A lot has changed since we published our last round-up of the best Android phones available, and awarded the top prize to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. At the time, the Gnex outshone the competition thanks to the blistering performance and innovative features delivered by Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.
But that was five long months ago. Since then, screen sizes, resolutions and core counts have continued to rise. There’s a new Nexus, and Android OEMs have had the chance to get their own Jelly Bean-based devices out into the wild. And this time around, it makes more sense to split things up and cover the U.S market separately (look for our U.S. round-up in the days ahead). In this article we’re going to focus on the best international Android phones, and recommend one unlocked world phone for Europe, Asia and beyond.
Join us after the break to find out more about our top four devices, and learn which gets our recommendation for international buyers.
The Top Four (in no particular order)
Before we reveal the winner, here's a rundown of four of the very best international Android phones.
Google and LG’s Nexus 4 is the Android phone of the moment -- a highly desirable handset that’s consistently sold out around the world thanks to its competitive Google Play Store pricing. LG’s also won us over with the Nexus 4’s impressive build quality, which has the guts of the phone sandwiched in Gorilla Glass 2, with a soft-touch plastic trim.
On the subject of of internals, the N4 packs one of the fastest smartphone chips available, a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, coupled with 2GB of RAM. Combine that with vanilla Android 4.2, and you’ve got an incredibly fast device -- easily one of the speediest and most responsive we’ve used. Google's also polished up some of its own proprietary apps, including the camera, gallery and keyboard -- all important steps that bring the Nexus experience up to par with leading “skinned” phones.
There are many ways in which the Nexus 4 is unremarkable -- the camera’s pretty run of the mill, though by no means bad. 8GB of storage isn’t much, but fortunately there’s a more substantial 16GB version on offer too. It’s a plain old DC-HSDPA device without (official) LTE support, however this is less of an issue outside of the U.S., where LTE networks are fewer and further between.
But overall, it's the combination of performance, build quality, functionality and price that’s earned the Nexus 4 a place on our list. And being a Nexus device, it’s sure to be first in line for software updates, too.
Samsung’s Galaxy S3 is the best-selling Android phone of the year by a very wide margin, and with good reason. Samsung’s made sure to tick just about every box in its 2012 flagship, delivering a large screen, a thin, light chassis, high-quality camera, feature-packed software, expandable storage and impressive performance. Throw in a massive marketing effort and widespread availability on just about every carrier on the planet, and it’s easy to see why Sammy’s shifted over 30 million S3s since launch.
But if the Galaxy S3 didn’t top our list back in July, then what’s changed this time around? Well, the main answer is Jelly Bean. Over the past couple of months, most Galaxy S3 models have been upgraded to Android 4.1, introducing the crucial “Project Butter” performance improvements to an already fast smartphone. This means in day-to-day use a Jelly Bean’d Galaxy S3 is every bit as fast as a Nexus 4, while having the advantage of improved camera performance.
The latter part of the year has also heralded the launch of the international Galaxy S3 LTE (GT-i9305) in Europe, making this device an easy first choice Android phone on fledgling European LTE networks.
Build quality and display fidelity stand out as areas of weakness for the S3. Its 720p SuperAMOLED panel isn’t bad, but put it side-by-side with the One X+’s SuperLCD2 or the Nexus 4’s IPS panel and the difference is clear. And the use of an AMOLED screen means daylight visibility is automatically poorer than the LCD-based competition. The decision to aim for a thin, light chassis means the S3 is constructed mostly of shiny plastic, which feels cheaper than competing devices like the Nexus 4.
A supercharged follow-up to HTC’s leading One series phone, the One X+ was released in Europe in October, with a U.S. launch on AT&T following in November. The One X+ addresses many of our gripes with the original One X, improving battery life and swapping the shiny polycarbonate of the original for a sleek soft-touch finish.
The One X+ inherits its predecessor’s gorgeous SuperLCD2 screen, which remains the best-looking display you’ll find outside of a Droid DNA. That’s one of the areas in which it compares favorably against the other phones on our list. The 64GB of built-in storage is also a huge plus, and it’s formatted as one big partition that can be filled with apps or media, allowing you to use it however you like. The 1.7GHz quad-core Tegra 3 CPU also has a slight edge in gaming performance, thanks to NVIDIA’s courtship of the Android game developer community.
Software-wise, you’ve got Jelly Bean and HTC Sense 4+, which is more than sufficient for a pretty speedy smartphone experience -- though not quite as responsive as the other phones on our list in certain cases.
