2013 Holiday Gift Guide

Consumer technology remains one of the hottest holiday gift categories, and it’s no wonder when you consider the endless flow of cool tech for home and on the go. With so many possibilities, it becomes a question of which ones stand out as special gifts that evoke genuine excitement and brimming smiles. We sifted through the usual barrage of holiday-themed press releases and polled our staff to come up with a short list of gifts to give—and get. (What’s a gift list without a few personal wishes?) With prices ranging from less than 50 bucks to just over $300, none of our recommendations will break the piggy bank, but all hold the promise of enriching someone’s tech life.


Pocket Power
The stupid phone always seems to die at the most inopportune moments—like when you’re on the road and your boss calls to report a client crisis. You say hello, the phone dies, and (naturally) your charging cord is sitting on a counter back at home. If only phone booths weren’t extinct.… Give the gift of pocket power. When fully charged, Anker’s second-generation Astro3 battery pack ($50 on Amazon) is good for six or seven charges so you can keep your gadgets running whether you’re hiking in Yosemite or answering crisis calls. The flask-sized unit will fit in a back pocket and has three ports, including a “smart” one that identifies the device plugged in for fast charging.

For Android Lovers
Netgear’s Push2TV wireless display adapter (PTV3000, $60 on BestBuy.com) will delight Android lovers, especially owners of the iPhone’s biggest challenger, the Samsung Galaxy S4. Recommended by streaming expert Barb Gonzalez, the tiny box lets you display the screen of an Android phone or a PC desktop on your HDTV without having to mess with cables (sorry, MHL). Plug it into one of the TV’s HDMI ports (and a USB port or the supplied USB power adapter if the port isn’t powered), and whatever you do on the phone (or PC) is mirrored on the big screen. Check Facebook, surf the Web, watch a YouTube video, stream a movie from Netflix. And, yes, high-def (1080p) video is supported.


Flying High
Looking for a small gift with a big payoff for the feisty audiophile on your list—you know, the guy who cringes at the mere mention of “computer audio” or “MP3 music?” Highly recommended by resident audio guru Mark Fleischmann, AudioQuest’s DragonFly USB Audio Converter ($249, $200 on BestBuy.com) can be used with powered speakers or headphones and gives music files with sampling rates up to 96 kilohertz the breathing room they need to shine. Plug the stick into the USB port on any computer, and audio is routed to a 24-bit ESS Sabre digital-to-analog converter instead of going through the PC’s crappy sound card. The computer’s USB-bus clock is also bypassed, allowing DragonFly’s dual clocks to control the digital signal transfer and reduce timing errors (a.k.a. jitter) that can muddle the music.


For Homelanders and (Walking) Deadheads
Terrorists. Covert government operations. Suspense. Intrigue. It’s all there in Homeland: The Complete Second Season ($39), a three-disc Blu-ray set with 12 nail-biting episodes of this Emmy Award–winning series, originally broadcast on Showtime. Reserve this psychological thriller of a gift for brainy types. For lovers of zombies and all things horror, here’s a five-disc set you can’t go wrong with: The Walking Dead: The Complete Third Season ($80 list, $40 on Amazon). Throw a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack into the mix and, well, let’s just say it really brings the zombie mayhem to life. Give one or both of these collections to a friend or family member—treat yourself.
foxconnect.com (Homeland)
anchorbayentertainment.com (The Walking Dead)

Surround Sound Made Simple
Vizio’s S4251w-B4 soundbar system ($330) is a great gift for anyone who wants surround sound without the hassles of a complicated multi-speaker setup. (I set one up for my in-laws, and they love it.) Unlike your typical soundbar, it’s a four-piece system with a 42-inch-wide soundbar/control center that goes beneath the TV screen, a wireless subwoofer that automatically pairs with the soundbar, and two small surround speakers that connect to the subwoofer using easy-to-conceal wires. The system includes a simple remote control and is equipped with Dolby Digital, DTS Digital Surround, and DTS Circle Surround processing, which creates faux surround sound from stereo sources. Overall sound quality is surprisingly good with decent bass—the system even supports Bluetooth streaming.


A Path to Vinyl
The Music Hall USB-1 turntable ($249) is the perfect gift for anyone over 50 who dreams about rediscovering once- treasured LPs that have been stowed away for decades. More than just a ticket to Nostalgiaville and the chance to listen to an original copy of Quadrophenia while poring over liner notes, the belt-driven USB-1 provides a way to bring long-forgotten albums into the digital age. Run the supplied USB cable to a PC or Mac, plop a prized LP on the table, and old songs get a new life as MP3 files you can edit and organize using supplied software. Ready to play out of the box, the table has a dust cover and is equipped with a defeatable phono preamp and an Audio Technica cartridge.

