The Six Best Smartphones of 2009

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Smartphone makers upped the ante this year with sleeker designs, better touch screens and new applications. Consumers, chanting "I want one too," responded with open wallets.

According to Gartner ( IT), smartphones were the fastest-growing segment of this year's mobile phone market, with sales rising from more than 318 million units in the fourth quarter of 2008 to 411 million last quarter.

The struggle for smartphone dominance escalated just as rapidly, as Nokia ( NOK) and its Symbian OS phones watched their market dominance wither. Nokia's share plunged from 47% at the end of last year to 39% last quarter. Meanwhile, Research In Motion's ( RIMM) BlackBerry products held 20% of the market all year, but heard Apple's ( AAPL) footsteps as the iPhone's share went from 11% to 17%.

It hasn't been a three-horse race. With RIM, Apple, Google ( GOOG), Motorola ( MOT) and Palm ( PALM) seeing huge gains from their smartphone businesses, there were enough riches to go around.

Here are the top six smartphones of this year.

Apple iPhone 3GS

Carrier: AT&T
Price: $200-$300

Pros: There's a reason the iPhone is closing in on BlackBerry's smartphone market share. There are just so many toys to play with, especially as the number of apps approaches the 300,000 estimate of research firm IDC. The 16- to 32-gigabytes of memory and upgrades to the iPhone OS have placated adherents' need for speed, while the video recording and voice dialing features that had been standard on phones expanded the iPhone's playground. Its GSM digital format also makes it an easier global travel companion than its CDMA counterparts.

Cons: It may be popular, but the iPhone still won't let users change the battery or take flash photos. Its 3-megapixel camera is the weakest among its peers, its Bluetooth connection still doesn't allow for file transfers, it doesn't have a memory card and its voice quality remains pitiful. On top of all of that, U.S. users are saddled with an AT&T ( T) plan that costs roughly $90 a month and sometimes offers the service equivalent of cans and string. If AT&T were a tent, the iPhone would be the lone pole propping it up.

Motorola Droid

Carrier: Verizon ( VZ)
Price: $199-$599

Pros: With Google handling the Web browser and mapping/GPS features, there's a solid foundation. The touch screen-keypad combo is a nice upgrade over the competition, while the 5-megapixel camera, micro USB port, microSD port that can expand its memory to 32 gigabytes and seven hours of talk time combine into a sturdy bit of smartphone.

Cons: It's on Verizon, which is great as long as you're in the states. Go abroad with it and you'll be carrying a shiny brick. Its video display is gorgeous, but offerings for its player are somewhat limited. Musically, it sounds just fine, but requires wire or memory card file transfers if you're unwilling to download songs from Amazon. As for the keypad, its relatively flat nature makes it slightly more convenient than the touch screen.

T-Mobile MyTouch 3G by HTC

Carrier: T-Mobile
Price: $180-$600

Pros: If you're on T-Mobile but lust for an iPhone, this is as good as it gets. This Android 1.5-driven touch screen syncs Microsoft Exchange and Outlook e-mail and gives users voice-command versions of Google goodies like its browser and mapping. The MP3 player is better than most non-Apple products, while the 3.2-inch display does wonders for video. It's also a travel-friendly GSM.

Cons: Aspiring iPhones have to take the good with the bad. The MyTouch comes with a measly 4 gigabytes of memory that would be easy enough to upgrade if the memory card slot wasn't as inaccessible as Baghdad's Green Zone. The underpowered 3.1-megapixel camera lacks a flash, its voice quality is that of a refurbished squawk box and its virtual keyboard makes dialing and other interface more difficult than necessary.

Palm Pre

Carrier: Sprint Nextel ( S)
Price: $150-$750

Pros: The card-shuffle multitasking is pretty sweet and routinely updates contacts, calendars and messages from various sources including Facebook, Outlook and Gmail. The Web search function is also noteworthy, automatically pasting search terms into various engines. The pinching and double-tap zoom is as easy to navigate as the iPhone's, but the sliding touch screen also yields to a keyboard when needed. With Wi-fi, Bluetooth, an airplane mode, Microsoft and Mac compatibility and voice quality that reminds you it's a phone, why didn't user excitement soar with Palm's stock price this year?

Cons: Because as much as the Pre tried to combine the best of the BlackBerry and the iPhone, it fell just a bit shy of both. The Palm OS can be a bit lethargic at times, while its tiny, cumbersome keyboard, weak 3.1-megapixel camera and meager 8-gigabytes of memory combine the worst of RIM and Apple's worlds. While Sprint's service area is bigger than AT&T and T-Mobile's, it's smaller than Verizon's and doesn't allow for an international configuration. Most of the Pre's apps are holdovers from older Palm products, and its newest apps still aren't ready for prime time. And it's almost 2010 -- where is the voice dialing?

BlackBerry Storm 2

Carrier: Verizon
Price: $179-$699

Pros: Wi-fi shouldn't be much to ask for, but at least RIM added it to this model. Though it's a Verizon phone, the Storm 2 is a world phone that switches from CDMA to GSM abroad, allowing more room to roam. It has all the Microsoft and IBM synching functions one would expect from a BlackBerry while accommodating sites like Facebook and MySpace. The touch screen/keypad combo, Bluetooth 2.0 and microSD card slot that accommodates up to 32-gigabytes of memory are nice touches as well.

Cons: BlackBerry hasn't been good with touch screens, and its latest offering is no exception. With a browser that isn't anywhere near as friendly as Apple's, Google's or Palm's, the touch screen will prove problematic for business-oriented BlackBerry users.

Nokia N97

Carrier: AT&T and T-Mobile
Price: $500-$600

Pros: It offers both a touch screen and a keypad, a sliding screen that tilts upward for video viewing, Bluetooth 2.0 and 5-megapixel camera with flash. It also has 32 gigabytes of memory that can balloon to 48 gigabytes through a microSD expansion slot. Its built-in apps include a YouTube-specific player and AP news, while its world-roaming feature makes it a low-maintenance global travel companion.

Cons: Did you see the price? Sure, you're getting an unlocked phone, but if you're dropping six Franklins on a smartphone, it shouldn't have a touch screen that's more difficult to use than those of less expensive counterparts like the iPhone and Pre. Its Symbian OS is starting to look aged compared to the offerings of Apple, Palm and Google.

-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston.

Jason Notte is a reporter for His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post,, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.

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