Once again, 'tis the season for buying consumer tech to subsequently gift to others, as well as for yourself.
Once again, ’tis the season for buying widgets to gift to others, as well as for yourself of course. Therefore, please enjoy the following present suggestions, presented in no particular order save for how they streamed out of my noggin.
DealNews and Techbargains are both good ongoing sources of announcements on deals. And for regularly-updated comparative product reviews and recommendations, check out the Wirecutter (I have no affiliation with, nor gain any personal benefit from, any of these website suggestions, to be clear. I’m just a satisfied longstanding user of all of them).
Navigate through and let us know if you have any wishes or suggestions to share with your fellow engineers in the comments below.
- Developer and hobbyist computer boards
- Cable modems & mesh networking
- Smart assistants & security systems
- Tool kit
- Wireless headphones
- Streaming music and multimedia
- High-capacity external HDD
- SSD (and RAM) upgrade
- Sleep monitoring system
- Lego Saturn V rocket
General-purpose developer and hobbyist computer boards
Hear the words “Raspberry Pi” and I suspect that many of you, like me, will think first of the popular line of economical, powerful single-board computers, not of a popular pastry confectionary. The latest-generation Raspberry Pi 4 (shown above) substantially ups the performance ante versus its predecessors, and now comes in integrated DRAM capacities up to 4 GBytes, with associated pricing ranging from $35 to $55. Just be careful how you power it, not to mention keep it cool, especially if you try to overclock it.
AI developer and hobbyist computer boards
Deep learning (in case you’ve been living in a cave for the past couple of years) is the latest “hot thing” for developing image, audio, and various other data matching algorithms. Instead of tediously hand-coding functions that may or may not adequately cover all necessary corner cases and/or evolving data patterns, simply throw a bunch of already-labeled data at a training routine, then use the resultant model to subsequently infer new data (along with iteratively augmenting the training as needed to further bolster the model’s coverage and accuracy).
Fortunately, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to get up to speed skill-set-wise. Any of NVIDIA’s latest-few-generation CUDA-enabled GPUs, coupled with a modern CPU, can create a robust PC-based training platform for frameworks such as legacy Caffe (now supplanted by the PyTorch successor) or TensorFlow. With respect to inference, $100-or-so developer hardware options include Google’s Coral, Intel’s Neural Compute Stick 2, and NVIDIA’s Jetson Nano (shown above). And speaking of Intel, if object and environment analysis is your thing, you should also check out the company’s RealSense series of depth cameras.
Regular readers of both my Brian’s Brain column and teardowns have likely noticed the frequent appearance of late of content related to smartwatches, fitness bands, and the like. My regular coverage is for good reason, I’d argue; they represent what many analysts believe to be one of the notable high-growth potential areas of the overall tech sector in the coming years. And thanks to growing competition from an increasing number of suppliers (and product variants coming from them), putting a capable widget on your wrist is an increasingly affordable aspiration.
iPhone (but not iPad, not compatible, sorry) owners have been bombarded by Apple Watch promotions (along with, to be fair, generational improvements) ever since the company first announced the product line in the spring of 2015. Google and its partners offer the Android Wear ecosystem, too, but in the ongoing absence of a capable smartwatch processor, I can’t in good faith recommend it (even though I tried for years to use it). Instead, for iOS and Android handset users alike, I’d suggest a third-party look-see.
Fitbit’s (in the process of being acquired by Google, ironically) smartwatches are so far hit-and-miss, but the company’s lower-cost fitness trackers remain popular. And then there’s Garmin … the larger-bezel version of the dressy-and-robust fēnix 5 I recently wrote about (and precursor to the fēnix 5 Plus I recently tore apart) was recently on sale for $299.99. For fiscally conscious fitness buffs, there’s also the company’s Forerunner 235 (shown above) that was recently promo-priced at $149.99 (55% off the MSRP).
Instead of your present recipients continuing to pay their cable ISPs $10 or more per month for rental modems they’ll never own, gift them with modems they’ll possess outright from day one. ARRIS (aka Motorola) and NETGEAR are two commonly-referenced brands; capable DOCSIS 3.0 cable modems are regularly priced at well under $100, with DOCSIS 3.1 successors selling for only slightly more than that same threshold. And while I might not necessarily recommend gifting a refurb to someone else, a NETGEAR CM500 (shown above) for less than $30 sounds like a perfect present to self (I know this from personal experience).
While renting a modem from an ISP (cable, DSL, or fiber) is a bad idea, renting an integrated modem-plus-router is even less wise, fiscally, functionally (though you may have no choice, alas, if your gift recipients also get their VoIP telephone, security, or other services from that same ISP), or otherwise. Renting a router means they’ll be locked into trailing-edge networking technology in multiple meanings of the term … wired Ethernet bandwidth, Wi-Fi standards support, coverage, etc.
