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 11/30/16: We’ve updated our recommendations for Best Overall Phone, Best Phablet, and Best Phone for Photographers

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

This year, Google dumped its “for developers and enthusiasts” Nexus brand, and replaced it with two Pixel phones—the 5-inch Pixel and 5.5-inch Pixel XL. Rather than taking an already-nearly-made phone from another company and slapping stock Android on it, Google’s engineers built these phones from the ground up, marrying a custom version of Android to equally custom hardware. 

Indeed, the Pixels don’t run stock Android like the old Nexus phones did. Instead, Google took Android 7.1 (which has yet to land on any other phone) and added some delightful software tweaks, like a slicker launcher, fantastic live wallpapers, and Google Assistant built right in.

Sure, you can find Android phones that offer more features, as well as Android phones that have similar specs at lower prices. But no Android phone is as delightful to use. Google has stripped away all the friction—everything that gets between you and what you want to do. The Pixel doesn’t do everything, but what it does, it does incredibly well. And whatever the benchmarks say, the Pixel feels like a faster and more responsive device than any other Android phone. It’s also the first to support high-quality Google Daydream VR. And battery life is great.

We give this nod to the Pixel and Pixel XL together—they’re the same phone in two different sizes, only differing in the obvious display sizes and battery capacities (as the size necessitates).

Best phone for photographers

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)

With the Galaxy Note7 permanently recalled, this is an easy pick. LG’s V20 stands alone as the “really, really big phone” to get. 

The V20 is chock full of features. Dual rear-facing cameras (a wide-angle in addition to the standard camera)? Check. Removable battery? Check. SD card storage support? Check. HD Audio support with a quad DAC? Yup. It’s even got a secondary display—a little “strip” above the screen to show notifications and media controls and the like.

In fact, it’s really close to being our pick for best phone overall. Perhaps it comes down to software tuning, or added bloatware, but the V20 just doesn’t feel as responsive as the Pixel, despite winning benchmarks. Battery life, while good, doesn’t quite match that of Google’s big phone, either. 

The whole V20 user experience is a little on the busy side, too. It’s clinical in design, but maybe overwhelming in features and options. 

These quibbles aside, it’s a phone we like a lot, and clearly the best phone over 5.5 inches.

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.

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.

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.

android m battery settings

You want a phone with a big battery. In general, the higher the mAh rating, the 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.

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