If you need a new phone today, and you are on T-Mobile, get the new LG Nexus 4. Get the Samsung Galaxy S III if you're on Sprint. If you're on Verizon, get the Droid DNA unless you want a stupendous battery, in which case the get Droid Razr Maxx HD. On AT&T, get the HTC One X+ if you don't mind the lack of reviews. But if your current phone still works, it's best you wait.
To me, Android phones are the best smartphones. They're also the worst smartphones. And they're most of the ones in between, considering how many different kinds of models there are.
Android is best for tinkerers. If you don't want to have to make a lot of decisions, get an iPhone which is the phone we recommend for most people. But Android is the phone for people who are not like most people and who want to actively participate in their technology. If you want to be able to swap out keyboards, change the OS entirely, or even tweak weird hardware settings like clock speeds, get a good Android phone.
The latest version is 4.2, but 4.1 Jelly Bean is where Android went from solid to great. Google Now is fantastic and the overall UI and responsiveness of the OS are superb. The newest version of Android is 4.2. It’s still called Jelly Bean, and it’s even better than 4.1, adding new features for Gmail, lock screen widgets, a better notification area, and many performance improvements. So far it's only on the new Nexuses: the 4, which is a phone, and the Nexus 7 (7-inch tablet) and Nexus 10 (10-inch tablet). That's the main benefit of these Nexus devices from Google–even when they have smaller screens compared to the latest and greatest, they have the most current software and that makes them the most capable and useful of all Android handsets. Generally.
iOS still has a bigger, more mature app ecosystem, but having gone from iOS to Android years ago, I can't remember the last time I saw an app I liked on iOS and couldn't find it or a close equivalent (or both) on Google Play. Still, nearly every app is available for iPhones and there are still some corporate and weird hobby apps that you can only get on an iPhone. If this is a concern you should search for apps on each platform that fit with your hobbies and work needs, and see what comes up. Lastly, apps on Android are often of lesser polish or incompatible with older or outlier Android handsets because they have to be designed to work with various screen sizes or hardware types or operating systems. This is changing as more developers adopt the Holo design guidelines that Google encourages.
Android's deep hooks into Google's services make it especially wonderful if you live with Google services every day. Google Maps is still the best map and navigation software, and it's free on every Android phone. Android is also the most natural place to use Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive, and the rest of Google's cloud services. Google Now is better than Siri, and if you give it access to your Gmail it'll spook you with its helpfulness–automatically tracking packages and flights, reminding you of appointments, even pinging you when it's time to leave for the airport based on traffic.
What To Look For
Essentially, get a Nexus phone if you're on T-Mobile and are stuck with T-Mobile. Otherwise, wait until there's a good Jelly Bean (Android 4.1 or later) phone on your carrier.
If you absolutely need a new phone today (but not an iPhone), the Samsung Galaxy S III is still the phone to beat on Sprint, and it just got Jelly Bean 4.1 in late October. If you’re on Verizon, you should get the stupendous new Droid DNA, if a five-inch phone isn't too large for you. AT&T users should get the HTC One X+.
Every carrier has promised to get Jelly Bean on the flagship phones, but carrier update promises are roughly as believable as a Celebrity Rehabcontestant. Don't believe your phone will be updated until two weeks after the update actually happens. Until then, assume the carrier has no reason to spend money making your old handset more useful when they can sell you a new one.
If you're adventurous as well as impatient, you can get Jelly Bean before your carrier pushes it to your current phone, by putting it on your phone yourself. The vast majority of Android phones can be rooted and have their operating systems replaced entirely, and most phones from the past few years have vibrant modding scenes that work to get the latest version of Android onto phones that the carriers have abandoned. CyanogenMod is a good place to start, although it's by no means the only or the best custom ROM out there, it's one that supports many devices and has lots of documentation to make the process easy. Check their website to see if CyanogenMod 10 is available for your phone; it's the version based on Jelly Bean.
- The LG Nexus 4
The phone with the best hardware/software combo right now is the Nexus 4 running stock Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, the latest software. Being Google's official handset, It should also get software updates and new features straight from Google and much sooner than phones from other manufacturers. It has a gorgeous Gorilla Glass chassis, bright 4.7-inch 1280×700 screen, superfast quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM, and the best version of Android ever. It also supports wireless charging (via the Qi standard), NFC, and screencasting via Miracast. There’s just one problem, but it’s a huge one in the US, and it could be a dealbreaker for you: the Nexus 4 doesn’t have LTE, the high speed network that most flagship phones in the US have, giving your handset the most responsive, high speed internet connection that can rival slower home cable modems. It's unfortunate, because the phone would be the best Android handset around if it had LTE and better carrier support.
