Since there are so many Android smartphones on the market now -- including both excellent devices and several duds -- many people feel overwhelmed when trying to choose one. I get a lot of the "Would you recommend this one or that one" questions as well as plenty of requests to rank my favorites.
As a result, I've created a leaderboard of my top Android picks. This is a dangerous task because it is very subjective stuff. The smartphone that is the best fit for you is going to depend heavily on your needs and preferences. But, since I've had my paws on virtually all of the Android devices and I've written reviews of the best ones, I decided to rank them in terms of the overall quality of the devices. Since my audience is primarily IT and business professionals, I've developed this list with them in mind. A list aimed at consumers would certainly look a little different.
I also keep this leaderboard up to date (here's my final 2010 leaderboard). So, as I review new Android devices in 2011 and decide that they deserve a place on the list, I will add them to the list and bump other phones down or off the list. The are some excellent devices coming soon that will likely join this list -- Motorola Droid Bionic, T-Mobile G2x, and LG Revolution, for example -- but while I've seen pre-release versions of these devices, I'm not going to add them to this list until they are officially available to the public.
Caveat: This ranking is primarily based on US smartphones. In each country/region, the telecom carriers tend to name these devices by different names. In many cases you'll be able to find a close match between the devices on this list and devices in your area, but not in all cases.
This is the successor to the HTC EVO, which I ranked first on last year's Android leaderboard. The ThunderBolt is a major upgrade. It gets Verizon's 4G LTE network over Sprint's 4G WiMAX network -- and that more than doubles its network speeds and capacity. It also sports an upgraded Snapdragon processor with a dedicated GPU, a bump up to 768MB of RAM, an aluminum unibody hardware design (reminiscent of the Google Nexus One and the HTC Desire), and a camera that has the same number of megapixels but takes much nicer photos. Internationally, the HTC Desire HD is very similar to the ThunderBolt.
Arguably, the most exciting new Android smartphone of 2011 is the Motorola Atrix. The phone looks like Clark Kent but acts like Superman. The hardware design isn't anything special and the MotoBlur UI doesn't do Android any favors. But, under the hood, the Atrix is running Motorola's "Webtop" software, which allows the phone to connect to a laptop dock or desktop dock and act like a real PC. Of all the smartphones on this list, the Atrix is the only one that we're likely to remember its name in five years, because it's such a watershed device. Five years from now, nearly all high-end smartphones will have this feature. They might even replace corporate desktops in many cases.
Samsung joined the Android ecosystem with a bang in 2010, putting its Galaxy S line of smartphones on lots of different carriers in lots of different form factors. Millions of buyers scooped them up. The first successor to its initial line of Android phones is the Samsung Galaxy S 4G. It's very similar to last year's Galaxy S line but it has HSPA+ capability (which T-Mobile dubiously calls "4G") and a svelte form factor that doesn't feel quite as placticy as most of last year's models. Also keep an eye out for the Samsung Galaxy S II.
4. HTC Inspire
One of the best Android phones flying under the radar is the HTC Inspire. The form factor is nearly identical to the HTC ThunderBolt -- it's essentially an aluminum unibody version of the HTC EVO. While it doesn't have quite the punch of the ThunderBolt in terms of speed, it gets pretty close. It runs on AT&T's HSPA+ network in the US, so it can get up to 5Mbps downloads in the real world. However, while the ThunderBolt costs $249 up front, the Inspire retails for just $99. It's a terrific bargain at that price. Again, if you're looking for an international version of this device, check out the HTC Desire HD. And, AT&T customers should also watch for the Samsung Infuse later in 2011.
As I wrote in my review of the Nexus S, it doesn't quite live up to its predecessor, the Nexus One -- the original "Google Phone" -- but the Nexus S is still worth a look, especially for Android purists and developers. While HTC built the Nexus One for Google, the Nexus S was built by Samsung and has a similar hardware design as the Galaxy S models (i.e. lots of plastic). However, the Nexus S runs the stock Android OS, was the first phone to get Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and will continue to be one of the first devices (along with the Nexus One) to get the latest Android updates directly from Google. The Nexus S 4G is also coming soon.
6. HTC Desire
This smartphone bears a very strong resemblance to the original Nexus One (a great device that's no longer for sale) and in the first half of 2010 it was released in Europe and Australia, where it became a popular choice in both markets. It has since spread to other international markets and it became available in the US through regional carrier US Cellular. The Desire has nearly-identical hardware specs to the Nexus One and a very similar, high-quality aluminum unibody that gives it an excellent build quality. The biggest differences are that the Desire has hardware navigation buttons instead of touch-sensitive buttons, an optical touchpad instead of a trackball, includes HTC Sense UI and an FM tuner, but lacks the second microphone for noise cancellation and the pins for a dock connector. Also, keep an eye on the HTC Desire HD (with a larger 4.3-inch screen) and the HTC Desire Z (with a slide-down keyboard).
With Sprint's HTC EVO 4G drawing much of the attention of the Android world during 2010, after its unveiling at CTIA Wirelesss in March 2010, the response from Motorola and Verizon (the previous darlings of the Android world) was the Droid X. It matched the HTC EVO with a 4.3-inch screen, an 8 megapixel camera, a Micro HDMI port, and mobile hotspot functionality, but it lacked a front-facing camera, 4G connectivity, and the extra polish that HTC puts on Android with its Sense UI. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most capable Android devices available and remains a favorite among many professionals and power users. It will be largely succeeded when the Motorola Droid Bionic arrives in mid-2011.
This version of the Samsung Galaxy S is the one that departed most significantly from the standard form factor. That's mostly because it integrates a full 53-key slide-down hardware keyboard. But it's not just any keyboard. With it's large keys and dedicated row for number keys, it is arguably the best hardware qwerty on any Android device. It also features a 4-inch Super AMOLED screen, a zippy 1 GHz Samsung processor, and Sprint's 4G WiMAX service. You could certainly make a case for ranking this phone higher on the list, especially for business users that are still in love with a hardware keyboard.
9. T-Mobile G2
The other great option for Android purists is the T-Mobile G2 from HTC. It runs the stock Android OS and is the successor to the T-Mobile G1 (a.k.a. HTC Dream), which you may remember as the Google's very first Android phone released back in October 2008. The G1 was also one of the worst smartphones ever created, with its clunky, awkward hardware and abysmal Android 1.6 software. Its successor does much better. The G2 has HTC's aluminum finish, a solid slidedown keyboard with customizable quick keys, and Android 2.2. It doesn't have the latest hardware, but it does connect to T-Mobile's HSPA+ network and it's available at an excellent price (even free, with some promotions). The T-Mobile G2x is also coming mid-2011, but don't let its name confuse you. It's built by LG, doesn't have a hardware keyboard, and is a completely different device.
No Android device has taken aim at business users more directly than the Motorola Droid Pro. The most obvious symbol is the Droid Pro's hardware keyboard, which effectively emulates the classic BlackBerry keyboard found on devices such as the BlackBerry Bold and the BlackBerry Curve. The Droid Pro also integrates enhanced security and management features (such as remote device wipe) that will appeal to larger organizations and their IT departments. These features don't quite bring Android up to the same level of enterprise readiness as BlackBerry (which offers even stronger encryption, for example), but many companies will likely view it as good enough. While the 3.1-inch screen of the Droid Pro is among the smallest of Android devices, this device will definitely appeal to BlackBerry converts.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.