Computerworld's holiday gift guide 2014: Top-notch tech for $150 or more

Part 1 of our annual roundup of holiday gift ideas features best-in-class phones and tablets, ingenious cameras and other premium tech gear for your family and friends. (Or maybe for you?)

Computerworld Holiday Gift Guide 2014

Find the perfect tech gift

Maybe we're biased, but we think tech gear always makes a great present. Who wouldn't want to open up a gift-wrapped package to find a sleek new smartphone or a colorful speaker that can fill a room with sound?

The cleverly designed, exactingly made gear in Part 1 of our holiday gift guide will please technology lovers of all stripes, from party-givers to lifeloggers. When possible, we've included a range of prices as offered by various retailers, but be aware that prices fluctuate. As always, be careful of false deals and scams.

Note that you won't find any smartwatches or fitness bands in this roundup. There are so many new and interesting products in these hot categories that we found it impossible to choose just one or two products for our gift guide. For those, see our hands-on review of four top Android Wear watches and our roundup of activity trackers and GPS watches.

Also check out our complete holiday gift guide 2014, which features a searchable, sortable list of more than 45 tech gift ideas.

Meanwhile, feast your eyes on the best over-$150 tech presents to give and get this year.

UE Boom

UE Boom Bluetooth speaker

[Note: This device has been replaced by the UE Boom2]

What better way to make the music-lover in your life sing a happy tune than with an awesome new Bluetooth speaker? Logitech's UE (for Ultimate Ears) Boom packs high-quality sound into a cool-looking and easily portable (2.6 x 7.1-in.) cylinder shape. You can even pick from a variety of patterned, brightly colored or more minimalist designs to match your gift recipient's style.

The UE Boom's form isn't just for looks, either: The speaker actually blasts music out in a full 360 degrees, making it ideal for filling a room or even an outdoor patio with sound. It's water-resistant and good for 15 hours of playback. If you're feeling especially generous, you can pair two of the speakers together for stereo sound.

Direct price: $200
Retail price: $200-$345

-- JR Raphael

Motorola Moto X and Moto G

Motorola Moto X / Moto G

[Note: These devices are no longer being sold.]

Looking to give a smartphone that provides an exceptional all-around experience? Look no further than Motorola's 2014 Moto X. The new Moto X is sleek and sophisticated, with a customizable body made of soft-touch plastic, genuine leather or real wood materials. You pick out the style and colors your gift recipient might like; Motorola custom-builds the phone and ships it out in a matter of days. You can even have the device engraved with your own message if you want, making it the perfect personalized present for a friend or loved one.

Looks aside, the Moto X has plenty of perks to make your giftee giddy: The handset's curved back makes it one of the most ergonomic and comfortable-to-use smartphones on the market today, while Motorola's software combines Google's excellent Android 5.0 Lollipop interface with some compelling add-on features -- like a voice control system that responds to any phrase you want and a display that lights up with notifications whenever you wave your hand over it.

If you need something a little more affordable, Motorola's 2014 Moto G offers a similar concept in a less premium package. It's a chunkier device and doesn't provide the same level of performance or display quality -- nor does it have the advanced software features mentioned above -- but it shares the X's outstanding user interface and is still quite pleasant to use. Within the budget class, it's absolutely the best experience you can find.

Moto X:
Direct price: $100 w/ 2-year contract from AT&T or Verizon; $500 unlocked

Moto G:
Direct price: $180 unlocked

-- JR Raphael

Apple iPhone 6

Apple iPhone 6

[Note: This product has been replaced by the iPhone 6s]

Do you have an iPhone user on your gift list? In that case, Apple's iPhone 6 is an easy recommendation. The 2014 update features an all-new 4.7-in. LED-backlit Retina HD display (with a resolution of 1334 x 750), a second-generation 64-bit A8 chipset, an updated camera system, an M8 motion coprocessor, 240 fps-slow-motion HD video and many more features built into the slim design.

With the built-in Touch ID fingerprint scanner acting in concert with the encryption built into iOS 8, you can use your fingerprint to log into the phone, lock down third-party apps, and even purchase items online, in apps and in stores with Apple Pay.

Mac users running Yosemite can take advantage of the new Continuity features: You can start an email or document on one device and instantly pick up where you left off on another Apple device, you can answer incoming phone calls on any of your Apple devices in range, SMS messages are now received on every Apple device, and using your iPhone as an Internet hotspot is as easy as selecting the device in a drop-down menu.

Apple's renowned build quality is still evident: The iPhone 6 features precision craftsmanship in a case with a sleek, pill-shaped profile made of anodized aluminum and glass. It comes in silver, gold or space gray and includes 16GB, 64GB or 128GB of onboard storage.

