GPSolo magazine has published an annual technology gift guide in connection with the holiday season for many years. This year, we continue that tradition. We will share our ideas about technology-related gifts for spouses, friends, family, partners, employees, and others. Many of the items we discuss may prove helpful to you professionally and/or provide enjoyable additions to your personal life. The items we have chosen have a price range from less than $20 to more than $1,000. We believe that we have created a list broad enough to let you find an appropriate gift for almost everyone on your list and maybe a few things you want for yourself.
The major “buzz term” in tech in 2015 was the “Internet of Things,” referring to a network of physical objects with embedded electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity that enables objects to collect and exchange data. It centers around machine-to-machine automated communication, built on the rapidly evolving cloud-computing network technology. This technology opens virtually limitless windows of opportunity.
In 2016 we see an increasing number of these windows at the consumer level. Exciting trends have emerged, ranging from biometric authentication in hardware from smartphones to computers, to auto-adjusting home-surround systems, to intelligent cars (some of which drive themselves). At CES 2015, Samsung CEO Boo-Keun Yoon predicted that 100 percent of its products would connect to the Internet within the next five years (Read: The time to master the art of Internet security is now). In 2016 we can see the accuracy of that prediction, as more and more products connect to the Internet. Some of them do so without much reason, however. For example, we don’t really think you need to have the ability to see the inside of your refrigerator while you shop, but at least one major company—not surprisingly, Samsung—advertises that feature on some of its latest models. Although we can see how, once in a while, someone may have good reason to do this (or at least a reason to want to do this), we certainly don’t see it as a major technological advance or a leading-edge feature, or even something we would willingly pay a few dollars extra to get. While you will certainly see the influence of the Internet of Things in some of our recommendations, we will focus on applications we consider more likely to prove useful than checking your refrigerator’s content on the fly.
In keeping with tradition (and the requirements of the ABA’s legal department) and common sense, we have to provide a few disclaimers, so let’s get them out of the way and focus on the good stuff:
- 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. You may cite this article in support of an argument that something is tax deductible because of its utility in your practice. If you do, we wish you the best of luck in making that work, but we make no representation to you that it will and accept no responsibility if it does not. Notwithstanding the foregoing, remember that, if you think of something as a “gadget” or a “toy,” you probably should not try to deduct it as a business expense. If, however, you see it as a “tool” to assist you in your practice, you may have a shot at making it work as a deduction.
- Nothing in this article constitutes the 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 respecting the products addressed. Please do not give anyone else credit for our opinions.
- Opinions and information contained in this article do not replace, modify, alter, amend, staple, mutilate, bend, damage, destroy, or supplement manufacturers’ warranties, instructions, or specifications.
- Price references in the article reflect available information regarding manufacturer’s suggested retail prices (MSRP) as of the time of writing, 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 careful to take steps to ensure both that you protect your payment information and that you get what you wanted. Some vendors sell “gray market goods.” These goods are manufactured for sale in other countries and imported (not always through proper channels) into the United States and then resold. Generally (particularly respecting photographic products), gray market goods sell at a lower cost than those packaged for this country as they often do not include the manufacturer’s U.S. warranty but, instead, include an “international warranty.” Sometimes the vendor will provide its own warranty instead of the manufacturer’s warranty or a third-party warranty from a warranty service, billing it as a “U.S. warranty.” If you find such goods at a discount and elect to buy them, you may save a significant amount. But remember: caveat emptor!
- Some products discussed in this article were provided to us for review purposes by manufacturers or their public relations agents, others were purchased for our own use, and still others borrowed from friends or, in a few cases, simply ogled and played with in a store. We have not endeavored to look at, let alone 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 and that attracted our attention.
- The Surgeon General has not yet opined on the subject, but we believe that technology products 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, steering a boat, piloting a plane, or walking, bike riding, roller skating, ice skating, skiing, surfing, or skate boarding, can prove dangerous to your health. Accordingly, while we recommend and commend the use of technology to you, we also advise you to use it carefully and in moderation.
- The authors make no warranty, express or implied, respecting any of the items discussed in this gift guide, except that if we say we like something, we really do!
Jeff’s and Ashley’s Lists
Over the last few years, we have adopted the practice of providing a list of our top ten products, the ones we want the most—or would if we did not already have them. In preparing these lists, each of us operated from the premise that we had none of the technology discussed. (In fact, we likely have most of the items on our lists.) Working from this premise, we have listed below the top ten choices each of us came up with.
iPhone 7 Plus (256 GB memory)
iPad Pro (9.7 ", 256 GB memory)
Nikon DL 24-85 camera
Kindle Oasis e-reader
Bose QC35 headphones
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (16 GB RAM, Core i7, 512 GB flash drive)
Apple Watch Series 2 (rose gold, pink sand sport band)
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (16 GB RAM, Core i7, 512 GB flash drive)
Samsung Galaxy S7 edge (gold platinum)
iPad mini 4 (128 GB memory, WiFi, gold finish)
Kensington BlackBelt 2nd Degree Rugged Case for Surface Pro 4
Mezzi Nerina bag
Korchmar Churchill briefcase
mophie space pack
Anker PowerCore+ 20100
Bose QC30 earbuds
Gifts for the Pokémon Go Fan (and Almost Any Road Warrior)
Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game for iOS and Android devices that launched in July 2016. Recent statistics indicate that the game, developed jointly by videogame heavyweight Nintendo and one-time Google startup company Niantic Labs, was downloaded more than 500 million times between its launch in July and early September. The free-to-play game has attracted a staggering number of players in a short amount of time. It was designed with the goal of encouraging healthy outdoor exploration and social gameplay. Players create an avatar that they move by walking around in the real world. The game uses GPS on your phone or other portable device to locate you on the virtual map.
As players move within their real-world surroundings, their avatars move within the game’s map. Players are encouraged to walk around to find Pokémon characters and “catch” them with a Pokéball, an item they can find in the game or purchase through the app. As players move around, they may encounter Pokémon in the “wild” (e.g., the neighborhood park, grocery store, or mall). When players encounter a Pokémon, they can view it either in augmented-reality (AR) mode or with a live-rendered, generic background. Different Pokémon species reside in different areas of the world; for example, water-type Pokémon generally can be found near water. AR mode uses the camera and gyroscope on the player’s mobile device to display an image of a Pokémon as though it were in the real world.
Although the game is free to play, there are third-party accessories that can enhance the gaming experience. If a loved one in your life is hooked on this new form of entertainment, you might consider the following as gifts:
For starters, Nintendo has come out with a way to make money off their free game by offering players a wearable device that quietly alerts you to nearby Pokémon, allowing you to catch Pokémon and collect items more efficiently. It’s called the Pokémon Go Plus (creative, right?), and it sells for $35 (pokemongo.com). You can wear it on a wristband or pin it to just about anywhere on your person (pocket, sleeve, purse, etc.). The device pairs with your iPhone or Android phone over a Bluetooth connection and connects to your Pokémon Go app. Once connected, instead of constantly pulling out your phone to scan for Pokémon, you can just walk around town like a normal human being. If you walk somewhere that you would encounter a Pokémon, the device has a button that will light up. Then, you can press the light-up button, and—without pulling out your phone and notifying the world that you are playing a game—the game will automatically throw a Pokéball to try to catch it for you. It only works on the Pokémon if you have caught one of that type before.
Niantic Labs announced that Apple Watch will support Pokémon Go soon. The watch will display how far the player needs to walk to hatch an egg (another way to collect Pokémon in the game), how many experience points are needed to reach the next level, and additional fitness-related information about the player. The app will also let players see when a Pokémon appears or when a PokéStop is nearby without looking at their smartphone. The app for the watch will be available in 2016. This is one of many reasons the Apple Watch makes an excellent gift this holiday season. A full discussion of the Apple Watch can be found below.
Finally, you would not want your phone to die in the middle of a hunt, and the game can drain the battery pretty quickly. An avid player would enjoy having an external battery or a battery-extending smartphone case. A full discussion of these devices can be found below.
The laptop computer presents an interesting option; there is an argument that it is moving toward obsolescence. Steve Jobs told us before he died that we now live in a post-PC world. Perhaps the rest of the world has not yet caught up to where Steve was, as many of us still use computers regularly. On the other hand, more and more of our tasks get accomplished without the computer as we rely on tablets, phablets, and smartphones more and more. In another sense, the other devices we rely on function as computers, and the argument may simply be semantics. The tablets and smartphones do an ever-increasing amount of work that we previously handled with a computer. Perhaps it is simply a matter of using a new name and form factor. At any rate, the computer as a piece of technology still exists on a current basis, and many people still use it professionally and in their personal lives. As portability has become increasingly important to our lifestyle, we will focus only on highly portable laptop computers.
MacBook. There are two laptop computers that we really like. One of them is Apple’s new MacBook (we are hopeful that updates to the MacBook Air or MacBook Pro line will come out fairly soon). The MacBook makes a very nice traveling companion at a reasonable price. It does have some limitations in that it is underpowered, but it works well for the things most of us do (word processing, reviewing documents, watching video, and surfing the Internet). The MacBook comes in gold, silver, space gray, and rose gold. It brings a 12” Retina display with 2304 x 1440 resolution that gives you an outstanding image. The keyboard is almost full-sized, and the built-in trackpad comes with force touch. It only comes with one port (USB-C) for extension to additional devices, but you can (and should) get an adapter that will allow you to concurrently connect to a standard USB device, an HDMI connector, and a USB-C charging cable. While the multiport adapter helps, we would have liked it better if Apple built it with more ports available. The MacBook runs on a low-power Core m processor. The MacBook starts at $1,299 with 8 GB of RAM, a Core m3 processor, and a 256 GB flash drive. You can pay a bit more and upgrade to a Core m5 or a Core m7 processor and a 512 GB flash drive. We think the upgrades are worth it, and we would go with the Core m7 and 512 GB flash drive for $1,749. (See apple.com for full details on options and pricing.)
