2013 Last Minute Holiday Buyer’s Guide – Part 3

These are some of the hottest gifts available now, and some really good advice on which to get and why.

Over the past few years, I’ve put together a Holiday Buyer’s Guide. I never got to do one last year due to commitments to the now defunct Byte. Thankfully, I’ve got a chance to do it this year; and while nearly everything you see here will have some kind of software available for it from Soft32, I’m going to cover the hot categories – tablets, computers, smartphones, and accessories.

What you’re going to see are recommendations only. I don’t have everything that I’m going to list, so these aren’t necessarily reviews and shouldn’t be considered as such. However, I will try to cover recommendations from as many major camps within a given category as I can. For example, I’ll likely recommend a computer from the Windows as well as the Mac camp, a tablet from the Windows, iOS and/or Android camp, etc.

This is going to take a few days to get through, so please come back often to Soft32 for updates to the series. I’m going to do my best to get the series completed as quickly as possible. The other day I covered one of the hottest holiday gift items around – tablets. Today, we’re going to look at computers or PC’s.

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Smartphones: The Key to the Whole Thing – Introduction


I said this a couple days ago – I cut my teeth on smartphones. Back in the day they were called PDA Phones but any way you cut it, they were less advanced versions of the same devices we have today – calendar, contacts, email, and yes…some apps.

Mobile development is very different than it used to be. Most everything used to be a lot more complicated and pretty disjointed. If you had an app on a device and you upgraded to a new device on the same operating system, you weren’t guaranteed that the app would run on the new device. If the screen size was different, it was a completely different game. Newer versions of the OS also more than likely meant that you either had to leave the app behind, upgrade for a fee, or rebuy a license.

Buying apps was also very disjointed. There were specific web-based stores, and they didn’t always allow you to redownload purchases. Hard resetting your device meant that you may also have to do without an app if you didn’t make a back up of its installation file and registration information when you initially bought it. It wasn’t fun.

Today, with the implementation of the software ecosystem, things are much easier. There are centralized stores for each mobile operating system. There are multiple OEM’s with multiple devices on at least two of the three major mobile platforms available today. There are tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of apps available for download and/or purchase. In short, we’ve come a LONG way in under 10 years.
When considering a smartphone for a loved one this Holiday season, you have a few different choices available to you. I’m not going to touch on some of the more “off the beaten track” options. This would include things like Symbian (sorry Nokia fans…), Firefox OS, or Tizen (formerly MeeGo OS, or the next version of Nokia’s mobile OS that didn’t quite make it off the ground).

 

Key Considerations

As expected, I’m going to cover Android, iOS and yes, Windows Phone. More than likely, you’re going to find something in one of these three ecosystems to meet your needs. However, just like the tablets I recommended the other day, you’re going to have to watch out for a couple of key items here.

  1. Do you or your loved one(s) already have a smartphone and/or tablet and you’re just looking to upgrade your device? If you’re looking to upgrade your device from an older model to a newer model, or if you already have an Android or iOS device, there’s a good chance you may want to stay within that particular ecosystem. This really makes like a lot easier for you or your loved one receiving a smartphone as a gift this Holiday season. They likely won’t have to learn anything new or have to change the way they work and can simply start using the device out of the box, after its activated. Most mobile OS revisions are evolutionary instead of revolutionary, meaning that there isn’t drastic change from major release to major release. Moving from iOS 5 to iOS 6 was pretty easy. So was the move from Android Ice Cream Sandwich to Jelly Bean. Even the move from iOS 6 to iOS 7 wasn’t too horrible, once you got past the UI element changes.
  2. Are you planning on switching ecosystems or is this the first device in an ecosystem? If this is your gift recipient’s first smartphone, or if they’re planning or wanting to change ecosystems then you have two very different considerations to take into account.
    – If you’re switching ecosystems: How many apps do you actively use? If you use a LOT of apps, determine the cost of rebuying all of those, and factor that into the cost of the new device. If you can’t use the device the way you want, then it may not be a good idea to switch ecosystems. If the cost of repurchasing all those apps pushes you over your budget, then you may have to rethink your purchase, or choose a lower cost model within that ecosystem.
    – 
    If you’re new to the smartphone game and this is your first device: Think long and hard about the choice you’re going to make. Its likely going to dictate what kind of upgrade device you’re going to purchase in the next 18 to 24 months. Its also going to dictate where you purchase your apps, songs and videos. You’re going to need to be comfortable with that choice, as it may limit your purchasing options, or they could be a bit more open than you thought. Being informed is being empowered and should make your life a bit easier, as you’ll know what to expect, and about how much you may initially spend.
  3. What kind of accessories have you purchased? Can they be used with the new device? If you or your gift recipient already has a device, how much stuff do you have? If you have a boat load of accessories, will you be able to use them with the new device? If the answer is, “no,” then you have to determine what you can live without and what you can’t, as you may need to repurchase a LOT of stuff. Some times adapters exist, but aren’t always very practical or very usable. Device accessories are a huge cottage business for many; and a very lucrative one at that. If you have to leave a lot of accessories behind, you may need to factor the cost of replacing them into the purchase price of the device or plan on when you’re going to buy replacements. The key point to take away here, is to know what you can use and what you can’t and then figure out the associated costs and plan for the expense.
  4. What kind of budget do you have for this purchase?

This is going to dictate what device you get and depending on what kind of apps and accessories you have already purchased, you may need to adjust your choice to account for budget.

