Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the 2012 edition of the Android Central Editor's Choice Awards. Tomorrow is your day, when we list your picks for the year's best smartphone, tablet and apps. But right now, it's our turn. Our choices might be the same as yours. Or they might not. Either way, it's cool. That's part of what makes Android great. Diff'rent strokes and all.
So sit back, relax, and have a gander at what we think some of the best of 2012 entailed. And gear up for a bad-ass 2013.
Best phone: Samsung Galaxy S3
There’s a good reason Samsung’s shifted tens of millions of Galaxy S3s worldwide -- it’s the best all-round Android smartphone, and it’s available on countless 3G and 4G carriers around the world. The recent update to Jelly Bean has also given the S3 a new lease of life, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have gotten even more software goodies as part of the latest “premium suite.”
The hardware may have been eclipsed by some late 2012 offerings, but the fact remains that for most of the year, the Galaxy S3 was the top dog in terms of specs. In the U.S. you’ve got Qualcomm’s proven Snapdragon S4. Internationally, Samsung’s beastly quad-core Exynos runs the show. Either way, there’s plenty of power to go around. Factor in the exceptional 8MP camera, the thin, light chassis and it’s easy to see why the S3 is our pick of 2012.
Runner-up: LG Nexus 4. The Nexus 4’s limited availability and lack of any real 4G LTE support (so far) are the main reasons for it missing out on the top spot, but make no mistake, it’s still a phenomenal handset. Software purists will appreciate the silky-smooth, vanilla Android 4.2 UI, and the gapless IPS display is among the best out there. The Nexus 4’s build quality is also top-notch, with a classy glass-plated back, reflective front trim and grippy soft touch area to avoid slippage. It’s an incredibly well-designed phone, and if LTE isn’t an issue for you, you should definitely take a look.
Best large-form phone: Samsung Galaxy Note 2
There’s still some disagreement among our editors as to whether the Galaxy Note 2 is truly a mainstream device. You could argue that a phone that sells five million units in a couple of months is anything but niche, but regardless, the Note 2 belongs in a different category. The Note series has seen little in the way of competition this past year, but Samsung pulled out all the stops regardless, and gave us a device that wasn’t just exceptionally fast, but supremely useful. New software features like multi-window blur the boundaries between smartphones and traditional computers, and the improved S Pen stylus brings about new ways to interact with a touchscreen device.
We think it’ll be awhile before the average consumer can be convinced to pick up a 5.5-inch smartphone, but if you’re in the market for a larger device, the Note 2 is unequaled.
Best small tablet: ASUS Nexus 7
You could make a very strong argument that the Nexus 7 was the first Android tablet to be met with any kind of mainstream success. The 7-inch ASUS-built slate proved that you don’t have to break the bank to get hold of a top-notch tablet computer, and played its role in forcing the incumbent Apple to sit up and take notice of the “small form factor” tablet space. The Nexus 7 was well-built, fast enough and most importantly cheap -- so much so that millions of consumers snapped it up on Google Play and in brick-and-mortar stores in the second half of 2012. At the end of the year, the Nexus 7 remains one of the best 7-inch tablets around, and arguably the most successful Nexus device to date.
What’s more, the new 32GB and 3G-capable versions make this device even more versatile than ever. We think it’ll be some time before you can get a better tablet for 200 bucks.
Runner-up: Kindle Fire HD (8.9-inch). It’s impossible to ignore Amazon’s Kindle Fire in the small tablet category. If you’re locked into Amazon’s ecosystem then the latest version, the Kindle Fire HD has plenty to offer. Provided you live in the right place, Amazon’s library of music, TV and movies will have just about all your entertainment needs taken care of, despite the obvious lack of Google Play certification. That’s the other side of the Kindle Fire equation -- there’s no official Google app support, as it runs a “forked” build of Android.
On the hardware side, the Kindle Fire HD packs a Nexus 7-beating 1920x1080 display, along with great build quality. It’s a tablet that’s all about content consumption, and if you pick up a Kindle Fire HD, you’re buying a high-resolution window into Amazon’s content ecosystem.
Best large tablet: Samsung Nexus 10
A winning combination of processor horsepower, display fidelity and build quality sees Samsung and Google’s Nexus 10 take the top spot in the large tablet category. But really, the 10-inch Nexus tablet is all about the specs. It incorporates a beautiful 2560x1600 PLS LCD display -- the highest resolution we’ve seen on any Android tablet, even sharper than the iPad’s retina display. It’s also the first Android device to run Samsung’s Exynos 5 Dual CPU, based on the ARM Cortex A15 architecture, with a beastly Mali T604 GPU to power the high-res display.
That translates into a smooth gaming experience and wonderfully crisp HD movie playback, making the Nexus 10 a better content consumption device than just about any other Android tablet. There’s also the bonus of running the latest version of vanilla Android 4.2.
