The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (July 2014)

By Ryan Whitwam

LG arrives to the party a little late, but it brought a new phone.

You don't usually get do-overs after you choose a new phone. That privilege only comes along once every year or two, so you've got to make it count. It's getting hard to make a truly bad choice when it comes to Android phones, but why settle for good enough when you can have the best? It's time to check out the lineup on the big four US carriers and see which devices are worth your time and money.

This month Samsung finally gets some serious competition from LG, and the Nexus continues to ride high.

Photo credit: Flickr user janitors via Creative Commons.

AT&T

The LG G3 wasn't even up for pre-order on AT&T last month, but this time it's available and has a lot to offer a connoisseur of mobile devices. Of course, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is also on AT&T as a similar price point and a slightly different approach to the high-end market. So where should your money go?

Let's start with the Samsung Galaxy S5. This is simply the best phone Samsung has ever made. It might have the same plastic shell most of Samsung's devices rock, but it's more solid than past offerings largely because it's built to be water and dust-resistant. The GS5 is IP67 certified, assuming you've got the back and port covers fastened down. It has a midframe inside that most of the components are mounted to and rubber gaskets protect the internals around the back cover.

Around front are Samsung's signature hardware buttons, but this time the OEM has finally gotten with the times and replaced the menu button with multitasking. The home button also houses a fingerprint scanner. It's a bit of a novelty (as is the heart rate monitor on the back), but it's something to be aware of.

Inside you'll find 2GB of RAM, a 2800mAh removable battery, a Snapdragon 801, and 16GB of storage. The screen is a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED at 1080p, and it's a great panel. Samsung has done a lot to fix the white balance and saturation on AMOLED this time, and it really shows. The screen also has very good maximum and minimum brightness. The 16MP camera on this device is awesome in every situation except low-light.

Samsung's TouchWiz Android UI isn't the abomination it once was--in fact, I'd say the ROM on the GS5 is pretty good. It's fast, the tweaks to Android's UI are not outrageous, and some of the additional features (like Ultra Power Saver) are awesome. Under all the Samsung code is Android 4.4.2 with all the goodies you'd expect from that. AT&T does have a nasty habit of loading you up with bloatware, but that's the case with all phones on Ma Bell.

The GS5 is selling for $200 on contract through AT&T.

Moving on to the latest LG device, the G3 is pushing the resolution race past HD. It's the first major OEM to put a 1440p screen on a smartphone, and it can be yours right now. The G3 is another plastic phone with a removable battery (3000mAh), but the plastic LG chose to go with does feel more sturdy and premium than Samsung's. The design is also more attractive with extremely thin bezels and on-screen nav buttons. Those rear-facing buttons actually kind of work too.

As for the raw numbers, you're looking at a Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a 5.5-inch 2560x1440 LCD. LG basically bumped each spec just a little past Samsung, and that's a good thing overall. The screen does look very crisp and the pixels are completely invisible. The panel could be more contrasty and the colors are a bit muted even by LCD standards, but it's a nice screen. On the subject of battery life, the G3 seems to perform about the same as the GS5 over the course of a day.

LG's 13MP camera seems on paper like it wouldn't be a match for Samsung's 16MP shooter, but the laser autofocus feature isn't just a gimmick--it seriously works. The G3 focuses very fast and accurately, beating out the GS5, in my opinion. The images are close in quality in outdoor light, but not quite as nice with HDR, but the G3 does have better low-light performance.

On the software side LG has made a lot of progress. Like Samsung, it has flattened out much of its UI and adopted a more minimalist aesthetic. One of the unforgivable sins of the G2 was the ridiculous menu button in the software nav bar instead of multitasking, but that's fixed now. The default layout is the Google standard, and the theme can be set to black instead of white now.

LG's interface is plenty responsive and You can actually shut off ALL the notification shade clutter. It's just much faster to get around in LG's version of Android than it used to be. There are still a few weird choices like the tabbed settings menu, but you can tweak the settings to fix most of that. LG's extra software features are a bit more subtle than Samsung's, but Knock Code is remarkably cool. It lets you set a pattern of screen taps that will wake and unlock the device. The LG G3 is also $200 on contract.

Just as an aside, the Nexus 5 works on AT&T and it's still a great device. The up-front cost is higher at $349 for the 16GB unit, but it's unlocked and updated by Google. That means Android L in a few months. For most users, I think the G3 has the Galaxy S5 beaten. LG has stepped up its game in a huge way this year with improved software, a great camera, and nice design. The GS5 is still a great phone, though. It just falls a little short.

Verizon

So you're stuck on Verizon? That usually means you end up waiting a month or two longer for phones to come out, but Big Red has been keeping up better lately. For example, the LG G3 is already out, but the Galaxy S5 is looking mighty tempting too.

Let's start with Samsung's flagship phone. The Galaxy S5 comes with a Snapdragon 801 processor clocked to 2.5GHz, 2800mAh battery, 2GB of RAM, and a great 5.1-inch Super AMOLED screen. The AMOLED on this device might still be 1080p, but Samsung has advanced the technology considerably. The whites are whiter and the colors are less blown out.

