So you want to buy an Android phone, eh?
It’s often said that a strength of the Android ecosystem is the sheer number of manufacturers out there producing devices, but that also means there is an absolutely intimidating amount of devices to pick from. Over 400 Android devices were released just in 2018—and the idea of buying a single device and then living with it for years can be daunting. Throw in tons of different price points, carrier compatibility, and user preferences, and “What Android phone should I buy?” can be a very complicated question.
We’re here to sift through the absolutely crazy amount of choices and point out the phones we think would be best for most people. These are the best Android phones you can buy.
But first, let talk about methodology and all the things that can go wrong when a company makes an Android phone. You can jump straight to the recommendations here or via the table of contents.
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Table of Contents
Potential pitfalls of Android production
The biggest problem with buying an Android phone is finding something that gets the entire package right. Android devices are created through a chain of custody that involves a number of different companies, and a good Android device relies on every company in the chain doing a good job.
Various component vendors like Qualcomm and Samsung make the individual chips and display panels. Google makes the Android OS and many of the primary apps. Phone manufacturers put everything together, picking case materials, designing the outside of the device, porting Android to the hardware, applying various changes to Google’s build of Android, and choosing the packed-in app selection. Cellular carriers can be involved in the process, too, and can make further changes to the Android OS or load more apps. There’s also the issue of operating-system updates, in that everyone in the chain of custody must work together to create a new build of Android for each individual device. All the links in the chain need to commit to doing this over the lifetime of the device, and they need to be motivated to do it in a timely manner.
If building an Android device sounds to you like a lot of cooks in a kitchen where an overwhelming number of things can go wrong, you are totally right! The odds are stacked against an Android producer making an effective product. From a shopper’s perspective, picking an Android device is usually about balancing one set of tradeoffs with another.
Finding superior hardware is pretty easy and pretty obvious. You’re looking for something with good specs, decent materials, and a design you like, and you can get an idea of all that from the spec sheet and a few pictures. A spec sheet is, literally, a detailed list of hardware components provided by the manufacturer, and that’s a ton of hardware information. Plus, while there are hundreds of Android device manufacturers out there, each of them buys its components from the same handful of component vendors. So when it comes to the internals, the Android ecosystem is not actually as diverse as we might expect. Pricing, design, and software are where the real differentiation comes in.
Software is harder to nail down, because you usually have to have the device in-hand to get any detail on what the software is like—unless you read one of our detailed reviews, that is. Android’s open source nature means phone manufacturers and carriers have considerable control over the final software package on their individual Android devices, and there’s a high degree of variability here. Not every company ports Android to its device with the same level of competence. Not every company works to optimize its particular Android build to get it running smoothly and consistently. Not every company has your best interests at heart when it sets about making a build of Android.
Some software issues stem from the simple fact that some companies aren’t interested in building the best possible device. Instead, some manufacturers and carriers use their software privileges to protect their business interests and increase their profit margins. Many Android devices are plagued by “crapware,” aka unwanted preinstalled applications. Sometimes these apps are from a company involved with your phone, in which case they may essentially be ads for the company’s other products. Other times these are just app slots sold to the highest bidder, which increases profit margins. Sometimes these apps can be removed, and sometimes they can’t. Imagine not being a Facebook user but still having the Facebook app permanently installed on your device, and you get the idea.
Android skins are another issue. Google makes the core Android OS with a certain design. It also makes the Google Apps—some of the most popular apps on the operating system—with a matching design. It offers design documents to third-parties, so many third-party apps also follow this design style. This means that, by default, Android, the Google apps, and third-party apps match, or, at least, everything is headed toward a common set of UI guidelines.
Again though, the core OS of Android is open source, and some device manufacturers take advantage of this to skin Android. Usually these skins boil down to a rebranding of Android—companies change the look of the OS to hide the fact that they are using Android. Manufacturers can only change the look of the core OS, though, and not the Google apps or third-party apps. This doesn’t help users one bit—it just makes the UI less consistent. But for companies that aren’t confident enough to have their hardware stand on its own, reskinning the OS lets them pretend they have a significant hand in the software. I assume it makes an executive somewhere feel better about their reliance on Google.
Listing image by Ron Amadeo