Holiday Tech Toys 2014

holidaytechtoyThis year’s Holiday Tech Toys list is a little different than previous iterations. All the items on this year’s list are devices I have personally been using over the last year. Needles to say, I have extensive experience with every item on this list. Also, many of these items are great for those on your list who are picky about their technology. Beyond the short write up I will give each item, I will also follow up soon with more in-depth reviews. So keep an eye out for those upcoming reviews, but in the meantime, if you have more questions about these devices please let me know.

Automatic

AutomaticThe Automatic is a device that plugs into the OBD-II port in your car and transmits data about your car’s health and your driving habits to your smartphone. I bought it primarily to help me monitor my fuel efficiency, which it does well, but I also started using the data it stores about where and when I drove to help me monitor how much time I spend in the car. It is amazing to see hard data about just how much time I spending in the car! Based on the information I am getting from the Automatic, I know I am driving fuel efficiently, but I also know that I could literally get one extra working day a week if I didn’t drive so much! The Automatic would be a great gift for anyone who is concerned about their fuel or time efficiency.

Fitbit Force/Charge

Fitbit ChargeI wanted a device that had a silent alarm so I could wake up without disturbing my wife. The Fitbit Force “fit” the bill nicely. I was also interested in the activity and sleep monitoring features. Ironically after a couple of months of using the Fitbit Force, it was recalled due to some people suffering skin reactions. I did not have any reaction to the Fitbit Force so I kept using mine. The redesigned replacement for the Fitbit Force is called the Fitbit Charge. After several months of using the Fitbit Force, I did enjoy the silent alarm function, but I didn’t use the sleep monitoring feature much because I had to remember to enable and disable it each night and morning. The activity monitoring was neat, but it only truly worked for walking. It was not accurate for things like skating (I play a lot of hockey), nor would it really monitor activity of any other sort. My thought was that if the Fitbit Force had a heart rate monitor it would be perfect. That being said, within the last couple of months, Fitbit released an upgrade for the Force that added a few nice features. Now the Force will automatically monitor your sleep as well as integrate with your smartphone to vibrate when you have a phone call. This has made me happier with my Fitbit Force, but I still wish it had a heartrate monitor.

The reality is that the upcoming Apple Watch is going to completely change the landscape of the fitness technology market. The Apple Watch will have the heart rate monitor that I had wished for and now it seems that in response, Fitbit will be releasing new models that include a heart rate monitor for only about $20 more than what I paid for the Force. That being said, in a market that is about to be dominated by the Apple Watch, the Fitbit could still find fans among people who want a heart rate monitor but at a lower price point than the Apple Watch. If you have someone on your gift list that is a walker or runner, a current Fitbit model might be a great gift. Otherwise, wait for the new models next year.

Apple iPhone 6

iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 PlusWhat is there to say about the iPhone 6 that hasn’t already been said? The iPhone is still the standard that all other smartphones aspire to and now that the iPhone comes in larger sizes, competitors suddenly must find something else that make their phones different. I will say that I was hesitant about the iPhone 6 being too big, but I have found that the iPhone 6 is a nice comfortable size for a smartphone. The iPhone 6 Plus is simply too large for my usage, but for some it might be just what they want. Either way, the new iPhones make an amazing gift. Just be sure to add the AppleCare Plus coverage so that accidental damages to the new iPhone are covered.

Anker Desktop ChargerMultiport USB Chargers

The more mobile devices families acquire, the greater the need for a “charging station” to recharge all those devices. The problem is that it is difficult to plug in a bunch of chargers into one standard outlet. Sure, power strips can be used, but they are big and bulky. The best solution I’ve found is a multi-port USB charger. As my household has need of several different charging stations, I have purchased devices from both Anker & Photive (specifically the Anker 5-port 40W, the Anker 5-port 25W, and the Photive 6-port 50W). So far, the chargers have been working great with a variety of devices, such as iPhones, iPads, iPods, plus many other gadgets that my family owns, including several that are on this Holiday Tech Toy list. They even charge our Playstation 3 controllers, which are notoriously hard to find third-party chargers for. The key when shopping for chargers like these are to look for devices that use “intelligent” charging technology. This will allow one charger to charge a variety of different devices from different manufacturers, since many manufacturers use different charging specifications. If you know gadget-people who need help charging all those devices, a multi-port USB charger could be just the gift they are wishing for.

Chamberlain Smartphone Ready Garage Door Opener with MyQ Technology

Chamerlain Garage Door OpenerI moved into a new house a couple of months ago. The garage door opener that came with the house was from 1991. Besides the fact that it didn’t have the safety features that newer garage door openers have, there was no way to use it with devices that integrated with smartphones. So I decided to purchase an entirely new garage door opener that had built-in integration. Never having installed a garage door opener, I was a little hesitant to tackle such a project. However after researching this particular Chamberlain model that I could buy at Home Depot, I went ahead and made the purchase. It turned out it wasn’t that hard, even for someone like me who is much more comfortable with electronics than mechanical things. This garage door opener is has nice features like a motion sensor for the garage lights, a battery backup so it will still open the garage door if the lights go out, and a wireless keypad so the garage door can be opened from the outside. All this was on top of the ability to monitor the status of the garage door as well as being able to open and close it from a smartphone from anywhere in the world. I also really like the fact that this garage door opener is extremely quiet. The best part was that it is less than $250! Now maybe a garage door opener isn’t exactly what someone thinks of as a Christmas gift, but I’m sure there’s someone on your list that would appreciate it.

