The latest generation of Android phones tops our Ratings (available to subscribers), thanks to speedy processors, bigger and brighter screens, high-definition video recording, and the ability to run on 3G and 4G networks. Apple's response: the iPhone 4S, a souped-up version of its iPhone 4 (which remains available) with a faster processor, better camera, and different antenna design.
This crop of smart phones is the most versatile we've tested, even though prices have remained much the same.
Smart phones can now capture and display 3D photos and videos. The HTC Evo 3D from Sprint is new to the Ratings (available to subscribers), and we'll be putting LG's Thrill 3D through its paces soon.
In the Ratings (available to subscribers), the HTC Evo 3D, Motorola Droid X2, Motorola Photon 4G, and HTC Sensation 4G stand out for their sharp, 4.3-inch displays.
Three phones that capture HD video rival pocket camcorders for video quality: the HTC ThunderBolt, Motorola Atrix, and T-Mobile G2x.
Also in the Ratings (available to subscribers) is Samsung's Nexus 4G from Sprint, the first phone to offer Google Wallet. It lets you pay for purchases by tapping the handset on MasterCard PayPass terminals that read a chip in the phone. At least three rival digital wallet services are due this year and next.
There are many more 4G models than last year, and those data connections do indeed provide super-smooth video streaming and ultra-fast loading of Web-based content under optimal conditions. There's a downside, though: Battery life could drop significantly compared with 3G. So flip off the 4G switch when you can't appreciate 4G's advantages, such as when checking e-mail or texting.
In another development, a onetime powerhouse is attempting a comeback. Research in Motion's BlackBerrys, with their ergonomic keyboards and enterprise-friendly messaging network, have been losing ground to more dazzling touch-screen models on the Apple and Android platforms. But new BlackBerry phones, including the revamped Torch 9850 and Bold 9930 in the Ratings (available to subscribers), have added sharper, responsive touch screens; faster processors; and cameras that can record HD videos. Their updated operating system now offers smoother Web-based videos and better performance for personal e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, games, and more. One big weakness: BlackBerry App World offers far fewer games, music, and apps than the iPhone and Android app stores.
Apple's new operating system, iOS 5, is new, yet familiar. Aspects of it resemble features found on the Android, BlackBerry, and Windows operating systems. It lets you use the camera, preview e-mail, and perform other functions even when the phone is locked. Contact lists will integrate data from a variety of sources. A Game Center will show you what your friends' friends are doing and give recommendations based on their input.
Apple also activated a cloud service similar to Amazon's. Among other features, iCloud facilitates the uploading of photos, music, and more from the iPhone to Apple's servers, where they're automatically shared with other devices linked to your account. With iCloud, iPhone users will for the first time be able to update their OS without connecting to a computer.
An update for the Windows Phone mobile operating system called Mango moves into Apple's and Google's coveted social-networking territory. Mango wasn't out at press time, but here's how Microsoft describes it: New features of the updated OS include a version of Internet Explorer with a GPS-based feature called Local Scout, which alerts you to nearby events, restaurants, and more.
Bing Vision (a feature similar to Google Goggles and Android's ShopSavvy) turns the phone camera into a bar-code scanner. Scan the code on a book, for instance, and Bing Vision collects reviews and other details about it over the Web. Mango's Linked Inbox, besides showing mail from multiple accounts on one page, lets you see the e-mail thread, which you can collapse or expand. Mango lets you see all communications with individual contacts, such as a conversation that began in e-mail and ended up on Facebook.