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.
Best Verizon Phone: HTC ThunderBolt
The HTC ThunderBolt is the first phone available in the United States that can connect to Verizon’s lightning-fast 4G LTE network. That fact alone makes the ThunderBolt (priced at $250 with a new two-year contract) a great piece of hardware, especially for users who routinely run various high-bandwidth applications such as video chat, online gaming, and high-definition video streaming. Network speed aside, the phone is another solid addition to HTC’s mostly impressive family of smartphones, though inevitably it does have a few shortcomings–most notably with regard to battery life.
When you pick up the ThunderBolt, it feels well built and sturdy. For users accustomed to a smaller phone, though, the 5.78-ounce ThunderBolt, with its 4.8-by-2.6-by-0.52-inch frame, can feel like a monster. To its credit, the phone makes good use of its size. When you’re on the go, the ThunderBolt’s 4.3-inch WVGA screen gives you ample room to maneuver your fingers while touch-typing and navigating Websites. The one complaint we had about the screen is that we found its display difficult to view in direct sunlight.
The phone’s design is quite simple. It features a power button and a headphone jack at the top, a volume rocker on the right spine, and the standard Home, Menu, Back, and Search buttons on the face of the device. On the back of the ThunderBolt are an 8-megapixel camera (with a dual-LED flash) and a kickstand. A 1.3-megapixel camera situated on the front of the smartphone supports video chatting.
The ThunderBolt’s biggest draw is its broadband speeds, which in our tests were simply stunning. Using the Ookla FCC Mobile Broadband Test, we saw consistent download speeds of between 8 megabits per second and 12 mbps. Testing with full bars showing and in an area that supports Verizon’s 4G LTE network, we managed to load the PCWorld.com mobile site in about 4 seconds. Unusually image-heavy sites like Escapistmagazine.com loaded in under 10 seconds.
The ThunderBolt comes preloaded with an improved version of Sense UI, HTC’s custom software that overlies the Android OS. Most of the Sense UI changes are cosmetic, but HTC has thrown in a few nifty new features as well. For instance, dragging down the notification bar at the top of the screen reveals a list of applications that you’ve previously opened, providing another avenue for managing your open apps. Turning on the ThunderBolt’s fast-boot option lets you start the phone almost immediately, though you will have to turn the function off to use certain apps.
The ThunderBolt has gained a reputation for having a weak battery. This is an unfortunately common problem among 4G smartphones–including the first 4G phone, Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G. The radios in 4G devices demand far more power than the ones in 3G phones do, simply because they pull and push so much more data from and to the network. Also, if you leave your device’s 4G setting on, the phone will constantly look for a 4G network to connect to. The best way to alleviate the problem is to use 4G only when you’re in an area that supports it.
Though its specs are nothing we haven’t already seen in earlier smartphones such as Motorola’s Droid X and Droid 2, the ThunderBolt’s ability to take advantage of the unprecedented speed of Verizon’s LTE network makes it a special phone indeed. Users who need high bandwidth to stream high-definition video or to play online games while they’re on the road will find no faster phone on the market today.
Best Sprint Phone: Samsung Epic 4G
The Samsung Epic 4G ($150 with a two-year contract from Sprint) stands out from its Galaxy S siblings for several reasons. Unlike any of the others, it has a physical keyboard and a front-facing camera–and it runs on Sprint’s 4G network.
Among the many QWERTY keyboard phones that we have reviewed, the Epic is one of the best. The keys are properly spaced and have a pleasant clickiness to them. If you don’t want to use the physical keyboard, the touchscreen offers even more options: the TouchWiz keyboard, the Swype keyboard, or the native Android keyboard. The display is quite responsive, and it’s big enough to type on comfortably.
Like the other Galaxy S phones, the Epic 4G sports a 4-inch Super AMOLED display. Samsung’s Super AMOLED technology puts touch sensors on the display itself–instead of on a separate layer, as in Samsung’s older AMOLED displays–making it the thinnest display technology on the market. The Super AMOLED screen looks fantastic; you really have to see it in person. Colors burst from the screen, and animations look lively and smooth. The display also works remarkably well in bright outdoor light, though the phone’s glossy chassis sometimes projects a killer glare.
