5. Samsung Galaxy Note 2 - part phone, part tablet, all powerful
If you find yourself reading, writing and just using your phone more than any other device, then you may be a candidate for the Galaxy Note 2. It's a powerful phone with incredible battery life, but it's not for everyone. Its most defining feature is also its most polarizing: its size.
Just shy of 6-inches (5.95-inches to be exact), the Note 2 is huge, and therefore not for everyone. If you never carry a handbag, satchel or you don't rock nineties cargo shorts, then this phone may not be for you. It's also got a somewhat slow shutter speed, so quick pics are out of the question.
With great size comes great benefits; the Note 2 is powered by a 1.7 GHz quad-core and backed by 2GB of RAM. Internal storage on AT&T's model is 16GB, although 32 and 64GB version are available from retailers. The Note 2 supports a 64GB microSD card, so storage shouldn't be an issue. AT&T stocks it in grey and white.
It's also perfectly suited for a few of Samsung's TouchWiz touches, like Multi-Window, which is basically a picture-in-picture for app multitasking. Then there's the S Pen, which lets you draw directly on the screen. We don't often see people using this feature, but the pen tucks away so nicely we can't complain.
This phone doesn't come cheap. A Note 2 with set you back $300 with a two-year agreement. Say no to a contract and its $650. Ouch.
4. LG Optimus G - the quad-core bargain
LG has been in the smartphone game for a long time, but the South Korean manufacturer has really upped its hustle this past year. In addition to building Google's flagship, the Nexus 4, it released the Optimus G, a quad-core bruiser. Clocking in at 1.5 Ghz with a full 2GB of RAM, the real cherry on top is a 4.7-inch 768 x 1280 HD display.
The Optimus G is available on Sprint as well as AT&T, but we'd say Ma Bell has the better version. Its camera takes superior shots, despite being 10-megapixels, compared to a whopping 13 with Sprint. It's also microSD expandable, in addition to 32GB of internal storage. It also has a swappable SIM card, whereas the Sprint version is embedded.
- Read more: Optimus G Sprint review
In case you hadn't guessed, this is a real whopper of a handset. It's a little over 5-inches long and tips the scales at 5.11 oz. Its no phablet (phone/tablet, if you've had the good fortune of not running into that term until now) but you won't forget it's in your pocket, either. It's also quite plasticky and slick feeling, a feature we're not crazy about.
Unfortunately, AT&T has done a few goofy things that mar the otherwise great Optimus G. It's loaded with lame carrier apps, ranging in usefulness from sort of to absolutely not. It's also stuck running Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich, with no Android 4.1: Jelly Bean update released yet. Carrier bloatware is one thing, but the lack of JB is a crime. A powerhouse phone chock full of RAM like the Optimus G deserves better.
Still, it's a phone we heartily recommend, especially when you see its price. With a two-year contract, this puppy is only $100. Off contract, it's a not unreasonable $450. You're not going to find a quad-core LTE capable phone any cheaper than that folks!
3. HTC One X+ - the sublime screen
The HTC One X+ is an excellent smartphone excelling in a number of areas. Exclusive to AT&T in the U.S., its earned its place among the greatest devices Ma Bell offers. A fast, some would say too fast, follow up to the HTC One X, it addressed a number of complaints about its predecessor, such as storage size. The One X+ is a 64GB handset, a nice compensation for the phone's lack of expandable storage.
One of the best features of the One X+ is its 4.7-inch Super LCD 2 HD display with 720 x 1280 resolution. It's wonderfully crisp and clear, providing an excellent viewing experience with text and images appearing sharp and bright.
As we said, the HTC One X+ had the potential to be the first five star smartphone since the Samsung Galaxy S2, but unfortunately it's quite literally run out of juice before the final hurdle.
In addition to the phone's battery life, we're also not crazy about HTC's Sense UI. While Sense has a keyboard with great predictive text, overall it makes some odd visual choices, and detracts more than it adds to Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich.
This brings us to another sore spot, that the American version of the HTC One X+ is still rocking ICS. Almost every other premium handset has gone Android 4.1: Jelly Bean. Get on the update already, AT&T!
