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2011 in Review: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

8th December 2011

As 2011 comes to a close, we look at the best, worst and ugliest phones and tablets to hit the market during the year.

The Good..

Honourable mentions

There have been a lot of excellent handsets and tablets this year. Starting with tablets, the Apple iPad 2 improved on the best tablet last year and is still very difficult to beat. However, the competition upped its game with the excellent and powerful Motorola XOOM (and now XOOM 2) and Sony's distinctive and capable Sony Tablet S. One surprise hit was the HP Touchpad.. when HP knocked 80% or so off the price to dump the stock it is, leading to the surprising revelation that the Touchpad was actually a very nice piece of kit, and a real bargain at the prices it was selling for. Amazon also got in the game with the Amazon Kindle Fire, a very different approach to making an Android tablet.

 Apple iPad 2
Apple iPad 2

 Motorola XOOM
Motorola XOOM

 Motorola XOOM 2
Motorola XOOM 2

 Sony Tablet S
Sony Tablet S

 HP Touchpad
HP Touchpad

 Amazon Kindle Fire
Amazon Kindle Fire

During 2011 smartphones got much cheaper at one end of the scale and much more powerful at the other, leaving feature phones out in the cold. The long-awaited Nokia N9 is beautiful but was always doomed, being the first and last MeeGo phone from Nokia. HTC haven't had such a good year, but two stand-out devices are the HTC Sensation XE Android smartphone which is fast and has excellent music capabilities, and the HTC TITAN which is definitely one of the best Windows Phone 7.5 devices out there.

 Nokia N9
Nokia N9

 HTC Sensation XE
HTC Sensation XE

 HTC TITAN
HTC TITAN

The Motorola DEFY and DEFY+ were designed to be more life-proof than the average fragile smartphone. Sony Ericsson demonstrated the beautifully designed Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc and Arc S smartphones, proving that not all phones need to look like a plain black slab.

 Motorola DEFY
Motorola DEFY

 Motorola DEFY+
Motorola DEFY+

 Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc

 Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S

Samsung had a strong showing during 2011. The Samsung Galaxy Note is fast and has a huge screen, sitting somewhere between a tablet and smartphone. The Samsung Galaxy Mini is a strong contender in the Android prepay market. Google's third Nexus handset, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is the first to run Android 4.0 "ICS". A very honourable mention must be made of the Samsung Galaxy S II, a very fast and desirable device which is only let down by its uninspiring design.

 Samsung Galaxy Note
Samsung Galaxy Note

 Samsung Galaxy Mini
Samsung Galaxy Mini

 Samsung Galaxy Nexus
Samsung Galaxy Nexus

 Samsung Galaxy S II
Samsung Galaxy S II


Runners Up

Not the iPhone we were waiting for: Apple iPhone 4S

 Apple iPhone 4S Although the Apple iPhone 4S wasn't the iPhone 5 than people were hoping for, the 4S is a significant upgrade in hardware and software terms over the old iPhone 4. In particular, the Siri voice recognition and location based alerts are two very useful features, but there are hundreds of tweaks that keep the iPhone 4S in the game.

Even if you are not an Apple fan, you can probably appreciate the attention to detail that has gone into this device, and Apple's ability to keep the wraps on the launch and STILL have millions of units available to sell straight away.

The launch of the iPhone 4S coincided with the premature death of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Reports after Jobs's death indicate that the iPhone 5 was canned just months before launch because Jobs disagreed with several key technical aspects.. but we can probably expect to see the handset launched in modified form during 2012.


 Motorola RAZR RAZRBACK: Motorola RAZR XT910

Motorola took a bit of a risk when they revived the RAZR name for the ultra-thin Motorola RAZR XT910 smartphone. But it suits the device very well, this very slim, Kevlar clad and big screen phone is certainly one of the best phones out this year.

Yes, some phones may be prettier, and some phones (but not many) may be more powerful, but the RAZR is a good mixture of both. Motorola have worked hard on the software and have an interesting range of docks and accessories too, making this a more accomplished offering than the rival Samsung Galaxy S II.

Motorola have had a good year in terms of product releases, but not so good in terms of sales. From next year they should be a subsidiary of Google, although whether or not that is a good thing remains to be seen.


 Nokia Lumia 800 Best device of 2011: Nokia Lumia 800

Nokia haven't had the top spot in our list since the N95 in 2007, but the new Nokia Lumia 800 is certainly the most competitive Nokia we have seen for a long time, and hopefully it proves that Nokia is bouncing back after several years of poor management decisions.

The Lumia 800 isn't the first Windows Phone 7.5 device to market, and it isn't the most powerful. What sets the Lumia 800 apart is a combination of an attractive physical design along with a compelling user interface that makes rivals look obsolete.

There is nothing else quite like the Lumia 800 on the market, and although die-hard Apple and Android fans may not be tempted to switch, we still expect this to be a strong seller into 2012.  The Nokia Lumia 800 feels very fresh, and behind the smart exterior is a very smart device. For this reason, we are pleased to say that in our view, the Nokia Lumia 800 is the best phone of 2011.


..the bad..

What makes a "bad" phone? In our view it is when something has gone horribly wrong in product development, leading to something that is fundamentally flawed and essentially useless as a product.

HP's entire webOS range was a disaster this year, leading to the cancellation of HP's smartphone and tablet line-up which was all based on the Palm business they acquired in 2010. HP's flagship smartphone, the HP Pre 3 wasn't all that bad in truth, but the HP-only operating system sidelined the Pre 3 and the entire webOS range.

