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 several thousand dollars. 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 and 2019 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 ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, 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 (pens, calendars, smartphone stands, etc.) with your firm name and (if you have one) logo printed on them.
- 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 by the date of publication.
- 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 were 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 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 where 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 as 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 below our top ten choices for 2019.
- iPhone 11 Pro (gold colored, 512 GB memory)
- iPad Pro (gold colored, 11”, 1 TB memory, WiFi + Cellular)
- Whill Model Ci personal electronic vehicle
- Sony Cyber-shot RX100 VII camera
- Kindle Oasis e-reader
- Fitbit Versa 2
- Bose Hearphones
- Bose 700 Noise Canceling Headphones
- Jackery PowerBar
- Apple Watch Edition (titanium with Milanese Loop band)
- iPhone 11 (purple colored, 256 GB memory)
- iPad Pro (silver colored, 12.9”, 512 GB memory, WiFi-only)
- Roku Streaming Stick+
- Samsung T5 Portable SSD
- Schlage Sense smart lock
- Bose SoundLink Revolve Bluetooth speaker
- AirPods Pro
- GoPro HERO7 Black POV camera
- Apple Watch Edition (40 mm Gold Stainless Steel Case with Aubergine Modern Buckle)
- Disney+ streaming service (though this might be more of a gift for my toddler)
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. The list of available models to choose from continues to grow. Most smartphones use Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating system. If you want an Android phone, you have numerous manufacturers and many models to choose among. If you want a phone running iOS, you have one manufacturer and several models to choose among. We have developed a strong partiality to Samsung on the Android side and Apple on the iOS side over the years (no choice regarding the latter, but we like the iOS better than Android). Both of the authors have chosen iPhones and Apple’s iOS for their primary smartphone device (Jeff also has a Samsung phone running on Android as a second phone.) We consider the iPhone 11 Pro (or Pro Max) to be the best phone on the market (but not the best value for the money) and the Samsung Galaxy S10 to be the at the top of the Android phone list. Although almost 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 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 looked at 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 series phones, so your choice of provider should not be influenced by a preference for one particular model of phone. 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.
New iOS. As we write this article, Apple has just released the newest iteration of the iOS: iOS 13. If you currently use iOS 12, the switch to iOS 13 will not create any serious surprises, but there are some changes. The new OS will kill some of your apps unless and until they get upgraded to work with it. The upgrades of all our devices from iOS 12 to iOS 13 went smoothly, easily, and quickly. We did not suffer a single glitch in the upgrade process of numerous iOS devices (various models of iPhones 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, as it lacks the required hardware.
Apple has done something novel this year; it split the iPad off from the iPhone and created a special OS for the iPad (iPadOS). Interestingly, Apple continued the numbering system shared by the iPhone and iPad in the iOS and started the iPadOS in version 13. Splitting the operating systems for the devices allowed Apple’s engineers to build into the iPadOS routines to take advantage of capabilities unique to the iPad. (Further details can be found in the section below discussing tablets.)
iOS 13 for the iPhone refines several features in previous versions and adds some new tricks. Included in the list of new and improved features:
- Dark Mode looks new and different and is easier on the eyes. For those of you rude enough to use your phones during the movies, put them on silent and use Dark Mode and nobody will complain. You can also schedule Dark Mode to toggle on and off at chosen times.
- Photos gives more flexibility in the app, letting you look through your photos in different ways. It will also remove duplicates and hide receipts and other clutter making it easier to see what you want to see. Photos will create soundtracks for you to go with your photos based on the music you choose to play on your phone. It also gives you more control over your filters.
- Camera lets you adjust the position and intensity of lighting. It also improves WiFi and Bluetooth location and allows you to prevent apps from accessing your location without your approval.
- Maps has been redone and offers improved maps and details. It also ads real-time information about public transit. We have not had problems with accuracy yet. Hopefully, the newly redone app solved accuracy issues that have historically proven troublesome for Apple’s Maps program. (FYI, we have continued to prefer Google Maps, but maybe this is the year that changes).
Visit the Apple website for a more detailed examination of iOS 13 and its changes.
iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro (and Pro Max). The newest iPhones, the iPhone 11 series, came out in September 2019. As in recent years, Apple released more than one model in the same numerical sequence. The iPhone 11 represents the basic unit in the new top of Apple’s line. The Pro versions of the 11 add additional features and boost the price. The differences between the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max primarily relate to the size of the device and its screen, although there are a few other differences. Perhaps the most significant difference relates to the battery. The larger size of the case of the 11 Pro Max allowed for a slightly larger battery. Apple estimates that the battery on the 11 Pro Max will last approximately an hour longer in use than the battery on the 11 Pro. The differences between the 11 Pro and the standard iPhone 11 relate to the size of the device and its screen, battery life, and the camera setup. The standard 11 has a dual 12 MP ultra-wide and wide camera setup with a night mode. The Pro versions both have a triple 12 MP ultra-wide, wide, and telephoto setup with night mode. Although the case on the standard 11 and the display fall between the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro max in size, the standard 11 offers several hours less battery life per charge than the Pro versions. Other difference among the iPhones include: (1) The standard 11 offers water resistance to a depth of two meters for up to 30 minutes. The 11 Pro models offer water resistance to a depth of four meters for up to 30 minutes. (2) The standard 11 has a Liquid Retina HD display, the Pro models have a Super Retina XDR display. Other than that, the phones basically come with the same technology. All three run on Apple’s A13 Bionic chip, all come with biometric security in the form of facial ID, all three will shoot 4K video, and all three work with and are available through all the major carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile). You can get the standard iPhone 11 with 64 GB RAM, 128 GB RAM, or 256 GB RAM; the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max have choices of 64 GB RAM, 256 GB RAM, or 512 GB RAM. Display sizes among the three phones: Standard 11 (6.1”); 11 Pro (5.8”); and 11 Pro Max (6.6”). The Standard 11 comes with an LCD display, and the Pro models come with an OLED display. Pricing for the iPhone 11 Pro without trade-in and without provider discounts: $999 (64 GB); $1,149 (256 GB); and $1,349 (512 GB). The Max is $100 more at each memory size. Pricing for the iPhone 11 without trade-in and without provider discounts: $699 (64 GB); $749 (128 GB); $849 (256 GB).
Other iPhones. Apple has retained the iPhone XR and the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus in its lineup. We discussed the iPhone XR in detail in the 2018 Tech Gift Guide and the iPhone 8 in detail in our 2017 Tech Gift Guide, so we will not do that here. They have not changed (although Apple may have limited the choices of RAM configurations). The XR and 8 and 8 Plus 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 XR). Both are excellent phones but less fully featured than the 11. The iPhone XR comes with 64 GB ($599) or 128 GB of RAM ($649). The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus configure with 64 GB ($449/$549) or 128 GB ($499/$599) of RAM. We like both phones and have worked with them extensively.
