Though it's accepted wisdom that 2011 is "The Year of the Tablet" (we're pretty sure it falls between the year of the Hare and the Dragon), apparently someone forgot to tell smartphone manufacturers. Tablets were as common as rollie suitcases and bad skin at CES, but what's really crushed our craniums has been the bevy of ultra-powerful cellphones. We've seen several models that will take advantage of the speedy 4G data networks that are being lit up as we speak, a bunch with high-quality cameras that rival some point-and-shooters, some amazingly crisp and bright screens, and a select few with dual-core processors that are essentially palm-sized laptops. In short, if your current phone contract is up, and your wallet full, you're going to be very happy, very soon.
The biggest breakthrough is the advent of dual-core processors in cellphones (read about them below). All of that processing muscle allows for graphics performance far beyond what you'd find in all but the highest-end netbooks and even many laptops. So while playing games and video -- including true HD, Flash and streaming -- are perfectly smooth and jitter free, there's also the ability to multitask between apps. Many of these phones are also able to capture 720 and even 1080p video and play it back via HDMI to an HDTV. Coupled with next-gen bright and big Super AMOLED or qHD screens, hardware-wise these phones are a quantum leap forward, and truly refine what we all know as smartphones.
The other major addition to all of these phones is that they're ready and rarin' to hop onto the various iterations of 4G networks that wireless providers are scurrying to launch. This is huge, people. In perfect conditions, 4G wireless offers speeds on par with many wired home Internet services, and means that not only will you experience faster downloads (and uploads) of all your favorite data from apps, in many cases you'll also be able to do video-calling without the need of Wi-Fi, and also share your signal as a hotspot for use by other phones. It's worth noting that technically the term 4G is being slightly stretched by T-Mobile and AT&T to include their HSPA+ networks, which are really 3G networks that have been maxed out to be considerably faster than regular 3G (this as opposed to Verizon's LTE network, and Sprint's WiMax). Still the real world effect is a massive upgrade from current 3G, and just adds to the allure of these pretty little speed demons.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for us -- one that exemplifies how change is truly afoot in the wireless industry -- is that all of these phones run a version of Google's Android OS. While there is much to admire about Windows Phone 7, smartphone makers haven't done much with it yet. RIM, as expected, had no BlackBerry update of note. There are no WebOS models. And yes, Apple's latest iPhone is already seeming long in the tooth compared with these offerings. We knew Android was for real, but it has already become the phone OS to beat going forward.
So, without further ado, following is what are currently the most powerful smartphones around. Pricing and availability is still in flux for all of them, though all should be available in the first or second quarter of this year.
1. Motorola Mobility Atrix 4G for AT&T
Leading the charge for the Cinderella story that is Motorola, the Atrix is arguably the most compelling product to come out this year. This dual-core 1Ghz with 1 gig of RAM, 4G (or rather AT&T's HSPA+) Android 2.2 phone is just genius. Everything is snappy and fast, the higher resolution qHD screen is gorgeous, but what really grabs us is its ability to be slipped into the back of an equally slick Motorola "laptop dock
" and instantly become a slim, lightweight but powerful workstation. And you can do the same thing with a TV dock that allows for HD playback or screen mirroring of the Atrix and the use of a keyboard and mouse like a desktop if you prefer. Or just use an HDMI cable. We had to be politely asked to leave so others could have a chance to play with this thing. Expect it some time in the 1st quarter this year.
Motorola Mobility Atrix
2. Motorola Droid Bionic for Verizon
The Gods must be crazy -- another Motorola at the top of our list?! Yes friends, Moto crushed it at CES this year, and the latest in the venerable Droid line is almost as powerful as the Atrix. Almost. The Bionic is also dual-core (but with "just" 512MB of RAM) and has a bright and razor sharp 4.3-inch qHD screen, however it rocks data on Verizon's nascent LTE 4G network. Especially impressive was the 8 megapixel main camera and the knowledge that we'll be busting out video calls on both Wi-Fi and 4G at will.
Motorola Droid Bionic
3. LG Optimus 2x
Another dual-core destroyer, the Optimus 2X looks like an Android device squeezed into the body of an iPhone. And that's not a bad thing! The 2X first appeared last month and so has the distinct honor being the world's first dual-core phone. Like our top picks it has an 8 megapixel rear camera (1.3 up front), does HDMI mirroring and is capable of 1080p recording and playback, though with a modestly less top-shelf WVGA screen. Currently it runs Android 2.2 but will be upgradeable to Gingerbread when the time is right. While LG was initially cagey about any US release, it has an HSPA+ radio and strong rumors have it you'll be able to get your 2X on via T-Mobile in the next couple months.
LG Optimus 2X
4. HTC Thunderbolt for Verizon
Another Android phone, another winner (seeing any patterns here?). Despite having only a single-core processor, the Thunderbolt is in every other way a standout smarthphone with excellent specs: 4.3-inch WVGA screen, 8 megapixel camera, a whopping 40 gigs of storage (with included 32 gig microSD card), shoots HD video and gets LTE data via Verizon. It's the first phone to feature Skype mobile, allowing video calling over Wi-Fi or 4G, but our fave feature is that the Thunderbolt is a DLNA device, which means you can push photos, videos and audio wirelessly to a suitably-equipped monitor or TV.
5. LG Revolution for Verizon
Okay this is getting ridiculous. Android seriously rules the school at this point -- and Verizon isn't looking too shabby either. The Revolution is yet another LTE/4G smartie, with a 4.3-inch screen, a single core processor but hardcore HD skills; it's able to shoot HD and then pump it to a TV via HDMI or wireless using DLNA
SmartShare (if the TV is DLNA as well). We're especially fond of its ability to share that LTE goodness as a mobile hotspot for up to 8 other devices.