What is, or was, the greatest Android smartphone of all time? It’s not an easy question to answer. There have been hugely influential releases, innovative designs, cult classics, and best sellers. The platform has spawned a virtual arms race in mobile tech. The cutting edge creeps ever forward with a steady stream of new releases improving on their predecessors, but there’s more to a truly great smartphone than what’s on paper. It hasn’t even been five years since the first Android smartphone was released. Let’s take a look at the best Android phones of all time.
In the beginning
Android may have kicked off with the HTC Dream (T-Mobile G1), released in October 2008, but few would argue that it was the best smartphone to ever grace the platform. It had a 3.2-inch touchscreen which you could slide up to reveal a full physical QWERTY keyboard. That meant it was chunky. The reviews were fairly positive, but it was really the fledgling Android platform that was on trial. It was rough around the edges and suffered from a lack of apps, but the notification system, the widgets, and the integration with Google were praised from the start and over 1 million HTC Dream or G1 handsets were sold in the first year.
In the early days, HTC was virtually the lone Android pioneer. The Taiwanese manufacturer followed the Dream with the Magic, which was also to sell over 1 million units, but it was the third release that really caught the public’s imagination.
The HTC Hero launched in Europe towards the end of the summer in 2009 and hit the U.S. in October (minus the chin). It was the first release from HTC to boast that premium feel in terms of design, and it was the also the first handset to feature the Sense UI, which paved the way for manufacturers to try and differentiate their wares with overlays intended to add value. It kick-started an argument that is still going on today – some handy added features and slick animations, versus lag and platform update delays.
As a pioneer in the mobile phone field, Motorola was in real need of a hit by the time Android came along. Its last big success had been the Razr, but that proved to be an evolutionary dead end as designs gravitated toward touchscreen dominance. Hot on the heels of the HTC Hero, the Motorola Droid launched in October 2009 in the U.S. accompanied by the iPhone-bashing Droid Does marketing campaign.
Verizon threw its weight firmly behind the new Motorola flagship, even licensing the Droid trademark from Lucasfilm (that’s why the phone shipped in the rest of the world under the less attractive Milestone moniker). Screens were already beginning to grow by this point and the Motorola Droid boasted a 3.7-inch display with an impressive 854×480 pixel resolution, a 600MHz TI processor, 256MB of RAM, and 512MB of storage, but with a 16GB microSDHC card included. It also had a 5MP camera and, though it shipped with version 2.0 of Android, it got all the updates up to version 2.2.3.
This release put Android on the map in the U.S. and Verizon sold 250,000 units in the first week, which made it the fastest selling Android smartphone to date. It would go on to sell an estimated 1.05 million in the first 74 days and over 2 million in its first year. It also spawned a long list of successors from Motorola.
Verizon’s Droid brand was so successful Stateside, expanding to include releases from HTC as well as Motorola, that the brand almost became synonymous with Android itself.
Google Nexus One
Talk of a “Google phone” had circulated for years before the company actually engaged HTC to produce one for it. The Nexus One was released in January 2010 and sold directly through a web store, as a SIM-free unlocked handset. The Nexus One shipped with stock Android and an unlockable bootloader, which made it a popular choice for developers. The main highlight was a lightning fast 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor backed up by 512MB of RAM. There was also a 3.7-inch AMOLED with a resolution of 800×480 pixels, though HTC later switched to Super LCD citing shortages.
It struggled to live up the hype, but it established an important precedent – Google could get into the hardware game. Sales were widely supposed to be disappointing, Flurry estimated 135,000 in the first 74 days, but many attributed that to the direct sales strategy which meant a large upfront cost for buyers.
HTC certainly didn’t lose out because of the modest Nexus One sales figures. The HTC Desire was essentially a modified Nexus One and it was a monster hit. It launched in the summer of 2010, with a staggered release worldwide, and the review scores were stunning. It was my first Android smartphone and coming from an old Nokia N95 8GB (which was about as good as feature phones got) the Desire was mind-blowing.
It won a few phone of the year titles and it sent HTC’s stock soaring, but it wasn’t without competition.
Samsung Galaxy S
The Samsung Galaxy S was like a template for the strategy that Samsung would use to dominate the Android landscape for the next few years. It launched on 110 carriers in 100 countries over the summer of 2010 and it had the specs to match the Desire and the Nexus One. Samsung was happy to provide exclusive variants for all the big (and small) U.S. carriers, so there was the Vibrant, Captivate, Epic 4G, Fascinate, Mesmerize, Startosphere, Showcase, Indulge, and on and on. The Indulge didn’t land until 2011, but it was the first 4G LTE smartphone in the U.S. closely followed by HTC’s Thunderbolt.
