The best smartphones of 2012: AT&T

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In the second installment of our best smartphones of 2012 series, we take a look at the carrier that sells more smartphones than any other wireless service provider in the country: AT&T (T). The nation’s No.2 carrier always has an arsenal of top-of-the-line smartphones on hand and 2012 was by far AT&T’s best year yet. AndroidiOSWindows Phone… AT&T had all the bases covered this year and picking five top smartphones out of the many outstanding devices in its handset lineup was no easy task. We gave it our best shot though, and our picks follow below.

iPhone 5 ($199.99+)

Disappointing or not, Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone 4S was the best-selling smartphone of 2011. It was faster than its predecessor, it added Siri into the mix, and it was better in almost every way. The one thing it didn’t bring to the table was a redesign.

Of course, any disappointment over Apple’s recycled iPhone 4 case was short-lived.

iPhone 5 China Launch

The iPhone 5 was unveiled in September 2012 and in terms of build materials and quality, it stood in a class by itself. Some came close but rival vendors have been unable to match the fit and finish of Apple’s latest smartphone, which has a manufacturing process so complex that it managed to trip up ODM giant Foxconn. The iPhone 5 was also so popular following its launch that Foxconn’s 150,000 employees working exclusively on building iPhones still couldn’t keep up with demand.

BGR reviewed the iPhone 5 in September and revisited the handset in October, concluding that Apple’s latest smartphone offers an all-around experience that is unrivaled for the time being. It’s certainly not perfect, but the iPhone 5 is clearly one of the best smartphones of 2012.

LG Optimus G ($199.99)

LG’s (066570) Optimus G was a pleasant surprise when it hit AT&T in early November. The company’s South Korean neighbor Samsung (005930) took the smartphone market by storm and continues to dominate the industry alongside rival Apple, and LG has struggled to find an inroad in key markets like the U.S.

BGR-LG-Optimus-G-0

With its new flagship smartphone, LG has shown that it can deliver the total package that matches Samsung smartphones in every way. In fact, the Optimus G even dominates Samsung phones in some areas such as build quality.

Key specs include a 4.7-inch HD IPS LCD display with a pixel density of 318 ppi, a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon Pro processor, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, an 8-megapixel camera and a 2,100 mAh battery. It also sports a unique UI that I have grown to enjoy quite a bit, rounding out this terrific offering from LG.

Nokia Lumia 920 ($99.99)

Put plainly, Nokia’s (NOK) Lumia 920 was one of the greatest smartphones we tested in 2012 but it was also one of the hardest to recommend.

The hardware, though bulky and heavy, really stands out from the crowd. The phone’s loud colors and unique design definitely say something about its owner, and Windows Phone 8 is no slouch when it comes to performance — the OS enhancements and support for multi-core chipsets put the platform on par with its rivals Android and iOS.

Lumia 920 Sales 2012 AT&T

Where Nokia’s Lumia 920 and Microsoft’s (MSFT) mobile platform fall short, however, is in the realm of apps and compelling differentiation. I won’t bother rehashing my thoughts on this for the 20th time. From my Lumia 920 review:

Windows Phone is an outstanding platform and vendors like Nokia and HTC are building gorgeous handsets powered by Microsoft’s mobile operating system. Apps are still a huge barrier though, and more importantly, there is still no differentiation compelling enough to pry people away from Android and iOS.

This carries over to first-time smartphone buyers as well, of course — subscribers moving up to a smartphone from a feature phone are unlikely to choose a Windows Phone when everyone around them carries an Android phone or an iPhone. It’s a catch-22 in the purest sense of the expression.

While Nokia and AT&T haven’t yet announced pricing, I’m hearing the Lumia 920 will undercut the competition yet again by at least $50. And once again, we’ll see some serious advertising showing off this great new phone. What we still won’t see, sadly, are truly compelling reasons to buy the Lumia 920 over a market leader. And we also won’t see truly compelling reasons to buy into the Windows Phone ecosystem over Android or iOS.

The Lumia 920 is a great smartphone. It has its faults, and you might have to hit the gym a few extra times each week in order to lift it, but it is still a great smartphone. The design is unique and sharp, the performance has improved dramatically from earlier Windows Phones and the camera is amazing. Does that add up to an experience that outweighs the platform’s many limitations? For the majority of consumers, I don’t think it does.

While the majority of new and existing smartphone users will indeed continue to use Android and iOS, Windows Phone sales have picked up (thanks largely to the Lumia 920, from what I hear). Microsoft’s platform is a breath of fresh air in a market dominated by two giants and for those looking to veer away from the crowd, the Lumia 920 is one of the best Windows Phones that has ever been built.

HTC One X+ ($199.99)

The HTC (2498) One X+ launched very late in the year and to call the phone’s introduction quiet is an understatement. It seems like almost an afterthought at this point, like AT&T is too busy worrying about what’s coming at CES 2013 to bother putting much support behind its new flagship HTC phone.

This is a shame for a number of reasons. For one thing, HTC can use all the help it can get right now as its woes worsen. For another, the One X+ is a fantastic smartphone.

HTC One X Plus
Image source: Wired

Beyond the fantastic build and gorgeous design — which we’ve come to expect from HTC — the One X+ bests its predecessor in almost every way. Spec highlights include a 1.7GHz quad-core Tegra 3 processor, a 4.7-inch Super LCD 2 touch screen with HD 720p resolution, 64GB of storage, 1GB of RAM, an 8-megapixel camera with dedicated HTC ImageChip technology and a 2,100 mAh battery. It’s also one of the few smartphones on the market running Jelly Bean, which gives owners access to awesome features that most of the world can’t yet enjoy like Google Now.

One thing I will note is that if you go with this phone, be prepared to stock up on chargers for your home, car, office and anywhere else you frequent.

I have had a difficult time getting the One X+ to last through the day on a charge, and that’s with push turned off on my Exchange account and with the phone’s power saver function managing the CPU. Unless you don’t mind having to charge this phone more than once a day, be sure to go into settings and disable garbage like “AT&T Locker” that you’ll never use.

While the One X+ isn’t shaping up to be a sales leader, it is most certainly a class leader and it sets the bar for Android phones moving into 2013.

HTC Windows Phone 8X ($99.99+)

The HTC Windows Phone 8X is shaping up to be a sad story as well.

In terms of hardware, the Windows Phone 8X is outstanding and unique. Truth be told, it might be one of my favorite smartphone designs to date. The size is perfect, the shape fits comfortably in the hand, the build is solid and the soft-touch rubbery feel is a nice departure from hard metals and plastics.

Windows Phone US Sales December

Where performance is concerned, the 8X undoubtedly holds its own. Apps open quickly, animations are smooth and tripping up Windows Phone 8 on this handset is no easy task.

Despite all that, the odds are not in this phone’s favor.

Nokia’s Lumia 920 is stole the spotlight when it launched last month and from what I’ve heard, the 8X isn’t selling very well on AT&T. If you’re in the market for a Windows Phone, however, the Windows Phone 8X should absolutely be among the handsets you consider.

Other segments in this series:

The best smartphones of 2012: Verizon Wireless

The best smartphones of 2012: Sprint

The best smartphones of 2012: T-Mobile

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