Cool Yule Tools for the Home

Home is where all of the coolest gadgets live - here are some gift ideas to make your home more awesome.
  • Keith Shaw (Network World)
  • 16 November, 2015 14:00

Editor's Note: For the past 16 years Network World has presented its picks of the geekiest, techiest or just plain coolest gadgets for holiday gift giving purposes. We’ve witnessed the birth of the smartphone, the dominance of the tablet and the shrinking size of the television (at least the depth, the width and height keeps getting better). We’ve seen robots, big and small, and every conceivable charger, phone case, travel widget, computer, printer and USB doohickey imaginable.

So here we are in 2015 – halfway through the second decade of the new millennium (does anyone use that term anymore?). We live in a world of instant news and social recommendations via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and countless other communication platforms. Most of your holiday shopping will be done this year online – whether it’s Amazon and other mega-shopping sites, or just the online site of your favorite retailer, depending on whether they’re offering free shipping or not. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are national holidays. There’s so much stuff out there and so many ways to buy that stuff that it’s no wonder that people freak out at the holidays.

Can we help you sort through the madness? Hell, no – that would be a full time job here at the Cool Yule Tools Headquarters, and we’re really busy fending off pushy PR people who insist that their iPhone 6S case is absolutely the perfect gift guide item (and in one case, it was, since it also could charge our phone).

But what we can do is offer up our humble list of products and technologies that may impress someone on your holiday gift list. Some of the stuff is ultra-techie and ultra-geeky, some of the stuff you may look at and go, “what kind of gift is that?”. Quite simply, it’s stuff we’ve tried out this year, stuff we’ve liked, or stuff that we think can help you (or someone you know) live a better life in this crazy, tech-obsessed culture.

This article highlights our picks for gift items meant for "HOME" - while you could certainly use these items at work, or in your free time (when you're playing), we feel these are best utilized in the comfort of those four (or more) walls you call your living space.

epsonpm 400 620px

Epson PM-400 Picture Mate Personal Photo Lab


The PictureMate line of photo printers has been around for several years, back when digital cameras were separate devices and people still enjoyed printing out their photos to look at (or store in photo albums, put in frames or post to a bulletin board). Since then, our main camera is now on our smartphone, we’re uploading images and sharing them via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Yet the photo printer hasn’t vanished – in our lives there are still many times when we would like to have (or might need) a printed photo. For example, my daughter’s first-grade teacher requested that all of the students come in with a photo of something that they did during summer vacation. Or you want to show off a cool photo of your kids to your co-workers without having to scroll through your phone’s photo album (on the off-chance that there are some other images on the device that you don’t want them to see – wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

Luckily, the PictureMate PM-400 has updated its features to be compatible with the latest ways that consumers are taking and storing their digital images. The printer can now print 4-by-6 and 5-by-7 images -- earlier models could only do the smaller size. You can print images by inserting an SD memory card into the side slot of the printer and selecting them via the pop-up LCD screen (owners of other EPSON printers will recognize the display). In addition to printing color images (via a very cool Print Pack that includes an ink cartridge and paper), settings allow you to print images in black-and-white or sepia tone, with or without borders.

The printer can be connected in several ways – you can go old-school and connect a USB cable (sold separately) to a computer; more likely you’ll want to connect this to an available Wi-Fi network (one small downside – typing in a long password via the LCD screen can be a bit tedious). If Wi-Fi’s not your thing, you can print directly from a mobile device to the PM-400 via Wi-Fi Direct.

For the most part, connecting via an existing Wi-Fi network is likely the easiest method for setup, as you can then print via your computer and mobile device (smartphone or tablet) without too much difficulty. This setup also lets you use an Epson app to print photos stored on your mobile device, a quick and easy way to get those photos off the phone and into a more semi-permanent state of being.

The portability of the device is also key – it’s small enough where you can take this with you to parties, gatherings or other locations for an instant photo-printing-like studio.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

thinkpadhelix 620

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix tablet with Ultrabook Keyboard

Starts at $945

If you’re trying to figure out if you should gift a laptop or a tablet, the ThinkPad Helix offers you the best of both worlds. As a tablet, you get a Windows tablet experience (in my test I upgraded to Windows 10 from Windows 8.1), complete with an 11.6-inch display and touchscreen functionality.

