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User rankings of LTE phones reveal wide range of options

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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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."

~~

That's a theme for a lot of our honorable mentions: The tradeoffs that you have a lower-end LTE phone may not be tradeoffs that 1) you notice or 2) you care about. A lower-end camera may be plenty "good enough," for example. And a less powerful processor may still deliver all the speed you need.

One example, an "honorable mention" at Sprint, is the Samsung Galaxy Victory 4G LTE, now $50 with mail-in rebate. Its display may lack the "wow factor," as PCMag says, but one customer review says it has "plenty of resolution for the size, plenty of RAM, an S4 processor [from Qualcomm], and decent design and decent-sized battery."

Speaking of battery, users in reviews are all over the map about whether battery life is acceptable (except for users of the incredibly long-lived Motorola Droid Razr Maxx and Maxx HD models). For almost any given LTE phone, you can find reviews that complain bitterly about short battery life and others that fulsomely praise its long battery life. Overall, look at the carrier's average for "battery life" ranking for a given model. Justified or not, most of these users give LTE smartphone battery life somewhat lower rankings than other features.

We also checked T-Mobile for its top five user-ranked HSPA+ 42 4G phones (the company's fastest offerings) with 20 or more user reviews. Here are the results:

1. Samsung Galaxy Note II, $369 with $50 mail-in rebate; 5.0 ranking, 53 reviews, 100% recommend 2. Samsung Galaxy Note, $250 after $50 mail-in rebate; 4.8 ranking, 35 reviews, 97% 3. Samsung Galaxy S III, both 16GB, for $280, and 32GB, for $330; 4.7 and 4.8 rankings, 1,200 to 1,700 reviews, 95-97% 4. Samsung Galaxy S II, $150 after $50 mail-in rebate; 4.7 ranking, 370 reviews, 94% 5. Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G, $100 after $50 mail-in rebate; 4.5 ranking, 298 reviews, 88%

Finally, keep in mind the following:

+ a two-year contract binds you to the phone for a lengthy period; + to get the true price of your phone, factor in the full cost of the contract and any additional one-time fees, prices for accessories, etc.; + LTE users invariably end up "doing more" with the higher connection speeds, often doubling their monthly data traffic; make sure your data cap, if there is one, fits your expected use and look for apps that can help you track usage.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww Email: [email protected]

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