Top Holiday Gadgets Buying Guide
December 16, 2011
The wives and girlfriends of my friends have been asking me for recommendations so I decided to share the analysis for all gadget lovers of the world to be happy this holiday season 🙂
Cell Phone: Galaxy Nexus by Samsung on Verizon
The Galaxy Nexus is actually the reason this blog post comes somewhat late in the holiday shopping season. Despite predicting a year ago that ultimately Android would beat out iOS as the dominant mobile platform, I did not jump ship to Android until yesterday when the Galaxy Nexus came out. Android phones, the Galaxy Nexus included, do not match the slickness of the iPhone 4S interface, the quality of its applications and the quality of its digital camera.
However, the iPhone 4S proved to be a huge disappointment. I was hoping for a larger screen, LTE and longer battery life, but instead all they released was essentially Siri and a better camera. Siri works surprisingly well but is really gimmicky. Ultimately, the Galaxy Nexus was the phone I needed. Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) closed the gap significantly from a UI perspective (though Google still has work to do to fully catch up).
More importantly, the switch to Verizon’s LTE network is revolutionary. I feel the same way I felt when I moved from dial up to broadband! Given that I essentially only use my cell phone to browse the web, text and as a mobile hotspot to give my notebook computer Internet access on the road and in hotel rooms, the speed increase is game changing. I also prefer the larger screen for web browsing and chatting. The screen is not nearly as good as the screen of the Samsung Galaxy SII, but it’s still amazing. Besides none of the calls I have made so far have dropped! I was so frustrated with my iPhone 4 on AT&T, I almost broke it several times. Once it dropped the call 10 times in a 20 minute conversation (and still drops calls daily).
Note that I am hanging on to my iPhone 4 to use when I travel abroad given AT&T’s much better global roaming agreements. AT&T also recently introduced a $199.99 per month 800Mb international roaming data plan that has proved a god send in many far flung places around the world!
Digital Camera: Canon Powershot SX230 HS
I am very sensitive to weight when it comes to digital cameras yet want a huge zoom to take great sports shots. This comes in handy while kiting, skiing, etc. would allow you to take great pics of your kids playing soccer 🙂
To be specific, I need a camera that fits in my pocket in all circumstances which is why I am not recommending any of the SLR cameras because experience suggests you end up not taking them with you all the time. This is why I am recommending a high-end “super zoom” compact camera: the Canon Powershot SX230 HS.
You can get it for $199 on Amazon. It has an amazing 14x optical zoom, a 3” LCD and supports HD video. It’s also much better in low light than most “super zoom” cameras.
You can read the full review at: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/q311travelzoomgrouptest/page17.asp
Computer: Sony Vaio Z (with the new 13” Macbook Air as a runner up)
If you are ready to splurge, the Sony Vaio Z is hands down the fastest compact notebook on the market right now. Its specs and speed are second to none: 2.5 pounds, a 13” 1080p (1920*1080) screen, a Core i7 processor, a 1Gb AMD Radeon HD 6650 graphic card, a superfast 256Gb Raid 0 SSD hard drive (with a 512Gb option), 8Gb of memory, an external Blu-ray burner, and a 5 hour removable battery with the option for a 10+ hour extended battery. Buy it directly on Sony.com to get the options you want.
If you are a Mac lover, the new 13” Macbook Air is the computer to get. It has the best design of any notebook on the market. Unfortunately, it only has a 1.8Ghz dual core i7, a 1440*900 resolution screen, you can only install up to 4Gb of memory, its 256Gb SSD drive is superfast but slower than the Sony’s Raid 0 256Gb SSD drive, it has a much slower Intel HD 3000 graphic card, and a non-removable battery. It’s not nearly as good as the Sony, but if you are wedded to Mac OS, this is the notebook to get until the next Macbook Air refresh.
Game Console: Xbox 360 – with Kinect if you have kids
A few years ago my recommendation would have been different. The Wii was definitely the console to get for kids and families. For hardcore gamers the decision between the Xbox 360 and the PS3 mostly came down to which exclusive franchise games you preferred (Gears of War or Halo vs. Drake Unchartered). For the most part the Xbox had the edge: it had more and better exclusive games, a better multiplayer experience and better graphics despite worse specs because it was easier for developers to make games for the Xbox. Many hard core gamers actually got both the Xbox and the PS3, both to use the latter as a Blu-ray player and for its exclusive games.
Last year, with the introduction of the the Kinect and the Playstation Move, the Wii’s advantage with kids and casual games has fallen by the way side, especially considering its increasingly dated graphics. The PS3 has also closed the gap with the Xbox. Its online experience has improved, the roster of exclusive games has increased (Gran Turismo 5, Heavy Rain), and developers are finally figuring out how to make use of its processing power and games now have equivalent graphic quality to those of the Xbox 360 and in some cases surpass them.
