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Top 10 smartphones of 2010... for now

The smartphone market is really taking off, with many compelling devices available on all four major U.S. wireless carriers. Matthew Miller shares his list of the best available and anticipated smartphones.

Last year I posted a couple of popular smartphone series, and I will be working on a follow-up to my Clash of the Touch Titans article in a month or so when a few of the rumored/anticipated devices are out and available. Prior to this past 2009 holiday season, I took a look at the smartphone selection for different carriers. With the explosion of smartphones in the market, I thought it would be appropriate to put together a mid-year list of the top current and announced smartphones of 2010. We know that some kind of new iPhone will be coming soon, but we are not sure if it will be for just AT&T or also for other carriers. We believe some flagship Google Android device will be coming to T-Mobile. Palm may release a new webOS device soon, and Samsung and others may release new Android devices. But all of this is still speculation and rumor, so we will stick with just the facts in this top 10 list. You can check out several product photos of these 10 devices in my image gallery, but I also highly recommend you visit your carrier store to get some hands-on time with a device before you make a huge monthly commitment.

Note: This article is based on an entry in BNET's Smartphones and Cell Phones blog. It's also available as a PDF download.

1: Sprint HTC EVO 4G

No other current smartphone can match the specifications of the Sprint HTC EVO 4G, and early reviews confirm it is really as good as the marketing materials say it should be. Specifications of this beast include a 4.3-inch 480×800 display, 1 GHz Snapdragon processor, 4G integrated wireless radio that can be used to share the Internet via WiFi for up to eight devices, 8 megapixel camera capable of 720p HD video capture, HDMI video output, video calling capability (thanks to Qik), and Google Android 2.1 with HTC Sense. You also get free included Google Maps and Sprint Navigation, Sprint TV, and NASCAR Sprint Cup Mobile.

The device launches on 4 June for only $199.99, with two-year contract and minimum voice and data plan of $79.99 per month that includes 450 Anytime minutes and free unlimited calls to mobile phones.

To share your Internet via WiFi you will need to pay $29.99 per month for unlimited data. By the way, the $10 extra data fee (over existing Sprint smartphones) lifts the 5GB monthly data limit so it is truly unlimited.

2: Apple iPhone 3GS

I know we are getting close to one year since the 3GS was released, but it is still a fantastic device that is doing very well in sales, with updates that keep making it a good choice. Apple announced its iPhone 4 OS update that is coming this summer, and the iPhone 3GS will be able to take advantage of all the new features and functionality. So your one-year-old device will get a nice makeover. The update should be free if past policy is an indication. You can buy the iPhone 3GS for $299 (32GB) and $199 (16GB) from AT&T, and these prices may drop when the new iPhone is announced, probably in June.

There are more than 200,000 applications in the Apple App Store, so you can pretty much find apps and games for just about anything. Many apps are powerful and functional, and games are comparable to dedicated gaming machines. Tons of accessories are available for the iPhone 3GS, so great deals can be found everywhere too. The iPhone OS is easy to learn and use so the device is perfect for new smartphone owners, and Apple has done a good job of updating existing hardware.

Specifications don't always tell the whole story, but they do offer a baseline for measuring devices. The iPhone 3GS has an ARM Cortex A8 600 MHz processor with PowerVR graphics, 16 or 32 GB internal storage, 3 megapixel camera, and 3.5-inch 320×480 display. The iPhone 3GS may not have the highest specifications, but it is quite fast, the camera takes good quality photos and captures decent video, and no other keyboard works quite as well on a touchscreen device.

3: Nokia N8

It is pretty rare to find a Nokia smartphone offered by a U.S. wireless carrier, but you can find several that support T-Mobile and AT&T 3G wireless data networks. The upcoming Nokia N8 is the first smartphone in the world to provide 5-band 3G support so that you can connect to 3G data networks on T-Mobile and AT&T in the United States, along with 3G networks around the world. This is truly the first world phone and has some compelling specifications that best anything currently available.

The N8 is also the first Symbian^3 powered device. While the user interface doesn't look much different from what we see in S60 and Maemo, it does have improvements that will probably appeal to Nokia and Symbian fans around the world and may even bring in some new fans.

