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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (March 2014)

By Ryan Whitwam

HTC and Samsung go to war.

You're definitely in a tough spot if you need a new phone right now. There are several top-tier devices just over the horizon, and you might regret picking up a new device spur of the moment. This is you chance to jump on the next big thing in Android. You have to make it count, especially if it's going to take you two years to get out from under this one.

The HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5 are coming soon (or may already be here for some), but are these the best purchases? Let's see what you options are like on the big four US carriers.

Photo credit: Flickr user janitors via Creative Commons.

AT&T

On Ma Bell the Galaxy S5 is dropping on April 11th, which is close enough to consider it an option. It would be bizarre to pretend it didn't exist. The new HTC One is also on AT&T, and you can place online orders for it right now. It won't be in most stores until next week, but that's close enough. This still leaves the Nexus 5, Google's flagship at a lower overall cost. Let's start with the M8.

HTC has taken the same basic design from the last One and refined it for the M8. The device has a more curved design that's easier to hold than the angular M7. It's still a solid chunk of aluminum and glass, though. While the rounded aesthetic isn't as futuristic-feeling, it's still a very attractive device. The design's only weak point is the large bezel space up front on the top and bottom. It's likely this was an engineering necessity for the internals, but you do get those big BoomSound speakers up front.

Inside is a Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16-32GB of storage with a microSD card slot. The screen is a little larger than last year's flagship at 5-inches and 1080p. It's still one of the best screens in all of the mobile world. Around back is the 4MP Ultrapixel sensor and secondary depth-of-field camera. This lets you do some neat post-capture blur effects, but don't expect game-changing photos.

The HTC One M8 comes with Android 4.4.2 and Sense 6.0. This version of HTC's software is definitely the best it has ever built. The design language is flatter and more cohesive this time, and it makes extensive use of the transparent status bar in Android KtiKat. I'm also very pleased with HTC's decision to move to on-screen navigation buttons with the M8. I've only had limited time with the M8, but it is phenomenally fast by all accounts.

You will have to deal with slow updates on a carrier-branded device, but HTC has committed to keeping devices up to date for two years.

You will have to deal with slow updates on a carrier-branded device, but HTC has committed to keeping devices up to date for two years, and it will even fix a broken screen for free. The jury is still out on the Duo Cam, which might take great shots in more lighting conditions, but it won't ever have the crispness of a 16MP camera in good light. The M8 is going for $200 on-contract with AT&T.

The Galaxy S5 is already up for pre-order and should be shipping in a few days. This device is almost certainly going to be the most popular Android device in the world for the next year, and with good reason. Samsung has worked out a formula to make an impression on consumers. The hardware is snappy and the software is overflowing with features (some of which people actually like). This year, Samsung has focused more on getting a few ideas refined, which is a refreshing change from the mishmash of junk they introduced in the S4.

The design of the GS5 is definitely less premium than the M8, and maybe even the Nexus 5. While the dimpled pattern on the back of the GS5 is contentious to say the least, the soft touch material is an improvement from the Galaxy S4. The move to a more standard button layout (though still physical buttons) is a welcome change too. It's water and dust-resistant as well.

The Galaxy S5 has a 5.1-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen with pumped up brightness, improved color accuracy, and excellent crispness. There is also a Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16/32GB of storage with a microSD slot. The camera might be one of the most appealing aspects of the Galaxy S5 -- it's 16MP and has super-fast autofocus.

On the software side, the Galaxy S5 again comes with Android 4.4.2, but with the TouchWiz overlay. I would generally rate this as less desirable than Sense, but Samsung has done some good things with it this year. There's the new ultra power saving mode that can stretch your standby time dramatically and enhanced live HDR previews of photos and videos. This device is selling for $200 on-contract as well.

The last device to consider this month is the Nexus 5, which you can get from Google directly. This is the Android flagship for the next six months or so, and that means you're going to get the next build of Android as soon as it's available. That's the primary advantage of this phone -- future support.

The hardware is nothing to scoff at either. The N5 has a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, 16/32GB of storage (no microSD), and a 5-inch 1080p LCD that's about as good as the M8's. The Nexus 5's 8MP rear camera isn't a match for the GS5, and can't keep up with the new HTC One in anything but good light, but it's only $349 off-contract.

Design-wise, it's a nice device with smooth soft touch plastic and very little branding. it's not stunning, but it's clean and understated.

If you're buying now, I still think the Nexus 5 is a great deal. If you want something a little more premium or don't like the large up-front cost, I'd say pick up the M8. The jury is still out on the Samsung vs. HTC battle, but HTC has some great things to offer at the fight gets underway.

