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The Best Android devices and trends of 2011

December 31, 2011 | by Andrew Kameka

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Today is the last of 2011, and it was quite a year for Android. Looking back at where Android was 365 days ago and where it is now, it’s pretty incredible. Most of the things that we asked for in our 2011 wish list – a new version of Android, a better class of tablet, and inter-connected devices – actually came true. We’re still wondering what 2012 might bring.

Before we cross over into the new year, and now that we’ve already covered the worst products and trends that affected Android users this year, it’s time to look at the best. Below is a list of some of the things that we found most pleasing for Android in 2011. Got beef with a particular selection or want to add to the list? Well, that’s why we have a comments section.

11. Android accessories on the rise

Since the G1 debuted in late 2008, it hasn’t been easy finding audio accessories compatible with Android phones. Heck, even case choices were limited to what you’d find in a carrier store. But the number of case makers supporting Android greatly increased in 2010, and so did the number of accessory makers. Home security systems, automobiles, cable and television set-ups, and home audio systems like Sonos were all big improvements over the options available a year ago. That momentum will carry over into even more options in 2012.

 

10. HTC Sensation

HTC released a phone of almost every variety and flavor. Some had 3D, some had a simplified version of Sense, and some even had a dedicated Facebook button. But of all the HTC phones released in 2011, the Sensation was at the head of the class. The Sensation had HTC’s signature premium-feel and strong spec sheet to go along with it. Add in Sense 3.0 running on top of Gingerbread, and you’ve got one of the brightest spots in sea of Android phones. Let’s hope HTC makes more Sensational phones and less ChaCha’s in 2012.

 

9. Processor Growth

2011 was the year of the core. NVIDIA introduced the first Tegra 2 dual-core Android tablets and then did the same with phones. Texas Instruments followed-up with its OMAP, Qualcomm with its Snapdragon, and Samsung had its Exynos. These chipsets brought serious computing power to the table and really pushed devices further than expected. We even saw NVIDIA Tegra 3 bring a quad-core processor late in the year. It hasn’t been a completely smooth ride, but multi-core processing raised the bar for what phones and tablets could do.

 

8. Motorola Droid RAZR

For all the grief that we’ve given Motorola – and rightfully so – over the years, Google’s biggest acquisition of the year knocked it out of the park with the Droid Razr. Combining its two biggest brands of all-time, Motorola introduced a phone that is simultaneously functional, stylish, and durable. Even the NotBlur UI that was previously a pain in the neck was actually fairly good and had some beneficial enhancements. While we aren’t the biggest fans of the device’s screen, the Droid Razr is otherwise one of the best phones released this year.

 

7. Angry users affect change

If there was one positive to take away from 2011, it was that a vocal crowd with digital pitchforks could force companies to admit their mistakes and change course. Whether it was a small thing like Verizon abandoning its $2 payment processing fee, or a major coup like getting companies to acknowledge potential privacy breaches or the uncomfortable nature of Carrier IQ, the online mobs inspired change. One of the biggest ways this worked was in pushing manufacturers and carriers to be more dedicated to updates. HTC put in extra effort to support Gingerbread on the HTC Desire after initially saying it wouldn’t, Sony Ericsson committed to bringing ICS to its entire 2011 Xperia line-up, and HTC provided options to unlock the bootloader on select models. You can’t win them all, but it was good to see rabble-rousers push companies to do better.

 

6. CyanogenMod saves the day

Not all phones released this year were good. Let’s face it; some were down right crappy because of software bugs, carrier bloat, and poor support. However, the guys over CyanogenMod resurrected some clunkers. They’ve been doing that since the G1, but things really accelerated in 2011. CM was seen on dozens of devices, had amazing features months before similar features popped up in official Android products, and provided enough tweaks to extend device life daily and long-term. It’s no wonder that more than 900,000 people use CyanogenMod or one of its derivatives.

 

5. Samsung Galaxy S II

Best phone ever! At least that’s what I thought for a while after I first held the Galaxy S II at MWC. A beautiful SAMOLED screen, laundry list of software improvements, better build materials, decent camera, and NFC, the Galaxy S II had all that I wanted out of a phone at the time. It underwent some internal and external changes when it arrived in the U.S., but regardless of the region, the Galaxy S II was an awesome phone. The Samsung Galaxy S debuted with similar fanfare, but the GS 2 has so far displayed better staying power. Let’s hope that trend continues.

 

4. Galaxy Nexus

The dream of the Nexus distribution model was never fully-achieved, but it has been successful in hardware terms. And though the Galaxy Nexus launch made it on our list of the worst things in 2011, the phone it self is definitely among the best. Yes, there are phones with better cameras, better battery life, and arguably better processors, but none with better software. The Galaxy Nexus is the first device to officially support Android 4.0, and that has made all the difference in the respect this phone is able to earn. The large screen and NFC capabilities have further enhanced what will – knock on wood – be one of Android’s best for a long time to come.

 

3. ASUS Transformer series

Everyone tried their hand at making a Honeycomb tablet to rival the fruit company. ASUS sneakily raced ahead of the pack by thinking outside the rectangle and coming up with something different. The ASUS Transformer got off to a rocking start thanks to its keyboard dock and its ability to make a tablet both a plaything and a productivity tool. The tablet itself was solid, but the dock made the device standout. The Transformer Prime takes things into premium territory, and has the potential to be another hit for ASUS.

 

2. Android Market

Compare the Android Market system between December 2010 and December 2011. As Chris Traeger from Parks & Recreation would say, it’s LITRALLY night and day. The Android Market finally took its talents to the web and has progressively improved since February. The phone and tablet based app underwent a major redesign that better organizes and displays apps. And by the way, the Market is more than just apps now. It’s also books, music, and movies – a one-stop shop for your digital media. The recent sales and promotions also didn’t hurt pushing this up the list.

 

1. Ice Cream Sandwich

In 2010, one of Androinica’s writers said he wanted to see Android take a complete 180 in terms of UI. I think it’s safe to say that Ice Cream Sandwich did that just fine. Google created an all-new Honeycomb-like UI, changed icons, added tons of new features, and elevated Android to its highest design peak yet. It was a long-overdue improvement that will benefit both phones and tablets now that the two forms of Android have been merged in ICS, which will hopefully translate to more app selections and continuity on either device.