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Gift Guide 2013: Phones, tablets and computers

Gift Guide 2013: Phones, tablets and computers

In the past, we used to separate out categories for cell phones, tablets and computers. In theory, we still could create separate guides just for those products - there are so many options to choose from and not a week goes by where another phone, tablet or computer hits the market.

[HAPPY HOLIDAYS:See a listing of all the products of Network World's holiday gift guide]

But uniqueness and variety are starting to go away - we're getting kind of sick of seeing the same features over and over again on these devices, other than processor changes, memory upgrades and other tweaks. For the following gift ideas, we focused on products that we thought went a little bit extra, providing some interesting new concept to the product that could make it stand out. For anyone asking for a mobile device this year, start with these suggestions:

Product: Xperia Z smartphoneCompany: Sony (via T-Mobile)Price: $50 (upfront price, or $530 full retail/unlocked), plus $20 per month for two years, plus voice and data plans.Buy this for: A Sony fan who wants an Android phone with a very large screen and excellent camera, who also happens to have good coverage from T-Mobile.

Smartphones are becoming less and less about the phone, and more about the different features/functions/apps you can run on them. They really are just mobile computers to the extreme, dominating our lives with distractions like watching movies, playing games, taking photos or videos or doing hundreds of other things. The problem for smartphone vendors, then, becomes trying to focus on what features/functions their new device has that will appeal to the consumer.

For Sony, this means discussing things like photos, videos and display with its Xperia Z. The smartphone features its Exmor RS for mobile, "the world's first image sensor with HDR video for smartphones", and a 13-megapixel digital camera/camcorder (1080p recording).

In addition, the phone boasts impressive water-resistant features - as long as the port covers are all closed and snapped shut, you should be able to drop the phone in some water (or, more likely, a toilet, as sad and gross as that sounds) without suffering a total loss of your device. Sony claims you can submerge the device for up to 30 minutes in water, so you have some time to retrieve it during one of those incidents. In our dunk tests, we were even able to watch a movie while the unit was submerged in our water - the movie kept playing (and you could hear the sound from the speaker) while it was in water. I'm not sure that's a real selling point, but it was interesting that the Xperia Z could do that (instead of just shutting down during the water submerging).

The phone features a Snapdragon S4 Pro Quad-core processor, runs on Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), has 2GB of RAM, 16GB of ROM (we saw about 11GB free for storing media), and 32GB of expandable memory via memory card slot. The phone is 4G capable, but that all depends on whether you're in the good T-Mobile zone (sadly, we weren't). However, Sony makes other Xperia models for other carriers, so check with your carrier to see if they support the phone.

The 5-inch display keeps the Xperia on par with other large-screen phones like Samsung's Galaxy S4, and Sony claims a pretty long battery life with up to 14 hours of talk time and up to 23 days in standby mode (but that would be a long standby if you ask me). Charging the phone is done via an included USB cable, but we'd probably spring for the DK26 Charging Dock, which provides a cool stand to place on your desk while recharging the unit.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: Projector Tablet U7Company: SmartDevicesPrice: $300 (for the U7, for $350 you can buy the U7H, which includes an upgraded processor)Buy this for: An Android tablet fan who sees some good benefit in having a projector built into their tablet for presentations or videos.

From China comes this very cool Android-based tablet (it runs on Android 4.1) with something extra-special built into its frame - a DLP projector that can shine the contents of its display onto a wall or screen. The projector has a brightness of 35 lumens and can project an image up to 50-inches wide with an 854 by 480 resolution (not super-high definition, but passable at smaller sizes).

The tablet can offer business users a way to project a presentation without having to lug along a projector, or home users can load up their favorite movie or TV show and share this on a wall without needing everyone to crowd around the smaller 7-inch display on the tablet. A button on the tablet turns the projector on or off, and a slider bar helps focus the image once it's being projected.

Other than that, it's a pretty standard Android-based tablet, with the ability to access the Google Play Store for additional media, apps and Google-based offerings. I'd suggest giving this to someone who is familiar with the Android ecosystem, as the China-based company would likely offer limited support for new users (for example, trying to find an app that would help you transfer content from your computer to the device was hard to locate).

