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” (IoT), 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 saw an increasing number of these windows at the consumer level, as the IoT grew in scope and functionality. Exciting trends emerged, ranging from biometric authentication in hardware from smartphones to computers, to auto-adjusting home-surround systems (not just sound, but access, heating, cooling, lighting, and security), to intelligent cars and self-driving vehicles.
In 2017 the IoT continues to grow in scope and in applications. Count on this continuing. We predict that it will remain a “thing” for many years to come. Accordingly, we will focus on some of the offerings available in the IoT this year, as well as include our evaluation of new offerings in more traditional examples of technology suitable for gifting, some of which have started to evolve into the seamless web of the IoT.
In keeping with tradition (and the requirements of the ABA’s legal department) and common sense, we have a few disclaimers and disclosures that we need to include, 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 this 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 brick-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” that often does not apply in the United States. Sometimes a vendor will provide its own warranty instead of the manufacturer’s warranty or package 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. A few products were announced prior to the preparation of this article but not available for us to test, poke, prod, play with, or evaluate prior to writing this article. As to those products, we offer the information we have learned about them through research. 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, even in product areas thoroughly discussed. 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 have proven 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 (above) the top ten choices each of us came up with.
Whether you seek ideas for the holidays, as a token of gratitude or appreciation, or just a reminder to someone that you care, gift-giving is a universal custom. Technology gifts are often shiny, fun, and useful, with many gifts offering a range of multitasking features. Here are a few of our favorites this year:
The laptop computer presents an interesting option; there is an argument that it is moving toward obsolescence. More and more of our tasks get accomplished without using computers, as we rely on tablets, phablets, and smartphones instead. 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 previously we handled with a computer. Perhaps it is simply a matter of using a new name and form factor. At any rate, the computer still exists on a current basis, and many people continue to 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 in the highly portable range. One of them is Apple’s new and recently updated MacBook. The newly updated and more powerful MacBook makes an excellent traveling companion at a reasonable price. It does have some power limitations, but it works well for the things most of us do (word processing, handling e-mail, reviewing documents, watching video, and surfing the Internet). The recent updates to the MacBook allow removal of most of the reservations we had about it when it first came out and underwhelmed us with less power than the MacBook Air. Now it has more power and a better configuration. This enabled one of us (Jeff) to retire his 11” MacBook Air travel computer and replace it with a shiny new MacBook in gold.
The MacBook comes in gold, silver, space gray, and rose gold. It has a 12” Retina display with 2304 x 1440 resolution that gives you an outstanding image. The MacBook now comes with up to 16 GB of RAM and up to 512 GB of SSD storage. Thanks to turbo boost, you can get a processor running as fast as 3.6 GHz. The newly designed keyboard gives you almost a full-sized work space. Although it took a bit of getting used to using, it ultimately has proven an excellent addition and quite usable. The built-in trackpad comes with Force Touch. All in all, it offers an excellent traveling companion and work partner. In terms of size and weight, here is how it stacks up: height: 0.14”–0.52”; width: 11.04”; depth: 7.74”; weight: 2.03 pounds.
The MacBook runs on a low-power Intel Core processor. The Mac Book 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 i5 or a Core i7 processor and a 512 GB flash drive. We think the upgrades are worth it, and we would go with the Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, and 512 GB flash drive for $1,949.
The only knock we have on the new MacBook is that Apple sells it with only one port (USB-C) for extension to additional devices and charging. Fortunately, 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. You can find larger multiport adapters, but don’t push it as the computer does not have sufficient power to run seven or eight devices concurrently. While the multiport adapter helps, we would have liked it better if Apple built the MacBook with at least one more USB-C port.
We also like the new MacBook Pro 13” and 15” laptops with the Touch Bar. They are a bit heavy for travel, but the 13” really does not weigh that much and could work for travel. The 15” is too big for our tastes as a travel computer but works well as a desktop substitute. Both sizes of the MacBook Pro come in multiple configurations and with and without the Touch Bar. You can check out the configurations and pricing for all these Mac laptops at http://apple.com.
Microsoft Surface Pro. The second laptop we like for travel comes from Microsoft (http://microsoft.com). We will talk about it here primarily and secondarily in the tablet section, as the Surface is a laptop that thinks it is a tablet. Microsoft brought out the Surface Pro line several years ago. It kept getting better. By the time it got to the Surface Pro 3, it was quite decent. The Surface Pro 4 represented a significant improvement over the Pro 3. This year, Microsoft dropped the numbers and instead of coming out with a Surface Pro 5, it simply came out with an upgraded version it identified as the Surface Pro. The Surface Pro comes loaded with Windows 10 Pro and runs it very well. The Surface Pro starts at $799 for 4 GB RAM and a 128 GB SSD, a Core m3 processor, and a 12.3” touch screen display. You can pay for upgrades to get to a 16 GB RAM device with a 1 TB SSD and a Core i7 processor ($2,699). We think this is a bit too pricey and contains more memory than most of us need, so we would opt for the 16 GB RAM version with a Core i7 Processor and a 512 GB SSD ($2,199). In terms of size and weight, the Surface Pro has the following measurements: 11.5” x 7.9” x 0.33”. The version we like (with the i7 processor) weighs a scant 1.73 pounds (without the keyboard and cover); less powerful processors result in a slightly reduced weight (to match the reduced power). If you add the keyboard and cover, it weighs a bit more than the MacBook.
The Surface Pro runs the same version of Windows as other PCs and also runs all the same software. What sets the Surface Pro apart is that it does double-duty as a tablet. We like to think of the Surface Pro as the laptop that thinks it’s a tablet. We will talk more about the Surface Pro as a tablet in the tablet section of this guide (page 45).
Tech Gifts for the Photographer
Most smartphones take excellent still photos as well as movies these days, as do tablets, although their size makes them a bit more unwieldy than the phones. For many people, the smartphone has become all the camera they need or want, and this has posed real challenges to the camera manufacturers. The newest phones almost always sport improved cameras over their predecessors. Still, their quality can prove somewhat disappointing.
The number of megapixels in a camera, 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 add-on lenses, smartphones do not have the range offered by many cameras, especially system cameras (those with interchangeable lenses).
From our perspective, if you want high-quality photos, you should use a dedicated camera. Similarly, although many digital cameras also take video, you should get a camcorder if you want high-quality videos. 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.
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 you often can find last year’s top models available 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. In some situations the specifications for the previous model may prove as good or even better than the new one. In others, photographers may conclude that the previous model performed better, even though it may not have all the features in the newer one. You often can find previous years’ models of top-line cameras at Costco at reduced prices.
When looking to purchase a new camera, the first question to decide is whether to go with a system or point-and-shoot style camera. System cameras offer interchangeable lenses, while point-and-shoot cameras come with a single, non-exchangeable lens (often a zoom lens). If you opt for a system camera, the next choice is a mirrorless camera or a DSLR. A mirrorless camera is a digital camera with interchangeable lens that uses an image sensor to provide an image to a rear display or an electronic viewfinder. DSLR cameras have a built-in mechanical mirror to switch the scene between the optical viewfinder and the image sensor. Because they contain more hardware, the DSLRs are generally bulkier and heavier. Because of the built-in mirror components, DSLRs are more complicated to build (read: more expensive). DSLRs often do maintain a better battery life than mirrorless cameras. You can also use lenses from some film cameras (sometimes without an adapter). Because DSLRs have been around for a while, you have a huge selection of lenses to choose from.
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 V. The RX100 V ($999.99, sony.com) is, in our opinion, the best single-lens digital camera for general use for a moderately advanced to advanced photographer. This is not a beginner’s camera! This is the fifth generation of this range of compact camera from Sony. Previous models, the RX100 IV ($899.99), RX100 III ($749.99), RX100 II ($599.99), and RX100 ($449.99) all remain available from Sony and from third-party sellers. The current pricing of all but the Model V represents a discount from the initial price at which Sony offered the camera when it first came out. In fact, the older models have seen multiple price reductions, as they go down each year. Last year, for example, the original RX100 listed for $50 more than this year.
As with most of Sony’s top-end models, Zeiss makes the lens for the RX100 series cameras. What really distinguished 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 V also supports 4K video recording, which some 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 and V, in combination with the nature of the upgrades over the RX100 III, suggests that they should wait on the shelves for the more serious photographers. The Model V is unquestionably an enthusiast’s camera. While it offers a host of features, many would not benefit an inexperienced photographer.
