The Practical, Non-Hipster Tech Gift Guide
If you're looking for a collection of trendy gizmos that go well with a pair of Chuck Taylors and a plaid shirt, this isn't it. Our tech gift guide emphasizes practicality, price and specs over style. You won't find any Snapchat Spectacles here. As we head into the holiday shopping season, consider something more functional for your geeky loved ones.
Apple recently updated its MacBook Pro lineup for the first time in a couple of years. The new machines are zippy, with faster processors and graphics chips, and some even have a touchscreen strip built into the keyboard. It looks great on a live-edge wooden table at a third-wave coffee shop.
But here's an idea: Get yourself a Microsoft Surface Book instead. No, seriously. If, like me, you switched to a Mac a decade ago after wrestling with the bugs, security flaws and clunky interface of Windows Vista, there's no way you're going back to that madness, right? What you'll actually find in the Surface Book is something that probably looks closer to the future of computing than an Apple laptop. Get one with the Intel i7 processor: It's a very powerful machine capable of playing most of the latest PC games. It's easier to type on and has a huge, conveniently placed touch pad and a pen for the touch screen. And one more thing: It's a surprisingly capable tablet computer when you unhook it from the keyboard.
A Fitbit or Apple Watch will surely be popular gifts this year, but let's face it: Fitness trackers are for fit people. For the rest of us, they're drawer clutter once the novelty wears off. Those already motivated enough to get up before work to go for a run should check out Oakley's Radar Pace. It can read the wearer's heart rate, stride length and calories burned when connected with other body sensors. When I tried them out, they were useful, if not the most fashionable, with a robotic voice whispering in my ear about how slow I am as I struggled along. One of my colleagues is a big advocate for the Under Armour Record system, which she said has helped her with diet choices as well as fitness.
But really, most people would be better off spending their cash on a gym or pool membership. Owning a Fitbit will not give you the inner fortitude to get off the couch and go out on a winter evening to run in the snow. There are several free running apps, such as Nike+ Run Club, MapMyFitness and Runkeeper, that can send mobile notifications encouraging users to fulfill their New Year's resolution. One of the best things about running is it gives you an hour (or 10 minutes) to catch up on podcasts or unwind with some Interpol. The Plantronics BackBeat Fit wireless headphones are waterproof and sit securely in your ears, eliminating the excuse to stop every five minutes to readjust the headphones and catch your breath in the process.
Smart-home appliances sound cool, but they're mostly dumb. Getting out of a chair to flip a light switch isn't any less onerous than pulling out a phone, opening an app and pressing a button. Many smart appliances are overpriced and could lock customers into proprietary technology that's hard to escape later. And security on these devices is rudimentary or nonexistent. For those who might want to experiment with automating home life, try the iHome Smart Plug, which can make your dumb products a little smarter.
The device most in need of an update in many people's homes is one they only pay attention to when it makes them miserable: the Wi-Fi router. People frequently stick with whatever their internet company gave them. But Wi-Fi technology is evolving. Spend as little as $80 on a TP-LINK Archer C7 AC1750, and place it somewhere central, away from cordless phones, microwaves or other things that might cause interference. It makes a huge difference. Whatever model you choose—and it's possible to go as high as $350—make sure it has "AC" on the box. That's the latest and fastest standard.
The absolute pinnacle of any hipster's stable of accouterments is a Leica M series camera. It has everything: chic retro styling, quality lenses, a black-and-white-only model and the ability to accessorize in such photographic essentials as orange leather. Starting price: at least $5,000 (no lens included). If you're really serious about photography and have that kind of money, get a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. The product was recently updated with just about all the functions a pro could ever want and access to a huge range of lenses.
But really, most people already have a fantastic camera in their pockets. A new iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S7 contains a high-quality lens and big screen to view the pictures on. In most situations, the results are as good as most point-and-shoot cameras. But if you're shopping for a klutz like me, you might want to pick up a Nikon Coolpix waterproof camera. Since most of those photos will disappear forever into storage on your phone or a backup server array owned by Facebook, MyPix2 or another printing service can create a gift that really means something to the people you care about.
With Microsoft rolling out an updated version of the Xbox One and Sony doing the same with the PlayStation 4 along with a virtual-reality headset, there are plenty of choices for gamers. But there's a more accessible option for about a 10th of the price of a PlayStation VR bundle.
The Nintendo NES Classic will let you zone out without having to learn spell-casting key combinations or which type of missile will breach the defenses of your enemy's giant killer robot in the ten seconds before yours gets incinerated. The Classic lets players delve back into the kinder, gentler world of Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros. and the Legend of Zelda. The remake of the 1985 original is smaller and more powerful, making those old, pixelated games look crisply retro on your flat-panel television. The only catch is trying to get hold of one. They're pretty much sold out everywhere. It turns out that hipsters like this one, too.
—With Sarah Frier, Jing Cao and Mark Gurman