The smartphone. It's one of the 21st century's great unifiers, crossing otherwise unyielding social barriers and permeating contemporary life so exhaustively it now ranks as a cultural phenomenon. Quite simply, the mobile has transformed the way ordinary people think about technology, introducing Joe Average to concepts like form factor, pixel density, and removable storage. The modern handset has encouraged and empowered the masses to engage with previously niche pursuits like photography and reportage, altering our perception of what it is possible on-the-go and changing the way we go about our everyday life and interact with each other.
There is little doubt this holiday season that you know someone who is angling for a new handset - in fact, you very probably want one yourself. But which device should you buy? So to help demystify and simplify matters this Christmas, we've rounded up our five favourite smartphones of 2012.
Nokia Lumia 920
There are so many reasons why the 4.5in Nokia Lumia 920 is one of our must-have smartphones this holiday season - not least, it's a thoughtfully designed proposition that represents an ideal halfway house between the current trend for über-expansive displays and the more diminutive smartphone screens we grew up with and love. What detractors call big, we call sturdy, and the Lumia 920 exploits its size, boasting a resolution of 1,280 x 768 pixels at a stunning 332 PPI, making it one of the highest-definition devices available. Its camera features, too, are best-of-class standard, with Nokia's newest wunderkind based on its PureView technology and with an 8.7-megapixel sensor, f2 Carl Zeiss lens and full image stabilisation - all specifications that are just that little bit better than the competition.
In the engine room, there's a dual-core Snapdragon chipset clocked at 1.5GHz running the show, and helping to deliver a full suite of non-essential but seriously desirable additional capabilities: NFC may be more or less standard by now, but wireless charging certainly isn't, and more techie-types will find it hard not to salivate at the prospect of juicing up over their morning cappuccino. The 920 is also compatible with the UK's new 4G LTE spectrum as first furnished by EE, so those craving access to the fastest cellular speeds available can get their fill. With regards to design, there's a flavour fit for every personality type, with the Lumia 920 coming in a bold range of colour options.
Microsoft's new mobile operating system isn't to be sniffed at either, with Windows Phone 8 looking like a burgeoning triumph for the iconic US computing giant. A relatively modest selection of apps will continue to expand and evolve in the coming weeks and months, and what's already available is of the highest quality - Nokia Maps, for one, is arguably the best cartographic aid out there. In short, the Lumia 920 is the disruptive device that all of us growing a bit weary of the Apple / Android duopoly have been hoping for. More than that, it's very possibly the best all-around handset available this Christmas, justifying every bit of its hefty price tag - it should run you in the region of £480 unlocked eventually, but SIM-free deals aren't widely available at this point. We've seen grey market retailers charging up to £100 more than that, so opting for anything other than an official, Nokia-approved deal for the Lumia 920 would be ill-advised at this stage.
Apple iPhone 5
For some, the fact that it's the iPhone 5 is enough to warrant a high street splurge this holiday season. If you're a discerning enough consumer to think beyond the base "because it's the new iPhone" logic, we salute you – and are happy to tell you why this is Apple's best handset to date. For one, no other manufacturer really designs a device quite as well as Sir Jony Ive and his team over in Cupertino. Accusations of fanboyism be damned, it's hard not to fall in love with the iPhone 5's ultra-sleek physique: measuring a mere 7.6mm thick and weighing a featherlight 112g, it's one of the most slender phones on the market and has the best hand feel of all the phones we've groped of late. Classic, classy, and all-around sexy aluminium housing completes the iPhone 5's iconic look. Uncomplicated, minimalist, simple even - call it what you like, it's just a joy to behold.
