By any stretch of the imagination, there's probably at least one item on the following list of tablets, smartphones, computers or e-readers that you'll want to buy for friends, family or yourself.
As part of our 2012 Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide, we're proud to offer up our picks for this very popular category.
Note: Products are listed in no particular order or preference. Prices are also rounded-up estimates from either the product's website or Amazon.com. Better deals may be offered online during the holiday season.
$200 (16 GB), $300 (32 GB), $400 (64 GB), all with contract, at Verizon
Let's cut to the chase, shall we? The iPhone 5 is selling like hotcakes, and is without question the best iPhone yet. Many users out there are accept-no-substitute, die-hard Apple fans, and anyone in that camp who doesn't already have one (yes, there must be one or two) is going to love this handset.
The core improvements over the 4S - a larger screen (four inches, 1136 x 640 Retina display), an 8-megapixel camera, LTE, dual-band (but still single-stream) 802.11n, faster processor, faster graphics, and even improved battery life - might be viewed by some as more of the incremental enhancements we saw with the 4S. But most mobile power users will welcome these additions - and you've undoubtedly got some of these on your gift list this year.
Now to the downsides. While the Lightning connector is technically an improvement over the previous 30-pin version, one needs an optional adapter to use older accessories. The fiasco with the Maps app gave Apple's reputation for quality of product and especially experience (QoE) a black eye. And there's still a feeling of closed-system thinking with Apple's involvement in cloud services (via iCloud) and the App Store, but even I can argue that this is an excellent path to ease of use and QoE. In fact, after years of resisting, I now use a black iPhone 5 as my primary handset, and the commonality with the iPad and Mac makes my work life easier. But just in case you're not into Apple for whatever reason, or you'd rather go Android, check out the Samsung Galaxy S III reviewed herein elsewhere. Just to be on the safe side, I got one of those, too.
- Craig Mathias
$200 (16 GB), $250 (32 GB), both with contract (Verizon Wireless)
I agonized over the choice between the two best smartphones on the market - the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S III. I'm a long-time (two years is a long time when it comes to handsets) Galaxy I user, but Farpoint Group is today primarily a Mac shop. What to do? Well, I got both.
I really like the iPhone 5, but I must confess I truly love the Galaxy S III. The screen is big (4.8 inches; 1280 x 720 - really!) and bright (AMOLED). It's fast - very fast, with lots of storage, and it's very easy to use. You've probably seen the TV commercials Samsung is using to promote its virtues over the iPhone 5 (including such features as touch-to-transfer NFC), but the decision will likely come down to personal preference - and there's a lot to prefer in the Galaxy S III. Android is today just as capable as iOS (OK, we could probably argue that one), the processor runs at 1.5 GHz., and one can add up to a 64GB microSD card that's (with a little work) removable - as is, by the way, the battery. The 8-megapixel camera can capture 1080p video.
Bottom line: just about anyone will be happy with this phone, whether you give this as a gift or buy one for yourself.
- Craig Mathias
In the past, I was never a big fan of the Amazon Kindle. I was firmly stuck in the camp of reading physical books - the idea of having all of my books delivered electronically never appealed that much to me, whether I was reading at home, in bed or on an airplane. I liked (and still do, for the most part) turning the pages of a paper book.
In the world of tablets, I've always been an iPad fan. Not just for its size, but for the wide variety of apps and things you can do with the device. In my house, the iPad is a magazine, a newspaper, a gaming device, an educational tool (at least, for those times when my kids play an educational app) and a TV.
So imagine my surprise when I tried the Kindle Fire HD and absolutely loved it. The size is perfect - it's not too big and not too small. The device's 1,280 by 800 HD display is gorgeous - the integrated Dolby audio and dual-driver stereo speakers are phenomenal, for music and video viewing.
