Gift Guide 2013: Phones, tablets and computers

Here's the big stuff - ideas for wicked good mobile devices and PCs to make their holiday awesome

In the past, we used to separate out categories for cell phones, tablets and computers. In theory, we still could create separate guides just for those products - there are so many options to choose from and not a week goes by where another phone, tablet or computer hits the market.

[HAPPY HOLIDAYS: See a listing of all the products of Network World's holiday gift guide]

[ALSO: Top computer gifts for the holidays]

But uniqueness and variety are starting to go away - we’re getting kind of sick of seeing the same features over and over again on these devices, other than processor changes, memory upgrades and other tweaks. For the following gift ideas, we focused on products that we thought went a little bit extra, providing some interesting new concept to the product that could make it stand out. For anyone asking for a mobile device this year, start with these suggestions:

Product: Xperia Z smartphoneCompany: Sony (via T-Mobile)

Price: $50 (upfront price, or $530 full retail/unlocked), plus $20 per month for two years, plus voice and data plans.

Buy this for: A Sony fan who wants an Android phone with a very large screen and excellent camera, who also happens to have good coverage from T-Mobile.

xperia

Smartphones are becoming less and less about the phone, and more about the different features/functions/apps you can run on them. They really are just mobile computers to the extreme, dominating our lives with distractions like watching movies, playing games, taking photos or videos or doing hundreds of other things. The problem for smartphone vendors, then, becomes trying to focus on what features/functions their new device has that will appeal to the consumer.

For Sony, this means discussing things like photos, videos and display with its Xperia Z. The smartphone features its Exmor RS for mobile, “the world’s first image sensor with HDR video for smartphones”, and a 13-megapixel digital camera/camcorder (1080p recording).

In addition, the phone boasts impressive water-resistant features - as long as the port covers are all closed and snapped shut, you should be able to drop the phone in some water (or, more likely, a toilet, as sad and gross as that sounds) without suffering a total loss of your device. Sony claims you can submerge the device for up to 30 minutes in water, so you have some time to retrieve it during one of those incidents. In our dunk tests, we were even able to watch a movie while the unit was submerged in our water - the movie kept playing (and you could hear the sound from the speaker) while it was in water. I’m not sure that’s a real selling point, but it was interesting that the Xperia Z could do that (instead of just shutting down during the water submerging).

The phone features a Snapdragon S4 Pro Quad-core processor, runs on Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), has 2GB of RAM, 16GB of ROM (we saw about 11GB free for storing media), and 32GB of expandable memory via memory card slot. The phone is 4G capable, but that all depends on whether you’re in the good T-Mobile zone (sadly, we weren’t). However, Sony makes other Xperia models for other carriers, so check with your carrier to see if they support the phone.

The 5-inch display keeps the Xperia on par with other large-screen phones like Samsung’s Galaxy S4, and Sony claims a pretty long battery life with up to 14 hours of talk time and up to 23 days in standby mode (but that would be a long standby if you ask me). Charging the phone is done via an included USB cable, but we’d probably spring for the DK26 Charging Dock, which provides a cool stand to place on your desk while recharging the unit.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: Projector Tablet U7Company: SmartDevices

Price: $300 (for the U7, for $350 you can buy the U7H, which includes an upgraded processor)

Buy this for: An Android tablet fan who sees some good benefit in having a projector built into their tablet for presentations or videos.

projector tablet

From China comes this very cool Android-based tablet (it runs on Android 4.1) with something extra-special built into its frame - a DLP projector that can shine the contents of its display onto a wall or screen. The projector has a brightness of 35 lumens and can project an image up to 50-inches wide with an 854 by 480 resolution (not super-high definition, but passable at smaller sizes).

The tablet can offer business users a way to project a presentation without having to lug along a projector, or home users can load up their favorite movie or TV show and share this on a wall without needing everyone to crowd around the smaller 7-inch display on the tablet. A button on the tablet turns the projector on or off, and a slider bar helps focus the image once it’s being projected.

Other than that, it’s a pretty standard Android-based tablet, with the ability to access the Google Play Store for additional media, apps and Google-based offerings. I’d suggest giving this to someone who is familiar with the Android ecosystem, as the China-based company would likely offer limited support for new users (for example, trying to find an app that would help you transfer content from your computer to the device was hard to locate).

The projector does have its limits - the lower brightness of the projector means that optimal viewing is limited to very dark rooms, and you have to fiddle with the proper height to project from in order to avoid keystone shapes on your wall (there’s no stand or automatic keystone on the projector like with modern projectors).

But overall this is a cool concept - it would be interesting to see if other tablet makers adopt this idea for future models of their large and small tablets (could we soon be seeing this on phones?).

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: Hydro ELITE smartphoneCompany: Kyocera Wireless

Price: Free from Verizon Wireless, plus voice and data plans.

Buy this if: You tend to drop your phone in water -- a lot.

One time I had a phone in a pair of shorts and I not only washed the phone, but I also threw the shorts in the dryer. I kind of wondered what that banging noise was, but I was too lazy to actually open the dryer door to find out. Then there was night when my son put my phone down into the cupholder of the car, only to realize too late that there was a cup of water in the cupholder. If these experiences sound similar to yours, check out the Kyocera Hydro ELITE.

