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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (November 2012)

By Ryan Whitwam

New phones hit for the holidays.

The holiday season is here in full force, and that means everyone is trying to get you to upgrade that old and busted phone you’re still toting around. And you know what? You should. If your carrier is offering you free money to continue paying your bill, that’s not a bad deal. The problem is which phone you should get. Is the Galaxy S III still the king, or is LG the real winner? Let’s see where things stand.

This time Verizon goes big, Sprint steps it up, and T-Mobile is an Android lover’s dream come true.

AT&T

It makes me happy that I get to keep reminding you that AT&T has wonderful Android offerings. There was a time that Ma Bell was pushing awful devices like the Moto Backflip with pride. Last month the LG Optimus G stole the show, and this month there is yet another contender in the HTC One X+. Which of these two brand new devices should you get?

Let’s first revisit the LG Optimus G. This device has essentially the same hardware you’ll find in the Nexus 4, but it adds support for US LTE bands. The Snapdragon S4 Pro ARM chip is a quad-core clocked to 1.5GHz, and it is really killer. It’s the fastest chip around in benchmarks, so even LG’s software foibles are mostly smoothed over. You also get 2GB or RAM, a solid 8MP camera, and 16GB of storage with a microSD card slot (16GB included).

The display on the Optimus is a real beauty. This 4.7-inch 1280x768 IPS LCD panel looks nearly flawless in all lighting conditions. Battery usage is also lower in many circumstances than AMOLEDs. LG uses a technology called ZeroGap to integrate the touch sensor with the glass itself. So like an iPhone, the pixels are very close to the glass. It’s one of the crispest screens on a phone.

LG’s software is very reminiscent of Samsung’s TouchWiz, but a little more toned down. The color palate isn’t terrible, and there are some cool home screen gestures. Sadly, it is still based on Android 4.0 as Google has started pushing 4.2 on the Nexus. You’re going to be missing out on features like Google Now and offline voice typing. As I said before, the hardware makes this ROM feel pretty smooth. The Optimus G is going for $199 on contract.

HTC has had a rough time of things lately, but the Taiwanese company is hoping to have a hit on its hands with the HTC One X+. By all accounts, this is the phone HTC should have released instead of the original One X. The One X+ has a 1.7GHz quad-core ARM processor, but this one is a Tegra 3. The last generation One X was Snapdragon-based. This is one of the first phones to have Tegra 3 and a LTE radio. Tegra 3 is reasonably fast, and has exclusive support for loads of high-end games. Gamers should give this phone extra consideration.

Also inside the HTC One X+ is 1GB of RAM, a great 8MP camera sensor, and a whopping 64GB of storage. That’s good seeing as there is no SD card slot. The 4.7-inch 720p Super LCD2 screen on the One X+ is one of the few that can best the Optimus G. It too has gapless pixel technology, and the colors are just right.

HTC’s software has been a troublesome issue for years now. The HTC One X+ runs Sense 4+, which is based on Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean. Features like Google Now, offline voice, and project butter are on board. Unfortunately, Sense still feels a little too bloated, even with butter. It’s not a slow phone, but there is a lot of Sense to work around. The fact that it is launching with software that is only 5 months old instead of 12 months old is a big plus. Like the Optimus G, the HTC One X+ is selling for $199.

Both these phones have awesome screens, fast quad-core chips, and ample storage options. The One X+ is a bit more attractive on the outside, and it has more modern software. However, the Optimus technically has the edge on CPU and RAM. It’s very close, but I think the win this month goes to the HTC One X+ on the basis of Android 4.1, the 64GB storage option, and the gaming potential of the Tegra 3. The Optimus G is still a perfectly good phone, though.

Verizon

Someone at Verizon must be carefully calculating how big a phone can be before the average person can no longer hold it. That’s the only explanation for the way Big Red is pushing the limits of massive phones. The HTC Droid DNA dropped this month, and it rocks a ginormous 5-inch 1080p screen. Can the puny Droid Razr Maxx HD keep up?

Before we get to the new hotness, let’s lay out last month’s winner again. The Droid Razr Maxx HD has a dual-core Snapdragon S4 chip clocked to 1.5GHz. Also on board is 1GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a humungous 3,300mAh non-removable battery. The Razr can run for a good two days before needing a recharge. That’s a big selling point to consider.

The screen is probably the weak point of the Razr Maxx HD’s design. The 4.7-inch Super AMOLED HD panel at 720p uses a PenTile subpixel arrangement, which means slightly more blurry images and text. This panel also looks fairly dingy at low brightness levels. Indoors with good lighting, it looks fine.

Motorola’s software is getting better these days. The company showed remarkable restraint in skinning Android 4.0. Most of the Google features are there, and I like that the menus have not been completely redesigned. If you are moving from a Galaxy Nexus, you won’t be completely lost. An update to Android 4.1 is expected before the end of the year, which puts Motorola in a fairly good position. This device will run you $299 on contract.

The HTC Droid DNA is a real beast of a phone in every way. The screen is 5-inches and is the first 1080p Super LCD3 on a phone. To put things in perspective, your TV probably has the same number of pixels as this phone. As you can probably guess, it looks really good. At 440 pixels per-inch, you simply can’t see the dots anymore. The phone is a little wider than you might be used to, but the thin bezel makes it feel smaller than 5-inches.

Lurking inside the DNA is a Snapdragon S4 Pro clocked to 1.5GHz, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage (no SD card), and a 2020mAh non-removable battery. The battery is notable here because the Droid DNA does slurp up power fast because of that massive screen. The Razr HD Maxx has a non-removable battery too, but it’s much bigger. The DNA is a bit of an unattractive phone, although the Razr is no looker either. This bit is subjective and you're free to disagree.

