It’s an interesting season for our annual Holiday Gadgets review, with lots of new products and renewed attention to portable accessories for sharing on the go — and functioning without electricty.
Hurricane Sandy clearly demonstrated the advantages of portable electronics, as you could use your smartphone as the entertainment center for music or videos or reading as you hunkered down without power. As a communications hub, you could go online over the surviving cellular networks to keep in touch with family with text messages, check the E-mail updates from your power and phone/TV/Internet carriers, and surf the web to check the weather forecast and track Sandy’s position, read news updates and see photos from around the region, and stream live radio broadcasts. And you could always use your device as a flashlight to watch your step down into the basement.
The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) expects this to be another good season for consumer electronics devices, matching last year with growth of around 3.4 percent. Consumers are budgeting 30 percent of holiday spending for consumer electronics, or about $252.
But the big breakout for this year looks to be tablet devices, which are at the top of consumer wish lists and will be pushed hard by retailers. The CEA reports that tablets are currently in around 30 percent of American households and expects that number to approach 50 percent by the end of this season.
So the range of choices in portable electronics is expanding, with smartphones you can grasp in your hand (with 3.5 to 4-inch displays), full-size tablets for your lap (with 9.75 to 11-inch displays), and now mini-size tablets that split the difference (with 7 to 9-inch displays).
When choosing a device — whether it be a smart phone or tablet — consumers will also have to make a decision about the operating system driving the electronics.
In addition to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, Microsoft is making a play to grab a slice of the the market with devices driven by its new Windows 8 operating system. Along with its windows phones, the company is offering its Surface series of tablets featuring the new Windows 8 interface.
But beyond specific devices, the bigger story in portable devices is the development of the merchandising infrastructure around these devices, with each company — Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft — building online stores and supporting cloud services to help keep you tied into their platform with your ever-expanding library of device-specific content, and your growing comfort with using their services to store and share your digital life online.
So this year we’ll look at the new portable devices from smartphones to tablets, and portable accessories for sharing and connecting on the go. In the discussion of representative products, the pricing is recent street prices, but you’re welcome to find better holiday deals.
Today’s portable devices are multi-function marvels, providing entertainment (music, photos, videos, books, games), connectivity (phone, texts, E-mail), and information (maps, web); storing personal data (contacts and calendar, as well as documents); and recording your life (in photos and videos).
Even more, smartphones and tablets are customizable platforms, which you can extend by downloading apps — expanding entertainment by watching networks such as ESPN and HBO, expanding connectivity through Facebook and Twitter, expanding information through the vast resources of the web, and so much more.
But sometimes it still does make sense to use dedicated devices for specific purposes, especially with music players and e-book readers, since they are easier to use and can be smaller and lighter to carry.
Dedicated Devices: Media Players and E-Book Readers. While the music player market is declining, it’s still a nice business, and Apple still owns the market with over 350 million iPods sold. The tiny iPod shuffle (a 1.5-inch rectangle) clips on to your clothes or belt for use on the go, and can hold hundreds of songs ($49 for 2 GB storage).
The updated iPod nano with a 2.5-inch touchscreen is ultralight for easy access (just over 1 ounce), and yet looks like a general media player for playing music, photos, videos, and FM radio ($149 for 16 GB). Music is loaded onto the device from your computer via a USB cable.
The nano has a Bluetooth connection for wireless headphones, but no speakers, microphone, or camera. However, it is not part of Apple’s family of devices built around the iOS mobile operating system, and so does not support apps or connect online.
The other category of dedicated devices is e-book readers like the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. Their compelling advantages over more general-purpose devices start with much lighter weight, so you can comfortably hold them in one hand (6 to 8 ounces, compared to 11 to 14 for mini tablets, or more than 1 pound for full-size tablets). They also run for weeks on a charge, and are easier to read, even in direct sunlight, with “E-Ink” displays that feature clean dark text on white backgrounds, and convenience options to adjust the text size.
Amazon has a broad line of Kindle e-book readers, with several 6 inch models with a keyboard or simple controller for navigation (starting at $69 and $139 respectively), plus the new self-illuminated Kindle Paperwhite with touch screen that you can read without a light.
