Technology has played an important role in our lives for a long time. As technology advances, so does its significance to almost everything that we do. As a result, more and more people have come to find technology desirable as a gift to receive as well as to give. For certain occasions within specific relationships (Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, etc.) you may wish to get your spouse or significant other a more traditional and perhaps personal gift, but for most holidays during the winter holiday season, and for most relationships, technology offers highly suitable gifting opportunities.
This guide will provide some ideas about technology-related gifts you may want to get for friends, family, partners, employees, and almost anyone else. Many of the products discussed in this guide rank among my personal favorites. Nothing precludes you from getting some of the technology discussed in this guide for yourself. Many of the items will prove helpful to you professionally and/or enjoyable, if not desirable, in your personal life. The items discussed in this article have a price range from less than $20 to more than $800. You should find something in this guide suitable for almost everyone on your list.
In keeping with custom, we must start with a few obligatory warnings:
- Nothing said in this article constitutes tax advice. Consult your tax preparer about questions of deductibility and depreciation or any other tax-related matters. To the extent that you may think that something in this article constitutes tax advice, you are not correct, but you still cannot use the information in this article for purposes of tax evasion.
- Nothing in this article constitutes an endorsement or recommendation of a product or products by the American Bar Association or its General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division. The article contains my personal opinions and observations. Please do not give anyone else credit for them.
- Opinions and information contained in this article do not replace or supplement the manufacturers’ warranties, instructions, or specifications.
- Price references in this article reflect available information as to the manufacturer’s suggested retail prices (sometimes known as “MSRP”), unless otherwise stated. Although some items rarely sell for discounts, you can find discounts for most products if you look hard enough. Often products sell online for less than in bricks-and-mortar shops. If you shop online, be wary of whom you deal with and take steps to ensure that you get what you wanted.
- Some of the products discussed in this article were provided to me for review purposes by vendors or manufacturers or their media agents, others were purchased for my own use, and still others borrowed from friends. I have not endeavored to test every product on the market, and there may be good products not mentioned in this article. The article reflects my observations on the products I have looked at, and I have endeavored to look at products I think you will find interesting.
- The Surgeon General has not yet opined on the subject, but the author believes that the use of technology may prove addictive and, to the extent that you give up physical activity in favor of technology, can be dangerous to your health. But it is a heck of a lot of fun! Accordingly, although the author recommends and commends the use of technology to you, use it advisedly and in moderation.
Apple’s iPad 2, the Number 1 Recommendation
Apple’s iPad 2 heads this year’s list of recommendations. This is the first year that a product line has repeated as the number-one recommendation in this gift guide. This fact reflects the iPad’s amazing success. In building the iPad 2, Apple did almost everything right. The tremendous popularity of the device and its continuing dominance of the tablet or slate market evidences this assertion’s accuracy.
As good a job as Apple did designing and building the original iPad, it did a better job with the iPad 2. The iPad 2 enhances the iPad’s versatility, flexibility, performance, and value. Apple maintained the same variety of models and price points, making it available to people looking for gifts costing from $499 to $829. As Apple made the iPad 2 superior to the iPad in almost all respects, the price points reflect significantly improved values over last year’s models.
I made the comment last year that “in building the iPad, Apple created one of the slickest pieces of technology on the market.” I can make that statement again this year about the iPad 2. I know a great many people who bought or received the gift of an iPad 2, and I have yet to hear anyone say that they were unhappy with it or that they wish they had bought a different slate device. I do know people who purchased other slate or tablet devices and have commented that they wish they had bought an iPad 2.
The iPad 2 has attracted people of all ages, genders, and levels of education. Attorneys have started using the iPad 2 in their practices (including in court), educators use the iPad in their classrooms, and lots of people, from all walks of life, use the iPad 2 professionally and/or personally.
The iPad 2 gives you an excellent audio and video media player. Although the audio does not noticeably improve on the iPhone/iPod, the video does. The larger screen and its high resolution give you a much better experience than the smaller screens; technically, the displays in the smaller devices may out-spec the display in the iPad 2, but the size differential tips the scales in favor of the iPad 2.
Likely you have heard that the iTunes App Store has apps for darn near everything. The iTunes store offers several hundred thousand apps divided into 20 categories. Although the majority of the apps are designed for the iPhone, almost all of the iPhone apps also work on the iPad as well (although they do not necessarily take advantage of the larger screen on the iPad), and the number of apps designed for the iPad has begun closing in on 100,000.
In addition to offering productivity apps, such as those for e-mail, calendaring, and organization of your life and activities, the iPad 2 gives you the ability to surf the net, check the news, watch movies, and take educational courses. It does a Kindle emulation as well as a NOOK emulation, providing you with access to the collection of reading materials available through the iTunes store using Apple’s own iBook app and the ability to access, acquire, and read materials from both Barnes & Noble and Amazon using the provider’s respective apps. The iPad 2 displays your photographic and video media clearly and crisply. The speedier A5 processor designed for and used in the iPad 2 helps it work extremely well for gaming, and many games have made it into the App store. The games run the gamut from traditional board games (checkers, chess, Scrabble, and backgammon, to name just a few), to cards (poker, solitaire, bridge, spades, and cribbage, among others), to adventure games such as Civilization, to sports (baseball, soccer, football, car racing, and basketball lead the list), to arcade games (ranging from Pac-Man to any number of “shoot-em-ups,” with Angry Birds heading that list), and the list of games goes on and on and on and on.
Apple makes the iPad 2 in two versions, a WiFi-only version and a WiFi + 3G version. The WiFi-only version requires a WiFi connection for access to the Internet, e-mail, etc. The WiFi + 3G version allows you to get that access anywhere you can find a data signal from your provider. One of the enhancements of the iPad 2 is its availability on the Verizon network as well as AT&T, giving you a choice of your 3G provider. Note that you cannot change horses in midstream. If you get an AT&T version, you will always have an AT&T version and it will not directly access Verizon’s network. If you get a Verizon version, it will not access AT&T’s network. You can, however, use a device on other networks by using WiFi mode and connecting it through a hot spot accessing another network.
Each version of the iPad 2 comes with your choice of 16 GB, 32 GB, or 64 GB of memory. Because you cannot add internal memory to the iPad 2, I recommend you opt for the largest memory you can justify. New offerings on the market provide external memory additions, but I have not yet had the opportunity to check these out. Other than a minor size and weight differential owing to the cellular antennae and radio, the specifications of both the WiFi and the WiFi + 3G versions are the same.