Like its smaller AT&T cousin, the Droid DNA runs on Android 4.1 with Sense 4+ on top. I have never like the style of Sense much, but some users seem more than happy with it. So that means Google Now is built in, as are the other Jelly Bean goodies. The downside of that killer 1080p screen is that the hardware is pushing a lot more pixels. This results in a little UI slowdown, but it’s not too bad. This one is $199.

If you need long battery life, get the Maxx. That’s a given. However, I feel like most users don’t need that insane 2-day charge cycle, even though it would be nice to have. The Droid DNA will, by most accounts, last through a day and it has Qi wireless charging (awesome). The screen is worlds better on the DNA, and it’s $100 cheaper. Most users should get the HTC Droid DNA, unless you can’t fit it in your hand, or you can’t charge your phone every night.

T-Mobile

There is no reason to beat around the bush here -- you know what I’m going to say. There is absolutely no reason to get a T-Mobile phone other than the Nexus 4. The trick is actually finding it. The Play Store is backordered for at least 6 weeks as of this writing, and T-Mobile stores have limited stock. As a nice change of pace, let’s go over why the LG Nexus 4 bests its closest competitor and is totally worth your time to seek out.

The screen LG has chosen for the Nexus 4 is the same IPS LCD panel it used on the Optimus G line of devices. It comes in at 1280x768, has good colors, and ZeroGap technology that puts the pixels right up against the glass. The Samsung Galaxy S III, on the other hand, uses a Super AMOLED HD panel at 1280x720. The colors are very vibrant, which is the one place it bests the N4 screen. The PenTile subpixels make it blurrier, and it can get uneven at low brightness levels.

Internally, both phones have 2 GB of RAM, HSPA+ 42 data connectivity, NFC, and a Snapgragon S4 ARM chip. However, the Nexus uses the new Pro variant of the S4 with four cores instead of two and a better GPU. The S3 does offer a 32GB storage option, and there is a microSD card slot. The Nexus is limited to 16GB of space. The N4 makes up for that a little bit with wireless charging, which is cooler than you think.

I will say that the camera is perhaps the one place Samsung scores a clear victory over LG. Both phones have 8MP sensors, but the Galaxy S III tends to produce clearer images with better colors in a wider variety of light levels. The Nexus 4 camera is not bad -- it’s the best camera ever on a Nexus device. It’s better than most Android phones, but just a little behind Samsung.

If you had any questions about getting the Nexus 4, the software will assuage your fears. In the contest of Samsung vs. LG, this one is a bloodbath. The Nexus 4 runs stock Android 4.2.1, and it’s the only phone that does. T-Mobile has managed to update the GS3 to Android 4.1, which is admirable. However, the Nexus 4 rocks pure stock Android and I feel strongly that it’s a better experience than TouchWiz any day. The Nexus 4 is perfectly smooth no matter what I throw at it.

T-Mobile is known for its hatred of the phone subsidy. The 16GB Galaxy S III is selling for a shocking $279 on contract. The Nexus 4, by contrast, is just $199. Did you need another reason to get the Nexus 4? Now all you have to do is find one in stock.

Sprint

Even Sprint, which has been lacking in hot new phone releases lately, is getting in on the holiday fun. Sprint got its own version of the LG Optimus G shortly after AT&T did, and it has a real shot at taking the crown away from the Samsung Galaxy S III, which has been the obvious top phone on Sprint for several months.

First a refresher on what the Galaxy S III brings to the table. The hardware specs include a 4.8-inch 720p Super AMOLED HD screen, 2GB of RAM, and a great 8MP camera. The Snapdragon S4 dual-core chip in the GS3 is a common part, but still has the speed to keep things chugging along.

The Galaxy S III comes in both 16GB and 32GB versions, but both have additional microSD card slots. The overall design of the devices is not bad. A little on the plastic-y side, though. It feels good in the hand, but is quite slippery.

TouchWiz has its ups and downs on this phone. It’s overall fairly fast. The touch response feels very good, but sometimes apps take too long to launch. The keyboard is among the worst an OEM is currently using, and I don’t much care for the color palate. Although, some of the gestures Samsung implements are useful. This device is running Android 4.1, which is nice to see. This gives you access to Google Now and all the other Jelly Bean features.

The Galaxy S III is $199 on contract for the 16GB version.

The LG Optimus G is more or less the same phone you get on AT&T. There is a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro ARM chip clocked at 1.5GHz, 2GB of RAM, and a non-removable 2100mAh battery. Things get a little different with the 32GB of built-in storage, and a step up to a 13MP camera. Opinions on the camera are mostly positive. This module takes better snapshots than the 8MP used in the AT&T version, and it even gets close to the Galaxy S III in image quality.

The screen is far and away superior to the Galaxy S III panel. This is the same 1280x768 IPS LCD from the Nexus 4 and AT&T Optimus. It’s crisp, vivid, and has great viewing angles. The colors aren’t as bright as AMOLED, but the other attributes more than makes up for that.

LG's software is based on Android 4.0, but has a custom UI on top. Just like the AT&T phone, this software is snappy mostly because of the insane hardware backing it. Being ICS-based, there are some missing features like Google Now, project butter, and offline voice. What there is of Android works well, and an update is supposed to be incoming.

This too is a $199 phone.

Just on the basis of hardware, the LG Optimus G is in the lead. When you factor in that the GS3 on Sprint has Jelly Bean already, things get murkier. If you’re going to root your phone and install a ROM, there’s no question you should go with the Optimus G. If not, it’s a tie. The Optimus has better hardware, and the Galaxy S III has more modern software.

What a big month it has been. New phones are falling like manna from heaven. AT&T and Sprint both have great Optimus devices, and Verizon has the biggest phone you can get without a stylus. Meanwhile T-Mobile rocks it with pure, unadulterated Android. What phone do you have your eye on?