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. We have chosen items in 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 everyone on your list and maybe a few things you want for yourself.
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. We have chosen items in 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 everyone on your list and maybe a few things you want for yourself.
In 2015 the “Internet of Things” (IoT), a network of physical objects with embedded electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity that enables objects to collect and exchange data, became a popular buzzword among those interested in the evolution of technology. The IoT focuses on machine-to-machine automated communication, built on rapidly evolving cloud-computing network technology. This technology opens limitless windows of opportunity.
In 2016 and 2017 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 such as smartphones and 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 2018 the IoT continued to grow in scope and in applications. We predict that it will remain a “thing” for many years to come (think in terms of the staying power of the Industrial Revolution). We will focus on some of the offerings available as part of the IoT, as well as include our evaluation of new offerings in more traditional examples of technology suitable for gifting—some of which have actually started to evolve into the seamless web of the IoT, much as plants tend to grow toward sunlight.
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 in this article as we are telling you what we think about particular products, 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 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.
- When it comes to clients, make sure any gifts comply with your state rules. Under the Model Rules, lawyers can give gifts to clients, subject to some qualifications. Rule 1.8(e) discusses some limitations: “A lawyer shall not provide financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation, except that: (1) a lawyer may advance court costs and expenses of litigation, the repayment of which may be contingent on the outcome of the matter; and (2) a lawyer representing an indigent client may pay court costs and expenses of litigation on behalf of the client.” In general, a token of appreciation for a client around the holidays should be safe. There are a lot of potential client gifts that can help keep your firm name on their minds. You may want to consider the Boardroom Silver Stylus Penlight ($0.99 each for 50, amsterdamprinting.com). The light is helpful in a power outage or low-light conditions, and the stylus end works on all touch-capacitive smart devices (phones, tablets, etc.). If you have a lot of clients wearing glasses, they might like the Screwdriver Pen with Stylus ($1.40 each for 250, amsterdamprinting.com). The screwdriver portion features a Phillips or flat-head tip. Another handy tool is the Slide Out Magnifier with Light ($2.79 each for 150, adcomarketing.com).
- 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 Ashley’s and Jeff’s personal opinions and observations respecting the products addressed. Please do not give anyone else credit for our opinions. If you buy it and don’t like it, give it to someone else, but don’t blame us. We can only tell you how we reacted to a product and what we thought about it. Desirability of tech tools and toys, however, like beauty, rests in the beholder’s eye. If you look around hard enough, you can find someone who will disagree with each thing we say in this article. That’s okay, they are entitled to their opinions, no matter how incorrect we think they are.
- 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 go on sale late in the holiday season as vendors grow concerned about the likelihood of having surplus inventory that they did not sell. (This makes it a great time to buy something for yourself). We have finished this guide in the early fall for publication in the late fall to help you in your holiday shopping. It is likely that prices on some of the items will change from September to November.
- 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 resale in this country. They often do not include the manufacturer’s U.S. warranty but, instead, include an “international warranty” that may 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, if it breaks and you want it fixed, remember: caveat emptor! As a general rule, we prefer getting non-gray-market electronics goods with the U.S. warranty.
- Some products discussed in this article were provided to us for review purposes by manufacturers, their public relations (PR) agents, or vendors willing to work with us; others were purchased for our own use; and still others were 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 and information provided to us by the manufacturer or its PR firm. We try to stay away from products we have not held in our hot little hands; but some products (like the new iPhone) have such significance that we would be remiss in not including them, even though we will finish this article before ours get delivered.
- We have not endeavored to look at, let alone test, every product on the market in each field once we find one we like. We acknowledge that there may be very good products available that we do not mention in this article, even in product areas we discuss at length. The article reflects our observations about the products we have looked at and that attracted our attention. It is not intended to provide a thorough comparison of every product on the market in each area we find something interesting.
- 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, snowboarding, skateboarding, or doing anything else involving motion, can prove dangerous to your health and potentially to the health of others. 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!
Gift giving at or around year-end holidays has grown ubiquitous. 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. Over the last several years, we have adopted the tradition of sharing our insights as our holiday gift to you.
Jeff’s and Ashley’s Lists
As an introduction to the gift guide and a suggestion of what comes next, we will continue our practice of starting with lists 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 have most of the items on our lists.) Working from this premise, we each present (at right) our top ten choices for 2018.
- iPhone Xs (gold colored, 512 GB memory)
- iPad Pro (gold colored, 10.5”, 512 GB memory, WiFi + Cellular)
- MacBook (gold colored, 16 GB RAM, Core i7 processor, 512 GB SSD)
- Sony Cyber-shot RX100 VI camera
- Kindle Oasis e-reader
- Fitbit Charge 3
- Apple Watch Series 4 (gold colored, stainless steel, with Milanese Loop band)
- NutriBullet Balance blender
- Bose Hearphones
- Amazon Echo Show
- O.M.G. bag by Lo & Sons
- XY37 Travel Jacket
- Razer Kiyo streaming webcam
- MacBook (rose gold, 16 GB RAM, Core i7 processor, 512 GB SSD)
- Once Upon a Book Club
- Apple Watch Series 4 (GPS+cellular, gold aluminum case, pink sand sport loop)
- GoPro HERO 7 Black camera
- Microsoft Surface Pro 6 (16 GB RAM, Core i7 processor, 512 GB SSD)
- WGCC Fingerprint Padlock
- STYLIO Zippered Padfolio portfolio binder
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 substantial growth in what we will refer to as “health-tech” devices. Health-tech devices represent technology that assists in developing and maintaining healthful behavior patterns or lifestyles or in treating existing health conditions. We continue to see enormous growth in this classification, as more and more people become health conscious as our population ages and becomes more aware of the need to pay more attention to their health.
Health-related technology runs from what we would now consider low-tech (such as corrective lenses) to the cutting edge of technology (such as highly portable devices capable of continuously monitoring the blood sugar, blood pressure, and heart beat and rhythm of active people and highly sophisticated medical technology that has made routine surgery out of what we considered almost impossible 50 years ago).
Health-related technology includes thousands of apps designed to work alone or with various pieces of hardware to help you monitor your activities, exercise, food consumption, blood sugar, sleep, etc. It also includes apps to help you sleep better, relax better, and focus better.
Accordingly, health-related hardware ranges from wearables, to smartphones and tablets, to sophisticated surgery robots and everything in between. As sophisticated medical equipment exceeds the scope of this article (and the budgets of those reading it), we will focus on health-tech devices intended for consumer consumption. We have also not included in this article any discussion of the vast array of tech-based and tech-friendly exercise devices (stationary bicycles, rowing machines, weight machines, treadmills, etc., all of which would qualify as health-tech devices). This exclusion results from the fact that it proved very difficult for us to coordinate any reasonable evaluative process for such devices. Accordingly, while we think you may find them useful or interesting or desirable as potential health-tech items for yourselves or for gifting, we cannot help you with the choice of what to get other than to suggest that if you want to consider a stationary bike, our research suggests that if you are over 50 or have back problems, you may find that a recumbent version works better for you.
When we think of wearable health-related devices, we think in terms of smart watches and hearing assistance devices. When it comes to fitness-tracking smart watches, GPS helps you keep more accurate track of your progress and activities. Watches with GPS enable users to achieve and maintain recommended intensity levels. GPS watches collect a live stream of data (speed, distance, pace, heart rate, etc.) that you can see on the watch’s display. Recognize also that these devices fall into one of two categories: (1) smart watches that include fitness tracking functions (such as the Apple Watch) and (2) fitness trackers that also function as smart watches (or at least reasonably intelligent watches), such as the Fitbit Charge 3. Most, if not all, the fitness tracker/smart watches have apps that connect them through your smartphone, computer, or tablet to a database in the cloud, enabling you to track your progress over time. Some devices include alerts (vibrations or sound), giving you feedback during a session. When choosing one of these devices, consider:
- What is your goal?
- What is your price range?
- How important 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 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 you just want to get off the couch more, the simpler devices can achieve this without a knockout punch to your wallet. If you plan to train for a marathon, or compete in a triathlon, 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 will inflate the cost even further, as will upgrading the quality of materials. If you want a designer label, you can, of course, pay a premium for that (on top of the premium you pay for the name on the item itself). For example, the Apple Watch Hermès costs significantly more than the equivalent Apple Watch without the “Hermès” designation but gives you the same basic watch with a designer band and a few additional watch faces. Lastly, wearable technology only works if you actually wear it, so consider the size and weight, along with how comfortable it feels, before you make your purchase. In terms of basic style and appearance, while attractiveness will always be focused on the observer, we think that the smart watches look better than the fitness trackers.
To assist you in your research, we have identified our favorites for your consideration.
Apple Watch. We like the Apple Watch best of the smart watches that also function as fitness trackers. The Apple Watch in its various iterations has garnered a lot of attention. 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, tablet, and computer, lets you know when you have a call, displays text and e-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 and deliver the same features, the price differences among the various styles relate to the choice of materials for the case and the band you select (and whether you desire to get one with a designer name attached). For full details, check out the Apple website (apple.com). We like the Apple Watch and think most people would be happy having one. In our opinion, the aluminum body version 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 everyone. You can check out all the models, cases, and Apple bands in detail on the Apple website. You may also find it useful to note that if you go to Amazon’s website, you can find third-party bands made to work with the Apple watch at less than the cost of a genuine Apple band. We have even found an inexpensive third-party Milanese Loop band, not as nice, but not as costly. Oh, a word of good news: Apple has kept the fittings the same on its Apple Watch models so that your older Apple Watch bands should remain usable on the newest models.
Although we like the Apple Watch, the simple fact of the matter is that until last year we thought of it more as a fashion statement than a useful tool. The more powerful processors in the Series 3 made it more capable of running the connected apps; and the Series 3 offered a significant upgrade to the Series 2. The larger display in the Series 4 improves the readability of information on the watch. We still consider the display small for much information, but we think that the Series 4 gives us more of what we thought the Apple Watch would be when it was first announced. We find the inclusion of the ability to provide ECG information particularly impressive. If you own a Series 3, you may not find the improvements to the Series 4 worth the cost of upgrading (unless you have heart issues and want the ECG capabilities or vision issues and want the larger display). If you do not own an Apple Watch and want one or if you have a Series 1 or 2, we think that the improvements justify springing for a new one, and we would take the Series 4 over the Series 3.
Fitbit. When it comes to fitness trackers, we think Fitbit represents your best choice in terms of the combination of function and value. Although Fitbit calls the top two models in its line smart watches, we think of the Fitbit line as essentially activity trackers with some models that have smart-watch-like functions.