Direct price: $199-$399 w/ 2-year contract from AT&T, Sprint or Verizon; $649-$849 unlocked

-- Michael deAgonia

VSN Mobil V.360
VSN Mobil

VSN Mobil V.360 camera

There's the old way of snapping panoramic images -- click, pivot, click, pivot, repeat ad nauseam -- and there's the new, cool way: VSN Mobile's V.360° camera. True to its name, this little freestanding photojournalist captures a full 360-degree image, then delivers it to an Android or iOS device for viewing, editing and sharing.

But it's not limited to stills; the waterproof V.360° can record panoramic HD video as well. It even doubles as a Wi-Fi access point for live video streaming. And because it works with both standard and GoPro camera mounts, it doesn't have to sit still.

And speaking of that, this isn't just a gift for shutterbugs, though obviously they're likely to dig it; it's also for avid outdoor types who like to GoPro their every jump, flip or splash. With this they can record a much wider field of their moves.

Direct price: $400

-- Rick Broida

Google Nexus 6

Google Nexus 6

[Note: This product was replaced by the Nexus 6P]

Plus-sized smartphones are all the rage these days, but generally speaking, that means dealing with a gadget that's bulky, cumbersome and uncomfortable to hold.

Google's Nexus 6 is a rare exception. Though it's enormous -- a hair bigger even than Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 -- the Motorola-made Nexus 6 doesn't feel unwieldy, thanks to its curved back and soft-touch plastic material. It's a big phone that's actually ergonomic. Imagine that!

Factor in a stunning 6-in. Quad HD AMOLED display, fast performance (via its 2.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 805 processor and 3GB of RAM), superb front-facing stereo speakers and the best user interface available on Android today, and the Nexus 6 is an ideal gift for anyone looking to step up their smartphone size.

Direct price: $649 (32GB) or $699 (64GB) unlocked; starting at $199 on contract from a variety of carriers

-- JR Raphael

Apple iPhone 6 Plus

Apple iPhone 6 Plus

[Note: This product was replaced by the Apple 6S Plus.]

Bigger is better these days. If you know somebody who would love a supersized iPhone, now there's the iPhone 6 Plus.

The iPhone 6 Plus offers everything the iPhone 6 does and more. It features a glorious 5.5-in. LED-backlit Retina HD display with 1280 x 1080 resolution and 401 pixels per inch. To the iPhone 6's updated camera, the 6 Plus adds optical image stabilization for shooting photos in low light. And the 6 Plus offers longer battery life than any previous iPhone, with up to 24 hours of talk time, 16 days of standby time, 14 hours of video playback, 80 hours of audio playback or 12 hours of Internet use.

Of course, the iPhone 6 Plus costs $100 more than the iPhone 6, and its roughly 6-x-3-in. frame is unquestionably large, especially for those with small hands. But while I initially thought the Plus model would be too big for comfortable use, testing it out for a week changed my mind. It retains the sleek, slim look and high-quality build of its smaller sibling, and its very usable Reachability feature (also present in the iPhone 6) brings onscreen elements down closer to your thumb after you lightly touch the Home button twice. (Not sure which to get? See "How to decide which iPhone 6 is right for you.")

Like the iPhone 6, the iPhone 6 plus comes in silver, gold or space gray with 16GB, 64GB or 128GB of onboard storage.

Direct price: $299-$499 w/ 2-year contract from AT&T, Sprint or Verizon; $749-$949 unlocked

-- Michael deAgonia

Narrative Clip

Narrative Clip wearable camera

[Note: This product has been replaced by the Narrative Clip 2]

The Narrative Clip is a small (1.42 x 1.42 x 0.35 in.) and lightweight (0.7 oz.) 5-megapixel camera that's always on. Clip it onto a shirt, hat or bag, and it takes photos every 30 seconds (unless you set it face down or put it in a dark place like a pocket). Later, connect it to a Mac or Windows PC via USB, upload the photos to a cloud-based library, and view them on either an iOS or an Android device (individually or as a slideshow).

I wore the Narrative Clip for a day, and while some images were obscured or blurred, I ended up with some interesting photos and a good record of that day's activities. To make sure a particular moment is captured, tap the device twice; later, you can mark any photos you like as favorites and share them to social networks.

There are issues: Is it an invasion of others' privacy to photograph them unawares? And it ain't cheap, starting at $229 for the device plus three months' subscription to its cloud storage/processing service.

Still, if someone on your gift list is curious about wanting to track their life's events, this is a good way to do it.

Direct price: $229 (device plus three-month subscription); $279 (device plus one-year subscription); after that, $9/month subscription
Retail price: $229

-- Barbara Krasnoff

Google Nexus 7 and Nexus 9

Google Nexus 7 / Nexus 9

Google's new Android 5.0 Lollipop software is a true treat to use -- and there's no better way to let someone experience it than with one of Google's own Nexus tablets.

Nexus tablets run a pure and unmodified version of the latest Android release, which provides a clean, modern and delightfully polished user interface. It's a sharp contrast to the cluttered and bloat-filled messes most tablet manufacturers make of the software.

