- Nothing said in this article constitutes tax advice. Consult your tax preparer about deductibility, depreciation, and other tax-related matters. If you think that something in this article constitutes tax advice, you made a mistake. You cannot use information in this article for purposes of tax evasion.
- Nothing in this article constitutes an endorsement of a product by the American Bar Association or its Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. The article contains our personal opinions and observations. Please do not give anyone else credit for them.
- Opinions and information contained in this article do not replace, modify, or supplement manufacturers’ warranties, instructions, or specifications.
- Price references reflect available information as to manufacturers’ suggested retail prices (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 products discussed in this article were provided to us for review purposes by manufacturers or their media agents, others were purchased for our own use, and still others borrowed from friends. We have not endeavored to test every product on the market, and there may be very good products not mentioned in this article. The article reflects our observations about the products we have looked at.
- The Surgeon General has not yet opined on the subject, but we believe that the use of certain technology may prove addictive and—to the extent that you give up physical activity in favor of technology or allow it to distract you when driving a car or a boat, piloting a plane, or walking in the vicinity of traffic—can prove dangerous to your health. Accordingly, although we recommend and commend the use of technology to you, we also advise that you use it carefully and in moderation.
- The authors make no warranty, express or implied, of any of the items discussed in this gift guide.
The Number-One Recommendation: Smartphones
For the last several years, the iPad has held the place of the first product discussed in this guide and the number-one recommendation. Although we find it tempting to repeat that history one more time, sales volume tells us a slightly different story. As our number-one techno gift this year we have not chosen the iPad. Neither have we selected the iPad mini (although, again, we found the possibility tempting). We consider both exceptional choices and will discuss them later in this article. Our number-one recommendation, however, has to be the smartphone, and at the top of the list, another Apple product, the iPhone 5s. Apple reported that in the second quarter of 2013 it sold 37.4 million iPhones and 19.5 million iPads. The difference in sales between the iPhone and the iPad made our choice easy.
Although the total of Android platform smartphone sales substantially exceeds the total of iPhone sales, the Android sales get divided up among a large number of devices, none of which sold as many units as the iPhone. The major carriers each offer around 20 different Android phone models at any given point in time.
Both the authors agree that the iPhone 5s represents the best combination of features available in a smartphone today. The release of a new model of the iPhone still gets people up early in the morning to stand in line to own one before their neighbors. Should any of you doubt the correctness of our choice of the iPhone 5s as the most desirable technology gift this season, you might want to reconsider: Apple reported sales figures of 9 million iPhone 5s units in the first three days of availability, eclipsing its own record for phone sales set last year with the iPhone 5.
Samsung sells more Android devices than any other company but divides those sales among a number of different models. In our opinion, Samsung makes the best non-Apple smartphones. Sales of the Samsung phones support that conclusion. Apple and Samsung sell similar volumes of smartphones, and between them they account for more than half of all smartphone sales. If for some reason we could not get an iPhone, we would choose Samsung’s Galaxy S4, the newest and greatest of Samsung’s Galaxy S series of telephones, which represents a substantial upgrade over the Galaxy S III. (The Galaxy Note II and Galaxy S III represent the next smartphone recommendations after the Galaxy S4).
The Galaxy S4 just came out and should remain the current top of the line through the holiday season. The Galaxy Note II came out a while ago, and Samsung will likely release the Note III prior to the 2013 holiday season (but after this issue goes to press); be sure to check it out and compare its specifications to the Galaxy S4 if you want to go with an Android phone.
Both the iPhone 5s and the Galaxy S4 are 4G devices (4G is a reference to fourth-generation wireless technology, which works considerably faster than its predecessors). As none of the networks works equally well everywhere, you have a better chance of getting a phone that works well for you by getting one through the provider that dominates your area. Phones on the AT&T system do have one significant feature advantage over those on the Verizon and the Sprint networks: AT&T 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. The available 4G networks do not have the same scope of coverage as the 3G networks, and you may find that your area has no 4G coverage at all or only has 4G coverage from one of the providers (both the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S4 use earlier technology in areas where they cannot get 4G).
The iPhone 5s. The iPhone 5s comes with iOS 7 (the Apple mobile device operating system) and an upgraded version of 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. You can see a preview of the new iOS, along with iPhone pricing, specs, and options, on the Apple website (apple.com).
The new operating system dramatically updates and improves the user interface. Although we know some people who do not like it and others who refuse to change to it, the initial reaction of most people we have encountered has been favorable. To be sure, iOS 7 has things that we do not like as well as iOS 6, but overall our reaction is more positive than negative. All Apple iOS devices (iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches) released concurrently with or after the release of iOS 7 will come with iOS 7 installed and will take full advantage of its features. Relatively recent iOS devices will all have iOS 7 compatibility, but the farther back in time your device goes, the less likely that becomes. Additionally, older devices may only have partial iOS 7 compatibility, meaning that they will not have the capacity to access all its features.
The iPhone 5s maintains the same external design and appearance as the iPhone 5. Like the iPhone 5, the iPhone 5s measures 18 percent thinner and weighs 20 percent less than the 4s (the 5s measures 4.87” x 2.31” x 0.30” and weighs in at 3.95 ounces). As with the iPhone 5, the 5s comes with a 4” Retina display. The Retina display is clear and sharp and easily readable. Apple also has improved the wireless connectivity of the iPhone 5s.
Memory options and pricing of the iPhone 5s are the same as they had been with the iPhone 5: 16 GB ($199), 32 GB ($299), and 64 GB ($399) choices. As with its earlier iPhones, what you buy is what you get in terms of memory. The iPhone memory is not upgradable after purchase, and the iPhone has no slot for an onboard memory card.
Unlike previous models of the iPhone available in black or white, the new iPhone 5s comes in neither black nor white. Your color choices include gold, silver, and space gray.
The 5s includes the following sensors: three-axis gyro, accelerometer, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, and a fingerprint identity sensor built into the “home” button. Feature of its iSight camera include 8-megapixel images with 1.5µ pixels, ƒ/2.2 aperture, sapphire crystal lens cover, true tone flash, backside illumination sensor, five-element lens, hybrid IR filter, autofocus, tap to focus, face detection, panorama, auto image stabilization, burst mode, and photo geotagging. Video recording features include 1080p HD resolution recording, 30 frames per second, true tone flash, slo-mo video, improved video stabilization, the ability to take still photos while recording video, face detection, 3x zoom, and video geotagging. The FaceTime camera features 1280 x 960 resolution (1.2 megapixels), 720p HD video recording, and a backside illumination sensor.
The iPhone 5s uses Apple’s A7 chip, with a 64-bit architecture, as its processing engine. The A7 represents a substantially more powerful CPU than its predecessor, with speeds substantially faster than the A6, but it draws less power. Battery power remains an issue. If you use the iPhone heavily, you may find that a charge will not last a full day. We recommend that you get one of the external batteries we discuss in the accessories section below; this will allow you to recharge the iPhone on the go. Although the iPhone 5s looks a lot like the 5 on the outside (except for the color choices), what it brings to the party on the inside makes it a very seductive choice, particularly when you remember that the iPhone comes coupled with all of the media and apps available in the iTunes Store.
Speaking of apps, the iPhone comes with a number of useful pre-installed apps and other helpful apps available at no cost. Pre-installed apps include FaceTime, Safari, Siri, Messages, Mail, Passbook, Game Center, Newsstand, Calendar, Contacts, Calculator, Weather, Stocks, Reminders, Notes, Voice Memos, Clock, Music, and Compass, among others. There are also numerous apps that you can download for free from the iTunes App Store, including iPhoto, iMovie, Keynote, Pages, Numbers, iBooks, iTunes U, iTunes Festival, Podcasts, Trailers, Find My iPhone, Find My Friends, Remote, and many, many more.
iPhone 5c. For those of you wishing to get a new iPhone but not interested in spending the sums required for an iPhone 5s, Apple also released a scaled-back model, the 5c. The 5c’s stats: 4.90” x 2.33” x 0.35”; weight: 4.65 ounces. The 5c comes in 16 GB and 32 GB models at $99 and $199, respectively, with a two-year contract, and you can get it in a rainbow of colors. The 5c uses the same A6 processor employed in the iPhone 5.
Galaxy S4. Samsung’s Galaxy line (samsung.com) has proven very successful and extremely popular. The S4 is longer, wider, thicker, and heavier than the iPhone 5s. It measures 5.38” x 2.75” x 0.31” and weighs in at 4.59 ounces. The S4 sports a 5” super AMOLED touch screen. The display is bright, clear, and sharp. The S4’s larger size makes for a better display of pictures and video. It also makes the S4 a bit less comfortable for some people to hold than the iPhone 5s.
In the camera department, the Galaxy S4 offers a 13-megapixel primary camera that will take full HD video (1080p at 30 frames per second) and a 2-megapixel secondary camera that also provides full HD video at 1080p.
