Back to School 2011: Top 3 smartphones from each major carrier

Back to School 2011: Top 3 smartphones from each major carrier

Summary: There are excellent smartphones on every major US wireless carrier and this back to school guide shows you the top three from each. What is your favorite smartphone?


Back in late March I posted my top 10 smartphones of 2011 that were available or announced. I then followed this post up with my top five that were actually available and after more time with some I don't even think those are valid any longer. It's a bit sad that the top two and one other in my top 10 still are not available and one is never coming. There are so many smartphones available from all the carriers and to make this a helpful guide for planning your purchase I will present my top three picks for smartphones from each of the four major national carriers and all of these phones are available now. The rumored, and still not confirmed, Apple iPhone 5 may be coming to AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint, but until we get some kind of confirmation and announcement from Apple that is still all speculation.

The prices you will see in this article are from the carrier, when available. If you are new to a carrier or adding another line you will find excellent prices on and other online vendors like Wirefly (I buy both contract and off contract phones here). So you know where my personal perspective is coming from I am a long time (about 10 years) T-Mobile subscriber with five phones on a family plan and signed up for a Verizon account in March and had the HTC Thunderbolt then HTC Droid Charge and this week will have the Bold 9930. I had an AT&T account (mainly used only with data) for a couple of years and was a Sprint subscriber for about a year with devices like the HTC EVO 4G. I do have some experiences with each of the four major US wireless carriers and have also been purchasing SIM-unlocked smartphones for over 6 years. I personally will switch and pay the ETF to get a new device and jump to a carrier that offers me more for my money, but will most likely never try leaving T-Mobile with my family plan again (AT&T failed me big time when I tried that and my wife almost killed me due to the constant dropped calls).

Each carrier is different for all of us and is highly dependent on where you live, work, and play. I recommend you figure out which carrier works best for you before buying a device you won’t be happy with because of the carrier. There are many excellent smartphone options today and you honestly can’t really go wrong with any of the available choices. Like carriers, different smartphone operating systems work for different people because of their different strengths and weaknesses, 3rd party applications, and available form factors.

Enough about the disclaimers and warnings, let’s take a look at my list of smartphones to consider for school year 2011-2012.


Apple iPhone 4

There is likely a new Apple iPhone coming this fall, but until now the one year old Apple iPhone 4 is still an excellent smartphone choice on AT&T. This year you can also pick one up in white and it will be upgradeable to the iOS 5 update coming out in the next few months.

AT&T made some major changes to their pricing plans after the release of the iPhone 4 so that now there is a 2GB cap on data with the ability to also tether for another $20 per month. Each additional GB of data cost $10/month. There are additional charges for text messaging other services, like AT&T Navigator.

Price: $299 for 32GB and $199 for 16GB with 2-year contract

[Check out the iPhone 4 CNET Reviews page]

Samsung Infuse 4G

AT&T may have been a bit slow to launch Android devices, but they have a good selection now and it was tough to choose between this Samsung Infuse 4G or the HTC Inspire 4G, but I went with the larger more brilliant display for my choice. The Infuse 4G has a whopping 4.5 inch Super AMOLED Plus display, runs Android 2.2, has an 8 megapixel camera, and is the thinnest 4G smartphone at just 8 mm thick.

The Infuse 4G comes with a very large 1750 mAh battery, internal 18 GB storage, and microSD card so you can load this bad boy up with storage memory. It supports AT&T's HSPA+ network too. Customer reviews are overwhelmingly positive and the Infuse 4G looks like a definite winner on AT&T.

Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract

[Check out the Samsung Infuse 4G CNET Reviews page]

Samsung Focus

I am a major Windows Phone 7 fan and think people need to actually try one of these devices to appreciate how good it really is. The great thing about the existing lineup, like the Samsung Focus, is that they will get upgraded to Windows Phone Mango soon and that OS update is wonderful on the Samsung Focus.

The Focus has a brilliant 4 inch WVGA Super AMOLED touchscreen that is extremely responsive. The 5 megapixel camera takes decent photos and there is a lot to like in Windows Phone 7 with Xbox LIVE gaming, Zune Pass music services, Bing Search integration, and so much more.

Price: $49.99 with 2-year contract

[Check out the my Windows Phone 7.5 Mango technical preview article and the Focus CNET Reviews page]

Let's check out Sprint's offerings »


Motorola Photon 4G

Sprint just recently released their first Motorola WiMAX device with the Photon 4G and it doesn't disappoint with the latest version of Android (Gingerbread 2.3), 4.3 inch qHD display, 1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor, 16GB internal memory and microSD card slot, and 1700 mAh battery. This is one of the fastest smartphones around with some of the highest specifications on the market.