Surface Pro 4. The second laptop we like comes from Microsoft (microsoft.com). We will talk about it here primarily and secondarily in the tablet section of this guide, as the Surface Pro 4 is a laptop that thinks it is a tablet. The Surface Pro 4 comes with Windows 10 on it and runs Windows 10 very well. The Surface Pro 4 starts at $899 for a 4 GB RAM device with a 128 GB flash drive, a Core m3 processor, and a 12.3” touch screen display. You can pay for upgrades to get a 16 GB RAM device with a 1 TB flash drive and a Core i7 processor ($2,699). We think that is a bit pricier and a bit more memory than most of us need, so we would opt for the 16 GB RAM device with a Core i7 Processor and a 512 GB flash drive ($2,199). We liked the Surface Pro 3 a lot, but the Surface Pro 4 makes substantial improvements and provides noticeably better performance. While we prefer the Surface Pro 4, the Surface Pro 3 remains available at discounted pricing and makes a good choice for basic computing needs.
Although most smartphones and camcorders also take excellent still photos these days, their quality can prove somewhat disappointing. From our perspective, if you want high-quality photos, you should still use a dedicated camera. Similarly, although many digital cameras also take video, you should get a camcorder if you want high-quality videos. For a lot of people, the photographic capacities of their smartphones (which, in many cases, do both digital still photographs and videos) offer all the capability they need or want.
Those who find a smartphone sufficient for their photographic needs should use one. The rest of us will still invest in camera equipment, and for good cause. Although the gap continues to narrow, the photographic capabilities of better cameras and camcorders still surpass those of the best of the smartphones. People with even a moderately serious interest in photography will look at the smartphone as an accessory camera to use for a grab shot every once in a while, but they will not rely on it as their primary camera.
Smartphone manufacturers have continued to upgrade the photographic capabilities of their devices, producing higher resolution cameras with better quality lenses and more features. But the number of megapixels, although important, is not everything—the quality of the lens as well as several other factors bear directly on the quality of the image. No smartphones have lenses that compare favorably with the lenses manufactured by Canon or Nikon or by Zeiss for the better Sony cameras. Moreover, although you can add accessory lenses to some smartphones, the general quality of the accessory lenses comes under the heading of “adequate” and not superior. Even with those add-on lenses, smartphones do not have the range offered by many cameras, especially system cameras (those with interchangeable lenses).
If you plan on finding an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera from a second- or third-tier manufacturer, you may, in fact, not get noticeably better images than you could get from the camera in a good smartphone. In fact, you can even find some that will generate lower-quality images. If you stay with the top-line manufacturers—Canon, Nikon, and Sony—and focus on the middle or upper-half of their range, you will end up with much better equipment for picture taking than your smartphone. Other manufacturers, such as Olympus, Fuji, and Samsung, also produce reasonably priced high-quality camera models, but we prefer Canon, Nikon, and Sony products as a general rule.
When you look for a camera, remember that last year’s top models may still be available and now at a discounted price. Manufacturers often make a few cosmetic changes and put the camera out with a new model number. Last year’s model then drops in price. And sometimes photographers reach the conclusion that the previous model was actually better, even though it may not have all the features in the newer one (on the other hand, a particular photographer may prefer a feature on the older model that did not get included in this year’s model).
Below we identify several models of cameras that we particularly like. We will not discuss system cameras in this article, focusing only on single-lens versions.
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 IV. We still like the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 IV ($999.99, sony.com) as the best digital camera for general use for a moderately advanced to advanced photographer. This is the fourth generation of this range of compact camera from Sony. Previous models, the RX100 III ($849.99) and the RX100 II ($649.99), both remain available and offer excellent choices at lower price points as well. The RX100 (the first camera in the line) also represents an excellent choice, despite the fact that it is now four years old. Sony offers it on its website for only $499.99.
As with most of Sony’s top-end cameras, Zeiss makes the lens on the RX100 series cameras. What really distinguishes the RX100 line of cameras, however, is Sony’s use of a much larger sensor (1.0”) than manufacturers commonly use in compact cameras. This results in consistently higher-quality images. The RX100 IV also supports 4K video recording, while earlier models do not. If you want to give a gift that anyone serious about photography will appreciate, any of the RX100 cameras would be a good bet. For most of us the RX100 III looks like the best value in terms of dollars and features. The cost of the RX100 IV in combination with the nature of the upgrades over the RX100 III suggests that it should wait for the serious photographers. Until this year, Sony had upgraded the RX100 model annually. We expected the Model V earlier this year, but it has not come out yet. Sony has recently announced it, however, and it now appears likely that you can get one for the holidays. The camera will sell for just under $1,000. Check it out on the Sony website (sony.com).
Nikon DL 24-85. There is much speculation about why Sony’s new RX100 model is not out; the most enticing explanation is that Sony is looking for a way to make it more competitive with Nikon’s DL 24-85 (also delayed in release, projected to sell for $649, nikonusa.com). The DL 24-85 will come with a 1.0” type 20.8-megapixel backside illumination CMOS sensor and a fast 24–85mm equivalent F1.8–2.8 premium NIKKOR ED glass lens, and will feature high-speed continuous shooting up to approximately 20 frames per second and 4K Ultra HD video recording, time-lapse, slow motion, and Supelapse movies. The camera will also offer real-time sharing of images over the Internet. We no longer think this camera will be available in time for the holidays, but when it comes out, it should be right at the top of the list of cameras in this class.
The NoPhone Air. Last year we presented to you the most expensive compact camera we could find, an offering from Leica. This year, we have found the least expensive and dumbest smartphone. The NoPhone (thenophone.com) has been on the market for a few years and has sold about 10,000 units at $10 each, according to the Wall Street Journal (September 21, 2016, p. A-1). The manufacturers upgraded (?) the device this year. According to the Wall Street Journal, the manufacturers first took out the audio jack and then took out all the rest. As a result, for $10 you get an empty package (hence the “NoPhone” name). The NoPhone is offered as a fake phone for those addicted to real phones, but also works for any curmudgeons you know who continue to dislike smartphones and what they can provide. The forthcoming NoPhone Air, currently a Kickstarter project, similarly features a package containing . . . nothing. According to the NoPhone website, “With absolutely no features, the NoPhone Air feels [like] nothing in your hand. It’s a completely distraction-free device in frustration-free packaging. Now everyone can put down their real phones, pick up the NoPhone Air and enjoy real life.” Likely, each of you knows someone for whom this would make a perfect gift. For those of you old enough to remember it, think of the Pet Rock.
For those who like technology (or simply recognize that it is here to stay, so deal with it), as our number-one tech gift this year we have chosen the smartphone (again), and at the top of the list, the iPhone 7 Plus, followed closely by the iPhone 7 and then the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge. The immediate predecessors to those phones (Galaxy S6 edge+ and iPhone 6s/6s Plus) remain available and offer slightly less expensive versions of very similar phones. Although everyone seems to have a smartphone, the top models keep selling in record numbers as people upgrade to newer and better models. There are other systems available, but the Apple iOS and the Android OS dominate the market. More people use Android phones (made by numerous manufacturers), but more people buy Apple’s iPhone than any particular Android-based model.
Both of the authors agree that the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus represent the best combination of features available in a smartphone today. In our opinion, Samsung makes the best non-iOS smartphones, although we have a bit of hesitancy in saying that now owing to the fact that Samsung has had some issues with its Note line of phones (a number of them used battery components with a propensity to burst into flames). Samsung has tried to do some damage control, but its corrective action has been sloppy and haphazard in our opinion, leaving some doubt as to whether Samsung really deserves to be considered the second-best phone manufacturer.
All of the phones we recommend are 4G devices (4G is a reference to fourth-generation wireless technology, which works considerably faster than its predecessors). While we have seen people writing about 5G devices and 5G technology, 5G is not really available yet. Bottom line: Don’t concern yourself with it yet.
As none of the networks works equally well everywhere, you should get a phone that works on the system of the provider that dominates your area. The major providers now offer both the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy S series phones. If the major providers work more or less comparably in your area, note that phones on the AT&T network have one significant 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 or another provider. Each of the 4G phones we recommend uses earlier technology in areas where they cannot access 4G, so you are covered in that respect.
iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. Apple just released the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. At the same time, it released iOS 10 (which comes on those phones). We generally like the enhancements available through iOS 10, although it did take some effort to learn to deal with some of them. The new iPhones look very much like their predecessors with two exceptions: They do not have an audio port, and the 7 Plus has a larger and better camera array.
Under the hood, the 7 and 7 Plus offer a better, faster processor, allegedly better battery life (we have not really seen this in practice), water resistance, and a better camera, especially on the 7 Plus. Most impressively, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus offer the option of up to 256 GB in memory (you can get 32 GB, 128 GB, or 256 GB). Both models come in rose gold, gold, silver, black, and jet black (a darker and shinier version of black). The 7 comes with a 4.7” display and the 7 Plus with a 5.5” display. The footprints are substantially the same as the 6s and 6s Plus. Both use Apple’s A10 processor. The 7 Plus comes with two rear-facing 12-megapixel cameras: a wide-angle and a telephoto lens with 2 x optical and 10 x digital zoom, as compared to the single 12-megapixel camera with 5 x digital zoom (no optical zoom) on the iPhone 7. Both versions continue to offer Touch ID and biometric authentication through the use of a fingerprint sensor built into the Home button. The iPhone 7 starts at $649 for 32 GB (with data plan), and each memory size increase will add $100 to that price. The iPhone 7 Plus starts at $769 for 32 GB (with data plan) and goes up $100 with each increase in memory capacity. You can get full specifications, images, and pricing information at apple.com.
