Looking back at 2011: iPhone 4S and Galaxy Nexus cap off the year of the smartphone

Despite numerous lofty predictions from analysts and market watchers, 2011 wasn’t the year of the tablet. Not by a long shot. Apple’s iPad 2 continued to sell well this past year but among dozens of rivals, only a handful of tablets managed to garner even the slightest interest from consumers. No, 2011 was the year of the smartphone. Global smartphone penetration is now approaching 10% and in the United States, nearly half of all cell phone users own smartphones. While smartphones proliferated all year long, 2011 would save the best for last: at the start of the fourth quarter, Apple launched its latest iPhone handset and as the year drew to a close, Verizon and Samsung released the Galaxy Nexus.

The frequency and breadth of rumors leading up to Apple’s next-generation iPhone announcement was astounding in 2011. Some reports suggested the next iPhone would be a modest bump compared to the iPhone 4 while others said it would be a full-fledged redesign. A number of sites, including BGR, reported information from proven sources suggesting that the new iPhone would feature a larger display and a new case design. Even The New York Times was hearing rumblings of an all new iPhone design. There were also a dozen reports suggesting an “iPhone 4S” and an “iPhone 5″ would launch simultaneously.

Meanwhile Samsung and Google were quietly working on a next-generation flagship Nexus phone that would be the first smartphone to launch with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich on board. At least, the companies were quietly working on the handset until BGR issued a pair of exclusive reports exposing a number of details surrounding the new phone.

As summer heated up and a number of new smartphones were hitting the market, BGR learned that Google’s new flagship phone would launch as a Verizon Wireless exclusive in the U.S., and the carrier was looking to slap its renowned “DROID” branding on the handset. October was the initial launch month set for the new pure Google device, and Verizon even passed on another popular Samsung phone to make room for the new Ice Cream Sandwich-powered phone. October was shaping up to be quite a month, as new information pointed to a mid-October launch for Apple’s next-generation iPhone as well.

October finally came, and Apple announced the iPhone 4S. With sky-high iPhone 5 expectations, however, not everyone was impressed with Apple’s new smartphone. It wasn’t until the smoke cleared that consumers realized Apple had another winner on its hands, and the new camera, faster chipset and Siri made the iPhone 4S a force to be reckoned with. Only one device might pose a real challenge to the new iPhone, and BGR exclusively revealed its full specs just days after the iPhone 4S was unveiled.

But alas, Samsung and Google announced that they were delaying the announcement of their new superphone for reasons that were never truly made clear. Apple would go on to sell more than 4 million iPhone 4S handsets during the device’s debut weekend alone, and the Galaxy Nexus was finally unveiled a day after Apple revealed the staggering iPhone sales figures. There was still no word on when we could expect Verizon to finally launch the phone, however, and two more months would pass before the carrier finally offered Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus to subscribers for $300 on contract.

BGR reviewed the iPhone 4S and we were very impressed with Apple’s update. We were also blown away by the Galaxy Nexus, calling it our “favorite Android device in the world” in our full review. Even after a month with each handset, the iPhone 4S and Galaxy Nexus remained our favorite smartphones of 2011. With the Consumer Electronics Show and Mobile World Congress just around the corner, Apple and Samsung’s flagship phones will undoubtedly see some solid contenders emerge. Whether or not they’ll be able to supplant these two phenomenal phones, however, remains to be seen.

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