We think that for most people, the iPhone 11 represents the best value; and the XR comes in second. The Pro and Pro Max cost more than we feel comfortable recommending, but they are excellent phones. They give you the advantage of more memory if you want or need it. The 11 Pro phones have a better camera system as well. Bottom line: If you use iPhone photography a lot or if you must have the additional memory, get the Pro or Pro Max (we like the size of the Pro better). If not, get the 11 and save some money. If you don’t mind a slower phone, you can save even more with the XR. We think the iPhone 8 is too old to recommend to you. But it might be a good choice if you want a less expensive phone for a child. We say this because eventually the phones get too old to update and become problematic to use. Kids tend to be hard on phones, so it makes some sense to save the money and anticipate replacing it in a year or two. The XR should be fine for two or three years and the 11 for four years in terms of working well with future operating systems and functioning as intended. Caveat: In the next several years the providers will have a serious rollout of 5G networking. None of these phones offer 5G compatibility. It will probably be at least three years until we see any reasonable presentation of 5G network coverage, but some areas will likely get it first (expect major metropolitan areas as targets). Once 5G has decent coverage in your area, you will probably want to upgrade to a 5G phone. Your 4G phone will still work as well as it ever did; but how many people still ride around in a horse and buggy instead of a car?
Samsung Galaxy S. We prefer Samsung as our Android phone of choice. The Galaxy S line of Android smartphones from Samsung has proven very successful and extremely popular. The Note has a checkered history but appears to have survived its battery flameout days and now looks to be an excellent phone. We, however, prefer the Galaxy line. The newest models, the Galaxy S10 series, come in four versions: The S10 (128 GB or 512 GB), the S10e (128 GB or 256 GB), the S10+ (128 GB, 512 GB, or 1 TB), and the S10 5G (256 GB or 512 GB). The S10 5G is the most expensive version ($1,299.99 for 256 GB). We don’t recommend it as there is insufficient 5G service currently available to justify the extra cost. The S10 is $1,149.99 for 512 GB. The S10+ is $1,299.99 for 512 GB. The 10e is $849.99 for 256 GB. Unlike the Apple iPhones, Samsung’s phones will accept additional memory, so the built-in memory does not pose the hard line that it does on the iPhone. We like that feature. Significant differences among the models: S10+ has a 6.4” screen, S10 has a 6.1” display, S10e has a 5.8” display, and the S10 5G has a 6.7” display. The S10+ and S10 5G have a telephoto lens added to the camera. The battery in each progressively more expensive phone is a little larger. You can find an excellent comparison of the sizes and features of the four phones at tomsguide.com. Here is our bottom line: The S10 is the main phone, the S10e the economy version, and the S10+ the tricked-out top of the line. For many, the S10e will suffice. We think the S10 represents the best mix of features and value, so we recommend that, but the S10+ is very nice. We are most familiar with the S10+ as one of the authors acquired one as his second phone (to go with his iPhone 11 Pro). All the phones in the line deserve recommendation (except the 5G due to the current lack of 5G service).
As between the iPhone 11 and the Galaxy S10, the folks at Samsung give Apple a run for the money. They created a piece of hardware that is as good or better than Apple’s (we think as good, some have argued better). If you prefer the Android OS, you will likely prefer the Galaxy. We prefer the iOS and thus opt for the iPhone. Additionally, while the Google Play Store continues to catch up to Apple’s App Store, we like the apps available for the iPhone better, and that supports choosing the iPhone.
A note about the Galaxy Fold: While we find the concept appealing, we have some concerns about it and do not recommend it. Samsung announced the release of the phone and then had problems with it. It is prohibitively expensive ($1,979.99 for 512 GB) and has no proven track record. Although we like to live on the bleeding edge of technology, we would not spend almost $2,000 for any telephone. We have not had the opportunity to work with the Fold yet, so we do not represent that it is not worth $2,000, only that the price exceeds what we consider reasonable for a smartphone. If the phone sticks, we expect the price will come down. If not, we do not anticipate that it will become a best seller no matter how clever its design.
The market for tablets has slowed. As the price and power of tablets increases, it appears that many people have chosen to treat the tablet like a laptop rather than a smartphone, upgrading every few years instead of annually or even every other year.
Apple has dominated 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 moved to the iPad Pro, which, overall, we favor as the best available tablet.
iPad and iPad Pro. Since 2018, Apple has not done much to modify its iPad/iPad Pro line. The Pro comes in an 11” model (starting at $799 for WiFi only and $949 for WiFi plus cellular) and a 12.9” model (starting at $999 for WiFi only and $1,149 for WiFi plus cellular). The basic versions have 64 GB of RAM, which we consider insufficient. They also come in 256 GB, 512 GB, and 1 TB versions. We consider 256 GB the bare minimum you should look at. If you plan to store a lot of media on your iPad, consider the 512 GB or the 1 TB versions (1 TB may be overkill for most people). The 512 GB version of the 11” Pro costs $1,149 for WiFi only and $1,299 for WiFi plus cellular. The 12.9” version will cost $200 more. We have a strong preference for the smaller version as the size and weight of the larger model make it unwieldy to carry and to hold and use professionally (except on a desk or table). We tried it and did not like it, so we went back to the smaller version. The iPad Pro comes with a bright and sharp Liquid Retina display and True Tone color, decent sound (okay for you to listen to, but get a separate speaker if you want to share or get better sound and a good set of earphones if you just want better quality for yourself). The Pro works with the Apple Pencil 2 (not included; $129). We like the new iteration of the pencil better than the original. You can find a good comparison of the features of the two Pro models and of the two non-Pro models (the iPad and the iPad Air) on Apple’s website. Thumbnail comparison: Pro uses the A12X processor, Air the A12, and the iPad the A10; the Pro comes with up to 1 TB of RAM, the Air up to 256 GB, and the iPad up to 128 GB. All work with Apple Pencils, but only the Pro works with the second generation of the Apple Pencil; all work with Bluetooth keyboards (extra); the Pro comes with a USB-C connector and a more powerful charger. The iPad and iPad Air come with Lightning connectors. All come in WiFi and WiFi plus cellular versions.
The 10.2” iPad is a good unit, but slower than the others and hampered by its 128 GB maximum of RAM. If you want an iPad for work, we strongly encourage you to spring for the 11” Pro. If you just want it for personal use, you can get by with the Air, although the Pro offers more power, speed, and features. If you want one that is super-economical or for a child, you might want to opt for the less expensive 10.2” iPad. Apple also continues to offer its refreshed 7.9” iPad Mini, running on the A12 chip in 64 GB and 256 GB versions with both WiFi and WiFi plus cellular options. The 256 GB configuration costs $549 for WiFi only and $679 for WiFi plus cellular. The Mini has become less important to us as the size of smartphone displays have increased. Nevertheless, its size and weight make it by far the most portable of the iPads and worth considering for personal (particularly for travel) and limited professional use.
As noted above, this year Apple split the iPad off from iOS, leaving iOS for the iPhone and releasing iPadOS for the iPads. iPadOS offers a long list of special features for your iPad based on its different capabilities than the phone. You can find a summary of the features on Apple’s website. Some of the highlights include: the ability to keep multiple apps open and slide them over with a swipe, multiple windows for the same app, a new home screen layout, faster response to the Apple Pencil, and new features for the Apple Pencil (such as taking screenshots and the pixel eraser). One of our favorite features, Sidecar, converts your iPad into a second screen for your desktop computer or laptop. You can connect them with a cable to keep the iPad fully charged or wirelessly to let you move the second display around (up to approximately ten meters).