Galaxy S7 edge. The Galaxy S line of Android smartphones from Samsung (samsung.com) has proven very successful and extremely popular. The newest model, the S7 edge, sports a battery-saving 5.5” quad HD Super AMOLED touch screen with a dual-edge technology that allows the display of information on the sides of the phone. The display is bright, clear, and sharp. It also has a 5-megapixel front-facing wide-angle camera and a 12-megapixel rear-facing camera and optical image stabilization. The camera is billed as water resistant and comes with 32 GB of memory but will accept memory cards of up to 256 GB for additional storage.
The S7 edge has very fast quad-core processors. The larger size allows room for a 3,600 mAh battery. This, in combination with the lower power demands of the Super AMOLED display, allows a longer time between charges.
Prices for the S7 edge start at $749.99 (with data plan).
Galaxy Note7. This year Samsung also released the Galaxy Note7, a device with a lot to offer, but buyers should hold off picking this one up until it has its major issues worked out. As of October 11, Samsung had discontnued sales of the Note7 owing to a battery cell issue that reportedly caused fires in some units. So far only the Note line has had the problem, and we see no reason to suspect that it will or will not impact the Galaxy line. We only note that we have not heard of any incidents involving Galaxy S7 phones, and we continue to get good reports about these phones.
The Samsung Galaxy Note7 has a beautiful 5.7” display encased in wraparound glass. The device is water resistant and offers an expandable memory slot, making it a functional and adaptive device for long-term use. The device comes with 64 GB of storage (an increase over the Galaxy edge’s 32 GB). It incorporates an iris scanner that allows you to unlock the phone with your eyes. The key to the Note7’s allure lies in the S Pen. If you are not a fan of using it, then you will probably be better off with other devices. The S Pen has a fine, precise point and senses 4,096 levels of pressure. Some of the perks of using the S Pen include:
- you get a cleaner screen;
- you reduce repetitive-stress finger strain; and
- you can jot down a note from the lock screen and pin it there until you are ready to unlock and use the phone.
The S7 edge and Note7 come with Google’s Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) operating system. The Android operating system has been gaining a larger and larger share of the smartphone market. We like the Android system. It has a clean user interface, and it runs quickly and crisply. We do not like it as much as Apple’s iOS 10, but that, too, is largely a matter of personal preference; 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.
Although we think the hardware offered by Apple and Samsung present relatively equal choices, we prefer the iOS to the Android operating system and the Apple iTunes App Store hands-down over Google’s Play Store. Our preference focuses on the available apps and their functionality. The media offerings are much more comparable between the iTunes and Google Play stores.
Cell phones for children. Children are beginning to receive cell phones at younger ages. If you have decided it is time for your child to have one, below are a few to consider, depending on your child’s age and how much accessibility you would like him or her to have.
The KISA phone ($139, kisaphone.com.au) is a simple phone, ideal for young children or seniors. The phone allows you to call up to ten preset telephone numbers; no Internet access, texting, or camera is included. It has a large, bright display that makes it suitable for children, vision-impaired individuals, or the elderly. The phone contains an SOS button at the back. It can be customized to include contact information, allergies, and other important details about the user. The phone can receive calls from anyone, and the preset numbers can be changed any time you need. The KISA phone itself costs $139, and phone plans range from $15 per month (30 minutes) to $45 per month (600 minutes). You can also add GPS tracking for $15 per month.
For children old enough to need access to the Internet, apps, and videos, check out the Motorola Moto E 2nd Generation (motorola.com). The Moto E2 is a budget-friendly smartphone ($71.80 unlocked on amazon.com) with great features for teenagers. This Android phone has a decent camera, is able to download apps and play videos, and can access the Internet. With the Kytephone App, parents can easily have full control over the phone without going through a provider. There is some question whether it will work with T-Mobile’s network, so check before you buy it if this is your provider. It appears to be compatible only with AT&T.
It is also worth checking out the Microsoft Lumia 435 ($79.99 unlocked on amazon.com). The Lumia is a Windows phone with a sturdy plastic casing that can withstand falls and scratches, a nice feature for young users. The Lumia has a Kid’s Corner option that offers parental controls. Feature-wise, the Microsoft Lumia 435 boasts a 4” clear LCD screen, a front-facing camera, and a 2-megapixel camera at the back. It comes equipped with 1 GB RAM, 8 GB internal storage, and a microSD slot with support for up to 128 GB. Ultimately, this phone is functional, inexpensive, and easily replaceable, making it ideal for children from ten to 14 years old.
The market for tablets may have reached a point of saturation or, at least, stability. It has not continued to grow, and, in fact, it appears that the rate of growth of tablet sales has slowed significantly. As the price and power of tablets increase, more and more people have chosen to treat the tablet more like a laptop than a smartphone, upgrading every few years instead of annually or even every other year.
Apple has dominated this market since it introduced the iPad. Once again, Samsung provides Apple’s strongest competition in terms of pure tablets. Apple, however, remains the runaway leader. If you want to get or gift a tablet, we recommend you go with Apple; both of us continue to use the iPad. One of us has evolved to use the iPad Pro.
iPads. Last year, Apple released a significantly upgraded iPad mini 4 (the one we think they should have released the previous year to keep it close to parity with the iPad Air 2). The specs on the mini 4 do not quite match up to the Air 2, but they come much closer than those of the mini 3. Apple has neither released nor announced the impending release of the iPad Air 3. Neither has Apple announced that it will discontinue that model. Instead, Apple has remained silent about upgrades to the iPad Air 2.
Apple did, however, further blur the line between tablet and computer, releasing the much-anticipated iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is a tablet that thinks it is a computer, and we see it in direct competition to the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. The iPad Pro has enough similarity to Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 to legitimately enable comparisons and to justify the argument that it represents Apple’s answer to the Surface Pro 4. But it is clearly a different animal. The introduction of the iPad Pro in San Francisco emphasized its graphic capabilities and featured software that built on the device’s graphics capabilities. In addition to its graphic functionality, it performs exceptionally well for gaming and as a platform for watching movies. If you know a graphic artist (or a budding one), this might just be the ideal gift (albeit an expensive one).
After releasing the iPad Pro in a 12.9” display version, Apple later released a 9.7” display (which we like much better as a tablet). At the same time, it increased the memory options for the iPad Pro up to 256 GB. The Pro comes in gold, silver, space gray, and rose gold with memory options of 32 GB, 128 GB, and 256 GB (the 12.9” WiFi + cellular version is not available at 32 GB). Prices start at $599 for the WiFi-only 9.7” tablet and $799 for the WiFi-only 12.9” tablet, both at 32 GB, and prices increase $100 for each jump in memory size. Each WiFi + cellular model costs $130 more than the WiFi-only model of the same memory size. As memory remains non-upgradable, we continue to recommend that you get the largest memory you can justify. We do not recommend that you get less than 128 GB of memory for your primary iPad.
Apple sells a combination keyboard-cover for the iPad Pro and also sells a stylus that it calls the Pencil. The stylus works exceptionally well, particularly for graphics functions. The pressure sensitivity of the interaction between the pencil and the tablet gives you a great deal of flexibility. The keyboard physically and electronically links to the tablet, drawing power from the tablet. It works adequately, but we are not as enamored with the keyboard as we would like to be. There are other (third-party) keyboards that we like better and have not hesitated to use them with the iPad Pro. The iPad Pro runs on iOS 9 or 10 and does not use the Mac OS. It can use the tablet versions of programs such as Microsoft Office but cannot run software built for laptops, only software built for iOS devices. So while the iPad Pro may be a tablet that thinks of itself as a laptop, it does not have the same functionality as a laptop owing to its inability to run software designed for the Mac OS. Fortunately, the app collection for the iPad continues to grow and now includes tablet versions of most of the software you will likely want to run.
The 12.9” version of the iPad Pro does some things very well and, in fact, better than the 9.7”. Examples of where the larger version excels include watching videos, playing games, and functions where more display real estate helps. That would seem to cover the waterfront, except for one thing: Its extra size makes it less portable, heavier, and more cumbersome to hold—a particularly significant issue if you plan to use it for presentations without a podium or table in front of you. If you like to stand in front of a jury with nothing between you and the jury other than the jury rail, this poses a problem. The 9.7” display, while offering considerably less display real estate, travels better because it weighs less and has a more diminutive size. You can easily hand-hold it standing in front of a jury or in other presentation modes. Moreover, most of you will find it large enough to make it satisfactory for playing games or watching movies.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (redux). We have historically not paid much attention to the Microsoft Surface. Last year, however, Microsoft released the Surface Pro 3, a hybrid between a laptop and a tablet. It functions as a true computer, allowing you to run virtually any Windows 8 or 10 compatible software, along with some apps built specifically for the device. Microsoft built it like a tablet, without a physical keyboard, but Microsoft also designed a cover with a built-in keyboard that protects the display when closed and provides a stand when opened, so that the display and keyboard have standard laptop-style configuration. It also has a stylus/pen.
This year’s Surface Pro 4 upgrades the entire system, including its keyboard. The Surface Pro 3 was extremely good. The newer version is excellent. It provides a true laptop experience in its laptop mode and functions quite well as a tablet. The Surface Pro 4 comes in one physical size only (the 12.3” display), and we think it is a bit large for a tablet (it is approximately the same size as the larger iPad Pro). That said, it works as a full-function laptop, and when you remove the keyboard cover, as a largish tablet. Windows 10 even has a tablet mode in which it presents a simplified interface, more conducive to use without the keyboard.
