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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (April 2014)

By Ryan Whitwam

Samsung has something good, but Google I/O is coming up fast...

We are deep into new phone season now, with flagships from Samsung and HTC in stores to tempt you into burning that upgrade. If you're in need of a new device, now is the time to pounce, but which one do you get? It largely depends on which carrier you're on, but we can sort it out by taking a critical look at the devices available on each one. So let's take a peek at the lay of the land on each of the big four US carriers.

Photo credit: Flickr user janitors via Creative Commons

This month it's going to be heavy on the HTC One M8 and Galaxy S5, but there are a few interesting alternatives too.

AT&T

There is a good lineup on AT&T right now, including the HTC One M8 and the Samsung Galaxy S5. Both are excellent flagship devices with killer specs and improved software, but the design and feature set is pretty different. Let's start with HTC's new baby.

The One M8 is one giant chunk of aluminum. Unlike last year, the M8 doesn't have to use polycarbonate inserts around the edges to fill in the gaps where the unibody shell had spaces. Instead, the M8 is smoother and rounded. I don't know if the design is as eye catching as the M7, but it's still a lovely phone with superior build quality.

Internally, this device is running a Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage with a microSD card slot. The screen is slightly bigger than last year's flagship at 5-inches, but it's still 1080p. It's a great screen -- perhaps a little dimmer than the M7 to save power. On the back is the same 4MP Ultrapixel camera from last year, but HTC has added a second depth-of-field camera to handle all those wacky blur effects everyone is into these days. Sadly, I feel like the Duo Camera is a gimmick -- HTC should have worked on improving the main sensor.

On the Software side, HTC didn't have as much work to do as Samsung -- Sense 5 was already a fairly good Android skin. There are times I feel like it doesn't make the most efficient use of space, like in the app drawer, but the overall design sense is good and it's fast. It's Android 4.4.2 underneath all the Sense 6 gloss, which is the current Nexus version too. It will inevitably fall behind in a few months, but HTC is promising to keep the One updated for two years. AT&T is selling the HTC One M8 for the customary $200 on-contract.

As for the Samsung Galaxy S5, it's actually out this time. Last month it was still on preorder with a few days until release. Samsung has surprised most of us with how much better the GS5 is compared to its predecessor. It's not just that it's faster (though it is), but Samsung has shown an amazing amount of restraint in its treatment of the software.

Before we get to that, let's talk about the speeds and feeds. The Galaxy S5 has a 5.1-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen with improved brightness and color accuracy. There is also a Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage with a microSD slot. On the back is a 16MP camera that bests the M8 in every way except low light performance. The level of detail you get out of this camera is amazing, and the app has been cleaned up considerably. The fingerprint scanner is a nice extra, but it's not something that should sway your decision.

The GS5 might not be made of metal, but Samsung still improved it from last year's model. The plastic back is grippy instead of smooth, and fingerprints don't show up at all. It feels much nicer in the hand, but the dimple pattern isn't the best. Despite the removable back, the Galaxy S5 is IP67 water and dust resistant. Perhaps because of that, the build feels much nicer this time.

On the software side, this phone is again running Android 4.4.2, but with TouchWiz on top. It's much improved this time, though. Samsung has cleared out almost all the gesture and face tracking tech it introduced last year with the Galaxy S4, and with good reason -- most of it didn't work. There is still more cruft in TouchWiz than there is in Sense, but it stays out of your way more this time. The UI is also more consistent and attractive than older versions of TouchWiz.

Samsung also added some new software features that are actually pretty compelling. Ultra Power Saving Mode can stretch 10% battery into more than a day of standby. The fingerprint scanner can also be used to activate private mode, which keeps your private files truly private.

AT&T is asking for $200 on-contract for this one as well. Samsung tends to be good about updates these days, but it hasn't made the same two year guarantee HTC has.

There is one last option you should consider on AT&T, but it comes with more up-front cost. The Nexus 5 is fully compatible with AT&T's network, and it it's still a great device. This phone gets all the Android updates immediately after they are announced, and there is no carrier or OEM meddling. Just pure, stock Android.

