Mired in a sea of cell phone choices, 2013 edition
January 21, 2013 3:09 PM   Subscribe

I need a new phone! However, in looking at the available options, I am finding myself mired in analysis paralysis (not to mention a lot of "junk" websites full of keyword matches but zero useful content). Help narrowing down my selection, or even just finding a reliable source of sincere, information-dense reviews would be greatly appreciated.

My current cell phone (an LG Optimus V, via Virgin Mobile) has been flaking out on me in various annoying ways for a while now, and I would like to identify and procure its successor before it actually becomes a paperweight.

I switched my carrier from Verizon to Virgin Mobile about two years ago, and have overall been very happy with VM's "Beyond Talk" plan. That said, I am open to switching plans/carriers but for now would be happy just to get a sense of whether there is something currently available from VM that would suit my needs.

Here, in no particular order, are my primary Wanted Features and Attributes for whatever my future phone ends up being:

- Decent-sized, highly responsive touchscreen. The Optimus V's screen is a mite smaller than I'd prefer and overall its responsiveness is mediocre compared to, say, that of my iPod Touch.

- Reasonable battery life (the Optimus V actually does reasonably well in that department; with my use patterns I need to charge it once every 1-2 days). Considering I use my phone more in "screen on" mode than "screen off", something like 5-8 continuous hours of screen-on time would be nice.

- Internal storage of 4 GB or greater and/or an SD card slot that permits cards of 2 GB or greater. SD card options should be able to support easy/seamless storage of things like photos, archived texts, and apps without complaining. One of the biggest annoyances about the Optimus V for me is its paltry internal storage and finicky, non-user-friendly behavior as far as letting me move stuff to the SD card. I have been running out of space unacceptably often lately.

- Durability / longevity: I hate buying new phones and want my next purchase to last as long as possible, both from a hardware standpoint and a relevance/obsolescence standpoint.

Operating system is really not a major consideration...I would probably be happy enough with an iphone, but I am comfortable using Android as well, so recommendations don't need to be restricted along OS lines.

Price is a minor consideration...I am a notorious cheapskate when it comes to most things, but I would be ok paying up to $500ish if I knew I was getting a phone that I'd still be using 3-4 years from now.

For obvious reasons I'd prefer to look beyond the reviews posted on the Virgin Mobile site, but thus far my Web searches seem to be mainly leading to utterly useless results. So in addition to specific phone recommendations, if anyone knows of unbiased/third-party tech blogs wherein people who actually know what they are talking about post detailed reviews of new phones, I'd greatly appreciate links! Thanks in advance, folks.
posted by aecorwin to Technology (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and if it's relevant, I use voice minimally and text messaging/data frequently. And I live in the south SF Bay Area, California, USA.
posted by aecorwin at 3:11 PM on January 21, 2013

Best answer: I read a lot of phone reviews on engadget. The comments of almost any of their reviews will be full of people claiming they suffer from one bias or another (usually a pro-Apple one), but I like how they go into a lot of detail about hardware and performance.
posted by anaximander at 3:18 PM on January 21, 2013

Best answer: GSM Arena is an excellent source of reviews.
posted by smoke at 3:18 PM on January 21, 2013

I bought an Android DNA from Verizon about a month ago and I can't recommend it. The battery life is excellent and the screen is beautiful, but once or twice a week it loses service, and never gets it back again spontaneously. When that happens, the only way to get service back is to reboot it.

So I've gotten in the habit of turning it on briefly every couple of hours, to see if I have to reboot. It's a pain.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:23 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I bought a One V last year as an upgrade for an Optimus V, and it fits the bill well: similar form factor, better battery life, better screen for viewing and touch, significantly more storage, fewer choke points, more capable. It's limited officially to ICS, so that might be an off-putter for you in terms of 3-4 years' use, is a bit tight on internal storage, and also has a few annoying omissions (no magnetometer). In short: it's a really good low-cost 2012 phone.

If you like HTC -- and I do like their build quality -- and want to look further up the ladder, I'd prefer the Evo V over the Optimus Elite. (At some point last year, I'm pretty sure that VM had the One X, which I was going to recommend, but it's not listed now.)

