Slideshow

In Pictures: Cool Yule Tools - Best techie gifts for 2014

The National Santa Agency has a handle on what everyone wants.

  • Our motto: “He Sees You When You’re Sleeping, He Knows When You’re Awake…” ... After months of investigations, cups of coffee and several arm-twisting interrogation tactics, the Cool Yule Tools staff of writers and editors has discovered a shocking truth. The government group that has allegedly been spying on us, known as the “NSA”, is actually a cover group for a little-known organization with headquarters near the North Pole. Yes, we are speaking of the National Santa Agency. (See full writeups on these products.) Thanks to our "Special Agents" who contributed reviews: Keith Shaw, Craig Mathias, Neal Weinberg, Abigail Weinberg, Ken Mingis and Tom Lupien.

  • Phones, computers and other mobile goodies: A large majority of the subjects we were monitoring were VERY interested in acquiring a new mobile device, whether it was a new laptop, phone or tablet. But we think they'll be quite happy with these reviewed devices.

  • Apple iPhone 6 Plus: $US299 for the 16GB model with 2-year contract; $749, contract-free. The iPhone 6 Plus represents the epitome of Apple's phone line, but if you're thinking of getting one as a gift, make sure your gift recipient can handle it. Literally. With a 5.5-in. "Retina HD" screen, this is one big phone -- the biggest Apple's ever made and its first foray into the phablet market. As you'd expect from an Apple device, the design and engineering are top rate, and the screen is pixel packed, with 401 pixels per inch. That means everything is razor sharp, colorful and bright. It's easily the best iPhone display Apple has produced.

  • Kyocera Brigadier smartphone: Price: $US49.99 with two-year agreement, plus data plan. The Brigadier by Kyocera runs on Verizon’s 4G LTE network, and can take any kind of abuse you can dish out. We dunked it in water, dropped it on a hardwood floor, scraped the screen with a sharp knife. And nothing, not even a scratch.

  • Lenovo Horizon 2 Tabletop PC: $US1500 (our test unit, available via Best Buy). When you lay this giant 27-inch computer flat on a table, the first thing people may think is that you somehow got your hands on the iPhone 7 Plus (a really really really big phablet). But in reality, it’s still a Windows 8.1 PC, but one with a touchscreen that multiple people can interact with. The Aura interface that overlays the Windows PC to provide the tabletop mode lets multiple people pinch, expand, shrink and move objects around on the touchscreen. While you can collaborate with co-workers via this method (looking at photos, or watching videos, for example), the majority of your time spent with this machine will be spent playing games.

  • Logitech k480 Multi-Device Keyboard: $US49.99. You’re most likely to need/want a Bluetooth external keyboard when you acquire a tablet, but plenty of other devices (such as your smartphone and notebook) have Bluetooth as well, so it’s nice to have a single keyboard that can connect to multiple devices. Logitech achieves this with its k480, a small, portable keyboard that includes a dial that switches between up to three devices, across multiple operating systems. If you want to connect a Windows PC, Android smartphone and Apple iPad, just turn the dial associated with each of those devices (it’s up to you to remember which device goes with each setting on your dial). The keyboard quickly and easily makes the Bluetooth connection to those devices.

  • Lenovo Y50: Starts at $US1089. I’ve been in the Mac camp for about three years now, about the same amount of time that Windows 8 has been out. But if I were ever considering coming back to the world of Windows, it would definitely be with this machine – the Lenovo Y50. The latest systems include fourth-generation Intel Core processors, a brilliant 15.6-inch full HD displays (touch-enabled, too), JBL speakers and a very cool backlit keyboard. I’m even coming around on Windows 8.1, if only a little bit (the return of the Start menu and easier access to the desktop definitely helps).

  • Lenovo N20p Chromebook: $US329.99 (as tested). Chromebooks have been out for a few years now, so the rough edges from earlier models have smoothed out, and Google seems to be doing a pretty good job at filling in the blanks of things that were missing from the operating system (remember, Chromebooks don’t use a traditional operating system like Windows or MacOS). You have to be invested in the Google universe, which means email will be done through Gmail, your browser will be Google Chrome, your productivity applications will be done through Google Drive (Docs, spreadsheets, presentations, etc.), and your music will be located on Google Play Music, etc. In fact, you might want to ask your friend, family or co-worker how comfortable they are with all of these Google offerings - if so, then it’s a definite recommend.

  • Macally Quick Switch Bluetooth Keyboard: $US69.99. It may seem like overkill to think that you would need one keyboard that quickly switches for use with five different devices, but you could find yourself in a scenario with two computers, a phone, a tablet and then you’re already up to four right there. Even if you don’t need five devices, it’s still a very cool option to have this functionality. In fact, you can connect a sixth device via the included USB cable, which is like Spinal Tap going to 11. The keyboard itself is a full-sized keyboard with a very light touch and feel - it’s so light that you could carry it with you if you had a big enough laptop bag (it’s the width, not the weight that would be limiting).

