Because there's a stampede of Android smartphones barreling into the market — including both excellent models and a few duds — many people feel a little overwhelmed when trying to choose one. I get a lot of the "Would you get this one or that one?" questions and requests to rank my favorites. So I decided to do something a little dangerous — create a leaderboard of my top 10 Android picks. It's dangerous because this 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 the Android devices, and I've written reviews of the best ones, I'm going to rank them in terms of overall quality, with much more emphasis placed on the smartphones themselves than on the wireless carriers they're tied to.
I'm also going to keep this leaderboard up to date. So as I review new Android devices and decide they deserve a place in the top 10, I will add them to this list and bump other phones down or off the list.Caveat: This ranking is primarily U.S.-based. In each country/region, the telecom carriers tend to give these devices different names. You may be able to find a close match between many of the devices on this list and devices in your area, but not in all cases.
1: HTC EVO 4G
Pound for pound and feature by feature, there's still nothing out there in Android land that can hang with the HTC EVO 4G. With its 4.3-inch WVGA screen, 8 megapixel camera, 1 GHz Snapdragon CPU, front-facing VGA camera, Micro HDMI port, 3G Wi-Fi hotspot, and 4G WiMAX capability, the EVO has it all. And with its large onscreen keyboard and handy kickstand for watching video, it's easy and pleasant to use. When I reviewed it, I called the EVO "The Hummer of smartphones" because it's so huge and it's such a power hog. But there's no denying that it is the elite device of the Android fleet.
This was the first Android device that really knocked my socks off, and I still use it as the gold standard to measure every other Android smarty. Sure, it doesn't have the best battery life and its screen isn't as big and bold as the HTC EVO or the Droid X. But it is remarkably elegant and usable, and it remains the one Android phone untarnished by the mobile manufacturers and telecom carriers. Google no longer sells it on the mass market but offers the N1 as a testing phone for Android developers. Still, it remains the gold standard, and as long as Google keeps selling it in one form or another, it will likely remain on this list.
The Samsung Vibrant snuck up on a lot of people. Samsung hadn't produced many good smartphones in recent years. In fact, the Samsung Omnia was so bad that I rated it as one of the worst tech products of 2009. So when Samsung announced the Galaxy S, its first line of Android devices, expectations were fairly low. But despite the marketing confusion of naming the Galaxy S something different (and giving it a slightly different configuration) on every carrier, the product has been a big hit, selling over a million units in its first 45 days on the market. The best of the Galaxy S models is T-Mobile's Samsung Vibrant, which is thin, powerful, has a great screen, and does the least amount of fiddling with the stock Android OS.
One of the most anticipated Android devices of 2010 was the Google Nexus One on Verizon. Unfortunately, it never happened — partly because Verizon dragged its feet to allow the unlocked Nexus One on its network and partly because Google was unprepared to handle the customer service responsibilities for the Nexus One. As a result, the maker of the Nexus One, HTC, released a similar device called the HTC Incredible (sometimes referred to as the "Droid Incredible"). It's not quite as elegant or high-end as the Nexus One, but the Incredible is the next best thing.
With Sprint's HTC EVO 4G drawing much of the attention of the Android world since its unveiling at CTIA 2010 in March, 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.
This version of the Samsung Galaxy S departs 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 its 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. I could certainly make a case for ranking this phone as high as number three on this list.
The fact that this phone is all the way down at number 7 on this list is an indication of just how competitive the Android market has become, because this is an excellent smartphone. The original Droid really kick-started the Android revolution and remained one of the best-selling Android devices on the market throughout the first half of 2010. The Droid 2 simply updates the design slightly, improves the keyboard, and replaces the internals with more powerful hardware. For those who prefer a physical keyboard and Verizon's top-notch coverage, the Droid 2 remains a great choice.
The other Samsung Galaxy S to make this list is AT&T's Samsung Captivate, which has virtually all of the same internals and specs as the Samsung Vibrant but has a flatter, boxier form factor. The thinness of the Captivate, combined with lots of punch and high-end features, make this a very attractive phone. I actually prefer the design of the Captivate over its cousin the Vibrant (No. 3 on this list). However, AT&T has loaded it up with a ton of AT&T crapware that users can't uninstall and even worse, has restricted the device so that users can't "side-load" apps that are not in the Android Market. T-Mobile doesn't commit either of those two sins with the Vibrant, and that's what makes it a better choice.
9: HTC Aria
The HTC Aria might be one of the best-kept secrets of the Android world. HTC could have honestly named this phone the EVO Mini. It looks a lot like the EVO, but in a far smaller package. In fact, while the EVO is the biggest Android phone, the Aria is the most compact, with its 3.2-inch screen. That's its primary appeal — along with a low price tag (it retails for $129 but you can usually find it for much less than that, even free, based on promotions). The biggest problems with the Aria are the underpowered 600 MHz CPU and the fact that, like the Galaxy S, AT&T has loaded it up with lots of crapware and limited it to the applications in the Android Market.
10: LG Ally
The LG Ally is not very pretty — except for being pretty underpowered — but it does have a few redeeming qualities that make it attractive. It has a great little hardware keyboard — the best hardware keyboard on an Android device, next to the Epic 4G. It's also very compact, though not as compact as the HTC Aria, since the Ally's slider keyboard makes it a little more bulky. But the best feature is the price: $49. And like the Aria, many customers will get it for free with the right promotion. For 50 dollars or less, this phone is a nice value.
Jason Hiner has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.