Top 10 smartphones of 2011 (Holiday Gift Guide)

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.


Image Gallery: Check out photos of my top 10 smartphones of 2011.
Image Gallery: iPhone 4S
Image Gallery: Nokia N9

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.

Number 1: Apple iPhone 4S

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.

Number 2: Samsung Galaxy Nexus

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 1280x720 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.

Number 3: HTC Titan

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 800x480 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 »

Number 4: Motorola Droid RAZR

The Motorola RAZR was an iconic device that launched at quite a high price and still sold millions. Motorola's original DROID put Android on the map and launched it to its current success. They decided to launch a new RAZR based on the Android OS and what sets it apart from their current offerings is that it is the thinnest LTE device, and one of the thinnest Android devices, available.

The Motorola Droid RAZR has all of the latest specifications, including LTE radio, Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread, 4.3 inch 540x960 Super AMOLED display, dual-core 1.2 GHz processor, 1780 mAh battery, Bluetooth 4.0, 8 megapixel camera, 16GB internal storage and microSD card slot.

The Motorola Droid RAZR will be available for $299.99 with a 2-year contract in November on Verizon Wireless.

Number 5: Nokia N9

The Nokia N9 is one of the saddest stories in the mobile world since the hardware and MeeGo operating system are fantastic and show a lot of promise, but the device is likely the last MeeGo device we will see from Nokia. If you check out all the other reviews online you will see that people love the Nokia N9. It is not available in very many countries and will not be sold by Nokia here in the U.S.

You can check out my <Nokia N9 first impressions and a follow-up article I posted on several tips, tricks, and FAQs. Specifications of the Nokia N9 include the MeeGo 1.2 (Harmattan) operating system, pentaband 3G radio, 1 GHz Cortex A8 processor, 3.9 inch FWVGA 854x480 pixels AMOLED display with anti-glare polarizer and Gorilla Glass integration, 1 GB RAM, 16 and 64 GB internal memory options, 8 megapixel camera with dual-LED flash and Carl Zeiss optics, NFC, and more.

The Nokia N9 is only available in select countries, but can be found through importers from about $750 to $900 for the 16GB and 64GB models, respectively. I purchased my own 16GB blue N9 from a reseller on ebay.

Number 6: HTC Amaze 4G

One of the complaints I have always had with HTC devices was the poor camera quality, but thankfully this area is being addressed by HTC in a big way. There is a lot of promotion and advertisement of the camera on the HTC Amaze 4G and as I posted in my camera roundup the Amaze 4G really is fantastic. In addition to the great camera, it is one of the best designed HTC smartphones I have ever held in my hand and feels like a very high quality device.

Specifications of the HTC Amaze 4G include Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread, HSPA+ on T-Mobile at 42.2 Mbps, 4.3 inch qHD 540x960 pixels Super LCD display, 8 megapixel camera with f/2.2 aperture lens and 1080p video recording capability, NFC, DLNA and HDMI, 1730 mAh battery, Bluetooth 3.0, and much more.

The HTC Amaze 4G is available now for $259.99 with a minimum voice and data plan with 2-year contract after a $50 mail-in rebate. The full retail price is $559.99 with no contract.

Number 7: LG Thrill

One of the features shown off this year that seemed to be more gimmicky than anything is the glasses-free 3D display found on a few new smartphones. While it may seem a bit silly for day-to-day usage, it is actually fun to use and when I tested out the EVO 3D my daughters had a blast recording videos in 3D. The LG Thrill is not only one of the best 3D devices, it is also a solid high end Android device that competes with the best of them.

Specifications for the LG Thrill include a 4.3 inch glasses free 3D display, 1 GHz dual core processor, dual 5 megapixel cameras, 8GB integrated storage and microSD card, and HSPA+ support.

The LG Thrill is available now on AT&T for $99.99 with a 2-year contract. It is priced at $449.99 with no contract.

Let's check out numbers 8 through 10 and my closing thoughts »

Number 8: Motorola Droid Bionic

The Motorola Droid Bionic is one of the best LTE devices on Verizon Wireless and Jason Perlow made a great case for the device in comparison to the Apple iPhone 4S. The Droid Bionic sports a high resolution (540x960 pixels) 4.3 inch display, dual-core 1GHz processor, 8 megapixel camera, large capacity 1930 mAh battery, integrated 16GB of memory and microSD card slot, and support for the LTE network.

