Wildest gift idea may be a phone
If a new cellphone sounds mundane, take a peek at the crazy new phones and phonelike gadgets that have come out this fall.
Seattle Times technology columnist
If you’re looking for an unusual gift this holiday season, perhaps you should consider a new phone.
That may sound boring, but you have to see some of the crazy new phones and phonelike gadgets showing up this fall.
It must be what it was like in the 1950s when carmakers were trying to one-up each other with bigger, faster and sometimes outlandish designs, roaring past the more sedate black boxes of the previous generation.
Here’s my quick take on several of these new machines — built for the new 4G LTE wireless interstate freeway — I’ve been playing with in recent weeks.
Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: Samsung took the phone-camera arms race to new heights with this unusual hybrid, adding an optical zoom lens to the back of its smaller Galaxy phone chassis.
The 10x zoom lens protrudes from the back of the phone like an aluminum Oreo cookie, making it a little awkward to hold while making phone calls. It also takes up more than twice the pocket space of a normal smartphone.
But in return, the phone gives you amazing pictures.
From up in the bleachers at a soccer game, it took crisp photos of players on the field. From the back of a dark theater, I could zoom up and take acceptable pictures of bands on the stage.
Some might think it’s worth wearing cargo pants to carry an S4 Zoom. It works well as a phone and includes the huge list of Galaxy features, including facial recognition, gesture input and voice controls.
I liked the “Inspector Gadget” feel, and it’s more practical than the 4G LTE-enabled cameras that Samsung has offered for sharing photos but not making calls.
The Zoom has a 16-megapixel camera and dual-core processor running Android 4.2. AT&T is selling it for $200 with a two-year contract, or $520 without.
The screen feels a little small at 4.3 inches diagonally, but maybe that’s just compared with the other phones I’ve been using lately.
HTC One Max: The first jumbo phone from the beleaguered Taiwanese phone-maker, the Max — with a 5.9-inch, 1080p screen — is a supersized version of the handsome HTC One.
Mega phones are apparently catching on, especially in some Asian markets. They can be carried in a purse or large pocket and used with a Bluetooth earpiece or smartwatch when you’re mobile. When you’ve got a place to sit — and rest your elbows — you can use them like a small tablet.
The Max has a distinctive metal case with white and silver accents and dual grills for its front-facing speakers. It also has HTC’s attractive software interface, which overlays the Android operating system and fills the screen with large, dynamic tiles, making it feel more like Windows 8 than XP.
The coolest feature, besides the big screen, is a fingerprint sensor on the back. In addition to unlocking the phone with a finger swipe, the sensor can be configured to read three different fingers to unlock the phone and then open different apps. For instance, one finger can unlock it, another can unlock and launch the camera and a third can unlock and launch messaging.
HTC doesn’t list the Max camera’s megapixels and instead talks up the size of its sensor and the four “ultrapixels” it captures. In casual testing the Max took perfectly fine, but not eye-popping, pictures. HTC provides lots of camera options, but its drop-down menus aren’t as fun to use as the touch-screen dials Samsung and Nokia have in their camera apps.
Sprint is selling the Max for $150 with discounts, and Verizon is selling it for $300, both with a two-year contract.
Nokia Lumia 1520: No longer last to the party, the Windows Phone platform has a jumbo phone with last week’s launch of the 6-inch Nokia Lumia 1520.
The curved, plastic case of the Lumia scales up nicely to the larger size, as does the software’s tiled interface. Like other jumbo phones, it’s too big to use entirely one-handed, but you can rearrange tiles and move favorites to the right side so your thumb can reach them.
Nokia is running with the advanced photo capabilities that debuted with its 41-megapixel 1020 last summer. The 1520 includes the same “Pro Cam” app with advanced photo controls.
Less cool is the tone of several data-sharing approval screens that I encountered, pressing users to share location and usage information with Microsoft. I haven’t noticed this before, and it’s troubling.
There’s no reason for Nokia’s “Refocus” app — which sharpens pictures after you’ve taken them — to demand that users agree to share location information with Microsoft. If you decline, you can’t use the free app.
Nor should people wanting to use speech commands on the phone be required to let Microsoft gather “the words you speak and supporting data, including recent contact names,” in order to “use additional speech features on your phone.”
People blithely give companies personal information in exchange for free apps and services all the time. You toss much of your privacy when you use any smartphone. Perhaps Microsoft is just being more transparent about this transaction on particularly valuable apps, making sure it gets a good trade.
But it’s surprising to see the underdog phone platform take such an aggressive stance. It undermines the friendly, feel-good tone the software tries to set. How about giving users the option of paying for extra apps with cash rather than additional personal information?
Fortunately, it’s an issue that surfaced only with a few supplemental features and apps.
Overall the Lumia 1520 is a great phone and definitely worth a look if you’re considering a jumbo smartphone. In addition to the excellent camera, design and software, there are nice little touches, such as the clock and notifications that continue to be visible on screen when the phone’s asleep.
The 1520 is $200 with a contract at AT&T. Recent online offers had it for $100.
Nokia Lumia 2520: It’s not really a phone, but Nokia’s first Windows tablet looks a lot like one, uses the same curved case as Lumia handsets and is being sold by wireless carriers. It also finally gives Windows tablet users a decent option with built-in 4G LTE service.
The 2520 has a 10.1-inch diagonal, high-def display that does surprisingly well in bright sunlight. It also has a 6.7-megapixel camera and 32 gigs of storage, plus USB 3.0 and mini HDMI ports.
At $500, it’s $50 more than Microsoft’s Surface 2 tablet. Both use the Windows RT operating system, which comes with the Office suite but doesn’t run other standard Windows programs, only apps offered through Microsoft’s app store.
The Lumia is thinner, curvier and more colorful than the Teutonic, titanium Surface. The Surface lacks built-in LTE but does have a handy kickstand, memory-card slot and several keyboard options.
I haven’t yet tried the 2520s accessory keyboard, but was able to use a Bluetooth keyboard. Office ran well; the challenge was propping the tablet up.
Phone carriers lower the 2520s price by $100 if you buy a contract. AT&T is also offering it for $200 if you also buy a Lumia phone.
I tried a black 2520 that worked with AT&T’s network, and a red one for Verizon. The latter looks and feels like a piece of a Ferrari Formula One car, but for some reason it sometimes took a bit longer to connect to the network.
If you’re interested in a basic Windows tablet and want some flair in your briefcase, the Lumia is an option. The price feels high, though, considering all the tablets and laptops available in the $300 range, including several slightly smaller tablets that run the full version of Windows 8.1.
Even more intriguing is the question of whether the Lumia or Surface team will lead the design of Microsoft’s tablet computers after Microsoft absorbs Nokia’s mobile-devices business next year. I predict deals will then be available on one line of tablets or the other.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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