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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (March 2013)

By Ryan Whitwam

It's a crazy time for people looking to buy Android phones.

If your old phone is on the outs, you find yourself in a tough spot. We now know what the next generation of Android is going to look like, and it looks good. If you make the jump to a new device now, you’re going to be a little sad in just a few months. You’re probably signing up for a two-year contract with a new phone, so making the purchase at the right time is essential.

Photo credit: Flickr user isriya via Creative Commons.

This month, we’re going to look at your options on each carrier, and decide if you should wait for one of the upcoming super-phones, or take the plunge.

AT&T

AT&T is set to get both the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S 4 before long. Interestingly, both these OEMs have last-generation flagship phones on AT&T right now. Of course I’m referring to the Galaxy S III and the One X+. Let’s see the upgrades you’ll get if you wait, then determine the best course of action.

On the Samsung side, the Galaxy S III has a 4.8-inch 720p Super AMOLED screen. The Galaxy S 4 bumps that up to a 5-inch Super AMOLED panel at 1080p. On the inside, the older dual-core Snapdragon S4 in the GS3 will be be bested by the Galaxy S 4 and its quad-core Snapdragon 600. The camera resolution has also been increased to 13MP in the GS4 from the 8MP in the GS3. Both phones have 2GB of RAM.

So what can we say about the hardware difference for Samsung? It’s a solid upgrade, but not DRAMATIC. The footprint of the device hasn’t increased much, but I think the addition of a 2600mAh battery will actually be one of the more compelling upgrades.

As for software, you will immediately get Android 4.2 on the Galaxy S 4, which won’t be coming to the Galaxy S III until some later date. Samsung has committed to upgrading the GS3, and adding some of the new TouchWiz features, but it’s going to take some time. The new device brings features like automatic scrolling of web pages, dual camera mode, and a new translation app.

AT&T pre-orders for the Galaxy S 4 are happening on April 16 for $250. AT&T is the only carrier that has announced a date, and it’s so close. At this point, I think a Samsung fan should wait it out.

If the HTC One X+ strikes your fancy, we now also have some information on the upcoming HTC One. Sadly, not all the news is good. HTC is having issues getting enough of its Ultrapixel sensors, which isn’t too surprising. This 4MP low-light camera is one of the prominent features in the One, but its completely custom. The One X+ has a standard (fairly good) 8MP sensor.

The HTC One will have a 4.7-inch 1080p LCD panel, which will compare favorably to the 720p screen on the One X+. The ARM chips have two completely different profiles. The One X+ has a Tegra 3 chip, whereas the HTC One will run the Snapdragon 600. The One will increase RAM to 2GB from 1GB, which is nice. It will also start at 32GB of storage, but the One X+ is 64GB.

Both the HTC One and the One X+ will provide you with an experience based on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. The One is expected to get an upgrade to 4.2 shortly after launch, but by then Google will probably have announced Key Lime Pie. Despite running the same underlying version of Android, the One will redesign a lot of the experience. The new Sense is flatter and less garish in places. Features like BlinkFeed (a homescreen news feed) and Zoe (a way to capture action shots with the camera) will make the One a fairly compelling upgrade.

The One was supposed to be out soon, but now it’s looking like AT&T won’t have the device until the end of April at the earliest. So it’s going head-to-head against the Samsung Galaxy S 4 on Ma Bell. Since we don’t have a release date, I’m hesitant to tell anyone to wait on this device (sorry, HTC).

So the Galaxy S 4 seems to be on track, has an improved screen, some software tweaks, and will run a new version of Android. It also has that beefy battery. I think given the jump from the GS3 is big enough, and the HTC One is delayed, the GS4 wins. Wait on the Galaxy S 4 if you’re on AT&T. Pre-order it on April 16.

Verizon

Unlike AT&T, Verizon has not announced it will be carrying the HTC One. However, sources indicate the One will come to Big Red eventually, but it might be re-branded and have different hardware. The Galaxy S 4, on the other hand, is definitely coming to Verizon. That leaves the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD and Droid DNA going up against the still unreleased GS4.

The Droid Razr Maxx HD has a 4.7-inch 720p Super AMOLED HD panel. It’s not the best screen on a phone, but it’s more than passable. It uses a PenTile subpixel arrangement, so there will be some blurring at lower brightness levels. Behind that screen is the real selling point -- a 3300mAh non-removable battery that can keep the device chugging along for about two full days.

The Razr Maxx HD embodies the year 2012 perfectly with its 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 ARM chip. It’s still a fine processor, and it works well with the LTE network. The Maxx also has 32GB of storage and a microSD card slot.

The Razr Maxx HD comes with Android 4.1 on-board, and I’m not aware of any firm plans to update it to a newer build of the OS. I suspect it will happen eventually, but don’t bank on it. I do, however, like Motorola’s interface. It’s much closer to stock Android than the competition, and some of the features it has added are genuinely useful.

