Monday, November 18, 2013

Holiday gift guide 2013: Phablets (BIG smartphones)

With the holiday gift giving season upon us I thought I would share my ideas of great gifts in a few of my favorite categories. I will be ranking each item in their respective category from Unicorn (best for what money can buy), Stallion (best for value), and Pony (least inexpensive without giving a POS to a family, friend, or loved one).  Obviously there will be some bias as I am only human and what I perceive as value to the average consumer, not the tech nerd/geek.  So lets get started!

Phablet Smartphones (These phones are BIG with the purpose of having smartphone and small tablet always with you at the same time)

Unicorn - Samsung Galaxy Note 3; price $299 on contract; available on Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Color variations: black, white, blush pink

This huge phone/tablet (phablet) has a 5.7" inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen weighing in at just a hair under 6oz with a width of 8.3mm.  This phablet is also equipped with a stylus to take notes, write down reminders, and use instead of your finger to type that can be docked into the back of your phone.  The Note 3 is traditionally marketed to those who need to be productive while on the go but it can be used for anyone by anyone as long as you realize, this is a big phone.

With a 1080p Super AMOLED you will get very crisp images but still slightly suffers from viewing in direct sunlight. Again to fix this you can turn the brightness way and and your screen will become clear again. Powering this screen is a 3200 mAh battery life what will easily get you through a day and a half of usage. There have been reviewers that have honestly tried to drain the battery during a normal working day (so not watching movie after movie after movie) to no avail, even after not plugging it in overnight. Speaking of working, with 32GB of storage and the option to add a microSD card of up to 64GB, you should be able to carry a wide array of music, pictures, movies, home videos, documents, apps, and more with you at all times. Coming with 3GB of RAM, the most of any smartphone to date, multi-tasking with two different apps on the screen at the same time is a breeze (this ability is shared with the Galaxy S4 as well).

With the screen and battery being the first and second best thing about this phone, the camera is the third. Other than not have the dual LED cool/warm flash, this camera is as awesome as the one on the iPhone 5s. It has digital optical image stabilization (OIS), shoots 13 megapixels, an aperture that lets in more light for great daylight pics and better low light pics, can record 1080p video at 60 frames per second (fps; smooth and truly life like, 720p video at 120fps (slow motion capture), and 4K video at 30fps, the first of any smartphone on the market to date. 4K video is a huge plus for future proofing as you can record friends and family now in 4K and then when 4K TV's and monitors become more affordable (probably next year) you can replay those in their full brilliance. If you want to try and watch 4K video (be warned that your internet connection, video card in your computer/laptop, or TV might not be able to handle it) now, click this link and make sure to hit the settings icon (a cog) in the lower right hand corner and select "original".

I only have one negative as this is an awesome phone. It is big. Most people are going to just find this way too much for their pockets to put in. Ladies with full time purses or guys always carrying a backpack or satchel can probably overlook this. For those of us that carry out phones in the pocket at all times, you might find it slightly annoying.  

Stallion - Nokia Lumia 1520 Windows Phone; $199 on contract; available only through AT&T. Color variations: yellow, red, black, and white

This is Nokia's first and unfortunately last jump into the giant smartphone market as Windows bought Nokia's smartphone division a couple months back. This phone has a 6" (diagonal) 1080p LCD display literally covering the entire front surface of the phone. A 6" screen is big but with the Lumia 1520 it's not as big as one might think because there are barely any top, bottom, and side bezels to this phone. A nice thing about this screen is being LCD it is viewable in direct sunlight more so than if it were a AMOLED screen and it also has nice viewing angles so if you are not looking at it head on, you can still see the screen clearly.

One thing Nokia has done in the past two years is make phenomenal cameras on their smart phones and this is no exception. It comes with a 20 megapixel Pure View camera, Carl Zeiss lens, optical image stabilization, xeon flash (more traditional flash than standard LED flashes on smartphones), and the ability to focus the image in multiple points AFTER the picture is taken. How this works is you open the camera app and take a photo of the subject. Then later on that day or night when you want to enhance your photo, you can choose where you would like the image to focus on; whether that be the subject of the photo or maybe the beautiful background you didn't notice until after the fact. You can even zoom in after the picture is taken as well. Nokia smartphone camera's are for people who really really take their picture taking seriously but also want the convenience of having it attached to a smartphone.

Just like most phablets, the 1520 comes with a huge 3400 mAh battery that should last you into the next day without charging overnight, maybe even two solid days depending on use. I say two days because since Nokia works directly with Microsoft when making a Windows phone, they are able to optimize their hardware to work as efficient as possible with the Windows operating system to get much better battery like. Apple does this the same way but the problem with Apple is they always have much much smaller batteries. Also with this camera/phablet you get 16GB of internal storage but you have the option to add up to a 64GB microSD card to get more space for your music, pics, videos, movies, and more.

