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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (February 2014)

By Ryan Whitwam

The next-generation of flagship phones is right around the corner, but you can still get a killer Android phone right now.

Sure, you could wait a few months and pick up a next-generation flagship Android device, but if you need a new phone now, there are plenty of great options. So many, in fact, that you might be a little overwhelmed. Not to worry -- we're here to help you sort through the dozens of Android phones on each of the big US carriers.

Prices are continuing to come down as new devices are on the horizon, and that means you can save some cash on a phones that's still really excellent.

AT&T

Old Ma Bell has a wealth of great Android devices, but that's not entirely the doing of AT&T itself. Unlocked and off-contract devices are finally gaining some traction in the US, which makes this decision even harder. There are three AT&T-compatible devices I think you ought to consider, but the price continues to shift as the months flow by. We're looking at the Galaxy Note 3, Nexus 5, and Moto X.

Starting with Motorola's phone, I feel more confident in Motorola's future with Lenovo than I did immediately following the sale, but that's far from a guarantee. You still should look at this phone for what it offers, not what might happen down the line, and it has a lot of offer. It's specs aren't top-of-the-line in an objective sense, but it's not lacking -- the X8 computing platform helps 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. The 2200mAh battery is more then enough to make it through a day with this hardware.

The device feels very solid and I love the customization options. Even if you're not into the new wood paneling look, there are over a dozen different colors and a number of accent colors to choose from. You can make a device that looks exactly like you want.

The software on the Moto X might be the only OEM version of Android that can compete with stock in terms of sheer usability and polish. Rather than change everything and spend time skinning icons, the Moto X adds excellent software features on top of Android. The Active Display system can wake up the phone when you pick it up, and show you notifications on the efficient AMOLED screen. It's a wonderful experience.

I also find myself quite taken with the always-on touchless control, even after months with the device. It's cool to be able to have the device sitting on your desk, asleep, and start issuing commands just by saying "Okay Google Now." The clean software build has also allowed Motorola to keep the device up to date -- it currently comes with Android 4.4.2.

The Moto X is free on AT&T right now if you start a new contract, but it's only $399 off-contract through Motorola.

At the other end of the spectrum is a device with a ton of modifications and high-end specs. The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 does not mess around. It has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 3GB of RAM, a 3200mAh battery, and a 13MP camera. It also has gigantic a 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen. Tucked away in the device is also an inductive stylus called the S Pen.

The Note 3 is fast, of course, but the S Pen makes this a different kind of experience. The large screen lends itself well to doodling and scratching out notes. If you don't mind operating a phone with two hands (and you have big pockets) this is something to consider. That big battery will also keep it chugging for more than a day of moderate use.

The design of the Note 3 is classic Samsung through-and-through. It has narrow bezels and plastic construction. The edge is embellished a bit, and the back has a faux-leather pattern. I don't quite get it, but some people really like this. The camera is also very good -- better than the rest of your choices on AT&T.

On the software side, Samsung is working with Android 4.3 right now, but a 4.4 update is very close. It has already arrived on a few versions of this phone. You won't get a stock experience, but it makes a bit more sense in the context of the Note because of the S Pen. You can call up handwriting input, search the device for doodles, and more.

The Note 3 runs $300 on-contract, which is up there. You really have to want this device to justify the price.

The Nexus 5 is the last choice on AT&T, and you're probably familiar with this device by now. The current Google flagship has a quad-core Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, a 5-inch 1080p LCD, 8MP camera, and 16-32GB of storage. The Nexus 5 is blazing fast and the outside is as slick as the inside. The soft-touch back feels premium and the phone has no give in the frame.

The Nexus 5 only has a 2300mAh battery, but I've found the battery life to be more than acceptable. It makes it through a day with little difficulty. Likewise, the 8MP camera is adequate.

The biggest reason to get a Nexus 5 is the software, which is handled entirely by Google. The N5 runs Android 4.4.2 and will continue to be on the early update list for another 18 months or so. There is no carrier bloatware and no OEM interface to wrestle with. The bootloader is also open and easy to unlock. That's cool if you're into modding and ROMs.

The Nexus 5 is $349 direct from Google and doesn't require a contract. If you get this device, AT&T will even knock a few dollars off your plan for bringing your own phone. Compared to the Note 3, I feel like the Nexus 5 is a better deal. It's also better on paper than the Moto X. Although, Motorola's device does some really awesome stuff. The Nexus 5 is the best choice overall if you can afford the up-front cost, but the Moto X is a very close second.

Verizon

Sadly, there is no Nexus 5 that will work on Verizon, but at least that makes your options a little more straightforward. There are two main phones to consider -- the Galaxy Note 3 and the Moto X. We're going to expand on those choices a little as we go on, but let's start with the Samsung device.

The Note 3 is a big device with big specs. You're looking at a 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen, a quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, 3GB of RAM, 13MP camera, and 16GB of storage, plus a microSD card. The S Pen tucked away in the bottom of the Note 3 is probably it's big selling point. This isn't just another big phone -- it has a reason to be big.

Design-wise, the Note 3 feels like another plastic Samsung phone, and that's probably the biggest problem with it. This is an expensive device, but it doesn't feel super-premium. The back has a faux-leather pattern, but it's still just plastic. It's not an unattractive device, but it's not as desirable as the Moto X.

The S Pen ties into the software experience so you can use handwriting input, draw in floating apps, and search more efficiently. Having a large display makes all that easier, and it's a beautiful screen. The software is currently based on Android 4.3, but a 4.4 update is coming. Either way, you're dealing with Samsung's TouchWiz interface. It's necessary for all the S Pen stuff, but I'm not a fan of most of Samsung's alterations.

