Best Android phones: What should you buy?
Picking an Android phone can be difficult, but we're here to help. These are top Android phones you should consider bringing home.
Updated 10-18-16: We've updated our recommendation for best Phablet (5.5 inches or greater) to the excellent Pixel XL. We haven't yet reviewed the standard-size Pixel, but one of the two is a likely candidate for best overall phone.
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
Update 10-18-2016: We think the Pixel XL is the best big phone, but haven't yet reviewed its smaller Pixel sibling. There's a very good chance that one of these two phones will be our Best Overall. We're just waiting to finish our review to make an official judgement.
The Galaxy S7 Edge has it all: one of the best cameras on any phone anywhere, top-notch speed, and the best display we’ve ever seen. It’s waterproof. It does wireless charging and fast charging. It has expandable storage. And it’s gorgeous.
Mind you, the S7 Edge is also very expensive, so you can save a few bucks by getting the flat Galaxy S7 instead of the Edge model. It’s not the curved-edge screen or customizable Edge Panels that made us choose this version over the standard Galaxy S7. No, it’s the 20 percent larger battery that enables significantly longer battery life.
While we wish Samsung would feature a less heavily skinned version of Android and cut way back on the bloatware, the Galaxy S7 Edge is still the best overall phone around.
Best phone for photographers
Update 10-18-16: We're currently evaluating both the Pixel and Pixel XL, and the LG V20 right now. They're serious contenders to take the crown from Samsung in this category.
The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge take top prize here, too. (The two phones have identical camera hardware and software.) The S7’s 12-megapixel sensor features big pixels, and each one of them is a contrast autofocus point—no other phone focuses as quickly. Thanks to a super-wide f/1.7 aperture and some great software, the phone takes some of the best low-light photos of any on the market. Optical image stabilization helps reduce camera shake on photos and videos. The camera app is simple and powerful, with plenty of pro features including great manual controls, and the ability to shoot in RAW mode. The app launches quickly, too: You can go from pocket to photo fast enough to rarely miss that critical moment.
Best phablet (5.5 inches or greater)
With the Galaxy Note7 permanently recalled, this is an easy pick. Yes, there are other fine phones in the "really big phone" category (like the LG V20 or Moto Z) but none of them bring to the table the sort of delightful cohesive experience Google's own phone does.
The Pixel XL is the first phone with Android 7.1, and it will be first in line for future Android updates. On top of this foundation, Google has added its own unique launcher that is simple, clear, and easy to use. It brings the Google Assistant to the fore, available with a long-press of the home button or "OK Google" voice prompt. And the Assistant is well and truly useful; far more so than Siri or Cortana, and even more than the Google Now commands it replaces.
Is it a perfect phone? Of course not. It's not waterproof for starters, and has no stereo speakers. It doesn't support expandable storage with a micro SD card, though it probably doesn't need it, because you get free, unlimited full-resolution photo and video backup to Google Photos. That's a serious value-add.
The Pixel XL has perhaps the best camera of any phone we've tested—it is at least in the same rarefied air as the Galaxy S7, HTC 10, and iPhone 7. And while it doesn't benchmark faster than any Android phone, it certainly feels faster thanks to highly optimized software and reduced touch latency.
Add it all together—the camera, the smooth and responsive feel, the Google Assistant, the instant updates, the lack of bloatware, the free photo storage—and you get a complete package that no other Android phone can quite match.
Best budget phone ($300 or less)
You don’t have to spend a ton of money to get a decent phone. For $300 or less you can buy a perfectly capable phone—one that puts the top-tier phones of two years ago to shame.
The OnePlus X is one of the best. It’s got great design, a 1080p AMOLED display, dual SIM slots, and a speedy Snapdragon 801 processor for only around $200. It looks, feels, and behaves like a phone that costs twice as much. True, you won’t get the very latest processor and camera sensor, but what’s in there is perfectly respectable. Perhaps best of all, the OnePlus X doesn’t have the cheap plasticy look and feel of similarly priced Android phones. The one thing you might miss the most is NFC; you can forget about tap-and-pay without it.
One caveat worth noting: If you’re on a CDMA network (Verizon or Sprint), you’re out of luck.
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. Its latest flagship phone, the OnePlus 3, delivers exceptional value. It’s got a Snapdragon 820 system-on-chip, a whopping 6 gigs of RAM, and 64 gigabytes of storage. Unlike past OnePlus models, it’s also got NFC. The OnePlus 3 also boasts a 1080p AMOLED display, and really good front and rear facing cameras. This USB-C phone also delivers super-fast charging, and has a very attractive metal casing. All this for only $399, and no carrier bloatware? That’s a good deal.
Unfortunately, Verizon and Sprint customers need not apply. The 4G LTE bands supported by the OnePlus 3 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.
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.
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.
Battery: Every time they poll users about what they want out of their next smartphone, “better battery life” is at the top of the list. The capacity of a smartphone battery is measured in milliamp-hours (mAh), and ranges from just under 2,000 mAh to over 4,000 mAh. Phones with bigger, brighter displays and more powerful processors drain the battery more quickly, though, so a smaller and less-expensive phone with a 2,500 mAh battery might actually last longer than a big high-end phone with a 2,800 mAh battery. Still, as a rule of thumb, more mAh is better.
Size and weight: Some people love big phones. Some love smaller phones. Some want a lightweight phone that disappears in the pocket, while others need to feel some heft. It’s a matter of personal preference. Don’t assume that you won’t like large phones if you have small hands, however. There seems to be no real correlation between hand size and preferred phone size.
Software and Bloatware: If you want a phone that runs pure Android with no embellishments, you need to buy a Nexus model. Anything else you buy is going to have a custom build of Android; and that could be good or bad (or both at once).
Phone makers change the Android interface and icons to varying degree, and add features and software of their own. Sometimes this stuff is useful, sometimes it isn’t. Pre-installed apps that can’t be removed (usually called “bloatware”) can slow down your phone or, at the very least, take up valuable storage space. And if you buy a phone from a carrier instead of an unlocked carrier-neutral model, you’ll probably find a bunch of carrier apps you may not want. Know what you’re getting into before you buy.
Our latest phone reviews
Is there a phone you’re interested in, but don’t see it recommended as one of our top picks? That’s fine—different users have different needs and preferences. Maybe another model is the best one for you. Take a look at our latest reviews to see what else is out there.
MSRP $720.00Learn moreon Verizon Wireless
Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+Greenbot Rating
Google Nexus 6PGreenbot RatingMSRP $500.00Viewon Amazon
Motorola Moto X Pure EditionGreenbot RatingMSRP $300.00Viewon Amazon
HTC 10Greenbot Rating
OnePlus XGreenbot Ratingon Amazon
Motorola Droid Turbo 2Greenbot Rating
Google Nexus 5XGreenbot Rating
LG Electronics LG G5Greenbot Rating
Nextbit RobinGreenbot Rating
Motorola Moto G4Greenbot Rating
Huawei Honor 5XGreenbot Rating
ZTE Grand X Max 2Greenbot Rating
HTC One A9Greenbot Rating
Motorola Moto G4 PlusGreenbot Rating
Nuu Limited X4Greenbot Rating
These tips will quickly have you using LG's new flagship phone like a pro.
Go from newbie to expert in 10 minutes with this collection of tips.
With a ton in the Google Play Store, here are some of the best backup and utility apps around.
Grab the Play Store's latest worthwhile releases.
Now that the Note7 is dead, these are the best alternatives if you want another large-screened Android...
Android phones will eventually get these new features (if they get updated) but some are Pixel...
Google's first in-house phone is a delightful holistic experience that might make you think twice about...