Holiday gift ideas: cell phones, smartphones and accessories

One of the most popular categories of device over the past few years has been the cell phone and smart phone. This year, in particular, saw an explosion of smartphone devices, with every major carrier having at least one, if not many, smartphone offering. Likewise, cell phones continue to churn out, and accessories for phones (Bluetooth headsets and earphones) are doing well also. Here's a list of some of our favorite gift ideas in this category:

7 keys to the ultimate smartphone

Motorola Droid (Verizon Wireless service)

Ever since the iPhone debuted from Apple and AT&T in June 2007, every other carrier and handset maker have tried to make an "iPhone killer" or at least try to clone what has made the iPhone so successful. This means adding features such as multi-touch displays, the inclusion of an App Store, and a good user experience. In a majority of the cases, these iPhone clones have been like the photocopy of a photocopy – it looks a lot like the original, but the user can tell that you're looking at a clone.

So what of the latest entry, the Motorola Droid? Will it join the pile of iPhone killers that have fallen short, or do we finally have a contender against the mighty iPhone? After trying the Droid for a few weeks, I can say that Verizon has a phone that can truly go up against the iPhone in terms of likability, ease of use, features and yes, even price. I don't think it will be an iPhone killer, but it can go toe-to-toe with the device on many stages.

Running on Google's Android operating system, the Droid can access the Android Market of open-source applications to create more things to do on the device. Granted, the numbers on the Android Market are far fewer than what's available on the App Store, but for the longest time there was only one phone available on Android (T-Mobile's G1). Now that multiple Android phones are out there, the market for the market will only grow. From what I saw on the Market, there are a lot of commercial developers making apps for Android, so you won't have to worry about finding an app – you may not have a specific one that is on the iPhone, but you should be able to find something that gets the job done – for example, you might find a tip calculator if the specific one you like on the iPhone (CheckPlease) isn't available.

The other major difference with Droid vs. the iPhone is the Droid's slide-out QWERTY keypad. This puts it more in line with other texting-type phones, or even the BlackBerry. I gotta admit, I'm not a fan of the keypad, its buttons are too small for me. In addition, I have smaller hands, and the design of the keyboard on the right side of the device makes it harder for me to touch type with my right hand.

Other notable features: a 3.7-inch touch screen (480x584), Bluetooth with headset, hands-free and stereo audio profiles, MP3 player (along with the ability to download from the Amazon Music Store), and specialized Gmail access (after all, it's running Google Android). The phone comes with a pre-installed 16GB microSD card, which should be enough memory for all your photo, video, music and other data storage needs (for now).

Oh yeah, it's got Wi-Fi! That's a big deal when you consider this is running on Verizon Wireless' network, which in the past has poo-poohed Wi-Fi in favor of having customers access its 3G network. One of the reasons I despised the BlackBerry Storm last year was because of its lack of Wi-Fi.

Exchange e-mail support is an area I'm concerned about. The ease of use of connecting to Exchange on the iPhone is a real selling point. On the Droid, Exchange access is clunky, and will most likely require IT support – depending on whether your IT group is open to this means that it's tougher to just do it yourself (and always runs the risk of them saying "No").

I'm also concerned about the "5 megapixel digital camera" that is being touted on the Droid. It didn't seem to take great photos when I tried it (unlike the Palm Pre, which has an awesome digital camera), but this could be associated with the Facebook app, and not the digital camera. I uploaded a photo that I had taken with the Droid to my Facebook page, and it uploaded a really small (and dark) image.

In the end, your decision on the Droid vs. iPhone debate could come down to philosophical positions on your thoughts of Verizon vs. AT&T and its coverage (among other carrier-specific issues). Will I switch from my iPhone? Not yet – I have another seven or so months on my iPhone 3G. But all bets are off after that contract expires.

Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $200 (with two-year contract and after rebates, plus about $70 monthly for voice and data plans).Product Web site.Reviewed by Keith Shaw ~~

BlueAnt Q1 Bluetooth headset

The BlueAnt Q1 headset offers users a comfortable piece of equipment that can be used on long car trips, or be left on ear at the office all day. First impressions: it's very well built, and has the best ear hook I've ever seen/used. It also comes with a myriad of extra gel inserts for different size ears.

Audio quality is great, and people were able to hear me fine. The only time I got a complaint was when I cranked up the voice isolation too high – meaning full-on noise cancellation. A few people said it made me sound far away, a common complaint I've received on other Bluetooth headsets that I've demoed. On any setting, people could tell when I was calling from the road, although I never had anyone complain they couldn't hear me when voice isolation was left on normal.

It also has another feature built in – voice controlled operation. Voice controlled operation is simple, and the people at BlueAnt did a good job making many of the commands straightforward, not requiring you to memorize a booklet of information to effectively use the headset. On the few occasions I tried using the feature, it worked well – I would try giving it commands such as "Connect", and the headset would comply.

I was a bit put off at first by the headset's insistence to keep me apprised of its activities. For example, turning off your phone before removing the headset from your head means a voice chimes directly in your ear with "no phone connected", or pressing the big circular button on the headset, and you year "voice isolation max" or "voice isolation normal". After a while you get used to it.

My only other complaint is the button layout. The volume buttons are where you'd expect them, but the big circular button in the middle – the button that's easiest to find with your fingers and therefore the one you should use the most – is the one reserved for toggling between "high" voice isolation and "normal" voice isolation. I think that's crazy – I'll make that selection once and never plan to touch it again, thank you very much. It would make far more sense to have that button reserved exclusively for voice activated dialing and for ending a call.