Around back you'll find a 16MP camera that takes fabulous outdoor shots and above average medium light snaps. The only place it stumbles is in low light. The live HDR mode is particularly excellent. I'm not thrilled with the thin plastic back cover, but this is how Samsung rolls (at least for now).It's not all bad news for the GS5's build quality--this device is IP67 water and dust resistant so you'll notice less flex in the casing than in past phones. It can technically withstand 30 minutes in one meter of water, but Samsung does not recommend you put it to the test. The design isn't particularly inspiring from an aesthetic standpoint, though. The bezels are a little big and the home button is played out (yes, even with the fingerprint scanner).

On the software side of things, Samsung is running Android 4.4.2 with TouchWiz on the Galaxy S5. TouchWiz isn't ideal, but it's vastly improved on the Galaxy S5. The color choices are smarter, and there are fewer arbitrary changes. It's also mega-fast almost all the time. Features like Ultra Power Saving Mode and Private Mode are cool innovations as well.You won't get super-speedy updates on Verizon, but KitKat on the GS5 is pretty good.

Verizon is still asking $200 on-contract for the Galaxy S5, or you can do one of the carriers Edge plans to spread the cost out over 2 years.

The other phone to consider on Verizon is the LG G3. Yes, it has a hugely ugly Verizon logo crammed on the front, but it's hardly the first time Verizon has been unable to restrain itself. Other than that, this is essentially the same device you'll find on the other carriers. It's made from plastic like the GS5, but it feels a little more solid. The overall design is more attractive too with very thin bezels and a more hand-friendly curved shape.

On the spec front the G3 packs a Snapdragon 801 processor, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage. The screen is a 5.5-inch 2560x1440 LCD, the first from any major OEM. It's a good display with amazing crispness and good viewing angles. The colors are somewhat flat, and the contrast just isn't where it should be. Still, it's a nice panel. Samsung's 1080p AMOLED might be technically superior in several ways, but 1440p might make sense. The added resolution makes antialiasing more effective, for example.

The camera on the G3 is also a pleasant surprise. At 13MP it's a little lower resolution than the GS5, but it has better low-light performance and faster autofocus--the lasers really work. It's actually amazing how well it focuses even in very dim light.

LG launched the G3 with a customized version of Android 4.4.2 just like Samsung. And just like Samsung, LG has improved its software markedly in the last year. The UI is flattened out and the colors are nowhere near as garish. I also have to commend LG for getting the software nav buttons right--back, home, multitasking. That's how it should be.

The G3 is plenty fast, maybe even a bit more so than the Galaxy S5. It doesn't have as many additional features as the GS5, but there are a few gems like Knock Code. This is a security feature that lets you set up a pattern of screen taps that will wake up and unlock the phone. It actually works well too.

The G3 is also a $200 phone on Verizon, and I think it beats the GS5 by a slim margin. You get more storage, better design, and a screen that if not better in every way, is at least innovative.

T-Mobile

If you find yourself on T-Mobile, there are a whole lot of great Android options. There simply isn't time to go into detail on each and every device that might appeal to you on T-Mobile, so let's start by narrowing it down. While the Galaxy S5 is a very good phone, you can probably tell I lean slightly toward the LG G3 in that matchup after spending time with both phones. So we're focusing on the LG G3 and the Nexus 5 on T-Mobile. Same OEM, but vastly different experiences.

The Nexus 5 is Google's current flagship device for showing off its preferred version of Android. It's an unimposing phone that's covered in soft touch plastic, which I quite like. I know some people aren't fond of the feel of this material, but it makes the Nexus 5 stick to your hand nicely. The 8MP camera on the back is just okay. It takes fine outdoor shots, but gets noisy in low light.

Inside, the Nexus 5 has Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, a 2300mAh battery, and 16GB of storage with no SD slot. The battery is quite a bit smaller than the G3 (which has a 3000mAh cell), but I've found the tighter build of Android on the N5 has no trouble making it through a day. Storage might be a problem, though, as there is no way to expand it. The 5-inch 1080p LCD on this device is good, though maybe a little prone to light leak over time. The lines are sharp and colors are accurate, though.

The hardware is good, but the software on the Nexus 5 is great. This is really why you get a Nexus--Android right from the source. There is no carrier bloatware and the updates come from Google with no delays. The Nexus 5 is currently on Android 4.4.4, but it will have Android L in just a few months. Even if it's not the fastest or longest running right now, Android L is making improvements in both of those areas.

You can get a Nexus 5 from Google for $349 (or $50 more for 32GB), but T-Mobile's price isn't much worse when you factor in shipping costs. You'll only be able to do the ETF deal if you finance a phone as well. Tmo sells it for $16.50 per month or $396 total.

