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Buying guide: Best Android phones - USA, May 2013

The AA smartphone buying guide brings you the best pre-paid and contract phones, both high-end and budget, available in May 2013 in the United States.
May 14, 2013
samsung galaxy s4 vs htc one standings aa

Much has happened in the world of Android over the last few months, with major announcements from Samsung, HTC, Sony and LG. Also, many smartphone manufacturers have released phones across multiple carriers, which can make a buying choice difficult.

But is there one Android phone you should buy? No, but there are many handsets out there, covering a wide variety of needs. Need a good camera? There’s an Android phone for that. Need a budget phone? There’s an Android phone for that.

Join us in taking a look at the latest and greatest Android smartphones available this month across all US carriers.

The AA smartphone buying guide brings you the best pre-paid and contract phones, both high-end and budget, available in May 2013 in the United States.

Best phones on contract: high-end


This year, HTC is trying to redeem itself with the One, a beautiful aluminum-clad smartphone that leads the market in screen and camera technologies. HTC made good decisions with the One, focusing on marketing the camera and speakers as the main selling points.

The One was very well received, with many people stating that they were going to go with the One over the S4 due to the aluminum build compared to Samsung’s plastic. HTC have also released the phone with three of the four main carriers in the US, which is more than can be said of its recent flagships.

HTC has improved Sense greatly with the new version, cleaning up the interface and adding new features such as BlinkFeed, which is a Flipboard-style homescreen replacement that connects to your social media accounts and favorite news sources. There is also a range of camera features to go along with the improved camera, such as the new Zoe.

Talking of the camera, a very nice thing about the one is the “ultrapixel” sensor, which lets the phone take brilliant vivid photos with great exposure even in low-light photos, by capturing more light per pixel. However the low amount of 4 megapixels can be concerning, as photos sometimes come out fuzzy and lacking in detail due to the small size.

HTC One review

HTC One availability and pricing

  • AT&T – available for $199 on a new plan
  • Sprint – available for $99 on a new plan
  • T-Mobile – available for $99 down payment, $20 per month off contract

Samsung Galaxy S4

With the new Galaxy S4, Samsung plans on repeating last year’s success on an even larger scale by updating the specs and throwing in a multitude of handy software features. Last month, Samsung announced the S4 in style at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, building up iPhone-like hype and staging an ambitious Broadway event to unveil the new phone.

The Galaxy S4 is filled with new software features, but many have labeled them as gimmicky. These include things such as Eye Scroll, Air View, which allows you to hover a finger over the device for previews, and a nifty health app. They can be useful and make the experience of the S4 more enjoyable, although probably no one will call them necessary.

Many have criticized the plastic construction of Samsung phones such as the Galaxy S4. While plastic certainly has its flaws, it still holds up well and ultimately doesn’t spoil the experience provided by the extra software features on this phone. On the other hand, plastic allows the cover to be taken off revealing the replaceable battery, which is widely regarded as an important smartphone feature.

We found the Galaxy S4 to be one of the best performers in many categories with its blazing fast quad core processor, beautiful display and a worthy 13-megapixel camera.

Samsung Galaxy S4 review

Samsung Galaxy S4 availability and pricing

  • Verizon – available for $199 on a new plan starting May 23
  • AT&T – available for $199 on a new plan
  • Sprint – available for $249 on a new plan, $149 if you move from another carrier
  • T-Mobile – available for $149 down payment, $20 per month off contract
  • U.S. Cellular – available for $199 on a new plan


The Droid DNA is the latest member of Verizon’s army of droids. This handset was the first to introduce full HD displays to the US market. Sporting a Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor and an eight megapixel camera, this phone is no slouch and could certainly still be considered a good high-end choice.

With Verizon skipping the HTC One, this phone is definitely the best HTC phone available on Verizon today. If you appreciate a decent build quality and Sense 4.1, then this is the Verizon phone for you.

HTC Droid DNA review

HTC Droid DNA availability and pricing

  •  Verizon – available for $199 on a new plan

LG Optimus G Pro

LG is making its way back into the smartphone game slowly and steadily. Last year, the high end Optimus G made its way onto several carriers but ultimately did not sell well. This time, LG is hoping that it can change the game with its latest phablet. The phone is packed with premium specs that you would expect to see from a high end smartphone in 2013 such as the fabulous 1080p display that many manufacturers are including on their devices.

LG’s custom Android UI is perhaps not the most attractive looking UI, but still a functional and easy to use layover with several customisation options. However this handset does lack the useful stylus found on the Galaxy Note II. If you’re looking for a phablet with a stylus, then waiting for the Galaxy Note 3 would probably be your best choice. Nonetheless, the Optimus G Pro remains a strong contender and is amongst the best smartphones out right now.

