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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (August 2013)

By Ryan Whitwam

The Moto X is finally unleashed, so the playing field for US networks makes a big shift this month. Find out what our picks are for the best phones to buy right now for each carrier.

If you're in the market for a new Android device, you've got big decisions to make. We're entering the latter part of the year, and that's when the major new phones show up. There's going to be a new Nexus, a new Galaxy Note, and probably a few surprises. The selection on the big four carriers is going through a refresh right now, so you must choose carefully to avoid two years of regrets.

This month AT&T and Verizon get out in front of the pack, while Sprint and T-Mobile play the pricing game.

AT&T

If you're looking to pick up an AT&T phone, you have a unique opportunity right now. AT&T is not the only place you can get a Moto X, but it is the only place you can get one customized. Is it maybe a bit shallow to place emphasis on this? Sure, but this phone is seriously pretty. Oh, it has various features, too. The other device worth considering is still the HTC One. These two devices come in at opposite ends of the premium spectrum -- do you care about specs, or features?

Let's start with the Moto X, which is the first Motorola device fully backed by Google since the acquisition. The Moto X has a 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED display, 2GB of RAM, and a 1.7GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro. There are also two additional processing cores on a different piece of silicon that handle contextual processing and voice interactions. This is collectively known as the Motorola X8 platform. The Moto X has a 10MP rear-facing camera, as well.

The screen on this device seems set apart from the rest of the premium smartphone pack. A 720p screen? How 2012! However, this is possibly the best panel for the job. One of the issues with most AMOLEDs at this resolution is the use or PenTile subpixels. It causes some fuzziness and localized blotchiness when certain colors are displayed (called mura). The Moto X uses a full RGB matrix, so it looks better than you're used to 720p AMOLEDs looking. It's also great for the X's software features, which we'll get to momentarily.

AT&T has an exclusive on the Moto Maker online customization tool. You can pick the colors of your phone, and it's actually really compelling. You get a white or black front panel, then one of about 20 back colors, and top it off with one of seven accent colors for the buttons and camera rim. You can make a really lovely phone with very little effort.

The Moto X's other big selling point is the software. This device is running an almost stock build of Android 4.2. There are almost no visual differences, and it's very snappy. This is AT&T, so there is a little bloatware, but it's not terrible.

The Moto X uses that extra silicon to run an always-on listening service. Even when the device is asleep, you can use the trigger phrase "Okay, Google Now," to wake up the voice search. The screen, being AMOLED, only uses power for the pixels it lights up. You can make your query, get your info, then let the screen go back to sleep. The other innovation is the Active Notification system. When you get a notification, the device will show an icon and basic text on the screen. Again, it only uses power for the illuminated pixels. You can dismiss or open the notification from there.

The Moto X is $199 on-contract, which is a good deal when you look at the whole package.

At the other end of the spectrum is the HTC One, a device that brute-forces its way to the top with serious specs and aggressively good design. You don't like HTC as a rule? Tough -- this phone is beautiful. The unibody aluminum shell is cool, and gives the device a very premium feel. Around front is a 4.7-inch Super LCD3 panel at 1080p. It's a gorgeous screen -- the best I've ever seen on a phone.

Inside you'll find a 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600, a 2300mAh battery, and 2GB of RAM. The HTC One has a lower resolution sensor than the Moto X at just 4MP, but it's better for low light. The so-called Ultrapixel sensor takes in a lot more light than most cameras, but you'll never get super-sharp images.

The HTC One is a fast phone -- faster than almost everything out there. But it's running a heavier software interface than the Moto X. HTC Sense 5 is a vast improvement over previous versions, but it still has some clunky aspects that don't seem to work as well when compared to the almost stock Moto X build.

HTC's BlinkFeed is interesting, though a bit limited. It will appeal to casual users, but you can't completely disable it without using a third-party launcher. Zoe image captures are very cool, and allow you to pick out the best shots. It's a little tricky to use, but super useful once you sort it out.

