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The Best Android Phones of 2012

By Ryan Whitwam

Looking back at a big year of Android phones.

Android continues to confound expectations year after year. There are always naysayers that predict a collapse of Google’s open management model for Android. Despite update headaches, legal challenges, and malware scares, Android phones were better than ever in 2012. Let’s review the year in Android phones and call out the ones that best demonstrated the improvements and strengths of Google's mobile OS.

Photo Credit: Flickr user abuakel via Creative Commons.

And we would be remiss if we didn't start off with the most pure of Android devices--a Nexus.

LG Nexus 4

Google’s new flagship phone is not perfect -- forget that you probably can’t buy one right now. This isn’t about perfection. The LG Nexus 4 is the best Nexus phone that the company has produced, and that makes it a hugely important device.

The Nexus 4 debuted at an insane price point; just $299 for the 8GB model. That’s an unheard of price for a new, and clearly top-of-the-line smartphone. The Nexus 4 is based on the LG Optimus G chassis with a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor clocked to 1.5GHz, 2GB of RAM, and a stunning 1280x768 IPS LCD screen.

The Nexus 4 feels incredibly solid, and as I pointed out in my overview of the device, it’s more sturdy than it has been given credit for. I almost have a hard time believing sometimes that LG made the device. The company does not have a particularly good reputation for design and quality, but the Nexus 4 is superb.

The Nexus 4 is also just as important for something it lacks as for all the things it has. The Nexus 4 has no (official) LTE radio. This year’s Nexus is all about Google taking a stand for openness. The situation with LTE is a mess, and Google learned its lesson with the Verizon Galaxy Nexus.

While the GSM Galaxy Nexus is up to Android 4.2, the Verizon version is stuck on 4.1. That phone has also never had official Google Wallet support, thanks to Verizon. The Nexus 4 reminded us all what the “Nexus” program is all about. It’s openness -- openness at all costs. HSPA+ works well enough for me, and the freedom tastes sweet.

If you can find a Nexus 4, it’s compatible with all GSM networks worldwide on HSPA+ bands. In the US that means AT&T and T-Mobile.

Samsung Galaxy S III

I remember a time when I got excited each time I spotted an Android phone. Now I see them every time I turn around, and there is one company mainly responsible for that. Of course I’m referring to Samsung. I was a little skeptical of Samsung’s third Galaxy S phone, but it has proven to be a top Android handset in 2012.

The Galaxy S III comes in two basic varieties: an international GSM flavor running an Exynos chip, and the US LTE version with a Snapdragon S4 processor. Notice that there are two variants. Not three, not four, and not five. That in and of itself makes the Galaxy S III really important. Samsung’s past devices were customized for each carrier, but not this one. This is the year that Samsung felt secure enough that it could tell the carriers, “Here’s the phone. Take it or leave it.”

All the Galaxy S III phones have a 4.8-inch Super AMOLED HD panel that looks pretty great in most situations. In my experience, you can’t see the PenTile fringe very often, and the colors look fabulous. At lower light levels there might be a little blurring or discoloration, but this is one of the few AMOLEDs that work in direct sunlight. The Galaxy S III has served to erase many of the drawbacks of AMOLED.

This is not a device that screams amazing design, but it’s overall good looking and inoffensive. This is designed to be a universal flagship phone. Samsung makes a big deal out of its Galaxy phones and is even backing off on the crush of mid-range distraction devices this year. The company wants to be known for the high-end.

The Galaxy S III is also very fast in daily use. The software has been well-tuned to feel responsive and less cluttered. TouchWiz, while imperfect, is no longer an iOS clone. There are devices out there with very similar specs that feel more sluggish than the Galaxy S III, and you can thank Samsung’s new-found attention to detail for that.

Samsung’s Unpacked Galaxy S reveal is probably the biggest mobile event every year behind the annual iPhone and Nexus announcements. People wait for the Galaxys S phones like they used to wait for iPhones. It’s not just an Android phone -- it’s a Galaxy S. Whatever carrier you’re on anywhere in the world, you can buy a Galaxy S III and still feel pretty good about it.

HTC One X and One X+

Taiwan-based HTC had a rough 2011, but 2012 was its chance to reinvent the product line. I think it really succeeded with the HTC One X -- if only people would buy it!

The first time I saw the One X, I gave serious thought to buying one just one the basis of the look and feel. The phone is gorgeous in a way that the competition has yet to match. The way the white back panel wraps around the unibody case avoids that ridiculous "Oreo" vibe many white phones have. The black model was also quite the looker.

HTC cleaned up a lot of the things that made Sense awkward and unattractive in the past. The use of gradients has been reduced, and accent colors are less garish. The company also created new backup services, and partnered with Dropbox and Beats to add features to the One X.

The screen on the One X was (and still is) one of the best on a mobile device. The 1280x720 gapless Super LCD 2 panel is stunning. The colors are accurate, text is crisp, and the the gapless display technology is awesome. Even newer phones like the Optimus G aren't quite up to par with the One X screen.

This device was positioned to go up against the Samsung Galaxy S III early in the summer. Well, Samsung had the momentum going in, so the Galaxy S III won the sales race. The One X was a great phone that was overshadowed too soon by the Galaxy S III juggernaut. With that in mind, HTC upped its game with a refreshed version of the phone.

The original HTC One X ran on a Snapdragon S4 chip, but the revised One X+ changed to a Tegra 3 SoC clocked to 1.7GHz. The new variant also increased storage to an amazing 64GB. This phone has virtually everything you could need, and is killer for gaming. The original One X has an international GSM variant with a Tegra chip, but the One X+ combines that hardware with a new LTE modem (a prerequisite for AT&T).

