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The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (May 2012)

By Ryan Whitwam

You've got to live with this thing for 2 years, so make it count.

Another month, and another opportunity to make the hard call and sign away two years of your life for a new phone. With over 40 Android phones lurking out there, it can be easy to get drawn in by the flashy ads and sketchy salespeople. Instead, it’s time to look at things objectively. Let’s talk about best phone you can get on each of the big four national carriers.

AT&T

While AT&T’s lineup hasn’t really changed since last month, we have a better idea what you can expect out of the top phones, the Samsung Galaxy Note and the HTC One X. Perhaps more importantly, the HTC One X has finally cleared customs after an additional inspection to make sure HTC is not in violation of Apple patents. So now that you can actually BUY either of these phones, which is right for you?

The HTC One X is HTC’s attempt to get back to making innovative hardware. In this case, HTC is doing so by making no compromises on the hardware. The One X has the best screen you can get on a phone right now; a 4.7-inch Super LCD 2 at 1280x720. I’ve seen 720p screens before, but this one knocks my socks off. It is gorgeous, but that is also an adjective that could describe the phone itself. The polycarbonate shell wraps around the back, and slopes in just the right way. It feels great in the hand. But because of this design, the battery is non-removable.

Inside, HTC has decided to go with the Snapdragon S4, a dual-core SoC at 1.5GHz per core. This was a necessary change to allow for the LTE radio, which doesn’t play nice with Tegra 3. Even though it’s only dual-core, the One X is amazingly fast. Snapdragon S4 runs on the new Krait processor architecture, and it’s considerably faster than many chips shipping in other phones.

The One X also packs 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. The one pain point might be that there is no SD card slot, and some people can’t make it work with just 16GB of space. I am not one of those people, but it’s something to consider if you’re a digital packrat. Although, the camera is great, so perhaps you’re going to eat up all 16GB with images. The 8MP shooter has a f/2.0 aperture that works well in low light. On the front is a 1.3MP camera as well.

Software-wise, this is the new Sense 4 with Android 4.0.3. There are some things to really like here -- more than with Sense 3.6 for sure. The new home screen is much cleaner. Most of the unnecessary glitz has been dumped, and the Sense widgets are more modern-looking now. The software is very fast, but HTC’s decision to use hardware ICS buttons is odd. When an app needs a legacy menu button, it appears in an ugly bar across the bottom of the screen.

The HTC One X is a fast phone, and if you’ve got LTE, it’s blazing. The device should be flowing to retail outlets again right now, and you can pick it up for $199.99 on-contract.

The Galaxy Note has been out for a while now, but it’s still a real crowd pleaser. Really, it is. I know it seems like a bizarre idea -- a phone with a 5.3-inch screen and a stylus? What is this, 2005? But I’ve never met a contingent of phone users more enamored with their device since the original iPhone. Everyone that has a Note loves it, and you might too.

As I said, the screen on this device is 5.3-inches, and it’s 720p Super AMOLED. This panel uses PenTile pixels, but I’ve never seen much in the way of problems when using a Note. Inside lurks a dual-core Snapdragon S3 at 1.5GHz. This is a fine chip, but no match for the raw power of the Snapdragon S4.

There is 1GB of RAM in the Note, and it also has 16GB of storage. Unlike the One X, though, the Note has a microSD card slot. That’s a big help if you have a lot of media to carry around. An LTE radio is built into the Note as well, but it reportedly draws a little more juice than the One X does.

The Galaxy Note is still officially running Android 2.3 Gingerbread with TouchWiz. An ICS update is in the works, and an early build has even leaked for the braver among you. It’s nice that Samsung is going to bring ICS to this device, but don’t expect any more updates after that. Although, the software on the Note isn’t bad even now. The version of TouchWiz it runs is reasonably fast, but the real selling point is the S-Pen integration.

There is a handly little slot in the device to store the S-Pen, which is an inductive stylus using Wacom technology. It has very little lag, and is very accurate. Samsung has a gesture system of pen swipes so you can work the phone without changing your grip and going down to the buttons. The Galaxy Note has come down a little in price to $249.99 on contract this month.