SimpliSafe

simplisafeI am a big fan of home security systems. I am not a big fan of the installation process, the complexity of the systems, or the pricing. I am glad I found SimpliSafe because it solves most of these problems. The pricing of the equipment is reasonable, the equipment is wireless so setup is simple and a technician is not required. The best part is that the basic service is only $15/month and no contract is required. My only complaint is that some of the more advanced features (being a “techie” I would like to use) cost an additional $10/month. I’ve not found that these features are worth the extra $10/month so far. Most people would probably not need those features, so it isn’t really a huge problem. I’ve read rumors that the next generation of SimpliSafe equipment will be much more advanced. I can’t wait to find out. Home security systems may not be a traditional Christmas gift, but if you at least let your friends and family know about SimpliSafe before they buy a traditional home security system, it may be the best gift you could give them!

Plantronics Voyager Legend

Plantronics Voyager LegendI wrote a review of the Plantronics Voyager Legend Bluetooth headset earlier this year. Six months later and I’m still very happy with the device. I can say it worked really well on my iPhone 5S and so far just as well on my newer iPhone 6. I have had clients say they’ve noticed an improvement in call quality, which is an excellent proof that this headset is doing its job well. I can find the Plantronics Voyager Legend on sale for around $80, which is a really great price for the quality of headset. Read my more extensive review on the Plantronics Voyager Legend and if you have someone that could use a Bluetooth headset, this could make a very good gift.

Smartbean Bluetooth Wireless Receiver

Smartbean Bluetooth ReceiverWhen I purchased my iPhone 5S last year, I had to change how my iPhone connected to my car. My previous charger also integrated audio to my car stereo directly. However, there was no equivalent device available for a new iPhones with Lightning connectors. So for a time I had to also connect an audio cable to my iPhone if I wanted to listed to music from my iPhone in my car. This was a bit of a pain. I wanted something that would let me stream my music from my iPhone 5S (and now iPhone 6) to my car stereo without wires. And I didn’t want to purchase a new stereo receiver for my car (at least not yet). I stumbled upon a deal on the Smartbean Bluetooth wireless receiver. Simply put, I can keep the Smartbean connected to my car stereo and send music from my iPhone via Bluetooth to my car stereo. After several months of using it, I can say it does the job very well, with a few minor inconveniences. The biggest issue I have with the Smartbean is that I can not easily charge it in the car. I need to bring it inside to charge it when it runs low on battery. However, the battery lasts several weeks between charges so it’s not a huge deal. The Smartbean (also known as the A.M.P. Bluetooth Receiver) lists at $39.99, but you can usually find it on sale for half that price (check Groupon), so find a deal before purchasing. The Smartbean makes a great gift for people to use in cars as I do, but also people who are into fitness, as the Smartbean can clip to clothing for use with wired headsets.

Limefuel Blast

Limefuel BlastOn a few occasions in the last couple of years, my iPhone ran out of battery. This is a rare occurrence, but when it happens, it is a real pain, especially while traveling away from home. On those occasions that my iPhone was running out of charge, all my travel companions were also running out of battery. I wanted to find a device that could recharge my iPhone while on-the-go, but also be powerful enough to recharge multiple smartphones. I did some research and was finding products that were simply too expensive for my wishes. I did a little more research and found the Limefuel company. Their battery-based external USB chargers had larger capacities and were about half the price of the other devices I was finding. I decided on purchasing the Limefuel Blast L130X, which I liked so much, I went ahead and bought two so that my wife could have one in her car as well. So far, after many months of using the Limefuel Blast, I am very happy with the purchase. It has come in very handy on several occasions and often my friends are using it more than I am. I make sure to send one with my daughters if they are going on a field trip and they end up sharing it with their friends as well. Limefuel has improved upon the model I purchased and it the now has 4 ports that can simultaneously charge multiple devices. The Limefuel Blast makes an amazing gift for people who travel a lot, especially those who go to remote locations.

Crucial M100 Solid State Drives

Crucial MX100 SSDThere have been few advances in computer technology in the last 10 or more years that have had the impact of Solid State Drives (SSD). Simply put, replacing a traditional hard drive with a solid state drive can significantly boost the performance of a computer, especially those that are more than a few years old. In addition, solid state drives are more reliable and use less power than hard drives. The only problem with solid state drives was that they were significantly more expensive than hard drives. However, earlier this year, Crucial introduced their M100 line of SSDs, which basically slashed the going price in half! Other companies have begun to drop their prices in response, but Crucial is a great brand with a great product. If you know someone with a computer, especially laptops, that are more than a couple of years old, an SSD upgrade could be like giving them a new, faster computer. Plus, since the computer no longer has a hard drive, an SSD upgrade will likely extend the lifespan of the computer for several more years. An SSD may not be the flashiest gift, but it may be the most practical, especially when combined with my Laptop Supercharge service.