The addition of cameras to the iPad 2 makes it considerably more useful than the original iPad for communications, as the cameras open the door to the use of the iPad as a videoconferencing device.
All units run on a custom-designed 1 GHz Apple A5 dual-core processer and have a 9.7” LED-backlit, glossy, high-resolution (1024 x 768 pixels at 132 pixels per inch), Multi-Touch display. Apple claims the battery will provide up to ten hours of web surfing on WiFi and up to nine hours of web surfing on 3G. You can find full pricing details and more information about specs on Apple’s website.
Accessories for the iPad
If you have an iPad 2 or iPad—or know someone who does—you have a vast array of accessories available as possible gifts. You can choose among a wide selection of cases for the iPad. The cases offer varying degrees of protection and functionality. My iPad travels with me quite a bit, so I want to give it a fair amount of protection. I have cloaked it in a ZAGG invisibleSHIELD for protection against scratching and scuffing and to reduce the problem of fingerprints. ZAGG sells its invisibleSHIELD for the iPad 2 in three configurations: screen only, back only, and full coverage. The screen and back coverage units cost $29.99 each, but the full coverage sells for only $39.99. The ZAGG shields take some effort to install properly; be sure to watch their video and follow the directions carefully. If you buy it from a retailer such as Best Buy, they will install it for you for a reasonable fee (usually between $5 and $10).
I like Apple’s iPad Smart Cover and keep one on my iPad 2 most of the time. As it attaches magnetically, you can easily remove it when it gets in your way. I often remove mine when using the iPad in portrait mode; Apple designed the cover to work as a stand in landscape mode only. The iPad Smart Cover comes in leather for $69 or polyurethane for $39. From a few feet away you will find it hard to tell them apart, and they both function identically.
I also found a matching back cover for $19.95 at HyperShop. The HyperShield Back Cover matches Apple’s Smart Cover pretty well and works very well with it to protect the iPad case from damage and afford some protection against minor drops. Should it interest you, the HyperShop folks also make their own version of the Smart Cover and sell both the front and back pieces for $29.95. You can find a very large selection and variety of cases online and in the Apple Store if you want something a bit fancier or nicer than these somewhat basic designs.
For additional protection, I generally put my iPad in an envelope or sleeve and carry it in a briefcase or a small messenger bag. For a long time I used a neoprene sleeve, which provided a good amount of protection for the iPad and allowed me to carry it in virtually any messenger bag, briefcase, or computer case.
You can get neoprene sleeves practically anywhere. As a gift, however, I am partial to Tumi’s leather-trimmed Alpha Small Laptop Cover ($65) as I find it well made from a dense neoprene, and I like the cache. In fairness, you can find perfectly adequate neoprene sleeves from other manufacturers for considerably less money. I also found a very protective Flak Jacket for $30 from Levenger. Levenger also sells a very nice Bomber Jacket leather sleeve for $89. Both the Flak Jacket and Bomber Jacket sleeves will accommodate the iPad, the iPad 2, a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10, and most netbooks. (If you really like the leather Bomber Jacket sleeve but have a full-size laptop, Levenger sells a version for 15” laptops at $119.)
Recently, I found a very nice but substantially more expensive leather envelope made by Col. Littleton ($157.50). They call it the No. 5 Pocket for iPad. In terms of style and panache, they could call it the No. 1 Pocket and I wouldn’t bat an eyelash. It would make a great gift, particularly if you have them mark it with the recipient’s initials (for an additional $8.00).
For anyone planning on using the iPad for note taking, a Bluetooth keyboard makes an exceptionally useful accessory. You can get Apple’s Wireless Keyboard for $69. You can also get almost any other Bluetooth keyboard and connect it to the iPad. You will find it difficult to locate a keyboard as sleek and good looking as the Apple Wireless Keyboard, but if you get it, you will need to figure out how you want to carry it. You can stuff it in a briefcase or find a protective carrier for it and then stuff that in a briefcase (my preferred method of stuffing). As an alternative, you can get a ZAGGfolio for $99.99. The ZAGGfolio gives you a case and removable Bluetooth keyboard. The top of the case holds your iPad, making a nice, neat package for the iPad and keyboard. Alternatively, for $69.99, you can get just the keyboard without the folio cover. Logitech makes the keyboard for the ZAGGfolio. Logitech has earned a good reputation for making solid and reliable keyboards over a number of years, and I have used a number of their products happily. I am pleased and satisfied with the functioning of both the Logitech/ZAGG offering and the Apple Wireless Keyboard with the iPad 2.
A number of vendors have produced special styli for the iPad (they also work with the iPhone, the iPod touch, and many other touch-screen devices). I like using a stylus rather than my finger as it reduces fingerprints. It also makes it easier for you to make more accurate selections of keys, although it can slow you down if you normally do key selection with more than one finger. You can find the touch-screen styli in all manner of shapes and several sizes. BoxWave offers several varieties of styli for touch screen devices at under $20.
The folks at Ten One Design offer a somewhat different design in the $24.95 Pogo Sketch Pro. They designed the device to facilitate drawing on the iPad 2.
For those who prefer a thicker pen/stylus, Just Mobile offers the AluPen in several colors ($24.95; available at www.xstand.net and other vendors). I have always liked thicker writing implements, and the AluPen is one of my favorites for the iPad 2.
If you want a combination pen/stylus with a bit more style, Monteverde, an Italian pen manufacturer, offers a selection of pens with capacitive rubber tips that work as styli for these devices. If you want to give a gift to an iPad- or iPhone-using pen aficionado, check these out. The Monteverde One Touch ballpoint with stylus sells for $30 in your choice of many color options.
Monteverde also makes a more expensive line, called Invincia. The fountain pen/stylus goes for $95 and the ballpoint/stylus goes for $75. The Invincia stylus pens come in matte, black, or chrome. You can also use a gel refill with the ballpoint so that it functions as a rollerball.