I think the HTC One X is a better phone overall for most people thanks to the screen, faster chip, and the software. Still, if you’re drawn to that stylus, the Note is a fine choice.

Verizon

The nation’s largest carrier is usually knee deep in new phones, but Big Red has been taking a little breather from the maddening upgrade cycle as of late. That means that your choices haven’t changed much much. It’s still all about the Droid Razr Maxx and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

Let’s start with the Galaxy Nexus. You’re probably familiar with the specs of this device by now. It’s got a TI OMAP 4460 at 1.2GHz per core, 1GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage, and no SD card slot. The screen is a 4.65-inch Super AMOLED HD panel at 1280x720. It uses a PenTile matrix, but I still find it to be a solid display.

The Nexus is a stock Ice Cream Sandwich phone; one of the few available. The software is currently sitting at 4.0.2 on this device, but Verizon has approved the 4.0.4 update, which should be rolling out in the coming week or so. Android 4.0 is fast, clean, and attractive. It’s a shame that so few phones run the stock software.

The Nexus is starting to get on in its life span, having come out back in December. The 5MP camera is really being put to shame with just about every new phone release. The battery life is also decidedly middle-of-the-road, especially when signal is low.

The Galaxy Nexus is selling for $199 with a contract, which isn’t bad when you consider the top LTE phones used to always sell for $300. Still, being 6-months old I’m hoping to see another price drop soon.

The Droid Razr Maxx can best be thought of as a Nexus alternative for those that want better specs in some places and are willing to put up with worse software. The internals are similar to the Nexus with 1.2GHz dual-core OMAP4430, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and an SD card slot. It’s just a touch slower than the Nexus.

The screen is a bit of a pain point, though. The 4.3-inch AMOLED panel on the Maxx is only qHD resolution (960x540), and uses a particularly noticeable PenTile matrix. This super-thin panel makes the 9mm thickness of the Maxx possible, but there are times that screen just doesn’t cut it.

The thin screen also gave Motorola more space to build in a huge (non-removable) battery. 3300mAh is enough to get you through well more than a day of heavy use. At that point, it almost doesn’t matter that the battery isn’t removable. Battery life is one place the Maxx totally crushes the Nexus. If the mediocre camera on the Nexus is hard for you to deal with, that’s another place the Razr Maxx could help you out. The 8MP shooter on the back of this phone is very good among Android phones.

The software is, sadly, still Android 2.3 with Blur on top. I say “on top” because that’s really what Blur feels like -- a skin that sits on top of Android and gets in the way. An Android 4.0 update is on the way for this device as well, and some recent demo videos do show a somewhat improved experience. We don’t have a date for the update, but it should be done before mid-summer. Right now, the software experience is the worst part of this device.

Both of these phones are older, and the next device of consequence will probably be the Galaxy S3. There’s just no way to know when that’s happening. If you don’t want to wait a couple months, I still think the Galaxy Nexus is the best bet, but only slightly. If you need killer battery life, and waiting on ICS isn’t a problem, the Droid Razr Maxx is acceptable.

T-Mobile

I’m going to break the suspense right off the bat here: The HTC One S is the only phone on T-Mobile you should buy right now. Everything else is either old, or clearly mid-range. This might not be the One X, but it’s a darn good phone when you compare it to the nearest competition, the Samsung Galaxy S2.

The HTC One S is slim at just 7.9mm thick. The casing is anodized aluminum and it wraps around the body of the phone in the same almost seductive way it does on the One X. The phone feels right in your hand, and construction is incredibly solid. The battery here is also non-removable, but that’s not a problem when you look at the power usage.

Inside, the One S has the same Snapdragon S4 chip seen in the AT&T One X. Also on-board we have 1GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and no SD card. The screen is 4.3-inches, but only qHD resolution. It uses AMOLED technology so as to be thinner, but it’s also PenTile. After looking at it, I don’t find any cause for alarm. It’s not a One X screen, but it will do. The 8MP camera is very good, though.

The software install on the One S is identical to the One X; Android 4.0.3 with Sense 4. As far as skins on Android go, this is the best one right now. It’s simplified and much faster than older versions of Sense. I’m not crazy about some of the colors HTC went with, like the green accents, but it’s passible.

