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What's new in smart phones, tablets, e-book readers, and more

Find the best 'tech to go' for your staycation or summer travels

Consumer Reports magazine: August 2012

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The latest handheld devices are thinner, lighter, and more powerful than those of even a year or two ago. Meanwhile, prices continue to drop, with more $100 smart phones and $250 tablets on the market, to mention just two examples.

Read on to see what else is happening in the world of consumer electronics.

Displays are bigger and better

Samsung Galaxy Note

As screens in just about every mobile category grow, there’s more size overlap. Most smart phones in our Ratings (available to subscribers) have a display measuring 4 inches or larger, and some now approach or exceed the 5-inch mark, a size that was once exclusive to e-book readers and tablets.

Tablets come in more sizes between 7 and 10 inches, and soon there will be a Toshiba tablet with a 13-inch screen, pushing into laptop territory. LCD screens now fill the back of most point-and-shoot cameras, with more approaching the size of those on smaller smart phones. E-book readers are an exception to the rule: The displays on most remain 6 or 7 inches, the best compromise for easy reading and maximum portability.

Displays on smart phones and tablets have become more responsive to touch (a feature most have) and refresh more quickly, in part because of speedy dual- and quad-core processors. They also offer dazzling detail. Examples include the high-resolution Retina displays on the Apple iPhone 4 and 4S and the newest, third-generation iPad, as well as high-definition displays from HTC, LG, and Samsung.

Chances are that the screen on any mobile device in our Ratings of recommended models will suffice. But opt for a model with a higher-rated display to get the most enjoyment from color images on a tablet or to more easily read type in a smaller font size on a phone or an e-book reader.

The highly rated Samsung Galaxy Note phone (shown above) has the largest display in our Ratings. At 5.3 inches, it’s a full inch larger than those on many models. The extra real estate is great for reading, gaming, and the like, but it hampers one-handed use of the phone, which might also fit less easily in your pocket.

Connections are faster

Almost all of the recommended smart phones and the tested tablets with wireless-carrier capability use faster 4G networks as well as older 3G ones. (E-book readers continue to use 3G, which is more than adequate for their data needs.) That promises faster data downloads and possibly higher bills.

All of the major carriers—with a nudge from the Federal Communications Commission, supported by Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports—have agreed to provide free alerts when you approach your data limits to minimize “bill shock” from overage charges. Carriers have also said they’ll soon offer data plans to allow families using multiple devices to share a monthly data allocation.

Whenever possible, use Wi-Fi for data-intensive tasks such as streaming video. The number of free Wi-Fi hot spots is growing, in part because of a recent pact among Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner Cable to share their 50,000 Wi-Fi hot spots around the country with one another’s subscribers as a perk to cable users.

Profiles are thinner

HTC One S

Mobile devices continue to get slimmer, thanks in part to design changes such as thinner batteries that surround circuitry. Cameras, for example, have become remarkably thin. Yet some slim models have retained, and even increased, a powerful optical zoom, which tends to add bulk.

But making a device smaller and increasing the power of its processor and battery can increase surface heat, as we found in tests of the iPad 2 and the warmer (though still safe), newest iPad. And there’s a downside to wraparound batteries: You can’t swap them in and out yourself.

Devices learn to share

Windows 8 promises to bring the “tiled” interface of Windows phones to tablets and PCs.

Manufacturers are heading toward integrated operating systems that promise to make it easier to access applications, multimedia content, personal data, and messages from any device.

Microsoft is launching an integrated OS this fall. While it may have different names for different devices—including Windows 8, Windows RT (for some tablets), and Windows Phone 8 (Apollo)—it promises to bring a more uniform interface to Microsoft’s multiple platforms.

Apple already allows you to download apps—once restricted to devices that use the company’s mobile OS—to Mac computers. The launch of Apple’s new computer OS, Mountain Lion, this summer will bring more features. They include being able to send unlimited free messages from your Mac to other Apple owners and to have the messages sync with your iPhone and iPad.

Another cross-platform trend is a growing ability to transfer content from handheld devices to your TV. On Macs with the new OS, you’ll be able to use AirPlay mirroring, which will let you view what’s on an iPad or iPhone 4S on your TV set via an Apple TV console. And TV manufacturers, including LG, Panasonic, and Samsung, now offer the ability (either built into the set or via downloadable apps) to transfer content such as videos and photos from mobile devices to your TV.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Consumer Reports magazine with the headline "Tech to Go."

   

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