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Smartphones: The best of 2012 and which phones to buy in 2013

With the presents opened and Auld Lang Syne no longer in the air, we wave farewell to 2012 and begin to look ahead at what surprises 2013 has in store. Before we step over the threshold however, we’re bringing with us some of the handsets we’re confident will stand the test of time over the next 12 months – even when compared to the young guns waiting in the wings at events like CES and MWC in the coming days and weeks.

 

Winners

Our picks are innovative phones that make the very best of the OS. We want ingenuity and we want the world in our hands, limitations cast aside. No stop-gap fillers, just game changers. Welcome to Recombu’s winners of 2012.

 

1. Samsung Galaxy S3

There’s no arguing with the millions of units sold since the Samsung Galaxy S3’s launch in May, beating the mighty iPhone and smashing all-time sales records at retailers the world over.

Part of the success of the Galaxy S3 has been its ability to deliver. 2011’s Samsung flagship; the Samsung Galaxy S2 set the standard for a top-notch Android smartphone experience and many were wondering what Sammy was keeping up its sleeves in order to top it. When the Galaxy S3 arrived, the spec sheet alone was incredible and when users finally got their hands on it, things only got better.

Samsung galaxy s3

HTC may have been the first to push a quad-core processor into a phone in 2012, but Samsung made the Galaxy S3 a viable everyday device. Despite a beautiful 4.8-inch 720p HD AMOLED display and a quad-core processor, the S3’s 2100mAh battery proves that you can demand consistent mobile performance without having to worry about staying put near a plug point. Add to an already impressive recipe innovative features woven into Samsung’s Android UI (TouchWiz Nature UX) such as Smart Stay, Direct Call and S-Beam and you have a handset that will prove its worth for some time yet.

Before we forget, the Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE is available in the UK, so the goodness is available with super-fast 4G connectivity too.

2. Nokia Lumia 920

We praised the Nokia Lumia 800 last year as it was the first flagship handset from the Finnish company following its decision to go all-Windows Phone at the high end. Since its release in 2010, the OS has been commended for taking a different approach to smartphone navigation with its clean and easy to understand UI along with a distinctive aesthetic.

With Windows Phone 8, we already had a decent idea of what to expect from the user experience, so there was greater pressure on the hardware to make the best use of the new functionality on offer from the OS and the Nokia Lumia 920 rose to the challenge admirably. 

Nokia Lumia 920

The 920’s first wave of attack comes in the form of its design; with a unique aesthetic and a range of vibrant, glossy colours, the 920 is able to stand out on the store shelf far more easily than the majority of the silver and black handsets surrounding it.

Running Windows Phone 8 has also allowed Nokia to instill the Lumia 920 with a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM and a stunning 4.5-inch PureMotion HD display, not to mention an 8.7-megapixel PureView camera with some of the best image stabilisation we’ve ever seen.

Windows Phone may not be strong enough to pull consumers away from iOS and Android just yet, but the hardware and services underpinning the Nokia Lumia 920 make it a genuinely competitive flagship handset Apple and Samsung should be wary of. 

3. Apple iPhone 5

Time and again Apple has proven that not only has it built one of the most cohesive, adaptable mobile infrastructures, but it knows how to make beautiful desirable smartphones that surpass their intended use becoming status symbols.

The Apple iPhone 5 is one of the biggest departures in recent iPhone evolution and the first to use a beautiful 4-inch display, enabling users to watch HD content in true 16:9 aspect ratio and accessing the most well stocked app store, packed with apps purpose built for the new display size and resolution.

Apple iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 also serves as a testament to software optimisation. With a dual-core processor at its heart, on paper it shouldn’t be able to compete with its Android-based quad-core rivals, but the user experience throughout the iPhone’s apps and services tell a very different story.

4: Google Nexus 4

A late contender in our winners list, the Google Nexus 4 is the first Google/LG collaboration, as the South Korean company follows in the footsteps of HTC and Samsung. We weren’t overly excited when we heard of about the device – but once we saw the spec sheet and gulped at the price our interest piqued.

