Current as of January, 2016
2016 is here – it seems like 2015 flew right by.
I’m going to start maintaining a list of technologies that I DO and DO NOT recommend for many technology categories, and update the list periodically.
For example, people regularly ask me what kind of phone or laptop they should buy – this list is for YOU!
Table of Contents
This guide is structured as follows:
- Short topics: Some topics are super simple, and don’t require complex decisions or the complexity of a buyers guide.
- Features / Buyers Guide: When needed, additional sections will detail specific features or considerations, and might constitute a buyers guide, or link to a buyers guide on this site or another.
- Links: Most of the links in this article point to other articles on this site (internal), or to an external Wikipedia article or other site, explaining a specific topic or concept. Stay here to get the basics, or read the supplementary information if you would like a better understanding.
- Easy Mode: When possible, especially if a topic is complex or requires multiple decisions, I’ll point to a specific device or selection via an external link. All of the Easy Mode recommendations are choices that reflect my opinions and preferences, as well as my best attempt to provide one option that covers most situations and use cases. It might not be the right choice for YOU, so the choice is yours… you can go with Easy Mode, or you can read through the detailed content, in order to make an informed buying decision.
As I think of new topics, I’ll add them. If you’d like me to add a specific topic, send me an e-mail, or submit a comment below.
If a topic becomes too complex or unwieldy, and as time allows, I will move specific content in to individual buyers guides, as I did with the Laptop Buyers Guide. As I’m writing this, I’ve already run in to a few candidates :-/
I’ve already written a Laptop Buyers Guide, so I won’t recap any of the detail, but I will summarize. Don’t just assume that because I’m recommending a specific brand of laptop, that ALL laptops of that brand are good ones – READ THE GUIDE before you make any decisions.
Originally, I was going to defer an Easy Mode recommendation for laptops, because each person has unique needs. After sending several people a link to my buyers guide, and then having the follow-up conversation, “yes, but which one do you recommend?”, I’m adding Easy Mode!
Acer Aspire E series: Acer’s Website
- Many features, options and price points.
- Prices range from $450 to $650
- Aspire E-xxxG laptops (model ends in “G”) have Intel Core CPUs and NVidia graphics cards with separate VRAM – this is a good low-cost but decent quality gaming option. The non-“G” models have Intel graphics, which is still decent for casual gaming, and all other productivity needs.
- Option for DVD Super-Multi (optical drive)
- Make sure to look at Intel Core i-Series processors only! Avoid the cheaper models that are configured with Celeron and AMD processors. Stick with Intel Core, even though they cost a little bit more – DO NOT GO CHEAP, OR YOU WILL REGRET IT.
- These models change very frequently, so I can’t say, “here is the exact model you need to go purchase” — read through the specs, narrow down your choices, then go buy one on Amazon.
Home Network Router
Home network routers are really firewalls. They protect your home network from outside access, while allowing you to “surf the net” safely.
Most modern routers have built-in WiFi, which allows you to connect wirelessly from a laptop, phone, tablet, or streaming device.
Many ISPs now bundle a router in with their service, but if you’re like me, you want an extra layer of protection. Adding a home network router behind your provider’s modem or router is a good way to secure your network, if all you have is a modem, or double up on security if your ISP-provided router is hackable or insecurely configured.
I don’t really have a secondary recommendation right now. Linksys used to be my primary choice, and Netgear was the secondary. Now that some things have come to light about the latest generation of Linksys routers, I can no longer recommend them. As soon as I’ve tested a few other brands, I’ll recommend something simple that I know I (and you) can trust.
Unfortunately, today’s selection of routers is a maze of features, acronyms, and buzzwords that make it difficult to “click and buy”
Netgear N600: Amazon Link
This router currently sells for $70 on Amazon, and supports most if not every feature you need for your home network. If you need something more high-tech, or if you need a specific feature, read on.
