2011 was not a year of huge developments in the smartphone world. Mostly, phones just got bigger and faster. Instead of phones with 3.7-4.0 inch screens, most phones now have 4.3-4.5-inch screens, and instead of 1.5GHz processors, most phones now sport 1.5GHz dual-core processors. Keyboards have become more rare, appearing in slide-out QWERTY designs, if they are present at all, and phone cameras have improved significantly in the last 12 months, with faster shutter speeds and performance that is fast approaching point-and-shoot cameras. For the most part though, every smartphone is a big black (or white) brick running Android or iOS. BlackBerry, WebOS, and Windows Phone remain present, but have all seen their market share shrink rather dramatically. But without further ado, here are our awards for best phones of 2011.
Make sure to check the rest of our Best of 2011 Awards to see all of this year’s winners.
All prices include commitment to a 2-year contract.
Samsung Galaxy Nexus, $300
If you’re looking to get the best phone on the market, we suggest you wait to give this one a try. The Galaxy Nexus is a 4G LTE phone on Verizon with some of the most impressive specs on the market. More impressive than it’s specs is the fact that it’s a Google Experience phone and the first device that runs Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). It has a completely revamped user interface and will probably be the only phone to get updates as they come out. While owners of other Android phones will have to wait for months (or never get updates), Nexus owners get updates on time. Our experience with Android 4.0 has been quite positive so far. The new interface is a solid leap forward for Google’s OS, which could be called anything but pretty up until now. A slate of updated apps, folders, better widgets, and other features really freshen up Android, putting it on more level ground with iOS and Windows Phone.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy Nexus Review.
Apple iPhone 4S, $200 and up
The iPhone 4S looks identical to the iPhone 4 on the outside, but it does have some notable upgrades and new features. The 4S has a dual-core processor, better camera (perhaps the best on the market), and iOS 5, Apple’s latest operating system that has some cool new features. Siri voice control lets you use more natural language to talk to your iPhone and works fairly well, and Apple’s iCloud and iTunes Match services have finally put more of Apple’s core services in the cloud, and available for accessing from any device. iOS now has an Android-like task bar as well, which is helpful. If you’d like to know more about the 4S, read iPhone 4S: Everything you need to know. However, those looking for any sort of visual revamp will be disappointed. iOS 5 looks almost identical to earlier versions of the OS. The iPhone 4S too, looks almost identical to its predecessor as well. Still, for potential new adopters, Apple is still on top of its game and the iPhone 4S remains one of the must-have phones of 2011 and likely the top-selling device of the year.
Read our full Apple iPhone 4S Review.
Samsung Galaxy S II, $200 and up
The Galaxy S II is Samsung’s flagship phone for 2011. The Korean manufacturer pulled out all the stops to make sure that Galaxy phones hit every carrier this year, going so far as to alter the external and internal design for AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. A fourth global design hit shelves sooner. The S II, like the Galaxy Nexus, is one of the safest and best choices on every carrier it has launched on. It doesn’t disappoint in any one area, and though its plastic construction may turn off some, we like how light it is. Samsung’s TouchWiz 4.0 interface and cameras have become a strong rival to HTC’s offerings as well. We’re looking forward to seeing Android 4.0 running on a Galaxy S II, which Samsung claims should happen in the next couple months. After that, the Galaxy S III is right around the corner.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S II Review.
HTC Titan, $200
The HTC Titan is a great phone with one of the best cameras on the market and a huge 4.7-inch screen, but really, we just wanted to include a Windows Phone on this list. Microsoft’s Windows Phone isn’t popular yet, but it is one of the best operating systems on the market, arguably superior to iOS and Android in a number of ways. It’s also the only OS that has managed to do away with the notifications tray while retaining all of its essential functionality. Because Microsoft tightly controls the specs of its Windows Phone devices, they are all similar, lacking the superficial and superfluous interface modifications that drag down and fragment Android. We really wish there were more Windows Phone options for those on Verizon and Sprint, but if you’re on AT&T or T-Mobile, the Samsung Focus Flash, Samsung Focus S, and HTC Radar are all solid choices. For Verizon, the only device available is the HTC Trophy. The HTC Arrive is the only option for those on Sprint. Hopefully 2012 will be kinder to Windows Phone.
Motorola Droid Razr, $300
Though we’d recommend the Galaxy Nexus over the Droid Razr, Motorola’s Razr revival does have some strengths and remains one of the best phones on the market this holiday season. It doesn’t catch your eye like the original Razr, but it’s a lot thinner. At 7.1mm thick, it’s the thinnest phone on the market, but also sports the best battery life we’ve seen on a dual-core LTE device (though the battery is non-removable), a much-improved screen, and a durable frame, lined with stainless steel and Kevlar. The only downsides are Motorola’s weak camera and bland user interface, which hasn’t yet been upgraded to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Motorola has promised an update soon and we’re hopeful that it won’t screw with the design too much.
Read our full Motorola Droid Razr Review.