The difficulty with broader review sites is that you can't always be sure that the review model matches the specs for the carrier -- The Verge had a review of the One V last year, but it was the European spec, which isn't quite the same as the model Virgin offers. But again, both of those are from mid-2012. That's the downside of VM: they generally don't get the bleeding-edge models, either because of initial carrier exclusivity or prohibitive retail cost.
posted by holgate at 3:27 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have an HTC Evo 4G with VMo and I like it so far. It's so much faster than the Optimus V (Angry Birds starts up in a somewhat reasonable amount of time!) and the larger screen size is very nice. Battery life is variable depending on whether you keep 4G on all the time (I switch it on only when I'm out and about or away from wifi). I was considering the One V, but the weird "chin" thing put me off, as well as mediocre reviews on CNet. It's definitely an upgrade from the Optimus V, and I would not hesitate to recommend it.

(If you sign up for an EBates account you can get an extra bit off through their affiliate link.)
posted by calistasm at 4:32 PM on January 21, 2013

Best answer: My wife and I just upgraded from the Optimus V to the Evo V on Virgin. It does not meet all of your qualifications - it's only got 1GB of available internal storage, and is already last year's model. We're pretty thrilled with it though; 1GB for apps feels incredibly spacious, I stuck a 32GB sd card in mine and haven't come close to filling it (it came with an 8GB), the battery life is noticeably better than the Optimus, the screen is beautiful, and everything just works.

Except for 3D mode on the camera, which is bizarre and stupid. And, now that I think of it, the power button is plastic and feels cheap. This bothers me hardly at all.

I personally am more or less resigned to upgrading every ~2 years, which meant this was a good choice for me. If you really want to stick it out for closer to 4 and are willing to spend the extra money for the state of the art and a more expensive plan, then there are three clear best choices:
Galaxy S III
Nexus 4
Iphone 5

I'd get the Nexus if money were no object. Obviously I made a different choice because I AM a cheapskate.
posted by contrarian at 5:53 PM on January 21, 2013

Best answer: I have a Samsung Galaxy S3 from T-Mobile and have been very happy with it. Fits all your requirements: big screen, decent battery life, durable (I bought an Otterbox Commuter case for $20 on Amazon) and has a microSD expansion slot, though I haven't used it. I paid full retail but T-Mobile has actually had deals where they give them away (slaps forehead!) on random weekends. It's my first smartphone and I'm over the moon about it.

My only warning would be to get a screen protector for it. Despite all videos suggesting that Gorilla glass or whatever it is that comes with it can handle anything short of a thermonuclear blast, I left it in my pocket for a few minutes with a pair of keys and it sustained a couple of scratches.
posted by funkiwan at 5:59 PM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Don't forget to actually go into a store and test drive the different operating systems. Some are more suited to some people than others.

And different versions of the operating systems too. When I initially bought my blackberry way back when, I did this and was very surprised to see the vast differences between models of phones. This likely won't be an issue with Apple, but it will for the others. The cheaper phones may tend to use older versions that you might find more or less suitable.
posted by gjc at 8:01 PM on January 21, 2013

Best answer: Sticking with Android for the moment (walthough I am sure a strong case can and will be made for an iPhone 4 or 4S, and the very latest Windows Phones - those running WinPho 8 - are a step above the first wave)... When you say you want the screen to be a mite bigger, do you mean you want it to be anything more than a mite bigger, or do you mean that slightly (but not significantly) larger than the screen you have would be the right size?

If the latter, and looking at Android, you might look at the Motorola Droid Razr M. Down side, it would involve moving to Verizon, which may be a deal-breaker, but it has a lot to recommend itself as a mid-range phone relating to your needs - good battery life, a MicroSD card slot, a 4.3" screen in a form factor the size of many 4" screens because of the very trimmed-down bezel. It's running Android 4.1 when supplied, also, which is probably the earliest version I'd recommend for a phone which relies on carriers for updates.

The HTC One V mentioned above is a good phone, but it is already a little behind the technological curve in screen size and operating system. Battery life may also be a little unsatisfactory. To be honest, a phone which remains feature-competitive in 4 years is a tall order in general, although one that remains usable is a different matter.

If you mean you don't have an upper limit on screen size, then it's definitely worth looking at the Google Nexus 4, if you are prepared to wait long enough to get one. Battery life again might be problematic, but the feature-to-cost ratio is kind of ridiculous, and it gets you the sort of hardware you wouldn't be cursing in three years' time... and the Samsung Galaxy SIII mentioned above, if you can get it on offer, is a very good phone indeed (and will probably dip in price in the nearish future, when the S4 sales chain starts prepping - but that will be months rather than weeks).
posted by running order squabble fest at 2:51 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This likely won't be an issue with Apple, but it will for the others.

