A holiday gift wish list for 2020

Article By : Brian Dipert

This year’s holiday shopping list for engineers has a distinct home-based vibe to it, "thanks" to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the year we’ll probably all look forward to viewing in our rear-view mirrors draws to a close, the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in many parts of the world with an accelerating impact on public health, the economy, and myriad other factors. Granted, recent days’ news regarding vaccine breakthroughs and emergency use authorizations is encouraging for the (hopefully near) future, but it’ll still be many months before any sense of past normalcy returns, if ever.

Whether your year-end holiday of choice is Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanza, or Festivus, the continued pandemic grip means that you’ll probably (and, if I might add, hopefully, if you’re acting responsibly toward those around you, including overwhelmed and exhausted health care workers, not to mention yourself) be celebrating it quite differently in 2020. Face-to-face office parties won’t happen this year (yay!), for example, replaced in some cases by virtual get-togethers (boo!). And the kids probably won’t be sitting on Santa’s lap this year (waa!), although Zoom and its fellow videoconferencing services come through once again (ugh).

This year’s holiday shopping list for engineers, in contrast to past years’ editions, therefore has a distinct home-based vibe to it. Might as well embrace reality, eh? I’ll still try to make my suggestions for presents you can buy yourself or for others’ fun. And as always, I welcome your feedback and other ideas in the comments.

Enhance your office

If you’re going to spend all those hours working in your converted guest bedroom instead of the cubicle across town (An upgrade transition? Inquiring minds want to know.), you might as well transform it into a space that’s comfortable, personalized to your tastes, and effective. I’ve worked from home for over a quarter-century at this point, so I long ago learned the benefit of surrounding myself with lots of live green plants, along with countless numbers of Baby Yoda toys and other tchotchkes (my stuffed Jerry Garcia doll is a personal favorite).

And since you’re going to be on Zoom, and its virtual-meeting counterparts, a lot, you might as well present yourself both audibly and visibly in the best possible light. Speaking of which, a diffused ring light in front of you is a great idea. Back in May, I bought a Flashpoint 13” vlogger light for $39 from Adorama:

photo of the Flashpoint 13" vlogger ring lightSource: Adorama

After I tacked on the $23.99 desk stand, $12.95 filter set, and $19.95 camera mount, none of which were included with the ring light from the get-go, it ended up not being quite as good a deal as it seemed at first glance. I later also picked up a bigger and more accessory-inclusive one, the Neewer 18-inch outer dimmable SMD LED ring light kit, for $79.99 from Amazon (hey, I do a lot of online events in my day job):

photo of the contents of the Neewer LED right light kitSource: Neewer

In general, as with other home office accessories I’ll cover in this section, availability remains scarce and prices remain high, especially for quality gear. In a pinch, you can always leverage the ring light around the periphery of a makeup mirror, just don’t get caught up in staring at your reflection peering back at you instead of the webcam you’re supposed to be looking at.

Speaking of which, fair warning, if you go shopping for webcams, you’re going to come across a lot of junk: lousy optics, poor low-light performance, software-interpolated VGA (or lower) resolution sensors inside cameras claimed to be “high-def,” etc. Logitech’s webcams are top-notch, but nearly a year after the pandemic’s effects were first felt in the marketplace, it’s still hard to find one at all, far from on sale or even at original MSRP (versus a ridiculous markup).

There is one “Logitech knockoff” that I can recommend, however. It’s Aukey’s FHD, with 1080p resolution and a built-in dual-microphone array useful for background noise suppression. A relative bargain even at its normal $59.99 price tag, I saw it marked down to $29 and it’s back on sale now. I’ve personally bought two of them, one for me and another for my uncle:

photo of the Aukey FHD webcamSource: Aukey

It’s increasingly common for folks on webcams to use the “virtual background” capabilities built into Zoom and its brethren, both to hide the clutter behind them and to personalize their online personas (one of my personal favorites is Pee Wee’s Playhouse). Unfortunately, unless you use them in combination with a physical green screen mounted to the back of your chair, they don’t work very well. Nobody will be paying attention to you, instead they’ll be watching for the next time your ear disappears or your arm transforms into part of Pee Wee’s chair (there’s a lesson here regarding computer vision algorithms that work well in the lab but not so well in real life, I think). My green screen comes from a company called The Webaround; I have the $75 Big Shot model, and they also used to sell the wider, get this, Wide Shot, but it was out of stock when I placed my order and has apparently been subsequently discontinued.

photo of the Webaround Big Shot green screen attached to a chairSource: Webaround

Last but not least, let’s talk about sound. From my experience dealing with lots of guest presenters at lots of online events over the past nine months, relying solely on the microphone and speakers built into a computer is a sooner-or-later recipe for failure. Eventually, the acoustic echo cancellation algorithm built into the device’s sound software stack and/or that of the conferencing application in use will fail, leading to an annoying, never-ending feedback loop that the originator may not even realize is occurring.

