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Product Reviews

Devices get smarter, pack in more features

Smartphones, tablets, and e-book readers offering more

Devices by makers like Samsung are increasingly matching or beating Apple’s performance.

Michael Sohn/Associated Press

Devices by makers like Samsung are increasingly matching or beating Apple’s performance.

More than 240 million smartphones and tablets will be sold in the United States this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Add in millions more cameras and other hand-held devices, and America is on track in 2013 to acquire a new gadget for roughly every man, woman, and child over the age of 12.

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

Continue reading below

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 flashes, 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 would 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 are also much better for reading in bright light (say, at the beach), and they 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 are 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 are matching or beating Apple’s models. 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 are not as good as the ads might lead you to believe. Even the phones and tablets that stood out in Consumer Reports’ tests didn’t sound as loud or as rich as even a low-cost speaker.

Battery life gets longer. Manufacturers are tweaking batteries, circuitry, software, and more to maximize run time. If you bought a tablet or phone two or more years ago, battery life alone could be reason to upgrade.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.

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