I Know You’re Not Using Handsfree While Driving! Review of Plantronics Voyager Legend

cellphonecarI can see you! Yeah, you in the car! You’re holding up your cellphone to your ear while driving! In the State of Illinois where I live, this was made illegal at the first of the year. Yet you’re still doing it. If I’m seeing you do it, you can be sure the police can see you as well. Enforcement has started in earnest and it’s a easy ticket to write. I personally know some people that have been recently cited for it. The sad part is that for the cost of the ticket, they could have purchased a handsfree device and avoided the hassle. So here is my gentle reminder to you – get a handsfree device before you get pulled over. Besides, it really is safer because I know some of you have trouble driving even with both hands on the wheel!

To help you out, please review the article I wrote earlier in the year about choosing a handsfree device. But as an update to that article, I wanted to share with you a review of my new handsfree device. I’ve been using it about 6 weeks now so I think I have a very good handle on it.

My previous Bluetooth headset was a Jawbone Era. Overall it worked well enough, but I was becoming irritated with a few quirks of the device when using it with my iPhone. They were infrequent enough that I wasn’t exactly in the market for a new headset, but I had found one in my normal course of technology research that seemed promising. When I found out that Best Buy had a sale running on that particular unit, I went ahead and jumped at the opportunity to get one.

The Plantronics Voyager Legend is an over-the-ear style headset. I tend to like over-the-ear headsets, but I know some others don’t. Still, even if you haven’t been a fan of over-the-ear styles before, I would suggest that you give the Voyager Legend a try before you dismiss it. The reason I like the over-the-ear style is because these devices tend to stay put on my ear better. With the Voyager Legend, the weight is so evenly distributed that I have often forgot it was on. Sometimes I even forget that I have taken it off, which is a weird phenomenon, but I attribute it to the fact it is so comfortable that my body can’t really tell the difference when it is on or off. Also, the way the device is designed, most of the bulk is in the part of the device behind the ear. There is only a thin microphone that extends from your ear, so overall I think the device is quite understated. In other words, you don’t look like a Borg while wearing it as some Bluetooth headsets might tend towards.

That being said, what really matters with a Bluetooth headset is the sound quality of the call. The biggest critic I know is my wife, whom I tend to talk to quite frequently over the phone. She immediately said the Voyager Legend did a much better job of reducing ambient noise. In fact, I can have the windows of my car rolled down some and she can’t hear it, even at highway speeds. About the only problem with the noise reduction is wind is blowing directly on the headset. Unfortunately direct wind noise is something that  no headset seems to be able to deal well with. Also, the Voyager Legend seems to pick up the sounds from something like a Radar detector, which drives my wife crazy. Other than those quirks, the sound quality seems to be excellent, as the callers on the other end can hear me clearly and distinctly with virtually no background noise. As I said in my previous article, this is extremely important to me since I use my phone for business.

The “quirks” that I had endured with the Jawbone Era I’m thankful to say do not exist with the Voyager Legend. The biggest thing that was a problem was that the Jawbone Era would at times “flake out” when making or answering a call. In other words, I would make a call or answer my phone, but the sound didn’t work. So I didn’t know that someone else had picked up the call I made or I wouldn’t hear anybody on the other end. Similarly, it would seem that on occasion I could hear someone but the other person couldn’t hear me. I had to shut off my Jawbone Era and turn it back on to fix the problem. This was obviously not cool when I was driving. Additionally, there were times where the caller on the other end could hear me, but the sound quality was very garbled. This was especially true in my home office, where I have been spending more time lately working on Web Site projects. That area of my house unfortunately has low cell phone coverage and somehow that seemed to affect the performance of the Jawbone Era. I have not experienced these problems with my new Voyager Legend. About the only quirk I have experienced is that occasionally if I hold down the button on the headset to give voice commands to my iPhone, the Voyager Legend doesn’t always activate Siri. It has only happened a few times and it isn’t enough of a problem to be a big nuisance.

A couple of nice features about the Voyager Legend that I like is that I can answer a call by simply saying “answer” or ignore the call by saying “ignore”. This feature so far has worked flawlessly for me. Also, if you are not wearing the headset when a call comes in, simply putting it on automatically answers the call. That is a nice feature that I’ve found convenient. The battery life is also excellent, as it features 7 hours of talk time. For my usage, I can forget to charge the Voyager Legend for a day or two and still have enough battery life to make it through a third day. The magnetic charger included with the headset is a nice touch, although I don’t find it as secure fitting as say the Apple Magsafe or even the magnetic chargers that came with some older Jawbone models.

Normally the Plantronics Voyager Legend is $99. However, I found it on sale for $79 at Best Buy when I bought it. Regardless $99 is actually a good price for a Bluetooth Headset of this quality, as many comparable models go up to $120 or even $150. Beyond my personal experience, the headset has been well-reviewed by many other sources. So I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it for purchase, especially if one can find a good sale on it. As usual with any Bluetooth headset, make sure you purchase it from a retailer that offers a liberal return policy in case the headset just doesn’t quite work for you.

Are you still ducking the new handsfree laws? What are your favorite handsfree devices?

