The Gadget Inspector’s Holiday Gift Guide

The turkey’s been eaten and the holiday lights have been strung to remind us all that we’re about to empty our wallets in the service of good cheer...
Ben RadlinskiNovember 29, 2011

Take a Bunch of Tablets and Call Me in the Morning
The big player coming out of Camp Amazon this season is the Kindle Fire ($199), its 7-inch color tablet, but also has two very strong e-Reader options in the Kindle Touch ($99) and its base model Kindle ($79).

When I finally got my hands on the Touch, it was smaller than I thought it would be, very easy to hold, and quite solid-feeling for such a light device. It’s a completely touch experience, with only two buttons: Home and Power. It also has two speakers in the back, a headphone jack, and a micro-USB port on the bottom for charging or syncing with other devices. I was impressed by the clarity of the e-Ink, and as I was reading my manual on server virtualization (a helluva read), the words jumped off the page. Because it’s e-Ink, the Touch has to redraw the entire screen when you turn the page (which is the deal with all Kindles). For a first-time user this can be a bit disconcerting, but I got used to it. The touch screen also feels a little slow, but again, it’s a matter of getting used to it and not so much a flaw.

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I was using the WiFi model, but the Touch is also available with 3G if you feel you absolutely must download the new Grisham novel on a mountaintop. The 3G Touch is more expensive ($149) and probably not really worth the extra $50. I believe the Touch is the best value of the two tiers of e-Readers Amazon offers. Without a touch screen, searching on the base model Kindle is an arduous task of slowly keying in letters one by one to find the book you’re looking for. There’s also room for more books on the Touch. The Fire will most likely outsell the Touch this season, but I think the Touch is a solid, well-rounded product.

Anything Amazon touches turns to gold, but the ASUS Transformer ($399) surprised everyone by becoming this year’s breakout Android tablet. It’s an inexpensive, powerful little machine, and has an optional keyboard dock to turn it into a quasilaptop or netbook. Its anointed successor, the Prime (apparently, ASUS is doing the whole Hasbro Transformer toy thing here), had its release date pushed back to the beginning of December, but it’s set to be another great tablet at $399 for 16 gigabytes and $499 for 32GB.

According to ASUS, the Prime will have a Quad-Core Tegra 3 Processor, a 10.1-inch screen, an 8MP autofocus rear-facing camera with 1080P hi-def video capture, 1GB of RAM, and 12 hours of battery life, and will come in Amethyst Gray or Champagne Gold. It will weigh 1.29 pounds and will be one of the first tablets to run on Google’s new Ice Cream Sandwich iteration of Android (which is one reason the release date was pushed back). Prime is WiFi only, which puts it at a disadvantage to the 3G models of Apple’s iPad 2, but as a current Transformer owner I can attest that this is a great tablet, and the Prime promises to be an even better one.

Stuff Those Stockings with Apps
Apple and Google both boast of having a gazillion apps in their respective stores, but I’d like to go on record to say that about 2% of those apps are of any use at all. You may be reluctant to fork over your hard-earned $4 for an app when so many are free, but there are some that are priceless and make your smart-phone experience a whole lot more enjoyable.

SeekDroid (Android): SeekDroid, Pro Version ($4.99), has already saved my phone and my wife’s phone, twice. It’s a security app that allows you to locate your phone via the SeekDroid site. The free version only locates your phone, which is pretty handy, but the Pro Version allows you to wipe and lock your phone remotely to keep would-be thieves from getting all your important stuff. Since I’m doing my online banking on my phone these days, that’s pretty important. Just the other day I used SeekDroid to find my phone, which my daughter cunningly cached under her car seat. SeekDroid sends a text message to your phone, activates the GPS, and then pinpoints its location. Granted, it only narrowed it down to my car, but I had been turning over every piece of furniture in my house, so it’s all good.

SwiftKey X (Android): The stock Android keyboards are nice, but their prediction-autocorrect features are pretty weak. I’ve tried numerous alternatives, and I finally settled on SwiftKey X ($2.49). It’s like the app is inside my brain; it freaks me out how accurate its predictions are. After installing SwiftKey X, the app asks you to gain access to your Gmail, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, as well as your SMS messages, so it can “analyze your writing style.” After a bit of thinking, it returns an “all done” and you can start typing. After a couple of e-mails, it wrote entire sentences for me without my typing anything, it was that good. It continues to get better, learning my writing patterns and saving commonly typed friends’ names, etc. With SwiftKey X, it’s goodbye to the days of mangled autocorrected sentences.

Hipstamatic (iPhone): Hipstamatic ($1.99) has been around for a while, but it’s still a great app. Recapturing the golden age of photography, Hipstamatic turns your iPhone camera old school (which is tremendously hip these days). You can take pictures with grain, scratches, vignetting, bleached-out or oversaturated colors, white borders, etc. It’s a lot of fun now, just as Polaroids were a lot of fun then, plus you end up with a bunch of neat shots.

Music to Your Earbuds
Still sticking your iPod/iPhone/Android in a dock to listen to music? That’s so 2010. The real deal now is Bluetooth streaming. Granted, you’re not going to get audiophile-level sound quality over a Bluetooth connection, but you’re not beginning with high-quality sound with MP3s either. The most visible entry in this year’s “wireless mobile speaker” race is the Bose SoundLink Wireless Mobile Speaker ($299.95). I’ve never been a big fan of Bose because I’ve always felt they spend more money on marketing than on development. However, I tried out a pair of their QuietComfort 15 headphones ($299.95) last week and was impressed by their depth of sound and excellent bass. So I listened to the SoundLink device with an open mind and found it impressive. It’s small, about 5 inches by 9.5 inches and 2 inches deep. It weighs less than 3 pounds, and like most Bose products, it’s handsome. It includes a rechargeable battery that boasts 8 hours of play, but I’ve heard it can go longer. You can use any Bluetooth-enabled device to connect and stream music to the SoundLink, so that means both iPhone and Android people can rock on. The buttons on the device are dead simple, featuring power, Bluetooth pairing, auxiliary (for the input on the back of the device), mute, and volume. I think it’s a tad pricey, but if you’re a Bose-brand loyalist, I say go for it. Other options are the Logitech Wireless Speaker Z515 ($99) and the odd-looking Jawbone JamBox ($199), a bit pricier but smaller.

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