The One S is still going for $199, which is high when you consider the cost of the One X on AT&T is the same, but this is in line with what T-Mobile is charging for phones. Note that the day this post goes live (May 31), the One S is on sale online for just $99, so jump on that if you’re keen.

So that’s why you should buy the One S, but let me just remind you why you should not buy the Samsung Galaxy S2 anymore. First, the internals are definitely yesterday’s news. The 1.5GHz Snapdragon S3 inside is nothing special anymore, and the 1GB of RAM is the same that you’ll find everywhere now.

The screen is a 4.52-inch Super AMOLED Plus panel, but it’s just WVGA 800x480. The RGB subpixels are nice, but it doesn’t look any better than the One S screen. The 8MP rear camera is still very capable, though.

I don’t know why we’re still looking at Gingerbread on this phone, but an ICS update has been in the works for months. Will it happen? Probably. Should you buy a phone with old software hoping for an update? Probably not.

When you look at the industrial design, the GS2 is just nothing compared to the sleek lines of the One S. It’s a phone that was top of the line 9 months ago, and that’s an eternity in phone years. The Galaxy S2 is Still listed at $199, but I expect a price drop to come this week or next. Keep an eye on that. As it stands, the HTC One S is by far the better choice.

Sprint

Ah, enough of this reshuffling of the same old devices. Sprint is coming out swinging as its LTE network nears reality. Last month the Sprint Galaxy Nexus came out, and this month it’s the HTC Evo 4G LTE. I suppose this could be the spiritual successor to the first Evo 4G, which used WiMAX before it was even rolled out everywhere. Your biggest problem on Sprint is that the 3G network is dog slow, and LTE is still rare.

The new HTC Evo 4G LTE is a real next-generation Android phone, but I was worried I wouldn’t be able to recommend it this month because of that customs snafu. Since that has been taken care of, you should be able to get the device in just a few days as the supply chain fills up. This device is exciting because it is essentially the HTC One X with a few tweaks.

Inside is that same Snapdragon S4 SoC with matching LTE radio. There is 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage with microSD expansion. The display is that same gorgeous 4.7-inch Super LCD 2 720p panel. Like the One X, the battery on the Evo is non-removable, but it is a healthy 2000mAh cell. The 8MP camera is also wonderful.

The device itself is not as lovely as the One X, or even the One S, but it’s got a good look. The back has a kickstand that blends in well and divides the slick top from the soft-touch bottom. It looks like an Evo inspired by the One line, not the other way around.

As for the software, everything I said about Sense 4 above holds true here. It’s much improved over older builds, and generally stays out of the way more. Some of the glittery reflective faux surfaces are still present, but not nearly to the same degree. Like the One X, the software is super-responsive. When you can find it in stock, the HTC Evo 4G LTE is $199 on-contract.

So where does that leave the Sprint Galaxy Nexus? Well, in more trouble than last month. Sprint got its own version of the ICS flagship phone just last month, and it’s basically the same handset from Verizon. You get a 4.65-inch Super AMOLED HD screen, TI OMAP4460 at 1.2GHz per core, 1GB of RAM, and 32GB of internal storage. The device will fall back to 3G until LTE is up and running. You do get Google Wallet, which is a fun extra if your favorite stores happen to use PayPass.

The issues are the same old song and dance. The 5MP camera is not great, and battery life can be a little short in areas with low signal strength. It’s the software that makes the Nexus shine. Pure, unmolested Android 4.0. It’s a snappy and elegant interface that’s better than anything the OEMs are doing. This software is better than Sense on the Evo, no doubt.

Keep in mind that both these devices are stuck on 3G until LTE comes to your town, and that might not be until next year. Can you justify buying a 4G phone with 4G you can’t even use until halfway through your contract? So, which phone should you get? Frankly, I think I have to call this one a tie. If you need better battery life and photo quality, go with the Evo. If the best software experience is what you crave, get the Nexus.

If you’re in the process of looking for a new phone, let me know what is most important to you. Is it software? 4G? Are you just waiting for the Galaxy S3?