The Nexus 5 packs a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, and a 5-inch 1080p LCD. The screen is very sharp, but not quite as bright as the M8, and the colors are less vibrant than the GS5. The camera is an 8MP shooter that does well in bright light, but gets a bit tripped up in the dark. The release of the Google Camera app has improved things for the N5, but the competition is still better at taking photos. Battery life is about a day on this phone, but you can get well over that with the GS5.

The reason you get a Nexus is for the software, though. If you get irked when your carrier drags its feet on an update, maybe the Nexus 5 is right for you. It's a sturdy phone with solid specs and the off-contract price is only $349 for the 16GB model.

It's a tough call on AT&T right now -- you have access to all the best devices available right now. If you're okay with an average camera and one-day battery, I still say go with the N5 -- assuming the off-contract price is doable. The Galaxy S5 is the best bet as far as devices AT&T actually sells. The M8 is good too, but I feel like the camera misses the mark.

Verizon

If you're on Big Red, there's still no Nexus, which makes your decision a little bit easier. That's really the only good thing about being bereft of Nexus devices. It comes down to the HTC One M8 or the Samsung Galaxy S5.

Samsung's newest device was still just on preorder last month, but now it's out and in direct competition with the latest from HTC. The Galaxy S5 has a Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage with a microSD card. It's still plastic, but feels more solid and has a big 5.1-inch AMOLED screen at 1920x1080. Despite not stepping up in resolution, the GS5's screen is improved with better colors and higher maximum brightness.

Samsung still insists on using capacitive buttons with a hardware home button, but thankfully it has stopped putting a menu button on phones. Now we get a proper multitasking button, though it's on the wrong side of the home button. The rest of the build is reasonably good too. The midframe in this phone makes it more solid, and the device is IP67 certified water and dust resistant. Among this device's highlights is the 16MP camera, which takes amazing pictures. The level of detail and colors are stunning, but low light performance is a bit lacking. It's still probably the best camera you'll find in an Android device.

On the software side, the Galaxy S5 is running Android 4.4.2 with an updated version of TouchWiz. Samsung did itself a favor by tossing out some of the less successful features from the Galaxy S4 (for example, Smart Scroll). The software is simply cleaner this time around, and Samsung actually concentrated on creating some cool new features like Ultra Power Saving Mode. However, Verizon required the removal of Download Booster, which is a bummer.

This device is $200 on-contract, but that's for just 16GB -- the M8 comes with 32GB standard. Make sure you pick up an SD card if you're going to need more.

Moving on to the One M8, we see a device that stresses it's industrial design. HTC has crafted almost the entire shell out of aluminum. Last year's One had polycarbonate inserts along the edges to fill in the gaps in the aluminum shell. While the design isn't as drop-dead gorgeous in my mind as the M7, it's a bit more comfortable to hold thanks to the rounded edges.

The innards of the M8 are fairly close to the GS5. We're looking at a Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage with a microSD slot. The screen is a 5-inch 1080p LCD that still looks great despite the slightly lower pixel density. It's not as vibrant or bright as the Galaxy S5's AMOLED panel, but it's close.

HTC's big selling point for the M8 is the Duo Camera on the back, which consists of the same 4MP Ultrapixel sensor from last year and a second distance sensor that lets you simulate depth-of-field effects. Is takes nice images in low light, but all the effects just seem gimmicky to me. They aren't even terribly good at blurring the background accurately -- there are still a lot of strange lines and patterns visible at the edges of the effects.

As for software, HTC is also running Android 4.4.2 with a sink, but this time it's Sense 6. It's not a radical departure from last year's version of Sense, but the looks is a bit more clean and flat. HTC really went through and pulled out every hint of gradients in the UI. IT also uses the KitKat transparent status bar look throughout the OS. I would say Sense is a bit more attractive than TouchWiz these days, but there's not much of a speed difference. HTC has also gone to on-screen buttons, and thank goodness. The pair of capacitive buttons last time were a real bummer.

HTC has further promised to bring timely updates to the North American variants of the One M8 for at least two years. That's not a promise you'll get from other OEMs. This phone is $200 with a new contract.

