s expensive to own — the Lightning Port accessories, like chargers and connection cables, are ludicrously overpriced, and you have to pay separately for your iPhone and iPad for the same app. Not to mention many paid apps in the App Store are free on Android. That said, if you are going go that way, the iPhone to get is the Verizon version — they have the best voice network, the best data network, and the SIM is unlocked out of the box (meaning you can use an inexpensive local SIM when traveling overseas). Plus, they don’t charge you for Facetime over 3G or 4G. And tethering is free if you have one of the new data plans (meaning you can use the iPhone like a modem for your laptop or tablet). The Sprint version is the worst due to the irrelevance of their 4G LTE network. It won’t be available for most people until well into next year.
If you are a bargain hunter, the best deal in US cellular phones is the Nexus 4 with a prepaid T-Mobile plan. For $350, you buy the Nexus 4 outright, with no contract to sign. This sounds expensive up front, but the monthly plan savings more than make up for it. Consider this (the taxes and fees are approximate — I used 13% as the taxes & fees charge):
Verizon with 2GB data and voice/text – $113/mo including taxes and fees. $2712 over 24 months plus $200 for phone.
Total cost = $2912
AT&T with 4GB data and unlimited voice/text – $125/mo including taxes and fess. $3000 over 24 months plus $200 for phone.
Total cost = $3200
Sprint with Unlimited data and 400 landline minutes – $90/mo including taxes and fees. $2160 over 24 months plus $200 for phone.
Total cost = $2360
T-Mobile with Unlimited data and voice/text – $101/mo including taxes and fees. $2424 for 24 months plus $280 for phone.
Total cost = $2704
Nexus 4 with 2GB 4G data and unlimited voice.text – $60/mo flat. $1440 for 24 months plus $350 for phone.
Total cost = $1790
That’s almost $600 cheaper than the Sprint option and over $1400 cheaper than AT&T (there is no 2GB plan on AT&T). The biggest caveat, however, is that while T-Mobile data is actually pretty good, their voice service is by far the worst. But using hundreds of minutes a month talking is almost an antiquated concept. If your T-Mo voice service is really bad, you could always send texts on the road and use a voice over IP service like Skype or Google Talk over wifi. The days when communication on your mobile phone was about cellular voice is in the past now. Consider that AT&T and Verizon now sell you data first and voice as an add on feature. It’s all about smartphones and data now. That you can talk on your phone is secondary consideration now.
There are some shortcomings to the Nexus 4 as well. For starters, good luck finding one. Supplies are constrained, and the entire run sold out rather clumsily in one day. It also shares some of the limitations of the iPhone, namely sealed battery and no microSD slot. And it doesn’t run on 4G LTE networks. This isn’t really a problem if you’re going with T-Mobile, since they don’t even have a 4G LTE network. AT&T has a 4G LTE network, but it’s not as large as their HSPA+ network that gets you 10-20 mbps download speeds. Only Verizon has a viable 4G LTE network, but you can’t use the Nexus 4 on it (it can’t be used on Sprint either). And if you somehow get your hands on one, make sure it’s the 16GB model. Do not buy the 8GB model for $299 – it ends up being 3GB usable storage, and if you don’t need more than 3GB storage, you might want to rethink if you even need a smartphone at all.
And if you were wondering, both Blackberry and Windows Phone are currently unworthy of your business. The Blackberry is somewhere around Homo Habilis in the smartphone evolutionary ladder, and Windows Phone 8 is not ready for prime time. The dearth of good apps and the freezes and reboots are just not what you want from a modern smartphone.