Quantcast

The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (January 2013)

By Ryan Whitwam

Prices come down, and more devices are on the way.

As the tail end of winter drags slowly into spring, there will be plenty of opportunities for OEMs to wow us with new phone announcements. But if you’re in the market right now, waiting until some vague Q2 2013 release date might not do at all. So what Android phone is the right one to get? There are dozens to choose from, and you don’t want to make a bad call. Let’s see what all the national carriers have going on.

This month, T-Mobile has a plan, Verizon starts dropping prices, and Sprint still exists.

AT&T

There have been new Android phones on AT&T in recent weeks, but I don’t think any of them have been able to get anywhere close to the top slots this time around. What’s strange about this month’s lineup is that both phones are just begging to be made obsolete in 2013. With this in mind, I’m going to go over the top phones and quickly tell you why they’re still worth getting, and what might happen if you wait.

The HTC One X+ is still a contender this month, and you might be thinking that it isn’t that old. Indeed, it was just launched late last year, but it is still based on the One X, which was HTC’s 2012 flagship. But hey, there’s nothing wrong with this phone from a hardware perspective.

The highlight of the One X+ is the killer display: a 4.7-inch 720p Super LCD2. This panel looks awesome with perfect color reproduction, good black levels, and crisp lines. It’s still one of the nicest screens on a smartphone. Behind the screen ticks the heart of a gamer -- the 1.7GHz quad-core Tegra 3 ARM chip. That means the One X+ will be able to take advantage of all those Tegra-optimized games in the Play Store.

Other specs include 1GB of RAM, a spectacular 8MP camera sensor, and 64GB of storage. That’s more internal space than almost all other phones, and it’s a good thing too. There is no SD card slot, which is becoming quite a trend. The battery is also non-removable, but the One X gets a solid day of life.

In the software department, the One X+ has a lot going for it. The speedier hardware makes the Sense skin a little snappier, for one. You get some services like Dropbox and Beats Audio built in as well. The software on the One X+ is based on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, so you get Google Now, better notifications, and Project Butter enhancements. Sense is overall a little more sluggish than I’d like, even now.

The One X+ sells for $199.99 right now. If you wait it out, HTC is going to be announcing the new 2013 flagship phone, currently codenamed M7. The likely reveal will be February 19. The device will probably take a few months to come to the US, but it will make that One X+ feel a little outdated.

Moving on to the Samsung Galaxy S III, we see a phone that getting a little long in the tooth, but it’s been consistently solid. It’s been on and off of this roundup over the months, but this device just won’t quit. The GS3 has a 4.8-inch Super AMOLED HD display that doesn’t quite match the One X+ in terms of sharpness. However, the colors and black levels are great.

Inside, the GS3 has a dual-core Snapdragon S4 clocked at 1.5GHz. This is the same chip we saw in roughly a billion phones through most of 2012. It’s fast, power efficient, and natively supports LTE. The device also packs 2GB of RAM, 16GB or 32GB of storage, and a removable battery. You also get an SD card slot in the GS3. The camera in this phone is a bit better than the one on the One X+.

I would say the software is roughly equivalent to the One X+ now that there is an update to Android 4.1. This is really the primary reason it’s on the list this month. Samsung has been doing much better at updating phones this generation. Yes, Android 4.2 is the current version of Android, but I’d be surprised if any OEM bothered working on 4.2 with the K-release right around the corner.

The Galaxy S III runs the TouchWiz skin on top of Android, and it’s not that bad. I don’t personally care for the bright colors, but TouchWiz is fast. I mean, it’s noticeably faster than Sense. Samsung did some foolish things on the home screen and keyboard, but you can cover most of that up with some new apps.

The GS3 is selling for $199.99, which I think is a little high for how old it is. If you do wait it out, the Galaxy S IV is expected to be announced later this spring. It probably won’t reach the US until summer, so you’ve got some time to enjoy your phone.

You might wonder why the Optimus G is off the list this month. It’s a software thing. That phone is still running ICS, and I don’t see LG fixing it anytime soon. I think the best choice this month is the Galaxy S III. The new software brings it up to par with the One X+, and it’s a little faster overall. I also feel like HTC is anxious to put the One series behind it.