Nikon Coolpix P900. The Nikon Coolpix P900 ($699.95, http://nikon.com) represents an entirely different kind of camera than the Sony RX100. The P900 looks like a system camera (and has the size and weight of one). It has many features you would expect in a system camera, except for two: no interchangeable lenses and no hot shoe. What it offers is a spectacular 83X optical zoom range, giving a whole new meaning to the term “superzoom.” Powered by a Dynamic Fine Zoom super telephoto Nikkor lens, the P900 also comes equipped with both WiFi and NFC (Near Field Communications) to support wirelessly sharing images with a compatible smartphone or tablet. The camera also has both a swiveling variable-angle LCD display and a high-resolution electronic viewfinder. It also comes equipped with built-in GPS.
Nikon did not miss a beat or an audience in designing this camera; it built the camera to function as a fully automatic point-and-shoot for the rankest amateur and gave it a number of user selectable automatic versions to support a more experienced amateur and the ability to function as a shutter priority camera, an aperture priority camera, or to work in a fully manual mode for the very advanced amateur and the professional user. The only downside to the camera is its size and weight (5.5” x 4.1” x 5.5” and a hair short of two pounds [31.8 ounces]).
Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70. If the P900 is more camera than you want to carry around, take a look at the Lumix DC-ZS70 ($449.99, http://panasonic.com). The DC-ZS70 comes with a lens by Leica (almost as iconic as Zeiss and an exceptional lens manufacturer). The camera includes 20.3 megapixel capacity, 4K digital video, touch-enabled 3” 180-degree flip-front display, and a 30X Leica DC Vario-Elmar lens. While a 30X optical zoom range is substantially less than the P900’s 83X, it still gives you a pretty impressive range and will work for most travel and general photography. It is a lot smaller than Nikon’s P900 but still larger than the Sony RX100 series. Amazingly, among its other features, the camera lets you shoot first and focus later. The camera uses a smaller sensor than the RX100 (you must make some sacrifices for a 30X zoom lens in a pocketable camera—coat pockets only). In terms of size and weight, the DC-ZS70 weighs 11.36 ounces and has external dimensions of 4.41” x 2.64” x 1.6”. We have not had the opportunity to try this iteration of the camera, but have used its predecessor (Lumix DMC-ZS60) quite happily and successfully for the last year. The major differences between the two are that the ZS70 has a moveable display and the ZS60 has only 18 megapixels. For those interested in bargains, we have seen the ZS60 at Costco, bundled with a 16 GB memory card and soft case, for $349.99.
Canon EOS Rebel T7i. If you are looking for a system camera, consider the Canon EOS Rebel T7i ($849.99 with lens, http://shop.usa.canon.com), which offers a 24.2-megapixel resolution with Canon’s exclusive Dual Pixel CMOS AF system for improved autofocus when recording videos or shooting stills in Live View mode. It comes with a guide mode that will assist novice photographers when they use the camera. This mode is really a benefit to those who want to take quality photos without knowing all the nuances of f-stops and shutter speeds. The guide mode is a built-in learning tool, for example, advising you that a smaller f-stop number is better for shooting in low light and when blurring backgrounds is a plus. It also includes Scene mode and a Group Photo mode that uses face detection to determine how much depth of field is required to get everyone properly focused in a group shot. For more experienced photographers, guide mode can be turned off, allowing users to change settings via the various buttons and dials along with the touch screen interface. The camera has built-in WiFi, which lets you copy images and videos to your smartphone or table or use your Android or iOS device as a remote control to fire the shutter. It offers continuous shooting at a six-frames-per-second (fps) capture rate.
Sony Alpha a6000. The Sony Alpha a6000 ($549.99 without lens, http://sony.com) is one of the top entry-level mirrorless system cameras on the market. It is a thinner, lighter camera that focuses very fast and can fire off images at 11 fps. It packs a tilting rear display and WiFi into its compact body. The camera itself measures 2.6” x 4.72” x 1.78” and weighs in at 10.05 ounces (before you add on the lens). It does not come equipped with image stabilization, so if you find yourself missing this feature, look for a lens with the OSS (Optical Steady Shot) designation. There is a built-in flash that is mounted on a hinge so you can tilt it back for indirect illumination. It can accommodate a number of accessories to fit your needs, including larger flashes, external microphones, and an XLR adapter for balanced audio input. The biggest bonus to this camera is its fast phase-detection sensors that cover a larger image area, allowing for superior auto-focus on off-center subjects as well as subjects that are moving across the frame. The WiFi system works well, and it includes a full-featured remote-shooting app. You can add on app features to upgrade and improve your experience for about $5 to $10 per app.
Polaroid Snap. For a touch of nostalgia with a dash of novelty, Polaroid offers a fun camera with a retro-vibe, the Polaroid Snap instant digital camera ($87.99, http://polaroid.com). This camera features ZINK zero-ink printing technology that lets you recreate the magic of classic instant photography, all while still fitting nicely inside your pocket. The integrated ZINK printer enables you to instantly print full-color, smudge-proof 2” x 3” prints automatically when an image is captured, without ink cartridges, ribbons, or toner. You can continue shooting images while the Snap is printing. It has a 10-megapixel sensor with a self-timer and six picture modes. In order to use it as an instant-print camera, you will need to keep stocked up on the ZINK photo paper ($14.99 for a 30-pack, http://amazon.com), which comes embedded with cyan, yellow, and magenta dye crystals. The paper starts out colorless, but while printing, heat will activate the crystals and change them into the appropriate colors. The Snap has no built-in memory, but it does come with a slot for a microSD card. If you put a microSD card in, you can use the Snap without the photo paper and can transfer the card to another device to access your images. You should also note that the print quality will remind you of the original Polaroid prints, so while this is not an ideal choice for your primary digital camera, it is definitely a fun gadget to bring along to parties.
Polaroid OneStep 2. If your loved one truly appreciates vintage cameras, this year Polaroid brought back their original instant camera as the OneStep 2 ($99.99) for its 80th anniversary. As we write this gift guide, the camera was available for pre-order. It is expected to ship on November 15, 2017. The OneStep 2 is an analog instant camera built for the modern era. The original design was updated with a built-in strobe flash and high-quality lens to make sure you capture a great picture every time you push the button. It captures a moment and turns it into something you can hold and share.
Fujifilm instax SHARE SP-2. The Fujifilm instax SHARE SP-2 printer ($149.99, http://fujifilm.com) enables fast and simple WiFi printing of images from your smartphone, tablet, or your Facebook or Instagram accounts. The latest model will have your photo printed and ready to go in ten second from print data transfer to output. Fujifilm has also reduced the noise level, making for a more enjoyable printing experience. New features include the ability to split an image into two prints or arrange multiple images into a collage on one print. You can print photos with fun seasonal templates or the standard instax frame. The printer can pair with Fujifilm digital cameras for instant printing as well.
Lifeprint 2x3 Hyperphoto Printer for iPhone and Android. Another wireless photo printer to consider, the Lifeprint 2x3 Hyperphoto Printer ($129.99, http://shop.lifeprintphotos.com), allows you to print and share photos and still shots of videos from Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, GoPro Clips, Apple Live video photos, and more. All this can be captured in tangible photos, instantly, thanks to Lifeprint’s Augmented Reality Hyperphotos software application. The pocket-sized block connects to your phone via Bluetooth and generates a 2” x 3” borderless photo using Zink zero-ink paper—the same as the Polaroid Snap instant digital camera discussed earlier. The feature that sets this printer apart from other mobile photo printers is the Augmented Reality Hyperphotos software. For example, you can use the Lifeprint app (available for iOS or Android) and select a video clip, trim it down to a maximum of 15 seconds, and then select a frame from that video for your printed picture. Then, using the player in the app, point your phone’s camera at your print and it will near-instantly start playing the clip you made on top of the photo as if it were a tiny TV.
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 X, followed closely by the iPhone 8 Plus, and then the Samsung Galaxy S8. The immediate predecessors to those phones (Galaxy S7 edge+ and iPhone 7/7 Plus) remain available and offer slightly less expensive versions of 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 X represents 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 last year (you may recall that a number of them used battery components with a propensity to burst into flames at inopportune moments). Samsung tried to do damage control, but its corrective action was sloppy and haphazard in our opinion, ultimately causing them to withdraw the line from sale and leaving some doubt as to whether Samsung really deserves to be considered the second-best phone manufacturer. Discounting this and looking just at the hardware quality and specifications of the Galaxy S line of phones leaves little question of that fact, however, as it appears to be a superb phone. Samsung seems to have fixed the battery issue in the newest iteration of the Note, but we have a strong disinclination to use that phone owing to last year’s problems and cannot recommend it just yet. Additionally, it is sufficiently large as to be almost unwieldy as a phone (although its size makes it not a bad small tablet).