There’s also the near-retirement Kindle DX with larger 9.7 inch screen (around $290). All but the low-end Kindles have built-in or optional cellular data service, so books that you buy online can be automatically downloaded to your device wherever you are, instead of having to find a Wi-Fi hotspot or connect to a computer.
Amazon also reduces the pricing by making the base products ad-supported with “Special Offers.” As a result, the Paperwhite has four pricing levels — Wi-Fi only starting at $119, or $139 without the ads, and with cellular for $179, or $199 without ads.
Apple iPhones. The next step up in portable electronics is to the full package — powerful hardware in an amazingly compact package, built on a common platform that scales from smartphones to tablets and even to some laptops.
Apple continues its impressive performance in smartphones with the new iPhone 5, adding a faster processor, and faster 4G LTE cellular connectivity (starting at $199 for 16 GB with contract). The other interesting change is increasing the display size from 3.5 to 4 inches (and 960 x 640 to 1136 x 640), to better support wide-screen video and wider-screen views of E-mail and web pages.
The overall length therefore increased from 4.5 to 4.87 inches, with the width staying the same — but the thickness actually decreased from 9.3 to 7.6 mm and the weight decreased from 4.9 to 3.95 ounces. The previous iPhone 4S is reduced to $99 for 16 GB, and the earlier iPhone 4 with 8 GB is now free with contract.
If you want to check out the Apple ecosystem in a handheld without signing for phone service, check out the iPod touch, now in generation 5 (starting at $299 for 16 GB). This is basically an iPhone without the cellular phone part, but still doing all the apps and cloud interactivity, just over Wi-Fi. This makes a great handheld entertainment/gaming system, and is even thinner and lighter, at 6.1 mm and 3.10 ounces.
Mini Tablets: Apple and Amazon. Last year saw the beginnings of the mid-size tablet, spearheaded by the expansion of e-book readers into full tablets like the Amazon Kindle Fire, and then re-energized by Apple’s recent release of the new iPad mini.
Ironically, late Apple CEO Steve Jobs flatly stated in 2010 that 7-inch tablets were going to be “dead on arrival,” saying that “7-inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with a smartphone and too small to compete with the iPad.”
Whether he was right or not still remains to be seen, but manufacturers are now experimenting with the right size for a smaller tablet. The original Kindle Fire is 7 inches (1024 x 600 resolution, now starting at $159), which fits nicely in a coat pocket.
The new iPad mini avoids Jobs’ scorn by a smidgen, moving up to 7.9 inches (1024 x 768 res, from $329), which Apple says provides just enough additional space to view a full-width document or web page in landscape orientation. The iPad mini is hand-size, at 7.87 x 5.3, compared to 9.50 x 7.31 for the full iPad, and thinner and lighter at 0.28 inches and 11 ounces, compared to 0.37 inches and 23.4 ounces.
Amazon also offers a maxi mini with its new Kindle Fire HD line, with a 7-inch model (1280 x 800, from $199) and a larger 8.9-inch version (1920 x 1200, from $299). The Kindle Fire is bulkier than Apple’s thin designs, at 0.4 inches / 13.9 oz for the 7 inch model, and 0.35 inches / 20 ounces for the 8.9 inch.
Apple iPad Tablets. What Apple has done with the full-size 9.7-inch iPad is to push to higher resolution with its “Retina” display, quadrupling the number of pixels (to 2048 x 1546) so that the individual dots are essentially invisible (with 264 pixels per inch compared to 132 on the iPad 2).
Apple recently released an upgraded fourth generation iPad — only about six months after the iPad 3 was released — along with the iPad mini, bumping up the hardware specs to be closer to the new iPhone 5, with a the faster processor, HD front camera, and dual-band Wi-Fi.
As usual, Apple did not change the pricing of the new iPad. It starts with the 16 GB model at $499 for the Wi-Fi version or $629 for the cellular version, and then a dds $100 to step up to 32 GB of storage, or another $100 for 64 GB. The older iPad 2 from last year is still available with 16 GB for $100 less — $399 (Wi-Fi) or $529 (cellular). This allows Apple to start its line with a $399 tablet, but the $100 step-up to the new model really buys a lot.