Though it's no longer being sold by Google, the 2013 Nexus 7 remains the best value available for an outstanding Android tablet experience. Made by Asus, it's small enough to be held in one hand or carried in a pocket but large enough to provide plenty of on-screen space. Its soft plastic backing feels great to the touch, and its performance and display are both top-notch. With retailers currently offering it for as little as $189, it's the Android tablet to give while you still can.

If the Nexus 7 sells out or you think your gift recipient might prefer a roomier screen, this year's Nexus 9 (made by HTC) is another fine option to consider. It runs the same pure Android 5.0 Lollipop software in a larger slate with front-facing stereo speakers.

Nexus 7:
Retail price: $189-$350

Nexus 9:
Direct price: $399 (16GB) or $479 (32GB)
Retail price: $399-$495 (16GB) or $479-$759 (32GB)

-- JR Raphael

Apple iPad Air 2

Apple iPad Air 2

If you want to buy your loved one the tablet with the best apps, the most third-party developer support, blistering performance and top-notch security, look no further than the iPad Air 2.

The tablet features a 9.7-in. Retina display with a resolution of 2048 x 1536, encased in a sleek enclosure that weighs less than a pound. Inside you'll find an Apple-designed, second-generation 64-bit A8X chipset that gives the iPad Air 2 the power to take on the most demanding games or videos.

There's also a much improved camera system (featuring 8-megapixel photos, 1080p video recording, 43MP panoramic photos, burst capture and 120-fps slow-motion); a 10-hour battery; and the Touch ID fingerprint scanner for login security, authentication for in-app and online purchases, and secure entry to supported third-party apps.

Like this year's iPhone models, the iPad Air 2 supports Continuity features for instant syncing with other devices running iOS 8 or OS X Yosemite. It comes in gold, silver or space gray with storage capacities of 16GB, 64GB or 128GB.

Direct price: $499-$699 (Wi-Fi); $629-$829 (Wi-Fi + Cellular)

-- Michael deAgonia

Luidia Equil Smartpen 2

Luidia Equil Smartpen 2

We bet you've got someone on your gift list who's an inveterate scribbler, constantly jotting down thoughts or sketches on whatever paper is handy. Help them preserve those notes digitally with the Equil Smartpen 2.

Unlike some smartpens, the Equil Smartpen 2 doesn't require special paper; it captures notes scribbled on anything from a cocktail napkin to a legal pad. True, it requires a clip-on receiver, but when you're done writing, the receiver and pen both snap into a compact, bag-friendly charging cradle.

As you write, your notes are synced in real time to a phone, tablet or laptop via Bluetooth, though the sensor can also capture everything for later syncing if your device isn't handy. Either way, you can then edit and/or annotate those notes using the included iOS, Android, OS X or Windows apps, or you can have the software convert handwriting to text.

Direct price: $170

-- Rick Broida

Toshiba Chromebook 2

Toshiba Chromebook 2

[Note: This product is no longer on sale.]

Know someone who spends a lot of time on the Web and wants a simple, lightweight laptop that's a pleasure to use? Toshiba's $330 Chromebook 2 may be just the gift you need.

Like other Chrome OS devices, the Chromebook 2 serves as a hassle-free portal for getting online and using Web-centric apps and services. Unlike most Chrome OS devices, however, it has a high-quality 1080p screen that's bright and crisp, with brilliant colors and excellent viewing angles. On top of that, it has spectacular speakers -- powerful enough that you actually feel the bass when you pump up the volume.

(Toshiba also sells a lower-end version of the Chromebook 2 for $250, but it lacks the 1080p resolution and the higher-quality display, both of which are what make the higher-end system so special.)

Whether your gift recipient is looking for an upgrade from an existing Chrome OS device or a new supplementary system for home or travel, Toshiba's Chromebook 2 is a standout option that's sure to earn you a smile.

Direct price: $330
Retail price: $365

-- JR Raphael

Fujitsu ScanSnap iX100

Fujitsu ScanSnap iX100 mobile scanner

Know anyone who doesn't need to store paperwork digitally these days? We didn't think so. A small mobile scanner can be perfect for travelers or people with crowded desktops.

Fujitsu's ScanSnap iX100 is a slim, 14.1-oz. single-sheet scanner that copies documents quickly and efficiently. For those who are really cramped for space, the top of the ScanSnap opens to form an output tray.

You can even fold a too-wide document, scan both sides, and then match each half (using Fujitsu's included software) to create the original whole. And you can scan two small documents -- say, a couple of business cards -- at one time.

Unlike mobile scanners like the Doxie Go, which stores its scans and uploads them later, the ScanSnap iX100 must be connected to a computer or mobile device in order to work. Luckily, that connection can be wireless, so you can scan not only to a laptop, but also to a tablet or smartphone. You can then either keep your scans on the device or share them to the cloud or via email.

Retail price: $200-$270

-- Barbara Krasnoff

Next: Nifty tech for $30 to $150

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.