Ultimate guide

The best Android phones

"What's the best phone right now?" That's probably the question we get around here more than any other. It's subjective, and it's not easy to answer. And truth be told there are whole lot of phones out there right now that you just can't go wrong with.

So as we head into the winter holiday shopping season, we're going to take a look at what's available now and simply say this:

These are the best Android smartphones that are currently available. Price listed is for each carrier's monthly payment over 24 months. Up-front, on-contract pricing will be higher, usually between $100 and $300, depending on the phone. Click through to each carrier's listing for off-contract costs.

A solid Android phone pick / The Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Big phones sell. You might think they’re getting too big (and perhaps they are), but the simple fact is that folks are buying them. And they’re buying a lot of them. And not only is the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 one of the best oversized phones available, it’s also one of the best all-around phones, period. It's got a beefier processor than last year's model and the higher-resolution QHD display, also bumped up in size to 5.7 inches. It's running Android 4.4.4 KitKat, with an update to Android 5.0 Lollipop on the way, and comes with a removable 3,220 mAh battery.

The addition of optical image stabilization (OIS) on the 16-megapixel camera makes it one of the better low-light shooters available, and it’s definitely improved over the Galaxy S5.

Plus, the Note 4 has Samsung’s excellent pen input features, which nobody else has even bothered to attempt to replicate. It’s that good.

Add all that up, and you’ve got a major contender.

There's a lot to the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, and we don't mean that in just that it's big. For everything you need to know about the, check out our review of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

Specifications

  • 6.04 x 3.09 x 0.32 inches
    6.21 ounces
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
    2.3 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 quad-core processor
  • Up to 20 hours talk time
    Up to 26 days standby time
  • 16 Megapixel Camera
    3.7 MP Front-Facing Camera

Sounds great, feels amazing / The HTC One M8

Another of our favorite phones of early 2014 remains a good buy today. The HTC One M8 is the second generation of the Taiwanese manufacturer's flagship metal smartphone sports a 5-inch 1080p display sandwiched between two excellent front-facing speakers that truly will change the way you watch videos and play games on your phone. The trade-off is that this phone is really tall, even if it is thin and curvy in all the right places.

The M8 also is one of the fastest phones we've used this year, even with HTC's custom user interface atop Android 4.4 KitKat. (An update to Android 5.0 is in the works.) It's all powered by a Snapdragon 801 processor with 2GB of RAM, but somehow HTC's managed to make it faster than other phones with the same internals. We're not complaining.

Big. Bold. Brilliantly distinctive. New sleek, tapered edges and zero-gap construction refine the HTC One’s aluminum unibody in a brushed, gun metal gray finish, to deliver a slim yet satisfying grip. It’s a design that doesn’t compromise.

Specifications

  • 5.68 x 2.77 x 0.37 inches
    5.64 ounces
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
    2.3 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor
  • 20 hours talk time
    13.6 days standby time
  • HTC Duo Camera with UltraPixel (4MP resolution)
    2GB RAM, 32GB storage, 128GB expandable memory slot

What still gives us pause, however, is the camera. It's good, but with a total resolution of just 4 megapixels you don't get as much information in each picture, and the camera's limitations show themselves more quickly. Tempering that a bit are all the post-processing effects HTC's built in, including video highlights and a number of filters and effects. That's also where the secondary camera lens comes in — it allows for some fun 3D effects.

There's a lot to love about the HTC One M8, and it's one of our favorite Android phones for a reason. For more, read our review of the HTC One M8.

Brilliant, and tough / The Samsung Galaxy S5

We're a little more than halfway into the product cycle for the fifth iteration of Samsung's flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S5. And as you'd expect, this one's the best of the Samsung bunch. It's not a huge change over last year's model, insofar as design goes, but it's all the little tweaks that makes it so great.

The 5.1-inch Super AMOLED display (at 1080p resolution) is among the best you'll find today. And the brightness and color both adapt to the ambient lighting around you. The 16-megapixel camera remains among the best you can get in an Android smartphone, though it does disappoint somewhat in low light.

Stunning. Innovative. Simply inspired. The Samsung Galaxy S® 5 is technology that truly impacts your life. Make split-second moments yours. Watch HD movies and games roar to life. Track your life right down to your heartbeat.

Specifications

  • 5.59 x 2.75 x 0.32 inches
    5.11 ounces
  • Android 4.4.2 KitKat
    2.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor
  • Up to 29 hours talk time
    Up to 20 days standby time
  • 16 megapixel camera
    2GB RAM, 16GB storage, 128GB expandable memory slot

If you're looking for power, the Galaxy S5 has it, sporting a quad-core processor at 2.5GHz, 2GB of RAM and a removable 2,800 mAh battery. And Samsung made this thing dust- and water-resistant out of the box.

The Galaxy S series has consistently produced smartphones that helped to define the state-of-the-art, and the latest edition is no exception. Read our review of the Samsung Galaxy S5 to find out more.