Verizon

The battle of the Droids continues to rage on Verizon Wireless as the Droid DNA and the Droid Razr Maxx HD go up against each other. The devices themselves are the same as they were last time, but the pricing model has been tweaked, and that changes the calculus a bit.

Starting with the Razr Maxx HD, the device has very thin bezels framing the 4.7-inch Super AMOLED HD panel at 720p. This is another PenTile subpixel arrangement, but it’s a fairly good-quality version of the technology. The phone looks nice at medium or higher brightness, but blurry at low brightness. Inside you’ll find a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 32GB of storage, and a massive 3,300mAh non-removable battery.

I probably don’t need to spell it out, but the battery is the selling point of this phone. If you don’t want to charge your device every night and still use it with impunity, this is the phone for you. The exterior design is bland (in my estimation). I really think of this phone as an understated enclosure for a giant battery.

The software experience here is actually better than much of the competition. The Maxx now runs a version of Android 4.1 with very little in the way of modifications. The menus, notifications, and home screen all feel mostly stock. There are some interesting additions like the Smart Actions app and a new home screen settings panel. Motorola did pick some ugly icons, though.

The Droid Razr Maxx HD is down to $249.99 from Verizon now. That makes it more competitive than it was at $300, and the software update just makes it that much cooler.

If the Maxx isn’t your speed, how about the HTC Droid DNA? This is kind of a “deal with it” phone. It’s big and fast, and people are going to notice when you hold this thing up to your head. The DNA has a gigantic 5-inch Super LCD3 running at 1920x1080. It’s the only 1080p phone you can get in the US as of right now, and it smashes the Razr’s screen. You can’t really argue with 440 pixels per-inch.

The DNA scores major points on the internals with a Snapdragon S4 Pro, a quad-core chip clocked at 1.5GHz per core. You also get 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage (no SD card), and a 2020mAh non-removable battery. The DNA’s big screen chews through the battery fairly fast, but it’s no worse than the average Android phone. It’s just that when compared to the Razr Maxx, it has quite the disadvantage.

Aside from being big, I think the design of the DNA is uninspired. Where the Razr is boring, the DNA is almost garish. I’ve never understood why Verizon insists on red accents everywhere. It’s not a good look.

The software on display here is very similar to the One X+ loadout. It’s HTC Sense on top of Android 4.1. The stock Android features like Google Now are there, but you have to dig a little to find them. Like the One X+, the DNA can be a little sluggish at times. Most of the additional power available from the Snapdragon S4 is being used up pushing all those pixels.

The DNA is $199 on-contract.

So which do you get? In this case, it’s a tie. The price drop of the Razr Maxx puts it closer to the DNA, and the use cases are very different. If you crave battery life and don’t mind if the screen is last-gen, get the Razr Maxx. Want the killer screen? Get the DNA.

T-Mobile

Ah, little T-Mobile. So scrappy, so noble, so behind the times. After hemming and hawing for months, T-Mobile is finally rolling out 4G LTE. So where does that leave you? In a weird place, that’s where. Most of the phones on T-Mobile are not going to work on the LTE network, but it might take months for LTE to show up in your area anyway.

Let’s start with the Google flagship LG Nexus 4, which sort of supports LTE. The Nexus 4 has an IPS LCD panel at 1280x768 with good colors and ZeroGap technology that puts the pixels right up against the glass. It also has 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, an 8MP camera, and a Snapdragon S4 Pro chip, just like the Droid DNA. It’s currently one of the best specced Android devices out there.

As for LTE, the Nexus 4 will be able to connect to T-Mobile’s LTE network on AWS bands without any serious modifications. You can enable LTE from the testing menu, but there are some drawbacks. For one, the device will not step down to HSPA+ when LTE signal is weak -- you’ll have to manually switch back to WCDMA mode.

The Nexus 4 gets mega-points for being the stock Google phone of this generation. It runs stock Android 4.2 and will be the first device to get future updates (until a new Nexus comes out). If you’ve been using skinned versions of Android, coming to stock is like the proverbial breath of fresh air. It’s fast, beautiful, and smart. The Nexus 4 is also unlocked, even when bought from T-Mobile. This device is $200 in stores on-contract, or $350 straight up shipped from Google.

