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Smartphone Comparison Guide (early 2013)

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April 25, 2013

Gizmag compares the top smartphones on the market in early 2013.

Gizmag compares the top smartphones on the market in early 2013.

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Shopping for a new smartphone can be overwhelming. Even after you’ve chosen a wireless carrier, there are so many phones – many of which look almost the same – that you might not know where to begin. The choice is made even more difficult by the constantly shifting sands of the smartphone marketplace and this year has already seen a number of major new players enter the fray. So how do you sort through it all? Look no further, as Gizmag breaks down the top smartphones of (early) 2013.

Update: This version of the guide is now obsolete. For the latest version, check out our (late 2013) Smartphone Comparison Guide.

If we included every smartphone, you’d need to read this on a wall-sized computer. So we narrowed it down to a field of eight. They are (pictured, left to right):

  • Samsung Galaxy S 4
  • HTC One
  • Apple iPhone 5
  • LG Optimus G Pro
  • BlackBerry Z10
  • Sony Xperia Z
  • LG/Google Nexus 4
  • Samsung Galaxy Note II

We tried to include at least one phone from the biggest manufacturers. The biggest omission is Nokia and Windows Phone, but stay tuned for separate comparisons that give Lumia phones some love.

Specs aren’t everything, but they can suggest what a device can do. We organize our comparison by the measurable, but we also try to put our fingers on those harder-to-define intangibles. If a phone is greater (or lesser) than the sum of its parts, we want you to know that too.

So, without further ado, let’s break down the top smartphones of early 2013.

Size

Small, medium, or large?

For this comparison, we’re lumping smartphones and phablets together. You could argue that half of these phones are phablets, but the Galaxy Note II and Optimus G Pro are the only two that are no-question, through-and-through phablets.

The iPhone 5 looks positively puny in this group. BlackBerry’s Z10 isn’t much bigger. This is where the balance of hand size to screen size comes into play:

Are you uncomfortable holding a giganto-phone? Then the iPhone might be the best bet for you. Don’t mind some bulk if it gives you more screen real estate? Then phablet ahoy, matey.

If you’re still on the fence, hop into a store, pick a few of these up, and see how they feel in hand. And don’t be afraid to refer back to Gizmag when the wide-eyed salesperson tries to push you in a commission-friendly direction.

Build

Plastic, glass, or aluminum?

Glass, aluminum, or plastic? Those are your choices when it comes to external build materials. The build of the phone’s chassis can affect how it feels in hand. Since you might be gripping this phone in your hand for the next two years, it’s an important consideration.

Weight

The iPhone is the lightest, while the two phablets (unsurprisingly) take the prize for hea...

The iPhone 5 is – by far – the lightest phone in this group. If you want something that will disappear in your pocket, it wins that prize hands-down.

The Note II and Optimus G Pro – the fabulous phablets of the group – are the heaviest. Considering their hulking sizes, though, they should still feel relatively light. The Galaxy S4 also feels extremely light when you take its size into account.

Display

Smartphone screen sizes have blown up since the first five iPhones' 3.5-inch displays

In the last few months, the pixel counts in high-end smartphones shot into the stratosphere. The only caveat is that your eyes probably won’t notice a huge difference between 330 pixels per inch (PPI) and 430 PPI. It’s extremely sharp vs. ridiculously sharp.

If you want the very best display at any size, then the HTC One probably wins that prize. The Galaxy S4 is right up there too. Even the Note 2 – with the lowest pixel density in this group – doesn't have a bad screen.

If you aren't so picky about display quality, then your decision may come down to size. Here too the iPhone is the smallest, and the two phablets the biggest – they each sport an enormous 5.5 inches of real estate.

Processor

We have dual, quad, and octa core processors

Much like screen size, the iPhone and BlackBerry are the only throwbacks to the days of dual core processing. We wouldn’t worry too much about performance with either of those phones though. Their hardware/software integration (made by the same company) helps them to squeeze more performance out of a dual core chip than you might expect.

The Galaxy S 4 has two processors listed, because that will vary depending on where you live. U.S. customers get the quad core version, and much of the rest of the world will get the octa core (yes, eight cores) edition.

Honestly, we wouldn’t worry too much about this category. Like pixel density, processing has gone past the point of concern. Every phone in this batch is going to be very fast ... some just push that a little farther. There are much bigger differences to think about – like size, software, and app selection.

... but with that said, the octa-core version of the Galaxy S 4 is the fastest phone in the world right now. The quad-core version is probably the second fastest, with the HTC One hot on its heels.

