With autumn very much making its presence felt, and the last days of 2014 looming ahead, the mobile electronics market is about to make another of its regular shifts, temporarily moving away from a time dominated by launch after launch, and instead focusing more on getting these products into our hands. We’ve just come off a couple big months of launches, led in by IFA in early September, and peppered with iPhone, iPad, and Nexus announcements in the weeks that followed. But now with the holiday season arriving as an unavoidable juggernaut, we’re about to see the steady flow of new devices dry up for a little, as manufacturers and carriers instead put their efforts into promoting all these new products and doing their darnedest to make sure it’s their tablet/smartwatch/accessory making its way into our stockings.
With so many new products out there, not to mention still-fantastic models that launched a little earlier in the year, it can all seem a bit overwhelming, trying to work out which mobile products are the best fits for you, your friends, and your family. If you plan on giving the gift of smart devices to your loved ones this year, we’ve got some personal favorites we think would make some good suggestions, and we’re bringing them to you here, in the 2014 Pocketnow Holiday Shopping Guide.
As gifts go, cellular phones can be tricky ones. Assuming you can sort out issues with subsidies and term agreements, either buying off-contract or working with the recipient to find a device that fits with their existing service plan, there are some utterly fantastic smartphones to be had this year. Let’s take a look at some of the best:
How are we not going to start here? Apple’s latest smartphone is always one of the most eagerly-anticipated devices of the fall, and this year the manufacturer really outdid itself, tackling new form factors like never before. Despite some overblown complaints about build quality, there’s no mistaking these as absolutely premium phones, and you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a casual smartphone fan who wouldn’t simply love to find one (or both, if you want to be the coolest gift-giver ever) under the tree.
With broad carrier support, a fantastic app library, and bigger-than-ever storage options, it’s hard to go wrong here; the toughest problem may be deciding which model to go with.
Motorola Nexus 6
Apple may have some dedicated fans, but there are also plenty of smartphone lovers who just can’t get on board with the company’s walled garden approach to its ecosystem. You know the type: the user who demands so much from his or her phone that the stock software has been replaced with a custom ROM and the phone spends as much time tethered to a PC running the Android Debug Bridge as not. OK, that’s definitely pigeon-holing the average Nexus user a bit too severely, but you get our point.
If you crave openness, powerful hardware, and great software support, you can’t go wrong with Nexus phones, and this year’s is easily the most capable entry yet. Not everyone’s going to love the phablet size, but if you dig larger phones, this is a tough Android to pass up.
LG has really stepped up its smartphone game in 2014, selling handsets at a pace that would have seemed unheard of just one year ago, and it’s got the G3 to thank for a good share of that success. It managed to give many users their very first taste of a quad HD display, and dammit if it didn’t look beautiful. Couple that with a software experience we loved, a solid camera, and a very eye-catching design, and the G3 added up to being a more than worthy successor to the already impressive G2.
Since its launch, we seen more and more phones arrive to show off quad HD displays of their own, but the G3 remains one tough act to follow.
HTC Desire Eye
What what what? Where’s the One M8? We know, the M8 still reigns supreme over HTC’s smartphone offerings, but having launched all the way back closer to the start of the year, it’s just a little less exciting as a gift by this point. Maybe more than that, though, the Desire Eye is a fun phone, and when we picture the sort of handset we’d like to see at a holiday party, capturing shots of the whole shindig as well as selfies with select groups of friends, it’s hard to beat the Eye’s dual high-res cameras.
Throw in some cool design elements like those now-hidden BoomSound speakers (that still retain their stereo front-firing charm) and some attractive color options (that two-tone look never ceases to impress), and the Desire Eye finds itself becoming HTC’s most giftable handset this holiday season.
“But you just said…” Yeah, we know. But while the Android situation with the One M8 is one thing, moving on into middle age as it is, this M8 cousin is very much the new hottness for Windows Phone flagships. Its build is nothing like the Lumia models that so utterly dominate the platform’s landscape, making it both a great way to introduce new users to a platform they might have otherwise dismissed as overwhelmed with plastic toy-looking phones, as well as give a fresh new perspective to established WP users looking for a change of pace. But if you’re still carrying a torch for the Lumia family…
Microsoft Lumia 830
For as attractive as the One M8 for Windows is, we know that metal phones aren’t for everybody, and if you think someone you’re shopping for this year might prefer the bright, colorful look of a Lumia, the 830 is one of the latest options to arrive.
With a 10MP PureView main camera and wide-angle front-facer, the 830’s no slouch when it comes to photography, and while its other specs may fall a bit short of a powerhouse like the One M8, the 830 is a slightly more affordable option, going for just about $450 off contract.
Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
The full-sized Xperia Z3 is a very respectable phone, and would probably find a place on this list were it not so overshadowed by its pint-sized sibling, the Z3 Compact. We’re suckers for models that manage to not skimp on specs while also delivering sublimely pocket-sized handsets (heck, it’s in our name), and for everything the Z3 does right, the Z3 Compact does nearly just as well, but also a hell of a lot smaller. In a world where the latest Nexus phone is a nearly-six-inch giant, it’s nice to know that you can still get a top-tier phone in a well-under-five-inch form factor.