Accessories for Mobile Devices
Accessories to purchase as gifts include a variety of protective cases, carrying cases, earphones, external speakers, and other miscellaneous devices.
Protective cases. Consider a protective carrying case or envelope as a first-choice accessory for most mobile equipment. Whatever mobile devices you carry around, you will want to provide protection to keep them safe from damage. There are a lot of cases out there that can do the job for you, but not all cases are created equal. There are rugged cases, soft folios, keyboard cases, and more options to consider and choose from.
Many protective cases are device specific, although cases designed for a particular model will often fit similarly sized devices. You can find a good selection of cases at service providers stores, electronics stores such as Best Buy and Fry’s, and online (Amazon has an amazing collection of cases for electronics). The Apple Stores offer a pretty fair selection of cases for Apple devices (some of which will also work with non-Apple products).
You can find very functional cases for reasonable prices or pay premium prices for cases with designer names and/or logos. We prefer function to form but do not balk at paying a reasonable amount for a particularly good case. Sometimes designer names show up on some very good products. We are particularly fond of some of the leather products offered by Col. Littleton (colonellittleton.com), Levenger (levenger.com), and occasionally by Coach (coach.com).
Col. Littleton makes our favorite leather envelope, the No. 5 Pocket for iPad and Tablets ($165). 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 cases are well made and hold up well to use.
Many of our favorite cases come from the Tumi store (tumi.com) in its iconic arched designs, made from ballistic nylon that seems to wear as well or better than anything. We have seen some very nice Tumi cases for smartphones that compare favorably with most other manufacturers but have nothing much to distinguish them other than the Tumi name. On the other hand, we really like the Tumi Alpha covers for tablets and laptops that provide high degrees of protection and functionality as well as a style we find appealing.
If you simply want function and not appearance or a name, you can get completely satisfactory (and much less expensive) cases from manufacturers such as Tucano (tucanousa.com), Targus (targus.com/us), and Swiss Army (Victorinox; victorinox.com), among others.
The number of manufacturers and models has grown so immense and changes so rapidly that, rather than trying to list them all individually, we will give you some tips to help you pick out a good case. Our best recommendation is that you take a few minutes and wander through an Apple Store or a Best Buy or through the pages on your browser at Amazon’s URL and pick out cases that you like. When it comes to cases, beauty rests in the beholder’s eye.
Look for a case that has a slightly raised ridge on the side of the display. This will offer some protection to the display if you should drop it. We also recommend that you protect tablet and phone displays with tempered glass screens. While it seems counter-intuitive to put a less-strong protective screen over a display than the material of the display itself, it actually does help protect the display against damage. We like cases that provide a bit of protection on the edges to avoid dings and dents to your devices when you drop them. In our experience a dropped device seems to hit on its edge more than anything else, so that protection should prove useful. In fact, a bumper with a slightly raised edge on the back and front may prove sufficient to protect your device. You can find cases made of carbon fiber, various types of plastic, leather, metal, canvas, and other materials. We like carbon fiber a lot as a material owing to its appearance, strength, and light weight. We also like leather cases.
You can find cases that augment battery life of cell phones by providing a secondary external battery to boost the charge on the cell phone. Some of these are very well thought of and quite well made. We do not recommend them over other options as the phones have gotten so large that the battery devices tend to make them too large and bulky. Also, as we carry multiple devices on a regular basis, we think that a separate battery booster that you can use with multiple devices makes a better investment in terms of cost and weight. (For more, see the discussion of battery boosters below.)
We particularly like folio designs in cases for tablets and wallets large enough to hold a cell phone in a protective case. If you are looking for a good case of that nature for a cell phone, check out the wallets at Tumi. They are available in canvas and leather and are large enough to accommodate an iPhone 6/6s/7 Plus. They will fit into the inside breast pocket of a coat or suit jacket or a coat pocket or purse.
If you use a Surface Pro, check out Kensington’s line of Black Belt cases. They are highly protective cases for the Surface Pro at a reasonable price ($39.99 to $69.99, kensington.com), but we prefer Tumi’s Alpha 2 Medium Laptop Cover.
Get it all in the bag. Whether you have a laptop, tablet, iPad, or any number of mobile tools, you will want to give some thought to how you carry them around. Just as new technology develops, so do new bags and backpacks, with features you may love or loathe. On any given day, lawyers are rushing from home to work, remote office locations, client meetings, networking events, and yoga class. Many female attorneys end up carrying multiple bags to fit the many facets of their everyday lives. They usually end up with a nice work bag on one arm and a less formal carryall to tote around the miscellaneous stuff they need throughout the day. Finding a bag that can accommodate workout gear, tech devices, and a packed lunch can be daunting, but several start-ups have taken notice and risen to the challenge. If you are in the market for a new bag, you may want to check out some of these stylish, tech-friendly options.
For starters, look at what Knomo, a London-based brand, has to offer. The company has thought carefully about the technology that women tend to carry to work and created special padded compartments for devices and pockets for cords. The Knomo Curzon Leather Shoulder Tote ($350, knomobags.com) is worth a second look (and definitely is on one author’s Christmas wish list). The stylish leather tote has two front zipper pockets that secure items while still offering easy access. There is a large pocket with magnetic closure on the backside. The interior includes a padded laptop section that can fit up to a 15” laptop, a slip pocket that will hold up to a 10” tablet, and a large zip pocket to secure additional items. The bag itself is constructed from a smooth, full-grain leather, available in navy or black. There is enough space inside for the Curzon to function as an overnight bag (plenty of room for some gym clothes).
Mezzi is a brand out of Canada that makes beautiful bags for the tech-savvy fashionista. Their bags offer useful tools such as built-in chargers and lights that can notify you that your phone is ringing, without being too flashy. The bags themselves are subtle, with clean lines, and are made from high-quality material. Check out the Mezzi Nerina bag ($595, mezzi.com), made from genuine leather and equipped with a built-in phone charger, TrackR integration, and specialty device pockets. The bag can charge any phone up to three times before the bag itself will need a recharge. The TrackR integration is a tiny GPS locator in your bag so you never have to worry about misplacing it. The bag holds a 15” laptop, file folders, shoes, clothing, and pretty much most of your day-to-day bag basics.
The Waterfield Cozmo 2.0 laptop bag is a more classic, gender-neutral option ($369 for the 13” laptop size, $389 for the 15” laptop size, sfbags.com). The Cozmo 2.0 offers a clean, structured shape made of distressed leather (in brown, black, and limited-edition blue). It comes with a padded strap allowing it to be worn like a messenger bag, but it looks equally nice being carried by the top handles like a satchel. There is an exterior slot that allows you to carry it over luggage and a key tether. The yellow interior makes it easier to spot the items inside that you are looking for.
Korchmar offers a great lineup of briefcases made from high-quality material. If you are in the market for a briefcase, check out the Diplomat ($490, korchmar.com). This briefcase is made of full-grain American leather, with an adjustable shoulder strap and ergonomic pad, steel-reinforced handle mount, and ultra-soft padded leather handle. It comes with ample pockets in the front organizer panel and can fit up to a 17” laptop in its interior sleeve. Another great option to check out is the Churchill ($520). This briefcase also holds up to a 17” laptop, with an expandable interior pocket that can accommodate a cell phone, tablet, and laptop power chargers. There is a slim exterior pocket to hold literature or files.
Tumi also provides a variety of well-designed and organized briefcases, backpacks, slings, and wheeled computer cases in sizes to suit almost every conceivable need. You can sometimes save a few dollars by planning ahead and buying during one of their infrequent sales. You can also often get discontinued lines (still quite good) at the retail stores and at outlets. Tumi does build a lesser line of pieces that it pushes out of its outlet stores, so be careful about what you get. The pieces built for the outlet generally cost considerably less than the retail pieces but still carry the cache of the Tumi name, if that is what you seek. This is one of the situations where you get what you pay for. The material used in many of these outlet pieces does not appear to have the same quality as that used in the retail stores: The nylon often appears stiffer and more course in the body of the bag as well as in the straps. (One simple way we have found to distinguish the lesser-quality outlet fare is the absence of the little leather initial patch, although not all items in the retail line include this touch.) That said, the outlet bags offer good quality and appear to wear quite well, even if they don’t look quite as nice or have all the same features as the retail products.
In the days of yesteryear, Coach turned out some of the most incredibly durable leather products. Their current products are well made, but not as durable as the older cases. Like Tumi, Coach builds a number of products for the outlets, and they are not as nice as what they sell in the retail stores. They also use the outlets to dispose of excess inventory and discontinued items at good discounts. Coach outlets seem to have more sales and deeper discounts than Tumi’s, so you can often find a good value there.
A battery booster makes a POWERful gift. Most smaller communications devices come with batteries that have a hard time lasting the day. We have read numerous articles about how to prolong battery power in devices and have done enough experimenting that we could write several ourselves. Unfortunately, almost all the power-saving suggestions present tradeoffs for loss of functionality. The more power you save, the more features you have to give up. We don’t like that approach. In truth, most heavy users will need to recharge their devices during the day. We have found it helpful to carry an external power source for convenience and insurance.
If you want the benefit of an extra battery but you do not want the burden of carrying around an additional device, consider getting a battery-extending protective phone case. Check out the mophie juice pack lineup. mophie offers a variety of battery-charging cases for iPhone, Samsung, HTC, and LG phones. The best place to start looking is with the standard mophie juice pack ($99.95, mophie.com), which is available for Apple iPhones, Samsung Galaxy (S7, S6, S6 Edge, S5, S III, and Note5), HTC One M7, and the LG G4. The juice pack carries 2,950 mAh battery capacity, allowing it to extend the life of your phone battery by more than 60 percent. The model for the Galaxy S7 weighs 3.51 ounces and measures 3.02” x 6.09” x 0.69”. The case is designed with a soft-touch plastic that makes it easy to hold. Inside are rubberized support pads to protect your phone from the everyday wear and tear it encounters. With priority charge and sync, your phone gets recharged first when connected to a power source, and then the juice pack case recharges itself.
