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Looking back on Android in 2011

As 2011 draws to a close, we look back at the year's big trends in Android smartphones and we predict what's to come in 2012.

Strap yourselves in. We're about to hit another Android year at full speed.

2012 is breathing down our neck, which means that CES, Mobile World Congress, and even CTIA are fast approaching. In other words, get ready for an onslaught of new Android announcements.

Looking ahead at some of the rumored devices, consumers are in for some seriously powerful smartphones and tablets. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's take a look back at some of the key trends from this year's products. What was it that made Android so successful in 2011 and what will lead to continued growth in the new year?

Immediately coming out of CES 2011, it was obvious that Android smartphones were going to be bigger, faster, thinner, and lighter. Gone, for the most part, were single core handsets with displays in the 3.5-inch range. And unless you were talking about the Motorola Xoom, the battle for the thinnest and lightest would play out all year long.

In fact, it became commonplace to see manufacturers tout new models that were paper thin and as light as a feather. Indeed, we heard a lot about tapered profiles that set "new records for a 4G phone."

The Motorola Droid Razr was thin, but its display was just the opposite. Josh Miller

Big was big in 2011
But even as phones grew thinner, they also got larger displays. Looking back at mid-2010 and the arrival of the 4.3-inch HTC Evo 4G, I recall many people complaining that it was simply too big.

But jump ahead one year and users would argue that anything less than that size is unacceptable. What happened? Well, thanks to lighter hardware and increasingly better display technologies, Android enthusiasts came to prefer qHD and HD screens. As many of you know, these types of resolutions can't happen on those "tiny" 3.5-inch phones.

Just a single core? Please.
Smartphones and tablets with dual-core chipsets became commonplace in early 2011, thanks largely to Nvidia's Tegra 2 chipset. And as we entered the second half of the year and the advent of new processors from Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, and Samsung, the mention of a single-core smartphone would result in eye rolls and scoffs.

We're actually at a point now where these mobile chipsets are known by their codenames. Consider that just this week San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium was temporarily renamed Snapdragon Stadium for a three-game period that spans ten days.

4G or Faux G, it's fast
Officially or not, all the major carriers now are running a 4G network, with some of them offering two. Verizon Wireless stormed out of the gate last March with the HTC Thunderbolt, its first 4G phone, and its LTE network now covers more than 190 markets.

A&T, for its part, closes the year with a smattering of cities and only a handful of devices. And somewhere in the middle of the race, T-Mobile's 4G HSPA+ network continues to expand and products like their HTC Amaze 4G are theoretically capable of 42Mbps.

Carriers typically charge a $50 to $100 premium for their 4G devices and, thus far, consumers seemed willing to pay for it. Getting into the second half of 2011 we started seeing some high-speed smartphones arrive with more attractive price points, a trend I hope to see continue into next year.

3D on a phone? Meh. Josh Miller

3D arrived but failed to impress
There were a number of Android devices released with 3D technology, some promoted more heavily than others. But what came with plenty of pre-release hype and lip service ultimately resulted in ho-hum sales and a rarely used feature.

I replaced my Evo 4G with an Evo 3D this year, but only because I wanted a newer handset with more hardware. Have I shown off 3D to curious friends? Sure I have. But do I actually use it? No.

Then again, maybe it's the fact that I can't really see the 3D unless I am holding the handset at the precise angle needed to view it properly. Or could it be the headache I get from trying to watch a movie or play a game? I can't imagine that Optimus 3D or Thrill 4G owners have an experience that is all that different.

What 2012 may bring
Gazing into my crystal ball, I don't see much changing in the first half of the year. I'm certain that CES will teach us who owns the title of the "thinnest multi-core" or lightest "HD display," though I can't imagine any new technology taking off yet. After all, here were are, in late 2011, and I'm still waiting for at least one manufacturer to include a pico-projector in their phone.

With so many players circling the idea of mobile payments and commerce, I imagine that we'll see an even bigger push for NFC-enabled devices. Google, of course, wants to corner the market, but there are a number of alternatives in these early days.

It also doesn't hurt that Ice Cream Sandwich features Android Beam and that Wallet-ready vending machines are already showing up in malls around the country.

Straight shooters and long batteries
High definition displays have just started taking off, so look for more proliferation on this front in 2012. As cameras now routinely offer 8-megapixel images and 1080p HD video capture, users will come to appreciate the larger, sharper images.

Speaking of cameras, we'll start seeing handset makers push beyond 8-megapixels for the rear, maybe as soon as CES in three weeks. Moving around to the front side, I also look for 720p to become a commonplace feature for video chat.

One aspect of smartphones that I would most like to see addressed comes in the form of battery life. Yes, Android is continuously improved to allow for better optimization, but there's only so much we can expect from the operating system. And yes, multi-core processors promise more efficient battery time, but I'm ready for something else.

Be it a new wireless charging standard, a different battery technology, or new display options, I know we can do better.

Have you seen anything out there that would lead you to believe we're in for something new in 2012? What technologies or trends do you see taking off in the new year?