The best Android phones you can buy right now [December 2013]

Best Android Phones (December 2013)

As a guy who writes about Android, I get asked a lot of questions. Far and above the most common, though -- the one I hear multiple times a day -- is "Which is the best Android phone I can buy right now?"

It's understandable; we all want to feel like we're getting the best of the best. But here's the truth: We've reached a point where there really isn't a universal "best" Android phone. 

Rather, what we have now is an elite group of excellent devices -- devices that excel in different ways and offer different benefits for different needs. The real question is no longer "Which is the best Android phone." It's "Which is the best Android phone -- for you."

With that in mind, I've decided to ditch the typical binary ranking-style approach and instead offer some more nuanced recommendations. This is all subjective, of course, and is based on the time I've spent using and reviewing various phones over the course of the year. This list also focuses on devices that are readily available and relevant to U.S. consumers.

So let's do this, shall we? Drumroll, please...

Best Overall User Experience: Moto X

Moto X

While other Android phones offer compelling individual elements, the Moto X offers a compelling overall package -- and consequently, it takes the honors of being my general device recommendation for folks looking for a great all-around Android experience right now.

As I wrote when initially describing the phone:

What makes the Moto X so special isn't any particular spec or feature; it's the way the whole package fits together. The Moto X succeeds where so many other phones fail -- at providing a cohesive and outstanding overall user experience.

The experience starts with a well-designed ergonomical form that just feels good to hold. It continues with the phone's software, which sticks close to the clean and intuitive user interface of Google's stock Android OS but adds in meaningful and practical functionality -- things like Touchless Control, which lets you control your phone anytime by speaking (even when the device is asleep); Active Display, which flashes relevant notifications on your screen when you need them; and Assist, which automatically detects when you're driving (among other things) and adjusts your phone's behavior accordingly. Motorola's also off to an impressive start with OS upgrades, having launched the Moto X's Android 4.4 KitKat rollout within three weeks of the OS's release and before many Nexus owners even saw the software.

Factor in excellent performance, a great-looking display, and the wealth of options for customizing the phone's appearance (including the choice of a real wood back within the next few weeks), and the Moto X is a total package like no other.

Hands-on coverage:

What makes the Moto X so special

Moto X vs. Nexus 5: A real-world comparison

Moto X deep-dive review: Hype aside, it's a really good phone  

Best Bang For The Buck: Nexus 5

Nexus 5

No surprise: Google's new flagship Android KitKat phone is one seriously sweet device. The Nexus 5 packs a pleasingly minimalist design, an outstanding 1080p display, top-of-the-line performance, and a camera that captures some great-looking shots.

The LG-made N5 runs pure Google Android software direct from the Android team -- including new visual elements no other device is getting yet -- and will receive future upgrades directly from Google, ensuring it'll remain ahead of the curve for quite a while.

The most noteworthy feature of the Nexus 5 is really its cost: The phone gives you a high-end pure Android experience for $349 to $399, unlocked and off-contract. That kind of pricing is simply unheard of for a device of this caliber -- and particularly for folks who prefer the more economical prepaid carrier configuration, it puts the Nexus 5 in a league of its own when it comes to value.

As I wrote when reviewing the N5 earlier this month:

You can purchase the phone unlocked directly from Google and use it wherever you want -- including with a variety of prepaid providers, many of whom offer service comparable to what you'd get on a postpaid plan for as little as $30 to $45 a month. Such an arrangement can save you hundreds of dollars a year compared to what you'd pay with a traditional contract-based configuration, and Google's unusually low unlocked price makes it quite reasonable to consider.

An excellent Android experience for less than $400 off-contract? Not too shabby.

Hands-on coverage:

Nexus 5 deep-dive review: Does Google's new flagship phone deliver?

Nexus 5 vs. Moto X: A real-world comparison

How good is the Nexus 5 camera? See for yourself  

Most Premium Hardware: HTC One


HTC really stepped things up in the hardware department with its HTC One phone -- and for anyone who values premium materials and high-end design, the One remains the one to beat.

As I wrote when reviewing the phone earlier this year:

The moment you pick up the HTC One, you know you're holding a premium product. The phone's silver aluminum unibody casing is visually striking and a pleasure to touch; it gives the device a high-quality feel and serves as a sharp contrast to the plasticky builds seen on some Android devices.

The phone has a gently curved back that makes it even thinner at its edges without creating an unsightly camera "hump" or any other midsurface protrusion. At 5 oz., the One feels light yet substantial and not at all flimsy or fragile.

Build aside, the One has what's arguably the best-looking display you'll find on a smartphone today. Its performance is top-notch, too, and its camera is capable of capturing admirable shots even in low-light environments.

All in all, it's a phone that easily earns its spot on my list of top options.

Hands-on coverage:

HTC One deep-dive review: A smartphone that flirts with perfection

HTC One revisited: Fresh perspective on the flagship phone  

Best Budget Phone: Moto G

Moto G

If you're looking for a solid Android device at the lowest possible price, Motorola's Moto G is the phone for you. The Moto G, available unlocked and off-contract for $179 or $199, is by no means a top-of-the-line smartphone experience -- nor is it meant to be. What it is, however, is a very good budget-level setup. 

