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Android vs iPhone vs Windows Phone 8: what phone should I buy?

Smartphone buying advice: January 2013

Best smartphones

If you are in the market for a new smartphone, the choice can be bewildering. Here's our advice on how to choose your next mobile phone. Also check out Group test: what's the best smartphone?

What smartphone should I buy? Mobiles in 2013

The iPhone wasn't the first smartphone, but its arrival in 2007 changed things beyond recognition. Designer gadget and utilitarian tool, the iPhone wrapped existing features and functions into one desirable package. It's taken the rest of the world five years to catch up, but catch up it has. Take a look at Macworld's: iPhone vs Android: Why the Apple iPhone beats Google Android.

Now there are multiple top-quality smartphones, on various platforms at a range of prices.

Which handset you opt for will be a matter of personal, subjective choice. The iPhone 5 remains at the pinnacle, but it is joined there by Android handsets such as the Nexus 4 and the Samsung Galaxy S3, as well as Windows Phone 8 devices such as the Nokia Lumia 920 and HTC Windows Phone 8X. Each offers excellent build and performance, and a full range of smartphone features from email and web browsing through to multimedia playback, apps and games.

There are differences in storage and screen size, and you will have your personal preferred style – one man's ugly brick is the next chap's statement-making slab.

One thing we can all agree on is that price is a key consideration: some phones cost more than others, of course, especially if you are buying a handset outright and then sourcing your SIM elsewhere. This is often the most cost-effective way of purchasing a smartphone: be sure to compare the lifetime cost of your phone against any contract deal offered.

What smartphone should I buy? Android vs iPhone vs Windows Phone 8

Often, your choice of phone will come down to platform. And with apologies to RiM and Canonical, until we see what BlackBerry 10 and Ubuntu Mobile have to offer the choice for all but CrackBerry addicts is iOS, Android or Windows Phone. Each has good reasons to choose it.

Remember that if you are moving from one platform to another you will have to replace the apps you use, which will add additional cost to your purchase. In most cases – and especially when moving to Android – you should have no problem moving across music and movies.

iOS benefits from being the longest established of the big players. iOS 6 is beautiful, easy to use, stable and secure. And although Android has as many apps, the iPhone remains the phone of choice for developers. Whatever you want to do on your iPhone, there's an app for that.

You don't get a lot of choice with iOs, however. It's the iPhone 5 or the iPhone 5. And unless you jailbreak your handset, you can install only apps from Apple's App Store. You won't install any malware, but you are locked in to the view of the world from Cupertino.

You are also limited to using iTunes to administer – and purchase – music and movies.

Android has come a long way, but not all Androids are equal. As well as a wide variety of handsets to choose from, a bewilderingly complex range of Android operating systems is available on new phones.

Because Android is – to an extent– open, hardware makers can choose which version they use. It also gives phone builder little incentive to pass on upgrades from Google. Check which version of Android you are getting – it makes a difference in terms of user experience and what apps you can install.

High-end phones such as the Galaxy Note II and Nexus 4 run Android 4 Jelly Bean. Other recent handsets such as the Sony Xperia T and the HTC Desire X offer the earlier Ice Cream Sandwich. Both of these are mature mobile OSes, offering something approaching the slickness and ease of use of iOS. These days all the major apps are accounted for, and Android offers more customisation to both handset owner and maker.

This means you can choose from where you purchase music, videos and even apps. It also allows phone makers to experiment, leading to the creation of game-changing devices such as the Galaxy Note II phone/tablet hybrid. The same openness does, however, leave you open to the possibility of installing malware, both from within the Google Play Store and without. See also: Which is better: Android or Windows Phone?

Windows Phone 8 sits somewhere between iOS and Android, being both locked down and available on a variety of handsets. Like Apple's platform it benefits from a curated – although sparsely populated – app store. It's great to look at and easy to use, and the strict minimum specifications mean that all available WP8 handsets provide slick performance. IE10 offers an unsurpassed mobile web-browsing experience, and WP8 feeds all email and social messaging into a single unified pane (whether you like that or not).

Those same minimum specs lead to a certain uniformity when it comes to Windows Phones, however. Leaving aside looks, storage and camera, all new Windows Phones are the same. If you like it, you'll love it. For everyone else, there's an Android or iPhone device to suit. See also: What's the point of Windows Phone 8?

What smartphone should I buy? The verdict

By a hair's breadth the iPhone 5 remains the best phone on the market, being the complete package of performance, build quality and features. But its advantage over the Nexus 4 evaporates when you take into account the relative price of each handset. The Nexus 4 is, simply, a brilliant deal. Well built, full featured, and with great specifications.

If you can't source the Nexus 4, Android fans will find plenty to enjoy with the other Droids, and if they shop around may even find a bargain in the Xperia T or Desire X.

The Galaxy Note II is an intriguing device, offering some of the benefits of a tablet in a form factor only marginally different to a traditional smartphone. It won't be for everyone, but if you need a portable computer on which to create as well as consume, the Note II offers great performance and – glory be – a stylus. Those who would like a Samsung android phone should consider the Galaxy S III, a little long in the tooth, but still a great phone. We look forward to the Galaxy S IV with interest.

Windows Phones remain the jokers in this particular pack. They offer some of the benefits and some of the down sides of both Android and iOS, without being obviously better than either. But the Nokia Lumia 920 and HTC Windows Phone 8X are well built, high-performance handsets. If you want Windows in your pocket, you won't go far wrong with either of these.

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