The Best Android Smartphones for Your Network (May 2016)

The first round of 2016 Android flagships are all out in the open, and that means you’ve got a serious decision to make if the time has come for an upgrade. The best Android phones are priced near or over $700, so you don’t want to make the wrong decision. That’s a lot of coin to spend on a phone if you don’t like it. Samsung was the undisputed winner last month on the carrier side, but this month the HTC 10 is up for preorder.

Carrier Phones

The Galaxy S7 has a very similar overall aesthetic to the Galaxy S6, but it makes several important changes. It’s not a revolutionary device, but it really focuses on the GS6’s shortcomings. There will be deals on the GS6, but don’t let the similar looks fool you. The GS7 is a much better phone and it’s worth the cost.

Samsung is using a metal and glass unibody design for the GS7. So yes, that means fingerprints and the potential of a cracked back if you drop the GS7. The designers took an unusual step, though. Samsung made the GS7 about a millimeter thicker so the camera hump is flush with the back, and there’s more room inside for a bigger battery. The glass panel on the back also has curved edges to make it more comfortable in your hand.

The slightly thicker frame means the regular GS7 has a 3000mAh battery, and the GS7 Edge has 3600mAh. Both phones are also water resistant, which is a feature Samsung dropped from the GS6. There’s also a microSD card slot in these phones, another improvement over the Galaxy S6, but it doesn’t support adoptable storage in Android 6.0.

The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge have new Super AMOLED panels with the same 1440p resolution as last year. The GS7 is 5.1-inches, while the Edge variant has a larger 5.5-inch display. The Edge, of course, has a screen that curves down on the left and right edge. I don’t think the Edge is as comfortable because of the narrower band around the screen. There are a few software features that are intended to take advantage of the curved panel, but none of them are necessary. The real reason to get this version of the device is that it looks really cool.

Samsung is stepping up the internals with a Snapdragon 820, which replaces the Exynos chip it used last year because of the Snapdragon 810’s propensity for overheating. This quad-core chip is plenty fast and doesn’t seem to get as hot as the octa-core Exynos. Note, there’s an international version of the GS7 that has an updated Exynos instead of the Snapdragon. The GS7 also has 4GB of RAM, and it multitasks much better than the GS6.

Samsung moved to a lower-resolution 12MP camera sensor this year, but it says the low-light performance is vastly improved. Samsung continues to make the best cameras in Android. The GS7 has excellent color reproduction and the low-light performance is very impressive. Samsung also implemented an autofocus technology that lets it use all the available pixels to locate the subject. It’s even faster at focusing than phones that have fancy laser autofocus sensors.

The Galaxy S7 is launching with Android 6.0 Marshmallow and a slightly cleaned up version of TouchWiz. It’s still recognizable as a Samsung device, but the color scheme is more elegant, and some of the messy features have been dropped or hidden away. Samsung also has an always-on screen feature this year that displays the time and basic notification information. Annoyingly, it only shows notification icons for Samsung’s built-in apps. No hangouts, Gmail, and so on.

You’ll probably pay about $30 per month on a payment plan for the GS7 and a little more for the Edge. Off-contract, they’re about $700 and $850 respectively. The G5 is priced very similarly, and you know how I feel about that phone. Let’s just say it’s not as good as the GS7, and the only reason you should consider it is if you absolutely need a removable battery.

That brings us to the HTC 10, which is probably the best carrier-branded alternative to the Galaxy S7. Well, it’s an alternative on most carriers. You’ll only be able to get the HTC 10 direct from Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. It’s up for pre-order in a few places, otherwise it’s live in the coming week or two. The HTC 10 is the followup to last year’s disappointing One M9. The HTC 10 is anything but a disappointment. It’s actually a very impressive phone that’s almost as good as the Galaxy S7. That’s a huge turnaround for HTC.

The HTC 10 has an all-aluminum frame with a more striking profile than the excessively rounded M9. There’s an aggressive chamfer on the back that makes it comfortable to hold, while retaining the same smooth shape. Inside is a 3000mAh battery, a Snapdragon 820, 32GB of storage with a microSD card slot, and 4GB of RAM. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s basically the same loadout as the GS7.

On the bottom is a USB Type-C port with support for Quick Charge 3.0. It’s faster than the GS7 in that respect, but you will have to replace all your cables. There’s also a speaker down there, along with another in the earpiece. So, this phone does still have stereo speakers, but they aren’t as good as past HTC phones. They’re only marginally better than the GS7 or G5.

HTC has boosted the display this year to 5.2-inches and 1440p in resolution. It’s an LCD, though, and it tries a little too hard to look like an AMOLED with a warm calibration. Even after making some tweaks, it’s not nearly as accurate as the GS7’s AMOLED, and there’s a strange warm shift when viewed off-axis. It’s not a bad display, but it can’t stand up to the GS7.

