The Best Unlocked and Carrier Android Smartphone (November 2017)

By Ryan Whitwam

Unlocked phones are tricky, but Samsung has carrier options locked down.

There have been a ton of phone releases in the last few weeks, so it's even harder than usual to figure out which phone is the best purchase. While LG's phones have been getting better, Samsung is reaching new heights with the Note 8. Meanwhile, OnePlus has something big planned for the near future, and Google has encountered some push-back with its Pixel 2 launch. What's an Android fan to do?

Carrier phones: Samsung Galaxy S8 or Note 8

If you want to get a phone directly from your carrier, the latest offerings from Samsung are the way to go. If you don't want to spend as much, there are a lot of extremely compelling deals on the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus. If price is no object, the Galaxy Note 8 is an even better phone.

The Galaxy S8 has a 5.8-inch curved display, whereas the Plus has a 6.2-inch curved panel. 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. They have an even higher screen-to-body ratio than the iPhone X. Samsung's AMOLED displays are still the best you can get with incredibly high brightness and (optional) accurate colors.

This phone is very comfortable to use with the symmetrically curved front and back glass— there's nothing pointy or angular on the phone. Although, the curved glass is vulnerable to breakage when dropped. Broken Galaxy S8s are apparently common, and the glass back is very slippery.

The Galaxy S8 was the first Samsung phone to move to on-screen navigation buttons. Thankfully, there's an option in the settings to change the order of buttons to the "correct" one used on most other phones. The home button is also accessible at any time thanks to a pressure-sensitive region on the screen. Even when the phone is asleep, simply pressing harder will trigger the home button—this is a great feature. I really like this feature, and I find myself missing it when I use a different phone.

Ditching the fingerprint sensor means Samsung had to relocate the fingerprint sensor, and it chose a terrible place. It's on the back way up next to the camera. Even when you find the sensor after fumbling around and smudging your camera lens, it's not very accurate. Even cheap phones like the Moto G5 Plus have better sensors than this.

Inside, the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus have a Snapdragon 835 SoC, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage. The hardware is high-end, but Samsung is much more concerned with battery life than raw power. The Galaxy S8 might lag on occasion, but I'd say it's generally fast enough. The Note 8 is tuned to be faster because it's a "power user" device.

Samsung's 12MP camera is one of the best available. I'd place it as a close second to the Pixel 2 right now. 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.

The GS8 is still running Android 7.0, but there's a beta test for Oreo happening. I'd estimate it'll have an update in early 2018 on most carriers. For the time being, the software is a minor drawback for this phone. Samsung's stock apps and home screen are mediocre, but you can replace most of that. It's a bit cluttered with features, too. Most of those are tucked away in the settings where you can safely ignore them, though.

The LG G6 is off the list this month because deals on the Galaxy S8 are getting much better. The V30 doesn't offer any real advantages over Samsung's phones, and it's priced almost as high as the Note 8. Speaking of the Note 8, it's the best phone you can get from most carriers. It is expensive, though.

Almost everything said above about the GS8 applies to the Note 8. However, the Note 8 has several improvements over the GS8 variants which could make it a worthy upgrade if you're okay with the price. The 6.3-inch display is even brighter than the GS8's, and it has support for the S Pen stylus. There are no other stylus-packing phones on the market right now, and those capacitive styluses you can get for other devices are nowhere near as good.

Inside, the Note 8 has a Snapdragon 835, 6GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage. It's tuned to be a bit faster than the Galaxy S8 (it's a noticeable difference), but it's still not as fast as the Pixel 2. The S Pen physically docks inside of the phone when you're not using it, which means the battery had to shrink slightly compared to the GS8 Plus. It's still a respectable 3,300mAh battery.

The Note 8 has a second 12MP camera sensor on the back. The main sensor produces the same great photos as the camera on the GS8, but the added secondary sensor adds 2x telephoto images to the mix.

So, this is a somewhat better phone, but the almost $1,000 price tag is tough to swallow. A regular GS8 will serve most people best if going through a carrier. The exception being those on Verizon, which sells the Pixel 2 and 2 XL directly.

Unlocked phones: Time to wait

Things are tougher to pin down if you want to pick up an unlocked phone. 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.

There are a couple good options right now, but the OnePlus 5 is on the way out. There are also some important caveats with Google's latest smartphones. Let's start there.

The Pixel 2 and 2 XL are the followup to last year's Pixel and Pixel XL, phones that I recommended without reservation. This year's phones are mostly better. The 5-inch Pixel 2 still has a 1080p OLED panel, but the Xl steps up to a 6-inch OLED with a taller 18:9 ratio (2880x1440). The smaller phone has a solid screen, but there are a few shortcomings with the 2 XL. This screen is manufactured by LG, and the viewing angles are weaker than Samsung OLED panels. Some users also report the panel looks uneven. Having used both these phones, I don't think the 2 XL's screen is bad. It's not the best out there, though. It's up to you if that's an acceptable compromise.

Both phones have an aluminum unibody chassis with a "hybrid" coating, which is apparently some sort of plastic. It doesn't feel like plastic, though. The grippy texture is actually quite nice. The glass panel on the back has been pushed up a bit higher compared to last year's phones, and the fingerprint sensor is improved. It's now one of the fastest and most accurate around.

Google's 12.2MP camera is still the best you can get on an Android phone. It captures photos quickly, and the HDR+ processing is magical. It pulls out so much detail and gets the exposure right almost every time. The only place it stumbles is with portrait mode, which is all software processing on the Pixel (no secondary camera). It's still not bad, but some other phones do it better.

Inside these phones you get a Snapdragon 835, 4 GB of RAM, and 64-128GB of storage. I'm happy to see 64GB as the default capacity now, but there's still no microSD card slot. The headphone jack is also gone this year. I don't like it either, but this is a trend we can't stop.

The real reason you buy a Pixel is for the software, and the new phones have three years of full update support ahead of them. That means an update every month with security patches and timely major version bumps through 2020. They ship with Android Oreo, and there are some cool extras that other phones don't have. For example, these phones are always listening for music, and can ID several thousand of the most popular songs without reaching out to the internet. There's also an updated version of the Pixel Launcher with automatic theming based on your wallpaper.

If you want a smaller phone, the 5-inch Pixel 2 is a no-brainer. It's an almost flawless phone. The design isn't as modern as the XL with the larger top and bottom bezels, but there are front-facing speakers in there. The 2 XL has an okay screen, but it's otherwise a great phone. I think either one is a good choice.

So, what of OnePlus? The OnePlus 5 came out earlier this year, but it's mysteriously sold out now. The company has all but admitted the OnePlus 5T is coming soon, so you might want to wait on that Pixel 2 purchase until we see what that looks like.

The OnePlus 5T is reportedly taking a step into the low-bezel world with a taller screen ratio and possibly a higher resolution panel. The internals will probably be very similar to the OnePlus 5. There's no new Snapdragon chip, so we're probably looking mainly at an external redesign.

OnePlus usually goes for the "budget flagship" market. However, it's been increasing the price a little bit with each new device. We'll have to see if the OnePlus 5T is still a good deal. In the meantime, you can pick up a Pixel 2 if you're positive you want to be in the Google ecosystem.