Since there are so many smartphones on the market, we figured that the holiday season was a great time to write our first smartphone buyer's guide. And so we continue our 2010 Holiday Buyer's Guides with the handset sector. This year was the first year that we got some real, honest competition in the smartphone sector. Google's 2.0 version of Android released late last year to great success, and versions 2.1 and 2.2 only continued that trend. Apple, always good for some drama, kept it up this year with the iPhone 4 and the ensuing Antennagate scandal. Microsoft finally made a serious play for the handheld sector with the brand new, Zune-based Windows Phone 7. Palm got bought out by HP, BlackBerry finally got a WebKit browser in BB6, and Nokia continues pair increasingly awesome hardware with Symbian on everything not called the N900. Safe to say, we had a pretty busy year in the smartphone segment.

We've split our guide into 6 segments - one for each carrier, then one for unlocked and international devices. We put in a page for tablets, since that's still an expanding market closely related to smartphones. Over the next few months, we'll see rapid growth in tablets and slate computing devices, but for now, it's not big enough to warrant more than a page. So, we'll kick it off with the carriers, starting with AT&T.

AT&T

Until recently, if you were on AT&T and wanted a smartphone, your choices were limited. In fact, basically the only choices were either a BlackBerry, iPhone, or Windows Mobile. In the span of a just a few months, however, AT&T has built out a surprisingly decent portfolio of Android, Windows Phone, and even WebOS devices, diversifying their smartphone lineup so they've got devices from every major platform in case one suddenly becomes dominant. Whatever the case, there are far more options these days than there used to be on AT&T.

That said, it's hard to argue that the world's most polarizing device isn't still at the top of the carrier's list - the iPhone. There isn't much to say about the iPhone 4 that hasn't already been said in our review and its updates. If iOS's style and predominantly hands-off, just-works philosophy appeals to you, or you're looking to upgrade from an iPhone 2G, 3G, or 3GS, this is the obvious choice. When it comes to screen resolution and battery life - something its predecessors couldn't nail down - the iPhone 4 still remains unmatched. Even though the Cortex A8-derived Apple A4 SoC in the iPhone 4 isn't running at 1 GHz, - rather around 800 MHz - the phone still has a level of snappiness that I've yet to see equaled on any platform short of the Galaxy S phones. For the longest time, the iPhone was the reason to have AT&T in the first place, and though that still likely is true for a majority of users, there are enough other good devices on the 'ol death star that this isn't really the case anymore. The other advantage is that when you get tired of the iPhone 4, you can pop your SIM into a device from a number of different platforms.

First up, probably our top recommendation for a smartphone of the Android variety on AT&T is the carrier's Galaxy S variant, the AT&T Samsung Captivate. I've played with the Fascinate on AT&T and the Vibrant on T-Mobile, but still haven't been able to directly interact with a Captivate long enough to review it - we're still trying to get one. That said, the speed of the Galaxy S line alone and its potent combination of a 1 GHz Cortex A8-derived CPU and Imagination SGX 540 GPU in the Hummingbird SoC make it (last I've checked) the fastest hardware you can buy right now. No doubt the story will change early 2011 with Cortex A9 MPcore based SoCs like Tegra 2, OMAP4, and new platforms Qualcomm, but for right now the best you can get through legitimate means with cash in your hand is Galaxy S.

The Captivate differs from the other Galaxy S devices slightly. Unlike the Fascinate (and like the Vibrant and Epic) the Captivate lacks an LED flash, which is a bit of a downer. The hardware itself also feels very insubstantial, which is a good or bad thing depending on your point of view and preference. The only other downer is that the Captivate is still running Android 2.1, though it appears the rest of AT&T's direct offerings are also running 2.1. Things look better however when you consider that the Captivate is selling for $0.01 at Amazon Wireless on 2 year contract, or $199.99 from AT&T on contract. The other Android options on AT&T are the HTC Aria (2.1), Motorola Bravo (2.1), Backflip (2.1), Flipout (2.1), and Flipside (2.1), and the Xperia X10 (2.1). See a pattern? It's incredible that there are no devices being directly offered on AT&T that come with Android 2.2. For that, you'll have to find a Nexus One which is becoming increasingly scarce.

The other options on AT&T are similarly differentiated by your platform preference. RIM brought BlackBerry 6 to market with AT&T in the form of the BlackBerry Torch 9800, a device that I honestly found very usable. The browser is much improved, the platform manages to feel decently snappy despite still relying on a relatively unimpressive 624 MHz Marvell Tavor PXA930 SoC. Amazon Wireless is likewise offering the Torch for $0.01 on contract, or you can get it for $99 from AT&T directly.

The new player on the scene is Windows Phone 7. At least for this holiday season, there aren't any CDMA Windows Phone 7 devices, meaning choices are limited to T-Mobile and AT&T if you want to try Windows Phone. We've reviewed the HTC Surround which is available on AT&T, and Anand is still working on the Focus. Having played with both, I can understand why the Focus is reportedly outselling the Surround - it feels like the Galaxy S phones in thickness and weight, and packs an AMOLED display that certainly makes it pop when side by side with the Surround. There's also the LG Quantum if you want a hardware keyboard, even though Windows Phone 7 has an otherwise excellent virtual keyboard. The Surround beats the Focus in our battery life tests in all but 3G talk time, no doubt in part to the Focus' AMOLED display. We haven't tested the LG Quantum yet, but it packs a traditional TFT screen and will likely be in the neighborhood of the Surround battery life-wise. All three AT&T windows phones are on Amazon Wireless for $0.01 right now on contract, or $199.99 from AT&T on 2 year contract.