I put it down at number 8 since it is a fairly typical Android device and thought the devices higher in this list offer more that is unique. The Droid Bionic was shown off at the beginning of the year and was delayed for a few months, but is still a device to consider.

It is available now for $299.99 with 2-year plan on Verizon Wireless and $589.99 with no plan or subsidy.

Number 9: Samsung Galaxy S II

The Samsung Galaxy S II was released several months ago in various countries and is just now making its way to the U.S. carriers. It is a very successful device and I enjoyed my time with the T-Mobile version. The Galaxy S II sports an amazing 4.3 inch Super AMOLED Plus display (4.52 inches on T-Mobile and Sprint), dual-core 1 GHz processor, Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) OS, 8 megapixel camera, integrated memory and microSD card, 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 3.0, and more.

The Galaxy S II is a large device, but it is light and thin. The quality feels better than any previous Samsung Galaxy device I have used and I know people will be purchasing it in large numbers on the three U.S. carriers.

It is available on T-Mobile for $229.99 with a 2-year plan and $50 mail-in rebate ($529.99 with no contract) and on AT&T for Sprint's model is known as Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch (what a crazy name, huh?) and comes with WiMAX, a 4.52 inch display, and 1.2 GHz processor with a contract price of $199.99 or $499.99 with no contract.

Number 10: BlackBerry Bold 9900/9930

I jumped on the BlackBerry Bold 9930 at launch and was excited about it for a couple of weeks before jumping back off the bandwagon and think RIM needs to step it up in 2012 to be competitive with the other mobile platforms. I enjoyed using the BlackBerry PlayBook with QNX-based operating system and there is a lot of promise for smartphones running this OS in 2012.

Specifications for the BlackBerry Bold 9930 include a 2.8 inch touchscreen display, a 1.2 GHz single core processor, 5 megapixel camera with 720p HD video recording, 8GB onboard storage with microSD card support up to 32GB, 768 MB RAM (something like 256MB is used for GPU), optical trackpad, promixity sensor, accelerometer, compass, and BlackBerry OS 7 that provides voice-activated universal search, new web browser, huge collection of pre-installed apps, and much more.

The Bold 9900/9930 has the BEST QWERTY keyboard ever on a device and if you are a hardware keyboard fan then you will enjoy using this device. It is quite expensive for a BlackBerry smartphone though with a price of $299.99 with a $50 mail-in rebate on T-Mobile (full no contract price is $599.99), $199.99 with contract on Sprint ($499.99 full retail price), and $249.99 on Verizon with a contract ($509.99 full retail price).

Final thoughts on my top 10

There are plenty of other good Android and Windows Phone devices I didn't include in my top 10 since I wanted to limit the list to just 10. I did include one BlackBerry device because it really is a great device as long as you are happy with the BlackBerry platform and need a QWERTY keyboard.

While RIM's BlackBerry still holds a large market share in the U.S., Apple's iOS and Google's Android platforms are the clear leaders in the modern smartphone era. It appears that these two are leveling out where they are no longer stealing customers from each other, but from other platforms. There will always be those who will never switch between these two platforms and there is room for both to be excellent and have a large number of customers. One will not kill off the other and they will co-exist and move forward.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Motorola, Samsung and HTC in the Android space now that Google owns Motorola. With Samsung making the new Galaxy Nexus I think all three will continue to compete for Android customers with some excellent devices.

I believe that Windows Phone 7 will become the third major player in the smartphone market with RIM BlackBerry in fourth eventually falling to fourth. Nokia has the chance to improve Windows Phone 7 in the long term, but Microsoft is going to have to promote the operating system more to gain substantial market share. RIM needs to move into the modern smartphone era and is planning to do this with their BBX platform, but that remains to be seen.

[poll id="38"]

Go back to the beginning »

Topics: Samsung, Apple, BlackBerry, Hardware, iPhone, Mobility, Smartphones, Verizon

About

Matthew Miller started using a mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host with GigaOM's Kevin Tofel on the MobileTechRoundup podcast and an author of three Wiley Companion series books. Matthew started using mobile devices with a US Robotics Pilot 1000 and has owned over 200 d... Full Bio

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