Critics' Choice: Top 5 Smartphones




The big news in smartphones, as of this precise millisecond in time, is Google's Nexus One.


Introduced Jan. 5, the Nexus One has generated mostly positive reviews (more about that in a sec). But grumblers took note of Google's initially unfriendly upgrade policy. Since then, Google cut the Nexus One upgrade price for existing T-Mobile subscribers from $379 to $279.


While that's a positive move, there's still that teensy matter of the Nexus One's double early termination fees. Depending upon when you cancel your service, you could be hit with a $200 early termination fee from T-Mobile, as well as a $350 fee from Google.


Despite these and other complaints, the Nexus One lands at No. 4 on our admittedly unscientific Top 5 smartphones list. (We also have a Nexus One in our hands, so stay tuned for our own, more detailed review coming soon.)


In other smartphone news, Palm recently released the Palm Pre Plus ($150 with a new contract) for Verizon Wireless. As of this writing, reviews were still trickling in, so Palm's smartphone didn't make our list, though you can check back next month for a stand-alone review of that handset.


Speaking of our list: Every month, we scour the online reviews of our colleagues to see which products in a given category are consistently ranked among the top 5 and receive the highest ratings. The more top 5 lists a product appears on, and the higher ratings it receives in aggregate, the higher it's ranked on our own list.


Last month, we compiled a list of the top 5 netbooks. This time around, it's smartphones. Next month, check back for our list of top 5 budget laptops.


For this chart, we took into account smartphone ratings and rankings from CNET, Consumer Reports (subscription required to view their smartphone ratings chart), LAPTOP magazine, PC Magazine and PC World. The prices listed below were quoted to me online as a California resident. Smartphone prices can vary by region. Prices listed are for those signing a new contract.


1. Apple iPhone 3GS

U.S. carrier: AT&T
Current online prices: $199 (16GB), $299 (32GB).


Pros: Terrific selection of apps; excellent handheld computer; faster and more powerful than iPhone 3G; above-average video recording (for a phone); superb Web browsing experience for a handheld; great multimedia phone.


Cons: An inferior phone, prone to dropped calls; browser still doesn't support Flash; can't run more than one third-party app at a time; no camera flash; battery life drains quickly.


Worth quoting: "With 32GB of storage and its data and multimedia strengths, Apple's iPhone 3GS is, despite the reservations noted, one of the best smartphones you can buy for the money." -- PC World (4.5 out of 5 stars)


Worth noting: Despite being about six months old, the iPhone 3GS still sits atop the majority of top 5 smartphone charts. Speaking from personal experience, the iPhone 3GS gets an A+ as a handheld computer and a C- as a phone. I've experienced dropped calls even when I'm standing perfectly still (as opposed to driving), in a spot with all signal bars showing. Fortunately, I don't have to use my iPhone 3GS much for work. If I did, I'd either switch phones or, if money were no object, carry a more reliable cell phone (for voice calls) and an iPhone (for everything else).


2. Motorola Droid

U.S. carrier: Verizon Wireless
Current online prices: $199


Pros: Large (3.7-inch), gorgeous hi-res display; free GPS turn-by-turn navigation; fast processor; good battery life; growing supply of Android apps.


Cons: A bit heavy; cramped keyboard; voice quality so-so; not easy to sync with PCs.


Worth quoting: "The Motorola Droid is the future of Verizon Wireless, and the future looks bright." -- PC Mag (4.5 out of 5 stars)


Worth noting: Verizon Wireless has long been known for its reliable network, and until recently, for its underwhelming smartphone selection. The Android 2.0-based Droid kicks Verizon Wireless up several notches in the smartphone competition. For example, the Droid was the first phone to include Google Maps Navigation, with free, turn-by-turn, spoken directions.


3. Research in Motion BlackBerry Bold 9700

U.S. carrier: T-Mobile, AT&T
Current online prices: $130 (T-Mobile), $99 (AT&T).


Pros: Sleek design with optical trackpad; brilliant display; excellent keyboard; attractive, slimmed-down design.


Cons: Subpar browser; average camera.


Worth quoting: "The RIM BlackBerry Bold 9700 brings T-Mobile its first 3G BlackBerry and improves on its predecessor with a sleeker design and more power. We only wish it had a better browser to complete the package." -- CNET, 4 out of 5 stars


Worth noting: BlackBerrys are excellent business-class phones, but the browser gets picked on more often than a stringy-armed kid in gym class. Here's what CNET's reviewer had to say in November:


"We've said it before but we'll say it again: though RIM has made some drastic improvements to its browser in the past year, it still lags behind all the other major operating systems. The navigation is clunky and slow, but it seems that the company realizes this weakness and is committed to developing a better browser. In fact, RIM recently posted a job opening for a WebKit developer, so we look forward to a day where we actually enjoy the mobile Web experience on a BlackBerry since it does everything else so well."


4. Google Nexus One

U.S. carrier: T-Mobile
Current online prices: $179; $529 unlocked.


Pros: A dazzling OLED display; fast performance; sleek, slim design; lots of features; enhanced voice capabilities.


Cons: Apps must be stored in limited internal memory; average media player; no multitouch support or hands-free Bluetooth dialing; Outlook calendar syncing currently not available; early termination fees from both Google and T-Mobile can seriously add up.


Worth quoting: "The Nexus One isn't quite the game-changer people hoped it would be, though it certainly trumps other phones in performance, display quality, and speed." -- PC World, 4.5 out of 5 stars


Worth noting: This is Google's first foray into hardware (though the phone is made by HTC). Those who are skittish about buying first-generation hardware might want to wait this one out.


5. Motorola CLIQ

U.S. carrier: T-Mobile
Current online price: $100.


Pros: High-quality design, construction; makes it easy to stay connected to social networks; excellent call quality and speakerphone; great keyboard; syncs with Microsoft Exchange; cloud-based PIM data backup.


Cons: Heavy; screen is smallish; 5 megapixel camera is disappointing.


Worth quoting: "The Motorola CLIQ's MotoBlur service truly sets it apart. If you use Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter at all, there's nothing quite like the CLIQ for you." -- PC Mag (4 out of 5 stars)





James A. Martin has covered mobile technology since the mid 90s.





Android, iPhone, smartphone, smartphone review, nexus one