There are something like one million Android phones for every person on the planet right now (plus or minus one). Most of them suck. Many are great. Here's the definitive list that tells you which is which.
Here are the ground rules. Every Android phone available on the websites of the big four US carriers will be ranked. Phones that are only sold refurbished or certified pre-owned will not be ranked. Sorry, Pantech Burst on AT&T, that means you don't make the cut. Other notable phones will be added to the list as seen fit (hello Nexii!). There will be no ties. This is America, where there is one winner and then different degrees of losers.
1. Nexus 5
The best Android phone you can buy is also the most Android phone you can buy, if that makes any sense. It's everything great about Android in one brawny rectangular prism. It's fast, it's big, it's cheap, and it isn't tied to carriers. You can forget about all those manufacturer skins and bullshit carrier delays once you go Nexus; this phone will always (and only) be what Google wants it to be. It's like moving to a place with impossibly good weather. You'll forget about all the suffering of shoveling snow and the shattered dreams of broken umbrellas with a Nexus 5.
2. Moto X
Everything about this phone is good enough and that somehow adds up to pretty damn great. Things that don't look good on paper—a slightly worse screen than the heavyweights, a rubberized soft-touch plastic backing, etc.—somehow don't really subtract from the total experience. What's great is that it's perhaps the best compromise in having a big screen and having a phone that normal humans can hold. Plus, the added software touches are surprisingly good here.
3. HTC One
It's either the best-looking phone on the planet or tied for that title, depending on when the last time you got your eyes checked. And though it's running up in age a little bit now (six months is a lifetime for Android phones), the camera in the HTC One is still first class. Basically, it's a supermodel that takes better pictures than the photographer taking pictures of her. When you have the HTC One, you will never suffer from phone envy because you know you're always going home with the best looking thing on the planet.
The Second Tier
4. Samsung Galaxy S4
By most metrics—and geek creepin' eyeballing at bars—it's the most popular Android phone in the world. It really shouldn't be. Buying an S4 is effectively declaring that you don't care about how things look and just bought whatever the guy in the collared shirt at the store told you to buy. But I care about how things work, you say. I care about personality, you say. Nah. You only say you care because you spent money on this piece of plastic. If you spent it on another piece of plastic, you'd be tootin' that one. Here's the deal: the S4 has the cheapest look and feel of any top flight phone. The next one needs to be better for sheep's sake.
5. Droid Maxx
Your reason: A big ass battery. And that's important because our sucktitude in developing batteries is going to be why we lose an alien space war. Buying a Droid Maxx means you care about the future of humanity. The money you pay for this phone is actually a pledge of support towards the future defense of Earth. Also you can go two days without charging, which is pretty great.
6. Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Your reason: a big ass screen. If you're into comically big things like Big Gulps, Starbuck Trentas, Super Sizes, Hummers, Shaq, eating competitions and so forth, this is your phone soulmate. Is there some mathematically perfect screen size for normal human hands? Probably! But I bet big ass phone owners don't give a damn as they laugh at your puny ass on their way to grill steaks in Texas.
The Third Tier
7. Sony Xperia Z
Waterproof is always cool but especially cool when it doesn't scream waterproof with a yellow rubber safety vest and yellow rubber ducky strapped to its body. The Sony Xperia Z looks like what a phone looks like in 2013 and happens to be able to swim. That's good and sadly, too rare.
8. LG G2
It's a screamer of a phone in that it's ridiculously powerful but also prone to making you scream when you use it. But if you like gardening, you'll like this phone. And if you like hurting yourself, you'll like this phone. Still, with the specs it packs, it's hard to rank it any lower.
9. HTC One Mini
A phone that is slightly worse than the HTC One is actually slightly better than most everything else. It's just a good looking phone, man.
Phones You Should Probably Not Buy Unless You're a Fish
10. Samsung Galaxy S4 Active
You've figured us out: we basically blindly support anything waterproof because it's a damn shame that water can still destroy your phone in 2013.
Phones You Should Probably Not Buy Unless You're a Giant
11. HTC One Max
12. Galaxy Mega
Just kidding, maybe there is a limit to how big phones should be.
Phones You Should Probably Not Buy Unless You're Goldilocks
13. S4 Mini
A smaller, chintzier version of an already bland phone.
Phones You Should Probably Not Buy Because They're Old
14. Nexus 4
15. Samsung Galaxy S3
16. Samsung Galaxy Note 2
17. Droid DNA
18. LG Optimus G Pro
19. LG Optimus G
If you're using these phones, you're still probably under a contract. That's okay. They're still perfectly serviceable now and better than everything below but that doesn't mean you should buy them anymore. Enjoy the memories.
Phones You Should Probably Not Buy Unless It'll Save a Life
20. Droid Ultra
21. Droid Mini
22. Moto G
23. Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini
We've just cleared the don't need to exist zone.
Phones That Are Meant to Be Taken As a Joke
24. HTC First
25. LG Lucid 2
26. Droid Razr M
27. Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom
28. LG Intuition
29. LG Wildfire Amaze S
One of these phones is meant for Facebook-ing, unlike other better phones which can also Facebook. One of these phones has a UI meant for smartphone newbs. One of these phones has two back panels. One of these phones is actually a camera. One of these phones has a stylus you will lose. And one of these phones I completely made up to see if you were still paying attention.
It's Probably Time To Change Phones
29. HTC Evo 4G LTE
It's kind of like when you see an old actor pop up on TV and get surprised that he's not dead yet. A shitty feeling for a former great but... sorry, it's the truth.
Survivable 'Budget' Phones
30. Pantech Discover
31. Samsung Galaxy Light
32. Samsung Galaxy Victory 4G LTE
33. Sprint Vital
34. LG Viper 4G LTE
Whoever owns these phones must always be fooled whenever the McRib "is back."
Phones That Exist For People Who Are Outdoors (But Not Homeless)
35. Kyocera Torque
36. Samsung Galaxy Rugby Pro
37. Casio G'Zone Commando 4G LTE
38. Casio G'Zone Commando
39. Kyocera Hydro Elite
40. Kyocera Hydro Edge
For an indoorsman like me, I can respect these rugged phones. They're cool like how Toughbooks are cool, but that doesn't mean you'd want to use them on a regular basis.
Unsurvivable Budget Phones (Phones for Homeless People)
41. LG Optimus F6
42. LG Optimus F3
43. Pantech Perception
44. LG Optimus Elite
45. ZTE Fury
46. Kyocera Rise
I think you'd be more at peace with your life if you had a flip phone. Or no phone.
Phones That Exist Because People Miss Their Blackberries
47. Motorola Droid 4
48. Motorola Photon Q 4G
49. LG Mach
50. LG Enact
51. Pantech Marauder
52. Motorola Admiral
53. NEC Terrain
Some of these are the successors to the original Droid that spawned Android. Most of them are just bastard grandsons that shamed the family name. All of them have keyboards for people who like thumb callouses.
Phones That Exist for Reasons Unbeknownst to Most Humans
54. Alcatel One Touch Fierce
55. Alcatel One Touch Evolve
No idea why Alcatel felt the need to make two. Or even one.
56. myTouch myTouch Q