Instead, buy them their own router. And better yet, make it a mesh setup. Exemplifying “First World problems,” and caused by factors such as “chicken wire” in walls, tile and glass surfaces, metal appliances, large homes, and other spectrum-contending broadcasters such as cordless phones and baby monitors, a single router is rarely sufficient to cover an entire residence. Mesh setups like Google’s latest well-reviewed and three-color-option Nest WiFi system (shown above) deliver high transfer rates, low latency, and seamless hand-offs from one access point to the other as mobile devices and their users move around the home.
Another frequently-discussed topic in my blog is the voice-controlled “smart assistant,” of which Amazon’s Echo (shown above) and Google/Nest’s Home product lines are the best-known examples (and which analysts also point to as a likely high-growth tech product segment going forward). Spurred on by my family’s longstanding Amazon Prime subscription, we’ve now got more Echos than I care to admit scattered around the house, in various shapes and sizes and regularly delivering music, weather, trivia answers, and the like to our ears, along with timing our meal preparations. Google’s Nest Home devices are comparably capable, as far as I can tell from reviews. And if you don’t mind an always-watching camera, there’s Facebook’s Portal product line, too … personally, to be honest, I’ll pass on that option.
Security camera system
I recently concluded a series of both blog posts and teardowns on the Blink (indoor) and Blink XT (outdoor, shown above) camera system now installed at my house. More generally, I’ve revisited the consumer security camera topic many times over the years. Each time I do, I’m struck by the technology advancements versus the time before, as exemplified by measures such as:
- Affordability: less than $150 for a two-camera-plus-control-module kit is hard to beat!
- Power consumption: my cameras have been running for more than six months on their original two-AA-lithium battery sets and are still going strong.
- Ease of installation and use: those same battery sources mean I don’t need to worry about AC proximity.
- Network bandwidth: the common control module means they aren’t always broadcasting, therefore gobbling up precious LAN and WAN bandwidth.
The outdoor Blink XT has been superseded by the speaker-inclusive XT2, while the indoor Blink is still available for sale. Amazon now owns Blink as well as Ring, and also sells cameras under its own brand name. Other common offerings come from companies such as Google (Nest), NETGEAR (Arlo), and Wyze.
Speaking of teardowns, I’ve always been fond of the quote, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” It’s not (if not already obvious to you) an optimistic aphorism … instead, it suggests that if you don’t use the right tool for the job, the outcome of your project is not likely to be positive. And to that end, here’s something else I’ve also always been fond of (and regularly mention in my teardowns): iFixit’s line of tool kits. The 64-bit Driver Kit I often write about, for example, is apparently now branded as the $29.99 “Mako Driver Kit” (shown above), and is also available refurbished for $3 less.
I still think Apple (followed quickly by its Android-based competitors, in full disclosure) was misguided in eliminating the 3.5mm (1/8″) headphone jack from its smartphones beginning with the iPhone 7 generation. But I can’t deny that dispensing with the wired tether between device and headset is liberating, at least until the headset batteries die, that is. Thankfully, many Bluetooth headphone form factors and models still offer a wired connectivity choice as a backup option.
Initial product attempts at wireless earbuds weren’t completely wireless … while they dispensed with the connection to the smartphone, tablet, or multimedia playback widget, they were still tethered to each other in order to eliminate ear-to-ear audio output latency, allow for the incorporation of a shared microphone or battery, etc. Apple’s AirPods (latest-generation “Pro” model incorporating active noise cancellation shown above) weren’t the first truly wireless earbuds, but as anyone walking down the street and observing all of the “Q-tips” stuck in ears can attest, they quickly became the most popular option in the category.
They’ve been joined by a rapidly expanding list of other suppliers and products, as the entire segment benefits from longer battery life, fewer “dropouts,” and lower prices. For runners and other active-lifestyle folks, clip-inclusive devices such as Beats’ (Apple’s) Powerbeats Pro provide more secure attachments to ears, resisting both jostling and sweating. And conversely, if your gift recipients’ listening habits are more sedentary, lots of traditional on-ear and over-ear form factor headsets are also offered.
Streaming music subscription
I earlier mentioned that my family’s Amazon Prime account was also a primary motivation to invest in a bunch of Echo smart assistants. Specifically, this is because along with Prime, we’ve also taken the plunge into Amazon’s Music Unlimited subscription service … the family plan, in fact, so we can be simultaneously listening to different tunes on different devices in different areas of the house. Subscription music is something I’ve long dabbled with, as regular readers may recall, all the way back to Yahoo’s now-defunct Music Unlimited more than a decade ago.