The S4 comes with very fast quad-core Cortex A15 and Cortex A7 processors. The extra-large size of the S4 allows it to pack an extra-large battery. That, in combination with the lower power demands of the Super AMOLED display, allows the S4 a longer time between charges than the iPhone 5s.
Although Samsung makes 16, 32, and 64 GB versions of the S4, you could only get the 16 and 32 GB versions in the United States at the time this issue went to press. The S4 accepts Micro SD cards up to 64 GB, however, allowing you to augment the device’s memory with an onboard card.
The S4 comes with Google’s Android version 4.2.2. (Jelly Bean) operating system. The Android operating system has been gaining a larger and larger share of the smartphone market. Jelly Bean is currently the newest iteration of the Android system. We like the Android system and particularly the Jelly Bean iteration. It has a clean user interface, and it runs quickly and crisply. We do not like it as much as iOS 7, but that, too, is largely a matter of personal preference; and we know people who prefer Android to the iOS. We don’t know when the next iteration of Android will come out or what its feature set will include.
Given that the Galaxy S4 has better technical specifications than the iPhone 5s, you probably wonder why we prefer the iPhone 5s. An excellent inquiry! The answer: the iTunes Store, more particularly the iTunes App Store. The Google Play Store (the Android system’s answer to the iTunes Store) has shown significant improvement in the last year or so and would appear very impressive if you looked at it in a vacuum. When you compare it to the iTunes Store, however, it looks far less interesting. Think of it as comparing a Honda Fit to an Acura (okay, maybe it’s up to a Civic now. . .). Both are cars, both will get you from one place to another, but the Acura gets you there with a lot more features and comfort. (As President Obama recently bragged that more Acuras are built in the United States than in any other country, we felt that it would be okay to use that reference instead of a Ford or GM vehicle). Undoubtedly, the gap will continue to close over time, but for the present, the scope, variety, and quantity of media and particularly apps (programs) available from the iTunes Store vastly exceeds what you can get in the Google Play Store. The Google Play Store competes much more successfully with the iTunes App Store respecting media than it does with apps. Apps expand the capabilities of the device, which means that the 5s can do more than the S4. Accordingly, we choose the iPhone 5s as number one and the Galaxy S4 as number two. That said, they both offer tremendous capabilities.
The market for tablets continues to grow, improving by about 142 percent a year. Some 49.2 million tablets shipped during the first quarter of 2013. That number exceeds the total for the first six months of 2012. Although a number of manufacturers produce tablets of various sizes, Apple has dominated this market since it introduced the iPad several years ago. As with the smartphone category, Apple’s strongest competitor is Samsung. Unlike the Smartphone category, however, Apple and Samsung are nowhere near parity in total tablet sales. Although Samsung showed a significant improvement in market share in early 2013, Apple continues to hold above 39 percent of the tablet market, while Samsung has not yet reached 18 percent. The next highest competitor comes in with less than 6 percent of the market. For a variety of reasons, we recommend that if you plan to gift or get a tablet, you go with an iPad or an iPad mini.
iPad Air. The iPad has attracted people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Attorneys use them in their practices, educators use them in classrooms, and lots of people use them professionally and/or personally for all kinds of things. Many people (the authors included) carry an iPad with them almost everywhere, using it to surf the web, read eBooks, handle e-mail, provide calendar and contact information, listen to music, watch movies, play games, and do a variety of other things.
By the time you get this issue of GPSolo, Apple will have released its newest full-sized iPad: the iPad Air, which replaces the iPad with Retina display. The iPad Air has the faster and more powerful A7 processor (with 64-bit architecture) that Apple introduced with the iPhone 5s, as well as faster WiFi connectivity. The iPad Air comes in silver or space gray.
Apple continues to make the iPad in two versions: WiFi-only and WiFi + 4G. The WiFi-only version requires a WiFi connection for access to the Internet, e-mail, etc. The WiFi + 4G version allows you to get Internet access anywhere you can find a data signal from your provider.
Each version of the iPad Air comes with your choice of 16 GB, 32 GB, 64 GB, or 128 GB of memory. Because you cannot add memory to the iPad, we recommend you get the largest memory you can justify. New accessories provide external memory, but they lack the convenience of onboard memory. Other than a minor size and weight differential owing to the cellular antennae and radio, the WiFi-only and the WiFi + 4G versions share the same size specifications: 9.4” x 6.6” x 0.29”. Following the now-familiar iPad upgrade pattern, the iPad Air offers more for the same price. The price range continues to run from $499 to $799 for the WiFi-only models and $629 to $929 for the WiFi + 4G models. This time Apple also offers more for less in that the iPad Air, following the concept of the MacBook Air, comes in a thinner and lighter package. The Air is about 20 percent thinner and weighs only a pound, about 4 ounces less than its immediate predecessor, the iPad with Retina display. Apple continues to offer the iPad 2 as a lower-priced option.
iPad mini. The real news in the iPad world last year was Apple’s release of the iPad mini. The mini proved even more popular than the iPad with Retina display, as unofficial sales figures indicate that the mini now accounts for approximately 60 percent of iPad sales. Like the iPad, the iPad mini comes in WiFi-only and WiFi + 4G configurations. Apple has just announced a second generation of the mini, the iPad mini with Retina display. The new model comes with memory choices of 16 GB, 32 GB, 64 GB, and 128 GB in a price range of $399 to $829. The new mini comes with a 7.9” display and runs on Apple’s new A7 processor. The iPad mini with Retina display measures 7.87” x 5.3” x 0.29” and weighs in at 0.73 lbs. (WiFi-only) or 0.75 lbs. (WiFi + 4G). Following the full-sized iPad marketing model, Apple also offers a lesser version of the mini. The lesser version is the original (2012) iPad mini, which is available only in a 16 GB memory configuration. The iPad mini costs $299 for the WiFi-only version and $429 for the WiFi + 4G version.
It is not clear whether the mini’s popularity results from its comparatively diminutive price tag, its comparatively diminutive size, or a combination of the two. It is interesting how much bigger the iPad seems when you get used to carrying the mini around and using it. For many uses the comparatively diminutive size of the mini makes it a better choice than the iPad for many users. Its smaller size and weight make it easier to carry and, therefore, more likely to accompany its owner. The more you have the device with you, the more you will use it. On the flip side, although the iPad mini will work quite well for movies, the larger screen on the iPad will provide a better viewing experience. Similarly, the larger screen provides more work space, offering a better user experience for some programs and games.
As Shakespeare might have put it: whether to get an iPad or an iPad mini, now, that’s the question.
Galaxy Note and Nexus. Although we do not consider it anywhere near as desirable as the iPad, we consider the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 ($499.99 for 16 GB WiFi-only, $549.99 for 32 GB WiFi-only) and Google Nexus 10 ($399 for 16 GB WiFi-only, $499 for 32 GB WiFi-only) as the next options if you want a tablet but choose to go with an Android device. The Samsung Note 10.1 comes with the Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) operating system, but you can upgrade it to 4.2 (Jelly Bean). The Nexus 10 comes with Android 4.2.
We see the Nexus 7 ($229 for 16 GB WiFi-only and $269 for 32 GB WiFi-only) and the Galaxy Note 8.0 ($399.99 for 16 GB WiFi-only) as the best of the smaller Android tablets. The Nexus has the advantage of costing considerably less than the Galaxy. It also comes with a pure version of the Android OS. As with most vendors, Samsung devices come with a specially modified version of the Android OS.
As with the smartphones, the vastness of the iTunes Store represents the major reason for our preference of the iPad and iPad mini over the rest of the tablet universe.
Music Player Choice: iPod touch
When it introduced the iPhone 5 in 2012, Apple also updated most of the models for the iPod line. Calling an iPod touch a music player really does it an injustice as it provides far more than the ability to play music (although it does play music exceptionally well). It includes photographic capabilities, runs apps, plays videos, and functions as a PDA. The iPod touch has memory options of 16 GB ($229), 32 GB ($299), and 64 GB ($399). Having both the iPhone and the iPod touch creates some redundancy, but the iPod is more of a media player and the iPhone offers more versatility, starting as a telephone. The iPhone also works better for running many apps and for e-mail owing to its cellular and cellular data connectivity and its GPS functionality. If we did not have an iPhone, we most assuredly would want an iPod touch. In that case, however, we would likely load more apps on the iPod touch than we do now. The fifth generation iPod touch improved the speed with a more powerful processor, improved the camera, and enlarged the display to 4”.
Apple also updated its iPod nano line in 2012, featuring a redesigned 16 GB version with a 2.5” display selling for $149.
Apple has a complete breakdown of the features of each model of the iPod on its website. The new iterations of the iPod line use the same new “Lightning” connection configuration as the iPhone 5s, so you will need an adapter for it to work with accessories built for Apple’s 30-pin docking connection. Be sure to verify that your docking device will work with the adapter, as not all will.