I love what Amazon has done with the interface. Other Android devices try to emulate the iPad with its app-centric icons, making the user select an option from hundreds of different locations. The Kindle Fire puts a user's content front and center - whether it's the cover of the e-book that you're reading, or the movie poster of the movie you're watching. It's a subtle difference, but one that made it easier for me to get to the content I wanted to consume quicker. Normally when you reach for a tablet, you know what you want to do - read a book, watch a TV show or movie, listen to music. It gets annoying if you have to turn on the tablet, search for the app, open it up, then look for the particular piece of content you want to consume. With the Kindle, it's turn on, choose the content type (books, music, movies, etc.), and go from there.
While apps may take a small back seat on the Kindle Fire, they are still there if you want to download them - because this is an Android-based tablet, you can access tons of apps (although, admittedly, not as many as the iPad) to get your Angry Birds fix, or view your Facebook or Twitter feeds. Anything you can do on a tablet you can do with the Kindle Fire - making this a very customizable and personal device.
Amazon ups the ante a bit with its other services as well - Kindle Fire owners receive a free month of Amazon Prime, which offers free two-day shipping on orders through Amazon.com (you can order directly with the tablet as well). The Amazon Prime membership also enables the company's Prime Instand Video access, which puts it up there in competition with Netflix in terms of free TV shows and movies. The device also supports the Kindle Owners' Lending Library - you can borrow more than 180,000 books for free with no due dates (although once you borrow one, they put a time limit on when you can borrow another book), as well as lend books to other Kindle owners. While these offerings do put you in the Amazon ecosystem a bit more, these are options I quite enjoyed testing out.
I have one major complaint - the unit only comes with a USB charging cable that recharges the battery via a computer's USB port, and recharging this device is S-L-O-W. In order to get a faster charger that you plug into a wall outlet, you have to hit up Amazon and pay an additional $20.
You now have many choices within the 7-inch tablet space - Google and Apple are now strong competitors in this space, and there are still several Android tablets (Samsung still has one) that you can look at. With the $200 price tag (you have to view a "Special Offer" advertisement to get that price), this should be high on your list if you want to buy (or receive) a 7-inch tablet.
- Keith Shaw
The Acer Iconia Tab is an impressive 10-inch Android tablet with a 1920x1200-pixel screen that's great for movies and games.
Colors are clear and sharp, and content looks generally excellent. If you know a frequent traveler in need of an option for Netflix and Bad Piggies (believe me when I tell you that the Angry Birds sequel is a lot of fun on the Iconia Tab), this might be a great choice, since it's focused heavily on media use.
In fact, you might almost say that the device is built around its exceptional display, with little room left over for other niceties - we had some issues with ours. For one thing, the touch sensitivity seemed in need of calibration or something, because we had trouble getting it to respond to lighter touches. The screen also seems to pick up fingerprints like it's investigating crime, as ours was quickly smudged into a fog, requiring frequent cleanings. It's also kind of hefty, and the styling isn't anything to write home about.
Nevertheless, used for things it's good at and when it's in the right mood, the Iconia Tab is a pretty excellent Android gaming and video platform. It's tough to see why you'd get one instead of a cheaper Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7 for general use or e-book reading, but for the dedicated mobile gaming enthusiast, it's a solid choice.
- Jon Gold
$550 or $200 with two-year activation
The big selling point of the Motorola PhotonQ is the slide-out QWERTY keyboard. If you text a lot and are willing to accept the tradeoff in terms of size and weight, this device has a lot to offer. We're talking a legit keyboard with a top row of numbers/symbols, a big space bar and raised letters with a nice feel to them. The tradeoff is that it weighs 6 ounces and is a half-inch thick.
The phone itself is state of the art, with front (1.4 megapixel) and rear facing (8 megapixel) cameras, the Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich OS, a 1.5Ghz dual-core processor, and a 4.3-inch LCD display. The look and feel of the phone is all business - black front and back, and the keyboard mimics a PC keyboard with white letters on black keys. The phone features a ton of enterprise-focused features in terms of security, privacy, and backup. There's also a data usage indicator, Bluetooth tethering, mobile hotspot capability, VPN settings, near-field communication (NFC), plus all the apps and widgets you'd expect on an Android device.
Unfortunately, we were not able to get 4G service in the suburbs west of Boston, and that's something potential customers need to consider when going with a carrier that promises 4G.
