The Best Android Smartphones for Your Network (February 2016)

We’re on the verge of big things in the Android ecosystem. Well, you could make the argument that we always are, but this month in particular things are about to break loose. New phones from Samsung and LG are a lock for Mobile World Congress in a few weeks, but in the meantime there are still some excellent devices out there. Let’s see what your options are, and when you should hold off.

Carrier-branded Phones

In recent months, I’ve cited the Samsung Galaxy S6 and LG G4 as the best devices you can get direct from your carrier. That’s still true, but the Galaxy S7 and Lg G5 are only weeks away. Let’s examine some of the rumors and compare that to what you can buy right now.

The GS6 has a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED panel, which continues to be one of the best screens available on a smartphone. It’s 1440p and the colors are amazing. At 5.1-inches, it’s actually comfortable to use one-handed too. The reasonably sized and fantastic screen continues to be one of the primary selling points of this phone. Based on what I’ve heard from reliable sources, the Galaxy S7 will have the same resolution and form factor. The screen’s characteristics will probably be improved, but not dramatically.

The Galaxy S6 has an aluminum frame and Gorilla Glass front/rear panels, and the GS7 will be much the same. Samsung’s phones feel solid, despite having glass rear panels. You can expect the GS7 to also have a non-removable battery like the GS6.

Samsung still has the best overall camera available on an Android smartphone. Even if you buy it now, you won’t be disappointed. The Samsung Galaxy S6 has a 16MP shooter with optical image stabilization and an f/1.9 lens. The exposure quality and consistency are better than any other phone right now, even in low light. The GS7 will probably step down to a 12MP sensor, but with a much wider aperture for better low-light performance.

Inside, the Galaxy S6 has an octa-core Exynos chip with four faster Cortex-A57 cores and four light-duty A53s. This was a stopgap measure to counter Qualcomm’s 810 overheating issues, but the Galaxy S7 will reportedly switch back to a Snapdragon chip, the 820. This is one of the big reasons you might want to wait — the GS7 will be faster and more power-efficient.

The GS6 also has 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. I regularly see 4 hours of screen time in a single day, but some people are a little higher or lower. It’s not going to make it through two full days, but a little more than one is feasible. The GS7 is said to have a larger battery, but the big improvement here is the addition of a microSD card slot. This isn’t 100% yet, but it seems very likely.

Samsung is on Android 5.1 right now with Android 6.0 rolling out in some markets. Carrier versions of this phone will probably start seeing Marshmallow updates in the next month or two, but the GS7 will ship with Marshmallow. A slight UI tweak is coming in Android 6.0J for the GS6, which is a welcome change. TouchWiz is much less cluttered than it used to be, but the colors and unnecessary duplication of functionality are still an issue. The GS7 UI is still an unknown, but it will probably have numerous features and elements that never come to the GS6. Samsung doesn’t like to change things up too much after a device has been released.

So, the GS6 is best overall when it comes to the phones you can get from your carrier, right now. In a few weeks, that may no longer be the case. You should only consider buying it right now if you don’t think you’ll need a larger battery, expandable storage, or improved software out of the box. Also, make sure you get a good deal. The price will drop the instant the GS7 is out.

As for the LG G4, it too is a fine device. I still carry one from time to time. The upgrade to the G5 will probably be somewhat more significant than the GS6 to GS7. LG is taking what it’s learned from the LG V10 and will reportedly include a secondary ticker display above the main one in the G5.

The G4’s screen is 5.5-inches and 1440p in resolution, and the G5 will stick with that resolution. It might be a little smaller to make room for the ticker display, though. The G4’s LCD has a slight top to bottom curve, which doesn’t do much for you. I suppose you can set the phone face down without it touching the surface, but that’s it. It’s a very nice LCD, but could stand to be a little brighter. That’s something I’m sure will be addressed in the G5. The GS6 and GS7 will still have the better panels.

The LG G4 also has a 16MP camera with optical image stabilization, but the aperture is a slightly better than the GS6 at f/1.8. It’s almost as good as the GS6 in my experience. There’s less to go on when it comes to the G5’s camera, but it will reportedly have two rear-facing cameras that can take ultra-wide snapshots.

The G4 runs on a Snapdragon 808, which is a more modest version of the 810 or Samsung’s newer Exynos chips with two fewer high-power cores. It doesn’t get as hot, but it’s not as fast to start with. The G5 is expected to have a Snapdragon 820 like the Galaxy S7, so the power increase will be substantial compared to the G4. Not that the G4 is slow. Multitasking can get a little sluggish, but it’s otherwise fine. And compared to Samsung’s weird memory management, the G4 is still faster at app switching.

