Once again I am going to try to avoid recommending obvious stuff like TVs, cellphones, or MP3 players – if you have someone who wants one, you know that, they know that, you don’t need me to tell you that a 50” plasma TV is a great gift. And if you’re a reader of this site, you don’t need me to tell you which laptop to avoid.
Top Five for 2007
1. Monster Power Outlets to Go (4 and 6 outlet versions launched late last year, the 3 outlet version is new for 2007). $15 – $25.
This is the perfect stocking stuffer for the road warrior – a tiny portable power strip. Typically you get to the hotel room and discover the lamp has just one outlet, but you’ve got more than one thing that needs power. Plug in your Power Outlets to Go and you’re all set. Another great use for this thing is at airports. Instead of wandering around searching in vain for a free outlet near a chair, find whoever is sitting next to an outlet and sit down next to them and share the power. The plug head lights up to let you know the power is active – solving another issue at airports, where most outlets were designed for vacuum cleaners, and may be turned off during the day – now you know before taking out the rest of your gear. The even smaller 3 outlet version is new for this year and has become a permanent part of my travel bag.
2. PowerSquid power multipliers ($15) and surge protectors ($25 – $80)
I test gadgets and I have tons and tons and tons of power adapters. Each power adapter has been designed specifically to make it impossible to place next to any other power adapter on your power strip. I’m convinced product designers do this on purpose, though I haven’t figured out why yet; perhaps there’s some evolutionary advantage to crowding out the other gadgets at the power source). I discovered that people who don’t test lots of gadgets have this problem too, and PowerSquid has the solution: a line of power strips and surge suppressors that look like a creature from the deep or Japanese manga. There’s a base and then a bunch of tentacles of different lengths that you can plug even the largest power bricks into. I recommended these here last year; the Calamari edition is new and adds basic noise filtering to the surge suppression. Any of them are a godsend to those with multiple power adapters of varying sizes.
3. Logitech VX nano ($69)
Another great gift for the road warrior, this time in the $60 – $70 range, the Logitech VX nano is a travel mouse with a super tiny USB transmitter that can stay put in your laptop at all times. This means you can leave the adapter in and close your laptop, put the laptop in a bag, take it out later, and go again without having to wait for drivers to load, or figuring out which side of the little USB thingie is up when you insert it over and over again. Of course, you can also hide the transmitter inside the mouse itself. The VX nano features Logitech’s “engine” – the same technology in Logitech’s bigger, more expensive MX Revolution mouse – that changes the way the scroll wheel works depending on what application you’re in. You can use free spin for zipping smoothly up and down Word documents or web pages, and the traditional ratchet-click mode which is better for things like moving cell by cell through a spreadsheet. It takes regular batteries which can be replaced at the hotel gift shop, though I’ve been using my VX nano a lot over several months and haven’t burned through the first set yet. I had no problem getting it to work flawlessly with both PCs and Macs and with a few limitations on Linux (Xandros distribution; the basic functionality works, but none of Logitech’s fancy software tricks).
4. Apple Personal Internet Tablet / Phoneless iPhone (aka, iPod
Ever watch TV and get into an argument over whether the actress you’re watching on Heroes once played a disappearing high school student on Buffy? You too? Well, you can save your marriage by finding the answers to these questions on the web site IMDB if you just had a WiFi web tablet on your couch. You could also read the morning paper online while eating breakfast. Or get directions to your meeting later that day.
Apple sells a nifty touchscreen gadget that does this for the low price of $299, and it’s called the Apple Personal Internet Tablet. OK, fine, it’s the iPod touch (this is where the “mostly” in “mostly non-obvious gift guide” comes in). Apple is marketing the touch for its main use, playing music, but it makes a handy web tablet, too. There are other Internet devices that are more appropriate for the technically inclined. For example, Nokia has the $399 N800 and $479 N810 Internet tablet that are Linux based, and Archos sells the $299 605 WiFi that you can add a web browser to for another $30. Both have Flash support, which the iPod touch and iPhone lack, and the Nokia has a webcam and Skype client for free VoIP calling. However, for a simple experience, the iPod touch can’t be beat, and I often find that browsing blogs in particular is easier on the iPod touch than on the others. The iPod touch is also perfect for anyone who wants to buy an iPhone but is stuck on a Verizon Wireless family plan – it’s basically an iPhone without the phone.
