AT&T Android phones: Which to get?

AT&T Android Phones

When it comes to Android, AT&T isn't exactly the carrier of choice.

Okay, let me rephrase that: When it comes to any phone, AT&T isn't exactly the carrier of choice. But with Android in particular, the network is known for locking down its devices in a way that goes against the platform's open nature, making it a tough company to recommend for anyone seeking the full Android experience.

That said, factors like work and family can make it impossible for some people to jump from one carrier to another. The good news: If you're set on AT&T and are thinking about switching to Android, you do have a couple of decent options.

Here's a device-by-device breakdown of AT&T's Android phones and how they compare.

[This story is from the new Android Power blog at Computerworld. Follow @AndroidPower on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

AT&T Android Phone #1: The Samsung Captivate

AT&T Android Phones: Samsung Captivate

AT&T's newest Android offering is without question its most powerful to date. The Samsung Captivate, part of Samsung's recently debuted Galaxy S line of devices, is built to compete with top-of-the-line Android phones like Sprint's HTC EVO 4G. And it's a fairly solid contender.

The Captivate, available for $200 with a two-year contract, boasts a 4-inch, 800-by-480 Super AMOLED display -- slightly smaller than the 4.3-inch screens you'll find on the EVO or the Motorola Droid X -- and runs on a speedy 1GHz processor. It has a 5-megapixel camera with 720p HD video capture. Unlike Sprint's take on the Galaxy S, however, the Samsung Captivate does not feature a secondary, front-facing camera for video chat purposes.

The Captivate ships with Android 2.1. It is expected to receive the Android 2.2 upgrade at some point in the future, though no specific date has been announced so far.

• The bottom line: The Captivate's Galaxy S sister phones on other networks will give you the same performance with extra perks -- a front-facing camera and 4G access on Sprint, for example -- and without AT&T's Android-oriented restrictions. If you're going to get an Android device on AT&T, though, the Samsung Captivate is generally the best choice you can make.

AT&T Android Phone #2: The HTC Aria

AT&T Android Phones: HTC Aria

The HTC Aria isn't in the same league as the Captivate, but when it comes to midrange Android options, it's a reasonable enough device.

The Aria, available for $130 with a two-year contract, has a 3.2-inch, 480-by-320 HVGA display. That's noticeably smaller than the displays you'll find on many other Android devices -- even older models like the Motorola Droid, which has a 3.7-inch screen. But depending upon what you want, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Size aside, the HTC Aria is also somewhat slower than its Android contemporaries: It runs on a 600MHz processor, compared to the 1GHz chip found in most of the higher-end phones being released these days. The Aria has a single 5-megapixel camera.

As for software, the HTC Aria currently runs Android 2.1. Given its relatively recent release date, one would imagine it'll eventually be bumped up to Android 2.2 -- but thus far, neither AT&T nor HTC has officially confirmed any plans for an upgrade.

• The bottom line: If you want a smaller Android phone for AT&T, the Aria might be an okay fit for you. You'd get far more bang for your buck, however, by paying the extra 70 bones and springing for the Captivate instead.

AT&T Android Phone #3: The Motorola Backflip 

AT&T Android Phones: Motorola Backflip

The unusual form of the Motorola Backflip, AT&T's first Android phone, has made it the butt of plenty of jokes. Even if you like its oddly positioned keyboard and backward-flipping display, the Backflip leaves a lot to be desired.

In terms of hardware, the Backflip has a 3.1-inch, 480-by-320 HVGA display -- similar to the Aria's, only slightly smaller. It runs on a 528MHz processor, also a step down from the Aria, and has a single 5-megapixel camera. The Backflip sells for $50 with a two-year contract.

Aside from AT&T's standard software restrictions, the Backflip is currently limited to running Android 1.5 as its operating system. Motorola says the phone is scheduled to receive the upgrade to Android 2.1 sometime in the third quarter of this year. Given the fact that the 2.1 upgrade is still pending, there's no telling if or when the Backflip will receive Android 2.2.

• The bottom line: The Backflip is miles behind other Android phones in almost every measure. Unless price is a major factor in your decision, there's really no reason to get this device.

AT&T's Android Future 

AT&T has made it clear that it plans to offer more Android phones in the months to come. Already, the carrier is preparing to launch the Dell Aero, billed as the "lightest Android smartphone ever." Other as-of-yet unannounced devices are likely in the hopper, too.

For now, you certainly won't find the most complete Android experience or the most compelling Android selection on AT&T -- but you can find something worth owning, at least relative to the network's other smartphone options. Plus, as an added bonus, you can always chuckle to yourself knowing that your carrier's CEO is a dead-ringer for Stephen Colbert.

Hey, that's gotta be worth something.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other titillating technology. He's on both Twitter and Facebook; come say hello.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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