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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (October 2012)

By Ryan Whitwam

A new Nexus makes things awfully interesting.

October has been a tremendous month for Android. There were new phone releases, updates, and announcements every few days. This is the build-up to the holiday season, and it’s traditionally the busiest time of year when it comes to new devices. There are dozens of phones to choose from, and the last thing you want is to get stuck with the wrong device for two long years. So let's see what you should get on each of the big four US carriers.

This month Verizon steps it up, T-Mobile finally gets the goods, and AT&T offers a tough choice.

AT&T

The race on AT&T has been extremely close between the Atrix HD and Samsung Galaxy S III for a few months now, but the arrival of the LG Optimus G shakes everything up. As if that wasn’t enough, the just announced Nexus 4 Google flagship is compatible with AT&T’s HSPA+ network. This month I’m backing off on the Atrix HD because I’m pretty sure Motorola has already moved on. It’s a good phone, but this month the contest is between the Galaxy S III and the LG Optimus G.

In every way Samsung likes to borrow from Apple, LG borrows from Samsung. As such, it’s not surprising the Optimus G has a little bit of a Galaxy vibe to it. The screen on the Optimus G is, by all accounts, stellar. It’s a 4.7-inch IPS LCD at 1280x720. LG also has a touchscreen technology that integrates the touch sensor into the glass panel, making the pixels look like they are right under your finger. It’s the same effect you see on the iPhone screen.

The Optimus G also rocks an 8MP rear camera and 1.3MP front sensor. It takes good photos, but not quite as good as Samsung’s device. Inside, the Optimus G it truly top-of-the-line. This is the first device to ship with a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro. This is a quad-core chip clocked at 1.5GHz. It will decimate all the bits you can throw at it. Additionally, it has 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage to match the GS3.

The software installed on the Optimus G is still based on Android 4.0 ICS. This is nothing new -- lots of phones still launch with this year-old software. LG is supposed to be updating it, but don’t get too up in arms if it takes a while. The UI LG uses is fairly restrained. The colors haven’t been radically altered, icons are acceptable, and there are some useful homescreen gestures. The text input also seems better than TouchWiz. The Optimus G is $199 on contract.

Samsung has thus far been the undisputed king of Android, but that might be changing. Court rulings are going against it and LG has taken over the Nexus program. Still, the Galaxy S III is one of the best devices on AT&T with its 4.8-inch Super AMOLED HD panel at 720p. It’s a good display, but LG has it beat. The GS3 AMOLED still uses PenTile sub-pixels, which aren’t as crisp as a good IPS LCD.

The GS3 has solid internals based on a dual-core Snapdragon S4 clocked to 1.5GHz per core. That’s two fewer cores than LG has, for whatever that’s worth. Again we see 2GB of RAM, but much of this is reserved for TouchWiz features like Smart Stay and S Voice. The GS3 also starts at 16GB of internal storage.

The 8MP rear-facing camera on the Galaxy S III is best in class. It takes wonderful images even in low light. LG does well with its sensors, but the difference is noticeable.

Samsung’s TouchWiz skin on the GS3 is still based on Android 4.0, but an update should appear in the coming months. International devices have already been updated, but carriers tend to hold things back with testing. As it stands, TouchWiz has some good things going on. It’s fairly fast, the home screen has a lot of functionality, and things like Smart Stay are actually useful.

The problem I have with TouchWiz is that it feels arrogant at times. Things seem to be changed just for the sake of changing them. for example, Samsung took out a lot of the Android text input code, and added in its own inferior options. I’m also not a fan of the garish colors used in many of the apps. The Galaxy S III is going for $199 as well.

So what should you get? I think you should take a look at the LG Optimus G first. It’s fast, has a gorgeous screen, and LG has come a long way with software.

