The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (July 2015)

It’s about to be fall phone season, and that means you need to be extra cautious about buying a new device. 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.

The Galaxy S6, LG G4, and what’s on the horizon

The days of carrier exclusives have not come to a close, but they’re very much waning. There are several great phones that are available on all four major carriers, and more on on the way. Both the Samsung Galaxy S6 and LG G4 are available everywhere right now, so we’ll hit those first. But in just a few weeks the new Moto X Style will arrive direct from Motorola. After we hash out the “universal choices, we’ll see if any carrier-specific devices stand out.

Samsung is using a its customary Super AMOLED screen on the Galaxy S6 (and S6 Edge) and it’s really just fantastic. It’s a 5-inch 1440p AMOLED, which is small enough that most people should be able to use it comfortably. It’s a stunningly beautiful screen, and I have no doubt it’s the best you can get on a smartphone right now. It gets very bright, very dim, the colors are good, and it’s extremely crisp. It’s really impossible to find a fault with this display.

LG has stuck with an LCD for the G4 as its AMOLED panels still aren’t very good (you need look no further than the G Flex 2 to see that). The only unique thing about this panel is the slight top to bottom curve it has. It doesn’t really seem useful to me, but it does look kind of neat. Its 5.5-inches and 1440p in resolution. LG has bumped up the brightness and colors compared to the LCD on the G3, which is a good thing.

Comparing the screens, Samsung wins in overall quality. The colors, viewing angles, and brightness are noticeably better. The G4’s size is actually very nice, though. If you feel like a 5-inch phone is a little too small, the G4 might be just right at 5.5-inches.

Inside, the LG G4 runs on a Snapdragon 808, which is a more modest version of the 810 with two fewer cores, meaning it doesn’t get as hot. It’s hexa-core rather than octa-core, but this is still a 64-bit chip. The two Cortex-A57 cores do all the heavy lifting, and the four A53s handle the small stuff. This chip doesn’t heat up as much, so the phone doesn’t have to throttle as quickly. It’s more than fast enough in daily use, but the Exynos in the Galaxy S6 is a beast.

Samsung’s octa-core Exynos has those two extra A57 cores. It gets hotter than the 808, but won’t throttle down as fast as the 810 does. The benchmark scores are off the chart and it might handle some high-end games and complex apps a little better. This isn’t a big deal in my opinion. Both devices are more than fast enough

The rest of the G4’s specs include 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage (plus microSD card slot), and a 3000mAh removable battery. That compares to the GS6 with its 3GB of RAM, 32/64/128GB of storage, and 2550mAh non-removable battery. The G4 stands out by having removable storage and battery. The G4 gets great standby time and above average screen time. The GS6 is a little worse (still average), and the battery is non-removable.

The cameras are a close match. The Samsung Galaxy S6 has a 16MP shooter with optical image stabilization and an f/1.9 lens. The LG G4 also has a 16MP camera with optical image stabilization, but the aperture is a slightly better f/1.8. Both phones have solid auto modes, but LG has more extensive settings than Samsung does. The G4 has a RAW shooting mode built-in, but Samsung is in the process of adding this support in Android 5.1. There isn’t an official RAM option in the camera app yet, though.

The 5.0/5.1 Android build on Samsung’s flagship is still running the TouchWiz UI layer. The UI is certainly tolerable and the design is consistent. I haven’t seen any issues with performance over time on this phone, and there isn’t as much junk cluttering the UI and settings. As a nice bonus, there are several material themes in the Samsung theme store.

The G4 shipped with Android 5.1, which is a nice surprise. LG’s Android skin is less garish than it once was, but it’s rather lacking in polish now. It’s not offensive to look at, but I don’t think LG has made the transition to Lollipop as successfully as Samsung has.

One thing to note here is that LG has a more standard memory management scheme on the G4. Apps you leave open in the background will stay open. Samsung, for whatever reason, has opted to use very aggressive memory management that only keeps a few app processes running at a time. That means things will be closed in the background faster than you might be used to. I suspect this has something to do with reserving RAM for multi-window mode, which you will probably never use.

One place Samsung impresses this year is with build quality, The Galaxy S6 has an aluminum frame and Gorilla Glass front and rear panels. Everything is put together extremely precisely. There aren’t any weird gaps or spaces in the casing as there have been with some past Samsung phones. On the flip side, LG had to make some compromises to have a removable battery and card slot in the G4. The leather back panel is not my taste, but it’s not objectively bad. It simply feels like a cheaper phone than the Galaxy S6.

I still think the Galaxy S6 is a better overall device than the G4 because the screen is amazing and the form factor is more appealing. The Edge vs. Regular GS6 is up to you. The software tweaks for the Edge are minimal, and personally I think the Edge looks weird. The GS6 feels like a premium device while the G4 is too flexible and plastic. That said, the G4 is a great choice if you need a removable battery. Make no mistake, it’s a good phone. The GS6 is just a bit better for most people.

