The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (November 2015)

All the carriers and OEMs are locked in for their holiday phone lineups now, so which ones are worth getting? We live in a world now where the price of phones matters with most carriers charging monthly for the full price rather than simply selling them on contract for $200. And if you don’t want to go through the carriers, that’s never been easier. Let’s dive in and see where you stand.

Carrier-branded phones

Even with the plethora of unlocked devices out there, it can often be easier to go through your carrier. You can get a payment plan to make it less expensive to upgrade and more easily return devices if you change your mind. If that’s the way you’re going, there are two devices that I still think are worth your money, even though they came out last spring — the Galaxy S6 and the LG G4.

The GS6 has a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED panel, and it’s one of the best screens available on a smartphone at 2560×1440 resolution. So many phones are phablets these days, making one-handed use an increasing rarity. The GS6 is easily one-handable, though. The reasonably sized and fantastic screen continues to be one of the primary selling points of this phone.

Samsung still has the best overall camera available on an Android smartphone. The Samsung Galaxy S6 has a 16MP shooter with optical image stabilization and an f/1.9 lens. Images are almost always properly exposed with accurate of colors on the first try, even in poor light. I’ve actually started taking a lot of my review photos with a Galaxy S6 because it’s easier than dragging out my DSLR for a minor improvement in image quality.

The Galaxy S6 has an aluminum frame and Gorilla Glass front and rear panels. Having a glass back on a phone can be risky, but I have yet to damage mine. It makes the overall device just feel much more luxurious. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I pick up the GS6 after using most other phones.

Inside, the Galaxy S6 has an octa-core Exynos chip with four faster Cortex-A57 cores and four light-duty A53s. You also get 3GB of RAM, 32/64/128GB of storage, and 2550mAh non-removable battery. It’s very fast in daily use, but battery life is just average. You’ll be able to eke out 4-5 hours of screen time over the course of 18-20 hours. So, expect to charge every day.

The software experience is where Samsung falters a bit. TouchWiz is much less cluttered than it used to be, but the colors and unnecessary duplication of functionality are still an issue. Samsung is on Android 5.1 right now with Android 6.0 in development. Carrier versions of this phone will probably start seeing Marshmallow updates early next year or late this one.

So, the GS6 is best overall when it comes to the phones you can get from your carrier, but what about alternatives? If the GS6’s lack of modularity is a problem for you, the LG G4 is still out there. The price on this phone has come down on most carriers (T-Mobile often sells it for under $500 total). This is one of the reasons I still recommend this phone to people who aren’t cool with the $600+ price of the GS6.

The G4’s LCD has a slight top to bottom curve. There’s no functional advantage here, save for being able to set it face down without the screen touching anything. The screen is 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. It’s a very good screen, but not in the same league as the GS6.

The LG G4 also has a 16MP camera with optical image stabilization, but the aperture is a slightly better f/1.8. It’s almost as good as the GS6 in my experience. HDR mode falls a little short, but it’s auto mode does fantastic things in indoor and outdoor lighting. The manual mode is a nice feature as well. I think the GS6 is just a little more consistent and has more accurate colors.

The G4 runs on a Snapdragon 808, which is a more modest version of the 810 with two fewer high-power cores. It doesn’t get as hot, but it’s not as fast to start with. It also has 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. The G4 also packs a removable 3000mAh battery and a microSD card slot. These are both under the back cover, which snaps on. Most G4s have a plastic cover, but there are leather covers as well, which I’ll tell you right now do not age well. The plastic cover is a better option.

The G4 runs a version of Android 5.1, but LG’s Android skin still needs some work. The colors are muted and a lot of the UI elements are huge. There are a fair number of bloatware apps in LG’s ROM as well. One thing to note about LG’s software is that it has a more conventional memory usage model than Samsung. 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.

There’s one more option for Verizon customers. The Droid line is one of the few carrier exclusive phones still being produced. Verizon is now selling the Motorola-built Droid Turbo 2 and Droid Maxx 2. The Maxx 2 is a mid-range phone with a Snapdragon 615 SoC, 5.5-inch 1080p LCD, and a 3630mAh battery. This phone does get great battery life, but the SD615 is a sluggish chip. I don’t think this is a phone you’ll want to use for a year or two. The Droid Turbo 2 is the one you want to look at if you want the best custom device Verizon has to offer.

The Droid Turbo 2 has a 5.4-inch 1440p AMOLED screen with “ShatterShield” technology. It’s actually a plastic screen with multiple layers to protect it from impacts. Motorola and Verizon are pushing this as an unbreakable display. Motorola warranties the screen for four years, so if it cracks, they’ll replace it.

Inside is a Snapdragon 810 SoC, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB or 64GB of storage. The Snapdragon chip in this phone does heat up, but the throttling isn’t too aggressive. On the back is a 21MP camera, just like the one on the new Moto X Pure. It can take usable photos in dim light and there’s very little noise. It won’t match the G4 or GS6, but it’s much better than all of Motorola’s past cameras. .

