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Holiday Gift Guide: Tablets, Smartphones, Laptops
Date: Nov 26, 2013
Author: Ray Willington
Tablets: Android, Windows 8, and All The Rest
Portable devices are becoming ever more powerful, and users are increasingly utilizing them to keep up with news and friends, get work done, and for entertainment. Smartphones and tablets have never been so powerful, and if you're in market for either, it's going to be a fun holiday season packed with some great options to choose from.

Whether it's for yourself or someone else, consider this your go-to guide for picking out the perfect tablet or smartphone. We're all about spreading the holiday cheer around here, and if it means sifting through dozens or even hundreds of devices to find the best ones, then so be it. This is what we do, and we'd much rather you spend your time this holiday season with your family and friends than clicking frantically through the web trying to make sense of all the available models. We've already done it, and these are our picks.

Holiday Tablet Favorites

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX: $179 to $219

In just a few short years, Amazon has become a force not just in the e-tail industry, but in the tablet industry. It's a sector that has been tough for ever mainstays to crack (just look at Sony's efforts to break in), but the Kindle Fire line of slates has increasingly grown more powerful. All the while, the value proposition is strong, and it's tough to argue the bang-to-buck ratio on the new HDX. Plus, there's a Mayday feature that'll pull up a live assistant if you run into trouble, making it the ideal gift for someone who isn't exactly a nerd. The 7" version is just $179, while the 8.9" edition goes for $379.

Google Nexus 7 (2013): $229

It's easily one of our favorite 7" slates ever, and if you're angling for a pure Android experience, this is the one to get. In fact, we found it to be the best Android tablet to date when we reviewed it back in August. Put simply, you won't find a better all-around tablet in this size or price range. From the exterior design and its display to its internal engine, this is the total package, and it's affordable to boot. If you're giving this one as a gift, whoever is on the receiving end will be quite pleased. $229 for the 16GB and $269 for 32GB of Nexus 7 goodness is the current going rate - not bad at all.

Microsoft Surface 2: $449 (32GB)

Microsoft righted a lot of wrongs with the Surface 2. If you held off on the first-generation Surface, the Surface 2 (our review) is worth a look. It offers up Windows 8.1, a beautiful 1080p display, Bluetooth 4.0, up to 10 hours of battery life, and it's definitely the one to get if productivity is on the brain. Microsoft has a firm grasp on how to make a great tablet, hardware-wise, and the company is starting to understand how to build a good mobile operating system and ecosystem that still offers desktop-like capabilities.

Asus Transformer Book T100: $379 (64GB)

The Transformer Book T100TA is a 10.1-inch Windows 8.1 tablet with companion keyboard dock that runs a full version of the Window 8.1 OS, not Windows RT.  ASUS also includes Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 and it's powered by a quad-core Intel Atom Z3740 Bay Trail SoC, paired to 2GB of RAM and 32 or 64GB of on-board storage. Along with the keyboard dock and copy of Office, the system retails at $349 for the 32GB version and $379 for the 64GB model we’re looking at here. At those price points, with a companion keyboard dock and Office, it's a great value.

iPad Air: $499 16GB, $599 32GB and up...
It took 3.5 years, but Apple finally changed the actual exterior design of the iPad in a major, meaningful way. While the iOS ecosystem is strong, the iPad always felt a little on the heavy side. The iPad Air earned its name, dropped a full pound and is far more nimble with the new 64-bit A7 processor on board. It's an excellent travel companion with excellent battery life, and the 64-bit A7 chip within is capable of blasting through whatever games you purchase this holiday season. As is typical, it's a little pricey versus the other options we've listed here.
Smartphones: From Budget to Phablet
Samsung Galaxy Note III: $169 - $299 and up unlocked

What started as a big risk has turned out to be a wise business decision. Screen sizes have been inching up for years, and as it turns out, people dig large-screen phones with styluses included. While the Note 3 did put up some of the best numbers we’ve seen from any smartphone we’ve tested to date, in real-world use, it was also noticeably faster and more fluid than many other devices we’ve used. The speedy Snapdragon 800 SoC with Adreno 330 graphics, relatively fast internal storage, 3GB of system memory and Android 4.3 team up to produce an experience that’s currently among the best in the Android-based smartphone market. No matter what we threw at the Note 3, its performance was great in light of competing devices.

LG G2: $199+

The G2 is a wildly fast phone, and it offers control button placement that you won't find on any other device. The G2 is LG's attempt to dethrone the Galaxy S4, or at least produce a handset that rivals it in every meaningful way. The company has definitely accomplished that goal. The G2 is tremendously powerful, has a battery that can easily last a full day even with extensive use, offers a brilliant new position for the power and volume rocker switches, and touts one of the nicest mobile displays we've ever seen. On the software front, the subtle enhancements to Android are largely quite positive, and the double-tap to lock/unlock is perhaps our favorite addition to the OS since the advent of Google Now.

