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User rankings of LTE phones reveal wide range of options

You can buy the 'best,' but you don't have to, to be satisfied

By , Network World
November 27, 2012 03:31 PM ET

Network World - You've decided you want to live in the fast lane, and embrace LTE. But which phone do you choose?

For this story, and the accompanying slideshow, we looked at customer rankings and reviews posted at the carriers' sites, to assess what these users thought about the LTE phones they had bought. Rankings typically use five stars to indicate "best" or "highest satisfaction."

The top user-ranked LTE smartphones by carrier

Who has the most 4G coverage?

Performance and pricing determine the "4G experience"

The slideshow lists the top five user-ranked LTE smartphones, giving the carrier, make and model, operating system version, current price based on the carrier's website, ranking and number of reviews as of Tuesday, Nov. 27, and the percentage of reviewers who would recommend that phone. Each model summarizes some representative quotes from a selection of the reviews.

This story looks at some of the overall patterns that emerged from this review. For this story we've also included T-Mobile's "4G" offerings, but only for its fastest service, its HSPA+ 42 network. (For details on "who has the most '4G' coverage," check out our recent overview.)

The good news is that you have a lot to choose from for LTE smartphones, and a wide range of prices. Of the Big Four U.S. carriers, three of them -- AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless -- have LTE service in some areas; they offer from nine to a dozen smartphone models at least (Verizon has nearly 30), and the number is growing almost monthly. They are typically priced from $50 to $370, a mix of high-end, mid-range and budget smartphones, with a two-year service contract. With the holiday season underway, carriers are slashing prices for selected models, and some are free or nearly free with a two-year contract.

Carriers sometimes offer the same makes and models, often for the same prices. Apple's first and so far only LTE model, iPhone 5, is one example. Samsung LTE smartphones are another, including the latest Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II. Some models are exclusive to one carrier, or offered by a subset of them.

The LTE iPhone experience: What to expect with iPhone 5

Each carrier has a core offering, sometimes a small core, based on one or two smartphone vendors, then a sprinkling of other brands. T-Mobile's high-end 4G offerings are packed almost exclusively with Samsung models. Verizon Wireless offers at least four Motorola Droid Razr models. AT&T features a trio of HTC models.

Less expensive LTE phones fall into two groups. One group is phones designed to be less expensive, with somewhat less powerful processors, lower resolution displays, lower-end cameras, possibly less internal storage, and plastic instead of metal bodies, for example. The second group is somewhat older models, released six to 12 months or more earlier. At the time of release, they may have been top-of-the-line, and often top-ranking, phones that now are being marked down. These include the older Samsung Galaxy S II, the Galaxy Note and several Motorola Droid Razr models.

To evaluate the current offerings, we visited each of the Big Three LTE mobile carriers' websites and looked at customer ratings. The websites vary in their details but generally let you see the total number of reviews, the overall score (usually broken in several subcategories) for the phone, usually the percentage of customers who recommend the model, and of course their comments. Comments can range from brief summaries like "nice phone, no problems so far" to highly detailed evaluations that include a breakdown of different features or qualities.

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