Manufacturers have become pretty cagey about releasing sales figures, so you know a smartphone has been really successful when they crow about them at every opportunity. Samsung had sold 24 million Galaxy S handsets as of the start of 2013.
HTC Evo 4G
It didn’t come close to some of the company here in terms of sales, although it was Sprint’s top-selling launch day phone, but we have to briefly mention the HTC Evo 4G. It was similar to the WinMo HTC HD2 and it boasted a 4.3-inch display backed by a solid set of specs. That display was unusually big in the summer of 2010 when it launched.
Strictly speaking the LG Optimus 2X was the world’s first dual-core smartphone, but the Atrix hit the market at the beginning of 2011 and it combined the Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor with a stunning qHD display (4-inches with a 540×960 pixel resolution). There were also a range of innovative accessories for the Atrix, including a laptop dock that transformed the phone into a laptop. Despite great review scores the Atrix struggled to really take off, but it was an innovative release.
Samsung Galaxy S2
A 1.2 GHz dual-core processor (1.5GHz in some variants), 1GB of RAM, a 4.3-inch AMOLED, and an 8MP camera, the S2 pushed the spec war to a new level and firmly established Samsung as the flagship king. It launched in May 2011 and was praised for its performance and its slim and stylish design. With over 40 million units sold so far, a string of awards and universally high review scores, do we really need to say any more?
Towards the end of 2011 Google and Samsung got together and had a beautiful baby. The Galaxy Nexus was the launch device for Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and it was also the first device to get Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. It represented a real change of direction in terms of design, with a true HD 4.65-inch Super AMOLED display with curved glass and no physical buttons on the front face. It had a 1.2 GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, and came in 16GB or 32GB variants. The 5MP camera was a slight disappointment for some, as was the omission of a microSD card slot. On the whole, though, the reviews were glowing and many people named the Galaxy Nexus the best Android smartphone on the market.
Motorola Droid Razr Maxx
2012 started with a bang as Motorola tried to blend the successful Droid brand with the legendary Razr. The Maxx variant is especially noteworthy because it tried to address everyone’s biggest smartphone complaint – battery life. Combining a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED with a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, and an 8MP camera, the Maxx was powered by a 3300mAh battery without getting too chunky. Finally, an Android smartphone that could last a couple of days of normal use between charges, it may not have set the world alight, but it offered new hope for people tired of running out of juice.
Samsung Galaxy S3
The HTC One X hit the market ahead of the S3 and many reviewers thought it would signal a comeback for HTC, but things turned out differently. The Galaxy S3 pushed it to the cutting edge again with a 1.4 GHz quad-core processor (1.5GHz dual-core in some variants), 1GB or 2GB of RAM, an 8MP camera, and 16GB or 32GB of storage with the option to expand via microSD by another 64GB. The 4.8-inch Super AMOLED caught the public imagination, and suggestions that it was too big were soon proved wrong.
The Galaxy S3 really wasn’t much different from the HTC One X on paper, but it absolutely dominated in the marketplace. To date it has sold over 50 million units, which makes it the best-selling Android smartphone of all time, by a distance.
Google Nexus 4
The latest Google smartphone was produced by LG and it offers a solid set of specs and sexy, premium design. We’re talking about a 4.7-inch display, 1.5 GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, 2 GB of RAM, 8 or 16 GB of internal storage, and an 8MP camera, but the reason it’s worthy of inclusion on the list is the price tag. In line with Google’s usual strategy the handset is available SIM-free direct from the website and, starting at $299 (£239), it’s not tough to work out why the first batch of stock sold out faster than expected.
Its Achilles’ heel is a lack of LTE support, but otherwise reviews have been universally positive and it may be Google’s best-selling smartphone to date (we just don’t know because they refuse to release numbers). One thing’s for sure, you won’t find a similar quality of phone at that price anywhere else.
There are undoubtedly quite a few other Android smartphones that could have pushed for inclusion here. That’s one of the major strengths of the Android platform – the sheer diversity of handsets on offer.
The ZTE Blade has sold millions at the budget end of the market. The Sony Xperia line has produced some nice phones, not least the most recent Xperia Z. The Galaxy Note, Galaxy Note 2, and LG Optimus G Pro are hybrid devices really, but they’d make some people’s lists. The HTC One and Galaxy S4 are likely to push for inclusion when they hit the market. If you want to nominate something then justify your choice in the comments.