If you are willing to make one big compromise, there is another way. The Nexus 4 is going to be out soon and it looks killer. It’s like a prettier Optimus G that gets stock Google updates and is unlocked. The downside is that it does not have LTE like the two phones above. This device will run you $299 for a 8GB version, and $349 for 16GB. Consider it (I know I am).

Verizon Wireless

Big Red has been a little stagnant in recent months, but now things are getting interesting again. The Droid Razr Maxx HD has arrived to give the Galaxy S III a run for its money. Let’s see how they compare.

The Samsung Galaxy S III is basically the same phone on all carriers -- it has a good 1280x720 (720p) Super AMOLED panel, great 8MP camera, and an interesting curvy design. That screen is not as clear as a really nice LCD, but it’s about on-par with the new Razr, which also uses an AMOLED panel. The Galaxy S III has a dual-core Snapdragon S4 and 2GB of RAM just like its AT&T cousin. One thing I really like about the GS3 hardware is that it fits just right in your hand despite being a big device. It definitely feels smaller than the Razr.

The Galaxy S III starts at 16GB of storage and has a microSD card slot. The battery is removable, which separates it from the new Razr.

I have all the same concerns with TouchWiz on Verizon's GS3 as I do on other carriers. It makes unnecessary changes, uses unattractive colors, and feels too cluttered. It seems like this phone is always notifying you about something. Look, you’re connected to Wi-Fi. Look, your battery is done charging. Stop that, Samsung.

However, I’m still forced to admit that the software is snappy, and I don’t hate the home screen. Samsung has come a long way and TouchWiz is definitely usable. Make no mistake about that. The Galaxy S III sells for $199 on contract.

The new arrival on Verizon this month is the Droid Razr Maxx HD. This device is also running on a dual-core Snapdragon S4 SoC, but it only has 1GB of RAM. The 8MP camera on the back is acceptable in the way all Motorola cameras are, but the GS3 bests it. The screen is a 4.7-inch Super AMOLED HD panel at 720p. This is almost the same panel that’s on the Galaxy S III, so don’t fret too much about the slightly blurry PenTile subpixels. The Maxx does, however, have 32GB of storage included.

The physical design is a little bland if you ask me. It’s not an unattractive phone, but it feels awkward in your hand -- much bigger than it is. The real focus of the Razr Maxx HD is the 3,300mAh battery that’s sealed in there. The Maxx can easily run for 2 days without needing a recharge. It’s kind of amazing.

Motorola also has something good going on with the software. The Razr runs a very light skin that lets most of stock Android shine through, although it’s still based on Android 4.0. Moto says the Jelly Bean 4.1 update will hit by year’s end. I like that the notification area is clean, and the system menus are mostly untouched. Motorola also includes Smart Actions which is genuinely useful.

The Maxx is a little more spendy at $299 on contract, but it has battery life that totally clobbers the GS3. Considering the great battery, solid software, and evenly matched displays, I’d say go with the Droid Razr Maxx HD.

T-Mobile

It seems like months since I was able to get excited about a phone that was coming to T-Mobile. America’s smallest carrier still lacks a 4G LTE network, but that’s what makes your choices so intriguing. You can still get the Galaxy S III on T-Mobile, but this is the only carrier that’s offering the LG-built Nexus 4 in stores.

First a quick refresher on the Galaxy S III. T-Mobile’s variant is the only one that lacks LTE connectivity, but all the other goodies are present, including the 4.8-inch 720p Super AMOLED HD screen, 2GB of RAM, and a great 8MP camera. The Snapdragon S4 dual-core chip in the Galaxy S III is more than able to keep you happy for a long time to come.

The T-Mobile GS3 has essentially the same build of TouchWiz that you see on everything else. it gets the job done, and quickly. There are some parts of TouchWiz that work well, like the home screen. It adds some appreciated features like gestures and rearrangement. I’m not so big on the the clutter in the notification area or the color palate Samsung is working from.

