Since I get this question fairly often – I’ve answered this question twice in the last week alone – I thought it might be worth doing a post about. A few disclaimers:
- I don’t have a large amount personal experience with every device listed, though I’ve handled them all for at least a few minutes.
- If your question is “Should I buy a phone right now?”, the answer is almost always “No”, since there’s always something better coming. This is meant as a guide for the person who needs or wants to update right away.
- This is written from a very US-carrier-centric point of view, although I still hate the idea of buying a phone through a carrier, and always recommend buying unlocked if it’s an option. That way, you own your phone, and don’t have to deal with carrier bloatware or waiting for carrier approval before getting software updates.
- Try a phone yourself before buying it; no amount of rambling on my part will take the place of personal experience. You can even buy it if you want, and return it if you end up hating it, as long as you don’t do that too often.
- The size of the Pro/Con section doesn’t directly correspond to the quality of the devices, but rather my personal experience with them. I’d recommend all of these phones almost equally, just to different people for different reasons.
- I only consider flagship phones, for the most part – in my mind, your smartphone is the most important piece of technology you own, so it shouldn’t be something you skimp on if you have the choice. Splurge a little; you’re stuck with the thing for at least two years, after all. If you want a cheap, unlocked, solid device, my advice ends with: just buy a Moto G or Moto E.
All of that said – there are, in my mind, four phones worth buying at this point, with a possible fifth and sixth.
- Available carriers: All
- Pros: Let’s face it, the iPhone doesn’t need much introduction. At this point, you probably know if you want an iPhone or…anything but an iPhone – and both choices are equally valid. The iPhone is your best bet if you want a smaller-sized, one-handed phone with great performance. The 8 MP camera is still nearly-unparalleled when it comes to all-around quality. iOS is either a pro or a con, depending on what you want out of a smartphone. Touch ID is brilliantly implemented, and thus far no phone has been able to match it.
- Con: Both the size of the phone and iOS itself can be a con, depending on the user. If you want a bigger phone, or if you want the freedom of Android, this obviously isn’t the device for you. Honestly, if you’re okay with the size and with iOS, just stop reading now and get the 5S. You won’t regret it. Really, the only thing I can add is to not buy the 5C unless you really want a colored, plastic phone – the 5S is worth the extra $100.
- Available carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint. Buy directly from Google if you can.
- Pros: Although it doesn’t excel at any one thing, the Nexus 5 is above-average in most aspects that matters. The build isn’t as solid as the iPhone or the HTC One line, but I’ll take the Nexus 5’s plastic over Samsung or LG’s any day of the week. The optically-stabilized 8 MP camera won’t blow you away, but it won’t often disappoint you, either – especially in HDR+ mode. The size is actually about average among other Android flagships, if not a bit smaller. The software is Google’s idealized version of Android, which also happens to be my idealized version of Android – and it’s also guaranteed to be kept up-to-date for awhile to come. Wireless charging is a great convenience, especially once you have a few Qi chargers scattered between work, home, and your car. This feels, to me, like Google’s version of the HTC One X – which is the phone that made me an Android user, and also a phone I’d probably still be using today if it wasn’t for the 1 GB of RAM and the slightly-underpowered processor. It’s also one of the cheapest ways to get a high-end, unlocked Android device.
- Cons: The camera, while not the worst, could certainly be better. I don’t even want more megapixels, I just want focusing and imaging performance on-par with the iPhone. The build quality is above-average, especially given the price, but I wouldn’t mind if it was a bit sturdier. Depending on your needs, the size could be a bit large. Battery life can be unreliable, as the battery itself isn’t that big, meaning a rogue app or process can easily take off a decent chunk of battery before you realize what’s going on. It’s not on Verizon, meaning a great many people in the US will never even have the option of owning the phone.
- Available carriers: All
- Pros: The M8’s most obvious and best features are its design and build quality, which may even rival the fantastic iPhone 5S. HTC’s software is one of the few skinned versions of Android I can tolerate, and HTC has been very, very good about updating their software in a fairly timely manner, at least when compared to other non-Nexus, non-Motorola devices. The front-facing speakers continue to be absolutely unparalleled in the industry.
