Now that (for better or worse) technology is a central part of everyone’s life, as opposed to something other early adopters geek out over when new products are released in advance of the holiday shopping season, it felt like it was time for our annual holiday gift guide to evolve.
This year, we decided that we wanted to recognize more than just the awesome gadgetry that dominates most tech gift guides (although, don’t worry, we’ve got a few of those). Our guide contains everything from Toddler’s First Computer to deep reading for the techno-curmudgeon on your list to causes that matter, we’ve compiled a list of suggestions that we think will come in handy when trying to bring tech home for the holidays without throwing another pile of electronics into the corner of the garage.
We’re thankful for you, our readers, and we hope you enjoy the holiday season.
Tom Krazit, Executive Editor
For kids who want to compute: Kano
By Stacey Higginbotham, Senior Writer
For parents who want to get their kids into computing and coding the $149.99 Kano is a nice first computer that kids build themselves. anyone who had a Commodore 64 as a kid or anyone with a child who loves Minecraft will probably benefit from this machine. It takes a Raspberry Pi as its guts and adds a speaker, HDMI cable, Bluetooth Low-Energy keyboard and Wi-Fi, plus an entire world of kid-friendly content and games that aim to offer kids an entry point into learning Python at their own pace. I reviewed it with my eight-year-old daughter a while back, but I recommend this as a fun gift for any parent looking for something for the 8-12 set. Of course, if you’re an uber geek and want to just get your child a Raspberry Pi for $20 then go right ahead, but for many the completeness of the hardware and included games will more than justify the price tag. You don’t have to be a computer whiz to turn your kid into one.
For last-minute or long-distance gifters: the subscription box
$30+ for women’s, $60+ for men’s
Biz Carson, Editorial Assistant
I’m not the kind of person who spends hours in Sephora or watching YouTube beauty tutorials. However, since a friend gifted me a Birchbox subscription last year, I’ve suddenly become the addict who looks forward to getting my little box of beauty items every month. For gift-givers, subscription boxes are a good choice for long-distance or long-distant-relationship gifts because they’re easy to order online and the companies take care of the shipping for you. Birchbox is among the most affordable, with a women’s box starting at $30 for three months, and it lets the recipient even fill out their beauty preferences so the box can be more tailored to them (I prefer nail polish to perfume and have blonde hair, for example). But it’s not only beauty products, there are subscription boxes for men’s shaving, gamer gear or dog lovers.
For eager to learners: How to code in Python
Learn Python the Hard Way
Kevin Tofel, Senior Writer
Coding and computer science are more relevant than ever to a broader audience; with the right skills, you can build apps for your own needs instead of hoping a developer builds one for you. Getting started is easier than ever through Zed A. Shaw’s “Learn Python the Hard Way” program.
For $29.95, you get Shaw’s simple, effective book supplemented with 1.7 GB worth of helpful videos. Shaw started this learning tool as a series of web pages (which are still available for free) and eventually consolidated the content into book form supplemented with videos. Don’t be intimidated by “hard way” in the title; Shaw’s style makes it anything but hard to learn Python coding.
For futurists: Samsung Gear VR
Samsung Gear VR
Signe Brewster, Staff Writer
I am completely infatuated with virtual reality. If you aren’t, I would guess that’s because you haven’t tried it yet. For most people, their first taste of it will come in December when Samsung releases Gear VR, a virtual reality headset that uses a mobile phone for its screen. Samsung partnered with industry-king Oculus to build the headset and early impressions indicate it offers up an awesome experience for a reasonable price (if you already have a Samsung phone). And unlike Rift, it does not need to be plugged in. Not into gaming? That’s OK — Samsung was upfront about pitching it as a media consumption device, which means cinema and interactive experiences are just as likely. The amount of virtual content available will accelerate once Oculus releases Rift. So if you’re not quite ready to invest in a virtual reality headset this holiday season, believe me, by this time next year you will be running to pick one up.
For bibliophiles: The complete works of Nick Carr — in book form
The Shallows, by Nick Carr
By Derrick Harris, Senior Writer
If you want to treat yourself or a loved one to solid arguments for at least considering unplugging, Nick Carr’s last two books, The Glass Cage and The Shallows, are a great place to start. It turns out all of our apps and endless streams of content and driverless cars might not be the answer to life’s problems. In fact, they might be causing some problems.
Carr’s previous two books are also worth reading as forecasts of what we’re now seeing happen to the business of technology. Written in 2004, Does IT Matter? tackles the questionable business practice of viewing information technology as a means of keeping the lights on rather than an opportunity to innovate. His next book, The Big Switch, explains the evolution toward cloud computing and the opportunities and perils it brings with it.