This is the first time Nokia has packed its phones with future proof hardware (latest quad core processor, 2GB of RAM) so if you don't mind the size and wanted to try a Windows phone then this is definitely the one you will want to get. Extremely new coming on November 22, this phablet will easily last for 4 to 5 years as long as it doesn't break.  A quick note to add is that this phone does don't come with a stylus nor does it have a place to dock one so while the Note 3 allows you to write and draw to add to the use of having such a big phone, the 1520 does not have that.

A few negatives for me is the obvious "it's a Windows phone" argument. Meaning that a lot of apps you might have been use to on Android or iOS (Apple) will not be here. Not a lot of independent or even corporate app companies (Instagram) have stayed away from this platform choosing to make money on the other two platforms. But if you live in a Microsoft environment already (your main email account is Outlook and you buy movies and music through Xbox Live) then it will be much easier to have this phablet as your daily companion. Another is because the camera is such a big feature on this phone, the camera and lens are not flush with the back of the phone but create a very small hump on the back. So if you don't have a case to even on the back, your phone is going to rock side to side quite a bit. Lastly, unlike the Note 3, this phablet still uses a microUSB 2.0 charger (standard to 99.9% of Android phones out there now) to charger instead of microUSB 3.0. The difference is charging speed which can be important since you are dealing with a huge battery that once it reaches below 10% will take a good 5 to 7 hours to charge back to full depending on if you are using the phone at the same time. With 3.0 on the Note 3, it only takes 2 to 4 hours.

Pony - Sony Xperia Z ultra; price is $799.99 unlocked ; available for use on T-Mobile and AT&T. Color variations: black, white, and purple

Sony doesn't get a lot of credit for their smartphones, particularly because they did release a lot of horrible ones just after the release of the original iPhone in 2007, but lately they have some great ones that need more marketing breaking out of the shadows of those older terrible devices. The Sony Xperia Z Ultra has a 6.44" 1080p IPS display for great outdoor viewing in direct light. This phone is big, almost ridiculously big as it approaches the size of Google's Nexus 7 tablet. But then that is what phablets are for, to have a smartphone but also have enough space that you feel like you have a mini tablet with you where ever you are.

The camera is 8 megapixels that can take 1080p video at 30 frames per second (fps). The front camera is traditionally better than most smartphones as it is 2.2 (average being 1.2) megapixels also capable of taking 1080p video at 30fps.  Nothing to boast about but still a good camera. The reason it does not come with a LED flash is because of it's waterproof design (IP55 / IP58 (Dust protected, Water jet protected & Waterproof)).  Now some reviewers says it is water proof but there are just as many stories of people shorting out their phone due to water getting in as there are people who say the design saved their phone. I think it should be call water resistant as if you drop it into the sink or pool and quickly pull the phone out and wipe it off, it will continue on like nothing happened. But in no way would I recommend submerging this phone for hours on end. 

It has a 3050 mAh battery that will get you through the day and depending on your usage, into the next without any overnight charging. As far as storage, you get your basic 16GB of storage with the option of inserting up to a 64GB microSD card for more space for you pictures, videos, music, apps, and more. Also with this phablet, like so many great flagship phones, you get great future proofing with internal hardware specifications (latest quad core processor, 2GB RAM, and more).

A few negatives would be the camera. Sony is arguably one of the top three camera makers in the world and yet the stuck an average 2013 smartphone camera in this with no optical image stabilization (OIS), improved sensor to allow more light into the sensor for improved low light shots (and it will be needed since there is no LED Flash), and no improved lens for enhanced quality. Another negative the marketing of waterproof. Why are there so many stories of the phone shorting out when reviewers simply left the phone in a glass of water for 30 minutes. When you market waterproof, unless you do something drastic with your phone like deep sea diving, it should not short out. Also if it does, Sony's warranty should cover it, but it doesn't. I think it almost pulls a fast one on the average consumer when you say waterproof, but don't cover water damage in your warranty. Lastly and this is just stating it one more time, this phone is big. Most guys are not going to be able to have this in their front pocket when they sit down in a dining chair, even when wearing regular "dude" jeans. For guys and girls with backpacks, satchels, or purses (respectively), you should be ok with your tablet.....I mean phone.

Honorable Mentions:

Samsung Galaxy Note 2. While it is last years model, the reason it was so popular was because it was done right for it's class, just like the S3 was done right. It has a 720p screen at 5.2" but it is still a great display. A camera that is on par (except the megapixel count) with the Galaxy S4, internal hardware to make it last another 3 years, and on going support from Samsung (so far) this is still a great phone that you can get at carrier stores, big box retailers, and even third party ownership sites like Swappa, eBay, and Craigslist. If you go with the third party sites, just make sure you don't go more than $325, even if it is near mint or brand new.


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