Cool stuff: Your 2011 holiday tech gift guide

From tablets and smartphones to HDTVs and a few surprises, we've rounded up the best tech gear to give and get this year.

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Smartphones keep getting better

You would have thought that things would have settled down somewhat on the smartphone front by now, wouldn't you? Yet the market is hotter than ever, and would-be buyers are constantly being bombarded by the Next Big Thing.

Contented Apple iPhone owners were lured to upgrade to the new iPhone 4S by Siri, the sometimes snarky "personal assistant" that comes with it. Meanwhile, new and exciting Android phones are being introduced nearly every week -- although hardcore enthusiasts have been holding out for the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which is rumored to be shipping within the next two weeks and comes equipped with Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest version of the Android OS.

So which makes the best holiday gift? Well, if the iPhone 4S or Galaxy Nexus doesn't attract you, we've also got some phones that we can recommend for high style or low price. At least one of these should be perfect for the phone-fan on your gift list.

Best iOS phone: Apple iPhone 4S

Although the iPhone 4S looks just like its predecessor, the latest smartphone from Apple is the only one to offer Siri, the voice-controlled "personal assistant" that allows you to make appointments, search the Web for answers and set personal reminders by voice alone. The 4S, which Apple released in September, also has a faster dual-core processor (the same one used in the iPad 2) and a higher resolution 8-megapixel camera that takes full 1080p hi-def video.

Apple iPhone 4S

Apple iPhone 4S

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The top-end model offers 64GB of storage, which is enough space to hold a large digital library of music, photos, music videos and TV shows. The iPhone 4S also has a redesigned antenna for better reception and fewer dropped calls.

But really, the main reason to get the 4S instead of the iPhone 4 (which is still available) is so your gift recipient can use Siri. As Computerworld reviewer Michael deAgonia says:

Siri is Apple's first attempt at voice-activated artificial intelligence on a commercial device. What does that mean? It means simply that you can tell your phone what to do, and it will just do it. No doubt other smartphone owners are saying, "Hey, my phone can accept voice commands, too." Trust me, not like this. (Read the full review.)

You can interact with Siri using common phrases and questions, and she (it?) will respond in kind. Rather than using stilted language to phrase your query, just tell Siri "I'm hungry." You'll get back a list of local restaurants. Or ask whether it's going to snow, and Siri will tell you based on your location, along with a more detailed forecast. Siri also takes dictation, allowing you to send text messages just by speaking the message out loud. In short, Siri -- via the iPhone 4S -- can revolutionize how we use our phones.

You might also like: The Apple iPhone 4 costs a reasonable $99 for an 8GB model. If you think your giftee can get by with that little storage and can live without Siri and a higher-resolution camera, the iPhone 4 is a less expensive alternative.

-- Ken Mingis

iPhone 4S from Apple

Price: $199 (16GB), $299 (32GB), $399 (64GB)

Tech specs   |  Product video   |  Store locator  |  Phone: (800) MY-APPLE

Summary: With the addition of Siri voice control, the new iPhone 4S speaks for itself.

Best Android phone: Samsung Galaxy Nexus

OK, we admit it: Our top Android phone pick isn't even available in the U.S. yet, and we're not exactly sure when it will be. But Samsung's Galaxy Nexus is Android at its finest, and it's worth waiting for.

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

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The Galaxy Nexus, due to launch on Verizon Wireless this month, is the first device to run Google's new Android 4.0 (a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich) release. It's also one of just a few phones that'll use a pure version of the software, with no manufacturer-added skins or bloatware. That means the Galaxy Nexus will always be first in line for future Android upgrades and will avoid the waiting and uncertainty that frequently plague other Android devices.

Software aside, the Galaxy Nexus is a sleek and powerful gadget with plenty of appealing qualities. The handset features a brilliant 4.65-in. display tucked into a slim and lightweight body. Unlike past Android phones, the Nexus has no physical buttons, relying instead on Ice Cream Sandwich's new on-screen navigation system.

The Galaxy Nexus is fast, too: It packs a 1.2GHz dual-core processor and a full gigabyte of RAM. The phone provides smooth home screen swiping, near-instant app-loading and top-notch performance -- even with heavy-duty multitasking and resource-intensive game use.

I summed it up in my Computerworld review:

I test a lot of Android phones, and I'm not exaggerating when I say the Galaxy Nexus delivers the fastest and most reliable performance I've encountered. The phone's processing power deserves some of the credit, but I suspect a good portion also belongs to the improvements made in Ice Cream Sandwich and the tight-knit hardware-software integration that comes along with Google's involvement on the development level. That's always been a benefit of the Nexus line of devices, and the Galaxy Nexus is no exception. (Read the full review.)

The Galaxy Nexus has a 5-megapixel front-facing camera with zero shutter lag and a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video chat, which is natively available via Google's cross-platform Google Talk service.

Bottom line: For a top-of-the-line, cutting-edge smartphone experience, the Galaxy Nexus is a tough gift to beat -- even if you have to issue a temporary rain check for it.