Last but not least is WebOS. Here the options are interesting. The Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus remain available for free from AT&T on contract, which is a great deal if you're a fan of the WebOS card workflow and multitasking style. The Palm Pre 2 is now out, however, which is available directly from HP-Palm for use on AT&T for $449.99, unlocked and without a plan. There's no option to get the Pre 2 directly from AT&T on subsidy - your only option is direct from HP.

AT&T definitely does have a lot of options, even if you (shockingly) can't get an Android 2.2 device direct from the carrier short of finding a Nexus One on eBay. At the end of the day, my recommendations boil down to either the iPhone 4, Samsung Captivate on Android (with the Xperia X10 a worthy second), or the Samsung Focus or HTC Surround for WP7.

Verizon
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  • jalsa777 - Saturday, December 04, 2010 - link

    i do not know your visitor's demographics...
    But i am preety sure a lot of visitors are from outside the USA.

    The article would be much better off if the phones were divided by segment or price band.
    Reply
  • StormyParis - Saturday, December 04, 2010 - link

    Agreed. I dropped the article when I realized the structure made no sense to me. Reply
  • Brian Klug - Saturday, December 04, 2010 - link

    Hey Jalsa777,

    Definitely see page 5 - we do realize that a huge percentage of readers aren't from American markets and are really trying to get a more global spread of devices in coverage as well.

    The LG Optimus One is probably our first real international device, and we've got an N8 review coming too. I know we have assets moving into place in the UK to start covering devices in Europe as well, so it's definitely happening. ;)

    -Brian
    Reply
  • Pataling - Saturday, December 04, 2010 - link

    The Palm Pre 2 should have got a mention in the unlocked/international section. Won't Anandtech be reviewing it anytime soon? It is a "developer's phone" after all. Reply
  • jordanclock - Saturday, December 04, 2010 - link

    I found it strange that it was only mentioned in the ATT section. Since it isn't available through ATT, it really should have been put in the Unlocked/International section, unless for some reason it can't do any frequencies except for ATTs. Reply
  • Rick83 - Saturday, December 04, 2010 - link

    Yes, there are no cell network versions, but at their price points they offer quite a lot, and beg the question how apple and samsung end up charging the ridiculous amounts the do, for their hardware (which should be cheaper than netbooks, not more expensive...yay status-symbol-markup)
    It is them that also, more than a year ago, put one of the first Android Tablets on the market (my Archos 5 IT is a year old now....) and now they even made the move to capacitive touch screens (though I still prefer resistive....).
    Anyway, their 70 and 101 models should be at least worth a mention, as they are actual products, and probably enjoy a bigger market share than the ViewSonic.
    And not even listing Archos with the "also ran"? That's really questionable...

    So anyway, if you're looking for a tablet for serious work, and not as a status symbol, give the Archos 70 a good look....USB host available via cheap adapter, priced low, connects via standard USB cable, HDMI out, micro SD.... Though apparently you give up 3g (...well, mifi is an option, or BT tethering to your cellphone) and GPS (that might hurt if you plan to use it for navigation...though 7 inch is a bit large for that kind of thing anyway.
    Oh and there's a 10 incher as well, for a similar price.
    Reply
  • Skott - Saturday, December 04, 2010 - link

    Yes, I don't understand why they didn't look at Archos as well. Perhaps because they are not as big of a company as the others? That new Archos 101 (10.1) just released recently and if anything has a chance of matching or surpassing the iPad it would be it. It uses the newer version of FROYO 2.2. At $299 its very competitively priced. Reply
  • VivekGowri - Saturday, December 04, 2010 - link

    You actually can't get the 101 or the 70 in the US yet, but yeah I did forget to mention them. I was really determined not to mention the Archos 9 PCtablet, since I've played with that a few times and found it a major disappointment (performance and resistive touchscreen, amongst other things). I'll probably add in a mention of the 101, cause that does have a really good price on the low end (the 16GB ends up pretty close to the Viewsonic, which is a lot more powerful.) Reply
  • Roland00Address - Saturday, December 04, 2010 - link

    Make sure you do a mini review before and after you root the device. I am just wondering how useful the device will be with no app support. Reply
  • DigitalFreak - Saturday, December 04, 2010 - link

    I bought a Viewsonic G tablet this past week. The stock software is ok, but not great. The latest update includes the Handigo app store, which is better than nothing but not anywhere near the Android Market.

    Where this device really shines is with the alternate roms. TNT Lite seems to be the best at the moment. It replaces the interface with the stock Android UI. There's hack that gets you the full Android Market and Flash support as well. Unfortunately, Android 2.2 doesn't support multi-core, so you're stuck using 1/2 the processing power of Tegra 2. Hopefully 2.3 will add that. Even with 2.2, it's still a fast device.

    If you plan on keeping the G tab stock, then it's merely ok. If you like tweaking though, it's definitely worth the money. XDA has an forum dedicated to it.
    Reply

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