Since it’s launch in late 2008, Android has excelled to become the worlds fastest growing mobile operating system. Google recently announced that a phenomenal 500,000 handsets are activated daily. Consequently, the smartphone market in 2011 is jam-packed with Android smartphones, which makes it increasingly difficult to make the right choice. The good news is that we’ve done all the hard work and come up with the Android 2.3 ‘Gingerbread’ buyer’s guide to help you make the right choice!
We’ve chosen five of the latest and best handsets, all of which are running Google’s latest Android version 2.3 Gingerbread. Whether you’re after the best camera, the sharpest display, excellent value or the simply the best Android 2.3 phone out there, our guide will point you in the right direction.
Introducing the best Android 2.3 mobiles of 2011
The first of the top 5 Android 2.3 handsets is Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone, the slender Galaxy S II. It’s predecessor the Galaxy S was a top seller, ripping market share away from Apple by offering an exhilarating smartphone experience at a significantly lower cost than the iPhone 4. Samsung, knowing the importance of moving quickly in this business, have now unleashed the Galaxy S II, relentlessly improving upon all areas of the earlier model. And we’re still waiting for Apple’s response to this dual-core powerhouse.
The second handset is the Sensation from Taiwanese manufacturer HTC, who’ve been with Google since the very beginning of the Android story. Like the Galaxy S II it sports a massive 4.3” screen, 1.2Ghz dual-core processor and an 8MP camera yet we’ll help identify the subtle differences between the two for you later on. The Sensation also includes the updated Sense 3.0 UI overlay adding HTC’s personal touch to the Android OS.
Thirdly we have the super slim XPERIA Arc, which we feel is a welcome return to form from Sony Ericsson after the promising X1 suffered with countless software issues and the significantly improved X10 also came up short due to a lack of updates. But all that is in the past and the Arc is looking good amongst the increasing hordes of Android-powered handsets.
Next up is the Atrix, the smartphone Motorola hope will claw back some of the market share they had many moons ago. Interestingly, the on/off button also functions as a fingerprint scanner so that only your unique print will be able to unlock the phone. It is this sort of innovative quirkiness that can set a phone apart from the competition so we’ll see how it fairs against the others.
Last but not least is the Samsung Galaxy Ace. Unlike the previous four handsets, this targets the mid-range market, muscling in on the territory occupied by the likes of the HTC Wildfire S. With that said, the Galaxy Ace still packs a formidable punch but at a more reasonable price, which makes it appealing to those of you have other things to spend your hard-earned cash on.
Introductions over, let’s take a closer look at each phone, kicking off with an examination of the hardware that’s powering the Gingerbread platform.
Look and Feel
While the original Galaxy S was an impressive handset, its cheap-looking plastic and bulky casing received substantial criticism. Just one look at the Galaxy S II shows you that Samsung listened to the voice of the people, having now produced the slimmest smartphone on the market at a lean 8.5mm. Considering the immense power the phone is packing, this is an impressive achievement. Our only complaint is the back panel which – while more visually attractive than that of the Galaxy S – is flimsy and feels like it might snap when you’re taking it off.
HTC are renowned for producing rather attractive handsets and the Sensation is no different. While it’s chubbier than the Galaxy S II, the external materials and build quality are noticeably better and some may prefer the curved chassis to the rectangular design on Samsung’s offering.
The XPERIA Arc is almost certainly the best looking handset Sony Ericsson have knocked up, and only a barely noticeable 0.2mm thicker than the Galaxy S II. It seems they have found a happy medium between beauty and brawn, taking the low-fat body of the Samsung and the robust build quality of the Sensation and ending up with the best looking phone in this collection.
The external form of the Motorola Atrix is 100% plastic and when laid beside the other contenders in this guide, it certainly falls short in this category. With that said, if you’ve seen any marketing for the Atrix, it is clear Motorola are more concerned with inner beauty, advertising their handset as “the most powerful smartphone in the world”. We’ll assess the validity of that statement later!
The design of the Galaxy Ace seems very similar to the iPhone 4, matching the 3.5” screen exactly and only marginally smaller in dimension. Like the Atrix it is an all-plastic build, but the assembly quality and reduced size make it easier on the eye. Don’t forget it’s also a lot cheaper too, so congratulations to Samsung who’ve done a great job, excusing the similarities to the Apple’s design.
If you’re after the biggest screen on the market, then you have the choice of the Samsung Galaxy S II or the HTC Sensation, both equipped with 4.3” displays. So without delving too deep into minor technicalities, what’s the difference? Well, the Galaxy S II has a SuperAMOLED Plus screen, upgrading that of the original. As well as a sharp display, the screen is especially impressive when viewing at angles or under sunlight, unlike the majority of its competitors.
The Sensation utilises a qHD S-LCD screen making it marginally better for HD playback while also offering a slightly higher resolution and sharpness than it’s Samsung counterpart. Consider which features you will use more when making a decision because both of these screens enable a rich smartphone experience, making browsing the web, viewing photos and watching videos a pleasure.
