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Consumer Reports: 8 things to consider when buying tech gadgets

Not all cameras or displays are created equal

Thursday, July 25, 2013 - 10:56 am

Think you and your family are major multigadgeters now? Consumer Reports notes that the mobile wave is still cresting: More than 240 million smartphones and tablets will be sold in the United States this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Here's Consumer Reports' advice on how to make great choices in smartphones, tablets, cameras, e-book readers and more:

•Phones, meet cameras. Cameras, meet phones. Despite their tinier lenses and image sensors, the best new smartphone cameras can capture images as good as those from highly ranked basic cameras, but only under optimal conditions. Only a few have very good video quality. Tablets' cameras aren't as advanced as those on phones, though some (including the latest iPads and Galaxy Note tablets) offer flash, panorama modes and rudimentary manual exposure.

•E-book readers are down – but not out. With e-reading migrating to tablets and phones, you may see less need for a dedicated e-book reader such as the Barnes & Noble Nook or Amazon Kindle. And you'd be right. So why consider an e-book reader? Because the best are lighter and cheaper by half than even a small, light tablet. They're also better for reading in bright light and run for weeks – in some cases even months – on a charge.

•Displays get sharp and wide. Manufacturers are packing more pixels into each square inch of phone and tablet displays. The result is sharper type and better-looking images, including videos that meet the 1080p resolution spec of “full HD” television screens. Another slimming factor in some big phones, including models from HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung, is a display that runs nearly all the way to the edge of the device.

•Apple holds an edge in apps – iPhones and iPads are the way to go for the most, and most varied, apps. Though Google Play and even Amazon's Appstore carry most major apps, Apple usually has them first. It also offers many titles that never make it to other platforms. And if you're looking for the most innovative apps, you still can't beat Apple.

•... But no longer in design innovation. iPhones and iPads remain high performers in Consumer Reports' Ratings and by far the most-owned brands of mobile devices among its readers. But more phones and tablets than ever are matching or beating Apple's models in its Ratings. Among the most dominant alternatives to Apple devices: a slew of superb phones and tablets from Samsung. Still, Apple retains unique strengths, including its elegant iOS operating system, largely unchanged for a few years and familiar to many.

•Don't be afraid to mix or switch platforms. Adding a new OS to the mix, or even switching entirely, isn't as daunting as you might fear. Today's operating systems are quite intuitive and easy to learn, and chances are you can easily transfer much of your content.

•Built-in speakers are better – but not great. Looking for a smartphone or tablet with speakers that do a decent job with music and video soundtracks? Several new models are billed as offering enhanced sound quality, but they're not as good as the ads might lead you to believe.

•Battery life gets longer. Manufacturers are tweaking batteries, circuitry, software and more to maximize run time. If you're among the one-third or so of readers who bought a tablet or phone two or more years ago, battery life alone could be a reason to upgrade.