Feature phones were launched.. and failed. The Motorola GLEAM is a different type of RAZR and is a relic dredged up from somewhere in Motorola's basement. Sony Ericsson failed with the annoyingly named Sony Ericsson txt and txt pro - feature phones that should really have been smartphones instead.

 HP Pre 3
HP Pre 3

 Motorola GLEAM
Motorola GLEAM

 Sony Ericsson txt
Sony Ericsson txt

 Sony Ercisson txt pro
Sony Ercisson txt pro

Nokia made some horrible devices - the Nokia Oro is a gold plated dinosaur that was launched at the height of Nokia's current crisis, and although it has some strong points the launch was met with derision from many commentators. The Nokia X2-05 and C2-05 are versions of quite decent cheap phones with all the best bits removed.

 Nokia Oro
Nokia Oro

 Nokia X2-05
Nokia X2-05

 Nokia C2-05
Nokia C2-05


 LG Optimus 2X First is not always best: LG Optimus 2X

The LG Optimus 2X was the first dual-core smartphone to market. It has a 4" WVGA display, an 8 megapixel camera on the back and a whole set of other feature that made the 2X look really good.. on paper.

In reality, the LG Optimus 2X was very unstable in use with many users complaining of random reboots and lockups. Many of these faults were fixed in a software update, but there are still questions over the build quality of the device.

The faults were widely publicised, and sales of the 2X were pretty low as a result. If LG had spent more time on their flagship device then it might have been better, but as it is LG have struggled throughout 2011 and there are questions over their long-term future in this business.


 BlackBerry Bold 9900 Bold is Boring: BlackBerry Bold 9900

Research in Motion (who own the BlackBerry brand) appear to live in their own reality bubble. Ignoring the obvious fashion for large screen touchscreen phones, the BlackBerry Bold 9900 comes with a tiny touchscreen shoehorned into their traditional format device. Is a 2.8" touchscreen any use in the real world? We think not, and in the case of the 9900 it is essentially a gimmick.

But BlackBerry fans did buy the 9900, only to find the battery life was poor, the phone would lock up and reboot randomly and there were numerous software bugs. It was made worse by a major outage when the BlackBerry network was offline for several days.

RIM are struggling to keep a foothold in the changing smartphone market, and unimaginative and unreliable handsets such as the 9900 are not going to help.


 BlackBerry Playbook Worst device of 2011: BlackBerry Playbook

RIM again.. this time with a tablet. The BlackBerry Playbook is another device with good and bad points. The hardware is very nice, and the QNX based OS is fundamentally very good.. but crucially it can't run BlackBerry smartphone applications.

When the Playbook shipped, the software wasn't finished. Subsequent software updates made things better, but the Playbook still lacks a native email client.. all email has to be downloaded through a BlackBerry smartphone.

As with the HP Touchpad, the Playbook was yet another incompatible platform that couldn't gain any momentum. Heavy discounting by retailers has failed to help much. Most consumers looking for a tablet tend to buy an Apple, those that don't are drawn to Samsung, Motorola and Sony devices because they run Android. The Playbook is not something that the market needs, and in it#s imperfect form we think that this is the worst device to be launched during 2011.


..and the Ugly.

Ugly doesn't mean bad, but sometimes products are either under-designed, over-designed or just plain wrong to look at. Some of the less attractive phones we have seen this year include the HTC ChaCha, which appears to have a Facebook zit on its chin, the Sonim XP3300 Force which is as tough as nails but isn't exactly a looker and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus which is an incredibly dull looking phone for something so technologically advanced.

 HTC ChaCha
HTC ChaCha

 Sonim XP3300 Force
Sonim XP3300 Force

 Samsung Galaxy Nexus
Samsung Galaxy Nexus


 Sony Ericsson Xperia Play Dude, where's my keyboard? Sony Ericsson Xperia Play

We like the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, it's a handset that realises that many smartphone owners like to play games and as a result it has a load of PlayStation goodness built in.

When closed, the Xperia Play looks like a normal slabby smartphone.. but open it up and, well what *is* that? At first glance it looks like something is missing, on closer examination it looks like someone has glued a gaming pad in place instead of the keyboard. It looks weird.

By the time the Xperia Play's replacement comes out, Sony will be fully in control of this manufacturer. Perhaps the Sony Xperia Play 2 might be more of a looker?


 Nokia X7 Rest in peace: Nokia X7

There's something coffin-like about the design of the Nokia X7, perhaps this is apt given that the Symbian platform that the X7 runs hasn't got long to live.

It's a big slab of a phone, and although the shaved-off edges make it look more interesting, it isn't necessarily in a good way.

Combine the striking looks with a high price tag, and you'll not be surprised to learn that the X7 hasn't exactly been a sales success.


Ugliest device of 2011: Porsche Design P’9981 Smartphone from BlackBerry

The BlackBerry Bold 9900 has already featured once in this list.. and not in a good way. But one of the good things about the 9900 was the ergonomics - BlackBerry devices have always been carefully designed for usability.

The Porsche Design P’9981 takes the BlackBerry Bold 9900 and redesigns the outside of it, removing all the good design that BlackBerry put in place and replacing it with a piece of designer awfulness that makes it much harder to use.

Yes, this is a luxury brand on a luxury handset, but as with many other similar "premium" devices you would be better off with a normal smartphone if you actually want to use the thing.

 

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