The Epic 4G, which has finally been updated to Android 2.2 (“Froyo”) from 2.1 (“Éclair”), carries Samsung’s own TouchWiz 3.0 user interface. Overall, this version of TouchWiz is a lot better than the previous iteration, which we saw on phones such as the Samsung Behold II for T-Mobile (a handset that was disappointingly slow and difficult to navigate).
Although this version of the overlay is an improvement on its predecessors, we continued to encounter some familiar issues with TouchWiz 3.0. Despite the 1GHz Hummingbird processor, the phone lagged slightly when we used it to flip through menus or to scroll down contact lists or Web pages.
One of the big benefits of the Epic 4G is evident in its name: It’s only the second phone that connects to Sprint’s 4G network. In our speed tests, Sprint’s 4G WiMax service was indeed fast, but it didn’t provide reliable service. This suggests that Sprint and its WiMax partner Clearwire don’t have a sufficient density of WiMax base stations on the ground.
We’ve tested all of the Galaxy phones, and the Epic 4G is definitely the best–as well as being one of the top Android phones available. Its nicely designed physical keyboard, 4G goodness, and front-facing camera make it hard to beat.
Best AT&T Phone: Motorola Atrix 4G
A lot of excitement surrounded the debut of the Motorola Atrix 4G at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year. It appeared to be not just another phone, but a new concept that might combine the mobility of a smartphone and the superior usability of a laptop in a single, well-designed product.
The Atrix ($200 with a two-year AT&T contract) can dock to a laptoplike base (sold separately) that gives you a full-size keyboard for editing documents or using certain apps. The dock is essentially a shell containing a screen, a keyboard, speakers, and a touchpad. When docked in its slot at the rear of the laptop, the Atrix automatically launches a Webtop app that provides a larger, more functional presentation of its content and features for the laptop’s bigger screen. For instance, it can run a full-size Mozilla Firefox browser or display rich content such as Flash graphics on the larger screen. Meanwhile, conveniently, the powered laptop charges the phone’s battery.
We were certainly impressed with the handset–especially the power of its processor, the clarity of its display, its rounded design, and its compact shape. But the Atrix’s laptop dock is poorly executed and seems more like a gimmick than a useful accessory. We found navigating (via the touchpad) through the various windows and views on the Webtop interface to be awkward and unwieldy.
The Atrix is surprisingly svelte at 0.4 inch thick, 2.5 inches wide, and 4.6 inches tall, and it weighs roughly 4.8 ounces. The front has a 4-inch qHD touchscreen display, with physical buttons beneath for menu, home, return, and search. At the top are the proximity sensor and a front-facing camera. On the right edge of the phone, you’ll find only the volume rocker; on the left bottom edge are the HDMI and USB ports. A standard 3.5mm headphone jack occupies the top edge.
The Atrix is the first phone we’ve encountered that has a fingerprint-recognition pad built into its back. Like many laptops, the phone lets you set it up to remain locked until it recognizes your unique fingerprint slide. The surface also serves as an on/off and sleep/wake button (you press down on it). A 5-megapixel camera and flash are on the back as well, and a small speaker port is at the bottom.
Like other Motorola smartphones, the Atrix has a proprietary interface, Motoblur social media overlay software, running on top of Android 2.2 (“Froyo”). The software is designed to create an orderly presentation of your social media feeds (such as Facebook updates and new tweets), along with your Gmail messages and contacts. I found this part of the interface useful for keeping me up-to-date with my circle of friends, and it didn’t get in the way of Android’s crucial functions.
The Atrix’s dual-core processor can achieve speeds of up to 2GHz. That extra power was apparent in the smartphone’s muscle as I used it for various tasks. The Web browser moved smoothly and speedily through graphics-rich Web pages, and streaming video ran cleanly over Wi-Fi at all times. I could see the dual-core power in action while multitasking, too; even with several apps running, the Atrix functioned smoothly.
The Atrix 4G runs on AT&T’s 3G HSPA+ network. AT&T optimistically brands the network and related devices as “4G” because–the company says–the network pumps out “4G-like” speeds, including download speeds of up to 6 mbps. With the FCC-approved Ookla tool installed on the Atrix, we tested the phone’s network connection at several locations around San Francisco; in those tests we found that the phone’s download speeds were consistently in the neighborhood of 2.7 mbps.
