GPSolo magazine has published an annual technology gift guide in connection with the holiday season for many years. This year, continuing that tradition, we 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 a few things you’ll want for yourself.
For the last quarter of a century, the role of technology in the practice of law and in our personal lives has increased rapidly and dramatically. It seems like a lifetime ago that we did not have pocket-sized telephones that took excellent pictures, did videoconferences, and functioned as small computers. Or that we did not have iPads, Kindles, or small, lightweight laptop computers that we could easily carry with us wherever we went. But as fast as technology has moved in the last quarter of a century, our dependence on technology moved much faster in the last few years than ever before. Commencing in March 2020, most of us lived in a surreal environment where the norm looked like house arrest. Most of us spent months where we only ventured out of the house to go to the grocery store. Computers and other Internet-accessing devices moved to the top of everyone’s list of absolute necessities as we bought more online, conducted business online, appeared in court online, met with clients online, visited our doctors online, had children and grandchildren educated online, and looked to the Internet for much of our entertainment. Many, if not most, of us worked from home for a substantial time period during the pandemic. Behavior and work patterns changed dramatically and likely permanently as a result. Many of us will work primarily from home for the foreseeable future, if not longer. Whether that results from the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic or as a matter of personal choice by those who, having experienced working from home, chose to continue to do that rather than resume commuting to and from a brick-and-mortar office has little significance to the reality that our lifestyles have forever changed in the pandemic’s aftermath.
Given our increasing dependence on technology in so many areas of life, it seems logical that we should look to technology as a primary source of gifts for our family, friends, and employees. With that background, we offer you GPSolo’s 2023 Tech Gift Guide.
In keeping with tradition, the requirements of the American Bar Association’s (ABA’s) legal department, and common sense, we have a few disclaimers and disclosures that we need to include in this article; so, let’s get them out of the way and focus on the good stuff:
- Tax advice. Nothing said in this article constitutes tax advice. Consult your tax preparer about deductibility, depreciation, and other tax-related matters regarding technology acquired for your use and as gifts. 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. Nor do we accept any 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.
- Client gifts. When it comes to clients, make sure any gifts comply with your state’s 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, we believe that 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 your clients’ minds. Lawyers have used pens and calendars for this purpose for many years. You might consider gifting smartphone or tablet stands, power banks, or generic phone, tablet, or computer cases to move into the current times. You can order all those things and more imprinted with your firm name and a firm logo if you have one.
- No endorsement by the ABA. Nothing in this article constitutes the endorsement of a product by the ABA 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 ideas. 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 own opinions, no matter how incorrect those opinions might prove.
- Manufacturer’s warranties. Opinions and information contained in this article do not replace, modify, alter, amend, staple, mutilate, bend, damage, destroy, or supplement a manufacturer’s warranties, instructions, or specifications.
- Pricing. Price references in this 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 (unsold) inventory. This makes it a great time to buy something for yourself. We finished this guide for publication in the late fall to help you with your holiday shopping. It is likely that prices on some of the items will change by the date of publication. You might also find that manufacturers have updated some of the items we discuss with newer models.
- Online shopping warning. Often, products sell online for less than in brick-and-mortar shops. If you shop online, however, be sure to take steps to ensure 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 for resale. 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 or package a third-party warranty from a warranty service to fill that gap, 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 manufacturer’s own U.S. warranty.
- Disclosures. Manufacturers, their public relations (PR) agents, or vendors willing to work with us provided to us for review purposes some products discussed in this article; others were purchased for our own use; and still others we borrowed from friends or, in a few cases, simply ogled and played with in a store. A few products that we found interesting were announced prior to the preparation of this article but were not available for us to test, poke, prod, play with, or personally evaluate prior to writing this article. As to those products, we offer what we have learned about them through research and information from the manufacturer or its PR firm. We try to stay away from discussing products we have not held in our hot little hands, but some products have such potential significance that we would feel remiss in not including them, even though we will finish this article before ours get delivered.
- Testing. We have not endeavored to look at, let alone test, every product on the market in each field we address. Our goal is to find one or a few we like and pass the information along to you. 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. This article reflects our observations about the products we have looked at and that attracted our attention. We do not intend or suggest that this article will provide a thorough comparison of every product on the market in each area we find something interesting.
- Addiction risk warning. The Surgeon General has not opined on the subject, but we believe that technology products have proven addictive (certainly they have to us) 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, jogging, 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.
- No warranty. 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!
- AI certification. Something new and different this year: Artificial intelligence (AI) has become a cause célèbre in the world of technology, the practice of law, business, academia, general education, and the rest of life. The evolution of AI, particularly through the use of ChatGPT, as a servant of questionable reliability to write reports, essays, and treatises, create original artwork, and do a wealth of other things, has created ethical and practical concerns that continue to trouble many of us. We think that we would be remiss in our responsibilities if we failed to address AI in the course of this article. Because of our own concerns regarding the reliability of content generated by AI and for several other reasons, we determined that this article should be free of AI-generated content. Accordingly, we certify to you that one or the other of us has written every sentence in this article and that the content is free of AI-generated content.
- Potential ethical conundrum. We strongly discourage you from gifting any of the technology described in this guide to a sitting member of the U.S. Supreme Court if you or any member of your firm has a case pending before the Supreme Court.
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. Over that time, the importance of technology in our lives has continued to grow, making the practice of gifting technology a very clever idea.
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 our top ten choices for 2023.
Jeff: All I Want for the Holidays Is . . .
- iPhone 15 Pro Max, Blue, 1 TB storage
- MacBook Air, 15”, Midnight, M2 chip, 16 GB unified memory, 1 TB storage
- iPad Pro, 11”, silver, 2 TB storage
- Echo Show 15
- Vasco Translator V4
- AirPods Pro, 2nd generation
- AirPods Max
- Apple Watch Ultra 2
- Fitbit Charge 6
- Kindle Scribe, 64 GB, leather cover, premium pen
Ashley: All I Want for the Holidays Is . . .
- Galaxy Z Fold5, Icy Blue, 1 TB storage
- Romoss Portable Charger Power Bank, 30,000mAh
- SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD V2, 2 TB storage
- JBL Flip 6, red
- Echo Show 8, 3rd generation
- Wyze Cam v3 Pro
- Wasserstein Bird Feeder Camera Case
- Roku Streambar Pro
- Apple Watch Series 9, 41 mm aluminum case, Starlight Finish, Starlight Sport Loop, GPS plus cellular
- Kindle Oasis, 32 GB storage, without ads
Those of you who have followed our gift recommendations over the years have undoubtedly figured out that we have a strong preference for Apple products and, on the Android side, for Samsung products. We do not suggest that none of the others deserve your interest or attention. We simply like Apple and Samsung best as a general rule. Accordingly, we will again focus on those lines when we talk about phones, tablets, smartwatches, and the like.
Likely the most important single piece of technology in most people’s hands these days, the smartphone has expanded its functionality and desirability on a continuing basis. You have a long list of manufacturers and models to choose from when it comes to smartphones. 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 from. If you want a phone running iOS, you have one manufacturer and several models to choose from. We have developed a strong partiality to Samsung on the Android side. Apple represents the only option on the iOS platform, but we have no problem with that as Apple produces superb and reliable products.
Although the Android OS has evolved into an excellent operating system, both of the authors prefer iOS and 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 15 Pro (or Pro Max) to be the best phone on the market today but not the best value for the money. 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 particular Android-based model, making it the number-one-selling smartphone in the world.
If you have 5G available in your area but have not yet switched to a 5G device to take advantage of that, you should do so, without regard to what phone you choose. 5G refers to fifth-generation wireless technology, which works faster than its predecessors. All 5G phones offer backward compatibility with earlier systems. More 5G coverage has come online over the last year, and this trend should continue for the next several years. All providers do not work equally well in all locations. You will want to sign up with the provider that has the best combination of network availability (coverage) with 4G and 5G, service, and rates. Note that we referenced the “best,” suggesting a comparison. We have had issues with all the major providers and have found coverage issues in various areas with all of them. Do not expect universal perfection or anything close to it when considering cellular reception.
As we write this article, Apple has just released the newest iteration of the iOS: iOS 17. If you currently use iOS 16, the switch to iOS 17 should not create any serious surprises, but you will find improvements and new features. As always happens, the new OS will kill some of your apps unless and until they get upgraded. Some will not get upgraded and will disappear from Apple’s App Store. Older hardware cannot always take advantage of or offer all the features available in the new iterations of iOS. Newer hardware offers features not available in older hardware. For example, you cannot get facial recognition on an iPhone 7, as it lacks the required hardware. Older versions of the iPhone may not be upgradable to the new iOS. At some time, hardware simply gets so old or out of date that it won’t work with new operating systems. Hopefully, you will have upgraded before that happens.
iOS 17 for the iPhone refines several features in previous versions and adds some new tricks. As the iOS cannot be separately gifted, we will not go into a lengthy discussion of its features here. You can find out what the new iOS brings to the party on Apple’s website.
The changes from iOS 16 to iOS 17 make the system better and more secure and provide new features that will make your life a little easier (if your phone supports them).
Although Apple separated the iPad operating system (iPadOS) from the iPhone’s iOS several years ago, it has continued to develop the operating systems in tandem. At approximately the same time as iOS 17 for the iPhone came out, Apple released iPadOS 17. We like the tandem evolution, as the more common the operating systems on your various devices, the easier you will find it to move efficiently back and forth between them. Because we have several Apple devices, the similarities among the various operating systems have worked to our advantage. As with the iOS 17, you cannot separately gift the new operating system for the iPad. It comes with the hardware and upgrades at no cost. Accordingly, we will not spend time talking about iPadOS 17 here. You can find out about its new features on Apple’s website.
Not surprisingly, iPads, like other hardware, eventually get old enough that you cannot upgrade them to the new iPadOS. The current point of demarcation for most Apple hardware has proven to be the introduction of Apple’s processing chips (what Apple CEO Tim Cook calls “Apple Silicon”). We have moved well into the second generation of Apple Silicon as the M2 chip has replaced the M1 in newer iterations of the Mac and MacBook computer lines, as well as in the newest versions of the iPad. Although iPhones use different processors, they are also Apple Silicon. We will actually find ourselves in the third generation momentarily. Between the time we wrote this and the time we reviewed the edited version, Apple announced the release of the first computers sporting the M3 processor. Expect to see more computers and iPads using it in the immediate future.
