The Best Unlocked and Carrier Android Smartphone (July 2017)

By Ryan Whitwam

The Pixel gets some competition.

Smartphones have become indispensable parts of daily life, offering on-demand access to all the world's information, turn-by-turn navigation, voice control, and more. This is one of the things it's okay to spend heavily on since you'll use it every day, but you should make sure you buy the right phone. Ideally, it'll last you a couple years without falling apart or falling behind on updates. There are a lot of phones out there, so let's take a look at the assortment of options available right now and see what the best bet is.

Carrier phones: The Galaxy S8

Buying phones from carriers used to be what you did because there were no reasonably priced unlocked options, but not it's the default option for most people because the carriers make it stupidly easy to get a new phone with payment plans, lease agreements, and various other deals. If you go this route, there are two solid choices right now, the Galaxy S8 and the LG G6. These are both good phones, and LG has improved since last year. Still, the Galaxy S8 is an overall better option for most people.

The Galaxy S8 has a 5.8-inch curved display, and you can't get a non-curved version this time. Both the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus have have the curved design that minimizes the bezel. Samsung opted for this after seeing its curved phones selling much better than the flat ones. The GS8 Plus bumps the display size to 6.2-inches, but they both feel much smaller in the hand and have a resolution of 1440 x 2960 pixels. The Plus variant is just a little too tall to be used comfortably in one hand. Samsung's AMOLED displays are still the best you can get, and DisplayMate confirms that Samsung's GS8 panel has the most accurate colors and highest brightness.

This phone feels great in the hand with the symmetrically curved front and back glass, although the rounded glass frame means it's very exposed should you ever drop it. Broken Galaxy S8s are apparently common, and the glass picks up fingerprints like no one's business.

Finally, Samsung has ditched the physical nav buttons on the GS8. Now, they're all on-screen. Thankfully, that means you can change the order to the "correct" one. Additionally, the screen has a pressure-sensitive region where the home button pops up. Even if the button is hidden, you can hard-press that area to trigger the home button. This is a very clever feature, and I can only hope that future Samsung phones will include a fingerprint sensor under the panel. The sensor on this phone is not great.

Getting rid of the physical home button meant Samsung had to move the fingerprint scanner, and it landed on the back. Unlike the G6, the sensor is way up next to the camera. Even when you reach it without smudging up the camera, it's not very accurate. The iris scanner makes up for that a little bit, but it's not ideal and won't work in some environments.

The Galaxy S8 packs a Snapdragon 835 SoC, which benchmarks very well. However, Samsung is not taking very good advantage of the power. The Galaxy S8 is not much faster than the GS7, and that phone could feel sluggish at times. It anything, Samsung is tuning its hardware for battery life rather than performance. And on that front, the GS8 does well. You'll make it through a day easily even with heavy use. If you're after a phone that's undeniably fast, that's not the GS8.

Samsung has not hopped on the dual camera train like LG and many others, but the single rear-facing shooter on this phone is excellent. It has a 12MP resolution and lightning-fast focusing. Photos are among the best you'll get from a phone, even in low light. The Galaxy S8 is nearly as good as the Google Pixel, and better than the G6 and cheaper phones like the OnePlus 5.

Samsung's software also compares favorably to the G6, but not so much to the Pixel. TouchWiz is better than it used to be, but I feel like we say that every time. Samsung still has a lot of stuff in there, but most of it is packed into menus out of the way. Most of the niche features are stuffed in menus, and the UI has much cleaner than it used to be. It's based on Android 7.0 Nougat, but I'm a bit annoyed Samsung couldn't get 7.1 on the GS8 at launch. So, it's already running behind the Pixel.

The Galaxy S8 is spendy at $750, but that's similar to other flagship phones. If you want the S8 Plus, that'll be another 4100. The G6 offers many of the same features, and it's usually a little cheaper.