Accessories for Mobile Devices
If you have a mobile device (or know someone who has one), you have a vast array of accessories to choose from for your own use or as possible gifts. The state of available accessories has not changed significantly in the last year. Accessories include a variety of protective cases, carrying cases, earphones, external speakers, and other accessories. Most of the accessories (other than cases) have universal applicability and will accommodate a variety of similarly sized devices. Accessories such as earphones, headphones, and external speakers are generally device and size agnostic, working with a multitude of devices.
Cases and screen protectors. You should consider a protective carrying case or an envelope as a first-choice accessory for all mobile devices. You can choose among a wide selection of cases for almost any mobile device. The cases offer varying degrees of protection and functionality. The number and variety of protective cases for smartphones, tablets, and music players have grown staggeringly large. Most protective cases are device specific. For that reason, we have not attempted to identify a number of specific cases in this guide. You can find a good selection of cases at service providers’ stores, electronics stores such as Best Buy and Fry’s, and online. The Apple Stores (both the bricks-and-mortar and the online versions) offer a pretty fair selection of cases for Apple devices. In selecting a case, remember that, although it may offer decorative or stylish modifications to the appearance of your device, its primary function is to protect the device from the banging around and the occasional drops to which even the most careful of us expose our devices.
A screen protector also provides protection against damage from dropping, scratching, and banging around in normal usage. We strongly recommend getting a good screen protector for your mobile devices. ZAGG makes our favorite screen protector, called the invisibleSHIELD (zagg.com). Be very careful to follow the recommendations respecting installation, as it can be a bit tricky to do right, especially for the inexperienced.
Although many tablet cases provide substantial protection for the device, some people prefer a lighter, thinner case. If you go with the lighter and thinner case, consider getting an envelope or sleeve for additional protection. You can get neoprene sleeves practically anywhere, and leather offers another option.
Despite its name, nothing about the CruxSKUNK case stinks. The keyboard base is 6 mm thin, and it is built out of airplane-grade aluminum to give it the same fit and finish as the MacBook Air. You can easily snap in your iPad and then fold the case at multiple angles, allowing you to view and access your iPad in a variety of “modes.” “Laptop mode” gives you access to the built-in keyboard for a more comfortable typing experience. “Movie mode” flips the keyboard in the other direction, positioning the screen at an angle more accommodating for movie watching. “Tablet mode” puts the screen directly on top of the keyboard, and “carry mode” locks the keyboard cover over the screen for security in transit. For a bonus, check out the CruxCase website (cruxcase.com); they often give away free hardware accessories (you pay for shipping only) as part of the CruxSWAG promotion. The CruxSKUNK case retails for $210, but as of the date this was written, it was being offered on the website for $159.
Col. Littleton still makes our favorite leather envelope for the iPad, the No. 5 Pocket for iPad ($157.50, colonellittleton.com). It will also accommodate other, similarly sized tablets. The envelope is large enough to accommodate many protective cases for the tablet. Its appearance improves with use, as the leather darkens a bit and develops a nice patina. The Colonel did not add padding to the envelope, but the leather’s thickness offers pretty good protection, even to a naked tablet. As the envelope has no strap, you will probably want to put it inside a bag that does. Any number of messenger bags, cross-body bags, shoulder bags, briefcases, and backpacks accommodate that need. We are partial to such items from Tumi (tumi.com), Levenger (levenger.com), and Coach (coach.com) as we like their style and appreciate the very high quality of their designs, materials, and craftsmanship, but you can get completely satisfactory (and much less expensive) cases from manufacturers such as Tucano (www.tucanousa.com), Targus (targus.com), and Swiss Army (Victorinox; victorinox.com), among others. We particularly like the Levenger Bomber Jacket cases. The Bomber Jacket Tech Traveler ($179) will hold a 10” tablet and a variety of accessories. The $69 Bomber Jacket Electronics Hold All Case works really well for chargers, cables, and miscellaneous accessories but also works nicely as a case for smaller tablets, such as the iPad mini and the Nexus 7.
Tumi sells a great collection of bags in both ballistic nylon and leather. We particular like Tumi’s Alpha line. Some of the cases to consider include the Prism ($175) and Randolph Crossbody bags ($195).
If you want less expensive cases, check out Brenthaven’s Collins Tech Pack or ProStyle Satchel (both $49.95, brenthaven.com). We also found a rough-and-tumble case for the iPad made by Hazard 4 called the Kato Tablet + Netbook Mini-Messenger ($99.99). You can get that bag and others at Gearbunker.com. The Kato looks like military gear and was designed to carry and protect a tablet and other equipment in extreme situations. I tried it with an iPad, a Kindle, an iPhone, camera equipment, and other miscellaneous gear, and it accommodated them all, protecting them well and carrying them comfortably. If you want a gift for an outdoorsperson (or enjoy the outdoors thing yourself, or simply like looking the part), check it out.
The smartphone wallet makes a great gift for anyone on the go. It is composed of a case that includes an area for cards, cash, and sometimes even your keys. This simplifies what you carry around with you. There are a variety of designs from an almost endless supply of manufacturers, with designs that appeal to men and women alike.
There are fold-over style wallets, such as the HEX Axis Wallet Case, available for iPhone for $49.95 through the Apple Store. The Landmarks & Lions Classics iPhone wallet conceals the iPhone inside and leaves multiple pockets for cash or cards. It retails for $95 at landmarksandlions.com. Need room for your keys as well? The iLID iPhone 5 Wallet case ($39.95, ilidiphonewallet.com) claims to be the thinnest iPhone wallet and includes room for two credit cards, one key, and a good-sized wad of bills.
CaseMore makes a nice leather smartphone wallet for the Samsung Galaxy S4, available through Amazon for $19.99. It can morph into a stand for your phone. Spigen offers the Leather Wallet Case Snap, a leather wallet with removable hard case, for the Galaxy S4 ($54.99, spigen.com). When selecting a case wallet, you should look for one in which the holster does not come over the phone or the screen. The fit in these models is not ideal, and it will make accessing ports and buttons cumbersome. Also, verify that it will accommodate your phone model.
Styli. Many people like to use a stylus with tablets and/or smartphones. A stylus has the advantage of keeping greasy fingertips off the device display. Although the device may have been created with fingertips in mind, fingertips generally have oil on them that tends to smudge the display, making it less clear and less easy to read. Use a stylus to avoid having to clean the screen as often. When choosing a stylus, remember that the touch screens require a capacitive stylus.
You have any number of styli to choose from, ranging from inexpensive to substantially more costly. If you want an inexpensive stylus, look at the BoxWave EverTouch Capacitive iPad Stylus for $7.95 (amazon.com). The Friendly Swede also makes a nice stylus that you can purchase on Amazon in a colorful variety pack and hand out to family members or office visitors ($8.99 for a bundle of six). The Arcadia Micro-Knit Retractable Stylus from NewTrent offers another option ($10.95, newtrent.com). The fiber tip writes smoother and is a nice change from the rubberized tips found on most styli. Somewhat more expensive, the Kensington Virtuoso Stylus and Pen makes a great gift ($24.99, kensington.com). The Virtuoso is weighted to fit comfortably in your hand. Its built-in rollerball pen adds to its convenience when you need to transition between paper and tablet. Levenger has a pen/stylus combination, the L-Tech Plus, available as a fountain pen ($89) or a rollerball ($79).
A number of well-known pen companies now offer pens with an attached stylus. Cross offers a multi-function pen called the Tech 3+ ($55, cross.com), which includes a stylus. Monteverde (monteverdepens.com) offers the One Touch Stylus with a ballpoint pen for $30, the Invincia, which comes as a fountain pen for $95 or a ballpoint for $75, and the M1 ballpoint ($30). Others to consider include the Delta Vintage Stylus Rollerball Pen ($175, amazon.com) and the Fisher Bullet Grip Space Pen with Stylus ($25, amazon.com). Fisher, Delta, Monteverde, and Cross brand styli should be available at many bricks-and-mortar pen stores as well as online.
Power to the devices! Most of the smaller communications devices come with a patently insufficient power source. You can jump through a lot of hoops trying to preserve battery power, but at some point, you will still run low if you use your devices heavily. The recommended steps for power conservation have a side effect in that they also reduce the functionality and convenience of your devices. As a result, we recommend carrying a supplemental power source. That has proven more useful and more convenient than just carrying the charger, as we do not always have access to an outlet or the time to spend tethered to one while a device recharges. Because we find these charging devices very convenient and highly useful, we think that they will make an excellent gift choice for many people and have the advantage of coming in a variety of sizes and configurations, many of which have universal utility in that you can use them with virtually any tablet or smartphone (or, for that matter, many other devices as well).
If you have a device with a removable battery, you can always carry a second fully charged battery and swap them out. Alternatively, if you have a sealed unit (like an iPhone), you can get cases that have a battery built into the case structure, so that you have one single piece that you carry and a significantly increased battery capacity. We find the mophie (mophie.com) juice pack battery case line the sleekest and most stylish of the battery cases, and it works quite well. Mophie makes battery cases for the iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy S III and S4, and the HTC One. The mophie cases cost between $79.95 and $149.95, depending on the model. The cases do add some bulk in both size and weight to the phone, however.