Holiday Tech Toys 2013

holidaytechtoyIt’s that time of year again! The holiday season means gift-giving and technology gifts are hotter than ever. My Holiday Tech Toys list is in its seventh year and I like to list some of the best tech items to give – or get! But first one quick tip on technology gift buying: do not open any technology gift you give until you give the gift and the recipient is completely sure they want to keep the item. I know some people like to personalize gifts by placing cards or such inside the boxes of gifts, but with most technology gifts, opening them restricts your return options. An unopened tech gift usually can be returned for a full refund or exchange, but opened items are usually subject to a restocking fee. Keeping that in mind, take a look at this year’s Holiday Tech Toys and if you have any questions about holiday tech gifts, please get in contact with me.

iPad_Air_and_iPad_mini_with_retina_displayiPad Air/iPad Mini & iPhone, iPod Touch

The iPad has been one of the hottest tech gifts ever, especially since the iPad Mini was introduced last year. With the upgraded iPad Air and the new iPad Mini with Retina Display, the trend is sure to continue. The iPad Mini makes a great gift for kids since it can be used for educational purposes as well as for fun. However, rumors are that the new iPad Mini with Retina Display will be in short supply this holiday season, so shop early! Alternately, the iPod Touch is like a “mini” iPad mini in case you have a younger person on your gift list who wants an iOS device. Of course the iPhone is still a hot gift, especially with the new iPhone 5C and iPhone 5S models, but make sure you are getting the person exactly what they want.

consoles_2013_gen

Nintendo Wii U, Sony Playstation 4, Microsoft Xbox One

The new 8th generation video game consoles are all ready for purchase just in time for the holidays! If you are buying for someone, make sure you know which platform is their favorite. However, note that the prices are quite different this year. The Nintendo Wii U starts at $299, Sony Playstation 4 $399, and Microsoft Xbox One $499. I’m finding it hard to believe that parents are willing to spend $399, yet alone $499 on a video game console, so I have a feeling that many people will be passing on the more expensive consoles this year until the inevitable price drop that usually occurs. But if you have a hardcore gamer on your gift-giving list and they want one of these consoles, shop early as oftentimes new game consoles are hard to get.

The Nest Learning ThermostatNest Learning Thermostat

I reviewed the Nest Learning Thermostat last year, but it is still a great gift this year because it is an excellent example of a mainstream application of technology – and it can save its users a lot of money. Who wouldn’t want a thermostat that can be controlled from a smartphone even when you’re not home? Plus it “knows” when you leave the house so it can save energy. Read my review of the Next from last year.

the_leap

Leap Motion Controller

The Leap Motion Controller is a little on the techie side, but in the right hands (literally), it could be an excellent gift. The Leap is a small box that sits in front of your monitor and you can then move your hands in the air to control your computer. It may take a while for more apps to be written to take full advantage of the technology, but I believe that the technology of the Leap will have a place in the future of computing. If you have someone on your gift-giving list that is a forward-thinking techie type, check out the Leap. Read my preview of the Leap I wrote last year.

Activity-trackersFitbit, Jawbone Up, Lark

Personal activity and sleep trackers are a growing trend. They integrate with an App on your mobile device and help you keep track of sleep and fitness goals. Plus they have silent vibrating alarm clocks so that you can wake yourself up without disturbing your sleeping partner. The various models of Fitbit, the Jawbone Up, and the Lark are examples of this type of technology. Check them out and buy one for for your sleeping partner – or maybe do them a favor and buy one for yourself!

GoPro & MeCamfull_GoPro_HD_Hero_3_357728

“Action” cameras are getting very popular and no brand epitomizes the category more than GoPro. If you know someone in the market for a video camera, the GoPro is worth looking at if you think they ever want to shoot video from their own perspective or from something like a bike or surfboard. If the GoPro is too far out of your budget, take a look at the MeCam for a less feature-filled but more affordable option. The MeCam isn’t ruggedized or waterproof like the GoPro line of cameras, but they are wearable and are good for more casual uses or maybe for younger children who aren’t going to be doing “extreme” videos.

koomus_black_2_largeKoomus K2 Smartphone Car Mount

With as much as we do with our smartphones in the car, I think having a dashboard or windshield mount is critical. They allow you to have your smartphone in plain sight and easy reach, similar to (but even better than) your car’s radio. The key is finding a good mount that will solidly hold your phone but doesn’t break the bank. After much research I believe I have found a good option that is also a good value. The Koomus K2 is an affordable mount that will securely lock down your smartphone to either your dashboard or windshield and is easy to get your smartphone in and out of. It works with multiple types and sizes of smartphones. I’ve been using mine since I had to get a new mount to fit my iPhone 5S a few months ago. So far, I’ve been very happy with the Koomus K2, although my own car was a bit of a challenge to securely place the mount at first. The Koomus K2 comes in black or white to match your smartphone.

Doorbotimages

It’s about time we had an upgrade to the traditional doorbell. The Doorbot allows you to see who is ringing your doorbell through your smartphone. You don’t even need to be home. Doorbot could be a solution for those who would like a simple way to keep an eye on who is visiting their home without investing in an expensive security camera system.

iMac and MacBook ProApple MacBook, iMac, Mac Mini

For some, a traditional personal computer is still a gift they need to receive. With all the uncertainty about Windows, not to mention the increasingly destructive malware continuing to plague the platform, Apple’s Macintosh computers are probably the safest bet as a quality laptop or desktop gift. Many people aren’t aware that Macintosh computers can run Windows software if necessary, so you aren’t limiting yourself or a gift recipient when buying a Mac – rather you are giving them the most options possible. Plus since Macs are virtually immune to the onslaught of malware, a Mac can pay for itself over time in greatly reduced service calls. The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are Apple’s line of laptops, while the iMac is Apple’s main desktop line. If you’re looking for a Mac on a budget, the Mac Mini can fit the bill nicely. If you are buying a Mac for someone, try to get as much information as possible on which Mac would be best for them and consult with a knowledgeable Mac expert before buying. Also, as I said above, do not open the packaging until the gift recipient is completely sure they want the Mac you purchased them in case you need to return the item.

