03
Aug
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Last week, we took at a look at the best tablets for students and parents alike. Today, we've picked through the hundreds of offerings out there to pick the best overall and best on-a-budget smartphones on all the major carriers. As a bonus, we took a look at the latest offerings on some of the more popular pay-as-you-go carries, which can oftentimes be the best choice for a student.

With that, let's get started.

Best Overall

For the first time in the history of forever, there is one clear winner for "best Android phone" on all major carriers:

The Samsung Galaxy S III

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As I started working on this roundup, I realized after completing two carrier breakdowns that nothing would trump the GSIII on any of the Big Four (or U.S. Cellular, who is no part of this). Ergo, I decided to throw this at the top. If you have $200-300 to spend on a new smartphone and want the best, get the Galaxy S III regardless of which carrier you're on.

The one exception to "best" is Verizon's GSIII - it does have a locked bootloader, which makes custom ROMs more difficult than other the other carriers' version. Still, spec for spec, it's unbeatable on Big Red. This is just something to consider.

If, however, you want to spend half of that (or less), we've given some great alternatives down below.

Buy:

Since the Galaxy S III is hands-down the best option across all carriers, we've listed below the "best on a budget" options for each carrier.

Verizon Wireless

With Big Red's ultra-fast and nearly-nationwide 4G LTE network, it's a good choice for getting things done on-the-go. And with new Share Everything plans, tethering doesn't cost anything extra - just don't go over your monthly data cap!

Samsung Galaxy Nexus - $99 (VZW), $50 (Wirefly), $0 (Amazon Wireless)

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I bet you were expecting something else here, weren't you? Fact is, with the recent price drops and the fact that you can get the GNex super-cheap from Amazon Wireless or Wirefly, there's no contest. Since it's a Nexus, it has an unlockable bootloader and a host of good ROMs to choose from (should you so choose to go that route). Even if left completely stock, it offers an unmatched vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich experience and should even get Jelly Bean... eventually.

Buy: Verizon, Wirefly, Amazon Wireless

AT&T

As the second largest provider of 4G LTE and the single largest carrier offering HSPA+, AT&T is also a good choice in terms of carrier coverage.  Plus, it offers a wide variety of plans and package styles to choose from. And choice is good.

HTC One X - $99 (AT&T), $79 (Amazon Wireless)

ATT-HTC-One-X-launch-date-price-May-6

Another surprising answer, no? The HTC One X is an absolute powerhouse device, with fantastic build quality and an amazing display to boot. And, thanks to its recently-dropped price of $99, it's a steal.

Buy: AT&T, Amazon Wireless

T-Mobile

Nationwide coverage, HSPA+ 42, a decent selection of devices, and comparable plans at a more affordable prices than the competition. That pretty much sums up T-Mobile. If you have good T-Mo coverage in your area, there's no reason not to consider the big pink underdog as your carrier.

HTC One S - $150 (T-Mobile), $140 (Wirefly)

HTC-One-S-Final

I have to be honest here: T-Mobile has a pretty crappy selection of good affordable devices. Thus, the only real choice is the One X's little brother, the One S. At $150, I feel like it's a little out of the "budget" price range. If you feel the same, there is only one feasible alternative:

The Samsung Galaxy S II - Free (T-Mobile)

T-Mobile-Samsung-Galaxy-S-II-official-launch-date

I know, I know. It's almost a year old, but after looking through the rest of the devices, there really isn't a better option. This was, after all, one of the best phones of yesteryear.

Buy:

Sprint

Ah, The Now Network. The only carrier left with "truly unlimited data." Sprint is trying to make its name in the LTE market, so that counts for something, too.

Samsung Galaxy Nexus - $99 (Sprint), $79 (Amazon Wireless), $50 (Wirefly)

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It really came down to this and the Epic 4G Touch, and at the end of the day, we had to go with the Nexus. Why? It has LTE (for whenever Sprint activates it in your areas), stock Android, and it's a Nexus. Despite being nearly a year old (the phone itself, not the Sprint variant), it's also still quite relevant since it's the most recent Nexus phone.

Buy: Sprint, Amazon Wireless, Wirefly

The Pre-Paid Guys

We understand that post-paid carriers aren't the best choice for everyone. Thus, we've done most of the legwork for you in the pre-paid scene, too. This section isn't just about phones, though; it's also about the best bang for your buck where plans and the like are concerned.

Virgin Mobile

When I think of pre-paid carriers, the first one that comes to mind is Virgin Mobile. Perhaps because it's a Sprint subsidiary, or maybe because it ends up with some of the best phones the pre-paid world has to offer. Whatever the reason, Virgin Mobile is definitely a top consideration where pay-as-you-go carriers are concerned.

The Best of the Bunch

HTC EVO V

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The EVO V is basically a 3D-less EVO 3D. While that may not sound all that impressive, when you throw its off-contract $300 price, 1.2GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM and Android 4.0 into the mix, paired with unlimited data plans starting at $35, this begins to sound like one tempting deal.

