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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (November 2013)

By Ryan Whitwam

Google might be stealing the show.

Another month has gone by, and the deal making has really kicked up a notch. With the holiday season closing in, everyone wants to move more phones. That's great news for anyone in the market. Still, there's the dilemma of deciding on a new handset. It's a decision most people only get to make once every two years, so you don't want to screw it up. Let us help.

Photo credit: Flickr user mesfoto via Creative Commons

This month the Moto X shows us that specs aren't everything, the Nexus 5 keeps on rolling strong, and the Note 3 is still really (physically) big.

AT&T

The device landscape hasn't really changed much on AT&T this month -- I think it's still a contest between the Moto X and the Nexus 5. However, the Moto X has been getting some attention in the update department. This device is now running Android 4.4, just like the Nexus 5. This makes it a much closer competition.

Let's go over the Moto X first. This phone doesn't so much impress on paper, but it is pretty special if you use one in real life. The Moto X has a 4.7-inch AMOLED screen at 1280x720. Unlike past AMOLEDs, this is a full RGB matrix as opposed to PenTile. This alleviates most of the issues I have with AMOLED, and the pixel density is more than sufficient for the size. Speaking of, the Moto X is a very manageable phone -- it's not too wide, but still big enough not to feel cramped. The 10MP camera around back takes okay shots, but it's nothing to get excited over.

Inside it's rocking a dual-core dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro with the special TI DSP that handles contextual sensor readings and voice input. It also packs 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. The processor and DSP together are called the X8 Platform, and this is what gives the Moto X it's edge. This device is always listening for the "Ok Google" trigger phrase to do a voice search. It can also flash detailed notifications on the AMOLED display that you can act on or dismiss. It even wakes itself up when it detects that you've picked it up so you don't have to hit the power button.

If you get a Moto X, you also have the option of using the Moto maker online tool to customize it to your heart's content. There are two different front panel casing colors, a dozen back colors, and even some accent colors for the buttons and camera rim. It's a great looking phone to begin with, but it gets even better when you can make it your own.

The Moto X is running almost entirely stock software -- it just has the customizations for Motorola's always-on features and the active notifications. This time last month it was still sitting on Android 4.2, but now it has gotten the update to Android 4.4, skipping 4.3 entirely. That's pretty phenomenal for a carrier-branded device. There's really nothing offensive about this phone's software. The price has also been knocked down to $49.99 at most locations, but you can get it free from some third-party retailers on-contract.

The Nexus 5 is, in some ways, very similar to the Moto X. It has an unskinned interface and is on the most recent version of Android. They are also both indirectly backed by Google. However, where the Moto X goes for subtlety and features, the Nexus 5 muscles in with crazy specs. The Nexus 5 lives up to its name with a 5-inch 1080p LCD screen, a Snapdragon 800 SoC, 2GB of RAM, and 16-32GB of storage. The display on this phone is really excellent -- among the best I've ever seen.

The Nexus 5 has a soft-touch plastic back that's a bit easier to hold than the Moto X, but it's also bigger -- some users might have issues with one-handed use. The 8MP camera on the N5 is a bit better than the Moto X, but it's still not fantastic. Though, I don't really understand the hate it gets in some circles.

The real selling point of a Nexus is that it's Google's baby. This device will get updates without any carrier interference for about 2 years. The Moto X got a fast update this time, but in the future? The Nexus 5 runs Android 4.4 KitKat with no carrier modifications or restrictions. It also has the new Google Experience Launcher as the default interface. You need to install a launcher stub to unlock that on other phones for the time being.

Performance on the Nexus 5 is blazing fast -- even faster than the Moto X, which is very well-optimized. The only concern is the high up-front cost of $350 for the 16GB model. However, this is also an unlocked phone, so you can take it overseas or use it on T-Mobile or Sprint in the US if you want to bail on AT&T.

The update to Android 4.4 makes the Moto X much more attractive this month, and you can get it very cheaply up-front. Although, the Nexus 5 has better specs and a more certain future. I really think it's a draw this time. If you want to save some cash and don't care much about the specs, get the Moto X and enjoy the cool features. If you have a little more to spend, get the Nexus 5.

