Computerworld's 2012 holiday gift guide

Smartphones to make them smile

In last year's holiday gift guide, we wondered when (and if) the smartphone market would settle down. Well, if this year's crop of new phones is anything to go by, not anytime soon.

Apple continues to please its fans with the new iPhone 5. Its larger display, lightweight body and high-end apps -- not to mention all the other Apple features -- will keep users happy. Meanwhile, a flood of new Android-based smartphones have hit the market, offering a variety of screen sizes, designs and features -- including, in some cases, the latest Android OS version 4.2 (Jelly Bean).

And speaking of operating systems, Windows Phone users now have the innovative Windows Phone 8 to try out, together with some snazzy new phones. So no matter which OS the folks on your gift list prefer, there's a fabulous new smartphone to fit the bill.

(By the way, if you receive a new phone for the holidays, be sure to dispose of your old one properly by wiping it completely and then recycling it or donating it to a charity like Verizon's HopeLine, which uses your old phone to support victims of domestic violence.)

iOS phone: Apple iPhone 5

The latest smartphone out of Cupertino features a 4-in. 1136 x 640 high-quality Retina screen, a powerful Apple-designed A6 processor, LTE wireless access, great battery life, and a gorgeous lightweight aluminum and glass housing that simply exudes quality. The iPhone measures 4.8 x 2.3 in. and weighs 3.95 oz., making it one of the lightest phones on the market.

It also offers compelling hardware -- like the 8mp rear-facing camera, which is also capable of shooting 1080p high-definition video with stabilization support -- but it's the easy-to-use software that allows you to fully explore its capabilities. With automatic backup and data syncing between devices using iCloud, simple and free FaceTime videoconferencing, and Apple's virtual assistant Siri, the software is designed to take full advantage of every bit of hardware.

The iPhone 5 has full access to the iTunes digital ecosystem for music, movies, TV shows and podcasts, as well as over 750,000 third-party applications in the Apple App Store. (Parents: Since the applications found in the App Store are checked by Apple, you won't have to worry about those apps putting malware or sexually explicit content on your kids' phones.)

As I wrote in my Computerworld review:

The iPhone 5 is a great piece of hardware on its own. But when you factor in Apple's digital ecosystem (iTunes, the App Store, iBooks) and its integration with other products (Photo Streams, AirPlay and iCloud), and superior third-party support, you can see why the iPhone 5 is destined to be another major success. (Read the full review)

The iPhone 5 is available in 16BG, 32GB and 64GB models, and is supported on the AT&T, Verizon and Sprint networks in the U.S.

You might also like: If you're in the market for an iPhone, but the latest and greatest model isn't a requirement, you can get the 16GB iPhone 4S for $99 or the iPhone 4 for free with a two-year carrier contract.

-- Michael deAgonia

iPhone 5 from Apple

Price: $199 - $399

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

Summary: With high-quality construction, top software and the best digital stores in iTunes and the App Store, the iPhone continues to be the standard-bearer for modern smartphones.

Android phone: Google Nexus 4

Android comes in many different flavors, but none is as tasty as Google's own pure version of the mobile OS. The Nexus 4, available unlocked for $299 to $349, is the latest flagship phone to serve as a showcase for such software -- and boy, does it deliver.

While most Android devices are loaded down with bloatware and messy manufacturer-made interfaces, the Nexus 4 ships with an untouched version of Google's Android 4.2 Jelly Bean OS. The result is a subdued and visually consistent platform that's packed with power and intuitive to use. The Nexus 4 also comes with a guarantee of fast and frequent future upgrades directly from Google -- a stark contrast to the wait-and-see game you're forced to play with most Android manufacturers.

Software aside, the LG-manufactured Nexus 4 boasts a beautiful glass-centric design with a 4.7-in. 1280 x 768 True HD IPS screen. As I wrote in my Computerworld review:

The Nexus 4 feels sleek, solid and substantial. It's a luxurious piece of hardware, with not a single flimsy or plasticky-feeling surface to be found.

(Read the full review)

The Nexus 4 runs on a super-speedy 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor along with 2GB of RAM. It has an excellent 8mp rear-facing camera as well as a front-facing 1.3mp camera for vanity pics and video chat.

And because it is compatible with any GSM/HSPA+ carrier in the U.S., the phone will work with AT&T, T-Mobile or any of the prepaid carriers that utilize those networks.

All combined, the phone offers the best overall user experience you can find on Android today.

You might also like: The Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD ($300 from Verizon with two-year contract) combines durable build quality with phenomenal battery life -- an estimated 32 hours of mixed usage per charge. The HTC One X+ ($200 from AT&T with two-year contract), meanwhile, offers a great all-around package with a first-class camera and standout screen.

-- JR Raphael

Nexus 4 from Google

Price: $299 - $349

Tech specs | Phone: (855) 836-3987

Summary: The Nexus 4 provides the ultimate Android experience with no carrier contracts or commitments.

Windows phone: Nokia Lumia 920

If someone on your gift list is looking for a Windows Phone 8 device, here's what they want: the Nokia Lumia 920. Its big, bright 4.5-in. 1280-x-720-pixel display shows off the Windows Phone 8 tile-based interface to best effect. PC World reviewer Amber Bouman agrees:

[The display] is drop-dead gorgeous. Capable of deep blacks, rich colors, and sharp text, the 920 is rocking a slightly higher pixel density -- 332 ppi -- than the iPhone 5's Retina Display, which has 326 ppi. Images are crisp and popping with color, text is pleasant to read, and videos look amazing. Not only does the Lumia 920 provide a stellar viewing experience on an expansive screen, but it is also capable of great visibility in sunlight. (Read the full review)

Even though the phone is sizable -- it measures 5.1 x 2.7 in. and weighs a solid 6.5 oz. -- its rounded edges make it easy and comfortable to hold. Powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, the 4G LTE phone is fast and responsive. It comes with 32GB of storage and sports an NFC chip as well.

As for the price, at $100 with a two-year contract ($450 without a contract), buying this gets you a luxury-level phone at a very reasonable price.

The only downside is that it's available only with AT&T, so make sure the person you're buying for uses that carrier.

You might also like: If the Windows Phone lover on your gift list is a T-Mobile or Verizon Wireless customer, HTC's Windows Phone 8X is a great choice. It's got a crisp display, zippy performance, NFC and a stylish, soft matte polycarbonate body. It costs $100 (8GB) or $200 (16GB) with two-year contract from AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon Wireless. You can also buy a no-contract version for $500 (8GB) or $550 (16GB).

-- Preston Gralla

Lumia 920 from Nokia

Price: $100 (with two-year AT&T contract); $450 (no contract)

Tech specs | Store locator

Summary: The Lumia 920 is the best Windows Phone 8 device you can buy today: fast and powerful, with a great screen and a reasonable price.

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