Sprint is the only carrier with true unlimited, non-throttle data and for $79.99 they offer unlimited data, unlimited text, and unlimited calling to any mobile phone for most phones. I am a fan of kickstands on phones and the Photon 4G has one to help you enjoy video content.

Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract and rebate/discount

[Read the CNET Reviews page for more info.]

Samsung Conquer 4G

The Samsung Conquer 4G is a bit lower specced device, but still ships with Android Gingerbread, a 3.5 inch display, 1 GHz processor, and WiMAX radio. The display doesn't have the highest resolution and the processor isn't a dual-core model, but the phone is half the price of the high end smartphones and still gets the job done.

You can use this device, the Motorola Photon 4G too, as mobile WiFi hotspots so that is something to consider if you are looking to have this capability at school to pair with a laptop.

Price: $99.99 with 2-year contract and rebate/discount

[Check out the CNET Reviews page for more info.]

HTC Arrive

I almost selected a third Android or the new BlackBerry Bold for this third smartphone, but I had to go with the HTC Arrive with the full slide-out QWERTY keyboard. A coworker bought this as his first smartphone and absolutely loves it. It doesn't have a WiMAX radio or WiFi hotspot functionality.

The HTC Arrive has a 3.6 inch WVGA display, 1 GHz processor, 5 megapixel camera, and 1500 mAh battery. It comes with 16GB integrated storage memory with no ability to update this. Again, this phone will get updated to the Mango version of Windows Phone 7 which makes it even better.

Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract and rebate/discount

[Check out the CNET Reviews page and my first impressions for more info.]

T-Mobile also has some strong offerings »


HTC Sensation 4G

As I stated in the opening of this article, I am a long time T-Mobile customer and even with their uncertain future (due to the AT&T acquisition) I still buy smartphones from them and use them on the network. My personal favorite is the HTC HD7 that I have hacked with a 32GB microSD card and latest RTM version of Mango, but I don't recommend you do this if you want a phone under warranty.

T-Mobile has always been a leader in carrying Android devices, they were first with the T-Mobile G1, and my three picks for them are all Android devices. The new Bold 9930 is also coming soon to T-Mobile and is a device to consider too.

The Sensation 4G is my favorite Android device on T-Mobile and if I wasn't such a huge WP7 fan I would have bought one for myself when it was released. I like the HTC Sense experience and it works very well with Android on the HTC Sensation 4G. The form factor and design is beautiful with a 4.3 inch qHD high resolution display, 1.2 GHz dual core Snapdragon processor, Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), and more. You get support for T-Mobile's 14.4 Mbps HSPA+ network that I find consistently just behind the speeds of LTE on Verizon.

The HTC Sensation 4G feel great in your hand and is a wonderful Android smartphone that has a very high rating with customers.

Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract and $50 mail-in rebate.

[Check out my review and the CNET Reviews page for more info.]

T-Mobile G2x

I really enjoyed using the LG G2x and found the hardware design compelling with the glass display that wraps a bit around the sides. It is powered by a NVIDIA Tegra 2 1 GHz processor and Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). The display looks great at 4 inches with 800x480 pixels resolution. 8 GB of memory is integrated with a microSD card slot for up to 32GB more. It has a good 8 megapixel camera and a front facing camera too.

I didn't experience the greatest RF reception for the G2x, which is why my personal choice would be the Sensation 4G. The hardware really is fantastic here and many people also like the vanilla Android experience that this offers.

Price: $149.99 with 2-year contract and $50 mail-in rebate.

[Check out my review and the CNET Reviews page for more info.]

T-Mobile myTouch 4G Slide

The myTouch line was always a bit lower in quality than the high end Android line, but HTC and T-Mobile have worked to make it a high end alternative. I was impressed with the myTouch 4G Slide, especially with the camera performance that is a focus of the device. You will find an 8 megapixel camera with powerful software and a wide aperture lens so that the camera taking experience is one of the best I have ever seen on a mobile phone.

The myTouch 4G Slide also has great specs with a 1.2 GHz dual core processor, HSPA+ support, Genius button and powerful voice to text software, full QWERTY keyboard that slides out from under the display, and much more. This is also a WiFi Calling supported device so you can make calls over a WiFi network if your signal is weak (it does use plan minutes).

Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract and $50 mail-in rebate.

[Check out my review and the CNET Reviews page for more info.]

Let's check out what Verizon has available »


Apple iPhone 4

I am not sure I would personally buy an iPhone 4 with a new iPhone likely coming in the next couple of months, but Verizon brought the iPhone to their network this year and it honestly is still a great smartphone with hundreds of thousands of available apps. Verizon has the iPhone in both black and white.

Verizon also supports the WiFi hotspot functionality in the iPhone, but at an additional charge. The 960x640 pixels 3.5 inch display is unmatched in the smartphone world so if I fabulous display is important to you then consider the iPhone 4 on Verizon.

