The best of the best? This year, whether it’s for oneself or for someone else smartphones are terribly difficult to buy. There are so many, with so many differences between them, so many incredible changes. Unlike years past 2012 is truly the age of the smartphone. The handheld you purchase this year will impact the next two years more than any electronic device you have ever purchased in your life.

So you’d better not muck it up.

That’s why Gadget Review is here with the ultimate list of best phones. You may have already seen our carrier-specific lists for smartphones on Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, but what if you don’t care about the carrier? What if you just want the best phone? That’s what this list is for, the absolute very best for smartphone devices.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (All Carriers)

You may wonder why the Note 2 is at the top of our list. In reality, it isn’t a smartphone for everyone. It’s awfully big with a 5.5″ screen. In fact it’s the largest smartphone on the market by a longshot. But that size is equal blessing and curse, especially after Apple’s announcement and release of the iPad mini, which has raised eyebrows aplenty at what a tablet should be.

Namely, handheld.

In that very respect, the Note 2 lives up to the promise of a “phablet” with an incredibly fast processor, a brilliant Super AMOLED+ display that’s excellent for everything from media playback to web browsing, and because it is indeed a phone it is under no requirement to have tablet-specific applications like most Android tablets — and the iPad — do. Sure, it may be clunky to hold for long calls, but this is the phone I want to carry for a plane ride, waiting at the doctor’s office, at work, or really anywhere (except when driving, though the overwhelming size does help me keep my hands off the phone, a twisted benefit). Aside from the iPhone thanks to still best-in-class media organization through iTunes, the Galaxy Note 2 is the ultimate smartphone. I’ve said as much in my first impressions; as my time runs down to an end, I’ll say the same in my upcoming full review.

Motorola Droid Razr HD MAXX (Verizon)

Aside from the preposterously long name, the latest Razr is of course the best, but the improvements over last year’s Razr MAXX are astonishing. A smaller battery powers the phone for even longer thanks to software optimizations in Android 4.0, which will only increase the life of the device with further software updates. For longevity alone, as well as a significant power increase, an HD display, and only improvements on every front, the Razr HD MAXX is the phone you’ll want if you don’t, or can’t, charge every night. Or perhaps even every other night.

In other words, if you live on your phone, the Galaxy Note 2 will last the full day under heavy use thanks to an almost equally massive 3100mAh battery (compared to the MAXX’s 3300mAh), but just the day. The MAXX will keep going and going and going, thanks to Motorola’s additional software improvements and the massively dense battery. While the Note 2 can replace a 7″ tablet, the Droid Razr HD MAXX replaces a MiFi and lasts for two days of regular use, or a day and a half of extended use.

Apple iPhone 5 (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint)

Today, I’d say that there are three phones that have overall better hardware for users. But at the same time, when people ask me which phone I recommend for buying, there are two philosophies I subscribe to: Android is not easier to use as a first smartphone, and iOS has both more and better apps. That makes a world of difference; remember, only about 60% of the US market owns smartphones today; the other 40% has no experience with such a device, and the iPhone is a better starter phone.

The reason Apple’s handheld is better, and oft considered the best smartphone in the world, is not due to the hardware (though the iPhone 5 beats every other phone in benchmarked performance, and every model before it has done so with unparalleled consistency), but the ecosystem that comes with it. Apple’s iOS App Store is the most organized, the fullest, and the best application bank there is. Apps on the iPhone are better than on Android in every way, consistently. There’s no question about it: if you want a smartphone for apps, the iPhone is the best phone you can get.

Whether that makes it the best phone in general is another question entirely. As a phone, there is plenty to be desired. The battery life comparatively is mediocre (though it is remarkably efficient at a handful of tasks, including web browsing, LTE hotspot use, and on calls); the display is small; it doesn’t play well with other ecosystems like Microsoft Exchange or Google’s services; Maps is problematic. But if you want the absolute best phone for games and media, the iPhone 5 is your one stop shop. There are plenty more games, tons of excellent apps, easy synchronization through either your computer or cloud storage, and of course it’s the thinnest, lightest, sleekest phone on the market.

Samsung Galaxy S III (All Carriers)

You thought the Galaxy S III would be higher up on the list, didn’t you? The reality is that the Galaxy S III is the most balanced, overall best smartphone you can buy today, but unlike the three phones above it doesn’t excel in any other category significantly (such as tablet-replacement, battery life, media player, or app-driven device). That’s not to say that the Galaxy S III isn’t an excellent smartphone choice, because it is. It just does the smartphone thing really well, and not much else.

Battery life is good; certainly better than the iPhone 5 but not spectacular like the Note 2 or unprecedented like the Droid Razr HD MAXX. The 4.8″ 720p display is really good, but nowhere near as crisp as the Super AMOLED+ screen on the Note 2, AMOLED display on the Razr, or IPS panel in the iPhone 5. Media playback is solid, but identical to other Android phones. Even the camera, which is excellent, is on par with the iPhone 5.

So, in a strange way, the phone that’s scored the highest in our comparisons over the past few months and received a review score of “excellent” isn’t the first phone I’d recommend buyers to get. You can’t go wrong with the Galaxy S III, and if you buy it you will love it. But if you’re looking for more, the three previous phones all offer something special.

James Pikover

Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.