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Wow, what a year! In the past twelve months, we have seen so many new phones, technology, and form factors. Some of the most anticipated phones we've ever seen were released this year. We all know of the saga with the iPhone 4S, but do you remember that the same drama surrounded the release of two other phones - the HTC Thunderbolt and the Droid Bionic? webOS came and went, BlackBerry tried to make a comeback, Windows Phone got on the map, and Android and iOS were left on top to duke it out. Yes, we have seen some amazing stories develop this year.

But what were the best phones of 2011? Well, if you simply look at the spec sheet, then this answer is easy. As technology progresses, we're naturally going to see the most powerful phones at the end of the year. But those aren't necessarily the phones we're going to talk about in this list. Instead, I wanted to focus on the most exciting phones; the ones that had the most impact and that carried the most significance. So if you look at this list and wonder, 'Why isn't this phone on here or why is that phone listed above this phone?', just keep in mind that these are the most impactful phones. These are the ones that really caught our eye.

So here they are: the best smartphones of 2011.

 

1. Samsung Galaxy S II

It really doesn't matter which version you're talking about, the Galaxy S II was simply THE best phone of the year. Yes, there are a few phones out there with slightly better specs in some areas, I know that, but none of them captured the attention of the tech community like the Galaxy S II. Even without the highest screen resolution, the Galaxy S II's Super AMOLED Plus display is simply stunning. It is absolutely gorgeous. Other display technologies may offer crisper images, but colors on the Super AMOLED Plus display have a richness that cannot be beat.

The Galaxy S II is the All-Around player in the smartphone market. Whereas some phones have strong points and weak points, the Galaxy S II is strong in every area. Its 1.2 (or 1.5) GHz dual-core processor, whether you're referring to the Snapdragon models or the Exynos models, is lighting fast; no matter which carrier you go with, you're going to get 4G speeds; the 8-megapixel camera that captures 1080p HD video offers images and videos that rival the iPhone 4S' camera and is considered by some to be better than the 4S' camera; the hardware design, though too plasticky for some, is sleek and incredibly thin. Yes, the Galaxy S II is the whole package and stole the spotlight this year.

 

2. Apple iPhone 4S

You knew the iPhone was going to be on this list. Some will argue that several Android devices out-perform the iPhone 4S and have more impressive specs. This may be true, but remember, we're talking about the phones that captured our attention and held it for a substantial amount of time. I think we can all agree that the iPhone definitely did that. Android fans may be able to quickly dismiss the iPhone, but I'd be biased if I did the same thing.

The iPhone 4S' hardware is the best in the business. This alone makes me want to buy one. It's elegant, refined, modern, and just plain sexy. iOS, though getting long in the tooth in many ways, still sets a standard in smoothness and performance. (If you're wondering where people get the idea that Android is laggy, it's because they're comparing it to iOS.) The ecosystem is complete. Music, apps, books, magazines, and movies can all be purchased in one spot and the selection is still number one. The iPhone 4S' camera is the best on the market and offers the best HD video capture quality and the best still picture quality.

The iPhone's small 3.5-inch display and lack of 4G as well as iOS' simplistic design are starting to become inexcusable if they aren't already, but that didn't stop Apple from selling millions of units. Love it or hate it, the iPhone is still a trend setter and market leader.

 

3. Samsung Galaxy Nexus

The Nexus phones are, or should be, the pinnacle of Android. These are the phones where Google steps in and shows the other manufacturers how it's done. Last year's Nexus device wasn't as impressive as it should have been, but Google pulled out all the stops for the Galaxy Nexus. Yes, it should have had a better camera, though the 5-megapixel shooter leaves little to complain about, we all wish it didn't have a TI OMAP processor, and some would prefer it if it wasn't made by Samsung, but those are all just distractions from the main point of this phone - Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0). This is the real reason you buy the Galaxy Nexus. Yeah, other phones will get 4.0 eventually, but if you love Android, "eventually" just isn't going to cut it. With a completely redesigned user experience and tons of new features, Ice Cream Sandwich is exactly what Android needed to stay on top and leave iOS in the dust.

Those who are not fond of Android have long used the argument that it looks too much like a beta OS. The edges weren't finished, it lacked design, and the overall feel was not polished. With Ice Cream Sandwich, Google finally listened to the critics, sat down, and took its time on every single detail of the OS. Android has always had features and functionality, but now it has design. Android once again captures our attention the way it did when we first saw it. That feeling of excitement is back and it's only going to get better.

 

4. Nokia Lumia 800

Android and iOS had most of the fun this year, but there is a new player on the court that wants in on the action. Windows Phone is exactly what Microsoft needed to get out of mediocrity and the hole it had dug for itself in the mobile market. Microsoft is always going to be a top contender, there's no question about that. The company has enough money to pour into an OS even if it takes ten years to grow into 10% marketshare. However, that's not the point. Microsoft can't be content with merely being in business, Microsoft needs to catch our attention; make us want its product. With Windows Phone, Microsoft has done exactly that. The OS is new, refreshing, sleek, minimalistic, powerful, feature-packed, and offers an enjoyable and consistent experience. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but it is one of the best mobile operating systems on the market.

But that's just Windows Phone. What makes the Lumia 800 so special? Well, it marks a new beginning for both Microsoft and Nokia. The Lumia brings Nokia's world-famous hardware together with Microsoft's beautiful OS. The hardware is gorgeous, the Carl Zeiss lens offers excellent pictures, the display is stunning, and the internal hardware manages to keep pace with all of the new super phones out there. It may not have a dual-core processor, but the Lumia 800 is still just as powerful without it. We've seen several new Windows Phone devices this year, but the Lumia 800 is the one we've all been waiting for.

 

5. HTC EVO 3D / LG Thrill 4G

This year, we saw a lot of new technology. Dual-core processors became the norm, high-res displays caught our eye, 4G blossomed, and 3D took a stand. 3D smartphones didn't catch on the way manufacturers thought they would, but they were all the rage when they were first released. The EVO 3D was the first 3D smartphone in the U.S. and the Thrill 4G (Optimus 3D) was the very first 3D smartphone in the world. Both were powerful phones in their own right, but it was the 3D that really made them stand out.

Who knows if 3D will continue to be a storyline in 2012 or if this was just a failed experiment? Either way, these two phones started a new era in the smartphone world and they're still two of the best phones of the year, even without the 3D capabilities. We'll have to see what becomes of this technology.

So there they are, the Best Smartphones of 2011. There are some exciting new things on the horizon. Things like quad-core processors, larger displays, and improved 4G are story lines that are just starting to develop. 2012 is shaping up to be a fun year and I'm glad to be a part of it. You readers have made 2011 one of the best years of my short career and I thank you for how much fun you have made this job.

I want to know what you think about this list. What are your top 5 smartphones for 2011? Sound off in the comments!


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