When you add the keyboard attachment, you get the benefits of a notebook, which is very nice and solid – it doesn’t feel like a typical tablet add-on keyboard. Most people looking at the device from this combination will just assume you have a very light notebook.

The system comes complete with good specifications – Up to Intel Core M 5Y71 processor, up to 256GB Solid State Drive, either 4GB or 8GB of RAM, as well as a couple of cameras (front and back). I liked the flexibility of this device – you can bring it along during a trip and use the tablet if you want to read a book, play a game or watch a movie. Then when the boss calls asking you to get some work done, you can attach the keyboard and answer the email, finish that spreadsheet or write up a gift guide review.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

snappowercharger 1 620

SnapPower Charger wall outlet cover

$20 (with discounts for multi-pack purchases)

I never realized how much I’d appreciate the location of power outlets in my home until I started acquiring multiple smart devices such as phones, tablets and other assorted gadgets. Compounding the issue is the rest of my family, who drain their device’s batteries quicker than you’d expect.

Until now, we’ve relied on multiple power strips along with its tangled, jumbled mess of cables, docking stations and other devices (see previous gift guides for some of those solutions).

What I love about the SnapPower Charger is that you can add at least one USB power port to each of your home’s power outlets. These very cool cover plates draw power from the screws on the side of your outlet (after you unplug existing cover plates), giving you enough juice to power up a single device. Installation is relatively simple – unscrew old plate, attach new one and re-screw in. There are some possible complications, such as if you have an outlet that has an obstruction inside it (one outlet I tried had screws that weren’t completely screwed in), but the instructions come with some possible solutions (including, “call an electrician”).

While this won’t completely solve our power issue, it does alleviate the problem somewhat. Now, for example, a child whose tablet has run out of juice can continue to operate it if they just plug in a power cable to the outlet that includes the PowerCharger (of course, having a device’s battery die is a good excuse to go tell them to go do something else).

Also, be sure to check out SnapPower’s other cover plate design, which includes three small LED lights that can act as a night light, eliminating the need for a separate night device and freeing up an additional outlet.

One other quick thought – be sure to have extra USB charging cables that you’ll want to use with the Power Charger – since most outlets in the home will be hidden by furniture, etc., it’s probably easier to have a charger permanently attached to the USB port.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

seagatewireless 620

Seagate Wireless Mobile Storage

$130 (for 500GB model)

The latest version of the Seagate Wireless portable hard drive makes some improvements from previous years (extra capacity, for example), but the basics are still there. It lets you store data on the go and then stream it via its own Wi-Fi connection to portable devices (phones, tablets, etc.) with its own Seagate Media app. This is the perfect device for taking multimedia content (photos, videos, music) along with you, especially for those all-important road trips with the family.

Setup is easy – just plug the included USB cable to the Wireless drive and copy your files directly from a PC or Mac. When the drive is portable, turn on the Wi-Fi for the unit (by pressing the power button down a few seconds), and then connect with the mobile device through its Wi-Fi settings. Then, with the Seagate Media app, you can view or listen to the files stored on the drive. It helps if you have a travel charger that can plug into your vehicle’s car charger port – Seagate promises up to 6 hours of usage time, but it’s always easier to just keep it plugged in via the charger adapter.

We used this drive on a recent across-two-states vacation, and the kids in the back seats were able to watch their favorite TV shows and movies and music on their iPods and iPads.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

plantronicsbackbeat 620

Plantronics BackBeat Sense Smart Wireless headphones


The BackBeat series of headphones from Plantronics gets a new sibling, joining the BackBeat Fit (workout Bluetooth earbuds) and BackBeat Pro (heavy-duty over-the-ear headphones) models. The Sense headphones are meant to be in between these two models – for those times when you want lightweight headphones for listening while on the go, but not those that need sweat protection (in other words, you’re just walking around instead of doing a heavy duty workout).

