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These smartphones are tops for customer satisfaction

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Thinking of buying a smartphone as a holiday gift for that special someone? You have no lack of choices.

But first, you have to decide which platform to opt for, essentially Apple’s (AAPL) iOS or Google’s (GOOG) Android. Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows Phone may still be a viable choice, however, that variety has fallen so out of favor that you’ll want to think twice before going that route.

An October study from JD Power ranking customer satisfaction for smartphone platforms, brands and carriers might help you make a decision. Let’s take a look.

The study discovered that customer satisfaction is much higher among smartphone owners who subscribe to full-service wireless carriers versus those who buy their phones through a noncontract carrier.

What does that mean? Full-service carriers include big boys AT&T (T), Sprint (S), T-Mobile (TMUS) and Verizon Wireless (VZ), all of which use their own networks and offer different types of plans. Those include postpaid contract plans in which you pay your bill at the end of each month after signing a two-year agreement as well as noncontract plans in which you pay the full cost of the phone either upfront or on a monthly installment basis.

Noncontract carriers include smaller fries such as MetroPCS, Cricket, Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile, all of which tap into the major players’ networks and limit you to noncontract plans. In this case, those are prepaid plans in which you pay the full retail price of the phone in exchange for not being burdened by the standard two-year contact.

Given that in recent years, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon also have paired their offerings to no-contract and prepaid plans, the line between the two types of carriers has faded. But you’ll still generally find more options and flexibility via the full-service carriers.

JD Power found customer satisfaction among smartphone customers at 8.3 out of 10 for full-service carriers and 7.86 for noncontract carriers.

Why did full-service carriers fare better? JD Power noted that their customers generally have access to the latest smartphones, which typically offer newer and better features. Indeed, the most common reason given for high customer satisfaction by subscribers of full-service carriers is “phone features.”

On the flip side, subscribers of noncontract carriers shelled out less money for their smartphones, an average of $137 versus $361. As a result, more than half of noncontract subscribers said “price/cost” was their main reason for choosing a specific smartphone.

Looking at the smartphone brands in the full-service carrier segment, Apple’s iPhone scored highest in customer satisfaction among users of T-Mobile (843 out of 1,000) and Verizon (834). Samsung ranked highest among subscribers of AT&T (842) and Sprint (834). Among brands in the noncontract segment, Apple again took home the top score (811), but Microsoft came in second (796) followed by Samsung (790) and LG Electronics (782).

Which factors made up the levels of customer satisfaction? That varied based on JD’s Power’s research, which actually encompassed two different studies.

The 2016 Full-Service Smartphone Satisfaction Study ranked customer satisfaction according to these five factors based on order of importance: performance (25 percent), ease of operation (21 percent), battery (20 percent), physical design (19 percent) and features (16 percent). Surveying 12,248 smartphone customers, this study was conducted between March and August 2016.

The Non-Contract Smartphone Satisfaction Study measured customer satisfaction based on the following six factors in order of importance: performance (24 percent), physical design (18 percent), ease of operation (17 percent), features (16 percent), battery (13 percent) and cost (13 percent). Polling 2,762 smartphone customers, this study was conducted between September 2015 and August 2016.

The studies discovered other tidbits along the way.

Among the major carriers, AT&T won the highest ranking for smartphone satisfaction, with Verizon in second place, followed by Sprint and T-Mobile. A healthy 35 percent of subscribers of full-service carriers said they “definitely will” buy a phone made by the same manufacturer versus 20 percent of noncontact customers.

Wireless charging is much in demand. Asked to rate the top three features they’d like to see on their next smartphones, 51 percent of full-service subscribers and 49 percent of noncontract subscribers picked wireless charging.

Finally, customers continue to move away from smartphone subsidies in which they pay a lower price in exchange for agreeing to a two-year contract. Instead, they’re more willing to pay the full retail cost of a phone for the flexibility of upgrading to a new phone without having to wait two years.

So which smartphone should you buy? Based on JD Powers’ study, the iPhone and Samsung phones score highest for customer satisfaction, though LG got a good grade as well. The iPhone 7 is the latest phone from Apple, but you should also consider the 2015 model iPhone 6S since you’ll pay less for it. Samsung’s current flagship lineup includes the Galaxy S7 and the Galaxy S7 Edge. And LG’s top smartphones include the G5 and the V20.

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