External battery boosters provide another option. One of our current favorite power devices comes from a company called myCharge (mycharge.com). Their Jolt 2000D ($69.99) provides a 2000mAh lithium polymer battery that gives you up to nine hours of talk time. It comes with a clip for easy attachment to a backpack or other carrier, a built-in Apple Lightning connector, and a built-in micro-USB connector.
MyCharge also has larger units that they call “The Hub.” You can get The Hub in 3000mAh ($79.99), 6000mAh ($109.99), and 9000mAh ($149.99) versions. The Hubs have built-in micro-USB and Apple Lightning connectors and will charge both smartphones and tablets. MyCharge also has a series of Amp devices ($39.99 to $59.99) that do not include their own cables but provide USB plugs, allowing you to attach your own cables. Mophie also sells a number of universal charging devices that will accept USB plugs and charge a variety of devices. The best of this collection of devices is, in our opinion, the powerstation duo ($99.95), which will charge two devices simultaneously and produce the amperage to charge a tablet with reasonable speed.
The Romoss Sofun external battery charges your smartphone, tablet, and any USB-charged products you wish to power up. With 5200mAh charge capacity, the Sofun 2 ($20.99. amazon.com) can provide two or three charges for the iPhone 5s. It is compatible with almost every smartphone or device that can be charged by a USB port. Weighing in at 7.2 ounces, it is a compact and ultraportable device. The device comes with a micro-USB charger for you to connect and charge it through any computer or laptop. Romoss also has the Sofun 4 ($29.99), providing a 10400mAh charging capacity.
The size of tablets generally allows for sufficiently large batteries to power the device for a full day or more for most users. If you will make exceptionally heavy use of an iPad or other tablet device, consider getting a more powerful (larger capacity) external supply. To charge an iPad, the device should have a 2.1 Amp output. Also note that with the release of the iPhone 5 in 2012, Apple replaced the 30-pin docking connector with the Lightning connector. We have not found any device that has both a Docking and a Lightning connector, so if you have a new iPad and an older iPhone (or conversely), you will probably find yourself better off with one of the devices that comes with USB ports and lets you attach your own cables.
Earphones and headsets. The earphones that come with most smartphones, MP3 players, and tablets generally function competently but do not provide exceptional sound quality. We immediately upgrade to a higher-quality earphone or headset to get more enjoyment from our music. Although some of the headsets only work to play music, many of them also handle telephone functions. Both headsets and earphones come in wired and wireless versions. The wireless versions use Bluetooth technology, and the more recent models have gotten quite good. We still think you get better sound quality with the wired versions for both music and telephone conversations. The wireless versions offer more convenience, as they have no wires to get tangled up or to restrict your movement. We also have found that wired earphones generally work noticeably better for hearing telephone conversations in noisy environments.
Whether you want to get earphones or headsets, wired or wireless, you have lots of choices available to you over a substantial price range. One other variable you may want to consider is whether to get active or passive noise reduction (or none at all). The active noise cancellation works on the principal of using a form of white noise to counter outside noise. Many manufacturers make active noise cancellation devices including, without limitation, Bose, Sony, and Panasonic. Passive systems seal to the ear, keeping the noise out. We have found that in-ear devices provide the best passive noise reduction as they form a better seal against outside noise. Standard headphones and earphones provide neither active noise cancellation nor passive noise reduction. In relatively quiet environments, such as a living room, they work just fine. In noisier environments, such as an airplane cabin, noise reduction or noise cancellation can make a big difference.
When it comes to noise-cancellation headsets, Bose (bose.com) has held the title of “King of the Hill” for some time. Bose has relied on its well-established wired QuietComfort 3 (QC3, $349.95) and QuietComfort 15 (QC15, $299.95) headsets for several years. Both come with in-line microphones for use with cell phones. The QC15 uses AAA batteries for power, and the QC3 has a rechargeable battery. The QC15 fits around the ear and the QC3 fits on the ear. The QC15 is a little heavier, but we prefer its sound to that of the QC3. Both devices use Bose’s TriPort acoustic technology. Bose recently added the QuietComfort 20 (QC20) and QuietComfort 20i (QC20i) to its line. The QC20 line offers in-ear noise cancellation. Bose designed the QC20i for the iPhone and the QC20 for other cell phones. The difference is the in-line telephone controls. The QC20 controls won’t work with an iPhone, and the QC20i controls work with the iPhone but not other phones. You can use the devices on phones for which they are not designed, but you cannot answer calls with them if you do (you need to answer the call with the phone’s controls). Both sell for $299.95.
For passive noise reduction, we like the Shure (shure.com) sound-isolating earphones best. The Shure earphones, all wired, depend on a seal on the inside of the ear to keep outside noise out. The Shure line starts with the $99 SE215 and moves up at $100 increments through the SE315 to the SE425 and the SE535. Most people will find the SE215 quite satisfactory, until they hear the SE315. Similarly through the SE425 and the SE535. The sound-isolating technology works very well, and the Shure earphones offer outstanding sound quality. We do consider $499 a bit pricey for earphones, so, despite the fact that they have outstanding sound, we are reluctant to recommend the SE535. Some people will not consider that price too great, however, so we wanted to make you aware of the availability of the SE535.
Other wired headphones and earphones we like include the Bowers & Wilkins (bowers-wilkins.com) P5 headset ($299.99), P3 headset ($199.99), and C5 earphones ($179.99). We also like Beats by Dr. Dre (beatsbydre.com) Studio headphones ($299.95) and Executive headphones ($299.95), both of which have noise-cancellation capabilities, and the Beats by Dr. Dre Solo headphones ($199.95). The Bowers & Wilkins P5 and the Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headsets remain our favorite wired over-ear headsets under $300. Those of you who enjoy a deep, full bass will likely prefer the Beats by Dr. Dre line, and the rest of you will probably prefer the Bowers & Wilkins. Both offer exceptionally good sound. The smaller and lighter Bowers & Wilkins headsets take up less space and fold into much smaller packages than their Dr. Dre counterparts, making them excellent options for travel.
Etymotic (etymotic.com) makes excellent noise-isolating devices at reasonable prices; they offer headsets and earphones ranging from $59 to $299, some of which work for telephone answering. Etymotic uses noise-isolation technology and does it very well. We have found the Etymotic devices provide noise isolation comparable to the Shure devices. The Etymotic sound quality is very good and also compares favorably to Shure, although we have a slight personal preference for the Shure earphones.
Bose has portable headsets (without noise cancellation), including both an iPhone and a standard version. The iPhone versions, which cost $30 more, include a microphone and allow you to use the headphones for telephone calls as well as listening to music. The two current versions, the AE2 and AE2i (iPhone version) and the OE2 and OE2i (iPhone version) cost $179.95 for the iPhone versions and $149.95 for the versions without the iPhone microphone setup. The AE versions surround the ears and the OE versions rest on them. The OE versions fold more compactly and travel better. Both have very good sound, as do all the Bose products we have tried. The OE headphones seem to have a bit more bass, which we like. We found both comfortable but prefer the OE versions. Bose also offers in-ear standard (non–noise cancellation) devices that produce excellent quality sound and feel quite comfortable to wear, in part because of the unique “StayHear” tips used by Bose. The in-ear devices include the SIE2 sports series (sweatproof). The SIE2 earphones cost $119.95. For an additional $30, you can get the SIE2i, which includes an in-line microphone and controls for iPhones. If you don’t need a sweatproof device, you can get the Bose IE2 for $99.95 or MIE2 or MIE2i for $129.95. The MIE2 offers telephone controls for Android and BlackBerry phones, while the MIE2i supports the iPhone.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of pricing, we have found an inexpensive noise-isolating headphone. If you want an inexpensive version, check out the MEElectronics M6 Sport In-Ear Headphones. These headphones do a surprisingly good job of reducing noise. This means that, unlike many active noise-canceling headphones, you can enjoy these during takeoff and landing on any airline. Granted, you can’t plug it in to anything during takeoff or landing, except your in-seat media, but you can enjoy the reduced noise level, which makes for a more pleasant flight experience. The sound quality of the M6 compares favorably to the quality we have experienced from earphones that come with most portable listening devices, but not so favorably as with the higher-end devices. You can get these earphones for $29.99 from meelec.com.
The marriage of a stereo headset to Bluetooth technology created a highly convenient form of headset. While we acknowledge that wired devices generally still sound better, the most recent versions of Bluetooth stereo headsets reflect considerably improved sound quality. That fact, coupled with the convenience of a wireless system, makes a Bluetooth headset a very attractive gift.
We have found several Bluetooth headsets that we like. Our favorite piece comes as part of the Beats by Dr. Dre lineup: the Beats Wireless headset costs $279.95 and also comes with a cable so that you can use it as a wired set if you want. The sound beats (pun intended) any that we have heard on a Bluetooth set, as well as many wired headsets. Bose recently released the $249.95 AE2w Bluetooth headset as well. The AE2w Bluetooth works satisfactorily and produces pretty good sound quality, but we found that the sound quality of the AE2w Bluetooth does not compare favorably to what we get from the wired Bose devices.
