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2009 in Review: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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20th December 2009

Our traditional line-up of the best, worst and ugliest mobile phones continues this year, although in a market where failure can mean oblivion, it is obvious that many manufacturers have put in an extra effort to succeed.

The list is utterly subjective, you may not agree.. and that's fine by us. You can see last year's list here.

The Good..

Honourable mentions

Palm bounced back with the Palm Pre (in CDMA and GSM versions) but Palm's chances of succeeding in an exceptionally crowded market are slim. The Motorola CLIQ or DEXT (depending on market) also demonstrated that sometimes companies that you had written off can come back with something surprising. Samsung had a whole range of impressive black slabby smartphones, we liked the Samsung Omnia II I8000 the most although they had other strong contenders as well. HTC showed increasingly that they can stamp their own unique style on smartphones with the excellent HTC Hero. And although it was originally announced last year, we had to wait until 2009 to see the extremely popular Nokia 5800 XpressMusic in action. LG also had a very cool touchscreen device with the LG ARENA.

A much more conventional handset is the Nokia 6700 Classic, and this demonstrates that sober and traditional handset design still has its followers. Possibly the most fun phone of 2009 was the Samsung B2100 which actually works under water. And one phone that was completely unique in terms of design was the interesting LG GD900 Crystal.

 Motorola MILESTONE Runners up: Hello again Moto, the Motorola DROID and MILESTONE

Known as the Motorola DROID on Verizon in the US and the Motorola MILESTONE elsewhere, Motorola managed to surpass even the rather cool DEXT / CLIQ Android smartphone with an exceptionally high-end Android 2.0 device that has won praise even from Motorola sceptics.

Remember, Motorola is a company that has made enormous losses over the past few years when it comes to its mobile phone business. Many people had written the company off, but it could well be that the MILESTONE and DROID will make a huge difference to the company's fortunes.

The fast processor, enormous screen and improved software make the MILESTONE and DROID handsets stand out from most of the competition. They're let down slightly by a poor camera and uninspired looks, but the DROID / MILESTONE represents one of only a few devices that can really challenge Apple in the high-end smartphone market.

 Nokia N900 It's a Nokia, but not as we know it - the Nokia N900

Nokia's "skunkworks" OS project called Maemo has been going on for several years, starting with the Nokia 770. Until now, Maemo has been for standalone Internet tablets only - but the Nokia N900 changes all that, and it represents an entirely new mobile phone platform for Nokia.

Nokia's traditional smartphone platform is Symbian S60, but that is showing it's age - even the impressive 5800 struggles with Symbian in a modern device. Maemo allows Nokia to build a more contemporary operating platform for high-end smartphones, and we know that we will see a lot more of this during 2010.

And guess what.. it seems that the Nokia N900 works pretty well and manages to look stylish enough to appeal to people who care about that sort of thing. If 2010 sees room for one more operating system, then Maemo will probably be it.

 Apple iPhone 3G S Best phone of 2009: Apple iPhone 3G S

We have to confess that we weren't keen on the iPhone when it first came out, and the Apple iPhone 3G S is not without it's flaws. Chief amongst these is that fact that the iPhone can't multitask, a remarkable achievement when you consider that its heritage goes all the way back to Unix, a multitasking operating system that is also the ancestor to Android and Linux.

Other problems include a relatively low-resolution display, a camera that can't match the megapixel count of rivals (although it does take excellent pictures) and a battery that is not user replaceable.

So, why do we think that the Apple iPhone 3G S is the best handset of 2009? It's not so much about hardware, it's more about Apple's App Store which provides thousands of applications that cover just about every possible need, including dozens of fart apps. At the moment there are reported to be over 100,000 different apps available, which is a mind boggling selection. And Apple's slogan of "There's an App For That" appears to be turning into a meme.

It doesn't hurt that the iPhone looks really cool and has an elegant user interface. But Apple have demonstrated that there's a lot more to a mobile phone than just hardware, so we are confident that when you take the whole package into account.. the iPhone 3G S is the best handset launched during 2009.

..the Bad..

 Nokia N97 Runner up: Not quite ready, the Nokia N97

On paper, the Nokia N97 looked like a useful upgrade to the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic - but people hoping for something that could compete with the iPhone were disappointed.

Hardware considerations were one thing - the N97 is a damned big phone with a truly horrible approximation of a QWERTY keyboard attached.

But the software lacked polish, seemed to have many bugs and it was prone to crashes and reboots, leading to many outspoken campaigns against the handset. Some users who have put the N97 alongside the N900 have come to the conclusion that the N97 pushes Symbian as far as it can go, and that the N900's Maemo platform is the future.

Nokia did fix a lot of software issues with the Nokia N97 Mini which also shrank the phone a little to make it more pocket-friendly, and since the new software is also available for the oroginal N97, then things do seem to be improving.