Although I still have more CDs than I care to admit, both at my fingertips and ripped to my iPod, unless I’m offline I almost always call up a nearby Echo, smartphone, or tablet instead … not only for music not already in my library, but more generally due to the convenience aspect. That I don’t actually “own” the music (even with CDs, strictly speaking, I didn’t own it either … only a perpetual listening license to it) frankly doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Spotify is another popular subscription music option, as are Google’s YouTube Music and Apple Music. Audiophile friends might prefer TIDAL. And for more of a “radio” experience, try Pandora or Sirius XM … both of which we admittedly subscribe to, as well. What can I say; we love our music at the Dipert household!
After your friends and family members have cut out their cable companies’ ongoing modem rental revenues, they might want to more completely “cut the cord” and drop the television portion of the subscription, too, in favor of an OTT (over-the-top) ISP-delivered alternative service (the same cord-cutting concept applies, of course, with satellite, fiber, and other traditional TV service providers). To do so, they’ll need a streaming “box” that supports the OTT service(s) they’re interested in, along with a fast-enough broadband “pipe.” Filling the former requirement are both standalone and HDMI-inclusive “stick” devices from companies like Roku (shown above), Amazon (the Fire TV lineup), and the Apple TV.
High-capacity external HDD
In a world filled with impermanence, there are only a few certainties in life … death, taxes, and that your computer’s hard drive or SSD will eventually fail. That reality rationalizes this particular present recommendation, specifically for use as a periodic backup device. Windows 10 has built-in backup facilities (Genie9’s software products are effective, in my personal experience, with prior-generation Microsoft operating systems) and MacOS has provided the slick Time Machine iterative backup feature since 2007.
Many of your gift recipients, of course, will live in homes containing multiple computers. They could always regularly sneakernet a really big external HDD around from one computer to another, of course …. the 12GB WD Easystore model shown here was recently on sale for $179.99, for example. Alternatively, you could get them a network-shared NAS … but brace yourself for potential ongoing IT responsibilities if you go down this more convenient and otherwise robust but also more complicated-setup alternate route.
SSD (and RAM) upgrade
My nephew’s 2011 13″ MacBook Pro is still going strong, functionally at least, but incremental operating system and application updates over the years have slowed its performance to a crawl. He cringes at the idea of dropping several thousand dollars on a brand new replacement laptop, and I don’t blame him. Instead, I recommended (as I’ve done many times myself) that he spend less than $100 on a much larger, faster SSD to replace the slow, small HDD currently in the system (the ADATA SU800 shown is a good choice, although firmware updates aren’t exactly straightforward), along with less than $10 for a USB-to-SATA adapter, and some disk cloning software (Carbon Copy Cloner and SuperDuper! are both good bets).
If your gift recipients’ systems run Windows, an SSD upgrade will benefit them, too; I’ve frequently used the Free edition of Macrium Reflect to clone HDDs in the past with great success. SSD swaps aren’t just for laptops, either, although you might also need to spring for an inexpensive 2.5″ to 3.5″ drive adapter in order to upgrade a desktop computer. And while they’ve got the enclosure cracked open, you might want to consider gifting them a DRAM upgrade, too … a pair of 8 GByte memory “sticks” should cost around $50-75, depending on brand and specific technology-and-speed. Just, as I said earlier, prepare yourself as part of the gift to actively assist with the upgrade, as well.
Sleep monitoring system
As I recently wrote about in some detail, learning that I suffered from severe sleep apnea and rectifying the issue by means of a CPAP machine have been godsends for my wellbeing. I’d been completely oblivious to my condition, blaming my afternoon tiredness on advancing age, and was only tipped off to the root cause when my physician noticed an abnormally high red blood cell count (reflective of my body’s compensation for poor oxygen intake overnight) during a yearly physical.
While a dedicated sleep-monitoring system might deliver the most accurate results, a pricey present that gets used once or a few times and then put on the shelf might not be terribly appealing to recipients. Instead, look for one of the earlier-mentioned smartwatches or a lower-cost fitness band (such as the Fitbit Inspire HR shown above) that tracks pulse rate and also has enough “smarts” to accurately differentiate between various sleep states. Armed with this information, your gift recipients will likely get enough of a tip-off if something’s awry … at that point, it’s up to them to see the doctor for the next level of analysis and resolution.
Lego Saturn V rocket
Last, but definitely not least, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. It also marks the 52nd anniversary (today, actually, as I’m writing this) of Apollo 4, the first successful launch of the Saturn V rocket that formed the foundation of the entire Apollo program. What better way to mark the momentous occasion than by buying yourself … err, friends and family … a detailed Lego scale model (shown above) to put in your …err, their… offices? Normally $119.99, I sometimes see it on sale at $30-or-so off.
I welcome your gift ideas, too, in the comments!