So maybe LG's Nexus phone isn't your speed, well there's the G3 on T-Mobile now too. This device is made of smoother plastic than the Nexus 5, but it still feels like a premium product with amazingly thin bezels and a huge 5.5-inch screen. The screen is actually one of LG's major selling points. This is the first 2560x1440 LCD screen on a phone from a major OEM. LG made a few sacrifices to get there, but a 1440p screen has the potential to make antialiasing smoother and the lines do look really flawless even up close. The brightness and contrast do suffer, though.

The LG G3 also contains a Snapdragon 801 processor, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage with a microSD card slot. The 3000mAh battery has been a solid performer overall with insane standby times. That high-resolution screen does drain a little quickly, though. The battery is removable at least. The 13MP laser-focusing camera is much better than the Nexus 5 in just about all environments, so shutterbugs take note.

The software on the G3 is Android 4.4.2, but it has LG's skin on top. In the past that might have been a tragedy worthy of a Shakespearian sonnet, but LG has patched up its skin quite a bit this year. The whole UI is flatter and doesn't make as many unnecessary changes to Android. LG also stopped messing with the default button layout. You can still customize the on-screen nav buttons, but you get a multitasking button in the proper spot.

LG's launcher isn't the best I've seen--there's an entire panel that basically shows you tips on using the device. You can turn most of the dumb stuff off, and many of the components can be swapped out with their Google equivalents. Even without any tweaking, the G3 is crazy fast and fun to use. Even Knock Code, which seems like it wouldn't work, is totally neat. This device is $25 per month or $598 total.

It's hard to choose a clear winner here, seeing as the G3 has the clear hardware advantage. The Nexus 5 is probably the best purchase by a narrow margin because of the better software support and more manageable form factor. It's a close call, though. If you need to take better pics, the G3 is far and away the better device.

Sprint

Sprint has much better choices for Android fans than it once did, including the LG G3 and the Nexus 5. Those are the best two devices this month, though the Samsung Galaxy S5 is still out there if you fancy it. Samsung is just a little behind LG this generation--it's really an embarrassment of riches. At any rate, let's start with the G3 (which you can get in gold only on Sprint).

LG's new flagship phone has a smooth plastic shell, but it feels well put together, especially for a phone with a removable back. The device has a gentle curve that fits nicely in the hand, despite the massive 5.5-inch screen. It sounds big (and it is), but the extremely narrow bezels make it more manageable. Speaking of that screen, it's unique in the US market right now. This is the first 2560x1440 LCD panel from a major OEM. The pixels are absolutely invisible and I will grant LG that some curved edges do look cleaner than on a 1080p screen. However, the contrast and brightness of this screen aren't where they need to be.

The remainder of the G3's hardware is similarly high-end. We're looking at a Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a 3000mAh removable battery. On the back is a 13MP camera that takes excellent images in a variety of settings. LG's laser autofocus system really works as advertised. This device acquires a lock in almost any light, and it does so very quickly. The Nexus 5, by contrast, has an okay 8MP camera that doesn't work particularly well in dim lighting.

As for the software, the G3 runs a build of Android 4.4.2 with OEM modifications. The modifications are actually pretty good too. There's very little to offend the eye and LG's ROM is fast. The on-screen navigation buttons are finally in the correct arrangement and the notification shade can be stripped down to a Nexus level of cleanliness. LG's launcher isn't the best I've seen and I wish someone would decide if LG's UI is supposed to have round things or square things. Right now it's a mix of both.

The single biggest difference between the G3 and the Nexus 5 is that LG and Sprint have to handle the OTA updates for the G3. The Nexus 5, even if you buy it through Sprint, gets updates right from the source. There's nothing wrong with KitKat on the G3, but you'll want Android L on it come this fall. Like most new devices, this one will run you $200 on contract.

And on to the Nexus 5, which is still a great phone, despite its age. I quite like the soft touch material the makes up most of the N5's casing, but some link it feels cheap. Either way, it's very comfortable to hold and feels solid. This is an LG phone, but it lacks all of LG's favorite hardware quirks like the rear-facing buttons and high-end camera sensors. the Nexus 5 gets by with its 8MP shooter, but it's really just okay.

Inside is a Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage without a microSD slot. The non-removable 2300mAh battery makes it through about one day of use, but the G3 has insane standby time. Even with the larger cell, though, the G3 is only a little better in terms of screen on time (it's the cost of having a 1440p screen). The Nexus 5 is overall a very fast device. The N5's 5-inch 1080p LCD is very crisp and accurate colors, but it's fairly average these days.

The software is where a Nexus truly shines. You get updates directly from Google, there's no carrier bloat, and the interface is very consistent. Google has made big strides in interface and usability in the last few iterations of Android. The stock build is a little light on features, but it's incredibly fast and reliable.

The N5 is definitely getting old, but it's still your best bet if having the latest and greatest is important to you. The G3 might have a higher-resolution screen and more RAM, but only the Nexus 5 is going to have Android L right away. This is a $100 device on Sprint right now, but you should really get it from Google if possible You avoid the contract and it's only $349, which is cheap for an unlocked device.

I suppose the Nexus 5 is still the best overall pick on Sprint, but the LG G3 is very close behind. Basically, if you want to take nicer pictures, the G3 is the way to go.