- Most routers today come with WiFi built in. Make sure your router supports Wireless N (or WiFi N). Wireless N supports bandwidth of up to 300 Mbps, has decent range, and is usually backward-compatible with Wireless B/G, the older standard used by older devices.
- Make sure your router supports both 2.4GHz (“gigaHertz”) as well as 5GHz. Each of these frequencies might provide better reception in different conditions and circumstances – for example, 5GHz reaches farther, but is more sensitive to obstacles blocking the line of sight.
- Your router should have an Ethernet port for WAN or Internet – this is how you’ll connect the router to the ISP-provided modem or router.
- One or more Ethernet ports for LAN access. The LAN is the inside of your network, and includes the LAN Ethernet ports along with anything connected via WiFi. Ethernet isn’t as important as it used to be – people tend to buy laptops and tablets and connect via WiFi, and have fewer devices that require a “wired” connection. If you have a Magic Jack or similar Voice over IP (VoIP) phone service, you might need one Ethernet port for that. At one point in time, you also needed an Ethernet port for each desktop system, but most modern desktops have WiFi built in, and connecting through WiFi is easier and just as fast and reliable as Ethernet.
Features you Don’t Need but Might Want
- USB port – On some devices, such as the Netgear, a USB port allows you to plug in an external hard drive, to share files on your network (for example, to back up your files from your laptop or tablet), or to connect and share a USB printer. This is a nice feature, but I have a NAS (Network Attached Storage) for that!
- Wireless AC. The newest standard, Wireless AC has a significantly longer range and more bandwidth than Wireless N. If you have a really big property, you might need Wireless AC. In most cases, where a particular area of the house or yard is “connectivity-challenged”, it’s due to line of sight issues (such as walls, trees, split-level, or other obstacles), and you really need a range extender, not a more powerful router. A range extender connects to your router, wirelessly, and provides a secondary, bridged WiFi signal, to help your WiFi device “see” around corners and other obstacles.
- Media Streaming. If you buy a high-end router, you can copy a movie file to a USB-connected hard drive, and then use the router’s media streamer to watch the movie on any DLNA-compatible device. Although this is a nice feature, don’t specifically shop for this option unless you buy a high-end router that can handle the extra work of having to read, transcode, and stream the movie file. If not, use your laptop – Windows Media player can act as a DLNA server, or build a dedicated media server PC. DLNA is the most common home network media streaming protocol.
- Cloud Backup. This comes in two flavors. One version backs up any data from the USB-connected hard drive, while the other version allows you to install a small piece of client software on your PC, tablet, or laptop, and then backs your files up to “the cloud”. I don’t know about you, but anything that’s personal or private, in my opinion, doesn’t really belong “in the cloud” where some hacker can and probably will get it.
- Guest Network. This allows your router to provide a secondary WiFi signal that guests can use to get to the internet, but they are isolated from other systems on your network. For example, a device connected to guest WiFi can’t stream a movie over to a DLNA TV, nor can it share files from your laptop. All it can see is itself and the internet. In most cases, the guest network is simply a login page, and the guest network may not even be encrypted.
- Gigabit Ethernet. 1 Gigabit is 1,000 Megabits. Most modern laptops and desktops have built-in gigabit, but only certain (usually higher-end) routers have gigabit Ethernet ports, while most routers have the slower 100 Mb Ethernet ports. Obviously, Gb allows you to transfer files ten times faster, but both devices must be on Gb Ethernet (NOT on WiFi) to get this benefit. For most purposes, you won’t notice the difference between Gb and 100 Mb. For example, having Gb Ethernet only matters if your INTERNET speed is greater than 100 Mb, or if you’re transferring multi-gig files between two machines – for example, for video editing. Gb is nice to have, but not necessary.
- Multiple Antennae / Beam Forming. These are the routers that look like a stealth fighter. Some routers have beam forming, even without the multiple antennae. Beam forming gives your WiFi device a slight connectivity and performance boost, but it’s generally not worth the extra money.