The mophie juice pack wireless and charging base ($99.95) will provide full case protection for the iPhone 6/6s and 6/6s Plus, extends battery life by more than 50 percent (2,420 mAh), and gives you the option to recharge both your phone and the case itself with virtually any wireless charging technology. The case itself is similar to other mophie juice pack models; the exterior is made with a soft-touch plastic that makes it easy to grip. Measuring 6.91” x 3.07” x 0.60” for the 6/6s Plus model, the juice pack wireless is bigger than the standard mophie juice pack. The bigger size also leads to a heavier weight: 4.2 ounces.
The mophie space pack lets you add 100 percent extra battery life (3,300 mAh) along with up to 64 GB of extra storage space to your phone. The space pack is available for the iPhone (SE/5/5s, 6/6s, 6/6s Plus). You can manage files you store in mophie’s extra storage through the mophie space app. The app will automatically organize your files into five main categories: Photos, Videos, Music, Documents, and Other Files. Within the app you can move, share, and rename files and create new folders to organize any way you see fit. You can share files with others via AirPlay, AirDrop, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, e-mail, and messages. You can transfer files between the space pack and your phone via a micro-USB cable, similarly to how you would use a USB thumb drive. You can connect the space pack to a computer via the micro-USB cable in order to access files on it. However, we recommend you add a layer of security by enabling the passcode in the space app. Enabling the passcode will require that your iPhone be connected to the space pack and the app running in order to access the files. The space pack is available in 16 GB, 32 GB, and 64 GB models; prices range from $149.95 to $249.95, depending on the phone model and the storage capacity. At 2.93” x 6.13” x 0.66” (for the 6/6s model), the space pack is slightly bulkier than the juice pack, but the difference is hardly noticeable.
Although we used to prefer cases with built-in batteries, such cases add both size and weight to the phone, and they have the disadvantage of device specificity. We now prefer external devices that have the ability to charge a variety of devices. We have not seen significant performance differences among the various models we have used, other than as a result of the size of the power reserve. We have seen differences in style, size, and functionality, however, even among devices with the same-sized power reserve. You can get some with built-in cable connections for devices and others that require you to use a separate cable. You can find chargers smaller than a roll of pennies and some as large as an iPad mini, but significantly thicker and heavier. You can get some that have a single USB port and some that have multiple USB ports. If you use an iPad, you will want the charger to have at least one port that puts out 2.1 amps. Many of the chargers have multiple ports with different outputs (usually around 0.5–1.0 amps or 2.0–2.4 amps), but some have “smart ports” that figure out what the attached device takes and put out that much through the connecting port.
We don’t ever leave home without one or more battery boosters. When we travel, we usually take at least two, one small enough to fit in a pocket and one that lives in the briefcase or backpack we carry, to ensure that we have plenty of power. You can find battery boosters almost everywhere these days: Best Buy, Fry’s, the Apple Store, Microsoft stores, Amazon, even Rite Aid and Walgreens. Well-known names include mophie, Jackery (jackery.com), Monster (monsterproducts.com), Samsung, and MyCharge (mycharge.com).
The power supplies from Anker (anker.com) represent some of the best values we have found. Two of our favorite larger capacity devices from Anker—the PowerCore Edge 20000 ($42.99) and the PowerCore+ 20100 ($59.99)—offer very compact and relatively lightweight options to keep your tablet, phone, and e-reader running all day long and then some. As evidenced by their battery capacity (20,000 mAh and 20,100 mAh, respectively), these power supplies pack a remarkable amount of charge in a tiny package. When considering external batteries, keep in mind that the higher capacity, the more charge you get. The PowerCore+ 20100 can fully charge one MacBook, one iPhone, and one iPad Air 2 on a single charge. If you are only using it to charge your phone, it can charge a phone seven times without needing a recharge. When it is time, the PowerCore+ takes about eight hours to get fully recharged.
Slightly smaller in capacity (and less expensive) is Polanfo’s 12,000 mAh Portable External Power Bank ($19.99, available from Amazon), which will charge your phone six times before needing a recharge. It comes in colors that may match your devices (depending on what device you have) and will easily fit in a jacket pocket or purse. These devices make reasonably priced gifts that almost anyone will find useful.
Earphones and headsets. We recommend upgrading from the standard-issue earphones to higher-quality earphones or headsets to get more enjoyment from most portable devices. Although some of the headsets only work to play music, many of them also handle telephone functions. You can get headsets and earbuds in wired and wireless versions. Despite continuing improvements on the Bluetooth headsets, we think you still generally get better sound quality with the wired versions for both music and telephone conversations. Wireless versions offer more convenience as they have no wires to get tangled or to restrict your movement. We use them regularly and enjoy them very much. If you get an iPhone 7/7s, you will discover that Apple no longer includes an audio port for standard connectivity of wired devices. The connection for earphones now goes through the Lightning port (Apple does include an adapter). The use of the Lightning port for a headphone prevents using it for recharging concurrently. Apple is clearly pushing toward the adoption of wireless connectivity. (In fact, Apple has announced that it will release its own wireless AirPods for $159, which should be in the Apple Store by the time you read this guide.) We have not had the opportunity to test the AirPods but have some concern about the design as they are totally disconnected from each other physically, so it might be relatively easy to lose one if it falls out of your ear. We have not had the opportunity to play with them to find out how likely it is that they will fall out of your ear.
Another variable you may want to consider is whether to get active or passive noise reduction (or none at all). Headsets with active noise cancellation use white noise to counter outside noise, effectively canceling the sound created by the outside noise. Passive devices form a virtually soundproof seal to the ear, keeping the noise out. In our opinion, in-ear devices provide the best passive noise reduction as they form a better seal against outside noise. Standard headphones and earphones do not offer 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.
Bose has had a commanding position respecting noise cancellation devices for some time. Check out the Bose QuietComfort 35 (QC35) acoustic noise canceling headphones ($349.95, bose.com). The headphones are a wireless/wired combo package you can use either way. They get about 20 hours use per charge wirelessly and almost twice that if you use the wired setup. They come in black or silver and are very light and comfortable to wear. The QC35 headphones can maintain a connection to two devices at the same time—for example, an iPad and a smartphone. That means that if you get a phone call while you’re watching video on the iPad, the headphones can automatically pause the video to let you answer a call from the connected smartphone. When you end the call, the headphones switch back to the video on the iPad. Bose also has an app for iOS and Android devices that lets you use your device to control the sound. These have become our favorite headphones.
You also might want to check out the QuietControl 30 (QC30) wireless earbuds. These also have active noise cancellation and will replace the QC20 series. They have not come out yet, so we have not had the opportunity to try them. Bose says they will come out before this magazine is published, however, so you should have the ability to check them out when you read this guide. The projected price is $300. Everything we have seen about this headset suggests premium quality typical of Bose.
Bose also has a line of less-expensive earbuds and headsets that do not have noise cancellation. Again, they generally offer the high-quality sound typical of Bose products.
If you are looking for great wireless sound without noise cancellation, you can try the Bose SoundLink on-ear headset ($219.95) or SoundLink around-ear headset ($279.95). You can also look at the Beats by Dr. Dre Powerbeats 2 earbuds ($199.95, beatsbydre.com). All use Bluetooth technology and produce excellent sound. We like the Bose headsets better for general listening (there is not much difference in sound between the on-ear and over-ear models, but some will find one more comfortable than the other). Now owned by Apple, Beats still produces a harder and more driving bass, and its in-ear styling makes it better for a more active lifestyle.
Portable speaker systems. Portable speakers come in handy in a lot of situations and make great gifts. They can vary a great deal in terms of size and shape. When it comes to choosing the right speaker, there are a few factors to consider, but mostly it comes down to personal preferences. Do you prefer to connect via a wire, AirPlay, Bluetooth, or other proprietary means? AirPlay is an Apple-specific wireless audio feature that lets your iPod, iPhone, iPad, or Mac stream your iTunes libraries. Bluetooth has a longer history for wireless streaming systems, but it generally lacks some of the many features of AirPlay. It does, however, support more devices than AirPlay. AirPlay can simultaneously stream music to multiple speakers, while Bluetooth technology requires pairing (a process in which two Bluetooth devices establish and authenticate a connection for wireless communication); the established connection exists only with one other device, meaning you cannot stream to multiple speakers via Bluetooth. Besides Bluetooth and AirPlay, some proprietary wireless connections are available as options.
In terms of pure sound quality, one of our newest speaker discoveries stands out. The Beoplay A1 from Bang & Olufsen ($249, beoplay.com) provides a full, rich sound in a very portable package. It offers 360-degree sound production with surprisingly strong bass; easily fits into a pocket, bag, or briefcase; weighs only 1.3 pounds; and does double-duty as a very functional and high-quality speakerphone. It works with a special app available for iOS and Android devices. Battery life approaches 24 hours per charge, depending on volume. This is our new favorite portable Bluetooth speaker.
