The Best Unlocked and Carrier Android Smartphone (February 2018)

By Ryan Whitwam

Hold your horses—the Galaxy S9 is almost here.

It's a rough time to buy a phone—well, it always is, but now especially. We're probably just a few weeks away from learning what the Galaxy S9 will look like, and that makes purchasing a new phone from carriers risky. At least things have shaken out on the unlocked side. Google continues to offer the best long-term bet, but there are some cheaper options if you don't fancy the high price of a Pixel.

Carrier Phones: Note 8 or wait

Buying from a carrier is appealing to many consumers because carriers offer easy monthly payments on devices, as well as frequent deals when you buy multiple devices. However, the selection of phones is somewhat limited, and you have to put up with more bloated software. The Samsung Galaxy S8 has offered the best overall option for most people buying from carriers as of late, but the time has come to leave that device in the past. Right now, you should get a Note 8 or simply wait to see what the Galaxy S9 holds.

Let's talk about the Note 8 first, which is basically a Galaxy S8 on steroids with a stylus. It has a Snapdragon 835, 6GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage. Performance is a little better than the Galaxy S8, which I assume is because Samsung targets power users with the Note series. The 3,300mAh battery will get you through a day easily, but not much more.

The S Pen stylus is a big selling point of the Note 8, and it's one of the primary reasons you might still be justified buying this phone. This phone includes features like handwriting recognition and improved screenshot capture. The Galaxy S9 won't support the S Pen, so we're still at least six months away from this phone's replacement. 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.

The Note 8 has the same aluminum and glass design as the GS8, although it's a little more boxy to make the stylus easier to use. It's slippery and picks up fingerprints quickly, but it's a beautiful phone. The super-narrow bezels are very attractive, as well. The fingerprint sensor up next to the camera is a problem, though. It's slow, and the location is incredibly awkward.

Samsung added a secondary camera to the Note 8 that didn't exist on the GS8. 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 still a very spendy phone, but the price has come down a little now that the initial hype has abated. Most carriers will sell you one for $800 or less, if you catch it on the right day. With the Galaxy S9 on the horizon, there's no reason to pick up the GS8 when the Note 8 is getting cheaper.

The Galaxy S9 is expected to stick to the same basic formula as the GS8, but it'll make a few important changes. For one, the Plus variant will include a dual camera, and Samsung's Unpacked invites indicate there may be some other exciting camera improvements. From Samsung's other 2018 releases, it looks like the GS8 will move the fingerprint sensor below the camera. That'll make it easier to reach, but we can only hope it's faster, too.

The most important change is that the Galaxy S9 will ship with Oreo, and that means it'll have Project Treble. This modular framework makes it faster and easier to develop system updates, and this is something Samsung desperately needs. The GS8 Oreo beta has been ongoing for months, and the Note 8 doesn't even have a public beta yet. It could make the GS9 a much better long-term purchase.

So, the bottom line here is: wait if you can, but get the Note 8 if you need to buy something right now. The Galaxy S9 will be unveiled at Mobile World Congress later this month, and it will likely go on sale by late

Unlocked Phones: Google Pixel 2

The situation with unlocked phones is more clear, but there are still some frustrations. The Pixel 2 is the best unlocked phone you can get, but it's worth pointing out Verizon sells it directly. If you're on Verizon, that's the best carrier phone to get. If you're not on Verizon and you want something a little cheaper, there's either the OnePlus 5T or the Essential Phone. They both come with trade-offs, though.

There are two Pixel phones again this year. 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. The 2 XL is a better phone overall, but some people will be happier with the smaller, better display. The phones are otherwise similar.

Inside they pack a Snapdragon 835, 4GB 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. This is just something we'll have to live with.

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 real selling point of a Pixel is the software experience. No device maker supports its phones as well as Google. These phones ship with a clean, fast version of Android 8.1. There are a few minor customizations, but it's otherwise what we'd call "stock." 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.

Surprisingly, Google's cameras have become a clear advantage, too. A few years ago, Google was trailing the rest of the industry on image quality, but now the Pixel 2 and 2 XL shoot the best photos of any phone. Capture speeds are super-fast, and the white balance looks good even in low light. The HDR+ processing is often astonishingly good. You can get shots on the Pixel 2 that simply are not possible with other phones.

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.

The Pixels are expensive, and it's not unreasonable to want something a bit more competitively priced. In recent months, I've given the OnePlus 5T a strong recommendation for just that reason. 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. However, OnePlus has made a few missteps in the last couple weeks, including the discovery of a credit card stealing hack that has been running on its site since late last year. It just recently started allowing credit card purchases again.

The OnePlus 5T is a good piece of hardware, though. The 6-inch 18:9 1080p OLED panel is nice, and the rear-facing fingerprint sensor is blazing fast. Performance is almost on par with the Pixels, but it's not as smooth. The camera is good for the price, but it's not going to best phones that cost more like the Pixel and GS8.

If you're willing to trust OnePlus, the 5T is an excellent value. If not, you might look closer at the Essential Phone. This phone has similar specs including a Snapdragon 835, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. The 5.7-inch display goes all the way to the edge of the device, but there's a notch missing from the top center section. The phone has a striking look, but not everyone will like it. The dual 13MP cameras on the Essential Phone are the weakest aspect. They're not even as good as the OnePlus 5T.

The Pixel 2 is your best overall bet, but either the OnePlus 5T or Essential Phone might be compelling as an alternative. Just make sure you can cope with the compromises.