  • REPORT #2: Audio Entertainment (Headphones, Music, Speakers): After mobile devices, the next most popular item on holiday wish lists focus around musical entertainment. Whether speakers or headphones, we think these items will look great under the tree (or on your head).

  • Blue Mo-Fi headphones: $US350. At first glance, the Mo-Fi headphones from Blue appear to be so large you'd never want to be seen in public with them. The headphones are big – very big compared with other headphones we’ve seen. They’re heavier, too. But the reasons for that will likely cause you to veto any concerns you may have. The extra weight and design are due to a built in audiophile amplifier and “ultra-premium drivers”, which give high-fidelity sounds to multiple devices – whether you’re listening on your phone, tablet, computer or even higher end A/V systems. Sure, this adds some extra weight, and you might get some odd looks while wearing these on your flight. But deal with it, you’ll enjoy the awesome sound compared to your seatmates listening on other headphones.

  • Sonos Play:1 ... $US199. This portable speaker lets you experience the joy of the Sonos Music system without the additional equipment (a wireless bridge, for example) needed with other parts of their gear. Control music through the wonderful Sonos app on your phone or tablet and you'll be hearing lovely music all season long.

  • KEF X300A Wireless Digital Hi-Fi Speaker System: $US799.99. When you think of wireless speakers, you think of smaller, Bluetooth-enabled devices (such as the Jambox Jawbone, or the Sonos Play:1, etc.), aimed a providing some good sound for music stored on tablets, phones, etc. These speakers are not like those systems. The KEF X300A speakers are huge speakers – they look more like giant audio system speakers you’d have connected to your older audio system (if you still had a receiver, record player, cassette deck, etc.) They’re very heavy – when you get these, decide quickly where you want them and keep them there – portable speakers these are not.

  • iHome iDL100 – Triple Charging FM Clock Radio Stereo System: $US149.99. With the integration of alarm clock functions (clock, alarm, snooze button, etc.), you’ll most likely want to have this unit sitting on your nightstand. The Lightning Connector dock at the top lets you place your iPhone 5/5S (or the new 6 models) as well as your iPad to recharge it. If you’re so motivated, you can even set your alarm clock to wake up to a favourite song instead of an annoying buzzer or beep. But leaving this on a bedroom nightstand isn’t the only thing you’ll want to do with the iDL100 – The system allows for three devices to be recharged (the two Lightning-based devices at the top, as well as a USB charging port in the back), and the speakers are good enough to place in a kitchen or other small room for additional audio entertainment. If you have a video that you’d like to watch on your phone or tablet, for example, the system provides excellent audio to accompany the video. An AUX in jack lets you connect any other older audio device (or an old iPod that doesn’t have the Lightning connector).

  • Pure Evoke F4 with Bluetooth: $US220. Pure continues to impress us with its Internet-radio-themed devices – this Evoke F4 is a very old-school, classic look-and-feel device that can access a variety of different music streaming sources from around the world. But also realizing that customers may already have a bunch of music either stored on computers, storage devices or even phones/tablets, they’ve added Bluetooth connectivity to play music from those devices to the Evoke F4 system. In addition to the Internet radio services (connecting through Pure’s Connect service), the Evoke F4 can connect to Sirius XM satellite radio (a separate subscription would be required) and FM radio (hence the old-school metal antenna). Connecting to the Internet is done through Wi-Fi (interestingly, no Ethernet port on the unit). Volume control and menu control are handled through nice metal dials, but there’s also some touch-enabled buttons on the display for making other menu choices.

  • Star Wars Street by 50 on-ear wired headphones (SMS Audio): $US199.95. If you’re a Star Wars fan and you love music, and - more importantly - you want others to know about your love of the movie, then these headphones are ones that you’ll want to sport when you’re out and about. These high-performance headphones provide pretty good sound quality for your music, movies or if you want to use when video gaming, and come in different Star Wars themes and colours (we tried the white Stormtrooper model, but there’s also some other cool colours/themes such as Rebel Alliance, Boba Fett and Galactic Empire). The on-ear wired headphones include 40mm drivers, passive noise cancellation (non-powered) and can fold up for putting into your travel bag.

  • Icon Q Boundless E1 Bluetooth earphones: $US65. These small and light earbuds/earphones will wirelessly connect you with your music device (phone, MP3 player, tablet) without a tangled cord getting in the way. This can be good if you want to use these while working out (although I prefer the Plantronics BackBeat Fit earbuds for that purpose), or if you just don’t like the extra bulk of a connection cord. The earbuds provide good, but not stellar, sound for your music or movies -you are using Bluetooth, after all. Pairing can be done via Bluetooth (an in-ear prompt helps you determine whether the earphones are powered on or off, or whether you’re in pairing mode), or NFC if you have an NFC-compatible phone or tablet.