- Neal Weinberg
Sometimes the most difficult person to buy for on your holiday list is the one who has everything, but sometimes it's the person who's all work and no play. If you find yourself in this situation, have no fear - Fujitsu has come to your rescue.
The Fujitsu Lifebook U772 is a slim line ultrabook that's all business. It has a lightweight three-pound magnesium-alloy frame that makes it a perfect machine to travel with. There were many times over the past few months I would opt to take the Lifebook with me over my Lenovo and MacBook Pro.
I have a confession, I am a huge offender of closing my laptop and taking it on the run. Because of the U772's Solid State Drive (SSD), I didn't have to worry about putting the laptop in standby mode first. Having an SSD also aided in providing excellent battery life for the notebook. After a full charge the 45Wh battery lasted me a little more than a very impressive 7 hours.
Another thing I really appreciated about the Lifebook was the vibrancy of the colors on the display - while it has a substandard 1,366 by 768 resolution, the colors are more robust than on many other notebooks I've seen. The black pixels were more solid and the colors more rich. It also helps that the U772's 13-inch frame allows for a 14-inch diagonal display.
An additional feature that will catch your attention is the ports - the U772 houses an HDMI port as well as two USB 3.0 ports, a third USB 2.0 port and an integrated card reader (SD, SDHC, SDXC). The machine also boasts a HD webcam with 1280 x 800 pixels with status indicator light and digital microphone.
The U772's Internet connection is a blessing and a curse. The good news - wireless options aren't just limited to the 802.11n WLAN - you can have an optional 3G connection through a SIM card, as well as connecting through Bluetooth. The bad news - like other ultrathin notebooks of this generation, it lacks a real Ethernet port. Even though the notebook offers an Ethernet connection, it's not through a standard port on the back or side, but rather a non-standard slim port that requires a port adapter. This became a huge downfall for me, as there were several times I found myself without the adapter, and therefore without Internet. For those who might use the U772 in the office as well as on the road and at home, the Lifebook is equipped with a port replicator docking connection. Even though in most business environments the use of a docking station would solve this problem, when you're on the road it's just one more (very small) thing to keep track of.
The U772 is a wiz at security, featuring Intel's Anti-Theft Technology and an integrated Computrace BIOS tracking agent. It also comes with an integrated fingerprint scanner that provides simple biometric security. Also I felt with its 2GHz Intel Core i7-3667U dual-core processor and 4GB of DDR3 it could easily compete with some of the other quad-core machines on the market. The machine's performance certainly is strong enough for most professional applications.
Overall the machine packs enough punch to perform with even the most demanding business applications, as well as offering graphics rich enough to enjoy casual games. You can compare this to the Sony VAIO Z13 (retails at $1,999), but at the cost of $1,679 direct from Fujitsu, this comes across as a better deal.
- April Ramalho
$200 (16 GB); $250 (32 GB)
Sure, the iPad mini is getting all the headlines, but gift-givers everywhere should at least consider the Nexus 7 from Google. If you're thinking about an iPad mini, the battle really boils down, as usual, to iOS vs. Android. But I'm going to contend that (a) there's not really much difference between the two anymore (the Nexus 7 ships with Jelly Bean, which is the best Android ever), and (b), at $200 (16 GB model; 32 costs a little more), the Nexus 7 is $130 cheaper.
Beyond those features, the Nexus 7 is slim, light, and fast. The 1280 x 800 screen is gorgeous. It comes with a complete array of personal productivity software, and there's of course lot more in the Google Play store. I use mine mostly as a take-everywhere browser, with a lot more screen context than a handset and very intuitive operation - indeed, even iOS-o-philes should be able to pick this up with little trouble. It's a great portable video player. Yes, there's a gyroscope and accelerometer for gaming.
Anyone who balks at one of these in place of an iPad truly hasn't spent enough time with it - I'm convinced that most people will be absolutely thrilled after, oh, I don't know, about three minutes or so. Besides, one can never have too many tablets, especially one as good as the Nexus 7 is. Highly recommended as a gift - and get one for yourself!