Samsung. The Samsung tablets generally cost less and offer fewer features than the iPads. Samsung’s top of the line, the Tab S6 10.5”, works with the included S Pen and comes with a super AMOLED display. It sells for $649.99 with 128 GB of RAM and $729.99 with 256 GB of RAM. As with the iPad, you can get a connectable keyboard (extra). We hesitated to include this device in this section as lot of people tend to think of it as a two-in-one hybrid laptop/tablet. In our opinion, however, it really does not qualify as a two-in-one device because it runs on the Android operating system. We choose to define a two-in-one as a device that can function as a laptop or a tablet but runs on a computer operating system (such as Microsoft’s Surface devices that run on Windows). We do not consider a device to be a two-in-one simply because you can add a keyboard to it, as you can add a keyboard to most Bluetooth-capable tablets.
The folks at Samsung know how to build solid devices, and the hardware of the Tab S6 is top-notch. In addition to the Super AMOLED screen, this tablet runs off of a Qualcomm 855 Octa core processor, comes with an 8 MP front and 13 MP rear camera, and has the ability to record 4K video. You can get it configured with up to 256 GB RAM, but it will accept supplemental memory using SD cards. You can get measurements and all the technical specifications for the tablet on the Samsung website.
The device only works with WiFi, and Samsung offers no option for a cellular connection. You can mitigate that problem by connecting to it to a cellular hot spot. That approach works well, but not as conveniently as internal cellular capabilities. We think that this is the best currently available Android-based tablet. We also think it does not compare favorably to the iPad Pro or even the regular iPad. We prefer the iPadOS to Android, WiFi plus cellular to straight WiFi, and Apple’s iTunes App Store to the Google Play Store. For those reasons, we recommend that you go back to the iPad for personal use or a gift unless you have someone who simply wants a media device. The Samsung works very well as a media player in our estimation (comparable to an iPad), but not so much as a working tool for productivity.
We have seen substantial growth in “health-tech” devices brought to the market, accompanied by increasing consumer interest. Health-related technology runs the gamut 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, heartbeat, and heart 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. We will not address those apps; instead, we will draw your attention to the hardware that runs them.
In terms of hardware, 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 arguably qualify as health-tech devices, and all of which would make excellent choices as gifts or for your own use. 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 you may find a recumbent version works better for you if you are over 50 or have back problems.
When we think of wearable health-related devices, we think first in terms of smart watches and hearing assistance devices. More sophisticated tracking devices have their own GPS. A GPS device can help you keep more accurate track of your progress and activities. Watches with GPS more easily and reliably 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 or the Galaxy) and (2) fitness trackers that also function as smart watches (or at least reasonably intelligent watches), such as the Fitbit Charge 3 and Versa 2. 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. 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 help you achieve this relatively inexpensively. 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 increase price. Fashion will inflate the cost even further, as will upgrading the quality of materials. If you want a designer label, you pay a premium for that. 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. Remember: wearable technology only works if you wear it, so consider the size and weight, along with how comfortable it feels, before you buy. In terms of basic style and appearance, we think that the smart watches look better than the fitness trackers.
Apple Watch. Apple makes our favorite smart watches that also function as fitness trackers. The Apple Watch offers 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. All the Apple Watches in each series of each generation use the same internal hardware, the same OS, and deliver the same features; the price differences relate to the choice of materials for the case and the band you select (and whether you choose one with a designer name attached). We think that the version with the aluminum body offers the best value, but we prefer the stainless steel as a style preference and because it just feels more solid to us. The newest series (Series 5, released in 2019) offers both Titanium and Ceramic cases at a higher cost. 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.
The Series 5 Apple Watch is the first to feature an always-on display. Apple has also changed the way that you can order the watches, giving you the opportunity to match any case with almost any band to suit your personal preferences. You can check out all the models, cases, and Apple bands in detail on the Apple website. On Amazon.com, however, 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 as Apple’s, but also not as costly. For most people the lower end of the Apple Watch range works just fine. We have a partiality to the stainless steel case due to its strength and to the titanium case due to strength and weight. In truth, we just like titanium.
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 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. 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 3 and up) appears better able to monitor your sleep than the Apple Watch.
Fitbit’s Charge 3 ($149.95) has been our favorite since it came out. The Charge 3 packs a lot of features into a small, fairly stylish package. We have received many complements on a Charge 3 (worn with an inexpensive Milanese Loop band purchased through Amazon). The Charge 3 does not have GPS built in, but it can use your phone’s GPS to track distance and pace. The Charge 3 incorporates guided breathing sessions as well. This device has some water-resistance. We have showered with it on and it seemed to have no effect. We have not taken it swimming yet. We believe that, for the average user, the Charge 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 Standard Edition and $229.95 Special Edition Versa 2 (similar features to Charge 3, but with a larger face, designer accessories, apps, music, and Alexa). The Versa 2 has emerged as our new favorite due to its style, but we still like the Charge 3 and think it represents a better feature-for-dollar value. An even more costly option from Fitbit is its $249.95 Ionic (similar features to Versa 2 except it adds adidas workouts, removes designer accessories, has its own GPS, but does not have Alexa). You can compare all the models and features in detail. Note that a recent announcement indicated that Google is in the process of acquiring Fitbit. We cannot predict what, if any, impact such an acquisition will have on the product line or quality of the Fitbit devices. As we have liked Fitbit for several years, we can only hope that Google does well with the brand and that it continues to improve.
PEV (personal electronic vehicles). As we age, some of us develop mobility issues. Most of the time, a cane, or for some people a walker, solves the problem. For travel, however, impaired mobility presents an obstacle to overcome. For you or a parent with impaired mobility, a personal electronic vehicle (PEV) makes a wonderful present as it restores the gift of mobility. PEVs have a different status than wheelchairs as they are not technically medical devices and, while expensive, generally cost less than power wheelchairs. Basically, all that means is that you cannot get Medicare or private insurance to pay for them. Airlines, however, generally do not distinguish between a PEV and a wheelchair and allow you to gate check wheelchairs and PEVs. We have found that tourist venues (museums, theaters, parks, etc.) throughout the world also treat PEVs the same as wheelchairs. The number of PEVs available continues to grow, and you have lots of choices, including devices that fold up and devices that break down into pieces for easy transportation in a standard car. We have tried a number of the PEV devices, and of those we tried, our favorite is the Whill Model Ci ($4,499). The Ci is not the least expensive, the lightest, or the most powerful PEV. Our selection results from the combination of price, flexibility, and comfort that we think makes it hard to beat. The Ci weighs about 114 pounds, breaks into three pieces of 45 pounds or less, includes an under-the-seat basket to carry an extra battery (which we recommend) and some personal effects, comes with your choice of a comfortable 16” or 18” wide seat, has four speeds, and travels up to ten miles on a battery charge. You operate the Ci with a joystick controller, and it has a deadman’s switch so that if you take your hand off the joystick, the Ci comes to a stop. The Ci has a turning radius of just under 30” and uses special omni wheels that help it handle a variety of terrains.
