It’s time for another look at the best Android handsets out there
It’s been a busy three months since we brought you our last roundup of the best Android phones on the market. In that time we’ve witnessed the launch of important devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, LG G2 and Nexus 5, along with the new Android 4.4 KitKat — and important updates for existing phones. The Android smartphone landscape has altered considerably, with the established flagship phones released in earlier months facing new challengers as we approach the end of the year.
So it’s time to take a fresh look at things as 2013 draws to a close. Just about everything that’s going to land in Q4 has done so, and so the current selection of Android phones will be sticking around until the first wave of 2014 handsets arrives in early Spring.
Join us after the break, where we’ll crown the best Android phone overall, the best oversized phone and the best value phone — and look at a few runners-up and honorable mentions.
The best Android phone you can buy — the Moto X
It’s an imperfect phone, but it’s one that lives up to the cliché of the sum being greater than the parts
Welcome back, Motorola. Not that the company was ever really gone, but things had grown a bit stale with Droid after Droid after Droid. Then came the Moto X. It’s an imperfect phone, to be sure. But it’s one that lives up to the cliché of the sum being greater than the parts.
You’ve got a phone with a display the same size as the Nexus 4 (4.7 inches), but in a smaller, more attractive body. It might only sport a 720p display, but few will fret the lower resolution, and instead appreciate the greater battery life. The camera is adequate — not great — and it’s gotten a little better with software updates. Automatic enhancements from the sharing services make that a little easier to swallow as well.
The internal hardware isn’t quite bleeding edge, but it’s so well optimized that you’ll not notice, and it takes advantage of a couple low-power cores. Toss in the fact that the Moto X has been updated to the most recent version of Android — before some of Google’s own Nexus devices, even — and you’ll be hard-pressed to find something better. The “always-listening” Touchless Control and Active Display are just icing on an already pretty sweet cake. The on-contract pricing is low, and $549 for an unlocked developer version isn’t out of reach for those who need that sort of phone. Plus, you’ve got the customization of Motomaker.
We talk about “solid” phones, and the Moto X really does meet that definition better than just about anything out there. Fast where it should be. Feels great in the hand, and with battery life that doesn’t make you want to look for a charger around lunchtime.
Runners-up — the HTC One, LG G2, Sony Xperia Z1 and Nexus 5
We’ve got a lot of runners-up this time around, but the truth is these are all fantastic phones that are worthy of consideration. Let’s dig in ...
The HTC One is the oldest phone in our lineup but it’s still a fantastic purchase, made better by the Sense 5.5 update that’s rolling out now in some countries. While many manufacturers are getting better at producing great-feeling soft-touch plastic phones, it’s tough to beat the sumptuous brushed aluminum unibody of the HTC One.
HTC buyers can also enjoy one of our favorite custom UIs for Android. The current version of HTC Sense is speedy — arguably more so than the stock Android-based Google Play edition HTC One — with features that add real value for regular users. Zoe photos and video highlights are a delightful way to turn a stream of stills and video into something enjoyable and easily shareable. And HTC BlinkFeed has matured into a great productivity and social tool in Sense 5.5 with the addition of RSS, search, Instagram, Google+ and other customizations.
HTC’s flagship has held its own better than any of its contemporaries
Others have the One beaten in terms of battery life and camera quality for sure, but HTC remains the manufacturer to beat in some key areas. It's got a thunderous pair of BoomSound speakers, the best on any phone, and an equally impressive 1080p SuperLCD 3 display. It’s approaching nine months since the HTC One first launched in Europe and Asia, which is a long time in the smartphone world. Nevertheless HTC’s flagship has held its own better than any of its contemporaries, and it’s still worth your cash today.
