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. Samsung’s flagship phones are usually quite good, but the Galaxy S8 and S8+ really pull out all the stops and deliver a phone that is more polished, usable, and technically impressive than ever before. Inside and out, this phone is a masterpiece.
The gorgeous design is built around a big, tall 18.5:9 aspect ratio AMOLED display that delivers the best brightness, contrast, and color we’ve ever seen. The new form factor isn’t just good looking, it’s more comfortable and usable, too.
Inside you’ll find the first phone with a 10nm Snapdragon 835 chip, which gives it top-tier performance and excellent power efficiency. In fact, these phones performed just great in our battery benchmarks (roughly 9 hours), with real-world use easily taking us through a busy day.
There are so many features it’s hard to list them all. Bluetooth 5, support for future gigabit LTE, wireless charging (Qi and PMA), iris scanner, Samsung Pay and Android Pay support, USB-C, headphone jack, IP68 water proofing, microSD card support… for such a smooth, slim, attractive phone, it sure packs in a ton of “stuff.”
Samsung’s software is better than ever, too.
You still have to contend with far too much bloatware and from Samsung and carriers, and the fingerprint sensor is placed in a terrible location. But these sore spots are relatively minor distractions from a phone that does more, looks better, and is more delightful to use than anything else on the market.
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.
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 (1920×1080 for smaller phones, 2650×1440 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.
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.
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.