All 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, so don’t worry about finding a device to run it.
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 smartphone 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.
Apple just announced its 2017 releases to the iPhone line. As we write this gift guide, not one of these phones is yet available, and the X won’t be released prior to this magazine going to press. The 8/8 Plus will come out just about the time this issue goes to press, so we won’t have the ability to do a hands-on review of any of the new iPhones. Accordingly, we have based all opinions about the new iPhones on what we have read about them instead of observations from trying them out ourselves. As a result of this limitation, take the recommendations with a grain or two of salt (and maybe even some pepper); go to an Apple store and look the phones over before deciding whether you want one or not.
As we write this article, Apple is releasing the newest iteration of the iOS: iOS 11. The new operating system has been available in beta versions for a while, so we know a bit about how it works. As it does from time to time, Apple has reinvented the wheel with iOS 11. It will make major changes to the way you use your iPhones and iPads (particularly the iPads). The new system will change your interactions with new devices and with older ones that have compatibility with the new iOS. The new OS will kill some of your apps unless and until they get upgraded to work with the new iOS. Apple seems to have gotten back to reliability on upgrade installs. One of the authors, on vacation in Europe when iOS 11 came out, bit the bullet and installed the upgrade on his iPad Pro and his iPhone 7 Plus—with no problems. A few days later, when the first revisions to iOS came out, he updated his two devices and installed the new iOS on his wife’s iPhone 7 and iPad Mini—again, all with no hassles. One caveat: As we have seen in the past, using the new iOS on earlier versions of the hardware has resulted in reports of a noticeable drop-off of time between required recharging. These authors have made the same observation on their own iPhones.
iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. Under the hood, the 8 and 8 Plus offer a better, faster processor, allegedly better battery life (we have yet to see this in practice), water resistance, and a better camera than predecessors. Both models come in space gray, gold, and silver. The 8 comes with a 4.7” display and the 8 Plus with a 5.5” display. The footprints are substantially the same as the 7 and 7 Plus. Both use Apple’s A11 processor. The 8 Plus comes with two rear-facing cameras: a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens and 12-megapixel telephoto lens with 10X optical zoom. Both versions continue to offer Touch ID and biometric authentication through the use of a fingerprint sensor built into the home button. Both phones come with either 64 GB or 256 GB of RAM. You can purchase the iPhone 8/8 Plus directly from Apple or from one of the service providers (all the major providers and many of the smaller ones have the new iPhones available). While you can get a discount from some carriers in exchange for a contract commitment for service, we prefer getting them directly from Apple as Apple not only provides very favorable financing now, it also delivers the phone to you unlocked, so you can easily move from one to another carrier by swapping out the SIM card. Phones purchased from providers tend to come locked into that carrier’s service, so you need to unlock the phone to switch to another carrier, even for travel purposes. The iPhone 8 will cost you $699 for the 64 GB version and $849 for the 256 GB version. The iPhone 8 Plus will cost $799 for the 64 GB version and $949 for the 256 GB version. You can get full specifications for all models and details as to Apple’s special financing terms on Apple’s website: http://apple.com.
iPhone X. The soon-to-be-released iPhone X will come in two colors, space gray and silver, and two memory configurations, 64 GB and 256 GB. Like the 8 and 8 Plus, it will use Apple’s own A11 processor with an embedded M11 motion coprocessor. Like the 8 Plus, it will have a wide-angle and a telephoto camera generating 12 MP. It will also have optical zoom, backed up by 10X digital zoom. On the video side, it offers 6X optical zoom, 4K at 24, 30, or 60 fps, and both 720p and 1080p. The X also gets a 7 MP TrueDepth camera, capable of 1080p HD video recording.
The X has the same operating system as the 8 (iOS 11) and all the same features that iOS 11 brings to the 8 and 8 Plus. Two things set the X apart from the earlier models and the new 8 and 8 Plus. First, in the X, Apple has dropped the physical home button and its integrated fingerprint reader. Instead, Apple will introduce facial recognition technology for the first time in its iPhone X. The TrueDepth camera enables the implementation of this technology. So, if you wear a mask, cover your face, have plastic surgery on your face, or do something else that alters your appearance, you will have to punch your access code in to use the phone. Otherwise, if things go according to plan, all you have to do is look at it the right way. The X also will use Bluetooth 5.0 and NFC (Near Field Communications).
The other thing that really sets the X apart is its design and footprint. Apple gives you more usable screen in less physical space with the X by getting rid of the physical home button and the margins surrounding the current displays and recovering that display real estate. As a result, the X gives you a 5.8” super retina HD display with 3D touch and does it with a 5.65” x 2.79” x 0.3” unit that weighs 6.14 ounces.
We like the X for a variety of reasons, most significantly, the larger screen size in the smaller unit. A word of caution: The facial recognition technology has caused some speculation as to reliability in comparison to the fingerprint reader. We won’t know until it comes out and we see it, but we are inclined to anticipate that it will work. To be sure, try it out in an Apple store or wait for some reviews of it by people who actually have used it. Assuming there is no issue with it, we plan on getting the 256 GB version of the X. You can get full specifications for all models and details as to Apple’s special financing terms on Apple’s website. Apple has announced that you will be able to take delivery of the iPhone X on or after November 3, 2017. It will cost you $999 for the 64 GB version or $1,149 for the 256 GB version.
Samsung Galaxy S8. The Galaxy S line of Android smartphones from Samsung (http://samsung.com) has proven very successful and extremely popular. The newest models, the S8 and S8+, come, respectively, with a battery-saving 5.8” and 6.2” 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. Samsung built the top end of this phone around an MSM 8998 Octa Core 2.35 Ghz processor. It also has an 8-megapixel front-facing and a 12-megapixel rear-facing camera and optical image stabilization. The camera is billed as water-resistant and comes with 64 GB of memory but will accept memory cards for additional storage.
The S8 and S8+ run Google’s Android 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 11, 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.
In terms of price, size, and weight, the Galaxy S8 starts at $724.99, measures 5.86” x 2.68” x 0.31” and weighs 5.5 ounces. The S8+ weighs 6.1 ounces, measures 6.28” x 2.89” x 0.32”, and starts at $824.99 (unlocked). You can get full details on the Samsung website: http://samsung.com.
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 iOS 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.
Based on the historic frequency of replacement, we anticipate that Samsung will release a new version of the Galaxy S phone in the not-too-distant future. So, if your inclination is to purchase a Galaxy, you may want to wait a bit to see what happens next.
The market for tablets has not continued to grow, and, in fact, it appears that the rate of growth of tablet sales has slowed. As the price and power of tablets increases, more and more people have chosen to treat the tablet like a laptop rather 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. A newer development is the hybrid laptop/tablet. The hybrid has not overtaken the pure tablet or the pure laptop, but it is an interesting configuration and Microsoft has done it extremely well with its Surface Pro computer/tablets. 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, which overall, we favor as the best available tablet.
iPad Pro. Apple does not seem to be doing much with any of the iPads other than the iPad Pro. Some of the earlier models still make the current products list, but they have not been substantially updated or upgraded for a while. Even the iPad Pro is due for an update. In releasing the iPad Pro, Apple joined with other manufacturers in further blurring the line between tablet and computer. The iPad Pro is a tablet that thinks it is a computer, and we see it in direct competition to the Microsoft Surface Pro. The iPad Pro has enough similarity to Microsoft’s Surface Pro to legitimately enable comparisons and to justify the argument that it represents Apple’s answer to that device. But it is clearly a different animal. The introduction of the iPad Pro 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 smaller version (which we like much better as a tablet). The Pro comes in gold, silver, or space gray (you can also get it in rose gold, but only in the smaller version, which now has a 10.5” display). Both sizes have keyboard covers available from Apple as well as compatibility with Apple’s Pencil. Each of these accessories has considerable value and utility, so we recommend them as the first two accessories to get with the iPad Pro. Both sizes of the iPad Pro have memory options of 64 GB, 256 GB, and 512 GB. As memory remains non-upgradable, we recommend that you get the largest memory you can justify. We do not recommend that you get less than 256 GB of memory for your primary iPad.
