The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (October 2015)

We’re heading into the holiday season, and the device lineup is pretty much locked down. You can also expect carriers and retailers to start tossing out deals on smartphones, but you don’t just want to get whatever’s cheapest. You want what’s best, and that’s what we want to find by examining the Android phone landscape like we do every month. So let’s take a look at what phones are available on your carrier of choice so you can get the right device.

Photo credit: Flickr user bestboyzde via Creative Commons

Carrier-branded phones

We are thankfully no longer living in a world where carrier exclusives rule the smartphone market. Most phones can be had on any of the big carriers, and that’s the case with most of the top Android devices. There are two phones that still warrant your attention and can be purchased directly from the carriers. I speak, of course, of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and 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. It’s small enough that most people should be able to use it comfortably one-handed, which is an increasing rarity. This continues to be one of the primary selling points of this phone. There are devices you can get with better software or longer battery life, but none of them are as pleasant to look at.

Samsung also continues to impress when it comes to the camera. The Samsung Galaxy S6 has a 16MP shooter with optical image stabilization and an f/1.9 lens. This sensor is still one of the best you can get in a phone. I’m constantly floored by how well exposed images are, and the accuracy of colors in even 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. There aren’t any weird gaps or spaces in the casing as there have been with some past Samsung phones — it’s a solid little phone. The glass back panel is another thing to break, but I’ve dropped mine a few times and no catastrophic failures yet.

Inside, the Galaxy S6 has an octa-core Exynos chip with four Cortex-A57 cores do all the heavy lifting, and four A53s handle the small stuff. 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, but it’s still the sort of phone you charge every day.

The software experience is where Samsung falters a bit. Comparing TouchWiz to stock Android, Samsung’s software just isn’t as fun to use. 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). The G4’s LCD has a slight top to bottom curve. There’s no functional advantage here, it just looks cool. 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 as good as the GS6.

Inside, the G4 runs on a Snapdragon 808, which is a more modest version of the 810 with two fewer high-power cores, meaning it doesn’t get as hot. It also has 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. The selling point for the G4 is that it has 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 feels rather cheap to me. The G4 doesn’t feel like a super-premium device like the GS6, but it’s not bad.

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.

The G4 runs a version of Android 5.1, but LG’s Android skin still needs some work. It’s very drab, despite Android’s new focus on bright colors and animations. 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.

If you’re on Verizon, there are a few more things to consider. While carrier exclusives are mostly over, that doesn’t apply to the Droids. 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. It’s fine, but 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. 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. Visually, the display is very good, but not quite as nice as the AMOLED on Samsung’s newest phones.

Inside is a Snapdragon 810 SoC (jury’s still out on whether it get too toasty), 3GB of RAM, and 32GB or 64GB of storage. On the back is a 21MP camera, just like the one on the new Moto X Pure. This is the best camera sensor Motorola has ever used. It can take usable photos in dim light and there’s very little noise. I think the camera app still needs some work, though. The single tap to capture thing is nice, but I wish there was an option for true tap-to-focus.

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. There is a bit of Verizon bloat, but the bigger issue is that the Droid Turbo 2 launches with Android 5.1, and Verizon is terrible about updates, especially when it comes to the Droid phones. Don’t expect this phone to see Marshmallow until months after the unlocked Moto X.

The age of unlocked flagships

There are two Nexus phones this year, both of which will work on any of the four major carriers. The Nexus 5X is available for immediate shipping, but the 6P might take a week or two to show up. The 6P starts at $499 for the 32GB and the 5X is $379 for the 16GB. The catch, they’re only for sale via the Google Store.

The Nexus 5X is the more modest of the two and the Nexus 6P is more premium. The smaller nexus 5X is basically a homage to the original Nexus 5, which has been a favorite of many users for two years now. Well, this is the upgrade. 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.

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 its frame is all aluminum instead of plastic. The camera also has digital stabilization tech that isn’t supported by the 5X.

The Nexus 6P packs 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 doesn’t get onscenely hot, so that’s a nice bonus. The display is a 5.7-inch 1440p Super AMOLED, and amazingly, it’s the latest generation panel from Samsung. That means it’s basically the same thing you get on the Note 5, which is the best screen on a smartphone right now.

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.

The Moto X Pure Edition is also a strong choice, and it works on all carriers just like the Nexus phones. It starts at just $399 for the 16GB version, but it also has 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). Some 1440p LCDs are dim and have muted colors, but from my time with the Moto X Pure, I’d say the screen if very good. It’s bright, crisp, and the black levels won’t bother you in Moto Display.

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. I’m not really into Motorola’s super-simple camera app, though. Is tap-to-focus too much to ask? The sliding focus UI is awkward.

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. Moto Display wakes up the screen to show you notification content so you can open or dismiss without waking up the whole phone. You can even wave at the screen to wake it up and see the active notifications. This is consistently one of my favorite Android features. You also get Moto Actions to perform actions based on gestures, like the double chop to turn on the flashlight.

Motorola has just announced Marshmallow updates, and the Pure is on the list, no surprise. Although, some fairly new devices like the 2015 Moto E and carrier variants of the 2014 Moto X are not. This is disappointing, but I don’t think we can read too much into it yet.

Wrapping Up

If you can justify a larger up-front cost, I think the new Nexus phones are the way to go right now. They’re really excellent pieces of hardware with great cameras, and Marshmallow is a solid improvement over Lollipop. They can also function on any US carrier without (much) hassle. Also be aware Google will let you do a payment plan on the Nexus phones with Project Fi.

If you want to take advantage of the payment plans or contracts (increasingly rare) with one of the carriers, you’re looking at the Galaxy S6 as the best overall option. It has the best camera and screen, though the software could use some work. As a backup if you want something more modular, the LG G4 still holds it own.


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