Bottom line: With control over the hardware and the software, Apple can coordinate and integrate its own processors and OS features better, more efficiently, and more effectively than it could with devices built using processors from other manufacturers.
iPhone 15 Models
The newest iPhones, the iPhone 15 series, hit the streets in September 2023. The iPhone 15 represents the basic unit in the new top of Apple’s phone line. It comes in two screen sizes, the iPhone 15 at 6.1” and the iPhone 15 Plus at 6.7”. The Pro versions of the 15 add additional features and boost the price. The differences between the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max primarily relate to the size of the device and its screen (again, 6.1” or 6.7”), although there are a few other differences; most significantly, the battery size and the camera features in the Pro Max exceed those in the Pro.
The specifications of the iPhone 15 and 15 Plus reflect virtually identical construction except for size and weight. The larger size also allows for the use of a larger battery in the Plus, giving you a little more operating time between charges. The other difference is cost. The Plus costs $100 more than the standard iPhone 15. You can also increase the price by choosing to increase the amount of memory. As you cannot upgrade memory after purchase, we encourage you to opt for larger memory at the time of purchase. The iPhone 15 and 15 Plus come in options of 128 GB, 256 GB, and 512 GB. We do not recommend that you consider anything smaller than the 512 GB memory. Although the smaller sizes may suffice for some users, we suspect that most users will find that amount of memory restrictive. The cost of upgrading to the higher memory does not represent such a significant investment that you should avoid it.
You can compare the features of the iPhone 15 configurations on Apple’s website.
We think that for most people, the iPhone 15 (starting at $799) represents the best value in the Apple line, and the 15 Pro (starting at $999) comes in second in terms of value (but we consider it quite superior to the iPhone 15 in terms of technology, specifications, and features). The 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max cost more than we feel comfortable recommending for most people, but we consider them superb phones. They give you the advantage of more memory if you want or need it and a noticeably better camera system, as well. Bottom line: If you use iPhone photography a lot or if you want the additional memory, get the 15 Pro or 15 Pro Max. We opted for the Pro Max with 1 TB of memory. Just as a matter of curiosity, as I reviewed the edited version of this guide, I checked the storage on my six-week-old iPhone 15 Pro Max and discovered that I have already used 504 GB, or approximately half of the total memory available in the phone.
For the Android Enthusiast . . .
Android-powered smartphones have a strong following, and if you or someone in your life is a fan, check out the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra ($1,199.99 for 256 GB). The S23 features a whopping 200 MP main camera, allowing for incredibly detailed photos. It offers 8K video capture at 30 fps with impressive image stabilization ability, allowing you to record videos with incredible detail and clarity. The phone is powered by the custom-made Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chip, which provides the S23 with a CPU clock speed of 3.36GHz, yielding faster performance than the previous model. The base storage of the Galaxy S23 Ultra is 256 GB, providing ample space for your apps, photos, and videos. The phone has a large 6.8” Dynamic AMOLED display with a 120Hz refresh rate, offering a stunning visual experience. It is optimized for immersive gaming, allowing you to enjoy your favorite games with enhanced graphics and smooth gameplay. The Galaxy S23 Ultra supports Pause USB Power Delivery, which allows you to charge other devices using your phone’s battery. It comes with an integrated S Pen, providing a convenient way to take notes, draw, and navigate the phone’s interface.
Trendsetters may want to check out the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold5 ($999.99 for 256 GB) or the Galaxy Z Flip5 ($999.99 for 256 GB). The Galaxy Z Fold5 is a folding phone with a unique design that allows it to transform into a tablet-sized device. The Galaxy Z Flip5 is a flip phone with a compact form factor that you can easily fold and unfold. It features a 3.4” Flex Window cover screen and a zero-gap Flex Hinge, providing ultimate flexibility and durability. The device has a stunning selfie camera for great pictures anytime and improved hardware, including the Super Clear Lens and adaptive VDIS software. It is equipped with a foldable Dynamic AMOLED 2X display with a 120Hz refresh rate and HDR10+ support, delivering a vibrant and immersive viewing experience. It has a gapless hinge design, which improves dust resistance and enhances the overall durability of the device.
Another device to consider is the Samsung Galaxy A14 5G ($199.99). The A14 offers 5G connectivity, a large screen that provides an immersive viewing experience for videos, games, and other content, and a powerful camera that allows you to capture high-quality photos and videos. It runs on the Android 13 operating system, providing a user-friendly interface and access to a wide range of apps. It is equipped with the Exynos 1330 chipset, which ensures smooth performance and efficient multitasking. The screen has a resolution of 1080 x 2408 pixels, offering sharp and vibrant visuals. It supports expandable storage, allowing you to add more storage space for your photos, videos, and apps. At $199.99, it is one of the more budget-friendly smartphones.
The market for tablets has slowed. As the price and power of tablets increases, more and more people have chosen to treat the tablet more like a laptop than a smartphone, upgrading every few years instead of annually or even every other year.
Apple has dominated the tablet market since it introduced the iPad. Once again, we think that Samsung provides Apple’s strongest competition in terms of pure tablets. In our opinion, Apple, however, remains the runaway leader. We think Samsung comes in a distant second. If you want to get or gift a tablet, we recommend you go with Apple. Both of the authors continue to use various iterations of the iPad as their tablet of choice.
Apple has a handful of models in its current lineup, some of which it recently updated. The top of the line remains the iPad Pro. Apple made a few modifications to the Pro tablets, notably changing the M1 processor to an M2 processor and introducing a few new features.
We like all the iPads, but we particularly recommend the Pro versions for use in your practice. In fact, we like them best for all uses. Both Pro versions have pretty much the same architecture and features. The main differences are the size and weight.
The iPad Pro comes in two versions, the 11” and the 12.9”. We used to think of the larger version as too large and a bit unwieldy. Modifications to the design have changed our opinion, and we now like the larger one quite a bit. We have no issue recommending either version, and we consider both of them excellent. For our money, they are the best tablets on the market, with no close second. Memory availability goes up to 2 TB. We don’t think most people will need that (ours has it, and we are glad it does). For most, we recommend 512 GB or 1 TB of memory. Remember that you cannot add memory to the iPad after you get it, so you should go with the highest amount you anticipate needing. We believe that whatever you think you will need, you should increase by about 25 percent as memory tends to fill up over time with apps, pictures, music, videos, documents, etc. Both the 11” and the 12.9” versions use Apple’s M2 chip. They share the same advanced camera system and include a LiDAR scanner. Both work with Apple’s second-generation pencil and have keyboard folios available as well. Both use facial recognition for security. Whichever size you prefer, we think you will love this device. We recommend it for all professional use and personal use as well. Pricing starts at $799 for the 11” version and $1,099 for the 12.9” version. You can see a quick comparison of specifications and features of the various iPad models on Apple’s site.
We will not run a list of laptops at you and say pick one. We have a definite bias and strong favorite in this category and have added it back into the gift guide as a result. Apple recently released the 15” MacBook Air. We consider this laptop the closest thing that we have yet encountered to the perfect computer for most attorneys. The 15” display gives an ideal compromise between available workspace and portability. The new MacBook Air weighs less than you would expect and provides a crisp and sharp display. Powered by the relatively new Apple M2 processor, the 15” MacBook Air offers plenty of power for the work normally done by attorneys, including trial work, presentation, and videoconferencing. The 13” MacBook Air, now also powered by the M2 processor, comes in a decent second, but the difference in workspace makes the 15” option a far better choice, in our opinion. Both computers come in your choice of midnight, space gray, starlight, and silver. Their technical specifications are almost completely identical. You can compare the two computers on Apple’s website.
The 15” measures 0.45” x 13.4” x 9.35”. It weighs 3.3 pounds. The 13” model measures 0.44” x 11.97” x 8.46” and weighs 2.7 pounds. The 15” starts at $1,299, and the 13” starts at $1,099. Price adjustments relate primarily to chosen memory options. We opted for the 15” M2 processor with 16 GB of unified memory and 1 TB of SSD storage. We also upgraded the power block from the 35W unit that comes standard with the laptop to the 70W unit. That brought the total cost to $1,899 plus tax and AppleCare. We generally don’t get service contracts, but we have made AppleCare an exception for portable devices such as laptops, tablets, and phones, as portable devices get banged around and tend to have more problems than stationary devices.
Apple provides financing if you want to use it. They also accept computers in trade. Their pricing on trade-ins seems more favorable to Apple products, but we generally think that the trade-in option is not very good. We have generally avoided it except with respect to iPhones and instead have erased the memories and either donated tablets and laptops to schools or given them to family members. Our equipment tends to remain in excellent shape due to the manner in which we handle it, and we could not replace it for a family member for the price that Apple offered us in trade. As a result, spouses, children, and grandchildren have received excellent (albeit a bit used) hardware at very a low cost.
When it comes to accessories for your technology, you have almost limitless choices, and many make great gifts. You can choose from a cornucopia of devices, including power banks, chargers, protective cases, display protectors, adapters, docking stations, SSDs, and more. You have ample opportunity to find an accessory to a gift this holiday season.
Power banks have universal appeal. They provide portable charging solutions, allowing users to charge their devices on the go without access to a power outlet. They come in handy in daily life and have proven particularly useful for travel, outdoor activities, and emergency situations where you have limited access to electricity. Power banks can power most portable devices, including smartphones, tablets, e-readers, Bluetooth headphones, smartwatches, and more, although some have limitations based on their capacity and/or the manner of connection.
For most portable applications, you will prefer lightweight batteries with the ability to provide multiple recharges on a single charge. 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, now owned by Zagg, Jackery, Romoss, Samsung, Anker, and myCharge. Pricing runs from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, depending on size, capacity, and features.
Power banks come in different shapes and sizes. Some are shaped like a block or brick, some are around the size of a credit card, thin and compact. Some are small enough to fit on a keychain. There are some that require a cable connection to charge a device and some that can do it wirelessly with near field communication (NFC). Most of the power banks require you to plug them into an electrical outlet for recharging. Some can also use solar energy for recharging, making them an ideal companion in an emergency (note that solar-powered recharging takes much longer than charging via an electrical outlet).
