The last three months of the year are always packed with new smartphone releases. It’s when manufacturers roll out the biggest and best devices they’ve got (and we put the emphasis squarely on “biggest” this year) and people like you and I groan that our wireless contracts ended in the summer. For the last couple years, we’ve been able to point to a couple devices that are “must haves” and stand above the crowd, but this year is different. For the first time, nearly every major phone manufacturer – Apple, HTC, LG, Motorola, and Samsung – have a flagship phone worth talking about, and every major operating system – Android, iOS, and Windows Phone – is accounted for. In fact, there are a number of great devices we haven’t included here. Unless you’re hoping to get a free phone, it’s almost hard to go wrong this holiday season. 

And so, without further adieu, here is our smartphone gift guide for the 2012 holidays.

Samsung Galaxy S3

$200 w/2-yr contract

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, U.S. Cellular, Ting

For five years, the iPhone has been the undisputed champion of the smartphone game. Phones like the Motorola Droid and HTC EVO have come and gone, but with the Galaxy S3, Samsung took its game to a new level. The S3 is the first phone to rival the iPhone in sales and buzz. After nearly half a year on the market, the S3 is still one of the top phones to have.

We still wouldn’t say that the design and user interface of the Galaxy S3 are able to match the fluidity of the iPhone 5, but Samsung’s phone has many technical advantages over the new iPhone 5, including near-field communication sharing, a larger screen, expandable memory, better maps (Google Maps), a removable (replaceable) battery, and Android itself, which boasts some technical prowess over Apple’s OS in the area of communication and notifications.

Whether you’re a die-hard iPhone user, a renewer, or someone new to smartphones, we recommend you check out Samsung’s smartphone this holiday season.

Apple iPhone 5

$200 w/2-yr contract

AT&T, Sprint, Verizon

It’s the new iPhone. What more is there to say? Actually, a lot. With the iPhone 5, Apple has taken its hardware design to a new level, outputting one of the thinnest, most durable smartphones on the market. It will take a ding, but in a number of drop tests against the Galaxy S3 and other rivals, the iPhone survived longer. The phone also sports a slightly longer 4-inch screen and an upgraded version of iOS (6.0.2). The overall design of iOS is beginning to look aged, but for smartphone users who just want things to work and don’t want to worry about managing things like background processes, the iPhone is still the champ.

This is the smartphone both you and your parents might use. With a heap of competent rivals hitting the market, the iPhone is losing its place as the supreme leader of all smartphones, but that doesn’t mean much. The iPhone is still arguably the best smartphone choice for the widest variety of users. If you’re debating between this and the GS3, check out our in-depth iPhone 5 vs. Galaxy S3 comparison.

HTC Windows Phone 8X

$200 w/2-yr contract

AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon

The Galaxy S3 was the first non-iPhone smartphone to go multi-carrier, but it wasn’t the last. With the 8X, HTC has delivered the first flagship Windows Phone 8 device. If you are up for renewal and happen to use AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon (sorry Sprint subscribers), you should check out the 8X. We’ve been recommending you try out Windows Phone for years, but this time, we mean it. Microsoft’s mobile OS has a different look and feel to it than Android or iPhone, and with an upgraded homescreen that allows Live Tiles (widgets/icons) of different sizes and shapes, Windows Phone 8 is finally displaying the flexibility it promised when it debuted two years ago. There are a few big apps still missing from Microsoft’s app store, but most people should have few problems adapting to the world of Windows Phone, especially if you like music and podcasts. Windows Phone has decent built-in solutions for both.

LG Optimus G / Nexus 4

$200 w/2-yr contract

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile (Nexus 4), Unlocked (Nexus 4)

LG was (and still is) one of the biggest names in basic phones (flip phones), but the transition to smartphones has been rough. However, with the Optimus G, LG has finally taken a strong step toward regaining its image, and maybe some market share. The G is one of the best smartphones on the market. And though LG wasn’t able to blanket the market with the G, it has done everything in it could to make the phone available, in some form, to almost everyone. Sprint owners can enjoy the Optimus G that we love most, with its refined design and detailed edging; AT&T users get the same basic phone, though made to blend in with the carrier’s phone lineup; and anyone on T-Mobile can purchase the Google Nexus 4, which may not bear the LG name, but is most definitely an Optimus G on the inside. The only downside of the Nexus 4 is its lack of 4G LTE connectivity, though that shouldn’t bother T-Mobile users.

We recommend you buy the Nexus 4 through the Google Play Store. There, you can pick it up for $300 with no contract. To give you an idea of how good a deal that is, most smartphones retail for $600 – $700 unless you lock yourself into a two-year contract with a carrier.

Motorola Photon Q

$200 w/2-yr contract

Sprint

Fans of physical keyboards, we feel your pain. Even fewer top phones come with a QWERTY slide-out keyboard than a year ago, and a year from now, we can’t guarantee there will be any at all. But for now, you can cling tight to the Photon Q. Sadly, the Q is only available on Sprint, but if you love keyboards, it’s worth the jump. The Q runs a relatively clean version of Android 4.0, is incredibly comfortable to hold, and has the same 5-row QWERTY keyboard that made the Droid 4 one of our favorite Verizon phones last year. The only downside to the Q is its battery life. If you happen to be in an area served by Sprint 4G LTE, that’s another good reason to consider the Q. Did we mention that each key on the phone is individually backlit? Yep.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2

$300+ w/2-yr contract

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, U.S. Cellular

I stand by my review of the first Galaxy Note. To me, the Galaxy Note and Note 2 are just too large to make for effective phones. But the people have spoken, and big is in. Due to strong sales of the original, the Galaxy Note 2 is available on almost every major carrier, but it will cost you at least $300 with a two-year contract, making the Note 2 one of the most expensive devices on the market this year. If you really want a 5.3-inch super screen, crave a pop-out stylus, and really want to block half of your face when you make a phone call, the Galaxy Note 2 is the device for you. Outside of its size, this is a solid phone, with most of the benefits of the Galaxy S3 with Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) to boot. Our advice: hold an iPhone, then hold a Galaxy S3, then pick up the Galaxy Note 2. Whichever one fits your hands best, go for it.

Motorola Droid Razr M

$100 w/2-yr contract

Verizon

We have nothing bad to say about the Droid Razr HD and Razr Maxx HD. They are both great Verizon handsets (though the Maxx is your best bet due to battery life). So why the Razr M? We feel it might be the best-sized and most comfortable phone on the market. In a market dominated by phones made for giant hands, the Razr M, like the iPhone 5, is sized for all. Though it has roughly the same dimensions as Apple’s new iPhone, the Razr M packs in a more spacious 4.3-inch screen, which is just wide enough that you won’t continuously mistype all of your emails and texts (sorry iPhoners, you know it to be true). The placement of key buttons like the volume and power are also better than the iPhone. If you’re hesitant to move toward the giant 4.7- to 5-inch smartphone range, then the Razr M is a solid choice.