As an aside, it's worth noting that Apple handles its upgrade paths and numbering differently, because it can distribute upgrades from a single point to a limited variety of hardware. So, every current device gets a numbered upgrade (so, remotely recent devices will get an upgrade to iOS n - at the moment n=6), reflecting an upgrade to the core OS, but particular features are included or left out depending on how they would perform on that hardware. So, an iPhone 4 and an iPhone 5 will both be running iOS 6, but will offer different feature sets (no Siri on the iPhone 4, for example).

Android has no such centrality, outside the Nexus line (which is why the Nexus line is often a pretty good idea - even the Galaxy Nexus has a lot going for it as a lower-cost alternative to the SIII), and the situation is further complicated by handset makers and carriers adding their own value-added services and applications (FSVO "value-added" in almost every case). So, the Android OS number running on your phone at the time of purchase is probably the OS you should _expect_ to be using for a good while, regardless of carrier promises, unless you want to play around with bootloaders and flashing and the like.

This is in some ways a pain and in some ways quite useful, because it gives you a decent guide on a phone's age, and also the corporate will to keep it upgraded. At this point, I would recommend shunning any Android phone with an OS number below 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), and maybe even 4.0 itself, as 4.1 (Jelly Bean) is a solid jump. This will handily wipe out most of the options. Likewise any Windows Phone running any form of Windows Phone 7, because it means it is sitting on hardware with a single core and profoundly limited forward compatibility. Blackberry is preparing to release Blackberry OS 10, which is getting good notices, but until that is released it's probably not worth the cognitive energy to consider their offering unless you have some need of Blackberry OS, which it seems you don't.
posted by running order squabble fest at 3:35 AM on January 22, 2013

Best answer: I just got a Verizon RAZR HD MAXX (why capital letters, why!) but aside from the name, it is pretty much the best phone I've played with in the past two years.

It's tough as nails (kevlar back, some "gorilla glass" front that is supposedly nigh indestructable). The screen is bigger than I'd like, but pretty nice looking and the colors are bright. The storage meets your specifications.

But really where it shines is the battery life. There simply is no larger battery around. I used it on and off at work last night over the course of 12 hours and the battery dropped to 96%. The lowest I've gotten it thus far was high 70s after two days of use including talk time. This phone is just awesome. Allegedly it has a seven day standby time. Seven days!

So yeah, there's my fanboy review. Good luck!
posted by nursegracer at 8:40 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, thanks to everyone who has responded thus far...I am marking a lot of Best Answers because folks are definitely Answering the Actual Question(s), which is awesome to behold.

That said, to address running order squabble fest regarding screen size: I suppose I do technically have an upper limit, though I don't know that I've ever seen a smartphone that would exceed it. The Motorola Triumph wouldn't be too big, for instance (a co-worker has one so I've seen it in person) -- that model is too old for me to consider buying at this point in time, but something around that form factor would be fine. Anything from that size to slightly larger than the Optimus V, basically.

As for the "want to still be using in 4 years" criterion...I'm now realizing that could potentially be a tall order, but the answers I've received here have definitely got me thinking I may want to either consider going back to Verizon, etc., or wait a few more weeks/months to see if VM brings in any more cutting-edge models. Hmm...
posted by aecorwin at 12:38 PM on January 22, 2013

I have a Nexus 4 and it is awesome. Best phone I've ever had by far and I've had iPhones, Galaxy Nexus, HTC phones, and others.
posted by dobbs at 3:04 PM on January 22, 2013

Response by poster: Just popping back in to say that I got my new phone...an iPhone 4S! After some more comprehensive research into phone plans, I found myself fairly gobsmacked by the cost of basically all the contract plans that offered the sort of text/data package I was after. Which had me looking back at Virgin Mobile's offerings, and realizing that, hey, if I had an iPhone, I wouldn't have to carry both a cellphone and an ipod touch (which I have been using for stuff like calendar and shopping lists, etc., for the past 5 years) everywhere. And after manhandling the iPhone 5 in the Apple store, I realized that I actually preferred the hand-feel of the prior model...thus, the 4S it was, and I have been positively delighted by it thus far. Kind of feels like I took the easy way out by going for the Apple hardware, but, hey, I'm happy...
posted by aecorwin at 10:43 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

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