Runner-up: ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity. The ASUS Transformer series was an early android tablet success story, and the latest version, the Transformer Pad Infinity, is the most refined yet. A 10-inch tablet with a keyboard dock, the Infinity improves upon earlier efforts with a high-res 1080p display, an aluminum chassis and faster Tegra 3 T33 CPU. The price closely tracks that of the Nexus 10, but the Transformer Pad Infinity’s hardware configuration means it’s more about content creation than consumption. The full-fledged QWERTY keyboard and bundled apps make it a great little machine for browsing and blogging.
Like the Galaxy Note 2, it’s an unconventional device, but one that fills a particular niche well enough. It also comes with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, meaning you’ll get improved performance thanks to Project Butter.
Biggest disappointment: Google Nexus Q
Let’s be honest here, the Nexus Q, as we saw it originally at Google I/O, was the wrong product at the wrong price point. You knew it, we knew it, Google knew it, and pulled it from sale almost immediately. (OK, we're still tying to convince Phil.) So if you own one, you won’t have paid any money for it -- either you got it free in a Google I/O swag bag, or free for placing a pre-order on Google Play. In either case, you own what will probably soon become a collectors’ item.
But remember that this glowing tungsten orb was originally supposed to retail for $300, then remember that all it does is play stuff from Google Play. And glow ominously. The hardware inside the Q -- essentially a Galaxy Nexus/Pandaboard setup -- was woefully underused. There was no dedicated UI as such, and even basic functions like DLNA streaming weren’t supported. Too expensive for hobbyists, and too limited for the mainstream market, the Nexus Q was rightly mothballed. Hopefully we’ll see a reimagined, more useful, less pricey Q in the new year.
Runner-up: Nexus 4/10 ordering process fustercluck. It’s the morning of Nov. 13, 2012. Having followed the weeks of rumors and speculation, and the recent wave of reviews, you’ve got a bundle of notes ready to give to Google in exchange for a shiny new Nexus 4 or Nexus 10. But you can’t. The Google Play Store keeps emptying your basket, Google Wallet times out when you try to enter payment info, and if you’re lucky enough to successfully place an order, it’s a crapshoot as to when your new shiny will actually arrive.
On Nexus launch day, limited stock and a myriad of technical problems led to a toxic buying experience for early adopters. As we pointed out at the time, Google can handle all our music, documents, email, web searches, calendar appointments, mapping info, navigation requirements, app purchases, product price comparisons, YouTube videos and instant web page translations, but in 2012 it repeatedly failed to let customers buy a product. It can build a car that drives itself and never crashes, but it can’t reliably sell you a telephone over the internet. That needs to change if Google is to compete with the likes of Apple in this area.
Best game: Need for Speed: Most Wanted
Android gaming has come into its own in 2012, thanks to the emergence of more powerful handsets, and better support from big-name publishers like EA. And it was EA that brought us one of the best-looking and most polished titles of the year -- Need for Speed: Most Wanted. It’s an arcade racer that’s faithful to the console original, and one of the few mobile games to really put the high-end hardware in devices like the Galaxy Note 2 and HTC One X+ to use. There’s also a ton of content to get stuck into, including dozens of tracks and over 40 vehicles.
Runners-up: There’s no shortage of awesome Android games out there, which makes it particularly difficult to pick a single runner-up in this category. Instead, here are a few of our favorites from the past twelve months --
Granny Smith, Plague Inc, Sonic CD, Angry Birds Space, or any of the excellent MMOs from Spacetime Studios.
Best Twitter app: Falcon Pro
Developing a popular Twitter app can be a thankless task. The current crop of Twitter clients for Android (and other platforms) face a hard limit of 100,000 users unless Twitter approves a higher limit. Nevertheless, we’ve seen more high-quality clients than ever emerge for Android in 2012, and our favorite is Falcon Pro by Joaquim Vergès. Falcon combines a simple, clean design with fast, smooth scrolling and easy access to frequently-used features like DMs, lists and settings through side-out menus. Individual tweets themselves are also easy to view with thanks to inline image and web previews.
Runner-up: Tweet Lanes. Another of our favorite Twitter clients is Chris Lacy’s Tweet lanes, which incorporates Android’s “holo” design language and adheres to the Android design guidelines. Although it’s no longer under active development, Tweet lanes already features multiple account support, Twitter spam controls and inline image previews, making it a viable alternative to the aging official Twitter app, or any other competitor. Best of all, it’s available free of charge on Google Play.
Best photo app: Instagram
Despite the recent ructions over Instagram’s terms of service, it’s still the best way to trim, tweak and filter your shots and get them out to your friends on various social networks. Instagram for Android keeps things pretty simple on the UI side, but there’s something to be said for not cluttering things up too much. That simplicity is present in the photo-taking and editing process too, with twenty filters that can give photos a new lease of life. It’s not going to turn you into a professional photographer, nor can it turn a crappy photo into a masterpiece, but it’s more than capable of turning everyday shots into something interesting and worth sharing.
