Smartphones

The 10 elite smartphones of 2010

With the rise of Android, the reboot of BlackBerry, and the redesigned iPhone, 2010 can rightly be called the year of the smartphone.

During the past year, I've reviewed nearly all the top smartphone devices. Here is my countdown of the best smartphones of 2010.

Note: This article originally appeared as an entry in our Tech Sanity Check blog. It's also available as a PDF download and a slideshow.

10: BlackBerry Torch

BlackBerry came under intense pressure in 2010 from the rapid growth of iPhone and Android. The smartphone incumbent fired back with the release of the BlackBerry 6 OS and a new form factor with a slide-down keyboard in the BlackBerry Torch. The device is a bit underpowered, the OS isn't a huge step forward, and overall it hasn't been enough to stem the losses to Apple and Google. But there are still a lot of BlackBerry fans out there -- not to mention all the enterprises locked into BlackBerry -- and for them, the Torch is now the preeminent device on the market.

9: Motorola Droid 2

This shows how much progress the smartphone market has made in one year. Last year, I would have ranked the original Motorola Droid and the Apple iPhone 3GS as the two best smartphones on the market. This year, the Droid got a nice upgrade but still struggled to make the top 10. Still, due to its increased specs, solid build quality, and usable form factor, the Droid 2 belongs on this list. Also, don't overlook its cousins, the Droid Pro and the Droid 2 Global.

8: HTC Incredible

With much the same innards as the Google Nexus One (although not nearly as strong a build quality), the HTC Incredible was a consolation prize for those who had been salivating for the Nexus One on Verizon. Unfortunately, Google and Verizon pulled the plug on those plans and instead HTC offered the Incredible through Verizon with the traditional two-year contract. The Incredible did get one thing the Nexus One didn't have: HTC's Sense UI. Some viewed that as a bonus over the stock Android OS on the Nexus One, while others saw it as a detractor.

7: Samsung Focus

Microsoft finally got itself back in the smartphone game in 2010 with the launch of Windows Phone 7. The first widely available WP7 device was the Samsung Focus, which didn't disappoint. The Focus sported nice hardware specs in an attractive, futuristic form factor (albeit with a lot of plastic, similar to the Galaxy S). And Windows Phone 7 offered a new take on smartphone UI that is a little but more polished and fluid than Android or BlackBerry, although not quite as finished as the iPhone.

6: Motorola Droid X

Verizon Wireless went all-in on Android in 2010, launching a steady stream of new Android-powered devices throughout the year and replacing BlackBerry with Android as its primary smartphone platform. The Droid X served as Verizon's flagship Android phone, with its huge screen, 8MP camera, enterprise-class hardware, and extensive list of high-end features.

5: HTC Desire

While the HTC Incredible had the same guts as the Nexus One but a much different outer shell, the HTC Desire had similar internals and an outer shell that closely resembled the high quality metal casing on the Nexus One. The Desire quickly became one of the most popular smartphones in Europe and Australia by mid-2010 and has spread to other carriers across the globe since then. Along with the Nexus One and the iPhone 4, the Desire feels like the most substantial and high quality smartphone on the market. You should also keep an eye on the HTC Desire HD and the HTC Desire Z.

4: Samsung Galaxy S

Samsung joined the Android movement with all guns blazing in the middle of 2010 by releasing its line of Galaxy S smartphones in a variety of form factors (and a confusing array of product names) on all four U.S. wireless carriers and a fleet of international carriers. In the United States, the Samsung Vibrant and the Samsung Epic 4G were the most impressive of the Galaxy S phones, but all the models around the world have the same technology base and generally provide a very good Android experience.

3: Google Nexus One

The first big smartphone of 2010 was the Google Nexus One, launched just after the New Year and right before CES 2010. As a product, the long-rumored "Google Phone" wasn't a disappointment. It had excellent build quality (developed by HTC) and ran the stock Android OS, which got all the latest Android updates directly from Google. However, the phone failed in its larger mission of moving the U.S. telecom market toward the European model of being able to buy phones and wireless service separately. The Nexus One was sold as an unlocked device at full price ($500) through Google's online store. Google was not well prepared to handle customer service and didn't give U.S. consumers enough time to warm up to the idea of buying a full price device. It also never released the promised CDMA version of the Nexus One. Eventually, Google abandoned the product altogether and replaced it in December with the Nexus S, built by Samsung and available under traditional contract with T-Mobile.

2: HTC EVO 4G

The premier Android device of 2010 was the HTC EVO 4G. It was the first major smartphone to break the 4-inch screen barrier. It was the first 4G smartphone in the United States. It was the first major smartphone with an 8.0-megapixel camera. It was the first major smartphone to feature a kickstand (for video viewing). I pejoratively called it the "Hummer of smartphones" because of its massive size and the fact that it's such as battery hog, but there's no arguing that the EVO 4G stretched the boundaries of what was possible in a smartphone and forced all its competitors to play catch-up.

1: Apple iPhone 4

With all the momentum that was gathering around Android during the first half of 2010, Apple's iPhone 3GS was starting to look pretty stale by midyear -- especially since it was only a slight upgrade over the iPhone 3G from 2008. Then, Apple unveiled iOS4 and the iPhone 4 and launched itself back to the head of the class with top-quality hardware and a software experience that still outpaces all its rivals in terms of ease of use, responsiveness, polish, and third-party software. The iPhone 4 antenna problem, which was more severe than Apple acknowledged but a lot less severe than the tech press portrayed it, was a wart for the iPhone 4. It also still lacks the widget capability of Android (and now Windows Phone 7). But, overall, the iPhone 4 remains the gold standard of the smartphone market.

Honorable mentions

  • Motorola Droid Pro
  • HTC HD7
  • Dell Venue Pro
  • T-Mobile G2
  • BlackBerry Bold 9780
  • HTC Aria

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About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

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