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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  • VivekGowri - Monday, December 06, 2010 - link

    Trust me, I'm a fan of the Adam and have been following it pretty closely ever since CES last year. As an Indian, I'm pretty psyched about the potential for an electronics boom happening in India. However, until it gets closer to shipping, it's only worth a mention. I have the Viewsonic and the Galaxy Tab in hand, which is why I wrote more about them, Reply
  • strikeback03 - Tuesday, December 07, 2010 - link

    While I also am an Apple hater, the iPad is shipping now, while the Adam still only qualifies as vaporware. So while the whole Android tablet market is poised to grow, and almost certainly some better designs than the Galaxy Tab and host of cheap iPad knockoffs will be coming, if you are looking to give or get one this holiday season your choices are relatively limited. Reply
  • quickbunnie - Monday, December 06, 2010 - link

    Couple of minor errors:

    The Samsung Epic 4G does have an LED flash.

    Also, while there are no reports of OTA pushes for FROYO on the Epic 4g, a signed (no rooting needed) FROYO build is sitting on Google's servers:
    http://android.clients.google.com/packages/ota/spr...

    Rename to update.zip (make sure windows is showing extensions), put the file on your SD card "root" folder, boot in recovery mode and hit the update.

    FROYO v2.2.1 on Epic 4G goodness.

    Mixed reports on GPS - seems its either working or not at all with this update. Also, it breaks MediaHub, which requires a workaround to get functional again.
    Reply
  • SilthDraeth - Tuesday, December 07, 2010 - link

    Exactly, I kept looking at my epic wondering if that isn't an LED Flash then why the heck does it flash when I take pictures?

    Maybe it isn't LED? Nah, just an error I guess.

    And dangit, I just updated to dl18, I need to update to dk28. If I run the update the way you stated, will I lose my contacts, and installed applications?
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Tuesday, December 07, 2010 - link

    Samsung has recommended not using that update anyway (http://www.androidcentral.com/sprint-says-froyo-ep... though the choice is up to you Reply
  • ssj4Gogeta - Monday, December 06, 2010 - link

    Hey Brian,
    I wonder why you didn't recommend the international Galaxy S version in the international segment. It's similar to the US Galaxy S versions but trades camera flash for a front camera.
    Reply
  • Dodger52 - Tuesday, December 07, 2010 - link

    Why do all you techblogs get it wrong and don't get your facts right.!!!

    The blackberry Torch is powered by a new generation PXA 940 built using the 45nm process

    (sources:)
    http://www.ubmtechinsights.com/reports-and-subscri...

    http://translate.google.nl/translate?js=n&prev...
    Reply
  • Mook1e - Tuesday, December 07, 2010 - link

    You mention the wrong model (or carrier) when talking about the Captivate. If you've used the other models, they would be on Verizon and T-Mobile, not AT&T and T-Mobile. Also, your sentence regarding the flash implies that the Epic doesn't have a flash, when it does.
    Also, the Epic hasn't been priced at $249.99 on Amazon for months now. It was actually $99.99 for a while (It's currently $149.99)
    Reply
  • jed22281 - Wednesday, December 08, 2010 - link

    Agreed Re the N900 in the international/unlocked category....
    Very happy camper, the possibilities really are limitless on this device, I'm surprised on an almost daily basis.
    Reply
  • asliarun - Thursday, December 09, 2010 - link

    I've been visiting Anandtech for many many years now, and have come to place a lot of trust and reliance on most of the articles.

    While I am not disappointed with what was IN this article (which was well analyzed and written), I am more disappointed with what was NOT in the article.

    Firstly, I had expected this smartphone buyer's guide to be similar to the PC guide - I had definitely expected much more than 1 page worth of content for non-US visitors. I had mainly expected to see recommendations in various price points (budget, price-performance, high-end), detailed breakdown of strengths and weaknesses of key contenders in each segment, and at the very least 3-4 options in each segment along with their price points. A tabular analysis of the various contenders would have, for example, worked very well.

    I normally hesitate to write a critical comment as it is easy to criticize as opposed to doing something. I do understand that it takes time and effort to analyze a large number of phones. But man, you have high standards to live up to! This is what separates AT from the thousands of other so-called tech review websites. I'm sorry to say but there is a marked difference in the quality of articles and quality of analysis written by Anand and other senior members and some of the other articles that I am reading nowadays.

    Please take this constructively. I am not dissing you guys, but only telling you how you could continue to "wow" loyal readers such as myself. One more thing: you don't always need to do a PhD in every device before being able to write about it. You can, for example, easily do a comparison of the top 10 or 15 Android phones on the basis of various parameters that are relevant to buyers such as speed/responsiveness, battery life, display quality, camera quality, construction quality, price, usability, etc.

    Basically, what I want to be able to read a "guide" article on Anandtech, and be able to make an informed purchase decision after reading it, and/or become more knowledgeable about the subject. Please help. There are hardly any such websites nowadays that I can put my trust in nowadays.
    Reply

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