It’s nearly here: Black Friday. That
horrendous questionable “holiday” tradition wherein hundreds of thousands of Americans, fresh from giving thanks for their blessings and good fortune over massive piles of food, flood the streets to acquire more (material) blessings by spending as little of their good fortune as possible.
Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year for a very good reason: retailer discounts are often outrageous, and locations open absurdly early on this day-long celebration of unbridled capitalism. The media has a field day covering these early-morning openings, and every year brings new horror stories of fist-fights, stampedes, injuries, and even the occasional death in the mad scramble to save a few bucks. Several years ago, after decades of opening at 6am on the special day, big box stores gradually started pushing that time earlier and earlier; this year, you can get into a Best Buy at midnight on Black Friday, trampling your fellow shoppers underfoot for the chance to grab hold of your very own (insert something not worth a human life here).
If it’s not already obvious, I don’t like Black Friday. I don’t like the pissing matches between retailers, I don’t like it when corporations tell employees to come in on the midnight after a holiday, and I think the word “doorbusters” is one of the ugliest ever to bludgeon the English language. Since the emergence of “Cyber Monday” several years back, I’ve much preferred that more-civilized, internet-based alternative.
But I’m not the absolute arbiter of taste, class, or human decency, and great hordes of people find merit in the whole Black Friday exercise. There are real savings out there that matter deeply to some people. That’s fine. Whatever floats your boat.
Hypothetically, then, what if I were going shopping this Black Friday, instead of contentedly curled under a warm blanket with a snootful of red wine and 13 pounds of turkey in my stomach? Carriers and other retailers have already kicked off the madness, after all. So what mobile devices would I, as a tech enthusiast, be most excited to put in my Halliburton suitcase before fleeing the frenzied mob in my armored vehicle?
Well, I’ll tell you. We’re gonna break this down into smartphone, phablet, and tablet categories, and we’ll break that last category down into two subsets for 7- and 10-inch. We’re also not gonna be talking discount deals or coupons here. This isn’t a price list or a holiday shopping guide; this is the one device in each category I’d be looking for if I were out there on the frontier with you
crazies fine people, and my reason why. And, just to make it totally absurd, I’m assuming I’m buying these for myself and not as gifts. Capisce?
All right, let’s get to it.
Smartphone: Google Nexus 4
So here’s the thing with the Nexus 4: it’s already cheap. For US customers, the thing starts at $299 without a contract, and it maxes out just $50 north of that, at $349 (sorry, international customers; you don’t get the same deal). Even though there’s plenty of imperfection that comes with that price, there’s also a lot to love, at least as far as Brandon Miniman is concerned. There’s a display with “incredible sharpness,” a glitter-magic backplate that does funny things to light waves, and Android 4.2 Jelly Bean in all its unadulterated glory — with none of the hassles brought about by manufacturer skins or specialty carrier-specific radios. Because it’s a Nexus phone, it’s guaranteed always to get first dibs at Android updates, right from the source.
Sure, there’s no LTE here, the thing’s made entirely of glass, and Chrome could be a bit speedier … but it’s a $300 unlocked smartphone running the absolute best Google has to offer, and supported by the second-largest product ecosystem in the mobile universe. Oh, and did I mention wireless charging? In the form of the coolest, most alien-looking desktop orb there is? Yeah. It has that.
Every product carries its share of compromises, but the Nexus 4 has a great ratio of awesome-to-lame, and if I weren’t so married to LTE, I’d pluck it off a shelf in a heartbeat. Especially given some crazy Black Friday discount action.
Phablet: Samsung Galaxy Note II
Okay, I freely admit that this category is a complete and total sham. The Galaxy Note II is the only conceivable choice anyone of sound mind could make when shopping for a phablet (which, incidentally, is the second ugliest word ever to burden the world with its existence, real or no).
That might be a tad hyperbolic (the statement about the Note II, not the assertion about the p-word). But seriously. Ask 20 people what smartphone/tablet hybrid they’d prefer, and 19 of them would answer “Galaxy Note II.”
That’s partly because the product category is still pretty small, and partly due to the Note II’s competition not being all that great, but the fact remains that it’s a fantastic device. We gave it a 9 out of 10 on our full review, a pretty rare honor, for a multitude of reasons. The simplest one, though, is this: the Note II does exactly what it’s designed to do. And with its ridiculously powerful internals, massive display, excellent battery life and very good camera, it’s designed to do a whole lot.
