How to Pick Your Next Android Phone: 2013 Edition
Put simply, there are too many
For starters, the golden rule: there is no "best" Android phone. There's only the best Android phone for you. If you like it and if it's in your price range, it's your best Android phone and no one gets to tell you otherwise (unless you actually chose a sucky phone, in which case you probably didn't follow this guide very well). Also, we're going to cover mainly U.S. phones, but understand when it comes to buying unlocked international devices, you may need to do some research to ensure you're not buying a phone that's incompatible with your network.
When (and How Often) Should I Upgrade?
When to upgrade is going to depend heavily on what type of user you are. Do you like keeping up with all the new hotness? Do you break your phones frequently? Can you afford to buy phones when necessary? How upgrades apply to you will depend heavily on these factors, but in general here are your main options for upgrading your phones:
Regular two year contracts, for the average upgrader:
Between AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint, most people sign up for a two year contract on their service anyway.
T-Mobile, while it technically doesn't have a contract on service, will financeyour hardwarefor two years. Without doing anything else, all four of these carriers will offer you the chance to upgrade after two years to a new device for relatively cheap or free. For most people who don't need to keep up with the Joneses, this is a perfectly fine interval.
Accelerated upgrade plans for the gadget nerds:
All four of the major US carriers also offer some form of early upgrade plan. Whether or not it's worth taking advantage of is a whole guide unto itself
, but the short version is, if you want to upgrade frequently, T-Mobile and Sprint are your best bets, but Verizon might be worth it if you upgrade all the time to phones that cost more than $600 a piece off contract.
Off-contract phones for the mid-cycle upgraders, or the non-commital:
In the early days Android phones, if you wanted to buy a device without a contract subsidy, it could easily cost you upwards of $600. Today, you can buy the Nexus 5 for a starting price of $350, the Moto G for $179, and even the Moto X was on sale yesterday for $350. Not everything is available for cheap, but there are plenty of inexpensive options if you either hate contracts, or want to scratch that itch
until your next upgrade cycle.
All of that being said, just because you can upgrade doesn't mean you should. We all get gadget lust, but a couple new features or a new version of Android are rarely worth an extra $300 every six months (much less $600+ for some of the pricier models).
What time of year to purchase your phone can also be a bit of a crapshoot. There's never a particularly good time where you're sure not to see a new phone get released, but there are bad times. While the following can change from year to year, here are some common hot periods of activity:
Samsung, HTC): Over the last couple of years, HTC, Samsung, and Google have all had major products or platforms to announce within the same short time span from around February to June. The One, One X, Galaxy S4, and Google Play Editions of both companies' major flagship phones were all announced sometime in this time frame over the last couple years. If you're a fan of Samsung or HTC and you're looking at an upgrade in February, it's probably best to wait a couple months.
Fall (Motorola, LG, Google):
During the last couple of years, LG and Google have both announced or released major phones between August and November. This is in part due to the fact that for the last two years, LG has been the one making the Nexus line of phones. Motorola also joined
the fraythis year with its new Moto X and Moto G phones, released in August and November respectively. It's impossible to say Motorola's release schedule is a pattern until next year, but given that Google favors the fall(and Google owns Motorola), it wouldn't be surprising.
Of course, none of these times are very far away from another product launch and, in a way, that's the curse of Android. However, if you narrow it down by what manufacturer you want, you can usually pick out a pretty good time to buy a phone you're looking for.
What Features Really Matter in a New Phone?