It’s strange to see HTC refreshing this device so soon, especially when it was such a strong competitor already. HTC gave us not one, but two variants of an excellent phone in 2012. If you need a phone in early 2013, you could easily pick up a One X or One X+ from your local AT&T store. The international One X+ is also compatible with GSM networks all over the world.

Droid RAZR Maxx HD

Android devices have always struggled with battery life, which is why the original Droid Razr Maxx was so compelling. Late in 2012 a new Droid arrived; the Droid Razr Maxx HD. If you liked the original Razr, this new iteration is more of the same. It’s not a groundbreaking device, but it fills an important niche that attracts a great many users.

The Droid Razr Maxx HD has a ridiculous name, but a great battery. It clocks in at 3300mAh, which is 40-50% more than most competing smartphones. The other specs are nothing to sneeze at either. It has a Snapdragon S4 processor, 1GB of RAM, and access to Verizon’s huge 4G LTE network.

The screen is a big step up from the previous model, as well. The Maxx HD has a 720p Super AMOLED panel, not unlike the Galaxy S III. You can make academic arguments that the PenTile arrangement is not as good as RGB, but at 720p it’s not an issue for most consumers.

Google completed its acquisition of Motorola in 2012, but there two companies have yet to truly collaborate on a device. That said, I feel like Motorola has taken a different approach to software since the merger started. Moto’s Android skin is far less offensive than it once was -- in fact, I’d say it’s the best of all OEMs if you like stock Android. When you look at the mess MotoBlur was a few years ago, it’s amazing how far the company has come.

Motorola’s 4.0 and 4.1 updates for the Maxx HD show a remarkable level of restraint. Google’s stock settings, notifications, and keyboard are all there. Motorola has added some new things around the edges, though. There is the Smart Actions app, a new settings panel on the home screen, and power saving features.

The Droid Razr Maxx HD is not the prettiest, and it’s not the fastest, but it’s the only Android phone that can take two days of heavy use without begging for the charger. It’s a device worth your consideration and one of the best from 2012. You can pick this phone up on Verizon.

HTC Droid DNA

The HTC Droid DNA is a big phone -- I mean it’s physically big. The Droid DNA has a 5-inch LCD screen, though it doesn’t quite feel that big. The nature of this screen is one thing that sets the DNA apart. It’s the first 1080p smartphone.

It was just a year ago that we got to 720p phones, and now the glass rectangle in your pocket has as many pixels as your HDTV. The 1920x1080 panel on the Droid DNA is using a Super LCD 3 panel with no sub-pixel trickery (it’s straight RGB). I think a 720p screen is fine, but there is no beating the crispness of the Droid DNA’s screen.

I suspect that 1080p is going to be the logical endpoint of smartphone screens for a long time. I can’t foresee any practical reason to put a 4K screen on a phone -- at least not for a while. So HTC should get credit for reaching that level first. Even though this screen is huge and high-res, the phone is still fairly svelte. There is almost no bezel on the sides of the screen, and the device is very thin.

Like the Nexus 4, the Droid DNA also has a Snapdragon S4 Pro and 2GB of RAM. It’s equipped to push all the pixels on that screen, and keep the admittedly heavy HTC Sense running smoothly.

In addition to the killer screen, the Droid DNA is the second phone on this list with wireless charging built in. The Nexus 4 also uses the Qi charging standard, but the DNA is probably a more visible device thanks to Verizon. The carrier is even selling a Qi charger in stores that works with the DNA. Wireless charging is actually very cool, and I hope HTC includes it in more devices going forward.

The Droid DNA is a Verizon exclusive in the US. There are no plans for a European launch, but the DNA is based on the ludicrously named HTC J Butterfly in Japan.

Samsung Galaxy Note II

I knew ahead of time that to not include the Note II would have assured me of at least several angry emails. Seriously, people that have the Note are among the most vociferous defenders of their smartphone of choice. People love this phone is a very deep way, and I can see why.

The Note II is like the Hummer of phones. It’s built around a massive 5.5-inch 720p Super AMOLED HD screen. It’s basically like a Galaxy S III, but a little bigger. In fact, the two devices bear a striking resemblance. Alternatively, you can think of it as a slightly smaller Nexus 7. The real key to the Note II’s success is the S Pen, a stylus that comes with the device.

The S Pen is not just a capacitive stylus like you can buy for any smartphone or tablet. No, this is an inductive pressure-sensitive stylus that uses technology licensed from Wacom. The crazy thing is that it’s actually GOOD. On a screen this size, the S Pen is useful for taking notes, drawing, or navigating the UI. The S Pen also tucks neatly into the body of the phone when not in use.

Asian OEMs sometimes make devices that just don’t translate to the US market (I’m looking at you, LG Optimus Vu). The Note series, however, connects with some deep-seated need in people for a stylus. Capacitive screens are better than resistive, and touchscreen keyboards have gotten quite good, but there are times that you just want a blasted pen!

The Note II runs on Samsung’s new quad-core Exynos chip, and it really shows. The Note II is perfectly fluid and responsive. There is almost no processing lag when using the S Pen, something which bothered me on the original Note.

The Note II, like the Galaxy S III, is being carried by all the big networks with very little modification. An unlocked international GSM Note II is also out. It’s usually a little more expensive than economy-sized smartphones, but for a Note fan there is no substitute.

Well, there you have it. All the phones worth remembering fondly from 2012. OEMs will continue throwing out new phones in 2013, but they’ve got a lot to live up to.