HTC’s ImageSense tech shines through in stills taken with the 8MP rear camera, resulting in instant captures and excellent still shots given the right conditions. Video performance, though lagging behind the Samsung competition, is nonetheless decent.
A few minor qualms -- the One X+ is pricey, and the LTE version isn’t yet widespread outside of the U.S. What’s more, we found battery life to be a little less robust than we’d have liked, though still an improvement on that of the original One X.
The original Galaxy Note was a quirky device that defied the odds to win worldwide consumer approval. In the past year, the Note and its successor have shifted tens of millions of units, and cemented the asinine term "phablet" in the popular smartphone consciousness.
The Note 2 proves Samsung is serious about this half-phone, half-tablet form factor. The Note 2 packs Sammy's fastest quad-core CPU, surpassing even the S3 in horsepower. The 5.5-inch screen, while "only" being a 720p panel, ups the ante in terms of subpixel density, thanks to its use of a non-PenTile matrix arrangement (translation: it's more detailed than the Galaxy S3.)
For a 5.5-inch smartphone, it's surprisingly hand and pocket-friendly. Samsung has reduced the Note 2's girth compared to the original by adopting a 16:9 aspect ratio and cutting down on horizontal bezel. And it's done so without making the Note 2 feel either bulky or flimsy. The overall impression is of a substantial, well-designed device that's comfortable with its extra heft. It's anything but half-assed. The Galaxy Note 2 is a whole-assed device.
Software-wise, the Galaxy Note 2 shares a lot in common with the Galaxy S3. Both run Jelly Bean -- the Note out of the box, the S3 with an over-the-air upgrade. Both include the TouchWiz Nature UX, and all the extra features and visual clutter that that brings. Like its little brother, it's exceedingly fast. But the Note 2's most impressive features are the ones that are unique to it. The bundled S Pen stylus is easier to use and well-implemented in software, improving tasks as simple as text entry, or as complex as writing an equation. And the "multi-window" feature offers a glimpse into the future of smartphones, with true multitasking allowing two apps on-screen at the same time.
In a nutshell, the Note 2 is a technological marvel. Samsung's crammed every last possible morsel of hardware and software goodness into this device, and that's why it's made our top four.
The Android Central recommendation
Samsung Galaxy S3 - the best international Android phone you can buy
That's right, the Samsung Galaxy S3. Measured against all other international contenders, Samsung's flagship comes out on top, in our opinion. Competitors may have it bested in individual areas, but it's the S3's strong performance across the board that's won it our recommendation. Its speed and responsiveness on the latest Jelly Bean-based firmware is on par with that of the Nexus 4. And unlike the current Nexus, its got one of the best cameras on any phone, along with removable storage, and fixed storage options up to 64GB.
What's more, it's available on about every LTE carrier in the world, whereas the Nexus currently lacks official LTE support, and the international One X+ LTE is AWOL at the time of writing. And while on paper the One X+ may seem more appealing in other areas, it's also a lot more expensive, not quite as speedy, and lacks the proven battery life of the S3.
The S3 shines as an excellent all-rounder, but you might rightly ask why we chose it over its bigger, stronger, faster sibling, the Note 2. The fact is that the Note's gigantic size prevents it from stealing the S3's mainstream crown. Most consumers don't need a device of this size, and the Galaxy S3 delivers most of the features of the Note 2 in a more pocket-friendly (and wallet-friendly) package. For most, the S3 the best fit.
Looking ahead ...
We're around a month out from CES, and just over two months away from Mobile World Congress. Both shows are significant for the mobile world, and we're sure to see devices in the coming months that blow away everything we've discussed here. That's just the way consumer electronics works -- there's always something just a little bit better on the horizon. 2013 looks to be the year of 5-inch, 1080p screens -- HTC already has the Droid DNA; Sony, LG and Samsung are rumored to be working on similar-sized devices.
Specs will get speccier, screens will get bigger, CPUs will get faster, and maybe we'll hit a bit of a plateau in the screen size and resolution wars. A 5-inch device pushes the limits of the human hand, while a 1080p screen tests the limits of human vision. Hopefully that's where it'll stop. Hopefully we won't be sitting here in 12 months contemplating 4K tablets and 2560x1600 smartphones.
We'd expect Android 4.2 and 4.1 to become dominant in the next few months, as ICS devices get their updates, and the next wave of Jelly Bean phones launches. As for Key Lime Pie, the next major version of Android, we'd be surprised to see that before the end of next year -- maybe Google I/O at the earliest, though that'd place early 2013 phones in the precarious position of being immediately in need of an update.
Whatever happens, we hope you'll stick with us for the ride. We're about to jump from one smartphone silly season right into another.