Best Android phones: What should you buy?

Picking an Android phone can be difficult, but we're here to help. These are the top Android phones you should consider bringing home.

Best Android Phone hub primary image Credit: Rob Schultz

Updated 04/21/17: The Galaxy S8 and S8+ take a couple of top spots, and we’ve added a “wait and see” warning about our best camera pick.

Choosing a new Android phone isn’t easy. The Android universe is teeming with options, from super-expensive flagship phones, to affordable models that make a few calculated compromises, to models expressly designed for, say, great photography. 

Chances are that whichever phone you buy, you’ll keep it for at least two years. So choosing the best Android phone for you isn’t a decision you should take lightly. 

But we can make things easier. Everyone has different priorities and needs, so we’ve made some picks for the best Android phone in several categories. 

At the bottom of this article, we also list all our recent Android phone reviews—in case you have your eye on a model that doesn’t make our cut.

Best overall phone

Samsung’s flagship phones are usually quite good, but the Galaxy S8 and S8+ really pull out all the stops and deliver a phone that is more polished, usable, and technically impressive than ever before. Inside and out, this phone is a masterpiece.

The gorgeous design is built around a big, tall 18.5:9 aspect ratio AMOLED display that delivers the best brightness, contrast, and color we’ve ever seen. The new form factor isn’t just good looking, it’s more comfortable and usable, too.

Inside you’ll find the first phone with a 10nm Snapdragon 835 chip, which gives it top-tier performance and excellent power efficiency. In fact, these phones performed just great in our battery benchmarks (roughly 9 hours), with real-world use easily taking us through a busy day. 

There are so many features it’s hard to list them all. Bluetooth 5, support for future gigabit LTE, wireless charging (Qi and PMA), iris scanner, Samsung Pay and Android Pay support, USB-C, headphone jack, IP68 water proofing, microSD card support... for such a smooth, slim, attractive phone, it sure packs in a ton of “stuff.”

Samsung’s software is better than ever, too. 

You still have to contend with far too much bloatware and from Samsung and carriers, and the fingerprint sensor is placed in a terrible location. But these sore spots are relatively minor distractions from a phone that does more, looks better, and is more delightful to use than anything else on the market.

Best phone for photographers

Note: We’re currently testing the LG G6 and Galaxy S8 against the Pixel in dedicated photo tests. It’s likely that, as great as the Pixel’s camera is, one of these new phones will take best camera mantle. Stay tuned!

If you want to just take your phone out of your pocket or bag, snap the shutter, and put it away knowing you got a great shot, the Pixel or Pixel XL is the phone for you (the two phones share exactly the same camera). Google uses a single 12-megapixel sensor with large 1.55 micron pixels along with a nice f/2.0 aperture lens array. But it’s not about the hardware, it’s about the software.

Google’s image processing is second to none. In the Auto-HDR+ mode (enabled by default), you get fantastic color and dynamic range for a smartphone camera. We put it up against the best phones on the market and, while it doesn’t win in every situation, it’s the clear overall pick.

And it’s fast, too. A camera’s no good if you miss the moment, but the Pixel’s camera launches quickly, has almost no shutter lag, and can go from one shot to the next in a fraction of a second. 

Top that off with some rather impressive electronic video stabilization, even up to 4K, and fun modes like 240fps slo-mo, and you’ve got a camera that never disappoints. 

We still want some Pro Mode features to give us better control over shots and the ability to save RAW images. But what matters most is that the picture you snap “in the moment” is a keeper. And the Pixel and Pixel XL’s camera delivers like no other.

Best phablet (over 5.5 inches)

Every bit as good as the Galaxy S8, and probably better, the Galaxy S8+ simply bumps up the screen size to 6.2 inches and increases the battery size from 3,000 to 3,500 mAh.

In our battery benchmarks, the bigger screen offset the larger battery size, and the two delivered similar results. But that’s with the screen on all the time. In practice, the bigger phone should have longer screen off time thanks to the larger battery, and will probably have a little more gas in the tank at the end of the day.

Don’t be freaked out by that 6.2-inch screen size, either. Thanks the the 18.5:9 aspect ratio, it’s not hard to hold. It’s probably best to think of this as a “5.5-inch screen, only taller.” Couple that with Samsung’s impressively slim bezels and 83% screen-to-body ratio, and you’ve got a giant display that is remarkably easy to hold and use.

All the benefits, and quirks, of the Galaxy S8 apply to the big version. Which should you get? It’s a matter of personal preference, but we recommend seeing them in person first, if you can. You might be surprised at how usable, and pocket-able, this big phone is.

Oh, and it’s expensive, too. $850 or so, making it more than $100 pricier than the regular S8.

Best budget phone ($300 or less)

There was a time when the words “budget” and “Android” conjured images of disposable, plastic phones with small screens.

The Moto G5 punches way above its weight with a quality 5.2-inch 1080p display, metal body, fingerprint sensor, and a very decent camera for its price. For $230 you get 32GB of storage and 2GB of RAM with a Snapdragon 625 processor, or for $300 you can bump that up to 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. 

Not only that, but it’s fully 4G LTE compatible on all four major U.S. carriers—something that not a lot of budget phones can claim.