The Bose SoundLink III Bluetooth speaker ($299.95), an ever-popular choice among audiophiles, delivers great sound and a long battery life (14 hours) in its portable speaker package. The SoundLink III measures about 5” high, 10” wide, and 2” deep, and weighs 3 pounds. It pairs easily with any Bluetooth-enabled device. The speaker itself has a handful of onboard buttons for controlling volume, muting the sound, and switching to the auxiliary input (no cable included but you can connect non-Bluetooth devices to the speaker this way). The speaker comes with four neodymium transducers and dual-opposing passive radiators that combine with a new digital signal processing algorithm and improved electronics to play louder than previous SoundLink generations, creating a better listening experience. It has great sound and works well in a situation where you want a portable, but not necessarily diminutive, mobile speaker. Think your office or patio or at a picnic.
One of our favorites, Bose’s SoundLink Mini II ($199.95), is the smaller sibling of the SoundLink III. Although the SoundLink III is relatively small and portable, it seems large in comparison to the 1.5 pound, 7.1” x 2” x 2.3” Mini II. We won’t tell you that the Mini II sounds as good as the SoundLink III, but it sounds extremely good and travels better. Its built-in rechargeable battery will play up to seven hours (depending on volume). The Mini II now comes in three colors (black/copper, carbon, and pearl), and for $24.95 you can get a soft plastic cover to protect the Mini II and give it one of five additional color accents. The main distinction between the Mini II and the previous generation is the addition of the ability to function as a speakerphone. This has been our go-to speaker for travel and presentations for some years (the original version of the Mini first had that role). It remains one of our favorites, and the new version works every bit as well as its predecessor for music.
Braven also offers a fairly good-sized collection of speakers and accessories. Pricing is reasonable and, as we write this review, their website (braven.com) reflects an ongoing sale of many of their speakers and accessories, further improving the value. We have not had the opportunity to check out their premium and larger speakers, but we have looked at several of the smaller, portable speakers and found them to be very capable. The BRV-1, Braven 705, and Braven 805 are all currently on sale and, particularly at the sale prices (ranging from $79.99 to $179.99), excellent values, in our opinion. The speakers we checked out all provided good, clear sound reproduction at respectable volumes for their size. For those who like to camp or are otherwise harder on speakers owing to lifestyle choices, Braven makes a ruggedized outdoor series that provides a stronger and more protective case. The BRV-1 is part of the outdoor collection.
How about a Digital Assistant?
If you are in the market for a portable speaker, why not consider one that also functions as a digital assistant for your office or household? More and more, people are calling out to Siri, Cortana, or Alexa for help. By now you are probably asking yourself, “What would I do with a digital assistant, and where can I get one?” This holiday season, if you are looking to pick up a digital assistant for your household or for a loved one, we recommend you check out Amazon’s Alexa devices.
Some digital assistants come with a smartphone purchase (such as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Google Now). Amazon’s Alexa, on the other hand, comes as part of its line of multi-talented smart speakers: the Amazon Echo ($179.99, amazon.com), Amazon Tap ($129.99), and Echo Dot ($49.99). Alexa has also been added to the Amazon Fire TV ($99.99 for the box version or $39.99 for the stick version). These devices boast an impressive microphone that can pick up commands in a normal tone of voice from across the room, even if music is playing. You can ask Alexa questions (it performs searches using the Bing search engine), have it read PDFs or books from Audible, play music, stream podcasts, get sports scores, provide weather forecasts, warn you of traffic conditions, make to-do lists, set timers, control compatible smart home devices, and even tell jokes. Some of the technology we recommend could be useful in multiple settings, and this is one of them. Each Alexa device is a jack-of-all-trades, sort of like a technological Swiss Army knife. Alexa might not do quite as much as Siri, Google Now, or Cortana, but what it does do, it does very well, making any of the devices from this lineup a great gift this holiday season. Below is a review of the devices with some guidance for deciding which one might be right for you or your loved one.
The Amazon Echo is a cylindrical, Internet-connected Bluetooth speaker that doubles as a personal, cloud-based assistant. The Amazon Echo first emerged in 2015. It requires a wall outlet for power, so it is not the most portable speaker in the lineup. The speaker, which consists of a 2.5” woofer and a 2” tweeter, provides excellent 360-degree sound throughout a room. If you store your music collection in Amazon’s cloud, you will really enjoy streaming via the Echo; it links to Amazon Prime Music, which means it will play any music available in your personal Amazon music library or the free music that is available for Prime members.
The digital assistant responds to the wake word “Alexa” and is capable of voice interaction in real time. The Echo requires a WiFi connection in order to respond to voice commands and fetch content for you, and it must remain plugged in for power. Users in the United States will find that Alexa has an American accent, while U.K. users will hear a British accent.
The Amazon Tap, released in March 2016, is a cylinder-shaped speaker that is more portable than the Echo, standing at about 6” tall. It is battery powered and can run for up to nine hours of continuous playback on a single charge; it must be set into the included cradle in order to recharge. It is essentially a smaller, more portable, more affordable version of the Echo. Comparing the Tap and the Echo as speakers, we found that the larger Echo offers better, fuller, and richer (also louder) sound reproduction. The Amazon Tap comes with full access to Alexa, but, unlike the Echo, the Tap is not always on. You cannot simply say “Alexa” to wake it up; instead, you need to press the microphone button on the front. This conserves the battery power. Beyond these differences, the Tap can do all the same tricks as the Echo, so long as you are connected to WiFi.
The Echo Dot is a miniature version of the Echo, a 1.3” tall cylinder with one tiny speaker. It’s basically just the top section of the Amazon Echo—at a fraction of the price, but equally as smart. It supports always-on Alexa, connects to the cloud to stream music, controls your smart home devices, and does all the same stuff as the Echo. The main difference between Dot and Echo is that the full-size speaker is gone. Sound quality reflects a substantial drop-off from the Tap and more from the Echo, but we would expect that owing to its comparatively smaller size. It also provides a lesser volume, and we heard a bit of distortion at the extreme end of the volume. Still, at lower volumes it is acceptable as a speaker, particularly for travel purposes. (It is even smaller and more portable than the Tap.) At home, you can hook up the Echo Dot to your own audio setup (via output jack or Bluetooth), so you can use Alexa with your existing speakers.
The Echo Dot has recently been redesigned, and a second-generation version should be available by the time you read this gift guide. We have not had the opportunity to check out the new Dot, but it looks like it will retain the advantages of the original’s diminutive size and attendant portability. The new Echo Dot also will be available for purchase in a six-pack (pay for five and get one free) and a 12-pack (pay for ten and get two free). For those opting for multiple Echo Dots (or multiple Amazon Echoes) around their home, Amazon has introduced a feature called Echo Spatial Perception by which only the closest Echo or Echo Dot will respond to your request. The Echo Dot was designed to be small enough and affordable enough for you to pick up a few to sprinkle throughout your home, giving you control of your smart devices and access to the Echo functions from any room you are in.
Once you decide which device is right for you, how will you use it? The list of what these digital assistants can do keeps getting longer. Amazon has started adding “skills” to Alexa—basically integrating it with third-party services to increase its functionality. For instance, now you can tell Alexa to order you a pizza from Domino’s, ask Uber to request a ride, or ask 1-800-Flowers to send flowers to your Aunt Becky. It is easy to set up Alexa through the Alexa App that you can download onto Fire OS, Android, iOS, and desktop browsers. The Alexa App connects you to services you already use, such as Spotify, Pandora, and Google Calendar. Through the app, you can set up smart home devices such Philips Hue, TP-Link, ecobee, WeMo, SmartThings, Nest, Lutron, and more. You can review which books are available to read from your Kindle and Audible libraries, view shopping and to-do lists while on the go, control your timers, set custom tones for your alarms, and much more.
For many people the electronic file has replaced the paper book. The electronic file offers many advantages over the printed book. It weighs less. It allows readers to change font types for viewing and even make the print size larger or smaller. Having your material in electronic form provides considerable flexibility in that it allows you to view the file on any number of devices ranging from desktop computers to laptop computers to tablets to smartphones to dedicated electronic book readers.
Several manufacturers have produced dedicated electronic book readers. The best known of these devices are Barnes & Noble’s NOOK and Amazon’s Kindle. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have bought into the multi-function concept; in addition to their black-and-white E Ink e-readers, they offer color e-readers that function as tablets, providing Internet access and e-mail capabilities and allowing you to install apps to increase functionality.
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others have e-reader apps available for both iOS and Android devices. Apple also has its own iBooks App available for iOS devices only. Although the Android and iOS apps do excellent Kindle and NOOK emulations, there are several reasons why some of the dedicated electronic reading devices continue to have a place. First, the e-readers/tablets generally cost less than the top-of-the-line tablets, making them a reasonable choice if you want a less expensive gift. Second, some of the subscription materials available on the e-readers do not work with emulation apps. Third, although tablets (and the tablet-like color e-readers) work very well indoors, none 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 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 generally do not provide Internet or e-mail access. They are pure electronic books. Another factor to consider in choosing between the color and E Ink technologies is the form factor. The E Ink devices we will discuss are smaller and lighter than their color relatives, allowing them to fit very easily in many coat pockets as well as in a variety of purses, messenger bags, and briefcases.
We recommend that you stick with Kindle or NOOK as a dedicated electronic book reader for personal use or as a gift. The NOOK line has proven very good, but we have a strong preference for the Kindle. You can’t go wrong with either, but we think you will be happier with Amazon’s version, particularly with respect to the E Ink devices. Most people we have talked to about e-readers also expressed a preference for the Kindle. When it comes to the color e-reader/tablets, we prefer the devices in the Samsung Galaxy Tab NOOK lineup, which are really just special versions of the Galaxy offered by Barnes & Noble in conjunction with Samsung. That said, for a color reader, we would be more inclined to get an iPad and an e-reader app than any of the color tablet offerings from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.
