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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (July 2013)

By Ryan Whitwam

Can you wait just a little longer? Might be a good idea.

The last few weeks have been full of Android news like you wouldn’t believe. New phones, new operating systems, and a lot of new things to consider if you’re about to upgrade. It can be a bit overwhelming to step up and make a decision that’s going toa ffect you for the next two years, so it’s best to go in with the most information possible, which is why we’re here with a rundown of the best phones on big four US carriers a few days late. The Mot X was announced just the other day, and it’s definitely relevant to your decision.

Photo credit: Flickr user viipeer via Creative Commons

Let’s see what phones are safe, and which are threatened by the Moto X. For each carrier, there will be a brief analysis of whether or not you should wait for the Moto X.

AT&T

The lay of the land on AT&T hasn’t shifted much since last month. The top phones you can currently buy are the HTC One and the Galaxy S4. Both of these devices are solid choices, but the Moto X is on the horizon for AT&T, and it's going to get a big boost on this carrier.

Let’s get started with the HTC One. This device has a 4.7-inch Super LCD3 at 1080p, a 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600, and 2GB of RAM. The specs certainly get the job done, but the physical design is excellent too. The One feels very solid -- it’s milled from a single piece of aluminum. However, that means the 2300mAh battery is non-removable.

The camera is a bit of a trade off with the HTC One. It has a low resolution at 4MP, but the so-called Ultrapixel sensor can take in much more light, making it better for low-light situations. It takes better shots in a variety of conditions, but you’ll never get super-crisp images.

The software on the HTC One is actually becoming a hindrance the longer it goes un-updated. The HTC One is still running Android 4.1, which is over a year old now. I’m actually finding myself increasingly troubled when recommending it because of this. We’re up to Android 4.3 now, and that does actually add some important low-level improvements. The international HTC One has gotten 4.2, but not the AT&T version.

That said, the software on the One is responsive and overall attractive. The design is elegant and understated with much less gradient shading and skeuomorphism. HTC added some useful extras with HTC Zoe and BlinkFeed. Yes, it’s a bit of a pain if you don’t want to use BlinkFeed, but there are other home screens.

The HTC One is $199 on-contract for the 32GB version.

The other currently available device to have on AT&T is the Samsung Galaxy S4. This phone rocks a 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display, 2GB of RAM, and a quad-core Snapdragon 600 clocked to 1.9GHz. The specs are almost identical to the HTC One, and the GS4 is certainly a fast phone. It also has a 2600mAh removable battery and a microSD card slot.

The camera on the GS4 doesn’t work quite as well in low-light compared to the One, but the 13MP sensor takes incredible shots in good to middling light. The level of detail is amazing.

Samsung made the GS4 out of slippery plastic that actually feels increasingly gross the longer you use it. It picks up oils from your skin and gets even more slippery. Oh, and it get’s warm from the internals. It’s not pleasant.

Software on the GS4 is at the same time better and worse than the HTC One. It’s based on Android 4.2, which brings a few important additions like lock screen widgets and better notifications. Although, there are a few spots of lag with the Galaxy S4, and I’m not sure why. It’s got enough power, but might just need better optimization. The design is also a little less sophisticated than the HTC One. The GS4 does add a ton of features, to Android, though. Some are worth your time and others aren’t.

The Galaxy S4 is selling for $199 on-contract, but that’s only for the 16GB version. There is a lot of storage space eaten up by Samsung’s add-ons, a a microSD card might be necessary.

The Moto X factor: AT&T is going to have the exclusive on the customizable Moto X, and that’s a big selling point. There are over 2000 combinations of colors you can get on the Moto X, and AT&T is the only carrier doing it at launch. I think this phone is going to be an incredibly important device that showcases the best of Android with smart additions and great battery life. I say wait for the Moto X on AT&T and see how it looks when it launches in about a month.

Verizon

Verizon has been a tough place to be as an Android fan in recent months. This roundup has been featuring the GS4 and the Droid Razr Maxx HD for a long time, but this month we’re going to try something different. The GS4 is still on Big Red, but there are three upcoming devices worthy of investigation. Let’s go over the GS4, then talk about whether or not you ought to wait it out.

The Galaxy S4 on Verizon’s LTE network is much the same as the AT&T device. It has a 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display, 2GB of RAM, and a quad-core Snapdragon 600 clocked at 1.9GHz. The somewhat unpleasant plastic body contains a 2600mAh removable battery and 16GB of storage in the base model. The 13MP camera is probably the best you’ll find on an Android phone right now.

It’s a good thing the GS4 launched with Android 4.2 because Verizon is not speedy with the updates. The experience on the GS4 is fast enough for just about everyone, but it does suffer from an overabundance of features that only work halfway. There is also an occasional slowdown I’d chalk up to lack of optimization. Hopefully a future update will fix that at some point.

The 16GB Galaxy S4 is selling for $199 with a two-year contract, but figure a microSD card into the purchase too.

There are three more devices to be aware of on Verizon, but none of them are available yet. The HTC One is supposed to be happening at some point soon, but Verizon hasn’t said when as of yet. The new Droid Maxx is coming on August 20th. Lastly, the Moto X is on the way, as well.

So, should you wait for the HTC One? Just like on other carriers, the One will have a 4.7-inch Super LCD3 at 1080p, a 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600, and 2GB of RAM. It might be running Android 4.2 when it hits Verizon, which would be a nice surprise. Considering Verizon’s promotion of the Droids, I would not be surprised if it pushes the One back a little more to give these devices space. Considering the lack of a firm date, it might even be likely at this point. Don’t wait on this device.