Fitbit (fitbit.com) has taken on the heavyweights (Apple, Samsung, Google, etc.) with a line of devices adding additional features (at increasing cost levels). The top-of-the line Fitbit devices bring you into almost the same price range as the least expensive Apple Watches (Series 3 Apple Watches start at $279, and the top of the Fitbit line starts at $299.95). We prefer the style of the Apple Watch, however. The one thing that makes the Fitbit devices stand out over the Apple Watch is the length of the battery life per charge. We consider that significant as the Apple Watch requires recharging far more often than the Fitbit devices. As a result, most users will recharge the Apple Watch at night, rendering it useless in terms of monitoring your sleep because you won’t have it on your wrist. And, in fact, the top half of the Fitbit line (Charge 2 and up) appears better able to monitor your sleep than the Apple Watch.
Fitbit’s Charge 2 is our current favorite, and although it was recently discontinued by Fitbit, it is still available on third-party sites (some offering it for as low as $49.99). The Charge 2 packs a lot of features into a small, fairly stylish package. We have received many complements on our Charge 2 (worn with an inexpensive Milanese Loop band purchased through Amazon). 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. Fitbit recently upgraded to the Charge 3, for sale on its website at $149.95. The Charge 3 offers all the features of the Charge 2, enhances some, improves water resistance, and improves the band-replacement technology (meaning your Charge 2 bands won’t work on the Charge 3). Fitbit has advertised the only quality reduction we know of respecting the Charge 3 as a feature: The Charge 2 uses a steel case, while the Charge 3 uses aluminum. We like the idea of steel and consider the move to aluminum a downgrade. Fitbit says that the aluminum case reduces the weight by about 20 percent. Because the Fitbit does not weigh much, we don’t consider that a big deal and would personally prefer the steel. All in all, the Charge 3 does not offer enough more than the Charge 2 to justify replacing a properly functioning Charge 2. If, on the other hand, you do not have a Charge 2, you might try to get one now at a discount or just bite the bullet and take the aluminum case. Either way, you should do fine. Note that Fitbit offers more sophisticated (and more expensive) as well as less sophisticated (and less expensive) options than the Charge. We believe that, for the average user, the Charge 2/3 will give you everything you need, but if you want to spend more, get a few more features, and get something that looks a bit more like a watch, Fitbit will accommodate you with its $199.95 Versa (same features as Charge 3, but with a larger face, designer accessories, apps, and music) or its $329.95 Ionic adidas edition (same features as Versa except it adds adidas workouts, removes designer accessories, and has its own GPS as opposed to the connected GPS using your smartphone). You can compare all the models and features in detail at fitbit.com.
SitTight. The SitTight offers a low-tech device that makes high tech easier and more comfortable to use. The device gives you a comfortable seat on a movable pedetal that sits on a spherical base, enabling you to sit more comfortably at a computer table or desk using what they refer to as “active sitting.” With active sitting, you move around a bit as you work to prevent backaches and even do a little bit of light-duty core exercises to help keep you shapely (or in shape). It does require that you develop a bit of a sense of balance (always a good thing). The inherently clever design lets you work more or less hard depending on your skill level. You adjust the difficulty level by increasing or decreasing the air pressure in the bladder in the base sphere. The device costs $595. You can check it out in more detail at the SitTight website: sittight.com.
NutriBullet Balance. Who among our readers does not like smoothies? If you really do not like them, you should skip this write-up (unless you want to buy a present for someone who does like them). If you don’t know, you should pay close attention. If you do, you should go out and get one before you even finish reading this guide. It is that good! We discovered the NutriBullet Balance while we were writing this gift guide. In the Balance the NutriBullet folks have mashed high and low tech together to come up with one of the best products to hit the kitchen since sliced bread. You can check the NutriBullet Balance out on the company website at nutribulletbalance.com.
Those of you who make smoothies at home for snacks or as meal replacements know how tasty they can be. You may not know that, while they can be quite healthy, it is very easy to overdo things when building a smoothie and end up with something so highly caloric that it destroys your diet. The Balance can fix that problem for you. The Balance works in conjunction with an app that you download to your smartphone or tablet. (Doesn’t damned-near everything these days?) The app has a number of recipes for you and allows you to create your own. So far, no big deal, right? What makes the Balance special is that you use the app to build your smoothie: The device measures the ingredients for you as you put them in and gives you information as to calorie content and food value. If you use its recipes, it tells you when you have added enough strawberries, banana, kale, whatever. If you build your own, it tells you what you have added in terms of food values and calories, measuring each ingredient you tell it you will add to the mix. When you finish putting everything in, you tell it to blend, and it automatically figures out how long to run to get the optimal mixture. Then you simply remove the food container, put the travel cap on, and you are off to the races (or the salt mines or whatever). We think this is one of the cleverest gifts we found this year.
While you can order it directly from the company, we recommend that you do not. Bed Bath and Beyond regularly offers 20 percent discount coupons good for a single-item purchase. We got our $179.94 NutriBullet Balance at Bed Bath and Beyond using one of those coupons and saved $36. Whether you go that route or order it from the company, or Amazon, or somewhere else, we think that this represents one device you will want in your own kitchen.
Say what? Back in the day, hearing aids or hearing assistance devices did not work all that well and looked bulky and uncomfortable. As a result, people who needed them tended to not want to wear them. Back in the day, when we saw someone walking down the street carrying on a conversation with nobody near them, we thought that someone should evaluate them for transport to a mental health facility. Nowadays, more people than not do this, but we don’t think anything of it as we either see that they are wearing some form of earphone or assume they have one on and are carrying on a conversation with someone on their smartphone. As a result, we think nothing of the fact that more and more people wear a variety of devices sticking out of or covering their ears. Most, but not all, of these devices function as music devices or telephone headsets. Some of these devices are legitimate hearing aids (which tend to have very high price tags, often as much as several thousand dollars per ear). Others, while not technically hearing aids, can aid hearing (and usually at a far lower cost). We have found some that do this, and below we have singled out two for you to consider. We like them each for different reasons.
If you have read our gift guides over the years, you know that we like the Bose (bose.com) line of speakers and headsets quite a bit, notwithstanding that they tend to sell for premium prices most of the time. We have been Bose fans for many years. Last year, Bose came out with a combination music headset, telephone headset, and assistive hearing device that it calls the Hearphones. The Hearphones look like many other Bluetooth headsets. It gives you typical Bose quality sound, comes with Bose active noise cancellation technology, helps you focus on the sound/conversation you want, and costs $499.95. While we consider the $499.95 inexpensive by comparison to a set of hearing aids, it is on the expensive side when it comes to telephone headsets or even music headsets. Certainly, a part of that costs gets attributed to the noise cancellation technology, but compare that price to the cost of the other Bose headsets with noise cancellation technology ($249.95–$399.95) and you see that it is more expensive than those devices as well. Despite its price point, we like it as it does a great job on everything—noise cancellation, music, phone, and conversation. Oh, yes, it has its own downloadable app to help you fine-tune it to your personal tastes.
If you like the idea of the Bose Hearphones but consider them too costly, then check out the BeHear Now (wearandhear.com). The BeHear looks like many Bluetooth music/telephone headsets. Indeed, it functions quite well as a Bluetooth music and telephone headset. It differs from most such devices in that it has built-in hearing enhancement features to enable you to hear conversations, television, and other environmental sounds better and more clearly while you wear it. Amazingly, it even has software capable of slowing down speech when listening to voice mail or recorded messages. Like many other assistive devices these days, it comes with a free downloadable app that works with Android or iOS devices. It will test your hearing and make some automatic adjustments, which you can fine-tune to your personal preference. We won’t tell you that it gives you perfect sound; it does not. It does, however, give you a better ability to hear conversations. Importantly, at $249, it costs less than a set of hearing aids and, for those with a mild to moderate hearing impairment, it may prove all you need. We can deal with the BeHear Now as a music headphone (although that is its weakest leg). We have no issue with it as a telephone headset, and it works very well respecting conversations, etc.
If your hearing needs some help, and music is really important to you, then you may want to consider springing for the Bose Hearphones. If cost is an issue for you and/or music is not critical to your use and you are primarily concerned with conversational and telephonic use, the BeHear Now costs half as much and works very well. For $249 it appears to be a great value.
For those who suffer from tinnitus, sleep with someone who snores, or find environmental noises disruptive to sleep patterns, a variety of white noise devices have been available to help for years. With the advent of the smartphone, we even got apps that would generate white noise to help blank out objectionable sounds. Now Bose has taken the evolution of this technology one step further. No more external devices to generate the white noise. Bose’s sleepbuds use Bluetooth to connect to your phone, and you run them using a free downloadable app. They come with a charging case so that they charge when you do not wear them. Unlike the other devices we have discussed in this section, they do not work as music headphones or as telephone headphones. They do one thing only: pump the white noise of your choice into your ears to help you sleep better. You can check them out at bose.com or at your local Bose store (other retailers should have them by the time you read this). They cost $249.95 per set.
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, the smartphone or the tablet has become all the camera they need or want, and this has posed real challenges to the camera manufacturers. The newest phones always sport improved cameras over their predecessors. In all honesty, the pictures we can take with the cameras included in the top-of-the-line iPhones and Samsung Galaxy series compare quite favorably with those from lower- to middle-level dedicated digital cameras. In some cases, particularly in the hands of a competent photographer, the quality of the results will exceed those from a dedicated camera, both for still photos and videos. You certainly cannot knock the convenience of including the camera in your smartphone and carrying one small pocketable device as opposed to a phone, a digital still camera, and a video camera. While we still prefer dedicated video cameras for videos and high-quality digital cameras for stills, this does not mean we do not use the camera in our smartphone often. We do, particularly for grab shots or candid photos in our home area, when we are less likely to have a dedicated camera with us. Although we have seen any number of people using the cameras in their tablets for similar purposes, we have found that a less positive experience due to the fact that the size of the tablets makes them less comfortable to use for those purposes, and we like the results we get with the phones better.
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 in terms of quality or flexibility with the variety of lenses manufactured by Canon or Nikon or by Zeiss for the better Sony cameras. Although you can add third-party accessory lenses to some smartphones, the general quality of the accessory lenses comes under the heading of “adequate” and, more often than not, detracts from the quality of the built-in lens. Even with add-on lenses, smartphones do not have the range offered by many dedicated cameras, especially system cameras (those with interchangeable lenses).
We think that, if you want high-quality photos, you should still use a dedicated stand-alone camera. Similarly, although many digital cameras also take pretty fair 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 top 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 cameras. (That said, over the years, we have owned very satisfactory cameras from many manufacturers, including all those mentioned in this paragraph as well as several other manufacturers.)