Specifications include 5-band 3G data support, anodized aluminum casing in five colors, 3.5-inch 640×360 pixels resolution OLED display, 720p video recording capability, 12 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, internal 16GB memory with support for microSD expansion cards, HDMI port, USB, FM transmitter, 680 MHz processor, and USB On-the-Go so you can plug in USB devices to use them without a PC.

4: HTC Droid Incredible

One of the hottest phones available now that keeps selling out on Verizon Wireless is the HTC Droid Incredible. I had the chance to spend a few weeks with the Incredible and was ready to give up my Palm Pre Plus after experiencing the extreme speeds of the Incredible. It is the fastest Google Android device, shoot, the fastest smartphone, I have ever used, and everyone I have talked to has been happy with the device. The battery life is not the greatest, but this may also be a factor of how much people use it since it is so enjoyable to use.

Specifications of the HTC Droid Incredible include a 3.7-inch 480×800 WVGA AMOLED display, 8 megapixel camera, Android 2.1 with HTC Sense 2.5, 1 GHz Snapdragon processor, and 8GB internal memory and support for microSD expansion cards. The Incredible feels great in your hand with its unique back design and soft touch outer shell material.

The Exchange support is quite robust and of course, the Gmail experience is topnotch. Google Maps Navigation is a joy to use and gives you free voice-enabled navigation and directions. There is a lot to like within an Android device and the Incredible shows you what good hardware can do with a good operating system.

5: Google Nexus One

The Google Nexus One was launched during CES 2010 in January, and I had mine delivered during the event. The Nexus One is the best smartphone on T-Mobile that is also now available to support AT&T's 3G network. I personally find the Nexus One to be extremely compelling and find it gets better thanks to the support of independent developers who allow you to quickly change the ROM of your device so you can customize it beyond compare. We also recently heard that the Nexus One will be getting the Froyo (Android 2.2) update, which will make it faster and even more capable.

Specifications of the Google Nexus One include a 1 GHz Snapdragon processor, 3.7-inch 480×800 pixel resolution display, 5 megapixel camera, and dual mic for dynamic noise suppression. All the other standard high end specs, such as WiFi, Bluetooth, 3G radio, microSD card slot, and GPS receiver are included as well.

I personally think the Nexus One hardware is more appealing than the Incredible, and I like the physical trackball that gives me colored notifications and the ability to select or place the cursor in specific locations. I purchased an extra battery and auto dock and am pretty committed to the Nexus One on T-Mobile as my primary device.

6: Palm Pre Plus

The Palm Pre launched on Sprint last summer and it hasn't ever really taken off, even though I think the operating system is the best currently available. Verizon really made the Pre Plus a compelling device when it dropped the price down to just $49.99 and threw in the $40 per month Mobile Hotspot functionality. I debated about keeping mine until Verizon offered the WiFi capability and find it to be a compelling offer. Aside from that, the Palm Pre Plus is a nice smartphone option.

The Pre Plus is also now available on AT&T for $149.99 and is available on Sprint as the Pre (half the internal memory capacity). The Pre Plus has a great form factor for those looking for a capable touchscreen device with a hardware QWERTY keyboard, but the hardware is not the most robust and could be better.

Specifications of the Palm Pre Plus include a 3.1-inch 480×320 resolution display, integrated 16GB flash drive, 3 megapixel camera, and Palm webOS. The specs may not seem like much, but the user interface is fantastic and the notification system cannot be beat. Palm also provides a slick wireless charging system with the Touchstone charger. Its Synergy integration brings together all your networks and gives you access to all your friends and associates.

7: T-Mobile myTouch 3G Slide

My first Google Android device was the T-Mobile G1, and I found the QWERTY keyboard to be one of the best on any smartphone. I was hoping to see an HTC created QWERTY Android device in 2009, but nothing was released. We now finally have a successor to the G1 being launched on T-Mobile on 2 June for $179.99. The T-Mobile myTouch 3G Slide may not have the highest specifications, but it is a very capable device with a few cool new features not seen on any other Android device.