You might also like: The Samsung Galaxy S II ($199.99 with a two-year contract) is a standout 4G Android 2.3 phone with great design and impressive performance. AT&T and Sprint have different but equally appealing models; T-Mobile also offers a version of the device, but its model has some unfortunate flaws that put it a solid step below the others.

-- JR Raphael

Galaxy Nexus from Samsung

Street price: Not available at press time

Tech specs   |  Product video

Summary: The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is the phone for those who take their Android straight, with a side of Ice Cream Sandwich.

Most stylish Android phone: Motorola Droid Razr

When it comes to sheer tech sexiness, Motorola's Droid Razr is an undeniable object of desire. The Droid Razr, available for $300 with a two-year contract from Verizon Wireless, is as thin as smartphones get right now -- a mere 0.3 in. -- and features a sturdy stainless steel and Kevlar fiber-based body. The material is water-repellent and has scratch-resistant Corning Gorilla Glass on its front. If the Droid Razr were a liquor, it'd definitely be sitting on the top shelf.

Motorola Droid Razr

Motorola Droid Razr

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This gadget isn't just about looks, though: In addition to its stylish appearance, the Droid Razr has the 1.2GHz dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM that are quickly becoming the standard for high-end Android devices. It has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with 1080p high-definition video capture as well as a lower-resolution front-facing camera for video chat. And speaking of high definition, the Droid Razr boasts a 4.3-in. screen that offers both excellent visuals and power-saving potential.

As Computerworld reviewer Dan Rosenbaum explains:

One way Motorola expects to save power is by using a Super AMOLED display, which is something that has previously been seen only on Samsung phones. These beautiful screens are thin, light and power-stingy -- three things that were clearly design goals of the Razr. (Read the full review.)

Motorola has loaded the Razr up with specialized software, including an app that lets you wirelessly stream multimedia content from your PC to your phone. The phone also comes with Moto's new "Smart Actions" utility, which provides customization of location-based settings and a host of security tools for the business-minded buyer.

The Droid Razr may not have the "pure Google" benefit the Galaxy Nexus possesses -- the phone ships with Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and is expected to receive a modified version of Android 4.0 early next year -- but it is without a doubt a drool-worthy Android device. For many smartphone users, this will be the must-have gadget of the season.

You might also like: The HTC Rezound ($299.99 from Verizon with two-year contract) combines looks and power with ear-thumping audio, thanks to HTC's new partnership with Beats by Dre. The phone features Beats Audio digital signal processing and comes with a set of Beats Audio headphones, making it an ideal gift for any music-loving phone fan.

-- JR Raphael

Droid Razr from Motorola Mobility

Retail price: $199.99 - $299.99

Tech Specs   |  Product video   |  Store locator  |  Phone: (800) 922-0204

Summary: The Droid Razr's sleek, incredibly slim profile and top-level features makes it one of this year's most stylish and desirable smartphones.

Best budget Android phone: Samsung Infuse 4G

If you want to buy a good Android smartphone without breaking the bank, the Samsung Infuse 4G is an excellent option. Available for $49.99 with a two-year contract from AT&T, the Samsung Infuse offers high-quality hardware and good midrange performance at a very reasonable cost.

Samsung Infuse 4G

Samsung Infuse 4G

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The Infuse features a 4.5-in. Super AMOLED Plus display -- the same screen that's won seemingly endless praise in the Galaxy S II line of devices for its crisp images and bold, brilliant colors. The phone has a super-thin profile, too, helping to create a polished and attractive overall package.

Computerworld reviewer Dan Rosenbaum calls the Infuse a "lightweight heavyweight," noting:

Samsung's phones sometimes feel flimsy because they're so light. Not so much with the Infuse. The feeling of solidness is helped by a highly textured back cover, which might be necessary to keep a phone this size from popping out of your hand. (Read the full review.)

The Infuse doesn't have the same processing power as its higher-end smartphone siblings; rather, it runs on a single-core 1.2GHz CPU along with 512MB of RAM. For power users who really push their phones to the max, this setup may prove insufficient compared to today's top-of-the-line standards -- but for casual phone users looking for a good basic experience, the Infuse's electronic engine should more than suffice.

The Infuse has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera and 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera. It ships with a Samsung-modified version of Android 2.2 (Froyo), though AT&T has promised it'll be upgraded at least to Android 2.3 (Gingerbread).

You might also like: The LG G2x ($99.99 with a two-year contract from T-Mobile) offers superb midrange performance in a pleasingly sleek design. It runs a relatively unmodified version of Google's Android 2.3 software -- a plus for people who prefer avoiding the manufacturer-added skins. The HTC EVO 4G ($99.99 with two-year contract from Sprint) is Sprint's flagship phone from last year, and though it's behind current high-end devices in terms of specs, it was hugely popular for a reason. A year later, it's a great buy for the budget-conscious smartphone shopper.

-- JR Raphael

Infuse 4G from Samsung

Price: $49.99

Tech specs  |  Product video   |  Store locator  |  Phone: (888) 987-HELP (4357)

Summary: The $49.99 Samsung Infuse 4G offers solid smartphone technology at a nice price.

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