However, for Xbox 360 remains the console of choice. It has still has by far the best online experience both for multiplayer gaming and watching movies – be it on Zune or Netflix, the controller fits better in your hand and it’s a better deal. If you don’t have kids, you don’t need to buy the Kinect unless you want to do great video conference calls from your living room. Just get the Xbox 360 with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, LA Noire, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City and Gears of War 3. If you have kids, definitely get a Kinect with Fruit Ninja!
Video Game: Lots of Great Choices!
There are so many great games that came out this year it’s too hard to come up with one recommendation, so I will recommend a few games so you can pick based on the genre you like best.
- Multiplayer First Person Shooter: Modern Warfare 3
In a way Modern Warfare 3 is disappointing as it only makes very small evolutions to Black Ops. Black Ops was just as good, but I started tiring of it. I am happy to be presented with new leveling up options, new maps and a few new game modes. Despite the lack of real changes, the game retains the best in class multiplayer game mechanics of its predecessors and remains the multiplayer first person shooter to play!
- Third Person Shooter: Uncharted 3 & Gears of War 3
Both Uncharted 3 (PS3) and Gears of War 3 (Xbox 360) continue in the fantastic footsteps of their predecessors. The graphics are amazing and their storylines are shockingly touching and compelling. The coop is tons of fun as well though the multiplayer is nowhere near as interesting as the one of Modern Warfare 3.
- Role Playing Game: The Elder Scrolls V, Dark Souls and Witcher 2
2011 was an amazing year for RPGs. The Elder Scrolls V continues The Elder Scrolls tradition of first person role playing in huge universes with a seemingly infinite number of side quests and takes it to the next level. I found the story and gameplay even more compelling than in Oblivion!
Dark Souls is just as amazing and may well be the hardest RPG ever made. I actually have a slight preference for third person RPGs over first person RPGs and adored the gameplay and mechanics. Be forewarned though that the game is so tough that you may find it frustrating. I would only recommend it for expert RPGers.
As for Witcher 2, it’s by far the best PC-based RPG of the year: phenomenal visuals, absorbing and exciting story where the actions you take have fundamental ramifications for the other characters and overall storyline.
- Adventure Game: LA Noire & Batman Arkham City
Neither of those is a real adventure game in the traditional point and click sense of the word like the Sierra games of yore. However as that genre has unfortunately essentially died, they represent the next evolution of adventure games and are really adventure / action hybrids. They are in the Grand Theft Auto mold, but with adventure elements: clues to look for and interviews to conduct (using the clues as evidence) in the case of LA Noire and puzzles to solve in the case of Batman.
LA Noire is closer to the traditional adventure genre, but is designed for modern audiences as you can progress through the game even if you miss most of the clues and mess up most of the interviews. In many ways the game reminded me of the Police Quest series by Sierra, but with modern graphics and a LA Confidential type mood.
As for Batman, the adventures and explorations in the city of Arkham make this game extraordinary. My one reservation is that the game is too easy, which is also the reason Red Dead Redemption is not on the list. The game is amazing, but was so easy even on the hardest level that I tired of it.
- Strategy Game: None!
The lack of great new rich and deep RTS was a huge disappointment. I still long for a game matching the strategic depth of Rise of Nations with the tactical unit control of Company of Heroes. Unfortunately no RTS even came close in the past few years and there is none I feel I can recommend.
As for turn based strategy games, none have shone since last year’s Civilization V.
I hope 2012 will change all that!
eReader: The Kindle
The new Kindle is great. If you are an avid book reader, ereaders are fantastic and the Kindle is the best of the bunch. I got tired of lugging books with me and switched to the Kindle and have not looked back! It’s light, easy to read in all environments and has amazing battery life. You could get away with reading a few books on the iPad or Kindle Fire, but your eyes and arm eventually tire out so if you read a lot the Kindle is the ereader to get.
I tried every version of the Kindle and ended up going with the cheapest $79 option. It’s lighter than the Touch version. I also felt the Touch was not responsive enough and I hate waiting for the page to load. I used to have the 3G option in the previous version but never used it as I always have many books I am waiting to read so decided to opt out of it as well.
Webcam: Microsoft LifeCam Studio
This $99 webcam is amazing! It has a 1080p widescreen sensor, great low light quality and a fantastic microphone. If you do many Skype calls, it’s the webcam to get!
Remote Controlled Car: Traxxas E-Revo Brushless (5608)
Given noise complaints from my neighbors I switched all my remote controlled vehicles to electric. The Traxxas E-Revo Brushless truck is a monster! It’s huge – 23 inches long, 9 inches and basically unbreakable! Get it with Lipo batteries (buy two Venom 11.1V 5000 mAH 20C Lipo batteries with a Venom Pro Lipo Charger with Power Supply) and it goes 65 mph!
The car is ready to run out of the box so even if you have never assembled RC products before you should be set. Note that you need a very big space to make it run – 65 mph is superfast!
You can buy everything at ehobbies.com and on Amazon. If you break anything just type the part number on ehobbies and it shows up directly. The Traxxas folks are also very friendly and provide great support.