Gadgets, gizmos and other great gifts
Sure, tablets and HDTVs are always welcome gifts, but that's not all our readers want to give and get this year. The No. 5 most popular tech gift in our 2012 reader poll was "Tech toys/gizmos," so we're serving up a heaping helping of cool and useful gadgets, along with some stylish accessories -- and even an old-fashioned paper book that geeks will love.
Audiophiles who want to listen to their music on the go -- and who want to use their smartphones as both audio players and phones -- have a hard choice to make. Do you use a Bluetooth headset that lets you also listen to audio, but only pipes it into one ear? Or do you get a great set of wired earphones that keep you inconveniently connected to your phone (and, let's face it, looks pretty dorky on the street)?
Plantronics has come up with a solution: the BackBeat Go wireless earbuds, which offer solid sound for both ears along with a Bluetooth wireless connection to your phone. If you get a call while you're listening, just hit the button on the inline controls and your music will pause (streaming audio will mute) while you talk, and then resume when you're finished.
I tried the BackBeat Go last April and was impressed by both its usefulness and the quality of the sound:
Once the BackBeat Go was completely charged (which took about 2.5 hours), I had no trouble pairing it with a Galaxy Nexus smartphone. The sound was excellent for Bluetooth earbuds; I especially noticed that the bass, which is usually over-emphasized on many lower-cost headsets, was reasonably modulated here. (Read the full review)
Mind you, the $100 BackBeat Go isn't going to be as good as a pair of $500 headphones, the battery life isn't great (you can expect 4 to 5 hours) and it takes a bit of practice to become comfortable with the inline controls. But it's unobtrusive, lightweight and an excellent way to listen to your music without missing your calls.
You might also like: BlueAnt's Ribbon stereo Bluetooth streamer ($69 pre-ordered) is an ingenious gadget that lets you use a non-Bluetooth listening device with your mobile Bluetooth-capable player. (It's also great for pairing your new iPhone 5 with your iPhone 4-specific speakers). And for something a bit wackier, the Boombot1 ($45 - $55) from Boombotix is an entry-level speaker that clips onto your backpack or pocket and offers loud sound in some of the most creative cases out there.
-- Barbara Krasnoff
Got an inquisitive young mind in your household? Worx Toys, founded by three fathers, may have just the ticket. The company's toy vehicles, aimed at 6- to 9-year-olds, have a see-through shell so that kids (and non-mechanically inclined adults) can learn how the working parts inside operate.
There's a racecar, a fire truck and a police helicopter, each accompanied by a storybook. As they read through the story, kids activate each of the vehicle's parts with lights and sounds by entering a shape code (triangle, square, circle, etc.) using buttons on a remote or on the toys themselves.
Meanwhile, the book explains how each part works as its hero goes on a vehicle-based adventure. The toys also have a Play mode for unstructured fun.
The racecar and police copter can both be found at various online retailers for about $30 each. The fire truck, which has more functions and more moving parts, is also widely available online but costs about $50 - $60. Two more models, a motorcycle and a space shuttle, are shown on the Worx website and will be available in the spring.
-- Valerie Potter
I wouldn't choose a high-end digital SLR camera for someone without knowing their gear preferences any more than I'd pick running shoes for a marathoner. But in this era of 8-megapixel smartphone cams, you don't want to go too cheap and small. The happy medium for gift giving is a compact digicam that performs markedly better than a phone camera.
That's why I recommend the Canon Powershot G15 as a camera any photographer would be happy to receive -- from someone who just wants a capable point-and-shoot to a serious photographer who'd like a smaller, second camera for times when they don't want to schlep their high-end gear.
One of the G15's most notable features is its f/1.8 lens (zoomed out to its widest angle), designed to shoot in low light -- especially when combined with the camera's ISO settings of up to 12800. The G15 can also rapid-shoot up to 10 frames, boosting the odds of getting a good photo when photographing action at, say, a wedding or sports event.
This is a camera a beginner can grow with and a prosumer won't be frustrated by. It's responsive and not sluggish, and offers a good balance between robust features and ease of use. The G15 is loaded with options, from an exposure compensation dial and DSLR-like front dial to a dual-axis electronic level that helps you keep the camera straight. You can tweak metering, white balance, focus and more, although it's also pretty capable when left on auto.
Unlike many non-SLR cameras, it's even got an optical viewfinder. That means you can frame photos in bright light or turn off the LCD when shooting in dim light (where a bright screen would annoy others). And those who like maximum editing flexibility can shoot in RAW as well as JPG. It also shoots HD video: 1920 x 1080 at 24 frames/sec. and 1280 x 720 at 30 frames/sec.
Who isn't this camera for? Someone who values smallness, sleekness and lightness over robust capabilities. While you can probably pop the G15 into a coat pocket or decent-sized purse, it's not for most pants pockets. It's also not for people who'll be intimidated by a lot of buttons and dials. (You don't need to know how to use them all in order to get good photos from this camera, but there are likely people on your gift list -- you know who they are -- who get anxious or frustrated by the mere sight of gadgetry.)
The zoom goes to 5x optical, which works well for what I'd use a compact for, especially since 12mp images can be cropped a fair amount if I can't zoom in quite as tight as I'd like. But if your recipient wants to take many close-ups of far-off subjects, a more powerful zoom may be more to their liking.
All that said, the PowerShot G15 is a great choice for someone seeking an easy-to-carry (if not featherweight) camera that performs well in most general-purpose situations -- and far exceeds a smartphone, especially when shooting moving subjects or in low light.
You might also like: If your recipient cares more about pocketability than features, or $500 doesn't fit your budget, consider the smaller and somewhat less expensive Canon PowerShot S95 (about $400) or the newer S110 (currently $365 at Amazon). For a considerably lower price tag (and size), the Panasonic Lumix SZ7 is highly rated on several retailers' sites; with 10X optical zoom it currently costs less than $130 at Amazon and about $170 at B&H Photo. (Note that of these three, I've tested only the S95.)
-- Sharon Machlis
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