RAM

The iPhone is the only holdout from the 2 GB of RAM club

It’s 2 GB of RAM across the board, with the iPhone 5 the lone exception. Again, though, there isn’t much to worry about with it – the Apple integration between phone and software makes performance zippy and smooth.

Storage

These are your storage options

Do you keep full-length HD movies, thousands of photos, and console-quality games on your phone? If so, you’ll want to max out your storage.

For most customers, though, 16 GB is probably a safe mark to shoot for. Remember you can store lots of apps and data in the cloud, so it isn’t likely you’ll need to have everything stored on your phone all the time.

Also remember that the phones with microSD slots let you store much more than their internal memory suggests. Typically you can add up to 64 GB with an SD card.

Cameras

Take these with grains of salt, as megapixel count only tells you so much about actual cam...

Take these numbers with grains of salt. When you’re making an easy-to-digest visual about camera specs, megapixel count is the best metric to use.

But it’s an imperfect measurement. Sensors, pixel sizes, lenses, and lots of other factors also play into actual image quality. The HTC One, for example, has a crummy megapixel count, but it uses larger pixels. So image quality might be quite good.

The best way to make up your mind here is to take some shots yourself, and look at them on a high-res display. Failing that, look at some full-resolution sample shots in reviews from Gizmag or another reputable tech site.

Battery

The phablets have the most capacity, but many other factors determine actual battery life

Here’s another spec that’s not exactly cut-and-dry. The amount of juice a phone holds is extremely important. But processor, display resolution, and software can also play into actual battery life.

There shouldn’t be much to worry about with any of these phones. With regular use, they should all last a full day.

Several of them also have removable batteries: the Galaxy S 4, Optimus G Pro, BlackBerry Z10, and Galaxy Note II. Notice anything? Yep, it’s the phones with plastic bodies: a nice bonus that aluminum and glass phones don’t provide.

Wireless

The Nexus 4 is the only non-LTE phone in this bunch, but at least you can buy it for cheap...

LTE – the fastest and best 4G technology – is now the norm with high-end smartphones.

The lone holdout here is the Nexus 4. The politics of selling a phone without carrier intervention led to Google passing on LTE. If it’s available in your area, though, the Nexus 4’s HSPA+ is a pretty fast 4G network in its own right.

It’s possible some of the other phones here won’t ship with LTE radios in your region. The best avenue here is to check with your local carrier.

The best questions to ask: “does the phone I want have LTE radios?” and “Does my area have LTE coverage?” Failing that, “is HSPA+ available?” If the answer to all of these questions is no, then you’ll be stuck with 3G (or worse) speeds.

Software

The iPhone and BlackBerry are the only non-Android phones in this bunch

This is one of the most important questions to ask in your smartphone buying decision. Do you want iOS, Android, Windows Phone (not included in this edition of our guide) or BlackBerry?

... and if you choose Android, which manufacturer-specific software do you prefer? Samsung has TouchWiz, HTC has Sense, LG has its own Optimus flavor, and Nexus devices run “pure Google” (stock) Android. Each offers something a little different on top of the Android core.

Each platform also comes with its own app store:

Apple’s iOS App Store and Android’s Google Play Store have the best selections. Apple’s is still a little better for games. It also often favors simple, user-friendly apps with minimalist designs. Google Play has a leg up with customization-oriented apps and tweaks that Apple wouldn’t allow in its store.

BlackBerry’s App World and the Windows Phone Store have a lot of catching up to do. Finding your favorite apps might be a crapshoot in their app stores.

Mobile operating systems have come a long way, and get better every year. We’d recommend tuning out all the fanboy fanaticism and playing around with each. Find your favorite, then narrow down your search from there.

Release cycle

These are the dates that each phone originally released

Most device-making companies like to keep their plans secret. And for good reason. If customers know that a new iPhone is coming in September, they’re less likely to buy the old model in July. Secrecy has financial ramifications.

But you can often make a pretty solid guess just by looking at the older version’s release date. If a phone gets upgraded once a year, the safe money is on its follow-up arriving at around the same time. The dates above show when all of these smartphones originally shipped.

The Galaxy S 4, HTC One, and Optimus G Pro are still hot off the press, so it’s a safe bet we won’t see their follow-ups for quite a while. But we could see a new iPhone and Galaxy Note by August or September of this year.

The older phones listed here are still among the cream of the crop. But this is something to keep in mind, especially since newer models usually ring up for the same prices that their predecessors sold for.

