The Best Unlocked and Carrier Android Smartphone (December 2017)

By Ryan Whitwam

OnePlus is back (already).

Most of us aren't running out to buy a new phone every time something new comes out. Thus, it's important to make the right call when the time to upgrade comes around. You'll probably have to live with that phone for at least a year or two, so making the wrong call will lead to plenty of frustration. There are plenty of choices, but we've got you covered. Samsung is still offering some great devices on all the major carriers, and Google has a new generation of Pixel phones. At the same time, OnePlus has refreshed its flagship phone yet again. Let's break it all down.

Carrier phones: Samsung Galaxy S8 or Note 8

If you want to get a phone directly from your carrier, Samsung's high-end phones are probably your best bet. If you're looking for something a on the less expensive end, 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.

One of the main selling points for Samsung phones is the display, which cannot be beaten. The Galaxy S8 has a 5.8-inch curved display, whereas the Plus has a 6.2-inch curved panel. These screens are taller than old 16:9 panels with a resolution of 1440 x 2960. They're crisp, bright, and have fantastic colors. LG's OLEDs aren't bad, but the V30 just can't compare in the screen department, and it's priced as even higher than Samsung's phones. That's disqualifying in my eyes.

I'm not personally a fan of glass phones, but that seems to be the trend lately. The GS8 is comfortable to use with the symmetrically curved front and back glass. It fits nicely in the hand, but it's slippery. If you drop it, the curved glass is vulnerable to breakage. Broken Galaxy S8s are apparently common, so a case is a good idea.

The larger display on these phones meant Samsung had to ditch the physical nav buttons, which I'm quite happy about. The on-screen buttons can be reorganized to display in the right order. The home button is also pressure-sensitive. Hard-pressing on that area of the screen will always trigger the button, even if the phone is asleep. However, I'm not happy with the location of the fingerprint sensor (previously in the physical home button). 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. A cheap phones like the Moto G5 Plus or OnePlus 5T have better sensors than this.

Inside, the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus have a Snapdragon 835 SoC, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage. You get similar hardware in all the best phones, but Samsung seems to have tuned its phones more for battery life than performance. The Galaxy S8 and S8+ can be a bit pokey at times, but the Note 8 is noticeably faster.

Samsung's 12MP camera is one of the best available—it's second only to the Pixel 2 right now. Images are captured quickly and with very accurate colors. This is true even in low light. HDR processing is fast enough that you can leave it on all the time, and it's powerful enough to extract detail in the most challenging of conditions. You will get a bit more noise than the Pixels, but no other carrier phones can touch Samsung here.

The GS8 is still running Android 7.0, but Oreo is expected in early 2018. 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 software is a problem on the Note 8 as well, but at least here you get optimizations for the S Pen. It's running Android 7.1.1 with the same version of Samsung's custom UI. The S Pen adds features like Air Command, handwriting input, and smart capture for screenshots.

Just having the S Pen is a big deal for many users. When the Note 7 was recalled last year, some Note fans went back to the Note 5 until the Note 8 came out. 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.

The Note 8 has a few other hardware differences compared to the Galaxy S8. It packs 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 camera setup is a bit different as well. The main 12MP sensor is identical to the GS8, but there's a secondary telephoto camera with 2x zoom, too. The photos you get from this phone are as good as the GS8, and even sometimes a little better. That zoom lens can take some impressive shots outside, for example.

Make no mistake, the Note 8 is a better phone than the Galaxy S8. However, it's still retailing for $900-1,000 from carriers. If you can stomach the added price, the Note 8 can do more and it's faster. However, the increasingly good deals on the GS8 are better for most people.

Unlocked phones: Pixel 2 or OnePlus 5T

An unlocked phone lets you move seamlessly between carriers, and makes traveling less of a pain. You can get a SIM card from local carriers that will (probably) work with your phone and spend less on data. Plus, unlocked phones don't need to go through carrier approvals for updates. However, you'll usually pay a bit more for these phones.

