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Top 5 phones of 2011

Top 5 phones of 2011

As 2011 draws to a close, the normally future-focussed coves at uSwitch Tech have been in reflective, retrospective mood.

Naming the handset highlights of the year wasn’t easy. But two-weeks of bickering and backbiting between the office Android Army, the Windows Phone flagwavers and the iFan contingent later, we’ve got the results for you.

Read on to find out who won…

1 iPhone 4S

iphone 4s triplicate

In the months leading up to this year’s iPhone launch the iRumourmill outdid itself.

Apple was prepping two phones, we were told. We’re finally going to get the fabled cheap iPhone Nano, others assured us. And still others reckoned we’d definitely get a new look with a larger four-inch screen and a radical teardrop-shaped design.

As it happens, precisely none of those things suggested by febrile speculation and heat from Apple’s supply chain came to pass. What we got was the 4S – a phone damned in some quarters as a limp iterative update that even retained the look of its year-old predecessor.

That’s wide of the mark. And then some. Under the hood, major improvements were very much in evidence everywhere you looked.

Take, for example, the eight-megapixel snapper (up from five on the iPhone 4) that trumps the much higher grade lenses on rival smarties. Then there’s the A5 dual-core processor that brought Apple’s kit up to speed with the Android competition and combined with the all-new iOS 5 software for a smartphone experience with plenty of zip about it.

The repositioned antenna nixed the problems with dropped calls that plagued the iPhone 4. And Siri, aka the voice assistant that launched a thousand skits on tech sites, is undeniably loads of fun to use – although we’ll concede that it’s mostly about novelty value alone until the ability to look up local maps and businesses in the UK lands next year.

For us, though, the fourth-a-half-gen iPhone offered more enough to justify the outlay. And made what was by common consent already the best phone on the market that little bit better.

2 Samsung Galaxy Nexus

Samsung Galaxy Nexus horizontal 1

Phone-makers who suffered an annus mirabilis weren’t hard to find this year. But while BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (RIM) and Nokia’s freefalling share prices ensured their headlines were the worst, others made heavy weather of it too.

For while HTC sold shedloads of handsets over the last 12 months, it was unable to claw back the title of go-to-brand for Android from Samsung. It was a title that once seemed HTC’s by right. But one that it lost in part by retaining single core processors for its phones. And partly by making such a pig’s ear of pushing out Android updates for some of its best-selling smarties.

The brilliantly realised Galaxy Nexus arrived late in the year. And although it’s not perfect (CF: the five-megapixel camera is a bit mid-range), it got a stellar review from us and has already done enough to suggest that Samsung’s Android crown isn’t going elsewhere any time soon.

How and why do we love it? Let’s count the ways. For starters, it rocks vanilla Android, so you won’t be forced to wait around months and months for future OS updates. Then there’s the acres of Super AMOLED screen real estate, which at 4.3-inches offers ample room but doesn't feel like a Galaxy Note-style menhir in your pocket.

Rounding things off is 1.2GHz of dual core processing brawn teamed with the fastest version of Android so far – Ice Cream Sandwich - which means the Galaxy Nexus pushes pixels around faster than any Android kit out there.

3 Samsung Galaxy S2

samsung galaxy s2

With ten million sales and counting since February (it would’ve done more had it not landed so late in the US), the S2 was the phone that ate 2011. It’s not hard to see why.

The thing is: the mighty S2 has just got so much to recommend it. The eight megapixel-camera was crisp and the excellent free Video Maker app meant it had more than enough to go the distance in the home movie-making stakes.

We loved how unobtrusive the TouchWiz custom skin was. And like everyone else were just as taken with the 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus display that knocked us for six when we took it out the box and still had us ‘wowing’ to ourselves at its pin-sharpness months later.

Finally, while smartphones toting dual core processors might be ten-a-penny these days, this handset was among the first. And the one that brought it home to us just how much slicker Android was going to be from hereon in.

4 HTC Sensation XL HTC Sensation XL 1

Not too long ago, phones with the expansive dimensions of the HTC Sensation XL were objects of derision to tech watchers. And as the weak sales of the likes of the five-inch screen-sporting tablet-cum-phone hybrid Dell Streak prove, went down even less well with the public at large.

Fast forward a year and it’s a very different story. With a Super LCD screen measuring 4.7-inches, the Sensation XL isn’t much smaller than Dell’s, ahem, trailblazer. And it’s one of the year’s most in-demand, most-admired kits.

At the heart of its appeal is Beats by Dre sonic technology, which provides sound quality that makes other handsets - and a lot of dedicated MP3 players, for that matter – sound pretty limp in comparison.

You also got a special sound profile courtesy of the audio company’s groovy CEO, G-Funk pioneer Dr Dre. Plus, to sweeten the deal, HTC threw in a pair of in-ear urBeats headphones (normally £80).

An eight-megapixel camera, the easy to use HTC Sense UI sweetened the deal, taking the edge off what was a slightly disappointing 1.5GHz single core processor and helped HTC’s challenger to a respectable fourth spot in our end of the year shakedown.

5 Nokia Lumia 800

Nokia Lumia 800 cyan blue

The “first real Windows phone”, was how Nokia CEO Stephen Elop referred to the Lumia 8000. It’s a bold claim. And one that’s more than a little bit unfair to the likes of the media marvel that was the HTC HD7.

But it’s not hard to discern that there’s some truth in Elop’s comments. For starters, thanks to the built-in, exclusive Nokia Drive service, it’s the first Windows phone to rock a free sat nav.

The other Nokia additions to the UI (which get you minute by minute sports updates on the live tiles and access to hundreds of ready-to-go, themed playlists from local radios around the globe) also add to the kit’s appeal. And add to the feeling that Nokia above all other WinPhone manufacturers has done most to bring something new and unique to the platform.

Typically for a Nokia phone, the eight-megapixel camera with its Carl Zeiss optics is ace. And the f2.2 aperture lens that lets in more light makes it easy to get great results – even in low-light conditions.

Meanwhile, with its N9-style looks, POP colour options and voguish physical button-free frontage, it’s also by some distance the best-looking mobile to be powered by Microsoft’s OS.

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