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.

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.

Slideshow: 10 Types of Tablet Users That Drive Us Nuts

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.

Slideshow: The Top 17 Smartphones

Slideshow: 7 Solid 7-Inch Tablets That Rival the iPad Mini (and Cost Less)

Slideshow: Cool Gear and Gadgets for Smartphones and Tablets

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)

$200

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

Acer Iconia Tab (A700)

$450

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

Motorola PhotonQ 4G LTE smartphone for the Sprint Network

$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

Fujitsu LifeBook U772

$1,680

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.

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