I’ll break the tension now and say I think you should get the Nexus 4 despite it’s middling LTE support. If you really need better LTE support, T-Mobile says an LTE-capable Galaxy S III will show up at some point, but that’s of little help. The only other LTE device T-Mobile has confirmed is the existing Samsung Galaxy Note II, so let’s look at that.

As an aside, I get a lot of guff from Note fans for what they perceive as short shrift for the phone they are so passionate about. I like the Note II, and this month it has a clear feature advantage over the currently available Galaxy S III, which is why it’s on the list.

The Note II is big phone with a 5.5-inch device Super AMOLED HD panel at 720p. It looks a lot like a Galaxy S III that has been blown up and flattened a little. People will notice it, so be prepared to answer questions if you whip this phone out. The Note II also has 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage with a microSD card slot, a killer 8MP camera, and... a stylus. This pressure-sensitive stylus is the signature feature of the Note II, and it’s very cool.

The ARM chip used here is a Samsung Exynos quad-core clocked at 1.6GHz per-core. It’s a fast chip, but what’s more important is that it supports a T-Mobile LTE radio (the LTE is disabled on the current Snapdragon Galaxy S III). A small software update will hit this phone when LTE is officially live to enable the feature.

The Note II runs the same Jelly Bean build of TouchWiz that you’ll find on the GS3, but there are a few enhancements for the stylus (gestures and the like). Just like with its smaller brother, the Note II software is fast, but kind of unattractive. At least it has Jelly Bean on board so you can get some of the more recent Android goodies.

So if LTE support is very important to you, and the idea of a big phone is appealing, grab the Note II. The downside? It’s $369.99 on-contract from T-Mobile. That’s just not okay. Almost everyone should get the Nexus 4. The software is worlds better, it’s cheaper, and it supports LTE to a degree.

Sprint

The lineup of Android phones on Sprint rarely fills me with joy. Something cool drops on occasion, but most of what we have are old and mid-range devices. But hey, if you want a refurb HTC Hero on-contract, Sprint can hook you up for $30. But seriously, this still comes down to the Galaxy S III or the LG Optimus G.

The Galaxy S III on Sprint is the same basic phone you can get on the other carriers. Its hardware specs include a 4.8-inch 720p Super AMOLED HD screen, 2GB of RAM, and a best-in-class 8MP camera.The Snapdragon S4 is clocked to 1.5GHz, just like in the other variants. Though, I should note that the LTE in this version works wherever Sprint has coverage. You have your choice of 16GB and 32GB editions.

We’re looking at Android 4.1 with TouchWiz again, and there’s not too much wrong with that. If you can get over the colors and general Fisher-Price vibe in TouchWiz, it’s fast and efficient. Just swap out the home screen and keyboard, and you’re ready to go.

The Galaxy S III is $199 for the 16GB version, and a downright reasonable $249 for 32GB.

As for the LG Optimus G... as I talk about hardware, keep in the back of your mind that this phone is still running Ice Cream Sandwich. Like the Nexus 4, the Optimus has a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro ARM chip clocked at 1.5GHz, 2GB of RAM, and adds a 13MP camera. It also cranks things up with 32GB of storage. That camera might sound killer, and it is good, but the Galaxy S III is still slightly better.

The screen is another IPS LCD panel at 1280x768. It’s gorgeous compared to almost anything else out there. The Droid DNA and One X+ might be the exceptions, but I don’t think anyone could be disappointed with this screen. Just be aware there is a non-removable 2100mAh battery hiding behind that screen.

The Optimus G in the US is still on Android 4.0.4, commonly known as Ice Cream Sandwich. It has been well over a year since that software was released, and no update is in sight. The Korean Optimus has been updated, but I fear this version might be left behind. The LG skin is still usable, thanks to the killer hardware behind it. Still, it looks like a poor man’s TouchWiz. The Optimus G is $199 on-contract.

Until there is some movement on an update for the Optimus G, I can’t tell you to buy it. Well, if you’re committed to rooting and installing a ROM, go for it. Most folks should just buy the Galaxy S III and enjoy that device.

As we head into the spring phone season there are still plenty of good devices out there. Sure, some of them are going to look out of date in a few months, but that’s nothing new. So what devices are you crushing on this month?