The Procrastinator's Guide to Gift Giving: Cell Phones

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 5:03 PM

So, Christmas has snuck up on you and you find yourself heading out to the stores this weekend for one of the most popular electronic gifts of recent years: the smart phone. Cell phones have been a perennial favorite Christmas gift, but with so many good phones that are now “free” with contract, what makes for a good gift cell phone? If you aren't planning on giving the cellular service too, the best choices are the phone upgrades that, for a bit more than the free phones, will prove far more enjoyable for your recipient. We have two such phones that will be sure to please almost anyone.

Apple iPhone 4S

The iPhone 5 has been out for several months now, but even amongst this year's best and brightest, we'd still rank the iPhone 4S as one of the best you can buy and an incredible value at $99. Simply put, there is no other phone on the market in this price range that feels as nicely built or works as well as this one. The 4S's build quality is only eclipsed by that of its big brother, the iPhone 5. And, in this case, “big” is literal. Following the cellular industry trend, Apple upped the screen size of the iPhone when it released the iPhone 5, so the 4S is not only a nice phone, it remains the best choice for those who would prefer something smaller in size (think of the iPhone 4S as the iPad mini of the iPhone line).

The biggest downside to the iPhone 4S is that it is distinctly better on AT&T than it is on Verizon or Sprint. While the new iPhone 5 uses 4G LTE, the iPhone 4S uses quasi-4G HSPA on AT&T and 3G CDMA/Ev-DO on Verizon and Sprint. Hence, while the AT&T version can pull down a healthy 10+ Mbps speed that is unlikely to leave anyone yearning for something faster in day to day use, the other carriers' version will download information very much like a phone from several years back.

The 4S remains a good deal on any carrier for light users, but if your recipient is on Sprint or Verizon, the $100 upgrade to the LTE-based iPhone 5 is well worth it for those who stream a lot of media and so on. AT&T subscribers also get a boost from the iPhone 5's faster connectivity, but the iPhone 4S on Ma Bell's network will download things fast enough for most folks.

In regular usage, the iPhone 4S is a good performer in the battery life department, with our real world usage tests clocking it in at over 3 days on standby and light usage. The iPhone 4S is a significant improvement over the iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS in this regard. While the 3GS was at times frustratingly short on battery life, the iPhone 4S is squarely situated amongst our best performers.

The iPhone 4S is also notable for its camera. The iPhone line has long had some of our favorite cellular phone cameras and the iPhone 4 marked a decided shift towards quality photography on a phone. But, while the previous iPhones captured photos that were good for cell phone pictures, the iPhone 4S takes good pictures. With this device, Apple crossed a threshold where forgetting one's camera no longer feels like a disaster. The newly added panoramic photo feature that premiered this fall is easy and fun to use, too. Color and exposure are managed well and the flash usually did not wash out the subject of the picture.

The iPhone 4S supports all of the exciting features of iOS 6 that was released in conjunction with the iPhone 5, including built in turn-by-turn navigation and the latest enhancements to the surprisingly useful Siri voice control system. With a capable processor and lean operating system, the iPhone 4S feels more responsive than even many new Android phones and Apple's combination of iTunes Wi-Fi Sync, iTunes Match and iCloud offer the most effortless cloud-based synchronization of any currently available phone platform: enter the account information and the phone will automatically do the rest (and, if your giftee has an older iPhone, all of that phone's settings, accounts, apps and data can be restored right onto the new iPhone, something that is decidedly absent from Android phones' upgrade experience).

Speaking of iTunes Match, a perfect companion gift to the iPhone is a $25 subscription to iTunes Match which you can give via a $25 iTunes gift card or e-mailable gift certificate. As part of its iCloud offerings, Apple automatically transfers one's iTunes Store purchases to one's Apple devices for free, but with iTunes Match, you'll give the gift of truly effortless music synchronization: all of one's music flows from the iPhone to iPad to Mac to PC automatically behind the scenes. Since it is built directly into iTunes, iTunes Match offers an unparalleled option for keeping music in sync so that whomever you give that shiny new iPhone to won't have to remember to sync his or her phone before enjoying that new Cee-Lo's Magical Moment CD this Christmas (iPhone 4S, $99 on AT&T, Verizon or Sprint; iTunes Match, $25, www.apple.com).

