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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (February 2013)

By Ryan Whitwam

Can you wait it out, or jump on the deals now?

Every second that ticks by brings us closer to the announcement of the Samsung Galaxy S IV and the likely upending of the market for Android phones this spring. HTC is trying to turn things around with the HTC One as well, but neither of these phones are going to be on your carrier for a few months yet. So what should you do if you need a phone now?

There are still a ton of great devices out there, but some are clearly better than others. Let’s take a look at what you can get on the big four US carriers how you should take into account hardware, software, and future support.

AT&T

AT&T customers find themselves in an interesting place this month. Ma Bell has the most recent incarnation of HTC and Samsung’s last-generation flagship devices. The HTC One X+ and Samsung Galaxy S III are both solid phones, but which one is likely to keep you happy the longest?

Starting with the Samsung Galaxy S III, you get a solid 4.8-inch 720p Super AMOLED HD display that looks good, but isn’t really in the same league as the One X+. The upshot is the amazing black levels, though. The 8MP camera on the S III is, however, among the best on any currently available phone.

Beneath that slippery plastic shell is a dual-core Snapdragon S4 at 1.5GHz per core. It’s a common chip, but that doesn’t make it bad. In fact, the Snapdragon S4 was widely used in 2012 because it was so awesome. This chip is fast, and has LTE built right in. The Galaxy S III also has 2GB of RAM, 16-32GB of storage, a microSD card slot, and a removable battery (unlike the One X+).

As for the software situation, Samsung has been doing a fairly good job with TouchWiz on the Galaxy S III. After running 4.0.4 for a while, there is a Jelly Bean 4.1 update for this device on AT&T. I’m not sure if 4.2 is ever going to reach this phone. If there is an update past 4.1, it will probably be months away.

Jelly Bean on the Galaxy S III has roughly the same feature set as you’d see on the One X+, but it’s faster overall. Samsung has optimized its software better than HTC has. I’m not crazy about the way Samsung modified the keyboard or the home screen, but these are easy fixes. The Galaxy S III starts at $200.

HTC’s best of 2012 is the One X+, and it has some nice hardware tweaks when compared to the old One X. Front and center is a 4.7-inch 720p Super LCD2. Yeah, the coming super-phones are going to have 1080p screens, but this is absolutely the best 720p display you’ll find on a phone. The camera is a fairly good 8MP shooter, but doesn’t quite match the Galaxy S III.

This phone also trades the Snapdragon SoC for a 1.7GHz quad-core Tegra 3 ARM chip. This gives the One X+ access to all those sweet Tegra-only games in the Play Store. The performance difference at the OS level is negligible, though. The One X+ only has 1GB of RAM, but 64GB of storage, which is great if you like to carry a lot of media with you. There is no SD card slot, and the battery is sealed in. The Galaxy S III doesn’t have either of these issues, but at the expense of a less sleek design.

The One X+ shipped with Jelly Bean 4.1, and it has all the features you’d expect. The features are definitely there for the One X+ on current software, but it’s not quite as snappy as the Galaxy S III is on the same underlying build of Android. This is still based on Sense 4, but HTC has said that older devices will see updates to Sense 5, and this ought to be one of them. That doesn’t necessarily mean Android 4.2 -- the new HTC One is still rocking Android 4.1. I’d actually be surprised if the One X+ saw 4.2 or later.

So what to do? If you’re buying now, the Samsung Galaxy S III is the way to go. The software is solid, and I think it’s got better future prospects than the One X+. Samsung has more resources to keep supporting old phones going forward.

Verizon Wireless

Verizon is the largest carrier in the US, and apparently that gives it license to do pretty much whatever it wants. After the HTC One was announced, Verizon was the only carrier that didn’t announce it was carrying the device. With that out of the picture, you can go in with a little less trepidation. It’s still the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD vs. the HTC Droid DNA.

Droid Razr Maxx HD has one main claim to fame -- it has a giant 3300mAh battery that keeps the phone running for days. That’s great, but it’s a pretty standard late-2012 device otherwise. This phone is designed around a 4.7-inch 720p Super AMOLED HD. That panel uses a PenTile subpixel arrangement that looks blurry at low brightness levels. Otherwise, it’s much better.