These remind me a bit of some old-school headphones you used to get in the 1980s when the Sony Walkman first came out, but with a lot better design and comfort. Two bars on the top provide a perfect fit for your head, with a softer bar touching your head/hair, and memory foam earpads that feel great.

The coolest part of these headphones is the smart sensors – when you take the headphones off your ears, the music you’re listening to pauses. When you put them back on, the music starts again. You can also play/pause manually by pressing buttons on the left earpad. Another cool feature – the earpads swivel to let you rest them comfortably around your neck when you’re not using them.

The system provides two Bluetooth connections with the ability to switch between them (one for your iPod, one for your phone?), and a full charge promises up to 18 hours of battery life – if you do happen to run out of power, the headphones come with a wired audio cable.

The headphones also come with a dual-pocket storage sleeve, which lets you store the audio cable and charging cable in one pocket, and the headphones in the other pocket.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

aspireswitch11v 620

Acer Aspire Switch 11V 2-in-1 hybrid (tablet/notebook)

Starts at $499.99 (as tested, $599.99)

If you’ve been enamored with the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and have thought, “Wow, I’d really like one of those, but not at the $1,000-plus price tag ($899 base model plus extra for the keyboard attachment), take a look at this version from Acer. While not quite the same as the official Microsoft device, it’s close enough with its specs to provide you a similar experience.

The 2-in-1 hybrid combines a tablet (touch screen, Windows 10 tablet mode) and a notebook experience (turns into a regular desktop when attached to the included keyboard). The system we tested included Windows 10 Home Edition pre-installed, an Intel Core M processor (800 MHz, dual-core), 4GB of RAM and a 128GB solid-state drive. The 11.6-inch display supported full HD (1,920 by 1,080) resolution (a lower resolution is available for about $100 less). If you want to add a stylus, that’s an option (for $29.99) as well.

It’s certainly a usable notebook – I preferred the solid feel of the keyboard compared with the softer keyboard option from Microsoft – but that will mean some extra weight to the overall package. When used in tablet mode, the back gets a little warmer than I’d like it to get, but you get that with lots of tablets. The extra apps that Acer provides (abDocs and abPhoto were the ones that showed up on my desktop) might be interesting, but you’ll likely delete those and use your own preferred apps.

Other features being touted by Acer for this device include LumiFlex (optimize screen visibility during outdoor usage); In-plane switching (colors remaining true across all viewing angles); and VisionCare (optimizing display output in bright light). I also wasn’t a fan of the touchpad, opting to add a USB mouse when I was in notebook mode.

I enjoyed using this model during my tests, and it would make for a great gift if you have someone who is itching for a Surface but you don’t want to pay the extra money for basically the same product.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

Page Break

sandisk connect 620

SanDisk Connect Wireless Stick

$39.99 (for 32 GB; other models include 16GB, 64GB and 128GB versions),

The latest version of SanDisk’s Connect offering has a USB stick with Wi-Fi capabilities, giving mobile device users the ability to access content stored on the device without needing a wired cable or an infrastructure (such as a Wi-Fi router). The main purpose of the Wireless Stick is to provide smartphone and tablet users with a wireless storage option for multimedia content (videos, photos, music). This not only frees up space for those users (storing them on a 32GB stick means they don’t have to keep it stored on their mobile device), but also lets users stream the content while out and about without having to worry about an Internet connection.

The Connect Wireless Stick is slightly larger than a regular USB flash drive (some extra space needed for the Wi-Fi radio, one assumes), but it’s still very portable. Putting content onto the stick is as easy as connecting via the USB port of your favorite computer and dragging-and-dropping the content into the associated folder (such as music, videos or photos). Accessing the content via your mobile device is done through the SanDisk Connect app, available for iOS, Android and Amazon device users.

