2011 in review: Phones, tablets, laptops on ZDNet Mobile News

Summary:It has been a busy year for mobile tech, with phones, tablets and laptops galore coming through the door. Time to recap the best of the best, and point out a few flops.

The Year in Review, the Year Ahead

I change mobile gadgets at the drop of a hat, this year even more than usual. As 2011 draws to a close, along with it a full year of covering mobile tech for ZDNet, it is fitting to take a look at how my mobile gadgetry has changed throughout the year. Most of the gadgets I will cover are personal purchases I made during the year, along with a few I reviewed that made a distinct impression worth mentioning.

I will also pick the best mobile tech of the year from the lot of them, one of each device type. Flops aren't safe in this recap, and I will note the two gadgets that share my title for flop of the year.

Smartphones

I get to try a lot of top smartphones through my work on ZDNet, and I see some good ones come through the revolving doors on my office. Seeing so many "superphones", it takes a lot to get me to open my wallet and spring for one of my very own.

At the start of the year I was happy using my HTC EVO 4G on the Sprint network. While the 4G (WiMAX) was never a big factor for me, the thin EVO with the 4.3-inch display met all of my needs. That lasted until the Nexus S 4G came out and I traded in my EVO for the Nexus.

The primary reason behind my trade was to have a Google flagship phone so I would get major Android updates as soon as possible. This expectation was well met by Google, as the official Gingerbread came out after just a few months of ownership. The Nexus S 4G was even better with Gingerbread, which was a solid update over Froyo.

The Gingerbread update also brought Google Wallet to the Nexus S 4G. This is still the only phone in the U. S. that can use the NFC hardware in the phone with Google's ATM service. I have used Google Wallet only once, to pay for a lunch in McDonald's. There isn't a lot of choice of venues that accept the PayPass service that drives Google Wallet. It was an interesting experience, waving the phone at the terminal to pay for my Big Mac. I haven't felt compelled to try it again.

With Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) arriving on the Galaxy Nexus, I found myself hankering to give it a try. Getting yet another phone was not in the cards, so I loaded up a custom ROM with ICS for the Nexus S 4G. It is a sweet upgrade over Gingerbread, and I can't wait to get the official upgrade so I can be all legit again.

See also: Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) on the Nexus S 4G (review)

This year my wife jumped on the iPhone train by picking up an iPhone 4 when it hit Verizon. She has loved the phone, and I found myself eyeing it from time to time as it is a nice phone. When Apple released its successor, the iPhone 4S, it wasn't long until I hit Verizon to get one.

The iPhone 4S is a good smartphone, and a big part of that is the huge app ecosystem. I find apps to do everything I can think of, and some things I can't. I have been pleased with the iPhone 4S, and continue to use it alongside my Nexus S 4G which I still own.

Related: Why I ordered an iPhone 4S; iPhone 4S: Day 1 with an Android phone owner

If I was in the market for a smartphone today, there is no question I would get the Galaxy Nexus. It is a fantastic phone, and the current Google flagship phone. It ships with ICS onboard, and has a big screen that looks great. I think I would bite the bullet and buy one off contract, though, and avoid the commitment.

Laptops and Tablets in review; Best gadgets and flops »

Laptops

This year has been unusual as I have not purchased a laptop. I am still using the original unibody MacBook as my primary desktop system, attached to a 23-inch Cinema Display. While the new MacBook Airs really tempt me, my old MacBook is so solid I can't justify replacing it yet.

It helps that I get to review lots of laptops, so I get my new gadget fix anyway. This year three laptops from Lenovo have topped the playing field for me, and I could easily justify buying any one of them.

The ThinkPad X1 is the thinnest ThinkPad yet, and with the slice battery is an all-day performer with that famous ThinkPad quality. It has an outstanding keyboard which is important to my work, and I couldn't find anything about it I would change in my review.


Image Gallery: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 -- a solid competitor for the MacBook Air
Image Gallery: Charge
Image Gallery: Charge

Another ThinkPad made an impression on me during my evaluation, the X220. This laptop is not as thin and light as is popular today, but it had the best keyboard I have ever used on any laptop. Since reviewing the X220 I've heard from readers who purchased it after my review who are quite happy with the purchase.