Upload speeds across our five testing locations averaged 0.3 mbps (300 kbps), a very 3G-like result. Even more dismaying were the latency times we saw: The Ookla tool consistently measured network latency–the time it takes for a packet to move from the device to an online server–at about 300 milliseconds. That’s roughly six times the latency we saw in Verizon’s LTE network and about a third higher than the latency in Sprint’s WiMax network. The high latency number combined with the mediocre upload speed could hamper the smooth operation of apps like video chat and mobile gaming.
I was impressed with the Atrix’s microphone, voice speaker, and voice software. Motorola clearly selected a high-quality microphone for the Atrix. I suspect, too, that some excellent noise-cancellation software is at work inside the phone. This dual-core smartphone is fast, it boasts solid data transfer speeds, and the qHD display is excellent; however, the Atrix-powered laptop accessory is a good idea poorly executed.
Best T-Mobile Phone: T-Mobile G2X (by LG)
T-Mobile’s latest entry in its G-series of Android phones and tablets, the LG Electronics-made T-Mobile G2X ($200 with a two-year contract from the carrier) is a multimedia beast with an Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor, HDMI-out, and 4G speeds.
The G2X is at heart the same as the LG Optimus 2X, LG’s first foray into dual-core Android smartphones. The Optimus 2X is currently available overseas: Nvidia used it to demo its Tegra 2 chip at its CES press conference, showing off an HD video and an Angry Birds demo. Nvidia also dubbed it a “super phone” for its multitasking strength and processing speed.
The G2X has essentially the same design as the Optimus 2X, but it comes with HSPA+ power and doesn’t have LG’s proprietary interface running atop Android. Aside from those differences-and of course some superficial branding and a handful of preinstalled apps from T-Mobile–the G2X is virtually identical to its international sibling.
The G2X’s black, dark gray, and silver color scheme is fairly undistinguished looking. But don’t let this smartphone’s generic appearance fool you: This handset has a high-quality feel. Its face is occupied almost entirely by the 4-inch display, with a thin piano-black bezel running around it. Four touch-sensitive buttons lie below the display: Menu, Home, Back, and Search. The back incorporates a matte, dark gray, soft-to-the-touch rubber layer, with a silver stripe that bears the Google logo running down the middle. The battery cover is easy to remove, but it doesn’t feel flimsy. A metal frame around the phone gives it a sturdy, solid feel. The face of the G2X is subtly curved, an understated design tweak that helps it feel comfortable when you hold it up to your ear.
At the top of the phone, you’ll find the power/lock key, an HDMI port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Along the right spine you’ll encounter the volume rocker, while the left spine is bare. The bottom houses speakers and a MicroSD port.
The 4-inch WVGA 800-by-480-pixel LCD screen displays videos, games, and the interface quite nicely. Colors are bright and vivid, details look sharp, and movement and animations are smooth. It happened to be a rare sunny day in San Francisco when I tested the G2X, so I took it outside to see how satisfactorily it would fare in bright light. Unfortunately, the on-screen image completely vanished as soon as I stepped out the door. I had trouble just dialing a number. To make matters worse, the screen is a fingerprint magnet, and with the smudges it’s even more difficult to see what you’re doing.
When Nvidia showed off the Optimus 2X/G2X back in January, the company made a point of touting the phone’s multitasking capabilities. We downloaded a few apps from the Android Market, streamed some music from Pandora, and ran a few games, simultaneously. When we opened up Angry Birds on top of all that, the app ran smoothly with no glitches.
Thanks to the Tegra 2 processor, the G2X handles all Android games quite well. For example, Need for Speed Shift ran fluidly, and the graphics looked sharp. The G2X comes loaded with TegraZone, an app on the Android Market designed to curate games that have been optimized for Nvidia’s Tegra 2 chipset. Though few of the games really show off the capabilities of the Tegra 2 chipset–and though the ones that do aren’t much fun to play–more games are on their way to the TegraZone, and that prospect gives me hope that gamers will one day be able to enjoy high-quality gaming on a mobile phone.
The Tegra 2’s impressive performance is apparent in several areas of the G2X. Menu scrolling proceeded effortlessly, and apps launched quickly. I was especially pleased at how smoothly the phone handled video and 3D games. The browser performed quite well, loading pages in seconds over Wi-Fi and even faster over a strong 4G signal.