Price: $299 for 32GB and $199 for 16GB with 2-year contract

[Check out the CNET Reviews page for more info.]

Samsung Droid Charge

I tested out the HTC ThunderBolt as my first new Verizon phone, but the device was buggy and I switched to the Droid Charge. The 4.3 inch Super AMOLED plus display is amazing and brilliant while the LTE network is the fastest 4G network of any U.S. wireless carrier. I regularly saw speeds that beat my home internet connection and it was a real joy to use. The Droid Charge has a good 8 megapixel camera and physical hardware buttons below the large display.

It runs the Android 2.2 OS with Samsung TouchWIZ user interface, but can be skinned with other launchers too. Video can be captured at 720p HD quality and it is a solid Android smartphone.

Price: $299.99 with 2-year contract.

[Check out my review and the CNET Reviews page for more info.]

BlackBerry Bold 9930

I may get some flack on this article for including a BlackBerry device in my picks, but I found the Bold 9930 so compelling that I switched from my Droid Charge to the Bold 9930 as a personal phone. The Bold 9930 is a BlackBerry users dream with the BEST QWERTY keyboard of ANY smartphone ever made. The 2.8 inch display has a resolution of 640x480 and with the new Liquid Graphics technology things look fantastic.

The new BB OS 7 is not revolutionary, but there are enough improvements to make it a worthy smartphone competitor. It is powered by a 1.2 GHz processor, 8GB internal memory, and a microSD card. The 5 megapixel camera takes good video at 720p, but is also an EDoF camera so taking photos of objects up close is a practice in futility. The new Bold 9930 also is a world phone with support for GSM networks and a SIM card slot.

Price: $249.99 with 2-year contract.

[Check out the my review and CNET Reviews page for more info.]

[poll id="35"]

Go back to the beginning »

Topics: iPhone, Hardware, HTC, Mobility, Processors, Samsung, Smartphones, AT&T, Verizon

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  • RE: Back to School 2011: Top 3 smartphones from each major carrier

    I get the lineup, but what does back to school have to do with phones? Kids go to school to pay attention, not to play on their phones and text all day.

    Want a real back to school phone? Then get a cheap prepaid phone for your kid. Otherwise you are asking for trouble.
    • Colleges and parents

      @statuskwo5 I was thinking about college students and also those parents looking to pick up a new phone to stay connected with their kids. Smartphones are dropping in price and more and more younger people are getting them to stay in touch after class too.
      palmsolo (aka Matthew Miller)
    • RE: Back to School 2011: Top 3 smartphones from each major carrier


      Microsoft is a patenttroll. Openess and freedom FTW
      • You're an idiot

        William Farrell
    • RE: Back to School 2011: Top 3 smartphones from each major carrier


      I can agree totally but knowing most push over parents they will be getting their kids smart phones assuming the younger they know tech the smarter and more well hearsed they will be in the future. It doesn't make sense to me either but whatever. I can so though if it wasn't for having computers in the house as such a young age and me being able to do what I wanted I wouldn't be where I am today in the I.T. industry knowing all I know. If I was sheltered I would be probably flipping patties at burger king.
  • HTC Trophy

    Picked one up on Verizon about a month ago. I still haven't had to reboot the phone, not once. I've had no application crashes and no slow downs. Coming from a Droid 2 for a year this smart phone is an absolute dream. I couldn't be happier, with the hardware or the OS. Plus, as far as I'm concerned, LTE on a smart phone (unless you heavily use tethering) is a good way to chew through all your data and not much more. 3G is just fine for basic web browsing and e-mail, which is the majority of what I use my phone for. Oh, and phone calls.
    • That's what I am talking about, they just need to be tried out

      @LiquidLearner I have been using WP7 since last July and it has honestly been the most stable platform of any smartphone I have ever tried. I also fully agree with you on LTE.
      palmsolo (aka Matthew Miller)
    • HTC Arrive replaced my iPhone

      @LiquidLearner Amen. I switch from the iPhone to an HTC Arrive, and while I admit that the apple hardware is sexy, the Arrive (and I have mango dev loaded on mine) is the most incredible phone I've ever owned. The Winphone 7 OS is so smooth and intelligent. I've decided they need to create a commercial where they tout "There is no App for that: it is integrated into the OS". <br><br>The messaging in Mango is light years ahead of anyone else. It makes no distinction between SMS, Facebook, Msn Messenger, LinkedIn, Twitter text messaging. I don't have to load a Facebook app to use facebook messaging. I don't have to load a Messenger app to perform is all just messaging. Just choose the person you want to talk to, and then send the message. It will let you know if they are available by any of those means and you can choose which method to chat.<br><br>Yeah, if you have an iPhone, well, you just have an iPhone. If you have a Windows Phone 7, you have a real communication device.
    • WP7 is awesome!