The projector does have its limits - the lower brightness of the projector means that optimal viewing is limited to very dark rooms, and you have to fiddle with the proper height to project from in order to avoid keystone shapes on your wall (there's no stand or automatic keystone on the projector like with modern projectors).

But overall this is a cool concept - it would be interesting to see if other tablet makers adopt this idea for future models of their large and small tablets (could we soon be seeing this on phones?).

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: Hydro C5170 smartphoneCompany: Kyocera WirelessPrice: $80 from Boost Mobile, plus voice and data plans.Buy this if: You tend to drop your phone in water -- a lot.

One time I had a phone in a pair of shorts and I not only washed the phone, but I also threw the shorts in the dryer. I kind of wondered what that banging noise was, but I was too lazy to actually open the dryer door to find out. Then there was night when my son put my phone down into the cupholder of the car, only to realize too late that there was a cup of water in the cupholder. If these experiences sound similar to yours, check out the Kyocera Hydro.

It's waterproof. I've dunked it numerous times and it always keeps on ticking. Kyocera says the phone can survive being in up to 3 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. The phone itself is probably not the absolute coolest, fastest, thinnest, device on the planet, but it does have Android 4.0, a 3.2 megapixel camera, 3.5-inch touchscreen, 1Ghz chip and 8.4 hours of talk time. And it runs on Verizon's 4G network. Plus, think of the fun you can have pranking your friends.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Neal Weinberg

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Product: Qosmio X70 laptop seriesCompany: ToshibaPrice: Starts at $1,000Buy this for: The gamer or high-performance multimedia professional on your list who might need to take a second look at the whole Windows 8 system again. The 17.3-inch display and latest memory, graphics features and sleek design impressed us, and will impress you as well.

For the past two years, I've clearly been in the Macintosh camp when it comes to my personal computer choice. At work and at home, I've preferred to use my MacBook Pro for most of my computing needs. Part of the reason was my distaste for constantly needing to update Windows, and the Windows 8 release didn't make things any better with its clunky interface and awkward learning curve. While I tried out many other Windows-based machines as part of this job, I never really considered coming back to a Windows machine.

The Qosmio X70 notebook series (I tested the X75-A7298 configuration) is getting me close to reconsidering. This 17-inch notebook (it has a 17.3-inch screen with 1080p resolution) is designed for gamers, but packs enough performance to make it appeal to other users, including photography and multimedia fans (hey, that's me!). After years of trying out ultrabooks and thinner and thinner notebooks, I've come to realize that I really like a computer system that's big. I love a big screen. I love what's under the hood. I love a system that could tear out my shoulder's rotator cuff when transporting it (although this clearly is a desktop replacement system, not meant for travel).

Apart from the latest specs (see below for the configuration we had on our testing unit), the notebook includes full versions of Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 and Adobe Premiere Elements 11. Sound is produced through four premium Harman Kardon speakers, and a very nice LED backlit keyboard lets you type in low-light situations. The full-size keyboard includes a number keypad on the right side as well, and the keys gave great responses during typing.

Our test unit featured an Intel Core i7-4700MQ quad-core processor, 16GB of DDR3L memory, a 256GB solid-state drive, NVIDIA GeForce GTX770 3GB with Optimus graphics card, a Blu-ray rewriteable (BD-RE) drive, 802.11n wireless, 2-megapixel (1080p) webcam and HDMI outputs (with 4K capability). Of course, this drives the starting price to about $1,900 (on sale for $1,819 via Toshiba's site), so the power and performance comes at a price.

But with Windows 8.1 now available, correcting some of its initial flaws (although it's still not perfect), I may soon reconsider my switch to a Mac-only lifestyle (at worst, I'll become a mixed-PC user).

Cool  Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: iPad AirCompany: ApplePrice: Starts at $500Buy this for: The iPad fan who suddenly realizes that their tablet is too heavy, or as a starting tablet for someone who hasn't yet experienced the joy of Apple's iPad.

