COMPUTE: Tablets, phones and e-readers for the holidays

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.

Holiday gift guide 2012

A quick guide to Network World's favorite gifts

As part of our 2012 Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide, we're proud to offer up our picks for this very popular category.

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Note: Products are listed in no particular order or preference. Prices are also rounded-up estimates from either the product's website or Better deals may be offered online during the holiday season.

Apple iPhone 5

$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

Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone

$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

Amazon Kindle Fire HD (7-inch model)


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 (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

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