- Later, I might move some of this content in to a dedicated setup and configuration guide
- I’ve used quite a few other Netgear devices, such as wireless bridges, range extenders, and access points, and they are all simple to use, and work well.
We will start off with an “Easy Mode” recommendation, and then delve in to Operating System, Hardware, and finally the Carriers (Providers) themselves.
G3: Slightly thicker, slightly better control over privacy and content, slightly lower price tag.
G4: Slightly thinner, slightly less control over privacy and content, slightly higher price tag.
I have a G3, and my wife has a G4, and we are both very happy with them.
For a closer look, check out the Wikipedia articles linked above, or my brief review here: 2015 Back to School Tech Gift Ideas
That wasn’t so hard! On to the buyers guide…
Windows Mobile was the first “smart phone” operating system, released as the HTC Pocket PC Phone Edition, back in 2002.
Shortly thereafter, Symbian came on the scene, putting Linux on the handset. Over the next few years, Sony and Nokia shifted away from each of their proprietary platforms toward Symbian.
RIM, whose BlackBerry device initially started in the late 1990’s as basically an e-mail access device, slowly collected PIM-like features and functionality, and eventually ended up with a phone at around the same timeframe.
Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, changing the landscape forever. Windows originally dominated the market, but quickly lost market share to Apple.
Android followed closely behind, with the first commercial devices released in 2008. Initially, Android was considered underpowered and too difficult to use, but by the time “Gingerbread” (2.3.3) was released in 2011, many of the sharp edges and limitations had been removed, making it a true competitor to iPhone OS.
In 2012, RIM nearly winked out of existence, due to dwindling market share, as well as ramifications from the outcome of the lawsuit brought against RIM by NTP. Shifting to “Blackberry 10”, a new generation of devices built around the very mature and very stable QNX embedded operating system, pulled RIM back from the brink of nonexistence. Unlike its predecessors, BB10 OS had similar features and user interface functionality to that of its contemporaries: Windows Mobile, iPhone OS, and Android.
So how does all of this stack up?
OS to Avoid
Now that we’ve covered the OS, let’s look at some of the players in the handset market.
Raw Handset Cost
Let’s briefly cover “Raw” or “Real” handset cost.
A smartphone is an amazing device – it’s an always-on, always-connected computer that fits in your pocket, and runs sophisticated software to help you manage your life and perform daily tasks.
That capability isn’t cheap!
The hardware manufacturers charge the full cost of the device to the cellular provider, and each cellular provider has a different method for splitting up the cost so that the consumer doesn’t have to pay the full price. Some providers ask for an up-front fee, which covers about half the device cost, and then they subsidize the rest, and make it up on the back end by charging you monthly service fees.
For example, you can get a new iPhone for $200 for a low end model, up to $400 for a top-of the line model. What neither Apple nor the provider is telling you, is that these device all cost $450 MORE than the sticker price – the $450 is subsidized by the carrier. So the REAL cost of an iPhone is between $650 and $850.
The reason the raw device cost is an important factor, is that a nicer or more luxurious device is absolutely going to affect how much you pay up front, but it could also drive up your monthly service charges.
Of course, each provider says “that’s not the way this works“, but in fact, it IS the way it works. If you buy a very expensive phone, you might end up with a monthly “smart phone fee” or some other service charge. If you ask the provider, “what is a smart phone fee”, they will probably respond with a canned statement about additional data usage, or special software that the provider has to run, or some other factor, but in fact, that “smart phone fee” is just another way to make back the subsidized portion of the raw device cost.
Apple only manufactures iPhones, and iPhones are only manufactured by Apple.
The good news is that your experience using the iPhone is going to be very consistent, because developers don’t have to navigate a maze of hardware specs, form factors, device layouts, and capabilities.
The bad news is that the iPhone is very expensive, with a raw device cost ranging from $650 to $850 for three different models with less storage on the low end, and more storage on the high end.
iPhones are very well built, but the screens are notoriously fragile.