When you look for a camera, remember that you frequently 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 earlier 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 can usually find older models online at a discount (sometimes even from the manufacturer). Additionally, Costco regularly sells older models of Nikon, Canon, Fuji, and other manufacturers 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 bulkier and heavier. Because of the built-in mirror components, DSLRs are more complicated to build (read: more expensive). 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 VI. The RX100 VI ($1,199.99, sony.com) is the best single-lens digital camera for general use for a moderately advanced to advanced photographer. We also consider it the best overall travel camera on the market for all but the professional photographer. This is not a beginner’s camera! This is the sixth generation of this range of exceptional compact camera from Sony. All the previous models (except for the RX100 V, which Sony replaced with the RX100 VA) remain available from Sony or from third-party sellers at less than their original selling price. In fact, the older models have seen multiple price reductions, as they go down each time Sony releases a new model.
As with most of Sony’s top-end models, Zeiss makes the lens for the RX100 series cameras. What really distinguishes the RX100 line of cameras, however, is Sony’s use of a much larger sensor (1.0”) than manufacturers commonly use in compact cameras. That results in consistently higher quality images. The RX100 VI also supports 4K video recording, which some earlier models do not. Although the lens for the VI works a bit slower than the lenses on earlier versions, the trade-off is that the VI gives you a much wider zoom range (24–200mm equivalent) than any of the predecessors. That additional zoom range makes it our undisputed champ for travel. Earlier versions, which had shorter zoom ranges, did not provide the telephoto functionality that most people want in a travel camera. The VI offers that. While the earlier versions work brilliantly for short to medium distances, they did not work so well for long distances, meaning that you either had to give up certain shots or have a different camera to take them. With the VI, you no longer need to do that. In a recent trip to Europe, one of the authors (Jeff) took about 1,000 pictures in the course of a month. The zoom range on the RX100 VI he took with him worked perfectly for all but about ten. It was the first time in many years he traveled out of the country with only one primary camera and his iPhone for a backup. One of the most amazing things about the RX100 VI is that it has a virtually identical form and size as its shorter-ranged predecessors (4.02” x 2.28” x 1.69”, 3” display, 10.62 ounces). The camera easily fits into most coat pockets and certainly does not take up much room in a briefcase, purse, or backpack. Due to its light weight, you can comfortably wear it around your neck all day. The only disadvantage that it has compared to its most immediate predecessor (now upgraded to the VA) is that the longer focal length of the lens results in a slower f2.8-4.5 lens.
If you want to give a gift that anyone serious about photography will appreciate, any of the RX100 cameras would be a good bet. The RX100 VI represents our first choice, with the upgraded VA as the second. The RX100 is unquestionably an enthusiast’s camera. While it offers a host of features, an inexperienced photographer might find it difficult to take advantage of many of them, but it will satisfy the needs of most experienced photographers and does create an opportunity for growth as a photographer for those who have not yet acquired that experience.
From our point of view. . . Point of view (POV) cameras have become quite the thing over the last several years. You can often see sports enthusiasts wearing a POV camera while they roller board, snowboard, snow or water ski, bike ride, river raft, or do lots of other things. We have also seen many tourists with POV cameras strapped to their heads or posted out in front of them as they tour. The POV camera records video of whatever you put in front of it. If you strap it to your forehead, it sees the same thing you do and records what you look at as you tour the Acropolis or Fifth Avenue or London’s West Side. When they first came out, the POV cameras shot fair-quality video but would not have been our first choice for a video camera. As time went on, the quality improved and, while still not our first choice, some of the POV cameras do quite well and produce highly satisfactory video footage with minimal effort.
The GoPro HERO 7 Black represents our first choice for a POV camera. GoPro has been a leader in the field for several years, and each generation of its POV cameras has shown noticeable improvement over its predecessors. This year, GoPro released the HERO 7 to replace the HERO 6 at the top of the GoPro line. Please note that GoPro has tried something different this year. It has three HERO 7 models and has labeled all of them “HERO 7.” The feature sets of the three models are distinguished by the color of the camera: the HERO 7 Black ($399.99), HERO 7 Silver ($299.99), and HERO 7 White ($199.99). You can see images of the three HERO 7 cameras and compare them on the company website (gopro.com). Bottom line: we like the HERO 7 Black and think its feature set justifies the $399.99 price tag. GoPro describes the HERO 7 as “Tough as nails and waterproof down to 33ft” and invites you to “Dunk it. Drop it. Crash it.” Nevertheless, if you are just learning to snowboard or fall off your bicycle a lot or plan on strapping it to your toddler who just started to walk or, as we have seen some people do, strapping it to your dog before taking the dog out to play, you may want to consider getting one of the less-expensive versions.
The HERO 7 Black is 2.45” x 1.77” x 1.29” and weighs only 4.09 ounces. A number of accessories from GoPro and third parties will help you take action videos while holding or wearing the camera. The accessories range from a few dollars to the price of the camera. If you want to hold the camera, we particularly like the flexibility and functionality of GoPro’s Karma Grip Stabilizer ($299.99). On the other hand, for most general uses, GoPro’s $29.99 Handler works just fine. For $39.99 you can get the Chesty rig to mount the camera on your chest (good for skiing, snowboarding, hiking, touring, bicycling, etc.) or the Fetch rig (designed to mount the camera on the back of your favorite dog). You can also get the $19.99 Head Strap to allow you to wear it on your head or over a hard hat, or rigs to mount the camera on a helmet (bike, motorcycle, skiing, etc.) for $14.99 to $29.99. If you have a serious interest in POV cameras, we think the HERO 7 Black represents your best bet. If you just want to try out the genre, the HERO 7 Silver or HERO 7 White versions will work just fine; but if you think you (or your giftee) might develop a serious interest in POV photography, we would encourage you to consider the HERO 7 Black to allow for growth in skill and functionality.
Streaming webcams. For the aspiring vlogger or the next YouTube star, consider a webcam. Many laptops come with built-in webcams, but the quality is severely lacking. You can pick up a quality webcam fairly inexpensively, and it can make a great gift. For the most part, you are looking for high resolution. Lower resolution will make the video appear grainier. When shopping, look for a resolution of 720p or higher. Numbers such as 720p, 1080p, etc., refer to the horizontal lines on the display. The exact resolution for a 720p webcam is 1280 x 720p, which qualifies as high definition (HD). Resolution of 1080p, or 1920 x 1080, is often referred to as full HD (FHD). Another feature to consider is the frame rate, measured in frames per second (fps). You need to be above 15 fps in order to stream video, although you will be better served with 30 fps or higher. Lower frame rates might produce images that appear to stutter or freeze.
With all this in mind, take a look at the Logitech C920 Pro ($49.99, bestbuy.com). The C920 offers full HD resolution at 1080p. The camera features a glass lens for better-quality images, flanked by two microphones to capture stereo sound. It offers a 20-step auto-focus for consistently high resolution. Setup for this camera is very easy: Simply plug the USB connector into the computer, and the Logitech camera app will download automatically. It offers a 78-degree viewing area that can easily capture two people in the frame at the same time.
Another great webcam to consider is the Razer Kiyo full HD 1080p streaming camera ($99.99, razer.com). The quality microphone and built-in lighting make this camera a great buy. The camera lens is a circular shape surrounded by a light ring and dial that can adjust the light’s brightness, giving the webcam a distinctive look. The light ring is one of the most notable features of this camera. Anyone who has worked with webcams before can appreciate the difficulty of trying to arrange the right lighting. Poor lighting can make the person look sinister or sickly—it does not convey the overall professional image you are going for. The webcam secures to your desktop or laptop monitor with a hinge grip that works well. If you do not wish to mount it to your monitor, there is a mount on the lowest disc that allows you to attach brackets or a tripod. The only apparent drawback to the Kiyo is the 4.9-foot braided USB cable that connects it to your laptop or desktop. It is not detachable from the webcam, and at only 4.9 feet, it is shorter than some of its competitors. The overall design would benefit from having a detachable cord that could be substituted with longer cables as needed.
For those who like smartphone technology (or simply recognize that it is here to stay, so deal with it), the ubiquitous smartphone represents the single piece of technology that every adult and many children now have or want. We consider the iPhone Xs to be the top of the list and the Samsung Galaxy S9 to be the first runner-up. Although everyone has a smartphone, the top models keep selling in record numbers as people run to their nearest provider to upgrade to newer and better models as they come out each year. While you can choose among several telephone systems, Apple’s iOS and the Android OS dominate the market. More people use phones dedicated to the Android OS (made by numerous manufacturers), but more people buy Apple’s iPhone than any Android-based model, making it the number-one selling smartphone in the world and one of the primary reasons that Apple has grown into the world’s most valuable company.
All the phones we considered are 4G devices (4G is a reference to fourth-generation wireless technology, which works faster than its predecessors). More and more people have started writing about 5G devices and 5G technology. Although we have seen (and actually have) some devices capable of running 5G, 5G is not really available yet, so don’t worry about getting a device to run it. By the time 5G comes out and has some serious availability, you will undoubtedly have replaced any phone you get this year. 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 iPhones and the Samsung Galaxy S series phones, so your choice of provider should not be influenced by a preference for one or the other. 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 some areas have little or no 4G coverage at all or only have 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.
New iOS. As we write this article, Apple has just released the newest iteration of the iOS: iOS 12. If you currently use iOS 11, the switch to iOS 12 will not create any serious culture shock. Unlike the switch from iOS 10 to iOS 11, Apple did not reinvent the wheel this time, it just polished it up and refined it. The new OS will kill some of your apps unless and until they get upgraded to work with the new iOS. The upgrades of all our devices from iOS 11 to iOS 12 went smoothly, easily, and quickly. We did not suffer a single glitch in the upgrade process of numerous iOS devices (various models of iPhones and iPads dating back over the last few years). 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 observations. The older the device, the more likely that you will have this issue. Moreover, some older devices do not offer all the features available in the new iterations of the iOS as a result of hardware differences between the devices. For example, you cannot get facial recognition on an iPhone 7 or on an iPad, as they lack the required hardware.
iPhone Xs and iPhone Xs Max. The new iPhone Xs and Xs Max, announced as we write this but not yet available, offer the same phone and feature set (other than the fact that the Xs Max costs a bit more, weighs a bit more, and has a larger form factor and a larger display). As a result of the Max’s bigger screen, the resolution numbers differ between the two devices, but you will not see a difference on the display. Both offer improved water resistance and a better camera than predecessors. Both phones offer facial recognition for biometric security. The price depends on where you get it and what memory capacity you want. The top-of-the-line (512 GB) versions cost $1,349 for the Xs and $1,449 for the Xs Max. If you go to Apple’s website, you can get a full comparison of the specs of the two phones at apple.com/iphone-xs/specs. Here is a brief summary of the difference (identical unless otherwise noted): CPU: A12 Bionic; storage: 64 GB, 256 GB, or 512 GB; memory: 4 GB; screen size: 5.8 inches, 6.5 inches (Max); resolution: 2,436 x 1,125, 2,688 x 1,242 (Max); connectivity: Bluetooth, NFC; battery: 2,658 mAh, 3,174 mAh (Max); size: 5.65” x 2.79” x 0.3”, 6.2” x 3.05” x 0.3” (Max); Super Retina HD, Multi-Touch, OLED display with fingerprint resistant oleophobic coating; water resistant rating of IP68 (up to 30 minutes at 2 meters); colors: gold, space gray, and silver.
