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In time for Christmas, the year’s best gadgets

Christmas is closing in, and you have just days to decide which gadgets are worth the money. Fortunately, I’ve been thinking about that all year. Of the dozens of consumer tech products I’ve tested in the past 12 months, here are the ones I’d consider.

Tablets

It’s been a great year for tablets, and not just for iPads. Yes, Apple Inc. continues to dominate. The newest full-sized iPad came with better cameras, a sharper screen, and a faster processor, with the same starting price of $499. Its follow-up, the downsized iPad mini is an even better value for money. It runs all the same apps, but is lighter, easier to handle, and starts at $329.

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But these days there’s plenty of credible competition. Amazon.com upgraded last year’s Kindle Fire tablet. For $199, the Kindle Fire HD offers a brighter, sharper screen and a front-facing camera for video conferencing. Bookseller Barnes & Noble Inc. offers the Nook HD tablet for the same price. It’s got a better video screen than the Kindle Fire, and smart software that lets up to six users customize it to suit their own tastes, making it a fine tablet for families.

But my favorite non-iPad of the year, again priced at $199, is Google Inc’s Nexus 7. It’s got a very fast quad-core processor, a vastly superior video screen, built-in GPS navigation, and Google Now, a superb personal assistant program with outstanding speech recognition.

I’d have loved to recommend the Surface, Microsoft Corp.’s daring bid to create the ideal tablet for its new Windows 8 operating system. Indeed, the $499-and-up Surface is an impressive piece of hardware — a tough, elegant machine with good performance, crisp video, and that clever optional snap-0n keyboard. But Windows 8 is a confusing mess, whether running on a tablet or standard personal computer. Perhaps next year, Microsoft will give its tablet the operating system it deserves.

E-book readers

Fans of classic black-and-white e-book readers were treated to new devices with screens that light up for reading in bed. Barnes & Noble got there first, with its very good Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, priced at $119. But Amazon.com has since delivered an even better offering, the $119 , which has smoother, more even lighting. While I prefer the Kindle, avid readers will be happy with either of them.

Smartphones

I reviewed my share of smartphones and then some, and began to get bored with them. A few made a lasting impression. Apple finally launched its iPhone 5, with a larger video screen welded to a wondrously thin body. The new $199 phone arrived with new software, the iOS 6 operating system. The upgrade was deservedly brutalized for its awful street maps feature, but most of the changes, such as to the Siri speech recognition system, were more welcome.

Meanwhile, Samsung Corp. cemented its role as Apple’s smartphone nemesis. The company’s $199.99 Galaxy S III Android phone, with its big beautiful screen and dazzling performance, was an excellent iPhone alternative that sold in the millions. And Samsung has followed up with the superb $299.99 Galaxy Note II phone/tablet.

Microsoft barely holds 3 percent of the US market in smartphones, but not for lack of trying. The new Windows Phone 8 operating system is excellent and it’s running on some impressive new phones. My favorite is the Lumia 920 by Nokia Corp. This big, powerful phone stacks up well against anything else on the market. At AT&T’s price of $99.99 with a two-year contract, it’s one of the year’s best smartphone bargains.

Laptops

I reviewed a handful of Windows laptops this year, including a lightweight $780 Ultrabook by Acer Corp. and a hulking 17-inch Hewlett-Packard Co. gaming machine for just under $1,900. But the device that made the deepest impression was the new Chromebook by Samsung, a simple $249 machine that runs the Chrome operating system by Google. It can’t handle standard Windows or Mac software, and is mainly for use with a wireless Internet connection. But the new Chromebook lets you surf the Internet, watch videos, write documents, and check e-mail. And unlike the first-generation Chromebook, you can use it even when not connected to the Net. As a cut-rate computer for casual use, it’s an excellent choice.

Cameras

Notice how I keep mentioning Samsung products? The South Korean company is neck-and-neck with Apple as the most innovative consumer tech company on earth, and is a player in the camera market. I loved the EX2F, a $369 camera that takes excellent pictures in low light and can automatically transmit photos to the user’s smartphone. Even more remarkable is the $500 Galaxy Camera, a 16-megapixel camera with a huge 21X optical zoom lens bolted onto a 4.8-inch Android mini-tablet. It takes fine photos, but just as important, this weird, wonderful mashup of a gadget puts a grin on my face every time I pick it up. It’s just fun, and I can’t think of a better recommendation for a Christmas gift.

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