If the Ci costs more than you want to spend, you have lots of other choices. Another one of our favorites, the Triaxe costs only about half of what the Ci costs. It also weighs about half as much as the Ci. The Triaxe has the configuration of a three-wheeled scooter and comes with a retractable luggage rack that will hold a briefcase or a carry-on bag. The Triaxe has two speeds but allows variation with a motorcycle-like hand-grip accelerator. It uses one hand brake for stopping but does not have a deadman’s switch. The Triaxe seat is adequate but not as comfortable as the Whill Ci, particularly for long periods of use. We recommend buying a gel pad and adding it to the seat (not sold as part of the Triaxe package, but readily available online and in stores).
Say what? Back in the day, when we saw someone walking down the street carrying on a conversation with nobody near them, we thought that they should be evaluated for transport to a mental health facility. Today, 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 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.
We have looked at many hearing aids and will not get into comparisons as hearing aids are a very personal thing. However, we will mention the ReSound LiNX Quattro as it impressed us when we tried it out. The Quattro is the latest evolution of the first “made for iPhone” hearing aid. The Quattro is rechargeable, so you (or perhaps your parents) never need to buy another hearing aid battery and you do not need to hassle with changing the batteries. You just take it out of your ear and put it in its case. The case holds power for multiple recharges. Just be sure to recharge the case every few days. The Quattro works as a hearing aid and as earphones for your music and your phone. The sound quality is quite good when playing music, and it works extremely well when functioning as a hearing aid. As added bonus, it has the ability to mask tinnitus should you or whomever you give them to suffer from that. While the most likely purchase of the hearing aids may be for yourself or a parent, do not overlook the possibility of gifting them to a partner or employee. One of the authors (Jeff) ran his own firm for many years. Some time ago he had a long-term employee with a moderately serious hearing problem. The employee did not want to get hearing aids, partly for financial reasons. He got hearing aids for the employee, helping to increase productivity in his firm to the point that he believes he more than got fair value for the expenditure. It also helped employee morale, goodwill, and loyalty.
If you have read our gift guides over the years, you know that we like the Bose line of speakers and headsets quite a bit, notwithstanding that they tend to sell for premium prices most of the time (sometimes you just get what you pay for). We have been Bose fans for many years. A couple years ago, Bose came out with a combination music headset, telephone headset, and assistive hearing device that it calls the Hearphones. Hearphones remain a current device in the Bose line and one we like a lot. 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 $499.95 to be 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. Despite its price point, we like it, as it does a great job on everything—noise cancellation, music, phone, and conversation.
Most smartphones take excellent still photos as well as movies these days, as do tablets. For many, the smartphone or tablet has become all the camera they need or want. The pictures we can take with cameras included in the top-of-the-line iPhones and Samsung Galaxy series compare favorably with those from mid-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. While we still prefer dedicated video cameras for videos and high-quality digital cameras for stills, we use the camera in our smartphone often. Although we have seen any number of people using the cameras in their tablets for similar purposes, we have found that the size of the tablets makes them more unwieldy and less convenient.
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 you should use a dedicated stand-alone camera for high-quality photos. Similarly, although many digital cameras also take good video, you should get a camcorder for high-quality videos. People with a serious interest in photography generally look at the smartphone as a secondary camera to use for a grab shot occasionally or as a backup camera, but they will not rely on it as their primary camera.
If you get a 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. If you stay with the top-line manufacturers—Canon, Nikon, 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.)
You can often find last year’s top models available at discounted prices after the release of the newer models. 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 comparable to the new one. In others, photographers may conclude that a 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 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 an 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 VII. We believe that the RX100 VII ($1,299.99) 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. A professional might carry this camera as a backup or grab-shot camera. For the rest of us, it likely qualifies as all the camera we need for most uses, including travel. This is not a beginner’s camera! The RX100 VII is the seventh generation of this range of compact cameras from Sony. All the previous models (except for the RX100 V, which Sony replaced with the RX100 VA) remain available from Sony and from third-party sellers at substantially less than their original selling price. In fact, the older models have seen multiple price reductions, as the price goes down each time Sony releases a new model. Starting with the first in this line, the RX100, many have considered this range of cameras to be at the top of the list of point-and-shoot cameras on the market. Although the newer models have more features and are generally better than the earlier versions, the fact remains that the original RX100 model still takes great pictures and makes a great gift. At its multiple-times reduced price, it is a great value.
As with most of Sony’s top-end models, Zeiss makes the lenses for the RX100 series cameras. If you do not know the Zeiss name, you should. Zeiss has been around for a long time and has a reputation for making exceptionally high quality lenses. 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 VII also supports 4K video recording, which some earlier models do not. Although the lens for the VII works a bit slower than the lenses on earlier versions, the trade-off is that the VII gives you a much longer zoom range (24–200mm equivalent) than any of the predecessors except the RX100 VI. This zoom range makes it our choice for travel. Earlier versions, which had shorter zoom ranges, did not provide the telephoto functionality that most people want in a travel camera. The VII offers that. While the earlier versions work brilliantly for short to medium distances, they did not work as well for long distances, meaning that you either had to give up certain shots or have a different camera to take them. With the RX100 VII, you do not need to do that. 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 older predecessors is that the longer focal length of the lens results in a slower f2.8-4.5 lens. While we think the Model VII offers more than the Model VI, the difference primarily rests in the video capabilities of the camera. If you do not shoot a lot of video or don’t need 4K video, the model VI represents a better value for your money. If you have an RX100 VI, we do not recommend that you spend the money to upgrade to the VII, unless you take a lot of video and will benefit from the 4K video capability.
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 VII represents our first choice, with the VI as the second. The RX100 series is designed for enthusiasts. 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.
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 HERO7 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.
The HERO7 Black, released last year, 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 ($249.99). 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 ($59.99, 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 HERO7 Black represents your best bet.
Note that GoPro reduced the price of the HERO7 Black from $399.99 to $329.99 on the release of the HERO8 Black, which sells at $399.99. The HERO8 Black offers some improvements over the HERO7 Black, but we don’t think it is $70 better at the present time. GoPro has promised some additional accessories for the HERO8 Black that won’t work with the HERO7 Black. If they release those accessories and price them reasonably, they present a good reason to go to the Model 8; but they remain vaporware at present. Important caveat: GoPro currently offers a $100 discount on the HERO8 Black if you trade in a digital camera to buy it. The trade-in does not even need to work. As long as that offer remains in effect, the HERO8 Black is a better deal than the HERO7 Black, as it will cost $30 less after the trade-in transaction. The trade-in is available from GoPro on its website and not from third-party dealers. The site does not indicate when the discount offer ends.
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.