Some power banks, such as the Anker Prime Power Bank ($129.99), have enough juice to power a laptop. One cool feature on the Anker Prime is the smart digital display that gives you real-time information on your remaining battery capacity, power input, and power output. The Anker Prime offers 20,000mAH with two high-powered USB-C ports and one USB-A port that offers up to 200W output. With this power, you can charge the 16” MacBook Pro up to 50 percent capacity in around 40 minutes. You should also check out the Romoss Portable Charger Power Bank 30,000mAh ($39.99). This power pack is great for traveling, camping, emergencies, day trips, or any time you may find yourself on the move with limited access to power outlets. The power pack has three input options for charging itself and can still charge up to three devices at the same time. With 30,000 milliamps, this bank can charge the iPhone 15 (with a 3,349mAh battery) nearly nine times on a single charge. If you are looking for power on the go for your mobile phone, check out the mophie Snap+ Juice Pack Mini ($49.95, currently $44.99 on Amazon), a universal portable charger that connects magnetically to your phone. It is compatible with the MagSafe-enabled iPhone models and other Qi-enabled smartphones from Apple, Samsung, and Google. The pack comes with a snap adapter that you can stick to the back of your phone for a more secure magnetic fit.
Lawyers Always Need a Good Case
Many, if not most, cases are device specific, so make sure you know what model device you need when shopping. We think that electronic devices should all live in cases or some sort of protective envelope. Look for a strong case that will protect your device against such common disasters as dropping the phone onto a sidewalk. We like the case to have a little protective padding around the back and edges and a ridge rising above the display to reduce the likelihood of a shattered display if the device falls face down. Cases with covers that fold over like a wallet have some benefits, but we have found them inconvenient when trying to use the camera on a phone or tablet. Choose one based on functionality and the protection it offers to your phone. Speaking of protective cases, we have them for smartphones, tablets, laptops, and e-readers. If you are buying for little ones, look for a case with extra padded grips to make it easier for them to hold, such as the OtterBox EasyGrab Tablet Case ($59.95, currently $39.95 on Amazon). This case comes with grip ridges for easy holding, a kickstand to set it on a flat surface, and a built-in car headrest mount holder, making it ready to go wherever your kids go. As far as cases for iPhones go, we have grown increasingly unhappy with Apple’s iPhone cases and do not recommend them to you. Last year’s leather cases were decently made but wore out too fast for our tastes. This year, Apple stopped making leather cases and is using a woven material for its non-silicone iPhone cases. They introduced the same material for the MagSafe wallets. We got the new material case for an iPhone 15 Pro Max, which we received at the beginning of October 2023. In less than a month, it looked pretty worn out, and we are contemplating acquiring a replacement at the one-month mark. Apple also makes a silicone case for the iPhones. Aesthetically, we find it less pleasing, but our experience with the silicone cases last year proved better than either last year’s leather devices or this year’s fine woven cases. As the fine woven case and the fine woven wallet each cost $59, we feel that they should hold up better than ours did. The silicone cases cost $49 and hold up better, but to our eyes they do not look anywhere near as nice. We think you can find a better value for your iPhone case from a third-party manufacturer. You can find numerous options at the Apple Store, more at Best Buy, and a lot more at Amazon.
Whether you want accessories for a desktop computer, laptop computer, tablet, smartphone, or game system, you have reason to want external memory for these devices. Memory devices come in various forms: cards in various configurations to insert into slots inside some devices and many forms of externally attached devices ranging from small USB sticks or thumb drives to large external hard disks.
Solid state drives (SSDs) store data using flash memory, a faster and more reliable medium than traditional spinning hard disk drives (HDDs). Popular brands in this arena include Samsung and SanDisk for SSDS and Western Digital and Seagate for HDDs. We particularly like the SSDs for travel due to their diminutive size and weight as well as their ruggedness. If you are in the market for a portable SSD, check out the SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD V2, available in 500 GB, 1 TB, 2 TB, and 4 TB ($74.99 to $249.99). The SanDisk Extreme is a convenient, portable device with impressive file transfer speed and durability that lasts. Another solid (get it?) option to consider is the Samsung T9 portable SSD ($199.99 for 2 TB). The T9 offers up an impressive 2,000 MB/s read speed, making this device ideal for students, gamers, and professionals. It has a rugged design and is built with an advanced thermal shield to keep your device cool even during heavy use.
When it comes to external traditional hard disk drives, we like Seagate and then Western Digital (WD). You can get a portable traditional spinning Seagate 6 TB Expansion Desktop hard disk drive for $166.66 or a 6 TB Western My Book Desktop hard drive for only $149.99.
Memory Sticks and Cards
Memory sticks also use flash memory but generally come in smaller configurations. They make useful gifts, and you can get them inexpensively. We have a partiality to SanDisk in this category. You can find SanDisk and many other brands on Amazon, generally for around $50 or less, depending on the size of the memory. These make great stocking stuffers!
When it comes to picking up charging cables as a gift, look for manufacturer-certified cables rather than aftermarket cables. Manufacturer-certified cables have gone through a testing procedure to ensure that they will work with the manufacturer’s devices. For example, we have found lightning cables that will work with third-party accessories using a lightning port but will not work with Apple’s devices. Certified cables reflect design and construction meeting the device manufacturer’s required specifications and standards, ensuring a proper and safe charging experience. This ensures that they meet the necessary safety requirements, including protection against overcharging, overvoltage, short-circuiting, and overheating. They are designed to provide the optimal charging voltage and current for the specific device. Using a certified charging cable reduces the risk of damaging your device or causing potential safety hazards. Aftermarket cables may claim compatibility but may not always provide the same level of compatibility and performance.
Let There Be Light!
Lighting represents a critical but often overlooked part of setting up for videoconferencing. For videoconferencing and especially court appearances, you will want to avoid backlighting as it will cast shadows over you and make it harder for people to see you. We explored lots of lighting setups during the COVID-19 lockdown and the ensuing reliance on videoconferencing.
LumeCube makes our favorite lighting components. You can find similar devices from other manufacturers and sometimes less costly ones. We have found LumeCube’s offerings to work well. We consider their pricing more reasonable than not and like the flexibility of their components.
For everyday use, we use a pair of LumeCube’s Edge Desk Lights ($129.99 each, currently on sale for $103.99). We use two to minimize glare. The Edge Desk Lights come with a clamp and adjustable arms to let you attach the light to a table and then position it for optimal lighting. The on-off switch and other controls are set in the arm. The adjustments let you make the light brighter or dimmer and give you the ability to change the light’s color temperature to make it more like daylight or warmer indoor lighting. We especially like this flexibility as it allows us to “tune” the lights to supplement the ambient lighting and optimize image quality.
LumeCube also makes a Broadcast Lighting Kit ($99.99, currently on sale for $79.99). The kit includes an LED panel light and tripod. Like the Edge Desk Lights, the Broadcast Lighting Kit allows you to adjust brightness and color temperature. These panel lights give about the same result and flexibility as the Edge Desk Lights, but they work better for setting up on the road or anywhere other than your primary workplace. They set up with the lights on tripods rather than attached to a desk or table. They also can double as lights for cameras.
LumeCube offers a number of accessories for their lighting kits, including a variety of mounts and stands for on- and off-camera use for the panels and a portable battery pack inside a grip for the panel light ($59.99).
LumeCube also makes two sizes of cordless ring lights. The original 18” Cordless Ring Light sells for $159.99 (currently on sale for $129.99). The recently released 12” Cordless Ring Light Mini sells for $179.99 (currently on sale for $124.99). You might also take a look at the Ring Light Pro ($269.99). It is pretty neat and offers some powerful flexibility. If you do a lot of content creation, you may be able to justify the additional expense. We think the regular version works fine. The ring light design allows you to place the camera in the center of the circle of light to provide even lighting around the entire image. It is a simple but successful formula. We opted for a less-expensive version that requires an electrical outlet: the Ring Light Kit from Neewer ($85.99). The kit includes a stand and a travel bag that is functional but not very protective. The Neewer Ring Light set up easily and worked fine, but we stopped using it when we got the Edge Desk Lights, which we strongly prefer. If we were going to get a ring light today, we would likely opt for a cordless version and get the Cordless Ring Light Mini if we wanted to travel with it.
The right speaker can round out your entertainment experience. A portable speaker works great for listening to podcasts, taking calls hands-free, or for use at parties and other social gatherings. Stationary home entertainment speakers also make a great gift. Home entertainment speakers can enhance the shared experience of watching movies or listening to music with friends and family. They create a more immersive and social environment, making it easier to enjoy entertainment together. Whether it’s a movie night or a gathering, good speakers can elevate the overall enjoyment and create lasting memories.
When choosing a portable speaker as a gift, the first thing to look for is, not surprisingly, portability. Consider the size, weight, and design of the portable speaker. Look for a compact and lightweight option that is easy to carry and fits your intended usage, whether it’s for travel, outdoor activities, or everyday use. You should also consider battery life, sound quality, connectivity options, water resistance, and durability. When it comes to portable speakers, both JBL and Sonos dominate in terms of value, but we prefer Bose’s often pricier speakers. We also have a few surprise entries this year.
JBL’s Flip 6 ($129.95) gives you a great portable speaker with a crisp and robust sound quality. You get your choice of six colors (black, dark blue, gray, teal, red, or “squad” camouflage). The Flip 6 measures 7” x 2.6” x 2.8” in size and weighs just over one pound. It boasts an IP67 waterproof rating, which is different from the IPX6 and IPX7 ratings that we discussed last year. An IP67 means the product is protected from submersion in 1 meter (3.3 feet) of water for up to 30 minutes. This rating also indicates that the product is resistant to dust. Dust accumulation around electronics can lead to hardware failure, so the IP67 rating is an extremely beneficial addition to this product, particularly in drier, dustier climates.
Another great option, especially if you like smart features, is the Sonos Roam ($179). The Sonos Roam is about the same size as a water bottle and weighs just under one pound, making it easy to carry around in your bag. It produces a powerful sound with a nice bass quality. One of the Roam’s standout smart features, “Sound Swap,” allows you to “throw” your music from the Sonos Roam to the nearest Sonos speaker available. The Roam can connect via WiFi and Bluetooth, and it works with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.
New in this category, but a great option to consider, is the OontZ Angle 3 ($30.99, currently $25.99 on Amazon), which offers big sound in a very portable package. There are a variety of colors to choose from, including black, white, blue, red, orange, pink, Coca-Cola-themed, and a golf-themed one for the golfer in your life. Different colors may increase the price. The Angle 3 features two five-watt speakers for a total of ten watts of sound. You can get 14 hours of playback time when using it at around 70 percent volume. This device makes a great white-elephant gift, depending on your budget.
