Plugging into new electronic gadgets for the holidays
In the 21st century, thoughtfulness seems to be best expressed with silicon chips and digital ones and zeros.
Americans must be feeling especially giving for the holidays this year because they're going to say it with electronic gadgets, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Spending for consumer electronics this holiday is expected to rise 2.6 percent this season, according to a new CEA study. Nearly three quarters of shoppers plan to purchase at least one electronics device for a gift, and they say they will allocate about a third of their total holiday shopping on consumer electronics this year.
Gadgets are clearly on everyone's minds for the holidays.
Here are the biggest and best electronic items to consider in four key categories while shopping for that special gadget hound.
Tablets • The single fastest-rising category in consumer electronics is computer tablets. So much so that the sale of tablets such as the iPad have been cutting into the sales of desktop computers for the last couple of years.
Most major electronics manufacturers have their own version of the tablet, including Samsung, Motorola and more. So searching for the right one can be a daunting task.
The top of the heap would have to be the iPad Air (starting at $499) and the iPad mini (starting at $399) from Apple. Apple's tablets are well built, powerful and have the most beautiful screens of any device in this category. But you pay a hefty price for that quality they're also the most expensive on the market. If you're interested in the iPad mini, Apple released the latest version of the 7-inch tablet on Nov. 12.
If your budget is a big consideration, then look at the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX (starting at $229), which also has a gorgeous color screen and runs on the Android operating system. The newest models also have a nifty new feature: the "Mayday" button which instantly video conferences you with an Amazon support representative to help you with your tablet in real time.
Also consider the Barnes and Noble Nook HD (starting at $129) and Nook HD+ (starting at $149). Both Android-based tablets may not be the most powerful or have the most features, but you cannot beat those prices. Therefore, they might make good tablets for kids.
If you want the full power of a Windows PC in a tablet form, there's the new Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (starting at $899), which has a keyboard/cover and the ability to run full-fledged Windows 8 software. It's also the only tablet along with the lower-powered Surface 2 that will run a mobile version of the Microsoft Office suite.
If all you want to do is read on a tablet, then consider either the Nook Glowlight ($119), which has their best E-ink display and better lighting in low-light conditions, or the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite ($119), which has a much higher black-and-white contrast for easier reading as well as self-illumination.
Phones • Apple's newest iPhone, the iPhone 5S (starting at $199 with a two-year contract), was released last month and now includes an effective fingerprint scanner for security, which might be a desired feature for business use. The iPhone 5C (starting at $99) is the lower-cost phone that comes in a multitude of colors therefore making it a good option for teens.
For Android lovers, there's been a bevy of great phones available this year including the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. More recently, the Moto X from Google-owned Motorola (starting at $99.99) is attempting to change the way we use our smartphones by introducing more voice-activated commands and hand gestures to operate features.
Google just released the Nexus 5 (starting at $349) which is getting sterling reviews for its beautiful 5-inch screen and a powerful new processor. It also benefits from using the core, no-frills Android operating system that isn't tainted by buggy software tweaks and modifications from other phone manufacturers and carriers. At $349 that's the price WITHOUT a two-year contract, making it one of the best values available.
If you like the clean tile interface of the Windows Phone operating system, then you should look at the Nokia 1020 (starting at $199), which has what some are calling the best camera of any smartphone. It packs a ridiculous 41 megapixels and is especially good in low-light conditions.
Gaming • There is no question that this is the Year of Video Games and the launch of a new era. Both Microsoft and Sony are releasing new consoles this month, the first time in seven years.
First out is the Sony PlayStation 4 ($399) which produces better graphics and has an improved game pad controller that includes a touchpad for more game play. Early reports say Sony's machine is slightly more powerful than Microsoft's, but games that are made for both consoles should look roughly the same.
Microsoft's Xbox One ($499) also will deliver next-generation graphics and game play. Its biggest distinction, however, is an improved version of the Kinect 2 camera and motion sensor that can see what the player's body movements are and translate them into game play moves. The Kinect also is an important component in the way the Xbox One will interface with your television. You'll be able to navigate through the TV channels and other features with just your voice.
What about Nintendo? The Japanese gaming giant released its next-gen console, the Wii U, late last year, and sales have been lagging. It might not be the best buy because graphically it isn't nearly as powerful as the other new consoles, and there's been a dearth of good games for it.