Making the case for protection. 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. Look for a strong case that will provide protection to your smartphone against such common disasters as dropping the phone onto a sidewalk. Some padding around the edges makes good sense. We also like the case to have a slight ridge rising above the display to help prevent damage if it falls face down. Cases with covers that fold over like a wallet have some benefits but have proven very inconvenient when trying to use the phone’s camera, so we have stayed away from them. Some cases have proven extremely protective. A good example is the Apple Smart Battery Case, which includes a backup battery for the iPhone. That case protected an iPhone XS against damage after falling facedown on a street and being run over by a car. (Note: This is a true story that actually happened to one of the authors on a recent trip to Europe). There are hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors for smartphone cases. Choose one on the basis of its functionality and the protection it offers to your phone. Speaking of protective cases, we use them for smartphones, tablets, laptops, and e-readers.
Power up! 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.” Most smaller communications devices come with batteries that have a hard time lasting the day in the hands of a power user. As a result, more and more people have found that they must recharge their devices at least once during the day. You can find lots of articles about how to prolong battery power in devices. We do not recommend that procedure (except in cases of emergencies or poor planning) as most of the suggestions cause a loss of (or reduction of) functionality. The more power you save, the more features you need to give up. Instead, 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 almost always carry a portable external power source (sometimes called a power bank) as insurance against running out of power at an inopportune time.
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. Moreover, the cases have the disadvantage of device specificity. We generally prefer the more flexible (and often far more powerful) power banks capable of charging a variety of devices and, in some cases, concurrently charging multiple devices. We have not seen significant performance differences among the various models we have used, other than as a result of the size of the power reserve and the amperage of the output ports. Be sure that the power bank you get has ports that generate sufficient power to charge your device. Tablets and smartphones may have different requirements. Most smartphones require lower output than tablets. Laptops require more than either tablets or smartphones. Many of the chargers have multiple ports with different outputs, 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 almost never 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 for long flights. You can find power banks almost everywhere these days: Best Buy, Costco, 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, Jackery, Monster, Samsung, Anker, and myCharge.
The power supplies from RAVPower represent some of the best values we have found. Three of our favorite larger-capacity devices come from RAVPower: the RAVPower 32000 mAh ($71.99, at Amazon), the RAVPower 20000 mAh USB-C ($36.99 at Amazon) and the RAVPower 10000 mAh Ultra Slim ($19.99 at Amazon). All 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 ($25.99); 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 this feature in recent models, you might also consider gifting an NFC charging base. 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 (TSA-approved) Jackery PowerBar 77Wh/20800mAh 85W (100W Max.) ($129.99 at Amazon). The RAVPower 20100 mAh ($59.99 at Amazon). Another favorite, the HyperJuice AC Battery Pack (100 Wh/26000mAh), costs $199.99. 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 refer you to the Bose website 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 700 Noise Canceling Headphones ($399.95). In our opinion the 700 represents the best of what Bose has to offer. We have tried the other headphones and earphones in the Bose line and consider the 700 the best noise canceling headphones in the line and one of the best, if not the best on the market. While we think $399.95 represents a premium price, we also think that the 700 represents a premium headphone.
- Bose SoundSport wireless headphones, 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).
- Bose Frames audio sunglasses ($199.95). The sunglasses are a relatively new offering from Bose. As sunglasses, we have other brands we prefer. The hook here is that the sunglasses also provide very decent audio without having to put something in your ear. The Frames sunglasses come in two models, the Alto (more rectangular) and the Rondo (more rounded), and in two sizes, small and large. While not specifically designed for this, the larger model will fit over many frames for prescription lenses, so you can get the benefit of your prescription as well as the music features if you like. Other Bose headsets provide better quality sound in our opinion, but the Frames sunglasses provide a convenient way to protect your eyes from the sun and get good quality music at a fairly reasonable price.
We have covered other Bose offerings in prior iterations of this gift guide. We refer you to them for more details. The bottom line remains that we have a strong partiality to the Bose line and have not found a speaker system, portable speaker, earphone, or headset in that line that we did not consider premium quality. As Bose is a well-known name, most people will happily receive a gift of a Bose headset. Something not well known about Bose is that it has a thriving set of outlet stores in many outlet malls. If you go into the outlet store, you will likely find that is has refurbished units available for many models at a substantially reduced price. The refurbished units come in a plain and simpler box, but with the same guaranty as a brand-new model. The refurbished units have proven as good as the new version in each instance that we tried and compared.
Another manufacturer we particularly like is Beats by Dr. Dre. Owned since 2014 by Apple, Beats devices produce a harder and more driving bass than those from Bose. Note that the prices listed below are MSRP, but we have seen substantial discounts for Beats devices online. Worth checking out in this line:
- urBeats3 wired earphones ($59.95). These earphones offer a relatively inexpensive introduction to the Beats sound.
- Powerbeats3 Wireless earphones ($199.95). 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 SoundSport.
- Powerbeats Pro wireless earphones ($249.95). This is our favorite of the Beats earphones. It 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 ($199.95). Very good quality sound, the entry level of the Beats headphone line.
- Beats Solo Pro wireless headphones ($299.95). Excellent sound, very comfortable to wear on-ear headset with active noise canceling.
- 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. It comes with a very competent active noise canceling system.
Apple has only one range of earphones with its own brand on it that we like: the AirPods. 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. The sound quality of the original AirPods was significantly better than the earphones Apple generally provides with its devices. The AirPods did not, however, compare favorably to offerings from manufacturers like Bose, B&O, and others. Apple recently upgraded to version 2 of the AirPods ($159), which offers some improvement to the sound quality. Apple has announced and will release by the time you read this article an even newer version of the AirPods 2 called the AirPods Pro ($249), which will offer active noise cancellation. The Pro version will not be available in time for us to evaluate it prior to finishing this gift guide. We look forward to improved sound quality and noise cancellation. All the AirPods automatically pair with iOS devices. We like the convenience of the automatic pairing and the charging case. While the sound quality thus far has not compared to some of the premium devices available for more money, they have proven quite popular and offer acceptable quality. They make a good choice for a fairly reasonably priced tech present.
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. We identified several last year that we liked. We have not found any this year that we like better.
In terms of pure sound quality, check out the Beoplay A1 from B&O ($249). 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 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, 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 Assistant 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 Ultimate Ears MEGABLAST ($249.99). The MEGABLAST is the most powerful portable speaker from Ultimate Ears. It boasts a deep rich bass, has Amazon Alexa built-in, a WiFi connection range of 330 feet, and a Bluetooth connection range of 150 feet. The built-in battery will provide up to 16 hours of play.
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.
Among the easiest smart home gifts to set up are the Echo devices from Amazon. Since starting in 2015 with the tower-shaped Echo (currently in generation 3 at $99.99), Amazon has expanded to the hockey puck–shaped Echo Dot (generation 3, $49.99); the Echo Show, a speaker with video screen for video/voice calling, streaming, etc. (generation 2, $229.99); and the Echo Show 5, a smaller video device ($89.99).
As noted above, Amazon has begun to upgrade its Echo devices, on a more or less annual basis, but we have not seen much difference in features. Most changes relate to size and design.
