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.

The two most-hyped shopping days of the year -- Black Friday and Cyber Monday -- have passed with recording-breaking sales. But did you get all the gifts you need for your family, friends and colleagues? Are you sure?

Don't fret -- Computerworld's annual gift guide will help you handle all those last-minute gift decisions.

Every year, we poll our readers to find out what types of tech gear they want to give and/or receive for the holidays. But this year, while the top five categories they chose are pretty much the same as in 2010 -- tablets, e-readers, smartphones, laptops and HDTVs -- the products themselves have changed significantly.

For example, while Apple's elegant iPhone 4S and iPad 2 still top many gift lists, Android powerhouses such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone and the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime tablet are strong contenders. And a new type of tablet has entered the race -- e-readers with color touch screens like Amazon's Kindle Fire have become popular alternatives. We've also added a few interesting tech gadgets that we thought could top up any gift list.

As always, we've done our best to make our gift guide as useful as possible, especially for those last-minute decisions. Along with descriptions of each item, we've included links to product pages, places to shop, product specs, informative videos and, of course, prices. When possible, we've included a range of prices as offered by various vendors, but be aware that prices fluctuate, especially at this time of year.

Keep in mind, too, that while we've focused on the most up-to-date versions of these products, you can often save a chunk of change by opting for earlier models if your gift recipients don't mind.

Of course, if you have a suggestion for a holiday tech gift that you don't see here, feel free to add it in our Comments section. And most important -- have a wonderful holiday season!

Tablets and e-readers take the spotlight

As exciting as it was in 2010 with the introduction of the original iPad, the tablet market has gotten red-hot this year. The Android side of the aisle has become crowded with interesting possibilities, including the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime, the Motorola Xoom, new 7.0-, 8.9- and 10.1-in. versions of the Samsung Galaxy Tab and a host of other competitors. Earlier this year, Apple countered with a nicely upgraded version of its market leader, the Apple iPad 2.

But the most revolutionary additions this year may have been the new 7-in. Android-based color touchscreen e-readers introduced by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. Consumers who don't need a higher-end tablet can use these smaller, less-expensive but more limited Wi-Fi devices to read, watch videos and surf the Web.

Best iOS tablet: Apple iPad 2

Although Apple's second-generation tablet, the iPad 2, is almost nine months old now, it still remains the best of this year's bunch of tablets. With a dual-core processor, a bright and sharp 9.7-in. LED-backlit touchscreen, dual cameras for Wi-Fi-based video chats, and battery life of 10 hours on a charge, the iPad 2 offers everything you need in a tablet.

Apple iPad 2

Apple iPad 2

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Weighing in at just over 1.3 lb., the iPad 2 is easy to carry around. And it's thin -- just a third of an inch thick -- meaning it rarely feels bulky or unwieldy when in use. Let's face it -- the iPad 2 is something you'll want to show off. In his Computerworld review, Michael deAgonia says:

There's no side lip like the previous iPad had, and the result is a beautifully sleek unibody design. It's hard to believe devices will become thinner than this. Of course, they will, but for now: wow. The thinner iPad is easier to hold, and the aluminum body -- in concert with the oil-resistant oleophobic coated glass -- gives it a sturdy, luxurious feel. (Read the full review.)

Best of all, you can choose from more than 140,000 apps built specifically for the iPad 2. In fact, the breadth of applications is what makes this device so popular: It's so "immersive" that it becomes whatever app you're using. It's an e-reader that also allows you to surf the Web, a gaming device that also lets you check e-mail, record music, watch digital videos and TV shows and carry on video chats using FaceTime.

Apple offers two different models (Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi + 3G), each with three levels of storage (16GB, 32GB or 64GB). In the past, I'd have suggested getting as much storage as you can, but now that Apple has rolled out iCloud, which lets you sync and download your movies, music and photos as needed, you can get by with less. (Most people skip the version with 3G, since you have to get a data plan with Verizon or AT&T, adding monthly fees).

As an added treat, be sure to get the $39 Smart Cover, which attaches to the iPad 2 using magnets, folds up to become an ad hoc stand and unfolds to provide some protection for the screen.

-- Ken Mingis

iPad 2 from Apple Inc.

Street price: $499-$690 (16GB), $598.88-$599.99 (32GB)

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

Summary: Despite improved competition, Apple's iPad 2 still leads the pack for its masterful marriage of hardware and software.

Best Android tablet: Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime

Sometimes it's hard to buy a gift for a friend or relative because you just don't know what they really want. Take the keyboard controversy, for example -- would your giftee be happy with a high-end touch-screen tablet, or is a hardware keyboard a necessity?

Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime

Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime

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Fear not. The 1.3-lb. Asus Transformer Prime is not only the latest, slickest and possibly fastest Android tablet available today, but it offers an optional keyboard dock that neatly transforms it into an Android-based laptop.

Computerworld's JR Raphael got a first look at the Transformer, and reports:

With the dock attached, the Transformer Prime looks and acts like a high-end laptop. The top half -- the actual tablet -- swings up and down like a lid and closes to form what functions as a single-piece unit. This thing really looks phenomenal and feels good to hold. Plus, with the dock connected, you gain a full-sized USB 2.0 port, a full-sized SD card slot, and an additional battery that can tack an extra six hours of usage onto your tablet. Not too shabby. (Read the full review.)

Not that the Transformer Prime is any kind of slouch without the keyboard. This is the first quad-core tablet -- it uses the Nvidia Tegra 3 processor -- which means vastly improved performance over the previous Tegra 2 chip. In addition to that, the device boasts a micro-HDMI port, a microSD card slot, an 8-megapixel back-facing camera and a 1.2mp front-facing camera. Its 10.1-in. multi-touch display offers 1280 x 800 resolution along with the resilience of Gorilla Glass.

