Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Top 10 smartphones of 2011 (Holiday Gift Guide)

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Summary: Apple’s iOS and Google Android are the two clear leaders in the smartphone market here in the U.S. so it was easy to pick the top two devices from these platforms. The next eight were not as easy in such a competitive market.

The beginning of the year always starts with a bang with smartphones being revealed at CES, Mobile World Congress and CTIA. I created a preliminary top 10 smartphones list in March and now that we have all the major anticipated announcements for the year I thought it was fitting to post my top 10 smartphones for the year 2011. Many of the phones I had on that list are present in this new list, but now that I have had hands-on time with some my perspective has changed. Some have yet to be released, but should be coming before the holidays so I included them as well. There are some great devices coming in 2012, but since it is likely we won’t see them this year I couldn’t include them in this list.

Last year I posted my top 10 smartphones of 2010 article in May, but Apple pushed back their iPhone 4S announcement from the traditional summer time frame. Google and Microsoft also made major announcements just this month. It is getting a bit easier to pick top platforms as iOS and Android are the clear leaders with Windows Phone on the move up and BlackBerry on the way down. BlackBerry devices are still 3rd in U.S. market share, but their OS is getting dated and we won’t see much excitement for the platform until QNX-based devices hit the streets. webOS is non-existent and out of the picture while Symbian is rare to find here in the U.S.

I was at Nokia World last week and saw the solid Nokia 710 and 800 devices and initially had the 800 planned for 3rd place, but since we are unlikely to see either of them here in the U.S. until early 2012 I had to take them off the list.

You can check out several product photos of these top 10 devices in my image gallery, but I also highly recommend you visit your carrier store or local electronics retailer to get some hands-on time with a device before you make your purchase decision. Also, check out online reviews from multiple sites to get a good feel for the devices.

The prices you will see in this article are from the carrier, when available. If you are new to a carrier or adding another line you will find excellent prices on Amazon.com and other online vendors like Wirefly. Each carrier is different for all of us and performance is highly dependent on where you live, work, and play. I recommend you figure out which carrier works best for you before buying a device you won’t be happy with because of the carrier. There are many excellent smartphone options today and you honestly can’t really go wrong with any of the available choices. Like carriers, different smartphone operating systems work for different people because of their different strengths and weaknesses, 3rd party applications, and available form factors.

Enough about the disclaimers and warnings, let’s take a look at my list of Top 10 Smartphones of 2011. I hope you find this helpful as we head into the holiday buying season.

I participated in the ZDNet Great Debate for the Apple iPhone 4S, but readers overwhelmingly voted against it and many in the tech press stated it was not much of an upgrade. However, consumers responded in a big way and Apple had record opening weekend sales exceeding 4 million devices.

I became an iPhone owner again with the iPhone 4S on Verizon and am very happy with the device. The internals were bumped up with a dual-core processor, updated antenna design, and 8 megapixel camera. The Siri artificial intelligence utility is excellent and even in beta demonstrates a new way to interact with your device. I love that I can make appointments and set alarms with a few short words and the iPhone 4S is changing the way I use my smartphone. You can also SIM unlock the Verizon iPhone 4S for true world phone usage with Sprint and AT&T having slightly different policies. I used my iPhone 4S with my Truphone SIM in London and it worked very well.

The Apple iPhone 4S is available on AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint for $199 (16GB), $299 (32GB), and $399 (64GB) with a two-year contract. The unsubsidized, no-contract prices range from $649 (16GB) to $849 (64GB), depending on your carrier.

Google rolled out the Nexus One back in January 2010 as their flagship device that supports the latest Android operating system. The Nexus S was released last year and just last week Google and Samsung announced the Galaxy Nexus that will be coming to the U.S. with Verizon confirmed to get the device first before the end of this year.

Unlike the previous Nexus devices, there is really nothing missing in this latest device, including the latest wireless radios. The Galaxy Nexus sports a 4.65 inch 1280×720 Super AMOLED HD display, LTE and HSPA+ pentaband support, Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), NFC, barometer, 1080p HD video camera, 1750 mAh battery and more. I have regularly ranted on this blog about the lack of pentaband 3G data support that currently only Nokia provides in true world phone fashion with support for frequencies in all ranges. Thankfully, the new Galaxy Nexus is a pentaband phone, with support for the 21 Mbps HSPA+ data network so it is highly likely I will be picking one up to use with T-Mobile USA.

There is no pricing or availability yet and it sounds like it will roll out in Europe and other countries first with a Verizon LTE model coming before the end of 2011. It’s not clear if we will see one launching on AT&T or T-Mobile here in the U.S.

Readers know I am a major Windows Phone fan and I know it hasn’t yet been adopted by a large number of Americans, but it really is fantastic and everyone I know that tries it out likes it. I was going to put one of the new Nokia Windows Phone devices here in 3rd, but none are coming to the U.S. this year so I am throwing in the HTC Titan that is coming to AT&T soon, likely in November. I finally had a chance to try out the HTC Titan this week and even though the display is huge, it is quite thin and extremely well made.

The HTC Titan has a massive 4.7 inch Super LCD display at the same standard 800×480 resolution that still looks crisp and clear. It has a 1.5 GHz processor, 16GB integrated storage, 512MB RAM, 1600 mAh battery, HSPA+ radio (up to 14.4 Mbps downloads), and 8 megapixel camera. HTC had done work with their cameras and it is actually quite good.

There is no pricing yet for AT&T, but Microsoft recently showed it off and it is coming to the carrier soon.

Let’s check out numbers 4 through 7 »

Matthew Miller started using a Pilot 1000 in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since.


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