BT4000__0001_Black_0Etón BoostTurbine 4000

As we become increasingly dependent on our mobile devices, getting caught with a dead battery can be a big problem. There are many models of portable “spare” batteries that can be used to recharge on the go. The problem is that we need to remember to recharge our spare batteries – they do us no good if they are also drained. However, the Etón BoostTurbine 4000 includes a wind-up turbine that we can use in a pinch to give ourselves a few precious percents of battery power. Simple but effective. I now have a way to survive in case of the apocalypse.

Turn an Old iPhone or iPod Touch into a Free Security Camera

presenceSplashIt’s amazing to see just how many old iOS devices people have lying around. The rapid pace of The New World of Technology has relegated  many older iPhones, iPod Touches, and even some iPads to dust-collection status. These devices are often perfectly good but newer devices are just so much faster and offer more features that their owners simply have little need to use their old devices. Selling them is often a pain, so they just sit around unused. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could find a use for your old iDevice and help protect your home or loved ones at the same time? A company called People Power has given you the power to do just that.

People Power has developed a free App called Presence which turns old iDevices into a Wi-Fi video camera that can be viewed from anywhere in the world. Simply install Presence on the devices you want to be used as cameras as well as the devices you would use to view the video feed from. Sign up for an account and log into the account with all your devices. You can then use the App on one device to view the video feeds from the other devices. Since the video feed can be connected from anywhere on the Internet, you can check in on your house anytime and from anyplace you want (assuming you have Internet access, of course). You can also set up motion-detection alerts to inform you when a camera detects motion.

The fact that the Presence App and service are free is nice. But there are some downsides. Obviously, if you don’t have any spare iOS devices, this App doesn’t help you. However, the low price of old iOS devices just might make it worthwhile to buy some for use as video cameras. Also, you will need to find a way to mount the devices and also supply power to them as their batteries will run out quickly. There are options out there that should make doing this simpler, but it does restrict you a bit as to where you can place the iDevice cameras.

Overall, this a good example of putting old technology to good use. So if you have some older iDevices lying around, give the Presence App a try and let me know how it works out for you.

Holiday Tech Toys 2012!

I posted my first Holiday Tech Toys list back in 2007! Feel free to review all my past Holiday Tech Toy articles by clicking on this link. As always, if you have any questions about technology gifts, please feel free to contact me any time!

 

 

 

 

iPad Mini/iPad

iPad and iPad MiniThe iPad will no doubt be a hot gift this year as it has been every year since it was introduced. However, the smaller and lower cost iPad Mini may be the most popular gift of the season, bar none. As I mentioned in my previous article, if the iPad Mini becomes the “iPad for Kids”, the sky is the limit for how many will be sold this holiday season – and into the future.

A few of words of advice: please make sure to buy any Apple product from an authorized Apple dealer. Scams, especially online, are rampant. Apple keeps tight control over what their dealers can sell their products for, so if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Availability will be very tight this holiday season so make up your mind right now if you want to buy an iPad Mini as a gift or otherwise, and start shopping right away to make sure you can find one before December 25th! Finally, if the person you’re shopping for wants an iPad, make sure you buy an actual Apple iPad. A tablet by any other name is just not the same thing!

 

iPhone 5

iPhone/smartphones

I generally don’t recommend that people buy smartphones as gifts. There are just too many options out there to accurately choose a model that another person will really be happy with. The one exception (or the rule, depending on your viewpoint), is the iPhone. If the person you’re buying for has asked for an iPhone, then go ahead and get them an iPhone 5. It’s a much simpler decision than with other smartphones. Otherwise, I recommend buying a gift card so that the person can pick out their own phone. And just as with the iPad, if someone wants an iPhone, get them an iPhone. No other smartphone will do.

 

Wii, Playstation 3, Xbox 360

Video Game Consoles

Video game consoles are still popular gifts and this year Nintendo has released their new “Wii U” console. It is also a hot item this year, so if you want to buy one, plan on doing it sooner than later. The old Wii is also still available, but be careful on buying an old Wii as a gift, unless you are very certain that is exactly what they want.

The next-generation Microsoft XBox and Sony Playstation models are not due until sometime next year, probably around time for the 2013 holidays. That makes buying an XBox 360 or Playstation 3 for this holiday season an iffy proposition. One one hand, getting a year or two of use out of the current console may be a worthwhile investment for some families. On the other, if the recipient is going to want a new console when they are released next year, then maybe it would be worth saving the money to put towards a new console for the next holiday. Of course, this assumes that Sony and Microsoft don’t run into any production delays and actually do ship new consoles next year.

