Engadget's smartphone buyer's guide: fall 2011 edition

Shopping for a new smartphone is an exciting and arduous experience. It holds the promise of something better and the fear of a two-year commitment. For gadget enthusiasts, it also involves pouring over specs and reviews, and fretting over what's coming out in the near-term. As we publish this buyer's guide, we face potential upheavals in the mobile space. Samsung's Galaxy S II lineup will arrive at three major US carriers, the next iPhone perpetually looms in the distance, and a new generation of Windows Phone handsets is close upon us. You might ask, "Why would anyone buy a smartphone today, when something better is coming tomorrow?" Friends, that's the blessing and curse of the mobile world -- there's always something better coming. You can't wait forever, though, and if you want to purchase a smartphone today, we're here to make the process easier and help you make an informed decision.

While our choices are sometimes contentious, they're backed with experience that you can rely upon. If you're looking to make a quick decision without much effort, you can rest assured that our selections won't steer you wrong. Still, we encourage you to educate yourself before you decide on a smartphone that best fits your needs. Our Primed series is an excellent place to start, where you can learn about dual-core processors and mobile displays. As always, you're encouraged to share your own experience in the comments, and we hope you have fun listing your own favorites, too. Just remember that we have an $80 ceiling for our budget selections. Compared to our previous buyer's guide, Samsung has begun to lose ground, and while Android maintains dominance, it's found some unexpected competition. Curious to see how it played out? Read on, as we round up the best smartphones of the day.


Okay, we know what you're thinking: again? Let's just say the race for supremacy between the iPhone 4 and the Atrix 4G ($100) is at a fevered pitch. Motorola's option has received vast improvements since its launch, first with an update to enable HSUPA, and more recently with its migration to Gingerbread (which enabled sideloading support). If you're fundamentally opposed to buying anything from Apple, go with the Atrix 4G. It's a solid contender with a speedy dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2 SoC and an excellent qHD display. From our experience, however, this Moto can't match the battery life, quality camera and beautiful Retina Display on the iPhone 4. We're incredibly curious to see what Apple has up its sleeve, and the Galaxy S II seems like it'll be a stunner, but for the time being, Cupertino's current offering remains the best, most well-rounded solution on Ma Bell.

If a keyboard is what you're after...

We're admittedly a bit chagrined by AT&T's selection of QWERTY handsets, but the Torch 9810 ($50) is certainly the pick of the bunch -- given what we have to work with. Interestingly, the network offers a wide array of options for keyboard lovers across smartphone platforms, including the Quantum ($50), Status ($50) and Veer 4G ($0.01), but none of these choices are anything to write home about. In that respect, the updated Torch -- which features a 1.2GHz CPU, 768MB of RAM and a decently high-res 3.2-inch display -- is a bit of fresh air (even though BlackBerry 7 OS comes across as a bit stale). As you might expect, the 9810 provides excellent battery life, solid voice clarity and a top-notch keyboard. And as it turns out, the little guy takes pretty good photos, too.

If you're looking to squeeze every penny...

The Focus is one of the best Windows Phone devices on the market today, and its $50 price tag makes it a solid choice for the budget selection on AT&T. While the 1GHz Scorpion CPU and Adreno 200 graphics are beginning to show their age, it remains a respectable performer with an excellent display and quality camera. It compares very similarly with the Captivate, which has a 1GHz Hummingbird CPU (and also retails for $50), but an important distinction can be drawn between the two. While AT&T has disabled HSUPA in both devices, this cheap blow is incredibly easy to reverse on the Focus. If you want to run Android and are undeterred by poor upload speeds (or don't mind rooting your phone), the Captivate is definitely a viable option, but for this reason, the Windows Phone is our favorite of the two.


You've read the reviews, and it should come as no surprise that the Photon 4G is currently our favorite phone on Sprint. Frankly, it's among the very best of smartphones on the market today. Unless you're enamored with the "3D effect" of the EVO 3D ($200), there's no reason to consider the HTC alternative. And no, we're not being too harsh. The Photon 4G features a vastly superior display, better camera, impressive battery life and nearly matches blistering speed of the EVO 3D. We're particularly thrilled with its world phone capability, which offers broad support for GSM / HSPA networks and allows you to use SIMs from your carriers of choice while abroad. Admittedly, we expect the Epic 4G Touch to become the new king upon its September 16th arrival, but the Photon 4G is a true delight -- and best of all, it's available today.

If a keyboard is what you're after...

Yes, the Epic 4G ($100) is beginning to show its age, but it remains one of our favorite phones in the Galaxy S lineup. Like other devices in Samsung's family, it features an attractive Super AMOLED display that's significantly better than its competition -- namely the EVO Shift 4G ($100) and Arrive ($200) -- both of which use traditional TFT-LCD displays. You're also sure to appreciate its superior camera, which features a dedicated shutter button and LED flash. Like the Arrive (which lacks 4G), it provides an excellent five-row QWERTY keyboard. We do appreciate the EVO Shift 4G's longer battery life, and this may factor into your decision (as both devices support WiMAX), but the Epic 4G's strengths are impossible to ignore.