With a quad-core processor, 4.7-inch LCD screen and (as a Nexus branded phone) the latest version of Android, specifications are fantastic. Build quality is excellent too – making the previous Samsung Galaxy Nexus feel all the more plasticky.

google nexus 4

We mentioned the price in passing, Google is heavily subsidising the handset cost to encourage users to invest in Android. Buy directly from Google SIM-free and the 8GB Google Nexus 4 will cost you just £239, or pay £279 for the 16GB versions – simply outstanding value, especially for a phone guaranteed to get at least two more software upgrades. In comparison you’ll pay around £319 and £449 for similar priced iPhones and £399 for the 16GB Galaxy S3. With the Google Nexus 4 cutting-edge specifications have never been so affordable – expect to see the handset everywhere soon, stock shortages aside.

5. Samsung Galaxy Note 2 

It’s fair to say that when the original Samsung Galaxy Note launched in 2011, many scoffed at its attempts to reintroduce stylus input and the notion of using it (legitimately) as an oversized smartphone. However sales of the phablet proved that a form factor such as the Note’s shouldn’t be underestimated and with the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, Samsung has enriched the user experience and greatly raise the profile of this new device type.

samsung galaxy note 2

Samsung has tweaked and tune the Note 2’s user experience since the original Note and it launched with the latest version of Android: Jelly Bean. The Note 2’s stylus (the S Pen) works with a myriad of purpose built Samsung apps and widgets designed to help enhance productivity and usability.

On top of a more cohesive user experience, like the Galaxy S3, the Note 2 makes use of a quad-core processor, this time a 1.6GHz chip with 2GB, onboard and removable storage, great front (1.9-megapixel) and rear (8-megapixel) cameras and an expansive, 5.5-inch HD display. The Note 2 might not be for everyone, but it makes us think of mobile productivity in a new light.

Inbetweeners

1. Sony Xperia S

We’re not entirely sure how Sony’s forthcoming Xperia Z will sit with consumers when it launches at CES next week, (mainly due to that vast 5-inch display) so we feel it makes sense to turn to one of the phones in its existing line up. With a more conservative 4.3-inch display rocking a 720p HD resolution, masculine design and powerful dual-core processor, the Sony Xperia S is a fantastic alternative that’ll last for the next few months without feeling tatty around the edges.

sony xperia s

Sony’s strengths are available in spades on the Xperia S with a great 12-megapixel camera and a premium Android experience, based on Ice Cream Sandwich and the phone is anticipated to switch to the Jelly Bean in the near future. It’s also around £150 cheaper than the newer  Sony Xperia T, despite a very similar specification sheet.

2. HTC One X+

HTC grabbed the trophy for first quad-core smartphone to market at the start of 2012 with the HTC One X. The One X was powerful yes, it also has a mind blowing LCD 2 display and a beautiful unibody construction, but a lowly 1800mAh battery to keep all that beefy hardware ticking over, providing users with just a few hours of decent user in a day before having to trip back to Mr plug socket. In October HTC pulled the wraps off the new and improved HTC One X, called the HTC One X+

HTC one x plus

Not only does the One X+ offer a faster processor, 64GB of onboard storage and run Jelly Bean with the company’s latest Android overlay; Sense 4+ on top, it also squeezes in a more acceptable 2100mAh battery, meaning that average daily usage lasts just that: a day. The new black and red paint job isn’t too shabby either.


3. ZTE Kis

We’ve been drifting around the upper echelons of 2012’s smartphone offerings but all the best choices aren’t confined to such a segment, proven aptly by the humble ZTE Kis. The Chinese manufacturer is trying hard to builr market share in the UK and in 2012 produced a number of smartphones that aimed to offer a comprehensive Android experience, without costing an arm and a leg. The ZTE Kis embodies that notion with a price tag of £60 (from Virgin Mobile) accessible to practically anyone who can already afford a mobile phone, whilst running Android and featuring all the mod cons of a handset twice its price.

zte kis

It’s weaknesses lie in the lacklustre screen and the fact it’s confined to Android Gingerbread, but in the same breath, you’re not going to get a better smartphone for the price. It’s zippy, solid and functional. The camera has autofocus, it can handle most apps on the Google Play store and can be heavily customised. So while the ZTE Kis might not scream performance, it roars value.

