Help me pick my next phone!
July 30, 2013 2:40 PM   Subscribe

My contract with Verizon Wireless is almost up, which means I can get a new smartphone without spending an arm and a leg on it. I'm looking for recommendations for Android phones that are at least decently powered, have good to great battery life, accept microSD for expansion, and can be hacked into without exploding. My top contenders are a Razr Maxx HD or a Galaxy S3/4, but none seem completely satisfactory so I'm open to other suggestions.

Before anyone asks, I am set on sticking with Verizon as the least-worst carrier option, thanks to bad prior experiences with other companies in less-populated areas. My wife's job could ship us back to Nowheresville at the drop of a hat, so coverage is important, if only as a prophylactic.

My initial research turns up the Motorola Razr Maxx HD as the best contender on all fronts - 24-hour battery, it's got an SD slot, and the chipset is only a year old. The only real problem is that a recent software update completely locks down the bootloader and makes the thing basically unhackable. Not all phones are sold with the update pre-installed, but it's impossible to know what software version you're getting until you open the box.

On the Samsung front, the S3 and 4 are both solid phones under the hood, but the construction is flimsy, the screen is unwieldy big, and the button arrangement is weird. It ticks all my boxes but I can't really talk myself into wanting one, which is why I'm searching for another option.

So. What else is out there that's worth my money? I realize demanding an SD port narrows my options substantially, but I really want something that can hold all my music.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish to Technology (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The HTC One is apparently coming to Verizon in a few days, but lacks a SD slot.

The unlockable bootloader thing is a bit of a red herring to me... I've always had nexus phones with unlocked bootloaders and I've never felt the urge to manually flash one up. So based on your criteria I'd go with a Motorola phone.

Also, the Motorola X phone is supposed to be announced soon and will probably come to verizon. Unknown if it will have a SD slot.

So with two upcoming big Android phone releases for Verizon it might be worth it to wait for a few more days before deciding. But I suspect one of the latest Droid models woul dbe fine for your use.
posted by GuyZero at 3:12 PM on July 30, 2013

If you are sticking with Verizon, your options aren't plentiful. Verizon forces OEMs to lock most, if not all, bootloaders. That, combined with your requirement for SD card support, significantly narrows the field. (Of course you can still root with a locked bootloader and get 99% of what you need without running a custom kernel, and in some cases you can also run custom roms with a locked bootloader too.)

Your use case for the SD card is music - but if you are willing to sign up with Google Play Music you can stream your music (plus anything else in their catalog) AND download specific albums or playlists to store locally if you know you will be out of signal range or running low on data for the month, so you may find you'll be OK without the additional storage.

That said, the Razr Maxx HD is probably your best bet if you are firm on most of your requirements. If not, and you're not a fan of the monstrous GS3 or GS4, you can get the newly announced Maxx (no SD but more updated specs), or maybe wait for the HTC One (announced and coming soon) or the Moto X (being officially announced this week but you can read leaked specs everywhere).

Finally - I would also suggest looking again at AT&T - their coverage is just as good as Verizon, and you won't know which company has better coverage in any particular "Nowheresville" until you get there. At least with them you can buy the uber-hackable Nexus 4 direct from Google, or find many other options with unlockable bootloaders and SD card slots. (I'm on Verizon and plan to stay for now, at least until T-Mo gets their coverage and network speeds up to par with the Big 2 to force real competition but YMMV)
posted by trivia genius at 3:14 PM on July 30, 2013

Having been in your exact situation less than a month ago, I ended up getting a Samsung S4. Unfortunately, that's pretty much the best option available on Verizon at the moment that I'm aware of. There are some not-too-horrible cases available for the phone that improve the flimsiness feel somewhat, but I'm in much the same boat as you. If it weren't for the fact that the software on my old Droid 3 was intolerably slow, I would've held onto it.

If you can wait a bit, I'd recommend doing so. Hopefully there will be some new devices in the pipe for the holiday season.
posted by Aleyn at 3:17 PM on July 30, 2013

Wait for the Moto X. I think it'll be available in a week or less, and it should be the best verizon phone on the market, if not in specs in overall quality/
posted by irishcoffee at 3:36 PM on July 30, 2013

Response by poster: Yeah, I'm on Google Play Music already but I do most of my music listening away from wi-fi and have no interest in upping my data subscription just to stream music I already own.