Both versions of the Pro run iOS 11 and have all the new iPad features built into that operating system. The WiFi-only version of the smaller Pro weighs 1.03 pounds and the larger version weighs 1.49 pounds (without the keyboard cover). The WiFi + Cellular models weigh 0.02 and 0.04 pounds more. Both versions use the A10X Fusion chip with an embedded M10 coprocessor.
The 12.9” version of the iPad Pro does some things very well and, in fact, better than the 10.5” version. Examples of where the larger version excels include watching videos, playing games, and functions where more display real estate helps. This would seem to cover the waterfront, except for one thing: Its extra size makes it heavier, less portable, 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 10.5” 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 while 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. The iPad Pro 10.5” starts at $649 for the WiFi-only 64 GB version and increases to $999 for the 512 GB version. The 12.9” Pro starts at $799 for the WiFi-only model with 64 GB of memory and increases to $1,149 for the 512 GB version. With all models, adding the cellular capabilities costs an additional $130. You can get full pricing and more detail as to specifications on Apple’s website: http://apple.com.
Microsoft Surface Pro. Last year Microsoft (http://microsoft.com) released the Surface Pro 4, a hybrid between a laptop and a tablet. It functioned 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.
The Surface Pro 4 gave way this year to a new Surface Pro (no number this time). The Surface Pro 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 with the capability of running the same software you run on any other Windows laptop or desktop computer. Should you want a simpler OS for the tablet, Windows 10 has a tablet mode in which it presents a simplified interface, more conducive to use without the keyboard. We like to think of the Surface line as a computer that thinks it is a tablet.
Whether you want a computer that thinks it is a tablet or a tablet that thinks it is a computer presents a personal preference you can exercise. While we like the Surface Pro line very much, we prefer the 10.5” iPad Pro as a pure tablet. The advantages of the Surface Pro by comparison include the fact that it runs as a tablet but uses the same software as a laptop. The advantages of the iPad Pro in comparison (assuming you choose the 10.5” version) include smaller size and less weight, the use of iOS 11 (which we prefer to Windows 10 on a laptop), and the relative superiority of Apple’s iOS App Store by comparison to Google’s Play Store.
Carry On into the New Year
With all the great tools out there, inevitably you are going to need something to carry them around in. Your needs will likely change depending on where you are going and how long you will be there. Whether it is a quick weekend errand, a day at the office, a short-term trip, or a longer vacation, there are bags of all shapes and sizes that make great gifts for your loved ones on the go.
Smart bags. As society demands access to their technology at all times, luggage providers have answered by introducing what can be affectionately called “smart bags” into the marketplace. These are traditionally small, handheld luggage designed specifically for those traveling with technology. Smart bags will generally contain features that appeal to those who carry e-readers, tablets, laptops, and other devices. They will usually have dedicated pockets, labeled slots, and sometimes charging capabilities for your gadgets.
For the frequent flyer, check out the Genius Pack High Altitude Flight Bag ($58, http://geniuspack.com). The Flight Bag is a slim pack that you can strap on to the airplane tray table in front of you, providing easy access during your flight. You can also purchase a mobile battery charger so you can plug in your device and recharge on the go.
For the organized traveler or even a current student, Cocoon offers a great backpack with the Slim XL ($99.99, http://cocooninnovations.com). This backpack can hold up to a 17” laptop, protecting it with a padded sleeve. The pack also features a full-size GRID-IT! pocket, Cocoon’s signature organization system made of rubberized woven elastic bands to hold everything in place in almost any configuration you want. You no longer have to worry about losing your headphones or charger cable in the bottom of the bag. Cocoon offers smaller backpack designs as well that can accommodate a 15” laptop. Cocoon’s Urban Adventure Messenger Sling ($59.99) is a nice option to consider as well if that is more your style.
Briefcases. No matter the gender, age, or experience level, every lawyer appreciates a quality briefcase. When it comes to price, you could be looking at anywhere from $100 to $1,000, depending on what you want. With so many to choose from, what should you look for?
- The quality of the material
- The quality of the hardware
- The style
- The size
- Your lifestyle or the lifestyle of your intended recipient
When it comes to material, you should consider leather. Leather is not only the most common material you will find in briefcases, it also tends to be the most durable. Just as there is a variety of briefcases, there is a variety of leathers you can choose from. The three most common kinds of leather are full-grain, top-grain, and genuine leather. Most of the time, your highest quality and most durable briefcase is going to be made of full-grain leather. Full-grain leather refers to leather that has not been buffed or sanded to remove imperfections on the hide. There are some variations between different types of animal leather. This quality of leather usually runs around $500 to $1,000 in a briefcase.
The next step down is top-grain leather; this is a common type of leather in high-end products. It has had a layer stripped away, making it thinner and more pliable than full-grain. The surface gets sanded, and a top coat is added. It is generally less expensive and has greater stain resistance than full-grain leather. Briefcases made from this material typically run in the $250 to $800+ price range. Genuine leather is still real leather, but it is on the lower end of quality. Genuine leather bags can make great bags, but they will not last as long.
Hardware material used to construct the briefcase will affect not only the price but also the durability and appearance of the bag. The locks, handle, shoulder strap, zippers, buckles, and metallic rings will take the most abuse with daily use. If you are buying in a store, inspect these elements closely. If you are buying online, make sure you can zoom in and examine these features. With quality materials comes a higher price tag, but it will certainly increase the durability of your briefcase. Other details to look for:
- The stitching on the bag should be straight, small, and without loose threads.
- Metal zippers are more durable and better quality than plastic ones.
- If considering a hard-sided case, examine the hinges. They should be sturdy and rust-free.
- The handles of the case should be securely fixed to the body—preferably with reinforced stitching or metal fixtures. Over time, handles that are glued to the exterior of the bag are likely to come loose.
As for style, most briefcases are classified as soft-sided, hard-sided, or attaché. The attaché is a traditional briefcase you see lawyers carrying in and out of the courtroom. This hard-sided, rectangular case is good for protecting documents. However, more and more attorneys are conducting paperless trials. If you travel a lot for work, or if you have a long commute on public transit, you might find a rolling briefcase more to your liking. A messenger-style briefcase bag can fit a lot of situations and will fit a more casual work environment. If your office is more formal, though, you may want to stick with the traditional briefcase styles.
Hard-sided briefcases feature a lightweight, rigid frame made of sturdy cardboard, plastic, or aluminum. They usually feature a handle but no shoulder straps and have dividers and folders to keep items within the case neat. A case with no framing at the top of the bag is considered a soft-sided briefcase. This style case opens from the top so that contents can be stored and retrieved while the case is vertical. Soft-sided cases often come with both a handle and a detachable shoulder strap. The size of the briefcase needs to accommodate the contents. If you plan to store a laptop and legal-size documents in the briefcase, make sure the size you choose fits your needs.
With all this in mind, here are a few briefcases we recommend you check out:
This year marks 100 years of quality leather craftsmanship from Korchmar, a family-owned American company. To mark the company’s anniversary, Korchmar introduced its Centennial collection. Each piece is hand-crafted with full-grain American leather and accented with nickel-plated brass hardware. The collection includes the Centennial Ford, Gerald, Truman, Woodrow, Winston, Taft, and Roosevelt. True great choices for lawyers are the Centennial Truman and the Centennial Winston. The Centennial Truman ($495, http://korchmar.com), is a sleek, functional briefcase, constructed from full-grain leather, with quick-release metal closures. The bag contains a padded laptop sleeve that will accommodate most 15” laptops. To accommodate modern technology, there is also a sleeve for a tablet/iPad, and smaller pockets on the outside for your smartphone, power cords, and personal items. It also includes a convenient carry bag strap to slide over your wheeled carry-on luggage for convenient travel. There is a flat exterior pocket for your paper files and an interior pocket organizer for cards and pens. The briefcase closes with quick snaps, making it fast to get in and out of the bag.
The Centennial Winston ($560, korchmar.com) is a roomy, traditional catalog case. It is also constructed from full-grain American leather. The interior contains two partitions separating three compartments for organizing your work. There is a padded laptop compartment that will fit most 15” laptops. There is also a compartment for your iPad/tablet and a convenient hook for your keys. The sleek lines and sturdy structure of the case echo the quality of Korchmar’s earliest pilot cases in the 1940s. The outside features a secure combination locking system, a nice added layer of protection when you are on the go.