 

Digital Cameras and Accessories

Digital Cameras/Camcorders

If social media has taught us anything, it is that people love to take pictures and videos and share them. Digital cameras and camcorders are popular technology items, but they are difficult to buy as gifts. In the last couple of years, the quality of smartphone cameras has increased to the point where they rival low-end digital cameras and camcorders. So many people are using their smartphones more for the quick pictures and video. Those who want something more advanced are usually going to be fairly particular about what they want. My advice is to purchase a gift card so that those on your gift list can get exactly what they want.

 

 

Apple Gift Cards

iTunes/Apple App Store Gift Card

Apple’s iTunes Store is by far the largest music retailer in the world. Pretty impressive considering the iTunes Store is not quite 10 years old! The reality is that if you want to buy someone music as a gift, an iTunes gift card is a very safe bet. But increasingly iTunes gift cards are being used to buy Apps in the Apple App Stores. As Apple’s iOS devices (iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches) have exploded in popularity, Apps are a hot item. Apple Macintosh owners can also purchase Mac Apps through the Mac App Store, as well as digital books from Apple’s iBook Store.

In addition, the number of kids that are App consumers is booming as well. The reality is that many kids are more interested in low-cost video game Apps on their iOS devices than they are in the much more expensive video games for their Xbox, Playstation, or Wii. Parents certainly like the fact that kids can buy games that only cost a few bucks as compared to $20-$50 per game for the consoles. So considering that one iTunes or App Store gift card can be turned into many different gifts, it is no wonder that Apple gift cards are on almost every kids’ wish list.

Just to be clear, it doesn’t matter if the gift card says “iTunes”, “App Store”, or “iBooks”, they can be used interchangeably. Apple does not distinguish between purchases made on the iTunes Store, the iBook Store, or their iOS or Macintosh App Stores. The gift card credits can be used on any store. You may also want to make your gift recipient aware of that fact.

 

iShower

iShower

One of the most tragic things that can happen to an electronic device is getting wet. Liquid damage is almost always fatal to things like iPods and iPhones. But people want to listen to music from these devices wherever they are at, including poolside or in their bathroom. the iShower is a remote speaker system that is water-resistant. This allows people to keep their devices safely away from water while still streaming music from their device. As the name implies, it can even be used in the shower.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cobra iRadar

iRadar

One of the hot trends in electronic devices is smartphone integration. By integrating a device with a companion App, users can get highly advanced functionality without a highly complicated interface. One of the best examples I’ve seen of this is the iRadar. The iRadar itself is a highly functional radar detector, but with almost no buttons or controls on the device itself. Instead, most of the control and operation of the unit is done through an App that works on iPhone and Android smartphones. As a result, the cost of the iRadar is similar to very inexpensive radar detectors, but the functionality is comparable to much more expensive, top-of-the-line units. If you know someone who has a smartphone and wants a radar detector, the iRadar may be the gift for them.

 

 

BabyPing

BabyPing Monitor

Another example of a smartphone integrated device, the BabyPing Monitor is a video baby monitor that integrates with iPhone or iPads. It allows parents to check on their babies whether they are in the house or not. This may be a great gift for new parents, especially those that have gone back to work and still want to periodically check on their napping kids.

 

 

 

The Nest Learning Thermostat

Nest

The Nest is to thermostats as the iPhone was to cell phones. You can read my previous article on the Nest to find out more details, but simply put, this smart thermostat has the ability to reduce your power bills significantly and it integrates with smartphones and tablets. Note that there is now a 2.0 version of the Nest available and the 1.0 version is $50 cheaper now. Unless you are close to busting your holiday budget, I’d go ahead and buy the 2.0 version if you’re giving one as a gift.

 

 

 

Fitbit One

Fitbit One

The Fitbit One is a device that keeps track of your activity and sleep patters. It also has a vibrating alarm that can wake you up without disturbing your partner. It wirelessly synchronizes with your computer or many smartphones so you can review your data on Fitbit’s dashboard software. You can then share your accomplishments and compete with friends on social media. The Fitbit may be a great gift for the health-conscious on your list.

Tech Toy of the Month: iPad Mini

Black and White iPad MiniI recently answered the question if one should purchase an iPad Mini or stick with a larger iPad model. Read it if you haven’t already to get an idea if the iPad Mini is right for you. That being said, given the huge potential market for the iPad Mini, especially kids, I predict the iPad Mini will be a hot seller for the holidays – and beyond. So let’s take a closer look at this Tech Toy of the Month.

To a large extent, the iPad Mini is exactly what it says it is – a smaller iPad. But Apple went to some lengths to make the iPad Mini a worthy complement to the existing iPad model for those who wanted a smaller device. The most obvious difference between the iPad and other tablets in the 7″ category is that Apple’s screen is almost 8 inches (7.9 to be exact), where other tablet screens in the 7 inch category are in fact closer to 7 inches. By simply looking at a tablet such as the Amazon Kindle HD next to an iPad Mini one can see the difference right away. While both tablets are almost identical in physical size, the iPad Mini’s screen takes up almost the entire surface area, where the Kindle has a lot more bezel around the screen. So for people who wanted a physically smaller tablet, the iPad Mini delivers the 7″ form factor perfectly while offering a more spacious screen and user experience than competitors.

