SAN FRANCISCO - What's a smartphone shopper to do? With two new iPhones arriving on Sept. 20, Apple is facing formidable competition for buyers' attention. Consumers have flocked to hot handsets from Samsung and other top Android phone makers. And fans of Windows Phones and BlackBerrys also have stellar new options.
Complicating matters for shoppers, Apple unveiled not one but TWO new iPhones - the new flagship 5s and the more mid-tier 5c in an array of colors.
With pre-orders already underway for the 5c, we'll leave the ultimate scorecard to you. For now, here's our look at how the season's hottest handsets stack up. And stay tuned for a more complete review of the two new Apple handsets by USA TODAY's Ed Baig, coming soon.
OS SKIRMISH: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
So goes the slugfest between Apple fans and devotees of phones running on Google's Android operating system. Direct comparisons aren't always easy. There is no one single version of Android. And phone makers often layer their own software - and features - on top. At the core of iOS 7 is a beautiful and translucent new design. But Apple has also piled on new features, some of which are new and innovative, others that have the company playing catch-up. A few areas to compare:
• Sharing: Apple's AirDrop, a Mac feature new to iOS, is a peer-to-peer networking feature that lets iPhone users share pictures, websites and certain other files with contacts who are close by. Easily accessible through the new Control Center, you can make your phone "discoverable" to anyone nearby with an iPhone.
The rough equivalent on Android uses NFC (Near Field Communication) to let two people share files by bumping one phone against the other. Windows Phones also use NFC for sharing. Apple continues to eschew NFC, especially in areas such as mobile payments.
• Radio: Apple adds iTunes Radio, a new feature with 200-plus radio stations in multiple musical genres. Google has its own subscription radio service called Google Play Music All Access. Apple's is free (and ad-supported). Google's is $9.99 a month, but lets you listen to any available track on demand. Microsoft, meanwhile, touts the Xbox music service on its phones. And there are many big third-party competitors, including Pandora, Rdio, Spotify, Slacker and beyond.
Bottom line: Music should not be a consideration in your shopping. Options abound.
• Multitasking: This is an area of catch-up for iOS given Android has traditionally handled the ability to keep a bunch of apps going at once more handily than Apple. Apple devices currently have some multitasking ability, but iOS7 amps it up.
Bottom line: Net-net, everyone has parity now.
• Photography: Apple adds Instagram-like filters, an in-camera option that lets you choose shooting modes more easily - still, video, panorama and now square - and instant organizational tools that sift your pics automatically into "Collections," "Moments" and "Years."
On the Android side, a lot depends on the phones. Samsung and HTC have many different photo tricks, and Nokia's 41-megapixel new Lumia takes smartphone photography to a whole new level.
The iPhone's camera has always been easy to use and takes terrific snaps, but nearly everyone else has offered more gee-whiz features. In the iPhone 5s, Apple adds an improved flash, auto image stabilization, burst mode (up to 10 per second), slow-motion and other features.
Bottom line: Bells and whistles are cool, but what counts at the end is the quality of the picture.
So, who's great at what? A lot of it comes down to what you care about most in a phone. Check out our accompanying graphic for a specs breakdown on a few top phones. And here are a few more things to consider:
The current crop of flagship phones from big handset makers are monsters. Major considerations for buyers are specifics on things such as camera specs and quirky interfaces that might offer cool features but be off-putting for some people.
HTC ONE. A knockout phone. Looks great, sounds great and takes great pictures. It's available on all major U.S. carriers starting at $199. Best Buy has an exclusive on a slick "metallic blue" handset color through the end of the year.
What we like: Front-facing speakers really make a difference. This is a solid Android phone. Fast, fun to use.
Con: Some of the photo software is confusing (and skippable). BlinkFeed won't appeal to everyone. Battery is not removable.
MOTO X. The first phone produced from scratch by Motorola Mobility since being acquired last year by Google. Loaded with cutting-edge features. Our graphic lists the most common carrier pricing at $199 with a contract, but you can find a deal for even less.
What we like: Pushes hands-free operation to new levels. Innovative Moto Maker platform means you can custom-design the look of it (for AT&T customers only, to start).
Among distinctive features: Touchless Control lets you speak a command to make a call, find out what the weather is and more. Phone can tell if you are in a moving vehicle and automatically turn on driving mode to read text messages aloud or tell you who's calling.
Con: Techies quibble about specs. The Moto X doesn't have the world's fanciest phone camera, but at 10 megapixels it is decent. And the screen is on the middling end.
LG G2. Unique design with volume and power controls on the back. It's just becoming available on major U.S. carriers.
What we like: Like the Moto X, the G2 wants to let you step back from the habit of pressing a bunch of buttons for phone operation. On the G2, if you get a call, you can answer just by picking up the phone rather than fumbling to hit a button. Knock on the screen twice to wake up the phone or shut it off.
Con: Too soon to say, though we suspect the button on the back may not appeal to folks schooled on doing it the tried and true way. We will be offering a full review of the LG 2 soon.
SONY XPERIA Z. Sony's a bit of an also-ran among Androids, despite this solid phone.
What we like: Lovely 5-inch display, 13-megapixel camera and a battery that gets a boost from Stamina Mode, which shuts down wireless radios and background activities when you're not using them. A smaller version of Sony's similarly named Android tablet, the phone is water-resistant down to 1 meter for up to a half-hour, provided all connectors and ports are sealed.
Con: For now it is available exclusively from T-Mobile, for $579.99 or for $25 a month for 24 months with nothing down, so your choice of carrier is obviously limited.
GALAXY S 4. Samsung's solid flagship phone is teeming with clever bells and whistles, along with parlor-trick gimmicks you will likely never take advantage of. This phone has been out since April, which feels ancient by now, somehow.
What we like: A dual-camera feature lets you take pictures with front and rear cameras simultaneously. You can answer calls or skip songs with a wave of your hand. Hover over the screen with your finger to magnify text or make other things happen. The battery is removable.
Con: Overload is entirely possible with the S4's hyper-busy interface on this much-loved phone.
Also worth noting: Samsung's new plus-size Note 3 "phablet" will arrive on U.S. carriers in the next few weeks, along with the company's SmartGear smartwatch.
NOKIA LUMIA 1020. Whopping 41-megapixel sensor with image stabilization, high-end Zeiss optics, xenon flash, manual shutter and other photographic controls.
Con: Here again, a carrier exclusivity deal means this phone is offered only on AT&T for now.
Q10. Combines a physical Qwerty keyboard and touch-screen capabilities. Pre-loaded with BlackBerry 10, the new, more modern mobile operating system.
Con: Screen much smaller than rivals; BlackBerry lags competitors on apps.
IPHONE 5c, 5s. Both new Apple phones land on Friday. The lower-cost 5c starts at $99 with a contract and comes in five colors and ships with many of the same features of the current-gen iPhone 5, which Apple is retiring. The new flagship 5s starts at $199 and features a Touch ID fingerprint sensor. It sports upgrades to the camera, and a faster A7 processor with M7 coprocessor.
Apple showed off the handsets for just a short time to press and analysts gathered a few days ago for the launch event, so full reviews are still ahead. But already, the critics are debating whether the 5c would have ever gotten past Steve Jobs, and wondering why Apple didn't come out with larger-screen alternatives.
No matter. As major - if not more so - than the new handsets is the impending rollout of Apple's fresh new mobile operating system called iOS 7. The latest software sports an edge-to-edge design, handy new Control Center, and improved notifications, among other changes.
Contributing: Ed Baig