Choosing the most influential Android devices of the last decade

This story was originally published 2019/12/20 7:39am PSTon Dec 20, 2019 and last updated 2021/03/28 9:43am PDTon Mar 28, 2021.  We’ve clearly got a little bias on the subject, but Android has a long and storied history filled with its own triumphs and pitfalls. It’s been well over a decade […]

We’ve clearly got a little bias on the subject, but Android has a long and storied history filled with its own triumphs and pitfalls. It’s been well over a decade now since that first HTC G1 landed, the inaugural Android smartphone, and things have changed drastically since then. Being “first” might make you think the G1 was the most influential Android phone — but was it, really?

The same goes for the OG Moto Droid or HTC Hero. Sure, these were important phones, but when you look at the state of Android today — from phones and hardware to software features — it’s not the same. We have a certain sense of nostalgia for them, but they’re remembered less for their impact than their position as a part of our collective Android childhood.

It’s subjective, but after much deliberation, these are the ten Android phones we think had the greatest impact and influence.

Samsung Galaxy S2 (2011)

The Moto Droid may have established Android as a competitor to the iPhone, but the Samsung Galaxy S2 is how Android became mainstream. The combination of great hardware, good software, and Samsung’s global presence propelled the Galaxy brand into widespread popularity. Ultimately, Samsung would trade positions with Apple in dominating the market — and bring Android along for the ride.

The Galaxy S2 was powered by an Exynos 4210 processor, with 1GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage. It shipped with Android 2.3 Gingerbread and was later updated to 4.1 Jelly Bean. The phone also included a few features uncommon at the time, like HDMI video out.

The Galaxy S2 received positive reviews for its performance, camera quality, and hardware build. It sold very well worldwide – 10 million units were shipped in the first five months. While the original Galaxy S was successful in its own right, the S2 cemented Samsung’s position as the dominant maker of Android phones, a position it has held onto.

HTC ThunderBolt (2011)

Just because a product is a technological innovation doesn’t mean it’s good. In the Android world, there is perhaps no better evidence of that than the HTC ThunderBolt, originally released in 2011. The ThunderBolt was Verizon’s first LTE-capable phone (the Samsung SCH-r900 was technically the world’s first LTE device), but it gained a reputation for having absolutely terrible battery life. But bad phones can be influential, too.

The ThunderBolt came equipped with 786MB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage (with a 32GB microSD card pre-installed), a 4.3-inch 800×430 SLCD screen, and a 1,400mAh battery. Our review from 2011 pointed out the phone had a lot of bloatware, and most other reviews lamented about the battery life. CNET wrote, “with heavier 4G usage, we were scrambling for an outlet after 3 to 4 hours,” and Engadget recommended “carrying a portable battery-powered micro-USB charger or a spare internal battery for peace of mind.”

But a phone doesn’t need to win editors’ choice awards to have an impact, and the ThunderBolt remains an important Android device for taking that first leap into the LTE future (in the US, anyway). In this brave new 5G era, it’s an important parallel to draw — look at how much better the first 5G phones were.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

Let’s not forget: Android isn’t just for smartphones, it can also run on tablets. The Motorola Xoom was Google’s first (and arguably last) attempt at seriously competing with the iPad. It was the first device to ship with Android 3.0 Honeycomb, and it even had a commercial during the 2011 Super Bowl that parodied Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl ad for the Macintosh.

The Xoom did have some features the iPad lacked, like a more desktop-like web browser (Chrome for Android wasn’t available yet) and a full-size HDMI port. However, the $800 price tag was steep compared to the $499 iPad base model, there was no Adobe Flash support at launch, and if you thought there weren’t many tablet-optimized Android apps now, the situation was even more grim in 2011. Granted, at least all the Google apps had tablet interfaces, which is something you can’t say in 2019.

Unfortunately, the Motorola Xoom wasn’t especially successful. Sales dropped dramatically after a few months, and the follow-up Xoom 2 performed even more poorly. Android tablets as a whole haven’t done especially well, and subsequent software releases slowly pulled back on the tablet-specific features. Android 4.2 Jelly Bean drove the final nail into the coffin with its removal of the tablet navigation bar.

The Xoom is one of the most important Android devices ever, not because it was successful, but because it was Google’s only attempt at fighting the rising dominance of the iPad. While the later Nexus 7 did find some success, it was marketed primarily as a low-end media-consumption device, akin to the Amazon Fire tablets of today. And that brings us to…

Kindle Fire (2011)

The first, original Kindle Fire also marks an important milestone in the past decade of Android devices. Amazon’s first tablet was released in 2011, and at the rock-bottom price of $199 (in a time when iPads were still $500), it sold like hotcakes.

The original Kindle Fire, much like the Fire tablets of today, wasn’t a very powerful device. It had a TI OMAP dual-core CPU, 512MB of RAM, a 1024×600 LCD screen, 8GB of storage, and no SD card slot. However, the estimated eight hours of battery life and lightweight design made it a decent alternative to the iPad for reading books and streaming videos, especially given the price difference.

