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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (May 2014)

By Ryan Whitwam

We're largely waiting for the LG G3 and what Google has to announce at I/O.

We've hit most of the high points for flagship phones in 2014 now, but some questions remain unanswered. What about the Moto X+1, and is the LG G3 going to be any good when it finally hits shelves? Well, in lieu of answers, the best we can do is help you find the best phone available for purchase right now on the big four US carriers. Samsung and HTC continue to duke it out, but there are a few wild cards that might also grab your attention.

AT&T

AT&T isn't particularly kind to modders and software developers who want unlocked bootloaders, but Ma Bell does have a nice selection of Android phones, plus compatibility for more if you're willing to go outside the official lineup of phones. Starting in house, we've still got the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the HTC One M8, but there are a few new considerations.

The Galaxy S5 packs some of the best hardware you'll find in a modern smartphone including a Snapdragon 801 processor clocked to 2.5GHz, 2800mAh, 2GB of RAM, and a lovely 5.1-inch Super AMOLED screen. I don't consider myself unduly fond of AMOLEDs, but this is a fantastic display. The colors are bright, but not too saturated and the whites are actually pretty close to white. It also has a killer 16MP camera.

Samsung's flagship device doesn't radically change the design aesthetic, but it's more solid than past devices from the Korean OEM. The GS5 is made of plastic, but the device has a strong mid-frame that most of the components are mounted to. This helps with the water resistant aspect of the device. It's IP67 rated, which means it can be submerged in 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes.

Circling around the the software, Samsung has done a lot to make the GS5 better. It's running Android 4.4.2 right now, which is still the current Nexus build. The TouchWiz UI layer is actually almost completely inoffensive now. I'm not a fan of the insistence on hiding the status bar in most of the stock apps, but the color palette and overall design language is much more mature. It also seems more than fast enough, and hasn't slowed down for me in the last month or so. Sadly, you don't get download booster mode on the AT&T variant.

At $199 on contract it's a solid purchase, but you can, grab the newly announced Galaxy S5 Active. It's got the water and dust resistance credentials, but it also ruggedized and can withstand drops of four feet without trouble. It's also $199 on contact.

The HTC One M8 is milled from a solid piece of aluminum. HTC has improved the process this year, doing away with the need for polycarbonate inserts around the edges of the unibody shell. The M8 is smoother and round at the edges, which does feel nicer in the hand. I personally like the look as much as the more angular M7, but that phone could be a little ouchy to hold..

Internally, this device is a lot like the Samsung Galaxy S5 with 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 M7 at 5-inches, but it's still 1080p. The pixel density is great and it has stellar viewing angles. On the back is the same 4MP Ultrapixel camera from last year, but now there is a second depth-of-field camera. This is the Duo camera setup, and it makes it easier to fake depth of field images with software. The results are okay, nothing to get excited about, frankly.

On the Software side, HTC took Sense 5, which was already pretty good, and spiced it up with some more transparency, removed all the remaining gradients, and cleaned up the menus. It's Android 4.4.2 underneath all the Sense 6 UI, which is the current Nexus version too. It won't always be completely up to date, but HTC is promising to keep delivering updates for two years. AT&T is selling the HTC One M8 for $200 on-contract.

The last thing I still think AT&T customers need to consider is the Nexus 5. This device is available unlocked for only $349, or maybe a little cheaper if you look around. It runs on a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, and has a 5-inch 1080p screen. It supports all of AT&T's 3G and 4G bands as well. The camera is only 8MP and is just okay, and the 2300mAh battery is smaller than the GS5 and M8. However, you get a nexus for the software. This device will always be up to date and it gets updates from Google with no bloat.

If I'm talking to a general Android fan on AT&T, I'd probably recommend the Galaxy S5 as the best overall choice. It has a great camera, gets amazing battery life, and solid software. The Nexus 5 and M8 are still excellent phones, though.

Verizon

Things are a bit more clear on Verizon right now. You still can't pre-order the G3, so that's not in the running. It's a one-on-one battle between the Galaxy S5 and the HTC One M8. Both of these devices are compatible with the new bands in Verizon's just-announced XLTE network as well.

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, 2800mAh battery, 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.

One of the main reasons I find the Galaxy S5 usable in the first place is Samsung's decision to abandon the insane menu button next to the home button. Now we have multitasking in its place, but it's still on the wrong side of the home button. The phone is otherwise very solid and you can't argue with the IP67 certified water and dust resistance. The 16MP camera is also excellent. It could use some tweaking in low light, but otherwise produces a ton of detail and the HDR mode is brilliant.

On the software side, the Galaxy S5 is running Android 4.4.2 with an updated version of TouchWiz. many of the junk features introduced in Android 4.4.2 have been canned or simply hidden away, which is a very good thing. The software is simply cleaner this time around, and Samsung concentrated on making some cool new features for the GS5 like Ultra Power Saving Mode. However, Verizon required the removal of Download Booster, which is a bummer.

This device is on sale right now for $99 on-contract, but that's for just 16GB -- the M8 comes with 32GB standard. You can augment with a microSD card if you need more space.

In addition to having more storage, the M8 also has more metal -- a lot more. The entire phone is wrapped in the loving embrace of a single chunk of milled aluminum with none of that polycarbonate nonsense in there. The M8 is an attractive phone, and the rounded edges make it easier to hold. it looks better in person than it does in press renders, actually.

It's deja vu looking at the internals of the HTC One M8 -- it's got a Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage with a microSD slot. The CPU is clocked a little slower than the GS5, but that's nothing to fret about. The screen is a 5-inch 1080p LCD that is definitely one of the best you can buy. The colors aren't AMOLED-vibrant, but it's at the top for LCDs.