All these devices connect to the voice-controlled digital assistant service Alexa, which responds when you say “Alexa” or an alternative 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 a command to which it can respond. 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. By the way, you can put Alexa-enabled devices 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 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; Amazon is a multifunctional account, and the website is a great place for online shopping.)
Amazon designed the newest version of the Echo as a control center for other smart devices. It offers improved sound through better speakers than the original 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 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, Google’s response to the Amazon Echo, made its debut in the United States in 2016. It is a voice-activated smart speaker powered by Google 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 words “Okay, Google” or “Hey, Google.” Google offers several sizes of its audio-only Home device. The basic Google Home costs $99. The Google Home Max costs $299. The Google Home Mini costs $49.
Who’s there? The Ring WiFi-enabled Video Doorbell 2 ($199) 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. Ring has morphed from the original offering to more sophisticated products in recent years. As it did so, it grew increasingly expensive. You can still find earlier models if you like. Amazon sells the original for $99.99.
Stay out! One of the more interesting products to come out of the recent movement toward smart houses, the digital lock, affords both convenience and security. These locks replace the lock system on your house with a system that works on the basis of punching a code into the lock using a keyless entry system. You will find products available from numerous manufacturers, including many traditional lock companies such as Yale, Schlage, and Kwikset. You have your choice of more and less sophisticated versions with prices ranging from less than $200 to more than $600. Some of the locks come with touch pads, others with number pads; some respond to voice commands. Expect to spend around $300 for a good digital lock (plus installation). Some of the better smart locks include:
- August Smart Lock Pro ($279.99, available for less at Amazon). Works with Alexa, Google, and Siri.
- Schlage Sense ($229, available for less at Amazon). Lets you use your phone to lock and unlock your doors.
- Yale Assure ($251.38, available for less at Amazon). Uses a touch screen. Can work remotely but requires additional equipment.
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.
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 $89.99. 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,” represents a solid basic e-reader.
Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite has proven itself a popular and reliable choice. The WiFi-only version costs $129.99 with special offers; the WiFi plus cellular connectivity version costs $249.99 with special offers (each version cost $20 more without special offers). It has a 6” display with built-in illumination, measures 6.6” x 4.6” x 0.3”, and weighs 6.4 ounces (WiFi-only) or 6.8 ounces (WiFi plus cellular).
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 6.6 ounces (WiFi-only or WiFi plus cellular). 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 cellular 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 Fire Kids Edition, built with a little more protection against casual injury. The Fire Kids Edition costs $99.99.
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. 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 $89.97 at Amazon and the 5 TB version for $299.99. Other SSDs that we like include SanDisk’s 1 TB Extreme Portable SSD ($169.99 at Amazon), Western Digital’s 512 GB My Passport SSD Portable Storage ($124.99 at Amazon), and Seagate’s 500 GB SSD ($87.99 at Amazon).
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 and Western Digital 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. Check out Western Digital’s 2 TB Elements portable drive ($59.99 at Amazon), Seagate’s portable 4 TB drive ($89.99 at Amazon), and Toshiba’s 2 TB Canvio Advance Drive ($69.99 at Amazon).
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.
Dreamin’ of streamin’? Americans, on average, spend 2.8 hours per day watching TV according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is safe to say that Baseball is no longer America’s favorite pastime. If you and your loved ones are among the many who like to relax by catching a good show at the end of the day, there is a lot of tech out there to enhance your experience.
Given that watching entertainment is now America’s favorite pastime, 2019 appears to be the year of streaming, with subscription video-on-demand services dropping from every outlet. Competitors are racing to launch their services first and aiming at lower price points to capture viewers. Cable cord cutters know that they shouldn’t subscribe to all of them. Tempting as that may be, you would pay more than you would for a cable subscription. Before we get into the streaming service choices, let’s look at the devices that bring this entertainment into your home.
Streaming devices. Many, if not most, of the streaming services on the market today require a media player to broadcast the applications to your TV screen. This year, the Roku, Fire TV Stick, Fire TV Cube, Apple TV, and Google Chromecast are joined by the NVIDIA SHIELD TV. Like smartphones and laptops, one of the main considerations in choosing a streaming device is which software do you prefer? Each streaming device has its own operating system, so when you are choosing the right player to gift someone, check to see if it plays the content they prefer to watch, and if it would work well with the devices they already own. For example, if you want to play movies and shows that you purchased on iTunes, then you will need a streaming device from the Apple TV lineup.
Once you confirm that the software will support the applications you prefer to use, then you will want to review the features. For example, most streaming devices boast that they support 4K resolutions. 4K generally refers to a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. It is a number that represents the number of pixels that compose the picture on the TV. The higher the pixel count, the crisper and clearer the picture on the TV becomes.
There are numerous resolutions found on flat-panel TVs that you can buy today. You will notice many older TVs, and many 32” models sold today, have around a million pixels (commonly referred to as 720p). Slightly larger TVs (typically 49” and smaller) can be found with a little over 2 million pixels (or 1080p “HD”). Then the newer and bigger TVs (typically 50” and above) have 8 million pixels (which is the 4K “Ultra HD” you see today). The newest, largest, and most ridiculously expensive TVs can have more than 33 million pixels (8K). Because TVs are trending toward 4K resolution, you will do better purchasing a device that can support that resolution in order to extend the life of your device.
Another term you might see tossed around concerning streaming players is HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range. This is a visual feature that represents an improved range of color for your picture. It provides a better balance between the light and dark areas of the image. This, along with price and specifications such as processing speed and gaming features, will be useful in guiding your decisions.
Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the lineup of streaming devices this year. The oldest veteran in the group, Roku, launched the first streaming device as a Netflix Internet video streaming receiver box (the Roku DVP) in 2008. The concept came from Netflix, which in December 2007 was poised to release a set-top box to stream Netflix content. When the box was ready to go, Netflix CEO Reed Hasting started having second thoughts. He was concerned that if Netflix released the set-top box, then other devices, such as game systems and DVD players, would not let Netflix put its service on their devices. So, Netflix made the decision to spin off the set-top box into its own company, which would end up being called Roku. Netflix would be available on Roku, and Netflix would also pursue other devices that would offer the Netflix app. Roku was then free to put other services, such as Amazon Video, on the Roku.
Despite humble beginnings, in 2019 Roku has an impressive line of offerings, with several distinct players to choose from. The base model, the Roku Express ($29.99, at the time of writing, available for $24 on Amazon), offers 1080p HD resolution, wireless connectivity, remote, HDMI connection, and a quad-core processor. This is an affordable and easy-to-use option for you to pick up. It would make a great gift for any family member, or even as a white elephant gift. The receiver box carries a tiny footprint: It measures a mere 1.5” across. It is designed to attach to a slim TV, or to sit on top of an AV unit with the sticky tab on the device’s bottom. Unlike some of the other Roku devices, the Express doesn’t offer voice control in its remote, so you will need to position the remote in the line of sight of the Express device for it to receive the IR (infrared) commands. If you don’t care about extras features such as a voice-controlled remote or 4K Ultra HD and you want a simple, straightforward player for a second (or third) TV for the least amount of money, then the Express is the streamer to get.