  • Polk Audio Ultrafocus 8000LE noise cancelling headphones: $US250. For comfort and sound quality, these noise-cancelling headphones are pretty impressive. We've tried other brands and they always felt heavy and clunky on the head. They were the kind where your wife says, “You’re not really going out of the house wearing those are you?” The Ultrafocus 800LE is Star-Wars-white plastic on the outside and chocolate brown on the inside – which means the ear cups themselves are brown along with the padding on the inside of the headband. On the outside of the left ear cup is the battery cover for the two AAA batteries you need to run the headphones. On the outside of the right is a circular control panel.

  • Plantronics BackBeat Fit headphones: $US129.99. These super comfortable, around-the-ear earbuds use Bluetooth wireless to connect to your phone/music player, and provide an outstanding listening experience for when you're jogging, running or generally working out and building up a sweat. The headphones are sweatproof and have a long-lasting battery, so the tunes won't cut out on Heartbreak Hill.

  • Plantronics BackBeat Pro headphones: $US249.99. These over-the-head headphones include active noise cancellation and a superior battery life, making it a great gift for anyone looking for great-sounding music and quiet while they’re in a noisy environment (aka planes, room full of kids, etc.) Additional features, such as multipoint connections (connecting to a phone and tablet, for example), an “OpenMic” button that reduces the volume so you can hear outside noise without removing the headphones, and a nice comfortable fit make this an excellent choice to give or receive as a gift this year.

  • iHome iBN26 Bluetooth speaker/speaker phone $US79.99. If you're looking for a small and stylish wireless speaker for casual use around the house, iHome's iBN26 should be on your list. This compact system can connect to your mobile device using Bluetooth or NFC. After pairing, all you have to do is start playing music on your mobile device and your songs will be streamed wirelessly to the iBN26. Sound quality is good, albeit light on bass and a little muddy on higher notes. But for the price, it's more than enough to fill a room with whatever tunes you fancy.

  • Boom Swap headphones: $US69.99. Hey kids, having a hard time deciding whether you want on-ear or over-the-ear headphones? Can’t decide what color to make your headband or earcups? Then check out The Boom Swap headphones, a modular headphone system that allows you to make changes depending on your mood and situation. It’s like a “build your own headphone” system! The headphones are made out of a flexible plastic and come with several components, including two foam over-the-ear earcups that you can easily slide onto the on-ear parts. The flexible headband can be removed and replaced with a second one of a different color (ours came with black and blue headbands). On the outside of the earcups, another two options for colors. The headphones come with three color options (black/blue, white/black and mint/orange), but unfortunately you can’t buy different colored headbands or earcaps separately.

  • Polk Audio Hinge headphones: $US97 (Newegg) to $US129 (Best Buy and Nordstrom). These headphones have an old-school, over-the-ear style, but in a compact form that’s also more comfortable. The aluminum frame make them lightweight, yet still very sturdy, adding the additional comfort. These were a lot more comfortable than most on-ear sets we’ve tried - there’s a good seal, but not a lot of tight pressure. Music quality was surprisingly good bass and treble for headphone sin this price range - it gave out some nice deep and clear tones.

  • REPORT 3: Office gadgets and other work gear: Why should your family members have all the cool gifts at home? Here are some picks of some great technology gift ideas that will make you more productive when you're working in your cubicle or office.

  • EPSON LabelWorks LW-600P: $US100. What I like about the Epson LabelWorks LW-600P is the ability to create your labels through your smartphone. The app-enabled printer is a very small unit that includes a Bluetooth wireless connection in order to communicate with your iOS or Android smartphone or tablet through Epson’s iLabel app. Having the app means that you don’t need a keypad or screen on the device, making it smaller than other label makers. The app is cool because it gives you a better sense of how the label will look after it’s printed, showing you the font and size of the label on your smartphone/tablet before you hit the print button.

  • EPSON Expression Premium XP-820 Small-in-One: $US200. EPSON makes so many different types of printers and multi-function printers these days, it’s hard to keep up with all of the new features and chart differences between them. The XP-820 is part of the company’s home printer family (as opposed to the WorkForce line aimed at business workers), and includes photo printing, copying, scanning and network connectivity (both Wi-Fi and Ethernet). The XP-820 features five different inks (compared with some of the printers I’ve tried that have had six cartridges), which includes a “photo black” for better photo prints. The printer also claims to print a 4-by-6-inch photo in about 12 seconds (that time begins when you hear the printer start to print, not the setup time after you click the print button on your computer or mobile device).

  • Henge Docks Gravitas: $US69. In the world of docking stations for your smartphone or tablet, the Gravitas is the heaviest dock (for its size) that you’ll ever see. It’s so heavy (it’s made of a zinc alloy that Henge Docks says is “256% denser than aluminum) that you could pick it up and physically hurt someone with it if you needed a small projectile in a pinch, but that’s just a secondary bonus feature.

  • Fuse Chicken Une Bobine (charge+synch+dock+cable): $US35. When a company called Fuse Chicken offers you a product, you just can’t say no. The Une Bobine is a flexible cable with a USB port on the end and a Lightning connector on the other, providing your iPhone a handy stand and docking station that you can bend to your own desires. The flexible, metal-wrapped cord also makes it good to use as a portable tripod for setting up videos or photos when you’re out and about.