Tablet (7-Inch): Google Nexus 7
This device, when announced, struck my ear like the whine of a mosquito that wasn’t trying terribly hard, something easy to bat away. The display was high-res, but it looked washed-out. ASUS wasn’t high on my list of favorite companies. And hadn’t I been writing for months about how poorly Google’s Android apps scaled to tablets?
As longtime readers already know, the “little tablet that could” arrived at my door and won my heart in a hurry. Now that it’s my best friend, I can’t seem to give the Nexus 7 enough compliments. It’s not without its flaws: the screen is a tad washed-out. Its hardware lacks a premium feel. The camera is awful. Apps really don’t scale all that well to the larger display.
But. As mentioned in our After The Buzz episode covering the Nexus 7, those apps scale a whole lot better to a 7-inch display than I thought they would, and unless you’re holding it up alongside an iPad Mini’s dedicated tablet apps, the experience is actually quite enjoyable. And with the Nexus 7, you don’t have to deal with the iPad Mini’s higher price, low-resolution display, or incredibly stagnant OS. Instead, you get all the benefits of a Nexus experience on an Android tablet that’s durable, portable, and incredibly cheap. Even though it’s not the sprightliest horse on the ranch, it’s still the best 7-inch tablet around for the price.
Tablet (10-Inch): Apple iPad (late-2012)
But all those knocks against Apple’s industry-defining tablet aren’t enough to topple it from its perch at the top of the recommended pile. The complaints above are legitimate strikes against the iPad, but most ordinary people looking for the best all-around experience will still find it in Apple’s product.
Partially, that’s a function of simplicity; I may be bored senseless of iOS, but (Maps aside) it works as it’s designed to. It’s reliable and, provided it’s running on modern hardware, usually rock-solid. And it’s backed up by a company with an outstanding record for customer service.
More importantly, as we’ve heard time and time again, the ecosystem is crucial. That’s not because customers want or need all 700,000+ titles in the app store -back in March, TheNextWeb reported that the average user only downloads 80 or so apps- but because customers like to know they can download a title if they want to. I’m not going to need the “Lonely Planet Guide to Berlin” almost ever, but I’m gonna be damn glad it’s available the one time I do need it. Apple’s robust ecosystem provides that security blanket. For the most part nowadays, Android’s does too — but the appealing hardware of the Nexus 10 hasn’t yet had time to attract enough developers to the cause, and so the 10-inch Android tablet space remains rich only with apps that require a good deal of stretching to fit that screen. It’s not a deal-breaker for everyone, but if I’m using a tablet, I want a tablet experience, not an ugly one blown up from phone size to tablet scale. And that’s why the iPad would still win my attention if I were out there in the wild with the hordes of penny-pinchers.
Runner-Up: Nokia Lumia 920
So, “ecosystem” is still the name of the game for devices looking to play in the big leagues, and the ecosystem question is still the most important one Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform has to answer.
In the lead up to my promised purchase of the Nokia Lumia 920, I had significant concerns about Microsoft’s ability to grow its app selection quickly enough to court Android and iOS users during the crucial holiday season. It seems Microsoft was equally eager to get its products out the door in time to capture some of those freely flowing holiday bucks, as the company’s Thomas Fennel admitted when addressing the possibility of a Windows Phone 8 notification center at the recent Build conference. While Microsoft has done better than I expected, boosting its app count to somewhere north of 120,000 apps and promising that it “will have” 46 out of the top 50 apps at some undefined future point, my own transition hasn’t been the smoothest. The platform is still without support for some big names, and while vendors like Pandora and Spotify promise big things for 2013 … that’s not a Black Friday-friendly time frame.
That’s why, despite its incredible build quality, beautiful software, and rock-bottom price on AT&T, the Lumia 920 didn’t quite make the cut. Given Microsoft’s rapid progress on Windows Phone 8 this year, I fully expect the platform to enjoy a featured spot on next year’s holiday “what I’d buy” list, replete with all the apps and functionality the company couldn’t fit in before this year’s launch.
In the interim, there’s a whole year -and a whole Black Friday- to go. So clear some space on those credit cards, pack the folding chairs in your trunk, suit up in your riot gear, and enjoy Black Friday 2012. Good night, and good luck.
App download metric via TheNextWeb