Google Nexus. While Google primarily offers Android as a platform for manufacturers to use for smartphones and tablets, Google also helps expand the market with a handful of its own hardware products. These are intended to provide the pure Android experience, without manufacturer-specific customizations, and are typically “value” priced, including the option to buy “unlocked” smartphones unencumbered with various cellular plans.
Google now offers the Nexus 4 smartphone (starting at $299 for 8 GB unlocked), the mid-size Nexus 7 (7 inch) tablet with cellular options (starting at $199 for 16 GB with Wi-Fi), and the full-size Nexus 10 tablet (starting at $399 for 16 GB with Wi-Fi). All support NFC (Near Field Communication, aka Android Beam) for sharing between near-by devices (just touch the backs together, as seen on TV ads). And the Nexus 10 is sharable, in that it can keep separate contexts for different users.
Samsung Galaxy. Samsung is on quite a run as a highly visible licensee of the Android platform, with those ubiquitous TV ads and the noisy legal battles with Apple. In the third quarter, Samsung shipped more than double the smartphones of second place Apple worldwide.
The quite successful 4.8 inch Galaxy S III smartphone (starting at $199) is being joined by the new and smaller Galaxy S III “mini” with a 4 inch display (the same size as the iPhone 5).
In tablets, Samsung offers 20-some products across combinations of four sizes (7.0, 7.7, 10.1, and 11.6 inches), Wi-Fi only and five cellular carriers, and two lines, the Galaxy Note and the Galaxy Tab.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 inch tablet has impressive specs, a built-in stylus, and the ability to have two active screens open at once (starting at $499 with 16 GB, Wi-Fi only). The comparable Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 is a bit smaller and lighter, but with a slower processor and lower-res cameras ($349 for 16 GB). In mid-range sizes, the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus has lower resolution (1024 x 600 from 1280 x 800) and drops from 1.28 pounds to 12.1 ounces (starting at $349 with 16 GB, Wi-Fi only).
And this profusion of products is from just one of the companies offering Android-based products to compete with Apple, which also include HTC, LG, and Motorola — as well as Amazon.
Microsoft Surface. As suggested by Samsung’s ad campaign showing fanatics lined up outside Apple stores, Apple can be characterized as the fuddy-duddy company that keeps making minor updates to refresh its old designs — while the role of the innovative new upstart that’s thinking different now is being taken by Microsoft.
With Windows 8, as seen in the recent flurry of ads, Microsoft has taken the tile-based interface from its late Zune players and made it the focus of the new Windows platform, to span from computers to laptops to tablets to phones. The colorful tiles represent your favorite applications, and are “live,” so they continually update to show current status, from E-mail notifications to the status of Facebook friends.
However, the jump from handheld tapping to desktop mousing may end up being too forced on the desktop, as you need to simulate finger gestures with mouse movements, and still need to escape the tile world of full-screen apps in order to run all those programs that use the traditional Windows desktop — where you manipulate those things called “windows.”
The Windows 8 tiled interface also is being used on new smartphones running Windows Phone 8, and on the new Microsoft Surface tablet platform, featuring an impressive-looking hardware design and some clever elements including an integrated kickstand that disappears back into the casing and a pair of magnetic covers that contain thin keyboards to transform your tablet into a laptop.
But the Surface comes in two very different versions — the lower-end Surface with Windows RT that only runs the tile-based apps available in the Windows Store, and the full-up Surface with Windows 8 Pro, that works like a full computer, running both the tile interface and regular Windows applications, including the Microsoft Office suite.
The Win 8 Surface also has higher resolution (1920 x 1080 vs. 1366 x 768), a faster processor, and will be available with up to 128 GB of memory (although pricing has not been announced.) These both are Wi-Fi only (no cellular).
The Surface with Windows RT starts at $499 with 32 GB of memory, plus $100 for the keyboard covers and/or to double the memory. That’s twice the memory at the price of the new iPad gen 4, but without the higher-res display, dual HD cameras, 4G LTE cellular option — or Apple’s over 700,000 apps, including over 275,000 specifically for the iPad.