Kattee offers a good briefcase at an entry-level price—the majority of their cases fall under $200. The Kattee Real Leather 16” Laptop Briefcase Large Messenger Bag Backpack Handbag ($169.99, http://kattee.com) is a nice option to consider. The bag can convert into multiple styles, including a backpack, lending to its convenience. It is made with genuine leather and features quality buckles and nice organizational features that can accommodate up to a 16” laptop. Kattee makes some bag models that can accommodate up to 17” laptops, so if you carry the larger size, you may want to consider this brand. You will not find some of the quality features you see in Korchmar, nor the same quality of materials, but this is a good place to start if it better suits your budget.
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. The Tumi bags often come in either leather or ballistic nylon. We like the leather but have learned that the ballistic nylon wears longer and better as a general rule than the softer leather used by Tumi for its production.
Check out the Emma Business Brief ($495, http://tumi.com). This bag features a removable, adjustable shoulder strap and a button closure handle keeper for added convenience while carrying. There is a hidden pocket to secure your cell phone and a sleeve on the outside to slide over wheeled carry-on luggage while traveling. There are three compartments for storage, one of which is a padded laptop sleeve. You might also want to look at one of the cases in Tumi’s venerable Alpha Bravo line (recently updated to the Alpha Bravo 2). Check them out in one of the numerous Tumi retail stores or online at http://tumi.com.
You can sometimes save a few dollars by planning ahead and buying during one of Tumi’s infrequent sales. Be sure you get on their mailing list to get notice. You can also often get discontinued lines or colors (still quite good) online, at the retail stores, and at outlets.
Tumi builds a lesser line of merchandise 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 the designed-for-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 made-for-retail-store products. We have acquired several over the years, and they have proven quite satisfactory.
In the days of yesteryear, Coach turned out some of the most incredibly durable leather products. They continue to make excellent products, but their leather cases do not have the durability of the older cases (Jeff has a couple of Coach cases that he got as a young lawyer, still uses, and are older than Ashley). Like Tumi, Coach builds a number of products for its outlets. The outlet products are quite decent but not as nice as what they sell in the retail stores. Coach also uses its outlets to dispose of excess inventory and discontinued items at good discounts. Coach outlets seem to have more sales and deeper discounts than Tumi, so you often can find a good value there.
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. If you are the type to shell out hundreds of dollars on the newest smartphones as soon as they come off the assembly line, it only makes sense to protect your investment. Every year new smartphones emerge, and every year there are new cases designed to protect them. The number of manufacturers and models of cases 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 before we highlight a few of the ones we like best.
Shop around. It is rare to find the best price for a case on the manufacturer’s website; your best bet is to shop around before you purchase. If the manufacturer only sells direct from its site, then that is the only option you have. If it is available on Amazon.com or eBay.com or any of several alternative online retailers, you will often find a better bargain there. At any rate, it never hurts to check.
Do some homework. Read the reviews for the case you are interested in. Even if it is not the case for your specific model of phone, you can get a sense of the quality and potential pitfalls before you purchase.
Understand how much protection you need. The clumsier you are, the more protection you probably need. But with more protection come more bulk and weight. There are always trade-offs. Keep in mind your environment—will the phone be near water a lot? Toddlers? Hungry Labrador retrievers? Knowing the elements your phone will face can help you choose a case.
There are many 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.
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.
Many protective cases are device specific, although cases designed for a particular model will often fit other, 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.com has an amazing collection of cases for electronics). The Apple Stores offer a 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 that happens to have a designer name. Sometimes designer names show up on some very good products. We are particularly fond of some of the leather products offered by Col. Littleton (http://colonellittleton.com), Levenger (http://levenger.com), and occasionally by Coach (http://coach.com).
Col. Littleton still makes our favorite leather envelope, the No. 5 Pocket for iPad ($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. One of the authors got one several years ago and continues to use it several iPads later. It looks great and continues to provide protection to the iPad.
Some of our favorite sleeves and protective cases come from the Tumi store (http://tumi.com) in its iconic designs, made from ballistic nylon that seems to wear as well or better than anything. We also 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.
We really like the Tumi Alpha sleeves for tablets and laptops; they 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 (http://tucanousa.com), Targus (http://targus.com/us), and Swiss Army (Victorinox; http://victorinox.com), among others.
If you use a Surface Pro, check out Kensington’s line of BlackBelt cases. They are highly protective cases for the Surface Pro at a reasonable price ($39.99 to $59.99, http://kensington.com), but we prefer Tumi’s Alpha 2 Medium Laptop Cover ($95, http://tumi.com).
Three established smartphone case makers you should consider are Speck, OtterBox, and Lifeproof. We have listed them in order of perceived durability and price, with Speck being on the lower end of the spectrum and Lifeproof being the most durable and most expensive. The Speck lineup of protective cases is designed both to make and take an impact. The Speck Presidio Ultra case is a great value for the protection you get. It builds in two layers of protection designed to safeguard your device from drops up to 15 feet. The rubberized grips on the outside improve your hold on the product, while the raised bevel around design offers screen protection. It is one of the slimmest designs available on the market. The Presidio Ultra is available for iPhone X ($49.95, http://speckproducts.com), iPhone 8 ($49.95) and iPhone 8 Plus ($54.95). Alternatively, check out the Presidio Grip, which is available for a large number of cell phone models, including various models by Apple, Samsung, LG, and Google. Retail price for the Grip is around $45 or less depending on your model, however most of them can be found for less than $30 on Amazon. The Grip offers a one-piece, multilayer design that protects your phone from damage in drops up to ten feet (not far behind the Ultra). You can find an added layer of convenience in the Presidio Wallet ($39.96) line of cases, which offers the ten-foot-drop protection and can hold up to three credit cards or cash in the external sleeve.
If you have the select iPhone model (7, 7 Plus, 8, 8 Plus, or X), the OtterBox Pursuit series offers rugged protection in a thin and light package ($69.95 to $79.95, http://otterbox.com). This two-piece case snaps around each device for a perfect fit. The exterior is made of proprietary materials, called PursuiTech, a system of liners on the interior of the case that are optimized for impact protection and durability. It also features a recessed back that helps guard against aesthetic scratches while maintaining a sleek look and feel. The case is outfitted with a lanyard for secure carrying, which is especially helpful while capturing amazing photos outdoors.
If you have a different model, the two top OtterBox lines to consider are the Defender and the Commuter series. The Defender series ($49.95 to $69.95) has a long-standing history of providing superior protection. It is a rugged multilayer case that features a shell and outer slipcover to absorb and dissipate shock. This multilayer approach makes it the thicker case of the two, made for the more accident-prone smartphone user. The Defender case has a rubberized exterior for superior grip and comes with a belt clip that can double as a kickstand while you are watching videos. It has screen protection built into the case.
The Commuter series ($34.95 to $49.95) has a thinner profile (adding about ¼” to your phone) that definitely fits better in your pocket. There are two portions to this case, a rubber inner shell and a rigid plastic outer shell. OtterBox added better grips along the sides of the Commuter series to make it easier to hold without adding bulk or weight. It gives you the option to add tempered glass for screen protection and is also compatible with third-party screen protectors. Adding the case to your phone is very straightforward. The rubber portion slips over your phone nicely and then snaps into the plastic outer case. Some users find the Defender to be a bit more rigid and difficult to install, but that is part of how it offers better protection. Both the Defender and the Commuter series offer port protection to prevent dust and debris from getting into your phone ports.
Styli. Touch screen technology has been great for making our devices highly mobile; however, gifting a stylus can improve the recipient’s comfort level while operating their smartphone or tablet (especially if they put the devices to creative use or prefer to write notes by hand versus typing). A stylus also keeps oily, grubby fingers off the screen, where they create smears that interfere with seeing the content. Also sometimes called a touch pen (or in Apple’s case, a Pencil), a stylus is a stick-shaped tool that looks like a pen. You can use a stylus to operate any type of touch screen. This includes touch screens on PCs, handheld consoles, PDAs, smartphones, and tablets. A stylus basically replaces your fingers and allows you to control your display without having to touch it, usually resulting in better precision. Most styli vary on cost and precision, and choosing one is more a matter of personal style. However, if you are looking for a place to start, a few you might consider are the Apple Pencil ($99, http://apple.com), Adonit Switch ($34.99, http://adonit.net), and Adonit Pixel ($74.99). The Apple Pencil is heralded as a superior stylus both for writing and drawing; however, its real usefulness is limited to iPad Pro users (of both the 10.5” and 12.9” versions). Its design allows it to be sensitive to pressure and tilt, and it is one of the fastest and most responsive styli on the market. The Adonit Switch is one of the best tools for hand writers and note takers, offering the ability to switch between screen and paper seamlessly. It has a built-in ballpoint pen on one end and precision tip and disc on the other to create an exact contact point with touch screens without damaging the surface.
