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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (January 2014)

By Ryan Whitwam

The Moto X isn't dead yet.

The news never stops rolling in when it comes to Android. With so many different companies and business interests affecting the device ecosystem, things can change from one week to the next. That's why you need to be careful when the time comes to get a new phone. It's a big investment that you want to last you at least until the next great device shows up. Just like we do every month, it's time to look back at the recent history of Android and see what you should get on each of the big US carriers.

The Elephant in the Room

Okay, let's talk about the Moto X really quick. Yes, Google sold Motorola to Lenovo, and that's kind of a bummer, I guess. I'm personally a little worried about how Motorola is going to work going forward, but the Moto X is still one of the best phones I've ever used. Let's not get carried away and condemn the phone before anything has happened. So, I'm going to stick to the facts here and talk about the Moto X as it currently exists, not speculate endlessly on what the sale might mean for Motorola in a year or two.

AT&T

Things are much better on AT&T than they once were -- you have your choice of several amazing devices on Ma Bell's network, and there are even excellent choices for BYO phones. If you're looking to go for the best of the best, there are three options we're going to go over briefly -- the Moto X, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, and the Nexus 5.

Starting with Samsung's flagship phablet, it's huge, but also hugely popular. I'm always surprised how fervently owners of this phone will recommend it. The experience is different than you get with other Android phones, thanks in part to the size, but also because of the S Pen stylus.

The Note 3 has a 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen, a quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, 3GB of RAM, 13MP camera, and 16GB of storage with a microSD card. It's specced as well as any phone you can buy today, but you also get the S Pen, which slots neatly into the bottom. The screen accepts inductive input from the stylus like a graphics tablet. It's ideal for writing and drawing -- you can even use handwriting input almost anywhere on the phone.

Samsung seems bent on pushing this faux-leather thing on all its new devices. I don't get it personally, but some people like the aesthetics. Otherwise, it's a handsome device with a lot of cool accessories available.

The software is currently based on Android 4.3, but a 4.4 update is coming. I'm not thrilled with the level of customization Samsung is working with in Android. The colors seem a little garish and there's a lot of clutter. A number of Samsung's "Smart" features simply don't work either. However, the Air Command features for the S Pen make up for it. It sort of justifies what Samsung is doing here.

The Note 3 is a good device, but it costs $299 on contract. You won't even find it much cheaper elsewhere.

If you want to save a little, there's always the Moto X. This is a more modest device in both specs and size, but it's still one of the best phones out there. This is a 4.7-inch phone with an RGB 720p AMOLED screen, 2GB of RAM, 3200mAh battery, 16-32GB of storage (no SD card), 10MP camera and a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro. The rest of the internals are customized to support the Moto X's unique software features.

The almost completely stock build of Android 4.4 on the Moto X is a joy to use. The carrier influence is almost nil and it's lightning fast, even with the slower processor. Motorola adds value to this device with active display and touchless control. Notifications will wake your display to show a snippet of text and let you manage things without even waking up the device. It also obviates the power button by letting you wake the screen with a swipe each time you pick it up.

The touchless control stuff is essentially an expansion of the Google voice control from other products. At any time while the phone is awake or not, you can use the "Okay Google Now" trigger to start issuing commands. It will even provide basic search data on a device with a PIN lock if you enable it in settings.

The Moto X also has neat color options, and now wood too. It feels like an incredibly premium device and looks awesome. You can get it for $50 on-contract, or $329 direct from Motorola.

Lastly, there's the Nexus 5, which is compatible with AT&T bands. Considering the killer price and excellent specs, it only makes sense to go outside AT&T's stable of devices and include this one. The Nexus 5 packs a quad-core Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, a 5-inch 1080p LCD, 8MP camera, and 16-32GB of storage (no SD card).

The device has excellent build quality and the screen is among the best I've ever seen. The 2300mAh battery might be a little worrisome, but I've found this phone to easily make it through a day. The design is basic and understated, but has a kind of Darth Vader vibe.

