The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (February 2015)

This is a strange time in the Android world. Big phones are on the way, but there are already so many great ones out there. Getting a new phone can be a two-year investment (at least for most people). You don’t want to get the wrong thing and regret it on a daily basis. What’s a phone nerd to do? Well, let’s try to figure that out.

Photo credit: Flickr user janitors via creative commons.

This month is all about playing the waiting game or jumping on something that seems good enough.

Wait it out? The HTC One M9 and Samsung Galaxy S6

If you think you need a new phone right now, I would urge you to consider if need is really the right word. Maybe you just really want one. If that’s the case, you should wait. Samsung and HTC have both announced updated versions of their flagship devices, and they’ll probably be on sale in just a few weeks — probably late March or early April.

So we’re going to do things a little differently this month. Since both these devices will be going up against each other, let’s talk about what each one brings to the table so you can get a feel for them. They’ll be on all four major carriers, so you can take you pick in a month or so when they come out, if that’s what you decide to do. If you’re ready to buy a phone right now, we’ll go over an alternative on each carrier.

First, the Galaxy S6. Samsung knew it needed to change things after the Galaxy S5 failed to sell as well as expected. The company played around a little with the Note 4 and Galaxy Alpha phones by incorporating more metal and a tighter design, but the Galaxy S6 is a complete departure from Samsung build quality of the past. The device is all metal and glass with a thin profile not unlike the iPhone 6.

To make this happen, Samsung ditched the removable battery and the microSD card slot, both hallmarks of Samsung devices in the past. The battery is reasonable, I think, considering the overall design. I feel like the absence of a microSD card slot is a consequence of the speed with which Samsung put this design together. There just wasn’t time to make room for the slot. I bet we’ll see the microSD come back next year. It also has built-in wireless charging and a wacky magnetic stripe payment method acquired from LoopPay.

Samsung’s customary AMOLED is a 5.1-inch 1440p screen this year, and it’s probably going to be the gold standard for smartphone screens in 2015. Even other phones that have Samsung panels fall short when compared to the latest from Samsung itself. The company only sells last year’s technology to the competition. The camera is 16MP again and has an improved aperture, faster focusing, and a few other minor tweaks. Samsung was already way ahead of the competition when it came to camera tech, so minor improvements will be enough.

Inside Samsung has gone with a 64-bit octa-core Exynos chip rather than a Snapdragon. Rumors abound regarding the reason for this, but the long and short of it is that Samsung’s new phone is really fast, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are supply constraints at first. Samsung hasn’t used its in-house ARM chips in all versions of a flagship phone in years.

The Galaxy S6 will ship with Android 5.0 Lollipop, but all those rumors about a magical redesign of TouchWiz were, as expected, nonsense. It’s still TouchWiz with a few built-in apps removed. It is still Android 5.0 so you get features like the refined app switcher, notifications on the lock screen, and animations everywhere. Samsung did introduce a theme engine in TouchWiz, which might actually make a big impact in the attractiveness of TouchWiz, depending on how quickly devs adopt it.

The HTC One M9, on the other hand, didn’t change much from last year. HTC apparently thinks it has things figured out as it merely refined what it released in 2014. In fact, looking at the M9, it can be hard to tell it apart from the M8. The biggest difference is the camera, which is now a standard 20MP sensor. The 4MP Ultrapixel camera has moved to the front, and the depth-sensing camera that made up the second half of last year’s Duo Camera is gone. Good–it never made much sense.

HTC has stayed with a 5-inch 1080p LCD on the One M9, which means the frame of the phone is almost completely unchanged. The device is a little shorter, the bezels are slightly smaller, and the Boom Sound speakers are still pointed right at your face. A 1080p screen at 5-inches is probably more than sufficient for most people, and HTC did manage to bump the battery up to a 2840mAh cell. That’s quite large, and with the 1080p screen it should offer amazing battery life. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the M9 hit seven hours of screen-on time.

HTC is still very strong on software compared to other OEMs. Sense 7 with Android 5.0 is clean, refined, and fast. There aren’t many updates to to Sense this year, but just like Samsung, HTC has added a theme engine. However, you can build a theme right on the phone using colors extracted from photos, which is neat. There are fewer extra services and apps built into Sense when compared to TouchWiz as well.

So that’s what you have you look forward to with the new flagships from HTC and Samsung. If you can wait, you probably should. If these don’t sound right or you simply can’t hold off a few weeks, lets see what you should get right now.

AT&T and Verizon

If you’re living with AT&T, I think your choice is rather clear. The Moto X is still, after all these months, one of the best Android phones money can buy. The AT&T variant also got its Lollipop upgrade just a few days ago, making it an even better value. This update contains some important fixes for stability and memory management as well, which was probably one of the major hold-ups in getting it rolled out.

