Computerworld's 2012 holiday gift guide

Computerworld's 2012 holiday gift guide

Tick tock. Black Friday is over, Cyber Monday is history, and you've still got holiday shopping to do.

But that's OK -- we've got you covered. Our annual holiday gift guide showcases the gear that technology lovers on your list will most appreciate.

Tablets, smartphones, HDTVs and laptops (both ultraslim and all-purpose) were the most popular items in this year's reader poll of favorite tech gifts, and we've got plenty of those to suit a variety of tastes. We've also included a plethora of handy gadgets, fun gizmos and other useful gear, plus several inexpensive stocking stuffers to help you stay within a reasonable budget.

You'll find a description of each item by a Computerworld staffer or contributor, plus links to product pages, places to shop, tech specs, prices and more. When possible, we've included a range of prices as offered by various vendors, but be aware that prices fluctuate, especially at this time of year. As always, be careful of false deals and scams. (See these helpful tips for staying safe while shopping online or by mobile device.)

If you have a suggestion for a great tech gift that you don't see here, feel free to add it in the article comments. Happy holidays to all!

Tantalizing tablets

Computerworld readers have spoken: For the third year running, tablets have topped our annual poll as the tech gift that readers would most like to give or get for the holidays.

The playing field has widened considerably in that time. Apple's 10-in. iPad, which once stood alone in the field, has been joined by a snazzy new 7-in. model. There are a slew of Android tablets available in different sizes (including a couple of new Google Nexus devices), as well several 7-in. tablet/e-reader gadgets. And this year the competition has gotten even hotter as Microsoft joins the fray with a variety of Windows 8-based tablets.

The result? There's a tablet out there for everyone on your gift list -- just choose the operating system, pick the size, decide on the price and go.

iOS tablet: Apple iPad Mini

For many Apple fans, the tablet to get this year is the new iPad Mini. Featuring a vibrant 7.9-in. screen enclosed in a glass and black/slate or white/silver aluminum housing, the Mini measures 7.9 x 5.3 x 0.28 in. and weighs just 0.68 lb. As I wrote when I reviewed the Mini in October:

I really can't emphasize how great the iPad Mini feels in hand. It's very light while still feeling solid, not at all flimsy for a device so thin. (Read the full review)

It offers 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of storage, dual-facing cameras for video and photography (5-megapixel photographs and 1080p video using the rear camera; 1.2mp and 720p using the front camera), and a battery life of about 10 continuous hours.

And like all iPads, the Mini has access to Apple's digital ecosystem, where there are more than 275,000 dedicated apps in the App Store and even more selections of music, movies, TV shows and podcasts in the iTunes store.

Buying a Mini does involve some tradeoffs: With last year's dual-core A5 processor and a 1024 x 768 resolution, 163ppi display, it's basically a smaller, lighter version of the iPad 2. Although the more closely packed pixels in the Mini make its screen a little sharper than that of the iPad 2, it's a far cry from the high-end Retina display found on the newer full-sized iPads.

That said, the Mini's size and especially its weight make it much more comfortable to hold for extended viewing sessions. And screen differences aside, the Mini is just as capable as its larger brethren. For anyone who wants the iPad experience in a lighter, more portable (and less expensive) form, the iPad Mini is ideal.

The lineup starts at $329 for the 16GB model with Wi-Fi only, or $459 for the 16GB model with Wi-Fi and 3G/4G mobile data (with support for AT&T, Verizon and Sprint services in the U.S.). The 32GB and 64GB models are an additional $100 and $200, respectively.

You might also like: Looking for something bigger? Starting at $499, the 4th-generation iPad with Retina display boasts a high-quality aluminum and glass design, the fastest processor in the iPad lineup and a stunning 9.7-in. display featuring an incredible 3.1 million pixels.

-- Michael deAgonia

iPad Mini from Apple

Price: $329 - $659 (depending on configuration)

Tech specs | Store locator | Phone: (800) MY-APPLE

Summary: The smaller iPad shaves off size, weight and cost without sacrificing quality.

Android tablet: Google Nexus 7

Who says bigger is always better? packs impressive functionality and appealing design into a stylish 7-in. form.

Available for $199 (16GB), $249 (32GB) or $299 (32GB with 3G/4G mobile data), the Asus-made tablet is the perfect size for on-the-couch Web surfing or on-the-go entertainment. Its narrow profile and texturized back make it easy to hold in one hand while swiping or tapping with the other.

The Nexus 7 features a 1280 x 800 IPS display. It runs pure Google Android 4.2 software and is powered by a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor along with 1GB of RAM.

Those elements add up to a silky smooth experience that, despite the tablet's low cost, rivals most high-end offerings. I summed it up in my hands-on analysis:

With the Nexus 7's level of hardware combined with its pure Google software, the tablet is a total steal at 200 bucks. You do make some sacrifices compared to more expensive options -- naturally -- but when you weigh everything out with the price, the Nexus 7 comes out looking like a champ. (Read the full review)

Like other Nexus products, the Nexus 7 receives fast and frequent OS upgrades directly from Google -- making it a gift that keeps on giving.