  • Octa TabletTail WhaleKit: $US39.99. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of stands and holders for tablets, because they always add extra bulk to the tablet, making it heavier to hold and travel with. The WhaleKit solves this a bit by providing a lighter stand, yet it’s solid enough to support the tablet (it even shows a picture of it holding a notebook). The cute design, where it looks like a fish/whale tail, enhances the appeal of the device, and lets you display your tablet in both portrait or landscape mode. The tail part is flexible to allow for different display angles, and it can detach from the round suction cup part if you want an even lower angle.

  • Octa TabletTail Monkey Kit: $US69.99. Like the similarly named “Whale Kit”, the Monkey Kit provides two parts to create a stand for your tablet or phone. The first part is the system’s Vacuum Dock - a cool suction cup holder that attaches to the back of your device similarly to a car GPS docking station suction cup. The second part, the “Monkey Tail”, is a flexible-yet-sturdy “pipe” that you can bend and twist into creating different positions for holding the device. The strongest is the “Stand”, in which you curl around the end and have the top end holding the tablet.

  • Brother Compact Laser Printer (HL-L2360DW): $US149.99. Since most of the gift ideas we get around printing surround color inkjet models with additional features like scanning and such, it was nice to be able to try out a laser printer, since the last one I had goes back to the late 1990s. This printer would work well in a very small office setting, where you want a bunch of users to have access to quick-and-easy laser printed documents (such as email or this article). The 250-page tray fits nicely under the printer and can print different sizes of paper and even envelopes for those brave enough to try. Direct-from-mobile printing is also available via the Brother iPrint&Scan app.

  • REPORT #4: Power Gadgets: In this mobile device world, the biggest problem after figuring out which one to get is how to keep them powered up all the time. These gadgets will keep your devices running long after the thrill of the box-opening is gone.

  • Velvetwire PowerSlayer: $US80. The PowerSlayer kit from Velvetwire includes a power adapter that will cut off the electricity going to the device once it hits 100%. This is better for the battery life of the device, and then also saves the recharger from drawing additional electricity from the power outlet. Bonus bonus! The kit also comes with a very nice (and long!) charging cable with a braided cord that doesn’t get tangled as much as other cables, and a handy travel case if you want to pack up the cable and Powerslayer unit for your laptop bag. If it helps you reduce your power footprint as well, there’s a third bonus.

  • Puku S8 Battery: $US99. The portable battery with quite possibly the oddest name (“Hand me the Puku!”) is an 8000mAH lithium ion battery that can recharge two portable devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) via two USB output ports (port 1 provides 2.1A of power; port 2 provides 1A). You have to provide the charging cables, but the battery does give you its own microUSB recharging cable and a wall adapter to recharge the battery once you use up all the juice on your devices (the system also allows for passthrough recharging, so you can plug in the Puku battery to the wall and recharge two devices at the same time, like when you’re sitting on the floor at the airport).

  • Ventev ChargeSync tangle-free USB cables: $24.99 (as tested, Lightning style); prices vary depending on pin configuration and length (microUSB, 30-pin Apple, etc.). As you find yourself using your tablet, smartphone or other mobile device in more places, or if you’re accumulating more devices, it’s more than likely you’ll need an additional charging cable. These cables from Ventev are colorful charging cables that won’t tangle as much as the ones provided by Apple (or Samsung or Amazon, etc.), which is always preferred. The cable provides charging and data synchronization functions, and the length of the cable (3.3 feet, or 1 meter for you metric system followers) is very nice as well. Makes a great stocking stuffer!

  • Macally 4-Port USB Powerstation+: $US49.99. This handy device provides four USB ports with recharging capabilities (two ports charge at 2.4A, the other two at 1A) and a regular power outlet that can recharge a notebook computer (provided the cable is a two-pronged adapter, not one with the third ground prong). The Powerstation+’s unit has a nice 6-foot cable, which can help stretch out to reach your devices should you take this with you to a hotel (they always have hard-to-reach or hard-to-find power outlets). As long as you have the charging cables, this one unit should be able to charge two tablets and two smartphones (or four smartphones if two of them can be recharged with 1A) off of one outlet.

  • Cobra JumPack: $US130. The Cobra JumPack is this cute little green and white device not much bigger than a cell phone that will jump-start your car if your battery dies. Just charge up the JumPack and you’re good to go when you car isn’t. The included jumper cables only stretch about one foot, but then again, you’re not connecting to another car. You simply connect the cables to your JumPack, which features a starting current of 200 Amps and peak current of 400 Amps.