As you may be familiar from its modern-day counterparts, the Kindle Fire shipped with a heavily-modified version of Android (2.3 Gingerbread, in this case) with no Android Market. The Amazon Appstore was still in its infancy, but just like today, there was a large enough collection of the most popular applications and games to generally satisfy customers — you could watch Netflix and get on Facebook or Reddit without any issues.

Amazon never provided specific sales numbers for the original Kindle Fire, only saying in 2011 that it was the “#1 bestselling, most gifted, and most wished for product” on Amazon.com. Estimates say around 7 million units were sold by 2013.

The Kindle Fire is an incredibly important device for a few reasons. It started a line of Fire tablets that remains incredibly successful to this day, it almost single-handedly cemented Android with the dubious honor as the go-to operating system for budget tablets, and the Amazon Appstore it popularized remains the only real, major competitor to the Google Play Store worldwide.

Samsung Galaxy Nexus (2011)

In the software history of Android, one particular update stands out for being especially impactful: Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. It was a monumental change, and though some of us may remember earlier incarnations fondly, this was the first version that seriously competed with iOS at a feature level.

Google’s then-new design language, Holo, made the operating system look and feel significantly better than Gingerbread. It also debuted plenty of other functional enhancements like NFC support, face unlock, visual voicemail, and more. Since ICS was such an important release, it only makes sense that the first phone to run it — the Samsung Galaxy Nexus — would also be noteworthy.

The Galaxy Nexus was Samsung’s second time manufacturing a phone for Google and the third Nexus. It had a TI OMAP 4460 processor, 1GB of RAM, 32GB of storage (with no SD card slot), and a 4.65-inch 720p AMOLED screen. A 5MP camera was located on the back, and a 1.3MP shooter was on the front. Big design changes included a push away from hardware navigation to on-screen buttons and a shift away from removable storage.

The phone received primarily positive reviews at launch. In our post from 2011, Ron Amadeo wrote, “The hardware is great, the screen is beautiful, and it’s the only phone that won’t be saddled with OEM skins and waiting for updates. […] This is, hands down, the best Android phone available. Go buy it.”

Not all versions of the phone were created equal; the Verizon LTE-equipped model burned through its battery incredibly quickly, and Google Wallet support for then-new contactless payments varied. At the time, the lack of expandable storage was also a major point against it — this was before most phones dropped the feature, though some still appreciate it.

Ultimately the phone never sold well outside the Android faithful, and it didn’t age too gracefully given the fast-paced improvements of the era. (Further confirmed by our recent re-assessment). Still, the Galaxy Nexus was the hardware Android 4.0 ICS was made for, and it had a huge impact on phones that came later.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2011/2012)

For several years, smartphone screens rarely passed 4 inches diagonally. This made them highly portable and pocketable, but as applications become more feature-packed, the desire for larger displays became apparent — no matter how much a particular company might have argued otherwise.

Samsung answered the call for larger screens with the original Galaxy Note. It was released in Europe and other markets in late 2011, and it came to the United States in February of 2012. The phone had a 5.3-inch 800×1280 AMOLED screen, which was massive for the time, but pretty small by today’s standards.

Other specifications included a 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU (or an Exynos processor outside the US), 1GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, and Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread. It also included the ever-useful S-Pen, which could be used to scribble notes and annotate screenshots.

As our review from 2012 points out, the Note was a great device when it was released. The screen was excellent (once you got used to the size), the battery life was good, and it supported 4G LTE. The only real downside was the software; it shipped with Gingerbread after Ice Cream Sandwich was released, and many of the apps didn’t really take advantage of the larger screen.

In less than two months, and before it even arrived in the US, the Galaxy Note passed one million units sold, proving once and for all that there was a market for larger devices. The big-screen smartphone gold rush was on. Other manufacturers eventually made competing phones, and even Apple finally admitted defeat, jumping on the big-screen bandwagon in 2014 with the iPhone 6.

HTC One M7 (2013)

HTC manufactured the first Android phone, and it has continued making devices with the OS to this day — in a limited capacity, anyway. Out of all the company’s Android-powered devices, perhaps none was more influential in the smartphone industry than the One M7.

In a world of Android phones dominated by plastic and glass, the One M7 stood out with its gorgeous aluminum design, easing our slowly growing iPhone build quality envy. The phone was also praised for its sharp 4.7-inch 1080p screen. In our review from 2013, David said, “You won’t find a phone out there with a display that will make you happier than the One’s for sheer beauty.”

The One M7 also had dual front-facing speakers with Beats branding, a great rear camera, an IR blaster, and a revamped version of HTC’s Sense skin. It was an all-around great device, and probably the peak achievement of HTC’s smartphone division. But most importantly, the phone encouraged other manufacturers to setup up when it came to build quality and materials, easing Android away from the cheap and creaky plastic we’d been saddled with for years as more smartphone companies started to produce all-aluminum flagship devices.