If you're looking to squeeze every penny...

Holy smokes, can it be true? Our previous top choice on Sprint now occupies the carrier's value position. Folks, this is a steal any way you look at it. The Nexus S holds a very special place in our hearts at Engadget, and it's still one of our favorite phones on the market today. The Sprint version offers enhanced WiMAX speed, and now that its nasty connectivity troubles are out of the way, this stock Android sweetheart can hold its head high once again. Okay, so it's not for everyone. It lacks a notification light and Google axed its integration with Facebook, but if you're willing to overlook these minor details, you'll find a remarkable handset that's free of carrier bloat and operates with the beautiful simplicity of Gingerbread. Further, if you're curious about Google Wallet, the Nexus S 4G remains your best choice going forward.


We spent a bit of time debating this one, but our choice of the G2x over the Sensation 4G ($250 before $50 mail-in rebate) really wasn't as difficult as you might think. Yes, it was plagued with availability constraints and suffered some nasty bugs, yet both issues appear to be resolved. Now with stock Gingerbread, the G2x is lean, mean and ready to take on the competition. While the Sensation 4G features an admirable S-LCD display with a higher qHD resolution, we find the G2x's IPS screen more pleasing than its rival. What's more, LG's plain vanilla implementation of Android 2.3 delivers a more responsive user experience and its camera produces better images than HTC's. While both phones are very good, the G2x provides a rare opportunity to experience Android just as Google intended -- and, wield one of the most powerful handsets on the market. While we recommend holding out for our review of the Galaxy S II, this mighty LG remains a winner in our book.

If a keyboard is what you're after...

It's sad to see the G2 fade from T-Mobile's lineup, but fortunately for users who demand physical keys, it was usurped by a respectable replacement. The myTouch 4G Slide ($250 before mail-in rebate) pairs a sliding QWERTY keyboard with Sensation 4G internals. Sadly, it's appreciably less responsive than its larger sibling -- and we weren't completely thrilled with the 3.7-inch S-LCD display, the battery life or the keyboard -- but it's the clear choice for this category. Fortunately, those who care about camera quality will want to take particular notice, as the myTouch 4G Slide produces truly outstanding images and combines an excellent two-stage shutter button. While it's not without compromise, if you insist on a keyboard, you'll most likely be content with HTC's latest offering.

If you're looking to squeeze every penny...

If you remember our last buyer's guide, you might be surprised that the Nokia Astound no longer occupies this position. While it remains a great value at $100 (before a $50 mail-in rebate), it's becoming increasingly clear that Symbian's days are numbered. It's still the most feature rich of the bunch, but if you want an option that will be viable two years from now, Android is your best bet. Fortunately, T-Mobile has two excellent options -- the Optimus T and Wildfire S -- the latter is free online and $50 in-store (on contract). Very little separates the two, as they're both powered by a 600MHz Qualcomm CPU and Adreno 200 GPU. Ultimately what swayed us toward the Optimus T is the near-stock implementation of Android 2.2. It offers performance that's a bit snappier than the Wildfire S, which runs Gingerbread with HTC Sense on top. Both feature very admirable cameras, and the only aspect which may sway you toward the Wildfire S is the inclusion of an LED flash. If this doesn't matter to you, go with the Optimus T and be happy.


If you'd bought into Verizon's commercials for the Bionic, you might've been under the impression that it'd be the one phone to rule them all -- which is far from the truth. Still, it's a very good handset and holds the distinction as the sole option on Big Red to provide both LTE and a dual-core processor, which is a compromise you're forced to make with the carrier's other phones. It also features an excellent high-res display. We're not wild about its battery life, however, and if this aspect is a deal-breaker for you (and extended batteries aren't your cup of tea), we suggest you take a good look at the Droid Charge ($300). It features excellent battery longevity, along with an attractive Super AMOLED Plus display and a superior camera -- at the loss of a dual-core processor, of course. Finally, if you want a quality smartphone without the insane price tag, the Droid X2 ($200) provides a good value with a faster Tegra 2 CPU and a thinner enclosure -- although, the lack of LTE connectivity is a frustrating omission.

If a keyboard is what you're after...

Verizon has two interesting choices for QWERTY lovers, but sadly, we're only able to recommend one of them. While the BlackBerry Bold 9930 ($250) isn't for everyone, it currently bests its closest competitor, the Droid 3 ($200), which suffers from a host of frustrating software glitches. It's certainly possible that Motorola may fix these issues, but we're currently contending with troubles such as spontaneous reboots and annoyances with the camera software. Meanwhile, the Bold 9930 offers one of the best keyboards we've ever encountered, along with excellent battery life, snappy performance and a very attractive (though comparatively small) display. Further, users will find the BlackBerry features excellent styling and are likely to appreciate its world phone capabilities. Sure, its camera isn't the best, and we're growing weary of RIM's aging OS, but if the keyboard is most important to you, it's hard to go wrong with the Bold 9930.

If you're looking to squeeze every penny...

