What Is The Best Smartphone of 2012? (Q4 Update)

Last updated: January 5, 2013


Since this article was first written, an updated version has been posted here. Check it out. A lot has changed.

These were the top six phones back in September. Only four make the cut this time.


A lot has changed since I last compared smartphones back in September. Back then, the top six smartphones were the Apple iPhone 5, LG Intuition 4G, LG Optimus G, Samsung Galaxy Note 2, Samsung Galaxy S III and the Sony Xperia V. Surprisingly, four of these phones retained their place on the list of finalists, but they were joined by four new phones which were introduced earlier this month.

The Runners-up

To create the list of candidates for smartphone of the year, I made a spreadsheet containing the specs for the best smartphones on all platforms. I then separated the chart into finalists and runners-up – which you can see below.

Click on the chart below to make it readable

Blue text indicates the winner in each area. Red text indicates areas of weakness

In case you’re wondering why none of the phones above made the list of finalists, each of these have a deficit in one or more areas. I want to stress that many of the above phones are good phones. Some, like the Huawei Ascend D1 Quad XL, LG Intuition 4G, Motorola Droid RAZR MAXX HD, Nokia Lumia 920, Sony Xperia T, Sony Xperia V, and Samsung Galaxy Nexus are great phones, but they are not the best phones of 2012.

The Finalists

Each of eight phones below have significant advantages over the phones in the above chart. Our finalists are Apple’s iPhone 5, HTC’s Droid DNA, HTC’s Windows Phone 8X, HTC’s One X+, LG’s Nexus 4, LG’s Optimus G, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 2 and the Samsung Galaxy S III.

Here are the best smartphones of 2012

You can see all of the key specs for the top eight finalists below. Items which appear as blue-faced text show the winner in each area. Items which appear in red-faced text indicate an area of weakness compared to the other phones in this chart.

Blue text indicates the winner in each area. Red text indicates areas of weakness

Before we try to pick a winner, let’s go through each component, starting with the processor.

The Processor

The processor is like the engine in your car and plays an important role in its speed. Today, most of the best smartphones have quad-core processors running at 1.5GHz or higher. Having four different cores allows your phone to do more things at once without slowing down. Quad-core processors are also more efficient and have better battery life than some dual-core CPUs. When it comes to the fastest processor speed, the HTC One X+ wins, with its overclocked 1.7GHz quad-core processor, However, it’s running a year old Tegra 3 processor while the Droid DNA, Nexus 4 and LG Optimus G are running a more advanced Snapdragon S4 Pro processor. The Exynos 4412 processor in the Galaxy Note 2 is also overclocked to 1.6GHz and comes close to the S4 Pro in performance. It’s worth mentioning while the S4 Pro-based phones win when it comes to processor, the Galaxy Note 2 and HTC One X+ also perform very well. Apple is clearly behind when it comes to the CPU alone. It has a much slower processor speed and it’s a dual-core processor, instead of quad-core processor. Although the iPhone 5 has a processor clock speed that is 70% slower than the HTC One X+, it does pretty well in some graphics-related benchmarks. You shouldn’t read too much into mobile benchmarks however, because they rarely translate into real-world performance.

Winner: Tie: Droid DNA, Nexus 4, LG Optimus G

The HTC One X+ has the fastest processor speed (1.7GHz), but uses an older quad-core CPU

Memory and Storage

Both the Samsung phones and the iPhone 5 are available in 16, 32 or 64GB sizes. Five of our finalists have 2GB of RAM, which can speed things up when multiple apps are running. But, only the Windows Phone 8X, Galaxy Note 2, and Galaxy S III can have their memory expanded because they have a memory card slot.

Although this category is close, the LG Optimus G wins because it is the only phone here that starts with 32GB of memory and has 2GB of RAM.

Winners: LG Optimus G

The Droid DNA has the world’s first 1920 x 1080 display

The Screen

When it comes to overall specs, the 5.0″ inch screen in the HTC Droid DNA is second to none. This screen is an inch bigger than the iPhone 5’s, but easier to hold than the Galaxy Note 2, because it’s not as wide (70.5mm vs. 80.5mm). The Droid DNA easily beats the iPhone 5 in both total pixels (1920×1080 vs. 1136×640)) and resolution (441 PPI vs. 326 PPI).