Intangibles

It isn't all cut-and-dry when it comes to smartphones

So what about everything else? Those harder-to-define intangibles, and extra goodies that each phone brings to the table? Let’s break down a few things to consider about each phone.

The Galaxy S 4 will be one of the hottest phones of the year

The Galaxy S 4 has a ridiculous amount of new software features. Some of them might be gimmicky, but you don’t have to use any of them – so no harm done, right? Some of the more notable S4 features are Smart Scroll (scroll emails and web pages with facial recognition), Smart Pause (automatically pause a video when you look away), and S Translator (translate foreign tongues in real time).

The One is one hell of a shot at returning to relevance from HTC

The HTC One probably won't come close to outselling the Galaxy S 4, but that doesn’t mean it’s an inferior phone. Some have knocked Samsung for sticking with a plastic design and relatively minor updates for the Galaxy S 4. Many of those same people are cheering HTC for the One’s bold new design, amazing screen, and terrific user experience. It’s one hell of an effort from a company that desperately needs a hit. We think it and the GS4 are in a league of their own, battling for Smartphone of the Year honors.

You might have heard of this phone

Then there’s the iPhone 5. Apple’s recent “troubles” have been blown out of proportion, but I think that stems from a general impression that its product line is growing stale. The iPhone – once the revolutionary groundbreaker in the field – has become the solid, reliable, “you know what to expect” candidate. Still, millions of customers embrace this familiarity. The iPhone is smooth, simple, and easy to use. It may no longer be on the forefront of innovation (at least for the time being) ... but everything just works.

We'll find out more about the Optimus G Pro soon

Of the two 5.5-inch phablets, the Optimus G Pro has the better specs: 1080p screen, faster processor, higher-res camera. But it is missing a stylus, making for a very different experience than using the Note 2. If you want cutting-edge specs and a stylus, you might want to wait for the inevitable Galaxy Note 3.

BlackBerry's Z10 is a better-late-than-never attempt to enter the multitouch smartphone wo...

BlackBerry finally delivered an iPhone/Android competitor in 2013, with the Z10. It runs BlackBerry’s slick new OS, BB10. Apart from the company’s reputation for business use and security, it offers some cool gesture controls. No home button, no on-screen navigation keys. Just a few simple swipes to get where you’re going. Gesture controls aren’t for everyone. But once you get the hang of them, you can get a nice swipe-centric workflow going.

The Xperia Z is dust and water resistant

Sony’s Xperia Z (and its U.S.-bound sibling, the Xperia ZL) got a lot of buzz at CES 2013, but got quickly overshadowed by the One and Galaxy S4. It’s still a solid Android phone, though. Its killer feature just might be its water and dust resistance. You can soak it in a bowl of water for half an hour, and it will come out as good as new. You won’t want to try that with any of these other phones.

The Nexus 4 delivers outstanding value for a low off-contract price

The Nexus 4 just might be the best dollar-for-dollar buy on this list. You can order one from Google Play for US$300. Yes, that’s the off-contract price. No commitments or subsidies: just a terrific stock Android phone with no strings attached.

The Note 2 is the only phone on this list that ships with a stylus

As we already touched on briefly, the Galaxy Note II is the only smartphone/phablet on this list that uses a stylus. Samsung did some truly innovative things with its S Pen. Scribble notes from anywhere. Scroll through pages by hovering the stylus over your screen. Take full advantage of the huge display by opening multiple apps in multiple windows. The Note 2 is a productivity beast, but also pretty fun to boot.

Wrap-up

The Smartphone market moves quickly. Six months ago, we did a similar comparison – and most of the phones were different. If we do another one six months from now, there will probably be an entirely new line of high-end phones competing for your dollars.

The bottom line is that there will never be one single phone that’s the be-all-end-all for everyone. Even if it looks like there is, something else will come along a month or two later to push it out of the spotlight. Technology is always moving on to something bigger, better, faster, stronger.

So find a phone that you love, and enjoy your two years (or however long) you spend with it. Hopefully this guide makes it a little easier to find one worthy of that long-term relationship.

... and if you want more on the two biggest Android phones of the year, check out our in-depth – and hands-on – comparison of the Galaxy S4 and HTC One.

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About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin covers consumer technology for Gizmag. He's previously written for Android Central, Geek, GottaBeMobile, Android Police, and The Huffington Post.
He lives in New Mexico, U.S., with his lovely wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
16 Comments

I was just about to blast you guys for not including the Nokia Lumia 920... You better do a feature on it. Windows Phone is hands down the best designed mobile os. But seriously

Tyler Brown
25th April, 2013 @ 07:33 pm PDT

Obviously iPhone is now low end phone that is controlled exclusively by apple and from pushing innovation is now holding it.