Motorola Moto G (2013)

Android took a long time to get over its reputation for being “cheap” — in a large part, because most customers trying it got started with budget models. For what seemed like forever, all budget Android phones were horrible, poorly-built devices with outdated software. While there are still plenty of inexpensive phones even now in 2021 that match that description, the tide has risen dramatically, and we have the original Moto G to thank for being the first not-terrible budget Android handset.

Motorola released the first Moto G phone in late 2013, at the low price of $179 (or $199 for the 16GB version). It was still mostly plastic, but build quality was still decent. Paired with a Snapdragon 400 processor and with mostly-stock Android, the 2013 Moto G delivered a game-changing experience.

Just a few months after the phone’s release, a Google Play Edition came out with the same $179/$199 price tag. In mid-2014, a tweaked version with 4G LTE support came out, alongside the first Moto E phone. An actual second-generation model was released in September of that year, and the product line continues to this day.

The first Moto G wasn’t the best phone you could buy, but it did almost single-handedly redefine what an affordable Android phone could deliver. Mid-range and budget phones are always a compromise, but the Moto G was proof there was an objectively “right” way to do it.

OnePlus One (2014)

No list of important or impactful Android phones would be complete without the OnePlus One. The “flagship killer” almost single-handedly changed the game, disrupting the market and our concept of value for years by delivering flagship specs at a mind-melting $300 price tag. One might say the $350 Nexus 5 started this trend (many of our readers would have bought one just the year before), but OnePlus built a whole model around it, garnering much more attention and fanfare.

The OnePlus One had a modest plastic polycarbonate back with a 5.5-inch 1080p screen, but the Snapdragon 801 processor with 3GB of RAM and then-fast EMMC 5.0 storage made it a must-have, with specs that rivaled much more expensive phones.

It was one of the first phones (after the OPPO N1) to ship with CyanogenMod — a popular ROM at the time many of our readers should remember, and which later morphed into LineageOS. For Android enthusiasts, this was like candy: Stock Android during an era of huge software improvements with the sort of added features folks were going out of their way to install. In the end, the relationship between Cyanogen and Oneplus soured and OnePlus started its own OxygenOS, but the memories of that era live on.

Limited availability and an invite-only sales system may have cut down the number of units in customer’s hands. Still, in a counter-intuitive way, that exclusivity only served to amplify the effect the OnePlus One had on the market, disrupting our idea of value for a long time and cementing the company behind it as worth our attention. After Google discontinued the Nexus lineup in 2016, OnePlus almost inherited that “budget flagship” label in many minds. The lingering influence of its smartphones may have inspired devices from the Xiaomi Poco F1 to potentially even the Galaxy S20 FE.

Samsung Galaxy Fold (2019)

Sometimes, the impact of a phone takes a while to be felt, but sometimes you just know right away that it’s going to be a big deal. And while Samsung’s Galaxy Fold’s position in history may not be as firmly cemented as some other phones on this list, we’re confident it will be remembered for being the first mass-market foldable smartphone.

The original Galaxy Fold design (note the lack of a covering around the display)

Samsung revealed the Galaxy Fold in February 2019, and the main attraction was the large, folding 7.3-inch OLED screen. Just flip it open, and your smartphone-sized brick is staring you down with a tablet-sized screen. It felt like science fiction. However, the launch was delayed after the first wave of review units started failing, and all pre-orders were canceled pending changes to the manufacturing process.

The redesigned Galaxy Fold

Following those delays, it saw a limited release with revised hardware in September 2019. (If you’re curious about how it held up, we did a hands-on.) Samsung’s inarguable foldable has already spun-off two follow-up phones as well: The Galaxy Z Flip and the much-improved Galaxy Z Fold2. Competitors like Huawei, Motorola have also released their own folding phones, and several other companies are planning flexible, foldable, or rollable models for the future. The future is foldable, by all accounts and company plans; it’s just a matter of dropping prices and improving materials.

Despite its manufacturing issues and still-questionable build quality, the OG Galaxy Fold deserves a place on this list. It may have been narrowly beaten as the “first” foldable to the market by the Royole FlexPai, but the Galaxy Fold’s impact was immeasurably greater, and it signaled an appropriate reassessment of how software will need to change for this new paradigm. This is a form factor we’ll absolutely see more often in the coming years.

Updated and rewritten for 2021.

If your favorite smartphone didn’t make our list, we’re sorry. There are a lot of impactful Android phones across the platform’s history. Any assessment will be a little subjective, and these aren’t necessarily our favorites. The Nexus 7, for example, almost deserves an honorable mention — although Android tablets outside the Kindle series haven’t really had much of an impact on the market, many of our readers remember it very fondly. Ditto the Nexus 5 and OG Pixel. But simply because many of our readers used a device, doesn’t mean it influenced the market or Android itself.

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