The phone will pair up to four devices, which is great for someone who has two or more phones. I connected to my personal mobile phone and my BlackBerry, and it worked just fine. If someone calls you from either phone, the voice chimes in and tells you who is calling (if they're in your address book). Otherwise, it will (eventually) tell you the number calling you, or if the call is unlisted. Battery life seems to be as advertised at four hours, which is way too short. The box claims 100 hours of standby time.

All in all, the Q1 is a good headset. This was my first experience using a BlueAnt product, and while it has its faults, it's well built and worthy of your consideration if in the market for a Bluetooth headset.

Cool Yule Rating: 3 starsPrice: $87.99Product Web Site.Reviewed by Daniel Hunt ~~

i.Tech i.VoicePRO 901 Bluetooth headset

The i.Voice Bluetooth headset is good little headset. The sound quality is average to good for a Bluetooth headset. I experienced no issues in terms of echoes, feedback or distortion, which i.Tech attributes to its dual microphone system, noise filtering and voice separation technology. Not only is the sound quality good for you, it's also good for the person you're calling. They won't be able to tell you're on a headset and not directly talking into your phone.

It wasn't the easiest headset to put on, but once it's on, you know it's secure. It's comfortable enough that you could listen to a chatty friend for an hour, but you probably wouldn't want to wear it for a 10 hour car trip. It's extremely easy to set up with your phone, even if you have an older model phone. It has an easy-to-find volume button and mute button, great for conference calls taken from the road. Plus it can hook easily to a lanyard for easy keeping.

The headset has an operating distance of about 30 feet. It takes about three hours to fully charge, but supports about 4.5 hours of talking, or 100 hours of standby time. It supports both the Headset and Handsfree Bluetooth profiles.

Cool Yule Rating: 4 starsPrice: $ 79.99Product Web site.Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

i.Tech SolarVoice 908 Bluetooth Headset

The i.Tech SolarVoice 908 Bluetooth headset is a solar-powered headset. After an initial three hour charge on the main charger (or you can plug it into your PC/notebook), the SolarVoice 908 was ready to connect to my cellular phone (a BlackBerry). My phone recognized the headset and connected without any hassle.

When fully charged, the SolarVoice’s battery life has about 5 hours of talk time and standby time of 140 hours. With the solar panels built into the headset, standby time can be increased if the headset is put into direct sunlight. However, the brightness of the sun, the length of time in the sun and the time of day will affect the battery life.

The headset fit very snug in my ear thanks to four adaptable earbud sizes (S, M, L, and XL). These pieces aren't made up of foam, but rather a smooth, flexible rubber or silicon-like material. The headset came with a thin ear hook for additional support, but the hook doesn't look and feel very durable. When not in use the headset comes with a small cradle that keeps the headset protected.

Placing my first call using the headset was exciting. However, I thought something was wrong when I started to dial and I couldn’t hear the number tones through the headset. To my surprise, the SolarVoice 908 headset automatically connected to the cellular phone after the number was dialed. No more hearing those annoying number tones when dialing!

Phone conversation clarity is enhanced by a noise reduction feature and i.Tech's "advanced digital signal processing software." Within a 20-foot distance from the cellular phone to the headset, I experienced very little deterioration in conversation clarity or background noise. The headset also features the ability to connect to two cellular phones simultaneously. There is a Multi-Function Button (MFB) on the side of the headset for call waiting, pick a second call, reject a second call, swap between calls, terminate current and swap to second call.

The SolarVoice 908 Bluetooth headset would be an ideal purchase for anyone who spends a lot of time driving and talking on the phone, has access to sunlight, and constantly forgets to charge their Bluetooth. Plus the fact that the SolarVoice 908 is solar powered and a lot "greener" for the environment than traditional headsets, makes this an eco friendly buy as well.

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $66.69Buy at Amazon.comReviewed by Christian Montminy~~

Motorola Debut (i856) with Boost Mobile prepaid service

I always thought that the phones that came with prepaid service were basically one step higher than a tin can and string, that all you could do with the phone (or would want to do with the phone) was make basic phone calls. After all, why would you want all the fancy bells and whistles if you would have to pay for minute or data charges from your prepaid plan?

My thinking has changed on this recently - prepaid phone plans have evolved, and now they seem to be aimed at more than just people who can't get credit for a regular cell phone plan. Some customers just don't want to use their cell phones all day and night long, and some customers don't like being told that they have to stick with a two-year plan in order to get a good cell phone.

The Motorola Debut (i856) with Boost Mobile service is a prepaid cell phone that includes more than just a phone keypad. In addition to walkie-talkie functionality, it includes a digital camera, MP3 music player, multimedia and text messaging, wireless Web access and even a GPS. It includes Bluetooth (as well as stereo Bluetooth for listening to music), which lets you connect a hands-free headset. All of this in a cool slider form factor with a nice color screen.

Boost's plans range from $50 per month with unlimited talk, texting, Web and walkie-talkie features; a $1 per day plan with unlimited text messaging, unlimited nights/weekends and mobile-to-mobile; or even a minute plan that charges 10 cents per minute talk, text and a $1 charge for the walkie-talkie service.

Prepaid plans might not be for everyone, but they have changed enough over the years to make it appealing for new customers. I've had enough experience with losing phones, waiting for a contract to expire with a carrier before being able to get a good phone and other poor service that makes prepaid an option I haven't considered before.

Cool Yule Rating: 3.5 starsPrice: $150 for the phone, plus prepaid service plans.Product Web site.Reviewed by Keith Shaw ~~

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