By Wilson Rothman

Explainer: Buy these smart phones

  • Sprint

    This smart phone thing has gotten out of hand. It used to be, there were two, maybe three, and they all cost $400, and were frankly not that hot. Now every carrier has 20 smart phones, all between the price of $0 and $300, and they're all pretty cool. Or at least, they seem so in those misleadingly upbeat feature lists on every carrier's websites.

    We decided this year to not beat around the bush. Here we recommend two very different, very cool smart phones for each carrier. Take them or leave them. It's the only advice you need, should you choose to accept it.

  • AT&T - Apple iPhone 4 - $199 for 16GB, $299 for 32GB


    Don't let "Antennagate" and all that bad press fool you. Having used the iPhone 4 since the day it went on sale, I can tell you it makes calls just as well as any of its predecessors. Which is to say, not that great, but who talks on the phone anymore? While it has flaws, the benefits far outweigh them. Especially if you like high-quality apps, long battery life, secure Exchange support and a wide compatibility with docks and other accessories.

    Apple recently synced up the iPhone and iPad with the $99 Apple TV so that you can shoot video and music from the phone to your TV or sound system. It's a luxury, and maybe even a non-subtle attempt at nickel-and-diming loyal customers, but it is cool.

    That said, you may want to wait till January to take the iPhone plunge. Especially if you're not wedded to AT&T.

  • AT&T - Samsung Focus with Windows Phone 7 - $199.99


    I gotta tell you, I was surprised at how much I like WP7. Microsoft may not be able to gain back their lost smart phone market share, but it won't be because they have an inferior product: This mobile operating system runs smooth and feels mature, even in the 1.0 incarnation. It's sort of a cross between iPhone and Android — on the one hand, it's a closed system with an early inclination towards well designed apps that people pay for, while on the other hand, it'll quickly be available on an assortment of brands and carriers.

    But AT&T wins the first round: The Focus is ten times better than any other WP7 phone out there, with a gorgeous glowing high-contrast AMOLED screen, a surprisingly slender body and long battery life.

  • Sprint - Samsung Epic 4G - $249.99 after $100 mail-in rebate


    Samsung is on a tear in the smart phone biz, partly because they figured out how to make the most beautiful phone screen known on this Earth. The 4-inch "Super AMOLED" display that graces the AT&T's WP7 Focus also shows up on the Epic 4G, one of Samsung's high-powered Galaxy S Android phones. Unlike other Galaxy S models, though, the Epic also has a slide-out keyboard and a connection to Sprint's WiMax 4G network. In other words, it's good on its own or tethered to your computer.

    Just bear in mind, it's better to use Sprint's WiMax when you're sitting in one place; as a bus commuter, I know that when the phone jumps from WiMax to 3G (or vice versa), everything grinds to a halt.

  • Sprint - BlackBerry Curve 3G - $49.99 after $100 mail-in rebate


    This is perhaps the cheapest smart phone pick on my list, but I include it because if you're planning to stick with Sprint, but have an allergy to the Android phones all the kids are talking about, then your best bet is to go with a tried-and-true BlackBerry, albeit one that, come springtime, will get an update to the newest software, OS 6.0, with a vastly improved Web browser, social networking and "universal" search.

    In the meantime, you'll get to enjoy one of the last of the "unlimited" data plans — it's unlimited as long as you don't break any of these rules — one that has truly unlimited text messaging thrown in. Basically, if you are a heavy smart phone internet user, it's a great deal.

  • T-Mobile - MyTouch 4G by HTC - $199.99 after $50 Web-only discount


    This is one of the best phones on the market, and perhaps the best deal out there. The new MyTouch has a sturdy metal body, a screen you can gaze into for hours without seeing pixels, a "genius" feature for dictating text messages and Web searches without fingers, and a connection to a very fast network, where available.

    If you're in love with Android, and you are interested in getting a phone you can tether to your computer, you might want to switch to T-Mobile just to get with this baby. Just make sure your travels keep you within the coverage of T-Mo's newly launched HSPA+ network — that's the secret to its success.

  • T-Mobile - BlackBerry Bold 9780 - $129.99 after $50 Web-only discount


    The Bold 9780 is the second phone to get RIM's BlackBerry 6.0 OS, but the first that's actually likable. (AT&T's BlackBerry Torch is pretty reviled, considered a misstep by most reviewers.) You get the familiar classy Bold style, with great battery life and a 5 megapixel camera, but now with tabbed browsing, social-network integration, and an over all faster system. I'm not saying people should pick BlackBerry over Android or the others, but if you already know you prefer it, and want to stay current, this is the one for you.

  • Verizon Wireless - Droid 2 Global by Motorola - $199.99 after $100 mail-in rebate

    Verizon Wireless

    The Motorola Droid led the surge that put Android over the top. It was a sturdy machine with a fast processor and the newest Google-juiced Android software. (Free turn-by-turn navigation, anyone?) Fast forward to the present. Droid 2 is an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" update, with the same basic body and slide out keyboard, but an jacked-up 1.2GHz processor and global GSM capability, so that Verizon customers can wander Europe and Asia with their phone's functionality intact.

    There are plenty of great Verizon Android handsets — the super-sized Droid X by Motorola and the slim HTC Incredible, to pick a couple of other worthies — but none quite carries the torch like the Droid 2.

  • Verizon Wireless - Apple iPhone - ????????????????


    Oh come on. It's the worst kept secret in the wireless business. According to umpteen reports by responsible news agencies citing unnamed but reliable sources, Verizon will be launching an iPhone in January. So yes, while there are some nice Android phones over at the VZ, you might want to save your money this holiday season, and drive your old phone into the ground for a few more months. If January comes and goes without any news of a Verizon iPhone, I'll boil and eat my iPad.

    Related stories:
    Attention smart phone buyers: Android is ready
    Windows Phone 7 mini review and video walkthrough
    Samsung Galaxy Tab vs. Apple iPad: The tablet wars begin now
    E-readers and tablets: What should you buy?

    Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman. If you are mad your phone didn't make this short list — and your phone is NOT a Palm Pre — he'd be happy to hear you out.


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