Mar 31st, 2011

CTIA wrapped up last week and I left the event in Orlando feeling satisfied with what I saw as a member of the press. The industry is moving forward with new technologies, carriers and OEMs continue to understand the importance of taking into account the opini++ons of their subscribers with every move they make, and above all else there was just really awesome stuff at the show.

So what did I think was the best at the show? Who had the most exciting product and who opened my eyes for the first time? I don’t normally do it but there’s a first time for everything right? (Note: only devices that were announced and unveiled at the show for the first time will be considered.)

Who had the best Android tablet?

Although the HTC EVO View 4G – Sprint’s rendition of the Flyer that was announced in Barcelona last month – isn’t a bad device, there is one very fatal flaw holding it back: it doesn’t run Honeycomb. I know HTC has mentioned that the device will be upgradeable to Honeycomb, but it remains to be seen how long that’ll take. I normally wouldn’t take outdated software into account, but Honeycomb provides an entirely new ecosystem and you won’t be able to take advantage of what it has to offer if you end up buying it.

I’ll have to give the nod to Samsung here with their new line of Galaxy Tab products. They revealed a remake of the 10-inch version they already introduced and also unveiled an 8.9 inch version to round out the list of options shoppers will have once these devices hit retail and carriers. They really did take the tablet back to the drawing board as they managed to slim both the 10.1 inch and 8.9 inch versions down to 8.6 millimeters. They also enjoy having the lightest Android tablets in the market as far as weight goes.

It may seem a bit unfair to award Samsung the trophy here as they only had prototypes that were nowhere near indicative of what the production model will be, but I’m confident they aren’t advertising anything to the contrary. Oh, and they get bonus points for keeping their Honeycomb “customizations” to a bare minimum. (And some of what they did is actually very useful, in my opinion.)

What was the best Android handset at the show?

This was a lot tougher to determine than tablets, as you might have guessed. There were so many new devices to see at CTIA and I wish I could give everyone a blue ribbon for being great in their own ways, but I can only give the victory to one. T-Mobile had a lot of good to show while Sprint has shown their cards as being the first US carrier to offer a 3D-enabled handset. (I’d give AT&T more credit but the Thrill 4G seemed like a last minute addition to their CTIA presence.)

Verizon didn’t have anything new to show, though they did show us their version of the Xperia Play which – to our pleasant surprise – will come pre-loaded with stock Android. (With customization here and there to comply with Sony’s requirements for Playstation certification, of course.)

Still, we’ve pretty much seen most of what the Xperia Play will have to offer and it’ll be tough for Verizon and Sony Ericsson to get our nod here. As far as AT&T goes, their only new handset to show – the LG Thrill 4G – was little more than an Optimus 3D. (It was the exact same device, actually. We’re sure it’s far from production and AT&T just needed something to show.) That leaves us with a few great devices from Sprint and T-Mobile.

To be fair to AT&T and Verizon, the T-Mobile G2x is T-Mobile’s version of a phone that was announced last month: the LG Optimus 2X. Like Verizon and the Xperia Play, the T-Mobile G2x has much of the same internals as its international counterpart but does away with LG’s custom user interface for mostly stock Android. (The only customization I could sniff out was a framework tweak for scrolling lists. Think the “bouncy” effect on the Optimus 2X or the Samsung Galaxy S line of products.) For reasons that should be obvious to many, the G2x earned a great deal of my attention. I’m not totally against custom user interfaces, but stock Android is always something to be happy about.

That leaves the new T-Mobile Sidekick 4G that’s going to be replacing a line that was once infused with technology Danger created. They’ve revived the series with Android and I think folks will really get a kick out of it when it finally makes its way to market sometime this Spring. The hardware and build quality alone sold me initially, but Samsung has given a deep tissue massage to Android and made a version of TouchWiz specifically for this device. Sidekick fans will embrace the unique social features T-Mobile’s introducing. More details about the Sidekick 4G can be found in our hands-on impressions article.

And then we have Sprint – the HTC EVO 3D is just a flat-out awesome device. It has all of the internals to impress the hardcore Android users and has unique features – such as the 3D it’s named after – that will be a great marketing bulletpoint for those waltzing into a Sprint store looking for a new smartphone. Inside is 1Gig of RAM and a modified 1.2GHz Qualcomm dual-core processor. (More on this in a later article.) All of that is needed to feed HD 3D signal through its MHL-compliant micro-USB port that’ll allow users to connect their phones to their MHL-compliant televisions without the phone itself needing the port.

And as far as software goes, HTC and Sprint have worked together to introduce a new version of HTC Sense that’s even more beautiful than the versions introduced on devices such as the Incredible S and Desire S last month. My absolute favorite change has to be the interchangeable lock-screens HTC’s included. You can find more on that stuff in the video here. Sprint also introduced a Samsung Nexus S 4G, but as the name suggests it is the same phone that’s on T-Mobile with CDMA and WiMax radios instead of GSM.