OK, now we’re talking here. While we absolutely adore smartphones, as we mentioned earlier, they aren’t always the most practical gifts. Tablets manage to fix that annoying cellular-service-aspect of phone gifting in two important ways: giving us WiFi-only editions where data plans aren’t even a consideration, and pricing for cellular-enabled models that sees off-contract and subsidized price tags come in close enough to make skipping on that data plan a viable option (maybe a $100 difference between those tablets, versus the $400 or higher impact phone subsidies make).
HTC Nexus 9
In the absence of a new Nexus 7, the Nexus 9 is this year’s pure Android tablet to beat. It’s giving many of us our first taste of Lollipop, and gifting it to someone can help assure they’ll always be at the forefront of the latest Android revisions. The new 4:3 aspect ratio is a huge departure from the bulk of the Android crowd, and while it may not be optimal for media playback, it makes the Nexus 9 that much more attractive as a vehicle for web browsing, document composition, and general productivity.
Like the Nexus 6, it’s a bit more expensive than some earlier Nexus options, but we’ve already seen the arrival of sales that make the Nexus 9 a hard tablet to pass up.
Apple iPad Air 2
Apple didn’t reinvent the wheel with this year’s flagship tablet, giving us a slate that’s more of a refresh of last year’s Air than something that breaks new ground. If you’ve already got an Air, that can make upgrading to the Air 2 a tricky decision, but if the person you’re shopping for doesn’t have an Air to begin with, the Air 2 is a much easier choice.
But maybe a nearly-ten-inch tablet is a little much. If you’d rather save space in your bag (not to mention a little money), there’s always…
Apple iPad mini 3
Again, we’re looking at an Apple tablet that doesn’t try too hard to distinguish itself from last year’s model. But that’s fine, because it’s not so much competing against its own previous incarnation, but the rest of the seven-to-eight-inch tablet pack out there.
One of the most important changes with this year’s iPad mini is the arrival of new storage options. As media libraries grow and apps demand more and more data storage, sometimes a 16GB (or even 32GB) tablet doesn’t cut it anymore; that’s why Apple’s upped the storage capacity on the iPad mini 3 to offer 64GB and even lofty 128GB capacities. Sure, you’ll pay a nice premium for those higher-end options, but especially if you’re going for a version without cellular connectivity, having all that data at your disposal with no cloud malarkey to worry about can prove invaluable.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Yeah, it’s getting a little old, but with no new non-Pro Surface landing this fall, the Pro 3 is still one of the best options out there for users craving a crazy portable Windows experience. More affordable options abound, but the Pro 3 continues to impress us with its robust specs, making it a legitimate laptop-killer. Even looking past the silicon, Microsoft did a great job with the Pro 3’s physical design, turning a previously serviceable kickstand into an even more flexible and useful feature.
This time last year, the smartwatch landscape was pretty barren. Sure, we had the Pebble (which we still love), and Samsung’s early Galaxy Gear effort, but it wasn’t until 2014 that smartwatch selection really exploded. We’re still waiting on some important models to arrive (which is why you won’t see the Apple Watch on this list), but this holiday season brings shoppers an unprecedented number of powerful wrist-bourne computers to choose from.
Motorola Moto 360
It’s possibly the first smartwatch that really managed to do the once-unthinkable: look like a regular watch. That’s thanks to the support in Android Wear for circular screens, as well as Motorola’s manufacturing prowess. And while the Moto 360 may have released to a bit of a bumpy start, subsequent software updates have done a great job at improving the experience. By now, we’ve also seen Motorola release additional options, including new metal bands and alternate colors, making the Moto 360 that much more flexible as a gift for the discerning watch fan.
LG G Watch R
But maybe you just can’t get over that sliver of a dead zone at the bottom of the 360’s display – and that’s fine, because LG has just the smartwatch to make good on the circular-above-all-else dream. The G Watch R may be the most expensive Android Wear model to date, but for that money you get a stylish watch that feels a lot more durable than a lot of its competition. The slightly sunken display helps keep the screen safe from scratches, and while that numbered bezel may not be for everyone, it sure helps the G Watch R blend in among non-smart-watches.
Sony Smartwatch 3
Sony’s no stranger to smartwatches, but with the Smartwatch 3 it finally took the leap over to Android Wear, and managed to deliver a pretty notable device while doing so. On the surface, the Smartwatch 3 may look like a lot of other Wear models, but its feature set is where this guy manages to stand out. Those include its own GPS receiver for gathering fine-grained position data to help with tracking runs, waterproof construction, and while it’s not active just yet, there’s hardware in place for WiFi connectivity, helping to offer a little future-proofing.
Samsung Gear S
Plenty of smartwatch users will tell you there’s no need for a stand-alone wearable when you’ve always got your phone in close proximity, but those people haven’t taken the time to get to know the Gear S. While it won’t bring you into the Android Wear ecosystem, running Tizen instead, the ability to take voice calls right on your wrist – calls that are actually audible and practical, rather than anything gimmicky – and some sensible service plan options from carriers in the States make the Gear S a model well worth considering.
Did we miss your favorite device of 2014? We couldn’t hit them all, and some really compelling models (like the Droid Turbo) had various issues (like carrier exclusivity) that make them a bit awkward to include here as gifts.
Now that you’ve got an option or two in mind for gadgets to buy for friends and family this holiday season, where do you go from here? Well, stay tuned to Pocketnow for additional holiday shopping advice, including an upcoming breakdown (early next week) of some of the hotter sales arriving for Black Friday. And as always, keep visiting to get the latest in news, reviews, and opinions on all the great mobile hardware that’s out there.