Other iPhones. Apple has retained the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, 7, and 7 Plus in its lineup. We have discussed the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus in detail in our 2017 Tech Gift Guide and the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus in our 2016 Tech Gift Guide, so we will not do that here. The 7 and 8 phones remain as good as they ever were, and they continue to work well with the current iteration of the iOS (although the 8 offers fewer of the features of the system than the Xs and the 7 offers fewer than the 8). Apple has, however, announced a less expensive version of the X called the XR. The XR has not hit the market at the time we write this article (Apple projects delivery of the first units on October 26, 2018). Apple’s website reveals that the XR will come in red, yellow, white, black, blue, and coral-colored cases, offer 64 GB, 128 GB, or 256 GB of memory, measure 5.94” x 2.98” x 0.33”, and have a 6.1” display. The display will not be OLED like the Xs and Xs Max. It will have a lower resolution of 1,792 x 828. The phone will offer slightly less water resistance than its more expensive siblings, rating IP67 (up to 30 minutes at 1 meter). The phone will offer facial recognition like its siblings and a single rear-facing camera, compared to the dual-camera systems on the Xs and Xs Max. The XR will also use the same A12 Bionic processor as the Xs and Xs Max. The XR starts at $749.
Samsung Galaxy S. The Galaxy S line of Android smartphones from Samsung (samsung.com) has proven very successful and extremely popular. The newest models, the Galaxy S9 and S9+, come in lilac purple, coral blue, and midnight black cases. They have a battery-saving 5.8” and 6.2” (S9+) Super AMOLED touch screen. The display is bright, clear, and sharp. The S9 measures 5.81” x 2.7” x 0.33” and weighs 5.75 ounces. The S9+ measures 6.22” x 2.91” x 0.33” and weighs 6.67 ounces. The built-in memory is 4 GB for the S9 and 6 GB for the S9+, and both have storage options of 64 GB, 128 GB, or 256 GB. Each will also accept Micro SD cards for additional memory up to 400 GB. Both phones have an IP68 rating for water resistance (up to 30 minutes at 1.5 meters) and come with the Android 8 OS (Oreo) operating system. Samsung built the top end of this phone around a 10 nm 64-bit Octa-Core 2.8 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. Do note, however, while the phones seem similar in most considerations other than size and weight, Samsung bestowed a better camera setup on the S9+ than the S9 (single rear-facing camera on the S9 versus dual rear-facing cameras on the S9+ with separate wide-angle and telephoto lenses). If you go to the Samsung website, you can find full specs and comparisons between the two cameras at samsung.com/us/smartphones/galaxy-s9/specs.
We think that the extra features of the S9+ make it a better all-around choice than the S9 (but if you do not use the camera features much, you may find the S9 more suitable). Additionally, the larger dimensions of the S9+ make it less suitable for smaller-handed people. Before you buy one, try both in the store and make sure you are comfortable with the size of the S9+. If you find it uncomfortably large, then you should probably get the S9, notwithstanding the lesser camera. Pricing (unlocked) on the S9 and S9+ is $839.99 and $959.99, respectively, with 256 GB of RAM.
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, these 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. 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 grown increasingly important to our lifestyle, we will focus only on highly portable laptop computers.
MacBook. Last year Apple updated the MacBook. It still has 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 MacBook comes in gold, silver, space gray, and rose gold. It has a 12” backlit LED display with 2,304 x 1,440 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 keyboard gives you almost a full-sized work space. Although it took a bit of getting used to, it has proven quite usable. 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 MacBook comes 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.
2-in-1 or not 2-in-1?
A 2-in-1 is a hybrid device that can switch between traditional clamshell mode, tablet mode, and other positions in between such as tent or stand modes. 2-in-1s generally come in two different styles: detachables, with screens that come off the keyboard entirely, and flexible laptops, with hinges that bend back 360 degrees to change modes. Light laptop users or those who frequently switch between their laptop and tablet may enjoy the versatility.
Microsoft Surface Pro. Since the release of the Surface Pro hybrid laptop/tablet, Microsoft (microsoft.com) has continued to improve on the functionality and feature set of the Surface line. We refer to it as a hybrid because it works as a laptop, 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 newest model, the Surface Pro 6, 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-functioned 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. The Surface Pro 6 measures 11.5” x 7.9” x 0.33” and comes with 8 GB or 16 GB of RAM and solid-state drive (SSD) options of 128 GB, 256 GB, 512 GB, or 1 TB. Depending on which version you get, the body weighs 1.7 to 1.73 pounds (without the cover/keyboard). You can configure the device to run on an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor. The cost depends on the configuration, with the bottom of the scale costing $899 (i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and a 128 GB SSD) and the top end costing $2,299 (i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD). Our choice would be the i7, 16 GB of RAM, and a 512 GB SSD ($1,899) as we do not think that the extra 488 GB of memory in the SSD justifies the $400 price bump.
Although 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, less weight, the use of iOS 12, and the variety of applications available in the iTunes App Store.
Lenovo Yoga 920. Another great option to consider in this category is the Lenovo Yoga 920 ($999.99 to $1,599.99, lenovo.com). The 920 is a premium 2-in-1, equipping Intel’s latest eighth-generation Core i-series processor that delivers outstanding performance without sacrificing battery life. It has a 13.9” Multi-touch display, up to 16 GB DDR4 SDRAM, and up to 1 TB solid-state drive. It is a hinge-style 2-in-1 with the ability to bend back 360 degrees to switch modes.
The market for pure 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. We will only focus on pure tablets in this section as we discussed 2-in-1 devices in the previous section. Consider each of the 2-in-1 devices as both a tablet and a laptop, but we think of them primarily as laptops.
Apple has dominated the tablet market since it introduced the iPad. Once again, Samsung provides Apple’s strongest competition in terms of pure tablets. Apple, however, remains the runaway leader. If you want to get or gift a tablet, we recommend you go with Apple; both of us continue to use the iPad. One of us has evolved to use the iPad Pro, which, overall, we favor as the best available tablet.
iPad and iPad Pro. Since last year, Apple has not done much to modify its iPad/iPad Pro line. It only offers one new model this year, the iPad 9.7”. We consider it a nice basic tablet with a number of good features and an insufficient amount of memory for our personal tastes, but an adequate amount for most users (it tops out at 128 GB). It does work with the Apple pencil, which is good. It also starts at only $329 for a 32 GB, WiFi-only version. We like it as a gift because of its price and functionality; but we would not buy one for our personal use, as we consider the iPad Pro a far superior device. We considered the iPad Pro at length in the 2017 Tech Gift Guide and refer you to that for a detailed discussion of its features. You can also go to the Apple website (apple.com) and check out the specifications and features of all models of the iPad and the iPad Pro.
With all the great tools out there, inevitably you are going to need something to carry them around. Your needs may 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, bags of all shapes and sizes can make great gifts for your friends, family, and associates (or even for yourself).
Smart bags. As people today demand access to their technology at all times, luggage providers have answered by introducing what can be affectionately called “smart bags” into the marketplace. Generally, these are small, handheld pieces of luggage designed specifically for those traveling with technology. Smart bags are designed with electronics-friendly organizational patterns. They usually have dedicated pockets, labeled slots, and sometimes charging capabilities for your gadgets. Smart bags range in configuration from cross-body, to messenger, to backpack styles, with every conceivable pattern included.
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, our favorites are leather (which costs the most and looks the most luxurious) and ballistic nylon (not exactly a cheap date, but it wears extremely well). Some of the new technical fabrics also appear to wear quite well, but we have not had them long enough to see how they compare to the ballistic nylon and leather over many years of use.
As far as we can tell, nobody has ever designed one case that everyone thinks represents the “perfect” case. In fact, we think it unlikely that such a case exists, as people will have different needs at different times. In fact, a case that we may think of as “perfect” for court may not work well at all for vacation use. A case that may work perfectly for one person may not work for another, even for the same type of use. Few things in terms of professional accessories will prove to be more personal than the case(s) you select to carry your gear. Most lawyers we know have found that a single case does not suffice, and, as a result, they have a selection of several cases to deal with differing circumstances (some of us admittedly overdo it, but that is a different issue).
Some of the different styles of cases to consider:
- Cross-body bags. Generally, a small bag that gets its name from the fact that the strap crosses over the body from one shoulder to the opposite hip. These bags do not work well for business but work nicely for personal use. Depending on the size, they will hold a smartphone, an e-ink reader, a tablet, or even a small laptop. The larger-sized bags tend to get classed as messenger bags.
- Messenger bags. A larger cross-body style bag designed to accommodate a larger payload, including laptop computers.
- Slings. Sometimes thought of as a single-strap backpack, the sling strap goes across the body like a cross-body bag, with the bag itself designed to hang on your back like a backpack. For security reasons, many people wear slings with the bag in the front. Slings vary in size and will often hold laptops as well as tablets, phones, and other incidentals.
- Backpacks. This refers to the traditional two-strap device that you mount on your back with a strap on each shoulder. Generally, backpacks can hold much more than the other types of carried cases, and because of their structure, they allow you to carry the weight more easily.
- Attaché cases. You don’t see a lot of these anymore, particularly among young lawyers. These are the rectangular-shaped, hard-sided cases that you carry by a handle in one hand.
- Briefcases. We use this term to apply to a variety of cases, including attaché cases. Briefcases may have single or double handles at the top or a strap that you wear over one shoulder, or both, giving you the option of carrying it more than one way.
- Rolling cases. This is a completely different class of case that can come in a multitude of configurations but has a telescoping handle and two or four wheels (or sets of wheels) to enable you to roll it along like a suitcase. We prefer the cases with four sets of double wheels as they seem to roll the best and easiest.
