The Best Android Smartphones Unlock And Carrier (January 2017)

It’s a new year, so maybe that means it’s time for a new phone too? If you’ve got some cash left over after the holiday season and are looking for a new Android phone, you don’t want to drop that cash on something you’ll end up hating. That’s where Tested comes in. We’re here to give you the lay of the land so you can get the best Android phone. This month, the selection of phones is stable, but the software situation is changing.

Carrier phones

If you’re going through your carrier, you can take advantage of all the payment plans and other enticements, so it’s an understandable option. That does limit your phone choices a bit, and the device will usually be locked (or at least band-customized) for that carrier. There are a few solid options, the most notable of which is the Galaxy S7. Although, the LG V20 isn’t a bad choice, and the Pixel is technically available on Verizon. I’ll get to that later, but first, the GS7.

The Galaxy S7 has a number of good selling points that I’ll get into in detail, but probably the best are the overall design and the display. The GS7 (and especially the Edge) are solid phones. The front and back are both Gorilla Glass, but it feels so well put together. It’s IP68 water resistant, and feels very dense in the hand. It’s a little heavier than you probably expect when you pick it up, but it has a slight curve, making it comfortable to hold.

The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge have Super AMOLED panels at 2560×1440 resolution. The GS7 is 5.1-inches, while the Edge variant has a larger 5.5-inch display. These are still the best panels you can get on a smartphone, though the gap is closing. They’re bright, have perfect viewing angles, and the colors are very accurate. Then there’s the Edge with a screen that curves down on both the left and right sides. It looks cool, but it’s actually less comfortable to hold. The Pixel XL’s display is almost as good, but samsung still wins on this front.

This phone is slightly thicker than Samsung’s 2015 flagship, allowing for a reasonably large battery (relative to size). The GS7 has a 3000mAh battery and the GS7 Edge has 3600mA. In both cases, these cells perform very well. Both phones support Quick Charge 2.0 and wireless charging, but they have microUSB ports. The GS7 has held up well in terms of performance. It was never a blazing-fast phone, but it’s fast enough. The Snapdragon 820 has shown up in a lot of phones, but Samsung lowered the clock speed a bit to make the device more power efficient. That’s why the battery is so impressive. There are no issues with multitasking thanks to the 4GB of RAM, though.

The GS7’s camera is still amazing—it’s a close second to the Pixel, and even does slightly better in some lighting conditions. It captures quickly and accurately, usually with proper exposure the first time. It’s still the fastest focusing phone I’ve used, thanks to some tech Samsung licensed from Canon. Photos from Samsung’s camera are usually great the first time, but you can snap a hundred photos in a few seconds by holding the button down.

The Galaxy S7 is still technically running Marshmallow, but the Nougat beta is wrapping up in the US. That means a final build will start rolling out very soon. Samsung has improved TouchWiz over the years to the point I no longer dread using its phones. With Nougat, you get a few nice UI tweaks, including improving the always-on display and making the quick settings operate more like stock Android.

If the Galaxy S7 is not your cup of tea, there’s the LG V20. This phone is big (which some people like) and it has a removable battery (again, some people really like this). It’s not as elegant as the GS7, but it has a certain appeal.

The V20 is a best of a phone with a 5.7-inch LCD at 1440p and a secondary ticker display strip above that to show shortcuts, notifications, and settings toggles. I wasn’t sold on this in the V10, but LG has made it more useful this time. I’d now consider it one of the V20’s best selling points. The LCD is good, as LCDs go. It’s very clear and the colors are alright. There’s some backlight bleed from the secondary display, though.

LG’s build quality is not as good as Samsung’s, but the V20 is impressive when you consider it has a removable battery. There’s a button on the side of the phone that pops off the rear metal cover to provide access to the battery (along with SIM and microSD card slots). When it’s closed up, the phone feels solid—almost unibody. There’s no modular chin like on the LG G5. I think that concept is well and truly dead.

The V20 gets good, not great battery life. It’ll make it through a day just fine, but not much more. It’s not as good as either the Pixel or the Galaxy S7. The secondary screen eats up about 10% of the juice just from being on all the time (you can disable it). The V20 is very fast, though. The Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM seem put to better use here than in the GS7. It’s noticeably speedier when loading apps or multitasking.

The V20 launched with Nougat, so it’s got a big leg-up on the competition there. That means enhanced Doze mode, native split-screen apps, and more. I’m still not crazy about LG’s UI skin, though. There’s no app drawer by default, which is just silly.

A note here: Verizon customers can choose either of these phones, but they should get the Pixel. It’s the best Android phone, but for most buyers, it’s not available from carriers. Thus, it’s in the section below.

Unlocked phones

After several months of heavy use, I’m still extremely happy with the Pixel. So yes, it’s still the best unlocked phone you can get, and the best phone period on Verizon. Google is selling two version of the Pixel, a 5-inch 1080p model and a 5.5-inch 1440p one. For once, the smaller version of a device has not been hobbled with inferior hardware. The Pixel and Pixel XL are both top-of-the-line flagships. With a Snapdragon 821, 4GB of RAM, and 32 or 128GB of storage.