PopSockets. PopSockets ($10, http://popsockets.com) are a fun gift you can send your tech-savvy clients. They are circular discs that adhere to the back of almost any mobile device and expand to serve a variety of useful functions. The PopSocket can “pop” open anytime you need a grip, a stand, or something to wrap your earbuds around. The PopSocket can make it easier to hold your e-reader or tablet while reading and browsing. One of the neat things about PopSockets, and what makes them great gifts for clients, is the ability to design your own—the website includes an entire section dedicated to personalized designs. Simply upload a 300-dpi image in .jpg or .png format and adjust the size or add text if you prefer. A simple logo would look great. You can then choose the color of the base and the top disc. Once you are ready, hit preview, and the website moves your design to your cart (note: you cannot make further design revisions once it has moved to your cart). Then choose the quantity you would like. Custom-designed PopSockets with your logo are $15 each, with a discount for bulk orders (you can get 100 for $4.89 each).
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 trade-offs for loss of functionality. The more power you save, the more features you need to give up. We don’t like this approach. In truth, most heavy users will need and want to recharge their devices during the day. We have found it helpful to carry an external power source for convenience and insurance.
Although we used to prefer phone cases with built-in batteries, such cases add both size and weight to the phone (a problem that increased with the size of our phones), and they have the disadvantage of device specificity. We now prefer the more flexible (and often far more powerful) external devices that can 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 and the amperage of the output ports. 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. If you use a MacBook, get one with a USB-C output port that has been approved for use with the MacBook. 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 power through the connecting port.
We don’t ever leave home without one or more battery boosters (sometimes called power banks). 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 (http://mophie.com), Jackery (http://jackery.com), Monster (http://monsterproducts.com), Samsung (http://samsung.com), Anker (http://anker.com), and myCharge (http://mycharge.com).
The power supplies from RAVPower (http://ravpower.com) represent some of the best values we have found. Two of our favorite larger-capacity devices come from RAVPower: the RAVPower 22000 mAh ($39.99 at Amazon) and the RAVPower 12000 mAh ($21.99 at Amazon). Both offer very compact and relatively lightweight options to keep your tablet, phone, and e-reader running all day long and then some. 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.
Slightly smaller in capacity (and less expensive) are the Polanfo 20000 mAh Power Bank Ultra High Capacity External Battery ($29.99) and the Polanfo 20000M Power Bank holding 12,000 mAh ($18.99); both are available from Amazon. These devices make reasonably priced gifts that almost anyone will find useful.
As Samsung’s phones have had NFC (near field communications) wireless charging available for a while and Apple has included that feature in this year’s models, you might also consider gifting an NFC charging base. Samsung sells them, along with a number of other manufacturers. We have seen them online and in Best Buy stores. Other electronics stores will likely have them as well. Amazon has a pretty good collection starting at $13.95 (with free shipping through Amazon Prime).
Gifts That Sound Good
Earphones and headsets. Give the gift of high-quality sound this year. 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 work only to play music, many of them also handle telephone functions. You can get headsets and earbuds in wired and wireless versions. All iPhones starting with the 7 and 7 Plus no longer include an audio port for standard connectivity of wired devices. The wired connection for earphones now goes through the Lightning port (via an adapter provided by Apple). The use of the Lightning port for a headphone prevents using it for recharging concurrently. There are Lightning port adapters that give you both Lightning and USB-C ports, allowing you to charge and listen concurrently. We have tried these adapters and they work, but we are moving to exclusively wireless connectivity on all our devices. In the past we felt wired connections provided better sound, but the improvements in the quality of wireless connections has closed that gap. One of us (Jeff) considers the wireless connections just fine in terms of audio quality and much more convenient than dealing with wires that keep getting caught on things. Apple is clearly pushing the adoption of wireless connectivity. Much to Ashley’s dismay, more smartphones are following suit, eliminating the headphone jack completely. For these smartphones, you must either use wireless headphones or be sure to have a dongle/jack that will accommodate any high-quality wired headphones you buy.
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.
You don’t have to worry about the lack of an earphone jack if you buy into wireless as the vehicle for earphones and headsets. In truth, you have a wide and increasing selection of wireless devices from which to choose. Some of our favorites come from Bose (http://bose.com). The Bose SoundSport wireless headphones ($149.95) come in citron (yellow), aqua (blue), and black, with StayHear+ silicone sport tips that allow the buds to fit comfortably in your ears. The tips have a unique shape that creates a gentle seal at the entrance of your ear canal, which improves the audio performance. The crisp sound quality is a treat in any situation. The buds are connected to each other by a wire that is light and barely noticeable when you wear it, but they connect wirelessly to your phone or tablet using Bluetooth technology. You can take calls on your phone using the inline microphone. The headphones also work with many apps that use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), such as Skype or FaceTime. The headphones can connect to a device up to 30 feet away (although walls and doors may shorten this range). They will last about six hours on a full charge, but then take about two hours to regain the full charge.
Another option is the brand-new Bose SoundSport Free wireless headphones ($249.95). These are truly wireless ear buds that sit in your ear with no wires connecting them to each other or to your device. We have not had the opportunity to try them yet, but we look forward to it. By the time you read this, you should be able to check out a pair at your local Bose store. We also like the Bose SoundLink Around-Ear Wireless Headphones II ($229.95). You can also look at the Beats by Dr. Dre Powerbeats3 wireless ear buds ($199.95, http://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.
Bose has had a commanding position respecting noise cancellation devices for some time. The top of the line is the Bose QuietComfort 35 (QC35) acoustic noise canceling headphones ($349.95). The headphones are a wireless/wired combo package you can use either way. They get about 20 hours of 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. This 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 one of our favorite headphones.
You also might want to check out the Bose QuietComfort 30 (QC30) wireless earbuds ($299.95). These also have active noise cancellation. They are small but powerful. They will easily fit in your pocket or purse and give you excellent sound quality.
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, check out the Beoplay A1 from Bang & Olufsen ($249, http://beoplay.com). It 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.
We also very much like the Bose SoundLink Revolve Bluetooth speakers. The SoundLink Revolve has a cylindrical form that pushes sound out in 360 degrees. It comes in two sizes; the larger of the two, the SoundLink Revolve+, costs $299.95 (http://bose.com) and the smaller costs $199.95. Although both come under the heading of “portable,” the SoundLink Revolve+ (7.25” x 4.13” x 4.13”, 2 pounds) is relatively heavy and not the kind of thing you want to carry around everywhere or even travel with, unless you happen to be driving. It has great sound, however, and works well in situations where you want a portable, but not necessarily diminutive, mobile speaker. Think your office or patio or at a picnic. The smaller SoundLink Revolve has a bit less of everything, except quality. Aside from being physically smaller and weighing less (5.97” x 3.24” x 3.24”, 1.5 pounds), it does not have the same power, but it does a very nice job, particularly in a smaller room. Some of the other notable features of the SoundLink Revolve include the fact that the speaker is water-resistant, and the SoundLink Revolve comes with the ability to access Siri and/or Google Now simply by pushing a multifunction button. The SoundLink Revolve also acts as a speakerphone and comes with a universal mount to allow you to connect it to a tripod should you find yourself in a situation without a flat surface or just want to show off how cleverly it was designed. One word of caution respecting Bose, however: We have liked Bose products and Bose as a company for some time. Unfortunately, while their products continue to be excellent and we still enjoy them, we have learned that the company’s customer service is no longer as good as it used to be. We recently had to deal with customer service at Bose in connection with an order and found the process to be time consuming and frustrating as the personnel we dealt with were not very helpful or responsive. Fortunately, we have had very little in terms of issues with Bose that required interfacing with customer service, so we will continue to recommend their products. We do not feel that we can responsibly do so, however, without providing this warning to prospective purchasers.
Another excellent all-around Bluetooth speakers is the UE Boom 2 by Ultimate Ears ($199.99, http://ultimateears.com). The UE Boom 2 boasts a 15-hour battery life and powerful audio performance at a range of more than 30 feet. It is portable, durable, and waterproof. The company claims that you can immerse the speaker in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes before you run the risk of it leaking and being damaged. (Note: We have not endeavored to verify this claim; you do so at your own risk.) The cylinder-shaped speaker emits 360-degree sound that fills a room. You can use the Boom app to link two speakers and double-up on your sound, or set an alarm to wake you from sleep. Up to two people can connect to the speaker through the app. The UE Boom 2 adds a tap control feature that, when activated through the app, allows you to control the speaker with taps. You can tap the speaker twice to skip songs, three times to go backward.