The Droid Turbo 2 is a little on the thick side, but that’s because it has a huge 3760mAh battery that Verizon says it good for two full days of use. It also has wireless charging built-in, which is absent on a number of 2015 flagship phones.

You can order the regular Turbo 2 from Verizon or customize one via Moto Maker. There are multiple colors for the metal frame, back materials (leather, nylon, plastic), and various accent colors. If you pay an extra $100 for the 64GB storage upgrade, you can even swap the phone out once in two years to pick a new style.

The software situation is at the same time good and bad. It’s good because this is a mostly stock build of Android with Motorola’s usual enhancements like Moto Display and Moto Voice. It has some bloatware apps from Verizon installed, but the real issue is that the Droid Turbo 2 launches with Android 5.1. Verizon is not known for being quick with updates, especially when it comes to the Droid phones. Don’t expect this phone to see Marshmallow until months after the unlocked Moto X.

Unlocked Phones

There are finally truly universal unlocked phones that can be used on all the major carriers in the US. This opens up your options dramatically, but also can overwhelm you with choices. For example, there are two Nexus phones this year. We’ve got a full breakdown of how these phones stack up coming soon, but here’s the short version.

The Nexus 5X is smaller and less expensive, and the 6P is the big spendy flagship of the pair. The Nexus 5X is basically a homage to the original Nexus 5 from 2013. It has a Snapdragon 808, 2GB of RAM, and 16-32GB of storage. Being a Nexus, there’s no microSD card slot. The screen is 5.2-inches and has a resolution of 1080p. That should be good enough at normal viewing distances, and it’ll be easier on the 2700mAh battery.

The Nexus 6P has a Snapdragon 810, 3GB of RAM, and 32-128GB of storage. No microSD card slot here either. This is the first Snapdragon 810 phone I’ve used that seems to manage the heat well. It doesn’t throttle any worse than past Nexus phones. The display is a 5.7-inch 1440p Super AMOLED, based on the latest generation panel from Samsung. That means it’s the same thing you get on the Note 5, making it one of the best screen on any smartphone right now.

Around back, the Nexus 5X has a 12.3MP Sony image sensor along with laser autofocus. Google says this camera will be considerably better in low-light situations. There’s also a fingerprint sensor that ties into Android 6.0 for apps and system security. It’s also the fastest and most accurate fingerprint sensor I’ve used on a phone. The larger Nexus 6P also has both of those features on the back, but the camera also has digital stabilization, smart capture (rapid shot), and 240fps slow-motion video. .

Both Nexus phones ship with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which brings support for granular permissions, Google Now On Tap, and better control of background processes. These phones finally have standby battery life that can rival the iPhone, although the move to USB Type-C is a little annoying right now as you’ll have to replace a lot of cables. An update is expected to roll out soon that adds band 12 support on T-Mobile, which is currently missing.

Even though the Nexus phones are very good this year, I still have a soft spot for the Moto X Pure Edition. It works on all carriers just like the Nexus phones, and starts at just $399 for the 16GB version. There’s a microSD card slot, which you don’t get on the Nexus phones.

The new Moto X Pure has a 5.7-inch screen. 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). Motorola did a good job with this screen, which is brighter than the G4 440p LCD. These panels have a tendency to get too dim and suck down a lot of power. The black levels are also great for an LCD. You won’t have to worry about burn-in either, which is still a risk of AMOLEDs.

Moto X has a Snapdragon 808 just like the LG G4. That means reasonable performance and less heat output than the 810 or similar chips. I have had good luck with Motorola’s software optimization, so I think the 808 will be good enough. You also get 3GB of RAM and up to 64GB of storage. Motorola’s camera this year is a 21MP Sony sensor with an f/2.0 aperture. It’s taken a few tries, but Motorola has finally gotten a good camera in the Moto X. It actually works in low-light without completely blowing out the noise levels.

As always, one of Motorola’s big selling points is the software experience. The Moto X Style/Pure runs stock Android 5.1 with Motorola’s enhancements. Unlike the enhancements you get from Samsung or LG, these are actually useful. Motorola is running a soak test for the Marshmallow update in the Pure in the US, so I’d be surprised if it didn’t get the official update before the year is out.

Wrapping up

There are going to be some big sales as the holiday season drags on. Watch for carriers to drop the price of phones like the Galaxy S6 and G4. Either one is a good purchase, though I still think most people will like the Galaxy S6 better. These phones also get points for being available with payment plans on carriers.

The Nexus 6P is the best overall Android phone on the market right now thanks to the great screen, strong specs, and excellent software. The only problem is that it’s $500 to start and payment plans are only available on Project Fi. It’s also a phablet, which not everyone is into. Start here, and then consider the Moto X or Nexus 5X if you want to avoid the carrier-branded phones.


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