- Craig Mathias
Given the raw power of today's Windows-based PCs, it makes sense to share one across multiple users. I don't mean logging out and letting someone else log in, but rather putting another user - keyboard, monitor, audio and mouse - on the PC you already have.
That's exactly the point of the nComputing L300 - this tiny box has connection for the aforementioned peripherals, plus USB, and it connects to the host PC via Ethernet (you can even connect via wireless bridge - it works great!).
The effect is what you'd think - another simultaneous user without needing to buy and manage yet another PC.
Graphics performance was excellent, although it might not be enough for hardcore gamers. But running a Web browser, office software and similar applications was essentially as good an experience as on the native PC itself. I've used many nComputing thin clients over the years - this is the best one yet. And yes, it makes for a great gift for any Windows-using techie on your gift list.
- Craig Mathias
Starts at $1,000
The idea behind the IdeaPad Yoga 13 is that an ultrabook needs to be flexible, hence the yoga terminology/brand. This very thin and light device can be a Windows 8 notebook, a tablet and viewing screen, all depending on which way you bend back the screen. The notebook's screen has a unique hinge that lets you flip around the entire notebook so it falls back on itself, making this a quite large tablet. Or you can create an upside-down V shape and use it like a screen to watch movies (it brings the display closer to the viewer), such as from the Netflix app. The final mode, Stand mode, basically flips the display away from the user, which would be great for presentations in a board room.
The notebook does have Windows 8 on it, so the screen is touch-enabled. This lets you use your finger to navigate through the Metro interface on Windows 8, which didn't feel as uncomfortable as I thought it would (I still have my doubts about using touch on a desktop system or very large monitor). I preferred connecting a mouse to the notebook, but it does have a trackpad if you prefer those, or don't want to carry any extra accessories.
The technical specifications are quite impressive - Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processor, 4GB or 8GB of DDR3 memory, Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics, 1 megapixel HD integrated webcam (720p), a 13.3-inch display (16:9 widescreen, 1,600 x 900 resolution), two USB ports (one USB 2.0, the other USB 3.0), HDMI output, memory card reader (SD and MMC), and integrated 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless.
I'm still not a big fan yet of Windows 8 (there is a learning curve / comfort level that needs to be met), but if your gift recipient (or your company) requires a Windows 8 notebook, you might as well give them something that's cool to operate and nice to look at. The flexibility of the Yoga 13 gives you features and experiences that a normal notebook doesn't.
- Keith Shaw
Starts at $1,250
I'm not sure we'll be seeing a lot of these under the tree or in holiday gift bags this season, but not because it's not a great product. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a very nice business notebook within the Ultrabook class of thin and light notebooks. But it's more likely to make the IT team's gift list at the procurement holiday party rather than one of your kids' or friends' or family's list.
Still, it's worth noting that for an ultrabook aimed at the business user, the X1 Carbon is very, very nice. Features include a solid carbon fiber top cover, Lenovo's RapidCharge (if you charge the battery for 35 minutes you get 5 hours of battery life), Dolby Home Theater v4, a coated glass multi-gesture touchpad and remote manageability via Lenovo's vPro.
Technical specifications include an Intel Core i5 processor, integrated Intel HD graphics, up to 8GB of DDR3 memory, a 14-inch anti-glare display (1,600 x 900 resolution), choice of either 128GB or 256GB Solid State Drive, 720p HD webcam, two USB ports (one 2.0 and one USB 3.0), a 4-in-1 SD card reader, Ethernet port (only via USB dongle), Bluetooth and 802.11n Wi-Fi.
The X1 Carbon can also be connected to Lenovo's USB 3.0 Dock, which lets you connect up to two external monitors, a Gigabit Ethernet connection, headphones/speakers, USB devices (printer, scanner, keyboard, mouse) and provides faster access to attached external storage drives (with the idea that you'd transfer via USB 3.0 instead of USB 2.0). I don't see a road warrior using this, but the Dock would be a nice addition to have in their cubicle or office when they're not traveling.
The unit we tested had Windows 7 on it, but Windows 8 is also available for this system (but without the touchscreen-enabled features).