It also has 3GB of RAM and 32GB with a removable 3000mAh battery and a microSD card slot. These are both under the back cover, which snaps on. I don’t consider the design leaks of the G5 to be reliable enough to bank on, but it’ll almost certainly still have a removable battery and card slot. There are also rumors of a “magic slot” for expandable hardware. I don’t know what to do with that one.

The G4 is mostly updated to Marshmallow now, but the G5 will have Marshmallow out of the box. LG needs to do something about it’s UI, though. 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. The G4 is actually a very appealing choice if you need a phone right this moment as the price has gotten very low. You can get them for under $400 on some carriers. You should wait for the G5 if you want something that’ll be a bit more future-proof. The Snapdragon 808 won’t age as gracefully as a new 820 will.

Bottom line: wait for the GS7 and G5 later this month if at all possible.

Unlocked Phones

If you don’t go in for those carrier-locked phones, there are some excellent options that aren’t about to be rendered obsolete. If you are able to pay a little more up front, the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X are great phones, and they’re even cheaper than before.

The Nexus 6P has a Snapdragon 810, 3GB of RAM, and 32-128GB of storage. The 32GB starts at $450 right now, which is a great deal. There’s no microSD card slot or removable battery, but it’s the first snapdragon 810 phone that doesn’t seem to overheat during extended use. The display is a 5.7-inch 1440p Super AMOLED, with the same panel technology used in the Note 5. It’s one of the best screen on any smartphone right now.

Around back, the Nexus 6P has a 12.3MP Sony image sensor along with laser autofocus. Low light performance is very good and there’s electronic image stabilization and smart burst. There’s also a fingerprint sensor that ties into Android 6.0 for apps and system security. The location and accuracy of the sensor are both excellent.

The Nexus 6P the best overall Android device you can get right now. The only problem is the size. If you don’t like phablets but still want a Nexus, there’s the $300 (16GB) Nexus 5X. 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. It’s a really good size for people who don’t want a phablet, and it’s incredibly light. It has a Snapdragon 808, 2GB of RAM, and 16-32GB of storage. Being a Nexus, there’s no microSD card slot. It’s not quite as fast as the 6P, but still better than many other devices.

Keep in mind that both Nexus phones have USBType-C ports, which means you’ll be replacing all those microUSB cables you have around. The chargers are also the only ones that will support full-speed fast charging. They don’t use the standard Qualcomm quick charge platform, relying instead upon the Type-C power delivery spec.

Both Nexus phones ship with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which is one of the main selling points. These phones will get fast updates for two years with another year of security patches. Android Marshmallow includes support for granular permissions, Google Now On Tap, and better control of background processes. Marshmallow finally fixes the battery life issues that Android has long been plagued with. No longer will you leave your phone sitting for a few hours only to find your battery has been bled dry by a rogue app.

If the Nexus phones aren’t quite right for you, the Moto X Pure is another great purchase. It starts at $400 with 16GB of storage, but it has a microSD card slot too. I think the best reason to get this phone is the cool design and customization available through Moto Maker. No one else does this, and it makes the phone look distinctly yours.

The Moto X has a 5.7-inch screen, so we’re talking phablet here. It’s an LCD instead of the AMOLED Moto used in the past, and the resolution has jumped to 1440p (520 ppi). There’s also a Snapdragon 808 just like the LG G4. 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 actually takes pretty nice photos.

The Moto X Pure runs Android 6.0 with all the nifty features that includes. In particular, the adoptable storage is handy as this device has a microSD card slot. In addition to the regular Marshmallow goodies, you also have features like Moto Display and Moto Actions. Being able to wake up the screen and see notifications by waving your hand is rad no matter how you slice it.

Motorola’s update history has been good overall, but recent changes in the wake of the Lenovo takeover have left some lingering questions. The Marshmallow update was delivered in relatively short order, so hopefully this device stays up to date. I think you’re making a safer bet with the Moto X software experience than anything else that isn’t a Nexus.

Wrapping Up

If there’s any month in which you don’t want to buy a phone, it’s this one. If it’s not an emergency, wait until March to get a new device. The Samsung Galaxy S7 and LG G5 will almost certainly launch in a few weeks, and even if you decide to go with last year’s model, they’ll be way cheaper.

If you want an unlocked phone and don’t care about the carrier-branded stuff, the Nexus 6P is still the best choice. It won’t be replaced by a new model for at least 9-10 months and it’s running the latest version of Android. You have to pay the full price up front, though. It’s only available with financing if you use Project Fi. If that doesn’t work, the Moto X Pure can be financed monthly via Motorola.


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