Image Gallery: Check out ThinkPad X220 photo gallery with slice battery option.
Image Gallery: Samsung Focus
Image Gallery: Samsung Focus browser

Lenovo entered the new Ultrabook market with the just-released U300s, and I am still evaluating it. It is one of the best Windows laptops I've ever used, as thin and light as can be. It is a highly mobile laptop for busy professionals, with good battery life and the best trackpad yet for a Windows notebook.

Image Gallery: The first Ultrabook for Lenovo, the IdeaPad U300s presented in photos
Image Gallery: Charge
Image Gallery: Charge
Coverage:

Tablets

The tablet segment is almost as busy as the smartphone sector, with Android tablets appearing almost weekly. All of them are trying to grab some of those massive iPad sales numbers.

I started 2011 using the original Samsung Galaxy Tab, and still have it. I like the 7-inch form of the Tab and the integrated Sprint 3G is very handy while running around.

When the bigger sibling to the Tab came out, I got a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. The fact it is thinner and lighter than the iPad 2 attracted me, along with the performance of the tablet. I still have this Tab and like using it a lot in spite of the rough edges on Honeycomb. It is a Wi-Fi model, and I mainly use it around the house. My wife has recently shown an interest in it, so it might end up becoming her tablet.


Image Gallery: Logitech Tablet Keyboard made by ZAGG
Image Gallery: Charge
Image Gallery: Charge
Hands-on review: Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

I also picked up two tablets that have good features, but not enough to keep them from dying on the vine. The BlackBerry Playbook has great hardware, but shipping it without email and similar functionality was a bad decision by RIM. Almost a year later this functionality is still missing, and my Playbook is sitting in a draw somewhere.

The other dead tablet, the HP TouchPad, really is dead thanks to HP. While I firmly believe the TouchPad is one of the best tablets I have used, with no future it is barely worth the fire-sale price. I still use it occasionally as I really enjoy doing so, but most of the time it sits in the Touchstone dock. A great tablet with innovative wireless charging, and it's in the dead bin. This still blows my mind.

After getting the iPhone 4S, the lagging I see in every Android tablet got the better of me. Don't get me wrong, I like Android tablets, I just wish they ran smoother without the little glitches that plague them. For that reason, a few months ago I purchased a Wi-Fi iPad 2 to add to my stable of tablets.

The iPad 2 with iOS 5 is as good as I thought it would be, so much so that I have been surprised to see how much of my work can be done using it. One of the accessories I bought for the Galaxy Tab 10.1 was the Logitech Keyboard Case, and it worked so well with that tablet I bought one for the iPad 2. The combination of the iPad 2 and the Logitech Keyboard Case allow me to do a great portion of my work when needed. It is liberating to leave the laptop at home and carry the iPad in this case. This entire article is being typed on the combo.

I can easily see leaving the laptop at home for short trips and just bringing this duo. It is no compromise, and the long battery life means I never carry the adapter around nor do I look for an outlet. I simply focus on the task at hand using it, and that is powerful stuff.

The keyboard aside, the iPad 2 is the best tablet available in my opinion, based on having used dozens of other tablets for comparison. The apps are better, the hardware works with no issues, and there are no glitches nor lags in the operation. My experience verifies why so many millions of buyers have purchased an iPad over other options.

Late this year Amazon finally released what may be the biggest contender to the iPad, the Kindle Fire. I picked one up for my wife, but she's gravitating to the bigger Galaxy Tab. That's OK with me, as it has given me ample opportunity to use the Kindle Fire. Like the original Galaxy Tab, the 7-inch form factor is perfect for reading ebooks, something I like to do. While the Kindle Fire is not the best tablet by any means, it is an outstanding value for the $200 price. I believe Amazon will sell millions of them this holiday season, as it makes a fantastic gift for most anyone.

