Gadgets galore: Droid Maxx vs. Galaxy S4; Nexus 7 vs. iPad Mini

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon helps readers decide which smartphones and tablets are right for them. With a bevy of new product introductions this week and coming soon, there are a lot choices.

It doesn't look like Motorola and its parent company, Google, got the memo that there is supposed to be a lull in device introductions during the summer.

This week Motorola introduced not one, but three new smartphones, exclusive to Verizon Wireless . And Google, which now owns Motorola, took the wraps off the latest version of its Android software, plus two new devices: the updated Nexus 7 tablet and the new Chromecast streaming media device for TVs .

And the hits are expected to keep coming, as Motorola is slated to unveil its much anticipated flagship smartphone, the Motorola X , at an event in New York City next week.

With all these new product introductions, consumers are seeking advice on what to buy. In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some preliminary advice on whether to consider buying the highest end Motorola Droid smartphone introduced this week, called the Droid Maxx. And I also offer my thoughts on whether to buy the Nexus 7 or wait for a new and improved Apple iPad Mini.

Motorola Droid Maxx vs. Samsung Galaxy S4

Dear Maggie,
My two-year contract with Verizon Wireless is almost up. And I'm ready to give up my Motorola Razr. I had pretty much made up my mind that my next phone would be a Samsung Galaxy S. (Sorry, no Apple products for me.) Then I heard about the new Motorola Droid Maxx coming to Verizon. Over the last two years the only complaint that I've had when it comes to my Razr has been the horrific battery life. So now I'm wondering if I should get the Droid Razr or if I'd be better off with the very popular GS4.

Please offer any insight you have.

Thanks,
Walter

Dear Walter,
This is a tough decision, as the new Motorola Droids are worthy considerations for anyone shopping for a new smartphone. But before you get too far ahead in your decision making process, let me remind you that the new Motorola Droid smartphones were just announced this week. They won't go on sale until August 20, which is almost a month away. What's more the three new devices announced, the Droid Mini, Droid Ultra and the Droid Maxx have not been thoroughly reviewed yet.

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So before you make any big decisions, you should wait for those reviews. What's more Motorola is expected to announce another device, the Motorola X, next week. So you may want to consider that device as well. I'll talk more about that later.

But first let's look at the two phones you asked about in your question: The Droid Maxx and the Samsung Galaxy S4. On paper, the Droid Maxx looks like a worthy competitor to the highest end smartphones offered today, including the Samsung Galaxy S4.

Droid Maxx
The biggest selling point for the Droid Maxx is the super long battery life. Motorola claims the 3,500aMh battery gets up to 48 hours of battery life. As I mentioned above, this battery life claim hasn't been fully tested, but if it's anywhere close to this claim, it will blow away the rest of the competition.

Another cool feature that the Droid Maxx offers is sophisticated voice activation technology that lets you control the device and navigate through options much like you would using Google Glass. For example, you can ask Google to search for something or to make a phone call. It seems that the voice command software works a bit better than it does on other Android devices.

There is also some cool gesture technology built into the device used in conjunction with the camera called Quick Capture, which allows you to launch the phone's cameras by shaking the phone twice. You can then take a picture simply by tapping the screen. And using a function called Droid Zap, you are able to share these photos wirelessly to nearby Droids, simply by swiping across the screen.

Smartphone users who aren't so keen on Samsung's TouchWiz software, which is layered on top of the current version of Android software, will happily note that the new Motorola Droids, including the Droid Maxx, do not have an overbearing software "skin" layered over the Android OS. And the device software experience is as close as you can get to stock Android without buying a full price Nexus device or Google Play Edition smartphone.

Samsung Galaxy S4
But even though the Droid Maxx has some terrific features, there are some specifications and features that will likely be better on the Samsung Galaxy S4. For one, the Droid Maxx is simply a heavier phone, due to the bigger battery. How much bigger? The Droid Maxx weighs in at 166 grams compared to the GS4's 130 grams, making the Droid Maxx about 28 percent heavier. It's also a bit thicker than the GS4.

That said, the devices each have 5-inch screens. But it's very likely that the GS4 screen will offer a sharper picture given that it simply packs in more pixels. The GS4 has about 441 pixels per inch compared with the Droid Maxx's 294 pixels per inch. This isn't to say that the Droid Maxx won't offer sharp images, but from what we can tell from the specifications, it doesn't quite match up to the GS4.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Josh Miller/CNET

Another area in which the Droid Maxx may lag behind the GS4 is in terms of the processor. Motorola executives told reporters on Tuesday that the device sports an 8-core processor that splits tasks between two different low powered chips. Motorola talked up the X8 system as a breakthrough technology, but as tech reviewers and analysts look more deeply into these claims, it seems more like marketing fluff than a substantial technology advancement.

According to Ars Technica, the chips used in the new Motorola Droids are a slight variation of a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since there are several high end smartphones using this technology. But we won't know for certain about the performance of the Droid Maxx until it can be tested and compared to rivals, such as the Galaxy S4.

Another potential area of big difference between the devices is the camera. The Droid Maxx has a 10-megapixel front-facing camera compared with the 13-megapixel camera on the Galaxy S4. Of course, megapixels don't tell the whole story when it comes to smartphone cameras. And Motorola has talked up the fact that its camera is designed for superior low-light photo shooting. But any claims made about the quality of the camera and the images it takes will have to be tested and compared before I can say with any authority, which one is better.