These days, it might almost be easier to list what doesn't matter. In the early days of Android phones, the spec war was all-important because getting a faster processor could mean the difference between a smooth experience and a totally janky one. Nowadays, with quad-core processors, 1080p displays, and widely-supported 4G radios, a better emphasis might be placed on
striking the right balance
That being said, here are some key features to look at when deciding on what phone to get:
The camera is easily one of the most important features you can look for in a new phone. Not only is a smartphone the only camera most of us will carry around, but it's also the
While we've covered whether or not you
really need a 1080p display in your phone
One of the few features in Android phones that hasn't been improved that much over the years is battery life. It's gotten better, but the amount of things we do with our phones has also increased, meaning those losses are somewhat negated. There are two main schools of thought when it comes to approaching the battery life problem. Some devices like the Note family or the MAXX line of phones choose to boost battery life by throwing in gigantic batteries, sometimes to the tune of 3,000 mAh or more. Other devices like the Moto X aim for hardware optimization to reduce battery usage and
While your devoted Android enthusiast friend will tell you there's nothing better than #holoyolo, the truth is that each manufacturer puts their own spin on Android and it's not always horrible. Before you pelt me with fruit, here are some distinguishing features from various manufacturer skins:
- HTC Sense: Blinkfeed and Peel. While it might sound like an entertaining comedy duo, Blinkfeed and Peel are two particularly awesome features built in to the HTC One. The former is a news feed of your social content that lives on your home screen and, contrary to initial impressions, is actually pretty useful. Peel, on the other hand, makes use of the infrared port on the One to control your television and other IR-enabled boxes.
- Samsung Nature UX: Multi-Windows and Stylus Support. Samsung skins may be a bit of a crapshoot, but the one thing you can't deny is that they managed to make styluses cool again with the Note family of devices. The multi-window feature that eventually rolled out to most major Galaxy devices also allows users to run multiple apps at once, which makes good use of all that extra screen real estate.
- Motorola: Touchless Controls and Active Notifications. Motorola's skin is perhaps the least invasive, but the company still makes some changes. For example, the Touchless Controls app allows you to issue voice commands to your phone without touching your device. Active Notifications allows you to see your upcoming messages, jump straight to certain apps, and even turns on the display as soon as you pick up the phone.
Stock Android is great, don't get me wrong. However, you can get
almost all of the cool parts
Android OS Updates
This is something that was of the utmost importance back in the day but, as we've
That being said, if you're a stickler for making absolutely sure you have the most up to date software, there are three device categories you can look int
What if I Care About Rooting?
The landscape for rooting and installing custom ROMs on your phone has changed dramatically over the last few years. Between the proliferation of locked bootloaders and Nexus devices, there are now a few categories your phone can get lumped into that will determine how much support your phone will see. In descending order of likely support:
- Nexus devices: These are Google's flagship phones and tablets and they're designed to be the go-to platform for developers. As such, they include the ability to unlock right out of the gate. Furthermore, Android enthusiasts (read: the ones who develop the ROMs you love) gobble them up like candy canes at Christmas.
Developer editions/Google Play Editions:
Starting at Google I/O this year, Google started releasing stock Android versions of two major flagship phones: the
Samsung Galaxy S4
. These unlock in the same way as Nexus devices, which means you don't need to wait around for someone to find an exploit to gain root access. It comes standard. The same applies to developer editions of major phones, which carriers sometimes offer, though it's not always guaranteed which devices will get a developer
- Popular phones: In the past, your best bet when it came to rooting and installing custom ROMs on your phone was to buy the hardware that everyone was getting and hope for the best. Except for those mentioned above, that rule still tends to hold true. We've also seen developers port the stock Android version of ROMs for the GPE editions of the HTC One and Galaxy S4 to the regular versions of those same phones, so if you want to try out a manufacturer-skinned device but still have some backup options, it's hard to go wrong with devices like these.
If rooting your phone is important to you, here's what you should definitely not get:
Obscure devices with low specs:
It's probably possible to get root access on your
KyoceraRise of the Machines, but you shouldn't count on a ton of popular ROM support in a timely manner.
- Devices with locked bootloaders: Locking a bootloader won't guarantee that you can't get root. However, with so many options available for phones that make root easily available, or at least don't lock bootloaders, developer attention isn't going to be as strongly focused on these devices as it has been in the past.
CDMA devices (when possible):
The one rule that can negate all the others here is CDMA.
Galaxy Nexusowners on Verizon and Sprint in particular have felt the stingof slow updates and minimal support because their devices are the CDMA variant of otherwise very open phones. It's not a guaranteed curse of no support, but if you want to raise your chances if getting in the fun developer party, stick with GSM phones like those on T-Mobile and AT&T.
When it comes down to it, most of the major Android phones on the market right now are pretty good and it's hard to go wrong if you find a device that's right for you. Find out what your priorities are, know what you need the device for, and find the one that does what you need. Everything else is comment thread fodder.