If you’re stuck on T-Mobile, which doesn’t have any LTE service anyhow, you should get the Nexus 4. The 8GB version is $200 and the 16GB is $250 with a two-year contract, but the unlocked version from Google Play is just $300 (8GB) or $350 (16GB)–cheap enough that you should strongly consider getting the unlocked version and a prepaid plan, especially if you travel internationally.
Google's new Nexus 4 is getting great reviews for its stock Android 4.2 software and its hardware, but the Nexus 4 doesn't have an LTE radio, so you're stuck at still-fast HSPA+ speeds. And its radios are GSM only, so you're stuck with AT&T or T-Mobile. It's unbelievably cheap for a phone of this caliber–although it has far less storage than other handsets, and no MicroSD slot–and may make you wonder if you really need LTE at all, especially because the rest of the phone is so good.
I've been using the unlocked Nexus 4 on T-Mobile for a few days, and the lack of LTE is an occasional drag, but it's the only thing I don't love about the phone. It feels like a grown-up version of my Galaxy Nexus, and I love Android 4.2. The interface just keeps getting more and more polished. Google Now is a lot faster than it is on the Gnex, the new notification-area status toggles are fantastic, and the lock screen widgets make me practically giddy. Both the camera app and the camera itself are superior to the Galaxy Nexus. Actually, everything I do with the phone feels faster than 4.1 on my Galaxy Nexus.
The Verge’s Josh Topolsky gives the Nexus 4 an 8.3, and says “It's easily the best Android phone on the market right now, and has some of the most powerful software that's ever been put on a mobile phone. It's an upgrade from last year's Galaxy Nexus in every way.” However, the lack of LTE is a dealbreaker for Topolsky: “If you buy the Nexus 4, you have to decide whether you're willing to compromise data speeds for the purest and best form of the Android OS. After comparing the options and seeing the gulf between Google's flagship and other devices on the market, I've decided it's a compromise I won't be making again.”
AnandTech’s Brian Klug digs deep and likes what he finds: “If you're an Android enthusiast, the Nexus 4 is obviously the phone to have right now. [. . .] At a fundamental level there is quite literally no better vehicle out there for Google to communicate its smartphone platform via than the yearly Nexus refresh. On its own, the Nexus 4 would otherwise be phenomenally great hardware. As a Nexus, it's a level even beyond that.”
ABC’s Joanna Stern loves the phone but misses LTE. “Google fixed every feature I have complained about on my Galaxy–the camera, the build quality, and the performance issues.”
Jamie Lendino at PCMag.com gives the Nexus 4 an Editor’s Choice award, and high praises as an unlocked phone for travellers, but wasn’t a huge fan of the camera, which he says “is an improvement over the Galaxy Nexus, but not enough of one.” He says, “The Samsung Galaxy S III has much faster LTE on AT&T, a superior camera and camcorder, and is roughly as fast in the real world for most tasks despite its dual-core CPU, even if it lacks the up-to-date, stock Android 4.2 Jelly Bean OS.”
Of course, the Nexus 4 only makes sense if you're on America's worst network, which is a problem in and of itself.
If you're on Sprint, you should get the Samsung Galaxy S III. It's still one of the best phones out there, and it just got an update to Android 4.1. If you don't care about Jelly Bean, you're nuts, but you can also get the LG Optimus G, which has the same speedy guts as the Nexus 4, but is still on Android 4.0, which doesn't have Google Now or the performance improvements of 4.1.
The Samsung Galaxy S III has been the phone to beat since it came out early this summer. It has a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor and 2GB of RAM, and a gorgeous 4.8-inch 720p AMOLED screen. It has up to 64GB of internal storage as well as a microSD card slot so you can add even more. The AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon versions all have zippy LTE service, too, though Sprint's LTE network is in its infancy.
Samsung’s TouchWiz interface that lies on top of Android is not the worst UI ever. Parts of it are garish and confusing, but it does add some cool touches. For example, if you’re texting someone or just viewing their contact info, and you bring the phone up to your face, it’ll automatically dial them. Pretty handy.
Reviewers love the S III, too. Here’s what they said when it came out:
Mike Gikas from Consumer Reports loves the S III’s sheer speed. He described the overall performance as “top-notch” and loved the lightning-fast response times from the S III’s huge 4.8-inch screen. Gikas gave mixed marks to S-Voice, Samsung’s baked in Siri-like voice software, but ultimately said the S III potentially qualifies as “the new template for smart-phone design, kinks and all.”
CNet’s Jessica Dolcourt says the S III is “absolutely” worth buying based on features and price. Dolcourt also says the S III’s solid combination of the lens, backlit sensor and LED flash is “worthy of a flagship phone.” She gives Samsung’s camera software high marks too thanks to “Burst Mode” and a “Best Shot” mode that algorithmically auto-selects the best pictures of the bunch. Dolcourt ultimately gave it “4-of-5 Stars” and Editor’s Choice for June 2012.