Smartphones and tablets are designed as single-user devices, but we also love to share our fun and discoveries. Portable accessories can enhance our personal experience with our devices, and help share with others.
Portable Audio. Smartphones are great entertainment centers that we can pull out whenever we have some down time to listen to music or watch videos, but they also still do have that old-fashioned telephone part as well. As a result, audio earphones and headphones are providing more support for dual use, with mini controllers to adjust the volume, skip through tracks, and switch between playback and calls.
For example, the updated Plantronics Voyager Legend Bluetooth headset is an over-ear design, good for extended use on long trips and for long conference calls ($99). It has playback controls on the boom arm, plus accepts voice commands as well as providing voice prompts. And it can switch between two phones.
But music is in stereo, so you might prefer the Plantronics BackBeat GO wireless earbuds — two buds connected by a wire behind your head, and then wireless to your phone ($99). It has inline controls on the wire, or you can check the headset battery meter on your iOS or Android device.
Earbuds may be small, but they can provide higher-fi, as with the Audiofly AF78 earphones with dual drivers ($209). These have two drivers for better high and low sound separation to help you hear a fuller dynamic range.
One issue with earbuds, however, is the fit and comfort in your ear, as you hook in or shove in to try to anchor the earbud in place, especially if you are on the move. The Yurbuds Ironman Inspire Sport earphones are designed to be rugged, water-resistant, and sweat proof, and use a tapered design that extends deeper into your ear ($49). Even though they seem larger and ungainly, the result is both more secure and quite comfortable for extended use.
The new Apple EarPods with the new iPhone 5 have a similar design, albeit in iconic Apple white ($29). The bulbous shape is designed for a more natural fit, filling the outer ear cavity with the tapered edge facing into your ear.
There’s also still a lot of action in wired earphones and headphones, as consumers look for products that deliver great audio plus a stronger design sense.
For example, the House of Marley line features earth materials and woods, from entry-level to higher-end products. The Smile Jamaica and Zion earphones are built with sapele and maple wood and recyclable aluminum ($29 to $99), and the Soul Rebel and Revolution headphones have natural canvas padded headbands and recyclable aluminum and steel housings ($69 to $89).
Or for even more personalization, the SOL Republic Tracks headphones are modular, so you can assemble your own from interchangeable parts ($99). Select a flexible headband from eight colors, slide on black or chrome speaker pods, and then attach your choice of cables.
Another continuing trend in audio is noise reduction, to limit outside noise from the hostile environment. The updated Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 QuietPoint headphones add a third mode with up to 95 percent active noise cancellation to reduce low frequencies from planes and trains and buses ($265).
It’s also helpful to limit the volume from the headphones themselves, especially for young ears. The Maxell Safe Soundz line of headphones and earbuds have a volume limiting circuit to enforce an age-appropriate maximum decibel level (from $9.99).
Bluetooth wireless for phone calls, music, and play controls also leads to interesting possibilities for portable speakers to better enjoy and share your music.
The Big Blue Live Bluetooth wireless speaker is relatively small (5 x 2.5 inches), but also is good for desktop use, putting out 4 watts from its stereo speakers ($99). It can also serve as a speakerphone for cell phones, with a full set of control buttons on the top.
There are also an impressive variety of fun hand-size portable speakers, like the compact HMDX Audio Jam Bluetooth portable speakers, which feature clever packaging in a variety of strong flavors / colors ($40). And the Matrix Portable Speaker line of 2.5 inch round speakers spread open at the equator with an accordion connection for more sound ($79).
Portable Photos and Video. Sharing is not just for audio — mini projectors allow you to share your photos and videos without requiring a hook-up to a TV or transfer to a computer. Projectors are now pocket size, and are even starting to be built into some cameras. Another nice solution for the iPhone is the 3M Projector Sleeve for iPhone 4/4S ($229). Your phone slides into the sleeve and fits the Apple connector, with the projector electronics in the base underneath.
This is a DLP projector that throws up to 35 lumens onto a screen from 10 to 60 inches diagonal — fine for indoors, though it’s best to block direct sunlight and dim the lights. It has a focus wheel for adjusting the sharpness, and built-in picture enhancement modes (video, text, power saving). Plus it’s portable with a rechargeable battery that runs for 100 minutes.