LG learned its lesson from the failure of the G5, and the G6 takes a decidedly different approach. You could argue it's less interesting, but let's face it, this is a better phone. The design is much more like Samsung's recent phones with an aluminum and glass chassis.

The body of the phone is sealed, so the 3300mAh battery is non-removable—quite unusual for LG. However, this made it easier for LG to make the phone IP68 water resistant.

Like the Galaxy S8, the G6 uses a taller aspect ratio screen to more effectively fill the phone's face. This is a 5.7-inch LCD with a resolution of 1440 x 2880, so some apps render a bit oddly. LG's scaling features are more effective than Samsung's at countering that, though. Despite the large screen, the G6 is small enough to be used in one hand, thanks to that taller ratio.

LG is still doing the rear-facing fingerprint sensor/power button combo, and it works quite well. This is the right place for a fingerprint sensor, in my opinion. It's infinitely better than the Galaxy S8's fingerprint sensor, which is far too high up on the back. The sensor itself is fast and accurate, actually faster than the Pixel's.

LG has two camera sensors on the back of the G6. One is a regular 13MP shooter, and the other is a 13MP camera with a wide-angle lens. LG's been doing the wide-angle thing for a few years, and it's fun, I suppose. You can't get these photos with other phones, but it's not a make or break deal. The G6's main camera is good, but falls short of the Galaxy S8 because of LG's aggressive post-processing. Photos just look weird if you zoom or crop.

On the software side, the G6 ships with Android 7.0 Nougat. It has LG's usual UI tweaks, which aren't as bad as they used to be. It lacks a certain elegance, though. The best thing about it is that it's fast—certainly faster than the Galaxy S8. That may be surprising considering the G6 is still running on the Snapdragon 821, and the GS8 is on the Snapdragon 835. Although, LG tuned this phone to be fast. The battery life is alright, but not as good as the GS8. The G6 does, however, charge faster with QC 3.0. You just have to decide what's more important.

The LG G6 is a good phone, and some people might prefer it to the Galaxy S8. However, I think the GS8 has a few important advantages. That might not matter if you are on Verizon. That's the only carrier where you can get the Pixel directly. Otherwise, you have to go through Google. That's still a pretty good option for anyone.

Unlocked phones: The Pixel

The world of unlocked phones is much richer than it used to be. Last month we talked about the Essential Phone, which was supposed to be shipping now. For whatever reason, that didn't happen. We'll put that on the back burner for now. Luckily, there's a new unlocked phone this month to replace the recently discontinued OnePlus 3T. Yes, the OnePlus 5.

The latest phone from OnePlus comes with some of the latest hardware. In fact, it bests some of the most expensive phones in terms of specs. This device includes a snapdragon 835 and 6-8GB of RAM, depending on whether you get the 64 or 128GB version. The spec race is really OnePlus' bread and butter. This phone is very fast—faster than the Galaxy S8, but not quite as snappy and consistent as the Pixel.

OnePlus has stepped up its design game this year. While the OnePlus 5 does have an iPhone vibe in pictures, it's less obvious in person. The device is comfortable to hold with narrow bezels, and the subtle ridge running along the side makes it more grippable than the completely rounded iPhone. The aluminum unibody design doesn't include a removable battery, but the 3,300mAh cell will make it through a day easily.

The 5.5-inch OLED panel is the same as last year, so it's 1080p with very good viewing angles. However, some users report a "jelly scrolling" effect that distorts objects as you scroll. I have a very hard time noticing this on my unit, but I've seen videos of some phones that look more obvious. I'm not saying this is a deal breaker, but the display is definitely something you'll compromise on with a cheaper phone. Both the GS8 and Pixel have much nicer screens.

The fingerprint sensor on this phone is the current king in terms of speed and accuracy. It's actually very impressive that it bests phones like the Pixel. The sensor is also the home button, and there are two capacitive keys on either side for back and overview. However, they're indicated only by small glowing dots, which are hard to see in bright light. The hardware alert slider is still on the edge of the phone, allowing you to turn the phone to silent or do-not-disturb without waking it up.