However, the iPhone 5 does have a high-quality screen which does well in areas like color accuracy and brightness, but it get beat by the Galaxy S III in areas like color gamut. Color gamut is the range of color a display can reproduce. IHS says the iPhone 5′s display only reaches 72% of the NTSC color gamut, while the SIII sits at 100%.

Winner:
Size: Samsung Galaxy Note 2
Resolution: Droid DNA
Color accuracy: iPhone 5

The LG Optimus G is the only phone here with a 13MP camera

The Camera

When it comes to megapixels, the current leader is the LG Optimus G which has a 13-megapixel camera. Although all of the other phones here have 8 megapixel cameras, the cameras in the Apple iPhone 5, HTC One X+ and Samsung Galaxy S III are quite good, but each have issues. For example, the camera in the iPhone 5 has issues with noise in low light situations and over-sharpening which adds distortion. The Galaxy S III beats it in both of these areas. The camera in the iPhone 5 often beats the others when it comes to color accuracy in good light. When it comes to front cameras, the iPhone 5 and Nexus 4 are the worst performers here.

Winner: LG Optimus G

You can beam almost anything from phone to phone using NFC

Connectivity

When it comes to connectivity, every phone here has 4G LTE support, although the Nexus 4 only supports this feature in some areas.

When it comes to Wi-Fi support, every phone here but the HTC One X+ and LG Optimus G support dual-band 2.4GHz/5.0GHz Wi-Fi. The 5GHz band is not near as susceptible to interference from cordless telephones, microwave ovens, baby monitors, Bluetooth devices and wireless keyboards. It’s also a much less crowded band which should be used when possible.

Every phone here except the iPhone 5 has support for Near Field Communications or NFC. NFC allows two devices to communicate when they’re moved close together. This allows you to buy things at over 300,000 MasterCard PayPass-enabled terminals as well as beam, music, photos, web pages, contacts, maps, YouTube videos and more, from one phone to another. NFC is a very important feature which will one-day change the way we shop and transfer data from phone to phone.

Winners: Tie: HTC Droid DNA, Windows Phone 8X, Samsung Galaxy Note 2, Samsung Galaxy S III.

The new iPhone 5 is incredibly thin and light

The Case

When it comes to the case, the iPhone 5 does well. It’s thinner and lighter than all of the other finalists here and constructed entirely out of aluminum and glass.

Winner: iPhone 5

The Galaxy Note 2 has an incredibly powerful battery

The Battery

When it comes to the battery, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 easily wins. Its battery has over twice as much power as the battery in the iPhone 5.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy Note 2

The Operating System

When it comes to the operating system, you can make strong arguments for iOS 6, Android 4.2 and Windows Phone 8. You can read more about how Android and iOS compare in my other blog posts.

Winner: Tie: iOS 6, Android 4.2 and Windows Phone 8

And the Winner is…

Back in September, the best smartphone award went to the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. This time around it’s not so easy to pick a winner. Best is a subjective term. What I’m really talking about is the smartphone with the best overall hardware specs. Based on that definition, neither the iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S III can be considered the “phone of the year.” Both are great phones, and both are extremely popular, but they are not the best phones available today. So what is the gold medal winner? For me, it’s a toss-up between the Droid DNA, LG Nexus 4 and LG Optimus G. The Droid DNA wins when it comes to the display. The Optimus G wins on paper when it comes to storage and its 13MP camera — however not all reviewers love its camera. And last, but not least, the Nexus 4 is the only phone here which runs Android 4.2 and has a new-gen quad-core processor — however you shouldn’t buy it if you live in the U.S and LTE support is essential to you.

What About the iPhone 5?

Some of you are probably wondering why the iPhone 5 wasn’t a more serious contender because it’s so popular. As you can see above, the iPhone 5 lags is almost every area. It just can’t compete with phones like the Droid DNA, or even the Samsung Galaxy S III, which is much older. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Consumer Reports recently said the iPhone 5 is the worst of the top smartphones. They ranked it below the LG Optimus G and Samsung Galaxy Note II, as well as older phones like the Droid RAZR MAXX, Droid RAZR HD, Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One S. You can read more about this when their February issue hits the newstands and Internet.

How to Pick Out the Perfect Phone

In the end, your definition of the perfect phone depends on what’s most important to you. This article should help you narrow down your options to only a few phones. Since most of us are on two-year contracts with a carrier, you need to determine which of the phones you are intereted in are carried by your carrier. I suggest you then read the full reviews for each phone you are considering. Finally, it’s essential that you go to a retail store and actually try the phone before you buy it. Happy shopping!