Although much lighter than its predecessor, the iPad 2 can still get heavy when you hold it for a long time. If you want to read a book or watch a movie on it, you will find it far more convenient if you do not have to hold it for the prolonged period of use. So get a stand to use while you watch a movie, read the news, or use a Bluetooth keyboard to take notes. Apple makes the iPad Dock ($29). The Apple Dock has the advantage of having a very small size, making it very easy to travel with. It has the disadvantage of only supporting the iPad in the portrait (vertical) orientation, and only at one angle. Additionally, you have to remove the iPad from any protective case that goes over the back of the device to use it with Apple’s iPad stand.
I have found other stands I like better than Apple’s iPad stand, most of which allow you to use the iPad in portrait or landscape (horizontal) position. I have seen several stands that I like for various reasons. My favorites for desktop use include Twelve South’s BookArc ($29.99) and Griffin’s A-Frame (originally listed at $49.99 but now on sale for $39.99) and Loop ($29.99). Griffin’s A-Frame is a substantial folding device designed for travel but probably better suited to home or office use owing to its weight. Griffin has made a somewhat different version of the A-Frame (the Tablet Stand) that it sells for $29.99 and bills as compatible with a variety of devices of varying sizes. I prefer the original aluminum version in both appearance and in use. The Twelve South BookArc provides a single angle of view, allowing you to position the iPad horizontally or vertically. It is light enough to use for travel, but you have better travel options that offer a less bulky package (including the A-Frame). The Book-Arc works very well as a stand in the office or at home. Newer Technology makes a very similar product called the NuStand Alloy that it sells for $24.99. The NuStand comes in rubberized black aircraft aluminum.
For travel, Twelve South makes an outstanding collapsible mobile stand that they call the Compass ($39.99), undoubtedly because it opens much like that old-fashioned drafting tool. The compass folds up into a very small package and opens into a very competent iPad stand. I used to travel with it all the time, but I stopped packing it in my bag when flying after the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) questioned whether it might be a weapon. Ultimately, after some discussion, TSA did not confiscate it, passed it, and I boarded that flight. I had no problem with it before that incident and no problem on the return flight, so it is probably okay. Still, I like the stand and do not want to lose it, so I won’t carry it anymore when I will have to deal with the folks at TSA. Griffin offers the very compact Arrowhead stand for $19.99. The stand, which has magnets in one side to hold two halves together during storage, separates and holds the tablet in either a vertical or horizontal position. It packs in very little space and works great on an airplane flight table, as well as a conference table or a hotel desk. Recently, while wandering through a shopping center with my wife, I came across a Cricket folding stand in a Relax-The-Back store for $50 (available from www.relaxtheback.com and other vendors). I have since seen it available online for as low as $36. I have acquired one, and I like it quite a bit. It is a bit larger and bulkier than the Compass, but folds very compactly, should not confuse TSA as a possible weapon, will support an iPad, and also works with a laptop.
You can always improve the sound of the iPad (or any other portable audio device) by getting a good set of earbuds or headphones. I address the topic of earbuds and headphones later in this guide. You may also want to consider acquiring external speakers for your iPad, and I address that topic later in this article as well.
I have used the iPhone since it first came out. I currently have the iPhone 4S, and I anxiously await the release of the next iteration of the product. I anticipate that Apple will release the iPhone 5 around June 2012 and that it will work on so-called 4G networks. I have just received my 4S and I like it a lot. Its specifications indicate a significant improvement over the iPhone 4. I have not had the chance to fully test its capacities yet, but I do see some very noticeable enhancements, particularly in speed. Apple built the 4S using the same dual-core A5 processor that it uses in the iPad, providing a significant performance boost over the iPhone 4. Apple says it is twice as powerful and runs graphics up to seven times faster. But the A5 processor drains less power than its predecessor, meaning you should get better battery life. In truth, I have not noticed a major improvement in battery life. As a result, I often put the iPhone into a case with a built-in battery when I will be out and about without the opportunity to recharge the iPhone. Apple also improved the camera, providing 8-megapixel resolution with an f/2.4 aperture. The camera also has a new optics program to make better use of available lighting and now includes face detection. It can also generate 1080p HD video.
The iPhone 4S comes with Siri, a voice command program that allows you to instruct the phone with verbal commands and have it understand and respond by words and/or actions.
The iPhone 4S also got a memory boost. (At last!) Memory options are 16 GB ($199), 32 GB ($299), and 64 GB ($399). To get the phone at these prices, you must also purchase a data plan. Apple has announced that in November it will offer the iPhone 4S unlocked (meaning it will work with more than one carrier); the respective prices (based on memory size) will be $649, $749, and $849. The unlocked version will come without any contractual tie to a provider. You will still have to purchase a plan from a provider to use the phone. I have not heard that any provider will discount or offer reduced-priced plans for those with unlocked devices, so you will pay a price that supports a subsidized purchase, even though you did not get a subsidized purchase price. Apple will also offer earlier versions unlocked for less; see Apple’s website for pricing and availability.
The iPhone 4S comes in essentially the same case as the 4. This means that the accessories for the iPhone 4 should work fine on the 4S. So far, I have not found any of my iPhone 4 accessories that do not work on the 4S.
Earlier this year Apple released a white iPhone 4 and an iPhone 4 for the Verizon network. The 4S comes in black or white and will also see a version for Sprint.
As none of the networks works equally well everywhere, those of you living in areas better served by one particular network will now have the option of getting an iPhone that works for you. Generally speaking, AT&T provides faster 3G service, but Verizon has the most comprehensive and reliable 3G network. I have not used the Sprint network lately; my earlier experience with Sprint, however, was that it provided some of the best reception where it provided reception, but had the least comprehensive coverage of the three. Some of the problems with dropped calls experienced by AT&T users may have resulted from the massive iPhone use taxing the AT&T network’s capabilities, a factor that could even out in the near future now that you can get an iPhone on the Verizon and the Sprint networks. Phones on the AT&T 3G system do have one significant feature advantage over those on the Verizon and the Sprint 3G networks: AT&T’s network lets you concurrently talk on the phone and browse the Internet; Verizon and Sprint iPhone users can do one or the other, but not both at the same time. Although I have occasionally encountered what I consider good or even exceptional customer service from AT&T and Verizon, that has only rarely happened. Generally, I have a very low opinion of the customer service offered by both of these providers. As I have not used Sprint for some time, I have no personal experience with its current support system.
Apple released iOS 5, the new version of its mobile operating system, in October. The iPhone 4S comes with iOS 5 installed. The new OS is a free upgrade for earlier iPhones and will work on the 4 and 3GS, but Siri only works on the 4S.