The Moto X and the Droid Maxx are interesting devices with a lot of the same features. Both will have 720p AMOLEDs, the Motorola X8 computing platform, and very clean builds of Android. We know when the Droids are coming, but the Moto X is still not completely firm.

The bottom line on Verizon is this: wait. If you absolutely must have a phone right now, get the Galaxy S4. It’ll serve you well, but waiting a few weeks to see how the Droid Maxx and Moto X shape up is the best bet. The Moto X will be $199 on contract. The Maxx will sell for $299, though.

T-Mobile

The smallest national carrier is doing some strange things with pricing and even stranger things with its phone lineup. This month we’ve still got the HTC One in the group, but the Galaxy S4 is still definitely worth considering. It's getting on toward Nexus season, so buying the Nexus 4 might not be the best choice anymore.

Let’s start with the Galaxy S4, which is probably the best selling phone on the planet right now. It’s more or less the same phone you’d find on any other carrier. It has a quad-core Snapdragon 600 clocked at 1.9GHz, a 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display, and 2GB of RAM.

It's a pretty powerful device, but the outside doesn’t feel nearly as premium as the inside. The GS4 is light because it’s made of slippery plastic. It doesn’t look like a very sophisticated device, and the feel in the hand is just okay. The low weight is all it really has going for it from a physical design standpoint.

The software loaded on the Galaxy S4 is fairly good. It’s based on Android 4.2, which was the current version until just recently. Samsung tweaked the interface quite a bit, amping up the colors and building in support for a variety of sometimes-functional features. I think the “Smart” features are usually unnecessary, with the one exception being Smart Stay, which keeps the screen on when you are looking at it. All the scrolling and rotation stuff works just enough of the time to be annoying.

The Galaxy S4 on T-Mobile will cost you nothing up front and $25 per month for 2 years. That works out to $600.

The other device to consider is the HTC One, which is (again) pretty much standardized across the carriers. You’re looking at a 4.7-inch Super LCD3 at 1080p, a 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600, and 2GB of RAM. It’s also a very attractive device overall, with precise lines of milled aluminum. The battery isn’t removable, but it’s a fairly efficient device for moderate to heavy use.

HTC’s Ultrapixel camera doesn’t stand up to the Galaxy S4’s 13MP sensor as well as HTC probably hoped, but it’s still a good camera. The low-light performance is great, but detail isn’t stellar in normal lighting. If most of your shots end up on Facebook or Instagram, that won’t bother you.

An issue with the HTC One on T-Mobile is a lack of updates. It’s still on Android 4.1, but it’s actually gotten fewer maintenance fixes than other carrier-branded models. In fact, the last small update it received messed up a few camera features. However, the software experience is still a bit smoother on the HTC One than it is on the GS4.

The HTC One is selling for nothing up front and $25 for two years, just like the GS4.

The Moto X factor: T-Mobile is the only national carrier that isn’t going to be selling the Moto X in stores. The language in the press release was a bit odd, but we do know there will be a version of the Moto X that works on T-Mobile, but it might only be the unlocked version at full price. For this reason, you don’t need to wait on the Moto X for T-Mobile.

This month it’s a tight race between the HTC One and the Galaxy S4. The One still edges out the GS4 in most places, so I’d still suggest that. But HTC really needs to get on those updates.

Sprint

Sprint is in the same boat as T-Mobile as far as current devices go. There’s the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. Let’s quickly go over the pros and cons of these devices before we talk about the Moto X.

Both phones run on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600, with the One clocked at 1.7GHz and the GS4 to 1.9GHz. The GS and One also have 2GB of RAM and 1920x1080 screens. The GS4 packs a 5-inch Super AMOLED panel. HTC has a 4.7-inch Super LCD3 on the One. The One has a better screen overall, but it’s close.

The cameras are quite different on these devices. HTC’s Ultrapixel camera is only 4MP, but it’s great for low-light shots and has some neat software enhancements. The Galaxy S4 is awesome for daylight shots with its 13MP sensor, and somewhat good ones in dim light (not at good at the One). The GS4 is sharper overall, but stumbles a bit in very low light. The HTC One lacks detail in bright light.

The HTC One dominates the Galaxy S4 when it comes to physical design. The One is milled from a single piece of aluminum and has slim plastic inlays around the edges of the case. It looks great and feels sturdy. The only drawback is the non-removable battery and no microSD card slot. The GS4 is made from slippery plastic, and it gets a bit gross after you’ve been handling it for a while. The cheaper frame is at least mitigated by a removable battery and microSD card slot.

On the software side, both devices have strong points. The GS4 runs on Android 4.2 with Samsung's TouchWiz layer. This software is less horrendous than it once was, but its still overloaded with features that only work part of the time. Half of the head tracking features are busted, and only work in very bright light.

The HTC One is still on Android 4.1, but the software is overall a bit smoother and more refined. It feels like HTC has matured a lot in its approach to software. It’s a bit divisive, but I think BlinkFeed is a great addition, and the Zoe effects in the camera are great too. This device is now two versions of Android behind (in the US), though. HTC needs to address this of it won’t be the phone to have anymore.

The Moto X factor: Sprint will be selling the Moto X when it comes out in a few weeks. It won’t have any of the fun colors or customization options -- just black and white until AT&T’s exclusive runs out. This will be a good phone, but you don’t absolutely have to wait. Pick up the HTC One and feel confident about it, but wait if you’re concerned about the future software situation.

Well, that’s it for this month. There are a lot of things up in the air right now, but I’m sure you can figure it out. We’ll know if the Moto X is all its cracked up to be in a few short weeks.