For Smartphone Addicts
Here are two variations on the microspeaker theme ($50 each) that will appeal to teen/twenty-something smartphone addicts who use their beloved mobile devices 24/7 for everything, including impromptu music listening “parties” when the phone’s built-in squawker just won’t cut it (which is always the case). A guaranteed conversation starter, the Kubxlab Earshots (above, top) look like a well-crafted set of aluminum salt and pepper shakers. Throw ’em in a backpack (or a loose pocket) and use the supplied cable to plug ’em into the phone whenever the mood strikes. Outdoor Tech’s Buckshot (above, bottom) produces sound that’s a tad more full-bodied from a single, easy-to-grip, rubberized cylinder. It’s weather resistant, wireless (via Bluetooth), and comes with a bike mount. You can’t rightfully expect full-bodied hi-fi from either of these little guys, but they play louder and sound better than you might expect.


Travelin’ Buds
Reviewer Geoffrey Morrison doesn’t routinely dole out compliments—far from it—so when he said the Bose QuietComfort 20/20i earbuds ($300) have the “best noise-cancelling performance of any headphone I’ve heard,” my ears perked up. And so will the ears of the inveterate traveler on your holiday list. The buds provide a snug yet comfortable fit, deliver excellent sound quality, and most important, minimize the destructive roar of a jet engine by an extraordinary –45 decibels. Heck, these little guys provide better sound isolation than Bose’s full-size QC15 headphones. The lithium-ion battery concealed in the in-line control module charges in two hours (via micro USB) and is good for up to 16 hours of listening. Carrying case included.


Star Trek Forever
If there’s one simple truth in the world of A/V, it’s that Trek and tech go hand in hand. So what better stocking stuffer for Trekkies (and techies) than the Star Trek: Stardate Collection box set ($140 list, $80 on Amazon)? OK, it might be a little big to fit in a stocking, but you get the idea. The compilation contains 10 movies made between 1979 and 2002—from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where Admiral James T. Kirk returns to the helm of an updated U.S.S. Enterprise, to Star Trek: Nemesis, featuring a face-off between Captain Picard and his evil clone, Shinzon. A Dolby TrueHD 5.1 or 7.1 soundtrack is featured on each Blu-ray Disc.


Behold Bluetooth
Give the gift of Bluetooth with Relay ($199), an outboard receiver from Mass Fidelity that brings the convenience of Bluetooth streaming to any audio system. But unlike other add-on solutions, the focus here is on preserving fidelity, making this an ideal gift for music lovers who want convenience and quality. Setup is simple: Run the supplied RCA cable to your stereo, connect antenna and power cables, pair your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone or tablet with the receiver, and begin streaming. The receiver supports SBC, A2DP, and aptX audio protocols and embraces audiophile principles with separate grounds for digital, analog, and RF signals, a low-noise power supply, and a professional-grade Burr-Brown 24-bit digital-to-analog converter—all in a machined aluminum enclosure.


Privatize the Cloud
Who doesn’t face the dilemma of where to safely store your digital music plus all those movies you’ve downloaded, not to mention important documents? And don’t get me started on privacy.… Connected Data’s Transporter private cloud storage devices might be just the thing for the media hound on your list, providing a quick and easy way to sync, access, back up, and share content from any Mac, PC, iOS, or Android device. Best of all, there are no monthly fees. The Transporter is offered in three versions: Transporter Sync ($99, USB drive required), Transporter plus 1-terabyte drive ($299), and Transporter plus 2-TB drive ($399).


Singing in the...Shower
In a category overrun with uninspired designs, AudioSource’s palm-size Sound pOp ($40, $30 on Amazon) brings a refreshing twist to the Bluetooth speaker category and makes a fun gift for just about anyone: A DSP-controlled 1.5-inch driver is shrouded in silicone rubber. The speaker employs the latest Bluetooth protocols for wireless streaming and plays for up to 8 hours on a single (USB) charge; raised buttons control volume and (phone) answer. Best of all, the palm-size orb is water resistant and has an integral suction cup, making it ideal for use in the shower, by the pool, or on a boat. Brent Butterworth describes the sound as “amazingly good.” He ought to know—he has one in his shower. Available in black, red, white, blue, purple, and pink.