Android. Google’s Android operating system has been gaining a larger and larger share of the smartphone market. Although the iPhone has proven the most popular smartphone, more smartphone users use the Android platform than the iOS platform. Many manufacturers make Android phones, including, without limitation, Motorola, Samsung, HTC, LG, and Sony Ericsson. All of the major and many of the minor service providers have Android phone offerings. Many of the models with different names have substantially the same features but work with different providers. My personal favorite of the Android phones, the Samsung Droid Charge, works on the Verizon 4G network (it also has backward compatibility with earlier networks that comes into play when it cannot find a 4G signal). The Charge has a large display, using a super AMOLED screen to conserve on battery life. The screen is bright, clear, and sharp. Conserving on battery life on a 4G phone makes sense, as the 4G radio drains power much more quickly than a 3G radio. Even so, you should get pretty much a full day’s use out of a charge. If battery life proves an issue for you, you can either get a second standard battery or an extra-large battery. The trade-off of the latter option is that you have a noticeably thicker and heavier phone with the extra-large battery and must also purchase a special, thicker back for the phone, which will limit your choice of cases. Nevertheless, if you use your phone a lot, particularly if you use it for more than just telephony, you may find the extra-large battery a worthwhile investment. If I did not want to get an iPhone for some reason or had to have 4G, I would go with the Charge.
BlackBerry. What about the BlackBerry? BlackBerry (produced by Research In Motion, or RIM) had a long run at the top of the mountain. I do not consider it the leader any longer. For my money, iOS 5 and the Android operating system both surpass the BlackBerry OS in features and in performance. Last year I got a BlackBerry Torch 9800, which I considered the best BlackBerry phone I had seen at the time. The Torch 9800 has a virtual keyboard as well as the traditional BlackBerry-style physical keyboard presented in a new way: It slides out, allowing you to still have a display equal to the face of the device (3.18” diagonal) and not just its top half, as most BlackBerry devices have. The Torch also had the best and sharpest display I have seen on a BlackBerry and came with a 5-megapixel camera. Recently, RIM upgraded the Torch to the Torch 2. I have not yet had the opportunity to test the Torch 2, but I have seen photos and specifications. It looks almost exactly like the 9800 but has much better specifications, including a newer and much faster processor. If I wanted to get a new BlackBerry, I would choose the Torch 2.
When it announced the iPhone 4S, Apple also refreshed its iPod line. The top of the iPod line, the iPod touch, is substantially the same thing as an iPhone 4 with a more slender profile and no phone capability. The iPod touch has the memory options of 8 GB ($199), 32 GB ($299), and 64 GB ($399). Pricing of the 8 GB model reflects a reduction of some $30. Apple offers these new versions of the iPod touch in white as well as black and will deliver them with iOS 5. The new iteration of the iPod touch appears to be otherwise identical to the previous version, so I see no reason to get another one if you have the last version. If you do not have an iPod touch, the current version offers at least as good a device as before, and I see no reason not to get it. I have both the iPhone and the iPod touch. There is some redundancy there, but I use the iPod more for media and the iPhone more for running apps and for e-mail as well as telephony owing to its cellular and cellular data connectivity without the need for a WiFi hot spot. If I did not have an iPhone and relied on an Android phone or a BlackBerry as my primary phone, I would most assuredly want an iPod touch as well. In that case, however, I would likely load more apps on the iPod touch. In truth, part of the reason I got the touch was to give me the opportunity to check it out and write about it, and the other reason was to give me the ability to use many of the features of the iPhone without burning the battery on the iPhone, to protect it for use as a telephone and an Internet device when I had no WiFi available (the touch has no 3G capabilities and requires a WiFi hot spot for Internet connectivity).
The iPod nano has a square shape and comes in an 8 GB ($129) and a 16 GB ($149) version, representing price reductions of $20 and $30, respectively, from last year. The upgraded nanos have an improved interface, with larger icons (appreciated by those of us over 50) and a Multi-Touch display, built-in FM radio, and a built-in carrying clip to facilitate its functioning as a pedometer. Apple has recognized the popularity of watchband-style cases for the nano by including 18 different watch face styles in the software package.
The iPod nano makes a good companion when you go on a walk, jog, or bike ride or while you do a workout. Apple anticipates this use in its design. In the newest version, an accelerometer makes it easier to set for walking/running. Owing to its lower price point and its lesser susceptibility to damage, if I wanted a music player for use in connection with jogging or a workout or a bike ride, I would go with the nano. But the trade-off is that it offers a lower capacity and fewer features than the iPod touch. Accordingly, if you want to give a gift to a jogger or a biker who has an iPod touch, you might consider adding a nano to their collection of technology. I prefer to use the Nano when doing physical activities as a result of its smaller and lighter size and its reduced susceptibility to damage. As I would use it for music only in that context, most of the features that do not exist on the nano would not have any utility for me in that situation.
You can also get a 2 GB shuffle for $49. As it has even less susceptibility to damage, it may prove the best choice for certain uses in connection with physical activities. You can also get the iPod classic in a 160 GB version selling for $249. Although the iPod classic lacks many of the slick features of the newer models, it has the virtue of immense capacity. If you want to set up a very large music library on an iPod docked into a speaker system, or to carry with you, the classic gives you the ability to do that. The ability to smoothly and easily stream media wirelessly, however, gives you other ways to skin that cat.
Accessories for Smartphones and iPods
If your intended recipient already has an iPhone or iPod (or, for that matter, other smartphones), that fact opens up for you the world of accessories. In addition to the basic accessories Apple offers for its devices, third-party manufacturers have developed a slew of their own.
Display protection and cases. As with the iPad, I have found the best protection for these smaller displays to be ZAGG’s invisibleSHIELD. You can find the invisibleSHIELD for most smartphones, the iPhone, iPod, iPad, and various other devices online from ZAGG or at retail locations such as Best Buy. ZAGG makes kits that protect only the screen or (at a higher price) kits that will cover the entire device (back, sides, and display). Note that the full-coverage kits add just enough to the dimensions of the device that, along with the friction the shield’s surface creates, you will find that the devices do not fit easily (or sometimes at all) in a tight case. As I generally prefer to keep my devices in cases for the additional protection they offer in the event that I drop the device, I have generally opted for the display protection only, leaving the protection of the remainder of the device to more decorative cases (usually leather, as a function of my personal preferences). To give you a rough idea about pricing, the face kit for an iPhone 4/4S costs $14.99, while the full-coverage kit costs $24.99. And, again, some retailers have begun offering an installation service for screen protection devices such as the invisibleSHIELD.