      I've been using an HTC HD7 and I love it. The hardware may not be the best (especially the camera), but WP7 is realy simple and easy to use. Plus, the Metro UI and Live Tiles are awesome compared to static icons.
    • RE: Back to School 2011: Top 3 smartphones from each major carrier


      I just bought a HTC HD7 loaded with WP7. So far im highly impress with the quality of the product.

      The OS is very special,unique and well though. The fact that the tiles push the information toward you is simply awesome.
    • Picked up the HTC Trophy 2 weeks ago

      and it's my first HTC phone. I have to say it's quite sturdy, and WP7 OS is really nice, very fast, and easy to use.
      William Farrell
  • Focus works great for us

    picked up 3 in June switched from Sprint to ATT because of coverage issues and we couldn't be happier. 2 of the Focii are being used by my kids and people need to check out WP7. I have Mango installed and even though we loved our initial WP7 Focii Mango makes it sooooooo much better. The deep social integration works extremely well and having xbox linked to the phone is a lot of fun. Zune and the Metro design works fantastically, much more intuitive than android and iOS IMO.
    • Can't wait for Mango


      Mango really looks to be a heavy hitter in the mobile OS space. As good as WP7 is already my only complaint is when I'm doing one thing and switch out to answer a text or something and I have to go all the way back in. With fast rehydration of applications this problem should go away and make it the absolute best OS out there. With Mango giving Bing navigation and multi-tasking I don't see how it can't take off. For some reason people just don't want to try it. I had to argue with the Verizon guy who thought I was nuts because I wanted the Trophy. He kept trying to sell me on the Thunderbolt. I asked if it was more stable than the Droid 2, he said it's faster so you don't notice the slow downs as much. F.dat. It's funny that the sales people almost seem compelled to talk you out of the device just because it's Microsoft. When I pointed out that the Trophy has the best user reviews on the Verizon website he just gave me a blank stare, like he had no idea what a user review was.

      Oh well, anyone who takes their smartphone advice from the pimply faced kid at their local VZW store deserves what they get.
      • RE: Back to School 2011: Top 3 smartphones from each major carrier

        @LiquidLearner - I had a similar experience in the Sprint store when I purchased my Arrive. The sales guy simply could not fathom that I would be willing to pay more for an Arrive than for the Evo Shift 4g... He kept trying to sell me on the 4g, which we don't have in my part of the state and are not scheduled to get anytime in the near future.

        The problem with these sales guys is that they're all "geeks" like most of us on here and don't understand that some of us want phones that we don't have to screw with to make them work for us.
      • RE: Back to School 2011: Top 3 smartphones from each major carrier


        I have seen reports that Verizon Sales people get a higher commission on some Android Phones, hence the pushing of them over other phones.
        John Hanks
      • RE: Back to School 2011: Top 3 smartphones from each major carrier


        I understand what you means. It was pure hell for me.

        All the vendors i saw only tried to sell me android phone, not even one vendor told me about blackberry,Iphone or WP7

        When i asked them how android phones compare to the others phones they didnt had any idea.Most of them told me android was more popular so it was the best pick.

        So i tried them all (after all i was about to sign a 2 years contract.) I finally took the HTC HD7, event then the vendors was insisting for me to get a android phone.

        I suggest people to tried at least a couple phones from different compagny before buying, and please don't listen to the vendor, he is not the one who will pay your 2 years phone bill.
      • I'm with you 100% on that

        I did my research, and found I really wanted the Trophy. My wife has the iPhone4 and likes it, and I agree, it's very nice.
        But I wanted something different, with features that suited me and the Trophy was it.

        I walked in to the store and the "sales boy" asked what I was interested in. Pointed it out telling him it will work perfect for me, after doing my research, and the guy looked puzzled, telling me that I would really like the Droid or whatever (maybe it was the Thunderbolt) and because its the one he uses and he likes it.

        He then said he was surprised because "nobody buys that", only to find that they where sold out of it.

        I guess after we left he went back to popping the pimples on his face or something.
        William Farrell
  • RE: Back to School 2011: Top 3 smartphones from each major carrier

    Meh you left out the HTC Droid Incredible II from verizon and my kids are focusing on school not their friggin phones with every article you show yourself to be headline mongering whores
  • RE: Back to School 2011: Top 3 smartphones from each major carrier

    The best overall value for a smartphone has to be the Samsung Exhibit 4G from T-Mobile. Excellent value with high-end features and performance.
  • RE: Back to School 2011: Top 3 smartphones from each major carrier

    I was going to be pissed if you DIDN'T include a new Blackberry. They are great!
    John Hanks