Video streaming can be done simultaneously for up to three separate devices, so additional users aren’t stuck watching the same video (very helpful for kids in a car ride, for example). Wi-Fi pass-through is also supported for advanced users, which lets you connect the mobile device to the stick and then having the stick itself connect to an existing Wi-Fi router. It’s a nice-to-have option if you really need it, but switching between networks (from the network provided by the wireless stick and your existing Wi-Fi router) is easy enough where you don’t need the pass-through option.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

powergogobundle 620

PowerGo-Go Magnetic Charging Kits for iPhone 6, 6S

As tested: $42 for Charging Bumper Case; $25 for Charging Cable; $60 for Charging Cradle; $79.99 for Car Charger Set; $82.99 for Power Bank; $120 for Bundle set (case, cable, car mount, cradle and one Power Bank).

Magnetic charging of a smartphone has been around for a while, especially if you own a Samsung Galaxy smartphone or other Android devices. For those of us on the iPhone side of the world, magnetic charging usually means some additional adapters, cases, etc., as Apple has yet to put magnetic/induction charging in their phones.

Fortunately, you can still experience the excitement of this technology through the use of the PowerGo-Go Magnetic Charging system. The series of products include an iPhone charging case (we tried out the iPhone 6 charger on our new 6S), which includes the magnetic charging capability; a car mount that can sit on your vehicle’s dashboard and includes a car charger adapter; a charging cradle, which can be placed on a desktop to recharge via USB port; a smaller charging cable (USB with a small adapter) aimed at more portable uses; and the Power Bank, a reserve battery power that can charge your device away from either the mount or the cradle.

You don’t need to buy the entire system to benefit from this – the case and one of the chargers (car mount, cradle, charging cable) would suffice. If you do buy the Power Bank, you still need either the mount, cable or cradle to re-charge that unit.

Like other magnetic charging systems, it’s easy to recharge the unit – just place the iPhone case onto the magnetic power area and it will start to recharge. An additional benefit of the Power Bank is that you can place that on a charger cradle and then place the phone on top of that, giving you pass-through re-charging of your phone while also recharging the Power Bank (I’m not sure which device gets charged first, or if it slows down the recharge rate).

The car mount is easy to install, and the magnetic hold on the phone is strong enough to not shake the phone while driving (although if you’re on really bumpy roads it might slip off).

It’s still not the perfect solution – when you have the case on your phone you lose the ability to recharge the device via other cables or docks – but the ease of use of magnetic charging is nice to have for the iPhone.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

newertech14pctoolkit 620

NewerTech 14-Piece Portable Toolkit


How many times have you discovered the need for a quick repair? Required a tiny screwdriver to remove the battery door of a toy or game? Or needed a good set of tools to assist in an electronic or mechanical construction project or hobby? The importance of having the right tool cannot be overestimated; I’ve assembled a substantial collection of tools here because nothing drains the rhythm and productivity out of a project like yelling at a tiny screw for which one has no driver.

While the TOOLKIT14 from NewerTech is small, it’s a great start or supplement to existing tool collections. Here we have a workable collection of screwdrivers – flat, Phillips, Torx, and a 1.2mm pentalobe, which fits one class of “secure” screws. There’s a clamp (or hemostat, useful as a heat sink when soldering), tweezers, a nylon pointy probe, and a couple of plastic “spudgers” (extremely disposable, we’d suggest also buying replacements), which are useful in prying chips out of sockets and opening plastic cases, among many other tasks. And it’s all provisioned in a zippered case.

I’ve seen just one of the screwdrivers in this set costing more than the entire collection, and, while what we have here isn’t every tool a hobbyist might need, it’s a great start – and a great value as well.

-- Writeup by C.J. Mathias

netgearnighthawkx8500 620

NETGEAR R8500 Nighthawk X8 AC5300 Smart Wi-Fi Router


I’m not easily impressed – no self-respecting techie would be. But oh my, you’d better be sitting down for this one. Sure, Wi-Fi has evolved over the past 18 years from 1M and 2Mbps to today’s multi-gigabit 802.11ac fire-breathing beasts. But perennial market leader Netgear has accomplished the truly remarkable here, with the latest in their now long and legendary line of Nighthawk routers. I’ve used every one of these over the years, and the Nighthawk R8500 X8 AC5300 (I’m not sure why so many names are required…) blows the doors off of anything they have done in the past – and likely anything the competition has as well. Heck, there are enterprise-class access points that can’t come close to the 8500’s specs and performance.