Meanwhile, smartphones like the iPhone 5 have grown into serious photo and video cameras. These now have the megapixel resolution, better lenses, and image processing to reasonably replace lower-end point-and-shoot cameras.
As with traditional cameras, third-party manufacturers are creating accessories to take advance of these new devices. For example, the Olloclip 3-in-1 Photo Lens for iPhone slides over the edge of your phone to add a wide-angle, fisheye, or macro lens ($69), and the Studio Neat Glif Tripod Mount for iPhone lets you mount your iPhone on a tripod for extended use ($20).
Or use the MirrorCase for iPhone or iPad to redirect the lens so that you can hold your device in more natural horizontal position while you use the camera — or simply sit it on a table to record an event ($49/$79).
Of course, there still are times that it makes sense to use a separate, dedicated camera. One growing category is small action cameras that you can strap on a helmet to shoot a ski run or bike ride. Or for even easier use, the Pivothead Video Recording Sunglasses have a video camera built in to the bridge between the frames, with the electronics in the front of the earpieces ($349). These are available with a variety of styles and lenses, or to your prescription.
The Pivothead glasses shoot full 1080p HD video and 8 MP photos (even while recording), with onboard storage for about an hour of video. They also support a wide array of settings, including resolution, auto focus/exposure modes, and burst/time lapse photos.
You can pull the video and photo files off the Pivotheads through the microUSB port, or use the separate Air Pivothead portable Wi-Fi drive/router device ($99). This is a mini Wi-Fi hotspot (2.5 x 2 x 1 inch), so you can plug in the Pivothead glasses with a USB cable and then access its files from your smartphone, tablet, or laptop over Wi-Fi.
You also can use it for general file sharing by plugging in a USB drive or a SD card (i.e., from a camera), and you can connect a network cable and use it to bridge to the Internet. There’s also a free Air Pivothead mobile app for Android and iOS that you can use to access and edit your files to post to online sites. The combination wireless bridge also helpfully allows you to adjust the Pivothead settings from the app.
Portable Power. Hurricane Sandy helped to demonstrate the usefulness of portable batteries for recharging your electronic devices, which will need a boost after less than a day of intensive use.
Portable chargers come in a broad range of sizes and capacity to fit your needs. For example, the Malsha iWALK line has clip-on plugs to boost a smartphone (350 - 2500 mAh, around $29 and up) to slab designs for recharging smartphones and even tablets (1800 - 15000 mAh, from $39 to $129). Look for LEDs to display the charge level, and for models that explicitly say they have enough juice to charge a tablet (2+ amps).
For more devices, the Mophie Juice Pack Powerstation Duo is a 6000 mAh battery with 2.1 amps output, and two USB ports that can charge two devices simultaneously — two smartphones, or one tablet ($99). It’s still quite portable at 4.25 x 2.25 x .74 inches and 1 pound.
The MyCharge line of rechargeable power banks has built-in charging cords, for Apple, microUSB, and more, plus a fold-out USB cable for recharging the internal battery. They can charge multiple devices at the same time, with automatic load balancing between the devices.
The MyCharge Trek 2000 has a fold-out iPhone dock, can charge simultaneously through the built-in microUSB connector ($54). The 2000 mAh battery is rated to boost a smartphone with 9 additional hours of talk time. It has LED power level indicators, plus plays an audio tome to signal full charge.
The MyCharge Peak 6000 has built-in cables with an Apple connector and microUSB, plus a standard USB jack, and can charge up to three devices at a time, including an iPad tablet ($99). It also has a fold-out AC prongs for fast charging in a wall outlet (four hours). The 2000 mAh battery is rated to charge a smartphone four times. It has voice notification of battery level and charge complete, in your choice of four languages.
The advantage of these enclosed designs is that they can use custom batteries that take the best advantage of the available size, but the disadvantage is that when they run out, you need to plug them in again in order to recharge them — which is a problem in a power outage.
The alternative is a rechargeable battery pack like the Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus that uses regular batteries, and also has a USB output port so you can insert new batteries and continue charging your devices ($59). This uses four NiMH AA batteries at a time (or AAA with an adapter), to recharge a cell phone a couple of times or refill a smartphone — and it charges tablets.
