Update: Find out our latest picks for Best Android Phone! (Updated in November)
Find out which handset gets the Android Central recommendation
We're six months down the road from our last "best Android phones" roundup, and the smartphone landscape has altered dramatically. Back in December we crowned the Samsung Galaxy S3 king of all Android phones, on account of its responsiveness, broad availability and excellent performance across the board. A generation later, the Android space is dominated by two new heavyweights -- the Galaxy S4 and HTC One, with other contenders including the Xperia Z and ZL from Sony and LG's Nexus 4.
In mid-2013, buttery-smooth performance, beautiful screens, high-quality cameras, 4G LTE connectivity and Jelly Bean out of the box come as standard at the high-end. Competition is more fierce than ever, and that's resulted in some of the best Android hardware we've ever seen.
But there can be only one winner. Join us after the break to find out which phone takes the prize.
Update: Check out our new list of the best Android phones — updated for August 2013!
The best of the best - HTC One
We really have reached the point where the top of the Android smartphone market is blanketed by some highly impressive devices. It's tough to go wrong. There's something for everyone, be it form factor or features or gimmicks and gizmos. But for our money, there's currently no better phone available than the HTC One.
There's a lot to like here. The (mostly) all-aluminum body looks and feels more sophisticated than a plastic phone, and the gentle curve fits the hand nicely. While we've still got our quibbles with the Sense user interface, Sense 5 is the most stylish version yet, and most important is that it doesn't exhibit the lag that we've seen in the Samsung Galaxy S4.
The front-facing stereo speakers change the way you experience music and videos on a smartphone. Games and movies are much more immersive and are a downright pleasure to play and listen to. There are a few times when the speakers may be too loud, but there are many more times when you're amazed you're getting that sort of sound from a smartphone.
HTC's camera also brought forth a bit of a paradigm shift. It's not the best all-around camera -- it suffers from contrast issues, and if you need something with a higher total resolution for enlarging pictures, you'll need to look elsewhere. But the introduction of Zoes -- the 3-second video clips -- and the introduction of automatically composed Video Highlights are something that nobody else is doing, and they make up for a lackluster camera application.
The HTC One also has been released on three of the four major U.S. carriers, as well as seeing wide availability worldwide -- and we're expecting Verizon to get its own variant this year as well.
In the months we've been using the HTC One, it's continuously caught the eyes of those around us and continued to impress us with its performance -- and for that it ranks as our best smartphone for first part of 2013.
The runner-up - Samsung Galaxy S4
If ever there was a phone to beat, it was this one. Samsung took everything that was good in the Galaxy S3 and made it better in its successor, the Galaxy S4.
Well, maybe not quite everything. The plastic body remains a turn-off for many, and it's certainly not as chic as the aluminum HTC One. It's also lost a bit of the curve of the Galaxy S3. And while Samsung has managed to squeeze a 5-inch display into the same size as the slightly smaller Galaxy S3, the IPS or Super LCD displays on other phones perform better in sunlight and seems to better handle shifts in brightness. The TouchWiz user interface has been refined a bit, but it's still flat in places and doesn't match the sophistication of other UIs.
Samsung's camera, however, remains the best in the business, as far as everyday use is concerned. It's filled with features, and the camera app itself is a joy to use, having been adapted from the high-end Samsung Galaxy Camera. You might not use features like the animated gif creator every day, but they're fun to have, even if they're not all that innovative.
But what landed the Galaxy S4 as our No. 2 is the laggy user interface -- we've experienced delays and stutters on a number of versions of the phone -- as well as the anemic storage situation. Samsung's 16-gigabyte version of the GS4 only has about 9 gigabytes of storage available to the end user. And while Samsung likes to say you can add another 64 gigabytes with a microSD card, that's a different kind of storage. Good luck keeping your larger games and apps on there. The sin isn't so much that Samsung's using all that space for the hundreds of features on the phone -- and it's got some really good preloaded apps and settings. The sin is that in 2013, that sort of deceptive marking and, for many, a lack of larger storage options, is unacceptable.
Would we recommend someone buy the Galaxy S4, which is available on just about every carrier on Earth? Absolutely. It just might not be the first phone we suggest.
More: Samsung Galaxy S4 review
The best oversized phone - LG Optimus G Pro
The other South Korean manufacturer -- LG -- has a bit of a dark horse on its hands with the Optimus G Pro. It's a 5.5-inch phone -- in the same class as the wildly popular Samsung Galaxy Note 2, but without the pen input. It also improves on the Note with a higher-resolution display, updated internals and a slightly narrower body.
LG's user interface still leaves a bit to be desired, but it's also come a long way in a short time. The Optimus G Pro has a more-than-capable camera, and it's the first outside of the Nexus line to sport the Photosphere feature.
Hamstringing the Optimus G Pro, however, is availability. In the United States, it's only available on AT&T, and it's seen limited release worldwide as well, though that's beginning to change. We're also expecting Samsung to at least match the Optimus G Pro's specs and features later this year. But for now, it's a pleasant addition to the oversized phone market.
It's not fair to just focus on the top three. Here are a few other contenders that are worth a look if the latest Samsung, HTC and LG handsets don't float your boat.
The Xperia Z for Europe and Xperia ZL for North America put Sony back in the game. The Japanese manufacturer might be something of an outcast as far as U.S. carriers support goes, but its latest Android smartphones have a lot to offer. Speedy performance, a clean UI and great camera software are highlights for both the Z and ZL. The Xperia Z also offers water resistant capabilities, though at the cost of ergonomics -- it's a blocky handset that can be uncomfortable to use. And both phones suffer from poor viewing angles, though on-screen images are crisp and clear when viewed head-on. Overall, both the Xperia Z and Xperia ZL are decent phones, but not without their share of niggling issues.
Despite the recent trend towards "Google Editions" of popular phones like the Galaxy S4 and HTC One, there's only one real Nexus, and LG and Google's collaboration remains the best value Android phone you can buy. (As ever, we'd recommend you spend a little extra and pick up the 16GB model.)
In mid-2013, the Nexus 4's main weakness is its lack of (official) LTE support. We don't know whether the dormant T-Mobile LTE capabilities will be reactivated, but we can't help thinking if that was going to happen, it would've happened by now. So with the Nexus 4 you're going to top out at DC-HSDPA (42Mbps) data speeds. For some buyers, that's no big deal; for others, it's a deal-breaker. Aside from that, you're looking at a very speedy phone with stock Android, lightning-fast updates from Google and recently a new white color option, if the standard black model isn't doing it for you. Even now, we'd struggle to think of a better phone for the $300-350 contract-free asking price.
Now 12 months old, the Galaxy S3 is positively geriatric by smartphone standards. But the GS3 is still being sold by carriers around the world, and some are even just getting around to launching it. Much of the praise we heaped upon the GS3 back in December still applies today -- it's still fast, feature-packed, LTE-capable and eminently available wherever in the world you happen to be. The one part of the S3 that hasn't aged so well is the screen -- compared to the current crop of smartphone displays, it's not great. If we were being unkind, we might even call it below-average. But if you're looking for a good, solid mid-level phone that won't cost you much on-contract, the GS3 fits the bill -- just be aware that you're already a year into its life cycle at this point.
Looking ahead, we're not expecting the Android smartphone ecosystem to be shaken up much until the end of the year. We'll probably see Android 4.3 sometime in the next couple of months, and that'll tide us over until the next major Android revision, most likely towards the end of the year. Until then, the first half of the year has brought some exceptionally great hardware. Be sure to hit the comments and share your picks for the top Android phone of 2013.