With more than seven years of Android smartphones under our belt, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of the more important releases. There are dozens of manufacturers around the globe, having produced hundreds of models over time.
Ask anyone who has followed the Android space for some time and you’ll find that, invariably, there are certain devices that have higher levels of credibility, or those that resonate more loudly. There are a select number of handsets that are looked upon much more favorably than others.
Some phones are known for changing the way other manufacturers approach their designs. Some have unique designs that introduce new materials or boast record-setting benchmarks. In an industry that is constantly evolving, we find there are a lot of phones that tread into new and interesting places. But, what makes up the best Android phones of all time?
Let’s take a look at what I’ll term the “Mount Rushmore” of Android smartphones. Before going any further, I would like to point out that this is a totally personal list in that it is not indicative of what the other writers at AndroidGuys may think. The goal is to have other staff create their own list of phones with respective reasons for selecting them.
To qualify this list, I am not looking for the most popular Android smartphones. Rather, I am looking for areas such as innovation, design choices, sales strategy, impact on consumers, and other variables.
Suffice it to say, it was not easy trimming this list down to four models. I returned to my selections a few times before publishing this article and found myself wanting to swap stuff in and out. But, for the sake of having fun and creating a “time capsule”, this is what I’ve come up with – today.
HTC | 2008
The granddaddy of them all, this was the first device ever to run Google’s Android operating system. It landed not long after the Apple iPhone, and it was a completely different approach to the new era of smartphones. Whereas Apple’s choice was to take touch screen experience and tie it into its own ecosystem, this one involved a variety of players. Moreover, its “open source” nature meant that it would play nicely with just about anything and anyone willing to put in some effort.
Key hardware specs:
- 3.2-inch 320×480 pixel display
- 528MHz processor
- 256MB ROM
- 192MB RAM
- 3.2-megapixel rear camera
- 1150mAh battery
In addition to being a collaborative effort on the partner front (HTC, T-Mobile, and Google), the G1 was also somewhat of a hodgepodge of hardware. Indeed, there was the touch screen display which measured in at 3.2-inches and featured a 480×320 pixel display. But, slide open the unit and you’ll find a QWERTY keyboard with five rows of physical buttons underneath. And, as if that weren’t enough, this phone also featured a trackball for navigation. It wasn’t the prettiest of phones, and it was everything the iPhone wasn’t. In short, the nerds had something new to rally around.
Although there was a retail-ready product, at launch Google still had a long road ahead of itself in terms of Android and the software ecosystem. Even early adopters would ultimately relent that it felt unfinished and lacking. Hell, it even felt to some like we were beta testing in the wild. Despite the shortcomings the phone proved that people would consider the platform as a viable alternative to the other players of the day. In short, this one paved the way for all other Android products. For that very reason, this is the George Washington on my Mount Rushmore.
The device that still frames conversations today, the Droid was the first Android smartphone that people recognized by name. Think about it, there are still people who lump together all Android phones under a “Droid” umbrella.
“Is that your new Droid?”
Thanks to an incredibly ambitious marketing campaign, we learned early on that this was everything that the iPhone wasn’t. Ah yes, back in the days when Android phones were quickly evolving with groundbreaking hardware and software capabilities. A removable battery? Widgets? Open software development? A camera with a flash? YES PLEASE.
Key hardware specs:
- 3.7-inch 480×854 pixel display
- 512MB ROM
- 256MB RAM
- 5.0-megapixel rear camera
- 1390mAh battery
Remember the commercial that started out with the indie pop sounding music that quickly morphed into an almost scary wake-up call? It shook us and put the world on notice. We didn’t even need to see it to be intrigued.
Another key reason that the Droid fascinated us was that it would be Verizon’s first foray into Android. Oh, and it was Motorola’s entry into the Android space, too. New efforts from big named, established mobile players? Count us in.
Although the Droid family would go on to include smartphones from Samsung and HTC, it was this singular model that remains ingrained in our memory. None of the Droid phones since this one were as memorable or likely as popular.
In terms of hardware, the Droid offered users a physical QWERTY keyboard and a really cool navigational pad. It wasn’t necessarily that much more powerful than other Androids at the time, but it certainly looked the part. It was angular, black, and looked all business. That didn’t stop women from picking one up, though.
Perhaps just as important as the hardware for the Droid was its software. This was among the first phones to launch with Android 2.0 Eclair and quickly updated to 2.1. Chief among the reasons to want this particular build of Android was that it came with Google Maps Navigation (beta). Yes, for the first time, Google would give users a cloud-based turn-by-turn navigation app at no cost; it’s built into the operating system! Other noteworthy features in Android at the time were interactive wallpapers, voice controls, more home screens, and support for more than one Google email account.
We’ve seen a lot of product names and lines over the last seven years, many of which have gone away. One that has stuck around, however, is the Droid brand. The name still calls for attention in 2016. And, while it’s still an exclusive partnership between Motorola and Verizon, the family of phones commands respect. Had the original Motorola Droid faltered, it’s hard to imagine where we would be today.
HTC | 2010
Although it arrived some sixteen months after the G1, the Nexus One was nothing like its HTC-made counterpart. It was sleek, polished, and running a much smarter software system in Android 2.1 Eclair. The Nexus One also offered up some substantial improvements in hardware as compared to the first-ever Android.
In short, the Nexus One was created to accelerate the innovation in the smartphone space. It was Google’s way of saying, “this is the benchmark for where we think phones should be today”. Once it was introduced, other phones were quick to keep pace and buyers got more bang for their buck.
