Android phones are like Windows computers in the mobile space. Dozens upon dozens of different manufacturers build devices in all price ranges, from under $100 to well over $1,000. Unlike Apple, which strictly controls both hardware and software with only a few smartphone releases per year, Android is an open source free-for-all with tens of thousands of unique devices out in the wild. There are, however, a handful of exceptional standouts that have left their mark on Android’s ten year history. They’re not all flagships, they’re not all best sellers and some can even be considered a little niche, but they’ve all played an important role and represent the best of Android. So let’s take a look at the ten best Android phones of all time.
1. Motorola Droid
The Motorola Droid wasn’t the first Android device. That honor goes the HTC manufactured T-Mobile G1 (aka HTC Dream), but it was this original Droid that put Android on the map and fired a shot across Apple’s bow. This was also Android’s first flagship handset and exploded onto the scene in the fall of 2009.
Back then, iPhones were AT&T exclusives, so Verizon teamed up with Motorola to release the first “iPhone killer” as both companies wanted to prevent Apple’s wildfire from spreading out of control. And with forward thinking hardware on a solid network, Android suddenly became a bonafide iOS competitor. The days of stodgy Windows and BlackBerry devices were numbered as two superpowers were clearly emerging, and Android and iOS continue to reign supreme in 2018.
The Droid had a larger and much higher resolution display than the iPhone (3.7 inches at 265 ppi vs 3.5 inchs at 165 ppi), and an additional slide-out keyboard. Both displays were capacitive and protected by Corning Gorilla Glass. Performance was comparable between the two with the Droid packing a then “blazing” 600 MHz processor. Stock Android 2.0 Eclair was onboard and widgets, a physical keyboard and more versatile camera made it a compelling alternative to Apple’s best.
Android finally got serious with the original Droid and that momentum has never stopped.
2. HTC Droid Incredible
Motorola didn’t stay on top for long as HTC moved in with a vengeance. Following up on their original Nexus One, the first in a long line of Google sponsored devices, HTC released the first Android phone that ticked all of the right boxes, the Droid Incredible. It was sleek, modern and had the best specifications you could cram into a smartphone. It also had HTC’s outstanding Sense UI that provided a much needed polish and visual appeal to the early days of stock Android. This was the best of the best at the time and superior in many ways to the iPhone.
It was equipped with a then uncommon AMOLED display that provided punchy colors, perfect blacks and a high 252 ppi, all protected by Corning Gorilla Glass. It would be a couple of months later in 2010 before Apple introduced the class leading Retina display on the iPhone 4 (330 ppi). It had a few personality quirks, like an optical trackpad that was a relic of a previous generation and a unique, contoured back cover. But with the latest Snapdragon S1, 8GB of storage with microSD expansion and Verizon’s robust network, it was the equivalent of Samsung’s best flagship today.
The Droid incredible was another in what would become a long line of Verizon-exclusive “Droid” smartphones and really set the standard for all future Android flagships to follow.
3. HTC Evo 4G
One of the most anticipated Android phones ever was the HTC Evo 4G. Before Samsung started the Note line, the Evo 4G represented the “big” Android and was everything the iPhone 4 wasn’t back in 2010. It had a massive (for the time) 4.3 inch display at 217 ppi, a kickstand to watch movies on a table and cool red accents on the back. The specs were virtually identical to the Droid Incredible and this was basically a supersized version. In 2010, I took the shot below of my new Evo 4G next to an iPhone 4 to show some Apple friends how much grander Android could be. And this thing really was grand.
The Evo 4G was a Sprint exclusive and ran on Sprint’s new 4G WiMAX network. It was inferior to LTE, but beat that technology to the market and was far superior to 3G speeds. This phone was a real look at the future and represented a step forward for Android. It helped break the barrier of “acceptable” screen sizes and backed up its multimedia prowess with the fastest network speeds available. It’s a true cult classic.
4. Samsung Galaxy S3
Motorola briefly sat on Android’s throne before HTC became totally dominant for years, but Samsung was slowly building its own reputation with the first Galaxy phone in 2009. The now familiar Galaxy S line reached all four major US carriers in 2010, but in a bizarre and unfortunate way. Unlike today, where little more than a carrier logo and bloatware differentiate major releases across carriers, the first Galaxy S phones were physically altered for each. AT&T had the Captivate, Verizon had the Fascinate, Sprint had the Epic 4G and T-Mobile had the Vibrant 4G. They shared a lot of DNA, but were completely different handsets.
The Galaxy S2 wasn’t received as well by US carriers. Verizon skipped it entirely, while AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile again got their own Frankenstein versions of the international model. HTC and Motorola continued to be carrier favorites, but like a tech version of Game of Thrones, Samsung didn’t just want to compete. They wanted all of Westeros. And they brought a trio of dragons and army of a million in 2012 in the form of the Galaxy S3. The phone single-handedly rocketed Samsung to the top and they’ve never come down.