Sadly, the HTC One is still stuck on Android 4.1 in the US. HTC is promising an update to 4.3 very soon, but there's no telling if carrier involvement will delay things even further. The One is $199 on-contract.

Even though the hardware is technically slower, I feel like the Moto X has the edge here. Its unique specs enable very useful features -- it's more than just a new news reader on the home screen. The Moto X can change how you use a phone. Add to that the awesome customization opportunities on AT&T, and I think the Moto X is the way to go.

Verizon

Verizon usually takes its time getting new devices out the door, but this time it's the second carrier to release the Moto X. Also newly released are the HTC One and new Droid phones. Yes, there are all sorts of things to consider over at Verizon, but here's what it comes down to: The Moto X or the Droid Maxx.

These two phones share a lot of features, but there are a few important differences. Inside both are running the Motorola X8 platform, which means a 1.7GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro with two additional processing cores for the always-on software features. Both phones also have 2GB of RAM and 720p AMOLED screens. However, the DROID Maxx has a slightly larger screen 5-inch display. The Moto X is a bit more comfortable in the hand. Both devices have the same 10MP rear-facing camera, which performs very well in most situations.

The biggest difference between these two phones is the battery. The Moto X has a totally respectable 2300mAh li-ion cell inside (non-removable), and the Maxx has a huge 3500mAh battery (also non-removable). With the power-efficient co-processors, the Maxx can probably make it through at least two solid days of use. The Moto X is no slouch, though. It will get you through a solid day, and maybe a little bit more.

Unfortunately, Verizon doesn't have access to Moto Maker yet, so you can only get the black or white version of the device. The Maxx only comes with the black kevlar style right now. Another difference that will matter quite a lot to some people is the use of physical buttons on the Maxx. That's a departure from the last Motorola Droid device, and from the Moto X. The Moto X will be able better to handle a legacy menu button with its on-screen controls.

On the software front, both devices are running Android 4.2 with very little modification. They aren't identical, though. There is a bit more Verizon influence over the Droid in the form of apps and services. You could say the Moto X is a cleaner experience -- it's also a bit more responsive, but there's no clear answer as to why.

Both phones have the touchless control capability enabled by the X8 computing platform. So you can bring up Google Now with a voice command while the phone is off, and they can show you notifications on the AMOLED screens without sucking down battery.

I feel like Verizon has a tighter grip on the Droid Maxx, so the updates might be a little slower on that device. Not to say they'll be lightning fast on the Moto X, but it's something to consider.

The Droid Maxx is $299 on-contract, and the Moto X is $199. You'll have to decide if that extra $100 is worth it for the mega-long battery life, or if cleaner, more svelte Moto X is the way to go. It's too close to call, but I'd lean ever so slightly toward the Moto X.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile hasn't really done much in the way of new devices in the last month, and we now know that it won't be officially carrying the Moto X (Motorola will still sell a version that works with Tmo). This leaves us with fewer options, but T-Mobile is still running its $0 down promotion, which is a good deal if you need a new phone.

It's too late in the cycle to get a Nexus 4, especially from T-Mobile. If you want a phone just to play around with, that device is only $199 off-contract from Google Play. From T-Mobile, you're looking at either the HTC One, or the Samsung Galaxy S4.

The HTC One has a 4.7-inch Super LCD3 at 1080p, a 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600, and 2GB of RAM. It's basically specced about as highly as any phone you can currently buy, at least until Snapdragon 800 happens. The aluminum unibody housing is amazing, and the device feels incredibly solid overall.

HTC's 4MP Ultrapixel camera is great for low-light, but it can't match the GS4 in even moderate light. HTC took a risk with the camera, and I feel like it isn't paying off. The Zoe motion capture functionality it cool, though. The front-facing speakers are excellent, though.

The T-Mobile HTC One is also still running Android 4.1 with Sense 5. It's a vast improvement over the previous incarnations of Sense, but it won't work for everyone. Some functions are a little hard to find, and BlinkFeed won't be useful for power users. However, Sense looks great and performance is excellent. HTC is supposed to be getting the 4.3 update for the One very soon.