The reason you get a Nexus is for the software, which is updated by Google. This is the development device for Android -- a phone that doesn't have any bloatware included. Android 4.4 on the Nexus 5 is insanely fast and looks wonderful on that 1080p display. The bootloader can be unlocked in a snap if you want to root and tinker with the OS as well. This phone is $349 for the 16GB version (black or white). Well worth it for one of the best off-contract phones you can buy.

Each of these devices slots in at a very different price point. The Note 3 is expensive, and still a little niche. Some people will appreciate it, but The Moto X will have wider appeal (and it's a better phone, I think). Between the Moto X and the Nexus 5, it's really close. If you can swing the up-front cost, get the Nexus 5. Otherwise, the Moto X is great at $50.

Verizon

For customers of Verizon, things are at least a little simpler because there is no version of the Nexus 5 that will work on Big Red's network. Sad, but it saves us a little time here. On Verizon, your options come down to the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 or the Moto X.

Starting with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, this device has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 3GB of RAM, a massive 3200mAh battery, and a 13MP camera. It also has a 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen. The panel looks excellent despite being PenTile. At the bottom is the slot for the S Pen stylus -- the big selling point of the Note 3.

The back of the Note 3 has that fake leather texture (read: it's actually plastic) that some people really like. I'm not one of those people, but I won't begrudge them their texture of choice. The back is removable so you can access the big removable battery and microSD card slot.

For all the things Samsung does to Android that aren't so great, the S Pen stuff is its saving grace. Samsung has done great things in TouchWiz with the S Pen. You can search your notes for shapes, draw in windows for floating apps, and even convert handwriting to text in almost any app. The Note runs Android 4.3 right now, which isn't bad at this point. The Android 4.4 update is expected in the not too distant future, but the Note 3 is already really fast. TouchWiz isn't as attractive as stock Android, but this is the best version of it yet.

Verizon is still asking $250 for the Note 3 on-contract, which is a little lower than last month. Reasonable for a $700 device.

The alternative to the Note is the Moto X. This phone doesn't have the massive battery of the Note 3, but it still makes it through a day. It only has a 2200mAh battery, but the more modest specs and the X8 computing platform help make up the difference. The Moto X has a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, 2GB of RAM, a 10MP camera, and a 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED screen.

So why would you get something that's got older hardware than the Note? It's about the experience. Motorola has designed a phone that's solid and attractive, but the software is tops. Based on Android 4.4, the software leverages the X8 silicon to do some unique things.

You have active notifications that show up on the screen to give you information and allow you to dismiss right there. You can also issue voice commands by using the "Okay Google Now" trigger. This works even when the phones are asleep, and protected by a pattern or PIN (based on your privacy settings). The unspoiled UI is a real treat if you've been using something from Samsung or HTC.

The Moto X is only $50 on-contract, but you can also buy it outright from Motorola for $329 right now. At that price, it's a pretty clear choice. The Note 3 is the best phone Samsung has ever made, but the Moto X is more manageably sized and the features are so well designed. The software is just worlds better on the Moto X. Get the Moto X unless you really must have a stylus.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile is one of the carriers that will sell you a Nexus 5 in stores, which is pretty bold. This device is unlocked and easy to mod even when you get it from Tmo. On this carrier, the other phone you might want to consider is a new arrival, the Sony Xperia Z1S. And T-Mobile will pay your ETF, which is neat.

So why is the Z1S in the running this time? It's a super-solid device that's water-resistant and it's something DIFFERENT. We don't see a lot of Sony devices in the US, and when they do arrive, they're often a lower-quality version of the overseas variant. Not this time. The Z1S is essentially the Z1.

This phone runs on a quad-core Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage (with microSD), and a 5-inch 1080p LCD. Around back is a 20.7MP camera, which is bonkers for a phone. It takes nice images and has a ton of useful camera features. Sony even has its camera app in Google Play, a la Motorola, to update the features over time.

The Z1S feels awesome in the hand despite the kind of angular design. It's just balanced very well and is only 8.5mm thick. The water and dust-resistant design is cool too. You can take it out and snap pictures or answer a call in the rain.

If you're interested in tinkering, the Z1S might not be for you, though. T-Mobile has had Sony lock and encrypt the bootloader and there is no current workaround. Otherwise, the version of Android 4.3 on the Z1S is nice. Sony doesn't go overboard with the customization like Samsung does, and most things work pretty well. It also has on-screen navigation buttons, which just make more sense these days.