It came with a massive, unrivaled 4.8 inch Super AMOLED display at 306 ppi, packed into a compact body thanks to (at the time) very small bezels. It was sleek, futuristic, packed with the latest specs and LTE speeds, and was Android’s true counterpart to the iPhone. It also remained unchanged across carriers. The S3 finally established the Galaxy S line as the ultimate handsets for Android, eventually relegating former champions like HTC, LG and Motorola to alley cats looking for a few scraps.
If you’re wondering how Samsung became the biggest thing in Android, it all started with the Galaxy S3.
5. Nexus 5
Google’s Nexus devices were never really meant for mainstream consumers. They were reference devices to help guide and inspire manufacturers to meet a consistent standard with their smartphones, and were also indispensable tools for developers. HTC made the original Nexus One, but then overshadowed it with the “mainstream edition” Droid Incredible. And that trend continued every year with various manufacturers. Nexus phones eventually became affordable with the Nexus 4 and were loved by Android purists, but remained niche devices that sold in low numbers. That all changed with the LG made Nexus 5.
Released in late 2013, it was a sleek, minimalist handset with flagship specs at a bargain price, which was basically unheard of at the time. For just $349, the unlocked smartphone had a 5-inch (4.95-inch) 1080p display, Snapdragon 800 and introduced Android 4.4 KitKat. Like all Nexus devices, it also received updates faster than any other smartphone due to its stock software and complete lack of carrier influence. Manufacturer skins were all the rage back then, like HTC’s Sense UI and Samsung’s Touchwiz, but the Nexus 5 really put the benefits of stock Android in front of a mainstream audience.
No other Nexus (or Pixel) device was ever quite like the Nexus 5. The combination of price, specs, form factor and fluidity was unrivaled at the time. It’s the best representation of Google’s Nexus program and considered to be the “perfect” Android device by many. It never sold in Galaxy S or iPhone numbers, but is a sorely missed classic and Google was never really able to replicate its magic.
6. OnePlus One
OnePlus came out of nowhere in 2014 and achieved the impossible. A new company was able to burst onto the scene and remain relevant in a merciless battleground dominated by established, multi-billion dollar players. They did this with clever marketing and by following in the footsteps of the Nexus 5… Release a flagship phone at a bargain price.
For only $299, you got a very well built handset with a unique, textured sandstone back that packed a 5.5-inch 1080p IPS display, Snapdragon 801, 3GB of RAM and 16GB of storage (64GB was also available for a little more). Cyanogen OS (based on Android 4.4.4 KitKat) was pre-installed and basically stock Android with a much deeper level of customization. For half the price of most 2014 flagships, the OnePlus One was a rare phenomenon that provided the biggest bang for the buck in the industry. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
For starters, availability was severely limited. The only way to actually buy one was through an invite system. You had to either win an online contest or have a lucky friend as purchasers received an invite that they could share. It was a frustrating system that left many hopefuls empty handed, but was ultimately necessary to control inventory and keep prices down. $299 was so low for what you were getting that OnePlus couldn’t afford to overproduce. Margins were razor-thin. Quality control and customer service issues also plagued the OnePlus One a bit, along with a few marketing misfires.
At the end of the day, in spite of severe shortages and rookie mistakes, OnePlus found success with their first Android device and has become a real force to be reckoned with in the industry. Releasing such a high quality phone for only $299 was a game changer and although subsequent OnePlus smartphones have crept up in price, they’re still among the cheapest flagships you can buy.
7. Samsung Galaxy S6 edge
Although Samsung had been dominant since the galaxy S3, their choice of plastic for flagship handsets was being frowned upon. The current iPhones had impeccable aluminum designs as did several HTC handsets. 2014’s Galaxy S5 was a class leading device with a fingerprint sensor and IP67 rating for water and dust resistance, but wrapped in a subpar plastic shell with a textured back resembling a Band-Aid. If they were going to remain the king of Android, they had to up their design game in a big way. And wow, they didn’t disappoint.
Samsung hit a grand slam the following year with the Galaxy S6, revealing two different aluminum and glass designs. The regular S6 rivaled the iPhone and HTC’s devices with a very premium design, but the pricier S6 edge was the star of the show. The glass and AMOLED panel underneath curved down both sides, creating an almost 3D effect as text and images literally fell off the edge. It didn’t get anymore premium than this and all other flagships suddenly looked staid and boring in comparison. As always, specs were top notch, but the design was ahead of its time and set the standard for all Galaxy S devices to come. Even the new Galaxy S9 is directly based off of the S6 edge’s design language.
The handset represented the next chapter for Samsung and catapulted them from cheap plastics to quintessential design leader.