What might be of interest to parents is Nintendo's new 2DS portable console ($129). It's a 2D version of the company's popular 3DS handheld but it still plays all of the 3DS' games without the three-dimensional effects. It's $40 cheaper than the regular 3DS, so the lower price makes it a good candidate for young gamers.
Laptops • Because there are so many brands of Windows-based laptops, finding the right one can almost be a crapshoot. But here are a couple of the highest-rated this year by the trusted PC Magazine.
For a good value-based PC laptop, they recommend the Lenovo G580 ($349) for its fast performance and good keyboard. It also has a removable battery. The Dell Inspiron 15 ($349) also gets top grades for its long battery life and thin design, though it doesn't have a touchscreen for Windows 8.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you have that special someone who's a gamer, the top-of-the-line PC laptop has to be the Razer Blade ($1,999), a screaming machine that can play the most sophisticated games but is packed in a sleek profile similar to the MacBook Pro.
On the Mac side, Apple refreshed both the MacBook Pro (starting at $1,299) and the MacBook Air (starting at $999) lines this year. The big upgrade for both is a new processor that greatly increases their battery life, which is the best reason to jump in now if you've been champing at the bit to own either one. The 13-inch MacBook Air, for example, goes to a whopping 12 hours on a single charge.
What to shop for in electronics
Here are tips to keep in mind while shopping for different gadgets.
Tablets • Fortunately, there are only three variables to consider while searching for a color tablet: format, screen size, and storage size. Do you want an Apple tablet, Android-based tablet or Microsoft's Surface, which runs on Windows 8? Answering that question depends on what operating system you like and which will interface best with all of your other devices like phones and desktop computers. You also should think about which app store will have more of the apps you want.
Then you can figure out which size of screen you want, from about 7 inches to 10 inches. Once you've answered those questions, you can then choose how much storage you need, from 16 to 128 gigabytes. How much depends on whether you will load it up with a lot of videos or games in addition to music.
Phones • If you stick with the iPhone, the decision is simple: either the iPhone 5S with its fingerprint sensor or the lower-cost and lower-powered iPhone 5C without a sensor. Then you just need to decide how much storage you want.
Shopping for Android phones is much more difficult because there are so many different brands and sizes. All use the basic Android OS and have a similar basic feel, but there will be modifications made to each one. The best advice is to try them each out at a store. They also come in a huge variety of screen sizes from about 4 inches up to the gigantic 5.7-inch screen of the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
Game consoles • The Sony PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are very similar in power, and any games published for both systems are likely going to look and play almost the same. Meanwhile, the older Nintendo Wii U is not as powerful as the other two.
The ultimate decision should be based on the games. Which one will have the exclusive titles you want to play most? Also, if you're into multiplayer gaming, you'll want to go with the system that most of your friends will be playing on since neither the PS4 or the Xbox One will be compatible with each other online.
Laptops • After you decide on which platform to go with, either a Mac or PC, the choice of what machine to get comes down to specifications or how much power and system memory the machine has.
For most purposes, the base configuration of any Mac or PC laptop will be enough for surfing the web, writing emails or enjoying most videos. Those starting configurations usually begin with 4 megabytes of RAM or system memory. That's usually enough, but if you can afford to bump that up to 8 megabytes, that will make multitasking much easier and faster. Also, try to get a machine that has at least an i5 or i7 processor (if it's an Intel chip) to make it more future-proof. Try to stay away from the lower-powered Intel Celeron processor. Also, the laptop should have at least a 500-gigabyte harddrive for storage. Finally, if you're getting a Windows machine, make sure it's equipped with the latest version of the Windows operating system, which is version 8.1 and fixes a lot of the complaints that early adopters had with Windows 8.
Televisions • If you want the very best in today's TV technology, the new 4K ultra high-definition televisions are out now. These are new sets that have four times the resolution of standard HDTVs. Most are still pricey hovering around $10,000 or more but Toshiba does have a 58-inch model for as little as $2,699.
While shopping for normal HDTVs, make sure the back of the set has at least three or four HDMI inputs, the plugs that most high definition devices from gaming consoles to HD cable boxes use. Also be certain the set is capable of displaying 1,080 progressive lines of resolution and displays the video at 120 Hz or faster, which refers to the number of images that are displayed per second. That high refresh rate is better for fast motion such as in sports programming.