The Best Unlocked and Carrier Android Smartphone (August 2017)

By Ryan Whitwam

It's almost Pixel season, but the Galaxy S8 beckons.

Buying a new phone can be a big, scary commitment. You're probably going to be using that device every day for at least a year or two. What if you get the wrong one and hate every minute of it? That's what we're aiming to prevent. Let's get a sense of what's out there and what your best bet is.

Carrier phones: The Galaxy S8

Carriers have come up with some interesting ways to keep people coming back for new phones even when there are so many good unlocked options. You can usually pay monthly, and there are frequent deals when you switch or add a line. If you go this route, there are two solid choices on all carriers 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, but it also comes in a 6.2-inch curved "Plus" variant. They both feel much smaller in the hand than you'd expect 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, even with the incredibly narrow bezels. 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. The phone works with both Daydream and Gear VR.

This phone is very comfortable to use 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, but I'm more irked by the way glass feels on a phone. You can't touch the device without getting it all oily from your skin.

Samsung has finally ditched the physical nav buttons on the GS8. Now, they're all on-screen, and 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 smart feature, that could one day be improved with a built-in fingerprint sensor. Samsung had to relocate the sensor from its former place in the home button. Now it's on the back way up next to the camera. It's not a very comfortable location, and the sensor is 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 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 captured quickly, and with excellent exposure and colors. This is true even in low light. The Galaxy S8 is nearly as good as the Google Pixel, but it's a little more prone to noise.

Samsung's software has improved, but the Pixel still holds the crown for best Android experience. Samsung still has a lot of features, but most of it is hidden away in deep, dark menus. This software is 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. In a few weeks, it'll be even more behind as Android O rolls out.

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 $100. 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. It has a design 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 efficiently 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. Keep in mind this is an LCD, so the colors won't be as rich and brightness isn't as good. It's also too slow for Daydream VR.

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 works as advertised. The secondary camera won't do you any good for regular photos (some OEMs use secondary sensors to sharpen photos). Still, you can't get these wide-angle photos with other phones. 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.

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, just like the Pixel. 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. I just wish it wasn't also the power button. That makes it awkward to wake the phone up to the lock screen without also unlocking.

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—faster than the Galaxy S8, but not as fast as the Pixel or OnePlus 5. 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. Yet, the GS8 is more attractive, has a better screen, and a more capable camera. 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

Getting an unlocked phone means you can pick your carrier, and even get a local SIM card if you're traveling overseas. They also tend to get faster software updates. You sometimes have to pay more for these phones, but they afford you more freedom. We're still skipping the Essential Phone for now because it's about two months late for launch. It's still down to the Pixel and the OnePlus 5.

Before we get too far into this, the Pixel is getting old, yes. It'll be replaced in a few months. If you can wait, you absolutely should. The Pixel 2 will undoubtedly be a better phone. But we're talking about what's the best device you can get right now. For unlocked phones, that's still 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. These devices run on last year's hardware, and there's still no microSD card slot, which Google never does. Still, the Pixel is so well optimized that it's faster and more consistent than anything else you can get.

The Pixel XL has a 3420mAh battery and the regular Pixel is 2770mAh. I've used both these phones extensively, and both of them will get you through the day easily. 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, ideally placed to tap with your index finger when you pick up the phone. The Pixel's fingerprint sensor is accurate, but it's a little sluggish compared to phones like the OnePlus 5. 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. These phones will get Android 8.0 in a few weeks, and they (along with Nexus newer phones) be the only phones sporting the new OS for at least a few months.

The Pixel is spendy with a starting price of $650 and the Pixel XL is $760. However, Google is currently selling them for a few hundred dollars off.

OnePlus made its name by selling high-end hardware for less than the competition, and that continues with the OnePlus 5. This device includes a snapdragon 835 and 6-8GB of RAM, depending on whether you get the 64 or 128GB version. 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. My review unit doesn't seem to do this, but I've seen videos of some phones that look more obvious. This is allegedly a result of the OnePlus 5's screen being mounted upside down and rotated in the firmware. Overall, it's a nice screen, but both the GS8 and Pixel have much better displays.

The fingerprint sensor on this phone is the current king concerning speed and accuracy. It's actually quite impressive that it bests phones that cost so much more. 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 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 tends 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. There have been multiple OTA updates to patch bugs and add features since launch. 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.

Conclusion

If you're getting a phone through your carrier, the Galaxy S8 is your best choice right now. The G6 is a great phone, but the screen and camera aren't as good. The main selling point there is the speed advantage. Although, if you're on Verizon, you should look at the Pixel.

Speaking of the Pixel, it's still the best unlocked phone you can get. However, the Pixel 2 will probably be out in a few months. I'd advise against paying full price for the Pixel if at all possible. Google's selling it for a few hundred off in the Google Store right now, so that's a good deal.