Big, small, stock, or skinned, if you’re in the market for a new smartphone, chances are there’s an Android option to fit your fancy. And unlike Apple’s rigid release cycle, Google’s hardware partners unleash a seemingly endless stream of new devices year-round. But therein lies the problem: With so many options out there, how do you settle on the right one? Lucky for you, we test and review nearly every smartphone available on all the major US carriers.
Keep in mind that while the reviews above may not show your carrier of choice, most of the phones here are available for, or compatible with, multiple US carriers. Read on for what to look for when buying, as well as our top picks for Android phones.
Note that this list doesn’t include the popular Google Nexus lineup. That’s because Google is holding an event on October 4, where we expect it to reveal the next generation of Nexus devices. If you’re a Nexus fan, you may want to hold out on buying anything until then.
It’s also worth noting you won’t find the recalled Galaxy Note 7$849.99 at T-Mobile on this list after Samsung’s exploding battery debacle. Replacement Notes are just starting to make their way onto store shelves, so it could end up back in rotation if the FAA clears it for flight safety.
Big or Small
Among Android’s greatest strengths is the unbelievable diversity of hardware choices. Every manufacturer tries to set its smartphones apart with some whiz-bang feature or eye-popping specs. But do you really need a Quad HD display or a 4K camera? And what should you make of the ever-growing phablet? Most current high-end devices have screens of 5.5 inches or larger. If you’re looking for a genuinely small phone, this year’s Android selections are pretty thin. The Blu R1 HD, the Sony Xperia X Compact, and the Samsung Galaxy S7 are your best bets for smaller devices at the low, medium, and high price tiers.
Not all Android is created equal. Device manufacturers like HTC and Samsung have been applying their own visions to Android for some time now. If you want a pure Google experience, then you want to go for a Nexus device; they’re the developer models where Google makes sure to deploy upgrades first.
While Android 7.0 Nougat is now, technically, available, it isn’t really available. You can only get it on Nexus phones, although the upcoming LG V20will also run the new OS.
How We Test Cell Phones
Upgrade plans are vague. Of the phones on our list, HTC promises it for the HTC 10. Samsung says it’s coming to the S7 series. LG says it’s coming to the G5. Motorola says it’s coming to the Z phones, and OnePlus says it’s coming to the OnePlus 3. But none of the manufacturers will confirm dates, which means they could be “coming soon” forever. Most phones still run Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and you should accept no less—but don’t have any illusions about a wide range of Android 7 phones being available anytime soon. If you want the latest version of the OS at all times, buy a Nexus.
Carrier-Approved or Unlocked
The US market is still dominated by carrier-sold phones, but a new breed of high-quality unlocked options is starting to flood the market. We’ve seen phones drop below the $100 mark, but you’ll typically want to spend more for a higher quality device. The good news is that you don’t have to break the bank to get a good Android experience.
Some of our favorite Android phones are available completely unlocked for around $250, no strings attached. Fully half of this list is available unlocked: the Blu Life One X, Blu R1 HD, Galaxy S7, OnePlus 3, and ZTE Axon 7 can all be bought direct, with no carrier involvement. But most people still buy their phones through carriers, which offer a single point for service and support, as well as monthly payment plans that dramatically lower the upfront prices of phones.