8. Moto G5 Plus
The Moto G5 Plus? Yeah, it isn’t a flagship by any stretch. And it sits in the middle of Motorola’s bloated portfolio of smartphones. What’s so special about it? Well, it’s the finest example of a truly affordable smartphone with virtually no compromises. It’s not hard to find cheap phones these days and Motorola even offers the Moto E4 for under $100. But the G5 Plus provides all the essential ingredients for only $174.99 at Amazon.
An outstanding 5.2-inch 1080p display is among the best in its class and 32GB of storage with microSD expansion is adequate for most users. A 64GB model is also available for only $209.99. A front facing fingerprint sensor works at a flagship level and with the exception of some useful Motorola additions, the software is bone stock. Plastic is used for part of the body, but the back is aluminum and the display is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 3.
A fast and efficient Snapdragon 625 coupled with 4GB of RAM keeps everything smooth and fluid, and a sizable 3,000mAh battery (with fast charging) keeps the lights on for a full day and night. Unless you play very resource intensive games, the G5 Plus will cover your needs. It’s like the Honda Civic of smartphones. It’s not luxurious, won’t win many design awards and doesn’t have any standout features, but it’s a rock solid handset that provides everything a modern smartphone should at an incredibly affordable price. It’s also unlocked and compatible with all US carriers, which is a rarity and invites everyone to the party. The majority of unlocked devices are GSM-only, which excludes Verizon and Sprint.
The one compromise is the lack of NFC, but mobile payments are still a bit in niche territory so the majority of users can probably live without it. If you need to replace a broken handset or just want a well rounded smartphone that requires no contract and will work on your carrier, you can’t go wrong with the Moto G5 Plus. It’s a testament to the fact that technology has reached a point where you can get a complete smartphone for a very reasonable price.
9. BlackBerry KEYone
Before the iPhone changed everything in 2007, BlackBerry ruled the mobile space. Research in Motion (RIM) was among the first to develop a handset that functioned as a smartphone in 2002. The BlackBerry 5810 allowed you to take your email on the road and it came with the best physical keyboard in the business. It had email, apps and a coolness factor that led to dozens of bigger and better handsets that were must-haves as the company had over 50% of the US market for years. That all came to a halt soon after Apple released the iPhone in 2007. Android’s big entrance a couple of years later sealed the deal and sent the former smartphone leader into chaos for the better part of a decade.
Following the ouster of its founders and CEOs (they had two), and the hiring and firing of another, the company stopped trying to compete with its own operating system and finally adopted Android in 2015. The first few Android/BlackBerry devices weren’t well received and lacked the DNA that loyalists were hoping for. One had a subpar slide-out keyboard and the others were outsourced to manufacturing partner TCL, who simply converted existing Alcatel models into touchscreen-only BlackBerry devices. BlackBerry, the official name after dropping RIM, was all but ready to drop handsets entirely and continue on as a software/security company. And then the KEYone landed in the spring of 2017.
BlackBerry Mobile (the BlackBerry arm of TCL) finally found a winning formula that combined the soul of BlackBerry’s past with Android’s modern OS. The form factor, aluminum build quality and outstanding physical keyboard gave both BlackBerry loyalists and Android aficionados something to covet. The KEYone proved that the founder of smartphones could adapt to modern times, but still retain its famous DNA. The company is now poised to be a successful, if not niche Android player if they can continue to build unique devices that carry the spirit of BlackBerry’s past.
No one knows what the future holds, but if BlackBerry can reestablish its smartphone reputation, it has the KEYone to thank for finally reigniting the fire.
10. Samsung Galaxy Note 8
Samsung introduced their Note line in late 2011 to skeptical critics. The 5.3-inch display was truly massive and bigger than anything seen before on mainstream handsets. Many initially thought it was too big and unwieldy, and would simply fade away as a failed experiment. But the monster machine with an accessory S Pen stylus proved to be a winner with consumers and went on to represent Samsung’s top-of-the-line. The more mainstream Galaxy S smartphones have always been more popular, but the Note line has evolved into the most powerful smartphones you can buy. Period.
The Note 8 is the best smartphone Samsung has ever made and arguably the best smartphone ever. It has very small top and bottom bezels and a screen that curves around the edges, harkening back to the Galaxy S6 edge. This allows a giant 6.3-inch display to live in a manageable body. The phone isn’t exactly compact, but it’s barley larger than the screen itself and is easier to handle than the oversized iPhone Plus models with 5.5-inch displays. Screen quality is the best that money can buy, the specs are bleeding edge and the software is more productive and sophisticated than on any other handset. Combined with the S Pen, the Note 8 is the ultimate in mobile computing and has the best form factor and build quality in the industry. It’s about as close to perfection as a phone can get (minus the horribly placed fingerprint sensor).
Google’s Pixel 2 XL can go toe-to-toe with the Note 8 in many areas, but it still lacks the productivity, screen quality and exceptional form factor of Samsung’s best. It’s the pinnacle of Android handsets.
What do you think? Do you disagree with the list? Is there another handset more worthy of making the cut? Let us know in the comments.