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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (December 2013)

By Ryan Whitwam

Google is running the table.

Perhaps you're flush with disposable holiday cash after the recent gifting occasion and you've got your eye on a new Android phone. Well, don't take the leap just yet. There are a huge number of options and you don't want to pick the wrong phone and be stuck with it for two years. It's time to check out the lay of the land and find the best device on each of the big four US carriers.

Photo credit: Flickr user serpicolugnut via Creative Commons

AT&T

Ma Bell hasn't rocked the boat over the holiday season, so your choices are still down to the Moto X or the Nexus 5, which I feel offer the best experiences on AT&T. You can't get the Nexus 5 on-contract from AT&T, but it's a steal in Google Play at just $349. Even more so now that AT&T is offering plan discounts for non-contract customers.

The Nexus 5 is Google's latest flagship smartphone with amazing specs to match the amazing price. The internals of the Nexus 5 make virtually no compromises -- it packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core chip, 2GB of RAM, 16-32GB of storage, and a 2300mAh battery. If you're worried about the battery life on this device, don't. Especially after recent updates, the Nexus 5 gets a solid day of use. Around front is a 5-inch 1080p LCD screen that is among the best I have ever seen too.

The newest Nexus has very good build quality, which LG hs increasingly become known for. The rear surface is also made from a grippy soft touch material that feels nice in the hand. Also on the back is the 8MP camera, which takes pretty solid snapshots.

The real advantage of getting a Nexus is the availability of frequent software updates with no carrier or OEM modifications. This phone runs Android 4.4.2 and is blazing fast. If you've been using a device with a skin like Sense or TouchWiz, stock Android is going to feel totally different. Most users prefer the raw speed and clean UI of Google's version of Android, and the Nexus 5 finally has the right hardware to show it off.

You can pick up the Nexus 5 from Google Play and drop in your AT&T SIM. This is definitely an option to consider.

The other device to consider on AT&T is the Moto X. Nothing else offers the excellent user experience or quality build of this phone. Samsung has its adherents, but I have yet to hear anyone express regret after getting the Moto X. This phone has more modest specs, but the software has been very carefully tweaked to make everything work smoothly.

The Moto X runs atop a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro with the aid of a special DSP for processing voice and sensor data. Motorola calls this the X8 platform, but all you need to know is that it enables the Moto X's always-on software features. This device also has 2GB of RAM, 16/32GB of storage, and a 2200mAh battery. The device is also a very good size -- not too large for average hands, but still big enough to get things done on. The build quality is also good, and you can customize the colors with Moto Maker online.

Motorola chose to go with a 4.7-inch AMOLED panel using a full RGB matrix. This doesn't have any of the banding or blotchiness issues of past AMOLEDs, so even at 720p I think this is a very nice display. Because it is AMOLED, there is very little battery draw from one of the Moto X's unique features -- Active Notifications. Instead of having an LED light, the screen lights up the pixels to show you an icon and a bit of text for each notification. You can open them, dismiss, or just unlock the device. The Moto X also wakes the screen when you pick it up so it can be unlocked quickly without even pressing the power button.

The other big software feature is Touchless Control. This is the Moto X always-on listening feature. It learns your voice and will wake up from sleep to do Google searches and perform actions at your command. This is all part of Google Now voice control, so you're not relying on a Motorola-only solution.

Aside from those features, the Moto X is running almost 100% stock KitKat. There is a little bloatware from AT&T, but the phone is still as close as you can get to a Nexus without going through Google.

The Moto X runs $99 on-contract at AT&T, but can be had for a little less at other retailers. While the up-front cost is lower, I feel like the Nexus 5 is better overall. However, the Moto X is a great size and has killer features. Considering the pricing disparity on AT&T, this one's a tie.

Verizon

Verizon has a reputation for being slow with updates, but the last month has been encouraging on Big Red. After lagging behind a few weeks, the Droid Maxx is on the latest and greatest version of Android, so it's back in the running. That leaves us with three devices to go over including the Galaxy Note 3 and Moto X.

Let's start with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which makes no compromises when it comes to specs. This device has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 3GB of RAM, a huge 3200mAh battery, and a 13MP camera. In a slot at the bottom you'll also find an honest-to-goodness stylus. Around front is a 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen. I'm not overly fond of PenTile AMOLED screens, but at 1080p the screen on the Note 3 looks close enough to perfect that I can give it a pass.

The back of the phone has a faux leather pattern that looks better from a distance than it does up close. That said, the Note 3 does feel a little better than the smooth plastic Galaxy S4. The device also includes a removable battery and microSD card slot.

The S Pen stylus sort of vindicates Samsung's approach to Android. I might prefer a stock UI, but there's no denying Samsung has done cool things in TouchWiz with the S Pen. You can draw in windows for floating apps, search your notes for doodles or shapes, and even convert handwriting to text in almost any app.