5. Shure SE530 Sound Isolating Earphones ($499)
I test tons of headphones and recommended its predecessor in last year’s guide (the e500, which has the same three driver arrangement). I’ve yet to find anything better, and Shure has improved it this time around with new foam earpieces and an excellent optional iPhone accessory that takes advantage of its modular cord system and Shure’s microphone expertise. The iPhone accessory also works nicely on other musicphones with 3.5mm jacks, so if you’re one of the few Nokia N95 users in the U.S. – or one of the millions in Europe – Shure has you covered, too.
There are two ways to block out noise – cancel it or muffle it. Canceling noise (by sending inverse sound waves to cancel out the noise) adds bulk because you need a battery to power the electronics, and it usually negatively affects sound quality at least somewhat. The other way is to physically block it, and that’s what Shure’s in-ear headphones do. Shure has an entire line of sound isolating earphones derived from the getups that professional musicians wear on tour. The middle of their line is where the best values can be found, but the best headphones are able to pull out detail from music you’ve never heard before. Truth be told, that quality alone is not unique to Shure, and top notch headphones from others, notably Etymotic, manage this feat as well for hundreds of dollars less. Where the Shure SE530’s are unique is their astonishing ability to make badly compressed MP3 files sound better, not worse. Most super-revealing headphones expose every flaw, while these are smooth, yet detailed. I don’t know how they do it. No question, at Five. Hundred. Dollars. these are very expensive, and will almost definitely cost more than the MP3 player you use them with. I suggest you consider the headphones a long term investment – you may want to upgrade your MP3 player every year, but you can keep the same headphones. Shure makes this easy by using a modular cord system so that they can be used with optional accessories for the iPhone (which is an extension with a Shure microphone built in), or for letting some noise – and that nice flight attendant’s question – back in (Shure’s “Push to Hear” gadget). Different cord lengths also allow use at the belt or on an arm band with just the right amount of slack. Also new this year across Shure’s line are sculpted foam inserts, which Shure’s product manager told me were based on my feedback (I’m sure he says that to all the analysts). These inserts combine the best properties of foam (best sound blocking) and soft rubber (easy insertion and comfort). Still, this gift isn’t for everyone – no matter how comfortable they are, some people don’t like things that go in the ear canal. That’s too bad, because these are some exorbitantly priced headphones that are actually worth the money.
Honorable mentions for the Home Theater fan:
* Netflix Gift Subscription ($20 and up)
You know, you really don’t want to get in the middle of a format war – it gets messy. Right now it’s still too early to call a winner between Blu-ray and HD-DVD, with some Hollywood studios supporting one format and some supporting the other. The neutral party in the war is Netflix, which rents both. You set up your movie queue online, and Netflix mails discs to you. In fact, you can tell Netflix what kind of high def disc player you have, and it will automatically put that version of the movie in your queue. Netflix is happy to sell you a gift subscription and this is an incredibly easy recommendation.
* Dale and Thomas popcorn sampler ($15 and up)
What goes better with movies than popcorn? Dale & Thomas sells gourmet popcorn with flavors not found in Orville Redenbacher, such as white chocolate peanut butter drizzlecorn. They have stores in Times Square in New York City and in Hollywood, but they’ll also mail popcorn samplers anywhere around the country, and I can attest that it arrives fresh. I can also attest that it won’t be around for very long after arriving, because this stuff is delicious. I should also warn you that it will completely destroy any diet you might be on, but at least it is certified kosher, so you can safely send it to any Orthodox Jews who keep kosher or Muslims who observe halal.