Specs, you ask? Let’s start with the obvious but perhaps of lesser importance aggregate Wi-Fi throughput number: 5.3Gbps – yes, more than any broadband carrier can offer, but stunning regardless. But it’s not just about throughput, it’s about capacity – the ability of everyone in a residence (and we could be talking 10 or more – I’ve got around 15) clients in a given home these days – to get the performance they need. And, increasingly, that means streaming video off of a local source, not just the Web.

And there’s another equally important dimension of performance to consider: range, or better put, rate-vs.-range, the ability to reach the back bedroom with acceptable throughput. 802.11’s beamforming helps here, but the 8500 goes way past that. This is the first residential-class router I’ve seen with four external active antennas, plus four additional internal antennas. It supports three simultaneous Wi-Fi channels (one at 2.4 GHz., and two 80-MHz./four-stream .11ac channels at 5 GHz.). There are six gigabit-Ethernet ports, and two of these can be aggregated. While the firmware for this isn’t available as of this writing, it will eventually support MU-MIMO. Loaded? Yes.

And there’s more – over-the-air load balancing (the 5 GHz. channels can share an SSID), Quality of Service (QoS) support, USB (one each 2.0 and 3.0) for printer sharing and storage connectivity, and Netgear’s ReadyCLOUD, which provides a server for local and remote access to USB-attached storage. Other features include DLNA and VPN support, backup software, bridge mode (also sometimes called “game adapter” function), VPN access, parental controls, guest access, iTunes server, and an FTP server. The system also includes Netgear’s easy-to-use Genie management console. It’s even open-source if your giftee wants to play around with that.

Setup is easy. Unbox (nice box and industrial design, by the way). Plug it into power and Ethernet. Connect over Wi-Fi using the SSID and password provided on a sticker on the top. Configure. Done. Why hasn’t it always been this easy? Now, to be fair, there are a number of key decisions to be made, such as whether the 8500 will be a router or an access point (I chose access point, as my network is pretty much established, but the router features are considerable). Overall, it’s easy, easy, easy, especially for such a sophisticated product.

The downside is all of this power has a price, and that price is $400. But this is a router that will almost certainly last for years, and which offers among the best performance (throughput, capacity, and rate vs. range) that I’ve ever seen on any Wi-Fi infrastructure device.

-- Writeup by C.J. Mathias

seagatepersonalcloud 620

Seagate Personal Cloud 2-bay network-attached storage

$270 (for 4TB; other capacities available, including 3TB, 5TB, 6TB and 8TB)

The Seagate Personal Cloud is a network-attached storage (NAS) device aimed at the home market, giving home users a central location for their photos, movies and music that can then stream to multiple devices (phones, tablets, computers, even streaming TV boxes). The latest version is an update of the company’s Seagate Central line of NAS boxes, with additional features that now includes apps that you can run from the device itself to provide extra functionality.

The box connects to your home router, so make sure you have an extra Ethernet port available on your router. Setup is very simple, after connecting and powering up the unit you should be able to see the drive on your shared network. After moving files to the device, it’s ready for streaming to other devices through the Seagate Media app (for mobile devices), or directly from the PC or Mac.

Streaming isn’t the only feature, however – the drive can also perform backup functionality for devices on the home network, and you can also set up remote access functions for those times when you want a file but are away from your home network. The two-bay setup is also nice – you can set up the drive to act as redundant storage (so each file is copied separately) or double the storage if you want.

The coolest feature is the addition of apps that you can operate from the drive itself – for example, you can set up a Plex Media Server on the unit that lets you stream movies and videos and other channels from the NAS drive instead of setting up a media server on a separate PC. Other apps include backup, encryption, cloud access and a WordPress server (if you want to finally start that blog you’ve been meaning to do).

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

brothermfc j885 620

Brother MFC-J885dw (all-in-one printer)

$149,99; $99.99 at Staples

They’re not just multi-function printers anymore – they’re multi-function centers. It look very little time to install the paper, put it in the ink cartridges, connect to my Wi-Fi router, download the right drivers and print a document from the Mac. In fact, when you select Wi-Fi connectivity, the printer spits out a page with directions for downloading the software.