Users will find Android 4.3 under the surface of TouchWiz, but it's buried pretty deep. Samsung's heavy interface used to be sluggish, but the Note 3 has the power to keep up with any task you throw at it. The colors and design language are a little awkward for my tastes, but that's a minor niggle. More relevant is the way Samsung has cluttered up Android. There are a ton of persistent notifications and features that simply don't work.

This phone is still very expensive on Verizon -- $299 on-contract, and you won't find it much cheaper elsewhere. Still, there are some who will never give up that stylus.

Your other option is to go with one of the Motorola devices, and I'm lumping them together for the time being because so much is the same. Both the Moto X and the Droid Maxx run on the X8 Platform with the dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro at its heart. This platform also enables the always-on features of the devices without affecting battery life.

Inside, they also have 2GB of RAM, a 10MP camera, and 720p AMOLED screens -- though, the Droid is slightly larger at 5-inches compared to the Moto X at 4.7-inches. The screens are good, despite only being 720p largely because Motorola used a full RBG array instead of PenTile. Another difference between these phones is the storage. It's 16/32GB for the Moto X, but only 32GB for the Maxx.

What really separates the Moto X and the Maxx is the battery capacity. The Maxx has a 3500mAh battery that will get you through 2 days. The Moto X is more modest at 2200mAh, but still goes a day. The Note 3 is closer to the Maxx, but isn't quite as efficient with its usage. You can customize the Moto X, but the Maxx is only available in black and it's kind of ugly.

Motorola's best software features are built into both devices. You have Active Notifications that show up on the screen to give you information and allow you to dismiss without even unlocking the device. You can also issue voice commands by using the "Okay Google Now" phrase. This works even when the phones are asleep and locked. Both of these features are enabled by the Motorola X8 platform hardware.

The software is very similar, especially now that the Maxx has gotten its KitKat update, but The Moto X is closer to stock. There is more Verizon branding and a number of Motorola UI customizations in the ROM for the Maxx. This phone also has physical buttons instead of on-screen ones. The Maxx is still running $150 on-contract, and the Moto X is only $50. If you boost the Moto X up to 32GB of storage, the prices are the same.

Given the price difference, I think the Note 3 is a tough sell unless you really want a stylus. The Moto X is the best all around device, but I can see someone wanting more battery life. The Moto X is the winner on Verizon, with the Maxx coming in second.

T-Mobile

America's smallest carrier isn't doing subsidies anymore, so you can actually get a device cheaply up front if you're willing to pay it off over time. However, it's also a great place to go with your unlocked phone. T-Mobile doesn't sell the Moto X (which is usually a $500 device off-contract), but it does have the Nexus 5 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. These phones don't have much in common beyond the chipset.

Starting with the Nexus 5, you'd be hard-pressed to find a phone with more raw power. The Nexus 5 has a quad-core Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, and a 5-inch 1080p screen. The 8MP OIS camera is a very capable sensor that has only been improved with updates. The Note 3 takes better pictures, but this device is no slouch. Even with more muted colors when compared to the Note 3, I like the Nexus screen better. It has great viewing angles and doesn't over-saturate reds and oranges.

The Nexus 5 has incredible build quality and the soft touch back is easy to hold onto. The bezels on this device are about as narrow as I think you can get without impinging on the screen. Even being a 5-inch phone, it's slimmer than many other devices. Even people with smallish hands should be okay using a Nexus 5.

The Nexus 5 is using the latest and greatest Android 4.4 KitKat build, and it will continue to get speeds updates for about two years. Stock Android on the Nexus 5 is incredibly responsive and many of the rough edges have been cleaned up. There is no carrier junk in this build, and it's the only phone with official access to Google's new launcher.

If you want to travel or tinker with the software, the Nexus 5 is an especially good choice. Even when bought from T-Mobile the Nexus 5 is SIM unlocked and the bootloader can be unlocked in a snap. It will run you $349 in Google Play, or $42 up-front plus $17 per month at T-Mobile.

As for the Note 3, I think this device makes a lot more sense than Samsung's flagship Galaxy S4 because it's something unique in mobile. The stylus and overall size of the Note actually justifies Samsung's Android skin to a degree. i can't imagine putting a ROM on the Note 3 because the stylus-driven experience has value. Just ask a Note 3 owner -- they will tell you (at great length) how much they like the phone.

The build of Android 4.3 on the Note 3 makes excellent use of the S Pen stylus. You can doodle notes and easily search for them with a quick pop up, and handwriting input is universal on this device. The UI is a still a bit garish for my taste -- Samsung favors very bold colors that look almost electric on the AMOLED screen. Whatever issues I might have with TouchWiz, there is no denying the Note 3 is fast.