If the One interests you, it's $0 down and $25 per month for 2 years.

The Galaxy S4 has very similar specs when compared to the One. it rocks a quad-core Snapdragon 600 clocked at 1.9GHz, a 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display, and 2GB of RAM. The 13MP camera is probably a better choice for those into mobile photography. it simply takes better pictures more reliably than the One.

Holding onto the phone while taking those pictures might be a challenge, though. The GS4 is made from really slippery plastic, which is Samsung's thing. It makes the GS4 lighter than the HTC One, but as the phone heats up and you handle it more, it gets kind of gross.

The Galaxy S4 is running Android 4.2 with Samsung's TouchWiz NatureUX thing. You get all the tweaks that come as part of 4.2 like the improved notifications and Quick Settings. Most of the improvements to Samsung's software have come from toning down the modifications. It's not as sophisticated as Sense 5, but it might be a little more consistent for those used to stock Android. Although, Samsung still choose odd colors like the green accents in the notification drawer.

The GS4 is fast in daily use, but not quite as fast as the HTC One. I'd say it's a close enough that most users won't be annoyed by the GS4. Some of Samsung's unnecessary add-ons will be a lot more annoying. Things like Smart Scroll, Smart Pause, and Smart Rotate just don't work. It's strange Samsung would even bother to ship these with the phone. The Samsung Galaxy S4 is also $0 down and $25 per month on T-Mobile.

So, where are we at with these two phones? The HTC One is still a better overall device, but the software is now lagging more than a year behind. It's supposed to be updated, but Samsung is already there. I would say the HTC One is still the winner, but be wary of the software situation.

Sprint

The Now Network is in the process of rebuilding its network, as many frustrated customers can tell you. Moving to WiMAX set Sprint back by several years and disrupted its phone selection hugely. It has only started to recover in the last year, but it's still not completely up to speed. The Moto X is coming to Sprint, but no dates have been announced yet. It could be weeks away, or even later this year. For the time being, you've got two choices on Sprint: the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4.

These devices are very similar internally. Both phones run on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600, with the One clocked at 1.7GHz and the GS4 at 1.9GHz. The GS4 and One also have 2GB of RAM and 1920x1080 screens. The One's screen is Super LCD3, whereas the GS4 is AMOLED. The HTC One's screen edges out the GS4 in overall quality.

These devices could not have more different sensors. The One has gone down to 4MP in order to pull in more light. This so-called Ultrapixel sensor is good for low-light, but it can't stand up to the Galaxy S4 in any other lighting condition. Samsung is using a nice 13MP sensor in the GS4.

Samsung loses big time to HTC when it comes to physical design. The One is made from a solid piece of milled aluminum with precise plastic strips built-in for radio performance. It's slick and incredibly well-made. The phone just feels super-premium. The GS4, however, is made from cheap-feeling plastic. It's light, but that's really the only redeeming thing I can say about the materials. It does include a removable battery and microSD card slot, though.

There's no clear winner when it comes to the software. While HTC Sense 5 is more polished and snappier, the Galaxy S4 is running a newer version of Android under TouchWiz. Having the One still stuck on Android 4.1 is becoming a detriment now that it's over a year old. I'm willing to give it a pass one last time, but if it's still on 4.1 in a month's time, it'll be a real screw up.

Samsung's software includes a lot of features that only work some of the time. You might as well turn most of them off, actually. The colors are odd, and there are some bits that are more sluggish than I think they ought to be, but the software on the GS4 isn't BAD. By contrast, the HTC One is slick, but imposes a bit too much on the user. There's no way to get rid of BlinkFeed, and some of the apps are just unnecessarily re-skinned.

Both phones are $99 from Sprint, which is a good deal. The HTC One is still the best choice, but the company has to get that update situation worked out. No one would blame you for taking a wait and see approach.

That's it for this month. The end of the year is shaping up to be big, but there are still great choices right now. Just be careful to make the right call. Two years is a long time.