Motorola’s current flagship phone has a 5.2-inch screen, which is a little larger than the 2013 Moto X. That’s still on the small side compared to a lot of phones. I think it’s comfortable enough to use one-handed for most people. The screen is a 1080p AMOLED, which looks great at that size and has nice colors. There’s a bit of pink at low brightness levels, but the sharpness is great.

The way the glass slopes down at the edge makes the phone very pleasant to hold and the curved back sits nicely in your hand. The overall device is rather thick (1cm), but it tapers down dramatically at the edges, so it doesn’t feel that thick.The metal frame is also plenty sturdy.

The 2014 Moto X has 2GB of RAM, a Snapdragon 801, and a 2300mAh battery. The battery life isn’t amazing, but it’s good enough for moderate use. I doubt the Moto X will stand up to the M9 or GS6 when it comes to battery life, but it’s going to cost you a bit less than those devices.

The camera is still a problem for the Moto X. The 13MP shooter is better than last year’s 10MP sensor, but it’s still behind most flagship devices. The hardware is fine, but Motorola’s software optimizations are just not good enough. It gets far too noisy in low-light and it lacks optical image stabilization.

One of the best things about the Moto X is that its software is close to stock, but with a few nice extras cooked up by Motorola. Moto Display, Moto Voice, and all the rest are excellent. Waking up the phone simply by waving at it is great is very useful and I miss it when I use other phones. It’s also super-fast. It’s hard to argue with the $99 on-contract price from AT&T as well.

As for the Verizon version of the device, pretty much all of the above holds true, although the version of Lollipop on Big Red’s Moto X is slightly older and somewhat buggier. It’s not bad by any means, but that might lead you to wait it out for the M9 or GS6. I don’t think you should get anything different on Verizon, though.

I’ve also recommended the G3 on both these carriers in past months, and it’s still a good phone. However, I’d back off on buying that one right now because LG will be refreshing it in just a few months. It does have the advantage of a better camera, but if that’s your concern, waiting for the M9 or GS6 makes more sense. Bottom line: wait or get the Moto X. The Moto X is $100 on contract through AT&T and only $50 on Verizon.

T-Mobile and Sprint

Neither T-Mobile or Sprint will sell you a Moto X, but luckily they will sell you a Nexus 6 without any SIM locking or OEM modifications. Neat!

The Nexus 6 is the best overall purchase on these carrier right now. Lets be clear about one thing, though. The Nexus 6 is a big phone. Not everyone will be into that, but that’s a reason to wait for the smaller GS6 or M9. The Nexus 6 is getting the top this month for a few reasons, but mostly because it compares favorably to the GS6 and M9. The Android 5.1 update is also on the way with a number of important fixes.

The Nexus 6 has a 6-inch 1440p AMOLED screen, a Snapdragon 805, 3GB of RAM, 32-64GB of storage, a 3220mAh battery, and a 13MP camera. It’s the first Nexus that doesn’t make any glaring compromises in the name of price. Of course, that’s why it costs $650. The battery is beefy, but the battery life is hampered by the high-resolution screen. I have no trouble getting through a day of moderate use with the N6, but you won’t see much more than five hours of screen time. Both the Galaxy S6 and (definitely) the M9 will have better battery life.

If you’ve ever held a 2014 Moto X, the Nexus 6 is more or less the same thing, except larger. It has a metal frame and a soft plastic back. Also on the back is the 13MP camera, which is considerably better than past Nexus phones. It’s surprisingly good in low light and and has optical image stabilization. HDR exposures do take a little too long on the Nexus, but the results are good if you can hold it steady. The Galaxy S6 will definitely beat it in the photo taking department, but it’s not clear how the M9 will perform.

The screen is overall very good. It’s extremely crisp and the colors aren’t blown out like some older AMOLED panels. It gets a little warm at low brightness, though. There is some concern over image burn-in, but that’s never been an issue in my experience. Any burn-in is extremely negligible and seems like it might be more due to image persistence than true burn-in.

The big advantage of a Nexus 6 is the software, which is completely stock and straight from Google. We’re currently on 5.0.1 for the Nexus 6, but the 5.1 update is expected to arrive in a week or two. That should include some bug fixes and a few other small tweaks. It’s not going to change the fact that Google did a lot of things right with Lollipop. The UI is much more attractive and the use of animations is very smart. They aren’t just slapped on top of the UI to look pretty. Animations in Android 5.0 add context to what’s happening in the UI.

Both T-Mobile and Sprint sell the standard Nexus 6 with an unlockable bootloader and no SIM lock. If you want to root, flash ROMs, and mess around with Android, that’s possible with the Nexus 6. It comes encrypted by default, but you’ll have to do some tinkering if you want to disable that.

If you want to jump on the Nexus 6, it’ll cost you $27 per month for 2 years on T-Mobile or $25 per month on Sprint for two years. There’s also a $199 contract option on Sprint. This is a good phone, but I still think waiting to see how the Galaxy S6 and the One M9 turn out is prudent.


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