A new kind of device is being peddled in mobile phone stores nowadays—a particular (and interesting) combination of features and design at a price unimaginable 12 months ago.

These are the 12,000 smartphones (subject, of course, to slight deviations in price either way). Five of them have been launched in the last two months—the Samsung Galaxy 3, the Motorola Quench XT3, the LG Optimus One P500, the Sony Ericsson Xperia X8 and the Dell XCD28—with many more on the way.

They all share a surprisingly robust set of specifications—all are 3G-ready, come with Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi, sport cameras which are at least 2-megapixels fine, have a capacitive touch screen between 2.5 and 3.2 inches tall, and run Google’s Android operating system. They’re also eerily similar in design—rounded, rectangular black and grey cases with a volume rocker on the side and a regular-size headphone jack on top.

Multifaceted: (left) LG’s Optimus One P500; and Dell’s XCD28.

The good

Picking a 12,000 smartphone from the line-up can be difficult. Most are differentiated in extremely minor ways, and it will really come down to the particular design or brand you feel comfortable with. Dell’s XCD28, at 10,999, gives you the most value for money, but features the most inferior screen. The Samsung Galaxy 3 ( 12,000) features the nifty “Swype" typing system that’s faster than jabbing away at a touch screen. The Xperia X8 ( 13,990) has the prettiest design, but still runs the ageing Android 1.6 (an update has been “imminent" for the last two months). Speaking of software version, comparing the different phones here essentially boils down to a simple question: Would you prefer chocolate eclair or frozen yogurt? Google names the iterations of the Android software after desserts—“Frozen Yogurt" or “FroYo" is the latest version, 2.2. “Eclair" is one version backwards—2.1. Our model representative for FroYo, and currently the only phone in India to run it, is the LG Optimus One P500 ( 12,999). FroYo makes a huge difference—the software is zippier and more stable, the interface less clunky and useful new features such as tethering (sharing the Internet connection on your phone with other devices) are available out of the box. All the phones have access to the Android Market and its 80,000-or-so apps, and call quality is consistently good across the models.

The not-so-good

Android’s never been good at efficient use of power, and these phones are no different. Battery life is poor in comparison with other phones (especially those marathon Nokias) and you’ll need to recharge often. The quality of accessories is also variable. Motorola’s headphones are excellent whereas LG’s aren’t, and some throw in a free memory card (critical for Android to work fully) while others stay stingy.

Unfortunately, the one thing they do unite on is the need to slap their own layer of software on top of stock Android. These range from the acceptable (such as the X8’s four-way short cuts) to the ridiculous (such as the persistent mystery of why LG thinks all of us will need an “Infant Vaccine Tracker" app).

Talk plastic

12,000 is the mean price of these breed of handsets—going up to 13,000 if you include slightly beefier models such as HTC’s Wildfire, and down to 11,000 if you include the dodgier specs of Videocon’s Zeus and Acer’s beTouch lines. They’re all par for the course—solid, dependable handsets with constantly improving software that’s just beginning to take over the world.