The camera is a bit contentious as HTC has reused the 4MP Ultrapixel sensor from last year. So it takes great low-light shots, but the new Duo cam system lets you do depth of field blur effects too. It does an okay job, but there are some strange blocks and lines at the edges of effects.

I would say that HTC's Sense 6 skin on Android 4.4.2 is one of the best complete cover-up jobs any OEM has done on Android. With this new iteration the company has finished flattening everything out, added some new KitKat transparencies, and finally moved to on-screen standard buttons. Thank goodness. You are also assured of device updates for two years on the One M8. it will probably lag behind the Nexus branch, but at least it will still get some attention. It's also on sale right now for $99 on-contract.

I'd still say the Galaxy S5 is a slightly better buy because the camera is overall better and the software is about on-par with Sense now. The M8 is a good phone, though, I'm sure it won't disappoint anyone who goes that route.

T-Mobile

As we wait for the G3 to enter the arena, T-Mobile customers still have the choice of getting the Samsung Galaxy S5 or the Nexus 5. Of course you can get the N5 from the Play Store, but Tmo actually sells it, so you can take advantage of the carrier's ETF payment deal.

T-Mobile's Galaxy S5 is much like the one you can get elsewhere, but with a few important differences. The design is still the same plastic thing Samsung has been doing for years, but it's less slippery than the Galaxy S4. It stays in the hand pretty well and the overall constructions seems more solid than past Samsung devices. It also has a fingerprint and heart rate sensor, if you're into that.

The internals are right up there with the best you can get these days including a Snapdragon 801 processor clocked to 2.5GHz, 2800mAh, and 2GB of RAM. The 5.1-inch Super AMOLED screen is definitely the best one Samsung has ever slapped on a phone. It has great viewing angles, more accurate colors, and whiter whites. Yeah, it's PenTile, but you legitimately cannot tell anymore. I prefer on-screen buttons, but at least Samsung has gotten on-board with the multitasking button on the Galaxy S5. The upshot, you get that whole screen for content.

On the software side of things, TouchWiz is no longer horrible -- yay! It's Android 4.4.2 under the hood, but Samsung has made more reasonable changes this time. Many of the borderline useless features added to the GS4 have been pulled and the design language is much more mature. Features like Ultra Power Saving Mode and Download Booster are genuinely cool as well. Yes, you actually get DL Booster on T-Mobile. You can also unlock the bootloader with a little work, which you can't on AT&T or Verizon.

T-Mobile doesn't do contracts anymore, but you will have to pay off the $660 price over about two years.

If that doesn't do it for you, the Nexus 5 is on T-Mobile and it's still a wonderful device. The hardware design feels more premium to me, even though it's a much less expensive phone. The soft-touch plastic and overall shape make the N5 a dream to hold. The lack of removable battery might bum some people out, and the cell is only 2300mAh compared to 2800mAh in the GS5.

The Nexus 5 is specced slightly lower than the Galaxy S5 with a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, and 16-32GB of storage with no SD slot. Around back is an 8MP camera that's okay, but it can't really match the Galaxy S5's 16MP sensor, even with that improved Google Camera app. Even though the specs are technically lower, the Nexus 5 feels every bit as snappy. Maybe even more so in a lot of situations. Stock Android is just like that.

Because this device is managed by Google, it gets all the updates immediately with no waiting or bloatware. You don't get some of the more advanced hardware-specific features like Ultra Power Saving, but the more streamlined experience is something amazing everyone should try. This device is also likely to see a UI shakeup when Google rolls out the next version of Android, if rumors are to be believed.

This is a close call for T-Mobile subscribers. The Nexus clearly has a better software experience with the clean UI and updates, but the GS5 has a vastly superior camera and some nice features. I think I'd still give it to the Nexus 5 when price is factored in. Even on T-Mobile, you're paying just shy of $400, which is much less than the GS5.

Sprint

Sprint has been inching along to wider LTE coverage, while at the same time trying to make use of some of the spectrum it's sitting on. On Sprint, you've got your choice of the top Android devices from all the big OEMs, but I think it's definitely coming down to the Nexus 5 and Samsung Galaxy S5.

The Nexus 5 is about halfway through its life cycle, but the hardware is still excellent. The N5 is packing a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, 2300mAh battery, and a 5-inch 1080p LCD. The screen is crisp and has excellent viewing angles, though it's not as bright or vibrant as Galaxy S5.

The N5 does have a few compromises, though. The 8MP camera is lower resolution than the GS5 sensor and generally produces less accurate images, but it's more than good enough in bright light. I still like the overall design of the Nexus 5 -- it feels much more premium than the price would lead you believe, and the soft touch plastic feels good in the hand.

If you get the Nexus 5, you're going to be first on the list for software updates. Google pushes the updates and doesn't include any of that carrier or OEM bloat. Android KitKat on the N5 is very fast and clean. 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 right away.

Google's Nexus 5 is available in Sprint stores for not too much more than you'd pay buying direct from Google. It's $399 up front or $100 on-contract. You should buy from Google if possible, but the $16 monthly installment option from Sprint isn't a bad deal.

As for the Samsung Galaxy S5, we're looking at 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 awesome live HDR.

The build quality doesn't match the M8 (or even the N5) in premium feel, but it's an improvement over past Samsung devices. The dimpled back is less slippery than the GS4, 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 lame features added to the GS4, and gone through the UI to make it a bit more mature looking. 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.

I think the Nexus 5 is still the best purchase on Sprint because it's going to keep getting updates for a long time to come. Google I/O is right around the corner and an update is likely shortly thereafter. It's also much cheaper than the GS5.