Nearly stock Android, but better / The Moto X 2014

The original Moto X was one of our favorite phones of 2013, and it's grown up a bit this year. Literally. Motorola shed the diminutive size of the original and scaled the display up to 5.2 inches at 1080p. It's also improved the camera quality a bit with a 13-megapixel shooter capable of recording video in 4K resolution. Motorola's also added a video highlights feature, so you can easily share the best of your events in just a few touches.

But the standout feature of the Moto X continues to be its software. Motorola doesn't do much to the basic look and feel of Android as Google intended it to be, but there are a few choice customizations that will help your phone be smarter when you're sleeping, driving and busy in meetings. And it's one of the first to be updated to Android 5.0 Lollipop.

Specifications

  • 5.54 x 2.85 x 0.39 inches
    5.08 ounces
  • Android 5.0 Lollipop
    2.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor
  • 13 megapixel camera
    Dual-LED ring flash
    4K video

And Motorola has set the bar extremely high when it comes to updating the software on its phones, so you'll likely continue to get the newest version of Android before just about anyone else.

What's more is that you can customize your own Moto X, getting it in a variety colors and styles. (Leather, anyone? Or how about wood!). Read our review of the Moto X for more.

And if you’re on Verizon and want even more battery life and an absurd display, check out the Motorola Droid Turbo, which also has a higher-resolution camera. It's $24.99 a month on Verizon.

The cutting edge / The LG G3

One of the most innovative phones of the past couple years (really, there are awards for that stuff) continues to impress in 2014. The LG G3 was the first of the large-screen phones to up things to QHD resolution, packing a 1440x2560 display into 5.5 inches — but all in a phone that doesn't feel that large.

What's more is that the power and volume buttons you'd usually find on the side or maybe on top of the phone have remain on the back side. It's a devilishly simply design that is far more intuitive than you'd expect.

LG's also coming along nicely in the software department; it just has to be sure to pump out those system updates as quickly as possible.

The G3's 13-megapixel camera is one of the best you can get these days, thanks in no small part to the inclusion of an optical imaging stabilization system and laser (as in pew pew!!!) autofocus. The G3 also sports a 3,000 mAh removable battery, and it has a microSD card slot for expandable storage.

It's an incredible phone for sure, and still one of our favorites. Be sure to read our LG G3 review for our complete impressions.

Specifications

  • 5.76 x 2.92 x 0.35 inches
    5.28 ounces
  • Android 4.4 KitKat®
    2.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor
  • 23 hours talk time
    31 days standby time
  • 3GB RAM
    32GB internal memory
    128GB expandable memory slot

Other phones worth consideration

Nexus 6

The Nexus 6 is a big, big phone. As the name implies, the display’s been increased to 6 inches, in a form factor that’s nearly identical to the smaller (but not exactly tiny) Moto X. The differentiator here is that the Nexus 6 is the first phone to sport Android 5.0 Lollipop. It’s also got dual front-facing speakers, a 13-megapixel camera and the ability to be seen through your pants pockets from 100 yards. It’s that big. But the kids are gonna love it.

Read our Nexus 6 review.

In addition to being available unlocked on Google Play and Motorola starting at $649, the Nexus 6 is carried by T-Mobile ($27.08 a month), AT&T ($22.77 a month) and Sprint ($27 a month).

Nexus 5

The Nexus 6 might be the newest and biggest Nexus on the block, but the older Nexus 5 is still an incredibly solid buy. It was released late in 2013, and will still be among the first to be updated new versions of Android for a good bit of 2015.

Read our Nexus 5 review.

Buy now: Amazon ($399 unlocked)

Moto G

The Moto G without question is one of the more affordable phones out there. And you get a lot at that price, too. You get a pure Android experience, an 8-megapixel camera, and the knowledge that Motorola’s going to keep it updated quickly. The trade-offs at this price are low on-board storage — 8GB, but you do have a microSD card slot. And you don’t get LTE data. But if you can deal with that, you’ve got yourself a great phone at less than $200.

Read our Moto G review.

Buy now: Motorola ($179.99 unlocked)

Sony Xperia Z3

The Xperia Z3 is Sony's best Android phone yet, with a metal-framed, glass-backed design, one of the best-looking 1080p IPS displays we've seen and killer two-day battery life. What's more, the ability to stream PlayStation 4 games to the Z3 makes it an attractive proposition for gamers.

Read our Sony Xperia Z3 review.

Buy now: Xperia Z3 T-Mobile (26.25 a month) | Verizon ($24.99 a month) | Sony ($629 unlocked)

The bottom line

That's the best of the best of what's available in the United States for 2014. And we could make a very good case that any one of those phones is the best of the year, or that each has a drawback that lets another leap ahead.

Regardless, all of those phones are good today, and should be good for many months into 2015. If you're in the market for a top Android, or knows someone who is, you simply cannot go wrong with anything on this list.

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