Avi Greengart’s Last Minute Non-Obvious Holiday Gift Guide 2012
Every year, tech sites put together holiday gift guides recommending the best products on the market. That’s great, but do you really need another gift guide that reinforces what we already know at Tech.pinions, that it’s going to be a very Apple holiday season? Besides, you bought those gifts already. This gift guide is for procrastinators trying to find a tech gift for someone a bit harder to shop for.
To go with that new PC or expandable smartphone
USB memory cards are such commodities that PR agencies hand them out like candy at press conferences. But if you don’t attend press conferences for a living, you may actually need to buy one. Even if you do have plenty of them lying around, sometimes it’s nice to own something that reflects your personal style, and if your personal style includes Star Wars, Batman, or any number of other geek culture franchises, Mimoco’s mimomicro cutesy stylized USB sticks and microSD USB card adapters make wonderful stocking stuffers. A Darth Vader 8 GB and a Millenium Falcon microSD USB adapter are permanent residents in my travel bag.
To go with that Android phone:
Another commodity that benefits from customization is your cellphone charger. Adru has been prominently featured in Skymall, and it’s more than just an adorable Android logo you can plug your phone into – its eyes light up to indicate that the outlet is live (an extremely useful feature in airports), and then change color when your phone is drawing current (again, good information to know). When it’s not charging, a stand gives Adru “legs,” and it becomes a tiny Android action figure, admittedly without much articulation (the arms swing out, and the antennae are a softer rubber so they won’t break off).
For the LEGO fan
I originally planned to recommend a book on how to build rubber band –powered LEGO assault weapons that fire LEGO ammunition, but given the recent news, it seems in bad taste. However, No Starch Press has a delightful book for more peaceful-minded LEGO fans as well. (It’s a book. Made of paper.) The LEGO Adventure Book takes the reader on a cartoon-style journey through the portfolios of many different non-professional LEGO builders. There are instructions for building 25 of the models on display, but this is really a book for inspiration and understanding the techniques that different builders use (no pieces are included). Highlights are Katie Walker’s use of single-peg round pieces to simulate swimming pool tiles, and mosaics that are mini artworks.
To go on the fridge:
The Boogie Board is a small, portable electronic whiteboard. Nobody actually needs one, but it is delightful to use, making it a good gift for a young child who likes to scribble without wasting paper, or as a message center for the family refrigerator. The newest version, the Jot 8.5 has more modern industrial design, a stylus that doubles as a kickstand, and internal magnets so it sticks to the fridge without any mounting hardware.
For the cord cutter
The trend of consumers cancelling their cable and getting all their content from AppleTV or the Xbox is badly overblown – the stats I’ve seen suggest that if this is a trend at all, it’s a glacial trend. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t investigate alternative ways of getting content. The cheapest way to watch high quality broadcast HDTV is to actually watch HDTV broadcasts, which are completely free and typically provide higher resolution than cable or satellite services you have to pay for. All you need is an HDTV with a built-in HDTV tuner (basically every HDTV sold since 2006) and an antenna. I have tested several antennas over the years, and Mohu’s Leaf Plus beats them all. I live at the bottom of a hill which makes reception difficult. With my previous “best” indoor antenna (a chunky amplified model from Newpoint), I got a handful of channels, and some of those had a lot of interference. The Mohu Leaf Plus doesn’t even look remotely like an antenna – it is based on military technology putting antennas on vehicle mudflaps – but it works. I get twice as many channels, and all the blocky ones are now crystal clear.
To go with that new desktop
If you bought a new PC desktop or all-in-one this holiday season, it probably came with Windows 8. Microsoft’s new OS has a user interface designed for tablets, and when you use it on a desktop with a mouse, it’s… wrong. Logitech has tried to solve this problem with two mice designed to replicate touchscreen gestures; I didn’t like them that much – there isn’t enough real estate on the top of a mouse. But the Logitech t650 touchpad is perfect, allowing you to recreate the touchscreen gestures Windows 8 uses for navigation. In fact, I can’t imagine using a Windows 8 desktop without it, and you may even want to get one for Windows 8 laptops with small touchpads.
For that new (or old) iPad
If you have a full sized iPad and want to enter text, after a while, your fingers are going to start to hurt – typing on glass just isn’t all that comfortable. There are a lot of keyboard attachments for the iPad, and I have tried most of them. The best, bar none, is Logitech’s Ultrathin iPad Keyboard Cover. It provides a fairly spacious keyboard with an exceptionally clever design which effectively turns your iPad into the world’s thinnest, lightest laptop.