The Arc’s screen is just 0.1” smaller than the previous two but Sony Ericsson has included their new technology ‘Bravia Mobile Engine’ within the handset. This delivers a noticeable improvement in sharpness during video playback and image viewing so despite the use of older LCD technology, the Arc’s display is more than a match for the Galaxy S II and the Sensation.
The 4” screen of the Atrix uses the same qHD technology as the Sensation, so HD playback is brilliant. Most impressive is the brightness of the screen that surpasses the other four handsets, yet closer inspection revealed that the Android app icons appear pixelated. While such a minor shortfall may have gone unnoticed a few years ago, the competition is so fierce nowadays that one slipup can make the difference between success and failure.
As mentioned earlier the Galaxy Ace has the smallest screen at 3.5”, but it is made of highly resistant Gorilla Glass missing from both the Sensation and the Arc. In all other respects, it is noticeably lacking alongside the top-end smartphones. The screen is dull in comparison and whereas the Galaxy S II remains visible under sunlight, the display all but disappears on the Ace. But once again we remind you; it is a lot cheaper so let’s keep our expectations in check.
Once again the Galaxy S II and Sensation appear tied on the spec sheet – both packing 8MP cameras – although this time around the Arc joins the battle! As expected all three handsets shoot video at 30fps but the Arc falls short at 720p recording compared to HTC and Samsung’s 1080p full HD capability. Samsung’s camera produces smooth images – if not a little lacking in colour – and certainly the best video quality thanks to the MP4 format.
HTC have upped their game in regards to the camera; traditionally an area of limitation. They’ve used their Sense 3.0 overlay to transform the standard Android camera interface, making it easier to edit camera settings while in shooting mode. The camera produces vibrant images compared to the Galaxy S II but it definitely over sharpens making things look a little jagged. The video recording is decent and produces better sound quality than the Samsung.
The Arc’s camera produces fantastic images, rich in both detail and colour. The UI is also well-designed and simple to use. While it may fall marginally short in video recording, it delivers on imaging where Samsung and HTC slip up.
Dropping down a few megapixels to the Atrix, and the first thing noticeable is the lack of common features such as image stablisation, focus and ISO. The image quality is disappointing and images look faded and devoid of colour. Like the Arc, it records at 720p and performance is relatively good, producing smooth videos with decent sound quality.
The Ace, so often the loser against the smartphone heavyweights, blows the Atrix to pieces in this contest. Its 5MP camera snaps smooth images of higher detail and richer colour and it also includes those ‘common features’ missing from the Motorola camera. Unfortunately we can’t say the same for the video recording, capturing at a tragic 15fps. But if the camera feature is important to you, then consider that the Ace offers a fantastic solution at a few hundred pounds less than the rest!
With new software, a growing number of apps and a demand for multi-tasking, a fast processor is crucial to ensure everything runs swiftly on your handset. The latest advance in this technology is the use of dual-core processors, which can be found on the Galaxy S II, Sensation and Atrix. The Samsung and HTC flagships clock in at 1.2Ghz while Motorola are close behind at 1Ghz. It’s worth pointing out that Motorola did release their handset a little earlier so for a short while it may just have been “the most powerful smartphone in the world”. Still, the difference between the three is minimal and it’s a fantastic experience zipping through the handset. We noticed no loss of speed despite running multiple applications, playing media and generally trying to crash the handsets.
The Arc, so impressive across all of the previous benchmarks, disappoints in processing power by packing an almost historic 1Ghz single-core chip. We all know how fast the mobile phone market progresses and it seems strange that the Arc – Sony Ericsson’s leading smartphone – isn’t more ‘future-proof’.
Then we come to the Ace, equipped with an 800Mhz single-core processing unit. Clearly it occupies bottom spot in this review but it wipes the floor with everything else in its price range, notably the HTC Wildfire S that clocks in at a sluggish 600Mhz.
OS and User Interface
Gingerbread brings improvements across the Android OS and you’ll be able to reap the benefits on all five of these handsets. The menus have been revamped so it’s now easier to find and change settings. Texting is a better experience thanks to an upgrade of the error correction and copy/paste functionality. Google have also allowed more control over what is running on the phone, allowing the user to power-manage and multi-task more efficiently. While each handset runs the same OS, differences can be found in the UI overlays used by manufacturers to distinguish themselves from the flooded market, so let us explain the key features of each.
Samsung uses TouchWiz 4.0 to bring improvements to the previous version found on the Galaxy S. The lock screen can now be removed by swiping in any direction. Also added are some beautiful new widgets and live wallpapers, as Samsung stamp their mark on the Google OS. There are also enhancements to the OS animations and transitions so everything looks more polished.