You might also like: Google's Nexus 10 ($399 to $499) delivers a best-in-class display and pure Android experience in a 10-inch tablet form. The Asus Transformer Pad Infinity ($450 to $630), meanwhile, offers top-notch hardware with more storage and connectivity options as well as an optional keyboard dock accessory.

-- JR Raphael

Nexus 7 from Google

Price: $199 (16GB Wi-Fi), $249 (32GB Wi-Fi), $299 (32GB Wi-Fi + mobile data)

Tech specs | Phone: (855) 836-3987

Summary: The Nexus 7's narrow size and stellar user experience make it the ideal gadget for around-the-house Internet surfing -- and at $200, its value is unmatched.

Windows tablet: Microsoft Surface with Windows RT

Microsoft's reborn operating system, Windows 8 -- and its lower-caste cousin, Windows RT -- was created in order to offer a new interface for touch-screen devices (while, presumably, still enabling non-touch usability). Because Windows 8 first shipped this October, there are only a limited number of tablets out there running the new OS.

Certainly the most innovative was introduced by Microsoft itself at the same time the OS shipped: the Surface with Windows RT. There is a great deal to like -- even love -- about the Surface. At 1.5 lb., the 10.6-in. tablet is lighter than you'd expect. The 1366 x 768 ClearType HD touch display provides bright, color-rich imagery; performance is fast and smooth.

There are front- and rear-facing 720p cameras, stereo speakers that offer surprisingly full sound, and more ports than most tablets offer, including a full-sized USB 2.0 port, a headset jack, an HD video-out port and a microSDXC card slot for extra storage (which you'll probably need; the OS takes up so much space that the 32GB Surface really offers 16GB of user storage, while the 64GB version has 45GB of user space). And there is a stand that pulls out so you can sit it on a flat surface.

But the real surprise is the Touch Cover, a lightweight, flexible 3mm-thick cover that also works as a touch-sensitive keyboard. It attaches via a magnetic hinge at the bottom of the tablet and bends back out of the way when you don't need it. (It also detaches easily.) I'm very picky about my keyboards, and this one actually works better for me than some traditional ones have.

The basic black Touch Cover adds $100 to the price of the 32GB tablet and is included with the 64GB tablet. You can also buy it separately in one of several colors for $119.99, and a more "clicky" Type Cover keyboard is available for $129.99.

The Surface has, unfortunately, some glitches that should be taken into consideration. Some of the earlier Touch Covers seem to have developed cracks, and some users are experiencing Wi-Fi issues where users get only "limited" service for some connections. And, of course, there is the OS itself; currently, only the Windows RT version of the tablet is available, which means you can install only Windows 8 Store apps.

However, covers can be (and are being) replaced, a firmware update should fix the Wi-Fi glitch, and a version of the Surface with the full version of Windows 8 will be available soon. And aside from these issues, the Surface is an excellent way to work with the new Windows RT interface on a lightweight, well-designed device.

You might also like: There are a number of Windows 8 tablets with attachable keyboards coming out for the holidays; the best strategy is to try each out for yourself. These include the HP Envy X2 ($850 and up), the Dell XPS 10 ($500 and up) and the Samsung Ativ Smart PC ($750 and up).

-- Barbara Krasnoff

Surface with Windows RT from Microsoft

Price: $499 (32GB w/o Touch Cover), $599 (32GB w/ Touch Cover), $699 (64GB w/ Touch Cover)

Tech specs | Video | Store locator | Phone: (877) 696-7786

Summary: Microsoft's innovative Surface with Windows RT tablet is fast, lightweight and offers an unusual and useful cover/keyboard.

E-reader/tablet: Barnes & Noble Nook HD

An e-reader these days provides much more than just a way to read electronic books. It's also used for Web browsing, social media, email, and movie and TV watching as well.

All that is why the new Nook HD beats its main competitor, Amazon's Kindle Fire HD, as the e-reader/tablet to buy this holiday season. For a start, the Nook HD has a superb 1440-x-900-resolution screen that's great not only for reading books, but for viewing full-color magazines, graphic novels, cartoons and videos.

The Nook HD's new software, built on top of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, is smart and lightning fast, with speedy Web browsing and an excellent email client. The new Profiles feature allows multiple members of a household to share the device, with each person having their own content library, home screen and preferences. Also new is the Nook Video service for buying and renting movies on an individual or a pay-for-play basis.

In my recent review of the Nook HD I concluded, "Its better software, exceptional screen, faster Web browsing and much smoother performance make it the winner in my eyes." I've been using it considerably since then, and if anything, I'm even more impressed after longer use. Whoever is lucky enough to receive it from you will enjoy it, too.

You might also like: The Kindle Fire HD ($199 for 16GB; $249 for 32GB) is a bit more sluggish than the Nook HD, and its software isn't as good, but it's a solid e-reader, and it has a far better selection of video offerings than the Nook HD.

-- Preston Gralla

Nook HD from Barnes & Noble

Price: $199 (8GB), $229 (16GB)

Tech specs | Store locator

Summary: With a top-notch screen, the Nook HD is great for book lovers, magazine lovers and those who want a fast e-reader for watching TV and movies.

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