All Sections

Smartphones: The best of 2011 and which phones to buy in 2012

With 2012 just hours away, we’ve reviewed 2011’s releases and selected three handsets you can be confident in picking up despite a new year of mobiles upon us. Here you’ll not only find a list of the best mobiles that can march on head held high 2012, but the noteworthy inbetweeners who juggle the good with the bad and the losers, those mobiles that will forever remain in 2011.

Winners

We have had to choose three phones that can hold their own in the face of a new year. The three best phones released in 2011 you could say. Whichever handsets we pick, with just three places, this list will be contentious so we might as well begin by making our criteria clear. We want innovative phones that make the very best of the OS they utilise in our top spots. We want ingenuity and we want the world in our hands, limitations cast aside. We want to be wowed, we’re not looking for reprises, so don’t expect any iPhone 4S or Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S in our top three and we’re certainly not going to try and get one of each OS in here just for the sake of it. No stop-gap fillers, just game changers. Welcome to Recombu’s winners of 2011.

1. Samsung Galaxy Nexus

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus changes everything. Why? Because of Android 4.0. While the Super AMOLED HD display is stunning, it feels remarkably unimposing for a phone with a 4.65-inch screen and the button-less, curved fascia complements the OS beautifully, Android 4.0 is a revolution. It’s smooth, it’s slick, it’s functional and it’s unskinned. It’s also going to appear on the majority of the world’s smartphones released in 2012, unless something pretty drastic happens in the mobile market. Shaking things up, Google have released an operating system that’s good enough to put into question the need for OEM’s custom launchers, most notably Samsung’s TouchWiz, HTC Sense and Sony Ericsson’s own proprietary launcher. Reducing options and UX clutter, there is now one streamlined way to get most things done and its usually the most intuitive, to the point method.

Visually, Android 4.0 is also brought up to speed, making HTC Sense, TouchWiz and even iOS feel old hat, Google have improved transitions, staggered menus appropriately and moderated customisability. Android isn’t a free for all anymore and the end user won’t be overwhelmed by visual clutter or UI choices. While iOS 5 brought with it plenty of great features, the most exciting aesthetic revamp was the pull down notification tab. With Android 4.0 however, Google didn’t get to Honeycomb and stop, no, they pushed through and integrated widgets more tightly, folders more intuitively and ensured the UI looks on-point for its target Android user, once a phone-junky, now, everybody.

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus isn’t a perfect phone. Indeed, if Android 2.3 was on it, it wouldn’t have stood a chance in our top three. The camera needs work, the chassis feels plasticity and the back cover’s fragility sends a shiver down our spine every time we come to remove it. It is, however, as a landmark device more than the sum of its physical parts. It’s the future, done right, with risks, improved in every way and is a solid vote of confidence for every single Android user in the world.

2. Samsung Galaxy S2

If the HTC Desire put Android on the map in 2010, then the Samsung Galaxy S2 has well and truly done its bit in cementing the operating system as one of the two major mobile players in 2011. It’s also set a precedent for AMOLED display quality and camera quality on the Android platform. With extremely promising initial sales, it’s little wonder that the Galaxy S2 has contributed in Samsung shipping an estimated 300 million plus handsets in 2011.

With its dual-core 1.2GHz processor still bench-marking exceptionally well today, it fended off competition from the likes of HTC, LG and Sony Ericsson to become the Gingerbread phone of the year. Coupling power with a superior camera, unlocked bootloader and more internal memory than the competition it’s easy to see why the Samsung Galaxy S2 ended up being the people’s choice. The affordable price tag ensured that even in the face of the iPhone 4 and 4S it triumphed, with reports from uSwitch indicating that November saw the Samsung Galaxy S2 outselling the current generation iPhone, a first since Apple entered the mobile space in 2007.

Once again, far from perfect, the Samsung Galaxy S2 still lacks the pin sharp displays of qHD handsets launched such as the HTC Sensation. It also becomes a very compact hand-heater after prolonged usage and the battery cover, as with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is flimsy to the point of crippling with a snap, crackle a pop noise every time you attach and detach it. It does nevertheless strike the balance between pocketability, quality and affordability that transcends Android from the realm of geeks to the realm of all.

3. Nokia Lumia 800

Reimagining a smartphone line, reinventing an OS and rejuvenating a company is no easy feat, but that was the challenge at hand for Nokia preceding the launch of their Nokia Lumia 800. Having foregone Symbian in favour of Microsoft’s mobile platform in 2011, they needed to make the Nokia Windows Phone 7.5 experience look, feel and scream Nokia in order to reassure fans and critics that the Finnish Mobile giant hasn’t lost their identity, or indeed touch with what the modern day smartphone user wants in a handset. If you ask us, they did it. The Nokia Lumia 800 is a beautifully designed phone, highlighting Nokia’s main strength with its curved Gorilla Glass screen and coloured plastic unibody chassis – it’s a plastic phone that feels expensive.