  • Ventev Powercell 3015: $US34.99 . The problem with many portable battery chargers that give your cell phone extra life is the extra weight it adds to your laptop bag, purse or other storage system for when you’re out and about. Luckily, the Ventev Powercell 3015 takes care of that issue, offering an extremely lightweight battery pack for you to take with you in case your phone, tablet or game device needs some extra juice. Fully, charged, the 3000mAh lithium polymer battery offers an extra 12 hours of talk time for your phone, or about 10 extra hours of “browse time”, which I assume is for data access on the phone (like if you need to get your Candy Crush or Angry Birds fix in). A small power button on the side indicates how much battery power is left on the battery, and also activates the recharging once you plug in.

  • Ventev Powercell 6000+: $US74.99. Smaller portable battery chargers or battery charger cases are great, but sometimes you really want a rapid charge to restore your portable device, or you want to charge multiple devices. That’s when you need to bring in the big guns, such as the Ventev Powercell 6000+ dual USB battery charger plus wall charger. The 6000mAH battery by itself can recharge two devices (one phone and one tablet, or two phones) via its 1A and 2.1A ports (although you need to provide the charging cables yourself). The real fun happens when you plug the unit into a wall outlet - you then get a rapid recharge of both your devices, perfect for attaching two devices at the end of the day in your hotel room, or in a spare power outlet in the trade show press room (or airport waiting area, or any other location where you can siphon free electricity).

  • REPORT #5: Home Control and “Internet of Things” things: We're still not sure yet if this "Internet of Things" trend will continue, but there are a lot of new gadgets that have network and mobile device connectivity added to them. Here are our favorites:

  • Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker with WeMo: $US129.99. Everyone loves a good stew, soup, chili or other such recipe made with one of these appliances. What makes this even better is the Internet connectivity, enabled through Belkin’s Wemo technology. By downloading an app for your smartphone (iOS or Android), you can quickly connect the slow cooker to a home router. The Internet connectivity then lets you change heat settings or cooking times from the phone, perfect for adjusting your dinner when you're stuck in holiday traffic.

  • Belkin Wi-Fi enabled Mr. Coffee: $US150. It’s a different world today. Everybody has a Keurig. There’s a Starbucks on every corner. But Mr. Coffee is still around. The new wrinkle is a Wi-Fi enabled, 10-cup, state-of-the-art coffee maker that’s being sold by Wi-Fi gear maker Belkin. With the Wemo-enabled app, you can lie in bed and use your smartphone to crank up the coffee machine. You can also do remote scheduling of brew times and, according to the literature, configure weeks of brews in advance.

  • Insteon 2244-224 Starter Kit: $US116.99 (Amazon) Judging by the number of products in this space we received this year, home automation is hot, but there are many of us who have been doing this for decades. So it was time to replace the X10 lighting control gear that we've used for most of those years, and Insteon is one of the top consumer brands in this space. There are several starter kits available, designed to ease newbies into the rather robust (in terms of options) world of Insteon. The Hub connects to the Internet via Ethernet, and to the Dimmers via wireless. It’s all controlled by an iOS or Android app.

  • Honeywell Lyric RCH9300WF Thermostat: $US260 (Amazon). The idea of a wireless thermostat has obvious appeal. Your smartphone can be the control panel, and all manner of adaptive and value-added services become possible. Honeywell has been one of the big names (maybe the biggest, in fact) in thermostats since, well, forever, and the Honeywell Lyric model we tested is compatible with standard 24-volt systems for heating, cooling, and heat pumps. There’s a lot here: It’s Wi-Fi connected and controlled either from its own front panel or (preferably) their app.

  • D-Link DCH-S150 mydlink Wi-Fi Motion Sensor: $US35.51 (Amazon). D-Link's new Wi-Fi (2.4 GHz. only) Motion Sensor is pretty much what it sounds like – an IR sensor that can trigger a number of actions when motion is detected. Actions can include receiving a notification, turning on a light, and many more. A product like this can be useful by itself, or can be part of a more comprehensive D-Link-based home-automation and/or home-security solution.

  • Oregon Scientific RAR213HG Weather@Home Thermo Plus Bluetooth-enabled Thermo-hydro Monitor: $US39.18 (Amazon). We've been fans of Oregon Scientific’s weather devices for some time, but this is the first one we've seen with a smartphone app (iOS and Android) and Bluetooth linking to that app. Both the outdoor transmitter unit and the receiver/monitor come with batteries; just open the doors and pull the little tabs to turn everything on. Additional setup is minor – set the clock, download the app, and that’s it.

  • REPORT #6: Techie Toys (really geeky stuff): OK, we're digging deeper into some high-tech gear here - proceed with caution!

  • Netgear AC3200 Nighthawk X6 802.11ac Wireless Router: $US259 (Amazon). The new AC3200 Nighthawk X6 is referred to by the company as “Tri-Band”, but this is marketing-speak. It’s really dual-band, but there are two 802.11ac 5-GHz radios in addition to a 2.4 GHz. 802.11n radio. So the term Tri-Channel might be better. Having two 802.11ac channels (that can also be configured for 802.11n at 5GHz) is clearly a plus – it’s like adding another access point. There are lots of configuration options to tweak, and all of the usual goodies – USB device sharing, Windows backup software, USB printer sharing, an iTunes server, remote VPN access, and more.

