The Best Unlocked and Carrier Android Smartphone (September 2017)

By Ryan Whitwam

It's time to let the Pixel die.

In some ways, there's never been a better time to buy an Android phone, but I mean that in the grand scheme of things. It's hard purchase a phone that you end up hating, but it's still possible you'll make the wrong choice. With the price of phones ever-increasing, you need to think things through carefully. That's what we're going help you sort out. Let's get the lay of the land and see which Androids are worth getting, and which are a skip.

Carrier Phones: Galaxy S8

If you want to get a phone directly from your carrier to take advantage of various deals and financing options, the Galaxy S8 is still the best device to get. That's not to say the LG G6 is a bad phone. In fact, it's the best phone LG has ever made. The Galaxy Note 8 looks like a beautiful, capable smartphone, too. However, several ongoing developments lead to the GS8's continued dominance.

The Galaxy S8 has a 5.8-inch curved display, but it also comes in a 6.2-inch curved "Plus" variant. They both have a resolution of 1440 x 2960 pixels, among the highest you can get on a smartphone. Despite the large screen sizes, the tall aspect ratio and small bezels make the phones easy to hold. The Plus variant is just a little too tall to be used 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, too.

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, and the glass back is so slippery. It's a bummer you pretty much have to put a case on such a lovely piece of design, but it's sort of mandatory with this phone.

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. The home button is also accessible at any time thanks to a pressure-sensitive region on the screen. Even if the button is not visible (like the phone is asleep or playing a fullscreen video), simply pressing harder will trigger the home button. I really like this feature, and I find myself missing it when I use a different phone. I'm not so pleased with what happened to the fingerprint sensor that previously occupied the physical home button. It's on the back way up next to the camera, which is not a very comfortable location. Even when you find the sensor after fumbling around and smudging your camera lens, 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 much more concerned with battery life than raw power. The Galaxy S8 might lag on occasion, but mostly I'd say it's generally fast enough. Tapping and swiping doesn't feel as immediate as they do on devices like the Pixel. The battery life is solid, though. You'll make it through a day easily even with heavy use.

There's only one camera on the back of this phone, but it's an impressive 12MP shooter that puts most other phones to shame. Samsung's post-processing tech is top notch, and the sensor focuses incredibly fast. 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. With the ongoing Android Oreo rollout, the Galaxy S8 is even further behind. It'll probably get the 8.0 update early next year or late this year.

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. You may be wondering why I'm not recommending the Galaxy Note 8 as it does have a few feature advantages over the Galaxy S8. The big issue is the price. This phone will cost you around $1,000 and the improvements are minimal. If you don't absolutely need an S Pen stylus, the Galaxy S8 Plus is only a tenth of an inch smaller and has a larger battery.

Since we're talking about price, what of the LG G6? This phone is a bit cheaper than the Galaxy S8 and has much of the same hardware. LG learned its lesson from the failure of the G5, and the G6 takes a decidedly different approach—a much more Samsung-y approach, you could say. There's an aluminum and glass chassis with a non-removable 3300mAh battery, and it's water-resistant.

Like the Galaxy S8, the G6 uses a taller aspect ratio screen to fill the phone's face more efficiently. This is a 5.7-inch LCD with a resolution of 1440 x 2880, so some apps render with strange black bars or visual glitches in games. LG's scaling features let you compensate for that a little, and they seem to work better than Samsung's. 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. You can't get these wide-angle photos with other phones, but that's all the secondary camera is doing. It won't contribute to the quality of your regular photos. 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—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, but there are still awkward UI decisions and a tendency to cram more apps and services into the phone. 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 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.

Unlocked Phones: Wait, if you can

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 only just started shipping and not even all pre-orders have gone out. I'll cover it in more detail next month. Right now, we're still looking at the Pixel and the OnePlus 5… however, maybe you shouldn't get the Pixel this time.

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, and very close in speed to the Pixel.

OnePlus has stepped up its design game this year. I know it looks a lot like the iPhone in pictures, and I'd be lying if I said there's no resemblance. However, the iPhone vibe is much less apparent 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 excellent viewing angles. However, some users report a "jelly scrolling" effect that distorts objects as you scroll. I don't really see this problem on my review unit, so maybe it varies from one unit to the next. Or my eyes are broken. 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, regardless of any jelly scrolling.

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 with a 2x zoom lens. Photos taken with the regular camera solid with a slight tendency to over-process and lose detail. More annoying is the zoom lens' behavior in dim settings. Because of its narrow aperture, the phone just switches to using the 16MP main camera with cropping. 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. There still no official word on the Android O update other than the OP5 will get it. You can expect about two years of support from OnePlus, but the updates won't come as fast as they do on Google's phones.

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.

So, what about the Pixel? I'm going out on a limb here and calling this one, folks. It's over for the Pixel. You shouldn't buy it anymore, not because it's a bad device, but because it's about to be yesterday's news. The Pixel 2 will undoubtedly be a better phone, and we're getting really, really close.

Let's talk a little about the Pixel and Pixel XL first. The Pixel is a 5-inch 1080p phone and the XL is a 5.5-inch 1440p phone. 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 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.

It's looking like Google will again have two versions of the Pixel in 2017, but the larger phone will have a refreshed design. The XL model is expected to have a taller edge-to-edge display like the LG G6 or Galaxy S8. However, it won't be a curved AMOLED, just a flat one. The smaller Pixel will look like the current device with a little bezel shaved off. The current Pixels have an aluminum and glass build, and that's what we expect from the new ones.

One reason you might still want to pick up a Pixel is immediate access to Android 8.0 Oreo. Google is in the process of rolling the update out right now, and no other current phones are anywhere close to getting the OTA. I fully expect the new Pixel to launch with 8.0 Oreo or some as-yet unannounced 8.1 build of Android. In either case, one of the main advantages is Google's software prowess. 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.

The Pixel is spendy with a starting price of $650 and the Pixel XL is $760. There are some discounts right now to clear stock, but you should think twice. I still love the Pixel—I carry it as my main phone most days. If you can wait a month or two, you should get in on the Pixel 2 craze. If you must buy an unlocked phone right now, it might make more sense to buy a OnePlus 5.

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. The Note 8 looks very fancy, and the S Pen is cool, but $1,000 is a tough sell. The GS8 Plus is very similar for a lot less.

A render of the alleged Pixel 2.

For unlocked phones, things are more complicated. The Pixel is about to be replaced, so it's best to wait for the Pixel 2 launch. If you can get a Pixel very cheap, that's one thing. However, the OnePlus 5 offers a great option if you absolutely cannot wait.