And it's good looking -- at 10.35 x 7.11 x 0.33 in., it rivals the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab for slim good looks. The tablet weighs a mere 1.29 lb., and when added to the keyboard dock's 1.18 lb., the entire package still only comes to a little under 2.5 lb. -- as light as a netbook but with the typing ease and power of a full notebook and the multimedia pizzazz of a high-end tablet.

The Asus Transformer is expected to ship later this month (current ship date is December 19), and will cost $499 for a 32GB model and $599 for a 64GB model -- less than either a Galaxy Pad 10.1 (about $630 for a 32GB model) or an iPad 2 (about $600 for a 32GB model). The Transformer's keyboard will cost an additional $149.

In other words, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime has become the Android tablet to get and to give.

You might also like: The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 offers an amazingly bright 1280 x 800 HD TFT display, front- and back-facing cameras, Android's Honeycomb OS and an elegant, slim profile that's only 0.34 in. thick. A Wi-Fi model costs $499.99 (16GB) or $599.99 (32GB); there are also several 3G models available. And if 10.1 in. is a bit too large for your gift recipient, you can look at the less expensive 8.9-in. and 7-in. versions as well.

-- Barbara Krasnoff

Eee Pad Transformer Prime from Asustek

Street price: $499.00 (16GB)

Tech specs  |  Product video  |  Store locator

Summary: The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is powerful, thin, feature-filled and offers a very handy optional keyboard dock. What else could you want from a tablet?

Best e-reader/tablet: Amazon Kindle Fire

If you thought the iPad 2 created a stir, that's nothing compared to what happened when the new 7-in. color e-readers hit the market. Introduced in the fall of 2011, these Wi-Fi devices offer sharp, bright touchscreens ideal for either watching videos or reading. And their direct associations with booksellers and media services make them ideal for mobile entertainment.

Amazon Kindle Fire

Amazon Kindle Fire

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If you want to give somebody a tablet without spending $500 or more, these high-end e-readers cost a couple of hundred dollars less than larger, more fully featured devices like the iPad 2 and Transformer Prime. There are some limitations -- for example, the e-readers lack Bluetooth connectivity and cameras, and use limited versions of Android -- but they're excellent as lightweight mobile media devices.

We went back and forth on which of the two front runners to recommend as the best gift purchase. Both Amazon's Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet offer 1024 x 600 displays, Wi-Fi connectivity, their own app stores for use with the Android Gingerbread OS and a large selection of e-books.  The Nook Tablet, which costs $50 more than the Kindle Fire, also offers more memory (1GB to the Fire's 512MB), additional internal storage (16GB to the Fire's 8GB, although only 1GB of the Nook's storage can be used for non-B&N content) and a microSD slot.

However, the Kindle Fire won by a nose, not only because of its lower price and free cloud storage, but because it is part of Amazon's impressive ecosystem of e-books, Amazon apps and streaming video content through the Amazon Prime service.  

If you buy from Amazon -- or know somebody who does -- the Kindle Fire definitely goes to the top of the gift list.

You might also like: Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet ($249) is also an excellent choice for its better hardware, especially if your giftee is not already invested in Amazon's universe.

-- Barbara Krasnoff

Kindle Fire from Amazon

Price: $199

Tech specs  |  Product video

Summary: The Kindle Fire offers Amazon fans a great way to read, watch and surf on a lightweight Android-based tablet for half of what a full-featured tablet costs.

Best basic e-reader: Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch

Not only did the major e-reader vendors introduce those 7-in. color e-book readers, but they revamped their existing e-ink devices, lowered the cost, and made these e-readers the perfect gift for the bookworm on your list. Again, the major players here are very similar: Amazon's Kindle Touch, the Nook Simple Touch and the Kobo Touch.

Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch

Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch

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All three of these Wi-Fi-only devices have easy-to-read 6-in. monochrome e-ink touchscreens, internal storage (3GB for the Kindle, 1GB plus a microSD card for the Nook and the Kobo) and long battery life (since the e-ink displays are very easy on the battery). And all cost $99 (well, the Kobo is actually $99.99) unless you want a 3G version of the Kindle Touch for another $50.

In this case, however, we went with the Nook Simple Touch as the leader in the field, not only because it offers a slot for a microSD card (which the Kindle does not), but because its $99 product comes without advertising of any kind, while both the Nook and the Kobo use advertising on their home screens and "sleep" screens. (Both have more expensive versions that leave out the ads.)

As Melissa J. Perenson says in her PC World review:

At $99, the Nook Simple Touch is competitively priced, and a bargain compared with other touchscreen e-ink e-readers, which only achieve this price by adding advertisements to the home screen and lock screen. Nook wins favor for its interface and touch navigation. Those factors, coupled with its light weight and long battery life rating, make Nook a solid choice. (Read the full review.)

We also like the fact that the Nook has standardized on the popular ePub format for its e-books rather than using a proprietary format. And it's simply a nice product.

You might also like: Amazon's Kindle Touch ($99 with ads, $139 without) is a fine e-reader, especially for those who are graduating from one of the earlier Kindle devices. And the Kobo Touch ($99.99 with ads, $129.99 without) offers a good interface along with a built-in social network through its Kobo Pulse service; its Reading Life feature, which offers stats about your reading activities, could be a good motivator for young readers.

-- Barbara Krasnoff

Nook Simple Touch from Barnes & Noble

Price: $99

Tech specs  |  Product video  |  Store Locator  |  Phone: (800) THE-BOOK (843-2665)

Summary: The Nook Simple Touch offers a comfortable 6-in. e-ink display along with a nice interface, a good price and Barnes & Noble's extensive collection of books.

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