When choosing home entertainment speakers as a gift, consider the recipient’s preferences, available space, and budget. For the space, consider the size of the room it will go in. Larger rooms will require speakers that can generate greater power. Also, consider how the speakers fit the style and decor of the room and whether you are looking for a traditional feel or modern appearance. While shopping for a speaker, you will likely hear a lot of buzzwords, and we think it might be helpful to offer this guide to help you understand just what the manufacturers are advertising:
- Bluetooth: Indicates speakers that can wirelessly connect to devices such as smartphones, tablets, or computers using Bluetooth technology.
- HDMI ARC / eARC: Audio Return Channel / Enhanced Audio Return Channel, which lets you send the original full-resolution audio signal through an HDMI cable and reproduce the best sound without compromise.
- Wireless: Refers to speakers that can connect to audio sources without the need for physical cables, providing convenience and flexibility in placement.
- Surround sound: Describes speakers or systems that create a multi-channel audio experience, immersing the listener in sound from various directions for a more realistic and cinematic feel.
- Dolby Atmos: Refers to a specific audio format that adds height and overhead channels to surround sound setups, bouncing sound off your ceiling and creating a more three-dimensional and immersive soundstage.
- DTS:X: An alternative audio format that supports higher bit rates than Dolby Atmos and lets you manually adjust sound objects.
- Frequency response: Indicates the range of frequencies a speaker can reproduce, usually specified in hertz (Hz). A wider frequency response generally means the speaker can produce a broader range of sounds.
- Impedance: Refers to the electrical resistance of a speaker, measured in ohms (Ω). It affects how much power the speaker requires to produce sound and how it interacts with the amplifier or receiver.
- Driver size: Describes the diameter of the speaker’s drivers, typically measured in inches. Larger drivers often produce deeper bass and can handle more power.
- Wattage: Indicates the power handling or output capability of a speaker, measured in watts (W). Higher wattage generally means the speaker can produce louder sound, but it’s not the sole determinant of audio quality.
- Crossover: Refers to the circuitry within a speaker that divides the audio signal into different frequency ranges and sends them to the appropriate drivers (e.g., tweeters, woofers, subwoofers) for optimal sound reproduction.
- Streaming: Describes speakers that can connect to online streaming services or local networks, enabling direct playback of music or audio content without the need for additional devices.
- AI/Smart features: Refers to speakers that offer additional functionality, such as app control, multi-room audio synchronization, EQ adjustments, or integration with smart home systems.
- Voice assistant integration: Indicates speakers that are compatible with voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, allowing you to control them using voice commands.
Over the years, we have tried several speakers in this category. This year, there is a lot to check out from Vizio. For starters, there is the Vizio M-Series All-in-One 2.1 Immersive Sound Bar ($149), a great entry-level home entertainment option. The Vizio M supports HDMI ARC technology and processes Dolby Audio, and it features six built-in speakers and dual built-in subwoofers, all in one single sound bar. The built-in speakers include two radiators, two tweeters, and two mid-range drivers, along with the two subwoofers and passive bass radiators. You can position the soundbar flat on a TV stand, or you can mount it. Vizio uses digital signal processing (DSP) along with a built-in gyroscope to alter the sound curve so it can sound right when mounted. The soundbar offers two auxiliary input options, one of which is dedicated to a voice assistant, and the other is for anything else you might want to connect. What does all this mean? It means that with this speaker, you will get a high-quality reproduction of sound and excellent dialog clarity. It offers a surprisingly deep bass experience as well. A step-up is the Vizio M-Series 5.1 ($329, currently $307.48 on Amazon), which features discrete surround speakers that connect to a wireless subwoofer (that you will need to place toward the back of the room), along with HDMI eARC, Dolby Atmos, and DTS:X. Last from the Vizio lineup that you should consider is the Vizio M-Series Elevate 5.1.2 ($598 on Amazon). The Elevate offers up-firing speakers that actually emerge from the sides of the device when an Atmos signal is detected, which looks awesome. When there is no Atmos signal detected, the speakers spin back into the soundbar and fire directly out at you, enhancing the sound for anything non-Atmos you might be listening to. The Elevate comes with surround speakers and a subwoofer like the M-Series 5.1.
Another great option to consider is the ZVOX AccuVoice AV157 TV Speaker ($249.99, currently on sale for $199.99). This device is great if you or someone you know struggles to hear dialogue when watching TV or movies. It employs AccuVoice hearing aid technology with 12 levels of voice boost you can choose from to make dialogue more intelligible.
Audiophiles looking to truly immerse themselves in the Dolby Atmos surround sound experience should check out the Bose Smart Soundbar 600 ($499, currently on sale for $399). This device is another all-in-one solution with two up-firing drivers and Amazon Alexa voice assistant integration. Bose offers a very robust sound in a sleek, compact package. It is compatible with Apple AirPlay 2 and Google Chromecast, allowing you to easily stream from your favorite devices. The Bluetooth feature can store up to eight device connections, but it plays only one device at a time. It can also send sound out if you want to connect it to a pair of Bose headphones, allowing you to listen to a TV that doesn’t have the Bluetooth sound feature without disturbing anyone.
Another great device is the Sony HT-A5000 ($999.99, currently on sale for $699.99). This soundbar is a stand-alone device; you can add surround speakers (various models currently on sale from $399.99 to $599.99) and a subwoofer (various models currently on sale from $299.99 to $499.99) to enhance the surround sound experience, although it does not really need it. The HT-A5000 is a great Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundbar for movies and TV watching, but it stands out when listening to music with a more articulate sound that is true to musical recordings. It offers a great sound stage and is very nicely balanced overall.
At the higher end of this category, you will find the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar Plus ($1,499.95, currently on sale for $1,199.95). Sennheiser is the champion when it comes to virtual Dolby Atmos surround sound, and this device is probably the best compact single-speaker Dolby Atmos sound solution on the market. It offers a superior soundstage, distinguished dialogue, bold bass, and stunning surround sound. It can generate up to a powerful 400W sound. There are a total of nine speakers under the hood. There are controls for the soundbar on the device and the remote, but there is a lot of customizing that you can do through the Sennheiser Smart Control app. The highlight of this app is the Ambeo mode and the system calibration feature. The Ambeo mode is Sennheiser’s custom sound-processing method that will boost the overall performance of the soundbar by enhancing the effects of spatial and immersive audio. The app also has an impressive room calibration system that uses four built-in microphones on the soundbar to automatically calibrate the soundbar for you.
Headphones and Earphones
You can invest your money in far more portable devices that only provide sound on a personal basis. We think you should do that as earphones and headphones prevent your sound from annoying others; they also offer you privacy for phone conversations and whatever entertainment you choose. We like the idea of having both speakers and earphones/headphones available, but we would opt for headphones and earphones if we had to choose between those and external speakers.
We distinguish between earphones as devices that have some portion that goes into your ear and headphones as devices that fit over or around the ears. We will use that distinction in discussing the two. As a general rule, we prefer the portability and flexibility of the earphones but consider a good set of headphones more comfortable. We also think that top-level headphones will provide better sound quality than top-level earphones. On the other hand, the quality of high-end earphones often reaches a level that may cause you to eschew the extra cost of the best headphones.
When it comes to earphones, we have a strong partiality to the second generation of Apple’s AirPods Pro ($249) and the new Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds ($299). Last year’s Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II (currently on sale for $199) also remains an excellent choice. We also like the Jabra Elite 10 ($249.99, currently on sale for $224.99) and the Samsung Galaxy Buds2 Pro ($229.99). These all have noise-cancellation features and produce excellent sound quality for streaming music. They also work with Zoom and with your telephone. Each fits inside your ear and comes with different sizes of inserts to allow you to personalize the fit. Each is truly wireless, meaning no wires connect the buds to each other or to your devices. If you have an iPhone, we think the AirPods Pro represent your best option, despite the price. They work beautifully with the iPhone and produce excellent sound. We like the sound of the Bose QuietComfort Ultra a lot but think the very competitive Jabra Elite 10 represents a better buy.
Our favorite headphones include Apple’s AirPods Max (truly exceptional sound at a truly high price: $549), Shure AONIC 50 Gen 2 ($349), Bose QuietComfort Ultra (excellent engineered sound, typical of Bose, at a price of $429), and Sony WH-1000XM5 ($399.99). Each of these headphones has excellent noise-cancellation features. All have built-in microphones to allow you to use them for Zoom or telephone calls, as well as music streaming. All produce excellent to superior sound. We have listed them in the order of our sound preference, but we recognize sound preference as idiosyncratic. All of them come with travel cases and adjust to fit in the cases. The Shure, however, comes with the largest case and takes up quite a bit more room when traveling than the others. The Shure headphones fold flat to fit in the case but do not fold in to compress their size. The AirPods Max have the most diminutive (but not the most protective) case. Bose and Sony provide similarly sized compact cases that protect the devices quite well. If you plan to travel a lot and like the idea of packing compactly, you will likely not want to get the Shure due to its size. On the other hand, if you want to travel really compactly, you will opt for earphones rather than headphones and leave the headphones to enjoy at home.
For those of you who want to maximize contact with the outside world while listening to your media and some who have certain types of hearing impairment, you might want to consider bone-conduction headphones. These devices fit around the ears but remain open, so they do not diminish ambient noise. They transmit sound by sending vibrations to your skull. They do work fairly well, although we have never found one that we thought was as good as the better traditional earphones and headphones we tried. In our opinion, your best bets in this category are the Shokz OpenRun Pro and OpenFit (both $179.95).
Smart Home Technology
Smart home technology makes life easier, safer, and more enjoyable, which makes for great gifts. You have a lot to choose from, including smart speakers, displays, lights, security cameras, plugs, and energy monitors.
Smart speakers are a great place to start. With voice commands they can play music, answer questions, control other smart devices, and more. They can make ordering items from your shopping list easier or give you a heads-up when something goes on sale. Amazon Echo, Google Nest, and Sonos Era 100 are popular brands to consider in this category. Amazon has a long history of quality smart home speakers. They haven’t made many changes to their lineup since last year, but they have enhanced Alexa with the generative AI that is dominating the technology market this year. The new AI-powered Alexa includes a more robust language model specifically optimized for voice interactions, improving Alexa’s ability to reason, infer customer intent, and understand complex requests. The latest iteration of Alexa-powered devices will include:
- Eye Gaze. This feature will allow customers with speech or mobility limitations to gaze at their tablet to perform pre-set Alexa actions such as playing music and shows, controlling their home environment, and even calling loved ones, entirely hands- and voice-free. This feature will roll out on Fire Max 11 Tablets automatically later this year.