The iPhone 5 is also about as cutting edge as it gets from a specification perspective. As you'd expect from Apple, the display is super-rich, with a resolution of 1,136 x 640 pixels at a stunning 326 PPI. Content hoarders should find themselves replete with the device's 64GB iteration, but even casual users might find themselves filling up on-board storage quickly, as the iPhone 5's 8-megapixel camera is a high-quality unit that also shoots 1080p HD video at 30fps. With a new five-element sapphire lens for added resilience and an improved front-side camera of 1.2-megapixels - an improvement on the VGA unit seen on the 4S. Running the show is a dual-core A6 chipset clocked at 1.2GHz, and the general consensus is that Apple's most powerful handset to date operates almost flawlessly.
As ever, apps are a major strength of the new iPhone, with Apple's App Store offering the perfect balance of security and choice: Gameloft, for instance, boasts over 110 playable titles for iOS compared to few than 50 for Android. New iOS features like Passbook will become increasingly valuable as more and more European firms wise up to the potential of the digital wallet, and Siri circa 2012 is Apple's most genuinely helpful personal assistant to date. The iPhone 5 also features on the UK's new 4G LTE spectrum, meaning that out-and-about mobile network connectivity will be of the best standard available. It was the smartphone the world was waiting for and it delivered in resounding fashion, making it ITProPortal's recommendation for those who want an optimal combination of style and substance. The iPhone 5 is here, and it's well worth the £500-plus price tag.
Samsung Galaxy 3
For the mobile phone enthusiast, 2012 began in earnest with the unveiling of the Samsung Galaxy S3 and will always be defined by the Korean firm's flagship device, which has sold more units than any other handset this year since launching back in May. With a super-expansive 4.8in display and an organic, rounded look that harks back to the inaugural Galaxy S, the S3 has a smooth, flush feel, with features seamlessly integrated into the phone's slimline chassis. Earthy colour tones like Pebble Blue and Marble White complete the device's sleek, natural look and there's no denying that the Galaxy S3 is as aesthetically pleasing as handsets come.
Not that it's a slouch in the spec department or anything. The aforementioned display boasts a resolution of 1,280 x 720 pixels at 306 PPI which, combined with the scope of the screen, offers users an enticing portable viewing experience. Indeed, those wishing to utilise their smartphone as an on-the-go entertainment hub couldn't really ask for a better present than the Galaxy S3, which also features a microSD card slot. In the extreme, this means you can enjoy a whopping storage capacity of 128GB - 64GB on-board and another 64GB added on. That's a fair few episodes of Homeland for the morning commute. Powering the show, there's a quad-core Exynos4412 chipset clocked at 1.4GHz, while a powerhouse 2,100 mAh battery means that you won't be bored on the journey home, either.
The quality of video is top-notch, too, whether viewing 720p HD on the internal screen or outputting full HD to a TV. The 8-megapixel primary camera is a fine example too, as is the 1.9-megapixel front facing unit. As a whole, the user experience is simply one of the best available, with the Galaxy S3 currently running 4.1 Jelly Bean and expecting an update to Android 4.2 in early-2013. Speaking of tweaks, a recent 4G LTE hardware upgrade means that all those downloads will be done in a jiffy if you opt for the appropriate network and contract - a near necessity, as SIM-free pricing for the S3 LTE is £525 via an Amazon re-seller, and £600 from MobiCity UK.
NFC support means you can also easily share the wealth in addition to enjoying futuristic purchases. Good looking, powerful, versatile, and user-friendly - is there any wonder this our pick of the litter for media buffs this Christmas?
Google Nexus 4
Arriving on 13 November, the LG-manufactured Google Nexus 4 looks likely to be the last significant handset released in 2012. It's also one of the best. Using the same ethos that brought us the Nexus 7 mini-tablet - many writers' gadget of the year for 2012 - packing a huge amount of quality specification yet sporting a relatively modest price tag, the Nexus 4 costs only £239 for an 8GB model. What's so impressive? For one, it comes pre-loaded with the absolute latest version of Android, 4.2 Jelly Bean, meaning that its S3-rivalling 4.7in, 1,280 x 768 pixel display will offer a number of new features, including the Swype-style Gesture keyboard. It's also got an 8-megapixel primary camera with full HD video recording, and a 1.2-megapixel secondary snapper, meaning you'll get the most out of Jelly Bean's new 360-degree photo-capture mode - dubbed Photo Sphere - as well.
