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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (October 2013)

By Ryan Whitwam

The Nexus 5 changes everything.

The android device ecosystem is in the middle of a shakeup. The Nexus 5 is a reality now, and it works on three out of four major US carriers. There are also hot new phones like the Galaxy note 3 and Moto X floating around. What are you supposed to do when it's time for an upgrade? That's what we're here to figure out.

AT&T

Because AT&T runs a standard GSM/LTE network you should have no trouble getting the latest and greatest Android device running on Ma Bell. The Nexus 5 is certainly an option, but it is still a few hundred dollars off-contract. For some people, taking a contract is acceptable if it means up-front savings. So maybe the Moto X is a good alternative. These are your options: the latest and greatest of Android, or a finely tuned experience with unique features.

Let's go over the possibility of buying Google's new Nexus 5 for use on AT&T. The device has killer hardware with a Snapdragon 800 SoC, 2GB of RAM, and a 5-inch 1080p screen. Around back is an 8MP camera with optical image stabilization. The device itself has a soft-touch back with a landscape Nexus logo much like the new Nexus 7.

The hardware seems above average, but that's not the headlining feature with this device. It will be the first phone to run Android 4.4. KitKat with its new home screen, enhanced Google Now integration, true full-screen apps, and more. Since this device comes direct from Google, it gets Android updates as they are ready directly from Mountain View.

The Nexus 5 also has none of the carrier junk apps or restrictions from other phones. It's carrier unlocked and the bootloader can be unlocked with a simple Fastboot command. However, the price is a little higher because you're buying it unlocked. The $349 price tag comes with no strings attached.

AT&T isn't going to be selling the Nexus 5 directly. If you're looking for a subsidy, there is always the Moto X. This device doesn't stress incredible specs, but a unique experience. Even with all the Nexus 5's advanced hardware, it still doesn't do the touchless control and active notification stuff the Moto X was built for.

The Moto X comes with a dual-core Snapdragon S4 with an extra DSP that handles all the contextual sensor and voice input. It also packs 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. The screen is a 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED panel with a full RGB matrix. It's not going to set the world on fire with its raw power, but to a certain extent, that's not what a phone is about. Far more important than the checkboxes, is the experience of using a phone.

Motorola offers you the opportunity to customize the Moto X online with different component colors. It's a handsome phone to start with, but it can truly be yours if you don't mind waiting for it to ship. The aesthetic is a little more high-end than the Nexus 5, but not by much.

The Moto X's headlining feature are the Active Notification and Touchless Control systems. Instead of having a notification light, the phone has a mode where alerts are placed on the screen with additional information. You can take actions or dismiss them from there. This doesn't drain much power because of the special hardware and AMOLED screen technology. Touchless Control can also wake the phone up for Google voice search commands. This is stuff that only Motorola's newest phones can do.

The Moto X runs on Android 4.2 right now, but Motorola has committed to getting it updated to Android 4.4 in the short term. In the realm of non-Nexus devices, the X is probably going to be one of the fastest to update. There is very little carrier meddling in this device, so it shouldn't take as long to design and test updates.

The Moto X also got a price drop recently to $99 on-contract. That's a lot less than the $349 asking price for the Nexus 5, but you have the 2-year contract to worry about. I think if you can swing the extra upfront cost, the Nexus 5 is best for AT&T. It's a more open device and allows you to jump easily from AT&T to another carrier if you want.

Verizon

If you're on Big Red in the US, no Nexus for you. Sorry, but there are still plenty of good phones to be found on this carrier. Just like last month, we're going to take a quick look at how three devices compare, as they each offer something distinct. However, the HTC One isn't going to be one of them this month.

So why's the One out? It really seems like HTC doesn't have the clout to push updates through the Verizon machine. The 4.3 update has hit all versions of the One except Verizon's. In a few months, HTC is going to be moving on to new phones, and won't have the time or resources to fight Verizon every step of the way. It's not that the One is a bad phone, but I have trouble recommending it on Verizon at this time.

So that leaves us with the Moto X, the Droid Maxx, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. The Moto X and the Droid Maxx are both very similar devices, so let's dig in there first. Both are running on the Motorola X8 platform with a dual-core Snapdragon S4 and co-processors. There's also 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and a 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED screen. It's a capable phone, but not a hotrod by any means. The only hardware differences between the X and the Droid Maxx are the slightly larger 5-inch 720p screen on the Maxx and the hardware navigation buttons. The Maxx also has a 3500mAh battery that will get you through two solid days.

Motorola's software is mostly unmarred by Verizon's trickery this time around. Both devices are on Android 4.2 with expected updates to Android 4.4 in the not too distant future (hopefully). These phones are capable of displaying Active Notification on the screen, even when it's asleep. Then there is the always-on voice control. It's a seriously useful feature that other phones don't have.

The Maxx has come down in price recently to $199, but the Moto X is still the same $199 instead of being lowered like AT&T's version.

These phones are going up against the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which launched a little later on Verizon than it did on other carriers. The Note 3 is not going for finesse -- it's all brute force and fast chips. 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. That battery is almost as large as the one in the Maxx.

As I've already pointed out once in this post, it's the features that matter -- what a phone can do for you. The Note 3 makes the S Pen is the centerpiece of its software approach. The new Air Control is a handy pop-up menu that gives you access to S Pen's unique features. 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. All these unique interactions actually justify the changes Samsung is making to Android.

Speaking of Android, this device is on Android 4.3,which was the current version right up to last week. Being a Samsung flagship device, it's going to get updated to KitKat. It might take a little longer than the Moto X, but it's going to happen because Samsung has clout. This is a more expensive device at $299, though.