In terms of brands, Tumi (tumi.com) is one of our favorites. Although we think their cases are often overpriced, they have established a long track record of well-designed, long-lasting, and reliable cases. We have found the Alpha Bravo (being upgraded to the Alpha 2) line very much to our liking, and the ballistic nylon used in most of the Alpha Bravo cases has worn better than most leather cases in our experience (although it costs less than the leather equivalents). As much as we like Tumi, we tend to stay away from the Tumi stores except when they have sales. Several times a year they will offer special sales of 20 percent off almost everything in the store. Other times, they will have only discontinued items on sale. You can sometimes save quite a few dollars by planning ahead and buying during one of Tumi’s sales. Be sure you get on their mailing list to get notice. You can also often get discounted pricing on 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. Although these bags are generally well designed, 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 coarse in the body of the bag as well as in the straps. Although it does not impact the functionality of the bags, we have found that Tumi normally includes a small leather initial patch on its retail bags but does not include it on the made-for-outlet bags. While not every item in the retail line includes this feature, we have found that it works as a pretty fair litmus test of whether a bag is made for the outlet or the retail store. If you are in doubt, ask at the outlet. Most of the time their experienced staff knows which is which. That said, Tumi’s made-for-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 products. We have acquired several over the years, and they have proven quite satisfactory.
Among our favorites from Tumi:
- Alpha 2 T-Pass Business Class Brief Pack ($495 in ballistic nylon). This large backpack has lots of pockets for organization and space for your gear. You can have the same bag in leather for $675.
- Alpha 2 Three-Way Brief ($495 in ballistic nylon). This bag works as a briefcase, a messenger bag, or a backpack, depending on your needs at the time. It’s well designed with lots of space for your gear.
- Alpha 2 4 Wheeled Compact Brief ($645 in ballistic nylon). Take the load off. This bag holds a lot of gear, organizes it well, and moves it along very smoothly and easily without straining your back or shoulder.
- Alpha Bravo Nellis Backpack ($395 in ballistic nylon, $595 in leather). Smaller and sleeker than the T-Pass, it’s still capable of holding a lot and letting you carry it comfortably.
- Alpha Bravo Albany Slim Commuter Brief ($425 in ballistic nylon, $625 in leather). This bag carries with two top handles or over the shoulder with an included, removable/adjustable shoulder strap. The bag has dedicated laptop and iPad compartments and pockets for accessories. And if things get too crowded, it expands.
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 bags that he acquired as a young lawyer, still uses, and are a number of years older than Ashley). Unfortunately, over the years, Coach has moved from thick, practically indestructible leather exteriors with natural leather interiors to more polished, thinner exteriors and fabric linings. The thinner leather looks more “designer,” but, in our experience, the thinner the leather, the less durable the bag. Coach still makes some very nice leather bags, they just don’t hold up like the ones they built 40 years ago. Like Tumi, Coach builds some products for its outlets. Coach’s outlet products are usually decent, but not as nice or as well made as what they sell in the retail stores. Coach also uses its outlets to dispose of excess inventory and discontinued items at good discounts. If you check the outlets for discontinued retail store items, you can get particularly good values. Coach outlets have more sales and deeper discounts than Tumi.
Coach and Tumi, while not the most expensive cases you can get, tend to cost more than most. If you want a less expensive, but decent-quality bag, check out the Victorinox line (victorinox.com). Victorinox costs considerably less to start with and often ends up on sale in luggage stores and online.
When it comes to backpacks, we have another suggestion for you: Tom Bihn (tombihn.com). The folks at Tom Bihn have been around for a while making well-thought-out, well-designed bags for a variety of purposes. They designed several of their products for electronics, and two of our favorites are their Synapse backpacks. The Synapse comes in two sizes: the Synapse 25 (larger) and the Synapse 19 (smaller). The Synapse 25 (13.4” x 20” x 9.1”) starts at $200 for the basic bag, and the Synapse 19 (11.4” x 16” x 7.9”) starts at $190. We say “starts at” because, for the base price, you get the shell with a minimal amount of interior organization and the flexibility to build the inside to suit your personal needs. You can choose the exterior fabric as well. They offer three choices: ballistic nylon (our favorite), 400d Halcyon (our second choice and a good lightweight choice), and 1000d Cordura (we are not big fans of Cordura as we do not think it wears as well as the other choices and it tends to collect dust, dirt, and pet hair more easily than the other choices). In terms of the insides, you can purchase and add a large variety of accessories, ranging from laptop pockets, to tablet pockets, to key leashes, and even safety lights. One of our favorite accessories, the Freudian Slip, gives you a removable package with numerous organizational pockets for things such as cell phones, batteries, pens, cables, chargers, etc. The Freudian Slip for the Synapse 19 or the Synapse 25 costs $50. Padded sleeves for laptops and tablets cost between $30 and $45 each. We have always liked Tom Bihn’s ingenious design features and the quality of workmanship. The pricing appears pretty good, too, by comparison to other top-quality bags. You can check these pieces and the full line out at tombihn.com.
We also found a few other bags for you to consider. The O.M.G. bag by Lo & Sons ($275, loandsons.com) is a lightweight bag that works well at the office or on overnight trips. Gone are the days of trying to balance a tote on top of your suitcase, only to have it fall and spill your precious contents all over the terminal. Here, the suitcase handle sleeve makes it easy to slide onto any roller bag. When you are not traveling with a suitcase, the bottom and top of this sleeve zip up, turning it into an extra-large exterior pocket. The side sleeve pocket is a great way to store gym shoes or umbrellas without dirtying anything inside the bag. The laptop storage sleeve can fit up to a 13” laptop. The opposite interior wall offers two additional tech compartments, one for your smartphone and one for a tablet (sans tablet case). It would have been nice if the tablet sleeve was a teensy bit bigger to accommodate a case around the tablet, but you can fit the tablet and case nicely in a second sleeve attached to the laptop sleeve. The front pocket is divided into multiple pockets for ample storage and organization. There is a key leash tucked into the front pocket that is very useful for storing your keys while traveling by air (no more tearing apart your luggage at the airport when you return.) The outside construction of the bag consists of a water-resistant poly nylon material that looks very sleek and chic. The inside is lined with a water-resistant poly jacquard material featuring Lo & Son’s signature hummingbird pattern.
Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 Check Point Friendly Laptop Backpack ($134.99, amazon.com) is a great piece to add to your travel wardrobe. The exterior of this bag is made of durable ballistic nylon with leather accents. The bag is designed to unzip and fold open, allowing you to pass through airport security without removing the laptop or tablet. It is compact enough to fit under the seat while flying, which is particularly useful on basic economy flights that will not allow you any overhead bin space. There is a key holder built in, as well as an RFID wallet holder to help keep your credit card information secure. The overall design is sleek and professional looking without sacrificing comfort or support.
Booq Cobra Squeeze ($195, booqbags.com) is a highly functional, though unusual looking, backpack. It features a turtle shell design that is very spacious while appearing compact. It has been hailed by Macworld as the “best commuter bag,” a title the company is very proud of. Despite its unusual structure, the monochromatic look gives it a sleek and professional appearance. The interior storage can hold a laptop up to 15.4”, a tablet, and the accessories that power your daily life.
Samsonite Ladies Leather Zip Brief ($169.99, amazon.com) is a beautiful bag to carry to and from the office. Like the O.M.G. bag, it features a suitcase handle, making it convenient for air travel as well. The exterior construction features sleek Saffiano leather. The front zip pocket offers ample pockets for organizing your items. There is also a removable, adjustable shoulder strap to make it easier to carry when you are on the move. The laptop compartment will hold up to a 15.6” laptop and 9.7” tablet. And there is an easy-to-access key clip for added convenience. Samsonite also offers the Red Easy-Way 2 Backpack (regular price $130 but currently $104, Samsonite.com), a fetching convertible bag that can be worn as a backpack or carried as a briefcase with the shoulder strap. It is a smaller design, and, as a result, the padded laptop compartment will only hold up to a 14.1” laptop. There are four convenient exterior pockets designed to organize your belongings. It also features dual side and top carry handles, providing a variety of carry options. The exterior is a durable polyester fabric.
Travel clothes. If you want to just carry a few things and do not want to schlep a briefcase around or if you want to carry a few extra things that won’t fit in your case, think about clothes that function as carry-on bags for yourself or as a gift.
Frequent fliers who have ever had the misfortune of losing (or admittedly leaving something behind) on the airplane will enjoy the XY37 Travel Jacket ($49.99, amazon.com), the Swiss Army knife of travel wear. It is a soft, hoodie-style jacket designed with ten pockets and a built-in eye mask, travel pillow, face mask, and gloves. It is made from a blend of cotton and spandex for stretch. One of the authors (Ashley) recently wore one and found that its tablet pocket fit her tablet perfectly, even with the keyboard case still on. The other nine pockets can carry your passport, phone, wallet, sunglasses, earplugs, pen, and charger, making everything easily accessible. With all that accessibility, there is no need to store things in the seatback pocket; you can keep everything in the pockets of the jacket, guaranteeing you will exit the plane with everything you brought on board.
As cool as the ten pockets of the XY37 are, the SCOTTeVEST Penny Coat ($250, scottevest.com) blows it out of the water with 19 pockets (though there is definitely a premium cost). The pockets can hold phones, tablets, wallets, keys, water bottles, sunglasses, Kindles, dog leashes, and more. The coat is a soft-shell jacket with a crisp, classic A-line shape and a detachable hood. They make the coat from a machine-washable polyester/spandex blend.
Accessories for Mobile Devices
Accessories for mobile devices 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 it makes little sense to try to list them individually. We found ourselves in that position while doing last year’s Tech Gift Guide, so instead of going into detail about various cases, we presented a discussion of the process of selecting a case and gave you some tips in that process. We refer you to last year’s guide rather than repeating it here.
Power up! Most smaller communications devices come with batteries that have a hard time lasting the day in the hands of a power user. As we have all started to use our devices more and more, many of us have evolved into what, historically, we might have called a “power user.” As a result, more and more of us find that our devices require recharging during 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 of these articles ourselves. Unfortunately, most of the power-saving suggestions we have seen cause a loss of (or reduction 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 keep chargers available for ready use in our offices, homes, and cars (and hotel rooms when we travel). We also carry a charger in our briefcase and we carry a portable external power source (sometimes called a power bank) for convenience and insurance against running out of power at an inopportune time—when we cannot find a convenient outlet or when we continue on the move, so we cannot tether our devices (or ourselves) to a stationary outlet.