OnePlus is talking up the dual cameras a lot, but this is actually one of the weaker aspects of the phone. The main camera is 16MP and the other is a 20MP 2x zoom lens. Photos taken with the regular camera are usually good, but the phone has a tendency to over-process and lose detail. In addition, the zoom lens is not used in dim settings because of its narrow aperture. In that situation, the main camera is used with digital zoom. There's no indication in the software this is happening, which seems dishonest to me.

The OnePlus 5 ships with a build of Android 7.1 known as OxygenOS. OnePlus' version of Android is streamlined and smart. This is stock Android with a few little tweak like screen gestures, a dark UI mode, and reading mode. There are a few features I don't care for, like the useless Shelf UI on the home screen. Overall, though, it's one of the best versions of Android outside of the Pixel. OnePlus has also been improving its update record as of late. It'll never be updated as fast as the Pixel, but nothing is.

With a starting price of $480, it's hard to complain too much about the OP5's shortcomings. It's fast, well designed, and the software is good. The camera and screen are just okay, but it's a few hundred cheaper than other phones like the Pixel.

There are two versions of the Pixel: a 5-inch 1080p model and a 5.5-inch 1440p. They have a Snapdragon 821, 4GB of RAM, and 32 or 128GB of storage. It's nice to see Google make a small phone that's still so capable. A lot of small phones are the budget option with mid-range hardware. To be clear, this is last year's hardware, but it's used to great effect in the Pixel. It's noticeably faster and more responsive than the Galaxy S8, despite the newer SoC in that phone.

The Pixel XL has a 3420mAh battery and the regular Pixel is 2770mAh. Google has optimized well for the hardware, and both will make it through the day fine. The improved Doze Mode in Android Nougat means these phones use almost no power while sitting at night, too. There's also fast-charging when the battery does get low. I rarely bother to charge the Pixel overnight because it loses so little juice, and a few minutes on the charger during the day is enough to fill it up.

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 like the OnePlus 5 have since surpassed it in terms of speed. The Pixels have an aluminum unibody with a glass inlay on the back around the camera. I prefer this design to phones that are all glass on the back; those get greasy and fingerprint-y as soon as you touch them. The biggest drawback of the Pixel's design is that it's not IP68 certified. It's fine after a quick splash, but it can't be submerged. At least not safely.

The Pixels run the latest version of Android at all times, which is currently 7.1. Google updates these phones like clockwork every month, so you always have the newest security patches. The interface is also completely stock, which most people prefer to the skinned version of Android Samsung, LG, and other use. It doesn't have quite as many features, but the features it does have all work.

The Pixel is spendy with a starting price of $650 and the Pixel XL is $760. Both these phones only have 32GB of storage and no microSD expansion. Most people can get by with 32GB, but it'll be tight if you want to haul around a lot of local media. However, you can get the phones on a payment plan from Google, which is rare with unlocked phones. That makes the 128GB upgrade a bit easier to swallow.

Granted, the Pixel is getting a bit old. Pixel 2 leaks have started appearing, but we're probably still 4-5 months away from an actual announcement. It's still safe to pick up a Pixel right now. You'll get updates for another year and change, and security patches for at least a year beyond that. In fact, these devices will be the first to get Project Treble in Android O. That means the updates could keep coming for even longer.

Conclusion

If you're dead-set on buying a phone from your carrier, go with the Galaxy S8. The exception being if you favor speed over the battery life, screen, and design. Then, you can get the LG G6. Although, Verizon customers should also consider the Pixel, which is available in carrier stores.

For an unlocked device, it's still all about the Pixel. The Essential Phone is MIA right now, so Google's flagship is the winner. The OnePlus 5 is very good, though. It's worth considering if you can't justify the Pixel's $650 starting price.