Verizon

Big Red will sell you a new HTC One M8 in-store right this minute, which is a seriously tempting deal for any Verizon customer. The Galaxy S5 is still not up for pre-order yet, so we'll wait on that one. That leaves us with the Moto X or the One M8.

The new One M8 is a very pretty phone -- it looks considerably better in person than it does in the official renders. While the design is a bit less dynamic this year with the rounded edges, the M8 is much more comfortable in the hand. The general vibe is very high-end and the front-facing speakers are as good as you'll find on a phone. Around back is the Duo Camera system with a 4MP Ultrapixel sensor and a depth of field camera. It's good in low light, and should do at least as well as the Moto X's higher resolution sensor.

The internals are strikingly similar to the GS5, which isn't scheduled on Verizon yet. We're looking at a quad-core Snapdragon 801, 2GB of RAM, and 16/32GB of storage with a microSD card slot. The screen is a 5-inch 1080p LCD, and one of the best panels you'll find on a phone. All these specs are considerably better than the Moto X.

Verizon has the new HTC One M8 in stock and ready for you to buy right now. That certainly gives this device a bit of a leg up -- it's out and the buzz is good. Early reviews also paint the M8 in a flattering light. The highlight of this phone is the stunning design. The unibody aluminum shell is solid and attractive. Of course, the battery is sealed in, and nothing is easily replaced. Although HTC will repair a cracked screen for free.

With Android 4.4.2 on-board at launch, HTC is starting out in a much better position than it did last year with the One -- that phone shipped with the nearly year-old Android 4.1. I think this software package is overall more heavy than the Moto X. It's not overflowing with features, but what there is tends to be functional and well-designed. BlinkFeed has improved a lot in the new Sense, and it's going to be getting updates through Google Play. The same goes for a number of other HTC apps like the Gallery and Sense TV. The HTC One M8 is $200 on-contract from Verizon.

As far as the style goes, the Moto X solid. The customization options are great and the phone is very well-made. The smaller 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED screen makes the Moto X a very manageable phone, and the soft touch back feels nice. It won't look as great as the One M8, but it's okay.

This device is also packing a Snapdragon S4 Pro, custom silicon for the always-on features, and 2GB of RAM. It's a reasonably powerful phone, but you have to make do with a middling 10MP camera.

This device will ship with Android 4.4.2 with an almost unblemished version of Android. Whereas HTC is skinning almost everything, Moto is simply adding value with features like the settings automation app Assist, Active Display, and Touchless Control. It's still very impressive to see a Moto X wake up when you touch it, making it easy to see notifications on the AMOLED. The Moto X is older now, so it's free on-contract or $99 if you buy on contract with Moto Maker.

Even though the Moto X is a lot cheaper, I feel like the One M8 might be a better buy. The Moto X is a fair bit through its product cycle and Sense 6.0 is pretty good. You can grab the HTC One M8 right now, I'd say that device edges out the competition.

T-Mobile

The Un-carrier is in a bit of a strange place right now. We know that the new HTC One M8 is coming, but it's not actually up for pre-order yet. Rumors indicate it might launch on April 11th alongside the GS5, but we've got to draw the line somewhere, so we're looking at the Galaxy S5 or the Nexus 5 -- both great choices on the magenta carrier.

The Galaxy S5 is Samsung's new flagship, and whether you like it or not, probably the most popular Android device for the next year. The design language is still pure Samsung with the plastic housing and rounded corners. There are physical buttons, but they are finally in a standard layout with a multitasking button. Behind the home button is a new fingerprint scanner, but it's reportedly a bit finicky.

While the new Galaxy doesn't feel particularly premium, the device is water resistant and still has a removable battery, which is pretty cool. There is also a 16MP shooter around back with enhanced autofocus and a number of software tweaks. The front is dominated by the 5.1-inch Super AMOLED screen. It's still 1080p, but Samsung has improved the brightness and color accuracy this time around.

Speaking of the software, it's Android 4.4.2 with TouchWiz. If you didn't like TouchWiz before, you probably won't like it now. If you were cool with it last time, you'll like it even more. The software is a bit flatter and some of the built-in apps have gotten a nice makeover. However, the dialer and messaging apps are still very dated.

That said, Samsung added a few very nice features in the GS5 rather than the cornucopia of mediocrity that came with the GS4. There is the very cool download booster that ties the WiFi and LTE radios together, and an ultra power saving mode that makes you phone last in reduced functionality mode for a few days. The price is a bit high for this phone at about $27 per month or $660 up front.

So maybe you're looking for something a little cheaper, but still powerful. That might be the Nexus 5, which you can get from T-Mobile with the ETF deal or from Google Play. Either way, it's the same flagship Google phone with updates direct from the Googleplex. It packs a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, and a 5-inch 1080p LCD.