The Note 3 is still running $299 on Verizon with a contract.

The Moto X offers a more modest specsheet, but packs a punch of its own. 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 custom silicon inside the Moto X enables the always-on features that make this phone interesting.

The Moto X is a very well-designed device with solid construction and a wide assortment of customization options. The smaller size also makes it very manageable. It can actually be used one-handed -- imagine that. The only thing it's missing (for me) is wireless charging.

The software here is based on Android 4.4.2 and it's excellent. I love the experience of the Moto X -- Motorola made the right tweaks to Android without piling on junk apps from the carriers. Motorola Assist adds context-aware setting control, and the active display component shows notifications on the AMOLED screen while the phone is asleep. People are still wowed by the Moto X all the time.

Something to consider -- the Moto X has a 2200mAh battery, which lasts about a day. The Droid Maxx is a similar device with slightly less desirable software (although it is 4.4 now) and hardware navigation buttons, but it has a 3500mAh battery. The Maxx is $150 on-contract and the Moto X is $50.

I think given your options, the Moto X is still the best call on Verizon. The Note 3 and Droid Maxx are close in my mind -- it just depends how you feel about TouchWiz and a stylus.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile is doing big business these days with its offer to buy customers out of their contracts. Of course, that means you have to get a new device financed through the carrier. T-Mobile offers a good selection of phones in its lineup, including the Nexus 5 and the Sony Xperia Z1S. I think these are the two to consider, and here's why.

Sony's devices have gotten much better in the last year or so. The Z1S is basically just a T-Mobile branded version of the international Z1. That means it has a quad-core Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage (with microSD), and a 5-inch 1080p LCD. The camera on the Z1S is one of the best you can get on a smartphone at 20.7MP. It takes very good images, even if you turn down the resolution for optical zoom or faster image capture. Sony's camera app is vastly better than most other OEMs too.

The thing that sets the Z1S apart for me is the incredible build quality. This phone is light, crazy-thin (8.5mm), and water-resistant. Sony knows how to make nice hardware for sure. The software side of the Xperia Z1S is pretty good too. The level of customization isn't crazy, and Sony includes some nice apps with it, like PlayStation mobile. I also like that Sony is fully in with on-screen buttons -- unlike Samsung. The only thing that bugs me here is that it's based on Android 4.3 and it might take a few months to get KitKat.

The Nexus 5 is fully-compatible with T-Mobile's network, and you can actually get it in Tmo's stores. This is what you'll have to do if you're doing the ETF deal, but otherwise it can also be ordered from Google Play. You're probably familiar with the specs of the nexus 5 by now -- it's been at the top of this list since it was released. It has a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, a 5-inch 1080p LCD, 8MP camera, and 16-32GB of storage (no SD card).

The Nexus 5 is fast -- noticeably faster than most other Android phones. That's partially thanks to the modern hardware, but also because the software is pure Android without a bunch of carrier and OEM junk getting in the way. Android 4.4.2 is a relatively bug-free release, and the Nexus 5 brings it to you in the most Googly way.

Picking up the Nexus 5 (even from T-Mobile) means you get a phone with an easily unlocked bootloader and it is SIM unlocked out of the box. There's no better phone for traveling or mucking around with custom ROMs.

T-Mobile doesn't do contracts anymore, so each phone is free up-front. You just pay it off over the course of about two years, or as fast as you want. The Z1S is $25 per month and the Nexus 5 is $16.50 per month. The Nexus 5 is still the winner on T-Mobile, but the Z1S is still a great device.

Sprint

If you're making a go of it on Sprint, there are a few solid choices. However, the Now Network seems to have higher prices these days. New customers could at least get an extra $100 off of most device on-contract, but that deal appears to be over. That puts some devices in a price category that doesn't make sense, at least to me. Sprint is in a rebuilding phase as it rolls out LTE and tries to get the 800MHz band online. Spending $350 on a phone with a contract seems bizarre in that context. So we're looking at the Moto X and Nexus 5, both of which are great and reasonably priced.

The Nexus 5 has 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. This phone has excellent build quality and the design is understated in a cool way. I like to refer to the black one as the Darth Vader phone, the reason for which is probably clear.

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 for the Nexus 5 are handled directly by Google, which means another 18 months of speedy updates with no carrier bloatware or unnecessary services. The software experience on display with the N5 is hard to beat, though the Moto X might get close.

The Moto X has more modest specs, 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, 2200mAh battery, 16-32GB of storage (no SD card), 10MP camera and a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro. The rest of the custom silicon has been designed to support the Moto X's unique software features.

The almost completely stock build of Android 4.4.2 on the Moto X is absolutely awesome. Motorola adds value to this device with active display, touchless control, and a few other features. Notifications will wake your display to show a snippet of text and let you manage things without even waking up the device. It also wakes the screen when you pick up the phone, allowing you to unlock with a single swipe.The always-on voice control is great as well, and a recent update brought the option to do general searches without entering the PIN.

One of the Moto X's big selling points is the solid construction and form factor. It's not that much smaller than other flagship phones, but at 4.7-inches it can be used comfortably in one hand. The customization options are also really great. There aren't many other ways to get a purple phone, after all.

Both the Moto X and the Nexus 5 are $99 on-contract. I think you should consider getting the Nexus 5 direct from Google because that leaves you free to take the phone to other carriers if Sprint can't get its network up to snuff. if you're in it for the long haul on Sprint, either phone is great.