LG Optimus G Pro review

LG Optimus G Pro availability and pricing

  • AT&T – Available for $199 on a new plan

Best phones on contract: budget

Samsung Galaxy S3

Last year, the Galaxy S3 became a hit before it even hit shelves, with Samsung reporting 9 million pre-orders worldwide. The handset went on to outsell the iPhone in many countries and eventually became the hottest Android smartphone of 2012.

This phone may not be the latest and greatest anymore, however, it is still a very strong contender. You get a whole host of features, 2 GB of RAM, and a still fast dual-core processor at a cost of just $99 on most carriers, which is a steal considering it will most likely be supported by Samsung for at least another year.

Samsung Galaxy S3 review

Samsung Galaxy S3 availability and pricing

  • Verizon – available for $99 on a new plan
  • AT&T – available for $99 on a new plan
  • Sprint – available for $99 on a new plan, free if you move in from another carrier
  • T-Mobile – available for $69 down payment, $20 per month off contract
  • U.S. Cellular – available for $99 on a new plan

Pantech Discover

This midrange device was first unveiled at CES 2013 and it had little impact compared to devices such as Sony’s Xperia Z, which was also revealed in Vegas and took home the Best in Show title. We were thoroughly impressed by the Discover in ourreview and gave Pantech credit for the phone’s beautiful 4.7-inch 720p display, smooth interface, and decent camera, all for a small price on contract.

Pantech even got the build right, creating something easy and comfortable to hold while keeping it thin and light. The downside however, is that it is running Android 4.0, which is more than a year and a half old. Still, if you’re in the market for a decent midrange phone at a low price, then the Pantech Discover may be the perfect smartphone for you.

Pantech Discover review

Pantech Discover availability and pricing

  • AT&T – available for $49 on a new plan

Best phones off contract (SIM-free)

Google Nexus 4

Google’s Nexus line has always been a favorite amongst Android fans and developers, because of the stock Android interface, which is cleaner and smoother than many manufacturer UIs. It also has the benefit of receiving software updates directly from Google, ahead of the rest of the Android phones and tablets on the market.

Last year, LG was selected to produce the next Nexus for Google and they did a great job, combining excellent hardware (4.7-inch 720p display, quad-core processor, 8MP camera etc.) with Google’s own software (Stock Android 4.2). This phone was immediately one of the most desired on the planet and that was especially clear from launch, with the Nexus 4 selling out in an hour. It is, however, back in stock and available from the Google Play Store unlocked and SIM free at an unbelievably cheap price.

Google Nexus 4 review

Google Nexus 4 availability and pricing

  • Google Play – available for $299 unlocked
  • T-Mobile – available $20 down payment, $17 per month off contract

Sony Xperia ZL

The Sony Xperia ZL is the smaller brother to the beautiful Xperia Z. It keeps the same 1080p 5-inch screen, quad-core processor and 13 megapixel camera, but just in a smaller, more convenient package, which enables easier one handed use. The handset is running Sony’s custom UI, which has some extra software features added on, but still generally retains a simple and functional look.

However, we have noted that the display lacks vibrancy and wide viewing angles, which could potentially be a problem for some users. But if you overlook the display, the Xperia ZL is still a solid unlocked choice – even at the high price.

Sony Xperia ZL review

Sony Xperia ZL availability and pricing

Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini

After the success of the Galaxy S3, Samsung moved onwards to create a second device for those people who liked the S3 but wanted it in a smaller package. They compressed the 4.8-inch Galaxy S3 into the 4-inch Galaxy S3 mini, keeping all the bells and whistles that its larger brother has, while making it friendlier for people who prefer smaller devices.

The screen is not the only thing compressed though. The specs are also a step down but not disastrously. This phone has a dual core processor, 540p resolution and 5-megapixel camera. These specs are not bad enough to completely distract you from the experience of the phone, but some people may not be satisfied. All in all, this is still a fluid and enjoyable device, which will whet the appetites of those who want a smaller screen.

Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini review

Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini availability and pricing

  • Best Buy – available for $349 unlocked

Wrap up

Spring is always an exciting time for Android shoppers, because of the amount of devices released during this time. Samsung, HTC and LG all have solid entries into the high end space and are all worth taking a look at if you’re looking for a premium Android handset.

With the rumored Motorola X Phone and Galaxy Note 3 on the horizon, it is already clear that this year will be a great one for both Android lovers and general consumers, with so many choices and variations available on the market.