For internet addicts: The Good Web Bundle
The Good Web Bundle
By Mathew Ingram, Senior Writer
I don’t subscribe to a lot of things online, mostly because there is enough good and free content that I don’t really find I have to — but at the same time, I believe in supporting sites that do quality work. I came across an interesting experiment recently in helping to fund sites that you like without having to sign up for expensive monthly subscriptions, and it’s called The Good Web Bundle. It’s a partnership between the online community Metafilter (which I’m a big fan of), news reader NewsBlur, opinion site The Toast, image-sharing service Mlkshk and the social-analytics service ThinkUp. By paying $96, you get full access to all of the sites, all of which either have paywalls or premium services that cost money. Under $100 for all of that is a pretty steep discount, and it allows you to support independent services that could use the money.
For social media lovers: Turn your Instagrams into temporary tattoos
By Carmel DeAmicis, Staff Writer
If you don’t have big bucks to spend but still want to give something creative, consider Picattoo. You can submit Instagram photos to the company, and it will print them out as stick-on tattoos. That way you can capture a meaningful moment, favorite internet meme, or inspirational quote on the cheap. It’s a good stocking stuffer: only $14.99 for a set of 12 tattoos. If you want to give a similar gift to a grandmother, or other adult too dignified for stick-on tattoos, try Printstagr.am to turn Instagram shots into a sticker book. $15 for 252 stickers.
For foodies: The Ember Range
The Ember Range Thermometer: A simple and versatile cooking probe for the iPhone
By Kevin Fitchard, Senior Writer
Any home cook has got to have decent digital thermometer, and Supermechanical makes a great one: a connected temperature probe called the Ember. There are dozens of different kinds of thermometers on the market that connect to your smartphone, but what I like about the $69.95 Ember is its simplicity. There are no separate parts, no base station unit, no batteries to mess with or buttons to push. It’s just a metal skewer with a handle and a heat-resistant cord that plugs into the headphone jack of your iPhone or iPad (unfortunately there’s no Android version yet). The app is intuitive and can be customized for temperature alerts and particular types of meat cookery if you want to get all fancy.
The Ember, however, does its most important function – measuring internal temperature – accurately and quickly with little fuss. If you’re a true pro, you’re probably going to own many thermometers, each with its own specialized task (I would recommend checking out Meathead Goldwyn’s website if you’re aspiring to such a level). But what makes the Ember great is its versatility. It’s fast enough that you can take multiple readings off a roast in less than a minute, so you don’t have to cook your hand along with your dinner. You can leave it in the oven stuck into your Thanksgiving turkey to alert you when it’s done (if you’re still using that pop-up gauge that comes with the bird, someone needs to slap you upside the head). You can even use it to take a quick reading of boiling sugar on the stovetop. It’s not the only thermometer I will ever need in the kitchen, but it’s the one I reach for most.
For audiophiles: Headphone amplifier
FiiO E6 Fujiyama Portable Headphone Amplifier
By Jonathan Vanian, Staff Writer
If you spend most of your time listening to music from your smartphone, you’re probably listening to a warped version of what the artist had in mind due to your device’s headphone amplifier. Even if you listen to WAV files or something similar from your phone, it’s likely your device’s amplifier won’t be able to pick up the extra details and things will sound a little murky. If you want to have better sound quality and don’t want to shell out cash for a new music player, you can buy a portable headphone amplifier, which can easily connect to your phone through the headphone jack. One that I really like is the FiiO E6 Fujiyama Portable Headphone Amplifier; it only costs $27.99, is small and is easy to operate, which makes it a nice gift for a music lover. I was skeptical at first as to how much the amplifier could make a difference, but when I hooked it onto my iPhone and listened to some jams, I could hear more detail, better bass tones and the sounds that panned to the left or the right were better separated than before.
For gadget lovers: A tablet for your whole family
$450 for 20-inch version, $550 for 24-inch
By Kif Leswing, Staff Writer
Tablets are a great last-minute Christmas present: They’re desirable, widely available, and easy to wrap. But tablets can be very personal devices, and if your family doesn’t share well, it’s expensive to buy an iPad for every member of your family. Instead, look at the Nabi Big Tab, which is a Android touchscreen tablet the size of a TV, so the whole family can share the experience. It’s oriented towards children, so it does kid-friendly games and content really well, but grown-ups will find a lot to like about it as well. It’s got the Google Play app store, so you can install most of the same apps you can on an Android phone — like Netflix, Google Drive, and games like Monument Valley. With a cookbook app, it can be a great kitchen buddy. Pair a Bluetooth keyboard and it becomes a workstation for pounding out documents and spreadsheets. But with those big screens come big prices: The 20-inch version costs $450 and the Nabi Big Tab with a 24-inch screen will run you $550.