The Nexus 5 is the flagship Android device for KitKat. It has killer specs in the form of a quad-core Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, and a 5-inch 1080p screen. The 8MP camera takes fine images, but the Z1S wins that battle with its 20.7MP sensor. The screen on the Nexus 5, while the same resolution, has better colors and viewing angles than the Z1S.

The Nexus 5 is almost the same size as the Z1S and also feels very good in the hand. The Nexus 5 isn't water-resistant, but it does have a grippy soft-touch back to (hopefully) keep you from dropping it in the sink, or something. The bezels are about as narrow as they can get without making the device troublesome to hold.

The software is completely stock 4.4 KitKat, which is an excellent upgrade. Everything is smoother and more polished this time around. The Nexus 5 flies through just about everything you can thrown at it, and the battery life has been fine for me, even with live wallpapers and all the sync settings on.

It only takes a few moments to unlock the bootloader on the Nexus 5, if you're interested in modding. That's very much the opposite of the locked-down Z1S. Being a Google flagship, you can also expect the open software to keep flowing for at least a few years.

Both of these phones are $0 up-front from T-Mobile, but the monthly payments are a little higher for the Z1S. The Nexus 5 can be had for $349 from Google Play, but you can't do the ETF deal unless you finance a phone. Either way, the Nexus 5 is the winner here, but it's not a blow out. The Z1S is a very cool phone.

Sprint

Sprint is working to improve its network, and a lot of customers are trying to stick it out. At least there are some great phones to keep them occupied as they search for scraps of LTE. I kid, though. Sprint is deploying tri-band LTE (Spark) in a number of cities, and some phones are already equipped with the hardware to support it.

On the Now Network, it's still down to the Nexus 5 and the Moto X. Why no Note 3? Well, Sprint wants $350 for it on-contract, which is ridiculous when other similarly good phones are going for a fraction of that (and the Note 3 doesn't even have Spark at that price). The Nexus 5 can be had for the same price off-contract through Google Play, and it packs great hardware including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core chip, 2GB of RAM, 16-32GB of storage, and a 2300mAh battery. The 5-inch 1080p screen is fabulous as well.

The Nexus 5 has the hardware support for Sprint's tri-band Spark LTE, and should get an update to add support in a future version of the platform. All the updates are handled directly by Google, which is a very good thing. You get a pure Android 4.4 experience without any junk from the carrier or OEM. The bootloader is also open so you can mod the hell out of it.

The Nexus 5 is probably the fastest Android device I've ever used, and the battery life has been good for only having a 2300mAh battery. It's a good deal for $100 on-contract, but the off-contract Google price is better in the long run, especially considering the Nexus 5 is unlocked and works on T-Mobile and AT&T too.

If the Nexus 5 doesn't suit you, the Moto X is an incredible device in its own right. This phone has less extreme specs, but it is still more than capable of getting by thanks to smart software optimization. The Moto X has a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro with the aid of a special DSP for processing voice and sensor data. You also get 2GB of RAM, 16/32GB of storage, and a 2200mAh battery. The 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED screen uses a full RGB matrix and looks quite nice.

The smaller screen makes the Moto X a little easier to hold, even for people with small-ish hands. The overall design is also quite handsome. You can do all the Moto Maker customizations to get various colors, or even a wood back panel. It can be flashy, or understated -- it's up to you.

I seriously love the software on the Moto X. I'd say it might even be better than the Nexus build of Android. It's almost completely stock, but includes active notifications and touchless control. I'm sure you've heard about these features a million times by now, but they really are cool. The phone wakes up the screen each time you get a notification so you can get the gist without waking the whole device up. It also knows to activate the screen lock each time you pick up the phone. It's really an awesome experience. The touchless control voice stuff is also killer.

The Moto X is also $100 on-contract, but you can get it for $329 from Motorola right now. What a time for phone deals, right? The best of the best are available for reasonable prices sans contract. It's a very close shootout in light of the recent price cuts -- it's really a tie. Either one of these phones will be great, but try to get them off-contract if you can swing it.