Google Nexus 5: $349 (off-contract) or as low as $120 on contract

Google has redefined the high-end Android market with a relatively low unlocked price on the first phone to run Android 4.4 (KitKat). One of the hallmark features of Google's Nexus 5 flagship smartphone by LG isn't its bodaciously big and beautiful 5-inch HD display, its 8MP camera, or its "OK Google" voice command / personal assistant feature. Frankly, that's all been done before.  What does stand out about the Nexus 5 is Google's new Android 4.4 Kit Kat operating system and LG's smartphone SoC (System on Chip) processor of choice, namely Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 quad-core. Qualcomm is known for licensing ARM core technology and making it their own within their Krait architecture, and Qualcomm's latest Krait 400 with Adreno 330 GPU that comprises the Snapdragon 800, is a powerful beast.

Nokia Lumia 1020: $99 (on contract) and up

If you're willing make the transition to Windows Phone, you'll enjoy working and playing with this smartphone. The screen is beautiful, call quality is excellent, AT&T's LTE network is formidable (with a full build-out expected by the middle of next year), and the 1020's camera is best in class, hands-down and by a wide margin. If you value quality photography over pretty much everything else, there's really no other smartphone to consider.

Apple iPhone 5s: $199+

We said this last year with the iPhone 5, but we'll say it again this year; the latest iPhone (the 5s, in this case) is indeed the best iPhone yet. While it looks the same on the outside, Apple's internal upgrades have delivered a phone that's blisteringly fast and a pleasure to use. Performance wise, the iPhone 5s is in a class of its own. It's markedly faster than the iPhone 4S and 5 that came before it, and its 64-bit underpinnings make it a formidable opponent when compared to rival platforms, too.

Moto X: $49+

The hardware and design of the Moto X is exceptional. It's both designed and assembled in the United States, and the quality is notable. It's rigid, rugged, and feels like a premium product in the hand. The soft-backed cover is curved for perfect handheld operation, and the thoughtful Motorola dimple on the rear enables easy one-handed operation. It's true that the raw specifications list won't impress some, but the overall fluidity of the phone more than compensates and it's graphics performance is actually top-notch.
Notebooks: From Ultrabooks to Desktop Replacements
Why let the phones and slates have all the fun? For those who are in the market for a new notebook, this year's laptop bounty is plentiful if you're shopping for one. Windows 8.1 is out, as is Apple's latest OS X (Mavericks). Plus, consumers have never had as many form factor choices, and battery life figures have never been stronger.

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro: $999
Part tablet, part notebook, and 100 percent powerhouse. It’s a productivity machine at heart, and it’s one of the best convertibles to run Windows 8.1. The Yoga 2 Pro is thinner and lighter than its predecessor, measuring 15.5mm and weighing 1.39kg. Processor options go all the way up to Haswell, and you can also configure one with up to a 512GB solid state drive. Better still, it has a crazy high resolution QHD display at 3200X1800 - it's gorgeous. Need to get work done, while remaining mobile? This one’s worth a look if so.

Alienware 18 Gaming Notebook: $1999+

Dell did a fine job of redesigning the look of the Alienware 18. Not that there was anything wrong with the old design, but this new edition looks classier without feeling dull; the lighting schemes and options are all still present, the keyboard is loaded with toys, and the new backlit touchpad (whose lights you can switch off if you prefer) is just plain cool. There’s really not much one has to say about the Alienware 18 that isn’t borne out in the benchmarks. The machine tore through our spate of tests and took the top score in almost every one, showing off the horsepower afforded by the mighty Intel Core i7-4900MQ processor and the graphics firepower of the dual NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M cards in SLI.

MacBook Pro with Retina Display (Haswell-Powered): $1299+

Apple finally slapped Intel’s Haswell chips into its 13” and 15” Retina-based MacBook Pro range, and the results are impressive. Outstanding battery life, cooler-running machines, and more power than ever before. Plus, it’s the only machine line in our list that can run both OS X and Windows. If you’re into dual-booting, you don’t have many other options if one of those operating systems is going to be Mavericks. Plus, these new rigs have lower price points, gorgeous high-res displays, and a best-in-class trackpad.

Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook: $769+

Dell is proud as peacock about the display upgrade it gave the XPS 13, and it should be. Not only does it boast a Full HD 1080p (1920x1080) resolution providing end-users with more real-estate than is typical from a 13.3-inch display, but it's also an extremely high quality panel. Colors pop off the screen, it's bright and vibrant, and it's not saddled with strict viewing angles. In fact, you can still see the screen very well from the side. More than just a pretty face, the Dell XPS 13 is a peppy little machine. That's evident right from the get-go, as it takes a mere 12 seconds to boot into Windows 8. Microsoft deserves considerable credit for that feat, but so does Dell for pairing the operating system with a high-performance mSATA SSD from Samsung.

HP Spectre 13 Ultrabook: $999+
It’s one of the sleekest Ultrabooks to date, and it’s capable of being maxed out internally, too with SSDs and memory . A gorgeous 13.3” 1920X1080 display, up to 9 hours of battery life, a brushed metal chassis, and plenty of oomph to do more than just work, outside of office hours — yep, it’d make a lovely gift.

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