Losers

Every year has a handful of handsets that have to fight an uphill battle upon release and here we’ve got three. Tragic victims or poor decisions? That’s up for debate but one thing’s for sure, in 2013, we probably won’t be using these:

1. ZTE Grand X

ZTE’s strength with the Kis is a weakness in the ZTE Grand X. Classed as its flagship device last year, the Grand X intended to wow consumers with its Tegra 2-powered gaming prowess, its simple Ice Cream Sandwich-based user experience, qHD resolution display and a £200 price tag, but in actuality build quality and software stability left a lot to be desired and with the likes of the Sony Xperia U sitting in the same price bracket, the Grand X just couldn’t compete.

zte grand x


2. Nokia Asha 306

Nokia may have invested the majority of its time and money into Windows Phone and for that we tip our hats, but there are consumers and markets who want something different and for that the company produced the Asha range, although we’re not so sure the Nokia Asha 306 should be part of it.

Nokia Asha 306

The Asha 306 tries to beat Android at its own game and simply doesn’t have the chops to compete. With lacklustre hardware, a ghastly design and a smattering of apps that don’t offer anywhere near the flexibility of their Google-based counterparts, your money is better spent on similarly priced droids like the Sony Xperia Tipo, Huawei Ascend G300 or if Android isn’t your thing then perhaps a Nokia Lumia 710.

 

3. LG Optimus 4X HD

We enjoyed our time with the 4X HD, it’s a great handset, especially when you take into consideration that it’s one of the cheapest quad-core smartphones around and in fact the device itself isn’t the reason it’s being left in 2012. The Korean creators behind the 4X HD built a great handset but released it at completely the wrong time.

LG optimus 4x hd

Samsung and HTC pushed their quad-core players onto the field in the first half of the year, whilst LG couldn’t to get the 4X HD into stores until much later, once the majority of consumers had already laid down their hard-earned cash for a device. The 4X HD is still be worth a look if you want a bargain and aren’t smitten with LGs own Nexus 4.

 

2013 predictions
 

If you are holding off buying a smartphone until 2013 there are a few things you should know:

CES starts at the end of January, anyone considering investing in a Galaxy Note 2 may want to wait as we’re expecting new big-screen phablets like the HTC M7 and the Huawei Ascend Mate.

BlackBerry 10 is set for launch at the end of January, changing the face of BB handsets. First impressions of the software are promising, particularly the series of intuitive swipe gestures and fantastic keyboard. If the hardware is good and crucially can rival the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3 – RIM could claw back market share.

Mobile World Congress will bring a host of new phones from all the major phone manufacturers (with the exception of Apple), but don’t expect to hear about the Samsung Galaxy S4. Samsung is likely to replicate its Samsung Unpacked event and announce the Galaxy S3 succesor in May. Rumours persist that it will have a 4.99-inch screen with a full HD 1080p resolution (the same as a home television) and 441ppi – which seems a little excessive and unnecessary.

It’s no secret that Apple is developing a new iPhone. Whether it’s called the iPhone 5S or iPhone 6, developement will have started before the iPhone 5 was revealed. Aesthetically it’s likely to look identical to the latest iPhone – Apple tends to use the same chassis for several incarnations, although new colours are being touted. Inside? Well there could be a quad-core processor, NFC chip and megapixel boost to the camera. Expect a new iPhone around October. Following the departure of Scott Forstall (former VP of iOS software) we could see an interface redesign for iOS 7 – perhaps the end of the creaky iBooks interface? We’ll know more at Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference in June.

Nokia is rumoured to be introducing a high-end update to the Lumia 920 with a slimmer, aluminium body to rival the iPhone 5. Based on Nokia’s 2013 product life cycle, the launch could be April (like the Lumia 900) or in October.

 

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