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Some recently released phones have only a handful of reviews. We decided to list only those that, at the time we prepared the list, had at least 20 user reviews. If the new phones prove popular that number will quickly increase, so be sure to check the carrier's smartphone pages. You can usually filter your search results, for example, selecting "LTE" (or "4G" or "4G/LTE"). CAUTION: there's no formal definition for "4G" and carriers offer HSPA+ phones, which can deliver very good download speeds as tests of T-Mobile's network have shown. If you want an LTE phone, check the product page to confirm "LTE" is listed.
We also checked the smartphone ratings by Consumer Reports (registration/subscription required) for CR's top-rated phones. CR gives high marks to Apple iPhone 5; HTC EVO 4G LTE, HTC One X and One S; LG Viper; Motorola Droid Razr, Razr M, Razr Maxx; Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy Note, Galaxy S III, Galaxy S II Skyrocket, Galaxy S Blaze. A number of the most recently released phones, including, for example, the Samsung Galaxy Note II and Droid Razr Maxx HD, have not yet been reviewed by CR.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the media attention, the iPhone 5 so far rarely makes it into the top five user-ranked LTE phones on the Big Three -- in fact, only on Verizon, as No. 5, with a user ranking of 4.6, and a recommendation rate of 85%. Those are solid numbers, but there are plenty of other, mainly Android, LTE phones that have the same or better numbers from users.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II, and the older Note, both rank high: Users love the Note II's 5.5-inch screen and the Note's only slightly smaller 5.3-inch screen. The newer model starts at $300, the older at $200.
Most of the top user-ranked phones were a mix of top-end, mid-range and budget devices. In addition to the Samsung models just mentioned, there is the Sprint $200 Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE, the only user-ranked phone with a sliding full qwerty keyboard, and several Verizon-based Motorola Droid Razr models: the Maxx HD, priced at $300, and the Razr HD, at $200, and of course, iPhone 5 starting at $200 on Verizon.
But if those models are outside your budget, the lower-priced LTE phones included a number of pleasant surprises.
AT&T's Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate, designed as a low-end LTE phone, won a 4.7 ranking and a 96% recommendation rate from its 28 reviewers on the AT&T website. It's currently priced online at just $1 with a two-year contract. Users were impressed with its quality, performance, display, and the upgrade to Android 4.0. So are tech sites like PhoneDog, which concluded, "For the price, the Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate is nearly unbeatable. Sure, AT&T has better phones available, but if you're not willing or able to spend upwards of $150-200, then the Exhilarate is an excellent choice."
Others in this same class of less expensive, top five, user ranked phones include: Nokia Lumia 920, running the recently released Windows Phone 8 operating system and being offered on AT&T for $100, a price point that one user called "unbelievable" for a phone of this quality; the Nokia Lumia 822 on Verizon for $100; LG Spectrum 2 on Verizon for $100; and Google Galaxy Nexus, by Samsung, now offered by Sprint for free via a "Web special" promotion.
Just below the top five listings, there are also some incredible deals for phones praised by users.
The Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket, first released a year ago, is also just $1 via AT&T and it's highly ranked by users: 4.5 ranking, and a 91% recommendation rate. Another dark horse: the Pantech Flex, for just $20 on AT&T, with Android 4.0. It has only a handful of user reviews, all 5.0, but for a budget LTE phone it's got positive spin from reviewers like Android Community, which notes that it "offers the same level of performance as a lot of current- and last-gen top-tier smartphones."