- Cons: The biggest drawback here is the 4 MP “Ultrapixel” camera. Some love it and some hate it, and unfortunately you may not know which category you fall into unless you try it yourself. If you ever intend to print your smartphone photos, you should probably stay away – otherwise you may find that 4 MP is actually enough for your needs, especially if those needs are solely social media-related. The physical-size-to-screen-size of the device is also worse than most other phones, mostly thanks to the front-facing speakers. Finally, the phone can be a bit slippery and awkward to hold – again, try it yourself and you should find out quickly if it’s a problem.
- Available carriers: All
- Pros: This phone is all about being a spec monster. While the build quality is above average at best, the screen resolution, processor, phone-size-to-screen-size ratio, and 13 MP optically-stabilized camera are all among the best of the best. The software, while still not great, is far less offensive than it has been in years past. It has a huge, long-lasting battery that is, unlike the other phones on the list, user-replaceable.
- Cons: Despite the impressive phone-size-to-screen-size ratio, it’s still a 5.5″ screen, so it’s still a big device – perhaps too big for some people. The software is, at best, inoffensive, and LG is not known for timely software updates – last year’s G2 took about 5 months to receive KitKat, even on unlocked International models. Models purchased through a US carrier will take that much longer. Despite the screen’s impressive (arguably unnecessarily-so) resolution, the colors can be a bit off and the screen won’t get as bright as some others.
- Available carriers: All
- Pros: The Moto X almost didn’t make the list, based solely on its age and the fact a successor is due soon, but now that it looks like successor might be noticeably larger, I decided to include it. This is the phone to get if you want an Android device with a physical size close to the iPhone 5S, but with a screen .7 inches larger than the iPhone’s. Motorola has taken stock Android and added to it in some fantastic ways with things like Touchless Control; these features are so good, in fact, that Google is gradually stealing them for stock Android. The design fits perfectly in most people’s hands, and best of all, can be customized pretty heavily with Motorola’s unique Moto Maker.
- Con: The only reason I’d advise against this phone are age and camera. It was already slightly-under-spec’d when it came out a year ago, so I’m not sure it’ll age that gracefully over the 2-year period most people own a phone for. The camera isn’t horrible, but it’s a notch below the Nexus 5, which is already a notch or two below the iPhone 5S.
- Available carriers: AT&T and T-Mobile, but only available (sort-of) from OnePlus directly
- Pros: This is, essentially, a larger Nexus 5 with better specs, a better camera, and CyanogenMod – the only flavor of Android that I might actually prefer to Google’s. Unfortunately I haven’t had the pleasure of using one, so my praise has to stop there.
- Cons: It’s still basically impossible to order one, thanks to OnePlus’ invite-only system. It lacks the wireless charging of the Nexus 5, and the larger size compared to the already-not-small Nexus 5 could be a negative for some people.
I didn’t include Samsung devices because, honestly, I don’t care for their software and hardware choices. That said, the Galaxy phones have only gotten better since the S3, so if you liked the S3, you’ll probably like the S5 just fine. If you’re on AT&T, the Active variant of the S5 might be worth looking at, too. If you want a phablet, then you want a Note 3 – I wouldn’t even look at the others.
I’d love to include Sony devices, but as I’ve said, this is a US-centric post, and Sony phones almost never come to US carriers – or if they do, they come about 8 months after their international release. If you’re willing to pay the full, unlocked price for one, though, the Xperia Z2 and the Z1 Compact are both great all-around phones with the added bonus of being waterproof. If they weren’t so pricy unlocked, I would seriously consider getting one myself.
None of this is gospel, and all of it is (obviously) one guy’s opinion. If I were to buy a phone today, I’d probably go with the Nexus 5. Yes, there’s likely a successor on the way, but it’s a still fantastic deal and, I think, offers the best all-around Android experience, even if it doesn’t excel in any one particular area.
The mobile landscape is constantly changing, and the question “What phone should I buy?” is always a moving target. As the landscape changes, I’ll update this post accordingly.