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How-To Geek’s Holiday Gift Guide 2013: The Best Gadgets and Gear

Thanksgiving is behind us and most people are making their lists and checking them twice in preparation for the coming holiday. Which gadgets should you snatch up for friends and family (or add to your own wish list)? Read on as we take a tour of this year’s top offerings.

Whether you’re buying big or small, we have a veritable pile of gadgets for budgets and bags of all sizes to share with you today. In an effort to not only highlight what’s new and awesome in the world of tech but to help you become a more informed shopper, we’ve grouped our picks by category with a best-in-class and a variety of alternative options for you to peruse.

This is the first of the How-To Geek 2013 Holiday Gift Guides; to keep up with the rest of the guides throughout December, be sure to keep an eye on the article tag GiftGuide2013.

Smart Watches

If there’s a run-away trend in gadgets for 2013, it’s wearable technology. While last year people were putting iPod Nanos on wrist straps and calling them smart watches, this year there are actually legitimate smart watches to choose from. What makes a smart watch smart? Smart watches connect to your mobile devices (such as your Android phone or iPad) and offer all sorts of great integration perks like SMS updates, appointment reminders, weather, Caller ID, and other notifications. If you have somebody on your holiday shopping list that is always pulling their phone out to see why it’s vibrating, a smart watch will give them a much classier and subtle way to do so.

The leader of the pack in the emerging smart watch market is, by a wide margin, the Pebble Smartwatch. We’ve been putting a Pebble through the paces for the last month or so and have been quite pleased with it. It’s waterproof, has week-long battery life, offers hundreds of alternative digital watch faces, apps for many applications (such as sports scores or controlling your media player from your wrist), and, best of all, it’s significantly cheaper than other smart watch offerings right now: Pebble is running an extended holiday sale that brings the already reasonable $150 down to $130.

The other smart watch making the news this season is the Samsung Galaxy Gear, but it has two unfortunate strikes against it right out of the gate. The watch only works with Samsung’s line of Galaxy smartphones, and it has a retail price of $300. This Samsung-only limitation was poorly communicated to consumers, and after release there were return rates of over 30%. While the Gear might eventually be a worthy contender in the smart watch market, we’d advise you to avoid it for now as clunky work arounds and very limited smartphone pairing options make just about anyone question the $300 price tag.

Beyond these two, there is a handful of smart watches on the market, but the reviews have been so abysmal and the feature sets so small we have to recommend avoiding adopting a poorly-supported product.

Fitness Gadgets

Right up there with smart watches in the 2013-trending-markets category are fitness gadgets. If you have a runner, health nut, or a bio-metrics measuring data cruncher on your list this year, there are some pretty nifty offerings in the fitness/wearable electronics market to consider.

Fitbit, one of the first wearable activity tracking companies, is back this year with the Fitbit Force ($129), an activity tracking watch bursting with metric-monitoring goodness. In addition to tracking your daily activities like steps taken, runs logged, it adds in even more tracking like sleep monitoring and a silent vibration alarm. If you’re not a fan of the Force’s wrist-band form factor, you could always move down to the FitBit One ($99) that also offers activity and sleep tracking, but in a clip-on-the-waist-band form factor.

If the Fitbit doesn’t offer enough metric tracking for your taste (or the number-crunching desire of your recipient), consider jumping up the price and feature scale to the Basis B1 Band ($169). It’s the Cadillac of wearable personal metric trackers at the moment and includes tracking for heart rate, skin temperature, perspiration, sleep, activity levels, GPS tracking, and more.

If all these options seem way too bulky, geeky, or in-your-face but you or someone on your list still wants to track person metrics like sleep duration and quality and daily activities, consider the newest release from Jawbone, the UP24 ($150). It looks more like a stylized bracelet than a piece of wearable electronics but still offers personal metrics tracking like depth and quality of sleep monitoring as well as daily activity monitoring.

Bluetooth Speakers

Our third category, Bluetooth speakers, has also exploded this year. We went from a market place with a few major players and a few knock-off brands, to dozens of options from major players and truck loads of knock-offs. The increase in mobile electronics adoption rates and the desire to share music on the go (or at home without wires) has fueled major growth in the wireless speaker market. Just as with other audio equipment like home stereo systems, be prepared to pay for quality–especially if you want decent bass from a tiny battery powered speaker.

The current king-of-the-hill in the Bluetooth speaker market is the Bose Soundlink II ($269); a standing which shouldn’t come as any surprise given Bose’s history of high quality speakers and MP3 docks. While very few people can criticize the Soundlink’s sound quality, the battery life is lacking if you’re looking to jam at the beach all day (the Soundlink is a large unit with large sound, and it is only rated at 3-4 hours of speaker-shaking usage).

If you’re looking for something with a long speaker life and good quality sound, the Jawbone BIG Jambox ($249) offers not only wireless music playback but speaker phone functionality too, and it boasts up to 15 hours of playback on a single charge. If you like the styling of the Jambox but not the price tag, you can downgrade to the Jawbone Jambox ($99). Same great looks, but a smaller battery (up to 10 hours on a charge) and a lot less bass rumble.

