The Best Unlocked and Carrier Android Smartphone (March 2017)

By Ryan Whitwam

The time has come to wait, unless you're buying a Pixel.

Buying a new phone is a big decision, especially now that there are so many good choices. You don't just want a good one, though. You want the best phone that will serve you well for at least a year or two. As we head into the first round of 2017 phone releases, you've got some decisions to make. Buying a phone right now comes with a higher than usual risk of buyer's remorse, but that's not a sure thing.

In a few months we'll have all-new flagship phones on the market, but you can still get something right now. Let's break it down.

Carrier Phones

If you want to go through your carrier to get one of the various payment plan or promo deals, your options are a little limited right now. The Galaxy S7 is still just as good as it was a month ago, but we're now mere weeks away from the Galaxy S8 announcement. Then there's the V20, which has been superseded by the LG G6 announcement. On Verizon, you can still get the Pixel, and there's no newer version of that coming any time soon.

Here's my advice. If you need to get a carrier phone right now and you're not on Verizon, get a Galaxy S7. The S7 and S7 Edge are perfectly capable pieces of hardware with Super AMOLED panels at 2560x1440 resolution. The GS7 is 5.1-inches, while the Edge variant has a larger 5.5-inch display. Inside is a Snapdragon 820, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage with a microSD card slot. The GS7 battery is 3,000mAh and the GS7 Edge is 3,600mAh.

The hardware still performs well enough. Samsung's performance tuning in Nougat makes the UI smoother and apps open faster. Battery life is boosted too. Both phones will make it through a full day no problem. Then there's the fast-charging capability that'll get you a few more hours of usage after being plugged in for just a short time.

The Galaxy S7's 12 MP camera has continued to be one of the best you can get. I think the Pixel is a little nicer, but the GS7 has particularly good low-light performance. It's still the fastest focusing phone I've used, thanks to some tech Samsung licensed from Canon. Photos from Samsung's camera are usually great the first time, but you can snap a hundred photos in a few seconds by holding the button down.

As I mentioned above, the Nougat update for the GS7 is out. That means a new system theme, an improvement to always-on display, better doze mode, improved quick settings, native split-screen apps, and more.

So, should you get the GS7? Sure, if you can get a good deal. Carriers are looking to get rid of the remaining GS7 stock, and you can take advantage of that. A half-off GS7 is a good buy, but don't pay anything close to retail for one right now.

The V20 is still out there, but I don't think you should get this one at all. Most of its selling points are improved upon with the LG G6, which has now been announced. It will be out in a few weeks with a Snapdragon 821, 4GB of RAM, dual 13MP cameras (standard and wide-angle), and a 5.7-inch 1440x2880 screen. The display is taller and has very narrow bezels, making it more comfortable to hold in one hand.

The G6 will have Android 7.1 included when it launches, according to LG (preview models are 7.0). There are a few interesting software tweaks to take advantage of the larger screen, including a build-in flimstrip of past photos in the camera view-finder.

The only things you're missing out on are the ticker display and a removable battery. If removable batteries are a thing you care about, I think you're going to be disappointed in 2016. Otherwise, if the V20 appeals, you ought to wait on the G6 or GS8.

Unlocked Phones

If you need an unlocked phone (or are on Verizon) the king of the hill remains the Google Pixel and Pixel XL. The phone is unlocked even if you buy it on Verizon, so I'm just bundling it all together here. The Pixel is still the latest and greatest from Google with no other phones on the horizon. There'll be a Pixel 2, but not until late 2017.

The Pixel continues to be the best overall Android phone you can get, unlocked or not. There are two versions of the Pixel, a 5-inch 1080p model and a 5.5-inch 1440p one. And the smaller of the two has the same great specs as the larger one. The Pixel and Pixel XL are both top-of-the-line flagships including a Snapdragon 821, 4GB of RAM, and 32 or 128GB of storage. These phones are as fast as any Android phone I've used, and they stay that way even after extended use.

On the battery front, the Pixel XL has a 3420mAh battery and the regular Pixel is 2770mAh. They'll both last you a day for sure, but the XL can probably make it through a second for a lot of people. The improved Doze Mode in Android Nougat means these phones use almost no power while sitting at night. Google also has very speedy fast charging built-in. I don't even bother charging at night half the time because a few minutes on the charger in the morning and they're all set.

The Pixels have an aluminum unibody frame that's much thicker and more durable than the Nexus 6P was last year. The Pixel is not IP68 certified like the GS7, which is one of the more disappointing things about it. At the top of the back panel is a glass panel that covers the antennas, and is the only visual flair the phone has. It's not a particularly attractive phone—I'd call it "understated." The fingerprint sensor is on the back of the phone, perfectly placed to tap with your index finger when you pick up the phone. It's as fast as the Nexus 6P was, which is to say it's fine. Some phones have since surpassed it in terms of speed.

The Pixel ships with Android 7.1, and this is one of the main reasons you get it. The Pixel will be Google's first target for all Android updates until a new one is released. You're guaranteed to get at least two years of full system updates from the phone's release, and three years of security updates. It has Google Assistant, which used to be an exclusive. Now more phones have it.

The Pixel is available unlocked with a Google payment plan, so you can get it for any carrier, though Verizon makes it easiest. With other carriers, you can just drop in a SIM card. The regular Pixel starts at $650 and the XL is $760.

If the Pixel is too expensive and you still want something unlocked, the OnePlus 3T is the way to go. The phone recently replaced the OnePlus 3. It has slightly faster internals and a slightly higher price.

The OP3T has an aluminum unibody frame with a gunmetal finish. There is a hardware alert slider on the left side, allowing you to set the notification mode without waking up the device. At the bottom of the front panel is a fingerprint sensor that doubles as the home button, which is excellent—one of the fastest I've used, but I still prefer sensors on the back. The capacitive buttons on either side aren't my favorite. They're just small glowing dots. You can change what they do, but I would prefer to have the actual icons.

The OnePlus 3T has a 5.5-inch 1080p AMOLED display. This is a good panel, as long as you make some tweaks. For example, enable sRGB mode. The viewing angles are good, but you'll see a little PenTile blurring around text. The 16MP camera on this phone is impressive for the price. It's much nicer than the OP2, and I'd put it on nearly equal footing with the Nexus 6P. The extra money for the Pixel gets you a much better camera, among other things.

The Nougat update has now fully rolled out to the OnePlus 3T, and there have even been a few bug fix updates since then. The phone is fast, has all the basic Nougat goodies, and there are a few cool additions from OP. I particularly like the dark system UI mode and the screen-off gestures.

The OnePlus 3T is a good value at $440. You'd have to spend $200 more for the base model Pixel. I think that's a better phone, but it's fine to get the OP3T instead

Wrapping Up

The bottom line this month is that you really should wait if at all possible. The Galaxy S8 will be unveiled in a few weeks, and that'll give us a lot more idea what the next few months will be like. If you absolutely need to get a carrier phone right now, pick up a Galaxy S7, but do not pay full price for it.

It's a little safer to pick up an unlocked phone right now on account of the Pixel being top dog. It's a great phone that won't be replaced for months. It might not end up having the Galaxy S8 beaten on all fronts, but it's still going to win when it comes to software.