The myTouch 3G Slide has a 3.4-inch display, side slide-out QWERTY keyboard, 5 megapixel camera, 600 MHz processor, and Swype touch keyboard. The new Android features include the Faves Gallery, myModes, and Genius button. myModes is a cool way to set up your device to automatically change the customization of the HTC Sense interface based on time and/or location, so you can have it switch from business to personal mode after the workday ends.

8: RIM BlackBerry Bold 9700

BlackBerry devices are very popular, but compared to the latest and greatest smartphones available I couldn't justify putting one any higher than this in my own list of top 10. I think the BlackBerry Bold 9700 (9650 on CDMA carriers) is an exceptionally good BlackBerry device, and if you are a fan of RIM devices you really cannot go wrong with the new Bold series. I have tried BlackBerry devices and do enjoy them but find the newer touch-focused devices to be more compelling.

The Bold 9700 includes a beautiful 480×360 high resolution display, 3.2 megapixel camera, awesome QWERTY keyboard and touch sensitive trackpad, and battery life that will provide service for about two days of heavy usage.

If carriers didn't have so many restrictions on the SIM, I would probably have a Bold 9700 on T-Mobile. However, I don't like to be restricted to one device or operating system, so I can't make a BlackBerry device work for me at this time.

9: T-Mobile HTC HD2

The T-Mobile HTC HD2 has the best specifications of any Windows Mobile device, but unfortunately, awesome hardware and specifications don't always make a device the best. I ended up selling my HD2 after a month because of constant lockups and instability. Just a week after I sold it, T-Mobile released a software update to fix these issues, and I have heard that the device is indeed more stable.

I honestly wish I had the device back now because the hardware really is fantastic and very similar to the HTC EVO 4G. The HD2 has a 4.3-inch 480×800 display, Snapdragon 1 GHz processor, 1GB ROM, 5 megapixel camera, and Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system. It comes with a 16GB microSD card and support for the Barnes & Noble eReader, BlockBuster on Demand, MobiTV, Gogo Inflight service, and Slacker Radio. The device is heavily focused on media and comes with the two Transformer movies loaded on the microSD card.

The T-Mobile HD2 keeps selling out and appears to be doing very well. If this HD2 had launched with the updated software, I would still be an owner and it would have been in the top five of my list for sure.

10: Motorola Droid

I know this device is several months old, but it really generated an extreme level of excitement for the Google Android platform. And with the latest software updates, it is as relevant as any of these other devices. Verizon's Motorola Droid is still priced at $199.99 and hasn't seen a fire sale price like the Palm Pre Plus. It is one of the few Google Android devices with a QWERTY keyboard and supports the thousands of Android apps with the Google Experience.

Specifications of the Droid include a 3.7-inch 480×854 WVGA display, 5 megapixel camera, Google Android 2.1 OS, Cortex A8 550 MHz processor, and included 16GB microSD card. It is debatable whether the physical QWERTY keyboard is worth the size sacrifice, but you can always get used to a keyboard over time.

Skype Mobile and NFL Mobile are two cool services included on the Verizon Motorola Droid. If you want a Verizon Android device with a keyboard, you might want to consider this. But I recommend you look at the HTC Incredible and give the software keyboard a try first.

Final thoughts on my top 10

As I was putting together this top 10 list, I found it interesting that five of the top 10 smartphones on my list work with T-Mobile's 1700 MHz 3G data network and five with AT&T's network, while three are available for Verizon and two for Sprint. Some work across multiple networks, but the GSM carriers look to have more available options. I was surprised that the smallest U.S. wireless carrier actually has some of the best high end smartphone options and may soon have more with a rumored flagship Android device.

I am seriously considering the Sprint HTC EVO 4G, Nokia N8, and myTouch 3G Slide. The Nokia N8 is almost a for sure thing, while my upcoming test of the myTouch 3G Slide will confirm whether I add this to my T-Mobile collection. To get the HTC EVO 4G, I would have to give up my Verizon Palm Pre Plus, so I think the best strategy will be to wait and see what Apple announces in early June. Armed with this information, I can make an informed purchased decision that may end up with my return to AT&T.

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