Like a multitude of other phones, this one is based on a 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4. This SoC is more than enough to drive the interface and connect you to LTE without draining too much power from that massive battery. You also get 32GB of storage, but no microSD card slot.

The Razr Maxx comes with Android 4.1 on board, and it does a better job of utilizing the stock Android features than most non-Nexus phones. Perhaps because of Google’s influence, Motorola hasn’t completely reskinned Android. Most of the stock UI is there, but the icons have been swapped out. There is also a quick settings panel on the home screen. Overall, it’s a nice skin.

The Droid Razr Maxx is currently selling for $250, which is acceptable in my opinion. There is not a successor to this device on the horizon, and it’s the only game in town if you want insane battery life right now.

On the other side of the fence, the HTC Droid DNA stakes its claim to the impractical phone slot. It has a smaller battery and a much more power-hungry screen. This was the first phone in the US with a 1080p display -- in this case a spiffy 5-inch Super LCD3. It looks fabulous with 440 pixels per-inch.

This is a big phone, but not as oversized as you’d expect from that screen. The bezel is slim, and the device isn’t overly thick. Actually, it should have been thicker. The non-removable battery is just 2020mAh, and that screen eats through the juice. I’d also say the design is a bit unattractive. The red accents aren’t doing this phone any favors.

Inside, the DNA is a step up from most of the 2012 devices. There is a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro clocked at 1.5GHz per core underlying everything. The DNA also has 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and no SD card. The 8MP camera is the same sensor used in the One X, and it’s probably a little better than the Razr Maxx’s camera.

Just like the One X+ on AT&T, the DNA is running Android 4.1 with Sense 4 on top. Verizon is notorious for delaying software updates, but I feel confident that because the new HTC One isn’t coming to Big Red, this device will see at least one more update with Sense 5 on board. That might help clean up some of the sluggishness this device exhibits. This phone is also $200 on contract.

The Razr Maxx HD and HTC Droid DNA both have their strong points. The DNA has that screen, and the Razr has cleaner software with massive battery life. It’s a tie between these devices. Either will serve you well for a while yet, but make sure you decide which you want more: a killer screen or killer battery life.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile is currently in the early stages of rolling out LTE across its network. Although, there are essentially no devices that support that LTE network. In fact, there is one fewer this month. After the Nexus 4 received its 4.2.2 update, users quickly discovered that the unofficial LTE support was gone. This was probably necessitated by regulatory concerns, but it’s still a bummer. The Nexus 4 is still plenty appealing, but so is the Galaxy Note II, which will legitimately support LTE soon.

Let's start with the Nexus 4, which you can actually buy now. This device packs a Snapdragon S4 Pro, 16GB of storage, 2GB of RAM, and a beautiful 1280x768 IPS LCD display with ZeroGap technology. It might not be a 1080p panel, but it's nearly as good as the 720p One X screen. So, really good!

The Nexus 4 is extremely well-built, especially for an LG phone. It’s a bit slippery, but I haven’t had any issues using it as a daily driver. You’ll only be able to use this device on HSPA+ going forward unless you go through the trouble of flashing old radios that support unofficial LTE.

The real selling point of the Nexus 4 is the wonderful stock Android experience. There simply is not another phone that can match this device in terms of software. This phone gets OTA updates direct from Google, and there is no crapware hampering the experience. It also runs the newest version of Android, currently 4.2. You can expect to have updated software for at least another 18 months with this device.

The Nexus 4 is selling contract-free for $350 (16GB version) in Google Play, or you can pick one up right now in most T-Mobile stores for $200. Although, it occasionally goes on sale for $50-100.

The other phone you should consider is the Samsung Galaxy Note II. Why not the Galaxy S III? Well, that device doesn’t support LTE on T-Mobile, and the Note is essentially a larger version of that phone with the LTE capability. It’s also a little newer, so it won’t be made obsolete in two weeks.

