The Best Unlocked and Carrier Android Smartphone (May 2017)

By Ryan Whitwam

LG and Samsung are close this year, but the Pixel is still a better phone.

The first round of flagship phones in 2017 are in the open and the reviews are in. So, which one is most deserving of your money? And what about those phones from the tail end of 2016? Maybe one of those is best. It can be hard to know what to buy when there are so many solid phones, but you can (probably) only get one, and it should be the right one. Let's break it down.

Carriers Phones: Samsung Galaxy S8 vs. LG G6

Of all the phones you can get from carriers, there are two that stand out: the Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG G6. They're available everywhere, have powerful hardware, and nice design. They are not completely equal on all things, though.

The LG G5 was a flop—I think we can all agree on that now. LG did what it had to do in order to remain competitive in the face of Samsung's non-stop onslaught. LG has left a few anachronisms behind and improved its design to claw its way back with the LG G6. Firstly, this phone looks nice. It has a glass and aluminum frame, similar to Samsung phones. There's no more removable battery on this phone, just a 3300mAh seal-in li-ion cell. It'll make it through the day, but not much more. The non-removable battery made it feasible for LG to make this phone water-resistant as well.

When you first look at the G6, it's clear there's something unusual going on. But it's unusual in a good way. The LG G6 has a 5.7-inch LCD display, but it has a different aspect ratio of 18:9. That means the display is very tall. The phone's bezels have been shrunken way down, and the screen has rounded corners. The display has a resolution of 1440 x 2880, so some apps render a bit oddly. The upshot: you get a lot more screen area in the same footprint. It makes a difference, too. The G6 is very comfortable to hold, and you can use it fairly well with one hand. That's not something you can usually say about phones with a 5.7-inch display.

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 G6 has two camera modules, a 13MP regular sensor and a 13MP wide-angle shooter. The regular photos are overall very good. The performance outdoors and in medium light is almost as good as the Galaxy S8. Although, LG's post-processing has a tendency to make things look a bit muddy. The wide-angle camera doesn't do as well in varying light, but it takes images you won't get on non-LG phones.

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. I know that's probably counterintuitive considering the G6 is still running on the Snapdragon 821, and the GS8 is on the Snapdragon 835. However, LG tuned this phone to be fast, whereas Samsung is going more for battery life.

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

Samsung's new flagship phone is a gorgeous piece of hardware. There's no "flat" version of the phone this year; both the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus have curved AMOLED displays with almost no bezel. The GS8 is 5.8-inches and the Plus is 6.2-inches, but they both feel much smaller in the hand. Both have a resolution of 1440 x 2960 pixels. It's similar to the G6 with the taller screen. They are still IP68 rated, too.

Samsung's AMOLED displays are still a big selling point. DisplayMate confirms that Samsung's GS8 panel is the best anyone has ever produced. It has the best brightness, most accurate colors, and sharpest lines. You've probably heard about the red display issue, and I can confirm it does look a bit reddish in person. Although, a few tweaks in the settings gets rid of that. Samsung says this is just a calibration issue, and it's rolling out an update to address it.

These phones feel great in the hand with the symmetric curved front and back glass, and finally Samsung has ditched the physical nav buttons. 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 an underappreciated feature.

Unfortunately, the relocated fingerprint sensor is no good. I actually find it borderline useless because it's in a terrible spot (next to the camera instead of below it), and the accuracy is mediocre at best. At least there's the iris scanner, which is surprisingly fast and accurate.

The Galaxy S8 runs on a Snapdragon 835, which makes it the first consumer device with this chip. Despite the added power, Samsung again has tuned them conservatively to save power—the GS8 and S8 Plus will ship with small-ish 3000 and 3500mAh batteries, respectively. They aren't as fast as the LG G6, but not slow necessarily.

Samsung only has one camera sensor on the back of the Galaxy S8, but it's a bit better than the G6's cameras . Samsung just has better image processing than LG, and the hardware is more than capable. I'd say if photos are a primary concern for you, the Galaxy S8 should be your first stop in carrier phones.

Just like the G6, the Galaxy S8 ships with Android 7.0 Nougat. The interface is very similar to the "Grace" version of TouchWiz that debuted with the Note 7. It's cleaner and more consistent with stock Android than it once was, but still not as good. In general, I think TouchWiz is better than the LG UI currently. They are both behind stock Android, not only visually but feature-wise as well. Nexus and Pixel devices are already on Android 7.1.1.

The Galaxy S8 is available on all carriers for around $750 and the S8 Plus is $100 more. Even though it's more expensive, I think the style and camera of the Galaxy S8 make it a slightly better choice for most people. The LG G6 is a very good phone if you are primarily interested in have a faster phone.