Samsung Galaxy S III

We have long held the iPhone line up as the series of phones to beat, so what of Samsung's Galaxy S III? An incredibly hot seller, the Galaxy S III is definitely not an iPhone, but that's part of its charm. In years past, we've docked Samsung's efforts for often crossing the line of copying Apple's efforts, thus sometimes giving the feeling that their phones were knockoff clones rather than the high quality devices they really are. The S III at times still features Samsung's penchant for copying, but what is front and center now is a high quality phone in its own right.

Simply put, the latest in the Galaxy line is the best rival to the iPhone for the smart phone crown we have seen. Offering the markedly improved Android 4.1 Jelly Bean that finally feels almost as polished as Apple's iOS and, in some ways, actually exceeds its foe. The interface is clean, crisp and — thanks to the Galaxy's incredibly fast processor — it is speedy.

The S III is the best alternative to the iPhone not only because of its quality design, but also because it has sold well enough to have an ecosystem around it. While there have been so many variants of Android devices that developers, case manufacturers and frequently aimed for the lowest common denominators between disparate models, the S III has sold in iPhone-like quantities and thus will have a healthy selection of accessories (as well as Android software specifically tested to work well on it) for the foreseeable future.

In many ways, we still favor the iPhone line over the latest Galaxy, but in one very crucial area, it triumphs: battery life. Stunningly, in one test run we performed, the S III lasted over five days on standby, an unheard of length of time for a 4G LTE smart phone. Think about that: an LTE phone that can keep a charge longer than a 3G/”faux-G” smart phone like the iPhone 4S. This makes Samsung's flagship a go to device for the charging challenged gift recipient or those have trouble with phones lasting the entire day under heavy usage.

Moreover, despite the battery life, as mentioned above, this phone is fast. Its processor is nimble when making use of the applications installed on it and its LTE connection is blazingly fast. In testing, we used the Verizon model and Big Red's speedy 4G network continued to impress us with its incredible speed. To truly take advantage of a fast network, you need a phone that can keep up with the data is it pulling in. The S III swallows that data whole and asks for more.

The new case design Samsung adopted takes on a decidedly more attractive, minimalist feel than last year's models. While made of plastics, they feel pleasant and smooth in the hand and are more than adequately graspable for holding the phone securely. The unique contours fit very nicely in one's hand and help to make the relatively large phone, with its 4.8” screen still feel comfortable to hold.

The Galaxy S III exemplifies at almost every point those preferences that committed Android users seem to hold in contrast to Apple's design decisions. The screen is massive, bright and highly saturated, whereas the iPhone 4S and 5 both feature smaller screens tuned for color accuracy instead of saturation. Which is better comes down very much to a personal preference. Text rendering is improved on the Galaxy, though we still find the iPhone Retina Display line of IPS LCD's superior in clarity to the Galaxy's Super OMLED by a smidgen. But, this is more a matter of the preferences that divide iPhone and Android users than some objective measure. If your recipient prefers the Android modus operendi, the Galaxy will positively delight by doing everything people love about Android as well as it has been done so far.

The S Voice feature included is one of those areas where Samsung continues to try to copy Apple, and in doing so the function is capable, if not as accurate or helpful as Apple's Siri. However, with Google's own voice utilities available and eminently more capable, this is not a problem in the least.

The camera on the S III is quite good and the large screen allows for easy framing of shots without feeling so large as to be awkward while shooting. We found the auto focus good and the exposure accurate. The photos typically had a bit more of a cell phone-ish quality than those from the most recent iPhones, but the camera is still good.

All in all, the Galaxy S III is simply one of the best phones on the market. Comparisons aside, it is a strong contender in its own right and perhaps the best phone available today for those who demand the best in battery life and yet want a high end smartphone (Samsung/Verizon, $199, www.vzw.com).