  • Asus RT-AC87U AC2400 Dual Band Wireless Gigabit Router: $US264.95 (Amazon). Asus has a long and venerable history in Wi-Fi; they were one of the first to ship pre-standard 802.11n products. This unit features four-stream MIMO, and the marketing materials claim up to 465 square meters (about 5,000 square feet) of coverage. While those same marketing materials stress 4K video and gaming as target applications, the AC2400 is undoubtedly one of the highest-performing routers available today.

  • Linksys WRT1900AC Dual Band Gigabit Wi-Fi Router: $US217.99 (Amazon Prime price). Since Belkin purchased Linksys and its home Wi-Fi routers, the company has come out with some newer gear, but for classic Linksys fans who remember the early days of wireless LAN routers, the WRT 1900AC is the model to get. The router returns to its iconic blue design with external antennas, but has enough features in today’s modern router to keep things running smoothly on your home network.

  • IK Multimedia - BlueBoard: $US64.99 (Amazon). IK Multimedia’s very clever BlueBoard is valuable for musicians, but also useful in other applications. It’s a compact pedal used (typically) to control software-based effects valued by guitarists – step on a pedal, change the tone. It’s battery-powered and completely wireless – it uses the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) / Bluetooth 4.0 technology. IK Multimedia has also made available the documentation required to integrate the BlueBoard into whatever you might have in mind – assisted living, home automation, PC controller, gaming – the mind boggles at the possibilities here.

  • Fluke Networks LSPRNTR-200 LinkSprinter 200 Network Tester with Wi-Fi $US299 (Amazon): Behold the LinkSprinter 200 from the network-testing experts at Fluke Networks. This handy, pocket-sized device performs several tests, including PoE status, information on the switch port connected (including speed and duplex settings), DHCP verification, gateway/router reachability, and Internet connectivity. In short, push a button, and you know if everything important is working properly. This device can be a real lifesaver in discerning if a cable is truly dead, and when installing access points, to name just two common troubleshooting activities.

  • FLIR One thermal imaging camera (add-on for iPhone 5/5S): $US349.99. Thermal imaging devices can capture heat signatures from different sources, but now we’re seeing this technology made available as a snap-on attachment for your smartphone. The FLIR One system includes two cameras - one for taking the heat signature, and a second camera that provides a bit of an outline so you can see the objects that you’re getting heat from when using the camera . Along with several free apps, you can use the FLIR One to get temperature readings from different objects or people (it’s always interesting to see what part of your head generates the most heat). There are several use cases, such as pointing it at your windows to see where (and how much) heat is escaping, or pointing it at a wall to find out where the hidden pipes might be located.

  • Seek Thermal iPhone attachment: $US199. The Seek Thermal is a small attachment for your iPhone (Lightning) or Android (mUSB) phone that turns the device into a thermal imaging camera. Alongside its Seek Thermal app, the camera can take photos or videos that show the thermal heat map of the thing you’re looking at (cat, human, wall, pencil, etc.). What’s more fun are some the things included on the app, such as an average temperature at the center of the frame, the ability to find the highest and lowest temperature within the range of the camera, and the “threshold” view, which lets you set a temperature, and then choose whether to highlight things on the view screen that are equal or fall above or below the set temperature. So if you’re looking for objects in the room that are above 85 degrees, for example, scanning the room with the phone will highlight where that object is.

  • IK Multimedia iKlip Xpand: $US49.99 (Amazon). With tablet makers constantly changing form factors, the folks who make mounts and stands are having a field day – a new tablet means a new stand. Gee, shouldn’t someone just make a universal stand? Well, if your application involves clipping a tablet to a microphone stand, then IK Multimedia has finally addressed this challenge with the iKlip Xpand. This clever design can accommodate essentially every tablet from 7 inches to 12.1 inches. One of the great aspects of this approach is that there’s no need to remove your tablet from its usual case to mount it on the iKlip Xpand.

  • IK Multimedia iRig Mic HD: ($US120.69 (Amazon). The new iRig Mic HD is going to change the perception that a separate condenser is the way to go, I think – it’s a great-sounding, inexpensive, flexible, and digital (USB) mic that will be at home in the studio, the field, and in essentially any application.

  • UNI-T UT58D Modern Digital Multimeter: $US34.01 (Amazon). In case you’re not an engineer, a multimeter is a handy (and usually inexpensive) device that can read volts, ohms, amps, and other analog engineering stuff like that. In fact, the UNI-T UT58D reviewed here does all of that across a very broad range, plus inductance, capacitance, diode and transistor testing, and continuity with a handy buzzer to boot. The only thing missing here is temperature sensing (the UT58E has that), but we only rarely need thermal measurements anyway.

  • REPORT #7: Storage Stuff: Here are the latest and greatest options for not only storing all of your videos, music and photos, but streaming them back to your mobile devices as well.

