Top 10 smartphones to kick off 2013

I post my top 10 lists of smartphones a couple times a year and now that the HTC One has been revealed I can provide you with my current top 10. I've had the iPhone at the top of my lists for quite a while, but not this time.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

Now that HTC revealed their HTC One device and BlackBerry their Z10, both coming soon to most of the major US wireless carriers it is time to take a look at what I think are the best smartphones to consider in early 2013.

Samsung will eventually announce the likely Galaxy S IV with latest rumors stating that the event may be on 14 March. HTC has led Samsung in build quality, but their latest devices are quite good and I love my Note II (as you can see below). I think the GS IV may bump the iPhone 5 down from third and may bump the HTC One down from second. The smartphone market moves fast so this list is current for now, but may change in a month.

It's the first time I have included a BlackBerry device in my best of lists in a long time. It turns out I have six Android devices, two WP8 devices, one iOS device, and one BlackBerry device in my list. There are several more excellent Android devices I considered, HTC One SV, Droid RAZR Maxx, Lumia 620, but I would say the top six were actually pretty easy to pick.

Regular readers know I personally have accounts on T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon so that I can test as many smartphones as possible across the operating system and manufacturer spectrum. I jump around between several phones, but the ones that are with me for more than six months are the ones I personally find most compelling.

Here are my top 10 smartphones to start 2013.

Number 1: Samsung Galaxy Note II


I chose the Galaxy Note II in my last list, but put it into second place behind the iPhone 5. I must pick the Note II as my first choice this time as it continues to reign as my favorite device and may actually earn the title of best smartphone I have ever purchased. Fellow ZDNet writer James Kendrick also thinks quite highly of the Note II and many readers have backed up my choice of this device. Yes, it is a large device. However, as people use data more than make phone calls I think larger displays are getting more desirable and people are more tolerant of larger devices.

The Galaxy Note II has it all and I can't find it lacking in anything. You will find Android 4.1.1 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, huge 3,200 mAh removable battery so you can go a long time without charging, Bluetooth 4.0, LTE, NFC, and more.

You will also find some amazing software provided by Samsung that enhances the Note II experience, including multi-window support (use Twitter and Gmail at the same time), S Note (other S Pen enhanced apps too) for use with the S Pen, Smart Stay, customizable lock screen, and fun camera software.

You can find the Galaxy Note II on all four major US wireless carriers and it is definitely a device to consider. It's now available in prices ranging in price from to $199.99 (AT&T) to $369.99 (T-Mobile) with a 2-year contract . One reason I like the T-Mobile one is that it has the internal parts needed to support LTE when T-Mobile turns on this network in 2013 and it supports WiFi Calling now.

Number 2: HTC One


The newest device from HTC, available starting in March, is the HTC One. In a strategy that should hopefully help get HTC back in the game, the HTC One will be available around the world and from T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint here in the US. It will be the same device across the carriers, with the exception of the cellular bands supported, with the same name so that HTC was able to do what Apple and Samsung have done before. HTC was able to do this with the 8X Windows Phone, but that OS still hasn't seemed to gain much in popularity.

The HTC One hardware is fantastic and if my choice was based on outside hardware alone then the HTC One would be my first choice. The metal body feels great in your hand and looks incredible. HTC's Super LCD displays have led the industry over the past year and now they bring an awesome 1080p 4.7 inch Super LCD 3 to the HTC One. It is powered by a quad-core 1.7 GHz processor and 2GB of RAM. While there is no microSD slot, there are internal memory options of 32GB and 64GB so that should be plenty for most people. You will also find dual mics, front facing stereo speakers, an ultra pixel camera with optical image stabilization (OIS).

In addition to top class hardware, HTC includes a new user experience with Sense 5. While the traditional Sense UI is present with a swipe over, you can also experience their HTC BlinkFeed home screen where content you want appears and is refreshed as you specify. They also have a slick new camera capture capability called Zoe. A Zoe is a short video that can then be used to create highlight videos with images, Zoes, music, and themes to make the camera experience a blast. HTC put a lot into the One and we were told it will also be price competitive with other smartphones on carrier. I imagine this means we will see it in the $200 price range like the rest.

Number 3: Apple iPhone 5


I still think the iPhone is one of the best smartphones for the masses and recommend it to some family and friends. I also think the UI is getting a bit boring and have heard that from a number of others. I personally just jailbroke my iPhone 5 so that I could enjoy some advanced functions and am enjoying the experience.

Other smartphone manufacturers are innovating more and pushing the limits of smartphone design. Apple updated the internals and length of its iPhone product with the iPhone 5 and the design is excellent. It is still one of the most pocketable smartphones and easy to use with one hand.

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. 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. It (or another model iPhone) should also be available on T-Mobile sometime in 2013.

Keep clicking through to see numbers 4 through 10.