- Call translation. Alexa can translate audio and video calls in real time, allowing participants to break down language barriers and communicate more effectively. It will launch to Echo Show and Alexa mobile app customers in the United States, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain later this year in over ten languages, including English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese.
- Alexa Emergency Assist. This at-home, hands-free safety service lets you get fast access to the help you need, with features such as 24/7 urgent response, smart alerts, and emergency contacts. Soon, new U.S. customers can subscribe to Alexa Emergency Assist for $5.99 per month or $59 per year; customers with Guard Plus (the current system, soon to be discontinued) will instead get access to Alexa Emergency Assist for $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year.
- Email to Alexa. Have Alexa help you manage your family calendar. Just send an email, invite, or photo of an event directly to Alexa. Alexa will then extract the event details, add the details to your calendar, and send you a confirmation.
- Top Connections. Add the Top Connections widget to your Echo Show 8, 10, and 15 devices to see your favorite contacts or most frequently used devices within the household. You can then quickly initiate a call or drop in with a single tap.
- Profile-level voice customization. While you can currently change Alexa’s voice settings for each individual device, this update lets you change Alexa’s voice for each individual profile, so you’ll hear your selected voice no matter which device you use. Customization options include feminine- or masculine-sounding voices, accent, and speaking rate.
- AI Art on Fire TV. Soon, you will be able to create AI-generated artwork on your Fire TV device with just your voice and imagination. Just give Alexa an imagination-driven prompt and watch as that prompt gets translated into a unique display on your screen. AI Art will begin rolling out to customers in the United States by the end of this year on devices with the Fire TV Ambient Experience.
- Map View: With Map View in the Alexa app, you can create a digital map of your home’s floor plan and pin connected devices to it. This centralized view lets you see all your devices and their status without needing to scroll through lists, remember specific device names, or navigate to other apps. From here, you can also easily control your smart home devices. Privacy was taken into consideration when designing Map View, so you can choose which rooms are added to your app and which devices show up. You can also unpin individual devices and delete your floor plan altogether.
Amazon didn’t have big releases this year, but it did make some updates worth mentioning. The Echo Show 8 3rd Gen ($149.99) got an update to video calls and improvements for the overall ambient experience. It features a newly centered camera, background noise minimization, and special audio-processing technology that creates a more immersive sound experience. It also added room adaptation tech that senses the acoustics of the room and fine-tunes playback for optimal sound. Amazon added adaptive content as well, so now your home screen will change based on your proximity to the Echo Show 8. If you are farther away from the screen, it will show essentials such as a simplified news headline or a large clock—information you can read from across the room. As you approach the device, the screen will transition to a more detailed and touch-friendly User Interface, along with personalized content.
This year, Amazon will also roll out the Echo Hub ($179.99), a wall-mountable smart home control panel powered by Alexa, with an 8” touch screen and customizable dashboard for your smart home devices. At the Hub, you can arm your security system, turn on the fan, change the volume on your Echo, and more, all with a few taps. The Echo Hub will support more than 140,000 smart devices. You can also get power-over-ethernet (PoE) from devices such as Eero PoE Gateway by using a compatible USB-C converter. PoE is a technology that delivers DC power to devices over copper Ethernet cabling, eliminating the need for separate power supplies and outlets.
The latest generation Fire TV Stick 4K ($49.99, currently on sale for $29.99) is WiFi 6 enabled, meaning you can expect fast app starts and smooth, fluid, and vibrant 4K Ultra HD streaming. You can go a step further with the latest generation Fire TV Stick 4K Max ($59.99, currently on sale for $44.99); it supports WiFi 6E, offers nearly three times the frequency bandwidth, and delivers lower latency and faster speeds. You may also notice less interference from other WiFi-enabled devices in your home. The 4K Max comes with the Fire TV Ambient Experience, which transforms your TV into a beautiful, always-smart display by replacing blank screens with helpful information such as your family calendar, local weather forecast, and reminders on your screen when you’re not streaming. You can also turn your TV into an art display by browsing the Ambient Experience’s collection of more than 2,000 free gallery-quality pieces of artwork, including art from artists around the world and from famous institutions such as the Musée d’Orsay.
Movies under the Stars
An outdoor movie experience offers the combination of fresh air and the feel-good hormones released during movie-watching that can lift your spirits and enhance your emotional well-being. Now, you can bring the fun of an outdoor movie experience to your backyard. To set up an outdoor movie theater, you first need to choose the right location. Select a suitable area in your backyard that offers enough space for the screen, seating, and projector setup. Consider factors such as available space, proximity to power sources, and the ability to control ambient lighting.
Next, you need to acquire a projector. Look for features such as brightness, resolution, and connectivity options. Consider the throw distance (the distance from the projector to the screen) and ensure it can cover the desired viewing area. Consider the Nebula Capsule 3 Laser projector ($739.99). This ultra-portable projector is barely larger than a soda can, yet it somehow manages to project a bright, crisp image, ideally for screens with a 70” diagonal width. It comes with built-in Android TV11, which offers easy access to many of your favorite entertainment apps. It offers a great combination of color accuracy, contrast, and shadow detail with 1080p resolution and support for 4K input.
Another great option if you have the money to spend is the BenQ TK860i ($1,699). This projector is not as portable as the Nebula Capsule, but it offers 4K resolution on screen plus a bright image that can stand up to ambient light. It also adds BenQ’s new HDR-PRO technology, which improves image quality from previous models, delivering noticeably enhanced shadow detail, contrast, and sense of three-dimensionality both for SDR and for HDR10 and HLG HDR input. The projector also supports full HD 3D and comes with an Android TV 11 dongle to add smart TV streaming features.
Next, you will need to obtain a projection screen. You have several options for a projection screen. You can purchase a portable screen specifically designed for outdoor use, use a white sheet or vinyl screen, or even project onto a blank wall if it provides a smooth and suitable surface. Keep in mind, you will want a screen that matches the size of the image your projector is designed for; if you further increase the size of the image, it will be less bright.
Next, consider setting up audio equipment to go with your projector for better sound. Options include portable speakers, a home theater system, or even a Bluetooth speaker like the ones we discussed in this guide.
Once everything is connected and set up, sit back and enjoy the show! Remember to check any local regulations or noise ordinances that may apply to outdoor gatherings or the use of audio equipment.
When it comes to home security, the first step is deciding what you want or need. If you are just looking to cover your entryways, a good video doorbell for your front and an outdoor camera for your back may suffice. Most home security devices work with Alexa and Google Home smart hubs, but if you prefer Apple HomeKit or another smart home ecosystem, you may have to do some more research before shopping to find a system compatible with your existing smart home ecosystem. When selecting a video doorbell, consider the design, whether it offers affordable (or free) video recording, how it handles motion detection and alerts, and the video quality. Decide whether you want a wired doorbell or a wireless one. If a wired doorbell is an option, go that route. They will almost always cost less, work better, and require less space, so they look nicer. One to consider is the latest generation Nest Doorbell (wired) ($179.99). This video doorbell has the ability to record 24/7, not just when motion is detected. It can also protect your packages from the dreaded porch pirate by sending you an alert when a package is left at your door and another alert when it is picked up. You get limited viewing ability for free, but for $8 per month ($80 per year), you can access the Nest Aware subscription, which offers 30 days of video history recording, intelligent alerts, and more. The subscription covers all your Nest devices.
If you want to beef up security outside your home, check out the Wyze Cam v3 Pro indoor/outdoor security camera ($53.99). The latest version includes new capabilities such as Smart Focus (which gives you a better look at anything moving in the frame) and a built-in spotlight. It has an IP65 weatherproof rating that protects it from rain, snow, and dust. The camera captures 2K video (2,560 by 1,440 pixels) at 20 frames per second (fps) during the daytime and at 15 fps during the night. It has a 116-degree field of view and 8x digital zoom. An embedded 2.4GHz WiFi radio handles your connectivity. The front of the camera features four infrared LEDs for black-and-white night recordings, while a Starlight sensor delivers color night vision in low-light conditions. There’s also an 80-lumen spotlight, a microphone, and a status LED that flashes red during setup and solid blue during normal operations. You can turn the spotlight on or off in the app, as well as configure it to turn on whenever the camera detects motion or sound. You can also activate a built-in 89-decibel siren from the app.
Also consider the Blink Outdoor Camera + Solar Panel Charging Mount (currently $139.98 on Amazon). Blink Outdoor provides a wire-free smart security camera that offers high-definition day and infrared night vision, two-way audio, and motion detection that lets you see, hear, and speak to visitors. It is Alexa enabled. The device has a solar panel with an outdoor camera connected and mounted in the case, so you can mount the camera anywhere (with sunlight) without worrying about access to power or having to change the batteries frequently. The solar panel casing does not charge the Blink camera itself. Instead, it charges a rechargeable battery that powers the Blink Camera. If you want to record the videos, you will need the Blink Sync Module 2, sold separately ($34.99).
If you know any bird-watching fans, check out the Wasserstein Bird Feeder Camera Case ($77.99, currently on sale for $54.99). This camera case holds 26.4 ounces of bird feed and allows you to get up close photos and videos of birds, plants, and scenery, as well as monitor your backyard with your smart cam. The feeder works with top security camera brands, including the Blink Outdoor Camera, Wyze Cam v3, Wyze Cam v3 Pro, Wyze Cam Outdoor, and Ring Stick Up Cam. If you like, you can add the Wasserstein Solar Panel ($45.99, currently on sale for $39.99) to power your device with solar.
Speaking of cameras for animal-watching, check out the Furbo 360° Dog Camera ($210, currently on sale for $189). This camera features a 132-degree (diagonal) wide-angle lens with 360-degree rotation, panning abilities, and vivid color night vision. It even features two-way audio and treat-tossing technology, so no matter where you are, you can let your pet know that he’s being a good boy. Those of you with the open-housing concept will enjoy the auto-tracking feature, which lets the camera go wherever your pet goes in the room. You will know when your pet gets distressed with the bark alert, an automated barking detection feature. In the app (Android or iOS), you can take photos or video of your pet, toss a treat, talk to them, and control the rotation of the camera, although you will need a Nanny subscription (described below) for cloud recording. Feline fans should check out the Furbo 360° Cat Camera ($220, currently on sale for $198). In addition to the 360-degree wide-angle view and treat-tossing technology, this camera comes with an attachable toy so you can watch your pet in active play. For more features, get the Furbo Dog Nanny or Furbo Cat Nanny subscription ($6.99 per month or $69 per year). With the Nanny subscription, you get real-time alerts (barking, crying, advanced meowing), recordings, and daily video summaries of your pet’s day. With the Cat Nanny, you get vomit alerts—no more surprises when you get home.