To be clear -- either of these phones would serve you well. As for which is BEST, I think at this point I'd go with the Galaxy S5 by a narrow margin. After getting a better look at the cameras, the GS5 is going to be better for almost everyone who takes pictures. The build of the M8 is definitely more premium, but it doesn't matter so much if you're going to put a case on it.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile has been on quite a tear lately with it's promise to pay consumers' ETFs. Each quarter sees the magenta carrier gaining subscribers, and the selection of phones makes a switch that much more appealing. All the high-end devices are represented here, but let's try to narrow it down. You're not going to get a contract at T-Mobile, so you're actually paying off the phone over time. There are, I think, two main contenders, then another I'll add as an addendum. Let's first compare the Nexus 5 and Samsung Galaxy S5.

The Nexus 5 is a little behind the top-of-the line flagships in terms of the specsheet, but it's still a very powerful device. The N5 is packing a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, 2300mAh battery, and a 5-inch 1080p LCD. The screen isn't quite as vibrant as the AMOLED in the Galaxy S5, but it's still among the best panels out there. The colors are accurate and the pixel density is stellar.

The camera is a bit of a compromise as it's only 8MP and lacks a bit of detail compared to the Galaxy S5. The Google camera app in the Play Store has made it a bit better, but it's still pretty average. The hardware design itself is, in some ways, average. There's nothing particularly impressive -- it's not a looker like the HTC One M8, but it's an understated attractive device.

The main reason to get a Nexus 5 is the software, which is managed by Google and doesn't have any of the junk OEMs and carrier like to include. This device is running bone-stock Android 4.4.2 the way Google intended. It doesn't have all the nifty gizmos and widgets you get with the Galaxy S5 -- and I'll admit some of the are cool -- but it's consistent and fast with stock Android.

Having a Nexus device with Google I/O just a few months away makes even more sense. If Google announces a new version of Android, the Nexus 5 will get it right away. The rest of your options, probably not.

Google's Nexus 5 is available in T-Mobile stores for not too much more than you'd pay buying direct from Google. The upshot being you can pay it off over time and take advantage of the ETF deal. This phone will run you $16.50 per month, or you can get it from Google for $349.

That brings us to the Galaxy S5, which has a small spec bump from the Nexus 5. With the GS5, you're looking at a Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage with a microSD card. Samsung's new baby has a removable 2800mAh battery, and the Snapdragon 801 is much more efficient at standby battery life. This phone can easily go for two days without being charged. The 16MP camera is also excellent -- it takes great, detailed images and the HDR is impressive.

The Super AMOLED panel this time is really a thing to behold. Yes, I know it's still just 1080p, but Samsung has made this panel much nicer in other ways. For starters, the whites are much more pure and less dingy. Color accuracy has also been improved, though it's still warmer than LCD. The brightness is higher at the top of the scale, and lower at the low end -- excellent for both extremes. This might finally be an AMOLED that bests LCD in all the places that matter.

The build quality doesn't quite hit that premium mark, but it's an improvement over past Samsung devices. The wonky back is less slippery and the entire device is IP67 certified to survive a quick dip. I'm not thrilled with the physical buttons, but at least Samsung took the time to implement a multitasking button.

On the software side of things, the Galaxy S5 ships with Android 4.4.2. This is a very good thing -- it's the current version and Samsung hasn't mucked it up. TouchWiz is much lighter and more consistent. The broken stuff from the GS4 has mostly been removed or hidden this time, so the experience out of the box is much more polished. As a bonus, T-Mobile is the only carrier with Download Booster included in the device.

I'm impressed with Samsung's ability to focus on features that matter this time, for example, Ultra Power Saving Mode. Just tap a switch and the device flips to back and white, turns off some CPU cores, and limits the apps that can run. It's able to turn 10% battery into more than a day of standby. You're looking at $27.50 per month or $660 for the Galaxy S5, but it's a surprisingly solid phone.

Let's also quickly talk about the HTC One M8. I think if we're placing the GS5 and this device on the same level, the Samsung device is overall a little more desirable. The M8 certainly has better design and the software is perhaps more attractive, but the camera is a bummer for me. It's still only 4MP and at a certain point, we have to admit that megapixels matter a little. The GS5 gives you room to crop a picture, but the M8 has no margin for error. The second distance sensing camera doesn't really excite me because the results seem substandard.