- Keith Shaw
$100 (plus service, two-year agreement)
If you want a great Android smartphone experience without breaking your budget, the $100 DROID RAZR M from Motorola belongs on your shopping list. The very thin and light smartphone (it's slightly bigger than an iPhone 5, but not by much) is powered by a 1.5 GHz dual-core processor, and sports access to Verizon's 4G LTE wireless network, has a 4.3-inch AMOLED screen (960 x 540 resolution) and a whole bunch of Google applications.
The RAZR M is the first Android device from Verizon Wireless to come pre-installed with the Google Chrome web browser, making a better web experience for users than previous mobile browsers. Other apps include access to Google Play (the Android app store), Google Maps, Google Plus and YouTube, among others.
Hardware features include an 8-megapixel digital camera for photos/video, a front-facing HD camera (0.3-megapixels, 720p recording), 8GB of internal memory (with support for up to 32GB via microSD card).
The device runs the Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android's OS (4.0.4), but I believe Verizon announced that Jelly Bean (4.1/4.2) would be rolled out to the phone (advice - check with the sales person to see if it will get the upgrade).
The phone feels great in your hand - I've been testing many larger phones from Samsung for the holiday guide, so it was nice to hold a smaller and lighter phone in my hand for a bit.
This phone comes highly recommended for people who want a good Android smartphone at a reasonable price.
- Keith Shaw
$370 (plus service, two-year agreement)
There's a reason that Samsung is using basketball star Lebron James in commercials to show off its new smartphone - his hands are so big, it looks like he's holding a regular smartphone.
For those of us mere mortals, holding the Galaxy Note II will make us feel like we're holding a miniature tablet. If you're going to use this as a phone and hold it up to your ear, you're going to feel pretty silly - or feel like you're back in the '90s with one of those giant brick-like phones that you needed an extra battery bag to carry along with the phone.
But I suppose if you use the phone's speaker or a hands-free Bluetooth headset to talk with, you'll never have to put the phone up to your ear. Then you can take advantage of the device's 5.5-inch Super AMOLED screen with its quad-core 1.6 GHz processor in other ways. The device is supposed to combine the best features of a smartphone, while giving you added benefits from a mini-tablet. Samsung includes a stylus pen with the Galaxy Note II, which can be used to tap out things on the on-screen keyboard, or to use with a number of handwriting and drawing type applications. If you've been a veteran of mobile devices, the stylus and screen of the Galaxy Note II will bring you back to the days of the Palm Pilot.
But the Palm Pilot had nothing in terms of applications and hardware specs like the Galaxy Note II. In addition to the processor and large screen, the Note II sports a 1080p camcorder with its 8-megapixel digital camera, a front-facing 2-megapixel webcam, 16GB of built-in memory, plus a microSD card slot (up to 32GB).
The device also includes a ton of applications, including all the Google-supported Android apps alongside the Jelly Bean OS.
If you don't mind a giant screen for your smartphone, or like the idea of a hybrid phone/tablet, then the Galaxy Note II will fit the bill quite nicely.
- Keith Shaw
$50 (with two-year agreement)
In the world of smartphones, there's models like the iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S III and Motorola DROID - they tend to cater to the high-end, super power user who don't mind spending $300 or so every time a new one comes out.
For the rest of the world (those who might have to pay for their own phone rather than having an expense account), we get phones from Pantech. The Flex is their latest Android 4G LTE phone (on AT&T's network) - a successor to the Burst model.
The hardware, though, is still impressive for a "low-end" smartphone - it's powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, has a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED screen, an 8-megapixel rear-facing digital camera, 2-megapixel front-facing camera, and it runs the Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) operating system (if you get this, get an update from AT&T regarding an upgrade to Jelly Bean).
