Not every Android phone is created equal, and with so many options to choose from, picking the right model isn't always simple. To help you differentiate your Gingerbreads from your Thunderbolts, we've looked at the hottest Android smartphones in our archives and sorted them by their feature list. So whether you're looking for a QWERTY-based hybrid or a multimedia juggernaut, our list below has what's right for you — with some insight on what you can expect to pay.
A Few Notes About the Android OS
Unlike the iPhone, which is only manufactured by Apple, Google's Android operating system can be found on phones made by Samsung, HTC, LG, and Motorola, to name a few companies. Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) is the latest version offering increased speed, a slicker UI, and prolonged battery life than what you'll find on previous versions of the Android OS. Therefore, if you want to run the shiniest apps at the quickest speeds, make sure to look for a phone with a current system like Android 2.2 (Froyo) or 2.3. Also, look for processors that are at least 1GHz in speed.
That's not to say phones with older versions of Android and slower CPUs are useless. For everyday uses of email, Internet browsing, Twitter, and Facebook, any Android phone will do the trick. Just remember that the more current the software and the faster the processor, the quicker you'll be able to open those media-rich apps. (And the more likely you'll have a good experience with your new smartphone.)
Also, keep in mind that many manufacturers install their own home-brew software on top of Google's Android OS. (Today, very few phones come with plain, stock Android.) Popular "skins" include HTC's Sense UI, Motorola's Motoblur, and Samsung's TouchWiz. Each skin is wildly different than the other, and there are some you might even dislike. However, they're all designed with one thing in common — to make navigating your phone smoother and more intuitive.
And now, to the phones! (All prices are with contract obligations unless otherwise noted.)
Big & Proud
With a 4.3" 540x960 screen, the Motorola DROID X2 3G smartphone (pictured, right) — which we saw in June for $100 — is one of Verizon's most popular phones, housing a NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual-core 1GHz processor and a qHD display. The CPU is one of the fastest chips you'll find in a phone today, and the display is a major step up from the more common WVGA displays, providing 35% more pixels — a nice feature for reading text-heavy Web pages. The DROID X2 runs Android 2.2 and Motorola's Motoblur. However, despite this phone's solid feature set, it lacks one thing — 4G support. But depending on where you live (and how expensive a data plan you can afford), this may or may not be a deal breaker.
If quick Internet access is a high priority, Verizon offers the HTC Thunderbolt 4G smartphone for a bit more dough. This phone does support Verizon's 4G network, although it trades in the dual-core CPU for a second generation single-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. Also onboard is HTC's Sense UI, which many reviewers have found to be among the better skins available.
Big red isn't the only carrier capable of flexing some Android muscle. Available for an astonishingly-low 1 cent last week, AT&T's Motorola Atrix 4G smartphone is a 4" behemoth with a powerful, 1GHz dual-core processor. Like the DROID X2, it boasts a qHD display and comes pre-loaded with Android 2.2 and Motorola's Motoblur. If you're able to start a new contract, this phone provides a lot of horsepower for what you pay.
To quell some of that qHD envy, Sprint customers can look to the Samsung Epic 4G smartphone, a multimedia powerhouse that we listed for free back in May. The phone features a 4" Super AMOLED display (which offers a wider viewing angle and higher contrast ratio than a traditional LCD), 1GHz processor, and 4G connectivity. It also houses a slide-out physical QWERTY keyboard along with Andoid 2.1 and Samsung's own TouchWiz 3.0 skin.
Prices (with contract obligations): We saw the Motorola DROID X2 3G for as low as $100 with free shipping back in June. We also saw the HTC Thunderbolt 4G at an all-time low of $130 with free shipping in May, whereas the Motorola Atrix 4G was available for 1 cent with free shipping last week (since expired). If you think 1 cent is inexpensive, the Samsung Epic 4G was offered for free with free shipping in late May.
Small & Svelte
We understand not everyone wants to carry a 4" megaphone in their pocket. Likewise, not everyone likes typing on a touchscreen display. Fortunately, T-Mobile offers the HTC myTouch 3G smartphone. With its smaller 3.2" 480x320 display, it makes for a more compact and easier to conceal smartphone, yet it still has room for a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. However, keep in mind that this phone is powered by a 600MHz processor, which by today's standard is pretty slow. Likewise, it runs Android 2.1, an older version of the OS. It may not be a speed demon, but if you don't plan on over-stuffing your phone with apps, it could meet all your needs.
Prices: We last saw the HTC myTouch 3G for T-Mobile for $124.99 with $5 s&h in mid-May. (We saw an unlocked version for $140 with free shipping three weeks ago.)
Unlocked & Contract-Free
Owning an Android phone doesn't require signing a 2-year contract. Take the Unlocked Samsung Nexus S 4G smartphone (pictured, right) for example. Not only does it run stock Android, but it works with GSM carriers AT&T and T-Mobile. It's also Google's flagship Android phone (making it an excellent future-proof option). The phone won our dealnews Editors' Choice award two weeks ago when it reached an all-time low of $412, and while that may sound steep (compared to subsidized options), this Android 2.3-powered phone features a 4" AMOLED display and can also toggle between 3G or 4G networks. It also features built-in Near Field Communication (NFC) support, which means your phone can double as a credit card in select stores. Google plans on adding this tap-and-go payment system to all future Android smartphones. (Although we've yet to see many phones with NFC built-in.)
With an expected availability date of July 19, the Motorola Triumph 3G smartphone for Virgin Mobile proves that contract-free phones can be just as powerful as their locked-in brethren. The Triumph features a 4.1" WVGA LCD and will ship with stock Android 2.2. A 1GHz processor will ensure it runs the latest apps and a 3G radio will provide you with all your Internet needs. At roughly $300, it's not an inexpensive alternative, but one worth keeping an eye on if you hate being bound by contracts.
Prices: We saw the Samsung Nexus S 4G smartphone for an all-time low of $412 with free shipping two weeks ago, since expired. The Motorola Triumph remains at a pre-order price of $299.99 with $6 s&h.