I should mention that ZAGG also sells invisibleSHIELDs for laptops. These shields do not go over the display, but offer considerable protection against scratches and scuffs to the case as well as providing some friction to reduce the likelihood of dropping the laptop when you carry it. I have used the invisibleSHIELD on laptops for several years.
When it comes to protective cases, the longer that a device exists, the more options you have. It takes a while for manufacturers to produce cases designed specifically for a single device; often they do not come out for a while after the release of a device. Less popular devices may not remain on the market long enough for many manufacturers to produce device-specific cases. You can generally find “universal” or non–device specific cases that will accommodate almost any device.
One of my favorite case makers, OtterBox, makes four basic series of cases; their Defender and the Commuter series represent my personal favorites. The other two they call the Reflex series and the Impact series. They do not make a case in each series for every device. Generally, they make at least two versions of cases for each device they cover (pun intended). The Commuter series provides protection for most devices from common risks of damage. The Defender series provides significantly greater protection, but also includes cases that generally weigh more, cost more, and add more bulk than the Commuter series cases. I prefer the appearance of the Commuter series cases and consider them sufficient for most purposes. I would, however, choose a Defender series case if I wanted to protect a device in the possession of a police officer, a construction worker, someone in the armed forces on active duty, or a serious adventurer (I might also consider adding teenagers to that list). OtterBox makes cases for most popular smartphones as well as many other devices.
Another of my favorite case manufacturers, Sena Cases produces smart, professional-looking, well-constructed leather cases for most popular smartphones, the iPad, and some other devices.
If you want an exceptionally nice leather case, check out the No. 50 iPhone Wallet from Col. Littleton ($80; it also works with a number of other devices). Col. Littleton also makes a number of universal phone holsters out of leather and, should you want to spend as much or more for the case as the phone, alligator.
It’s all about power. Apple products come in sealed cases that do not allow you to easily replace the battery yourself. Although Apple’s devices generally have better battery life than they used to, eventually the battery will run down (usually at the worst possible time). Several companies have created power sources that recharge your iPhone/iPod/iPad battery and/or power your device once the internal battery has run out. Some were created for specific devices and others provide a simple USB-connected external battery that can charge a variety of devices from many manufacturers. The $79.95 mophie juice pack air provides good protection for the iPhone 4/4S and has a built-in battery that will roughly double the available power for the phone. It also adds substantially to the dimensions and weight of the iPhone.
PowerSkin makes the PowerSkin battery case for the iPhone 4/4S and similar devices for select other smartphone devices. Most of their cases list for $59.95 but show as “on sale” on their website for $49.95. The iPhone 4/4S case lists for $79.95 but sells for $69.95 on the PowerSkin website. The PowerSkin battery appears to function comparably to the mophie device, but has a different design. The mophie case provides a hard shell around the phone’s back and sides in a two-piece design that slides over the phone. PowerSkin’s device has a soft shell around the sides and a hard shell for the back in a one-piece design. Both work well. Both solve the antennae problem that created such a furor shortly after the release of the iPhone 4, and both give you the ability to turn the supplemental power on or off. If you use one of these devices, it works best to leave the supplemental power off until you run the battery on the iPhone down and then turn the supplemental power on to recharge the iPhone battery.
Tumi’s Mobile Power Pack (my favorite external portable supply power source) holds multiple charges for many mobile devices, charges quickly, and comes with several connectors and a leather case. It is a bit over-priced at $135. You can get the Mobile Power Pack in red or gunmetal. Available adapters allow it to charge a large variety of smartphones and other devices. I recently checked online and found that Tumi no longer shows the device on its website and that several retailers show the device as not currently available. Nevertheless, when I walked into a Tumi retail store several weeks ago, they still had the chargers on display and a supply of available inventory. I do not know whether Tumi has discontinued this product entirely or has a new model coming out. If you can find one, it makes a great accessory to have around.
Other reliable sources of external power for multiple devices come from ZAGG (ZAGGsparq 2.0, $99), mophie (juice pack powerstation, $79.95), and HyperShop (HyperJuice Mini, list price $119.95 and currently on sale for $99.95; HyperJuice Micro, list price $99.95 and currently on sale for $69.95). The HyperJuice devices will also power an iPad as well as many devices from manufacturers other than Apple, as they accommodate a USB connection (BYOC—Bring Your Own Cable).
On a recent trip, I stopped in a Brookstone store and discovered an 8200 mAh external power source that will support most smartphones and the iPad, providing considerable additional use. It is not as aesthetically pleasing as the HyperJuice Mini and Micro, but it has more power and costs the same $99 as the Mini at its current sale price. It comes with its own cables and a set of adapters to fit many portable devices including (without limitation) the Apple devices and any device using a micro- or mini-USB connection.
Before leaving the topic of power, I want to let you know about one other product that I have found and consider quite nifty; that product, produced by AViiQ, gives you the ability to travel with a goodly number of electronic devices but a relatively limited number of power chargers/bricks/blocks. The AViiQ Portable Charging Station comes with a well-executed and functional nylon carrying case, costs $79.99, and will charge up to four devices concurrently (including those requiring higher power, such as the iPad), while taking up only one electrical socket. The Portable Charging Station has its own built-in charging block, so you can leave all the others at home. It has space to keep cabling under control, making it a neater package to deal with than charging blocks with extra wires running everywhere. It also has a retractable USB connection that allows you to connect it to a computer, use it as a hub, and sync data. All in all, a very convenient package and a good gift for the traveler.
Earphones and headsets. The earphones that come with the iPad, the iPhone, the iPod, and most other smartphones, MP3 players, and slates generally function competently, but they usually leave considerable room for improvement. Personally, I do not use them; I immediately upgrade to a higher-quality earphone or headset. A good set of earphones or a headset makes an excellent gift.