As a bonus, you can recharge the pack through a microUSB adapter, or through a solar panel including the Goal Zero Nomad 7 ($79). This can recharge the Guide 10 Plus battery pack in two to four hours of strong sunlight, or directly charge a smartphone (but not a tablet) in a similar time.
You also may be interested in some fun cable accessories, including the Malsha iWALK Trione USB cable with LED indicator light — blue when charging, green when fully charged ($17), or the Dexim Visible Green cables that use blue visible electroluminescent lighting to visualize the power flow through the cable ($15). Then the [Fuse]Chicken Une Bobine is a Kickstarter project with crowdsourced funding that resulted in a flexible metal gooseneck cable that’s both a standard microUSB or Apple USB cable, and strong enough to serve as an adjustable stand to hold a phone.
Protective Cases. The other lesson reinforced by our recent weather events is that unexpected events can actually happen. Today’s electronics devices are amazingly rugged, and the addition of Gorilla Glass displays has helped reduce the need for protective screen covers. But it’s still not a great idea to use them out in bad weather, or drop them, or leave them rattling round in a pocket or bag with sharp keys. So you may want to consider using protective case, particularly when you are on the go, whether in a snow or sand storm, or in the rain or on the beach, overheated or freezing cold.
One nice answer for quick protection is the LOKSAK line of resealable plastic bags (starting at $7.59 for a 3-pack). These are a step up from kitchen bags — more rugged (made from a medical-grade film) and more secure (featuring a hermetic seal against water, air, dust, and humidity). You still can use your device while it’s still sealed in the bag, so it’s great for using your phone at the beach, or simply protecting your iPad while cooking in the kitchen with the kids.
For all-around protection, the Lifeproof tough cases for iPhone and iPad are waterproof (to 2 meters), dirtproof (including fine dust), snowproof (including water), and shockproof (to 6.6 feet onto concrete). The cases are molded to provide access to the device’s controls, and include a screw-in removable plug for the headphone jack and a hatch to access the connector port.
The Lifeproof iPhone case models include a screen cover and optical-glass lenses for clear photos and videos ($79). The iPad case ingeniously wraps and seals the body of the iPad, while leaving the screen exposed for full clarity and touch responsiveness ($99).
Then the G-Form Extreme cases are full padded armor against nasty events, providing impact protection from drops and falls. The material is soft and flexible, and also used for elbow and knee pads. It’s designed to absorb over 90 percent of the energy from a high-speed impact. These are available in sleeve and portfolio models, starting at around $39 for iPhones, $59 for tablets, and $79 for laptops.
Digital Health. Finally, there’s a lot of activity in applying portable electronics and wireless communications for digital health, from home health monitoring to automatically posting updates from your bathroom scale to your Facebook page. Runners also are taking advantage of GPS watches to monitor their speed and progress during a race, and track their routes after training runs. And smartphones can use fitness apps to track your daily activities.
The Fitbit line of wireless activity trackers are small clip-on devices that contain an accelerometer to track your steps walked, distance traveled, and calories burned, plus an altimeter to measure stairs climbed. While you’re on the go, you can tap to display your recent activity.
Then you can use a wireless connection to your laptop (through a USB dongle) or Bluetooth to your smartphone or tablet to sync and view your activity. You then can use the Fitbit website to visualize your progress, earn badges to encourage progress, and set up achievements alerts and E-mails with statistics. You also can log your meals, water, workouts, weight, as well as set up social connections to connect with friends. The basic Fitbit Zip tracks steps, distance, and calories burned, and has a built-in clock ($59). The Fitbit One adds floors climbed, plus a wrist band for tracking your sleep quality, and to act as a vibrating silent alarm ($99).
Dixon will speak about the devices in this article and more at Holiday Gadget Talks on: Wednesday, November 28, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library; Tuesday, December 4, at 10 a.m. at the Hopewell Township Library, and at 1:30 p.m. at the Ewing Township Senior Center; and Wednesday, December 5, at 7 p.m. at the Hopewell Train Station.