DaveBG
26th April, 2013 @ 01:11 am PDT

Thanks for the comparison but...

It would be nice for those of us living 'on the edge' (of network service) to get real world reports on NETWORK RECEPTION! How about it Gizmag? Can you run some reception tests on these popular phones?

Thanks

drudey
26th April, 2013 @ 03:49 am PDT

@daveBG

Jesus - we get it - you don't like apple, how about some intelligent discussion as opposed to your typical fanboy comments.

"I see that most people here are very tech savvy and realize that the iPhone is so outdated and so small that is completely unusable. It is only applicable for kids...

DaveBG

29th March, 2013 @ 01:53 am PDT

I do not think the GS4 is made of cheap material. You call Iphone made of anodized aluminum but to me it is just scrap metal and GS4 is polycarbonate. You see? Now GS4 is more premium suddenly.

DaveBG

18th March, 2013 @ 06:53 am PDT"

Give it a rest. You are looking more and more like one of the people Samsung pays to put comments on sites.

Inappropriate Response
26th April, 2013 @ 07:06 am PDT

I am a little disappointed by the lack of Windows phones in this side-by-side. Being on the fence between the next iPhone and the next iteration of the Lumia 920, this wasn't particularly helpful. That said, with the ridiculously rapid pace of smartphone evolution, it would probably not help much in determine what Apple or Nokia will do with the next devices...

Vince Pack
26th April, 2013 @ 07:24 am PDT

what about a compare of cheaper phones, for people who aren;t on the who-cares-what-it-really-costs contract phone plans?

wle

wle
26th April, 2013 @ 09:24 am PDT

What this overview tells me is that all smartphones these days are pretty good. There is not a one that is way better than the other, so it gets down to particular preferences. Even older smartphones are decent and provide a lower cost alternative to the "latest and greatest."

Nibblonian
26th April, 2013 @ 10:58 am PDT

No Windows phones, specifically the Nokia Lumia 920? But yet, the Blackberry is here? The 920 couldn't beat one of the other 6 Androids - really?

mados123
26th April, 2013 @ 03:11 pm PDT

I'll second drudey's comment about users on the edge of reception. I switched from a Blackberry to a Samsung and it stunk to the point of being unusable. It dropped every call in my area so I had to go back to a Blackberry which never drops. Why can't I find reviews that talk about this kind of performance?

Chuck Leinweber
27th April, 2013 @ 11:01 am PDT

Where is the Lumia 920? Is the market all Android vs apple?

Supernova999
27th April, 2013 @ 12:50 pm PDT

@ inappropriate response

Your comments seem to be the most reactionary out of all I've read. While it's good to share your have different views, you didn't actually articulate any.

IPhone was once the undeniable market leader and innovator. It is hard to argue that they are not dragging their feet. No microSD card, no Swype, no flash, no open apps yet premium pricing.

As for DaveBG pushing Samsung products, while it looks like some comments have been removed, the comment that remains is generic in it's positive light and pure Apple in it's negative.

Australian
27th April, 2013 @ 09:47 pm PDT

How about the usage as a phone (recption quality, SAR level etc.)

Moshe Iritz
27th April, 2013 @ 10:50 pm PDT

Bien entendu, il ne faut pas choisir un téléphone à sa vitesse mais c’est tout de même un point important à regarder. Le plus important selon nous reste le système d’exploitation, très différents entre un Samsung, un BlackBerry ou un iPhone. Si vous hésitez encore, jetez donc un oeil au Top 10 des Smartphones 2013, en attednant la sortie du prochain iphone 6 .

Zim Ali
29th April, 2013 @ 07:07 am PDT

All these phones are 'phablets', each phone does exactly the same thing, a friend clls me on his Galaxy SII and there are many times his phone just quits,whileI am on a landline, remember what those are/were. The only fanboy I see here is the author of the article for Samsung.

Richard C. Edmonds
2nd May, 2013 @ 12:32 am PDT

I think Lava should comes in this series..now lava iris 458Q coming with quad-core processor, Android 4.2 jellybean, 8 MP camera.

Singhal Manas
30th May, 2013 @ 01:10 am PDT

Awesome comparison guide.... And now that the iPhone 5C and 5S are out, can you please update - would love to see how the new ones stack up.

Diane Blackmore
11th September, 2013 @ 03:20 pm PDT
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