Accessories and ecosystem aside, many of the best smartphones are very high priced, and many users may think its not practical to buy unsubsidized devices, as the down stroke to get into the device may be too deep.

At the end of the day, you need to realize that buying a smartphone is a bigger decision than just picking one and taking it home. You have upgrade considerations, content considerations and accessory considerations to account for. All of these will effect your device or near term costs. Being informed is being empowered and will allow you to make the best gift decision for you or your loved one(s).

In light of that – and I’ll likely have a column or article on this at a later date – you need to get ready for US cellular carriers to drop phone subsidies. T-Mobile was the first to do that. Subsidies cost carriers money. They try to pass that cost on to consumers, but they would rather finance the cost of the device, pushing the full cost to the consumer, than subsidizing it, where they share the cost of the device.

Before we get into what devices to consider, please note that I am going to make these recommendations devoid of carrier considerations. Based on your geographic location and the carrier choices available to you, you may need to adjust these recommendations to suite your needs.

Android

Of the three major mobile operating systems to choose from, picking the right Android phone represents the biggest challenge out there. When it comes to iOS devices, only one manufacturer is making that kind of device – Apple. When it comes to Windows Phone, while more than one OEM makes a Windows Phone, its really Nokia’s Lumia line that calls attention to itself. However, when it comes to Android devices the field of viable players is much wider.

And quite honestly, so are many of the phones. I think one of the biggest issues that I have with Android phones is that they are, in many cases, freakishly wide. I know that wide screens are really in right now, but I really have an issue with many of the Android phones available today. They’re too wide in my opinion.

However, screen size aside, as of this writing, if I had to or wanted to choose and Android phone for myself I’d likely choose either a HTC One or a Nexus 5. Both devices are high end smartphones and will provide you with, possibly, years of reliable use.

The HTC One comes in either 32GB or 64GB flavors and has a quad-core 1.7Ghz Snapdragon processor. It has 2GB of RAM and has decent battery life, despite the power it possesses. The device is probably one of the best that HTC has ever engineered and that’s saying a lot for a company that defined what smartphones really should be between 2003 and 2006 when they supplied i-mate with some of the best devices ever made.

If the HTC one isn’t for you, then you might want to try the Nexus 5. While its camera doesn’t even come close to competing with the 41MP camera in the Lumia 1020, at 8MP it is on par with other offerings available today.

The Nexus 5 is Google’s latest phone, and is guaranteed to provide the most Google-like experience available today. All other Android experiences may be tainted by the customized software layer that most OEM’s place on top of Android, like HTC’s latest version of HTC Sense.

The Nexus 5 will always run the latest version of Android (as long as its supported) and costs an affordable $349, unlocked. Many other devices, including the Apple iPhone 5S, cost over $600 unlocked.

iOS

While all three major wireless carriers, AT&T, Verizon and Sprint offer a subsidized version of the iPhone 5S, the only thing you have to worry about is which one do you want a 2 year contract with. At $199, the 16GB iPhone 5S is probably the best way to go. Its affordable and gets you the latest version of the device without breaking the bank. If $199 is too much for you to spend on a device that will require a 2 year contractual commitment, then considering the iPhone 4S is a good decision, as it will require no money down. The only thing you need to understand is that it only comes in an 8GB flavor, which may not offer enough room to store apps and other content.

Apple’s cell phone is a decent buy and a good decision for those computing users who use Macs as their PC of choice or for those that really like iTunes and the iTunes Music Store. A decision to purchase an iDevice is really driven more by content than by any other factor, in my opinion.
Windows Phone
The biggest reason to get a Windows Phone is NOT because of the ecosystem or because of the software store or accessories. Windows Phone is a hot mess right now, when it comes to ecosystem and software stores. There are two reasons to get a Windows Phone right now – ease of use and digital camera; and honestly, the second reason out-weighs the first.

If pushed, many mobile pundits – myself included – will tell you that despite its many disjointed, ecosystem challenges, Windows Phones have some of the best built in cameras on the market today. At 41MP, they have some of the best point and shoot digital cameras on the market. In fact, the camera on a Windows Phone likely has a higher megapixel rating than your DSLR or dedicated, point and shoot digital camera.

To this end, if you’re interested in a Windows Phone, the one to get would be the Lumia 1020. It has a 4.5″ AMOLED display, a 41MP PureView camera and a 1.5Ghz Snapdragon processor. It supports LTE network bands 2, 4, 5 and 17. It also has 2GB of RAM and 32GB of onboard storage for documents, apps and content. Despite whatever issues or short comings the ecosystem has, the device is getting good press from all over the industry. If you’re looking for a Windows Phone, the Lumia 1020 is the one to get.

Conclusion

Buying a smartphone is not an easy task, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. In many cases, its likely going to become your defacto internet device. You’ll likely do more web surfing over your phone than you will with your PC.

Regardless of what decision you ultimately make regarding which device to buy, you’ll need to answer a few questions for yourself before moving forward –

  1.  Do you or your loved one(s) already have a smartphone and/or tablet and you’re just looking to upgrade your device?
  2. Are you planning on switching ecosystems or is this the first device in an ecosystem?
  3. What kind of accessories have you purchased? Can they be used with the new device?
  4. What kind of budget do you have for this purchase?

Like PC’s and tablet’s budget limitations may drive your smartphone purchase. If that’s the case with you, then do yourself a favor and still go through the exercise I’ve outlined here. It will at the very least get to take a long hard look at the larger picture of choosing the best smartphone for you.

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