  • Macally Mobile Wi-Fi Pocket Drive: $US79.99. This small device reminds me of some of the wireless external hard drives that I’ve tested in the past (both last year and this year), in that you can dump a bunch of photos, movies and music onto the unit and then stream that content to multiple portable devices (phones, tablets, etc.) via a direct Wi-Fi connection. Unlike those other devices, however, the Macally Mobile Wi-Fi Pocket Drive lets you store content on an SD card, or attach a USB flash drive or even a regular USB external hard drive. This makes the unit itself a bit smaller than those other drives, and gives you different storage options (it’s a good use of older SD cards or USB sticks).

  • G-Technology G-Drive mobile with Thunderbolt: $US199.95 (1TB version tested). Featuring a 7200-RPM drive and 1TB of capacity (at least in the version we tested, capacities vary of course), the drive includes two ports for data transfer - Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 (in case you want to use this drive with a Windows machine). The device is specifically formatted for Mac systems, but you can also reformat it for Windows. More good news - both the USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt cables are included with the drive.

  • WD My Passport Ultra Metal Edition: $US139.99 (2TB capacity tested). This portable USB 3.0 external hard drive really shines, not just due to the extremely cool-looking aluminum finish (you also have a choice of three different colors, including a gold-like “champagne” version). In addition to a whopping 2TB of storage capacity in a small package, the WD My Passport Ultra Metal Edition includes a bunch of software that helps you keep that data safe and secure.

  • Buffalo MiniStation Air wireless mobile storage: $US199.99 (Amazon - $US167.70 with Prime). This device combines an external storage drive (we tested the 1TB version) with the ability to wirelessly stream content on the device to mobile devices (tablets, smartphones, both iOS and Android). The MiniStation Air also doubles as a portable smartphone charger, as it contains a 3020 mAh battery, which helps it provide up to 12 hours of streaming, or it can trade some of that juice to recharge your phone. It’s an interesting idea not seen in other wireless external hard drives.

  • REPORT #8: Cameras (non-spy, unfortunately): With cameras appearing on almost every device now, finding one that takes pictures or videos well is an interesting task. Here are our picks for cameras and video cameras that do some interesting and unique things:

  • Cobra Drive HD dashboard camera (CDR 900): $US249.95 to $US299.95. This dashboard camera can record audio and color 1080p HD or even 1296p Super HD video while you’re on the road, and include a wide viewing angle that records the view across your entire windshield. The unit comes with a suction-cup mount that you place on your windshield (you could place it on your dashboard but the company recommends behind the rear-view mirror to minimize distractions for the driver). Footage is recorded onto an included 8GB microSD card, but you can upgrade storage to 64GB if you want to save more footage.

  • Kodak PIXPRO SP360: $US350. Kodak's entry into the action-camera market is this device, a compact yellow and black cube that's rugged and light, yet feels well made. The splashproof device includes a ton of accessories that let you attach it to anything - from a tripod to a motorcycle to a surfboard to your head.

  • Kodak Pixpro AZ651: $US347.60. With its prominent 65x optical zoom lens and Wi-Fi capabilities, the sturdy Kodak Astro Zoom attempts to bridge the gap between amateur and professional photography. It features both an electric viewfinder and a 3-inch foldout LCD screen, allowing the photographer to toggle between two ways of shooting. The adjustable ring around the lens can be used for zoom or auto focus, for the standard camera settings of f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO, or for manual focus. The emphasis here is flexibility.

  • Canon PowerShot 67X: $US699. The 20.2-megapixel Canon PowerShot attempts to pack as many features as possible into a compact camera, and it executes these features well. It’s small and lightweight, with a thumb grip for single-handed use.

  • Homeboy Home Security Camera: $US149. While Wi-Fi cameras have been around for some time, truly wireless, battery-powered cameras like the Homeboy are just appearing in the market. It’s very small, nicely packaged, and attractively designed. The camera is also magnetic, and the system includes a magnetic mount with a sticky backing in case you don’t have a refrigerator door nearby. The spherical unit can be adjusted to any angle, and it can be recharged via USB every three months (according to the company).

  • Piper iControl Camera $US199 (Amazon). Piper is small camera designed to form the hub of a security, video monitoring, and home automation solution. It connects via Wi-Fi and the images can be accessed via smartphone or across the Web.

  • ArcSoft simplicam HD Home Video Monitoring Camera powered by Closeli $US149.99 (Amazon): ArcSoft’s simplicam HD is among the most stylish Wi-Fi security cameras we've ever seen, and includes such necessities as motion detection, night vision, and two-way audio. Even the packaging is very Apple-like, with a similar unboxing vibe.