You also have the option of choosing from a number of smaller, lighter wireless stereo headsets. Our favorites in this category include products from Plantronics, LG, and Motorola. All the earphones in this category provide very good to excellent stereo sound, convenience, and flexibility. All work well with telephone calls as well.
Motorola’s (motorola.com) S11-HD ($99.99) and S11-Flex HD ($129.99) loop over your ear and around the back of your head to give you a secure and comfortable fit. Designed for use during exercises, both sets are described as “sweatproof.” The basic difference between the two versions is that the HD has three-point adjustability and the Flex HD has five-point adjustability. The extra adjustability allows you more flexibility in getting a comfortable fit, particularly important to people who wear glasses. They also come with a variety of tips to help customize the fit. The S11 makes a good workout companion and provides very good sound for music. It works better for music than it does for telephone calls, but handles calls adequately.
LG (lg.com/us) offers the $69.99 LG Tone+. The LG Tone+ provides noise reduction and echo cancellation. We found it to be one of the most comfortable behind-the-head designs, largely owing to the fact that the neckpiece simply goes around your neck and the connection to your ears is through a short wire, rather than a plastic loop that goes around your ear. People who wear glasses may well prefer this arrangement.
Plantronics (plantronics.com/us) offers the BackBeat Go 2 ($79.99, or $99 with a charging pouch that provides a self-contained battery). This model replaces its very popular BackBeat Go. Plantronics realized that it had a solid device in the BackBeat Go and did not make a lot of modifications when it refreshed the device and dubbed it the “2.” The most significant change is to the remote connection to your phone, which now has three buttons instead of one, allowing it to adjust volume and change music tracks in addition to answering calls. Unlike many other devices in this category, the BackBeat Go 2 has no rigid plastic structure. The two earphones connect with a very flexible wire, making these lighter and more comfortable than others. Designed for exercise use, the BackBeat Go 2 is described as “sweatproof.”
Before we leave the wireless earphones, we should mention our favorites in the mono class. These were designed primarily for use with your phone as a phone. Our recommendations in this category come from Bose, Jawbone, Plantronics, and BlueAnt. All the earphones pair easily, have straightforward controls, and produce excellent sound.
The Bose Bluetooth headset Series 2 costs $149.95 and comes in two versions, one for the right ear and one for the left. You do not buy two separately to use together; you pick which ear you want to use it with and buy that one. Unlike many other devices, you cannot reverse it to use with the other ear. The Bose headset automatically adjusts volume to deal with environmental noise levels. It is lightweight and comfortable to wear for long periods, in part owing to the use of the Bose StayHear tip, which helps keep the headphone in place. The earphone comes with three sets of tips in different sizes, allowing users to pick the one that best fits their ear.
Jawbone’s (jawbone.com) stylish top-of-the-line Jawbone ERA earphone costs $129.99. It comes with Jawbone’s “NoiseAssassin” technology to reduce noise and with a number of options to customize the fit, including a loop to hold it onto your outer ear. You get a choice of four colors: shadowbox, midnight, silver lining, and smokescreen.
BlueAnt’s (myblueant.com) Q2 lets you connect two phones and answer whichever one rings. If you have a call on each line, you can switch between them. The set comes with three different-sized ear gels and with ear loops to allow the user to customize the fit. BlueAnt reduced the price to $79 when it released the Q3, which it sells for $99.99. The Q3 has all the features of the Q2 and then some. Its features include noise reduction, echo cancellation, a conference mode built into the earphone, voice control, and wideband audio.
Plantronics’s $99.99 Voyager Legend is the only boom microphone device we included. The boom feature has the advantage of bringing the microphone closer to your mouth but the disadvantage of yielding a larger device. The Voyager Legend has a completely different architecture than the other earphones we have identified. The bulk of this earphone fits behind your ear, with the earphone looping over the ear. Plantronics augments the Voyager Legend’s functionality with a series of apps for the iPhone and Android phones. It also has one app, “Vocalyst,” that works with BlackBerry phones.
Swimming can be a great form of exercise; it can work out your entire body and improve your cardiovascular health. However, if you have ever spent a substantial amount of time swimming up and down a lane inside a lap pool, you understand that this workout can be kind of a drag. It’s not an activity where you can chat with friends, and the water drowns out any music that might be playing in the area. We think that listening to music while you work out makes for a more enjoyable experience and can help you stay motivated to work out longer. There are a few waterproof cases that may fit around your iPod or preferred music player, but the authors have found one particular headphone with the MP3 player built in to be a more effective aid: GSI Super Quality Waterproof Neck Band Headphones with Built-In 4 GB MP3 Player. The headphones incorporate the MP3 player into the body of the headset, presenting fewer opportunities for water to breach the device. This makes a great gift for the swimmer in your life, or perhaps a surfer or other water-sport enthusiast. It is available on Amazon for $39.99.
Portable speaker systems. External speakers, particularly Bluetooth wireless models, have continued to grow in popularity. We want to focus first on three fairly small and relatively powerful speakers that we have found impressive. All three of these speakers connect wirelessly using Bluetooth or through a hard-wired connection. All three offer very good sound quality for travel or other portable uses. All three have self-contained rechargeable batteries.
It should not surprise you that one of our favorites comes from Bose. Just released a couple months ago, Bose’s $199.95 SoundLink Mini Bluetooth speaker is the smaller sibling of the $299.95 Bose SoundLink II. While the SoundLink II is relatively small and portable, it seems large in comparison to the 7.1” x 2” x 2.3”, 1.5 lbs. Mini. We won’t tell you that the Mini sounds every bit as good as the Sound Link II; it does not. We will tell you that it sounds extremely good, generates a considerable amount of sound, costs $100 less, and travels better. Its built-in rechargeable battery will play up to seven hours (depending on volume). The Mini comes in silver, but for $24.95 you can get a soft plastic cover to protect the Mini and give it color accents in blue, orange, or lime green. The Mini works only for media. It will not do double-duty as a speakerphone.
The Beats by Dr. Dre line offers the Beats Pill for $199.95. The 7.5” x 1.8”, 0.68 lbs. Pill comes in several colors, including red, white, silver, and black. The Beats Pill comes with its own case and works as a speakerphone for your telephone. Typical of the Beats by Dr. Dre line, the Pill leans to the bass side of sound reproduction, but its size limits the depth of bass it can generate. We encountered some issues with the interaction of the Bluetooth on the Pill with iOS devices working on iOS 6. As iOS 7 had not yet come out when this article was written, we don’t know if the new software will solve the problem. For now, it remains an issue. We did not notice the issue with other devices.
The folks at Jawbone bring you the $179.99, 5.94” x 1.57” x 2.24”, 12 ounce JAMBOX (to be distinguished from its larger sibling, the $299.99 BIG JAMBOX, and its little sibling, the $179.99 MINI JAMBOX). The JAMBOX comes in a variety of colors/designs, including red, black, silver, and blue; now Jawbone even lets you create some of your own mixes of colors. The JAMBOX produces excellent sound for a box as small as it is and does double-duty as a speakerphone.
The WOWee One Slim Portable Speaker is a battery-operated speaker for your laptop, tablet, or smartphone. It is a wee bit shorter than the iPhone 4S (and about double the thickness). The built-in battery is rechargeable via a USB cable and lasts about ten hours between charges. By itself, the speaker is respectable but relatively unremarkable. It sounds the same, if not slightly better, than your standard laptop speakers. However, place the device on any flat surface and watch it turn a normal sound into a bass-rich audio experience. Part of the fun of this device is testing it on different surfaces to see where it sounds best. You can find the speaker on Amazon for $31.99.
For the audio aficionado who is out in the elements, Ultimate Ears offers the UE BOOM, a water-resistant portable speaker for $199.99 (ultimateears.com). The speaker wraps around 360 degrees, giving you great sound from any angle. You can pair the speaker with up to eight Bluetooth-enabled devices, and the speaker will play sound up to 15 meters away. The speaker is rechargeable via a USB cable and a universal USB wall charger, so you can connect and charge the speaker with your computer or laptop, or use a wall outlet. The battery charge lasts up to 15 hours, although the length of time is affected by how loud you play your music or how heavy the bass is while playing. There are available both an Android and an iOS app that will let you pair a second BOOM speaker to it so you can have a surround sound stereo effect. The app allows you to alter the settings, name your speaker, and monitor the battery life of the speaker. Here you can choose among EQ settings as well. There is an “Out Loud” setting that is recommended for most situations (especially outdoors), a Vocals setting, and an Intimate setting for when you find yourself in a smaller room.
The AltiGen iFusion SmartStation is a communications docking station for your iPhone. Place your iPhone on the station and it becomes a high-quality speakerphone. You can videoconference using Skype or FaceTime. The docking station will keep your phone charged while you are working in the office. It is also compatible with iPhone PBX apps such as Cisco Mobile 8.1, Avaya one-X Mobile, and MaxMobile for Lync. The iFusion retails for $149.95 at the Apple Store, Target.com, and Hammacher Schlemmer.