I thought long and hard about this, but HTC and Sprint eventually won my praise with what they’ve brought to the table. While many of you may not be particular fans of Qualcomm’s, they do provide a cost-effective chipset for the type of power it pushes out. (The Sony Ericsson Xperia play is actually using a recent 1GHz single-core chipset that has been optimized specifically for the device and it absolutely flies when playing games.)

I was a skeptic as far as 3D on handsets goes, but that judgement was made back when Sharp’s Galapagos line of phones and tablets were the only autostereoscopic-enabled devices on the market. LG did well to make me a believer last month at Mobile World Congress with the Optimus 3D, but HTC and Sprint have only strengthened my interest in what they announced.

Who had the best game?

So many new Tegra Zone games were shown off here but Sony Ericsson also came to town with a couple of new games that’ll be installed on the Xperia Play. One I got a kick out of was Madden NFL. I’m a huge football fan so I was ecstatic to see an Xperia Play-specific version of this game loaded on Verizon’s new smartphone. It clearly wasn’t as good as the console experience, but it was great for a mobile phone.

They also showed off Crash Bandicoot. While this is an aged classic, it still did well to take me back to my childhood where I’d do nothing all day but collect wumpa fruit with my witch doctor’s mask on. I really didn’t want to put it down. Southpeak came to town with a port of Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia that sits in Tegra Zone and the Android market for $4.99. (Check our hands-on footage here.) The game was very polished and made for some good fun.

NVIDIA also shared with me a game called RipTide that isn’t yet released but will be awesome once it hits the market. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a jet ski game but this one made me remember how fun they are. They’ll be even more awesome on tablets and phones and you can bet this one will make some noise when it’s finally available. We’ll have some video hands-on footage of this game very soon.

Out of all of that, I’ll have to give the nod to RipTide. It’s so graphically rich and too much fun to put down. The physics in this game are looking great and it isn’t even ready for primetime yet. Madden was great but we’ve seen it before with on-screen controls, and Crash is a bit of the same deal – it’s not really a new game.

Who had the best application?

I’ll have to award SnapKeys the victor here by default. What’s cooler than a keyboard layout that one can adapt to and learn to type on without even looking? Sure, many of us touch type on our physical QWERTY boards today, but using an on-screen keyboard without looking at it is a lot harder.

SnapKeys divides the alphabet into a group of 4 with letters being grouped by their caligraphic traits. (Letters with swirls in them are all group together, for instance.) I’ll have to admit – I had a tough time with this thing, but when I learned that a 12-year-old could type very fast on it I decided I wouldn’t pass judgment based on 3 or so minutes of use. It’s not yet ready for prime-time but you’ll want to keep your eye on it.

Who had the best accessory?

Even with my busy schedule I had a chance to check out a few accessories while in Orlando. I aimed to highlight the most unique accessories because I didn’t care to look at desktop docks and cases that often only set themselves apart with their color. There were a couple of cases I saw that caught my eye, though. Sprint and HTC are looking to provide a case for the HTC EVO 3D that has a kick-stand built into it. Simple, but makes up for the lack of a built-in kick-stand that many EVO users currently enjoy. We hear that the traditional kick-stand wasn’t included due to constraints with the EVO 3D’s design and engineeriing, but this is just as good. (Photo courtesy of Androinica.)

A group of cheerful women looked to one-up them, though, as they’d come to the show with a kick-stand equipped case that fits all smartphones at their modest booth. There wasn’t much special here outside of its compatibility, as you can imagine, but there was an unfortunate downside – the cases would cover the camera of most of the devices they’re compatible with. Bummer. For that reason alone I can already tell you they won’t get the nod. (But thanks anyway, ladies!)

That leaves us with the BodyMedia Fit. This thing is very interesting and looks to serve as the number one companion device for anyone who wants to get into better shape. We took a good look at BodyMedia during CTIA so check our coverage out here. It’s steep in cost making it only for those who are serious about their health, but BodyMedia has a very long list of good reasons why it’s worth how much they’re asking for. The cases above were good, but I’m going to have to raise BodyMedia’s hand here.

Who had the biggest presence/best booth?

Most devices and biggest presence are two different things: how aware is everyone of your attendance at the show? For us bloggers, it might be quite easy to call Sprint the winners here with a great lounge to chill in while we rush to get our stories up, but their actual show floor booth was a bit smaller and less inviting. LG had a pretty nice booth but it wasn’t the easiest to find if you weren’t able to look at a map.

Samsung shined through here as you could find their booth from a mile away. Not only is it big vertically, but it had a lot of devices and a lot of room to move around. The booth’s lighting was also great – an important factor for those of us who need to capture some video and images. I think they’re the clear winners here. (LG comes in at a distant second.)

We had a lot of fun in Orlando and we want to thank everyone who helped make the trip fun and showed a great degree of hospitality. We have even more coverage from the show coming up throughout the rest of the week so be sure to check back if you’re curious about what else was going on down in Florida.