The AMOLED display is perfectly suited to the Windows Phone operating system, with its endless blacks and vibrant live tiles and the platform has just reached a level of maturity with its Mango update and app selection that makes it a viable proposition for any smartphone user today. In the face of Nokia’s 2010, the Finns can celebrate what could almost be descibed as a ressurection as we venture into 2012 and the eagerly awaited Lumia 900, expected to be revealed at CES in January.

As with all our top three, there are some marked shortcomings to be found when talking about the Nokia Lumia 800. Its camera is sub-par, with the same module producing considerably better results on the Nokia N9 and images taken on it paling in comparison to the Android competition, the HTC Titan and the iPhone 4S. The screen also has a fine dot matrix pattern sheeted across it detracting from the crisp Clear Black AMOLED goodness, not to mention a slightly blue hue when viewing whites. In saying that, with its size, style, capability and operating system Nokia have created the most accessible Windows Phone 7.5 in the Nokia Lumia 800.

Honourable Mention

iPhone 4S

We couldn’t put the Apple iPhone 4S in our top three. Despite a processor bump, a camera swap-out and the iPhone 4S arguably being one of, if not the best phones on the market, there were very few front end innovations for UK upgraders in the iPhone 4S itself that made it a compelling upgrade from, say, the iPhone 4. With Siri crippled by location based limitations outside the States, it might have been a different story had it been fully functional.

It still has to get a mention. With iOS5 delivering an incredibly intuitive user experience and with a huge range of high quality apps to explore and discover, as a standalone smartphone, it seamlessly integrates into life, like a smartphone should. Combine all its functionality with fantastic camera performance and excellent 1080p video recording and the iPhone 4S is easily the best Apple iPhone on the market and will probably remain so for the best part of 2012.

Inbetweeners

Three phones that were almost great, or at least had the potential for greatness – our inbetweeners.

1. HTC Cha Cha

A Facebook phone – what a great idea. The HTC Cha Cha not only had a Facebook USP, but also came loaded with a full QWERTY keyboard for those Facebook chatters and keen Whatsappers – the idea is flawless with the social edge and hardly any competition in the Android ecosystem having the same BlackBerry-esque form-factor, it should have been a storming success.

In actuality, the Cha Cha is just a decent phone with oodles of wasted potential. Despite sporting a great keyboard, the Facebook integration is superficial at best. What’s more, the screen text is enough to make a sharp eyed eagle squint, with teeny tiny type, and only 2.6 inches to thumb across. With an impressive resolution of 480 x 320 and great pixel density, it’s a shame HTC didn’t do more to optimise the type size for the handset. The Cha Cha also suffers from HTC’s lack of internal memory, with only a handful of today’s apps filling up the storage.

All in all therefore, great keyboard, wasted potential. Hopefully the next Facebook phone which will probably land in 2012 will be more on point.

2. Sony Ericsson Xperia Play

A gaming behemoth amongst Androids – that’s what we wanted the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play to be when it was first announced. Powerful, ergonomically designed for gaming and with full access to the entire back catalogue of Playstation One titles. Well, we can dream. That said, while we were prepared to compromise, we can’t deny that we were slightly under-whelmed when the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play landed at the beginning of the year. With its single-core processor when the LG Optimus 2X was touting two, it was no powerhouse off the bat, and with a pretty limited, pricey launch line-up of games, the appeal was extremely niche.

We love the build for gaming. Despite feeling plasticky, we did use the Xperia Play for hours and can’t deny that it’s the most fit-for-gaming phone out there. At launch though, it just didn’t have that wow factor once you switched it on with buggy gameplay, poor Playstation One porting and a lack of content. Things have gotten better. With over 150 Android games optimised for use with the Xperia Play’s controls, OnLive support not to mention a wealth of XDA-Developer innovation, new life has been breathed into the handset.

Being one of the most anticipated phones of all-time however, we just wish the Xperia Play had come to fruition earlier in the game.

3.Bold 9900

Ever since Nokia and Samsung gave us Touch and Type displays, we wondered when RIM would be bestowing some capacitive goodness upon their BlackBerry line. 2011, that’s when. At the top of the BlackBerry hierarchy sits the Bold and the 9900 is certainly a king in its own right. Packing in stunning design, solid build and a great capacitive VGA screen as soon as we got our mits on the BlackBerry Bold 9900 we knew this was the greatest BlackBerry to date.

Of course, you may be wondering – why in that case is the BlackBerry Bold 9900 sitting pretty in the inbetweeners category?

IT SHOULD HAVE HAD BBX ON IT. We don’t like using caps but if any point needs be laboured it’s that RIM appears to have sat on QNX for too long, reinforcing disparity between the PlayBook and their phones preventing an ecosystem from coming together. It’s terrible watching manufacturers sink, we didn’t enjoy watching it happen to Nokia and are taking great pleasure in celebrating what we hope is their come-back. With QNX’s power, the BlackBerry line could have had the rejuvenation it so desperately needed in 2011. That said, 2011’s BlackBerry’s brought a new BBOS with it, not BBX, so while the Bold 9900 is the fastest, slickest and most fully-functional BlackBerry yet, we promise to be more enthused when BBX lands.