Still, there are so many things to love about the One X+. It has one of the most magnificent HD displays we've had the pleasure of staring at, and with a 1.7 GHz quad-core, it's among the most powerful handsets around.
It really is a great smartphone. We urge you to give it a whirl in store, and while it may not have the fancy tricks of the Galaxy S3, or the cult following of the iPhone 5, it's happily rubbing shoulders with the big boys.
2. Apple iPhone 5 - the best iPhone for 8 months or so
Surprise, surprise it's Apple's iPhone 5, one of the most beautiful and balanced phones on the market. Its light, thin and despite going over the 4-inch mark, quite manageable in the hand.
You just can't argue with the physical build of this thing. An all-aluminum body and smooth Gorilla Glass display make it a pleasure to hold. It is rather scratch prone, however, so we recommend protecting it with a case right out of the box
- Get scratchproof: Best iPhone 5 cases
While most premium handsets have gone quad-core, the iPhone 5 is still dual-core, but still manages to keep pace with the competition. Chalk it up to Apple engineering, we suppose. The iPhone 5 also boasts a stellar camera, and great music playback support.
When it comes to apps, Apple's App Store is king. While the Google Play Store has caught up in terms of size, the iPhone still gets the best versions of many popular apps. Among them is Facebook, which is no surprise given the thorny relationship between Google and the leading social network.
If you're already using an Apple computer like the MacBook Pro or MacBook Air, you'll really love the iPhone. The syncing and communication between them is excellent. Podcasts and contact information can be automatically synced over Wi-Fi, and all your most pertinent information and photos can be backed up to iCloud, ensuring it can never be lost.
If we had to ding the iPhone 5, and we do, it would be on price. At $199, $299 and $399 for 16, 32 and 64GB models, with contract, it's an expensive phone. This is especially true considering you can't expand the storage with a microSD card. Off contract the iPhone 5 is downright unaffordable, going for $649, $749 and $849.
Then there's the whole iOS 6 as a walled garden argument. If you don't like the look of the iPhone 5S or iPhone 6, whichever comes next, good luck getting any of your iTunes purchases onto a non-Apple device. Finally, the whole Apple Maps fiasco is still fresh in our minds. Thankfully a third-party Google Maps app has been released, and it's fantastic.
All that aside, the iPhone 5 is easily the best iPhone yet. It's thinner, taller, faster and most importantly, the first iPhone to take advantage of 4G LTE. Its more than earned its high rank among the best AT&T phones.
1. Samsung Galaxy S3 - holding onto the throne
This isn't the only best list the Galaxy S3 has dominated. It sits atop our Best Verizon Phone list as well, and for good reason. The S3 is a powerful quad-core Android handset with a 4.8-inch Super AMOLED HD screen. That's a perfect combination for gaming and enjoying video on the go.
It also has a very nice camera. While many handsets have gone beyond the 10-megapixel mark, the S3 manages to take very nice snaps with an 8-megapixel lens. The S3 has also gotten the Android 4.1: Jelly Bean update, and Samsung's TouchWiz software is generally inoffensive, which more than we can say for some manufacturer's custom UIs.
AT&T's 4G LTE network serves the S3 well, making downloads peppy and quality streaming video something you can take for granted. Of course, watch that data plan, as AT&T is one of many carriers that no longer offers unlimited data.
Also, AT&T only stocks the 16GB version of the S3, while other carriers have the 32GB model. There's also a 64GB version, but you'll have to look to retailers for that one. Thankfully, support for a microSD up to 64GB means you can still have a ton of storage. You'll have a nice choice of color at least as AT&T sells the S3 in red, white and blue. How very American.
There are only two complaints about the S3 that we'd anticipate from most users. First, its size. At 5.3-inches, it's quite tall. Those who value a compact handset that fits in any pocket will want to look elsewhere. Second, the plasticky build of the phone. The body may have a metallic sheen, but not all that glitters is metal. The S3 is pure plastic and it feels like it, but that also helps keep the weight at a reasonable 4.69 oz.
A powerful processor, big and rich screen and an all-day battery make the S3 a balanced choice. It's also quite affordable if you're renewing or beginning a two-year agreement. You'll be able to pick it up for only $199.99. Not bad for the best phone on AT&T.