Giving the gift of wireless: The 2012 guide to holiday smartphones from Tier 1 U.S. operators

by Phil Goldstein

Holiday shopping season is a critical time for wireless operators and device makers as consumers eye the latest smartphones and tablets for their holiday gift lists. 

Already we are are seeing early indications of what gifts will be hot this year. According to a report released this week from research firm comScore, consumer electronics sales were up 17 percent from Nov. 1 to Nov. 30 compared to the same period last year, driven largely by smartphones. Computer hardware sales were up 15 percent year-over-year, with tablets playing a key role.

Indeed, tablets will likely dominate the holiday sales season. According to NPD DisplaySearch's fourth-quarter tablet shipment forecast, tablets will outsell notebook computers in North America for the first time during the holidays. Although Apple's iPad remains the most popular tablet for the holiday season (21 percent of respondents over 13 years of age said they planned to purchase an iPad in the next six months, according to a Nielsen survey), there are signs that other tablets are also starting to resonate with consumers. Nielsen's study found that 11 percent of respondents plan to purchase an iPad mini in the next six months, 10 percent want a Kindle Fire and 9 percent want a Samsung Galaxy Note or Tab. 

It's important to note that this is the first year that three Tier 1 carriers--Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) and now Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S)--are supporting Apple's iPad and iPad mini (previously Sprint did not offer Apple tablets).

Smartphones are also expected to be a hot item under the Christmas tree this holiday. But there are some new trends worth noting. For example, expect  fewer "exclusive" handset deals, meaning that several devices are being offered via multiple carriers. For example, all four Tier 1 carriers are selling their own variants of Samsung's Galaxy Note II. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile are all carrying the HTC's Windows Phone 8X, part of Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) push to get more carrier support for its Windows Phone 8 gadgets. And LG Electronics managed to get AT&T and Sprint to push its high-end Optimus G smartphone as it looks to cash in on fourth-quarter sales.

Carriers are also heavily promoting (and in some cases discounting) certain devices to enhance their sales. Verizon is cutting the price of some of its mid-range smartphones, including the recently introduced Motorola Mobility Droid Razr M, which is now selling for $49.99 after a mail-in rebate. Likewise, AT&T is cutting the price of Asus VivoTab RT tablet, which runs Windows 8 and LTE, down from $500 to $400.

For smartphone makers, fourth quarter sales can buoy their results for the entire year so it's critical that they not only launch compelling devices, but also offer the right promotions to attract buyers. With that in mind, FierceWireless compiled a list highlighting the smartphones and tablets that the Tier 1 carriers are promoting during the holidays. This list is not comprehensive, but designed to give you a cross-section of the top devices that carriers are heavily promoting, and in some cases discounting to consumers. (And don't forget to see how this year's holiday handsets stack up against last year's list.). --Phil