GoldStar from the 90’s emerged as “Lucky Goldstar” in the 2000’s.
A direct competitor of Samsung, both are Korean companies that manufacture a wide range of products and devices, with a large slice of the consumer electronics market.
LG generally makes good products at decent prices.
I’m now on my 3rd LG phone, and they have all been winners.
LG makes a number of devices with a raw device cost of between $400 and $1,000.
- G3 / G4: As mentioned, I have a G3, and my wife has a G4. The G3 is a little cheaper, while the G4 is more sleek, and slightly better.
- V10: The V10 is their new flagship model, with a small OLED screen at the top of the device, which LG is calling “Second Screen”. The V10 is a very high-end device with a high end price tag to match.
- Curve: A. Curved. Phone. Worst idea ever.
- Other Models: LG makes a wide variety of models with various features, screen sizes and price points.
Samsung is LG’s fellow Korean competitor.
Like LG, Samsung makes a huge variety of products and has a wide slice of the consumer electronics market.
Unlike LG, I’ve had some bad experiences with Samsung phones. My wife went through two Samsung Android phones that broke, before switching to LG. Both Samsung phones died mysteriously – one would no longer charge, and the other would no longer power on. I know of at least two other Samsung phones that died in the exact same way “death by mystery”.
Conversely, my wife’s well-worn, well-used, 3-year-old LG Optimus G still worked when I finally convinced her to upgrade to a G4. The phone had a slight display issue (due to drops, probably), and some of the features were flakey. A factory reset fixed most of the issues, and the display issue was barely noticeable. In fact, it worked so well that we were able to give it to my niece, whose phone had died. So that phone is still working and running at almost 4 years old.
That said, Samsung has an impressive lineup of phones:
- Galaxy S6 Edge / Edge+: The “edge” series has curved left and right edges, and the screen wraps around them slightly. Personally, I think this is as useless as a $2 bill. In addition to being a scratch magnet, any practical phone case would block access to the “curved” edges, or leave them precariously exposed. Meanwhile, a phone with smooth, potentially slick edges is prone to be dropped. A LOT. The final nail in the coffin of this piss-poor design, is that the edges “curve” down to meet the back of the device at nearly a 90 degree angle, which means that it’s incredibly difficult to pick up, when laying face-up on a flat surface, resulting in some natural fumbling around. This naturally, additionally, increases the likelihood of dropping it! Samsung basically built a phone that’s designed to be dropped or damaged.
- Galaxy Note: These phones have a “conventional” design (ahem… WITHOUT curved edges), and even include a cool little smart stylus. At first, the stylus seems useless, but the functionality is actually very slick. When you pull out the stylus, the phone goes in to “stylus mode”, so your app icons might change from phone icon and tip calculator, to a note-taking or drawing app. All of the Samsung-delivered apps can sense the stylus, which has a tiny clicker button on the side of it, and can be used to change modes, etc… When the stylus approaches the screen, you see a tiny cursor appear underneath. This gives some of the built-in apps a kind of “pressure-sensitivity”, like making wider lines when you press down harder. VERY cool design. Assuming it doesn’t mysteriously die on you.
I have a Note tablet that’s still around and kicking after 2.5 years, and it’s a really decent device. My caveat to you, is that it’s rarely used. At first, I thought I would be more productive if I got a tablet – I could take my personal and professional projects with me anywhere, and I would get more stuff done. Then, I got a tablet, and realized how useless they are for doing any real work. So I never use it. Based on what I know of their cell phone track record, I think that if I did use it every day, it might have died by now!
- Galaxy S6: Slightly smaller than the Edge and Note, the S6 has a completely “conventional” design.
Samsung’s raw device costs are about the same as LG’s – $600 to $1,000.
Nokia, Now, Microsoft Mobile
Nokia has an impressive track record from the late 90’s and early 2000’s of building rock-solid (“indestructible”) handsets.
