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Unsung mobile heroes: Phones that deserve a second look

There’s been an influx of really interesting looking and nicely designed phones hitting the shelves over the last year so.

Aside from the obvious headline-grabbing super-phones (iPhone 4, Galaxy S2, Bold 9900) there’ve been some phones which, while good in their own right, have fallen by the wayside due to reasons of pricing, timing of release or them not quite living up to people’s expectations.

Between these and the onslaught of tablets, there are a number of phones out there now that we feel have fallen by the wayside and deserve a second look.


HTC Desire S

Eclipsed by the du jour dual-core beasts like the Samsung Galaxy S2 and HTC’s own Sensation, the Desire S wasn’t powerful enough to play with the big boys. Nor was it inexpensive enough to properly compete with the likes of the HTC Wildfire S as a mid-range option.

Still, the HTC Desire S remains one of our favourite phones of 2011. It’s not a cutting-edge, paradigm shifting belter, but it’s a decent phone. Nicely sized, beautifully designed and running on Android 2.3 Gingerbread, it’s able to access the majoriy of games and apps from the Android Market. It’s also available in a number of metallic colours, with Vodafone, naturally, bagging exclusive rights on the red version.

The Desire S will struggle with some of the higher-end titles like Dungeon Defenders, but if you’re not bothered about cutting edge gaming then this is no big deal.

For everything else the HTC Desire S is fast enough, web browsing and general operations are as smooth as you’d like and its really easy to get to grips with.

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play

We’ll be honest, the end result what the ‘PSP Phone’ turned out to be fell short of our – and everyone else’s – expectations.

But that was always going to happen to a degree; the PSP Phone has been rumoured pretty much ever since the first PSP came out. So everyone’s collective imaginations and expectations were going to be a little off the mark.

As a piece of gaming hardware though the Xperia Play is pretty decent. Those controls are robust responsive. The gaming selection, while slight at launch is growing, slowly but surely. It’s recently taken a price cut too; a little bit south of £300.

The recently released Minecraft: Pocket Edition plays beautifully on it. It works so well with the Xperia Play’s unique set up we can’t see it working as well on anything else. Well, maybe on the Sony Tablet P.

We still think that old school games like Crash Bandicoot should’ve had their graphics upscaled. Some of the old PS1 games look just as blocky and pixelly on the Xperia Play’s screen as they did on our rubbishy 14-inch portable tellies back in the day. There’s no Final Fantasy VII (yet) either…

Kula World however, can’t really be argued with, whatever state the visuals are in. The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play isn’t perfect but it’s not terrible and it deserves a second look.


Nokia N8

Getting on a bit now, the Nokia N8 was another phone that met with fair to middling (but not stellar) reviews across the board. The general consensus was the same old story for poor old Nokia phones of late, i.e. great hardware, not so great user experience.

Nokia has clearly taken the criticism onboard and has been sanding off Symbian’s rough edges, first with Symbian Anna and now with Symbian Belle. This makes it (a little) easier to get at the goods underneath, most notably the N8’s strongest asset; its record breaking 12-megapixel camera.

Symbian Anna also cranked up the N8’s video recording speed to 30fps and added continuous autofocus when taking close-up video. Post-Anna it’s also easier to do simple things like applying scene modes (landscape, sport etc) and adjust exposure.

And despite the Ovi Store not even close to holding a candle to the App Store and Android Market, you get Angry Birds (some game that you might have heard of) and Camera Pro, an app that really unlocks the power of the N8’s camera.

INQ Cloud Touch

We’ve a soft spot for the INQs Cloud Touch. Not the most powerful piece of hardware going by a long shot, the Cloud Touch’s strengths lie in it’s user interface; an interesting take on Android with an emphasis on making the essentials as easy as possible to access.

Things like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth toggles can be accessed by a quick press of a dedicated settings hard key on the side of the phone. You can also check how much storage space you’ve got left at a glance.

This saves you from having to dedicate a whole homescreen to things like the Power Control widget or dive into a menu to tweak a setting.

The Facebook integration too is really clever, syncing your Facebook events directly to the Cloud Touch’s calendar and transforming the standard Facebook news feed into something that’s a lot easier on the eye.

The People app allows you to jump to your top five friends’ profiles easily and you also get SwiftKey as the default keyboard and the Spotify Android app as the default music player.

Though we’re seeing similar Facebook functionality arriving with Windows Phone 7.5/Mango and on Sony Ericsson’s Facebook Inside Xperia, the INQ Cloud Touch was the first phone to do all of this in a fresh and interesting way.

LG Optimus Black

LG’s Optimus Black is like HTC’s Desire S in the sense that it’s a great phone that’s perhaps a bit too good to be considered mid-range but not quite good enough to really be a high-end smartphone.

Once the thinnest smartphone on the block (9.2mm) before the likes of the Galaxy S2 and then the NEC Medias N-04 C strutted their stuff, the LG Optimus Black is still a stylish and streamlined phone. Lightweight and with a matt finish, it’s not a pocket hog and is pleasant to the touch.

That 4-inch NOVA display isn’t to be sniffed at either. In our recent screen test it held its own when compared to more expensive smartphones like the S2 and iPhone 4, bettering both phones in terms of brightness and outdoor performance.

The main 5-megapixel camera performs respectably and you get a 2-megapixel front facer as well, so you’ve got the option for video calls, self-portraits the the ability to turn the phone into an expensive digital mirror.

Nokia N900

Big, chunky, and the only phone of its kind to run Mameo, the Nokia N900 could only ever hope to gain a cult following.

Compared to Symbian as it was at the time, the Nokia N900 was a breath of fresh air. Supporting Adobe Flash, multiple apps, an easier to access contacts list, the Nokia N900 seemed to have more in common with Android than Symbian. Mameo is/was after all a Linux-based OS (like Android).

This neat Androidy-kind of feel was also complemented by Nokia’s trademark build quality and decent camera hardware; a 5-megapixeler with Carl Zeiss optics and a flash, it was capable of producing shots that were up there with the N95’s. You also got a whopping 32GB of internal storage with the option to add more via microSD (up to 16GB) if you needed it.

It was somewhat let down by the fact that everything was always in landscape, making it feel a more like a pocket laptop than a phone. The Qwerty keyboard wasn’t the easiest to type on, with the top row of keys being a little too close to the body of the phone for some.

Mameo of course would eventually evolve to become MeeGo following the partnership with Intel and AMD. And like the rarest of Pokemon, the MeeGo-based Nokia N9 would go on to become a hard to find thing (in the UK at least), the shiny Charizard of the mobile world.

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