We used a different phone, the Samsung Galaxy S 4G, to test T-Mobile’s 4G network in a few cities, including San Francisco, and overall we were pleased with the solid 4G-like speeds: The Galaxy S 4G averaged 3.38 mbps for downloads and 1.13 mbps for uploads. Though its numbers couldn’t hold a candle to the blazing speeds we clocked on Verizon’s LTE network (18.30 mbps and 7.39 mbps), T-Mobile’s 4G network did outperform both AT&T’s HSPA+ network and Sprint’s WiMax network.
With those results in mind, I have to give T-Mobile the benefit of the doubt with regard to the rather dismal speeds we achieved with the G2X. The South Park neighborhood of San Francisco (where PCWorld is located) has never been a strong area for T-Mobile. When I tested closer to downtown, the G2X did much better, delivering transfer speeds of 4.23 mbps for downloads and 1.12 mbps for uploads.
Call quality on the G2X was a bit disappointing. Callers on the other end of the line reported that they could hear me fine, but at my end audio piped through the earpiece sounded a bit blown out to me–as if my friends were talking much too close to the mouthpiece of their phone. Even so, the T-Mobile G2X has the chops to compete with other services’ top-of-the-line phones, and until the HTC Sensation arrives, this is hands-down the best smartphone available from T-Mobile.
The Next Wave of Hot Phones
Verizon: Motorola Droid Bionic. Announced at CES 2011, the Motorola Droid Bionic sports a 4.3-inch 540-by-960-pixel qHD (Quarter High Definition) display and a dual-core CPU. Like the HTC ThunderBolt, the Droid Bionic is a 4G phone. Its processor may be more powerful than the ThunderBolt’s, but it has less RAM (512MB versus 768MB). The phone also offers a front-facing video camera, videoconferencing capabilities, HD video capture, and a slew of business-friendly features (data security, encryption, and Quick Office for document editing) that make it ideal for enterprise users. The Bionic is due later this year, but Verizon has not yet announced pricing.
Sprint: HTC EVO 3D. The first 4G phone with a qHD 4.3-inch 3D display, the HTC EVO 3D will have a 1.2GHz dual-core CPU and dual rear-facing 5-megapixel cameras for 3D photo and video capture. The processors will support advanced 3D technology, including full 1080p, 30-fps HD video, and stereoscopic 3D video capture and playback. The EVO 3D’s display has a parallax barrier that lets it show a stereoscopic image (meaning a 3D image) without requiring 3D glasses. The EVO 3D ships with Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). The included 4G hotspot lets you connect five Wi-Fi-enabled devices to it. The EVO 3D will be available this summer.
AT&T: Samsung Infuse 4G. The Samsung Infuse 4G (set to run on AT&T’s HSPA+ network) tests the smartphone/tablet boundary. Due out this summer, it has a 4.5-inch screen that uses Samsung’s Super AMOLED Plus technology, a superthin display that produces gorgeous colors and high visibility indoors and out. The display will have 50 percent more subpixels for better clarity and readability outdoors, Samsung says. The Infuse 4G runs Android 2.2 on a 1.2GHz processor. Other enticing specs include an 8-megapixel camera with HD video recording, and a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera for video calls. Pricing hasn’t yet been announced.
T-Mobile: HTC Sensation. The next big thing on the horizon for T-Mobile users is the HTC Sensation-a Qualcomm dual-core phone that will run Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), the latest version of Android for mobile phone use. The Sensation’s 4.3-inch qHD display will have a resolution of 960 by 540 pixels arranged in a 16:9 aspect ratio. This excellent screen resolution is the equivalent of one-quarter of a full high-definition 1080p frame and three-quarters of a 720p frame. Like Sprint’s HTC EVO 3D, the Sensation will run the latest version of the HTC Sense user interface. T-Mobile has not announced pricing or a definite release date for the Sensation.
Best gaming: The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play (Verizon) has a directional gamepad and control buttons. It plays PlayStation Certified games and some enticing mobile games.
Best camera: The 8-megapixel camera on HTC’s Droid Incredible 2 (Verizon) captures stunning photos with rich color and sharp details. The flash is powerful, but not too powerful.
Best keyboard: The T-Mobile Sidekick 4G just wouldn’t be a Sidekick without an excellent physical keyboard. The keys are raised, have a satisfying click to them, and feel nice against your fingers.
Best display: The Samsung Galaxy S II has one of the most beautiful displays we’ve ever seen. On-screen colors look bright, details are crisp, and the viewing angles are very good.