Best Android phones: What should you buy?

Picking an Android phone can be difficult, but we're here to help. These are top Android phones you should consider bringing home.

OLD HUB IMAGE

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

The Galaxy S7 Edge has it all: one of the best cameras on any phone anywhere, top-notch speed, and the best display we’ve ever seen. It’s waterproof. It does wireless charging and fast charging. It has expandable storage. And it’s gorgeous. 

Mind you, the S7 Edge is also very expensive, so you can save a few bucks by getting the flat Galaxy S7 instead of the Edge model. It’s not the curved-edge screen or customizable Edge Panels that made us choose this version over the standard Galaxy S7. No, it’s the 20 percent larger battery that enables significantly longer battery life.

While we wish Samsung would feature a less heavily skinned version of Android and cut way back on the bloatware, the Galaxy S7 Edge is still the best overall phone around.

Best phone for photographers

The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge take top prize here, too. (The two phones have identical camera hardware and software.) The S7’s 12-megapixel sensor features big pixels, and each one of them is a contrast autofocus point—no other phone focuses as quickly. Thanks to a super-wide f/1.7 aperture and some great software, the phone takes some of the best low-light photos of any on the market. Optical image stabilization helps reduce camera shake on photos and videos. The camera app is simple and powerful, with plenty of pro features including great manual controls, and the ability to shoot in RAW mode. The app launches quickly, too: You can go from pocket to photo fast enough to rarely miss that critical moment.

Lots of other phones have great cameras, including the LG G5 and HTC 10, but they all come up short in one area or another. The Galaxy S7 (and Edge) present the best total package.

Best phablet (over 5.5 inches)

With the screen sizes of “standard phones” ballooning all the way up to 5.5 inches, you might ask why anyone actually needs a phablet these days. Samsung delivers a compelling answer.

Most of today’s phablets are simply big phones. Really big phones. They may have a big display and a big battery, but they don’t really do anything that smaller phones don’t do. But Samsung makes real use of the Note 7’s larger, 5.7-inch screen real estate with its S-Pen. Indeed, the pen and its associated software make a compelling productivity argument for having a gigantic phone.

Of course, if the Note 7 wasn’t a good phone in other ways, the S-Pen alone wouldn’t be enough to make it our pick for best phablet. But this is an excellent all-around phone. Performance is solid (though still hamstrung by Samsung’s bloated software and plenty of carrier cruft). The display is one of the best on any phone, anywhere. The camera is top-notch. The Note 7 is waterproof. It supports wireless charging. It’s got USB-C, a fingerprint scanner, an iris scanner, and an always-on display.

Even without the S-Pen, there’s a good chance that this would be our favorite phone over 5.5 inches. It’ll cost you, though. Samsung’s phone starts at over $800 (but at least you get 64GB of storage). 

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.

To comment on this article and other CIO content, visit us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.
At a Glance
  • $794.99 MSRP $795.00
    View
    on Best Buy
  • MSRP $720.00
    Learn more
    on Verizon Wireless
  • $432.00 MSRP $399.00
    View
    on Amazon
  • View
    on Amazon
  • $669.99 MSRP $669.99
    View
    on Samsung
  • $879.99 MSRP $849.00
    View
    on Best Buy
  • Greenbot Rating
    View
    on Amazon
  • Greenbot Rating
    MSRP $500.00
    View
    on Amazon
  • Greenbot Rating
    MSRP $300.00
    View
    on Amazon
  • $624.00 MSRP $624.00
    View
    on Motorola
  • Greenbot Rating
    $599.00 MSRP $699.00
    View
    on HTC
  • Greenbot Rating
    View
    on Amazon
  • Greenbot Rating
  • Greenbot Rating
    MSRP $379.00
    View
    on Amazon
  • Greenbot Rating
    MSRP $689.00
    View
    on Amazon
  • Greenbot Rating
  • Greenbot Rating
    $179.99 MSRP $200.00
    View
    on Amazon
  • Greenbot Rating
  • $499.99 MSRP $700.00
    View
    on Amazon
  • Greenbot Rating
  • $299.99 MSRP $550.00
    View
    on Amazon
  • Greenbot Rating
  • Greenbot Rating
    MSRP $250.00
    View
    on Amazon
  • Greenbot Rating
    $169.99 MSRP $169.00
    View
    on Amazon
  • View
    on Amazon
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.