Friday, December 6, 2013

Geeky holiday device buying guide Parts 1 & 2

Looking for a great gift for the techie in your life? Check out these great suggestions by Quinton Lawman, a Technical Writer on the Knowledge Services team at OverDrive, vendor for the Library's digital collection.
Last year I wrote a post where I recommended some solid devices for the holidays, so I figured I’d chime in again this year. It’s an exciting time to be a geek like me, as technology continues to move along at a breakneck speed. Did you know you can now read eBooks and listen to audiobooks on your refrigerator or washing machine? I mean, why not?

I’m going to focus on slightly more practical devices that are perfect for everyday use—specifically tablets. They all work great with the Library's digital collection from OverDrive, and are pretty versatile to boot. In the not too distant future, my esteemed colleague, Anders Brooks, will write another post that will cover a little more, including E Ink readers. Let’s get started with Part 1, shall we? By the way, part 2 is coming shortly.

Nexus 7 (2013 edition)

You may remember (if you read my post last year) that I was a huge fan of the original Nexus 7. This year Google outdid itself. Simply put, the new Nexus 7 is a best buy at $229.
The iPad mini with retina display (which Anders will talk more about in his post) starts at $399, and has a 326 ppi screen. That’s a great screen, but the 3 ppi difference between that and the new Nexus 7 (323 ppi) is imperceptible to the human eye. Though the iPad mini is a bit faster than the Nexus 7, it’s $160 more expensive, and the speed difference in everyday tasks is negligible.

My wife just got one of these tablets, and she loves it because it’s easy to use, fast, and great for reading. In fact, the screen is fantastic for reading. The sharper the image, the less your eyes have to work to focus on it, and with such a high ppi, the Nexus 7 is practically built for eBooks.
Because the Nexus 7 is also slim and light, it’s also very portable. For me, that means it’s great for audiobooks too. It’s no big deal to take the Nexus 7 on a trip, plug it into the stereo, and use it for navigation while listening to a good book.

It’s this value for money attribute that makes the Nexus 7 my top pick in tablets for the holidays.

Nvidia Tegra Note

The Tegra Note is an interesting specimen. It’s cheaper than the Nexus 7 at $199, which is a major selling point, and it’s also awfully fast with Nvidia’s newest Tegra 4 System on a Chip (SoC). It’s marketed to gamers, but with a $199 price tag, I don’t see why it couldn’t appeal to everyone.
The screen isn’t as good as the Nexus 7 (7” at 1280 x 800 for 216 ppi), but it’s not horrible. It might not be the best out there for reading, but the Note does beat the first and second generation Kindle Fire (202 ppi) and ties the 2nd generation 7” Kindle Fire HD, so it’s just not as big a deal as some reviewers are claiming.
The Tegra Note shows an awful lot of promise in testing (which you can read all about on Tom’s Hardware). Features like the stylus (supposedly very good) and the device’s raw performance make it a real contender. Heck it’s even supposed to have pretty good speakers.
The Note is made out of plastic–Nvidia had to cut corners somewhere along the line to get the price down to $199. Does that mean the Tegra Note is built horribly? I don’t know, because I haven’t been able to get my hands on one yet, but I can almost guarantee that it’s not built as well as an iPad or Nexus 7. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a piece of junk. Reviewers seem to think it feels a little cheap, but nobody likes plastic anymore. My advice is to check one out for yourself—they should be in stores soon.

The new Nexus 10?

There’s a question mark on this one because Google hasn’t yet announced the new Nexus 10. Will it be great? I have no idea. The Nexus brand has done a lot to reshape the way we think about the price of quality tech. You can go out and get a fantastic high-end phone (Nexus 5) for $350 off-contract. Most top-o-the-line phones cost more like $650 or $700. You can go out and buy a killer tablet for $229 too (see above). Each generation of Nexus device has been a significant step up from the previous generation.

The original Nexus 10 is great–even if it’s not the most popular. In fact, it was even higher-end than last year’s Nexus 7. So, I’m dying to know, what will the new Nexus 10 be like? Rumors have pointed to a November launch, so it could be announced any day now. If you prefer the 10” form-factor like I do, my advice is to wait to make your buying decision for a week or two to see what Google might announce.

Microsoft Surface 2

The Surface 2 is a lot like the original Surface RT, but with better everything. The screen is better, it’s lighter, the speakers are better, it’s more responsive, and recent updates to Windows RT really do a lot to increase overall usability.

Here’s the kicker: the original Surface RT is actually a decent tablet, with solid specs and build quality. So the Surface 2 is a nice improvement over a product that was already pretty good.
There are two reasons that the Surface isn’t higher up on my list:

  • It’s a little unwieldy. This has mostly to do with the aspect ratio (16:9 versus the typical 16:10). It’s a little wider and shorter in landscape than your average Android tablet (16:10), and Apple uses 4:3 which is more square-ish. It’s also a little heavier than average (though lighter than the RT).
  • The current Windows RT app selection is a little limited (though growing fast). Microsoft has also locked 3rd party web browsers out of Windows RT, which I do not like at all.
That being said, if you’re fine using Internet Explorer all the time, and you want a tablet that grants you a whole lot of excellent productivity options (the best out there, really), the Surface 2 is where it’s at. The price is not cheap, but reasonable at $450. If the tech geek on your list has a serious need for heavy word processing and other officey type things, then you can’t really beat the Surface as a tablet option.

Honorable mention: Sony Xperia Tablet Z

The Sony Xperia Tablet Z gets an honorable mention because it’s a great tablet that also happens to be water resistant. Yup, that’s right; you can have this out in the rain and not really worry about it. It’s a much more useful feature than you might think, and it means that the Tablet Z is pretty resilient.

In fact, if it weren’t for the price (starting at $449 on sale), I’d have probably picked this as my second or third recommendation. It has a good screen (1920 x 1200 for around 224 ppi), and a decent processor (Snapdragon S4 Pro), but neither make it top of the line. That’s my gripe—the Tablet Z is priced as a top of the line machine (the 32 GB model is $550). If they were charging $400 and $450 for the 16 GB and 32 GB model respectively, this tablet would be a great buy.

What, no iPad?

Anders will talk more about the iPad in his post next week. Both the mini with retina display and the Air are solid devices, but I personally prefer the tablets above. If you’re buying for a big Apple fan, or that special someone on your list already has a lot invested in Apple products, then stay tuned. Anders is the man you are waiting to hear from.

Quinton Lawman is a Technical Writer on the Knowledge Services team at OverDrive, vendor for the Library's digital collection.

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