It’s waterproof. I’ve dunked it numerous times and it always keeps on ticking. Kyocera says the phone can survive being in up to 3 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. The phone itself is probably not the absolute coolest, fastest, thinnest, device on the planet, but it does have Android 4.1, an 8. megapixel camera, 4.3-inch impact-resistant HD touchscreen, 1.5Ghz dual-core chip and up to 13 hours of talk time. Hydro ELITE also includes Kyocera's award-winning Smart Sonic Receiver technology that uses vibrations to transmit sound through body tissues, allowing you to hear better in noisy environments. And it runs on Verizon’s 4G network. Plus, think of the fun you can have pranking your friends.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Neal Weinberg

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Product: Qosmio X70 laptop seriesCompany: Toshiba

Price: Starts at $1,000

Buy this for: The gamer or high-performance multimedia professional on your list who might need to take a second look at the whole Windows 8 system again. The 17.3-inch display and latest memory, graphics features and sleek design impressed us, and will impress you as well.

toshiba

For the past two years, I’ve clearly been in the Macintosh camp when it comes to my personal computer choice. At work and at home, I’ve preferred to use my MacBook Pro for most of my computing needs. Part of the reason was my distaste for constantly needing to update Windows, and the Windows 8 release didn’t make things any better with its clunky interface and awkward learning curve. While I tried out many other Windows-based machines as part of this job, I never really considered coming back to a Windows machine.

The Qosmio X70 notebook series (I tested the X75-A7298 configuration) is getting me close to reconsidering. This 17-inch notebook (it has a 17.3-inch screen with 1080p resolution) is designed for gamers, but packs enough performance to make it appeal to other users, including photography and multimedia fans (hey, that’s me!). After years of trying out ultrabooks and thinner and thinner notebooks, I’ve come to realize that I really like a computer system that’s big. I love a big screen. I love what’s under the hood. I love a system that could tear out my shoulder’s rotator cuff when transporting it (although this clearly is a desktop replacement system, not meant for travel).

Apart from the latest specs (see below for the configuration we had on our testing unit), the notebook includes full versions of Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 and Adobe Premiere Elements 11. Sound is produced through four premium Harman Kardon speakers, and a very nice LED backlit keyboard lets you type in low-light situations. The full-size keyboard includes a number keypad on the right side as well, and the keys gave great responses during typing.

Our test unit featured an Intel Core i7-4700MQ quad-core processor, 16GB of DDR3L memory, a 256GB solid-state drive, NVIDIA GeForce GTX770 3GB with Optimus graphics card, a Blu-ray rewriteable (BD-RE) drive, 802.11n wireless, 2-megapixel (1080p) webcam and HDMI outputs (with 4K capability). Of course, this drives the starting price to about $1,900 (on sale for $1,819 via Toshiba’s site), so the power and performance comes at a price.

But with Windows 8.1 now available, correcting some of its initial flaws (although it’s still not perfect), I may soon reconsider my switch to a Mac-only lifestyle (at worst, I’ll become a mixed-PC user).

Cool  Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: iPad AirCompany: Apple

Price: Starts at $500

Buy this for: The iPad fan who suddenly realizes that their tablet is too heavy, or as a starting tablet for someone who hasn’t yet experienced the joy of Apple’s iPad.

If you're thinking of picking up a new iPad Air, the first thing you should do is, literally, pick one up. If you've used any of Apple's earlier iPads, you'll notice the difference in weight immediately -- the new iPad Air weighs just one pound, almost 30% lighter than its predecessor. And it's a good bet that, whether you're buying for yourself or someone else, once you pick up an iPad Air you'll find it hard to put down.

The redesigned tablet -- it still has a gorgeous 9.7-inch super-high-resolution "Retina" display -- looks more like a larger version of the iPad mini than the latest full-size tablet from Apple. The bezel on either side of the screen, when held in portrait mode, is narrower, making the iPad Air actually feel smaller than it is.

Better yet, the changes in this model are more than skin deep. Apple updated the processor in the new tablet to the A7, the same 64-bit processor that's in the iPhone 5S (and the new iPad mini Retina). The result is a speedy tablet, where apps launch quickly, transitions are fluid and smooth, video plays back with nary a hitch and you rarely find yourself waiting for the tablet to catch up to whatever you're doing.

True, there's no Touch ID fingerprint scanner, and the camera setup remains largely unchanged. But this year's update is a worthy one, making it a good candidate for the holiday wish list.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Ken Mingis

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Product: Inspiron 23 All-in-One Touch Screen DesktopCompany: Dell

Price: Starting at $1,000 (direct)

Buy this for: The PC-enthusiast looking for a Windows 8 system and monitor built into a desktop that might remind you of an iMac.

I love PCs based on the all-in-one design. Properly executed, they’re big on convenience, ease-of-use, value, and (as we’ll see here, screen), and small on footprint. Dell’s very latest, the Inspiron 23-inch Touch, also (no surprise here) incorporates a touch screen, taking maximum advantage of Windows 8. The 1080p 23-inch display is just the right size for most users, and is bright and clear.

The overall form factor is very, very attractive, reminiscent of the iMac, of course, but distinctive. Setup is trivial, really, beyond easy. Take it out of the box (the packaging is more than ample), connect power and network (or use wireless, of course), put the included batteries in the included wireless keyboard and mouse (for traditionalists), and turn it on. That’s it. A series of animated tutorials are included for users getting familiar with Windows 8.

A very clever feature for a desktop, in addition to touch, is the ability to position the display at an exceptionally wide range of angles, from the usual close-to-upright to rather laid-back and even to completely flat -- which makes a lot of sense in many touch-based applications. Graphics performance is snappy. There’s even an HDMI input, so the display can be used with other video sources. The only criticisms I can offer is that the included Quick Start Guide is beyond skimpy, and, with both USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, these should be labeled as such (just so you know, the 3.0 ports are on the left side).

Dell has re-established itself as one of the most innovative and interesting PC suppliers. I must admit that I’m a long-term user of Dell products, so I may have a bit of a bias here. But I’m today also a regular Mac user and I want one of these! The convenience and quality of this Inspiron 23-inch Touch are obvious, and your giftee is going to be thrilled with this one.

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