Most people sign up for a 2-year contract when buying a new phone. If you make the wrong choice, that can make for a rough 2 years, and possibly an expensive replacement device. Case in point: the Kyocera Echo came out a year ago and there are some unfortunate folks that have to use that disaster for another 12 months. If you want to avoid that, read on to find out what the best phone is on your network.
Things have changed for AT&T since the last time we checked in. For many months it was Samsung or bust for Ma Bell, but a new challenger has finally arisen. In just a few days, the HTC One X will be available with 4G LTE on AT&T, and it’s up for pre-order now. But what about the tried and true Samsung Galaxy Note?
Starting with the HTC One X, you’ve got a gorgeous 4.7-inch Super LCD panel at 720p. This is well into “retina” display territory. In fact, it is being called the best screen on any phone. HTC has chosen to go with a tough polycarbonate shell on the One X, but there is no access to the internal battery without taking the phone apart. You should be able to get a day’s use out of it, but no more.
Inside the One X has a Snapdragon S4 dual-core SoC, which is a phenomenal chip running Qualcomm’s new Krait processing cores at 1.5GHz. Despite having two fewer cores than the Tegra 3 version of the device, AT&T’s One X really flies. The One X has a LTE radio that plays nice with the Snapdragon, but you probably don’t have LTE in your area. The HSPA+ is still pretty fast, though.
There is 1GB of RAM, but just 16GB of internal storage and no SD card. The camera on the One X is among the best among Android devices. The rear sensor is 8MP with f/2.0 aperture for better low light performance. The front camera is a standard 1.3MP.
The software HTC is running has its highs and lows. Sense 4.0 on Ice Cream Sandwich is much better than Sense 3.6 was. The UI has been cleaned up, products like Dropbox and Beats are built in, and it’s buttery smooth. HTC chose to go with physical buttons on the phone instead of software buttons. It also decided on ditching the menu button. That forward-thinking gesture has made the software feel odd when a legacy app calls for the menu button. A black strip pops up at the bottom of the screen with only the menu button in it. Yikes -- it looks terrible. The HTC One X runs just $199.99 on a 2-year contract.
Samsung's Galaxy Note seems like a non-starter device. It’s big, has a stylus, and runs old software. Yet it somehow succeeds. In fact, people love this thing. I’ve talked to several Note owners and they gush about the device in a way I haven’t seen since the heyday of the iPhone.
The Note has a gigantic 5.3-inch Super AMOLED HD screen at 720p. It uses a PenTile matrix, but the tight pixels do a good job of hiding it. The Note runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon S3, which is a generation older than the S4 in the One X. The S3 is dual-core and clocked at 1.5GHz. You also get 1GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and a SD card slot. This is also an LTE device. There is a solid 8MP camera on this phone too.
Along the bottom edge of the phone is a slot for the inductive stylus, called the S-Pen. This works better than any other stylus I’ve ever used on a touch screen. There is very little lag, it’s accurate, and Samsung did a good job of integrating the S-Pen with the software.
Speaking of the software, the Note runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread with TouchWiz on top. TouchWiz is passable these days, but it’s starting to get a little long in the tooth. HTC did a redesign for Android 4.0, but I’ve been led to believe that Samsung is sticking to the old look. The Note is slated to get Android 4.0, but the exact date isn’t available. The Note is $299.99 on contract.
The HTC One X is $100 less than the Note, and that’s a good deal. The One X also runs newer software on better hardware. Unless you need that bigger screen and stylus, get the One X.
The selection on Verizon has not changed dramatically in recent months, but the pricing has shifted. You’re still looking at the Samsung Galaxy Nexus or the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx. Great software, or great battery life? You cannot have both.
The Galaxy Nexus is Google’s flagship device running stock Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Inside, the Nexus has solid hardware from late in the last generation. It has a TI OMAP 4460 at 1.2GHz per core, 1GB of RAM, and 32GB of internal storage with no SD card slot. The screen on the Nexus is a 4.65-inch Super AMOLED HD panel (720p), but uses a PenTile matrix. How does it look? Good overall.
The software on the Nexus is the selling point. Stock Android 4.0 is great -- it’s fast, clean, and customizable. One of the best aspects of the Nexus experience is that the device has an easily unlockable bootloader. A few commands, and you can install any software you want on the device.
The only complaints of note with the Nexus have to do with the battery life and camera. Reception is good, but not quite as good as the Razr Maxx. Also, when signal is poor, the Nexus eats through battery trying to stay connected. The 5MP camera on this device produces images that are a little grainy in medium light, and bad in low light. The Galaxy Nexus recently dropped to $199.99 on contract.
The Droid Razr Maxx isn’t the fastest device, and the software isn’t the best, but it is the best at one thing: running for a long, long time. The Maxx has a 1.2GHz dual-core OMAP4430, which is just a little slower in practice than the Nexus’ chip. You also get 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage with an additional SD card slot.
The screen on the Maxx is a little hit and miss. The super thin AMOLED panel lets the phone be just 9mm thick, but it is only qHD (960x540) and has a PenTile matrix. It looks okay in most situations, but you can definitely see the PenTile fringe. Since the battery is molded into the device it isn’t removable, but the phone can run continuously for a few days. If that’s important to you, the Maxx should grab your attention.
Software on the Razr Maxx is not really my favorite. I feel like a lot of the things Motorola has done to Android are bad decisions. There are extra menus and options everywhere that are mostly useless, and actually slow down my use of the phone. The Maxx is also running Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and while an Android 4.0 update is planned, we have no clue on the actual rollout date. The Razr Maxx is also $199.99 on contract right now.