The XL has a larger 3420mAh battery and the regular Pixel is just 2770mAh. However, Google has optimized the battery life so much more effectively than other device makers. These phones last well over a day, and the XL can make it through two days of moderate use. Doze mode is an absolute beast too. I don’t even charge these phones at night. A little time on the fast-charger at my desk during the day and they’re full.

The Pixels have an aluminum unibody frame that’s much thicker and more durable than the Nexus 6P was last year. That phone would bend if tweaked in the right way. The Pixel is further strengthened by a magnesium mid-frame. Annoyingly, the Pixel is not IP68 certified like the GS7. At the top of the back panel is a glass panel that covers the antennas, and is the only visual flair the phone has. I don’t think the Pixel looks bad, but it’s certainly not flashy. The fingerprint sensor is on the back of the phone, perfectly placed to tap with your index finger when you pick up the phone. It’s about as fast as the Nexus phones, which is pretty good. It’s accuracy is among the best.

The Pixel’s camera is the best one you can get on Android right now. I wouldn’t say that every photo it takes is the best one—there are times the GS7 will do better in certain conditions. However, the Pixel’s 12MP camera does the best overall. The exposure and low-light performance are well above average, and the level of detail is amazing. What really sets Google’s camera apart is the speed. It’s ready to capture a photo the instant the camera app opens, and it won’t slow down after you take a few shots. Even HDR+ photos are super-fast now.

Google managed to make the Pixels incredibly fast without harming battery life. Samsung should be taking notes. These phones are blazing, and they don’t slow down after they’ve been running for a while. There’s no lag when opening apps, multitasking, unlocking, or even snapping photos with HDR. The software is also fantastic in terms of functionality and design. Google has made a few tweaks to stock Android to come up with a “Pixel” build. That includes a new launcher and Google Assistant built-in.

The Pixel phones do cost more than Nexus devices did, but I think they’re worth the price. The Pixel starts at $650 and the XL is $760. This phone is completely unlocked and works on any carrier, CDMA or GSM. Google also offers a monthly payment plan for the phone, not unlike carriers do. At that point, you’re looking at $30-40 per month for the phone.

If the Pixel is too expensive, I have no problem recommending the OnePlus 3. I was worried about OnePlus’ prospects after the disappointing OnePlus 2, but the OP3 has proven itself to be a capable and fast phone. OnePlus is even keeping up with the updates this time. Technically, the OP3 is discontinued, and in its place is the OnePlus 3T. It’s slightly better and slightly more expensive. It’s still a good deal, though.

The OnePlus 3T adds a Snapdragon 821 SoC (up from an 820) and a 3400mAh battery (previously 3000mAh). There’s still 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, but a 128GB version is also available. There’s no microSD card slot, but I think most people can get by just fine with 64GB.

Externally, the OnePlus 3T is almost identical to the OP3. It has an aluminum unibody frame, but the finish is slightly darker than the OP3 was. There is a hardware alert slider on the left side, allowing you to set the notification mode without waking up the device. At the bottom of the front panel is a fingerprint sensor that doubles as the home button, which is excellent. It’s one of the fastest I’ve ever used. The capacitive buttons on either side aren’t my favorite. They’re just small glowing dots. You can change what they do, but I would prefer to have the actual icons.

The OnePlus 3T has a 5.5-inch 1080p AMOLED display. This is an alright panel, but not my favorite. The clarity isn’t a match for the Pixel or GS7, and the colors are off unless you enable sRGB mode. The viewing angles are good at least. The 16MP camera on this phone is impressive for the price. It’s much nicer than the OP2, and I’d put it on nearly equal footing with the Nexus 6P. The extra money for the Pixel gets you a much better camera, among other things.

The OnePlus 3T launched with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but it’s in the early stages of rolling out Nougat now. It should be on all phones (3 and 3T) in a week or two. This isn’t a stock build of Android, but OP’s OxygenOS ROM isn’t bad. It includes features like customizable quick settings, a dark UI mode, and custom home screen. Nougat will add improved Doze Mode, split-screen apps, and customizable quick settings.

The OnePlus 3T is a good value at $440. You’d have to spend $200 more for the base model Pixel. I think that’s a better phone, but it’s fine to get the OP3T instead.

Wrapping up

The Pixel and Pixel XL are still the best Android phones you can get. If you can swing an unlocked device (or you’re on Verizon) that’s the phone to get—whichever size suits you. It’s fast, has a great camera, and the best, most up-to-date software. The Google payment plan also puts it in reach of more people. If that’s still too much, the OnePlus 3T is great too. The Nougat update makes it even more compelling.

For everyone else buying from a carrier, the Galaxy S7 is the way to go. It’s available everywhere and is almost as good as the Pixel. This phone is also getting Nougat soon, which is a plus. The LG V20 is a good backup if you want something with a removable battery.