Although we used to like phone cases with built-in batteries (and we know some people who still do), such cases add both size and weight to the phone, a problem that increases with the size of the phone, and the cases have the disadvantage of device specificity. We now prefer the more flexible (and often far more powerful) power banks capable of charging a variety of devices and, in some cases, charging multiple devices concurrently. 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, you will want one with a USB-C output that will power and charge a MacBook or a standard electrical outlet for use with your computer. 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. Some of the larger power banks accept a standard electrical plug, allowing them to accommodate almost any portable device.
We don’t ever leave home without one or more 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 power banks almost everywhere these days: Best Buy, Fry’s, the Apple Store, Microsoft stores, Amazon, even Rite Aid and Walgreens. You can also get them at many airports and some gas stations. Well-known names include Mophie (mophie.com), Jackery (jackery.com), Monster (monsterproducts.com), Samsung (samsung.com), Anker (anker.com), and myCharge (mycharge.com).
The power supplies from RAVPower (ravpower.com) represent some of the best values we have found. Two of our favorite larger-capacity devices come from RAVPower: the RAVPower 26800 mAh ($59.99, amazon.com) and the RAVPower 12000 mAh ($19.99, amazon.com). 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 Anker 20100 mAh PowerCore ($49.99) and the Anker 10000 mAh PowerCore ($31.99); 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 as a gift. Samsung sells them, as do 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 $11.39 (with free shipping through Amazon Prime).
Heavy-duty power banks that come with electrical power outlet receptacles include the MyCharge Portable Power Outlet ($179.99, amazon.com). Another good choice, the (TSA-approved) Jackery PowerBar 77Wh/20800mAh 85W (100W Max.) Travel Laptop Power Bank, costs $129.99 at Amazon. Another favorite, the HyperJuice AC External Battery Pack (100 Wh/26000mAh), costs $199.99 at Amazon. Remember, as a general rule, the more powerful banks cost more, weigh more, and take up more space than those less powerful.
Earphones and headsets. Give the gift of high-quality sound this year. Without regard to what phone or tablet you acquire, we recommend upgrading from the standard-issue earphones to higher-quality earphones or headsets to get more enjoyment from your portable devices. We have not found a single device that comes with earphones that we consider satisfactory. You can get headsets and earbuds in wired and wireless versions. Although some of the headsets only work to play music, many of them also handle telephone functions.
Another variable you should consider is how the earphones deal with external or ambient noise. Some devices ignore it completely, others use a noise reduction or cancellation technology. Such technology comes in two basic categories, so, if you want to get it, you need to choose whether to get active or passive noise reduction. 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 (or at least most of it) 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 have a wide selection to choose among. Options range from lightweight devices that fit in your ears, to larger and bulkier devices that fit on them, or even larger and bulkier devices that fit over them, enveloping them. Some of the manufacturers we particularly like include Bose, Beats by Dr. Dre, Bang & Olufsen (B&O), Jabra, Plantronics, Bowers & Wilkins, and Sony. Our list is not meant to suggest that you should not consider others; these recommendations reflect our tastes and judgment. You should never spend a lot of money on earphones without going to a brick-and-mortar store and trying them out (unless you have a reliable vendor that promises the ability to return them if you do not like them). Simply put, what sounds great to us may not sound as great to you. Take our recommendations for what they are worth, but try the devices out yourself.
Bose remains one of our favorite earphone/headphone manufacturers. We considered several of their models at length last year and refer you to the 2017 Tech Gift Guide discussion or the Bose website (bose.com) for detailed information. We have a couple new models that we will talk about this year, but most of last year’s favorites remain current and stay at or near the top of our list. Examples include:
- Bose SoundSport wireless earphones, featuring a connecting wire between the two ears ($149.95).
- Bose SoundSport Free wireless earphones, with no connecting wire between the two pieces ($199.95).
- Bose SoundLink II around-ear wireless headphones ($229.95).
- Bose QuietComfort 35 II (QC35) acoustic noise canceling wireless headphones, now in their second generation ($349.95–$399.95).
- Bose QuietControl 30 (QC30) noise canceling wireless earphones ($299.95).
Other manufacturers we particularly like include:
Beats by Dr. Dre (beatsbydre.com). Now owned by Apple, Beats still produces a harder and more driving bass. Note that the prices listed below are MSRP, but we have seen substantial discounts for Beats devices online. Worth checking out in this line:
- BeatsX wireless earphones ($119.95). Good sound, less costly than Bose, but close in quality to the lower end of the Bose line. If you prefer a stronger bass, you will probably like these better than the Bose SoundSports.
- Powerbeats3 Wireless earphones ($199.95). A step up from the BeatsX, it produces a crisper and more dynamic sound. It’s our favorite of the Beats earphones. This device uses a new W1 chip in partnership with the Apple iOS devices to provide easy switching between your devices. Note that to take full advantage of the W1 technology, you need an iCloud account, iOS 10 or later, Mac OS X Sierra or later, and, if you plan to use it with an Apple Watch, WatchOS 3 or later.
- Beats Solo3 Wireless headphones ($299.95). Excellent sound, very comfortable to wear on-ear headset.
- Beats Studio3 Wireless headphones ($349.95). This is our favorite of the Beats headsets. We like the comfort and the sound quality of this over-the-ear headset a lot. A bit heavier than the Solo3, it comes with Apple’s W1 chip and a very competent active noise canceling system.
Apple has only one set of earphones with its own brand on it that we like: the AirPods ($159). The AirPods have an unusual configuration in that they have no physical connection to each other, so you place one in each ear but have a cylindrical piece sticking out of the bottom of the device and your ear. While the sound quality of the AirPods is significantly better than the earphones Apple generally provides with its devices, we do not think that it compares favorably with some of the other options available (we suspect that may be one reason that Apple acquired the Beats by Dr. Dre line). We do like the convenience of the automatic pairing and the charging case (although the case is fairly small, and we have managed to misplace one). When they first came out, people raised concerns about whether the AirPods would stay in the ear. We have not found this to be a problem, and we have tried some after-market devices to connect the two or make them less likely to fall out but found them unsatisfactory. We think you should use them as Apple made them. They do work quite well with the telephone, and we have noticed a substantial number of people using a single AirPod as a primarily telephone earphone.
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.
In terms of pure sound quality, check out the Beoplay A1 from Bang & Olufsen ($249, 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 (bose.com) and the smaller, the SoundLink Revolve, 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 comes with the ability to access Siri and/or Google Now by simply 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.
Another excellent all-around Bluetooth speaker is the UE Boom 3 by Ultimate Ears ($149.99, ultimateears.com). The Boom 4 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 multiple Boom speakers (including older models such as the Boom, Boom 2, and Megaboom) or set an alarm to wake you from sleep. Up to two people can connect to the speaker through the app. The Boom 3 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” references a residence with appliances and features capable of communicating with one another and of being remotely controllable. Some of these tools can make great gifts for those 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). Since starting with the Echo in 2015, Amazon has expanded from the tower-shaped Echo to the hockey puck–shaped Echo Dot ($49.99, amazon.com), the Echo Show (a speaker with video screen for video/voice calling, streaming, etc., $229.99, amazon.com), and the Spot, a smaller video device ($129.99). This year, Amazon has upgraded many of its Alexa devices, most significantly the Show, providing it with a noticeably larger display. All the devices connect to the voice-controlled digital assistant service, Alexa, which responds when you speak that name or an alternate code word. The devices provide voice interaction and a variety of services, including playing music, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, providing weather and traffic reports, and controlling smart home technology. Be careful, however, as you can turn the device on inadvertently by speaking its code word. For example, if you say, “I like my Alexa Show” or “I have found Alexa helpful,” the fact that you said “Alexa” will wake the device up and cause it to listen for and respond to a command. The same thing can happen if someone on the television or radio says “Alexa.” As Alexa always wants to help out, sometimes Alexa gets over-anxious and “hears” Alexa when nobody has said it.
There have been some questions about whether devices such as this listen to more than they should and can transmit audio and visual information surreptitiously to third parties. The answer is yes, at least in some sense as one of Amazon’s features, called “Drop In,” allows you to designate some people who can simply drop in on your device and see and hear. When someone “drops in,” they see a blurred feed for the first ten seconds, during which time you can disable the camera or reject the call.
This has some advantages and some disadvantages. For example, if you have elderly parents and want to check on them, this offers a way to do that. You could also use it to remotely check on your house or office. On the other hand, as it does not ask you for permission each time, it can have a negative impact on your privacy. Accordingly, you might want to think about where you place such devices (whether for Alexa or a speaker or device keyed to one of the other digital assistants such as Siri or Google). You might also think about where you have the video devices pointed as they show whatever is in front of them when used this way. Another possibility is to simply turn them off when you are not using them and turn them on when you need them. That is somewhat inconvenient as it takes about a minute for the device to power up and connect, but it may work better than the alternative. This warning aside, we like the Alexa devices and use them heavily. By the way, you can put them throughout your house and use them as an easily set up intercom system.
To set up any of the Alexa devices, simply plug in the speaker, download and open the Amazon Alexa app on a smartphone or tablet, and follow its prompts. All of Amazon’s Alexa devices use Bluetooth technology to connect to your devices. They also connect 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.)
Amazon designed the newest version of the Echo, the Echo Plus (2nd Gen, $149.99), as a control center for other smart devices. It offers improved sound through better speakers than the Echo and comes from Amazon packaged with a Philips Hue Bulb to give you the opportunity to experience how you can use the Echo Plus to control such devices. Check it out on the Amazon.com website.
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 elderly parents, this could be a great option to consider.
Google Home (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. Google offers several sizes of its audio-only Home device. The basic Google Home costs $129. The Google Home Max costs $399. The Google Home Mini costs $49.
The Ring WiFi-enabled Video Doorbell 2 ($199, ring.com/video-doorbell) can provide 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 a great gift for the frequent traveler, allowing you to see who is coming 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.
Backyard barbecue enthusiasts will enjoy the Grillbot automatic grill cleaner ($89.95, amazon.com). The only downside to a perfect afternoon barbecue is having to clean the grill afterward. The Grillbot is a battery-powered robot with three removable rotating wire brushes that will automatically clean your barbecue grill. All you have to do is place the Grillbot on the grill, cool or warm, push a button, and close the lid. You will need the surface temperature to be less than 250 degrees, but there is a sensor on the Grillbot that will alert you if the temperature is too high. While it is running, the Grillbot’s brushes will spin, stop, and restart at random, in a way that makes the robot crawl across the surface of the grill.