On the software side, customers can choose between a traditional Android experience, or pick the Pantech "Easy Experience", which reveals "one simplified home screen with a streamlined menu, with quick access to contacts, features and apps. If you've ever tried or seen a regular Android phone's interface, it can overwhelm first-time users with a bunch of boxes, special offers and other carrier-inspired "bloat" in a way to try to make their phone unique. The Easy Experience interface makes the opening menu look more like an older cell phone, with large buttons for Camera, Messages, Phone and Web. You can also create Shortcuts out of your apps, or access apps via the Menu button. A very large time and date indicator are also on the display, with the ability to add weather data for your city as well. Even the unlock screen is simplified - instead of a lock that you slide to unlock, you switch a virtual light switch from off to on. The unlock switch is interesting in the regular mode as well - you get a circle that lets you immediately access apps like the camera, phone or messaging - starting up those apps faster than a normal "unlock, then look for the apps across your field of icons." Very nice on both counts.
Overall I got the feeling that this phone was meant for older folks (like my father-in-law), rather than for kids or even younger adults. Why? Maybe it was the large fonts on the Easy Experience screen. Or maybe it was the pre-bundled "Pill Reminder" app, which lets you set alarms for when you have to take your medication.
But I did like this phone, and if you are looking to save some money but still want a good smartphone experience, check out the Pantech Flex.
- Keith Shaw
The new Kindle Paperwhite is, quite simply, a threat to the paper book. It is the perfect balance of weight (7.5 ounces), tactile feel (a nice rubbery grip), screen (backlit for low light, but outstanding black text for bright light), and utility (easy to use, and a pleasure to read).
The Paperwhite only has one button, the on/off button, but otherwise all controls are screen-based. The $120 version we tested was Wi-Fi only (3G is $60 more) and "with special offers," which means some of the welcome screens feature promotions (the promotion-free version adds $20 to the cost which, in our estimation, isn't worth it given the ads are so innocuous).
Controls are simple and intuitive and books download in a flash (a 322-page book downloaded on my home Wi-Fi network in less than 10 seconds). You can turn pages by touching the right side of the screen, which refreshes the screen in just under a second, which is fine, but some of the controls -- say, when you are scrolling a list of titles -- are based on swiping. If you're used to the responsiveness of an iPad, the swiping motions are sluggish.
That said, the primary controls used to navigate reading material, which this device is optimized for, are outstanding and the Paperwhite is an outright winner, the culmination of years perfecting the alternative to the book. The alternative has arrived.
- John Dix
$50 (with two year contract)
The Samsung Galaxy Victory is an impressive little phone. It is only offered through Sprint, and is $50 with a two-year contract. If you want a smartphone on a budget that has a great list of features, it’s well worth it. The form factor is really nice, with a screen size that is just right - not too small, not too large. At almost five ounces, it’s certainly not the lightest phone available, but it feels solid in your hand. The curved back also makes it comfortable to hold if you decide to use it as a traditional phone! While it’s not the flashiest phone available, there is nothing to complain about either.
From the moment you start to use the Victory, you’ll be impressed by the speed of the 4G service. Even websites that are not optimized for cell phone browsing load quickly and easily. Without the 4G speed, this phone would be far less impressive, but the speed of downloads makes features like the “Media Hub” really practical.
There are both front and rear facing cameras, both with decent quality. There is a dedicated camera button that is well positioned, and switching between the front and rear facing cameras only requires a touch of a button. The pictures can be edited right on the phone, which is also fun to play around with. The phone also has a MicroSD card slot, which allows you to add up to 32GB on top of the 4GB of built-in storage. Finally, this phone can be used as a hotspot, which might not be something you’ll use every day, but is a handy option, especially if you travel often. This phone is billed as a media-focused device, and it definitely pushes that on the home screens. The speakers and brightly lit screen are both a nice quality, so being able to expand the memory means you can carry a lot of movies and music and comfortably use them on the go.
If there is a drawback to this phone, it’s the Android operating system. If you are switching over to Android from Blackberry or iPhone, you’ll find the Android system initially frustrating. There is a large learning curve (I’ll admit, it took me longer than it should have to figure out how to search for and download apps). However, it is customizable nicely if you give it time. I like that you can set shortcuts from the lock screen, like the default for getting into the camera.
Overall, this is a fantastic value for a smartphone. It has a surprising amount of features, and the more you use it the more you’ll discover. For $50 it’s tough to go wrong, especially since Sprint still offers unlimited data.
- Claire Kiely