Kindle. Amazon offers several Kindle models. The least expensive Kindle costs only $79.99. It is a 6” WiFi-only basic electronic reader. It comes with what Amazon calls “special offers” (read: They push ads onto your device). If you do not want the special offers, you can pay a $20 premium and get the device without the ads. 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,” measures 6.3” x 4.5” x 0.36” and weighs in at a shade less than 6 ounces. It represents a solid basic e-reader, but it is not our favorite Kindle device.
Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite has proven itself a popular and reliable choice. The WiFi-only version costs $119.99 with special offers; the WiFi plus 3G version costs $189.99 with special offers (each version costs $20 more without special offers). It has a 6” display, measures 6.7” x 4.6” x 0.36”, and weighs 7.2 ounces (WiFi-only) or 7.6 ounces (WiFi plus 3G).
The former top of Kindle’s E Ink e-reader line, the Voyage comes in WiFi-only ($199.99) or WiFi plus 3G ($269.99) versions (both with special offers). It measures 6.4” x 4.5” x 0.3” and weighs in at 6.3 ounces (WiFi-only) or 6.6 ounces (WiFi plus 3G). We like the resolution on the Voyage and consider it an excellent e-reader. When it first came out, we thought it was the best available.
Amazon now offers what has become our favorite E Ink reader, the Oasis. The Oasis has a smaller footprint (5.6” x 4.8” x 0.13-0.33”), weighs less (4.6 ounces for WiFi-only, 4.7 ounces for WiFi plus 3G), and, in our opinion, works better than any other E Ink device in Amazon’s line—and we have not found another we like better in the lines of any competitors. The Oasis also sports a 6” screen. Amazon reduced the battery in the device itself to make it lighter and allow it to have a slimmer profile. It is sold with a battery case that protects the display and provides additional power. Amazon includes it in the package, and you do not have to buy it as a separate accessory (Amazon does not currently sell the Oasis without the battery cover). Although we appreciate the potential extra flexibility this approach offers, in truth, we leave the cover connected pretty much all the time. The Oasis starts at $289.99 with special offers for the WiFi-only version. The WiFi plus 3G version costs $359.99 with special offers. Without special orders, the cost increases by $20.
Amazon calls its color e-readers Fire Tablets. Amazon treats the Fire as a different type of device than the E Ink readers. The Fire models, all WiFi-only, work both as readers and as tablets, allowing Internet browsing, e-mail capabilities, and the use of a relatively limited selection of apps. The least of the Fire models, the Fire has a 7” display and costs $49 (8 GB of RAM) or $69.99 (16 GB). The Fire HD models come with 8” displays ($89.99 for 16 GB, $119.99 for 32 GB) or 10” displays ($229.99 for 16 GB, $259.99 for 32 GB, $289.99 for 64 GB). All prices above include special offers; Fire tablets without special offers cost $15 more.
Amazon provides a detailed comparison of options, features, and pricing as well as technical specifications for all Kindle models on its website. In addition to functioning as readers, the Fire devices also handle audiobooks and movies very nicely. To make the Kindle devices even more appealing, Amazon has offered the ability to borrow media at no additional charge if you have Amazon Prime, and last year it introduced a program called Kindle Unlimited, allowing you to get access to a large amount of media on a monthly subscription fee basis.
NOOK. Barnes & Noble calls its e-reader the NOOK. All NOOKs are WiFi-only. Barnes & Noble has trimmed its NOOK line considerably. They call their E Ink version the NOOK GlowLight Plus ($129.99, nook.barnesandnoble.com). It has lighting built in, so you get the advantage of E Ink technology for daylight reading without the drop-off in usability in a darker environment. The NOOK GlowLight Plus has a 6” display (6.4” x 4.7” x 0.34”), weighs 6.9 ounces, and will hold approximately 2,000 books.
A few years ago Barnes & Noble dropped its own label color tablet devices and partnered with Samsung to offer a color tablet with built-in NOOK software. Currently they have three versions: the Samsung Galaxy Tab A NOOK ($149.99, 7” display, 8 GB RAM built in, 9.92 ounces, 7.35” x 4.27” x 0.34”); Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 NOOK ($399.99, 8” display, 32 GB RAM built in, 9.4 ounces, 7.8” x 5.3” x 0.22”); and the Samsung Galaxy Tab E NOOK ($229.99, 9.6” display, 16 GB RAM built in, 19.3 ounces, 9.52” x 5.89” x 0.38”). The devices offer all the features you would expect from a Samsung tablet, including the ability to stream and play movies and music, handle e-mail, and do voice/video conferencing. It is a true tablet, albeit with limited memory, which restricts functionality and utility. All three versions accept microSD cards for additional memory.
Memory Storage Devices
We all need to store data. A 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. Our newest favorite comes from Samsung: the T3 Portable SSD. A bit pricier than some of the others, it is also smaller, lighter, faster, and less susceptible to damage. The reduced size and weight and increased price results from the fact that the T3 uses flash memory rather than a traditional hard disk. We recently saw the 500 GB version at Amazon for $167.99.
When it comes to the traditional hard drives, you can still get a pretty portable device, albeit a bit larger and heavier than the T3 (but at a substantially lower price). We particularly like Seagate (seagate.com) and Western Digital (wdc.com) hard disk drives as they offer good quality at very reasonable prices, and we have had very good luck with them. We have used them for backups in and out of the office for some time. Both make desktop as well as portable drives, offered in various configurations ranging from small to smaller and thin to thinner. Seagate and Western Digital drives are available 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. For reasons best known to themselves, drive manufacturers frequently charge a premium price for hardware formatted for the Mac but otherwise identical to that formatted for Windows. You can save several dollars by getting the Windows-formatted version and reformatting it yourself for the Mac. Both companies make drives that work with USB 3.0 and are backward-compatible to USB 2.0. We strongly prefer the 3.0 devices owing to the more rapid transfer speeds. Do note, however, that a 3.0 drive plugged into a 2.0 port runs at 2.0 speeds. You need both a 3.0 drive and a 3.0 computer port if you want the faster speeds.
Health-Related Devices and Wearable Technology
More and more of us have grown increasingly health conscious. Where consumers have an interest, manufacturers flock to make products. As a result, we have seen a large growth in what we will refer to as “health-tech” devices. Health-tech devices represent technology, often wearable, that assists in developing and maintaining healthful behavior patterns or lifestyles or in treating existing health conditions. We expect to see lots of growth in this area as more and more people become health conscious and as more and more Baby Boomers age and realize that they need to do more to take care of themselves.
When we think of health-related devices, likely the first thing that comes to mind is the smart watch. When it comes to fitness-tracking smart watches, more and more manufacturers are incorporating GPS features into their devices to help you keep more accurate track of your progress and activities. GPS watches enable users to achieve and maintain recommended intensity levels. GPS watches collect a live stream of data (speed, distance, pace, heart rate, etc.) that is available for viewing on the watch’s display. The data can then be transferred into a database in order to view your progress over time. Some devices will include audible or vibration alerts to provide you with feedback during a session. The device’s accompanying software also acts as a training log for your activity and allows you to plot your running route on a map. The software also can display graphs and tables of information (pace, distance, overall time, etc.) for you to review later. When choosing a fitness tracker, consider a few things:
- What is your goal?
- What is your comfortable price range?
- Are size and weight factors?
- How important are fashion and style to you?
Your goal is the first place to start. Fitness trackers have increased in popularity largely owing to our inherently competitive nature and the tracker’s ability to motivate us to push ourselves. Reaching a step-goal can be as satisfying as checking an item off your list of to-dos. If your goal is to get off the couch more, the simpler devices can achieve this without hitting your pocketbook so hard. If your goal is to run a race, finish a long bike ride, or something more advanced, you may want a device with more features to address your training needs. As with most consumer products, your choices in fitness trackers span an array of price ranges. If your goal is knowing how far you walked in a day, and you’re not too fashion conscious, you can easily get by for under $150. The more features you require (and the more important you consider fashion), the more you will have to spend. Adding GPS and smartphone integration features will inflate the price. Adding style features and shrinking the size will inflate it even further, as will upgrading the quality of materials. Lastly, wearable technology generally only works if you actually wear it, so consider the size and weight, along with how comfortable it feels, before you make your purchase.
To assist you in your research, we have identified our favorites for your consideration.
Apple Watch. The Apple Watch in its various iterations has garnered a lot of attention. Apple recently released its first hardware upgrade to the Watch, called Series 2. Apple continues to offer the original Watch, now labeled Series 1 (starting at $269), with an improved processor. Series 2 (starting at $369) brings some new features (such as water resistance and built-in GPS) and a faster processor to the party, but it looks pretty much the same on the outside. The Apple Watch is really more than a fitness tracker, but it also functions as a fitness tracker. The Apple Watch runs apps, connects to your iPhone, lets you know when you have a call, displays text and mail messages for you, and connects to your credit and debit cards through Apple Wallet. As all of the Apple Watch devices in each series use the same internal hardware and the same OS, the price differences among the various styles relate to the choice of materials for the case and the band you select. For full details, check out the Apple website. We like the Apple Watch, and most people would be happy having one. We think the aluminum body offers the best value, but we prefer the stainless steel as a style preference and because it just feels more solid to us. As for bands, we have a strong preference for the Milanese Loop but recognize that it adds quite a bit to the cost of the device. Apple has so many configurations of its watch that you should be able to find a case and strap option to suit almost everyone.
While we like the Apple Watch, the simple fact of the matter is that the original version is more of a fashion statement than a useful tool—unless you just have to get your text messages and e-mails on your watch! The more powerful processor in the Series 1 and 2 makes the Apple Watch more capable of running the connected apps than its predecessor, but it is still a very small display to deal with any substantial amount of information. We think the graphic displays work the best in terms of easily conveying information for most people, particularly those over 45 years old or those who need to wear reading glasses. As a fitness tracker it is decent, but we think you can do better in this category for a lot less money; the trade-off is the disparity in style and, of course, the name cache of the Apple Watch. On the other hand, the Apple Watch can do more things than any of the other smart watches we have checked out.