At the dawn of the smartphone era, Nokia built phones that ran on their own proprietary operating system, with extensive Java MIDlet support for downloading and installing apps and games based on the Java ME platform.
Later, Nokia adopted Symbian as the core, with a proprietary UI running on top of it. As it became clear that Symbian was going nowhere, and was about to be displaced by Android, Nokia switched to Windows Mobile as its smartphone OS. They continued to make dumb phones for a few years as well, with a mix of features and functionality.
In 2013, Microsoft acquired Nokia’s Mobile Phone business unit, thus forming “Microsoft Mobile” – “Microsoft” (Nokia) hardware, running Windows Mobile OS.
The Lumia series is their flagship product, and is highly-rated. The Lumia 950 has an advertised full retail (raw device) cost of $600, which means that it’s very competitive with Samsung and LG, and slightly cheaper than a low-end iPhone.
As a hardware engine for Microsoft, HTC made the very first smart phone, the HTC Pocket PC Phone Edition, which is a very impressive accomplishment.
HTC went on to produce many devices built around Windows Pocket PC, and later, Windows Mobile.
As Android began to gain market share, HTC expanded in to the Android market.
Today, HTC has a fairly diverse lineup, consisting of mostly Android, and a few Windows Mobile devices.
Motorolla has been making cell phones since there were cell phones.
- Car phone
- Brick phone (DynaTAC series)
- Paddle phone (semi-clamshell MicroTAC)
- Flip phone (StarTAC)
Motorolla manufactured the hardware for Nextel (later acquired by Sprint), an innovative cellular provider whose handsets, at the time, had a unique “push to talk” feature, allowing walkie-talkie like communication using the cellular network.
In addition, Motorolla has a long history of innovative design, and rugged products, such as the RAZR, that redefined the clamshell cell phone design. At the time, it was the thinnest, lightest cell phone in production.
Today, Motorolla has a decent lineup of good quality Android smartphone handsets, priced very reasonably.
Hardware to Avoid
Along with providing your smartphone with cellular voice and data service, the job of the provider is to screw you for as much money per month as they can get, keep you under contract, and install bloatware and spyware on your smartphone.
They all suck. They are all predatory. It’s a question of who sucks less.
Carriers to Avoid
Features and Functionality
Here are some things you should check when evaluating a smartphone
- Quad core processor. Make sure your phone can run the latest games and applications.
- Plenty of Storage. You don’t want to buy a smartphone, only to find out that the internal memory fills up immediately!
- Supports external MicroSD card. Make sure you can plug in a memory card, to either back up files from the internal memory, or store files in a removable format in case your phone dies. If you use internal storage, and your phone dies, there’s no way to extract your pictures, contacts, and other data.
- Removable battery. Sounds pretty basic, but the iPhone and several other manufacturers have designed phones with NO user-replaceable parts. This means that if your battery dies, your phone is dead. Aside from wear and tear, batteries can be defective, or die for other reasons. Having a replaceable battery means that you can purchase a replacement battery, usually for about $20.
- Uses a MicroUSB (standard) charging cable. Apple and Sony use proprietary cables. Caveat emptor. I have to carry a special cable with me wherever I go, because my crappy iPhone (used for work) uses a lightning cable instead of USB. Meanwhile, I don’t even carry a microUSB cable for my Android, because I know everyone has one.
- Make sure it’s EASY to use. In the store, pick it up and play with it. Make sure you know how to make and answer a call, add a contact, take a picture, download an app, and anything else you need to be able to do. If there’s some weird quirk with the user interface, and you find it annoying, just remember that you’re probably going to be annoyed for the NEXT TWO YEARS, because you’ll probably be under contract with this device and provider. Check out ALL of the phones until you find one that’s comfortable for YOU to use and figure out. Don’t let someone pressure you in to purchasing an expensive device that you don’t know how to use properly.
More to come…
- 3″ Pocket Knives
- Commercial Firewalls
- App Delivery Controllers
And more, as I think of it.