For the reader who loves their first or second generation Kindle or Nook
In our converged world, dedicated devices can still make sense. eReaders with e-ink displays offer a distraction-free reading experience, allowing you to truly get lost in a book without email notifications or Angry Bird temptations. Amazon’s new Kindle Paperwhite offers the highest contrast e-ink display and its backlighting stays on to improve readability in all but direct sunlight (where backlighting isn’t needed). The Paperwhite is thin and light enough that it’s worth tossing in your bag even if you’re already toting around a tablet.
Honorable mention: Barnes & Noble Nook SimpleTouch with Glowlight ($119) is thicker than the Paperwhite, but slightly easier to hold. It has physical page turn buttons and there are no ads on the lock screen. The Paperwhite has a noticeably better display, but the SimpleTouch is good enough that Barnes & Noble account holders should stick with the Nook.
For those about to make New Year’s resolutions
There are a lot of fitness gadgets out there, and several of them are good gifts – provided you get yourself one, too, and use the social connection to motivate you both. (Otherwise, giving someone a fitness gadget might be interpreted as, “I think you’re fat. Here’s a gadget.”) I love the simplicity of the fitbit – in fact, when I finally lost my review unit for good, I bought another one with cash. However, the fact is that I lost this little clip-on four times, and the original model is mostly a glorified pedometer (fitbit did not follow up with its newer versions, and I have not tested them). The Nike+ Fuelband is also a glorified pedometer, but it is worn securely on your wrist, and ties into a full ecosystem of other Nike+ products. That means that if you just want to motivate yourself to take the stairs instead of the elevator, the Fuelband is perfect, but you can also add Fuelband data to more intense Nike+ exercise using its shoes, GPS running watch, or the personal trainer-style workouts in Microsoft’s Nike+ Kinect Training for the Xbox 360.
For the home office (or small business)
According to several alarmist articles I’ve read this year, your chair is trying to kill you, and the only thing that will save you is a standing desk. Well, OK, but aren’t there dangers to standing too much, too? A little Googling proved, yup, that can be a problem too. Other than working in bed – an even bigger ergonomic no-no, according to Google – what can you do? How about a sitting and standing desk? Omnimount sent over their Work 15 desk arm, which looks like something out of a Terminator movie. You mount your monitor on the top of the arm, put your keyboard and mouse on the tray, and then raise or lower the contraption to full standing height, or all the way down to your desk. It’s a brilliant design – it moves easily, yet can stop in nearly any position and swings left and right, not just up and down. There are multiple ways to install it, making it appropriate for many different desk configurations, and I put it together in less than an hour. Since it doesn’t have to be stuck in a fixed position, you can ease yourself into working standing up, and you can take sitting breaks when your feet hurt. If your office arrangement permits, you could probably even use it as a treadmill desk (I didn’t try this). According to the standing desk faithful, once you use a standing desk you will have energy and better powers of concentration. In my experience, writing does sometimes feel more natural while standing, but it hardly cures ADD or got me into shape. But there is one other secret benefit to the Work 15: since it lifts your keyboard and monitor off the desk, you can swing it out of the way when you want additional desk space for paperwork. Or to stack gadgets to review. Whatever works for you.
For the music lover
Every year Sonos comes out with a new addition to its product line, and every year I put the system in my holiday gift guide. I don’t do this out of habit, I simply find myself using and appreciating the system more each year. Setup is idiot-proof, operation is simple (even for complicated multi-room setups), and sound quality is good. This year, Sonos introduced the SUB, which, as you might infer from its name, is a subwoofer. The SUB is a glossy black squared-off wheel that can be placed out of the way, but is pretty enough to be on display. It adds significant bass to music; when dialed in correctly, the bass is clear without being boomy. There are three problems with the SUB: 1) you may want to independently adjust the volume depending on the tracks you’re listening to: I was somewhat shocked to discover that the SUB needed to be turned up from its calibrated volume for AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, and down for Carly Rae Jepson’s Call Me Maybe. Unfortunately, there are no volume controls on the physical unit, and virtual volume controls for the sub itself are buried in the setup menu. 2) the SUB is not strictly necessary; music on a pair of PLAY:3’s or a single PLAY:5 has adequate mid-bass. 3) At $699, the SUB is quite pricey. So, should you buy the SUB? Yes, if you have a flush gift budget and the giftee already has a fully built-out Sonos system. Otherwise, buy them more PLAY:3’s or PLAY:5’s, because the real beauty of a Sonos system is its multi-room capability.
No promotional consideration has been paid for inclusion on this list, however, the products were provided to Avi at no cost for evaluation. All opinions in this guide are his own. Avi tested many more products than appeared here; most just weren’t worthy of recommendation.