– Rick

Copyright 2013 Rick E. Schwartz. All rights reserved. Linking to this article is encouraged


Follow me on Twitter @mostlytech1

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About Rick E. Schwartz
Rick Schwartz is successful mobile blogger from San Diego. He is currently working on next-generation mobile hardware and software. You can learn more about Rick by clicking on the "About" tab at the top of this page.

7 Responses to What Is The Best Smartphone of 2012? (Q4 Update)

  1. Kyle Miller says:

    Interesting finalist list. They all have some serious shortcomings…

    The Optimus G has a 13MP camera, but nearly all reviews say it doesn’t take good looking pictures. The 8MP version has better image quality. And, Optimus G is on ICS and given LG’s record, likely to be on ICS for a while.

    Droid DNA has the resolution, but again, higher numbers don’t tell the complete picture. The Droid DNA display gets dinged on image quality. And, the battery is passable, but should be greater capacity. Battery life is a very important quality for phone users and should be weighted more than other factors like megapixels.

    Nexus 4… where do I begin with its shortcomings? No LTE. No replaceable batttery. Low and restricted memory configurations. No CDMA. Yes, it runs Android 4.2, but you can get almost all of the upgrades from Google Play or APK installs.

    The best overall phone is still the Note 2, IF you think you can adjust to its size. My second pick would be the DNA, if you are a Verizon user, and the LG Optimus G. I place the G over the Nexus 4 because if the G gets a version of Android 4.2 loaded on it, you end up with a Nexus 4 that’s better than the actual Nexus 4.

    • I agree with most of your comments Kyle. Except the one about the Nexus 4. Most of Europe still doesn’t have LTE, so an HSPA+ phone makes sense there. Also it’s not true that the Nexus 4 doesn’t support LTE. It only supports some bands. If you’re in Canada and other countries you might get LTE support. Most areas in the U.S. don’t have good LTE coverage anyway, so this isn’t a total deal-breaker for me.

      – Rick

  2. Alex says:

    The Optimus G is superior to the Nexus 4… how is this even debatable? Essentially the same phone, with the OptG having the superior camera and 4G LTE. Whether or not reliable LTE coverage is available where someone might be, should not be a factor.

    A Ferrari would smoke a Mustang on a racetrack, but would otherwise be limited by speed limits on streets/highways. This is true. But do you think the people at Muscle Car Magazine give a sh*t about such considerations when arguing which is the more beastly machine?

    Best smart phone, not best wireless provider.

    OptG, Best phone of 2012… even better once Jellybean hits.

  3. Alex says:

    Also, the OptG should get a mention for best case (build) as it’s clean, slick and covered in a layer of Gorilla Glass 2 on both sides. Far and away better quality than the cheap plastic cases used by Samsung. The iPhone’s industrial design is tops, but felt that you should have expanded a little more in that category.

    : )

  4. Michael Light says:

    Interesting approach to analysis… It was a lot of great research and consolidated well, but It misses several key ingredients: First, the O/S… With iOS6 the user experience is clean, easy and … it just works… My spouse, a technolgy adverse person has been my acid test. She can use the iPhone, does not like the new Windows phone, gets confused with the Android…etc…

    Because of my job I have been fortunate to have a half dozen new phones at any given time and get to watch the experience with my family and friends. Because Apple’s software is so much more efficient, it does not need a max CPU to outperform other platforms on most applications. For half the US population … and even more of the worldwide population the Apple5 and 4s form factors fit the hand better than the larger screens… In most cases “size does matter” and there can be too much of a good thing…. Then let’s compare setting up a hotspot with Android vs. iOS or finding an WiFi and making the connection with a new Windows phone… Apple wins again. There are times when keystrokes (or voice steps) matter… When you’re in a new city and trying to navigate, compare the number of steps with each OS. iOS wins.

    There are a dozen other “experience” differences between Google, Microsoft and Apple where Apple is the clear winner. Just like purchasing a car… do you want cubic inches and gear ratios in your decision … or fuel economy and a quiet ride? Experience metrics are much more important than just numbers. That is why Apple continues to dominate and customers clamor (worldwide) to pay a premium fo their products… that’s my two centavos… and the other side of the equation… :-) ML

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