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printed December 13, 2017
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Holiday Gift Guide 2017

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Nov 21, 2017, 5:13 PM   by Eric M. Zeman   @phonescooper

As the end of the year approaches so too does the season of giving. Holiday gifting lists are often filled with technology, but it isn't always easy to find that perfect item. We're here to help. Allow Phone Scoop's annual Holiday Gift Guide to be your helping hand this season. It's chock full of suggestions from handsets to headphones, in-home assistants, and everything in between.

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Intro 

As the end of the year approaches so too does the season of giving. Holiday gifting lists are often filled with technology. My daughters have already both asked for their own laptops (for crying out loud!). It's easy to put "Bluetooth speaker" or "smartphone case" on a wish list and quite another to find the exact item that will elicit that squeal of glee upon opening. We're here to help.

The last year has seen a lot of iterative development in the smartphone space with few real leaps forward. Displays, cameras, batteries, and other core features have improved a bit as smartphone makers tweak their lineups to include a wider range of choices across price points. We took a look at all the phones released over the last year and made some recommendations based on these and other performance points.

Phones are relatively expensive (and not necessarily practical) to give as gifts, so we've put together a wide assortment of phone-related accessories for gifting, too. This year's guide offers a fine selection of affordable presents for the techie in your life, ranging from headphones, to speakers, to cases, and in-home assistants.

Retailers are forever pushing the envelope with holiday sales. The bulk of savings used to be reserved for Black Friday, but that is no longer the case. Many companies started their sales sooner, and others have promised weekly sales from now through December. You may find it's worth checking for price cuts on a near-daily basis if the discounts you want or need aren't available right away.

As always, good luck shopping and Happy Holidays from Phone Scoop!

Accessories 

(Jabra Elite Sport)

Best Wireless Earbuds

Fully wireless headphones that stay in your ears during sweaty workouts and sound great at the same time.

The true wireless earbud market is starting to take off. While there were a few contenders throughout 2016, headphone makers didn't nail the basics until this year. Jabra's Elite Sport wireless earbuds were the best ones we tested. They offer good sound, a firm fit, and excellent battery life thanks to the charging case. They are available in gray/green or black. You can find them online for $250.

iPhone owners might want to spend a bit less on Apple's AirPods at $160, though they aren't waterproof like Jabra's and are more prone to fall out of your ears.

(FIIL IICON)

Best Over-Ear Headphones

Cans that cover your ears and combine active noise cancellation with high-fi sound.

The FIIL IICON Bluetooth headphones have got it where it counts. I like the minimalist design and found the IICONs to be among the most comfortable over-the-ear headphones I've worn. The multi-function button and capacitive volume/track controls are not what I'd call user-friendly, but the IICONs offer stellar Bluetooth performance, incredible sound, and competitive battery life. At $350, the IICONs are not cheap. As long as you value the best-possible sound from your headphones, they're worth it.

Plantronics' BackBeat 500s are an on-ear option that offer a nice blend of affordbility and decent performance. At $80, these headphones include clean sound and good battery life.

(UE WonderBoom)

Best Mobile Speaker

When you absolutely must have a speaker that's portable, tough, and waterproof.

The Ultimate Ears WonderBoom is one of the best portable Bluetooth speakers this year. The softball-sized WonderBoom is fully rugged and waterproof, provides excellent sound, and is small enough to tote just about anywhere. We were smitten with the fun design, surprising sonic punch, and admirable battery life. It lives up to its billing as a tough speaker and it even floats! The UE app lets you share the fun with crowd-sourced tunes and connect multiple sets of speakers. At just $99, the WonderBoom is the little speaker to beat. You can find it at Best Buy and similar shops.

Have a little bit more cash to spend? Try the Bose SoundLink Color II. This portable music maker costs $129 and is tough as nails.

(Marshall Stanmore)

Best In-Home Bluetooth Speaker

The top room-filling speaker, chock full of advanced wireless options.

