When Apple launched the first iPad, critics sneered that it was nothing more than an oversized iPod touch. Today, it's hard to imagine a world without tablets. These ultraportable computers have become our go-to devices for watching videos, playing games, and even doing actual work, making them affordable, practical replacements for laptops and desktops. While the iPad mini is our current top pick, the 4th-generation iPad is also a great tablet, and if you want to save some money, the Asus Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD and Barnes & Noble Nook HD are also worth considering.
The smartphone is today's Swiss Army knife
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More Must-have gadgets
Yes, we just said many people are replacing their laptops with tablets. But that doesn't mean you can make a tablet your primary computer (at least not yet). Whether it's for taking work home from the office, editing the family photos and videos, or playing Minecraft, a laptop is still the most practical option. The Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display may be the best laptop currently available, but if you're looking for something a little less costly, there are a lot of great options, including the Asus Zenbook Prime, Dell XPS 15, and Apple's smallest model, the 11-inch MacBook Air.
The vast majority of American homes already have an HD set, so listing an HDTV as a must-have might seem like a no-brainer. But when it comes to big-ticket electronics purchases, an HD set really is something you must have. And with new Smart TV features, lower prices, and better quality displays, now may be the time to get a second (third?) set, or replace that 720p model from two years ago with a current 1080p set. Panasonic's ST60 series is well worth considering, but more affordable models like the Samsung LED F6300 and LG LN5700 series are also worth checking out.
If you have a smartphone (or any kind of cellphone), you need a headset. Whether it's for driving, working out, maintaining privacy, or making it a little more convenient to use one of today's oversized smartphones, a headset should be your first purchase after getting a new phone (especially since the headsets that come with most smartphones aren't worth using). In addition to wired models like the Plantronics Audio 478, there are some great Bluetooth options, including the Jabra Halo 2 and Jawbone Era.
Remember what your mother said: always back up your data. Portable hard drives are cheap, fast, and with versions that hold as much as 2TB, can easily hold all of your music, movies, and other files, so there's no excuse not to follow mom's orders. Any USB 3.0 drive that doesn't require an external power supply will get the job done. In addition to the Seagate Backup Plus Portable, we recommend the rugged Buffalo MiniStation Extreme, speedy Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro, and secure ThinkPad USB 3.0 Secure Hard Drive.
Turn your smartphone, tablet or laptop into a 21st-century boombox with a Bluetooth speaker. These battery-powered portable speakers have largely replaced the once-dominant iPod speaker docks, and are available for as little as $40. While the Jambox is still our favorite, we also like the larger, more powerful (and more expensive) Jawbone Big Jambox and UE Boombox. There are also some great models available for under $100, including the UE Mobile Boombox, Beacon Audio Phoenix, and Soundfreaq Sound Kick.
Gadgets to avoid ... maybe
Don't get a desktop computer -- unless you need the power of a gaming PC like the Digital Storm Bolt, or an entertainment-centric all-in-one like the Dell XPS One 27. Otherwise, stick with a laptop; even if you need to run programs like Adobe Photoshop or Premiere, high-end laptops like the MacBook Pro are more than up to the task, and can power multiple external displays if you need to sit at a desk.
Don't get a camcorder -- unless you're prepared to invest in the kind of quality and flexibility you'll get from a high-end model like the HC-X920. Otherwise, pick up a good DSLR, mirrorless compact system, or even a high-end point-and-shoot camera like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100. You'll get great video and still photos, and will only have to carry one camera to do it (and you can, of course, always use your smartphone as your basic, take-everywhere camcorder).
Don't buy a dedicated GPS unit -- unless you take lots of long road trips in places where cell coverage is spotty. If you have a smartphone, you already have GPS, and some newer phones, like the Samsung Galaxy Note II, have displays that are bigger than those on some GPS units. You also get free turn-by-turn navigation, traffic, and continually updated maps.
Don't buy a portable media player -- unless you're buying an iPod touch for a child who isn't ready for a smartphone or tablet, or if you need an iPod classic for your massive collection of Apple lossless audio files. Otherwise, you're better off with a smartphone, which will let you enjoy your locally-stored music and videos, and also use streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, Netflix and Amazon.
Don't buy a DVR -- unless you're willing to pay a premium for a state-of-the-art system like the TiVo Premiere XL4, with its four tuners and compatibility with TiVo's multi-room TiVo mini system. Otherwise, stick with what your cable provider offers. Most DVRs provided by cable operators can't match TiVo's functions or ease of use, but most don't cost a minimum of $350 up front and $20 a month either.
Don't buy a digital picture frame. Just don't. Use a tablet, an HDTV, or an old computer monitor paired with a Raspberry Pi. And if you want to share your pictures with family members, use Dropbox, Flickr, Path, or any other service that lets you share media selectively.