I feel like the Moto X's price is too high compared to the rest of Verizon's devices, so the Droid Maxx is probably a better choice at the moment. If you can afford the extra $100, the Note 3 is probably the best overall device right now.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile has been grabbing headlines left and right by literally giving things away. You can get free tablet data on T-Mobile now, which will probably engender some positive feelings among consumers. It will also be carrying the Nexus 5 in a couple weeks, but it's already out on Google Play, so it's on the list. It's going up against last month's winner, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

The LG Nexus 5 comes with a Snapdragon 800 SoC, 2GB of RAM, and a 5-inch 1080p screen. Around back is an 8MP camera with optical image stabilization that can reportedly take better shots than the Nexus 4 ever could.

The device has a much different build aesthetic than the Neus 4 did as well. Rather than going with the slippery, but premium-feeling glass back, the Nexus 5 is all soft-touch just like the 2013 Nexus 7. It's also fairly narrow for a 5-inch device, making it easier to use one-handed.

The software will be the real winner with the Nexus 5. Even if you wait and buy it from T-Mobile on a payment plan, it will get all its updates direct from Google the instant they are ready. There's no carrier bloatware, and no encrypted bootloader. You can do anything you want with a Nexus, even mess it up terribly and restore it with the full Hammerhead system image. It's $349 through Google Play, but T-Mobile will probably offer it a bit cheaper on an instalment plan. If you do buy from Google, it will probably take at least a week or two to ship.

T-Mobile's other contender is the Galaxy Note 3. Samsung's new big, bad smartphone has similar specs to the Nexus 5. There's a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 3GB of RAM, a 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen, a 3200mAh battery, and a 13MP camera. The camera takes stunning shots, although it's a little slow. The screen is absolutely mind-blowing, though.

I'm not personally a fan of the faux-leather back with the stitching on this device, but I'm sure it really does it for some folks. The pleather isn't the selling point -- it's the S Pen. This accessory is kind of the main reason you get a Note. With a single action, you can pull up Air Control and access a ton of useful pen-oriented features. Want to search everything on your device by word or shapes? Done. Open a floating app by drawing a box of any size on the screen? Also done. The Note 3 does a lot of things you won't see anywhere else. The UI is a little gaudy at times, but Samsung has restrained itself a bit more lately.

This device is running Android 4.3, and it's sure to reach 4.4 at some point. This is a high-priority device to Samsung, and the company has the resources to make sure it's rolling out device updates even to carrier units. Still, one or two updates down the road and Samsung will move on. The Nexus 5 will probably get the next two major system updates.

The Galaxy Note 3 is expensive at $179 down plus $21 per month. After a few months you're well past what the new Nexus would cost. I think it's worth spending the extra upfront cash to get the Nexus 5, unless you need a giant battery or a stylus.

Sprint

Since last time Sprint has announced plans for its new enhanced tri-band 4G LTE service known as Spark. Devices capable of connecting to the necessary bands should be able to reach speeds around 50Mbps (so they say). It's something to consider when shopping for a new phone, but most of the hot new phones don't have it.

This month it comes down to the Moto X or the Nexus 5. The Note 3 is still $349 for upgrades and $249 for new lines. That's too much for a phone that doesn't support Spark, in my opinion.

The Nexus 5 will be in Sprint stores in the next few days for $149 on a 2-year contract. Yeah, that's kind of odd considering you can get the exact same phone from Google Play for $349 and go contract free on Sprint, but it's an option. This phone is exactly the same device you'd see on AT&T or T-Mobile. That means a Snapdragon 800 SoC, 2GB of RAM, and a 5-inch 1080p screen. The device will look like a smaller version of the new Nexus 7 with the same soft-touch back panel. It also supports Sprint Spark LTE.

The 8MP camera is going to be the subject of some debate. It has optical image stabilization, but still the same resolution as the Nexus 4 with its famously mediocre camera. Early results are encouraging for Google's new flagship, but it's still probably not going to be a match for the best mobile cameras. At any rate, the Nexus 5 will do better than the Moto X, which has been disappointing in the camera department.

The Nexus 5 runs Android 4.4 KitKat out of the box with a tweaked UI and new frameworks to bring files together and make full-screen apps more immersive. There are a ton of architectural changes to the platform and Google Now is a bigger part of it than ever before. This is a time that you really want to be part of the cutting edge of Android, and you can for $349 off-contract (do this) or $149 on-contract (don't do this).

The Moto X doesn't support Spark, but it's also a whole lot cheaper than other top devices. The hardware in general is a little middle-of-the-road, but good enough to get the job done. The X has a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, additional silicon for always-on technologies, 2GB of RAM, and a 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED screen with a full RGB sub-pixel matrix. The device is also well-designed and feels good in the hand.

On the software side we're looking at a mostly unsullied version of Android 4.2. This is one of the few phones Motorola has confirmed will be getting KitKat, and the wait shouldn't be too bad. Big OEMs get access to the code early to work on updates, and the X will be a high priority.

In the meantime, this device still has touchless voice control and active notifications that function when the screen is off. For all the Nexus 5's hardware advantages, it doesn't do these things. Active Notifications can tell you a lot more than an LED with text snippets and icons popping up on the AMOLED screen while the phone continues to sleep.

So, where does that leave Sprint customers? The best course of action is to buy the Nexus 5 from Google and take it to Sprint to be activated. If you really want to save upfront, you can get it from Sprint for $149. The Moto X is good, but the Nexus 5 is probably a better overall buy even though it's more expensive.