You can “solve” the feedback problem by using a set of headphones instead of the built-in speakers, thereby eliminating the possibility for a feedback loop scenario, but some folks resist the “look” of being on-screen with something stuck on or in their ears. One other option is to instead upgrade your microphone setup to an external alternative. Lots of options exist; the various models from Blue are some of the better known. I’ve got a Snowball (along with a “pop” filter), shown below, with the Yeti an upgraded alternative.

photo of the Blue snowball microphoneSource: Blue

An external mic diminishes the possibility of a feedback loop, because the microphone element is closer to and pointed at the speaker’s mouth and the pickup pattern is usually also directional. But it doesn’t completely eliminate the potential for feedback, and it’ll also (as with a computer’s built-in microphone) inevitably also pick up any egregious background noise.

I’m therefore personally prone to prefer a headset. Bluetooth models like Apple’s popular AirPods are generally fine, as long as the batteries are fully charged and will last through an entire day’s calls, but they’re also vulnerable to RF interference from Wi-Fi, microwave ovens, and other transmitters in the 2.4 GHz ISM band. I therefore generally rely on wired headsets instead, specifically digital interface ones (USB, most commonly) that bypass the computer’s often-inferior ADC and DAC stages. Currently, Woot! has some models from highly-regarded supplier Jabra on sale, which I picked up for “spare” inventory purposes; shown here, for example, is the mono variant of the high-end Jabra 2400:

photo of the Jabra 2400 headsetSource: Jabra

Speaking of Logitech, their various business-styled models are also quite good; I’m currently rocking a fairly geriatric set that, in re-looking at it now, I just realized also has Jabra branding on it; interesting. And speaking of business-styled models, while you could also use a gaming headset, I daresay that their bulbous dimensions and garish color schemes (sometimes even complete with blinking lights) might not impress your colleagues and customers.

Learn a new skill

Since you’re not commuting roundtrip to the office each day, you (at least theoretically) have some extra time on your hands. Why not use it to pick up some added profession proficiency? Deep learning is all the rage, for example, as any of you who follow fine technology news sources already know, and to learn about it for yourself you’ll need both software and hardware to run it on. To the latter point, the 2 GByte variant of NVIDIA’s Jetson Nano Developer Kit is only a smidge over $50; Google’s Coral prototyping hardware family starts at around the same price. And of course, as my recent Google AIY Kits writeup notes, Raspberry Pi boards (in some cases accompanied by dedicated-function accelerators) are perfectly-appropriate options, as well, with the Raspberry Pi 4 being the latest high-end option:

Source: Raspberry Pi Foundation

And if taking apart hardware (and maybe even fixing it, if it’s already broken pre-dissection) is your thing, I’ll reiterate a longstanding recommendation to check out iFixit’s various toolkits. Regular readers already know, for example, that I often employ my 64-bit Driver Kit (now referred to as the Mako) in my teardowns; while iFixit’s Black Friday sale is now over, there’s still plenty to tantalize your wallet on the company’s website.

Pick up a new hobby

That “extra time on your hands” can also be harnessed for personal-interest pursuits, of course. Inside dining is currently forbidden at restaurants in many parts of the United States, for example, with eating outside an uncomfortable-at-best alternative proposition this time of year at locales such as chilly, snowy Colorado, where I reside. Picking up food-to-go is time consuming (although I’d still encourage you to do it sometimes to support your favorite eating establishments in these fiscally-challenging times), and delivery services are expensive.

Instead, try making your own dishes from grocery store-sourced raw ingredients! Since picking up my sous vide circulator a couple of years ago, I flat-out refuse to “do” steak the “usual” way anymore (though I still briefly fire up the grill for a last-step sear); the sous vide approach results in beef slabs that are thoroughly cooked (medium rare for me) but still very tender. Anova is a well-known brand name in this particular space and The Wirecutter likes their products. My needs are simpler, Bluetooth connectivity would be a nice-to-have but isn’t an essential, so my more economical and tried-and-true Wancle works fine for me:

