The Best Unlocked and Carrier Android Smartphone (January 2018)

By Ryan Whitwam

Samsung and Google still on top.

So, the time has come to get a new phone. Before you toss the old one out and head to your local phone retailer of choice, you should get the lay of the land. There are dozens of Android phones worth considering, but only a few are the "good," and even fewer will be the best for you. Let's break it all down and call out the top devices on the big carriers as well as the best among unlocked phones.

Carrier Phones:The Galaxy S8 or Note 8

Getting a phone from the carrier is what most people do for one primary reason: it's easy. You walk in, and walk out with a new phone on a monthly payment plan. However, you don't have as many good choices on the carriers. One consistently good choice in the last year has been the latest devices from Samsung like the Galaxy S8 and more recently, the Note 8. These are, right now, the best overall choices on the big carriers.

One of Samsung's biggest selling points is the display. The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus have some of the most incredible OLED panels available, and they're a bit more curvy than the Note 8. 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. The rounded corners and smooth glass frame of these phones makes them so visually interesting. They're gorgeous.

The glass housing looks nice, but it comes with some drawbacks. It's slippery, and it picks up fingerprints immediately. On the other hand, the shape and size of the GS8 and S8 Plus are comfortable with the symmetrically curved front and back glass. The glass is also prone to breaking when dropped because there's so much of it. A case is a very good idea if you're going to be out and about.

Samsung finally switched to on-screen navigation buttons with the Galaxy S8, but the fingerprint scanner (formerly in the home button) has ended up in a rather awkward spot on the back of the phone. It's way up next to the camera instead of below it. 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.

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. The GS8 only has a single sensor, but it's much better than plenty of dual-camera phones like the Essential Phone and Razer Phone. It's more about software than the number of cameras, and Samsung's image processing is great. Photos 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.

The GS8 is still running Android 7.0, but that could change any day now. Samsung has been running a beta program for Oreo with the intention of rolling out the update in early 2018.

The software situation is similar on the Note 8, but there's no public Oreo beta test for that phone yet. It runs Android 7.1.1, but Samsung has included additional optimizations for the S Pen stylus. This phone includes features like handwriting recognition and improved screenshot capture. Simply having the stylus is a major selling point for many users. This is an inductive stylus with pressure-sensitivity, so it's vastly more accurate than the capacitive styluses you can use on other phones.

That stylus is paired with a larger 6.4-inch screen with the same 1440 x 2960 resolution as the GS8. The OLED panel on this phone is slightly better than the GS8 when it comes to brightness and color accuracy, but these are small differences. The more obvious change is the less exaggerated curve at the edges (to offer more flat room for stylus doodling) and a somewhat boxier frame. It's still all glass, though.

The Note 8 packs a Snapdragon 835, 6GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage. Performance on the Note 8 is a little better than the Galaxy S8—maybe because Samsung considers this a "power user" phone? At any rate, the Note 8 is a bit faster to open apps and switch between them. The battery life takes a small hit, but the 3,300mAh cell is good for more than a day.

Samsung also added a secondary camera to the Note 8. 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.

The Note 8 is a better phone than the Galaxy S8, but not by a huge margin. The S Pen and snappier performance are the main advantages, and 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: Google Pixel 2

If you want to go with an unlocked phone, you'll often have to pay for the phone up front. That's not always the case, though. With an unlocked device, any compatible SIM card will work. That makes switching networks a breeze, and you can travel internationally more easily. Unlocked phones also tend to get updates more quickly than carrier-branded ones. That's especially true in the case of Google's Pixel phones. It's one of the reasons these are the best overall choice in the unlocked category.

Google's current flagship phones are the Pixel 2 and 2 XL. These phones improve on last year's Pixels in several ways, but the real reason you get a Pixel is for the software. No device maker supports its phones as well as Google. These phones ship with Android 8.1 Oreo. It's 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. Google updates these phones like clockwork every single month with the latest security patches and bug fixes.

The hardware is solid as well. They pack a Snapdragon 835, 4 GB of RAM, and 64-128GB of storage. There's no expandable storage, but the default to 64GB of internal storage is a plus. However, the headphone jack is gone this year. This is increasingly the trend in smartphone design. I don't like it, but at least Google fixed the Bluetooth this year. Both phones have aluminum frames with a rubberized coating. It has a very neat texture. The dual front-facing speakers are a nice touch, too. 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 panel with good brightness and colors, but the 2 XL is using one of LG's new OLEDs. It's not a bad screen, but the viewing angles and refresh speed are worse than Samsung's display tech. Some people consider the 2 XL's screen a deal breaker, but I don't hate it. There's probably more variation in the display quality than there should be, though. The design of the 2 XL is much nicer than the 5-inch phone, so I'm willing to overlook a few OLED shortcomings.

I've used every major Android phone for the last few years, and the Pixel 2 and 2 XL have far and away the best cameras I've ever seen. Phones with two cameras don't even match the one sensor in these phones. 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.

Google has kept the 5-inch phone's price at $650, just like last year. The 2 XL is more spendy at $850. I think the 2 XL is really the best overall phone you can get, but the smaller Pixel is a good alternative if you don't like the 2 XL's panel. Both phones are available with a monthly payment plan.

If you can't bring yourself to pay that much for a phone, even with a payment plan, OnePlus offers a solid alternative. The OnePlus 5T has many of the same hardware features of the Pixels, but it only costs $499.

The 5T launched just a few months after the OnePlus 5, and most of the internal specs are the same. It's got a Snapdragon 835, 6-8GB of RAM, and 64-128GB of storage. This phone also has a headphone jack, whereas the Pixel does not. The OP5T is a fast phone; faster than the Essential Phone and Galaxy S8, but not as fast as the Pixel.

The biggest change is OP's move to a 6-inch 1080p OLED panel with an 18:9 ratio. That means it fills almost the entire face of the phone, making the device look much more modern. OP's on-screen buttons are the only navigation option now, and the fingerprint sensor has moved to the back. It's in the same spot as the Pixel, so I consider that a win.

OnePlus used a dual camera setup with a 16MP primary sensor and a 20MP low-light sensor on this phone, which is different than the 2x zoom secondary cam on the OnePlus 5. OnePlus' camera experience is good for the money, but it can't complete with the Pixel. The difference becomes clear in low light when even OP's new camera can't salvage shots that the Pixel nails without issue.

Unfortunately, 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 for another few weeks at least. At least OnePlus' version of Android is good overall, even if it's outdated. OxygenOS includes some useful features and none of the arbitrary UI modifications you see on other phones. It's quick, customizable, and easy to use. You get things like screen gestures, a dark UI mode, and reading mode. There's also a revamped face unlock feature on the 5T.

At $500, the OnePlus 5T is a great value. You just have to decide if Google's better camera and support are worth the added expense. For me, it is.