There's one last thing to consider: Verizon sells the Pixel. The Pixel is an unlocked phone sold by Google, but Verizon offers the same phone in stores. If you're on Big Red, this should be your first stop. I'll go over why below.

Unlocked Phones: To Pixel or not to Pixel?

The unlocked phone lineup hasn't changed too much this month. The G6 and GS8 will have unlocked variants, but neither company has shown much interest in updating the unlocked variants reliably. That leaves us with the Pixel and the OnePlus 3T as the best unlocked phones. .

There are two versions of the Pixel: a 5-inch 1080p model and a 5.5-inch 1440p one. They including a Snapdragon 821, 4GB of RAM, and 32 or 128GB of storage. Yes, the smaller one has the same specs, which is refreshing. So many OEMs use smaller phones as a budget option only. This is last year's hardware, but it's used to great effect in the Pixel. These phones are as fast as any Android phone I've used, and they stay that way even after extended use.

The Pixel XL has a 3420mAh battery and the regular Pixel is 2770mAh. Making it through a day is no problem, and some people will even be able to get through a second with the XL. The improved Doze Mode in Android Nougat means these phones use almost no power while sitting at night. 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 OnePlus 3T has fast charging too, but it's a proprietary standard.

The Pixels have an aluminum unibody with a glass inlay on the back around the camera. I like that this phone isn't completely glass like the G6 and Galaxy S8. It's not the prettiest phone, but I think it looks fine. The Pixel is not IP68 certified, which is one of the more disappointing things about it. It's fine for a quick splash, but it can't be submerged.

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 have since surpassed it in terms of speed.

The Pixel is currently running Android 7.1 Nougat, and it'll continue to get timely updates for couple years. This is one of the main reason you buy a Pixel. Google updates it every single month, so you're always running the best pure Android software. It'll be among the first devices to get Android O later this year, and there's a developer preview now. To OnePlus' credit, it has improved its update support on the OP3 and OP3T.

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. That's a bummer. However, you can get the phones on a payment plan from Google, which is rare with unlocked phones.

If you want something a little less expensive in the realm of unlocked phones, there's the OnePlus 3T. That's still the best "budget flagship" phone on the market.

The OP3T has an aluminum unibody frame with a gunmetal finish. There is a hardware alert slider on the left side, allowing you to set the notification mode without waking up the device. At the bottom of the front panel is a fingerprint sensor that doubles as the home button. It's extremely fast and accurate, even more so than the Pixel. The capacitive buttons on either side of the home button aren't my favorite, though. They're just small glowing dots that are hard to see outside.

The Snapdragon 821 and 6GB of RAM in the OP3T make it a very fast phone. The Pixel is still faster in my experience, but the OP3T doesn't lag. It just lacks the same immediacy. The 3300mAh battery is alright—it's certainly an improvement over the 3000mAh cell in the OP3. You'll make it through a day, but not much more. The Dash Charge fast charging is fast, but you only get that with the stock charger. OnePlus is the only source for replacements or spares.

The OnePlus 3T has a 5.5-inch 1080p AMOLED display. This is a good panel, as long as you make some tweaks. For example, enable sRGB mode to get rid of the blown-out colors. The viewing angles are good, but you'll see a little PenTile blurring around text. The bezels around the display are impressively narrow compared to the Pixel. The 16MP camera on this phone is impressive for the price. It won't stand up to the Pixel, but it's better than other $400-ish phones.

The OnePlus 3T is one of the few non-google devices with Android 7.1. The phone has all the basic Nougat goodies, and there are a few cool additions from OP. I particularly like the dark system UI mode and the screen-off gestures. It's a very clean version of Android without all the extra junk Samsung and LG toss in. OnePlus has successfully turned Oxygen OS into a solid OEM Android ROM.

The OnePlus 3T is a good value at $440. You'd have to spend $200 more for the base model Pixel. I think that's a better phone, but it's fine to get the OP3T instead.

There's one problem with both these phones: they're getting old (for a phone). Both devices were released last fall, and new versions might be out sooner than you think. Google will have new Pixel in the fall, and OnePlus might update in a month or two. You might end up wishing you had waited if you buy one of these.

Wrapping up

The contest is definitely closer among carrier phones this time around. Last year the Galaxy S7 was the clear winner. Now, I think it's almost a tossup. It comes down to what you prefer. The G6 is faster, but the Galaxy S8 looks nicer and has a better camera. I'd probably choose the GS8, but it's not an easy choice.

However, if you're on Verizon you should probably still get a Pixel. The same goes for buying an unlocked phone for other carriers. The Pixel is still the fastest Android phone with the best camera. The OnePlus 3T makes a solid showing if you need something cheaper, though. I would caution you these phones might be superseded by new devices sooner than you think.