How quickly the world of smartphones has changed. Two years ago, a story about the best models would have featured the iPhone and some BlackBerry handsets, with Android-based phones scarcely mentioned. One year ago, the iPhone would have been front-and-center, with a mix of BlackBerry and Android phones in the supporting cast. But in 2011, Android is king, and even in the volatile world of smartphones, it seems likely to dominate for some time to come.
More mobile consumers now say that they want an Android phone than an iPhone, according to an April 2011 Nielsen survey. The difference isn't huge--31 percent for Android to 30 percent for the iPhone. But the trend looks good for the little green guy: Android's polling number has risen significantly from 26 percent in late 2010, while the iPhone's desirability has slipped slightly from 33 percent in that same period.
Part of the reason that Android is capturing the hearts and minds of consumers is that prospective buyers have so many Android phones to choose from. Dozens of Android phones have come out in the past year on all of the Big Four cell-phone networks (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon) as well as on the smaller, prepaid carriers. Android phones range in price from $50 to $300, so whether you're on a tight budget and need a prepaid phone or you're a tech-savvy gadget freak who wants the latest and greatest features, you can find an Android phone that meets your needs.
The competition among the many companies that make Android phones is driving innovation in design, in components, and in new features and capabilities. The biggest practical advantage that Android has over its rivals involves its support of 4G networks (LTE on Verizon, HSPA+ on AT&T and T-Mobile, and WiMax on Sprint) for faster data speeds. Right now, the only phones capable of handling 4G are Android phones--and it doesn't look as though Windows Phone 7 units or BlackBerrys will be jumping aboard the 4G bandwagon anytime soon. Plenty of rumors have been swirling in the phone industry about the possibility of a 4G iPhone 5, but we haven't been able to nail down confirmed information on that front. Meanwhile, in our head-to-head tests of competing 4G Android phones, we recorded staggering performance differences between 4G and 3G data speeds on all four networks.
We've also seen considerable diversity in Android handset designs, ranging from dual-screen phones to gaming phones to phones with slide-out keyboards. Another recent development is an influx of phones equipped with dual-core processors; among the newcomers are the Motorola Atrix 4G and the T-Mobile G2X made by LG Electronics (both have Tegra 2 processors). Later this year, we'll see dual-core phones from Samsung (running on the company's own dual-core chip) and from HTC (carrying dual-core processors from Qualcomm).
Owning an Android phone has some drawbacks, however. For one thing, it's common for fairly recent Android phones not to run the latest version of Google's mobile operating system because of the difficulties that manufacturers and carriers have in rolling out software upgrades. As an example, most Samsung Galaxy phones--including the Vibrant and the Fascinate--are upgradable to Android 2.2, but the Epic 4G's update was delayed multiple times.
Another potential issue is that the Android experience can be inconsistent from one phone model to another. Manufacturers sometimes load custom user interfaces that completely change the look and feel of the operating system; as a result, using the Samsung Vibrant, for instance, can feel entirely different from using the HTC Sensation, even though both are Android handsets. If Android is to continue to rule the mobile world, Google must address some of these inconsistencies.
Still, despite the OS's flaws, when we looked for the best phones available from each carrier, our list consisted entirely of Android phones. When measured on usability, features, and performance, Android phones swept the competition. We also picked out some hot phones that are due in the next several months, as well as some others that have standout features. Spoiler alert: They're all Android phones, too.
Not surprisingly, our Top 10 Smartphones chart is dominated by Android models as well. Only the eighth-place Apple iPhone 4 prevents a flood of handsets that pack Google's mobile operating system from registering a clean sweep of the rankings. In addition to providing the detailed features chart above, we've posted an interactive version of the Top 10 Cell Phones chart with links to reviews of all the listed models.