The indoor home chef will enjoy the offerings from the Perfect Company, such as the wireless Perfect Bake PRO smart kitchen scale and recipe app ($59.99, amazon.com), or the Perfect Blend PRO smart scale and app ($94.99, amazon.com), or even the Perfect Drink PRO smart scale and recipe app ($99.99, amazon.com). All these smart devices work with Apple devices running iOS 10.0 or higher (with Bluetooth 4.0) and Android devices running Lollipop 5.0 or higher (again with Bluetooth 4.0). All three scales have a corresponding app, but actually you can use all three apps with any of the scales. Each app comes with a bank of recipes, but you can also add your own to the database. All this combines to make food preparation at home easy, which makes it a great gift for those of us not-so-gifted in the kitchen. Following the apps and recipes makes it easy to keep track of your nutritional intake as well.
Everyone wants to be connected these days, but if your wireless network does not extend very far, it can feel like a pretty short leash when you move about the house. Put some slack in that leash with the TP-Link N300 WiFi Range Extender ($19.99, amazon.com). The TP-Link is compatible with standard routers and access points, and it is quick and easy to set up. Once you have it set up, you can access and manage everything through the TP-Link Tether app (available for iOS or Android smartphones). There is even a handy signal indicator to direct you to where the best place to locate your extender is for optimal WiFi range. As an added bonus, you can set up a schedule to turn the extender on or off, which can help enforce bedtimes for the youngsters.
The next time you host a movie night, you can take the entertainment outdoors with the ViewSonic PA503S 3600 lumens SVGA HDMI projector ($299.99, amazon.com). The picture quality on this outdoor movie theater is impressive. You can connect it with a Roku or Apple TV to project your entertainment choices on whatever surface you desire (a white wall, a projector screen, the side of a pole barn . . .). It operates quietly, so you do not have to worry about where you place the projector. While the image projection is amazing, the sound quality is a bit lackluster, so you may want to plan on picking up a quality external speaker to connect to it.
Kids and grown-up kids-at-heart will get a kick out of Clocky, “the alarm clock that runs away” ($39.99, clocky.com). Clocky is especially useful for anyone who has difficulty getting up in the morning. When your designated wake-up time arrives, Clocky’s alarm will sound. If you think you are going to keep hitting snooze for “five more minutes,” think again. The next time you tap the snooze button, this little robot on wheels rolls away, still beeping and chirping, requiring you to get up and chase it in order to silence it. To end the beeping, you have to switch it off.
You can also increase your outlet access with the PowerCube 5-outlet wall adapter ($18.97, amazon.com). The PowerCube can turn one power outlet into five. You can connect multiple cubes together to exponentially expand your power capacity. Be sure to keep your wiring outlet capacity in mind before connecting multiple devices. You might want to have an electrician advise you on the capacity and even install a new circuit or two to safely increase the capacity for you before you start to tax it with multiple outlet extensions.
Dog owners will enjoy interacting with their pets with Furbo Dog Camera ($199, amazon.com). The Furbo is one of the most popular pet monitors on the market. There is a built-in camera and two-way audio system that allow you to check in on your pet. You can even dispense a treat to the good boys and girls through the Furbo app, no matter where you are. There is a built-in barking sensor that will send push notifications to your smartphone when it detects barking. You can know what is going on at home and calm down your pets through the speaker. The setup is easy, just connect it to a power outlet, then download the Furbo app and use the app to connect the device to your home WiFi.
Several manufacturers have produced dedicated electronic books. Best known among these devices: Barnes & Noble’s NOOK and Amazon’s Kindle. 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, they do not work well in bright sunlight. The E Ink e-readers, however, work quite well in bright sunlight as well as 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 quality Internet or e-mail access. Think of them purely as electronic books. 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 quite satisfactory, but we have a strong preference for the Kindle (we have tried them both over several years and many versions). You can’t go wrong with either, but we think you will be happier with a Kindle. 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 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 (amazon.com). It is a 6”, WiFi-only, E Ink electronic reader. It comes with what Amazon calls “special offers” (read: they push ads onto your device). If you do not want the special offers, you can pay a $20 premium and get the device without the ads. For what it’s worth, the special offers do not impinge on your reading experience; they only appear on your lock screen when the device is on but timed out. This version, simply called the “Kindle,” measures 6.3” x 4.5” x 0.36” and weighs in at a shade less than 6 ounces. It represents a solid basic e-reader.
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 with built-in illumination, measures 6.7” x 4.6” x 0.36”, and weighs 7.2 ounces (WiFi-only) or 7.6 ounces (WiFi plus 3G).
Our favorite E Ink reader, the Kindle Oasis, sits at the top of the Kindle line. The Oasis sports a larger, 7” illuminated screen (with adaptive light sensor) 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. 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 are both inexpensive (starting at $49.99) and decent, we have a strong preference for the iPad as a tablet. We would not consider the Fire tablet as a purchase for ourselves. We think of them as a less expensive gift for someone or, perhaps, a gift for a young user. Speaking of young users, Amazon also has a “Kids Edition” of its Fire tablets, built with a little more protection against casual injury. The Kids Editions range in price from $99.99 to $199.99.
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 (amazon.com). You will need to view the comparisons of the E Ink e-readers and the Fire Tablets separately, as they appear on separate web pages.
Memory Storage Devices
An external hard disk, particularly a small, portable hard disk, can make a gift that will get a lot of use. It also makes a useful personal acquisition. Our current favorite comes from Samsung: the T5 Portable SSD. SSDs generally cost more than traditional hard disk drives, but they come in smaller form factors, weigh less, work faster, and are less susceptible to damage. The reduced size and weight and increased price results from the fact that SSDs uses flash memory rather than a spinning disk. We recently saw Samsung’s 500 GB T5 Portable SSD for $109.99 at Amazon. Other SSDs that we like include SanDisk’s 500 GB Extreme Portable SSD ($109.97, amazon.com) and Western Digital’s 512 GB My Passport SSD Portable Storage ($124.99, amazon.com).
When it comes to traditional hard drives, you can still get a pretty portable device, albeit a bit larger and heavier than the T5 (but at a lower price). We like Seagate (seagate.com) and Western Digital (wdc.com) hard disk drives, as they offer good quality at 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. You can find Seagate and Western Digital drives 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. 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 (that’s what we usually do). 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. Check out Western Digital’s 2 TB Elements portable drive ($64.99, amazon.com), Seagate’s Backup Plus Slim 2 TB drive ($63.99, amazon.com), and Toshiba’s 2 TB Canvio Advance Drive ($59.99, amazon.com).
We will not explore the various models, features, and sizes of televisions in this guide. When it comes to accessories for televisions, we want to focus on two categories: media streaming devices and sound bars.
Media streaming devices. Several manufacturers make devices to connect your television to Internet content, including for movies, television shows, sports, news, videos, and more. The devices we like best include the Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and the various offerings from Roku.
Apple offers two devices, the Apple TV 4K and the Apple TV. The Apple TV 4K offers 4K and HDR (High Dynamic Range), complete with Dolby Atmos home theater quality sound. You can get it with your choice of 32 GB or 64 GB of memory for $179 or $199 (apple.com). The Apple TV comes with 32 GB of RAM and will cost you $149. Please note that if you do not have a 4K TV and do not plan on getting one in the near future, the Apple TV 4K will not give you anything that you cannot get from the Apple TV. Both the Apple TV and the Apple TV 4K use a remote that features voice command powered by Siri. The Apple TV is generally easy to set up, but if you are worried, keep in mind that every Apple TV purchase comes with complimentary telephone technical support for 90 days after your purchase. So, if you are planning to give this as a gift, you may want to time the purchase closer to your intended date of gifting.
The Roku devices (roku.com) cost substantially less than those from Apple, 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 (amazon.com) offers the Fire TV Stick ($39.99) and the Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD ($69.99); both feature a remote that work with the Alexa digital assistant to help you find what you want to watch. Amazon recently added a new top-of-the-line model, the Fire TV Cube ($119.99), which features 4K Ultra HD and what Amazon bills as a “hands-free” experience. In addition to the Alexa-powered remote control, the Cube itself has eight built-in microphones so you can turn it on and operate it through Alexa entirely via voice command.
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). Note that all of them require a broadband Internet connection and WiFi. 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.
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, many after-market audio systems to upgrade the sound quality of televisions are now available. You have probably already figured out that we have a certain partiality for the high-quality engineered sound generated by Bose products (bose.com). 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 four bars, ranging from the top-of-the-line Soundbar 700 ($799.95) to the Solo 5 ($249.95).
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, apple.com) has worked extremely well with Apple products. 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 recently redesigned its Trackpad ($129) and Magic Mouse 2 ($79), making both better and employing rechargeable batteries.
Apple also offers 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 drawing its power from the iPad Pro and an immediate connection without the need to pair or charge as you would normally do with a Bluetooth keyboard. Others mostly use Bluetooth connectivity (although we have seen a few that use the Lightning connector) and require that you separately charge them. Additionally, the Smart Keyboard cover uses laser technology to build keys from specially woven, water-resistant fabric, creating some feeling of resistance when you strike the key without using the standard physical mechanism. Significantly, this process avoids the existence of crevices around the keys that can allow liquids and other foreign matter to get in and damage the keyboard. Apple’s keyboard covers (in fact, virtually all keyboard covers) give you a configuration substantially the same as a laptop. If you don’t happen to like that configuration, a stand-alone Bluetooth keyboard will give you more flexibility. You can use Apple’s stand-alone keyboard or a third-party Bluetooth product.
Logitech (logitech.com) offers a collection of well-made Bluetooth keyboards that work very well with computers, tablets, and smartphones. They also offer keyboard covers for the iPad. 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.
Get a Dragon on your side. The Dragon speech engine has taken over the world of VR software (meaning old-school “VR” for voice recognition, not virtual reality). Having watched this genre of software for many years and tested and reviewed the last several versions, we can tell you that having VR software on your computer saves a lot of effort. Each new version of Dragon we have tried on both the Mac and Windows OS has improved over its predecessors in ease of use and accuracy. Dragon represents the best in its field on the Mac and Windows side as well as for mobile hardware users. Dragon software for the Mac or Windows would make an excellent present to buy yourself or give to someone you care about. Go to nuance.com for details of options and pricing.
