Monday, November 18, 2013

Holiday gift guide 2013: Smartphones (Android and Apple)

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!

Android smartphones (Excluding phablets a.k.a. very large smartphones. Yes phablets is a word used.)

Unicorn - LG G2 $149.99 on contract available on Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Colors: Black and White

This phone comes in just under in terms of phablet because while it does have very large screen at 5.2" diagonally, LG did it's best to reduce the footprint of the overall phone by have the top, bottom, and side bezels (framing around the screen) as small as possible; especially those on the side. It has a 13 megapixel camera with LED flash and optical image stabilization (OIS) so that if you are moving the camera around quickly trying to get a good picture or video shot (1080p), the image is as still as possible. It comes with a 3000 mAh battery that will get 99% of average users through the day on a full charge away from the plug for a whole day. 

The screen is 1080p like most flat screen TV's and designated IPS (in-plane switching) so it comes with better viewing angles and easier to see in direct sunlight. it comes with 32GB of storage; plenty of space for music, home videos, and pictures but there is no option to insert a microSD to get even more space.  A small cool feature of this phone is the ability to double tap on the screen with your finger to wake it up without having to use the sleep/wake button. Do the same thing to put it to sleep.

The only two negatives I would give are that the back is been hailed as a fingerprint magnet. Even if your hands are clean, you will still leave fingerprints. I don't see this as much of a negative in that I always recommend people get a protective case (and screen protector) to keep it safe for as long as possible. The other is that the sleep/wake button (power button) and the volume keys are on the back of the phone. This could turn into a non issue if you or the person receiving the phone can easily adapt to it but for some it might be a big annoyance since a lot of us are use to the sleep/wake and volume controls on the sides.  Right now among Android smartphones, this is the best powerhouse that is future proof (hardware technology inside is cutting edge that it won't become obsolete in the near future) for easily 4-5 years for the average user.

Stallion - Samsung Galaxy S4; priced on contract from $99 to free and available on Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Colors: Mainly Titanium Blue and Marble White but other options depending on what carrier you use.

This is another phone that comes in just under the phablet marker as it has a 5" 1080p Super AMOLED screen and small bezels around the sides of the screen, though not as small as the G2. Being an AMOLED screen the colors are a little saturated, though most will never see it, but the biggest draw back is the ability to view in direct sunlight. You will definitely need to turn your brightness way up to get close to the viewing that the G2 has in direct sunlight. But the positives of a AMOLED screen are it uses less battery power to run.  It has a 10 megapixel camera with LED flash but no OIS so if you are moving your camera around trying to get a good picture or video, it will show in the final result. 

It has a 2600 mAh battery that reviewers say will get you through most of a typical day but just barely depending on usage.  The base storage for an S4 is 16GB with 8.5GB usable because of the operating system and a TON of software features that Samsung has provided (picture taking, video shooting, extra apps, and features) but it does have the option for a microSD card slot to add more storage. Even after being almost 8 months old, it was made to be future proof for at least the next 3-4 years.  A small cool feature of this phone is it has a barometer sensor in it so it can give you a more accurate temperature from your exact location.

A few negatives I have are the extra software apps and features Samsung provided. I mean it's nice to have options but they filled this phone to the gills so much that someone might get dizzy with all the options provided. Plus it took up 3GB of space that you can get back and could be used for however the user wanted. Another is the back. Like the G2 it attracts fingerprints like a magnet with its plastic coating. There is nothing wrong with a plastic back but some manufacturers have designed it to not feel so slippery in the hand. Of course a case protector can fix this right up. 

Pony - Motorola Moto X; priced $99 to $49 on contract and available on Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Color variations: Customizable by the user (huge selling point)

The newest flagship phone from the new Motorola company acquired by Google, this phone has a 4.7" 720p (still a HD screen just not 'true' HD like a 1080p screen) Super AMOLED screen.  Not only does it have a smaller screen but the body of this phone is significantly smaller so a person with average or small hands can use it with one. The screen resolution and type was done very much on purpose because of it's active notifications system (See above image). When you receive a text, social media message, or email it will discreetly flash when you receive the message when discreetly flash again over the course of time to remind you its their. If you wish to answer the message, touch the screen and swipe up or if you just want to unlock your phone, touch and swipe down. No longer is the sleep/wake button needed to unlock your phone. You can also do a search with Google Now without touching your phone. Train it to your voice and when the phone is asleep, say "ok, Google" and it will wake up and begin to listen to you for a search. It has a 10 megapixel camera with LED flash that isn't so great out of the box but you can download from the Google Play Store a app that will fix this issue and drastically make it on par with the Galaxy S4 camera. 