I tested the ThinkPad Tablet this year, and while I didn't buy one for myself I was impressed with the build quality and the overall performance of the device. I liked the active digitizer and pen (optional) that can be used for taking ink notes on the screen. I tested it with the optional keyboard portfolio, which turned the ThinkPad Tablet into the fullest laptop equivalent I have used.


Image Gallery: ThinkPad Tablet with optional pen input and Keyboard Folio
Image Gallery: Charge
Image Gallery: Charge
One tablet that is due to be released any day that I have not tried is the ASUS Transformer Prime. I am so jonesing to get my hands on this Tegra 3 quad-core packing Android tablet. The laptop dock turns the Transformer Prime into a real laptop, and I want to give it try so badly. ASUS, if you see this why do your people never reply to my requests for one?

Mobile hotspots, Accessories, Gadgets of the year, Flops »

Miscellaneous gear/ accessories

Having connectivity to the web is critical for my work, and I always make sure I have redundant pipes to the web. This year I tested two Verizon 4G LTE mobile hotspots, and ended up buying the Samsung for my tool kit. Having LTE speeds available to me when working mobile is fantastic, and the Samsung hotspot is one of the best investments I've made this year.


Image Gallery: Verizon 4G mobile hotspot face off:Novatel MiFi vs. Samsung Mobile Hotspot.
Image Gallery: PlayBook
Image Gallery: PlayBook

One of the coolest gadgets I have used this year is the MetaWatch. This came from the folks at Fossil, but recently the team left Fossil to take the watch to a new venture. The MetaWatch connects to my Nexus S 4G Android phone and displays notifications on the watch. This is so useful, I can leave the phone in my pocket and still see all incoming messages. The MetaWatch even shows incoming calls with Caller ID, a very handy feature.

Image Gallery: The Fossil MetaWatch i
Image Gallery: Charge
Image Gallery: Charge

One of the things I miss most when working remotely with a laptop is the nice, big second monitor I use back in the office. The Lenovo ThinkVision LT1421 solves that problem with a thin, portable screen that plugs into the USB port of the laptop and provides a full-featured second screen. Having multiple monitors increases productivity, and now it is easy to do so even when traveling.

Image Gallery: ThinkVision LT1421 portable monitor for laptops being used with ThinkPad X1
Image Gallery: Charge
Image Gallery: Charge
Coverage:

Gadgets of the year

My picks for gadgets of the year are based strictly on my own hands-on experience with them. They are not great devices because I think they might be, they are good because the worked well for me and I like them a lot.

Best smartphone of the year -- iPhone 4S. This will get fans of other phones/platforms going but the iPhone is clearly the best phone I have used all year. I have lots of apps that let me do everything I could possibly want to do, and the smooth flawless operation of the iPhone makes it a joy to use. Runner-up -- Droid RAZR.


Image Gallery: The Droid RAZR by Motorola is one of the thinnest smartphones
Image Gallery: Charge
Image Gallery: Charge
Best laptop of the year -- While many would vote for the MacBook Air as laptop of the year, I am restricting this to those I have actually used personally. This leaves a toss-up between the ThinkPad X1 and the IdeaPad U300s, both from Lenovo. In the final reckoning based on my common usage scenarios, I have to give the nod to the ThinkPad X1. It is hard for me to pass on the best keyboard I have ever used, and with the optional slice battery this thing gets almost 20 hours of runtime on a single charge. Runner-up -- U300s.

Best tablet of the year -- This pick won't be popular either, as I have to go with the iPad 2. I have gotten more utility out of the iPad than any other tablet I have used, by a wide margin. I have not had any issues using the iPad 2, nor have I been unable to do anything I set out to accomplish with it. The apps for the iPad are better than those for other platforms by and large, and there are so many to choose from. Runner-up -- Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.

Coverage:

Flops of the year

This title has to be shared by the BlackBerry Playbook and the HP TouchPad. While both are nice tablets by and large, each has failed miserably in the market. The TouchPad had a lot of help failing from HP, but fail it has.

Topics: Tablets, Android, Google, iPad, iPhone, Mobile OS, Mobility, Operating Systems, Smartphones

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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