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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (September 2013)

By Ryan Whitwam

The big phone moves on in.

It's a tumultuous time for the Android device ecosystem -- Nexus devices are leaking left and right, Samsung's latest giant phone is hitting stores, and the Moto X continues to place functionality ahead of specs. That also means it's a particularly dangerous time to buy a new phone. The last thing you want is to regret your purchase almost immediately and still be staring down the barrel of a two-year contract.

To make sure you've got the best chance of success, we're going to take a look at each of the big four carriers and tell you what to buy.

Photo credit: Flickr user janitors via Creative Commons

AT&T

HTC was swearing up and down that the One was going to get its Android 4.3 update in the US by the end of September. Guess what didn't get updated by the end of September. Yeah, the HTC One is still on 4.1, which is rather bizarre. I have to draw the line somewhere, so I'm going to pass on the One this time around. It's okay, though. There's a new phone in town and it's a big one. I mean physically big, in addition to being a big deal. This month I think it's down to the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the Moto X. There really could not be two more different flagship Android phones.

The Note 3 and Moto X take different approaches to user experience, so let's go down the list and see how the features compare.

The Note 3 is all about packing in the latest and biggest hardware. It's got a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 3GB of RAM, a 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen, a big 3200mAh battery, a 13MP camera and a stylus. I remember not that long ago that my computer was lower-specced than the Note 3. By contrast, the Moto X is more subtle with a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro coupled with always-on language and sensor silicon, 2GB of RAM, a 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED display, a 2200mAh battery, and a 10MP camera.

Photo credit: Flickr user janitors via Creative Commons

On paper, the Note 3 wins handily because all the numbers are bigger, you dig? However, specs can reach a point of diminishing returns. What really matters is how those specs affect the feature set. Maybe you're wondering why the Note 3 is at the top and not the Galaxy S4 -- it's about the features. The things the Note 3 can do with the S Pen justify the changes Samsung made to Android.

The S Pen is the centerpiece of Samsung's software approach with this device. The new Air Control is a cool pop-up menu that gives you fast access to all the neat things the S Pen can do. You can take notes and have them transcribed into text, clip web content by circling it, open floating apps by drawing a box, and search for almost anything on your phone (even doodles in notes) in a few taps.

The Moto X is about bringing the best of Google to the forefront. By using the trigger phrase "Ok Google Now," you can wake up the phone and start issuing commands. If you need to do a search or just control the phone, you can do it without even touching the device. Notifications are also handled in a very cool way. The AMOLED screen will light up pixels to show you an icon, text snippet, and a few other bits of info for your notifications. It's easy to get the gist of things without waking up the device completely. The Moto X also has almost completely stock software, and it's definitely easier on the eyes than Samsung's UI layer.

As for the physical design, Samsung is again going over the top, almost begging you to look at the Note 3 and think 'premium.' Of course, the way the company attempts that is with plastic. The back of the device is pleather with fake leather stitching. It's kind of quirky and fun, but I don't really get the aesthetic. The Moto X has wider appeal, I'd say. The device curves in all the right places, and you can get it customized through Moto Maker on AT&T. The device looks awesome.

So here's what it comes down to -- the Galaxy Note 3 is $299 on contract and the Moto X is $199. The Note 3 has better specs and a stylus, but the Moto X is small and efficient with an emphasis on voice commands. For most people, the experience with the Moto X will still be better, and you can save a little cash. However, if you like the idea of having a stylus, the Note 3 is Samsung's best phone yet.

Verizon

On Big Red the Note 3 isn't even shipping until mid-October, so we'll let that one simmer for a bit longer. Don't fret, though. There are a few devices that are worth buying on Verizon, but the playing field is very level here. There are the Moto X and Droid Maxx on one side, then the HTC One. We're going to expand a little bit and briefly look at all three this month, seeing as the One is still getting traction on Verizon.