It comes with a 2300 mAh battery that might scare people off because they might think this will not get me throw the day. But, Motorola is the best smartphone manufacturer when it comes to battery life and they have optimized this phone so that it lasts just as long and longer than the LG G2 (3000mAh battery). A lot of tech geeks/nerds are astounded by the fact that some can get through a whole day, not charge it at night, and get through half a next day before the battery dies. It comes in 16GB or 32GB (more expensive option) storage but it doesn't have the option for additional storage with a microSD card. Lastly, this phone is color customizable by the user. Using the Moto maker on whichever carrier you use website, you can change the color of the front, accents around the camera, sleep/wake button, volume buttons, and the back. Hopefully the long promised wood grain (yes actual wood, not plastic that looks like wood) customizable back will be an option before the holidays.

The only negative I have is the future proofing of this phone. It's processor was the best back in the middle of 2012 (dual core S4) and it has less RAM (random access memory) than the other two ones at 1GB rather than 2GB. Currently this doesn't affect the phones performance at all as it runs smooth and quick when opening apps, switching screens, scrolling webpages. But its the unknown of how powerful will future apps get and will it bog down this phone that worries me. As it stand right now many tech geeks/nerds rave about its performance all around and looks to be good for the next year. But come 2015 when the user will be on the last year of their contract is the unknown that worries me when it comes to performance. The second worst thing about a phone, other than it being broken, is it being so slow in your day to day life that its almost unusable, and you are stuck with it for another year.

Honorable Mentions:

Samsung Galaxy S3. It's a year an a half old but most carrier's it's free with a new contract and it is still a great phone for the next 2-3 years with a good camera and good hardware by even the standards of it's predecessor the S4.

Nokia Lumia 1020. Available only on AT&T it boasts the BEST camera in a smart phone right now hands down. Only a couple months old and on par with the S4 in hardware performance, the downside is it's a Windows Phone. App selection is horrible but slowly getting better.

Nexus 5. Available through the Google Play Store for $349 unlocked and OFF CONTRACT, it is the single best deal in technology right now. Hardware it is on par with the LG G2 with a decent camera and runs the most pure form of Google's Android operating system. Can't be used on Verizon but can be used on Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T as well as most regional post or pre-paid carriers. Downside is the demand is so heavy you have to order now to get it by the Holiday's end (3-4 week shipping time), battery life is all over the place form a whole day to just 10 hours, and the camera as it stands now is worse than the Galaxy S3 but it can be fixed with a software upgrade from Google, if it is released.  

Apple Smartphones

Unicorn - iPhone 5s; price starting at $99 to $199 on contract all the way up to $399; available on Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Color variations: Space Grey, Gold, Silver/White

Apple's newest flagship phone released this past September, it has minor upgrades than the iPhone 5 from last year but those upgrades can make a huge difference depending on the type of user you are. With a 4" "retina" display just all all the other phones going back to the iPhone 4. A retina display means it is the maximum number pixels (tiny dots that make up the color and image on the screen) per inch of the phone that the human eye can't see pixilation in the image or text when viewing.  Basically, images and text are as crisp needed for the human eye. 

The first minor upgrade (or major depending on how you use the phone) is the camera. It is still 8 megapixels (same as the 4s, 5, and 5c) but the sensor has been upgraded to increase the aperture of the lens to allow more light to read by the camera and make daylight images better and low light images even better. Also added is digital optical image stabilization (OIS) to the camera. With standard OIS the camera itself physically adjusts to allow less or no burry pics if the camera is moving but if the subject is moving you still get blur. With digital OIS, the camera software and sensor take into account the subject of the image moving AND the camera moving to produce a much clearer photo. This benefit is best seen by those people with kids who love to move and play. The iPhone 5s camera will let you run down the sideline of the soccer or football field to record or take a picture while your son or daughter is running as well. In the best photo possible, there will be ZERO blur in the movement of their entire body.  