If you're thinking of picking up a new iPad Air, the first thing you should do is, literally, pick one up. If you've used any of Apple's earlier iPads, you'll notice the difference in weight immediately -- the new iPad Air weighs just one pound, almost 30% lighter than its predecessor. And it's a good bet that, whether you're buying for yourself or someone else, once you pick up an iPad Air you'll find it hard to put down.

The redesigned tablet -- it still has a gorgeous 9.7-inch super-high-resolution "Retina" display -- looks more like a larger version of the iPad mini than the latest full-size tablet from Apple. The bezel on either side of the screen, when held in portrait mode, is narrower, making the iPad Air actually feel smaller than it is.

Better yet, the changes in this model are more than skin deep. Apple updated the processor in the new tablet to the A7, the same 64-bit processor that's in the iPhone 5S (and the new iPad mini Retina). The result is a speedy tablet, where apps launch quickly, transitions are fluid and smooth, video plays back with nary a hitch and you rarely find yourself waiting for the tablet to catch up to whatever you're doing.

True, there's no Touch ID fingerprint scanner, and the camera setup remains largely unchanged. But this year's update is a worthy one, making it a good candidate for the holiday wish list.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Ken Mingis

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Product: Inspiron 23 All-in-One Touch Screen DesktopCompany: DellPrice: Starting at $1,000 (direct)Buy this for: The PC-enthusiast looking for a Windows 8 system and monitor built into a desktop that might remind you of an iMac.

I love PCs based on the all-in-one design. Properly executed, they're big on convenience, ease-of-use, value, and (as we'll see here, screen), and small on footprint. Dell's very latest, the Inspiron 23-inch Touch, also (no surprise here) incorporates a touch screen, taking maximum advantage of Windows 8. The 1080p 23-inch display is just the right size for most users, and is bright and clear.

The overall form factor is very, very attractive, reminiscent of the iMac, of course, but distinctive. Setup is trivial, really, beyond easy. Take it out of the box (the packaging is more than ample), connect power and network (or use wireless, of course), put the included batteries in the included wireless keyboard and mouse (for traditionalists), and turn it on. That's it. A series of animated tutorials are included for users getting familiar with Windows 8.

A very clever feature for a desktop, in addition to touch, is the ability to position the display at an exceptionally wide range of angles, from the usual close-to-upright to rather laid-back and even to completely flat -- which makes a lot of sense in many touch-based applications. Graphics performance is snappy. There's even an HDMI input, so the display can be used with other video sources. The only criticisms I can offer is that the included Quick Start Guide is beyond skimpy, and, with both USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, these should be labeled as such (just so you know, the 3.0 ports are on the left side).

Dell has re-established itself as one of the most innovative and interesting PC suppliers. I must admit that I'm a long-term user of Dell products, so I may have a bit of a bias here. But I'm today also a regular Mac user and I want one of these! The convenience and quality of this Inspiron 23-inch Touch are obvious, and your giftee is going to be thrilled with this one.

Prices start at $1,000. The model we tested included a Core i7, 12GB of dual-channel DDR3 RAM, Radeon HD 8690A graphics with 2GB of DDR5 memory, and a 1TB, 7200 RPM hard drive augmented by a 32GB SSD cache, and sells for $1,400.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: C.J. Mathias

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Product: T100T Transformer BookCompany: AsusPrice: $400Buy this for: The person who wants a tablet that converts into a laptop.

This device is called the Transformer Book because it's a tablet with an attachable keyboard. The Surface, for example, has an attachable keyboard, but it's still a tablet in the sense that it only has one position, or two, if you deploy the kickstand.

The Asus T100T has a legit, solid, non-bendable keyboard that clicks firmly into place, creating a device that sits up on its own and can rest on your lap or in any position that you want. The keyboard has a pretty nice feel, with raised keys. The trackpad isn't the smoothest I've ever used, but it gets the job done. Plus, and this is big, the keyboard has a USB 3.0 port. Beyond that, we're talking about your basic Windows 8.1 touchscreen device. It's got the same horizontal shape as the Surface, although the Surface is maybe a half-inch wider. The $400 price gets you 64GB of storage, 2GB of RAM and an Intel Atom chip. And, of course, it comes with a Home/Student version of Office.