This phone is going for $199, which is a little less than last month at this time.

Things are a little murkier when we’re talking about an unreleased device, but the Samsung Galaxy S 4 is the elephant in Verizon’s room. The GS4 is going to have a 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen, which will be better than the Razr’s even if it still has the same PenTile issues. It’s simply a much higher resolution. The 8MP camera on the Razr is mediocre at best, but Samsung tends to pay a lot of attention to camera sensors, so I feel confident that the GS4 will take better photos.

Internally, the Galaxys S 4 will again be a big step up from the Razr. The Snapdragon 600 ARM chip is quad-core and has more power-efficient cores. There will also be 2GB of RAM and 16-64GB of storage. This is one of the few places the Razr Maxx HD beats the GS4 as it has 32GB of internal storage by default. The GS4 will have a microSD card slot, though. It will also include a 2600mAh battery, which is much closer to the insane 3300mAh cell in the Maxx. That puts the GS4 close to negating the Maxx’s one big advantage.

The software situation is favorable for the Galaxy S 4 as well. It will launch with Android 4.2 and a new version of TouchWiz (although Samsung isn’t using that term much anymore). It’s not much different in appearance than last year’s devices, but some new features based on eye-tracking and photo capture could be interesting for some users. Price and release date are unknown, but April-May is likely.

The Droid DNA is a closer match for the Galaxy S 4 with its 5-inch 1080p LCD3 screen and 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro. It won’t be as fast in terms of raw numbers, but you won’t be as far behind the curve as with other devices. It also has 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, an 8MP camera and no microSD card slot. Storage is definitely a trade-off here.

The Droid DNA runs Android 4.1 with Sense 4 on top. As this is a device made specially for Verizon, I don’t have a lot of confidence that updates will be coming soon. I’m sure it will get at least one new OS version, but the wait might make that a non-issue. Don’t buy this device expecting software revisions.

The Droid DNA is a slim device with a narrow bezel, so that 5-inch screen doesn’t feel overly large. However, the battery is just 2020mAh and is not removable. By all accounts, the battery life is acceptable, but not anything special.

There is no doubt that the Samsung Galaxys S 4 will be a better phone than the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD and the Droid DNA. The question we need to answer is, “How much better?” The Galaxy S 4 will probably be available in a month or so, and it has a large removable battery. It’s not as big as the Maxx, but it might be close enough. The DNA is closer in overall specs, but the battery life and software situation are questionable. Buying the Maxx isn’t a terrible idea, but Verizon customers should wait on the Galaxy S 4. I think it’s time to start skipping the DNA, though.

T-Mobile

The nation’s smallest major carrier has rolled out some serious changes this month, and that could mean some savings if you play your cards right. It’s also officially launching LTE in a number of markets. The new T-Mobile “Un-carrier” system gets rid of contracts, instead having you pay off the full cost of your device over about 2 years. Yes, the effect is much the same, but bringing your own device means you get the cheaper plans without the hassle. With that in mind, it’s still a battle between the LG Nexus 4 and the Samsung Galaxy Note II.

Google’s flagship phone, the Nexus 4, is not a perfect device. It lacks true LTE support, is made of breakable glass, and can be hard to find. What it does have is a pure, always updated version of Android that will make you the first to get Key Lime Pie when it’s (probably) announced at Google I/O. Stock Android isn’t perfect, but it’s worlds more consistent and (in my opinion) attractive.

The device itself is based on the Optimus G chassis, meaning you get a 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro, 2GB of RAM, and 8-16GB of storage. The screen is a killer 4.7-inch 1280x768 IPS LCD display with ZeroGap technology. It is one of the best sub-1080p screens on a phone. The Nexus 4 also includes wireless charging and NFC technology.

The Nexus 4 has a lot of glass on the front and back, which might prove problematic for some buyers. If you tend to drop things, a case is essential for this device. Although, it does feel very solid in the hand.

The Nexus 4 does not officially support LTE, but you can flash modded radios on rooted units to enable the feature. So if you are in one of the few T-Mobile LTE markets, you can get considerably faster data speeds. Otherwise, you’re limited to HSPA+, which isn’t bad.

With T-Mobile’s new plans, the Nexus 4 makes a ton of sense. You can pick it up from Google Play, and bring it to the carrier without paying for an installment plan, or signing a contract. If you want to go that route, it’s $300-350 for the device. Direct from the carrier, it’s $49 with monthly payments until you’ve paid off a total cost of $408.00.

The other option on T-Mobile is the Samsung Galaxy Note II. Just like last month, I’m recommending this over the Galaxy S III or waiting for a next-generation phone because it’s still fairly new and supports LTE. In fact, T-Mobile just sent out the maintenance update that enabled the dormant LTE radio in the Note II.