Travel folios. An e-padfolio is a great gift for the planner on the move. A traditional padfolio typically holds a notepad and pens, with one or more pockets for organization. The “e” version adds a pocket for a tablet and sometimes a smartphone as well. If you are looking to pick one up for a loved one this year, consider the STYLIO Zippered Padfolio Portfolio Binder ($23.95, amazon.com). The exterior of the STYLIO is a soft faux-leather material. The tablet pocket will hold up to 10.1” tablets, which will fit the iPad or the Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 nicely, but not the iPad Pro. There is also a sleeve for your smartphone designed for easy access. The Wundermax Padfolio Portfolio ($24.99, amazon.com) is a great option as well. The sleeve for securing a notepad is designed so you can slide the notepad in from top or bottom, making it adjustable for left-handed or right-handed users.
Tech trackers. For those who cannot always find their stuff, consider gifting a five-pack of the TrackR pixel Bluetooth tracking device ($59.25, amazon.com). The pixel uses Bluetooth technology to find items within a range of 100 feet. The pixels are great for your keys, cell phone, wallet, purses, anything you might be prone to lose. As an added perk, when it is time to change the battery, you can order a free replacement battery from TrackR directly via the app itself. TrackR will alert you whenever a battery is low. There is two-way communication as well, meaning you can use the pixel to trigger the app on your smartphone to make an audible alert, even if you left your phone in silent mode.
Gift subscriptions are one of the many ways technology helps you out around the holidays in choosing gifts for those hard-to-shop-for family members, friends, or associates. You can find something for nearly everyone, young or old. And the gifts keep coming throughout the year. Most services will let you choose to gift every 1, 3, 6, or 12 months, depending on your preference. Although these do not all truly qualify as tech gifts, we include them as you will likely order them on the Internet (how techie do you want it?), and we know that you may still have one or two people for whom a tech gift just may not work.
For the techie. Check out TekCrates ($24.99 and up, tekcrates.com). Each gift crate may contain up to seven items. There are different subscriptions you can choose instead of a gift subscription, including the TekCrate Geek ($34.99), which will contain collectibles, memorabilia, and novelty items. The popular gadgets included in these boxes are based on the current market trends and designed to help you maximize your use of technology in your daily life. A fun version of a tech gift box for kids is Bitsbox (starting at $24.95 per month, bitsbox.com). Bitsbox is designed to help children age 6 through 12 learn to code. Even adults do not need any coding experience to help their children build and share apps. Each level introduces a new computer science concept along with a set of crazy fun app projects.
For the book lover. The Book of the Month subscription service (BOTM; $12.50 per month if purchased for a full year, bookofthemonth.com) delivers five selections monthly to you via e-mail on the first of the month, and then you have until the sixth of the month to choose your favorite among them. Once you choose your favorite, BOTM will ship the book to you. You can add extra books to your shipment for $9.99 each. If you find yourself behind on your reading for the month, you can easily put the membership on hold by clicking “skip” in the e-mail, and the remaining gift months will be there when you are ready.
Feeling a bit more adventurous? Check out the Once Upon a Book Club gift boxes (OUBC; $32.50 per month if purchased for a full year, onceuponabookclub.com). Even a single month gift box ($34.99) could make for a fun and interesting gift. Each month’s box contains a curated reading experience for readers to be immersed in the world of the book they are reading. For each month, the box not only contains a newly released book, but OUBC also selects three to five specific items pulled from the book as gifts to enhance the reading experience. Each gift contains instructions on which page to open the gift. Boxes are shipped between the 17th and the 20th of each month. Because the selections are so carefully curated, the recipient is not able to make specific requests, but you can designate between adult fiction and young adult fiction.
For more serious reads, consider Business Book Monthly ($28 per month plus shipping and handling, businessbookmonthly.com). Business Book Monthly is a subscription box service that looks to help people seeking business knowledge and motivation by sending a new business book along with other goodies every month. Each month’s selection is authored by experts in the field. Areas of business covered include marketing, leadership, real estate, investing, and more. The boxes also come with yummy and nutritious power snacks to fuel you during your work day. There are also top-of-the-line office supplies to help you tackle the day. The box will also help you stay on top of the most relevant business headlines with Business Monthly News.
A subscription to Audible (audible.com) will cost you $14.95 per month. Your subscription gets you one credit per month to download any audio book, unlimited access to audio fitness programs, and the ability to download two of the six monthly “Audible Originals”—audio programming created by Audible itself, running the gamut from fiction, to journalism, to interviews, to self-help guides. You can stockpile credits for audiobooks and purchase additional credits if you run out. As Audible is owned by Amazon, you will find there are Audible versions of many Kindle books, and if you buy a Kindle book with an audio edition, the system offers it to you at a discount. Many pairs of Audible/Kindle books enable the “Whispersync” feature, allowing you to switch seamlessly between listening and reading without losing your place.
For the pet lover. BarkBox ($21 per month if purchased for a full year, barkbox.com) is a subscription-based online service where members receive monthly surprises for their dogs, consisting of all-natural treats, hygiene products, and toys. Every month is a themed collection with at least two innovative toys, two all-natural bags of treats, and a chew of some sort. If there is anything in the box that your pet doesn’t love, you can send it back and have it replaced for free. meowbox ($22.95 per month if purchased for six months, meowbox.com) is similar to BarkBox, but for cats. Each meowbox contains four to six items that cats go crazy for. The gift recipient can create an account with the gift certificate, tell the service about the cat or cats, and wait for the monthly surprise. Each month has a theme, similar to BarkBox. Food treats that are included contain natural ingredients and are nutritious, grain-free, organic, locally made, and tasty (although, in the interest of full disclosure, neither of the authors consumed the cat treats to test their tastiness).
For the foodie. Culinary creators will eat up the RawSpiceBar, a spice-of-the month gift subscription ($18 per month, rawspicebar.com). At RawSpiceBar, you can set up a gift subscription, purchase a gift card, and let the recipient designate the quantity and frequency of spices, or purchase a single gift box. The $18-per-month subscription provides for three spices monthly. You can take the site’s quiz for suggestions on spices you may love or request the top spices of the season. RawSpiceBar uses high-quality, whole ingredients.
Another alternative to consider is Piquant Post ($9.99 per month if purchased for a full year, piquantpost.com). Each month, boxes from this subscription service contain four unique spice blends and four new recipes to accompany them. Each recipe is designed to serve four people. Brewmasters will enjoy the Craft Beer Club ($42 per month, craftbeerclub.com), a monthly subscription service that provides four different styles of craft beer (three bottles each) from up-and-coming microbreweries. Your initial shipment will include up to three free bonus gifts, plus an optional greeting card. Vinebox ($72 per quarter, getvinebox.com) is a great solution for wine lovers. Each box contains nine glasses of various wines for the recipient to try. (If you want to gift a single box, it will be $79 instead of $72.) They also offer a “12 nights of wine” box for $129, which contains 12 different glasses of wine from around the world to help you count down to the holidays with flair. For the at-home bartender, consider SaloonBox ($49 per month if purchased for a full year, saloonbox.com). Each box contains top-shelf spirits and recipe cards and sometimes even a free bar tool. Spirits are provided through a partnership with Plumpjack Wine & Spirits. The recipes are seasonal, so your recipient will be ready to wow the audience at the next party (picturing scenes from Cocktail). If you want to remove the element of surprise, you can purchase and gift a past box set in order to know what is in it ahead of time.
For teens. Teenagers (and maybe adults, too) might enjoy a subscription to Casely ($15 per month, getcasely.com). Casely is for iPhone users (you can choose from the iPhone 6/6S, 6/6S Plus, 7, 7 Plus, 8, 8 Plus, or X/Xs). Each shipment contains a new, fashionable cell phone case. Each case is engineered from high-quality, protective polycarbonate. The subscription is customizable to the recipients; every month they will receive an e-mail with the exclusive new cases for that month and can choose one of the new ones or a previous club case design.
For the offbeat. Quirky acquaintances of all ages will get a kick out of the Apollo surprise box ($30–$50 per month or quarter, theapollobox.com). Members get a surprise box every month or quarter, with quirky gifts tailored to your likes and preferences. Gifts can include one-of-a-kind accessories, decorations, and more, and every box is guaranteed to contain full-sized unique items that you won’t find in your local chain store. Recipients can choose what genre best reflects their personality and style, including cute, geek, minimalist, punk, romantic, rustic, vintage, and modern.
For the dapper gentleman. Consider SprezzaBox ($28 per month if purchased for a full year, sprezzabox.com), a subscription service that curates the perfect box of fashion and lifestyle products for men. Each box will contain five or six pieces, and it is guaranteed to be worth more than $100 in value. For the ladies, Birchbox ($9.17 per month if purchased for a full year, birchbox.com) is a very popular subscription service. Birchbox delivers five high-end beauty samples tailored to the recipients’ personal style as well as their hair or skin care needs. There is also BirchboxMan ($9.17 per month if purchased for a full year, birchbox.com/gift/men) so the guys don’t have to miss out on all the fun.
Gift baskets. Looking for the perfect gift basket? Check out gifttree.com for options such as the California Classic Wine Basket ($49.95) and the As Good As Gold Basket ($49.95). You can shop for gift boxes by personality, too. Want to build a custom gift box? Head over to BOXFOX (shopboxfox.com). There, you can build a box of your choosing from their selection of products, including accessories, decorations, books, sweet treats, and home goods.
Last-Minute Stocking Stuffers
The WGCC Fingerprint Padlock ($49.99, amazon.com) makes for a great stocking stuffer. It’s a fast and easy way to secure a bicycle, gym locker, golf bag, cabinet door, or a variety of other lockable items. The fingerprint reader means you will not have to remember letters or numbers or the pattern of a twist dial. If you have ever set up the fingerprint lock on your smart device, the setup for this lock is very similar. You add your fingerprint through the padlock’s app, which takes six readings at various directions to map your fingerprint. You can also remove registered fingerprints through the app. You can store up to 15 fingerprints.
You could get USB sticks for stocking stuffers. These devices (sometimes also called “thumb drives” as they approximate the size of a thumb) are small enough to fit inside any stocking, with a large-enough capacity to be useful to many. Amazon lists hundreds of them from a variety of manufacturers and in a variety of sizes. We found some as inexpensive as $30.99 for ten drives with 2 GB each and some costing far more, such as the Kingston 1 TB DataTraveler Ultimate for $585.34. The best values appear to be in the range of 128 GB to 256 GB. Check out the SanDisk Cruzer Glide CZ60 256 GB drive for $47.99 or the PNY Turbo 256 GB drive for $49.99, both at Amazon. You might also want to consider the PNY Turbo 128 GB for $24.99 at Amazon. If you want something with even less memory, look at the SanDisk Cruzer Fit CZ33 64 GB low-profile flash drive ($14.99, at Amazon). USB sticks have grown tremendously useful, and we never leave home without at least one of them!