A somewhat underappreciated phone, LG’s current flagship misses out on the top spot due to its quirky rear-mounted button setup, plasticky exterior and overblown, in-your-face software — but regardless, there’s a lot to like about this device. That gorgeous 5.2-inch 1080p IPS display, packed into a chassis barely any larger than the 4.7-inch competition, is one significant reason. LG has done a great job of simply placing a screen in the user’s hand, free from bezels and other distractions — and it’s done so in a way that’s also easy on your hand and pocket.
The camera is among the best on the market, with a 13-megapixel BSI sensor and optical image stabilization to compensate for hand motion. And the 3000mAh battery and GRAM technology gives the device the kind of longevity lacking from many others in our lineup. The G2 also ranks near the top in terms of performance — with a Snapdragon 800 CPU inside it absolutely flies, and is sure to handle all the apps and games you’ll throw at it for the foreseeable future, even if the device’s OS upgrade prospects remain uncertain.
Sony Xperia Z1
At the time of writing the Xperia Z1 is only available off-contract in the U.S. But it’s easier to get hold of internationally, and well worth your money if you live outside the states or are buying SIM-free. Sony’s latest is a substantial improvement on the OG Xperia Z, with a better display, enhanced build quality and superior performance. It’s still a bit of a brick, with hefty bezels and a squarish shape, meaning it’s nowhere near as ergonomic as much of the competition. However it makes up for that with a beautiful design and incredibly solid feeling chassis, most notably the aluminum trim that extends around its sides and the clean, glass panel adorning its rear.
Sony has finally gotten battery life and performance right
The Z1 also has a handful of unique hardware capabilities going for it. It’s water resistant (with its ports closed) for up to 30 minutes. And it boasts the highest megapixel count of any Android smartphone, carrying a 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS sensor that shoots great-looking oversampled 8MP photos with an array of useful scene modes.
Elsewhere the Sony flagship suffers from poor display viewing angles, an unfortunate family trait for the Japanese manufacturer’s phones. But at least Sony has finally gotten battery life and performance right — there’s a Snapdragon 800 CPU inside, and the Z1’s 3,000mAh battery easily gets through a full working day (and then some, if you enable Sony’s battery stamina mode.)
More: Sony Xperia Z1 review
If you absolutely must be on the bleeding edge of Android, this is where it’s at
The new Nexus smartphone from LG and Google isn’t the best Android handset around, but it does excel in a few important areas. Aside from its ridiculously low SIM-free price, which we’ll get to later in this article, the Nexus 5 packs an impressive 1080p IPS display, a top-level Snapdragon 800 CPU and appealing, if understated design.
But the star of the show is really the new Android 4.4 KitKat — a brighter, lighter Android boasting closer integration with Google services. Caller ID by Google lets you see who’s calling, based on phone records in Google’s business directory. The new home screen launcher makes it easier than ever to get to Google Now and voice actions two of Android’s most useful features. And it’s also blazingly fast.
What’s not so great? Well, the Nexus 5’s battery life is probably its greatest weakness — it delivers fewer hours between charges than the G2 and Xperia Z1. And while the camera can take great shots, the finicky autofocus and slow capture speeds will be a source of frustration. There are still a few bugs in the brand-new software. It’s another compromise, as Nexus handsets always tend to be. But if you absolutely must be on the bleeding edge of Android, this, for the moment, is where it’s at.
More: Nexus 5 review
Best oversized phone: Samsung Galaxy Note 3
No-one makes big phones like Samsung
No-one makes big phones like Samsung. The Galaxy Note 3 is the third iteration of the original half phone/half tablet handset, and it’s comfortably the best large form factor phone available. It’s deceptively light for a 5.7-incher, with a face-meltingly bright Full HD SuperAMOLED screen. And Samsung hasn’t skimped on internals — there’s a Snapdragon 800 CPU inside with a whopping 3GB of RAM, the 13-megapixel camera from the Galaxy S4 and 32 or 64GB of storage, expandable via microSD. Equally important is the external hardware. Samsung has ditched the shiny plastic and gone with matte or soft-touch plastic on the Note 3, depending the color option, making for a much improved, less slippery feel.