Smart Home Tech Gifts
Smart home technology providers are generating more and more consumer-friendly products every year, making it easy to get started building your smart home. “Smart home” is the term used to define a residence with appliances and features that are capable of communicating with one another and can be controlled remotely. The technology generally offers users convenience, along with saving time, money, and energy. Some of these tools make great gifts for the loved ones in your life who want to be more “green” or could use a little more convenience.
One of the easiest smart home gifts to set up is the Amazon Echo ($99.99, amazon.com). Amazon launched its Echo series of smart speakers in 2015. Since that time it has expanded from the Echo (a tower-shaped speaker) to the Echo Dot (a hockey puck–shaped speaker, $49.99), and this year brought us the Echo Show (a larger speaker with video screen for video/voice calling, streaming, etc., $229.99). All the devices connect to the voice-controlled digital assistant service, Alexa, which responds when you speak that name. Alternative words you can use to “wake” or activate the devices include “Amazon,” “Echo,” or “Computer.” The devices are capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, providing weather and traffic reports, and controlling smart home technology.
Setting up an Amazon Echo is no sweat at all; simply plug in the speaker, download and open the Amazon Alexa app, and begin following its prompts. The Echo is a Bluetooth speaker (meaning it uses Bluetooth technology to connect to your devices); however, it connects to your wireless Internet to process voice commands. You will need an Amazon account to use the Echo and Alexa. (We highly recommend you get one anyway if you do not already have one; it is a great place for online shopping.) We talked about the Echo and the Echo Dot in prior years, so this year we will look at Amazon’s newest offering, the Echo Show.
The Echo Show offers better speakers than the Echo and a large touch screen display that can be used for video calling any other Echo Show or Amazon Alexa app users. The display can also show you videos from Amazon Prime, display pictures like a digital photo frame, and show you weather reports or the lyrics to a song as it streams music. More “skills” are being added by third-party apps. For anyone wanting a gift for communicating with elder parents, this could be a great option to consider. Alexa (the digital assistant integral to the Echo devices) now offers a “Drop In” feature that, if enabled, allows specific authorized contacts to see into your camera feed regardless of whether or not you actually pick up the call. When the user does, they will see a blurred feed for the first ten seconds, during which time the owner can disable the camera or reject the call outright. There is a notification displayed on the screen whenever someone is actively viewing your feed. There is a motion sensor in the Echo Show that will notify authorized contacts when it senses you nearby. This may sound a tad creepy, but it also makes sense for keeping an eye on an aging relative.
Google Home ($129, http://store.google.com), Google’s response to the Amazon Echo, made its debut in the United States in November 2016. It is a voice-activated smart speaker powered by Home’s intelligent digital assistant, called Google Assistant. There are many Google and third-party services integrated into the speaker, allowing you to listen to music, look at videos or photos, or get news updates entirely by voice. Google Home uses Google Search when looking up answers and responses to your questions, a nice advantage over the Amazon Echo, which is powered by Bing. You activate Google Home with the wake words “Okay, Google” or “Hey, Google,” but not just by saying “Google”; this way you can avoid confusion.
Some of the useful voice prompts you can give Google Home include: control the volume (“Okay, Google, turn it up,” or “Okay, Google, louder,” or “Okay, Google, turn it to 11”—yes, the max is 11), halt an action (“Okay, Google, stop,” or “Okay, Google, pause,” or “Okay, Google, be quiet”), do math (“Okay, Google, what’s 354 times 11?”), look up recipes (“Okay, Google, how do I make a grilled cheese sandwich?”), or even remember things for you (“Okay, Google, remember that I put my passport in the filing cabinet) and recall things it’s remembered (“Okay, Google, where is my passport?”).
Google Home can be trained to recognize multiple voices and even match these voices to their unique Google accounts (so both you and your spouse could get your unique calendar updates upon request). If you want to have some fun with it, try “Okay, Google, self-destruct.”
Our next stop along the path of smart home gifts is the Ring WiFi-enabled Video Doorbell ($179, http://ring.com/video-doorbell), a device you can install on any door, with or without an existing doorbell, and get instant alerts when visitors ring your bell or trigger the built-in motion sensors. You can then use the free Ring app to see, hear, and speak to guests from your smartphone, tablet, or PC, no matter where you are. This is a great gift for the frequent traveler, allowing you to see who is coming up to your door and communicate with them as though you are inside even if you are miles away. One note of caution: A number of people we know have found the Ring somewhat problematic to install. Accordingly, if you plan on getting one, you might consider hiring a professional to handle the installation for you.
For the pet owners in your life, check out the Petzi Treat Cam ($169.95, http://petzi.com). This pet camera allows you to check in on your pets, talk to them through the speaker wherever you are, and even hand out your pets’ favorite treat to them. With the built-in camera, you can see a live stream or snap a picture of your pet. The speaker makes it a useful device for owners whose pets suffer from separation anxiety, allowing you to soothe your pet when you are away.
Gifts for the Craft-y
In the past, crafting and doing it yourself was usually reserved for the elder generations of grandmas and grandpas who were retired and trying to fill their abundance of free time. Nowadays, even Generation Y is earning the moniker Generation DIY. Millennials are seeking active participation, and customization, and there are a host of craft-y technologies to meet these needs.
One popular hobby is home brewing. While independent craft beer makers have been around for centuries, craft brewing itself only represented 10 percent of beer sales as of 2012. By 2014 the craft beer share of the market doubled to 20 percent. As people started trying their hand at brewing the perfect beer, home brewing systems began emerging, leading to today’s gift for the craft beer brewer in your life, the PicoBrew’s Pico Pro home brewing system ($799.99, http://picobrew.com). The Pico Pro can brew up to five liters of beer at a time (around 13 12-ounce bottles.) You can fine-tune the bitterness and alcohol content to your taste. You can set the fermentation to the standard ten days or a faster five to seven days. The BrewMarketplace on http://picobrew.com features ingredients for a variety of brew recipes combined into PicoPaks, or you can be your own brew master with freestyle PicoPaks. Master your recipe and you can share it on the BrewMarketplace.
For the Top Chef and Chopped fans in your life, take a look at the VonShef Premium 8 Liter Sous Vide/Water Oven ($50, http://vonshef.com). Sous vide is a method of cooking in which food is vacuum-sealed in a plastic pouch and then placed in a water bath or steam environment for longer than normal cooking times (anywhere from one to seven hours, up to 48 hours or more in some cases), at an accurately regulated temperature that is lower than normally used for cooking (around 131° to 140° for meat). The idea is to cook the food evenly, ensuring that the inside is thoroughly cooked without over-cooking the outside, thus retaining more of the item’s natural moisture. It is a nice gift for anyone who loves gourmet food and can even help those who are not that handy in the kitchen (one of the authors included).
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 multifunction 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 (http://amazon.com). 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 0.4” 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 cost $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).
Amazon’s Kindle 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 also offers what has become our favorite E Ink reader, the Kindle Oasis. The Oasis sports a larger, 7” screen, but measures only 6.3” x 5.6” x 0.13–0.33” and weighs 6.8 ounces (WiFi-only or WiFi plus 3G). In our opinion, it 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. 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, so you do not have to buy it as a separate accessory (Amazon does not currently sell the Oasis without the battery cover, although, if you want, you can buy the battery cover separately, which also allows you to change the color of the 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 $249.99 with special offers for the WiFi-only version. The WiFi plus 3G version costs $349.99 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. Although the Fire models appear pretty decent, we prefer the iPad by far as a tablet. We would not consider the Fire tablets as a purchase for ourselves. We think of them as a less expensive gift for someone or, perhaps, a gift for a young user.
Amazon provides a detailed comparison of options, features, and pricing as well as technical specifications for all Kindle and Fire Tablet 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.
Memory Storage Devices
We all need to store data. A disk drive can make a well-appreciated gift that will get a lot of use—particularly a small, portable hard drive. 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 drive. We recently saw the 500 GB version at Amazon for $167.99. We also like the Lexar portable SSD, which we have found for less at both Amazon and Costco. It appears to function more or less comparably to the T3, but lacks the panache.