Finally, if you already have a great sound system that you’d like to add Bluetooth music support to, there’s a great solution: the Belkin Bluetooth Music Receiver ($23). For less than twenty-five bucks you can retrofit and existing stereo system to accept stereo sound from your Bluetooth device. Want high definition audio through an optical or coaxial link? You can upgrade to the HD version of the music receiver for $60.

Ebook Readers

The ebook market grows every year, and this year is no exception. More and more people have fallen in love with the ease of ebook readers and the convenience of carrying your entire library with you.

If you guessed we’d first recommend the new Kindle Paperwhite ($139) in light of our glowing review of it earlier this year, you’d be right. If you’re in the market for a lightweight but feature-packed ebook reader, the Kindle Paperwhite is it. Combine the lengthy feature list with the enormous Amazon-backed Kindle library and there’s little to tear the bright-faced reader down over.

That said, if you know your recipient has an older Nook and has already invested a lot of money in purchasing their ebooks through the Barnes and Noble system, the newly revamped Nook Simple Touch GlowLight ($99) is a fine little device that would shine brightly at the top of the hill if not for the strong showing the upgraded Paperwhite gave.

If you have an independent bookstore fan on your list that bucks buying an ebook reader from “the man”, then consider the Kobo Aura HD ($169). Not only does it have a massive independent store separate from the Amazon/B&N empire, but it’s one of the most technologically advanced ebook readers on the market, offering a radically higher resolution screen than anything Amazon or Barnes & Noble offer.

Tablets

Tablets are slowly but surely on their way to becoming as ubiquitous a fixture in modern computing and internet use as the smartphone. If you’re shopping for a tablet this holiday season, you’ll find absolutely no shortage of excellent options.

The most obvious pick is the still-reigning-supreme iPad. The newly released iPad Air (starts at $529) is sleeker, brighter, and faster than its predecessors. People can complain about Apple all they want, but the iPad line reigns supreme because, in the marketing language of the Cupertino-based giant themselves: it just works. If the full size iPad is a bit rich for your blood, there’s also the newly updated iPad Mini (starting at $314); all the iPad experience but in a smaller package.

Now while it’s easy to get caught up in the magical iOS-driven world Apple has created, they don’t completely dominate the tablet market. If you’re an Android fan (or shopping for one), the updated Google Nexus 7 ($200) built on the awesomeness of the previous version of the Nexus 7 while ironing out some of the kinks. The 2013 edition is definitely the king-of-the-hill Android tablet and, compared to the premium you pay for an Apple tablet, a downright bargain.

Finally if you’re shopping for someone heavily invested in Amazon (they have lots of Kindle purchases, have Amazon Prime for free streaming video, etc.) the Kindle Fire HDX (starting at $229), Amazon’s latest tablet offering, is a solid contender in the tablet market. The lackluster performance that really hindered the early Fire releases has been remedied, and they’ve included a wide variety of reading and media perks that you won’t find on any other tablet. Even better, if you’re shopping for a less than technologically savvy relative that still wants to get into using a tablet, Amazon just introduced the Mayday Button in the Fire HDX line: you can literally press an onscreen button to connect via voice/video chat to an Amazon customer service rep for immediate help. If you want to give the gift of a tablet but not the gift of tech support, that’s a pretty sweet feature.

 Media Boxes

So many technologies are really hitting their stride in 2013 and media streaming is one of them. We’ve finally reached an intersection of broadband adoption rates, hardware sophistication, and consumer interest that companies are happy to flood the market with ways to get streaming video on your television.

One of the most versatile options on the market at the moment is the line of set-top boxes from Roku. The Roku 3 ($95), for example, offers access to thousands of video sources including Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, movie services, sports channels, and more. It can stream 1080p content, has a handy headphone jack in the remote, interfaces with iOS/Android smartphone apps to let you browse and select movies while you’re watching content, and even has motion-control in the remote so you can get your Wii-like arm-waving fix with motion-based games like Angry Birds.

If you or your recipient is already a heavy iTunes user and has a large video library, you might want to consider an Apple TV ($99), Apple’s offering in the world of set-top streaming. You can watch anything available in the iTunes video store as well as Netflix, YouTube videos, local video, and anything you can play on your iPhone or other iOS device.

Finally, if you’re looking for a really economical but still quite powerful solution, the new Google Chromecast is quite the little wonderboy for a mere $30. Scarcely larger than a thumb drive, you can plug it right into an HDMI port on your TV and control the device from your computer, smartphone, or tablet to enjoy Netflix, Hulu, Google Play TV and Movies, HBO Go, Pandora Music, and YouTube. We installed three of them during the review process and they were an absolute smash hit at our house; users young and old were in love with the simplicity of use and variety of content available.

If you’re sure your recipient is a streaming media fan but they have all their streaming hardware bases covered, you could always buy them a year of Netflix ($95), Hulu ($95), or Amazon Prime ($79) to give them access to the services on their devices.


Although we eat and breathe technology around here, we do occasionally sleep. If you’ve got an entry you’d like to add to one of our aforementioned categories, share your gadget experience by joining the conversation in our discussion forum below. Also, stay tuned for more Holiday Gift Guides with recommendations for all the geek boys and girls, big and small, on your holiday shopping list.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 12/2/13

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