What I want to recommend, but can’t, at least not yet:
* Asus eee PC ($399 for 512MB RAM, 4 GB flash drive configuration)
The Asus eee is an incredibly small subnotebook with a small price to match – usually size and price have an inverse relationship. The eee weighs less than 2 lbs., and passes the shoulder test with flying colors – I walked around with it all evening at a trade show and forgot I had it. Even the power supply is small and light, so there’s no question whether you should take it along in case you find an open outlet (just take it). Fast flash memory takes the place of a hard drive, and the unit feels solid, not cheap. It is not a speed demon, but can handle basic web browsing and document creation tasks without feeling slow. Upgrading the RAM is straightforward and inexpensive, but opening the hatch to do so inexplicably voids the warranty. The keyboard is definitely too small for easy touch typing, though I should note that I am editing this guide on it, so it is possible. Just budget for some hand massages to ward off carpal tunnel syndrome, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Where the eee falls short is on storage, screen size, and OS. The 800 x 480 screen needs to be scrolled vertically to see entire dialog boxes. 4 GB of flash storage is enough for the OS and either applications or storage, but not both. An 8 GB SDHC card from Kingston solved the storage problem temporarily, but starting with 8 or 16 GB on the main drive would be better. Of course, the Xandros Linux distribution doesn’t make it easy to add any of your own applications, so perhaps the notion is that the eee is intended primarily for web surfing, and the minimal storage is by design. In any case, I found the version of Linux included on the eee to be beautiful, and easy to use, and extremely constraining. The Office-like suite’s idiosyncrasies drove me crazy, and there aren’t enough drivers or software for Xandros – a Kensington USB video hub wouldn’t work, nor would the Maxtor OneTouch backup software for an external hard drive. The eee is Windows XP compatible, and I quickly decided that the Microsoft tax is well worth paying in my case. Versions of the eee with more storage, a bigger screen, and XP preloaded are on Asus’ roadmap, so while I cannot recommend the eee PC just yet, I hope to be able to in the future.
* SmartShopper Grocery List Organizer ($129)
This is a great gadget you’ll find in catalogs like Brookstone that aims to do one thing and do it really well. In this case, that would be organizing shopping lists. This would seem to be a frivolous overpriced gadget for gadget lovers, but it’s actually a useful overpriced gadget for gadget lovers, or at least it would be if it worked properly.
It sits on your refrigerator door thanks to a powerful magnet which means that you always know where it is. You talk to it, it recognizes what you said, which means that anyone in the household can add things, even if they can’t write or can’t write legibly. The Smartshopper adds it to the list, and when it comes time to shop, it has an itty-bitty printer inside that prints out an itemized shopping list which makes shopping much, much easier. All the dairy items are grouped together, all the produce, etc. It’s a great concept and great fun.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually work that well. Voice recognition is hit or miss – and nearly always “miss” if there’s any background noise, like children whining that you don’t have whatever it is you need to add to the shopping list. There are not nearly enough entries in the database, and many of the entries are generic, when you may be trying to request specific brands. You can – and you will have to – add entries to the database, but it can be a pain because there is no keyboard, and, quite frankly, you may find that you need to add half of what you shop for. If there is more than one member of the household using the device, user-defined entries also lead to the hilarious speech recognition problem of pitch. Let’s say my wife added “Dale & Thomas popcorn.” If I say, “Dale and Thomas popcorn” in my usual voice, it will not recognize it. If, however, I raise my voice up a couple of octaves, and say it again in falsetto, “Dale and Thomas popcorn” chances of recognition roughly double. I’m sure there’s a great drinking game you could play with a list of common grocery items and the SmartShopper, but that’s not quite what its manufacturer intended. I’ve been assured that future versions of the gadget will improve the database and speech recognition, and I will hold off recommending it until then.
Research Director, Mobile Devices
About Avi: At Current Analysis I focus on testing mobile devices and advising clients how competitive they are in the market. None of the products I’m recommending here come from clients, and I do not own stock in any of the companies. I do not pay for review units, and while most devices I test get sent back (whether the companies want them back or not – I need to get them out of my house), I have kept some of the items listed below for… lets call it a long term loan.