Top 5 smartphones for the holiday season

Summary:There are some very compelling smartphone choices as we reach the end of 2012. It's easy to pick five great phones, but a bit tougher to put them in order.

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I posted my top five smartphones of the summer back in June and since then we have seen new devices running iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. Heading into the holiday season, there are once again some excellent smartphone choices and you really can't go wrong with any of them. I have wireless service on three major carriers and have been blessed to test out many phones while buying more than I really need.

Here are my top five smartphones to end 2012.

Number 1: Apple iPhone 5

Apple updated the internals and length of its iPhone product with the iPhone 5 and the design is fantastic. It is one of the highest quality smartphones I have ever purchased and I am still satisfied with the $820 I paid for mine on Verizon. It has a great camera, amazing selection of apps, and is extremely portable.

iOS 6 offers many improvements and while it may not have some of the latest technologies, such as NFC or wireless charging, it does so many things right that it has to be considered one of the top smartphones today. For most family and friends that ask me about the best phone today for them, I recommend the iPhone 5. I keep using it due to the high quality and extensive selection of available apps that I don't find on  other platforms. Prices range from $199 (16GB) to $399 (64GB) on contract with a premium of $450 additional cost if you buy it without a contract. The iPhone 5 is available on all major carriers except T-Mobile, so it is accessible to most people.

Number 2: Samsung Galaxy Note II

GalaxyNoteII

I thought the Samsung Galaxy S III was the best phone on T-Mobile and rivaled the iPhone 5 as the top device to choose from. However, from the perspective of a data-centric smartphone user, the Galaxy Note II bumped the Galaxy S III from my hands and is my favorite device on T-Mobile. The Note II models the form factor of the Galaxy S III.

I thought about giving the Note II my top spot here, but it is really too large for many people and is quite an expensive device. It is made more for the data-centric person who wants a device that bridges the gap between a full tablet and a smartphone.

The Galaxy Note II pushes the limits for smartphone technology, with the most advanced specs you will find on any smartphone today, including Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, 1.6 GHz quad-core Samsung Exynos processor, a whopping 2GB of RAM, 5.5-inch Super AMOLED HD display, 8 megapixel rear camera, 1.9 megapixel front-facing camera, 16GB internal memory with microSD storage for up to 64GB more storage, Bluetooth 4.0, LTE, and more.

Nothing beats the specifications of the Note II today and even better than that Samsung brings some unique user experiences to the consumer.

The S Pen is truly a usable and valuable addition to the Galaxy Note II this year, with some software enhancements such as Air View that let you view content without even touching the pen to the display and S Note pen-enabled note capturing program. Smart Gestures, Quick Glance, and Smart Stay use sensors on the phone to improve your experiences. The camera takes great shots and when you look at all of the available options they can get even better. You can find the Galaxy Note II on all four major US wireless carriers.

Number 3: Samsung Galaxy S III

samsung-galaxy-s-iii

The Samsung Galaxy S III is the best Android smartphone available on all major US wireless carriers today. In addition to high end specifications, the Galaxy S III has some of the same software enhancements seen on the Note II. The camera takes great photos, the device works well as both a phone and a data device, the form factor is sleek and attractive, and it is priced competitively on all carriers.

Even with a 4.8-inch Super AMOLED display, the Galaxy S III feels good in your hand and doesn't feel that big. The Android and Samsung ecosystem is greatly improving and you can now easily find movies to rent or purchase on Google or Samsung, books to purchase, music to purchase and stream, and much more. You can find the Galaxy S III in various colors and priced in the typical $200 price range.

Number 4: HTC 8X

Red8X

The new Windows Phone 8 devices will be coming to US carriers in November and, IMHO, HTC wins by launching their Windows Phone 8X on all of the WP8 carriers. (Sprint is not playing the Windows Phone 8 game yet). It is one of the best-designed smartphones I ever used, with a super sleek form factor, bold colors, and solid construction. The 4.3-inch Super LCD 2 looks great with 720x1280 pixel resolution display.

HTC includes Beats Audio with an additional amp on the headphone jack for the ultimate audio experience. I never thought much about front-facing cameras until my wife and daughters started to take lots of self-portraits to include on Facebook. HTC provides a wide angle 2.1 megapixel front-facing camera so you can include all of your friends in the shot.

Windows Phone 8 runs even smoother than Windows Phone 7 and improves on an already great operating system. You likely won't find any other WP8 device Start screen looking like yours and the OS is very functional.

Kid's Corner is a great idea and if your children are often handed your phone then you may want to take a serious look at the 8X. You will also be happy to know that the HTC 8X should run in the $99 to $150 price range on the three major US wireless carriers.

Number 5: Nokia Lumia 920

lumia-920-att-cyan465

The Nokia Lumia 920 looks a lot like the Lumia 900 and unfortunately it is launching exclusively on AT&T. Thus, you can only pick it up on one carrier, unlike all the rest of the phones in my top five list. It may eventually come in 2013 to other carriers, but no announcements have been made yet. That said, the Lumia 920 offers more than the HTC 8X when you compare the device and software. The Lumia 920 also comes in a variety of bold colors that are attractive and unique.

Nokia has always excelled at imaging and provides the best low light experience with PureView on the 920. They also offer helpful camera lenses (utilities), wireless charging, Nokia Drive turn-by-turn voice navigation, Nokia Music (free streaming and offline music service), and other Nokia exclusive apps. If you stack up the Lumia 920 with other new WP8 devices, it is the clear winner; but the exclusive launch is not helpful in the US.

The Lumia 920 is a bit heavy when compared to the 8X, but it is even better constructed than the Lumia 900 and brings back the feel of the Lumia 800. The display looks great and the PureMotion+ technology -- which lets you control it with your fingernail and gloved finger -- is amazing.

Next five smartphone picks and summary

I would pick the Droid RAZR Maxx HD, Google Nexus 4, HTC One X, HTC 8S, and Nokia Lumia 820 for the next five smartphones. A couple of these are only available on one carrier; the Nexus 4 lacks LTE; and we don't have pricing and release date info for all of them so I can't include them in my personal top 5. There are plenty of other smartphone choices for those who want mid- or lower-tier devices at a cost savings, but I personally don't mind paying the extra $50 to $150 to get a device that is worth the thousands paid through the life of a contract.

What is your favorite smartphone for the holidays?

Related ZDNet posts

Topics: Mobility, Android, Apple, Google, HTC, iPhone, Microsoft, Samsung, Smartphones

About

Matthew Miller started using a mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host with GigaOM's Kevin Tofel on the MobileTechRoundup podcast and an author of three Wiley Companion series books. Matthew started using mobile devices with a US Robotics Pilot 1000 and has owned over 200 d... Full Bio

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