Latest Smartphones Reviewed: Something for Everyone

As we head toward the end of the calendar year, it’s a great time to be a smartphone buyer. Hardware is improving with new processors and better cameras. Software is maturing too, thanks to three brand-new operating systems and new features in existing platforms. Better hardware and software can also take advantage of faster mobile broadband networks: T-Mobile is rolling out handsets that can use its speedy HSPA+ network and Verizon (s vz) is about to light up a 4G network in 38 markets for devices now, and for smartphones next year.

I’m finding the pace of innovation in smartphones exciting again, which is vastly different from how I felt back in June, when I said the recipe for a successful smartphone was getting a little bland. Between then and now, we’ve had a chance to look over some of these newer phones, and we have more review devices on the way. If you’re in the market for a smartphone, here’s a brief refresher of our thoughts on a few of the latest handsets:

Nokia N8 (s nok) ($549 without contract): This extremely well-built touchscreen phone offers what’s arguably the best smartphone camera solution available: a superb 12 megapixel sensor and premium optics for incredible still shots and 720p video. The Symbian operating system still shows room for improvement, but software can be enhanced far more easily than hardware, giving the N8 future potential as well.

T-Mobile G2 ($199 with contract / $499 without): The G2 is one of the first Android (s goog) phones that ships with version 2.2, the latest edition of Google’s software. A new processor keeps the device performance high while also helping to extend battery life. In the right coverage areas, the mobile broadband speeds are top-notch due to the 14 Mbps radio capabilities. And the slide-out QWERTY keyboard is among the best we’ve used.

BlackBerry Torch ($199 with contract / $499 without): Research In Motion (s rimm) revamped its BlackBerry software for the Torch, creating a better touch interface to compete against the iPhone and others. It still needs work, but shows promise. Of course, the famous BlackBerry hardware keyboard is excellent, so the Torch is worth a look for heavy email users. The hardware specifications aren’t cutting edge, but the optimized software doesn’t make the phone perform like a model from last year.

HTC EVO 4G ($199 with contract / $449 without): Although Sprint (s FON) launched the EVO 4G months ago, it’s still a contender with a generous 4.3-inch touchscreen and access to Sprint’s 4G network. Users can surf the web with speed, but also use the EVO as a 4G mobile hotspot to share the quick connection with Wi-Fi devices such as laptops, iPads (s aapl) and more. A front-facing camera (in addition to the 8 megapixel sensor on the back) works with third-party video-calling software which isn’t limited to Wi-Fi use.

Motorola Droid X ($199 with contract / $569 without): Verizon has a winner in the Droid X, another 4.3-inch slab of smartphone. It too, can be a mobile hotspot, but only on Verizon’s 3G network. The still camera doesn’t offer the highest picture quality, but it should suffice for most and does have a unique landscape photo software for super-wide view shots. The high-resolution display is super for surfing, apps and email. And as a speakerphone, the Droid X excels thanks to a three microphone system to help eliminate background noise.

AT&T Captivate ($199 with contract / $499 without): This is AT&T’s (s t) version of the Samsung Galaxy S, which has already enjoyed 5 million sales globally, and is perhaps the best alternative to the iPhone on AT&T’s network. A Samsung processor keeps Android 2.1 humming along nicely and Samsung is expecting to offer an upgrade to Android 2.2 next month. High-definition video recording looks good as does the display, even in the sunlight. Even with great performance, the Captivate can run all day on a single charge for most users. Customers who want an iPhone-like experience without the lock-in of Apple’s ecosystem should definitely spend some time with the Captivate.

If these devices don’t offer enough choice, don’t worry because even more are right around the corner. A number of smartphones running Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 software (s msft) are soon available (stay tuned for our reviews) and HP (s hpq) is launching a new Palm Pre with both hardware and software improvements. Of course, it feels like there’s a new Google Android handset launching every week too, so don’t count Android out either. And with a recently announced quarterly record of 14.1 million iPhone sales, the iPhone 4 (s aapl) is surely a contender too. Yup, the smarpthone space is starting to get exciting again!

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