Earphones can be either hardwired or wireless. The hardwired models have the disadvantage of requiring a physical wire between the device and the earphone/headset. Most of the wireless earphones use Bluetooth technology. The wireless models have the advantage of no physical connection to the device but the disadvantage of draining power from the device to send the Bluetooth signals. Although the quality of the Bluetooth devices continues to improve, in my experience the wireless devices do not deliver sound of the same quality as the wired devices. The wired devices have the further advantage of not requiring battery power to work (except for those that include active noise cancellation).
You can get wired and wireless devices as in-ear (earphones/earplugs) and on- or over-ear (headsets/headphones) models. The in-ear devices take up less space when you pack them and have less bulk and weight, making them ideal for travel and many other uses. Some people, however, find that they can get uncomfortable if used for prolonged time periods. If you find yourself in that group of people, opt for a headset (or limit your use of earphones). I often carry both when I travel as I prefer to use the earphones for short time periods but use the headsets for the long haul (a transcontinental flight, for example).
Hardwired sets. Bowers & Wilkins makes one of my favorite on-ear, hardwired headsets: the P5 ($299.99), a small, lightweight set that packs into an included padded case and takes up relatively little room in your bag. I often travel wearing an Eddie Bauer or an Orvis travel vest that has pockets large enough to accommodate the headset in its padded case. The headphones feel very light and comfortable on your head and work well for long-term use. The P5 includes a microphone, so that you can use it with your cell phone to handle calls as well as music. I find the P5 very responsive and enjoy its sound range. The only weakness I find in the headset is the bass reproduction. While certainly adequate, it is not as deep or strong as I prefer. Notwithstanding the bass response, I like the headset quite a bit, especially for travel. Bowers & Wilkins also makes a very good set of earphones, the C5, that sells for $179.95. Both the C5 and P5 have the same frequency response range. The C5 has the advantage of being smaller, lighter, and using sound isolation technology that keeps out noise from your environment. The P5, however, feels more comfortable over longer periods of use. Both are excellent audio devices.
Monster’s “Beats by Dr. Dre” earphones and headphones also have impressed me. The Beats by Dr. Dre Tour in-ear model includes the “ControlTalk” microphone, enabling you to control your music and use the Tour for telephony as well. The Tour lists for $179.95. Instead of the very thin and relatively fragile wires regularly used in the construction of most earphones, Monster built the Tour with a cable about the size of a standard shoelace, making it much less susceptible to damage. The earphones fit comfortably into your ears and provide strong, clear sound. The Tour uses a sound-isolation technology to minimize interference from outside noise.
The Beats by Dr. Dre Solo headphones ($199.95) fit nicely on the ear, are very responsive, and provide very solid bass. They are relatively lightweight, although not nearly so light as the Bowers & Wilkins P5. The Solo also uses a much stronger wiring than many headsets. They fold up neatly for travel and fit nicely into an included padded soft-shell case.
The Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headphones ($349.95) fit over the ear rather than on it. The larger cups encompassing the ear help create the fullness of the sound and isolate you from background noise. The Studio does, however, include a powered noise-cancellation system that works very well. The Studio headphones are highly responsive (the most responsive of the headphones I tried) and have an excellent bass response as well as a strong high and midrange response. The Studio headset also folds up and fits into an included hard-shell travel case. The case has a relatively small footprint but substantial thickness. It does, however, come with a carabineer-style clip to allow you to attach it to a handle or strap on your bag, making it a bit easier to deal with than trying to find a place for it inside. The studio comes with two sets of cables, one that includes the ControlTalk microphone, so you can use one with a cell phone for telephony and the other simply as an audio headset. All in all, a great choice for a gift.
Bose built a reputation for high-end engineered sound devices. For a number of years, Bose has also had a line of noise-canceling headsets. Their QuietComfort 15 (QC15; $299.95), the newest iteration of that line, has been available for several years. Although not new, it represent solid technology and works very well. The QC15 earpieces fit over the ear, use AAA batteries for power, and get about 35 hours per set of batteries. The headphones provide excellent audio quality and pack into an included protective case. The Bose noise-canceling technology substantially reduces outside noise levels, such as airplane noise, although not as well as the sound-isolating earphones.
Bose also offers very good quality acoustic headphones without noise-cancellation technology. The on-ear Bose OE2 headphones and the around-ear AE2 headphones each lists for $145.95 ($179.95 with optional iPod/iPhone controls). I liked them quite a bit but would have preferred a bit more depth in bass. They are very lightweight, and I found them very comfortable to use for several hours at a time. They come with a semi-hard shell case for protecting the earphones during travel.
Bose recently refreshed its earphone line to include the IE2 ($99.95) and the MIE2 ($129.95). The IE2 is a very good quality in-ear device that does not go as far into the ear canal as the earphones using sound-isolation technology. They are less likely to irritate the ear but do not provide the same purity as the sound-isolation technology. They have an odd-looking extension that fits into the bowl of the ear to help provide stability and prevent the earphone from falling out. Fit is important to make that feature work well. The IE2 provides very good quality sound and represents a nice upgrade from the earphones included with most music players (including the Apple products). The MIE2 provides the same sound quality as the IE2 but adds a microphone to provide you with telephone capability as well.
Before I get away from the wired headsets, I want to spend a couple hundred words telling you about Andrea Electronics’ SuperBeam SB-405 Headphones and SB-205 Ear Buds (both are available in black or white). These fall into a separate classification than the others headsets discussed above, as Andrea designed them to work with your computer for purposes of videoconferencing and VoIP communications. This does not mean that you cannot use them for other purposes as well, only that Andrea designed them for that purpose. You can also use them to listen to music or to work with voice-recognition software. In case you do not recognize the name, Andrea has been around for a long time and is one of the leading manufacturers of computer microphones and headsets. You may have encountered their equipment in a box of Dragon NaturallySpeaking software—the Dragon people have included Andrea headsets for some time.
The SuperBeam headset and earphones are brand new. Andrea announced them in mid-September 2011. I got a review unit to try out shortly after the announcement and was very impressed by its performance. I got the opportunity to try both the headset and the earphone set. Although the earphones proved quite comfortable, the headset proved more comfortable over long time periods. The headset folds into a very decent included travel case, but for travel the earphones are more compact and work quite satisfactorily. Their performance proved comparable, although I have a preference for the sound from the headset. The headset sells for $149.95 and the earphones sell for $129.95. Both use a boom-free architecture and have a 3D surround-sound recording capability resulting from the placement of the binaural microphones. The SuperBeam sets also come with high-fidelity speaker drivers with acoustic bass expansion and use an adaptive-beam noise-cancellation process to enhance VoIP communication.