The speed comes thanks to a robust hardware spec list including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 3GB of RAM, a 3200mAh battery, and a 13MP camera. The giant a 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen would have been obscene a few years ago, but the rest of the device has slimmed down to a degree that it is workable. Anyone with small hands will be pushing the limit of usability, though.

One place the Note 3 does much better than the Nexus 5 is with battery life. The 3200mAh cell in the Note is easily going to get you through a day, and maybe two. The Nexus 5's 2300mAh battery is good for a day of moderate use, but does need to be charged nightly. All that juice isn't going to make the Note any more travel-friendly, though -- it's locked to T-Mobile.

The Galaxy Note 3 is on "sale: right now for $0 down and $30 per month. It's still a $700 phone at the end of the payments. Given the cost difference and the quality of Google's software, I think the Nexus 5 is the better buy on T-Mobile. Get it from Google Play if you can swing the up front cost.

Sprint

The Now Network is in the middle of its big transition to LTE, but it's still lagging behind the other major players. However, all the devices on Sprint have LTE radios, and some even support the new tri-band LTE known as Sprint Spark. I think this is definitely a selling point when deciding on an upgrade considering some of the early figures indicate huge improvement in connectivity and speed. On Sprint you've got several good options, but my two favorite phones are among them, so it's down to the Nexus 5 and the Moto X.

Let's start with the Moto X, which now finally has its KitKat update. I say "finally" because it was the last of the major Moto X variants to get the OTA. That's still much faster than any other non-Nexus device has gotten the update in the past. Part of the speed comes from the clean software build at work on the Moto X.

This device is almost completely stock with a handful of well-implemented features specific to motorola phones. You've surely seen my bloviate about Active Notifications and Touchless Control, but allow me to gush one more time. These features make use of the custom DSP in the Moto X to monitor voice input and route notifications to the screen. When asleep, the Moto X can light up a limited number of pixels to give you detailed notification information, which is just killer. The always-on voice stuff is cool too -- just say "Ok Google Now" and the phone is ready to do your bidding. This feature was even updated recently to allow limited functionality when your device is locked with a security code.

The Moto X has modest hardware, but it's no slouch. I feel like it's roughly as responsive as the Nexus 5 most of the time. The Moto X is running on the X8 platform, which consists of a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro and dedicated DSPs. Also on-board are 2GB of RAM, 16/32GB of storage, and a 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED. The screen might be a concern for some, but it's a full RGB matrix and looks very good. The 10MP camera isn't the best, but does fine in outdoor light. The Nexus 5 does better, though.

Something to consider when it comes to the Moto X is that it's built very well and can be customized with Moto Maker. It's a very cool looking device to start with, but it feels a lot more personal when you've picked out the colors and boot up message. It's also free on-contract through Sprint if you are porting a number and getting a white or black model. It's $100 otherwise.

That brings us to the Nexus 5 -- Google's flagship Android phone. This device is packed with the most advanced hardware shipping right now including a a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, and a very good 5-inch 1080p screen. Around back is an 8MP camera that takes decent images and a nice soft touch finish. The device might have a huge screen, but the bezels are very thin -- it's not much wider than 4.7-inch phones from last year. This device does have hardware support for Sprint Spark LTE.

The Nexus 5 is powering all that hardware with a 2300mAh battery, which many were disappointed by. However, I have been more than satisfied with the N5's battery life. it's actually gotten even better with recent updates. Sure, it's not going to make it through multiple days, but it's better than a lot of Android devices.

The reason many people go with a Nexus device is for the software. It's completely stock without and carrier or OEM interference. This phone is managed and updated by Google, which means it will always be up to date for about two years. Android 4.4 is a big step for Android, and the Nexus 5 is one of the few places to see it as Google intended. The Moto X got its KitKat update this time, but who knows how well it will be supported going forward.

The Nexus 5 software experience is fabulous, even without the neat always-on features from the Moto X. It's incredibly fast and virtually impossible to bog down. And if you want to tinker, the Nexus 5 is SIM unlocked and lets you unlock the bootloader without jumping through any hoops. Even if you get the phone from Sprint, you can drop a GSM SIM card in and use it on another network.

The 16GB Nexus 5 is $50 for new customers and $150 for existing ones. These are on-contract prices, of course. Youc an go through Google Play and get the phone for $350 and not be tied to Sprint at all.

The Moto X and Nexus 5 are both excellent phones. Just like the dilemma on AT&T, it's hard to make a choice. I prefer the Nexus 5, but can definitely see how someone might go for the Moto X instead. I think the Nexus is the winner because you at least have the option of a cheaper up-front price, but it's really close.