The phone has its drawbacks, including microUSB instead of USB-C and a lack of NFC, not to mention that the camera is adequate but doesn’t hold up against top-end phones. 

As a complete package, though, the build quality, specs, performance, battery life, and software experience here is way better than we’re used to seeing in the $200-300 price range.

Best bang for the buck

“Isn’t there anything good between those cheap $300-or-less phones and ultra-premium $700 phones?” you ask. Why yes, indeed there is. Phones that are sold primarily direct-to-consumer without carrier interference (or bloatware) belong to one of the fastest-growing segments. There are lots of exciting, quality phones in the $300 to $500 range that you won’t necessarily find in your local carrier store.

OnePlus is the king of the “high specs for a low price” game. It just took it’s excellent OnePlus 3, released earlier this year, and bumped up the specs a bit. Now called the OnePlus 3T, the Snapdragon 820 processor is now a Snapdragon 821. The front-facing camera got a bump up to 16 megapixels, and there’s now a 128GB model available in addition to the standard 64GB. Unlike past most past OnePlus phones, it’s also got NFC. Beyond that, the specs are the same: a huge 6GB of RAM, 1080p AMOLED display, and even a handy hardware mute switch. This USB-C phone also delivers super-fast charging, and has a very attractive metal casing. The price jumped up a touch from $399 to $439, but it’s still one of the most amazing deals around.

It’s not just that you get premium high-end hardware at an attractive price. OnePlus’ Oxygen OS sticks very close to the stock Android experience. It’s attractive, lean, and fast, with just a few extra features (mostly to offer you greater customization). Currently the OS is still based on Android Marshmallow, but a Nougat update is already in testing and should be out soon.

Unfortunately, Verizon and Sprint customers need not apply. The 4G LTE bands supported by the OnePlus 3T don’t include band 13 (Verizon’s main band), nor 25, 26, or 41 (Sprint’s bands). But if you’re on AT&T, T-Mobile, or any of the MVNOs that piggyback off their networks, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a phone that gives you more bang for the buck.

How we test Android phones

First and foremost, we spend at least several days with the phone under review, treating it as if it were our one and only. No number of lab tests or benchmarks will tell you as much about a phone as living with it for awhile. We’re concerned with real-world performance, stability, interface usability, camera quality, and whether proprietary features are useful or cumbersome. We use social media, check email, play games, take photos and videos in a variety of conditions, navigate around town, and do all the things most people do with their phones.

oneplus 3 benchmarks battery

We run a suite of benchmarks, but what matters most is the overall experience.

Of course, we also run extensive benchmarks: 3DMark (both Ice Storm Unlimited and Sling Shot), PCMark, GFXBench, AnTuTu, Geekbench, and Vellamo. We run all our tests with the phone set up the way it would be out of the box, without disabling any pre-installed apps or services. We do, however, make efforts to make sure benchmarks are not interrupted by notifications and that background downloads aren’t taking place. We may not report results from all of these tests (real-world everyday performance is far more important than benchmarks), but we do share the most interesting results.

Before running each benchmark, we make sure the phone is charged to 100 percent, plugged in, and left to cool off. Phones can sometimes run slower as their batteries get low, and charging the phone can make it hot and cause the SoC to slow down. So we do our best to make sure every test starts with the phone topped off and at room temperature.

When we run battery benchmarks (PCMark and Geekbench), we calibrate the display to 200 nits and disable all auto-brightness and screen-dimming features. Display brightness plays a major role in draining your battery, and we want to create a level playing field. Of course, we also keep a close eye on how long the battery lasts in our everyday use, including screen-on time, standby time, and even how fast the battery charges with the included charger.

What to look for in a phone

Smartphones are very personal. Everyone has different needs, a unique budget, and personal preferences. You might need to access secure corporate email and documents with a phone that works on lots of networks around the world. Or you might spend all your time chronicling your life on Snapchat.

That said, there are major features of all smartphones that you should compare before making a purchase decision.

Display: A good display has a high resolution (1920x1080 for smaller phones, 2650x1440 for larger phones), so that you can read fine text without it becoming blurry or illegible. A high-resolution display is especially important for VR. You want a display that accurately displays colors when looking at it from any angle, and a high contrast ratio and maximum brightness will make it easier to see in bright sunlight.

note7  5 Florence Ion

Samsung leads the pack for display quality.

Camera: Smartphone vendors like to tout camera specs like megapixels and aperture, but a high resolution and wide aperture (low f-stop number like f/1.8) only get you so far. The particulars of the sensor, image processing chip, and camera software have a huge impact on the photo- and video-taking experience.

You want a camera that launches quickly, focuses in an instant, and has no lag between when you hit the shutter button and the photo is taken. A great phone camera produces shots with accurate colors and little noise in lots of different environments. If you take selfies, pay particular attention to the quality of the front-facing camera. Finally, we love manual camera controls, and reward phones that deliver manual fine tuning.

Processor and memory: Most modern phones are “fast enough” for common tasks like web browsing and social media. You don’t always need a super high-end processor and tons of RAM unless you plan to use your phone for more taxing activities like 3D gaming, VR, or video editing. Still, don’t settle for less than 2GB of RAM and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600-series processor or better.

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