The Eufy Solo Indoor Cam E220 ($54.99) offers another option. This indoor camera has built-in human and pet AI detection, 2K image resolution, and two-way audio, and it can move a full 360 degrees around. It can integrate with Alexa, Google, and Apple HomeKit. Like other devices, it allows you to configure zones for monitoring and zones for privacy. It is not battery powered, so you will have to place it close to a plug for a power source. Also, if you want to save recordings, you will need a microSD card, which does not come with the device. On the bright side, however, there is no capacity limit to the SD card reader, giving you nearly unlimited storage. Setting up the camera is simple and fast. The Eufy Solo Indoor Cam does not require a subscription to keep video recordings of events. The 360-degree view option is a nice feature for checking on your home while you are away. In addition to viewing 360 degrees around the camera, you can move the camera vertically in a 96-degree vertical range.
TVs and Streaming Devices
If you are dreaming of streaming this Christmas, you might wonder whether to get a streaming device or a smart TV with streaming apps included. We think you should opt to upgrade your TV via a streaming device rather than acquire a smart TV solely for the streaming features. Smart TVs typically come with built-in streaming capabilities and apps, allowing you to access popular streaming services directly from the TV’s interface. This is nice if you don’t want additional devices cluttering your entertainment setup. However, expect sluggish performance compared to streaming devices, and not all apps are supported. Also, software updates for smart TVs vary across different brands and models. That smart TV on sale may not support the app you like to watch or may have a less intuitive interface.
Streaming devices are dedicated devices designed specifically for streaming content. They usually connect to your TV via HDMI and offer a wide range of streaming apps and services. Streaming devices such as Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, and Amazon Fire TV generally deliver consistent performance, provide frequent software updates, and offer a user-friendly experience. They typically offer more versatility, allowing you to access a broader selection of apps and services than certain smart TVs.
If you prioritize a smooth streaming experience, a wide range of apps, regular software updates, and consistent performance, then we recommend that you opt for a dedicated streaming device. If you prefer simplicity and integration with other smart features of your TV, then a smart TV with sufficient streaming capabilities could prove a suitable option.
For smart TV simplicity, we recommend the TCL 6-series lineup, such as the TCL 65” 65Q650G ($699.99, currently $498 at Amazon). This smart TV offers incredible visual detail with 4K Ultra HD resolution and a bright picture with Quantum Dot LED (QLED). It has a bezel-less design, giving you a full view of the screen. It runs on Google TV Smart OS, which gives you access to Google Assistant voice commands and the ability to connect your Google devices.
A 65” TV, such as the 65Q650G, might not necessarily work well for you, however. You can generally determine what size TV to buy based on the viewing distance—the distance between where you will sit to watch TV, and where the TV will be:
- Viewing distance 5’ to 6.5’: screen size up to 43”
- Viewing distance 6.5’ to 8’: screen size 50” to 55”
- Viewing distance 8’ to 9.5’: screen size 60” to 65”
- Viewing distance 9.5’ to 10.75’: screen size 70” to 75”
- Viewing distance 10.75’ to 11.5’: screen size 80” to 85”
The jack-of-all-trades generally masters none, so we prefer streaming devices to smart TVs. When it comes to streaming devices, top options include Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast with Google TV, or Amazon Fire TV devices. Our favorite is Roku, especially because it incorporated Apple’s AirPlay a while ago. Roku offers the most streaming options with the simplest streaming platform interface. We talked about the Roku Express 4K+ ($39.99) last year, and it remains one of the most affordable streaming TV devices that can offer 4K HDR picture quality. This year, Roku rolls out software updates to its devices so users can experience new personalized content discovery features. There will be updates rolling out across Roku’s content categories, including Sports, Live TV, What to Watch, Music Playlists, and Roku Photo Streams. If you want to beef up your audio experience and have the latest streaming technology, check out the Roku Streambar Pro ($179.99). The Streambar Pro gives you a soundbar that doubles as a Roku 4K media streaming device. It includes Apple AirPlay and offers an easy and affordable way to significantly enhance your TV’s audio. The remote also has a headphone jack for a private listening experience. If you live in the Google universe, then consider the Chromecast with Google TV (4K) ($49.99). If you live for all things Apple, then go with the Apple TV 4K ($129), a device that streams your favorite media and acts as a smart home hub for HomeKit.
Fitness/Health Wearables Options
When choosing the right fitness wearable for you or your loved one, here are several factors to consider:
- Identify your fitness goals. Determine what you want to achieve with your fitness wearable. Are you looking to track your steps, monitor your heart rate, or measure your sleep patterns?
- Consider your preferred activities. Think about the type of activities you engage in regularly. If you enjoy running or cycling, you may want a device with Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking. If swimming is your primary exercise, look for a waterproof device that tracks swimming metrics.
- Assess the features. Look for the key features that you require. Some common features to consider include heart rate monitoring, step counting, sleep tracking, EKG features, and smartphone notifications.
- Evaluate compatibility. Check if the fitness wearable works with your smartphone’s operating system. We think the Apple Watch works better with IOS devices, while the Samsung Galaxy Watch5 works better with Android devices.
- Read reviews and comparisons. Research different fitness wearables by reading reviews and comparisons from reputable sources. This will give you insights into the pros and cons of each device and help you make an informed decision.
- Keep your budget in mind. Determine your budget range for a fitness wearable. There are options available at various price points, so consider what you’re willing to spend and find a device that offers the features you need within your budget.
By following these steps, you can choose a fitness wearable that aligns with your goals, preferences, and budget, helping you track and improve your fitness journey effectively. With all of this in mind, here are some fitness wearables you might consider gifting this season.
First in our lineup are the Apple Watch Series 9 (starting at $399) and the Apple Watch Ultra 2 (starting at $799). Both authors are iPhone users and find the Apple Watch works best for them as a fitness wearable. The Series 9 and the Ultra 2 offer subtle improvements over previous generations but probably not enough to justify an upgrade if you just bought an Ultra or a Series 8 last year. The Series 9 and Ultra 2 are very similar to their predecessors, although with some new colors, strap options, and carbon-neutral packaging. The big change is the addition of a second-generation ultra-wideband chip and the upgrade to watchOS 10. The new chip offers a 30 percent faster graphics processing unit (GPU) and a four-core Apple Neural Engine with twice the performance of the Series 8. The upgraded chip also enables a Precision Finding feature that works like Apple AirTags, although you need an iPhone 15 to use this feature. To use Precision Finding, you first bring up the control panel and ring your phone like normal. Once you’re within range of your phone, you’ll see an approximate distance and some directional guidance. When you’re within six feet, you’ll hear another beep from your phone.
The Apple Watch Series 9 case comes in aluminum (from $399 for 41 mm, from $429 for 45 mm) or stainless steel (from $699 for 41 mm, from $749 for 45 mm), with GPS capability or GPS plus cellular capabilities. The stainless-steel case only comes in GPS plus cellular. The aluminum case is available in pink, midnight, starlight, silver, and red. The stainless-steel case is available in gold, silver, and graphite. Both come in 41 mm or 45 mm size. The GPS plus cellular model allows you to stay connected even without an iPhone nearby. The GPS-only model will require an iPhone for certain functions. To pair the Apple Watch Series 9, you will need an iPhone XS or later with iOS 17 or later.
For the band, you can choose between a rubber, textile, or stainless-steel finish, each offered in a variety of wrist sizes from 130 mm to 210 mm. The price varies depending on the quality of the material you choose. Apple identifies some of the selections as carbon neutral (meaning that the manufacturing process uses 100 percent clean electricity).
If you opt for a rubber band, you can choose the Solo Loop, a Sport Band, or the Nike Sport Band. The Solo Loop, a smooth swim-proof and sweatproof silicone band, comes in color options of orange sorbet, cypress, winter blue, midnight, starlight, and light pink. The Sport Band is a durable fluoroelastomer band with a pin-and-tuck closure available in the color options winter blue, mulberry, storm blue, clay, midnight, starlight, light pink, pride edition, black unity, and red. Nike’s branded version of the Sport Band offers a high-performance fluoroelastomer band with perforations for breathability. For color options, you can choose among magic ember, midnight sky, pure platinum, desert stone, cargo khaki, and blue flame. The foregoing relates to the rubber finish option.
For the Textile finish, you have five varieties: Sport Loop, Magnetic Link, Modern Buckle, Braided Solo Loop, and Nike Sport Loop. The Sport Loop, a soft, breathable, double-layer nylon weave that allows moisture to escape, features a quick and easily adjustable fit that is great for running and everyday wear. You can choose among cypress, winter blue, midnight, starlight, light pink, pride edition, and black unity color schemes. The Magnetic Link consists of soft, fine-woven material that wraps around your wrist and secures to itself magnetically for a secure fit. The flexibility respecting adjustment makes it quite comfortable, and it has an almost elegant appearance. It comes in evergreen, taupe, and pacific blue. The Modern Buckle style fits snugly around your wrist with a hidden two-piece magnetic closure. For color, choose among lavender blue, mulberry, and tan. The Braided Solo Loop, a soft, textured band that you can easily slip on and off, comes in storm blue, guava, clay, beige, midnight, pride edition, and black unity. You can get the Nike Sport Loop, a double-layer nylon weave with a woven pull tab that makes it easily adjustable, in starlight/pink, bright green/blue, black/blue, sequoia/orange, and game royal/orange.
Finally, the stainless-steel bands come as a Milanese Loop or a Link Bracelet. The Milanese Loop, a stainless-steel band woven on specialized Italian machines, magnetically wraps around your wrist for a perfect fit. You can choose among gold, silver, and graphite. The Link Bracelet is precisely crafted from 316L stainless-steel alloy with easily added/removed links to allow for a precise fit. It is available in silver and space black.