The Droid Pro holds the special distinction as the only smartphone on Verizon selling for less than $80 that we're willing to use (in a pinch). Taken as a budget entry, it's a very respectable choice, and as a nice bonus, it also doubles as a world phone. Still, there's no denying that Big Red's budget entry is the most expensive and least compelling of the big four networks. Unless you live in an area that depends on Verizon for service, we suggest taking a look at the current choices from Sprint and AT&T.

US Cellular

In complete disclosure, we haven't had the opportunity to properly review the HTC Merge, but we think it's the most compelling smartphone on US Cellular. It's quite a shame that Verizon chose to pass on it, as the phone offers a 3.8-inch S-LCD touchscreen, along with a sliding QWERTY keyboard and global roaming support. We feel this last feature makes it a clear front-runner when compared to our previous top selection, the Mesmerize ($200 before $100 mail-in rebate). Interestingly, US Cellular is home to another Verizon cast-away, the Genesis ($230 before $100 mail-in rebate), which was set to take life as the enV Pro. Don't be blinded by nostalgia, however, as US Cellular rates its battery life at a miserable 2.5 hours of talk time (compared to 6.8 hours for the Merge and 7 hours for the Mesmerize).

Cricket, MetroPCS and Virgin Mobile

Let's be honest, if you're a customer of Cricket, MetroPCS or Virgin Mobile, you're looking to save some cash. These networks offer fantastic plans with generous unlimited offerings at modest prices. They also sell more powerful options than LG's Optimus lineup. The Indulge is sold by Cricket ($280) and MetroPCS ($300), and the Triumph ($300) recently stirred some excitement at Virgin Mobile. Still, none of these phones provide sufficient value to justify their steep price tags. Meanwhile, the Optimus is a proven performer that delivers the quality you deserve for half the price.

Cincinnati Bell

The Nexus S was a perfect suitor for Cincinnati Bell, which is a respected provider of AWS service in its home territory. The network operates on the same bands as T-Mobile, and as such, many of its popular phones have migrated to this regional carrier. It also offers the Panache ($250 before $50 mail-in rebate), which is a rebranded myTouch 4G, the Vibrant ($150 before $50 mail-in rebate), and remains a home for the discontinued Streak 5 ($250 before $50 mail-in rebate). As you could've guessed, we're most excited about the stock Android offering from Google, which Cincinnati Bell has renamed the Nexus S 3G. While it's not able to benefit from the network's recent HSPA+ rollout, we still love the Super AMOLED display, quality camera and nimble performance of the Nexus S. This unlocked handset has been compatible with Cincinnati Bell's network all along, but its $530 price was quite the deterrence. The ability to purchase this pure Android Sammy on contract is quite an opportunity, and we recommend that customers make the most of it.

Unlocked smartphones

Quite simply, the Galaxy S II is our favorite smartphone of the season. We're particularly enamored with the unlocked version, which can be used on any compatible carrier without the need for a two-year agreement. Yes, it's expensive, but the Super AMOLED Plus display is sharp and vibrant, and its excellent camera is outclassed only by the Nokia N8 (which remains in a league of its own). Even better, it boasts quad-band 3G support with 21Mbps HSDPA connectivity and a powerful Exynos SoC with a dual-core CPU that's certain to not leave you wanting. If you're willing to take the plunge, you won't regret it. Consider Expansys, Negri Electronics and NewEgg in your search for this amazing handset.

While the Galaxy S II may very well be the ultimate travel companion, if you're looking for an excellent unlocked alternative that runs pure Android and can be purchased with a generous subsidy, look no further than the Nexus S. It comes in two flavors, one that supports AT&T's 1800 and 850MHz bands, and another which support's T-Mobile's 1700MHz AWS spectrum. Both models are compatible with the 1900 and 900MHz standards for use while abroad. Better yet, if you're keen to the latest that Android has to offer, the Nexus S has historically been the quickest to receive updates from Google -- thanks in large part to its stock Android underpinnings. Sadly, it only features 7.2Mbps HSDPA and like the Nexus S 4G, it lacks integration with Facebook contacts -- although, the former has little "real world" consequence, and the latter is quite easy to overcome with a custom ROM.

Editor's note: Hey all. Thought I'd address the comments about the timing of this article. Ultimately, this guide is here to help empower you, the reader, to make better decisions. Our previous guide was sorely out of date, and it failed to accomplish that objective. We've done our best to make this guide not only current, but forward-looking, too. If we'd waited for the arrival (and reviews) of the Galaxy S II devices, then we'd be stuck in the trap of having to wait for the next iPhone, etc. All the while, our previous guide would become even more irrelevant. As it stands, we genuinely believe these are the best options (and alternatives) on the market today. Many of you are understandably willing to wait for new top-tier phones to come out, and that's totally cool. However, we can't be frozen into paralysis just because the landscape is constantly evolving. We're now aiming to make this feature a regular occurrence on the site -- think four times a year, or about every three months. This won't be the last time you see a guide published when we're on the cusp of something big around the corner, either. That's just the nature of the game. Still, by doing the guides more regularly, we hope it'll be a helpful resource when purchasing a new phone. Combined with more current reviews (as they come out), you'll definitely be able to make a good decision. Hope this helps you understand our rationale.