Key hardware specs:
- 3.7-inch 480×800 pixel display
- 1GHz Snapdragon processor
- 512MB ROM
- 512MB RAM
- 5.0-megapixel rear camera
- 1400mAh battery
What made the Nexus One so interesting, to me at least, was that it wasn’t sold via a traditional wireless carrier at first. Indeed, the phone was offered direct from a Google website with support handled via forums. To average smartphone buyers, this model barely registered on their radar. For fanboys and enthusiasts, however, it was a very cool concept.
Unfortunately, this sales method would prove to be ahead of its time as customers were not ready to buy a phone they couldn’t physically touch. Google would ultimately sell the Nexus One through select carriers, but it was slow to happen and mostly toward the latter half of its life cycle. In fact, Google would eventually scrap its online store — for a few years — for Nexus phones and work closer with service providers.
It would take another 3-4 years before US customers were cool with the concept of buying a phone outright and then pairing it with a carrier. We still have a long way to go here as customers still like to purchase their handsets through a service provider, but, Google had/has the right thing in mind.
The Nexus One represented everything an Android lover would look for: pure, unadulterated software on top of cutting-edge hardware. Reviews were almost universally positive for the phone, but it still fell short of some end of year lists. Nevertheless, Google would be undeterred and release a new “Nexus” model almost annually, ushering in the latest version of Android at the same time.
Whether or not we might term the Nexus One a success is debatable; even today’s successors aren’t runaway sales champions. It’s more about what the phone represents, however, as to why it’s on my list. It was ambitious and unheard of, especially in the United States. It would be another five years before average consumers would be hip to the idea of purchasing a phone outright and picking the carrier later. Were it not for the Nexus One we might not have ever seen phones like the Moto X or heard of companies like Blu or Nuu Mobile.
Samsung | 2012
The first few years of Android were an incredibly frustrating time for smartphone buyers. Why? In a word, exclusives. It seemed that every single phone that came along was tied to a specific carrier. This meant that you had to consider switching service providers if you were interested in a particular phone. And, guess what – they weren’t all that competitive against each other.
Even the first two generations of Samsung Galaxy S phones were not exempt from the stranglehold. Here, in the United States, the original model was offered across the four major carriers with four distinct names: Captivate, Vibrant, Epic 4G, and Fascinate. To make matters worse, each was slightly different in configuration and none of them had the exact same dimensions. Sprint’s version, for instance, featured a QWERTY keyboard while everyone else went touchscreen-only.
The successor would be no better as it came with a dozen variations globally, with a host of them coming stateside. Raise your hand if you remember code names and models like Hercules, Attain, Within, Skyrocket, Captivate Glide, and Epic 4G Touch. Oh, and don’t get me started on the fact that not all models were launched at the same time.
Imagine the pain in the butt it was to find a case for your phone. Imagine being a case maker and trying to forecast which models were worth backing.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 changed the game for smartphones here in the US. For the first time, we would see one design spread across all versions. For the first time, we had four major carriers ready to offer the same phone, at the same time. For the first time, we had this “choice” we kept hearing about when it comes to Android. Choose the phone and choose the carrier.
Key hardware specs:
- 4.8-inch 720×1280 pixel display
- 1.4GHz quad-core processor
- 16/32MB ROM
- 2GB RAM
- 8.0-megapixel rear camera
- 2100mAh battery
Samsung would go huge with the launch of the Galaxy S3, dropping in some 100+ markets within a matter of weeks of each other. Not only that, but Samsung took the fight directly to Apple with its ads and marketing strategies. Does it really feel like almost four years have passed since that first commercial that had iPhone users waiting in line for the “next big thing”?
It didn’t hurt that the Galaxy S3 was a pretty significant step forward in hardware. Although configuration differed across countries and carriers, we were now talking about readily accessible phones with quad-core processors, 32GB storage and 2GB RAM. The 4.8-inch screen was sizable for the time and users generally loved the 8-megapixel rear camera. In addition to a couple of storage options, it was also possible to select from a number of colors, too. Did the polycarbonate shell feel cheap? Sure. Did it stop people from buying it? Hardly.
Android purists and fanboys would have plenty of criticism over the custom software experience TouchWiz, but average users didn’t seem to mind. Samsung baked in a host of custom apps and services, many of which doubled up the stuff that came with Android. Key features introduced in the S3 include Smart Stay, S Voice, and Pop-Up Play. All of this stuff, of course, was an obvious play to pull consumers into its own ecosystem and away from reliance on Google. Did it matter? Not really. Sales for the Galaxy S3 were through the roof and the phone landed on many “best of” lists.
Samsung didn’t push the envelope for the next few successors, but it did overhaul the line for 2015. Samsung continues with its Galaxy S line of phone today; we’re looking at the S7 launching in the next few weeks.
You have no idea how hard it was to put this list together. I struggled with my own personal faves such as the HTC EVO 4G or Galaxy Note 2 not finding one of the spots on this list. We had internal discussions at AndroidGuys about which phones we’d come up with; every writer had a different combination. Some of us changed each time we thought of the concept.
Looking ahead, I am certain there will be another game changer of sorts. That’s the beauty of Android; it’s an always-evolving and competitive landscape.
I would love to hear about your Mount Rushmore of Android phones. Leave me a comment below with one or more picks and why it deserves to be etched in rock for all time.