The fourth Google Nexus handset is also an immensely powerful contraption, featuring 2GB of RAM in addition to a quad-core Snapdragon SoC clocked at 1.5GHz. This all adds up to a pretty seamless user experience that confidently handles Android's increased functionality, and a robust 2,100 mAh battery means that the lucky recipient of the Nexus 4 can enjoy their new smartphone for longer. They're also like to appreciate its attractive, minimalist design, which resembles the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and neatly slots into the Google Nexus family. We especially love the clear glass finish on the back, and the easy-to-grip rubber around the sides. Measuring 9mm in girth and weighing 139g, it's hardly going to be a taxing addition to your coat pocket either.
The Nexus 4 is the standout affordable handset this Christmas. It's little wonder that it sold out in just 30 minutes when it was made available in the UK recently, and if reports of £700-plus price tags on eBay are anything to go by, demand is likely to remain high throughout the holiday season. The Nexus 4's features befit a high-end device yet it's priced at the lower-end of the mid-range segment, making it a serious candidate for purchase regardless of whether your budget is Wall Street or Walmart. With a slick, understated look and a plethora of fun to be had with the latest Android platform, it's simply superb value. If you need a final reason to add this to your shopping list, we could point out that it features wireless charging capability. In other words, start dusting off your combat gear: the Google Nexus 4 is a handset worth fighting for.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2
Sometimes, it's nice to have something a little different at Christmas time. A mixed roast of seasonal game birds makes a welcome change from the traditional turkey routine, and it's into this lateral-thinking category that Samsung's Galaxy Note 2 falls. There's no doubt that it's big - 5.5in to be exact - but it's a hard device to argue against, with Samsung packing some superior specifications into the expanded frame. Its 2GB of RAM is joint best-of-class with the Nexus 4 - most high-end smartphones offer 1GB - while a quad-core Exynos chipset clocked at 1.6GHz means that you're unlikely to find performance wanting with the Note 2. The additional real estate also means that everything from web browsing to gaming to media consumption can be enjoyed that little bit more - activities that the 4G LTE support improves further - and a 3,100 mAh battery is on hand to ensure you get the most usage possible.
With regards to appearance, the Note 2 has those characteristic Samsung curves to give it a pleasing, tactile feel, and despite frequently having its form factor maligned, it's actually not a porky device at all, measuring 9.4mm thick and weighing 183g - less cumbersome than the Lumia 920, in fact. Then there's the S Pen stylus, which is a unique selling point for the Note 2 when compared to its smartphone market rivals. Allowing you to write, annotate, and draw in your personal style, it's a feature that should appeal to a wide cross-section of your Christmas list, especially businessmen, creative types, and that forgetful auntie you have up in Teeside.
That said, we admit that the Galaxy Note 2 isn't right for everyone. We're not ignorant to the fact that many liken its use in a traditional voice-calling context to holding a slice of bread to your cranium, and we know that an average unlocked price tag in excess of £500 won't suit all budgets. But we also think that for many people, it could be a bit of a dark horse - and for some, it could prove indispensable. In addition to those would benefit from the S Pen, hardware fiends are also likely to enjoy pushing the capabilities of this supremely powerful device to the limits, and you don't have to be partially sighted to appreciate its tabletesque display.
A number of handsets could have made it into the wild card slot - the HTC Windows Phone 8X and Sony Xperia T come to mind and certainly deserve an honourable mention - but this device offers something different and was chosen on that basis. Fans of the Note 2 say it's bigger, badder, and better than a standard sub-5in smartphone. It's not difficult to see why, so try to find a place in your heart - and on your Christmas 2012 shopping list - for Samsung's gloriously off-piste product.