Verizon

If anything, the last month has made things a little more clear on Verizon. HTC is still unable to get the 4.3 update through Big Red's testing, and only one of Motorola's phones is on the update train. So we're down to the Moto X and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

Samsung's newest flagship device is a really big phone, but Note users are usually fanatical about their love for the device. Samsung leverages the 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen by including an inductive stylus with the phone. It also has a ton of software features geared toward stylus use, and actually justifies it's modifications to Android a bit.

The Note 3's other hardware features include a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 3GB of RAM, a 3200mAh battery, and a 13MP camera. It's a very fast device and the screen is amazingly good. If you like pumped up colors, it's probably the best panel around. A lot of users also give the phone high marks for including a removable battery and an SD card slot to beef up the 16GB of internal storage.

The S Pen stylus is probably the main selling point of the Note 3. It makes jotting down notes and scribbling reminders really easy, and Samsung has included numerous software features to take full advantage of the S Pen. You can search through the device for written words or shapes, open floating apps by drawing a box, and get handwriting recognition in any app. The S Pen also stows conveniently in the device.

The rest of Samsung's Android 4.3 implementation is a bit less enthralling. It's still TouchWiz with a lot of garish colors and weird effects. Samsung doesn't make the mess of things that it used to, but I still find more annoyances in TouchWiz than most other Android implementations. It's partly an issue of trying to do too many things, only some of which work right. For example, the notification shade is incredibly cluttered and shows you notifications for things that you don't need to know about. However, there are some genuinely good things going on in TouchWiz (like Multi-Window) and it's blazing fast.

The Note 3 is a pricey device, but is cheaper now than it used to be. Verizon is selling it for $199 with a new contract.

The alternative is the Moto X. We're dropping the Maxx for the time being because the update situation isn't clear with that phone, and the Note 3 has almost the same battery capacity anyway. The Moto X is about as far away from the Note 3 as you can get and still have a new Android smartphone. It's the difference between getting a giant SUV and a Toyota Prius.

The Moto X is running on the X8 platform, which consists of a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro and dedicated DSPs for sensors and voice input. Also on-board are 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and a 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED. Don't let the modest specs fool you -- the Moto X is still a snappy device. I've used it a fair bit and it doesn't really slow down in places that other phones do.

The screen is also surprisingly good. It has a full RGB subpixel array instead of the PenTile arrangement that made other 720p screens look a little odd. Verizon customers now also have access to the Moto Maker tool to customize the device with a variety of colors. It's already a pretty attractive device, so the Moto Maker thing is just a bonus.

Verizon's Moto X was actually the first to get the Android 4.4 update, which is beyond shocking. I can't say this should alleviate all your concerns about Verizon's update pattern -- after all. the Moto X is a hot phone right now. It might not get the same special treatment in the future, but for the time being it's on the newest version of Android.

Motorola's only alterations to Android revolve around the voice control and notifications. If you want to do a voice search, all you have to do is use the "Ok Google" command and the phone will start listening. It can even be asleep and locked on the other side of the room. Your notifications also pop up on the screen with a bit of information so you can act on them, or just dismiss.

The Moto X clocks in a bit less expensive at $99.99, but you can find it cheaper at other retailers.

These are very different devices -- the Note 3 is big and powerful, while the Moto X is small and efficient. I suspect the Note 3's S Pen features are going to be of more interest than the Moto X voice stuff to most users, so I think that's still the winner on Verizon. However, the Moto X is a great device that you can have a bit cheaper.

T-Mobile

The "uncarrier" as it continues to insist it be called, has a variety of devices available on its instalment plans, and there's also the newest Nexus to consider, which you can get from T-Mobile or Google. This month it comes down to the Nexus 5 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Let's start with the larger of the two.

The Note 3 makes no compromises in the spec department with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 3GB of RAM, a 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen, a 3200mAh battery, and a 13MP camera. It's kind of strange to think about a phone getting close to the 32-bit limit for RAM. The screen might still be PenTile, but it's a really crisp, vibrant display in spite of that. The battery life is also excellent.

The S Pen stylus that slides conveniently into a slot on the device is probably the big feature for the Note 3. There are plenty of big smartphones, but only the Note 3 takes advantage of the extra space with a properly implemented inductive stylus. The software has been tweaked specifically for this phone to show off those features. A quick tap pulls up Air Control with an array of S Pen features. You can easily search, input text via handwriting, or open floating apps among other things.