The Note II clocks in with a 5.5-inch Super AMOLED HD screen at 1280x720. It’s a big phone, but as long as you have average or larger hands, it should be fine. The key to the Note II is the S Pen, an inductive stylus built on Wacom technology. This allows you to take notes and draw with pressure-sensitivity built-in. It works very well on the Note II, and the S Pen even docks inside the phone so you’ll never have to be without it. People that have the Note II tend to love it in a way no other group of users do (with the possible exception of Nexus owners).

Inside, the Note II has a Samsung Exynos quad-core chip clocked at 1.6GHz per-core, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage with a microSD card slot, and a spectacular 8MP camera. The Exynos chipset supports an LTE radio that will be enabled with a software update in the near future, but the Snapdragon GS3 on T-Mobile is forever locked out of LTE.

The software on the Note II is very similar to what you’ll find on the Galaxy S III, but slightly larger. Samsung has changed the home screen layout a tad, and the S Pen is integrated in with gestures and shortcuts. The TouchWiz interface isn’t stellar, but it gets the job done, and is fast. The current version is based on Android 4.1, so you’re not going to be terribly behind if you get the Note II.

If you can deal with a very big phone, the Note II is great except for one little detail: it costs $370 on-contract. Even with the LTE situation, most users will be happier with the Nexus 4. The note II is a good backup, though.

Sprint

Sprint is in desperate need of some new hardware. This carrier has a tendency to keep old devices around for a very, very long time to fill out its offerings. Case in point, you can still buy an HTC Hero for $30 on contract.

Sprint is going to get the HTC One, so maybe you want to weigh that against buying a phone now. Last time I went over the Galaxy S III vs. the LG Optimus G, but the HTC One changes things a little. In fact, the Optimus G is no longer competitive. Let’s throw the HTC One in the mix and see where you stand.

Starting with the super-successful Galaxy S III, the specs are going to seem very familiar by now. It has a 4.8-inch 720p Super AMOLED HD screen, 2GB of RAM, and good 8MP camera. The phone is running atop a Snapdragon S4 clocked to 1.5GHz per core. If there is Sprint LTE where you are (unlikely), the GS3 will work on 4G.

Again, the Galaxy S III is running Android 4.1 with TouchWiz. It’s not a good as pure Android, but Samsung’s skin is fast, and the interface is consistent. I’m not a fan of certain aspects, like the keyboard, but you can tweak the phone to make it more usable.

The Galaxy S III starts at $100 for the 16GB version, but a 32GB is also on sale for $150. These prices have come down, and I think they make the GS3 very enticing.

The Optimus G is off the list this month for two reasons: it is still on Android 4.0.4, and the price is still $200. When the Galaxy S III is half that, I can’t recommend you buy the Optimus G anymore. Instead, let’s look at the prospect of waiting for the HTC One on Sprint.

The HTC One is going to have a great 1080p LCD screen, Snapdragon 600 SoC, and 2GB of RAM. It will be far and away the fastest phone on the Now Network. That Ultrapixel camera is also quite interesting. Instead of ramping up the megapixels on that tiny sensor, HTC is making the pixels larger and using fewer of them. The resolution is just 4MP, but the color and clarity should be better.

The HTC One bears a striking resemblance to the iPhone 5. It is thin with gently rounded corners, a flat back, and chamfered edges. The body itself is a single machined piece of aluminum, and the antenna is integrated in the shell. The phone looks great, but there are only two buttons -- home and menu. HTC has ditched the multitasking button.

The One runs a version of Android 4.1 with Sense 5. It looks nice, but since it’s not out yet, I can’t speak to the actual experience. HTC has added some handy camera features, as well as a home screen feed of social news called Blinkfeed. Is it going to work? I’m not sure, but at least HTC is trying something new.

So here’s the deal on Sprint, if you need a phone and like the Galaxy S III, get that. The HTC One isn’t out yet, but it’s the only other device you should consider. That might mean waiting, though. The price hasn’t been announced, but I expect $200.

Well, that’s it for another month. By the next time we talk, the Samsung Galaxys S IV will have been announced, and that’s sure to throw a monkey wrench into things. Until then, buy smart.