Buy: Virgin Mobile

StraightTalk

StrightTalk is fairly new to the carrier game, but it offers some of the best deals on the market. Let me say one thing outright, though: the selection of Android phones on ST is pure garbage. What makes it so appealing, however, is the plans and the fact it will work with any AT&T or T-Mobile-compatible GSM phone.

Here's the skinny: you can buy a SIM card for $15 from StraightTalk and drop it into your compatible GSM phone and away you go. This means that you can pick up a GSM Galaxy Nexus from the Play Store for $350 and drop a StraightTalk SIM in it. Boom.

The best part: they have an unlimited everything plan for just $45/month. Are you going to get LTE speeds? No, but you won't spend $100+ per month on your phone bill, either, so there's that.

T-Mobile Pre-Paid

Much like StraightTalk, T-Mobile pre-paid doesn't offer a whole lot of nice options in the phone department. What it does offer, however, are some good plans with reasonable rates. Pair that with the fact that you can use a GSM phone like the Galaxy Nexus on T-Mo, and you have yet another winning option for a pre-paid carrier.

What about the others?

We combed through most of the major pre-paid carriers out there - Boost, MetroPCS, Cricket, etc. - and the truth is, they don't really offer anything compelling. If the post-paid guys just aren't doing it for you, Virgin Mobile, T-Mobile pre-paid, or StraightTalk really are the way to go.

Cameron Summerson
Cameron is a self-made geek, Android enthusiast, horror movie fanatic, musician, and cyclist. When he's not pounding keys here at AP, you can find him spending time with his wife and kids, plucking away on the 6-string, spinning on the streets, or watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on repeat.

  • http://twitter.com/ltsang Tsang

    This seems more like a "Best ANDROID Smartphone" article.

    • Bobo

      Yeah, they forget the money argument :( ...

      • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Cameron Summerson

        What?

        • Bobo

          In the previous article (tablets) they had "on a budget", "the middle of the road", "top of the line". Now they just show up the most expensive phone and say it is the best. Hello? In the Headline is "for Students"!

          • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Cameron Summerson

            Did you read the rest of the article? The "On A Budget" options are all that's listed for each carrier.

          • Bobo

            Yeah but in the beginning you say, that the best overall is the GS3. You could have at least have shown two phones: One as the best without money fears (A student with unlimited money) and one for people that do look after their money

          • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Cameron Summerson

            ...that's what the rest of the article AFTER the GSIII is for. The best buy on each carrier.

            The only reason the GSIII is at the top is because it's the best phone on every carrier.

          • Stewart Higgins

            $200 bar tab, acceptable for a weekend at the bar, but $199 + $50-90/month is absurd and is only for those with 'unlimited money'? Most stundents can afford a smartphone of any tier through saving or credit. None of these are pricier than an iP, and lord knows there's enough students with those. The plan is the ridiculous expense. You can get a flagship on Android on a promo plan as easily as you can with a budget phone.

      • Ronald

        Yea they really did. I thought that was the the point when it said "for students"

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Cameron Summerson

      Well, we are an Android site, after all...

      • http://twitter.com/ltsang Tsang

        I know. I just feel like that title is more for SEO purposes instead of being accurate.

        • Tyler Chappell

          Let's face it, Blackberrys are a dead end, And on any LTE network, the iPhone 4S is really a dead end too unless your invested in the iOS ecosystem, so it really wouldn't be feasible to recommend the 4S or even the 4(despite its pricepoint) anyway. WP7 doesn't really give you a whole lot of options either.

          • Tyler Chappell

            Ugh, idk wth is going on with Disqus, but it's being weird when letting me log in or saving the edits to my posts, meant to say "it wouldn't* be feasible"

    • Quipeace

      Not surprising since we're on ANDROIDpolice.com...

  • pepillo

    It felt weird to read this article from Spain... Here, a year ago or so, a lot of carriers appeared offering very low rates and 1-month contracts, and every single carrier but one stopped giving out phones with discounts. I wonder if the same will happen in the US eventually.

  • 27yearold

    good luck using remote desktop for work or playing emulated games on any of those phones without qwerty or typing anything that's not autocorrectable like a billion scientific terms, code, and abbreviations unless you want to keep staring at your screen while you type and hit that backspace a lot.

    Best phones for android pro users: Verizon - droid 4. Sprint - photon q. at&t - captivate glide

    • cashd00d

      The Photon Q isn't even available yet... good luck getting that for "back to school". Also, play emulated games with a bluetooth controller and you'll like it even better than a slide-out keyboard. Get a cheap pocket bluetooth keyboard and you're all set on the typing front as well.

  • Isidhu

    I liked how you guys put in Pre Paid options as well. I have been in the contract with sprint for more than a few years now. I am just sick of the ever increasing costs and the 2 year tie ins. Come October and it is going to be prepaid and GV for me.

  • Laurence

    I still prefer my (GSM) Galaxy Nexus to any other phone on the market. Even the SGS3. The software is just straight-up nicer than skinned version of Android, in my opinion. And getting the Jelly Bean OTA like two weeks after it was announced at the I/O was yet another reminder of how awesome it is to go the Nexus route.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      +1, but the lack of expandable storage prevented and still prevents me from getting it as my daily driver.