As I said before, megapixels only tell part of the image quality story. Software features are also a major component in terms of smartphone cameras. So it's definitely something to check out when the device is available for review.

For example, even though the Samsung Galaxy S4 has gotten higher marks for its camera than the HTC One, some people simply like the software features on the HTC One better than the GS4. CNET Reviews Editor Brian Bennett is one of those people. He is a big fan of the HTC One. And even though he knows that the GS4 performs better in many situations, he still really likes all the bells and whistles the HTC One offers in terms of the camera.

The bottom line
The device that is right for you depends on what your priorities are. Looking purely at the spec sheet, it looks like the Motorola Droid Maxx is the best phone for people who want an exceptionally long battery life, a less cluttered Google Android experience, and some pretty cool gesture and voice activated controls.

Meanwhile, the Samsung Galaxy S4 might be better suited for the smartphone subscriber, who must have a cutting edge, fast processor. Or someone who wants a clearer and more vibrant screen and a proven top of the line camera. What's more, because the Galaxy S4 is Samsung's flagship phone, anyone interested in this device must be comfortable with the added features and software experience that comes as part of the Samsung TouchWiz software.

So what should you do?
It sounds like battery life is very important to you, so definitely consider the Droid Maxx. But before you make a decision and sign a new two-year Verizon contract, wait until the Droid Maxx is properly reviewed. After all, the super long battery life comes at a price. With a two-year contract, the device will sell for $299 starting August 20. Meanwhile, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is $199 with a two-year contract. While a $100 difference might not matter much to you, considering that most of the expense of owning a smartphone is in the service charges, which is the same regardless of which device you buy on Verizon's network, it is still something to think about.

There are a couple of other devices you may also want to consider. As I mentioned earlier, the much-hyped Motorola X smartphone is expected to be unveiled next week at an event in New York City. Many of the leaked details of the device sound very similar to the Droid Maxx. But it's unclear at this point which wireless operators will offer the Moto X or if it will be sold as an unlocked device. Some news outlets are reporting that all major wireless carriers will have the device.

But there's also a good chance that it may be limited to GSM carriers, which has been what Google, Motorola's parent company, has done in the past with its Nexus line of devices or its Google Play Edition phones. If this is the case, Verizon wouldn't get the phone.

I'm also a little skeptical that Verizon would offer this device anyway, given the fact that it's putting a lot of marketing dollars and effort into reviving the Droid brand, which will be exclusively available on Verizon and exclusive to Motorola devices. I'm not sure why Verizon would go through the trouble of launching these new Droid devices now, if it was also planning to carry the flagship Motorola X.

That said, I'm not a marketing executive. And I could be wrong on this one.

Another device you may also want to consider is the HTC One, which was introduced in the spring. It's still expected to make its debut on Verizon's network sometime this summer So you may want to look at that phone as well. There has already been a lot written comparing the HTC One to the Samsung Galaxy S4. So be sure to check out those comparisons as well.

At the end of the day, it will come down to your personal preference. In addition to looking at some reviews where you will get a better idea of the actual performance of the new Droid Maxx or Moto X, you may also want to go to a Verizon store once the devices are available and just hold them in your hand and play around with them.

Good luck with your decision!

Nexus 7 vs. iPad Mini

Dear Maggie,
What do you think about the new Nexus 7 tablet? I'm considering getting that over an iPad Mini. I don't want to spend a ton on money, since this is likely a device that will be thrown into my bag and used to entertain my kids, too. But I'm not sure if I should wait until a new iPad Mini is introduced. What do you think?

Thanks,
Sam

Dear Sam,
My CNET Reviews colleague Scott Stein compared the the specifications of the new Nexus 7 Google tablet with the Apple iPad Mini in a piece published earlier this week. He looked at everything from the pixel density and screen quality to the cameras to the design and color of the devices, as well as, the operating systems and the apps that are available for each device. I won't rehash the information he has already put together, so take a look at his piece for the nitty gritty details.

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But on the whole, he concluded, and I agree with him, that the new Nexus 7 is much improved over its predecessor. And it's also a great deal for anyone looking for a small tablet, especially if value is your main priority.

"In small tablets, price is everything," he writes. "On nearly every level, the Nexus 7 offers a better deal than the iPad Mini, and its storage configurations are less of a markup."

For instance, the 16GB Wi-Fi Nexus 7 costs $229, versus $329 for a 16GB iPad Mini. The 32GB Nexus 7 is only $269, which is only $40 more, than the 16GB model. Meanwhile, Apple charges a whopping $429 or a $100 premium for the added storage space on its 32GB iPad Mini.

I have been a fan of the Nexus 7 since it was introduced a year ago. And I am very excited about the updated product, especially since Google has managed to continue to keep the price low in comparison to other similar devices. I had a chance to check out the Nexus 7 today at an event hosted by Google in New York. And I have to say I was impressed by the improved screen and audio. I own the previous model of the Nexus 7, and I can honestly say, I'm considering upgrading to the newer version just to get the better screen and better quality audio. (And that's really saying something, considering how cheap I am when it comes to buying new devices!)

Still, the current iPad Mini will soon be a year old. It was released in October 2012, so you can expect Apple to introduce an updated device sometime this fall. This new iPad Mini is also likely to have a better screen. So if you are really torn, you might want to wait until that device is released.

But if getting a great tablet at a great price is your main goal, I don't see any reason why you shouldn't go ahead and buy the Nexus 7 when it becomes available next week. Even with a new iPad Mini coming out later this year, I don't see Apple beating Google's pricing.

I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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