The Note II is a different kind of device -- a 5.5-inch 720p Super AMOLED screen changes the way you use a phone. It also employs an inductive stylus called the S Pen for pressure-sensitive input. This is surprisingly responsive and fun to use. If you don’t believe the Note II is a viable device, just ask someone that owns it. They’ll set you straight -- this phone has a lot of fans.

On the 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 great 8MP camera. It also has an amazing 3100mAh battery. That’s almost as big as the Droid Razr Maxx HD.

The software loaded on the Note II is a slightly tweaked version of the GS3 OS. It’s based on Android 4.1 with Samsung’s UI layer on top. There are a number of changes that take advantage of the S Pen, like handwriting recognition and Air View. I think it’s likely the Note II will end up with updated software before something like the Droid DNA. It’s more popular, and the platform seems more conducive to Samsung’s GS4 feature set. The Samsung Galaxy Note II costs $199 up front and $20 per month until you’ve paid off the full cost of $679.

For most people on T-Mobile, the Nexus 4 is still the best option. The software makes it king, and you’ll continue getting the best updates for a solid device. It’s also cheap and works well with T-Mobile’s new plans.

Sprint

Every month I find myself disappointed with what Sprint has on offer. The carrier still advertises the Galaxy S II, HTC Hero, and HTC Evo years after they were no longer relevant. Right now you could buy a Galaxy S III, but the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S 4 are coming to the Now Network. The question we have to answer here is similar to the one asked on AT&T. Should you wait, or not?

Let’s start with a little refresher on the Galaxy S III. It has a 4.8-inch 720p Super AMOLED HD screen, 2GB of RAM, and best-in-class 8MP camera. The phone is running a dual-core Snapdragon S4 clocked to 1.5GHz. If there is Sprint LTE where you are, the GS3 will work on 4G. There is no WiMAX support.

The GS3 on Sprint is running Android 4.1 with TouchWiz, just like all the other variants. I’ve never much cared for the Samsung keyboard, but the device does feel snappy. Being the last-generation flagship, I expect Samsung will bring some new features and an updated OS to the GS3 at some point, but it will be at least a few months.

The Galaxy S III is selling for $99 for the 16GB version (new customers only, add $100 for existing).

The Galaxy S 4 is coming to Sprint, but we don’t have a firm date as of yet. All the carrier has said is that the device will be available in Q2 (by the end of June). The GS4 is going to be a moderate improvement over the GS3 in the hardware department. The two devices look very similar, but the GS4 has a 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED panel. That’s going to be the most noticeable change.

Internally, we’re looking at a Snapdragon 600 ARM chip, 2GB of RAM, a 13MP camera, and a huge 2600mAh battery. This is going to be the template for high-end Android phones in 2013.

The Android 4.2 software is going to look mostly the same on the GS4, but is adds some new “smart” features. I’m not sure if you will ever need your phone to scroll down a page when you read to the end, but the Galaxy S 4 will do it. The real selling point for the software is that it’s fast. Samsung really knows how to optimize its Android build. We don’t know how much this device is going to cost yet, but $200-250 is a safe bet.

That brings us to the HTC One, which is expected on Sprint shortly before the Galaxy S 4 launches. Well, assuming HTC can get its act together and build enough phones. The One will have a 4.7-inch 1080p LCD screen, Snapdragon 600 SoC, and 2GB of RAM. The 4MP Ultrapixel camera should be fine for most users, but if you’re the meticulous sort, the clarity might not be good enough.

I’m very impressed with the industrial design of the HTC One. It doesn’t look like other Android phones, and despite having a little iPhone vibe, it’s unique in the smartphone world. When Samsung continues to put out cheap-feeling plastic slabs, I think there is a place for this kind of lovely design. I find the change to two buttons a little odd, but it should work fine after you adjust.

We’re going to have to wait and see if the new Sense can fix the issues that made the last version a little sluggish compared to TouchWiz. HTC has used some flatter UI elements, and the BlinkFeed home screen might be genuinely useful for some people. The One is launching with Android 4.1, but a 4.2 update is expected. Of course, it’s going to be behind come Google I/O anyway. Again, we don’t know what the HTC One will cost, but $200 seems like a safe bet.

So, is it better to wait a few months for a next-generation phone on Sprint, or take a deal on the Galaxy S III? The upcoming devices are still just “coming soon” so it’s hard to tell anyone to wait. Seeing as the GS3 does support LTE on Sprint, and should enjoy at least one more major OS update, it’s still a safe buy at $99. Get the Galaxy S III if you can’t wait.

This is a rough time to need a new phone with all the 2013 models starting to arrive. It’s probably a safe move to wait if you can, but we won’t know how good the upcoming devices are for at least a few weeks. Best of luck, folks.