The other most noticeable feature of the iPad Mini is its incredibly thin and light design. For people who wanted a smaller iPad, the fact that it is also thinner and lighter is a welcome bonus. Additionally, even though the iPad is physically smaller, which means there is less room for a battery, the iPad Mini still gets 10 hours of battery life, just like its bigger sibling. Finally, all 275,000 existing iPad apps work without modification, and of course, existing iPhone apps work in pixel-doubled mode, just like in the bigger iPad.

I mentioned in my last article that the iPad Mini does not have a Retina display like the third and fourth-generation larger iPads. I also mentioned that I didn’t think it would make a difference for most people. Now that I’ve had a chance to review an iPad Mini personally, I stick with that assessment. One possible exception may be for reading eBooks. I can tell that there is a little fuzziness around the text that is not present on a Retina iPad. To reiterate, for most people the lower resolution will not be an issue. Only those people who are going to do a lot of eBook reading and want the sharpest possible text will notice that the Retina display is better for them.

Overall, the iPad Mini is representative of the attention to detail and high-quality design of all Apple products. While a little more expensive than some other 7″ tablets, it is significantly less expensive than the larger iPads. This lower price point for a real iPad will probably be enough for people who wanted a less expensive iPad to make the purchase. The lower price also makes the iPad Mini a lot more reasonable for parents to purchase for their children, especially since the iPad is being used more and more for educational purposes. This extremely large market should make the iPad Mini a hot seller, so don’t wait too late to purchase one if you want to give it as a gift.

Tech Toy of the Month: iPhone 5

The iPhone 5In case you’ve been living under a rock, Apple released the iPhone 5 on September 21st. As with any iPhone release, there is a lot of excitement and hype surrounding the latest release from Apple. To this point, the iPhone 5 is smashing sales records. So is the iPhone 5 right for you?

The iPhone 5 has several minor and a few major changes from the previous model, the iPhone 4S:

  • Overall, almost everything in the new iPhone is faster than the previous generation iPhones. If you have a iPhone 4 or older phone, you will immediately notice the difference. iPhone 4S users will not notice as big of a change, but it will feel snappier overall.
  • There are incremental improvements to the cameras and battery life. Apple has also included their new “EarPod” headphones, which are much more comfortable than previous Apple headphones.
  • The iPhone 5 is a full ounce lighter than the iPhone 4s. This may not seem like a lot, but it is definitely noticeable. When you first pick up an iPhone 5, you may think you’ve picked up a cardboard mock-up!
  • The iPhone 5 is the first iPhone to include 4G LTE data networking. LTE is the fastest 4G cellular networking available on the market, and in areas that have 4G LTE availability, it can make a big difference in data speeds for your phone. But note that not all areas have extensive 4G LTE and it varies from carrier to carrier. This is true with all phones from any manufacturer, but I thought it was worth mentioning here.
  • The most noticeable difference with the iPhone 5 is the larger screen. Instead of just making a larger screen overall, Apple chose to keep the same width while increasing the height. Apple claims that by keeping the width the same, they keep the phone manageable in the hand.
  • There are also many improvements in the iPhone 5 that are attributable to the new iOS 6 operating system. However, many of those improvements are also available to prior iPhones. In fact, virtually every new feature that iOS 6 brings to the iPhone 5 is available to the iPhone 4S. However, the iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS, while capable of upgrading to iOS 6, do not get all the new features.

So what is the bottom line? Should you purchase an iPhone 5?

  • If you own an iPhone and have an upgrade available to you, the iPhone 5 is definitely a worthwhile upgrade.
  • If you own an iPhone 4S the answer comes down to cost, as most iPhone 4S owners do not have an upgrade available. If having LTE speeds is very important to you and/or the increased screen size really interests you, then you must decide if the full price of an iPhone is worth it. The good news is that you may be able to sell your iPhone 4S for a price that will help pay much of the cost of a new iPhone 5.
  • BlackBerry owners who have been holding on should definitely switch to an iPhone now. The BlackBerry platform is all but dead. It’s time to let go and move on.
  • Owners of Android or Windows phones who are not satisfied and looking to upgrade to an iPhone have no reason to wait any longer. The iPhone 5 compares favorably against any current Android or Windows phone, and with the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming Windows 8 phones, it  would be wise to let that platform prove itself before committing.

Tech Toy of the Month: The Leap 3D Motion Sensor

Make sure you read this article in its entirety and view the videos I link to. This technology has huge promise and you should all be aware of it now. Imagine being able to control your computer by waving your hands and fingers out in front of your computer screen. Sounds like something out of the movies, doesn’t it? Until now, that was true. But starting early next year, a company is promising to ship a device that will do exactly that.

“The Leap” by the company Leap Motion, is a 3D motion sensing device about the size of flash drive that plugs into nearly any computer with a USB port. Once connected, The Leap will allow a user to control their computer using motions of their hands and fingers. The Leap is sensitive enough to detect individual fingers and track movements down to 1/100th of a millimeter. But words don’t really do The Leap justice. It needs to be seen to be fully understood. Luckily, Leap Motion has a nice introductory video that does just that. Plus I also found another demo video that shows The Leap in action.

So take a look and let me know what you think. How do you think you’d make use of The Leap?

