Portables Awards – Q1 2013

3/18/2013 9:16:11 AM

Smartphones are getting bigger, tablets are getting smaller. The lines may be blurring, but sales are soaring: this is must-have kit

Product of the year

Best tablet up to $450

Google Nexus 7: $240

The launch of the Google Nexus 7 was the moment Google attempted to make the same mark on the tablet market that its Android phones have made in the world of smartphones.

Google Nexus 7, Best tablet up to $450

Google Nexus 7, Best tablet up to $450

Comparisons with the iPad come easily but, for two key reasons, this isn’t really a like-for-like screen. That’s noticeably smaller than most tablets, which tend to be around the 10in mark. Then there’s the price: at $238.5 for the 8GB version, or $298.5 for the 16GB model, the 7 is at most half the price of the iPad.

The specification isn’t left wanting, either. The 7in, 1280 x 800 HD screen ticks our boxes, while there’s the very latest version of Android, Jelly Bean 4.1, as the OS.  It feels solidly built and looks smart, too.

You can have 8 or 16GB version (the latter is $300), though neither has an SD card slot. There’s Bluetooth, NFC and Wi-Fi inside, a front-facing camera, and access to the Google Play store of apps. The choice is excellent though not many are yet optimized for this tablet. BBC iPlayer is one noticeable absentee, however, although there are workarounds.

Down to core business and the smaller size proves ideal for comfortable use – it’s very light and compact. The smaller screen size helps make for sharp and detailed video even streamed (HD) video from YouTube looks solid. There’s not quite the punch and color of the best displays but we’re very happy with video performance. And it’s a similar story with audio. File compatibility is thorough and music sounds good: Hans Zimmer tracks are exciting and detailed, Emeli Sande’s vocals are nicely open and subtle, while Julio Bashmore’s dance track Au Seve sounds suitably powerful.

Competitive performance at a superb price

The Google Nexus 7 has shaken up the market by offering a smaller sized tablet at a more affordable price, and with a competitive level of performance. And with the Google brand name of good measure.

Solid audio and video performance and an increasingly thorough and reliable selection of apps and other content, make this a genuine, affordable iPad alternative. And our Product of the Year.

Best Smartphone

Samsung Galaxy S3: $750

It took something special to take top spot from the iPhone last year – and it has taken something even better to retain it. The latest incarnation of Samsung’s Galaxy S range, the S3, is bigger and better than anything before it, and confirms Samsung as Apple’s key smartphone rival.

A dream of a screen: the new iPhone certainly pushes it close, but the S3 has the great benefit of its larger screen – a real joy for web browsing

A dream of a screen: the new iPhone certainly pushes it close, but the S3 has the great benefit of its larger screen – a real joy for web browsing

The most eye-catching feature is the screen. It’s a 4.8in HD Super AMOLED monster, with a resolution of 1280 x 720 and Android’s 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system.

Inside is a quad-core 1.4Ghz processor, a microSD card slot, support for apt-X Bluetooth, NFC and DLNA and a choice of 16, 32 ad 64GB storage. The unit packs new features, too, with S Voice, a Sire-like voice control system, and Smart Stay, which keeps the screen on as long as you’re looking at it. Both work effectively.

A Wolfson DAC and the addition of apt-X Bluetooth wireless streaming show that Samsung means business. A listen to The xx’s Coexist reveals that voices are open with plenty of room to breathe, while there’s good weight to bass notes.

The S3 adds useful features, a bigger screen, improved audio and video, and the perhaps the best Android experience yet

There’s nothing wrong with the level of detail nor the dynamic power on show, and with a decent pair of earphones in place of the average buds included it’s clear this is a capable music device.

But it’s video and web browsing at which the S3 really excels.  Picture quality is good, delivering colorful, vivid images that look great on that big screen. Web browsing is joy, too, with so much screen real estate to play with.

Features and future technologies

The 8MP camera is generally easy to use and quick to take a picture. Battery life is as good as most, while there are more features and future technologies on this phone than any other on the market.

Its predecessor delivered a level of performance previously unseen for an Android device and the Galaxy S3 has successfully built on that, adding new, useful features, a bigger and better screen, improved audio and video quality for perhaps the best Android experience yet.

The Apple iPhone 5 drove the S3 very close, and will do some things better for some people, but for an all-round example of everything that a smartphone can do in 2012, and for really pushing the boundaries of mobile technology, Samsung takes our crown.

Best tablet $450+

Apple iPad: $599

 The new iPad may look similar to the iPad 2, but much has changed. Thanks to a new screen and a faster quad-core processor, there’s plenty to get excited about with Apple’s latest-generation tablet.

iOS heaven: there’s no match for Apple’s interface: intuitive, fast and fluid, it’s bursting with thousands of apps custom-made for the new iPad

iOS heaven: there’s no match for Apple’s interface: intuitive, fast and fluid, it’s bursting with thousands of apps custom-made for the new iPad

Most crucial in is that screen: the Retina Display has a mighty 2048 x 1536 resolution. Web browsing, reading, photo editing or movie watching – all are crisper, more vibrant, downright better experiences.

Those extra pixels make a big difference to HD movies. Edges are sharper, fine details are clearer and better defined (but never exaggerated), and the authentic picture grain is more, well, authentic.

Even standard-def videos look better. The only fly in the ointment is that its 4:3 screen ratio means black bars at top and bottom when watching widescreen films.

The Retina Display has a mighty 2048 x 1536 resolution and those extra pixels really do make a big difference

This remains the top tablet for music, too, with impressive dynamic range, detail and rhythm. Apple doesn’t support FLAC, but WAV is on board for those who want an uncompressed format.

There’s a bigger battery, so power lasts as long as the iPad 2’s despite the extra processing and pixels. This does give the tablet a little extra weight and thickness, and it takes longer to charge.

Now with AirPlay too

The addition of AirPlay to the Apple arsenal makes the iPad even more versatile, while increasing number of remote control apps really come in to their owns on the larger screen.

We would love to see a version that will work with the soon to launch 4G network in the UK – and the option of a bigger storage capacity would be great. That said, there’s no match for the iPad’s functionality, usability and performance. So, for media consumption on the move or at home, this is our big-screen, premium tablet of choice.

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