Marshall Headphones reimagined its line of vintage in-home speakers with new wireless capabilities. The Stanmore is definitely expensive, but you'll know where your money went. In addition to Bluetooth 4.2 and WiFi, it supports AirPlay, Google Cast, and Spotify Connect, and includes 3.5mm and RCA analog inputs for good measure. It can be linked to one or more additional speakers for multi-room sound. Did I mention the raw power this things pumps out? The Marshall Headphones Stanmore Multi-Room is our pick for an in-home wireless speaker, even though it costs a hefty $449.

At $349, the Bose SoundTouch 20 Series III offers many of the same features and adds Amazon Alexa for good measure.

(Google Daydream View)

Best VR Headset

A good entry point for those who are a little more serious about VR than a beginner might be.

Now that Google's Daydream platform has been in the market for a year, the company updated its signature Daydream View VR headset. The revised over-the-eyes device is more comfortable, includes a stowable Bluetooth controller, and works with a wide(r) range of smartphones. The headset comes in three colors and costs $99. It's compatible with all of Google's Pixel handsets, as well as the Moto Z2 Force, Galaxy S8/S8+, and a few others. You'll have to order it online or pick it up from a Verizon store.

Your Samsung Galaxy-owning friend or relative might enjoy an even more immersive experience via the Samsung Gear VR (2017) headset, which also offers Oculus VR content. It costs about $100.

(Otterbox Commuter)

Best Rugged Case

A ready-to-rumble rawhide for your pricey smartphone that balances cost and usability.

Not all cases are created equal. The Otterbox Commuter Series is a fine place to start if you need great protection at a reasonable price. Available for most popular devices for about $50, this two-piece case system includes a silicon inner liner and polycarbonate external shell. Together, they keep your iPhone, Galaxy, or Pixel safe from most drops, bumps, and bruises without getting in the way of usability. The Otterbox Commuter series is available at most wireless retail shops, as well as stores including Best Buy and Target.

Need the ultimate in protection? Step up to the Otterbox Defender Series, a three-layer system that handles even bigger drops for $60.

(Google Home mini)

Best In-Home Assistant

The voice-activated, in-home assistant that has a small footprint and doesn't cost a whole lot.

Google Assistant is one of my favorite things. I've relied on it all over the world to answer questions, look up directions, and help me with random math problems. The Google Home Mini is a perfect gifting option because it includes all the smarts of the full-sized model, but is much more affordable at just $49. Its small, puck-like shape also means it will fit in most homes, even those with limited (shelf) space. It doesn't sound as good as the bigger model, but you can use it to send sound to better wireless speakers. Google Home Mini is available from Google, Best Buy, and others.

If you're more of an Amazon person, the Echo Dot (2nd Gen) does many of the same things through the Alexa voice assistant. It, too, boasts a small footprint and $49 price tag.

(Ring Doorbell Pro)

Best Smarthome Security Camera

The best possible way to keep tabs on your main entryway.

The Ring Doorbell Pro is one of the smartest $200 investments you can make. Remove your old wired doorbell, replace it with the Ring Pro, and use the app to get up and running. It takes maybe 15 minutes and you have an HD camera guarding your front door. You can keep a watchful eye on deliveries and just about anything that happens within view of the wide-angle camera when not at home. The camera works well in the dark, and the motion detector functions are fully customizable. The app lets you see and talk to people ringing the doorbell in real-time. It is a must-have for homeowners.

The Nest Cam Outdoor is a simpler camera and costs the same $199. It plays well with other Nest and Google home gadgets.

(Samsung charger)

Best Wireless Charger

A convenient desktop charger that doesn't need wires.

Wireless charging is one of the mobile life's great little pleasures. No need to jam a cable into the bottom of your phone, simply place it on the wireless charging pad and go. This 9W option from Samsung has a classy look thanks to the leather cover and can be positioned flat or upright. I successfully used it to charge Galaxy smartphones, as well as handsets from LG, Apple, and others (with and without cases). It's pricey at $75, but it's a fine accessory to have in a home office.

A less-costly alternative is the RavPower Fast Charge, which outputs up to 10W of power for fairly rapid wireless power-ups. It costs $40.