This month, we finally have all the details on the top unlocked phones. Last month, OnePlus was still playing coy with the OnePlus 5T. Now we can see how that device matches up with the Pixels and a newly cheaper Essential Phone.

Google's latest and greatest are the Pixel 2 and 2 XL. These phones make a number of notable improvements compared to last year's phones, but the real reason you get a Pixel is for the software. No device maker supports its phones as well as Google.

The hardware is nothing to sniff at, though. They pack 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. 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.

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 Samsung screen with good characteristics, but there are a few shortcomings with the 2 XL. The OLED comes from LG, and the viewing angles are weaker than Samsung OLED panels. Some users also report the panel looks uneven. I don't think the 2 XL screen is bad, but there's probably more variation in the display quality than there should be. The design of the 2 XL is much nicer than the 5-inch phone, though. It's up to you if that seems like a reasonable tradeoff.

Google's 12.2MP camera is again the king of Android photography. Capture speeds are super-fast, and the white balance looks good even in low light. The HDR+ processing is almost unbelievable—it pulls out so much detail and gets the exposure right almost every time. The only place the Pixel stumbles is in 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. Although, portraits with the front-facing camera are class-leading.

These phones come with Android 8.0 Oreo, and there's already a beta for 8.1. The Pixels have a clean, mildly customized version of Android direct from Google. The performance is unrivaled, and you get full system update support for three years from the launch date.

The asking price of $650 for the Pixel 2 and $850 for the 2 XL is high, but there are several other unlocked phones you can get a bit cheaper. Both the OnePlus 5T and Essential Phone are yours for $500.

The OnePlus 5T has a lot in common with the OnePlus 5 including the internal specs. It's got a Snapdragon 835, 6-9GB of RAM, and 64-128GB of storage. This phone also has a headphone jack, which the Pixel and Essential phone do not. The OP5T is a fast phone; faster than the Essential Phone and Galaxy S8, but not as fast as the Pixel.

The external design has been updated with a 6-inch 1080p OLED panel. It has an 18:9 ratio like the Pixel 2 XL, so it takes up more of the phone's surface area. There's no jelly scrolling effect either. That was caused by the inverted orientation of the panel on the OnePlus 5. That means the buttons on the front are gone, but you still get on-screen buttons. The fingerprint sensor is now on the back in the same place as the Pixels, and it's probably a little faster.

On the camera front, this phone does well for the price. However, it can't touch the Pixel. OnePlus used a dual camera setup with a 16MP main sensor and a 20MP low-light sensor. That's different than the 2x zoom lens on the OP5, and I don't think it's as useful. It can pull in more light, but the difference is negligible.

Another disappointment: this phone ships with Android 7.1. It's been months since Oreo was released to OEMs, but the OP5T won't see that update until early 2018. While the update situation is questionable, OP's build of Android isn't bad. It's called OxygenOS, and it includes a number of useful extras without a ton of unnecessary UI modifications. You get things like screen gestures, a dark UI mode, and reading mode. There's also a revamped face unlock feature on the 5T.

For $500, you get a lot for your money, but the Essential Phone used to cost $700. Now it's selling for the same $500 price. The specs here are similar with a Snapdragon 835, 4 GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. The LCD goes all the way up to the edge, and it looks very crisp. However, there's a notch missing from the top of the panel where the front-facing camera lives. Personally, I find this design distracting.

The dual camera situation here isn't any better than the OnePlus 5T (it's a pair of 13MP shooters, one RGB, and one monochrome). There's too much noise and capture speeds are slow. Despite some updates, the Essential Phone is not quite as capable as the OnePlus 5T, but I feel like the hardware is theoretically more powerful.

The Pixel 2 and 2 XL are the best unlocked phones you can buy, and Google has monthly payment plans available. If you want a powerful phone with a few compromises at a lower price, I'd probably go with the OnePlus 5T right now.