The second minor upgrade comes with the camera as well in the form of a dual LED flash on the back of the camera. Instead of having one white/cool flash like all others do, Apple added a second amber/warm flash just below it. With both flashes going off almost at the same time, both will create a softer light when used so that the subject is washed out by the brightness of the single flash. Very useful for the night owls in us. Also on the subject of picture taking is the third minor upgrade, the front facing camera. Making the sensor a little bit better to allow more light and making it better for picture taking (note to the selfie lovers out there).

Battery has been increased but only by 10% from the original iPhone 5 so depending on use you'll barely get through your day or will need to charge it at some point in your day. Definitely does not have the all day battery life of the LG G2 or Droid Maxx. Storage options are the same at 16, 32, and 64GB and RAM is still steady at 1GB of RAM.

The fourth upgrade comes in the form of security and convenience at the same time.

The final upgrade makes this a very future proof phone for 4-5 years in the form of a A7 64 bit processor.  This will make the phone A LOT faster but to the average user, you will never physically see a difference. The difference will be when two or three years from now developers are making 64 bit apps (i.e. more powerful) the 5s won't be struggle with them, obviously depending on how powerful those apps are. So those that have a 5s right now are not seeing any real benefit from the A7 processor but if they decide to keep the phone for a couple years after their upgrade, they might not need to be compelled to upgrade because their phone is getting sluggish.

A negative would be the battery life. Apple is always striving for a thinner and thinner phone when honestly too thin at the expense of a thicker battery life is bad. I am sure a lot of us would gladly except an extra half or whole millimeter to an extra 4 to 5 hours of battery life. 

Stallion - iPhone 5c; price $99 to free on contract; available on Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Color variations (front color stays black): yellow, white, red, green, and blue

What I like to call the side step of last year's iPhone 5c because the only other difference besides the physical outer shell is the front facing camera which is the same as the 5s. Sporting the same 4" retina display that is easy to see in direct sunlight. 8 megapixel camera with a LED flash and offering almost all day battery life. Comes in the option of 16, 32, and 64GB of storage with 1GB of RAM.  Even though the internal hardware is a year old, like past iPhones, it is future proof for a good three to four more years before more powerful 64 bit apps will start to make it feel sluggish. Looking all the way back to the iPhone 4 (3 years old) it can still be used for another year or two as long as you are not using powerful apps to do professional editing of video, audio, and pictures.

Negatives are battery life could better to get close to all day battery life but Apple believes saving half a millimeter here and there is more important. Another is camera. It's still a great camera but with cameras like the the ones on the 5s or even LG G2, you can get better. Another is the front cover of the phone. Yes you can get all these great back covers but when it comes to the front, your choice is black or black. It uses the same front cover as the 5s so why not let there be a white front cover color. More color choices for the consumer.

Pony - iPhone 5 (if you can still find it in stock); varies; available on Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Color variations: black and silver/white

As mentioned above, other than the front facing camera being a bit less in quality as the 5c and no array of colors, its the same as the 5c.  I would have made this the stallion because I think the aluminum is a better design and feel than the plastic (plastic is still a good material when done right like the 5c) but to find it still available is near impossible. Apple stopped producing them to save the aluminum for the 5s so whatever was left in stock in the back of Apple stores and big box retailers os up for grabs until stock was gone.

Negatives again are battery life for the sake of as small a phone as possible and camera now that the 5s is available.

Honorable Mentions:

iPhone 4s 16GB. While you can still get the 4s 8GB free on contract, 8GB is not a lot of space at all for apps, music, or pictures considering you only get about 5GB of useable space since the operating system takes up 3GB of space. But the 16GB is a decent amount of space with the down side of not being manufactured anymore so you will have to look to eBay, Craigslist, or for one. They are usually $175 - $200 and getting them this way means you don't have to sign a new contract to get one. Other downsides are slightly out of date internal hardware might make this phone hard to use in about 2 years.

iPhone 4 16GB and up. I only mention this incase someone needs a phone while still under contract. You can find them at 16GB on eBay, Swappa, or Craigslist starting at $100. Still a decent phone that should get you through at least a year (already 3 years old) before becoming sluggish from daily apps. Still, a phone for $100 to get you through the year until you can get a new one is not bad at all.


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