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12/23/2008
07:15 PM
Marin Perez
Marin Perez
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Top 5 Smartphones Of The Year

It's the time of year when you look back at the previous 12 months and like to reflect. In the space I cover, I realized that we've had an incredible year in terms of the number and quality of smartphones. But what handsets were good enough to make my top five list?

It's the time of year when you look back at the previous 12 months and like to reflect. In the space I cover, I realized that we've had an incredible year in terms of the number and quality of smartphones. But what handsets were good enough to make my top five list?First of all, I'll lay down a bit of my criteria. Being in San Francisco, this list is definitely based on handsets that are readily available in the United States. This means the potentially incredible HTC Touch HD and others weren't included (feel free to send me one anyway, HTC). I also included personal opinion -- so there's a bias toward physical buttons -- but I could not include the overall impact some had on the market.

5. HTC Touch Pro

This is the only Windows Mobile device on my list, and it's no surprise that this has HTC's TouchFlo 3D interface. The user interface is very finger friendly, and it's somewhat jarring to have to interact with Microsoft's cumbersome UI. But we put up with Windows Mobile 6.1 because of the full Exchange support and the incredible flexibility and customization, and the Touch Pro is no exception. There are also the expected radios on board (3G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS) and a 3.2-megapixel camera.

The handset itself feels good in the hand and it's well-designed. Sure, the slide-out keyboard gives it a little more heft than the Diamond, but it's well worth it. When you really have to bang out a long e-mail or story, I found the Touch Pro's keyboard to be a breeze. It had a nice layout and just the right amount of "clickiness." The touch screen was as responsive as I've seen from a resistive touch screen, and HTC did some good tricks to simulate multitouch functionality. Photos and videos looked bright and vivid, and text was easy to read.

There's a wide array of business and entertainment apps for this smartphone, and the preloaded Opera Mobile browser rocks. The multimedia options are fairly strong, and I particularly like Sprint's streaming media services.

Like every handset on this list, the battery life could be better, and I noticed a few software hiccups on the Sprint version. I doubt it would sway an iPhone junkie, but it's a really good buy for mobile professionals. It's been picked up by AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, and I'd suggest not going with the Verizon Wireless version if possible, as it has apparently decided to cripple yet another device by stripping some memory.

4. T-Mobile G1

When the first Android handset was introduced, I think a lot of smartphone buyers looked at it and said, "Meh." And to be honest, the G1 isn't going to win any beauty prizes. The form factor and design definitely look better in real life, and it did grow on me in the time I spent with it.

But the real joy of Android is the software, and the G1 shines. Creating a brand-new mobile OS has its advantages: Google could integrate touch and Internet connection from the beginning, it didn't have to worry about legacy devices, and it was built with modern networks in mind. The OS is rock solid, and the way it notifies you about new calls, e-mails, and instant messages is the best in the business. The resource management also seems to be very, very good, and the device didn't crash once in the month I had it (something I can't say for any other OS).

When I had it, the Android Market didn't quite blow me away, but it intrigued me about the future of mobile apps. Things like ShopSavvy and Locale were so mind-numbingly useful that I was surprised they weren't standard features on other devices. The AnyCut app also shows that developers will have deep access to the OS, which paints a bright picture for the future of Android.

But the G1 isn't higher on this list because Android's best days are ahead, and there were just too many mature smartphones this year that delivered on almost every front. Additionally, the G1's battery life is utter crap, and it may be a little too connected to the Internet. If you're already on T-Mobile, the G1 may be right for you. But if you're itching to take the plunge with Android, I'd suggest waiting a few months, as we're bound to see more Android devices in 2009.

3. Nokia E71

This is the opposite of the G1 design-wise, as this is quite possibly the best looking smartphone I've ever seen. The smartphone is so thin, you almost want to feed it a sandwich. The full QWERTY keyboard is spacious and easy to use one-handed. The silver casing is elegant and doesn't scratch as much as you think it would. The E71 has a relatively nice screen size, but the resolution is nothing to write home about. If you're a fan of this kind of form factor, the E71 is as good as it gets design-wise.

But Nokia didn't leave much (if anything) out to get the E71 so thin, as it packs Wi-Fi, 3G, Bluetooth, GPS, and all the other goodies you'd expect from a high-end smartphone. It's powered by Symbian S60, which hasn't really caught on in the United States. In a nutshell, Symbian is powerful, capable, has a ton of apps, but the UI is a bit dated. If you're more interested in functionality over beauty in your operating system, then the E71 is a champ. Within minutes of powering it up I was easily able to get push e-mail, open Word docs, download podcasts over the air, and browse the Web with the adequate browser. Once you get into the flow of S60, you can do many tasks one-handed without even looking at the screen.

