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

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?
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer on

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 Amazon.com 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.]

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