Runner-up: Perfectly Clear. Easy to use, with plenty of options for toning photos on the fly.
Best travel app: Tripit
Tripit remains indispensable to any frequent traveler. And not just flyers -- it keeps track of any booking, rental or ticket purchase. Plus, Tripit's been creeping in on other applications' territory with real-time flight tracking. We travel a lot here at Android Central and can't for a minute imagine doing it without Tripit.
Runner-up: Google Now. If you travel a lot, particularly within the United States, Google Now’s predictive information gathering can be indispensable. No matter how you’re traveling, the new Google Search app brings in relevant information in notification and “card” form. On (or under) the ground, there’s timely public transit information for many cities, and “time to leave” notifications based on local traffic conditions if you’re driving. If you’re flying, Google Now will pull in flight info from recent Google searches, including departure times and gate numbers. And given the expandable nature of the app, it’s sure to be expanded even further in 2013.
Best web browser: Google Chrome
From Google’s perspective, Android is all about hooking users into its app and content ecosystems. At the heart of that effort is Google Chrome, the browser that’s becoming the de facto standard for phones and tablets running Android 4.0 and above. Chrome hasn’t changed a whole lot since the first beta reached us in early February, but it has improved plenty where it really counts -- performance and stability.
With Chrome, Android phones get a simple, clutter-free design; on tablets, it’s more or less identical to the desktop browser. Used on a modern phone, Chrome is just as fast as the stock Android browser, and it offers plenty of new tricks to make it the more attractive browser choice. There’s the standard Chrome bookmark syncing, easy tab-switching by swiping from the edge of the screen, and some really clever stuff like the pre-fetching of web pages on Wifi.
Best keyboard app: SwiftKey Flow (beta)
Though technically still in beta, we’ve been impressed enough by SwiftKey Flow to include it in our editors’ choice awards. SwiftKey Flow includes all the personalized predictive features of the previous SwiftKey 3, but expands upon this with trace-based typing. The current beta even includes the ability to type multiple words continuously, by swiping down towards the space bar in between words. SwiftKey’s predictive intelligence makes its new Flow keyboard one of the fastest ways to type on Android, and that’s why it’s our favorite keyboard for a second year running.
Runner-up: Swype Beta. While we’re praising SwiftKey Flow, let’s not forget the original trace keyboard, Nuance’s Swype. Swype isn’t available on Google Play, so you’ll have to jump through a few hoops in order to get the current beta -- or alternatively pick up a phone with it preinstalled.
In any case, the latest Swype betas have included speech input through Dragon Dictation, as well as SwiftKey-style personalization based on social network and email info. It’s arguably less visible than SwiftKey, but Swype is a solid contender nonetheless.
Best podcast app: Pocket Casts
A good podcatcher needs to do two things well: Find podcasts, and play podcasts. Pocket Casts continues to do both better than any other app, in our opinion. It has the all-important feature of syncing with your Google Reader feeds, which means our subscriptions survive from one phone or ROM to another. The app doesn't conform to strict Holo guidelines, which we'd like to see a little more of, but it's also got character of its own.
Runner-up: Beyond Pod. A longtime favorite of many an Android user, it remains a viable alternative and an extremely usable podcatcher.
Best new Google feature: Google Now
We’ve already talked a bit about how Google Now can help with travel plans, and that’s one of its most useful areas. But it’s just a small part of the predictive search picture. Google Now goes to the heart of what Google is -- an information company. A feature of the new Google Search app for Android, Google Now seeks to make sense of all the information the company has at its disposal, whether it’s calendar, email, location history, traffic and search history, and use it to present timely, useful information.
Whether it’s local transit and traffic info, friends’ birthdays, tracking info for an upcoming delivery, time zone and exchange rate info when traveling, sports scores or anything else, Google Now is a feature that only Google could offer. Some may see it as creepy, but it’s less ominous if you understand how it works.
Google Now’s capabilities are being expanded all the time, and we’re looking forward to seeing where Google takes it in 2013.
Runner-up: Google Play. With all the growth and expansion of Google Play, it’s easy to forget that just ten months ago it was still a disparate collection of services -- Android Market, Google Music, Google Movies and Google Books. Play Magazines only emerged this summer at I/O, and until recently most of the cool stuff was limited to customers the U.S. Looking back over the past year, the growth of Google Play has been staggering. There are more apps than ever on the Google Play Store, which is now outpacing Apple’s app store. Important services like Music, Movies and Magazines are now available in Europe, and Warner artists are finally available through Google Play Music.
With strong content ecosystems on Apple and Amazon devices, not to mention Microsoft getting into the fray with its Xbox services, Google needed to step up to the plate in 2012, and that’s exactly what it’s done with Google Play.
That's it for our 2012 Editor's Choice awards. But the new year is sure to bring even more awesome Android hardware and software. We're kicking it off with CES next week, followed by Mobile World Congress in February. Stick with us for full coverage of everything Android as it happens in 2013!