But what of the upcoming Moto X Style/Pure? It’s going to be available on all major US carriers, just like the Nexus 6. However, it won’t be sold by the carriers. The only way to get it will be direct from Motorola starting at $399. Moto does have a free financing just like the carriers are doing, and the device is completely unlocked.

The Moto X Style is a little larger than the G4 at 5.7-inches. That’s half an inch larger than the 2014 Moto X. It’s also an LCD this year instead of AMOLED, and the resolution has jumped to 1440p (520 ppi). Having not seen it yet, we can’t say how good the screen will be, but it looks good on paper.

Around back is a 21MP camera that Motorola says is finally up to snuff with the competition. Early previews by several camera-focused sites have supported this assertion. DxOMark said the Moto X Style’s camera is almost as good as the Galaxy S6. There’s also a front-facing flash to go with the 5MP camera for selfies, I guess.

Inside the Moto X Style has a Snapdragon 808 just like the LG G4. That means solid performance and less heat output than the 810 or similar chips. You also get 3GB of RAM and up to 64GB of storage (starts at 16GB still). It’s also worth noting that this one device in the US (the Pure) will function on all major networks. So you can drop in a Verizon SIM card on day and T-Mobile the next. It supports an unreal 14 LTE bands.

As always, one of Motorola’s big selling points is the software experience. The Moto X Style/Pure will run stock Android 5.1 with Motorola’s enhancements. Unlike the enhancements you get from Samsung or LG, these are actually useful. Moto Display wakes up the screen to show you notification content so you can open or dismiss without waking up the whole phone. This year’s Moto X is LCD, though, so it won’t save as much power as it did as an AMOLED device. You also get Moto Actions to perform actions based on gestures, like the double chop to turn on the flashlight.

The Moto X Style will be out in a few weeks, and it might be worth waiting for. However, if you want something now, the Galaxy S6 is the way to go.

Other Carrier Options

Outside the options above, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint all offer the Nexus 6, and it’s a great (if large) phone. I have been recommending the Moto X on AT&T and Verizon, but now that the next version has been outed, I think it’s time to pass on that one.

The Nexus 6 has a huge 6-inch AMOLED screen that clocks in at 1440p. It’s a serious phablet. The panel technology is a few years old here, so they won’t be as good as the GS6. They do look very nice overall, but there’s going to be some slight burn-in down the line.

The Nexus 6 is still a powerful device with a Snapdragon 805, 3GB of RAM, and 32-64GB of storage. There’s no microSD card slot and the battery is non-removable, though. The 13MP camera on the Nexus 6 is surprisingly good, though quite a bit slower than either the GS6 or G4.

The main selling point of the Nexus 6 is that it has pure Android with a good 18 months of updates ahead of it. You’ll get Android M in a few months and a few more versions after that. There’s also no junk from carriers or OEMs to get in the way of the experience. The phone will download a few apps from the Play Store when set up with a SIM card already inserted, but they are just regular apps that can be uninstalled. The Nexus 6 doesn’t have a ton of apps built-in to take advantage of its massive scale, it’s really just a big phone. Taking advantage of the extra space is all up to you.

The Nexus 6 has come down to about $150 on-contract everywhere, but it’s also available from Google for $499.

On Verizon, you might still consider the Droid Turbo. Now that the Moto X has been superseded by the Style, a new Droid phone is probably coming. Still, we’re at least a few months out from that. The Turbo is basically a 2014 Moto X with a giant battery and a few more Verizon apps.

The Droid Turbo has a 5.2-inch AMOLED, but it’s boosted to a whopping 2560×1440. Backing all those pixels is a Snapdragon 805, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage. The specs are very similar to the Nexus 6, but it has a huge 3900mAh battery. It will run for a solid two days of moderate use, maybe even a little longer if you leave it asleep a lot. The camera is 21MP, but don’t expect amazing photos from it. The Turbo is okay in this department, but not as good as the Nexus 6, GS6, or G4.

The design of the Turbo is still very much like other Droid phones. There are no on-screen buttons–they’re capacitive instead. The back has that same carbon fiber pattern, but the material is actually more of a nylon material now. It’s not the thinnest device on the planet. Because this is a Droid, Verizon has a bit more say in the software than it does with the Moto X. It’s still a very clean build of Android with features like Moto Display, Moto Voice, and Moto Actions. Verizon recently dropped the Turbo’s price to $100 on-contract, which is a good deal if you need a phone that lasts and lasts.

Wrapping Up

If you’re buying right now, the Galaxy S6 is still the best purchase. It’s available on all carriers, has an amazing screen, great camera, and fantastic build quality. The software is fine, but that’s probably its biggest weakness. The G4 is solid as well, and the Nexus 6 is still okay if you like big phones.

If you’re not sure, I think waiting to see how the Moto X Style/Pure turns out is a good idea. This device won’t be out for a few weeks, though.


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