Number 4: LG's Google Nexus 4


LG gets their first shot at a Nexus device and all indications are that the Nexus 4 is a hot commodity. There have been limited supplies so it has been tough for people to purchase, which I think has also led to more demand for it in the smartphone space. I never bought one because I am so incredibly happy with my Note II, but it is the latest pure Google experience Android so should be considered.

The Nexus 4 is SIM unlocked and contract free with a very low $299 (8GB) and $349 (16GB) price point. For comparison, most contract free phones are $500 to $700 and even then they are not always SIM unlocked. You can use the Nexus 4 with T-Mobile or AT&T in the US and around the world. It supports HSPA+, but is not a 4G LTE device so that is one reason I don't have it ranked higher.

The Nexus 4 has a 4.7 inch display with a 1280x768 resolution, 8 megapixel camera with cool Photo Sphere functionality, 2GB RAM, latest version of Android (always), and non-expandable 8GB or 16GB memory. It is a fairly basic high end Android device, but the attraction is the pure Google experience with chances for getting the latest version of Android before any other device.

Number 5: Nokia Lumia 920


The Nokia Lumia 920 launched exclusively on AT&T, but I still ended up buying one because I found the optical image stabilization in the camera too compelling to pass up. You can still only pick it up on one carrier, unlike all the rest of the phones in my top five list. The Lumia 920 offers more than the HTC 8X when you compare the device and software. It 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.

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.

Number 6: BlackBerry Z10


I went to my first every BlackBerry launch event last month when they launched the BlackBerry Z10 and I've been using it for a few weeks. It is definitely a major step forward for BlackBerry and gives them a slick new OS on solid hardware.

The BlackBerry Z10 is a solid piece of hardware with a 4.2 inch display at 1280 x 768 pixels resolution, 8 megapixel rear camera, 16GB internal storage with a microSD card that supports up to 64GB microSD cards, dual core 1.5 GHz processor, 2GB RAM, microHDMI port, 1800 mAh removable battery, NFC and more. The display is smaller than most Android and Windows Phone device, but still larger than the latest iPhone. I like that you can easily expand the memory and the removable battery is appealing for enterprise users who are out and on the go.

Initially I was quite concerned about the app story, but we are seeing new apps appear in BlackBerry World on a regular basis. There are still a couple weeks before we see the Z10 appear in the US and I think people will be impressed with the hardware and software. Initial pricing from carriers indicates it will launch at $199.99, but we may see better pricing when official announcements from all carriers are made.

Number 7: Samsung Galaxy S III


The Samsung Galaxy S III remains the best Android smartphone available on all major US wireless carriers today. It is likely that a new version will be announced in the next few months that will likely enjoy the same kind of success.

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.

Keep clicking through to see numbers 8 through 10.

Number 8: HTC Droid DNA


Verizon's HTC Droid DNA looks very similar to the newly announced HTC One, which may be why Verizon didn't want to join the HTC One party at this time. I have been using it instead of my iPhone 5 because it is the best HTC hardware I have ever used.

The Droid DNA was the first device to launch with a 1080p display and HTC was able to put the large 5 inch size display into a device that feels like a much smaller smartphone. The DNA has an 8 megapixel camera, 16GB integrated storage, 2GB RAM, quad-core processor, integrated 2020 mAh battery, NFC, and more. While the hardware is fantastic, I couldn't rate the Droid DNA higher because of the limited integrated storage capacity and limited battery life with non-removable battery. A high end smartphone like this should have at least 32GB of memory and larger or removable battery.

The HTC Droid DNA comes with Android Jelly Bean and HTC Sense 4.0+. The user interface is great and everything flows well on the device. Google Now is easily accessible by pressing and holding the Home button too. You can pick up the HTC Droid DNA for $199.99 on Verizon.

Number 9: HTC 8X


Microsoft and HTC launched the HTC 8X on AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon when Windows Phone 8 was launched. It is one of the slimmest, most pocketable devices I have held and is a great alternative for people looking for a well designed smartphone. I like the bold colors and modern materials used by HTC. 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 can now find the HTC 8X in the $50 to $100 price range on the three major US wireless carriers.

Number 10: HTC One X+


The HTC One X was on of my favorite HTC devices ever and it never seemed to get the respect it deserved. This may have had to do with the AT&T exclusivity and unfortunately once again the updated HTC One X+ is also only available on AT&T. The One X+ fixes a couple of the issues with the One X, including a faster processor, longer battery life, and more internal storage capacity (64GB now compared to just 16GB on the One X).

The One X+ has that gorgeous 4.7 inch 720p LCD display. The processor upgrade moves to NVIDIA from Qualcomm. The battery capacity increased from 1800 mAh to 2020 mAh. Android Jelly Bean is included on the device out of the box. You can buy the HTC One X+ in black from AT&T for $199.99 with a 2-year contract.

What is your favorite smartphones at this time? What smartphone do you see coming down the rumor mill that has your interest? I am looking forward to seeing what Samsung has with the next Galaxy, but it is going to be tough to knock the Note II from my hands. I plan to spend more time with the HTC One and BlackBerry Z10 over the next month or two as well.

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