Samsung smartphones are renowned for their vast array of features, and Samsung has packed even more software tricks into the Note 3, most notably around the S Pen stylus. The new Air Command menu lets you quickly jump to stylus-controlled features like action memo, which lets you write out addresses or contact info. Samsung’s TouchWiz UI is still somewhat of a multicolored mess, but there’s no other manufacturer offering anywhere near this volume of features.
The most impressive thing about the Galaxy Note 3 isn’t necessarily its high-end hardware or wealth of software features, but the fact that for a 5.7-inch phone it feels smaller and easier to manage than ever before. While we really struggled to hold onto last year’s Note 2 with one hand, the same isn’t true of the Note 3. And given how many bulky, unwieldy large smartphones we’ve seen this year, that’s an achievement worth underscoring.
In the entry-level space, the Moto G offers unequaled hardware for your $179-$199 — great build quality, inspired by the look and feel of the Moto X, a quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor and a 720p LCD display that puts many more expensive rivals to shame. The energy-efficient processor and large battery capacity (for this kind of phone, anyway) make the Moto G able to boast considerable longevity. On the software side it’s a fairly barebones Android 4.3-based experience for the time being, though an update to KitKat is promised by the end of January. And you get Motorola’s trusted Bluetooth features and Motorola Assist to help out with silencing and automatically replying to messages when you’re asleep or in a meeting.
Notable compromises include the camera — a pretty basic 5-megapixel affair — and data connectivity, as you’ll max out at 21Mbps HSPA+ on the Moto G.
The Nexus 5, on the other hand, is a high-end phone at a mid-range price point. Your $350-$400 gets you the fastest Android phone out there, with one of the best-looking displays and a thin, light chassis that feels great. You’ll also get LTE connectivity, something lacking from previous Nexus handsets, and the bragging rights that come from having the latest and greatest version of Android, 4.4 KitKat, and speedy updates to future versions. As we’ve already discussed, the N5’s main weakness is its battery life — curiously, one of the Moto G’s strengths — and as mentioned above, camera software can present challenges at times. But neither of these things are necessarily deal-breakers considering the combined hardware and software package you’re getting for your $350.
Samsung Galaxy S4
While many of the contenders on this list have the GS4 beaten in individual areas, Samsung’s current mainstream high-ender is still very much worth a look. The Korean manufacturer has done a great job packing a 5-inch 1080p display into a thin, light chassis, and delivering camera and battery performance that stacks up well next to the late-2013 competition.
It’s also available on just about every carrier on the planet, has recently been updated to Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, and boasts a wider array of software features than most Android phones, even if we do question the usefulness of some of them.
Verizon Motorola Droid Maxx
The Droid Maxx is essentially a Moto X with a giant battery and a larger screen, wrapped in a more industrial-looking design. And it's that gargantuan 3,500mAh battery that’s landed the Maxx an honorable mention, despite it only being available on one U.S. carrier.
If you’re on Verizon, the Maxx is definitely worth considering alongside the Moto X — it delivers much of what’s great about that device, with extended battery life to boot. (Of course it’s also worth considering that the Maxx still runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, whereas the the Verizon Moto X is right up to date on 4.4 KitKat.)
The past year has seen more high-quality Android hardware than ever before, and any of the phones on our list should serve you well over the course of a two-year contract. As tick follows tock, we’re sure to see ever more advanced hardware as the next generation approaches. Screens will continue to get larger — we’ve already seen hints of 5.25-inch 1440p panels being readied for future Samsung phones, for instance. Qualcomm’s 4K-capable Snapdragon 805 chipset and its contemporaries will surely feature prominently in the Android phones of 2014, too. It’ll also be interesting to see how less quantifiable hardware traits like battery life and build quality evolve over the coming year.
For the moment, though, Android buyers are already spoiled for choice, with a the wealth of high-quality hardware from which to take their pick. So which one have you chosen? Share your thoughts down in the comments!