That said, it's still very fast and has almost identical internals to the GS5, except with 32GB of storage instead of 16GB. It will run you $26.50 per month on T-Mobile if you decide to go this route.

I still favor the Nexus 5 because of the software, but I certainly understand the need for a better camera. If that's the case, consider the Samsung Galaxy S5. Its build and software has vastly improved, and it takes great snapshots. The HTC One M8 is good too, but make sure you know what the camera is capable of before you get your heart set on it.

Sprint

As Sprint struggles to roll out an enhanced LTE network, the device you buy is more important than ever. You want something that supports the new tri-band LTE, but you know what's also nice? A device that can be used on other networks if that network improvement doesn't come your way soon enough. Again, you've got three options here, with two being a little more desirable. Hey, we're trying to narrow it down. Let's start with the Nexus 5.

Google's current flagship device is about halfway through its life cycle, but still has pretty impressive specs. The N5 is has a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, 2300mAh battery, and a 5-inch 1080p LCD. The screen is still one of my favorites because it's crisp and the colors are accurate, but it's not as instantly impressive as the Galaxy S5.

You don't get such a reasonably priced phone without making a few compromises, and the 8MP camera is one of them. It lacks a bit of detail compared to the Galaxy S5, but can still hold its own in bright light. The real issue is somewhat slow focusing and bad low-light performance. The Google camera app in the Play Store has made it a bit better, but it's still pretty average. The N5 hardware design is cool, in my opinion. The black soft touch frame is like the Darth Vader of phones, and there's almost no visible branding. It's not the HTC One M8 with an all-aluminum shell, it's an inexpensive device.

Get the Nexus 5 and you're going to be first on the list for software updates, and there'll be none of that junk from OEMs and carriers. This device is running stock Android 4.4.2, and is managed by Google directly. Android KitKat on the N5 is fast, elegant, and easier to use than many of the more feature-laden skins. With Google I/O just a few months away, a Nexus is even more important. If Google drops a new version of Android, this phone will get it first.

Google's Nexus 5 is available in T-Mobile stores for not too much more than you'd pay buying direct from Google. The upshot being you can pay it off over time and take advantage of the ETF deal. This phone will run you $16.67 per month, or you can get it from Google for $349. You should do that if you can.

Okay, now it's on to the Samsung Galaxy S5, which is probably going to be the top dog for the next year whether you like it or not. This phone packs a 5.1-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen with improved brightness and color accuracy. Inside is a Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage with a microSD slot. On the back is a 16MP camera outdoes the competition with excellent detail and live HDR. The fingerprint scanner is kind of cool, but it's just a bonus, not a serious point to consider.

The build quality doesn't match the M8 (or even the N5) in premium feel, but it's an improvement over past Samsung phones. The dimpled back is less slippery, and the phone's body is IP67 rated for water and dust resistance. Samsung has moved to the standard button grouping with a multitasking button instead of menu, but it's still using physical buttons. A step in the right direction at least.

On the software side, this phone is running Android 4.4.2 with TouchWiz. Samsung has cleared out a number of broken and awkward features introduced last year, and gone through the UI with an editorial eye. The UI is more consistent and attractive than older versions of TouchWiz, and there are more thoughtful features, like Ultra Power Saving Mode. This feature can stretch 10% battery into more than a day of standby.

Sprint is asking $27 per month or $200 with a contract for this device.

So what about the HTC One M8? It is absolutely a good phone, but you can only buy one device (probably). The main selling points for the M8 are the awesome build quality and a slightly more elegant software experience. Though, Samsung has cleaned up touchWiz so much, I don't even know if that second point matters.

This phone has a 5-inch 1080p LCD, a Snapdragon 801, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage with a microSD card. Around back is the Duo Camera, which I feel was a mistake on HTC's part. It's still using a 4MP Ultrapixel camera, but has added second sensor for gathering distance information so you can simulate a shallow depth-of-field. It works okay, but it's really only good for a few minutes of playing around with.

The HTC One M8 is not a bad device, but I think the Galaxy S5 is a better purchase for most users. However, the Nexus 5 is better still, if you don't mind the shorter battery life and lower resolution camera. The price makes it a great deal and it's completely unlocked. I'd still say this is the way to go if you want updated software, but the Galaxy S5 is a close second.