The back of the Express offers two ports, one for the USB power cord and one for the HDMI cable you will use to connect it to the TV. All the necessary cables are included with the set; however, you should be aware that neither the Express nor any other 2019 Roku box will offer analog outputs for older TVs. If you need analog connectivity, then the original Express Plus is still available with analog outputs.
A step up from the Express is the Roku Premiere ($39.99; at the time of writing). The Roku Premiere is the cheapest streaming device available that can stream 4K HDR video. It won’t take up much real estate; the set-top device is roughly the size of an oversized pack of gum. One of the few drawbacks to the Premiere is its use of an IR remote, which, like the Express, requires a line of sight to the receiver to send infrared commands. The Premiere makes up for this shortcoming with the ability to send content from your phone, tablet, or PC to the player and have it appear on the TV. With a lot of pros, and very few cons, the Roku Premiere is a great choice this holiday season.
A step further up the ladder is the Roku Streaming Stick+ ($49.99). The Stick+ offers 4K and HDR video in a powerful stick. Keep in mind, to take advantage of the 4K HDR picture, you will need a 4K HDR TV. Even if you don’t have a 4K HDR TV, there are reasons to pick up the Streaming Stick+ over cheaper non-4K streaming devices such as the Express. One, you may get a 4K TV in the future. Two, it is designed to hide behind your TV. It plugs directly into a free HDMI port on your TV.
The Roku Ultra ($99.99) is Roku’s top-of-the-line streaming device. So, what do you get for the extra $50? Most of the extra features are found on the remote control, including a remote finder, a headphone jack, and a pair of keys that let you program your own shortcuts. It runs a tad bit faster than the other devices. Appearance wise, it looks like a drink coaster, a 4.9” square (although we don’t recommend you set drinks on it.) There is a button on top of the receiver that will help you find a misplaced remote. Press the finder switch and your remote will chirp or play music (you can select from a few audio clips in Roku’s menu) until you activate one of its buttons. It features an Ethernet port on the back, which is very useful if you have spotty WiFi. Overall, though, unless you really need the Ethernet connection for Internet access, you are probably better off with the Streaming Stick+.
Amazon’s Fire TV Stick ($39.99) is a great option for heavy users of Amazon Prime and Alexa. The Alexa-enabled remote is one of the best in class for voice features. It is a very affordable player that packs a lot of features, with the main drawback being its user interface. The Fire TV Stick overtly promotes TV shows and movies from Amazon and its partners, but if you are interested in their offerings anyway, this isn’t a very noticeable drawback. The Fire TV Stick can access almost all the major streaming apps, including Amazon Prime Video (of course), Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now/Go, Sling TV, Sony Crackle, Pluto TV, Tubi, Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, and many, many more.
The Fire TV Stick streams up to 1080p video; for the same price of $39.99, the Fire TV Stick 4K streams up to 4K Ultra HD.
The Fire TV Cube ($119.99), which also streams up to 4K Ultra HD, features what Amazon bills as a “hands-free” experience. In addition to the Alexa-powered remote control, the Fire TV Cube has eight built-in microphones so you can turn it on and operate it through Alexa entirely via voice command. It also has a built-in speaker so Alexa can answer your questions like an Echo device.
Google’s Chromecast ($35) plugs into your TV and grants easy access to multiple streaming services, from Netflix and YouTube to Google Play, but it doesn’t work the same way as the Fire TV Stick or Roku. Rather than launching the applications on the Chromecast, you stream the applications from your Android phone or iPhone, your laptop or desktop, or even your tablet. It integrates with Google Home to offer voice control as well.
For 4K Ultra HD and HDR streaming, there is the Chromecast Ultra ($69). Until this year, Amazon and Google had been feuding over negotiations to offer each other’s services on their devices, but that has finally come to an end. Soon Amazon Prime Video will be available on Google’s Chromecast and Android TV devices. In exchange, soon you will have access to Google’s YouTube, YouTube Kids, and YouTube TV on Amazon’s Fire TV devices.
The NVIDIA SHIELD TV ($149.99) is one of the more expensive streaming devices on the market at three times the cost of other entry-level 4K HDR streaming players, but it is a very powerful streaming player. It runs on an Android TV operating system and started off in 2015 being more focused on gamers. Its later iterations have morphed into a do-it-all video streaming TV device. It is able to support both WiFi and Ethernet connections, the latter of which is suggested for streaming video games or if you have spotty WiFi. The 2019 SHIELD TV (which was just released in October) is shaped as a cylinder and is jokingly referred to as a “fat cigar.” It was designed to be slimmer and easier to hide behind your TV. The remote sports a variety of buttons that are programmable. You can set the buttons to launch specific applications or different settings. Like the Roku Ultra, it also has a remote finder feature. At the press of a button on the device (or in the SHIELD TV app), the remote will emit a sound to aid you in locating it. You can also pair it with an Amazon Echo or Google Home device, then all you would need to do is ask the device to find the remote.
A lot of the buzz around the SHIELD TV centers on its AI upscaling feature. What is that, you ask? AI upscaling is designed to improve the detail and sharpness of standard HD video and make it look more like 4K. The way it works is pretty neat. SHIELD TV trained a neural network with TV and movie content from sources such as Netflix and Amazon Prime video, showing it both native 4K video and video that was upscaled using traditional methods. The neural network then uses the difference between the two to apply a prediction of what 4K video should look like. The trained network lives inside the SHIELD TV’s Tegra X1+ processor and can upscale almost any video, from standard 480p to 1080p, up to 4K (the exception is 60 frames-per-second video, which is mostly found only in video games and certain YouTube videos; most of your TV and movie content is 24 frames-per-second video). The SHIELD TV is the first streaming device to employ such upscaling (although Samsung TVs do the AI upscaling as well.)
Streaming services. Netflix launched the original video-on-demand streaming service in February 2007. Since that time, the pool of competition has grown dramatically, and the “cord-cutting” revolution has transpired. Cord cutting refers to the cancellation of your cable TV service. Many homes have “cut the cord” and switched exclusively to streaming services for their entertainment. Mostly people were cord cutting to save money while still having access to the shows they like to watch. People do not want to pay for a bunch of channels they never watch, just to get access to the few shows they like. Partially in response to cord cutting, the cable providers, TV networks, hardware manufacturers, and others are creating proprietary streaming services, and if one of these services is a favorite for your loved one, it could make a great gift.
Here’s a look at some of the options you may consider today:
- Acorn TV ($5.99/month or $59.99/year). This subscription streaming service offers television programming from the United Kingdom. It offers exclusive access to shows such as the true-crime drama Manhunt and Jack Irish, an Aussie noir thriller starring Guy Pearce. You will also find gems such as The Witness for the Prosecution, an original Agatha Christie movie with Kim Cattrall.