I liked how the ink cartridges went into a tray that you access from the front of the printer. This way, you don’t have to open the whole unit and try to squeeze ink cartridges into the guts of the printer. On the negative side, the 2.7-inch touchscreen display was too small – I often had to strain to read what was being shown. And has there ever been a printer with a long enough power cord?

The software download gives you a “control center” app that lets you scan images, emails and files from your computer – at one point, I took a physical photo and copied it to assess the quality of the color printing, which turned out well. Then I hit a couple of buttons by mistake and the photo showed up on my computer – I guess that’s a feature.

You can also connect and print via your smartphone and through near-field communications (NFC). Scanning can be done to cloud services, including Dropbox, Box, Facebook, OneNote and Google Drive.

And that’s why it’s more than a printer.

-- Writeup by Neal Weinberg

logitechz533 620

Logitech z533 Multimedia Speaker System


I’ve had a laptop for several years, and the sound quality coming out of the tiny speakers has been nominal at best. I’ve had to suffer through lots of low-quality sound when watching movies or listening to music. Getting a Bluetooth speaker system sometimes helps the situation, but even then the sound isn’t as good as a set of speakers.

So I was excited to receive a sample of the z533 Multimedia Speaker System, which includes two very nice left/right speakers and a subwoofer. The system provides 120 watts of peak power, more than enough power to fill the room with sound.

The system is also designed to support multiple-device inputs, simultaneously (which means you don’t have to switch input modes). While the main use will be for a computer, there’s also two composite audio jacks for older-generation game consoles (such as a Nintendo Wii, Playstation 3 or Xbox 360). A third audio import, via the control pod, supports audio for smartphones and tablets.

Speaking of the control pod, that’s a nice addition – connected to the subwoofer, the circular control panel offers the power switch and a round knob for volume control, as well as a slider for the amount of bass you’d like to have. In addition to the 3.5mm audio jack for smartphone input (AUX cable), you can also attach headphones to the control pod if your wife, kids or anyone else in the room tells you to keep the sound down.

While this system isn’t completely portable for your notebook, it’s still small enough for you to place in an area where space may be limited, and the multiple inputs make this for a more flexible system than with other speaker sets.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

Page Break

etape 16 620

E Tape 16 Digital Measuring Tape


Everything else in this world has a digital component, so why not the tape measure? Old-school builders and handymen may scoff at this notion, but the E Tape 16 Digital Measuring Tape is a “cool tool” that you’ll want in your home or work tool box.

The device measures accurately in both inches and centimeters (you can change the unit at the click of a button), and two memory buttons let you store a measurement for later access. The device lets you measure in two different directions, so you can measure from the outside or the inside (a lot more useful than you’d initially think).

A center-line button calculates where the center is located on a particular measurement, very handy in case you’ve forgotten your math skills, or if you have a particularly tricky measurement. For example, if you’re hanging a photo on the wall, measuring the width of the frame and then calculating the center point is a great way to figure out where you want to pound that nail in.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

epson xp830

Epson Expression Premium XP-830


This year is the 30th anniversary of the “Back to the Future” film, but more important, 2015 is the year that Marty McFly traveled to from 1985 in the 1989 sequel (if you didn’t already know this, you weren’t paying attention last month when practically everyone on the planet covered this “story”).

One of the more interesting “predictions” about the future was that everyone would have fax machines everywhere in the house – in fact, the “old” Marty got fired from his job via fax in one scene.

Thankfully, that prediction didn’t come true, but we still have fax machines, and you’ve probably got one in your home. The multifunction printers that still give us printing, copying and scanning capabilities also include faxing as an option. It’s the fourth feature of these machines that often get overlooked, but it’s still there for any small business owner who might need one. Interestingly, the things that we used to fax to one another (contracts, letters, menus, etc.) are still done – but with extra steps – I usually scan the contract and email it to myself as a PDF, then attach the PDF to the person I’m communicating with.