Tech Toy of the Month: Kanex ATV Pro

Kanex ATV ProThe iPad is becoming an increasingly popular device to give presentations with. When combined with the small, lightweight Apple TV plus an HDTV, the iPad is an excellent tool for Powerpoint or Keynote presentations. By wirelessly transmitting the presentation from the iPad to the Apple TV, it simplifies the setup of a presentation as compared to using laptop. However, most venues still make use of projectors and most projectors use the analog VGA connector rather than the HDMI connector that the Apple TV uses to connect to an HDTV. That has limited the ability of many people to use their iPads for presentations. However, now a new inexpensive adapter allows the use of the Apple TV with standard projectors.

The Kanex ATV Pro is an HDMI to VGA adpater designed to allow the Apple TV (or any device with an HDMI port) to connect to a projector (or any device with a VGA port). The device is extremely simple. It requires no external power adapter, software, or configuration. By using the Kanex ATV Pro, the Apple TV can connect to virtually any projector. Through the use of AirPlay technology, the iPad – or iPhones or newer Macs running the new 10.8 Mountain Lion operating system – can wirelessly transmit presentations, photos, video and/or audio through to a projector. The need to have a laptop nearby the projector is eliminated. This could allow churches and other venues where the projector is mounted high on a ceiling to take advantage of iPad presentations.

If all that wasn’t good enough, the Kanex ATV Pro is only $59. Previous digital-to-analog adapters have been much more expensive. While the device is fairly new, reviews so far are favorable and the Kanex brand has generally marketed good products before. So if you have wished you could connect an Apple TV to a projector, this may be the device you have been wishing for.

Tech Toy of the Month: Nest Learning Thermostat

The Nest Learning ThermostatEvery so often I see a new technology product that makes me stop and take notice. This month’s Tech Toy is one of those products. It’s an idea that whose time has finally come and actually gives a tangible benefit to those who use it. Plus it is extremely simple to setup and use and it does most of the work for you. I really think this product is the first of its kind and we will soon see devices like this in almost every home. We’ve seen “smart” thermostats before, but you’ve not seen anything like the Nest Learning Thermostat.

Simply put, the Nest is a thermostat that learns your household’s lifestyle so that it can save you energy – and money. Additionally, the Nest uses wireless networking so that you can monitor or control your Nest and your home’s temperature from anywhere – whether you’re in just in another room or around the world. Finally, the Nest allows you to review your home’s energy usage so you can understand how to further optimize your energy usage.

The Nest learns your household’s lifestyle through the use of various sensors. Using this data, the Nest knows when you are not home and will not run your furnace or air conditioning when you are not there. Additionally the Nest learns your family’s schedule to proactively adjust energy usage. The idea is simple: if you are not home, there is no point in using energy to control the temperature. Note that there are settings for “away” and “safety” temperatures where the Nest will kick in to keep the house within a reasonable range while you are gone, so you don’t need to worry about your home going into extreme temperatures. Nest claims that 50% of your energy bill is controlled by your thermostat. And the EPA says that a properly programmed thermostat can cut 20% off your heating and cooling bill. Since the Nest can automatically learn your schedule and can automatically adjust when you’re not home, the Nest should be able to create significant savings for most homes.

Energy savings is the key feature of the Nest, but almost as important is the ability to remotely monitor and control your home’s temperature. We’ve seen thermostats before that allowed some level of remote control ability, but they were generally very expensive and complicated to setup and maintain. Because the Nest uses standard Wi-Fi to get networked, integration into your home’s network is easy. And combined with the use of the Nest apps for smartphone and tablets, remotely monitoring and controlling the Nest thermostat is just as easy. Imagine knowing what the temperature is at your home and being able to adjust your thermostat from anywhere in the world. Well stop imagining because the future is already here with the Nest!

Finally, if you are at all concerned about your home’s energy usage, you probably are interested in knowing exactly when your furnace or A/C is running. Previously, this information was almost impossible to get. But the Nest keeps track of exactly when your HVAC system is running. Using this information, you can see reports that detail exactly when your system was running, and cross-reference that with the weather report for your area during that time. For the energy geeks in us, this is highly useful information.

As I mentioned, I was so impressed with the Nest when I first found out about it, that I purchased one for my own use right away. Physical installation was as simple as replacing my existing thermostat with the Nest. With the detailed instructions provided, as well as the instructional videos available on-line, I think most people would be handy enough to install a Nest themselves. But if not, it should not cost very much for a professional to install a Nest. The setup of the Nest was very easy as well and I’ve been keeping track of the Nest’s operation for about two months now. The operation of the Nest is very simple and I am able to see exactly when our system is running. Since I bought it in spring, I will need to watch our bills during the summer to get a real estimate of how well the Nest is saving us money, but I already have a feeling that the Nest is making some difference, especially on those days when we are not home a lot.

When I first found out about the Nest earlier this year, it was still in early distribution and was only available to those who specifically requested one directly from the Nest company. Now the Nest is in full distribution and available online to anyone, but Nest just recently completed a deal with Lowe’s to carry them in their stores, so picking one up can be as simple as driving down to your local home improvement company. At $249, it may not be your father’s thermostat, but with the rising cost of energy, it is likely the Nest will pay for itself many times over.

If you have any questions about the Nest or any other technologies, please do not hesitate to contact me and I’ll be happy to offer my advice!