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 (http://seagate.com) and Western Digital (http://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. In reality, it makes little difference which you get 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 often can save several dollars by getting a Windows-formatted version and reformatting it for the Mac. Both companies make drives that work with USB 3.0 and are backward-compatible to USB 2.0. The 3.0 devices have more rapid transfer speeds when connected to a computer running 3.0. A 3.0 drive plugged into a 2.0 port runs at 2.0 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 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. The newest version, known as Series 3, just announced but not yet deliverable (it should be available by the time you read this gift guide), includes cellular phone capabilities (it requires a carrier agreement to operate). For those of you old enough to remember the Dick Tracy comics, this will likely be as close as we get to his wrist radio and quite a bit more functional. 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 the Apple Watch devices in each series of each generation 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 (http://apple.com). 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. Note that you can get multiple bands and easily switch them, allowing you to give the watch a variety of appearances. Apple has so many configurations of its watch that you should be able to find a case and strap option to suit almost everyone. We also have discovered that if you go to Amazon, you can find a variety of bands made to work with the Apple watch at considerably less than Apple charges. We have even found an inexpensive third-party Milanese Loop band. You can check out all the models, cases, and Apple bands in detail on the Apple website.
Although we like the Apple Watch, the simple fact of the matter is that it remains 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 newer versions makes them more capable of running the connected apps, but it still has a very small display for dealing 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.
Fitbit. When it comes to fitness trackers, we think Fitbit represents your best choice in terms of function and value (but not so much in terms of style).
Fitbit is entering the ring with Apple, Samsung, Google, and others this year by launching its Ionic smart watch ($299.95, http://fitbit.com), a timepiece that is packed with motivating fitness guidance and personal coaching, health insights, music storage, utility apps, and more. The Ionic comes equipped with built-in GPS and heart rate monitor. You can set the watch to Bike, Run, or Hike mode, and the GPS will keep track of your pace, distance, time, steps, and more. Fitbit integrated a GPS antenna into the watch’s case, resulting in a stronger satellite connection and more accurate stats. The Ionic also streams fitness routines to your watch screen and is designed to adapt these routines to your feedback so you can get the workout that suits your fitness level. It will also recommend workouts for you based on your recent activity, like yoga or stretching after a long run, or more intense workouts after a day of rest. Fitbit enhanced the swim tracking capabilities on the Ionic and made it water-resistant, a bonus for anyone training for a triathlon. Practicing mindfulness? The Ionic can help there too by offering personalized guided breathing sessions based on your heart rate. It keeps track of sleep stages for you, your resting heart rate, and your cardio fitness level over time, giving you useful data to monitor your overall health. Fitbit has been tracking fitness and activity for a long time and arguably has the best app for it, especially when you look at how well it integrates with other fitness/weight-loss applications.
Fitbit’s Charge 2 ($149.95, fitbit.com) packs a lot of features into a smaller, less cumbersome package. Its predecessor, the Charge HR, was lauded as the number-one-selling fitness tracker in 2016. It was easily unseated by the Charge 2. The latest Charge wearable contains a larger display with easier access to your health data. It also can alert you to incoming text messages and calendar notifications; although it is a bit harder to read from the small display, the alert at least notifies you to check your phone. The Charge 2 does not have GPS built-in, but it can use your phone’s GPS to track your distance and pace. Fitbit incorporated guided breathing sessions into this device as well. This device is not water-resistant, so if you are looking to take it for a swim or in the shower, you may want to look at other devices.
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.
Protect your Loved Ones on the Road
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of the date of this article, 47 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands all ban text messaging for all drivers; Missouri prohibits text messaging by teenage drivers. Add to that, 14 states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit any using of a handheld cell phone while driving (including for calls and GPS). Thirty-eight states have banned all cell phone use (even hands-free usage) by teenage drivers. All this legislation makes it a great year to look at hands-free gifts to help the people you care about stay safe on the road.
When shopping for a car stereo, some information you need to have available includes:
- Vehicle year, make, and model. (This will allow you to filter out devices that will not fit the car.)
- How does the person listen to music? (For example, via iPod or iPhone, thumb drive, SD Card, CDs, FM radio, satellite radio, Pandora, Aha!, or Spotify Internet Radio?)
- Do you need GPS navigation? Stereos with built-in navigation help prevent you from getting lost, and the navigation screen is much larger than most portable navigators. This prevents the user from looking down at a phone screen while navigating.
- How much hands-free control are you looking for?
- What mobile device does your loved one use? If Apple CarPlay and/or Android Auto are incorporated into the stereo, there is added functionality available, such as talk-to-text.
Sony XAV-AX100. The Sony XAV-AX100 touchscreen stereo ($399.99, http://sony.com) is a digital media receiver (which means it does not play CDs) that will work with both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. So if you do not know what kind of smartphone someone uses, or if they change to a new phone, the receiver will work with almost anything. It has a built-in AM/FM tuner for radio listening, a 6.4” LCD touchscreen, and built-in Bluetooth for hands-free calling and audio streaming. It works with Siri Eyes Free on Apple smartphones, which lets you operate the phone via a voice command button on the car’s steering wheel, enabling the driver to make and receive calls, select and play music, send and receive text messages, access maps and get directions, receive notifications, set reminders, and more, all by voice command. Its Android Auto compatibility allows for the same functionality for Android phone users.
If this stereo is not compatible with your car type, there are a multitude of others to choose from. If you want to find which one is best for you, check out http://crutchfield.com. The website has a guide for filtering stereos to the ones that fit your model car.
Navdy. Navdy ($499.95, http://navdy.com) is a futuristic, heads-up-display that fits into a mount on your dashboard, plugs into your car’s onboard diagnostic port, syncs with your smartphone, and then projects messages, maps, calls, and social media alerts right in your line of sight. It is worth noting it only works on cars made after 1996. The display will project information such as speed, engine RPM, and compass direction on a transparent screen in front of you. Your important alerts appear to float above the road as you are driving, so you never have to look down to check your navigation or text messages. Navdy integrates with a driver’s smartphone to provide music, contacts, and communications through the Navdy app, which is available for iOS and Android. The device uses built-in GPS and Google Maps to show the surrounding area, display speed limits and street names, and navigate you toward your destination.
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 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, manufacturers have developed after-market audio systems to upgrade the sound quality of televisions. 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 its sound bars offer a very attractive and easy-to-use package. The lineup now consists of two bars, the top-of-the-line SoundTouch 300 ($699.95, http://bose.com) and the smaller Solo 5 ($249.95). 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 subwoofer to give you a deeper and richer bass. You can even add rear speakers to create a surround-sound environment. The $699.95 price represents the basic sound bar, while additions available through Bose allow you to create packages costing as much as $1,699.85. At the less expensive end of the scale, the Solo 5 will offer noticeable improvement over most built-in television sound systems, but it does not sound as good to our ears as the now-discontinued Solo 15. Nevertheless, we consider it a good value and recommend it, particularly for use in a smaller room.
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. Apple’s device has now reached its fifth generation, called Apple TV 4K, and offers 4K and HDR (High Dynamic Range). You can get it with your choice of 32 GB or 64 GB of memory for $179 or $199, respectively (http://apple.com). The Roku devices (http://roku.com) cost substantially less, starting at $29.99 for the Roku Express and going up to $99.99 for the Roku Ultra (which includes 4K and HDR capability, along with numerous advanced features on the remote control). Amazon (http://amazon.com) just announced the release of its new Fire TV, which will be available by the time you read this, but which we could not get to review prior to writing the guide. It will only cost $69.99 and will include 4K and the Alexa digital assistant to help you find what you want to watch.
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). We think the Apple TV has the best physical remote, particularly for those with other Apple paraphernalia (e.g., iMac, MacBook, iPad, iPhone) and a good-sized stake in media from the iTunes store. On the other hand, Amazon’s Alexa is a pretty neat interface. Google did not want to be left out of the picture, so it offers the $35 Google Chromecast for your entertainment pleasure (http://store.google.com). If you are not heavily invested in Apple products (or iTunes media), 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. In terms of price and specifications, the Amazon Fire TV looks like the best option, all things being equal, but each has something going for it. Absent special needs (like the iTunes media issue), you pretty much can’t go wrong with any of them.
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, http://apple.com) has received a recent update, making it even better. It now uses rechargeable batteries and has a lower profile and a reengineered 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 ($159 for the 10.5” iPad Pro, $169 for the 12.9” iPad Pro) comes with a physical and electronic connection to the iPad. The Smart Connector has the advantage of giving you power 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 mostly use Bluetooth connectivity (although we have seen a few that use the Lightning connector). 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 this 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 (http://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.
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 now 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 http://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, http://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 or Best Buy, offer electronic recycling services for a nominal fee to cover the cost of shipping.