Anyway, the Expression Premium XP-830 has a fax function, but like previous write-ups I’m going to ignore that. Like previous versions of this printer, you get awesome photo printing features (two paper trays let you print several different sizes of photos, including 4x6, 5x7 and 8x10 or letter-sizes, just to name a few) with great results. The printer uses five ink cartridges – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black and “Photo Black”, which are relatively easy to install.

Photos look fantastic when printed with this printer, Epson means it when it says these are “lab quality.” For example, I printed several photos of my kids with this printer, and my wife said, “Gee, I wish you had told me about this before I ordered prints” – they were that good.

The printer supports printing from many different devices – you can print from your PC or Mac via Wi-Fi, you can print directly from an SD memory card, or directly from a mobile phone or tablet through the Epson iPrint app. If you’re really ambitious, you can try to connect to the printer via Wi-Fi Direct, but it’s easier to just connect the printer to an existing Wi-Fi router and print through that method.

The scanner is a flatbed unit on top of the device, which also doubles as the “copier” if you need to do that function. A very cool automatic document feeder lets you scan and copy several documents at once, something you usually see at the office copier.

All of the different tasks are handled through the very cool touch-screen display that pops out in front of the device – Epson has had this display for several models, and it has perfected the user interface very nicely on this version.

Network connections are supported through Ethernet, direct connection via USB, or my favorite, Wi-Fi. Setting up the network takes some time at first (especially if you have a long Wi-Fi password), but once it’s ready you won’t have to worry about it again.

There are lots of other options, including my favorites – the ability to print out a single sheet of lined paper or graph paper, or to take a scanned image and turn it into a coloring page. When Epson first started with this feature with its Artisan line of printers, I didn’t have school-aged children who would need this. Now that the kids are older and in school, I’m going to take advantage of this feature to great effect.

My favorite new feature on the printer is an automatic tray that slides out when you’re printing, giving your paper or photo a place to rest while you wait for it to be picked up. You can push the tray back in when you’ve grabbed your paper or photo, giving this printer a smaller footprint and giving you other options on where it can sit in your house.

This version of the Expression series is aimed more at the user who wants great photos – if you’re looking for similar functions but don’t want the extra features and superior photo abilities, check out the less expensive 320, 420 or 424 models.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

netgearrn214 620

NETGEAR ReadyNAS 214 Network Attached Storage

$499 (diskless)

While cloud-based backup is nothing short of essential these days, and while online access to files in the cloud might eventually become the norm, there’s still a huge need for local storage in today’s multi-device (to say the least) household. Any techie on your list will be absolutely thrilled to receive the Netgear ReadyNAS 214, the latest incarnation of NASs from Netgear, reflecting the company’s long history as a key player in the residential (and enterprise) NAS space.

Why go with NAS? Because contemporary storage needs can span literally dozens of devices in the modern home (such as handsets, tablets, and PCs of all forms). Centralized (and high-integrity) storage, control, and management make a lot of sense. Are people on your gift list streaming media to essentially all of those devices? Of course they are. Would any techie on your holiday list be satisfied with anything less than enterprise-class performance and features on their home network? No, they would not.

That’s why the ReadyNAS 214 will make a great gift. It’s available diskless, with four open drive bays, but can be configured with up to 24TB – way more than enough to store every episode of Family Guy ever made (and then some). Backup software, Apple Time Machine support, sync, replication, data integrity, anti-virus, and DLNA support are included. The two Ethernet ports can be aggregated. And, as a RAID system, data integrity is enhanced as well. In sum: enterprise-class features and performance; residential-class price.

Our test unit had two 1-TB drives installed. Setup is easy; install the drives, connect to power and Ethernet, and then use a browser to connect to Netgear’s ReadyCloud service. The device is discovered, and a few fill-ins and clicks later, you’re good to go. There’s an LED display on the front that’s activated with a single push of the power button, but it’s likely you’ll hide this unit out of sight in the back room. It’s compact and quiet enough to put anywhere, though.

A less-expensive two-bay model, the RN212, with pretty much the same set of features, is also available.

-- Writeup by C.J. Mathias