PC Mag’s Sascha Segan was yet another reviewer impressed with the S III’s zippy processor:
"Performance was excellent in my tests. The Qualcomm S4 chip running at 1.5GHz is the fastest one we've seen in smartphones so far, and it's able to take on any app challenge you throw at it, including games on the HD screen. Our benchmark tests proved this, although they were within the margin of error when compared with the One X. Both phones are very fast."
The Samsung Galaxy S III is available on all four major US cell providers and is still as powerful as ever, although the other carriers have better options now.
If you're on Verizon and don't mind a large phone, get the HTC Droid DNA. It's a 5-inch handset with an unbelievable 1920×1080 screen. It’s the smallest 1080p screen ever. The Droid DNA has an S4 Pro quad-core processor like the LG Nexus 4, 2GB of RAM, and Android 4.1. It’s not 4.2, but at least it’s still Jelly Bean. Reviewers are going nuts for this thing, and it looks like a great option for a lot of folks.
Brian Bennett at CNet calls the Droid DNA "Verizon's best Android deal," and praises the camera, screen, and battery life. "The $199.99 HTC Droid DNA has a winning combination of stylish design, devilish good looks, blazing performance, and a lovely screen, all for a good price. Its great camera is icing on the cake but enough to edge out the Motorola Droid Razr HD. Frankly, the DNA is HTC's best smartphone — and Verizon's best Droid — yet."
PCMag's Alex Colon gives it an Editors' Choice award but classifies it as a "phablet" rather than a pure phone. "As a phablet, the HTC Droid DNA is easily the best device we've reviewed on Verizon Wireless so far. It has a huge, gorgeous display, top-of-the line performance, and fantastic build quality, which earns it our Editors' Choice. The Samsung Galaxy Note II is sure to give it a run for its money, with longer battery life, more internal storage, and a microSD card slot. But for now, the Droid DNA reigns supreme." Alex doesn't dig its paltry storage options or lack of removable battery.
At Gizmodo, Brent Rose gives it 4/5 stars. "It's a really nice piece of hardware with tremendous guts and some pretty good software. It's not the best display ever, but it's certainly the best screen on a Verizon phone. It's also handily the fastest phone on Verizon. We would have liked a better camera and longer battery life, but in general, we really like this phone a lot."
Laptop's Sherri Smith gives it 4 out of 5 stars, but writes, "In this price range, the Galaxy S III offers more robust sharing features and gestures in a thinner and lighter design. There's just more innovation packed inside Samsung's device. Plus, the S III offers both microSD card expansion and a removable battery. However, the DNA has a brighter and higher-res screen and offers better 4G performance and a faster quad-core CPU. It really comes down to what you value most."
On the other hand, Dan Seifert at The Verge gives it a more measured 7.7, praising the screen but citing weird power button placement, a slightly too large frame, and weak battery life. "The DNA offers a lot for the $199 asking price, but the miserable battery life and occasional performance hiccups are reason to pause before hitting that purchase button. A great display alone unfortunately cannot make up for the DNA’s other problems. Verizon users looking for a new Android smartphone have a number of other options at their disposal, including Samsung’s still relevant Galaxy S III and Motorola’s pair of Droid RAZR HDs."
On that note, the Droid Razr Maxx HD is a good bet, although it's stuck on Android 4.0 for now. Its hardware is as powerful as the Galaxy S III, but its battery life is much better and it's only barely thicker. Its version of Android is also much closer to stock than Samsung's. Neither device has Jelly Bean yet, but both will (supposedly) get it by the end of the year.
The Razr Maxx HD has a Kevlar back, Gorilla Glass front, and a massively high-capacity 3300mAh battery, but it’s only a little thicker than the S III. The biggest reason to get it is that battery. If you’re constantly running out before the day’s over, get the Razr Maxx HD.
Laptop Mag’s David Eitelbach gives it 4 stars and an Editors’ Choice award, saying “With snappy performance, blazing 4G speeds, a beautiful display and a battery guaranteed to last you throughout the day, the RAZR Maxx HD is a winner,” but he’s not a huge fan of the camera or call quality. He prefers the S III if you care about camera quality and innovative features, but for sheer battery stubbornness the Razr Maxx HD wins.
Dan Seifert at The Verge gives it 7.6, citing the power of the hardware and the tremendous battery life, but docking it for a mediocre camera and for “[losing] the one thing that made the RAZR stand out from the crowd. The original model’s impressively thin design made it worthy of wearing the storied RAZR badge, but the updated version is just another slab smartphone among a sea of many others.”