The Apple Watch Ultra 2 comes in a 49 mm titanium case with built-in GPS plus cellular connectivity. For the band, you can choose between the Alpine Loop, the Trail Loop, and the Ocean Band. The Alpine Loop is a rugged but lightweight band with seamlessly woven layers and a corrosion-resistant titanium G-hook for a secure fit. It is available in blue, indigo, and olive. The Trail Loop is a lightweight, ultra-thin, and stretchy band with a convenient pull-tab for quick adjustments. It comes in green/gray, blue/black, and orange/beige. The Ocean Band is a flexible, tubular fluoroelastomer band with a corrosion-resistant titanium buckle and adjustable loop. It was designed for recreational diving and high-velocity water sports. It is available in blue, white, and orange.
If you prefer Android devices, the Samsung Galaxy Watch collection might hold more appeal for you. Samsung currently offers the Galaxy Watch4 ($199.99 for 40 mm in aluminum, currently $115 on Amazon), Galaxy Watch5 ($329.99 for 40 mm, currently on sale for $197.99 at the Samsung website and for $175 on Amazon), or Galaxy Watch6 ($269.99 for 40 mm, WiFi-only). You can manage all the Galaxy watches on your smartphone using the Galaxy Wearable app. Both the Watch4 and the Watch5 have either a 1.19” display (for the 40 mm watch) or a 1.36” display (for the 44 mm watch), while the Watch6 offers either a 1.31” display (for the 40 mm watch) or a 1.47” display (for the 44 mm watch). All three feature Super Active-Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode (AMOLED) displays, which provide an increased refresh rate with reduced power consumption. The Watch4 uses Gorilla Glass, whereas the Watch5 and Watch6 use sapphire crystal. Gorilla Glass will reduce reflection by 25 percent, but sapphire crystal offers more scratch resistance. The Watch6 offers a higher resolution (480 x 480 pixels on the 44 mm version) than the Watch5 and Watch4 (450 x 450 pixels on the 44 mm version), which makes for a crisper display. All three are labeled waterproof up to 50 meters. Each generation improves its battery life, making the Watch6 the best choice out of the three in that category.
The Galaxy Watch6 stands out currently with its Irregular Heart Rate Rhythm feature. It uses the sensors underneath the watch to monitor and identify your regular heart rate; then, it will notify you if that rate is off. However, this feature should be added to the earlier models in upcoming software upgrades. The Watch4 comes in two sizes (40 mm and 44 mm). The 40 mm size can be purchased in either black or pink gold. The 44 mm only comes in black. If you wish to upgrade the Watch4 from the aluminum case to stainless steel, then it is only available in 42 mm, but you can get it in black or silver. The Watch5 is available in 40 mm and 44 mm. The 40mm features a graphite or pink gold face, while the 44 mm comes in graphite. The Galaxy Watch6 comes in 40 mm (gold or graphite) or 44 mm (graphite or silver). There is also a Galaxy Watch6 Classic, which has the same technical features but is made from stainless steel instead of aluminum. It comes in 43 mm (black or silver) or 47 mm (black or silver). The better-quality material carries a heftier price tag ($369.99 for 43 mm, $399.99 for 47 mm).
If you want an Android-based watch for outdoor activities, check out the Samsung Galaxy Watch5 Pro ($449.99 for 45 mm, currently $399.99). The Watch5 Pro offers a smartwatch for the outdoorsy person. The overall layout and software experience compare to the Watch 6, but the Galaxy Watch5 Pro offers a very different experience. The Watch6 has a rotating bezel, whereas the Watch5 Pro has a capacitive touch bezel. The Watch5 Pro dominates battery life with a 590mAh battery (vs. 425mAh for the Watch6). The Watch5 Pro gives you enhanced durability with better build quality, including a titanium finish, compared to the Watch6, which is aluminum, or the Galaxy Watch6 Classic, which is stainless steel.
What would a fitness wearable lineup be without Fitbit, one of the leading brands in the fitness tracker category? For those of you who have not heard, Google recently bought out Fitbit. We don’t know what changes that may bring about; we do have some concerns as we thought Fitbit worked well. Our experience with larger entities acquiring smaller ones has not always been positive, so we will have to see how this plays out.
Fitbit offers a full suite of wearable technology to meet your fitness needs. Their wearables combine with the Fitbit app to form a powerful platform to launch your fitness efforts. Fitbit can further fuel your effort with their Fitbit Premium Membership ($9.99 per month or $79.99 per year).
In terms of hardware, we prefer the Fitbit Charge 6 ($159.95), which recently replaced the Charge 5 we explored in last year’s guide. The Charge 6 gives you pretty much everything the Charge 5 did with enhanced Google integration and some improvements and expansions of existing functions (such as additional workouts). If you have a Charge 5, we see no compelling reason to upgrade. If you don’t, we consider the Charge 6 one of the best values and most useful of the health-tracking wearables (despite the fact that it was designed primarily to handle workouts).
The Fitbit Inspire 3 ($99.95) is one of the best budget-friendly fitness trackers we have found. It has an impressive ten-day battery life and the fundamental fitness features to help you lose weight and hit your daily fitness goals. Inspire 3 will track both your heart rate and the number of minutes you spend in each active zone during a workout. It is connected to GPS, so you can track your walks, runs, and rides if your phone stays with you. It offers multiple exercise modes, a cardio fitness score, and a daily readiness score. The various exercise modes will track your activities, such as running, cycling, and weightlifting. It also comes with SpO2 blood oxygen tracking and high and low heart rate notifications. It features a pleasant full-color display that is an improvement over the Inspire 2’s black-and-white display. The Inspire 3 comes with a six-month subscription to Fitbit Premium (a $60 value) that further offsets an already low price tag. The Inspire 3 comes in three color options for the band: midnight Zen, lilac bliss, and morning glow.
The Fitbit Sense 2 ($249.95, currently $199.95) is a great option if you want a fitness tracker with smartwatch features. It offers a host of valuable fitness features, including an ECG sensor approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the ability to measure electrodermal activity (EDA) along with skin temperature. The EDA feature is a mental health monitor that measures tiny changes in the sweat level of your skin. The changes detected can produce meaningful data about your body’s response to stress. With the added features and display, it delivers around six days of battery life with continuous usage. The Sense 2 will keep track of your step count or distance along with 40 dedicated sports modes (for comparison, Apple Watch offers only 18 dedicated sports modes, with everything else falling under the “Other” category). Like the Inspire 3, the Sense 2 will track how many minutes you spend in each active zone and provide a daily readiness score. It also comes with a six-month trial of Fitbit Premium, again offsetting some of the cost. It offers smartphone notifications and Bluetooth connectivity. It has built-in Alexa support for voice commands and is compatible with both iOS and Android devices. The Sense 2 comes in three color options: shadow grey band with a graphite aluminum case, lunar white band with a platinum aluminum case, and blue mist band with a soft gold aluminum case.
If you don’t want to dedicate an entire wrist to a tracking device that can monitor your health, track your activities and your sleep, and help you improve your health, then you shouldn’t do that. Instead, give a finger to your health tracking! The Oura Ring lets you do that and not miss a beat. The Oura Ring works best on your index finger but also works on other fingers. It has the appearance of a simple wedding band and comes in two styles that do not look very different, called the Heritage and the Horizon. The Heritage costs $50 less (starting at $299). You can get each style in multiple finishes at different prices. The rings all have the same technology and work identically. The rings are manufactured from titanium and are water resistant and very durable. The finish provides the only reason for the price differential within each model. The Heritage comes in black or silver ($299), stealth ($399), and gold ($449) finishes. The Horizon comes in silver or black ($349), stealth or brushed titanium ($449), gold ($499), and rose gold ($549). Like other wearable trackers, the Oura Ring pairs with your smartphone and connects to an app that stores the data the ring collects. The ring collects a variety of data from your finger, including activity and recovery, sleep, heart rate, temperature, and stress levels. It also collects menstrual cycle information for women. The Oura app will sync data to the Apple Health app as well.
We did our own informal and very casual study among the Charge 6, Apple Watch Ultra 2, and the Oura Ring to compare functionality. In the interests of full disclosure, our study consisted of Jeff wearing all three at the same time for several days. He wore the Apple Watch on his left wrist, the Fitbit Charge 6 on his right wrist, and the Oura Ring on his left index finger. He kept them all on 24/7, except when he had to remove a device for charging. Not surprisingly, the information recorded by the devices did not match up identically. Most of it appeared pretty close, however. That underscores what we have said about wearables for years: use them for guidance only and do not operate on the assumption that they provide medically accurate information. To give you an idea of the variances, one night the Apple Watch Ultra 2 reported that Jeff got six hours and one minute of sleep. The Charge 6 reported four hours and 26 minutes, and the Oura Ring recorded five hours and 56 minutes. Other statistics have shown similar variance. The makers of the Oura Ring claim that the index finger provides a better and more reliable source of information than the wrist. We have no idea of the accuracy of this claim, but we do note that medical devices used by doctors include devices that they attach to the index finger for measurement of such things as blood oxygen and pulse, while blood pressure usually gets measured by devices that attach just above the elbow or just above the wrist. Logic suggests to us that some things will get detected and reported more accurately from a quality device on the index finger and others from a quality device on the wrist. We have not yet figured out which things get more accurately measured where; maybe we will try for that next year. Bottom line, we think that the Oura Ring and the Apple Watch Ultra 2 are more likely to accurately report the information. We also think that the battery duration of the Oura Ring and the Charge 6 makes both more convenient than the Apple Watch Ultra 2. We believe that the Apple Watch Ultra 2 offers much more in terms of features than the Charge 6 and that the Charge 6 offers more than the Oura Ring.
Internet Hot Spots
We have grown more Internet-dependent over the years, and that trend continues when we travel. We want to have a viable Internet connection to surf the web, check our email, or send messages to friends, family, and co-workers. Accordingly, most of us look for Internet availability as part of our travel planning. We have grown so used to surfing the web, texting, emailing, and now video chatting that we feel lost without ready access to those things.
Throughout the world these days, most airports, hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and many stores and shopping centers we have entered have offered free Internet access to patrons. This service comes on a relatively unregulated and unprotected network. Even public networks with a password offer little protection, as anyone can get the password. The bad guys often hang out on such networks to snag information from the devices that connect to them. We understand that the lure of free Internet access may prove hard to resist. We still discourage the use of such networks, but if you must use them, be sure to run your communications through a virtual private network (VPN) to afford yourself and your data some protection against the bad guys.