Starting with the Motorola software, we're looking at a mostly stock 4.2.2 experience. Even Verizon, which is famous for cramming all sorts of features and apps into ROMs has mostly restrained itself here. The UI is lovely and very consistent. The headlining features are touchless control and active notifications. You can call up Google's voice control at any time, even if the phone is asleep -- don't underestimate how useful that is. The active notifications allow you to see detailed notification information on the screen as they come in while the phone is asleep.

The only notable difference between the Moto X and Droid Maxx is the use of physical instead of on-screen buttons on the Maxx. That means you'll get on-screen menu buttons in legacy apps.

Moving over to the HTC One, this device has come a long way compared to past HTC devices. Sense 5 includes a number of unique features like Zoe and BlinkFeed. While cool, in my experience these tend to be a little gimmicky in the long run. The UI won't appeal to everyone -- it's a bit heavier than stock Android, but still better than Samsung's take on UI. This version of the One also has the advantage of running Android 4.2 while other US variants are running 4.1.

When it comes to hardware, both devices have Motorola's X8 computing platform, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage. The place they diverge is in the screen and battery. The Maxx is 5-inches at 720p, and the Moto X is 4.7-inch at 720p. Both are full RGB AMOLEDs. The Maxx knocks it out of the park when it comes to battery life with its 3500mAh Li-ion cell. It will easily last two days, whereas the Moto X with its 2200mAh battery is good for a full day. Aesthetically, the Moto X is a somewhat more attractive device, at least in general. Some people probably like the faux-kevlar thing on the Maxx.

The HTC One's design is flat out great -- the Aluminum unibody shell is slick. Around front is a 4.7-inch Super LCD3 panel at 1080p. It's a gorgeous screen -- probably the best you'll get on a smartphone this year. The One is a bit hefty and the BoomSound speakers add some height. They are great speakers, though.

The HTC One's internals are a bit more powerful than the Droid devices with a 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600, a 2300mAh battery, and 2GB of RAM. It obviously won't be able to stand up to the Maxx in battery life, though. Both the Motorola devices have mediocre cameras, but they capture more detail in bright light than the 4MP Ultrapixel sensor in the One. HTC's phone does much better in low light, though.

We're left in much the same place as last month. Each device has a selling point -- the One has better specs, the Maxx runs forever, and the Moto X has the same good software as the Maxx with better hardware design. The Moto X and HTC One are $199 on-contract, but the Droid Maxx is $299.

The extra $100 for the Maxx is only worth it if you can't be bothered to plug in your phone at night, or you're incredibly paranoid. Between the One and the Moto X, I think the Moto X is the winner, but it's admittedly close. It's better hardware or better software -- your call.

T-Mobile

The smallest of national carriers is also shipping the new Samsung Galaxy Note 3, and you better believe that's something to consider. Since there's no (reasonable) way to get the Moto X on T-Mobile, and that leaves us with the HTC One as the clear alternative. So what's it going to be?

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 one of the fastest device out there in terms of specs. HTC's 4MP Ultrapixel camera is great for low-light, but it can't match the Note 3 in even moderate light. HTC took a risk with the camera, and I don't think it's working out perfectly. The front-facing speakers are excellent, and the aluminum unibody housing is amazing. The One is a bit heavy, but very solid.

The T-Mobile HTC One is also still running Android 4.1 with Sense 5 -- yes, that promised update didn't happen here either. It's not that the software is bad as it is, but it's missing some important features that Android has gained in the past year and change. However, Sense looks nice and the overall performance is very good.

T-Mobile doesn't do contracts in the traditional sense anymore, but you can get most phones for little to nothing down, plus a few bucks per month. The HTC One is currently $49.99 at purchase and $21 on top of your plan each month.

Then we come to the Galaxy Note 3, which in my mind finally justifies the existence of Samsung's UI layer. Unlike past iterations of the Note family, this one doesn't feel like a spin on the Galaxy S device of its generation -- this is a completely different animal designed for a large screen experience and an S Pen.