Phones 

Best Flagship

Flagship phones offer top specs and superior performance in attractive, well-made hardware.

This year Samsung knocked it out of the park with the Galaxy Note8. The phone adopted a new design, a new display aspect ratio, a powerful pair of cameras, and carried over defining features such as the S Pen stylus. The phone may be a bit large, but the impressive screen, productivity-boosting battery life, excellent cameras, and waterproof build make the Note8 a compelling choice for any smartphone lover. You have to pay for a phone this good, and the Note8 is indeed pricey at more than $900. It's available from most carriers.

If you want a flagship that's smaller, perhaps consider the iPhone X. It has similar camera performance, but a higher price tag of $999.

Best Camera

Shoots the best-possible pictures from a mobile device, even when pitted against other high-end phones.

Google managed to outshoot the competition in camera quality this year. The Google Pixel 2 XL is an uneven handset, but there's no denying it has one of the best cameras available from a modern smartphone. The single 12-megapixel sensor includes advanced HDR and a superior portrait mode for those personal closeups. Toss in the dedicated imaging chip and unlimited online photo and video storage, and the Pixel 2 XL is the shooter to beat. It costs $849 and is available from Google and Verizon.

Not an Android fan? The iPhone 8 Plus includes the same excellent cameras as the iPhone X and is more affordable at $799.

Best Battery Life

These are the phones that keep going and going and going.

The Galaxy S8 Active from Samsung is a ruggedized version of the company's 2017 flagship. What's more important than the tougher skin, however, is the significantly bigger battery. The 4,000 mAh power cell inside the Galaxy S8 Active pushes the phone consistently through one and a half days of use, if not two full days. Few phones can make that claim. The S8 Active is available from AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile and runs $750.

Want a big battery, but not a big price tag? Look at the BlackBerry KEYone. It has one of the longest-lasting batteries of any device we tested this year and rings up at about $500.

Best For Virtual Reality

Offers the screen, battery, and processing power to immerse you in alternate realms.

Some phones can handle virtual reality, while others aim for augmented reality. The Asus ZenFone AR handles both VR and advanced AR, a unique proposition not available from any other U.S. handset right now. The ZenFone AR has a huge display, long-lasting battery, and under-the-hood horsepower to handle Google's Daydream VR platform and Google's Project Tango AR platform. Where Daydream inserts you fully in 3D landscapes, Tango overlays the real world with animated dinosaurs, furniture pickers, and the like. The ZenFone AR is the best option if you're seeking ways to escape the mundane and explore the electric. Verizon Wireless sells the ZenFone AR for $650.

Don't care about AR, but still want a great VR handset? Pick up the Samsung Galaxy S8+, which is compatible with Google's Daydream and the Samsung Gear VR headsets. You can find it for about $750.

Best Under $400

Delivers an appreciable mix of performance and value in a slick package.

Motorola's lineup spans $100 to $850, but perhaps none is as great as the $399 Moto X4. This mid-range winner from Motorola has it all: a classy glass-and-metal design, dual cameras, pixel-rich screen, good battery life, and plenty of oomph. The X4 is attractive, well made, and manages to reward owners with a nice mix of everyday excellence. It runs a clean build of Android with just the right set of software tweaks from Motorola. The Moto X4 is available unlocked from Motorola for $399, or via Amazon Prime Exclusives for just $329.

Need an iPhone on a budget? Carriers are still selling the iPhone 6s for $399 and the iPhone SE for $349.

Best Under $200

Does a lot more than just 'get the job done' at an affordable price.

The ZTE Blade Z Max is one of the best value-for-the-dollar smartphones on the market. MetroPCS sells it for $130 and it's a steal. This value offering includes a 6-inch screen, 16-megapixel camera, and superb battery life thanks to the 4,060 mAh power cell. The Blade Z Max has a mid-range processor, but it gives this phone enough gusto to run apps. Toss in the unique design and fine build quality and you have a winner in the race for budget-friendly phones.

A good alternative might be the Moto E4, which is available unlocked from Motorola for about $180. It's an Editor's Choice pick thanks to its excellent performance and low price.

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