Now that most smart phones have large screens, fast 4G data connections, and apps for almost every need, one of the latest trends is simplifying routine tasks. For example, many of the cameras on new smart phones have tools for fixing problems before or after you press the shutter. Wireless technologies such as near-field communication (NFC) make it easy to beam photos, music, or videos to speakers, TVs, and other devices. Some new, tough models can survive a tumble on a trail or a dunk in a pool. (Click through to our model pages for prices of the smart phones featured here.)
For the shutterbug who can't resist shooting everything that passes before her eyes, the Nokia Lumia 1020 (AT&T) is the next best thing to a dedicated camera. In fact, it is essentially a high-resolution camera fused to a very capable smart phone with a dazzling 4.5-inch display.
The 38.2-megapixel camera of this Windows-based phone takes the sharpest still photos of any smart-phone camera we've tested, producing very good-quality images at ISO settings up to 3200. At that high a resolution, you can enlarge small portions of an image and still have lots of detail.
The camera is also loaded with advanced features, including a half-dozen controls for manipulating exposure levels and other adjustments. Videos weren’t quite as impressive as stills, but they're probably adequate for such casual use as uploading to YouTube or Facebook.
Maybe the video your friend took of that aria-singing dolphin would look more impressive on a 55-inch LCD TV. Or his favorite song would sound better on something other than a phone's tiny speakers. No problem—it's a snap, or rather a bump, with an NFC-enabled phone like the Android-based LG Optimus G Pro (AT&T) plus one of the better NFC-enabled TVs and wireless speaker systems.
This smart phone packs an excellent-quality 5.5-inch, high-definition (1080p) touch-screen display and a bevy of compelling capabilities. These include an infrared blaster and a QuickRemote app that, like a universal remote, can be used to control compatible TVs, set-top boxes, Blu-ray players, and more. Its QSlide feature lets you watch video or another app in a resizable window on the phone’s display so that you can perform other tasks.
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Know someone who's dying to have every cool feature available on a phone? The Android-based Samsung Galaxy S 4 (multiple carriers) won't disappoint. In fact, your friend will be able to perform a lot of common tasks on the Galaxy S 4 without even touching its gorgeous 5-inch, high-definition (1080p) touch-screen display.
For example, she can preview e-mail, calendar appointments, videos, and more by hovering her finger above them. And she can accept a phone call or skip to the next song on her playlist just by waving her hand in front of the screen. The front-facing camera will monitor her eyes while she's reading to prevent the screen from timing out.
The Galaxy S 4's 12.8- megapixel camera can fix photos marred by bad poses, bad timing, and even bad luck. For example, Erase Shot lets you delete a person or any other undesirable object that may end up in your otherwise perfect photo. And a multi-window feature lets you run two apps simultaneously in a split-screen view. For instance, you can watch a video while viewing e-mail, or use Google Maps and messaging side by side.
You know that person. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can keep him from the swift completion of his appointments, texts, and e-mail. With its rugged, weather-resistant case, the Android-based Casio G'zOne Commando 4G LTE (Verizon) should be just the thing. Frost-fighting explorers will appreciate that the display can be made sensitive enough to be used with gloves. And this phone is brimming with features you can use in the wild, including a compass, thermometer, pedometer, and other apps.
We put this model through its paces, submerging it in about 3 feet of water for 30 minutes. The Commando continued to work, and we saw no visible signs of water intrusion or damage. We also tested the Commando’s ability to fend off mechanical shocks using our tumbling equipment, which drops phones in random fashion. Again, the phone continued to work and showed no signs of damage.
An Apple iPhone is the hands-down winner for anyone who must have every hot game, song, or TV show on their phone. Whether you give the new iPhone 5s or one of the previous iPhone models that Apple still offers at a lower price, the recipient is sure to be pleased.
The selection of music, video, games, and apps from iTunes and the App Store is simply unrivaled for sheer volume and diversity. The range of applications has been expanded to include networked, player-to-player gaming via its Game Center. iPhone owners also have accessories galore—cases, compatible devices, and more—from which to choose.
This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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