A watch linked to your smartphone offers a lot of possibilities and convenience. We have found two that we like.
My favorite Martian. No, this does not refer to the television show (for those of you old enough to remember it). Martian refers to a brand of smartwatch. The Martian watch links wirelessly with both Android and iOS devices using Bluetooth technology. You can use it to answer the phone, make calls, and display text messages. It will talk to you and take voice directions from you. You charge it via a USB connection to your computer or a wall plug. The Martian watches come in three models, several colors, and various band selections at prices ranging from $249 to $299. You control the watch’s interface with free Apps for iOS and Android. More information is available on the company’s website (martianwatches.com).
i’M Watch. This smartwatch connects wirelessly with your smartphone via Bluetooth to display your text messages, e-mails, and phone calls on the small color display. It also displays apps from your iPhone. From the watch face you can read messages and receive notice of who is trying to call you. It has its own personal store of apps you can download onto the smartwatch, from useful office apps to game and leisure apps. One such app, i’music, allows you to find, download, and listen to your favorite music with a library of more than 6 million songs, all from your watch. You can customize the watch’s appearance. You can select the presentation, based on your choice of fashion, from the Color Collection, Tech Collection, or Jewel Collection. The color collection is bright and fun, with seven different colors to choose from (black, white, blue, green, red, yellow, and purple). The Jewel Collection offers a more polished look for the professional. For the ultimate road warrior on your list, the Tech Collection offers a black or white smart watch made of titanium. Pricing for i’m Watch starts at $299 (www.imsmart.com/en).
Over the last several years electronic books have come into their own. For many people the electronic file in an e-reader has replaced the paper book. The electronic file offers many advantages over the printed book. It weighs a lot less. It allows readers to select font types for viewing and even make the print size larger or smaller. It also gives you the opportunity to view the file on any number of devices ranging from desktop computers to laptops to tablets to smartphones to dedicated electronic books.
Several manufacturers have produced dedicated electronic book readers. The best known of these are Sony’s Reader, Barnes & Noble’s NOOK, and Amazon’s Kindle. Sony has been on the market the longest, but both Amazon and Barnes & Noble appear to have outpaced the Sony offerings. Interestingly, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have bought into the multi-function concept and offer e-readers that also function as tablets, providing Internet access, e-mail capabilities and allowing you to install certain apps to increase functionality. They generally cost less than tablets as well.
That said, in our opinion, none of the e-reader/tablets compare favorably to the top tablets, such as the iPad, iPad mini, Samsung Galaxy Note, or Google Nexus. The top “true” tablets all have more power and provide more and better features. They also have the ability to function very nicely as electronic book readers. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony each have e-reader apps available for both iOS and Android devices. Apple, of course, has its own iBooks App available for iOS devices. As the Android and iOS Apps do an excellent e-reader emulation, you might ask yourself why we even bother to include a section in the gift guide for e-readers. We do so for several reasons. First of all, the e-readers cost significantly less than the true tablets, making them a reasonable choice if you want a less expensive gift. Second, at the present time, you cannot put all the subscription materials available on the e-readers on a tablet and read it with an emulation app. Third, although the color e-readers work very well indoors, as do the tablets, neither of them works very well in bright sunlight. The E Ink e-readers, however, work quite well in bright sunlight and also work well indoors. Some of them even have internal lighting mechanisms, making them very well suited for use in a darker environment (such as an airplane cabin at night). The E Ink devices, however, do not provide Internet or e-mail access. Neither do they accept apps. They are pure electronic books. Another factor to consider in choosing between the color and E Ink technologies among the electronic books is the form factor. The E Ink readers we will discuss are universally smaller and lighter than their color relatives. They fit easily in many coat pockets. The color devices won’t fit in many coat pockets.
We have seen a number of devices from less well-known brands, but we have never been impressed enough by them to acquire one. We recommend that you stick with Kindle, NOOK, and Sony Reader as a dedicated electronic book reader choice for personal use or as a gift. As we think the Kindle, NOOK, and Sony Reader devices all offer excellent features, we will talk about all of them in this guide. Our preferences, however, favor the Kindle.
Kindle. Amazon has several Kindle models available. The least expensive Kindle costs only $69. It is a 6” WiFi-only basic electronic reader. It comes with what Amazon calls “special offers” (i.e., they push ads onto your device). If you do not want the ads, you can get the same device without special offers for $20 more. We will leave it to you to decide if saving $20 is worth putting up with the special offers. For what it’s worth, the special offers do not impinge on your reading experience; they only appear on your lock screen when the device is on but timed out. This version, simply called the “Kindle” weighs in at a shade less than 6 ounces. It represents a solid basic e-reader but it is not our favorite Kindle device.
Stepping up the line, we come to the Kindle Paperwhite. We really like this device; it is one of our favorite e-readers. It measures 6.7” x 4.6” x 0.36” and weighs 7.3 ounces. The WiFi-only version costs $119 with special offers and $139 without special offers. The WiFi with 3G version costs $179 with special offers and $199 without. The WiFi with 3G version has the same dimensions as the WiFi-only, but weighs 0.3 ounce more, owing to the wireless radio. The 3G version allows you to access your online library and the Kindle Store using cellular technology with no monthly fee. What makes the Paperwhite special is its built-in lighting, which works quite well and makes the book even more readable than other E Ink readers. Amazon has announced an upgrade to the Paperwhite that it will roll out for the holiday season. Amazon boasts a new display system for the new iteration of the Paperwhite that will offer higher contrast. It also claims a longer battery life. Amazon’s website indicates that the WiFi-only version will retain the $119 price of the current model and the WiFi with 3G version will cost $10 more than the current model. Amazon indicates that the WiFi-only version will be available before you get this issue of GPSolo magazine. The WiFi with 3G version should be available right around the time you get this issue. Although we have not seen the new versions yet, the information available suggests that they will reflect some improvement over the current versions.
Kindle also makes a larger version called the DX. The Kindle DX has a 9.7” screen, measures 10.4” x 7.2” x 0.38”, and weighs 18.9 ounces. Although we know some people who like the Kindle DX, we don’t know many. We consider it too heavy and bulky to carry around for what it does and would opt for a tablet first, particularly as the DX costs $299 (at the time this issue went to press, Amazon had a special offer of $239 for this version).
Amazon calls its line of color e-readers the Fire. They come in two sizes and several versions. The least of these models, the 7” WiFi-only Kindle Fire HD, measures 7.5” x 5.0” x 0.42” and weighs 12.2 ounces. It comes in a 16 GB and a 32 GB version. The 16 GB version costs $139 with special offers and $154 without; the 32 GB version adds $30 to the prices. The next step up in the 7” Fire line is the recently announced Kindle Fire HDX. It comes in WiFi-only and WiFi with 4G wireless versions and is offered in 16 GB, 32 GB, and 64 GB iterations. The smallest memory version costs $229 with special offers and $244 without. Each bump up in memory allotment adds another $40 to the price. 4G wireless adds $100 to each price point. The Fire HDX has a higher resolution screen than the Fire HD (1920 x 1200 vs. 1280 x 800) and a faster processor (Quad-Core 2.2 GHz vs. Dual-Core 1.5 GHz). It also sports a front-facing HD camera.
The larger Fire HD versions have an 8.9” display. The WiFi-only Fire HD 8.9” costs $269 for the 16 GB model, $299 for the 32 GB model, and $399 for the 64 GB model, each with special offers; each is $15 more without the special offers. These versions measure 9.4” x 6.4” x 0.35” and weigh 20 ounces. Adding 4G capability to the Fire HD 8.9” adds $100 to each price point. Just announced was the new top of the 8.9” Fire line: the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9”. It should be ready to ship by the time you read this article (or very shortly thereafter) and will be available in 16 GB, 32 GB, and 64 GB versions priced at $379, $429, and $479, each with special offers, and $15 more without. Adding 4G adds $100 to each price point. Once again, this new model will feature a higher-resolution screen (2560 x 1600 vs. 1920 x 1200) and a faster processor (Quad-Core 2.2 GHz vs. Dual-Core 1.5 GHz). The HDX will also include an 8 MP rear-facing camera in addition to the front-facing HD camera that comes standard on the Fire HD 8.9”.
Although the 8.9” versions have more powerful and faster processors and, in the case of the WiFi with 4G version, larger memory, we prefer the size and weight of the 7” Fire modules. Amazon provides a detailed comparison of options, features, and pricing as well as technical specifications for all Kindle models on its website.