The HTC 10 is a very fast phone, but so are all the other top-tier phones. The battery life with that 3000mAh battery and Android 6.0 enhancements is also great. I’m also quite impressed with the quality of the front-facing fingerprint sensor in the home button. It’s a capacitive button like the A9 had, but there aren’t on-screen buttons at all. Instead, there are glowing capacitive keys on either side. The sensor is faster and more accurate than the Galaxy S7’s, and the setup process is much cleaner. It’s second only to the new Nexus phones’ sensors.

The camera is another potential issue for HTC. The 12MP sensor is considerably better than the M9’s, but the GS7 is still noticeably better. The HTC 10 tends to get noisy and warm in low-light, and exposures are hit-and-miss across the board. The laser autofocus is also very touchy. On the plus side, both the front and rear cameras have optical stabilization. A lot of the photos taken with the HTC 10 do look very nice, though. It just isn’t as consistent as Samsung’s camera.

On the software side, the HTC 10 ships with Android 6.0 and a new version of Sense. HTC has used a few more stock Android UI elements, and even decided to drop some of its custom apps, instead pre-loading the stock ones. The Sense home screen is snappy and there are some cool new features like Freestyle mode, which allows you to use stickers to create a more picturesque home screen rather than a grid of icons. I don’t know if I’d use it long term, but it is well-done.

The HTC 10 is a good alternative if you can’t handle Samsung’s software or the idea of a glass-back on your phone triggers your OCD.

Unlocked Phones

If you don’t want to go through the carrier, there are still some great unlocked Android devices. You’ll have to pay more up-front, but you might save money in the long-run. The Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X are great phones, and they’re even cheaper than before. They work on AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint in the US.

The Nexus 6P has a Snapdragon 810, 3GB of RAM, and 32-128GB of storage. The 32GB starts at $500 from Google, but it’s often cheaper elsewhere. 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 made by Samsung with very similar qualities compared to Samsung’s own devices. You can even toggle on sRGB mode if you don’t like the highly saturated AMOLED colors.

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. I’d really prefer optical stabilization, and capture times can be a little long in dim settings. It’s slightly behind Samsung’s camera tech and very similar to the LG G5. The photos are usually very accurate on this phone, and the HDR+ mode produces some of the nicest outdoor photos I’ve seen on a phone.

The rear-facing fingerprint sensor ties into Android 6.0 is still my favorite of any Android phone. The rear of the phone is a very convenient place for the sensor. It’s incredibly fast and accurate. Just a tap and the phone wakes up and unlocks, plus there’s a dedicated power button on the side of the phone if you just want to see the lock screen.

I still think the Nexus 6P the best overall Android device you can get right now. The main 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 with 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 USB Type-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, and they 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. Battery life is dramatically better in Android 6.0 thanks to doze mode and app standby.

If the Nexus phones aren’t quite right for you, there’s an unlocked HTC 10. This is unusual as other major OEMs don’t offer unlocked versions of their devices in the US alongside carrier phones. That’s handy for HTC this year as AT&T isn’t even selling the phone. The main issue is the price, which is a few hundred higher than the Nexus phone. It’s also only for AT&T and T-Mobile, no CDMA support.

A more compelling unlocked alternative is the Moto X Pure. 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. Keep in mind, this phone is probably getting on in its life cycle. It’ll be on sale more often now, and Motorola will probably start gearing up for a new Moto X phone this summer.

The Moto X has a 5.7-inch screen, so it’s much bigger than past Moto phones. It’s an LCD instead of the AMOLED Moto used before as well, and the resolution is up to 1440p (520 ppi). It’s better than the HTC 10’s screen, but it’s far larger. Inside is a Snapdragon 808, 3GB of RAM, and up to 64GB of storage. Around back is a 21MP camera that is much nicer than Motorola’s past efforts. This is still one of the weaker aspects of the phone thanks to the iffy camera app.

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. Phones like the GS7 and LG G5 actually disable that feature. 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 genuinely useful. It’s infinitely better than the always-on display modes of the GS7 and G5.


If you’re buying a new phone right now, I think the Samsung Galaxy S7 continues to be the best pick if you go through your carrier. The camera and screen are the best, and the build quality is excellent. The HTC 10 is good, especially when it comes to the design and software, but it’s lacking in a few areas, and it’s not even being sold at AT&T. The unlocked version is too expensive as well. With both the HTC 10 and GS7 being as good as they are, I don’t see much reason to get a G5, unless you need a removable battery and don’t care about anything else.

On the unlocked side, the Nexus 6P is the best choice if you are cool with big phones. The Nexus 5X is nice as well, and both are extremely competitively priced. The Moto X Pure is still an option, but it’s getting long in the tooth.


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