For kids: Osmo
By Janko Roettgers, Senior Writer
As a tech writer, I get to see a lot of products. Some are great, others not so much, but very rarely does something strike me as magical. Osmo is one of those rare exceptions: The $80 iPad game pack includes a stand and a clip-on mirror for your iPad that allows the device to “see” real-world objects to combine Osmo’s iPad games with the world beyond the screen. One example is the Osmo pictionary app that shows photos of objects on the screen, prompting users to toss Scrabble-like word tiles on the surface in front of the iPad, where the device instantly recognizes the letters. It’s simple, but captivating, and it’s incredibly well designed. Osmo is one of those games that kids and parents enjoy, and the company behind it has big plans for the future of the platform, so it’s only going to get more interesting.
For creatives: Field Notes
$100 for a subscription
By Katie Fehrenbacher, Senior Writer
At our recent Roadmap design conference Kleiner Perkins partner John Maeda said he’s tired of connected things and having to take care of them. I partly agree. That’s why I’m recommending giving a Field Notes color subscription for the holidays, which gives you access to the latest awesome non-connected note books from Field Notes. Disconnect and be inspired.
For charitable techies: a shield for your rights
By David Meyer, Senior Writer
The term “digital rights” is becoming increasingly unnecessary – as our lives increasingly move online, we should really consider digital rights as human rights, which should be jealously defended. Across the world, there are organizations fighting to do just that in the context of the digital realm. They have a hard and generally underfunded job, reacting to a constant but sometimes subtle stream of legislative tweaks, dodgy “trade” agreements and rights-trampling surveillance programs. It could take the form of EFF webcam stickers, or memberships, or donations to the likes of the Open Rights Group and the Digitale Gesellschaft, but this holiday season you could do a lot worse than supporting, on someone’s behalf, a local outfit that’s trying to defend the fundamental rights of both of you.
For cat lovers: a Wi-Fi-connected litter box scale
By Barb Darrow, Senior Writer
Hey cat people, here’s one for you. Tailio is a Wi-Fi-connected scale that sits under Fifi the cat’s litter box, tracks the activity that goes on there, sends the data off for analysis. It then returns updates to an app on your iOS or Android phone. Tailio founder Alex Treiner came to this idea the hard way after he noticed (too late) that his cat had lost 25 percent of its body weight. Now raising funds on Kickstarter, Tailio tracks the cat’s weight (and waste production) over time and flags areas of concern providing an early warning of potential trouble. Data — including the amount of time Fifi spends in the box, the weight of what she left behind each trip — gets beamed to a cloud server, where it is parsed. Tailio says it can even monitor the weights and behavior of multiple cats. Those early enough to Kickstarter can get one for $99; the finished product will cost more. The device will be available early next year.
For magazine lovers: Next Issue
By Laura Owen, News Editor
For someone who is skeptical about the future of magazines, I sure have been enjoying Next Issue a lot. The app offers unlimited access to digital issues of magazines across publishers — think the New Yorker, Consumer Reports, People, Real Simple, Rolling Stone and over 100 others. Pay $9.99 a month for monthly magazines only, or $14.99 a month if you also want weeklies like the New Yorker. The app’s interface is excellent and intuitive (which certainly isn’t a given for e-reading apps), and a recent partnership with Evernote lets you clip content straight from the magazines into your account. For iOS, Android and Windows 8. Give a subscription as a gift here; Next Issue is also running a Black Friday–Cyber Monday, 50-percent-off deal here.
For cordcutters: the Mohu Leaf
By Jeff Roberts, Senior Writer
Do you know a city-dweller still paying for cable? Give them a nudge to get rid of it — and help them save a bundle of cash — by giving them a Mohu Leaf, or another brand of the next generation of indoor antennas. I was surprised at how well these devices pick up over-the-air TV signals, and how many show choices I can pick up for free on a plain old TV. All these channels, plus subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon Prime, means our house has more than enough to watch and at a fraction of the cost of a cable bill. The only thing I miss is the occasional sports game but, well, that’s why we have neighborhood bars.
It’s true no one will jump up and down to receive an antenna as a gift (and for goodness sake, don’t give it to a sweetheart!) but, in the long run, some people will thank you on discovering this easy entertainment option.