I thought about waiting for the moto x, but after the new Droid line all lacked SD cards, I'm not optimistic about the next big Motorola phone.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 4:54 PM on July 30, 2013

Response by poster: Also, re: unlocked phones, IMO the whole point of rooting a phone is to get it closer to stock. If you've already got a Nexus, there's no point - Google just doesn't make the Nexus line for people who want local storage.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 4:58 PM on July 30, 2013

Moto X first week in August. Try it for a few weeks and if you don't like it return if for a stocking fee of $30 I think. Sort of like a rental for $10 per week. I now have an S4 after losing my S3 and can say that the screen is great, but I have big hands so the size is actually practical. Also, although the case is some sort of plastic or composite, it has never been an issue as far as I am concerned. Holds up well. I did not use a case for the first 5 months and no issues. With a case, it was not ever an issue. As for the buttons, I have not used another Android phone so they seem fine to me, but I think that is personal preference so stick to your gut.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:57 PM on July 30, 2013

I've found through personal experience, and the sheer number of cracked iPhones out there, that plastic-backed phones are much more flexible and tend to survive falls without breaking...stiff unibody phones tend to shatter the instant they touch the ground...YMMV
If I could marry my galaxy note 2 I probably would...and the larger screen means typos, and squinting, are nearly nonexistent it! (I'm an artist so the pen is a natural fit for me, too) ...the sound is also really good and clear and i often use it as a 'transistor radio' and the expandable memory takes up to 64GB microsd cards...oh, and with bluetooth and gps turned off (the controls for this and other settings like brightness, wifi, etc are super-sensibly located on the notification screen) I usually get up to 3 days of casual use, and even with heavy use/gps/etc at least a day and a half.
If you do decide to go that route, you might want to wait a few more months as the note 3 is expected to drop in september (possibly/probably in 3 different sizes)...
posted by sexyrobot at 9:21 PM on July 30, 2013

Response by poster: Welp, the Moto X is a complete bust for my needs. Points for the OS apparently being very near stock, which are then deducted for darn near everything else about the phone. I guess I'll go with an S3/4, although I'm halfway-tempted to go to an actual Verizon store and ask to play with a Razr Maxx before I buy, so I can check the software version that way.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:26 PM on August 1, 2013

I'm looking for a phone too, so if HZSF doesn't mind, it seems smarter to add to an existing AskMe - anyone have info on the new Motorola Droid Maxx vs. Ultra vs. Mini?
posted by maryr at 10:56 AM on August 10, 2013

Response by poster: They're not available yet, so nobody's been able to review or benchmark them, but they seem to have internals that are very close to the Moto X's, just without some of the bells and whistles like customizable cases. So the screen is a bit lower-resolution than the new crop of 1080p monsters, and the processor isn't quite as powerful as the S4 or the HTC One or whatnot. But because the screen isn't as dense and the processor isn't as powerful, you get more battery life for your buck.

As far as the individual models go, they're all using the same processors and operating system. The Mini is noteworthy for packing fairly solid processing power into a relatively small phone - almost an inch smaller than the current crop of five-inch behemoths like the S4. The Ultra is a standard "high-end" chassis, while the Maxx is going all-out on battery life (although how long the battery will last hasn't been tested yet, see above) and has more storage space. None of them have expandable storage - no microSD slots here - so you have to buy the $300 Maxx to get more than 16GB, which sucks.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:49 PM on August 10, 2013

Response by poster: For whatever it's worth, I ended up with an S4, and I really like it. If you get one that was manufactured before the most recent software update, it can be easily rooted and re-flashed with a custom operating system, including the Google Edition software that they made for other carriers. That basically turns the phone into an LTE-equipped, SD-card-having Nexus, which is pretty darn nice. Plus you can switch on the regular Android home/back/multitask buttons in the process, which gets rid of the stupid button arrangement Samsung likes so much and shrinks the screen a bit, so it's not so insane to use with one hand.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:13 PM on August 15, 2013

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