  • REPORT #9: Home Entertainment and Video: After a long day of watching other people go about their day, the special agents of the National Santa Agency like to kick back and relax, watching videos or listening to music in their homes. Here's what they liked this year:

  • EPSON PowerLite Home Cinema 3600e: $US1999. The latest 1080p home theater projector from EPSON is the 3600e, an integrated projector with some internal speakers that also connects to a very cool wireless HD device to support multiple HDMI video sources. If you are looking to go beyond a TV and into the world of the home theater projection space, this system allows you to take your myriad of HDMI devices (game consoles, Internet streaming boxes like AppleTV or Roku, etc.) and connect them through a single wireless streaming box

  • Roku Streaming Stick (HDMI version): $US49.99. The Roku Streaming Stick is aimed at consumers who own flat TV screens mounted on a wall, where they want to avoid having a bunch of cables and wires coming out and around or down from the TV. Like other Roku devices, this provides access to Internet TV streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster and other cool programming. The HDMI stick plugs directly into an available HDMI port on your TV (or switching box if you utilize one of those), and provides the same kind of service and channels that you’d see on one of the other larger Roku boxes. It includes the always-fantastic Roku Remote, and this one includes four dedicated buttons that take you directly to that service (Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster On Demand and MGo). The Streaming Stick does need to get power via a USB cable, so the system provides a plug - if you have a TV that provides USB power, you can plug it into that instead of the power outlet.

  • Logitech Harmony 915-000237 Ultimate Home Touch Screen Remote Control: $US349.99 (Amazon). The Harmony Ultimate is designed to integrate the control of all home systems – lighting, entertainment, environmental, security, and more – into a single, convenient solution. It really is a package deal, the most important element being the Harmony Home Hub. Most universal remotes are IR-only, but this unit translates RF commands from the remote into IR, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth signals. This product enables up to 15 home entertainment devices to be addressed, including home automation, game consoles, and more.

  • Nixplay Edge Cloud Frame: $299.99 (13-inch model) or $169.99 (8-inch model). Digital photo frames were one of those product categories that took off a few years ago, but difficult setup and weird connectivity requirements (subscriptions, router access, etc.) made them more of a novelty than a “must have” item. The Nixplay Edge includes a very nice, full HD display, allowing users to display photos stored on external media (such as a USB or SD card) in a nice slideshow format. The fun begins when you connect the Wi-Fi-enabled frame to your home router and access the Nixplay service. With a free account via Nixplay, you can upload photos that get synchronized with the digital photo frame, so that once it’s set up, you can send Grandma or Grandpa new images without needing them to do any additional work. You can also send photos from a Facebook account, Flickr account or other social service, which means Mom/Dad/Grandma doesn’t need to see all of your other Facebook updates if they just want new photos.

  • REPORT #10: Miscellaneous Gift Ideas: In case the previous 70 or so products didn't float your boat, we have a bunch of other gift ideas, including some for the kids on your list.

  • Osmo: $US80. The Osmo system is a tablet stand (it works with iPad or Android tablets) that also includes a small plastic mirror accessory that you snap onto the top of the tablet (where the front-facing camera sits). This accessory allows the tablet to “see” the physical objects placed in front of the tablet for the purposes of the Osmo apps. Three apps are included - Words (a Hangman-style game), Tangram (picture puzzle) and Newton (drawing/physics game).

  • Livescribe 3 Smartpen: $US149.95 (Pro version available for $US199.95). The latest version of the Livescribe smartpen seems to get back to basics – it doesn’t concern itself with things like an audio jack, an LED display, microphones, etc. (previous versions all had those on the pen). Rather, the Livescribe 3 is simplified – it has a Bluetooth connection to your iOS-based smartphone or tablet (it’s possible Android devices are supported, or will be soon). All of the features used previously on other pens, such as audio recording, are now handled by the phone or tablet. The Livescribe+ app digitally records handwriting made with the pen using the specialized notebooks (the pen comes with a starter notebook, and additional notebooks are sold separately), much like the previous pens did.

  • Forbidden Island (Gamewright Games): $US15 to $US18 (Amazon). Our favorite new family game is Forbidden Islend, which is from the creator of the more-adult game “Pandemic”. Like Pandemic, Forbidden Island is a cooperative game, where all of the players need to work together instead of against each other in order to win. In this case, the team of players needs to capture four treasures on the Forbidden Island (the tiles placed on the table) before the island sinks into the ocean (at the end of each turn, more tiles get flooded and/or disappear). Each team member has a special ability that only they can perform, so it becomes clear that communication is needed by all players during a turn, rather than one person trying to think their moves through.

  • EyeLock Myris USB iris scanner: (Site taking reservations, no price yet) This USB-attached device (it’s about the size of a hockey puck) connects to your computer and gives you a secure way to sign into your computer or password-protected Web sites. If you’re having trouble remembering passwords, or if you have a company that insists on constantly changing your passwords, the Myris can handle that for you by using video of your irises (chances of a false match are less than one in 1.5 million) to login for you.

  • VSN Mobile’s V.ALRT: $US59.99. The wild world of wearables has a new entry – the V.ALRT, a personal emergency alert device from VSN Mobile. The V.ALRT device is a light, round black button that’s around the size of a quarter, but thicker. The V.ALRT comes with a wristband, so you can wear it all the time. In the event of an emergency, you simply press the V.ALRT for several seconds and it connects to your contact list and calls or texts three emergency contacts.

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