Honourable Mention

Motorola RAZR

Lithe, Kevlar backing, dual-core power and Android 2.3. The Motorola RAZR is the best handset in our inbetweener category, no doubt about it. Lovingly customised with Pan Am esque retro icons and a MOTOBLUR free Motorola UI, credit where credit’s due, Motorola have definitely upped their game with the RAZR. It’s such a shame that the screen lets it down so heavily.

With a qHD AMOLED display we were excited to be getting to play on the first screen with this combination we’ve come across. That said, we really should have curbed our enthusiasm. As we were falling in love with the handset in general, we were falling out of love with the screen. With similar dotting to that found on the Nokia Lumia 800, only considerably more severe, the Motorola RAZR picture is extremely hampered. In addition, the pixels actually appear to bleed light, making for a soft overall image, especially when reading text or looking at stills.

Otherwise, with one of the most unique designs out there, an extremely competitive spec-sheet and a reasonable price, the Motorola RAZR is an absolute corker – such a shame about the screen.

Losers

Every year has a handful of handsets that have to fight an uphill battle upon release and here we’ve got three. Tragic victims or poor decisions? That’s up for debate but one thing is for sure, in 2012, we probably won’t be using these:


1. Nokia N9

No matter how good the Nokia N9 was, it was always going to end up in this category, Nokia have ditched Symbian and MeeGo – the better this phone was, the more bittersweet the revelry would be. It’s been pretty bittersweet. With it’s 3.9-inch bevelled display, we have the N9 to thank for the Nokia Lumia 800 being such piece of design joy. They’re virtually identical in form, and if anything, the Nokia N9 is superior aesthetically in every way with its larger display and buttonless front.

MeeGo is also a pleasure to use. Three screens, simple swiping, intuitive multi-tasking all come together to make the user experience far better than anything we’ve seen from Nokia thus far. It’s as if Nokia chose the N9 to prove that in fact – they weren’t just about the hardware. That said, for most western markets, the point was made too late. While you can still bag yourself a Nokia N9 for just over £500, it would be to buy a piece of mobile history as opposed to mobile future.

2. LG Optimus 3D

Early adopters only.

If you’re prepared to carry a USB charger on you at all times and are so heavily invested in 3D that you can’t bear the thought of not having a 3D camera / gaming device on you at all times, then check out the LG Optimus 3D. It isn’t a terrible phone by a long stretch, with dual-cores and a big, bright screen. That said, the battery life is crippling.

We’re talking about a 4PM flat here, not a daily charge as you’d expect from other smartphones but a drip feed of power throughout the day for any real battery life peace of mind. Choosing the LG Optimus 3D as a loser is also reflective of our take on 3D technology in phones. It hasn’t taken off yet, with disappointing sales of both the LG Optimus 3D and the HTC Evo 3D, the lenticular displays still need fine tuning, the cameras need to be better and 3D hardware needs to be more prominent amongst the general population.

The HTC Evo 3D offers better battery life and is better as a media capture device, however the LG Optimus 3D is better for consuming 3D content with a slightly less headache inducing display and a more integrated 3D interface, gaming and menu system. By all means if you’re into your 3D, you could do a lot worse, but if not, get yourself a top notch 2D handset for the same price or less.

HP Palm Pre 3

While HP’s webOS was once a bitter sweet tale filled with strife, hope and even promise, the sweet has well and truly soured, giving way to little more than bitter. The tipping point of this loss of hope came pretty much straight after the release of the HP Palm Pre 3. Launching here in the UK in August, after just days on the market, on the 18th of the same month support for webOS from HP who acquired the ailing Palm in April 2010 was discontinued. A few rounds of fire-sales later and it was clear that official support for the Palm Pre 3 would die along with the marriage that brought it into the world.

Unlike with the TouchPad and its Android developer communities such as CyanogenMod building Android ROMS for the hardware, the HP Palm Pre 3 looks set to reside in the history books of mobile, with a sad ending for Palm’s legacy of Pre’s, WebOS and smartphones.

Honourable mention

Nokia X7

It looks like a spaceship, it feels like a doorstop and it runs like an Commodore 64. Why?

Why indeed. We really can’t claim to understand the thought process behind Nokia X7. It’s like an Alienware PC without the power, like a mytical beast that can’t even meow let alone roar, it’s a monster chassis touting Symbian and a 680MHz processor, not to mention a fixed-focus camera and a 4-inch screen with just 360 x 640 pixels spread across it. Media powerhouse? No. Camera powerhouse? No. Productivity powerhouse? No. Erm.

For a phone priced alongside the big players, in its entirety, the Nokia X7 was lost on us. The irony is, if we had to pick one handset that totally opposed it in every single way, it would be the Nokia Lumia 800.

So there you have our phone roundup of 2011. Agree? Disagree? Think we’ve completely lost our marbles? Share your thoughts and moderated abuse in the comments section below.

Comments