$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