We think that acquiring your own cellular hot spot makes more sense, and we encourage you to do that. The hardware for a hot spot generally consists of a small, self-contained, usually battery-operated device that you can put a SIM card in and that will create a portable network you and your family and friends can use for your communications. The two devices we have the most familiarity with come from GlocalMe and Solis (previously called Skyroam). Both offer their devices with SIM cards and international data plans. You can get hot spot devices from other manufacturers and acquire a local SIM card from a provider in the countries you visit. If you are going to stay for a while in an area serviced by that provider, this option may prove less costly than using GlocalMe or Solis. If you travel to several countries using different providers, you may find GlocalMe or Solis the most convenient as well as the most affordable. As an aside, we also carry a domestic hot spot with an American provider’s SIM card when we travel in the United States, as we prefer not having to use the public WiFi available in our hotel, restaurant, coffee shop, etc. You can get such devices from all the major providers.
You can find GlocalMe or Solis on Amazon or on each company’s website. You can also buy data plans for those devices on each company’s website. If you get on their mailing list, you will find that they fairly regularly have special offers that allow you to acquire data plans at a discount. You can get Solis or GlocalMe hardware for under $200. The devices from other manufacturers are more and less expensive. The least expensive we have seen costs $49 from T-Mobile.
All the devices we have referenced so far work on 4G. In truth, we have not tried the least or most expensive but have used several of those in the middle, including hot spots from GlocalMe and Solis. We have not seen a great deal of difference in performance among different hot spots from either of those companies, nor when comparing hot spots from GlocalMe to those from Solis. The bottom line is that they all seem to work adequately, and you should look for the best deal wherever you will travel. We have acquired both a Solis and a GlocalMe device and regularly switch between them depending on where we are. We have also noticed that, in some areas, one provides better service than the other.
We have seen more 5G hot spots available recently and, in fact, have acquired one. Check out the Inseego MiFi M2100 5G hot spot ($318.93, currently $279 on Amazon). It works very well, but the problem is the still limited availability of 5G service. When and where you can get it, you get a lot more speed than 4G. Most of the time, however, the device taps into 4G service. You will have to decide whether you want to spend the extra money for a 5G device. The good news: The device should last long enough to justify the cost when 5G service has sufficient availability.
While we can generally get by with English in many countries, we have always managed to find someplace in every country (including both the United States and England) where the ability to communicate in a foreign language has proved helpful. You have lots of possibilities to get help with translating from the local language to English. Many of them come in the form of apps on your cell phone (some free, some not). Some of those will let you download language files so that they can work without an Internet connection. Others require an Internet connection to translate for you. We have come to prefer using stand-alone translation devices. We have two that we like.
The Vasco Translator V4 ($389) represents the top of Vasco’s line. The V4 comes in your choice of five colors: black, gray, red, white, and blue. The translator works with 108 languages for photo translation, 90 for text translation, and 76 for voice translation. It comes with free lifetime Internet connectivity, but, not surprisingly, the connectivity works better in some places than others. You can get a complete list of the languages and a helpful tutorial on the Vasco website.
Another translator worth considering, the Vasco Translator M3 ($361, now on sale for $289), can handle up to 76 languages but requires an Internet connection. It comes with its own SIM card and advertises lifetime Internet access for the device for translation purposes in 200 countries at no additional charge.
We have also used Timekettle translators for a while, including the WT2 Edge/W3 Real-time Translator ($299.99). These devices come in the form of two earphones that look sort of like oversized AirPods. Each of the two parties in the conversation uses one earpiece and gets an almost simultaneous translation of the other person’s side of the conversation. They handle 40 languages and 93 accents. Some of the languages require Internet access for the time being. Many work with no Internet connection.
Enence offers a device that has the same shape as a cell phone and provides almost instant translations in 36 languages. This one works a little differently. You record the statement in the foreign language and play it back in English or conversely, so it is not simultaneous, but it works very well for travel.
Some Odds and Ends That Did Not Fit in Other Sections
We have some items we want to talk about that did not fit elsewhere in this guide, so we created this section for them.
Microfiber cloths make useful accessories for your computers and portable devices. Displays, particularly on phones and tablets, tend to get dirty, smudgy, and more difficult to read over time. A good microfiber cloth will help remove that dirt and give you a nice, clean screen. Computer and laptop screens also benefit from the microfiber cloth, even though they generally do not get as dirty as often as tablets and phones. Incidentally, if you wear glasses or sunglasses, a microfiber cloth will help keep the lenses clear and clean. Microfiber cloths also make good giveaways. If you want to get them imprinted with your firm name and address and give them to clients, they will likely get kept and appreciated. You can get microfiber cloths almost anywhere these days. Most opticians give them away with glasses. Many stores, manufacturers, and professionals use them as promotional items.
Smartphone and Tablet Stands
Smartphone and tablet stands make nice gifts and run the gamut from very inexpensive but functional to much more costly. We have and use permanent stands as well as folding stands we can pack in a briefcase or backpack and use on the road. Generally, the stands that accommodate both phones and tablets have a larger footprint and weigh more than those that just accommodate phones. The least expensive phone-only stand we found on Amazon costs $7.99. From that point, you can go up based on design, materials, manufacturer, etc. We do not have a particular recommendation as the ones we like best were given to us by merchants and do not have a manufacturer’s mark on them. We have seen similar stands on Amazon in the $10 to $13 range. If you have an interest, you can also get stands that fit in the cupholder of your car or that have clamps to clamp to the side of a desk or table. You can also get holders with longer and flexible arms to allow you to reposition the device. Most of the devices will accommodate a charging cable. Some will accommodate wireless charging.
We have had eReaders for many years, and they have grown so ubiquitous and so common that when we organized this year’s gift guide, we did not think we needed to include a separate section for them. The eReader wars have pretty much ended, and Kindle stands tall as the king of the mountain. You can get the Kindle app (and other eReader apps) on laptops, tablets, and smartphones. The apps work very well for most things but often have some limitations to induce you to use the Kindle-branded devices. We use both the apps and the devices. We won’t go through all the available Kindle devices. You can explore all the Kindle options on the Amazon website. Our favorite of the devices remains the Kindle Oasis with a 7” display ($279). We have used iterations of the Oasis for a number of years and prefer the display size, clarity, and related options to any of the other Kindle devices.
Our next favorite would have to be the relatively new Scribe, which has pretty much all the features of the Oasis, as well as a sophisticated note-taking facility. It comes in a larger form than the Oasis to accommodate its notebook function, with a 10.2” display. The least expensive version ($369) comes with 16 GB of memory and a basic pen for note-taking. For $419.99, you get the 64 GB version and a premium pen.
The best value in the Kindle line, the Paperwhite, costs $139.99 for the 8 GB version and $149.99 for the 16 GB version.
Gift subscriptions are the gift that keeps on giving. Whether it’s a streaming service such as Netflix or Hulu or surprise boxes such as the Beer of the Month Club or IPSY, subscription gifts are a great way to surprise your loved ones with a thoughtful and unique present that keeps on giving. Here are some gift subscriptions to consider:
- Netflix (from $6.99 per month for standard with ads to $22.99 per month for premium). Netflix has poured millions of dollars into building its on-demand universe, and it shows. It offers a vast selection and a user-friendly layout.
- TheraBox ($34.99 per month): TheraBox is a monthly subscription service that delivers carefully curated selections of self-care products. Each box contains eight full-size wellness products worth up to $200. It includes a happiness-boosting activity along with products to nourish your mind, body, and soul.
- Hunt A Killer ($34.99 per month). Hunt A Killer is a subscription-based murder mystery game that sends you a box with letters, documents, clues, and evidence every month. The game is designed to be played over six months, with each box containing plot twists and little hints that build on each other throughout the season as you work to solve the murder mystery.
- IPSY (from $14 per month for five sample-size products to $30 per month for five full-size products). IPSY is a beauty subscription service that delivers a set of personalized beauty products straight to your door, making it easier to discover your new go-tos, feed your passion for beauty, and try your favorite brands at an incredible value. You can customize your products by taking a personalized quiz.
- Hulu (from $7.99 per month for a basic subscription with ads to $89.99 per month for Hulu (no ads) bundled with Live TV, Disney+ (no ads) and ESPN+ (with ads). Hulu is a streaming service that offers a library of films, TV series, and original programming from various networks and studios, mainly in the United States. It requires a subscription and allows users to create different profiles for personalized viewing. It also has live TV options and an international offshoot service called Star.
- Beer of the Month Club (ranging from $35.95 per month to $43.95 per month, plus $15 or $16 for shipping). We won’t pretend that this is a tech gift, but it’s nice to settle back with a cold beer every once in a while as you read (or write) tech articles or while playing with your new technology. We do ask that you do not use the products you receive through this subscription while driving or operating heavy machinery. The Beer of the Month Club is a subscription service that delivers hand-selected, rare craft beer from across the United States to its members every month. There are five subscription packages for you to choose from:
- The U.S. Microbrewed Beer Club ($35.95 per month plus $16 shipping)
- The U.S. and International Variety Beer Club ($40.95 per month plus $16 shipping)
- The Hop-Heads Beer Club ($39.95 per month plus $16 shipping)
- The International Beer Club ($43.95 per month plus $16 shipping)
- The Rare Beer Club ($41.95 per month plus $15 shipping)
- OpenAI. One of the biggest rages this year, AI offers many options ranging from general use to assisting you with research, writing, drawing, and other activities. The capabilities have proven staggering, and the options continue to expand very rapidly. Uses for AI have ethical and moral questions associated with them, but we think that you will want to familiarize yourself with the capabilities of AI and that providing the opportunity to do so makes an interesting gift choice. You have many sources of access to AI, but ChatGPT has run well ahead of the pack. While you can get ChatGPT access through a number of apps and subscriptions, we like the idea of getting it from the source. OpenAI developed ChatGPT and allows you to subscribe to the use of it on a monthly basis either on the web or by downloading the OpenAI ChatGPT app from the Apple App Store or the Google Play store. OpenAI has recently changed its pricing structure, and you can find the new structure on the company’s website. In addition to gifting a subscription to someone, you may want to consider treating yourself to access to this amazing, engaging, and scary technology.
Well, we’ve pretty much done our shopping, and we have shared many of our findings with you. We tried to provide a sufficient variety of tech-related items at a broad enough cost spectrum to help you with some (or maybe all) of your gift choices, as well as some things to consider for yourself. We regularly follow the practice of buying a few gifts for ourselves for the holidays to ensure that we get something we really want. It has worked for us for years, and we recommend the practice to you as well.