    • fixxmyhead

      skins are a prefrence. i love touchwiz and its neat features ( i wish they would incorparate TW features in stock like slide statusbar to turn up brightness or slide left or right to call and text.hell even cm9 and aokp have this TW feature baked in the rom until then stock does lack some things). besides i think the s3 and the one x had an alpha after build of JB after 2 weeks too

      • Laurence

        I have no reason to doubt that Touchwiz 5 has a lot of nice features. But I'm sceptical about whether any skin can match the visual consistency and overall UX of stock. There's just something about great about having all your system apps in the Holo theme and also having (most of) your third-party apps use it too; it makes Android feel like a much more coherent and, dare I say, beautiful OS.

        And of course, there's also the issue of software support. Personally, I feel like if you buy a flagship phone, you *should* be entitled to updates for at least the two year duration of a typical cellular contract. And yet both the HTC Desire HD and the original Samsung Galaxy S, which were considered flagships in their day, were abandoned by their respective manufacturers less than two years into their life-cycles. Meanwhile the Nexus S, with similar specs, is already on Jelly Bean. Unfortunately this does make me wonder about the fate of Samsung and HTC's current flagships, however tempting their specs are today.

        Sorry, I'm not trying to diss the SGS3 here. It's an amazing piece of technology. If you want the the best possible hardware ever wrought on a mobile device, this is absolutely the phone to get. But personally, I care more about UI consistency and timely updates, and I'm willing to make some hardware sacrifices to get it. For these reasons, I've pretty much decided that I will never buy another Android device that doesn't have the word "Nexus" in its name.

        • Kenny O

          +1 You continue to take the words right out of my mouth. Pretty much my exact reasoning for going the Nexus route from now on

      • Kenny O

        I think it was a little longer than two weeks, but they did get it quickly - the jump from ICS to JB is not as intensive as GB to JB, so a lot of phones are getting alphas for JB rather quickly. I agree with you about the skins, I do not care for them, but I have several friends who love Sense. Choice is what makes Android great. It would be even better if you had the option to choose stock or skin without having to root and flash.

    • Kenny O

      My feelings exactly. I do not require much storage space since I really don't use my phone to watch movies or play music, it's mostly just apps. Combine that with the fact that I have 130 GB of cloud space between Dropbox and Drive, I'm good with 19 GB and no removable storage. Would I like more space/removable storage, of course.....but for me it's well worth the trade off.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jsheinz Jeff Schultz

    Simple Mobile just dropped their Unlimited plan to $50 for Unlimited Talk, text and 4G Internet. It is what my wife and I use with a Galaxy Nexus and Nexus One.

    • fixxmyhead

      thanks good thing i still have my old sim card. this is gonna save me 10$ for the same plan i have on tmobile.

  • Gary Patrowicz

    wouldnt trade my gn for gs3! stock android beats touchwiz any day

  • Eric

    For the first time in the history of forever, there is one clear winner for "best Android phone"... Eh.. I don't agree. IMO, this time, the gap between Samsung and HTC are closer than last year. I don't think the sales number represent it very well, it's just showing how strong is the Samsung (Galaxy) brand.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

      I think what Cameron means is that there is a single phone that is available on all carriers that can be designated the best. It's still very much debated as to whether the One X or the SGSIII is the best (and it frequently is debated internally at AP), but the One X is only available on AT&T in its untarnished form. The Sprint version was modified to a pretty bad degree (Artem has reported that the aggressive multitasking is much worse on the Evo LTE, for example), to say nothing of how much uglier it looks. It's still a solid phone, but in many ways the SGSIII wins out over this specific variant.

      There is no competition for "best Android phone on all carriers" not because there are no phones that are as good as the SGSIII on any carriers, but because there is no other phone of its caliber on all carriers. This is primarily a distribution model problem, but it would either be give the SGSIII a category of its own at the start of the article or have every subsection be "the SGSIII and something else". Just seems tidier this way.

  • http://twitter.com/dark_funk dark_funk

    You should add in the SGS3 for Ting as well. I wasn't aware of them til yesterday, but they offer really nice selection of phones and decently priced plans, as long as you're ok with Sprint's network coverage in your area.

  • koopa

    Um the evo v4g on virgin mobile IS the evo 3d. 3d and all virgin just doesn't advertise it. I'm holding it in my hand right now, even some of the first ones released have the Sprint logo instead of the virgin mobile one.

    Best deal period. $35 a month for unlimited texting and data plus 300 minutes all on the Sprint network.

  • shakerya

    You guys do such a great round up on US related phones/carriers. Wish there was a more thorough international round up as well.

  • cashd00d

    Boost Mobile - Get the EVO Design 4G. I don't know how you could say they don't have any good phones, when it is better than the EVO 3D (EVO V) on Virgin.

    Also, EVO 4G LTE trumps the Galaxy Nexus on Sprint.