Most of the specs are pretty close with these two devices, but there is one important difference: the Nexus 5 has a camera with exactly half as many megapixels, and it's definitely not going to take pictures as well as the GS5. The sensor in the N5 is fine, but it lacks the software tuning to do anything truly amazing right now.

The Nexus 5 is a cheaper phone, but it's surprisingly sturdy. The soft touch plastic back has a subtle curve and the edges are beveled fit well in the hand. It's not a flashy phone, but it has a very slick overall vibe.

Of course, the main reason for getting a Nexus is the software. This is pure Android without and OEM overlays or carrier apps. The Nexus 5 is on Android 4.4.2 right now, and it's going to be first in line to get the next version of Android too. Stock Android is a little lighter on features, but it looks nicer and everything that is included works well. The one exception is Samsung's camera interface, which is worlds better.

It really comes down to the camera on this one. If you're fine with an average image sensor, get the Nexus 5. If you want a few more features and don't mind the higher price, get the Galaxy S5. I suspect the Nexus 5 will be a better choice for most buyers, at least for now.

Sprint

On Sprint, you have a similar situation to the one on AT&T. There's the HTC One M8, the Samsung Galaxy S5, and (still) the Nexus 5. There are certainly reasons to get each of these devices, but let's see if one still comes out above the others.

HTC's decision to go with on-screen buttons makes me quite happy, especially considering the lame two-button design it used last year. The M8 also comes with improved BoomSound speakers, which are still the best you'll find on a smartphone. Early impressions of the Duo Camera system are that it's a bit fun, but not a significant improvement over the last One. The Ultrapixel camera is only taking 4MP images, but it's good in low light. This might be a sour note for the M8. The aluminum unibody design is unmatched in refinement and style, though.

Just like the GS4, HTC's flagship device launches with Android 4.4.2. However, this one comes with Sense 6.0. HTC's features are more focused than most OEMs, but there is still some gimmicky stuff going on with the Duo Camera. BlinkFeed has improved a lot in the new Sense, and that's just eh beginning. HTC is adding a number of apps to Google Play so they can be updated more frequently.

Inside is a Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16-32GB of storage with a microSD card. The screen is a bit larger than last year's flagship at 5-inches, but still 1080p. Compared to the other options on Sprint, it's at least as good as the N5 and probably has more accurate colors than the Galaxy S5. This one is $200 on-contract or about $27 per month.

As for the Galaxy S5, it's very clearly a Samsung device. It's plastic, feels more or less solid, and has a huge AMOLED screen on the front (5.1-inches and 1080p this time). The GS5 is water resistant, which is a nice touch. The soft touch material on the back is also nicer than the glossy plastic Samsung has been known for thus far. Still, the dimple pattern is weird.

The specs are almost identical to the HTC One M8 with a Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16/32GB of storage with a microSD slot. The camera is a big step up in the resolution department at 16MP. It's going to best the HTC One M8 in almost every way except low-light. It's four time the M8's resolution and twice the Nexus 5's. You also get a fingerprint scanner and heartbeat monitor, if that's of interest to you.

TouchWiz is looking better with each iteration, but it's still not as good as stock Android or Sense in terms of polish or usability. Though, it does have a lot of features, some of which are very cool. The Galaxy S5 has ultra power saving mode, download booster, and Samsung's multi-window mode. It's based on KitKat, so the UI is a bit cleaner and more consistent, but a few of the core TouchWiz apps (like the dialer) are still very dated. This is another $200 phone on contract, or you can get it for $27 per month.

The Nexus 5 offers a less pricey experience, especially if you can swing the up-front cost from Google Play. It packs a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, and a 5-inch 1080p LCD. It's got slightly older hardware than the GS5 and M8, but you won't notice. The clean build of Android 4.4.2 is very responsive and isn't cluttered. You'll miss some things like the advanced camera stuff and the power saving modes in both those phones, but you do get updates almost immediately.

The Nexus 5 is a budget device in some ways, but it's surprisingly sturdy. The soft touch plastic back has a good feel and the beveled edges make it comfortable to hold. The black version has a sort of Darth Vader vibe with the all black shell and minimal branding. I'd place the N5 in between the M8 and GS5 design-wise.

The price is what will get your attention, it's $100 with a contract, $50 plus $14.59 per month, or $349 from Google. The last option is best, but it's still a pretty good deal from Sprint.

I still think the Nexus 5 is the best device you can get on Sprint, especially considering the price. However, if you want something more premium, think about the HTC One M8. The balance between the GS5 and M8 may shift as the devices launch and we figure out exactly how they match up, but HTC is in a good position.