HTC has updated their acclaimed Sense UI, bringing version 3.0 to the Sensation. The first thing you notice is the revamped lock screen which can be used to jump straight into an app of your choice, simply by dragging the ‘ring-pull’ to the designated app. Furthermore, they have integrated your photo album into the lock function so your images will be flung across the screen randomly. A nice touch from HTC. As with the Galaxy S II, there are also minor improvements to the animation of everything that goes on in Gingerbread.
Sony Ericsson, rather than adding anything innovative to the Arc, has actually ditched the much-maligned Mediascape interface. This allows us to reap the benefits of Android undeterred by dodgy software. One useful feature of the Arc is the ability to create folders and then place them on the fixed four-shortcut dock for quick access.
MOTOBLUR UI on the Atrix places emphasis on social networking, allowing quick status updates and messaging directly from the home screen. As with the other manufacturer’s Motorola also includes its own widgets but it is the ability to re-size which sets them apart. Even better, the size you choose directly affects how much information you get. For example, a reduced weather widget will show you the current temperature but upon expansion, more information is added, such as daily highs and lows.
The Ace, being a Samsung, also uses TouchWiz and therefore has very similar functionality to the Galaxy S II. You don’t get as many live wallpapers or widgets but it remains a great addition to the baseline Android OS.
Value for Money
Using Android 2.3 to its full potential on any of these devices means you’ll eat through a lot of MB’s. Go over your inclusive data allowance at your peril, as some networks charge over £3 per MB outside your limit and up to £6 if you’re abroad. Finding a great deal means mitigating this risk by taking on enough inclusive data to keep you within the boundaries of your usage. So how much data is enough data? Well providing your not constantly streaming TV and videos (YouTube is notorious for eating up data), most will find 500MB enough to see them through the month. If however you fancy yourself as somewhat of a ‘power user’, consider deals at and beyond 1GB per month.
The Samsung Galaxy S 2 is currently available on T-Mobile for £25 per month, including 600 minutes, 500 texts and the all important 500MB of internet data. Bare in mind that the cheapest Galaxy S 2 tariffs usually include a handset cost, £49 in the case of the T-Mobile deal. Heavy users can find deals with unlimited internet data for £25 per month, but expect to pay around £150 for your handset. In terms of value, the Galaxy S 2 is right on the money (literally). Compare this to similar contract deals the iPhone 4 and you’ll soon see how not being part of the Apple crowd can save you more than a few pennies. The XPERIA Arc and HTC Sensation are a similar story with deals from £25 per month for an identical tariff, this time available on Orange as well as T-Mobile.
The Atrix is also on offer at £25 per month on contract tariffs with similar minutes and texts, but this time with the added bonus of unlimited internet. This makes the Atrix great value for those who plan to take it to its limits. The Galaxy Ace, as expected is far cheaper than its premium counterparts. Contract deals on the Samsung Galaxy Ace can be found for as little as £15 per month after automatic cashback is applied. This makes the Ace fantastic value, as it may be a ‘budget’ phone but it’ll still out perform nearly every one of its wallet friendly rivals.
For those of you determined to choose the best of the bunch, the battle between the Galaxy S II and Sensation seems frustratingly close. The slim line Galaxy S II edges the battle in camera quality and battery life but the Sensation fights back with the impressive Sense 3.0 UI and a more robust build. Ultimately, both Samsung and HTC have produced amazing handsets with an overall user experience unmatched by anything else we’ve ever seen. So whichever you choose, you’ve got yourself an incredible device.
In our opinion the Arc is the sexiest of the five handsets and the 8MP camera is the best of the bunch (just). The ‘Bravia Mobile Engine’ enlivens an already impressive screen and the overall experience is the best we’ve seen from Sony Ericsson. The only flaw is the disappointing lack of a dual-core processor especially when the price tag is so similar to the Samsung and HTC devices. If you can get over this, then the stylish XPERIA Arc is a great choice.
Also powering past the Arc in processing speed is the Atrix, being one of the first to fit dual-core technology into a mobile device. While this may be an impressive achievement, it seems Motorola’s flagship device has been snuffed out across every other benchmark. It’s position as the “best smartphone in the world” was short-lived and hopefully this can be a lesson to Motorola – and Sony Ericsson – that future proofing is crucial in this game. The Atrix is without doubt the ugly duckling of this bunch and the 5MP camera is unable to compete even with the more wallet-friendly Galaxy Ace, which we’ll close with. Yes, it is slower, the video is poor, there’s no flash support in the browser but for a couple of hundred pounds less, this is the perfect choice for those on a budget. Focus on the positives; a high-quality 5MP camera, Gorilla Glass screen, 800Mhz processing (laying the Wildfire S to waste) and well-constructed form and we feel you get more than you pay for from the Galaxy Ace.
And that’s it! We hope this PhoneShop.co.uk guide has empowered you to make the right decision because ultimately it comes down to your personal preference. Whichever you choose, make the most of the brilliant Android OS!