The specs are killer -- Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 3GB of RAM, a 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen, a 3200mAh battery, and a 13MP camera. The screen is among the best I have ever seen, and I'm not even that crazy about AMOLEDs. The build quality is maybe slightly above average for Samsung, but the plastic masquerading as other materials is getting old -- there is no reason the pleather back needs to have fake stitching.

The Note 3 does have the HTC One edged out in the spec race, but it also has a very different vibe in use. The S Pen was a bit of a gimmick before, but now it seems genuinely useful. The pen response of the screen has also been improved.

The Galaxy Note 3 runs Android 4.3 with Samsung's custom alterations. Even though Android 4.4 is set to drop any day now, you're much closer to the cutting edge than the HTC One. The additions to Android in this case really help make the S Pen useful. From anyplace in the UI you can trigger Air Control, which is a pop-up menu of important stylus-cetric commands. The Note 3 allows you to save content by drawing a circle around it, search for any text or symbols scrawled on your notes, or even open floating apps in boxes drawn on the screen. Samsung's improved multi-window mode is also getting very useful. This device is a bit more pricey at $199 down plus $21 per month.

The Note 3 has newer, slightly better overall software and a really cool feature with the S Pen. It's a little more expensive, but it also has a gigantic battery. The HTC One is still a great device, despite the software update issues, and it's certainly better for small-ish hands. If the Note 3 fits in your pocket, get that.

Sprint

Sprint decided for whatever reason not to take pre-orders on the Galaxy Note 3, but it's going to be on sale this week. Since it's so close, it would be silly to ignore it in this post. So that puts Sprint users in the position of getting the Note 3 or the Moto X, which is itself a new arrival to Sprint this month.

The Moto X is the first Motorola device fully backed by Google since Motorola was absorbed by Mountain View. The Moto X has a 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED display, 2GB of RAM, and a 1.7GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro (with the Motorola X8 custom silicon). The Moto X has a middling 10MP rear-facing camera, as well.

The screen and processor might be cause for concern, but I wouldn't. The display is really crisp at that resolution, and the AMOLED is a full RGB matrix, not PenTile. The Snapdragon is more than enough to keep the device clipping along with the aid of those co-processors. It might not have the biggest numbers, but the experience using the Moto X is great.

This device runs Android 4.2.2 with very little modification. All the uniqueness is more of an addition, rather than a change. You can call up voice commands at any time by using the "Okay Google Now" trigger phrase. Motorola calls this touchless control. Your notifications also pop up on the screen, even when the device is asleep. Since it's an AMOLED screen, it only uses a tiny amount of power to illuminate the necessary pixels.

Sprint is selling the Moto X at a very competitive $99 on-contract if you're a new customer. It's $199 for current users.

The Galaxy Note 3 is going to be very much the same device you see on the other carriers. It packs a 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen, a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 clocked at 2.3GHz, 3GB of RAM, a 3200mAh battery, and a 13MP camera. It's absolutely top-of-the-line hardware in every respect.

The exterior screams Samsung, despite a tweak to the design language. The entire body of the phone is plastic, even though parts of it are supposed to look like metal or leather. Oh, sure there appears to be stitching on the back, but it's just more plastic attached to the pleather. From a distance, it does look very premium, and it's not horrible up close, but I feel like the Moto X is a lot less gaudy.

What Samsung loses in questionable industrial design it makes up for in features. Whereas the Galaxy S4 feels a bit overloaded with unnecessary cruft, the Note 3 really benefits from Android modifications. Samsung put the S Pen front and center in a way even past Note devices haven't. With a single button press, you can gain instant access to useful S Pen features like S Finder, which searches all text and handwritten content on the device -- even shapes and doodles. There is also enhanced multi-window functionality this time around.

The Note 3 is actually based on Android 4.3, which is slightly newer than the 4.2-based Moto X. Samsung did still pack in some software that most people won't use, but the Note still offers a unique experience. The downside, it's going to be $249 for new customers and $349 for existing ones.

While the Note 3 does do some very cool things, it's a lot more pricey and the Moto X is probably going to be more compelling for the majority of buyers. I personally like the stock Android aesthetic more too.