photo of the Wancle sous vide cookerSource: Wancle

Speaking of meat (and other things), what about a smoker? My first stab at this concept a few years ago was a Kamado-style charcoal-based unit; the various Big Green Egg models are highly-rated but expensive, so I went with a knockoff from Char-Griller. Turns out, I just didn’t have the fortitude to keep fine-tuning the various vents so the insides didn’t get too hot or too cold (I sound like Goldilocks!); I ended up giving it to an apparently more patient friend, who happily uses it to this day. Instead, I went with a wood pellet-based model from Traeger, which automatically manages the temperature (no, mine’s not Wi-Fi-augmented):

photo of the Traeger wood pellet grillSource: Traeger

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably already aware of the mind-numbing variety of multicookers from Instant Pot (the “10,000 pound gorilla” in this particular product space) and its competitors. We own one and have admittedly only scratched the surface of its capabilities to date, although my wife was able to cook a completely frozen hunk of chicken breasts in less than an hour the other night, so that’s something! The Instant Pot Duo Nova 8-Qt 7-in-1 is currently on sale for $59.99, if you’re interested.

Finally, let’s talk bread. There’s a reason why grocery stores often have “runs” on flour, sugar, yeast, and the like; everyone’s cooking loaves at home! I haven’t yet taken the sourdough plunge, nor do I use “old school” (or, if you prefer, “traditional”) baking pans. Instead I’m using (and have long used, actually) an ancient Breadman TR2200C breadmaking machine that I bought barely-used at a garage sale a decade-plus ago. The Wirecutter has recommendations on more-modern models.

Reach out, virtually

If you can’t have face-to-face holiday get-togethers with friends and family members, a virtual party is the next best thing I guess (beggars can’t be choosers, as the saying goes, right?). I’ll cut to the chase upfront; if your fellow partiers insist on interacting over FaceTime, you’re going to have to break down and get an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Mac computer if you want to join in the fun. Fortunately, those particular platforms also support the other common services you’ll likely be picking from; Zoom, WebEx, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Amazon’s video calling facilities, BlueJeans, GoToMeeting, and Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp are some that come to immediate mind. And if you can talk them out of FaceTime, other hardware options emerge; Windows- and Linux-based computers, and Android tablets (including Amazon’s Android-based Fire Tablets) and smartphones, for example.

What about folks who aren’t tech-savvy enough to run computers, tablets, or smartphones? That’s where more dedicated-function smart displays come in (including Amazon’s Fire Tablets in Show Mode, I might add), such as those I wrote about back in June (and one that I subsequently tore down in October):

Some encouraging recent news here, by the way: by the time you read this, all three major platforms (Facebook’s Portal, Amazon’s Echo Show, and Google’s Nest Hub Max) should have support up and running for Zoom in addition to their own proprietary videoconferencing services. Zoom’s market might makes right, I guess!

Turn on, tune in, and drop out

And sometimes you just want to unplug your brain and passively soak up that streaming TV series that you never had time to watch before, right? I’ve talked a lot about (and own a lot of, and even took apart) various Roku media players over the years; more recently, I also dissected one of Amazon’s competitive “sticks.” An even more recent entrant is Google’s Chromecast; some of you might be understandably confused at this point. Didn’t I do a teardown on the first-generation Chromecast more than five years ago, with hands-on analysis a year earlier? Why yes, but this time Google’s concocted its first standalone media player, versus a unit that solely acts as a receiver for streams initiated elsewhere, therefore the “with Google TV” qualifier; Google TV being a slick “skin” that runs on top of the Android TV operating system.

photo of the Google Chromecast media playerSource: Google

I just got one of these widgets, and so far it’s running great (and replacing a first-generation Roku Express 3700 that was molasses-slow). Support for Comcast’s Xfinity Stream app is notably absent, but since it also acts as a stream receiver like its Chromecast predecessors, I can always “beam” this content to it from a smartphone or tablet instead. Stadia gaming support isn’t yet in place (for that you’ll still need to get a Chromecast Ultra, now only available as part of the Premiere Edition package), although Google’s promising Stadia cognizance by mid-2021. And although the Chromecast with Google TV normally costs $49.99, I paid $89.99 for mine. Why? That’s because mine was bundled with six-ish months of Netflix Standard plan streaming. I say six-ish because what got credited to my Netflix account was a fixed amount that became less than six months’ service after Netflix subsequently announced a price increase in late October. Still, $40 for five-plus months of Netflix isn’t a bad deal!

Food for additional thought

There’s plenty of additional home-based stuff I was originally planning on including in this writeup, exercise equipment, gaming consoles, LAN hardware, and streaming music receivers, for example. But I’m passing through 2,500 cumulative words as I type this, and I’ve probably put many of you to sleep already (with visions of sugar-plums dancing in your heads, of course). So I’ll sign off for now. Share your thoughts in the comments and happy holidays, everyone (with one exception, bah humbug to COVID)!

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