A glance at the history of Android phones will reveal the immense wave of Android handsets in recent years. In just 2011 alone, at least 13 new Android phones were released in the U.S., and it's not even May. With these many phones on the market, it's no wonder that Android adoption is on the rise.
The problem with there being so many Android phones, however, is that it's difficult for any one phone to stand out. Consumers have a hard enough time deciding which handset to get in the first place; imagine if they are choosing between phones that are practically identical. Even for seasoned reviewers like me, the phones tend to blend together after a while.
However, there are the occasional shining stars that stand out from the crowd. The T-Mobile G2x, for example, won an Editors' Choice Award recently because of its top-notch features and performance, and the Motorola Atrix 4G won our admiration at CES with its innovative laptop dock. We've learned that there are a few important components that go into a successful Android phone, and we've decided to share our views here.
We're not suggesting that manufacturers cover up their phones in Swarovski crystals to get us to notice them, but a good design is nevertheless important; it shouldn't feel like a cheap throwaway phone you bought at a drug store. The handset should have a nice solid feel in the hand; this is a sign that it's made out of good-quality materials. Glass displays are always welcome, and a capacitive touch screen is an absolute must. The technology behind the display is important, too; we're usually impressed with Super AMOLED screens, as well as IPS and qHD displays that provide bright and vibrant colors. Smartphones are increasingly used for watching movies and playing games, so the more vivid the display, the better. We also tend to favor larger screens because of this, though anything bigger than 4.3 inches may prove to be too much.
If manufacturers decide to add additional components like a slide-out keyboard, those should be well-made, too. The keyboard shouldn't be too flat or slippery, and the sliding mechanism should snap into place when open. While we're not entirely sold on the idea that thinner is better, an overly bulky phone is not desirable, either. On the whole, we want a phone that looks and feels great in the hand while not weighing down our pockets.
I'm not averse to manufacturers and carriers putting their own spin on Android with their own skins and overlays, but I really do prefer it when less is done to mess with the native Android interface. The stock Android experience is simply faster and cleaner. Some manufacturers do come up with acceptable skins that help differentiate the phones, like HTC's Sense UI and Samsung's less intrusive TouchWiz interface. But we're often less than pleased with more intrusive overlays, like Motorola's Motoblur and Sony Ericsson's Timescape. They tend to bog down the phone and clutter the screen. Of course, software upgrades arrive much earlier for native Android phones, too.
Even though Google doesn't require Android phones to have the best hardware out there, we do think it's important for manufacturers to incorporate the latest technology if they want a successful Android phone. Recently, that has meant faster processors and improved graphic chipsets, which are increasingly important for consumers who want to watch HD video or play processor-intensive games.
But it's not just about speed; all the other features need to be improved, too. We definitely want the basics like GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi, but also the ability to have a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot. The latest phones also have multimedia-friendly features like HDMI mirroring and DLNA support.
As for the camera, an 8-megapixel camera seems to be the standard for premium handsets, but the photo quality isn't necessarily better. It would be more prudent for companies to focus on making a better sensor and improving the software. While we're not sure video chat is something everyone will use, a front-facing camera is a nice bonus feature to have as well.
As 4G becomes more widespread, we also feel that the most successful Android phones will be able to take advantage of a 4G network, whether it be Sprint's WiMax, Verizon's LTE, T-Mobile's HSPA+, or AT&T's HSPA+ (and possible upcoming LTE network). Of course, it would be nice if the carriers offered a reliable and fast network as well.
The biggest complaint about powerful Android smartphones like the Atrix 4G is that the battery life isn't so great. If you can't last a day without having to charge it, then the phone's many features are worthless. This is especially a concern with the aforementioned dual-core phones with 4G speeds. However, this isn't a pipe dream--we enjoyed decent battery life with the G2x, for example. Hopefully more manufacturers will find a way to marry high-tech features with better battery life.
It goes without saying that the more affordable a phone is, the more successful it'll be. A standard price tends to be around the $200 range for a premium phone that requires a two-year contract. We've also seen really great phones like the HTC Evo Shift 4G sell for even less than that. Anything more than that tends to require a lot more justification.
How about you, readers? What do you look for in an Android phone? Let us know in the comments!