Wireless sets. The wireless headset industry has standardized on Bluetooth technology. A good Bluetooth headset makes a fine gift and a useful acquisition for yourself. The newest innovation is the movement from the single-ear, hands-free telephone device to full-stereo headsets and combination stereo and telephony devices. You have a choice of many options in terms of high-quality Bluetooth headsets.
My current favorites in the category of pure telephone hands-free devices come from Jawbone, Plantronics, Jabra, and Bose. Jawbone calls the newest and hottest offering in its Jawbone line the ERA ($129.99).
Plantronics calls its top of the line the Voyager PRO UC ($199.99). Plantronics also has a $99.99 Voyager PRO+ that I consider a much better value. You can go to the Plantronics site and compare the two devices if you think you might be interested in the more expensive one. (I have not had the opportunity to check out the UC myself.)
Jabra calls its top offering the STONE2 (lists at $129.99, but seen online for $69). The Stone 2 is a 2011 CES Innovations Award winner and represents an upgrade to Jabra’s very well received Stone, aptly named for the docking/charging station that has the appearance of a plastic stone when docked with the earphone. Jabra has also recently announced the release of its Supreme headset ($99.99), which has active noise cancellation built into the device.
Bose’s $149 Bluetooth Series 2 headset is designed to work in your right ear only, while most of the others will allow you to modify the phone to switch to whichever ear you find most comfortable. As I generally prefer the right ear, that did not prove to be an issue for my personal use, but for others it might.
All of the Bluetooth telephone earphone devices referenced above worked well with every Bluetooth phone I paired them to and all do an excellent job. That said, in my experience, wired earphones generally work better in terms of your ability to hear the person on the other end of the line when you are in a noisy environment. As I find the Bluetooth devices more convenient, I often carry both a wireless and a wired earphone set to accommodate a problem environment.
Bluetooth stereo headsets came onto the scene a few years ago but have never compared successfully, in my opinion, to the wired headsets in terms of audio quality. They do, however, offer an advantage of convenience and give you the ability to have wireless stereo music while active. Of the ones I have seen, Motorola and Jabra make the two I like the best. Motorola has named its headset the S10-HD ($79.99). The S10-HD headset represents the latest evolution of a Bluetooth architecture that Motorola has used for the last few years. The lightweight headset handles both music and telephony. It fits into your ears, looping its frame over the ears and behind your head. The music quality is acceptable, but not outstanding; but the S10-HD is very secure in position and remains on without wires through relatively high levels of activity.
Jabra’s HALO ($129.99) produces better quality (clearer and brighter) sound to my ear than does the Motorola, has a less sporty (and less secure during active moments) configuration, but will feel more comfortable to many people over the long haul as it sits on the ears, rather than in them as the S10-HD does. The Halo also handles telephone calls and folds up to fit into an included pouch when not in use.
Speaker systems. The latest innovation with respect to speakers for smartphones, slates, and laptops involves the use of Bluetooth technology. While, to my ear, none of the Bluetooth speakers provides as clear and crisp sound as I have come to expect from high-quality wired speakers, several companies have produced portable Bluetooth speaker systems that generate very decent sound when paired with smartphones, slates, or laptops. I have found four Bluetooth speakers for you to consider, two very small and two considerably larger units. The two physically diminutive speakers generate considerably more powerful sound than you would expect given their size. Jawbone makes the JAMBOX, which sells for $199.99, comes in your choice of red, black, blue, or gray, weighs 12 ounces, and measures 151 mm x 57 mm x 40 mm.
Soundmatters makes the foxLv2 Bluetooth soundbar. The foxLv2 lists for $249.99, but the website shows a current discounted price of $199 (a wired version normally sells for $199 but is currently listed at $169). The foxLv2 also has a microphone so that you can use it as a speakerphone with your Bluetooth capable smartphone. I like the design of the foxLv2 better than the JAMBOX. The foxLv2 is a bit smaller (143 x 55 x 35 mm), a bit lighter (9.5 ounces), and a better value than the JAMBOX. The JAMBOX produces very good sound for such a small Bluetooth speaker. The foxLv2 produces a clearer and richer sound than the JAMBOX.
On the larger side, SuperTooth makes the $149 DISCO, which weighs approximately 2.5 pounds and measures 89 mm x 315 mm x 70 mm. It presents a considerably larger package than either the JAMBOX or the foxLv2. The DISCO produces a deeper and richer sound than either the foxLv2 or the JAMBOX for about 75 percent of the cost but at the expense of some portability. Certainly, the DISCO remains fairly portable, but there is a big difference between 9.5 ounces and 2.5 pounds. As the DISCO generates greater volume, it will work better than the smaller speakers to fill a larger room.
The last entry in this category comes from Bose. The newly released SoundLink costs $299.95. While substantially larger than the foxLv2 and JAMBOX (13 cm x 24.4 cm x 4.8 cm) and somewhat heavier than the Disco (2.9 pounds), it remains very portable and generates the highest quality sound I have ever heard from a Bluetooth speaker.
Speaking of speakers, you may want to add a set of speakers to your computer or beef up the sound on your laptop. If so, have I found some speakers for you.
Bowers & Wilkins’ MM-1 computer speakers ($499.95) produce some of the best sound I have heard from a small set of computer speakers. The sound is clear, rich, and crisp. The system does not include a subwoofer, but I don’t think you need one with these speakers. The speakers work well with both Windows and Mac OS computers. Although relatively small in size, they do not come with a carrying case, and I would not think of them as speakers to carry around with you; rather, think of them as providing high-fidelity sound for your desktop or laptop computer in a stationary location.
If you want less expensive speakers for your computer, check out the Bose Computer MusicMonitors ($299.95). Very small, very powerful, and with very clean sound, they come with a case to enhance their portability. Bose also makes a larger and less expensive set of computer speakers, the $99.95 Companion 2. The Companion 2 gives you a very competent sound system at a very reasonable price but does not generate the sound quality of either the Bose MusicMonitor or the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1.