NOOK. Barnes & Noble (barnesandnoble.com) calls its e-reader the NOOK. All NOOKs are WiFi-only. Barnes & Noble offers two models of its 6” E Ink version called the NOOK Simple Touch ($59) and the NOOK Simple Touch with GlowLight ($79), the latter owing to the fact that it has its own lighting built in, so that you get the advantage of E Ink technology for daylight reading without the drop-off in usability in a darker environment. Barnes & Noble calls its color NOOKs the NOOK HD ($109 for 8 GB of memory and $119 for 16 GB of memory) and the NOOK HD+ ($149 for 16 GB of memory and $179 for 32 GB of memory). The NOOK HD is smaller (7” v. 9” display) and lighter (11.1 ounces. v. 18.2 ounces.) than the HD+. You can get a comparison of all the NOOKs and their features on the Barnes & Noble website.
We prefer the NOOK Simple Touch with GlowLight to the Simple Touch as the GlowLight version does everything the Simple Touch does but adds the built-in lighting. As with the Kindle, the E Ink versions have the advantages of smaller size, less weight, better readability in sunlight, and a lower price point. The color versions do a better job presenting magazines and also allow you to play video media and watch movies.
Reader. Sony (sonystyle.com) has historically made the most physically solid e-reader. In the past, its computer interface proved problematic. Last year Sony closed much of the gap respecting E Ink readers when it added WiFi to its Sony Reader, allowing the downloading of books and avoiding the computer interface issues. It also allowed wireless downloading of books from public libraries. Sony has not announced a color Reader. The Sony Reader comes in three colors and two versions. The black version comes with a copy of a Harry Potter book. The red and white versions do not come with the Harry Potter book. All of them sell for $99.99. The rumor mill is rife with suggestions about a new Sony model, but we have not seen specifications for it and cannot comment on it. We would not be surprised to see Sony release it in the November time frame, however.
We presented the readers in the order of our preference for them. We prefer the Kindle to the NOOK and the Sony Reader, and we prefer the NOOK to the Sony Reader. That said, all offer very satisfactory reading experiences. A dedicated e-reader is a nice thing to have, and it will make a wonderful gift for most people, even if they have a tablet. The Kindle, NOOK, and Sony Reader apps allow you access to those libraries on most tablets, however, and these tablets make a better and more versatile choice (albeit a far more costly one) than the color versions of the Kindle and NOOK. The non-color versions of those devices, however, offer a significant advantage in terms of portability and the ability to read them in bright sunlight. For that reason, the E Ink versions of the Kindle and NOOK may prove a better choice for people who already have a tablet, especially those with a 7” tablet, such as the iPad Mini or Google Nexis.
Techie Gift Cards
Likely you have heard that the iTunes App Store has apps for practically everything. If you have not taken the time to screen-shop there, you should. While in the iTunes Store, check out its Music, Books, and Movies departments as well as the App Store. For those old enough to remember Arlo Guthrie, think of it as a contemporary version of Alice’s Restaurant. For those too young to remember that song, the catch line is that “you can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant.” The iTunes Store is one of the reasons that the iPad has no close competition in the tablet category and one of the reasons the iPhone sells so well. Other manufacturers have technologically sound offerings, but none of them can access the iTunes Store and none of them have anything that compares favorably to it.
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 apps, music, books, movies, or television shows to add to their media collection for playing on their iPad, iPod, or iPhone.
For Android users, you can also get gift cards for the Google Play Store, allowing the recipient to choose from the apps and media available for sale there. You can also get gift cards for Amazon’s Kindle store and the Sony Reader library.
Top-quality professional digital dictation equipment offers convenience, power, and flexibility, but at a relatively high price. In our opinion the best equipment in recent years has come from Olympus and Philips. The digital dictation equipment market has been relatively stable for the last several years, with both Olympus and Philips relying on sales of models introduced several years ago. Last year Olympus released two new devices. We expect that Philips will release updated devices in the near future in response, but as of the date of this writing that has not happened. For the present, Olympus continues to offer its previous top-of-the-line DS-5000 (also an excellent dictation device) notwithstanding its release of its new top-of-the-line model, the DS-7000. Olympus also released a new mid-level DS-3500 dictation system. Featuring durable, metal-bodied designs and large color LCD screens, both models combine ease-of-use with excellent recording quality. The use of PIN protection and 256-bit DSS Pro real time data encryption allows protection of your files. Olympus also released the AS-7000 Transcription Kit.
The DS-7000 offers a sliding thumb switch, making control of dictation functions easy and convenient. It accepts SD and Micro SD cards for additional memory. It also offers an improved microphone and enhanced security relative to the DS-5000. You can get complete specifications on the Olympus website (olympusamerica.com). The DS-7000 lists for $599 and measures 4.5” x 2” x 0.67”. The DS-7000 uses an included rechargeable lithium-ion 740mAh battery that charges through a USB connection. It accepts Micro SD cards between 2 GB and 32 GB. It connects to Mac and Windows computers through USB. It supports Windows systems XP and later and Mac OS X (10.4.11 and later). The DS-5000 remains available at a $549.99 list price. You can often arrange a discounted price. The authors want to thank Executive Communication Systems in Ventura, California, for making DS-7000 and AS-7000 units available for testing.
The DS-3500 lists for $499. It offers essentially the same features as the DS-7000 but lacks the slide switch control; instead, it has push-button controls. We have a strong preference for the slide switch controls as we find them easier and more convenient to use. The Olympus devices work well with both the Mac OS and Windows. Philips equipment works very well with Windows but has proven problematic with the Mac platform. All the models work well with Nuance’s Dragon voice recognition software (which, incidentally, would make a nice gift, too, for users on the Mac or Windows platform; nuance.com).
Memory Storage Devices
We all need to store data. A backup disk can make a well-appreciated gift that will get a lot of use, particularly a small portable hard disk. It also makes a useful acquisition for personal use. We like Seagate (seagate.com) and WD (wdc.com) drives as they offer good quality at reasonable prices. We use them for our own backups in and out of the office. Both make desktop as well as portable drives. We will focus on the portable drives in this article.
Both Seagate and WD make portable drives in various configurations ranging from small to smaller and thin to thinner. They make and sell drives configured for the Mac OS as well as for Windows, but that is not a big deal as you can easily reconfigure a drive formatted for either platform to a drive formatted for the other. Although Seagate has made larger portable hard drives in the past, Seagate’s current line of portables tops out at 1 TB, while WD continues to make portable drives up to 2 TB. Both companies make drives that work with USB 3.0 and are backward compatible to USB 2.0. We strongly prefer using the drives as 3.0 devices, owing to the more rapid transfer speeds. Prices on the drives will vary significantly depending on the configuration and where you buy them. We have seen both lines discounted at Costco.
Seagate also offers a 1 TB Backup Plus Portable Drive with Thunderbolt, offering even greater transfer speeds. Seagate offers a 1 TB Wireless Plus ($199.99) that has the ability to create its own WiFi network and stream media to WiFi-enabled computers and portable devices. At 5” x 3.5” x 0.78” and 0.56 lbs., the Wireless Plus makes a great traveling partner. The Wireless Plus also works with USB 3.0. WD makes the My Passport, with a maximum capacity of 2 TB and USB 3.0 connectivity ($149.99).
The USB flash drive (aka thumb drive, aka USB stick, aka about a dozen or more other names) has become a common tool for people to use to carry necessary data around. Pricing on these drives is all over the lot, as is design and style. You can find thumb drives ranging in sizes from 256 KB to 256 GB. The 256 GB devices remain fairly expensive, selling for around $1 per gigabyte. Until recently, the 128 GB devices also sold for around $1 per gigabyte, but we have recently seen the 128 GB devices show softening prices. Devices from 64 GB down have become fairly reasonably priced. The 32 GB models generally offer the best combination of storage capacity and price. As is the case with most things USB these days, you can find USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 thumb drives. You will pay a premium for USB 3.0 drives. We prefer USB 3.0 owing to the increased speed. Because you can find these devices from a large number of manufacturers in a wide variety of configurations and prices, you can find one for almost anyone you want to gift. Some companies have even bought them in bulk with the firm name on them and used them for promotional purposes and client gifts. You can find a number of sources for such special productions online. Some of the best-known flash drive manufacturers and most reliable drives come from SanDisk, Transcend, Kingston, Lexar, Corsair, and PNY. You can find these devices in most electronics stores and many online stores. Just to give you some idea of cost, we recently priced some drives on Amazon. We found 32 GB USB 3.0 drives starting at $20, 64 GB USB 3.0 drives starting at $46, and 128 GB USB 3.0 drives starting at $115. When we looked at USB 2.0 drives, we found 128 GB drives starting at $67, 64 GB drives starting at $38, and 32 GB drives starting at $16.
my-Ditto offers a $279.99, 2 TB network accessible storage device with a my-Ditto key, which grants you secure remote access to your stored files from any laptop or desktop anywhere in the world. This is a great gift for the frequent traveler or the telecommuting employee. The key sets up a direct peer-to-peer connection with the storage device, making it a hybrid hard-drive cloud platform. You can have as many as 30 password-protected keys set up for you and your staff to access files from anywhere. The system is secured with a two-factor authentication process. You can access your files through your iOS, Android, or Windows Mobile (6.1 or higher) smartphone with the my-Ditto app. Storage devices start at 500 GB (my-ditto.com).
emWave2. The emWave2 attempts to improve wellness and facilitate personal growth using biometric feedback to help teach you to change your heart rhythm pattern to create “coherence,” a measurable state characterized by increased order and harmony in psychological and physiological processes. The emWave technology collects pulse data through a sensor and then translates the information into graphics displayed on your computer or into lights on the portable emWave2. Practice with the device reportedly can increase your coherence baseline and your ability to take charge of your emotional reactions. It is reported to be particularly helpful in handling the reaction to stress. Check out the website for additional information. The emWave2 costs $169 (heartmathstore.com).