The big question is: Can you do real work on it? My answer is, I guess you can, but I wouldn't be working on anything mission-critical. I find touchscreens can be a little flaky -- you brush up against it, or move your finger the wrong way and strange things happen. Also, when you're working on 10-inch screen, you're running up against the limits of how precise you can be with the human finger. Beyond that, however, if you're looking for a Windows 8.1 tablet that converts into a laptop, the Transformer Book is a good option.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Neal Weinberg

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Product: Aspire V5 TouchCompany: AcerPrice: $400Buy this for: Anyone who wants an inexpensive notebook for basic computing functions (email, Web browsing, etc.) and doesn't mind a smaller display.

Somewhere between the thin-and-light ultrabook world (as well as tablets) and the large and powerful gaming notebooks sit regular notebooks like this model from Acer. The Aspire V5-122 offers a touch-screen notebook for Windows 8 apps, but in a thin and light system (it measures about 1-inch high and weighs just about 3 pounds).

The unit we had featured an AMD quad-core A6-1450 1.0-GHz processor, a 500GB hard drive, 4GB of DDR3L memory and an 11.6-inch widescreen display (LED backlit). While these specs didn't blow us away (considering a bunch of the higher-end systems we saw this year), it's still a pretty good offering for a basic notebook that you might want to buy for a first-time computer user, or perhaps a parent/grandparent who is looking for a good deal on a computer so they can email, web surf, etc.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPadCompany: LogitechPrice: $100Buy this for: Any iPad user who really wants to ditch their laptop and fully utilize their tablet as a semi-computer.

Part of the knock against keyboard attachments for the iPad have been the additional weight it places on the tablet owner. Microsoft, in its ads for the Surface tablet, even mocks the lack of an iPad keyboard as a way to get people to think about its own keyboard.

If the additional weight is a concern for you, you'll be happy to know that the Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPad (second, third and fourth-generation iPads - the iPad Air gets a separate model) from Logitech is very light. When you add it to your iPad, you won't be burdened by that much more weight. The fact that the keyboard acts as a cover/protector for the tablet is a nice added bonus.

The Bluetooth-enabled keyboard connects quite easily to the iPad, and there's enough battery life to keep you typing for a long time. Very handy magnetic clips keep the keyboard attached to the iPad during its cover phase, and a nice groove lets the tablet sit on the keyboard to create a nice notebook effect. If your goal is to "ditch the laptop" and only use apps on the iPad, this keyboard is a must-have. It would make a great gift for any iPad lover on your list.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: G2 Android smartphoneCompany: LG (with Verizon Wireless service)Price: $150 (with 2-year contract; $550 with month-to-month contract)Buy this for: Anyone who enjoys the Android operating system on their phone and wants a large screen for viewing movies, reading emails or multi-tasking between apps.

The LG G2 smartphone is an Android device (4.2.2 Jelly Bean) with a ton of cool specs - it has a very nice 5.2-inch display (1,920 by 1,080 resolution), runs on a Snapdragon 2.26 GHz quad-core processor, 13-megapixel rear-facing digital camera (with 1080p video recording), 2 megapixel front-facing camera, and support for Google Play app store. The device runs on Verizon's 4G LTE network, but also includes 802.11ac Wi-Fi support in 2.4GHz and 5GHz (for 802.11n networks).

An interesting feature on the G2 is its unique rear key placement - the power button and volume control buttons are placed on the back of the unit near the digital camera - there are no buttons on the side (it took me a while to figure out how to turn the phone on). LG says this is so users can operate the phone with both hands, rather than require a specific hand to use the buttons - but for me it just seemed weird and out of place.

The phone also includes a neat optical image stabilization feature - blurry cameraphone photos could be a thing of the past when you use this to take pictures. The device even includes a "Guest Mode", where friends and other family members can borrow your device, limiting them to a specific list of apps (so they don't accidentally access some photos you might not want them to see).

This is a solid phone running on a great wireless network - I can't see anyone being unhappy when they unwrap this gift during the holidays.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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