One big caveat–even with its aging hardware, some people still like the clean Jellybean and LTE combination in the year old Galaxy Nexus by Samsung. Josh Topolsky from The Verge actually ended up buying an old Galaxy Nexus for himself, which goes to show you how hard it is to decide on a best Android phone when the editor of a major tech publication ends up buying a phone over a year old instead of any of the newer handsets. The Galaxy Nexus could be a a good handset for you if having fast internet and Jellybean is important to you and you need to get a phone right now. But the hardware is aging, so it's better if you wait it out
If you're on AT&T and don't mind a lack of reviews, go for the HTC One X+. It comes with a bigger 2100mAh battery, more internal storage, and a faster Tegra 3 processor than the original One X, which was our pick for AT&T before the Galaxy S III came out. Unlike the original One X and the Samsung Galaxy S III, the One X+ is running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.
Gizmodo's Jamie Condliffe says it's "basically the same awesome phone" as the One X, but with a bigger battery and faster processor.
Sharif Shakr of Engadget likes the improved camera but found the battery life to be about the same as the original One X, likely due to the Tegra 3 chip's consumption balancing out the higher-capacity battery. "If you loved the physical design and excellent display on the original global One X but were put off by its 32GB storage cap and second-best performance, then this new flagship is definitely worthy of consideration."
And here’s what the reviewers said about the original One X:
CNet senior editor Brian Bennett said the original One X ($150) is the carrier’s current best: “It’s fast, it’s modern, and it boasts LTE, all of which at the moment makes it the best AT&T Android available.” Brian Klug at Anandtechloved practically everything about it in his review, stating that the One X is “really the only one to get on AT&T."
Brent Rose at Gizmodo said it’s “totally” worth buying and even challenges the iPhone 4S in his review:
"You could argue that the HTC One X is better than the iPhone 4S. Yeah, you heard that! The screen is most definitely better, the rest comes down to personal preference. Also, at $200 on contract, this thing is a steal."
(Although the wonderful Nexus 4, which can be bought unlocked, will work on AT&T, it will run under slower network speeds because of the types of network radios it has in it. It's also my thinking that if you can get a subsidy on a nice phone and you plan on having that cellphone for a while, you should take the subsidy.)
Other Options: If you don’t mind a phone that’s more than half tablet, Samsung’s Galaxy Note II is better than the first, but unless you can palm a basketball one-handed, it may be too large. It has a 5.5-inch screen and comes with a stylus. It’s really halfway between a phone and a 7-inch tablet and has proven surprisingly popular. But most people are better served with a smaller phone. While it's got beefier internal specs than the Galaxy S III, and the skinned iteration of Jellybean 4.1 that it runs isn't terrible, many reviews including those from TechRadar and CNet state that because of its size, the device is better thought of as a mini tablet with cellular capabilities than a mobile phone. The truth is, this phone won't fit in every pocket.
The Bottom Line: Unless your current phone is broken, don't upgrade until you can get a phone with LTE and Android 4.1 or later. Unless you're on T-Mobile, in which case you can't get LTE anyway and you should get a Nexus 4.
What To Look Forward To: Android phones are continuously improving and are released at a breakneck pace, which is good, but it's also frustrating. It's good because there's always something coming up that's going to be better but it's bad because it's hard to know when to actually buy something. I hope the next Nexus phone has LTE; it'd be a no-brainer.
Last Year’s Model: Your current phone, with a custom ROM. Personally, I’d rather have a stock version of Jelly Bean and LTE than the newest, fastest hardware, so I’m sticking with my Verizon Galaxy Nexus and relying on the custom ROM community for updates. I'm not alone in this; Josh Topolsky of The Verge just bought a Verizon Galaxy Nexus, though not as his only phone–he still has an iPhone 5 on AT&T.
One reason the Nexus 4 doesn't have LTE is that that frees Google from having to cede any control over its Nexus devices to carriers, which hobbled last generation’s Galaxy Nexus.
Thanks to carrier dillying, the Sprint and Verizon versions of the Galaxy Nexus received their official updates to Jelly Bean months after the rest of the Galaxy Nexus family. However, the intrepid custom ROM theme had stable Jelly Bean ROMs for the Sprint and Verizon phones the same day Android 4.1 launched. Android 4.2 code has been posted to the Android Open Source Project as of Nov 13, so Android 4.2 ROMs for the Galaxy Nexus will be available by the time you read this. Rooting your phone and adding a custom ROM is not something that everyone wants to do, but the difficulty level is somewhere between downloading a Windows Update and flashing a motherboard BIOS.
Custom ROMs aren't just useful for early adopters who don’t want to wait for the very latest version of Android; they’re also great for normal people who are stuck on a phone that the carrier isn't going to update. Carriers pretty much stop caring about phones once they've sold them to you, but you’re the one who has to live with the phone until you’re eligible for an upgrade. A custom ROM can breathe new life into your phone and give it an extra year of life. Forums like Rootzwiki and XDA-Developers will have subforums specific to your phone and carrier, with lots of ROMs to choose from and (usually) easy guides to getting a new ROM onto your phone in the first place.