 Garmin-Asus n├╝vifone G60 Lost and found: the Garmin-Asus nüvifone G60

Hitting the market more than a year later than planned, the Garmin-Asus nüvifone G60 seemed to be an exercise in grim determination rather than business sense.

The G60 looked interesting when it was first announced back in February 2008, but by the time it hit the shops in October 2009 it was largely irrelevant.

Lateness wasn't the only problem with the G60 - the main one was that this appears to be a satellite navigation device that can also make phone calls, rather than a smartphone that can also do navigation. A poor user interface and lacklustre applications have led to a panning by reviewers, and high prices have meant that the G60 has been a massive sales flop.

 Sony Ericsson W705 Worst phone of 2009: Sony Ericsson W705

Sony Ericsson have had a miserable year of collapsing sales and ballooning losses. And in our view, this is not at all surprising.

We could have mentioned a number of Sony Ericsson devices as being contenders for the worst phone of 2009, for example the C903, W395 and W995 are riddled with faults and reliability issues.

But the worst of them all is (we feel) the Sony Ericsson W705. Announced at the end of November 2008 and hitting the market in 2009, the W705 shows up all of Sony Ericsson's worst faults.

The W705 was Sony Ericsson's twenty-eighth "Walkman" branded phone.. but can you name more that a handful of the rest? By the time the last Walkman phone was announced, Sony Ericsson had managed to pretty much destroy all the added value of the "Walkman" name. And there was nothing really special about this phone at all - most of the components were lifted straight out of the Sony Ericsson parts bin and were stuffed into a shiny case without a hint of innovation.

Perhaps as an attempt to make the W705 interesting, Sony Ericsson also made it to be incredibly unreliable. Faults included dead screens, loss of connectivity, system freezes, vanishing data and battery failures.

Recently, Sony Ericsson seems to have addressed many of the faults in design and reliability that the W705 had with a range of improved devices, but many consumers will never want to own a Sony Ericsson again.

So, for all of these reasons, we feel that the Sony Ericsson W705 deserves the title of "The Worst Handset of 2009".

..and the Ugly.

Notable mentions

The Nokia 5330 XpressMusic is easily one of the ugliest phones announced during 2009, but Nokia still haven't launched it which makes us think that it has been cancelled, and the upcoming Nokia 5330 Mobile TV Edition takes the original 5330 and gives it a very pleasing makeover. The Motorola W7 is thankfully a pretty rare phone, mostly selling in Asia. The Samsung B7620 rather pointlessly slaps Armani branding on what is actually a rather good smartphone.

For some reason, the US market seems to have more than it's fair share of ugly looking devices, including the Motorola Karma QA1, Samsung Comeback, Motorola VA76r Tundra and Nokia Surge (also sold in Europe as the 6760 Slide).

 Samsung B3310 Ugly: Samsung B3310

A dinky little messaging phone, the Samsung B3310 comes with a useful slide-out QWERTY keyboard that can be used for texting or on social networking sites.

But the odd thing about the B3310 is the weird set of number keys along one edge, leaving the whole design lopsided when closed.. and in an arrangement that's almost completely useless.

To be fair, other manufacturers have tried messing around with keypad designs before.. but do you see any of them about? No? There's a good reason for that!

 Nokia 6700 Classic Gold Edition Uglier: Nokia 6700 Classic Gold Edition

One of the best looking phones ever made (in our opinion) was the Nokia 6300, and over the years Nokia have tried to make a handset that would be a worthy successor.

With the Nokia 6700 Classic, they succeeded. Here was a handset that picked up the styling from the 6300 and applied it to an up-to-date midmarket phone that managed to combine understated good looks with a useful set of features that almost everyone could live with. A little bit upmarket while still being tasteful, the Nokia 6700 Classic is a successful phone, and deservedly so.

So, what do you do with a handset that manages to get that difficult combination of elegance and features just right? Well, apparently Nokia thought that covering the whole thing in gold was going to make it a more attractive handset. We think that they really missed the point. Too vulgar to be classy, and too cheap to be blingy the Nokia 6700 Classic Gold Edition all seems a rather pointless and tacky exercise.

 Telstra T165i Ugliest: Telstra T165i

"Ugly" doesn't necessarily mean "bad", and although the Telstra T165i looks absurd, it looks the way it does for a very good reason.

The Telstra T165i targets a very particular market - Australian 3G users who live away from main urban areas. To this end, the T165i has an extendable antenna, something very rarely found in 3G phones these days. If that's not enough, it can also be mounted to an external antenna either in a fixed location or a vehicle.

Despite the ridiculous retro looks, the T165i comes with 3.5G support, GPS, expandable memory, 2 megapixel camera, Bluetooth and an FM radio. It's also a fairly rugged device and it comes with a anti sun glare display, meaning that it should adapt to life well on your sheep station or wherever you are using it.

There's something very Australian about this phone, it looks like the sort of handset that you could beat off a crocodile with and then upload the photos so that your mates could see them. In our view, the Telstra T165i may be the ugliest phone we've seen in 2009, but we like it!

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