- Amazon Prime Video (included with Amazon Prime Membership, which runs $119/year or $12.99/month; there is a video-only subscription that you can get for $8.99/month). If you already have an Amazon Prime membership, then this subscription is a no-cost extra for you. In addition to offering select movies and cable content, Prime Video has a solid roster of original shows, including The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Undone (an animated fantasy/dramedy), and Fleabag. Amazon Prime has some exclusive series, such as Downton Abbey and The Americans, plus HBO’s back catalog of shows. You can add HBO, Showtime, and other premium channels for $9 to $15/month.
- Apple TV+ ($4.99/month). Apple’s newly launched (November 1) streaming service is competitively priced at $4.99/month. What’s even better: If you purchased a new Apple TV, iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, or Mac after September 10, you can get a year’s worth of Apple TV+ at no extra cost. Right now, it features all original content, which means it doesn’t have as much content as the Netflix and Hulu giants. It is in its early days, though, and if you get one of the listed Apple products, then this would be a bonus gift to go with it.
- AT&T WatchTV (free with AT&T Unlimited &More wireless subscriptions; $15/month for everyone else). WatchTV has about 35 live channels but does not offer any local broadcasts. It includes Turner fare such as Cartoon Network, CNN, TBS, Turner Classic Movies, and TNT, as well as AMC, A&E, Discovery, Food Network, HGTV, IFC, and TLC. And AT&T says Viacom channels such as BET, Comedy Central, Nicktoons, and VH1 will be added soon. WatchTV also offers more than 15,000 TV shows and movies on demand.
- CBS All Access ($5.99/month with ads or $9.99/month ad-free). This streaming service provides full-length episodes of CBS programs, plus live streams of local CBS affiliates in 124 viewing areas. Through 2022, CBS and the NFL have a deal that allows CBS All Access subscribers to get the NFL games broadcast on the CBS schedule. You can even stream the games on mobile devices.
- Disney+ ($6.99/month, or $69.99/year). As of this writing, the streaming service has not officially launched, but early previews indicate it is poised to be a huge success. In addition to Disney content, the service will have the rights to stream the whole catalog of Marvel movies, Star Wars films, and even National Geographic content alongside Disney and Pixar titles. The library of content goes back as far as the 1930s and includes classics such as Cinderella, along with more recent films. Disney+ will also offer original Marvel, Star Wars, and other content.
- ESPN+ ($4.99/month or $49.99/year for the basic service; additional $24.99/month each for the full MLB.TV baseball and NHL.TV hockey seasons). This streaming service is great for sports fans looking for access to out-of-market baseball or hockey games, or college sports fans who want a broader assortment of collegiate sports than they can get with traditional TV, or those who have an interest in niche sports, such as rugby and cricket. If you are a sports fan but still a kid at heart, you may be interested to know that Disney has announced a streaming bundle that combines Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ for $12.99/month.
- HBO Now ($14.99/month). This service is great for any HBO fans who don’t want to pay for a cable package plus the HBO premium channel subscription. You get access to all the network’s series, movies, specials, and documentaries. If you already subscribe to HBO through your cable provider, then you would use the HBO Go app (at no added cost) instead of the HBO Now app to watch on your phone, tablet, and other devices.
- Hulu ($5.99/month with ads or $11.99/month without ads). Hulu came out shortly after Netflix, and for a while it seemed as though Netflix held the movies market and Hulu was your source for streaming TV content. Those lines have since blurred, and both services now offer TV, movies, and original programming. Currently, Hulu has a deal with DreamWorks Animation for the exclusive streaming rights to their catalog of feature films, including Shrek and Shark Tale, as well as new theatrical releases, including How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World and Trolls 2. Hulu also has a Live TV add-on ($44.99/month) that offers about 60 channels, including the major broadcast channels (i.e., ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC), although only in a handful of markets right now. It also includes cable channels such as A&E, the Cartoon Network, CNN, Disney, Fox News, FX, TBS, and TNT, among others. The lineup even includes CBS Sports, ESPN, and Fox Sports, plus some regional sports networks. It’s a good deal if you are looking for a cable replacement.
- Netflix ($8.99/month for standard-definition video on a single screen; $12.99/month for HD video on up to two screens; $15.99/month for 4K Ultra HD video on up to four screens). As noted above, Netflix was the first streaming service, and it is still the king. It has an enormous library of movies, TV shows, and excellent original content (House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Stranger Things, to name a few). Netflix subscribers once had access to some Disney, Pixar, and Marvel titles, but most of that went away with the launch of Disney+.
- Showtime ($10.99/month). Like HBO Now, this streaming service lets you watch a cable network without the cable. With it, you get access to all of Showtime’s movies, plus original shows such as Billions, Homeland, and The Affair. If you subscribe to Showtime through your cable provider, then you would use the Showtime Anytime app (at no added cost) to watch on your phone, tablet, and other devices.
- Sling TV (Sling Orange or Sling Blue for $25/month; combined Orange and Blue package for $40/month). This service is a great option for cord cutters who miss the cable TV experience. The Orange package comes with about 30 channels, including Disney and ESPN, plus A&E, the Food Network, and TBS, but it offers limited broadcast TV. You can get Fox and NBC in some markets, plus Univision, as part of the Blue package. You can add premium channels such as HBO and Showtime for an extra $10 to $15/month. Whether this service is right for you really boils down to whether it has all the channels you like to watch.
- Starz ($8.99/month). Like HBO and Showtime, you can subscribe to Starz as a stand-alone streaming service. If you subscribe to Starz through your cable provider, the app is free.
- YouTube TV ($49.99/month). At $49.99/month, this service starts to look a lot like a cable TV subscription, but then again, YouTube offers access to more than 70 networks, including all the major local networks. Your subscription includes a cloud DVR—a virtual recorder that stores programs for you on YouTube’s servers and lets you save as many shows as you want for up to nine months before they’re deleted. The service has a nice selection of channels, including AMC, Bravo, Disney, ESPN, FX, Fox News, Fox Sports, MSNBC, National Geographic, TNT, USA, and some regional sports networks. You also get access to the original programming on YouTube Premium, which otherwise costs $11.99/month. Showtime, Starz, and a few other channels can be added for an additional fee. However, the service lacks programming from Viacom (Comedy Central, MTV), though it just added some Discovery channels.
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 are now available to upgrade the sound quality of televisions. You have probably already figured out that we have a certain partiality for the high-quality engineered sound generated by Bose products. Accordingly, it should not surprise you that the audio add-on system we like best comes from Bose. Bose has more expensive speaker systems that you can connect to a television, but its sound bars offer a very attractive and easy-to-use package. The lineup now consists of three bars, ranging from the top-of-the-line Soundbar 700 ($799.95) to the Solo 5 ($199.95).
Last-Minute Stocking Stuffers
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 $28.59 for ten drives with 16 GB each and some costing far more, such as the Corsair 1TB Voyager for $283.33. The best values appear to be in the range of 128 GB to 512 GB. But the 1 TB versions have dropped dramatically in price. For example, Amazon sells a 1 TB Supersonic Range Elite Patriot drive for $144.99. USB sticks have grown tremendously useful, and we never leave home without at least one of them!
Happy Shopping!! Happy Holidays!!
Published in GPSolo magazine, Volume 36, Number 6, November/December 2019. © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.