Smart Body Analyzer. The Withings Smart Body Analyzer makes a great gift ($149.95, withings.com) for fitness fiends. This beefed-up scale provides a litany of analytical tools for your iPhone to monitor your fitness progress. The virtual health snapshot that it creates for you includes data on weight, fat, mass percentage, and heart rate. The analyzer measures your heart rate every time you step on the scale. Many users weigh themselves in the morning when they first wake up, which creates a snapshot over time of your resting heart rate, an indicator of someone’s overall state of health. For fat mass measurements, you can indicate on the scale whether you are an athlete or non-athlete. Athletic body types tend to have different muscle mass and hydration levels, so changing between modes has an effect on the readings. Generally this just means it will account for more muscle in the body fat percentage estimation.
In addition to analyzing your health, the Smart Body Analyzer records data on your surrounding environment, such as temperature and carbon dioxide levels. Carbon dioxide results from metabolic activity and can build up over time in homes with poor air circulation. The accumulation of carbon dioxide can have adverse health effects, causing headaches, restlessness, difficulty breathing, a decline in sleep quality, and other possible effects. The analyzer helps increase your awareness of the indoor air quality so you can breathe a little easier.
LINK. One of our favorite health devices comes from a company called BodyMedia (bodymedia.com). The company makes a Bluetooth wireless armband device called the LINK that measures your skin temperature, motion, and galvanic skin response (electrical conductivity of your skin) constantly and analyzes that information to record your activity level, how long you sleep, and how many calories you burn in a day. You can sync the device and transfer data for storage through your computer and through your iPhone or an Android phone (free apps are available). The LINK costs $149. A smaller version called the CORE, which does not have Bluetooth (and will not sync to a phone), costs $119. Either version requires a subscription to the BodyMedia web service ($6.95/month) to record and store your data. If you take the time to record your caloric intake, it becomes a great tool for weight management. The armband device is relatively small and unobtrusive. You cannot see it under a long-sleeve shirt or blouse, and you can wear it high enough that it is virtually invisible under a short-sleeve shirt or blouse.
Television hardware has evolved dramatically in recent years, and now most of us have large-screen digital HD televisions that connect to the Internet either directly or indirectly. Because of that phenomenon and the availability of an amazing quantity of media through downloading, the television has become a more and more important part of our entertainment.
Solo. The quality of the built-in audio on most televisions has not kept up with the quality of the HD images they can display. As a result, more and more manufacturers have offered after-market audio systems to upgrade the sound quality of televisions. You can find many models at varying prices. We have found one model in particular that we like very much. You have probably already figured out that we have a certain partiality for the high-quality sound generated by Bose products. Accordingly, it should not surprise you that the audio add-on system we like comes from Bose. Bose has more expensive speaker systems that you can connect to a television, but the Solo comes at a pretty reasonable price ($399.95) in a nicely compact (20.75” x 12.25” x 3”) box that sits under your television display (or wherever else you want to put it) and gives you excellent sound in a very easy to use package. The system consists of a single box (no separate subwoofer to connect and locate). A single connection seals the deal. You can order it online from Bose and try it out. They currently offer a 90-day trial and return policy. Alternatively, you can go to one of the bricks-and-mortar Bose stores and try it out there (and take it home with you). We think most people will find this system sufficient to provide room-filling, high-quality sound. For the really serious home theater people who have a major surround-sound speaker system connected to a primary television, think about this for a second television (say in a bedroom, kitchen, or home office).
Harmony Smart Control. With the Harmony Smart Control from Logitech (logitech.com) you can control your home theater devices from your iOS or Android powered smartphones. Anyone in your household can download the app to their device and customize it with their 50 favorite channels. The Remote controls your devices through a hub, which also allows you to control home theater devices located behind cabinets or walls. You do not have to point your mobile phone or remote at your devices to control them. You can even be in a different room. You can adjust and change the devices with gesture controls through the app. You can swipe or tap your thumb across your smartphone screen to adjust the volume, change the channel, fast-forward, rewind, pause, play and skip forward or back. The Harmony Smart Control can consolidate up to eight remote controls into your mobile app. If you find yourself stranded (perhaps your smartphone died), you can use the simple remote included with the Harmony Smart Control to continue controlling your devices. The Harmony smart control retails for $129.99. If you like the idea of a smart control but don’t need all the bells and whistles, you should take a look at the Logitech Harmony Universal Remote Control, which sells for $64.99.
Apple TV, Roku 3, Chromecast. Several manufacturers have devices to connect your television to massive quantities of Internet content, including movies, television shows, videos, and more. The devices we like best include the $99 Apple TV and the $99.99 Roku 3 (roku.com). Google has recently joined the party with its $35 Chromecast unit (google.com). The Chromecast has a few things going for it, namely its very small size and price and its ease of use. As a result, even someone with a Roku or Apple TV device might like to have a Chromecast unit as well for travel. The nice thing is that you can share your subscriptions to services, such as Netflix, with devices connected to more than one of these devices.
Comparing the three, Roku has a slight edge over Apple TV in terms of content. Available services through Roku include Netflix, Amazon, HBO GO, Spotify, MLB TV, Hulu Plus, VUDU, Pandora, and Crackle. Roku also offers some unique content. Apple TV offers most of the same content, including Netflix, HBO GO, and Hulu Plus. Apple TV also supports YouTube. Apple TV allows you to access iTunes as well. Chromecast offers Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play. You can stream Hulu Plus and HBO Go through Chrome Browser mirroring, but the quality suffers in the translation. The Apple TV (3.9” x 3.9” x 0.9”) and Roku 3 (3.5” x 3.5” x 1”) are approximately the same size and weight (9.5 ounces for the Apple TV and 5 ounces for the Roku 3). The Chromecast comes in at about the same size as a larger USB flash drive (2.8” x 1.4” x 0.5” and 1.1 ounces).
Cobra Tag. For the absent-minded professor in your life, take a look at the Cobra Tag ($59.95, cobratag.com). This handy little gadget helps prevent you from forgetting your valuables. Take keys, for example; you keep this small Bluetooth fob on your keychain, and anytime you can’t find your keys, all you need to do is launch the Cobra Tag app on your iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, Android, or BlackBerry device and listen for the loud beep that will start emanating from the tag. This is also handy if you are around little ones who are particularly skilled at relocating your keys. One of the neat things about this device is that you can use it in reverse. Let’s say you have inadvertently misplaced your phone or iPad, but you have your keys nearby; just press the circle-shaped button on your key fob and your smartphone or iPad will chime loudly with an alert or a song of your choice from your music library.
Pocket Photo. You never know when a scrapbook-worthy moment will present itself, and now you can capture that moment with the camera built into your phone and instantly share it with friends or family with the LG Pocket Photo printer. This Bluetooth-enabled device allows you to print photos off your smartphone. Just download the LG Pocket Photo app, which also allows you to edit your photos and upload the edited photos to Facebook or Twitter. You can be up and running with this device in minutes. If you are shopping for this item on Amazon, note that some of the earlier models only work on Android devices. The LG PD233, however, is available on Amazon or through LG directly and is compatible with Android and iOS. The mini-printer retails for $159.99.
Mini 5. We found this little gem at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, earlier this year. The smallest and most portable of the document cameras offered by HoverCam (thehovercam.com), the Mini 5 lists for $249, easily fits in a jacket pocket, but opens up into a fairly full-featured and quite usable document camera for presentation purposes. It does triple-duty as you can also make it function as a scanner or use it as a webcam for conferencing. The Mini 5 works with Windows and with Mac OS X. The Mini 5 has an auto-focusing camera with a 5 MP resolution. It comes with a built-in USB plug to allow you to connect it to a computer.
iUSBport. The $99.95 iUSBport, available at hypershop.com, creates a WiFi network allowing you to connect any WiFi-enabled computer, tablet, or other portable device to any USB storage device. Measuring only 2.95” x 2.28” x 0.87” and weighing only 3.8 ounces, the rechargeable iUSBport will provide up to five hours of connectivity to the attached storage device. The same company recently announced a “Mini” version of the iUSBport for $89.95. Although smaller (3.59” x 1.67” x 0.57” and 1.75 ounces), the iUSBport Mini has all the same features as the iUSBport (but a shorter battery life owing to the smaller battery size); the Mini also has a slot for Micro SDXC cards.