The GS3 feels good in the hand, but it’s a fairly plastic-y device. From what we understand, the Nexus 4 feels incredibly well-made. The Galaxy S III is still going for $279 on contract. Yes, that’s a lot, but T-Mobile is actively hostile to subsidies.

Even though the Nexus 4 is not out yet, it will be soon. Just don’t buy a T-Mobile phone until this handset is available. You owe it to yourself to check it out. Since T-Mobile is still running on HSPA+, the Nexus 4 is on equal footing with the other devices on the network.

The Nexus 4 is going to have a Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core ARM SoC. You also get 2GB of RAM, an 8MP camera, and a 4.7-inch IPS LCD screen at 1280x768. Current reports claim the screen is amazing, and the camera is a major step up from last year’s Nexus.

The Nexus 4 has a Gorilla Glass back, which I’m a little worried about. Google says the soft-touch band around the edge of the phone warps around and protects the backing as well as the screen, but we’ll see about that. The 2,100mAh battery is sealed in, but on HSPA+ that should be enough juice.

The software is where the Nexus 4 really shines. Sure you could get the GS3 with a TouchWiz’d up version of Android 4.0, but the Nexus 4 has beautiful, stock Android 4.2. This is Android the way it’s meant to be. No crapware, no ugly icons, and no clutter. Android 4.2 adds features like Photo Sphere for immersive 3D images, quick settings in the notification area, and wireless display support.

The Nexus 4 will be updated by Google directly, so you’ll always have the newest software. T-Mobile is selling the device for $199 on contract, which is a good deal compared to other phones. Still, you can buy the phone from Google Play for $349 and do pre-paid on T-Mobile if you like.

This bout was over before the bell even rang. Wait for the LG Nexus 4 to arrive in mid-November.

Sprint

Okay, I’ll say it: Sprint is boring. It’s been a good long time since the “Now Network” got anything that made anyone want to run out and buy a phone right “now.” Instead, Sprint is getting a myriad of mid-range device that will be abandoned within the next few months. The LG Optimus G is around the corner, but that doesn't help your choices now. We still have a match-up between the Samsung Galaxy S III and the HTC Evo 4G LTE.

First up, both these phones are running on the 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4. That’s the dual-core version, remember. Both these phones have LTE, but Sprint’s coverage is terrible right now. The GS3 still has 2GB of RAM, but the Evo is only packing 1GB. This is a checkbox win for Samsung, but you’re not going to have issues with memory on either device in most situations. Both devices have 16GB of storage and a microSD card slot.

The screens are real differentiators here. The Evo has a 4.7-inch 720p gapless Super LCD2 display, which is a beautiful screen. The 4.8-inch 720p Super AMOLED HD panel on the GS3 is a good screen, but the Evo crushes it in crispness and color reproduction. Both devices have good 8MP cameras, and the Evo is almost a match for the GS3 -- an unusual situation.

As for the software, what can I say? The GS3 runs Android 4.0 with TouchWiz, and the Evo runs Android 4.0 with Sense. I don’t think either one is as good as stock Android, but given the choice, I’d have to go with TouchWiz. The improvements Samsung is making seem more substantive. I also suspect that Samsung is going to keep this device updated better than HTC will with its phone. HTC is already scrambling to move on from a mediocre launch of the One series.

The Galaxy S III and the HTC Evo 4G LTE are both $199 on contract, and I think the Galaxy S III is a slightly better buy on Sprint. So get that one if you must. However, the Sprint version of the Optimus G is coming out later in November. It's going to be like the AT&T version, but with a 13MP camera. You really might want to wait on that.

I’d also add that the Galaxy Note II is on Sprint. While I think this phone is not right for very many people, especially when the GS3 is available, it does spice up Sprint’s lineup. Consider that if you like a monstrously large phone.

Things are really picking up in the Android world. If you’re about to pick up a new phone, what are you thinking? Grabbing a Razr Maxx HD? Jumping ship for a Nexus 4 perhaps?