Basically, it's a low-cost phone that doesn't suck. The Moto G has a 4.5-in. LCD display and a quad-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 processor. It follows the Moto X's general design language but uses cheaper materials, as you'd expect; it also doesn't have many of the Moto X's marquee features, like the aforementioned Touchless Control and Active Display, nor does it have support for LTE (only HSPA+ 21Mbps).

If you can justify the cost -- or prefer to buy your phone on-contract from a carrier, anyway -- the Moto X is undoubtedly the preferable device. But if you're looking for a good budget-level experience, you can't beat what the Moto G provides. That level of user experience for less than two hundred bucks off-contract changes the low-end smartphone game in a long overdue way.

Hands-on coverage:

Moto G real-world review: The best budget phone money can buy

Moto G vs. Moto X: Which model is right for you?  

Best Plus-Sized Phone: Galaxy Note 3

Galaxy Note 3

Plus-sized smartphones aren't going to be for everyone, but if you're jonesing for something with a little extra surface, Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 is the most noteworthy contender to consider.

The Note 3 boasts a sharp-looking 5.7-in. 1080p display that gives you ample space for any need. While Samsung's user interface leaves something to be desired, the company's software does provide some useful function-oriented additions that really shine on the Note, like the ability to have two apps running side-by-side on your screen at the same time and the option to convert handwriting into text on the fly.

As I wrote in my initial hands-on coverage:

Anytime you're in a text field and hover the stylus over the screen, a small icon appears that allows you to input text from the pen instead of the regular on-screen keyboard. All you do is write on the screen, and the Note transforms everything you say into normal text that'll go back into your document, email, or whatever you were composing.

The latter ties into the Note 3's other standout asset: the S Pen stylus that accompanies the device. The stylus opens the door to some interesting possibilities in terms of both creativity and productivity and goes a long way in setting the Note apart from other large-screened devices.

The Note isn't without its share of drawbacks, but when it comes to plus-sized phones, it's the undisputed leader of the pack.

Hands-on coverage:

Note 3 deep-dive review: A plus-sized phone with perks and quirks

Hands on: 7 cool things about the Galaxy Note 3

Hands on: 7 silly things about the Galaxy Note 3  

Best Battery Life: Droid Maxx

Droid Maxx

All of the phones mentioned here have reasonably good battery life -- enough to get most people through the day most of the time -- but if you need a phone that just won't quit, the Motorola Droid Maxx (available only on Verizon) is the device for you.

Verizon's 2013 Droid lineup, which also includes the flagship Droid Ultra, is part of the same family as the aforementioned Moto X. The phones are less elegant, simple, and understated than their Moto-branded cousin -- as I put it previously, they're kind of like mutant Moto X devices that were vomited on by a Verizon monster -- but with the Maxx in particular, what you lose in design, you gain in stamina.

The phone features a 3500mAh battery that's listed for 48 hours of mixed use. Forty-eight hours. That, my friends, is insane.

And despite the Verizon-added bloat and branding, you still get a user interface that's pretty close to Motorola's X-experience vision -- and, equally important, you still get all the smart add-on features mentioned in the Moto X description above.

All in all, it's an enticing setup for anyone who needs above-average endurance in a heavy-duty phone.

Hands-on coverage:

Moto X vs. the Droids: A real-world comparison

Droid Ultra deep-dive review: Bigger, but not necessarily better  

Best Option For Expandable Storage or Removable Battery: Galaxy S4

Galaxy S4

Samsung's Galaxy S4 is a jack of all trades in the Android world: It does a lot of things -- and does some of them quite well -- but with its widespread focus, it doesn't really stand out for being the best in any one particular area.

Where it does stand out is in the fact that it includes a micro-SD card slot -- an increasing rarity in standard-sized smartphones these days. If you need a lot of local storage and want to be able to pop a card into your phone to expand its space, that's a valuable option to have.

The GS4 also has a removable battery, which is something fewer and fewer manufacturers are including in their high-end phones. While it may no longer be a mainstream need, there's definitely a fair amount of users who like to carry an extra battery for on-the-spot swap-outs -- and the GS4 makes that possible.

If either of those capabilities is important to you, the GS4 is the phone to see within the standard-sized realm. Add in its great display, capable camera, and thin and light design, and it should have more than enough to keep you content for the coming year.

Hands-on coverage:

Samsung Galaxy S4 deep-dive review: A real-world evaluation

Galaxy S4 revisited: 7 weeks later, does the phone still impress?  

Decisions, decisions...

You might notice that I didn't include a category for best camera. The reason is that while many Android devices (including all the phones listed on this page) are capable of taking perfectly good-looking photos, no single Android device stands out as being particularly exceptional in that domain. We've yet to have an Android manufacturer successfully stake its claim as having the phone for high-end photography. Maybe in 2014.

Regardless, though, we've got an absurdly impressive array of choices in front of us right now -- a more diverse and drool-worthy set of devices than we've ever seen before. Whether you're just looking for a great all-around user experience or have something specific in mind, there's an appealing option out there ready to meet your needs.

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Unlike other mobile platforms, Android isn't a one-size-fits-all kind of ecosystem -- and as the lineup of devices on this page demonstrates, that's a very good thing.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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