Techie gift cards. At Apple’s iTunes store or at any Apple Store or, for that matter, at a number of other retailers, you can get gift cards that let the recipient purchase any type of media for sale in the iTunes Store. Recipients can use the card for music, books, movies, or television shows to add to their media collection for playing on their iPad, iPod, or iPhone. The cards also work for the purchase of apps for sale in the iTunes Store. As you probably know from the ads, you can get apps for darn near everything. Some apps come free of charge, and others come at prices ranging from nominal ($0.99) to considerably more expensive (I have seen apps selling for more than $100). The apps provide additional functionality for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, ranging from games, to productivity, to note-taking, to e-book readers, to social networking, to full GPS (global positioning system) navigational devices with turn-by-turn directions. Giving the gift of media allows your recipients to apply your generosity to something they select for themselves.
For those seeking to travel light, using an iPhone as a GPS device can avoid the need to carry a separate, dedicated device. Many of the major manufacturers of GPS devices (NAVIGON, Magellan, TomTom) offer apps to bring the functionality of their stand-alone devices to the iPhone and related devices. I have tried the GPS apps from those manufacturers and they all work very well, although not always consistently with each other. I always find it interesting that GPS devices do not all select the same route, even given the same parameters or options. Nevertheless, they all do seem to get you to the desired destination. I have traveled with the iPhone as my GPS device to many destinations without any issue.
If you know someone who wants to use an iPhone as a GPS device, consider getting a holder that will attach the iPhone to the windshield so that it can receive the satellite signal and the display can be seen hands-free. Both Magellan and TomTom make iPhone holders that mount to the windshield. Both have their own built-in GPS receivers that function better than the iPhone’s receiver. The inclusion of the GPS chip also means that you can use an iPod touch as a GPS device on the road. Other vendors have less expensive holders that will hold the iPhone in place but do not include their own GPS receiver.
Several manufacturers have produced dedicated electronic book readers. You likely have heard the names of the best known of these devices: the Sony Reader, the Barnes & Noble NOOK, and the Amazon Kindle. All three have recently lowered their prices and released or announced updated models. I have tried all of the models that were available at the time this article went to press (late October) and like each of them. I really like the NOOK Color and am prepared to like the Kindle Fire, but I do not think they will compare favorably to the iPad. The E Ink technology works better in sunlight than the color technology (including the iPad), and, if you plan to read in the outdoors, you should consider an e-reader that uses E Ink technology, even if you have an iPad. Additionally, the E Ink readers offer a package that is smaller, lighter, and therefore easier to carry around with you. They fit easily in a coat pocket or a purse. The larger slate or tablet devices do not. If you pushed me for a recommendation or a ranking, I would tell you that historically, my overall impression would cause me to rank the Kindle above the NOOK and the NOOK above the Sony Reader. That said, all three are exceptionally useful and high-quality devices.
Amazon had not refreshed the Kindle line for a while, before it announced the impending release of three new models: a color version called the Fire (WiFi only) with multi-touch technology ($199); the Touch (E Ink) that will come in a 3G + WiFi ($149) and a WiFi-only version ($99) with multi-touch technology; and a version simply called Kindle ($79) that works with WiFi only and has a five-way controller button. The multi-touch technology versions will have no physical keyboard. Amazon apparently will continue to offer its current (Keyboard) version (WiFi, $99; WiFi + 3G, $139) and the DX (9.7” screen, WiFi+3G, $379) for some time in the future. Amazon has said it intends to ship the new models by Thanksgiving, so you should have no problem getting one for holiday giving.
Comparison charts available on the Amazon website show the features of the different versions of the Kindle that will be available at the time you read this article, including size, weight, and price. Note that I have seen and used the Keyboard and the DX versions, but not the new versions. I can report to you that the current model of the keyboarded version works exceptionally well and that I enjoy using it very much. I look forward to seeing and testing the new models when they become available, but I leave it to you to check them out yourselves once they come out.
Barnes & Noble released the NOOK Color earlier this year (WiFi only, $249) and then just recently released a smaller, lighter (7.48 ounces), E Ink version (WiFi only, $139). Neither has a physical keyboard. Both have touchscreen technology. The E Ink version sports a 6” screen, holds up to 1,000 books, and will allow you to borrow books from a public library that supports lending of electronic titles. The NOOK Color has a 7” screen and can store up to 5,000 books. Barnes & Noble offers free WiFi for both the E Ink and the Color NOOK in all Barnes & Noble stores. Barnes & Noble also supports lending your titles to and borrowing titles from your friends.
Comparison charts available on the Barnes & Noble website show the features of the two versions of the NOOK. I have used both of them and like them both, although I like them for different reasons. The NOOK Color has the advantage of presenting things in color and, as a general rule, I prefer color to black and gray/green. The E Ink version has the advantages of smaller size, lesser weight, better readability in sunlight, and, of course, a lower price point.
I think Sony always made the most physically solid e-reader (largely because it used metal and not plastic for the case); I always liked its style. In the past, I was not enamored of its computer interface and believed that Barnes & Noble and Amazon offered a better combination of features and available titles. Although I considered the Sony Reader an excellent product, I ranked it lower than the Kindle and the NOOK. Sony recently announced the newest member of its Reader family, the $149.99 Reader Wi-Fi, which will allow the downloading of books through WiFi, avoiding the computer issues I previously found less than pleasant. It will also allow wireless downloading of books from public libraries. It will hold up to 1,200 titles in its internal memory, but it will also accept SD cards, affording up to an additional 32 GB of storage space. It uses E Ink technology. Sony has not announced plans to release a color Reader (although it does have a tablet product). The Reader Wi-Fi continues to use a 6” display. The new version has a 6 7/8” x 4 3/8” footprint and takes up 3/8” in your pocket, purse, or briefcase. Sony replaced the metal case with a lighter plastic version. The advantage is that the new version weighs less than six ounces, but the disadvantage is that it gave up the solid metal casing. As I cannot find any other versions of the Reader on the Sony website at this time, it appears that the new Reader Wi-Fi replaces all previously available versions. Sony announced this reader and released it shortly before this article went to press. I have only had limited time to work with it. While it works as well as previous versions as an e-reader and has some additional features, I do not like the plasticization of the case. I respect the desire to carry less weight, but I really liked the look and feel of the aluminum cases on the previous models. Those cases made the Sony Reader stand out from the competition; the plastic case makes it just another e-reader. Although it remains a competent e-reader and makes a wonderful gift, nothing makes it superior to the NOOK or the Kindle, and I now consider both at least equal to the Sony device in every respect and better in many.