Fitbit. When it comes to fitness trackers, we think Fitbit (fitbit.com) represents your best choice in terms of function and value (but not so much in terms of style). Fitbit has packed the Surge ($249.95), its most advanced product, with some pretty nice features. The Surge tracks your steps like a typical pedometer, but it also tracks your heart rate without the annoying chest strap. Its user interface allows you to track workouts, play music, get text notifications, and monitor your sleep without having to use the app on your phone. The Surge, however, has a relatively poor quality display, is clunky and industrial looking, and is not something most of us would choose to wear to the office. Unlike the other devices in the Fitbit line, the band is not readily replaceable, so its appearance is its appearance. It is the kind of watch that you would likely wear for a workout, but not much more.
Fitbit also offers the Blaze ($199.95), which has most of the Surge’s functionality but looks considerably better and also offers the opportunity to replace the band easily, creating significantly different styles and appearances. Replacement bands from Fitbit and third-party vendors are readily available for reasonable prices.
The Alta ($129.95), which Fitbit describes as a “fitness wristband,” does not have quite as many features as some of the other options, but we like the configuration and the style it offers. The Alta offers easy change to bands of different styles and materials that you can get from Fitbit and third parties at reasonable prices. You can check out the various models and features and their prices at fitbit.com. We shifted to the Alta some time ago and find that it works very well. We have been quite happy with its performance and its appearance (once we upgraded the band to a stainless steel Milanese mesh—virtually the same in appearance as the one on our favorite Apple Watch, but considerably less costly).
Fitbit recently upgraded its Charge to the Charge 2 ($149.95), adding new features and also the ability to change the style easily by replacing the band (similarly to the Alta). The most significant functionality differences between the Charge and the Alta are the Charge 2’s inclusion of connected GPS (it uses your smartphone’s GPS) and the ability to monitor your heart rate.
For most people the Alta should work fine; those of you who are more active and want to track heart rate might opt for the Charge 2. For still more active people (or those who prefer the style), we think that the Blaze will prove the most likely choice. All the Fitbit devices have built-in batteries that we have found will last five to seven days between charges with normal usage. You can compare the various models and iterations within the models at fitbit.com.
Other health-related accessories include pulse oximeters, glucose meters that automatically transmit blood sugar information, blood pressure meters, and devices designed to record important information for your use in monitoring your health and your physician’s use in monitoring your health and in your treatment.
Because of the corresponding decrease in cost and increase in functionality and the availability of an amazing quantity of media through downloading, the television has become an increasingly important part of our entertainment. We will not explore the various models, features, and sizes of televisions in this guide. We will, however, spend some time talking to you about available accessories. When it comes to accessories for televisions, we want to focus on two categories: sound bars and media streaming devices.
Bose sound bars. 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. You have probably already figured out that we have a certain partiality for the high-quality engineered sound generated by Bose products. Accordingly, it should not surprise you that the audio add-on system we like best comes from Bose. Bose has more expensive speaker systems that you can connect to a television, but the Solo 15 Series II comes at a pretty reasonable price ($449.95), in a compact box that sits under your television display (or wherever else you want to put it) and provides excellent sound in an easy-to-use package. The system consists of a single box (no separate subwoofer to connect and locate). A single connection seals the deal. Bose has discontinued this model, but we have seen it on sale at various online locations (such as Amazon and Crutchfield, crutchfield.com). You can also find the original version (the Solo 10, $325.99) online through Amazon. 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).
Recently Bose added a less expensive sound bar to its lineup, the Solo 5. It sells for only $249.95. While the Solo 5 will offer some improvement over most built-in television sound systems, it does not sound as good to our ears as the now-discontinued Solo 15. Bose has recently announced a substantially upgraded sound bar, the SoundTouch 300, which it plans to sell for $699.95. The SoundTouch 300 comes with an app that allows you to control it and match it with additional speakers. You can add more sound bars to the system or a woofer to give you a deeper and richer bass. You can even add rear speakers to create a surround-sound environment. The SoundTouch 300 has not made it to the stores yet, so we have not had the opportunity to work with it or listen to it. Accordingly, we can only tell you that it should be out by the time you read this guide and suggest that you might want to visit one of the Bose factory stores to check it out.
Media streaming devices. 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 Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and the various offerings from Roku. The Apple TV has now reached its fourth generation. You can get it with your choice of 32 GB or 64 GB of memory for $149 or $199, respectively. The Roku devices (roku.com) cost substantially less, starting at $29.99 for the Roku Express and going up to $129.99 for the Roku Ultra (which includes 4K and High Dynamic Range capability, along with numerous advanced features on the remote control). Amazon currently offers the $39.99 Fire TV Stick (USB plug-in) and the $99.99 Fire TV, both of which now include the Alexa digital assistant to help you find what you want to watch. You might also want to check out the $35 Google Chromecast unit (google.com).
All these devices have the same basic functionality: They enable you to stream media from the Internet (including various media accounts, such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO, Showtime Anytime, WatchESPN, or MLB.tv). The Apple TV has the best remote in our opinion, particularly for those with other Apple paraphernalia (e.g., iMac, MacBook, iPad, iPhone) and a good-sized stake in media from the iTunes store. If you are not so invested in Apple products, you will likely find any of the devices satisfactory, but note that those connecting through USB rather than HDMI tend to cost less and run more slowly.
Keyboards. You can find Bluetooth stand-alone keyboards and keyboards built into covers for iPads from a variety of sources. Apple’s stand-alone Magic Keyboard ($99) has received a recent update, making it even better. It now uses rechargeable batteries and has a lower profile and a re-engineered key mechanism designed to increase stability. Although designed for use with desktop computers, you can use it with any Bluetooth-enabled device (such as an iPad or iPhone). Incidentally, Apple also redesigned its Trackpad ($129) and Magic Mouse ($79), making both better and employing rechargeable batteries.
Apple also has covers with built-in keyboards for both sizes of the iPad Pro. The Smart Keyboard cover for the iPad Pro ($149 for the 9.7” iPad, $169 for the 12.9” iPad) comes with a physical and electronic connection to the iPad. Apple calls that a (surprise) “Smart Connector.” The Smart Connector has the advantage of giving you an automatic power supply from the iPad Pro and an immediate connection without the need to pair as you would normally do with a Bluetooth keyboard. No other manufacturer has introduced a keyboard with this connection. The others use Bluetooth connectivity. Additionally, the Smart Keyboard cover uses laser technology to build the keys into a specially woven, water-resistant fabric, creating some feeling of resistance when you strike the key without using the standard physical mechanism. Significantly, this process avoids the existence of crevices around the keys that can allow liquids and other foreign matter to get in and damage the keyboard. Apple’s keyboard covers (in fact virtually all keyboard covers) give you a configuration substantially the same as a laptop. If you don’t happen to like that configuration, a stand-alone Bluetooth keyboard will give you more flexibility. You can use Apple’s stand-alone keyboard or a third-party Bluetooth product.
Logitech (logitech.com) offers a collection of well-made Bluetooth keyboards that work very well with computers, tablets, and smartphones. They also offer keyboard covers for the iPad Air and the iPad mini. Logitech has been one of the most respected Bluetooth keyboard manufacturers for some time. We have tried any number of their keyboards and found them quite satisfactory.
Kanex (kanex.com) also offers a collection of excellent Bluetooth keyboards in its lineup of products. We particularly liked its full-sized MultiSync Aluminum Mac Keyboard ($99.95) with a built-in numeric keypad. It has the ability to connect to up to four separate devices and easily switch among them without having to turn off Bluetooth and reconnect. Another of our favorites, the EasySync iPad mini Bluetooth Keyboard, has a footprint about the size of an iPad mini but offers enough extra space to make it easier to type longer e-mails on smartphones. All the Kanex keyboards we tried paired easily and worked well with Mac computers and iOS devices.
Save your fingers, let your mouth do the talking. The Dragon speech engine has pretty much taken over the world of VR software (please note that this is old-school VR, meaning voice recognition, not virtual reality). Owned (for some time) by Nuance, Dragon has released new versions for the Mac and for Windows. Having watched this genre of software for many years and tested and reviewed the last several versions, we can tell you that having VR software on your computer saves a lot of effort. Each new version of Dragon we have tried on both the Mac and Windows OS has improved over its predecessors in ease of use and accuracy. Dragon represents the best in its field on the Mac and Windows side as well as for mobile hardware users. Dragon software for the Mac or Windows would make an excellent present to buy yourself or give to someone you care about. Go to nuance.com for details of options and pricing.
What to Do with Your Old Stuff?
With all this new tech coming out, we want to remind you to securely recycle old tech rather than simply toss it into the garbage. Office Depot points out that each year, Americans throw away millions of tons of old or broken electronics. This can create potentially harmful waste known as tech trash. Your old electronics contain toxic materials, including arsenic, lead, and cadmium, which no one wants sitting around in a landfill. Moreover, if the tech contains personal or client information, you do not want that sitting out in the open. You would be well advised to hire an electronic waste recycling firm, such as Electronic Recyclers International (ERI, electronicrecyclers.com), one of the biggest e-waste recycling firms in the world. ERI offers data-deleting services as part of its recycling and refurbishing programs. The company features eight locations across the United States. For technology that does not contain personal information, many consumer electronic storefronts, such as Office Depot and Best Buy, offer electronic recycling services for a nominal fee to cover the cost of shipping.