Because it's unlocked, it will be a little pricey, but at least you won't have to be locked into a two-year contract. The screen could be better, and the lack of a standard headphone jack is plain silly. But I really loved this smartphone and seriously considered ranking it higher.

2. Apple iPhone 3G

I didn't even want to do it, but I had to put Apple's iPhone 3G up this high. It's impossible to deny the impact the iPhone has had on the industry, and 2008 was a banner year for Apple's smartphone. Despite a slew of really good smartphones from the competitors, Apple was able to sell a whopping 6.9 million iPhones in one quarter.

The iPhone 3G still has an iconic design, and it's the reason companies like Research In Motion and Nokia are moving forward with full touch-screen smartphones. Like Google, Apple had the advantage of being able to have a fresh take on the mobile industry, and the iPhone's UI is smoother, cleaner, and easier to use than any of its competitors. The mobile Safari browser makes surfing the Web a delight, as does the multitouch interface.

While the 3G and GPS were welcomed upgrades, the most important thing this year was the introduction of the App Store (I know, you can get it on the original and iPod Touch). I don't think anyone, not even Apple, knew how big a hit this would be. In a little more than six months, users have downloaded more than 300 million apps, and some are predicting the App Store alone could be a $1.2 billion business in 2009.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Google, RIM, Microsoft, and Symbian will all probably have their own versions of the App Store. Hopefully, they won't be as restrictive as Apple has been, but none of the competitors will have the same type of leverage Apple has with its iTunes monolith.

There are obviously some well-known issues with the iPhone 3G: lack of cut and paste, no background applications (I have no idea how people put up with this), no video recording, and other beefs. But these negatives do tend to get overblown, and these are overshadowed by the positives. The multimedia capabilities are second to none, as is the browsing and UI, so the iPhone 3G will make a large percentage of smartphone buyers happy. 1. BlackBerry Bold

You know, I don't care about the multiple, multiple delays because this was my favorite smartphone of the year. I'm not even a CrackBerry addict, but the BlackBerry Bold blew me away.

In my review, I said the Bold is not a quantum leap from previous flagship BlackBerrys, but it's a smart evolution. The design is sleek and classy. It's not as thin as the E71, but it has just the right amount of width and weight to feel good in the hand (even after a long day of e-mails and messaging). The screen is utterly gorgeous, and photos, videos and even text look gorgeous.

The OS is like the BlackBerry systems you're used to, but it's very refined. It zips along and has very few delays, and multitasking and switching between apps is fluid and simple. Of course, this is still a BlackBerry, so messaging is excellent. At first glance, the keys themselves don't seem like they're far enough apart, but their texture makes touch typing a breeze. Overall, this is exactly what you want from a BlackBerry: a smooth smartphone that can help you be more productive, even if it's for a few seconds at a stoplight.

But it's not just for the stodgy professionals, as RIM has made steady strides on the multimedia side. You can sideload or sync all types of media easily, and videos are bright and beautiful. The browsing is pretty good, although I long for a better BlackBerry browser or a licensing deal with Opera Mobile. It's not perfect, though, as the camera's crap, and you'll be using the BlackBerry button about 200 times a day. But if you're looking for a new BlackBerry, look at the Bold first, second, and third. If you need a handset to boost your productivity, the Bold is your best bet. There are only a few reasons I can think of not to grab it if you want a smartphone: you want the excellent multimedia of an iPhone, you cannot stand AT&T, or you prefer touch interface.

As I mentioned before, we're in a great time for smartphones. The competition is heating up, prices are going down, and we're seeing equally good hardware and software. Next year should be even better, as we're sure to see a slew of Android phones, RIM will undoubtedly refresh its lineup, HTC will continue to innovate with design, LG will tackle the U.S. market, Palm will try to make a comeback, and Motorola will try to stop the bleeding.

I own a BlackBerry Storm but its initial software was inexcusable, so it didn't make the list. The Xperia X1 was nice, but I wasn't blown away with it in the admittedly short time I've spent with it. I even enjoyed Palm's take on Windows Mobile with the Treo Pro, but it wasn't quite good enough.

What did you think of my list? Was I way off on some? Am I an Apple fanboy? What were your favorite smartphones of the year? Feel free to leave comments here, shoot me an e-mail, or let me know on Twitter.

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