On Verizon, I think the Galaxy Nexus is still the best bet. As long as you have good LTE coverage, the battery concerns shouldn’t be too worrisome. I’d suggest picking up a spare battery to have around if you’re going to be out all day, but the software and unlockable bootloader are fabulous.
Well, little T-Mobile has finally done something to get users excited. After months of pushing some outdated phones, a new HTC handset has arrived. Can the HTC One S stand up to the best Samsung has to offer?
The HTC One S is the mid-range device in HTC’s new line-up, but it is still a killer phone. The One S has a 4.3-inch qHD resolution AMOLED panel, which isn’t a match for the One X, but it’s passable. The phone is slim; really slim at just 7.9mm thick. The case HTC chose for the One S is aluminum, but lacks the plasma arc treatment from the international version. The device has a gradient blue color to it, and I personally really like the look. That's a strictly aesthetic judgement, and you are free to disagree.
The internals of the One S are distinctly high-end. There is a Snapdragon S4 dual-core chip at 1.5GHz per core, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of storage (no SD card), and an HSPA+ radio. The 8MP rear camera has the same wide aperture and solid performance seen in the One X.
The software on the One S is almost identical to what you’ll see with the One X on AT&T. It’s Android 4.0 with Sense 4 added. It’s much better than Sense used to be, and I like the integration with service like Dropbox. Some of the icons and other visual elements don’t look as good as stock Android, and some of the skinning feels incomplete, but it is much more slick than TouchWiz or Blur. The One S is selling for $199.99 on contract, which is a great value.
T-Mobile’s other top phone is the Samsung Galaxy S II. In this variant of the device, buyers can expect a 4.52-inch Super AMOLED Plus screen at WVGA resolution, 1GB of RAM, and 8MP/2MP camera arrangement. T-Mobile’s Galaxy S II has the 1.5GHz Snapdragon S3 instead of the superior Exynos. This does not compare favorably to the S4 in the One S.
The GSII is still running on Android 2.3 with TouchWiz 4. I have much the same to say about this software as I do about the Note’s. It’s not bad, but it feels dated now. Android is so much better-looking after ICS, and TouchWiz is still TouchWiz. Even when the Android 4.0 update hits the Galaxy S II, it’s probably not going to change to look much, which is a real bummer.
Oddly, T-Mobile is running a Jobs-style reality distortion field by charging $230 for this phone. That’s too much. The One S is cheaper by $30, has better internals, better industrial design, and better software. If you’re on T-Mobile, get the HTC One S -- end of story.
As the nation’s number three carrier struggles to move from WiMAX to LTE, it’s phone selection has suffered. Things are finally getting back up to speed with a new Nexus phone, and some upcoming hotness from HTC. But what is the top device right now?
Let’s first look at the reigning champion, the Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch (but I always call it the SGSIIE4GT to illustrate how terrible the name is). The SGSIIE4GT returns to the Exynos lineage with a 1.2GHz dual-core Samsung SoC. There is also 1GB of RAM, 16GB of storage with an SD card slot, and a 4G WiMAX radio.
The screen on the Sprint Galaxy S II is a 4.52-inch Super AMOLED Plus panel, but the resolution is still 800x480 (WVGA). The non-PenTile pixels look good, and I don't even mind the lower resolution too much on this device. Remember that the 4G radio here is WiMAX only, so don’t expect any coverage expansions; Sprint is moving to LTE now.
The software here is, again, Android 2.3 with TouchWiz. And again, it’s just okay. It’s not as good as stock Android, and I don’t think the Ice Cream Sandwich update is going to rectify that. I’d suggest a home screen replacement if you pick up this device. That will cover up most of the garish colors, and the device is overall nice and snappy.
The new arrival on Sprint is the hotly anticipated Samsung Galaxy Nexus. This is Sprint’s own Android flagship device and it ships with the best software you can get. The hardware isn’t bad either. The Nexus here is just like the one on Verizon: 4.65-inch Super AMOLED HD screen, TI OMAP4460 at 1.2GHz per core, 1GB of RAM, and 32GB of internal storage. 4G here comes by way of LTE, which is less widespread, but is future-proof. The 5MP camera is still disappointing, though.
The Sprint version also comes with Google Wallet pre-installed and $50 in free cash included. That’s pretty excellent if there are PayPass readers at any of your favorite retailers. This apparently herculean effort of software inclusion is made possible because the Nexus is stock Android 4.0, and Google got its way with Sprint.
Ice Cream Sandwich is cohesive, lovely, and fast. There is no doubt in my mind that it is better than Gingerbread with TouchWiz, and it’s probably going to best the Android 4.0 derivative of TouchWiz as well.
You’ll be on 3G unless you’re in one of Sprint’s few LTE markets, but the rollout continues. WiMAX has proven to be a dog anyway, so you're not missing much. Some users are having connectivity issues on 3G, but Samsung says a bug fix is on the way. The Sprint Galaxy Nexus is going for $199.99 on contract.
This is an easy decision. The SGSIIE4GT (sigh) has older hardware, a lower resolution screen, dated software, and a dead 4G standard. The Nexus has the best software you can get, LTE, Google Wallet, and solid hardware. For the same price, it’s the Nexus by a country mile.
Now that I’ve gone over all the major carriers, let me know what you think. Did you just pick up a phone? Still in the planning phase? Let’s hear what you look for in a new device.
Lead photo via Ariel Zambelich for Wired