The Note 3 is currently on Android 4.3 and Samsung has committed to upgrading it at some point in the not too distant future. The way Samsung skins Android, the UI tweaks might not even be noticeable, though. TouchWiz still relies on some strange colors, and promotes Samsung's services and features aggressively, even though many of them don't work very well. Well, at least the Note 3 is crazy-fast.

This phone is on sale as this post is going up. T-Mobile is asking for nothing up front, then $25 per month for 2 years. After the sale ends later this week, it's probably going back up to $179 down plus the monthly payments.

Your other course of action is to get the Nexus 5. This device is available through Google, but T-Mobile also sells it in stores with financing. The LG Nexus 5 comes with a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, and a 5-inch 1080p screen. Around back is an 8MP camera with optical image stabilization that takes fairly good shots, but it's no match for the Note 3 camera.

The Nexus 5 is all soft-touch just like the 2013 Nexus 7. The narrow bezels also make it somewhat more manageable than you'd expect a 5-inch phone to be. Just holding the phone in your hand it feels very well-made -- maybe even more so than the much more expensive Note 3. The screen's viewing angles and clarity are also top notch. Battery life is fine for a device of this size (2300mAh), but the Note 3 will give you a lot more breathing room.

The software is really why you buy a Nexus 5. There's no carrier bloatware and unlocking the bootloader is super-easy. Even if you start flashing ROMs and break things, you can always flash it back to stock with a full system image from Google. It's $349 through Google Play, but T-Mobile will offer it a bit cheaper on an instalment plan -- $42 down and $17 per month. If you can swing the full price on Google Play, do that.

Between these two devices, the great specs and software trump the Galaxy Note 3's cool stylus features. Pick up a Nexus 5 on T-Mobile and enjoy the pure Android experience.

Sprint

There was a time when Sprint didn't have much in the way of phone choices, but now it's got a ton of great stuff and LTE is starting to reach a significant number of markets. The two best phones on Sprint are also (I think) the two best phones you can get anywhere -- the Nexus 5 and the Moto X. The Note 3 is still not a great buy on Sprint because it's super-expensive ($349 for upgrades and $249 for new lines) and it doesn't do tri-band LTE.

The Moto X doesn't support Sprint's tri-band LTE (called Spark) either, but it's also a lot less spendy. This phone is the same hardware-wise as all the other Moto X phones on US carriers. It runs atop the Motorola X8 platform with a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro and custom DSPs. There's also 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and a 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED screen with full RGB matrix.

The Moto X feels good in the hand, though it's a tad slippery. The device is, however, extremely solid and reliable in the battery department. Despite having only a 2200mAh cell, it can easily make it through a day while also listening for the "OK Google" voice command all the time. It does this even while sleeping, and your notifications flash on the screen so you know what's going on. It's a lot more informative than an LED.

The rest of the software is almost completely stock Android. While other variants of the Moto X have been updated to Android 4.4, Sprint is still lagging behind. Although, the OTA is expected to come through any day now. Carrier customization is kept to a minimum and the UI is pretty much untouched.

Sprint's Moto X is $99.99 on contract, and the Moto maker version is also available.

The Nexus 5 is a very different animal. While it is also a Google-backed device, this is the flagship Android phone for 2013. It comes with version 4.4 KitKat and has insane specs. You're probably familiar with the numbers by now, but just to review, the Nexus 5 packs a Snapdragon 800 SoC, 2GB of RAM, and a 5-inch 1080p LCD screen.

The device feels great in the hand with its soft-touch back and narrow bezels. That 1080p screen is also killer. It's probably the best specced Nexus phone of its generation so far.

It's not surprising that the software is incredibly smooth with that hardware backing it, but this is also one of the few places you can get access to KitKat. It also runs the Google Experience Launcher, which still hasn't officially hit other devices. KitKat has a more mature look, and the updated homescreen is very cool.

If you have a Nexus 5, it will get timely updates for about two years. That include major OS iterations and the smaller bug-fix updates. It's also completely open and easily rooted, if that's your thing.

Sprint makes the Nexus 5 available on-contract in its stores, but $150 for a device you can get from Google for $350 seems odd. It's best to grab a Nexus 5 and activate it on Sprint. There was a small issue with getting the N5 set up at first, but things are apparently running smoothly now.

The Moto X is a great device, but the sprint version is technically lagging a little behind with software right now. It's not a huge deal, but if you like that phone, maybe wait a few days and make sure this gets worked out. However, I think the Nexus 5 is still a better buy.