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HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE: Roku to Apple TV to GoPro and more for the geek in your life

Roku boxes start $49 allow streaming darn-near any content from variety providers your TV.

Roku boxes start at $49 and allow streaming of darn-near any content from a variety of providers to your TV.

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Updated: December 26, 2011 8:04AM



Time again to double-check those naughty and nice lists for the tech fans in your life. As the holidays and gift-buying season finally kick into high gear, tech columnist Andy Ihnatko puts on his Santa’s helper hat to help you figure out what new toys to wrap up for the geeks in your life.

Streaming video to TV

This might not be the year to cancel your cable TV subscription and get all of your video entertainment from the Internet. But every year, a streaming video box for the TV becomes more affordable, more valuable, and quicker to love. Plug this box in to any available HDMI port on a HDTV, spend about fifteen minutes with the remote to tap in the passwords for your home WiFi network and the smattering of streaming services the household uses, and presto: music, photos, and HD video can finally escape the 15-inch screen of a notebook.

The two best boxes are giftably-cheap. The default choice is the Roku, which defined this product category a few years ago. Why? It works with the widest range of services. On top of Netflix and YouTube (which nearly everything supports) the Roku can also pull down current and classic network TV via Hulu, a huge library of movies and original series from HBO, and thousands of movies and shows available for sale and rental from Amazon Instant Video. And Roku boxes start at just $49.

If your recipient is already invested in Apple gear, consider the Apple TV ($99). It doesn’t offer as many channels as the Roku, but it extends the iPhone, iPad, and MacOS experience to the TV quite smoothly. All of your iTunes content is streamable, and via AirPlay screen mirroring, any iPhone 4S or iPad 2 becomes a console gaming system.

I’d love to recommend an iPad 2 as a gift. It’s a great device but I’m betting that most of the people on your gift list would rather have $499 in cash. Amazon’s new Kindle Fire is closer to the mark. Not just because of its price -- it’s a 7-inch color touchscreen tablet for just $199 -- but also because it’s nicely focused on reading books and watching and listening to music and video. It might be weeks before someone even realizes that it can do much more and by the time that happens, the Fire’s already become one of the best-used gifts of the year.

Device accessories

It’s possible that the best digital media gift you can give someone is Logitech’s Z515 wireless Bluetooth speaker ($99). The smartphone in everyone’s pocket is jam-packed full of audio, ranging from tracks synced from a home library, streaming music stations from Pandora and Spotify, and even live sports via official league apps. The Z515 is a mini boombox that connects to almost any smartphone and can deliver that content to a shelf in the kitchen, bathroom, or office.

Speaking of smartphones, one of my favorite iPhone-related gifts is a massively clever Glif, $20 from Studio Neat. By itself, it looks like a miniature rubber hockey stick, or maybe a keychain bottle opener. Aha! But that simple compound shape becomes an iPhone kickstand when its jaw is pressed over the phone’s corner, and becomes a tripod mount when the phone is slid into its groove. Doubly-useful and so small that it’ll be taken places.

No matter what kind of touchscreen phone your giftee has, they’ll appreciate a capacitive smartphone stylus around this time of year. Why? Because touchscreens require skin-to-screen contact, and from December to February pulling off a glove presents a risk of frostbite that exceeds one’s desire to Tweet about this guy you just saw on the street who kind of looks like Jerry Seinfeld. Steve Jobs famously claimed that the moment a user pulls out a stylus, the touchscreen maker has failed. Well, I don’t think he ever had to check a bus schedule in 20-degree weather. And yes, they’re fun for drawing and handwriting. Many companies make these little pens but I like the range made by Ten One Design ($15-$25).

But be careful when giving someone a health and fitness-related gift. The message you hope to send is “This is a cool gadget that I think you’ll enjoy” as opposed to “You snort down mac-and-cheese as though you’ve forgotten that you’re the first male of this family to make it to age 35.”

Jawbone’s new Up ($99) is a low-key rubber wristband that you wear 24/7 so it can keeps an eye on how you’re moving. You can set it so that it’ll gently vibrate to remind you that you’ve been active in a while, or set an alarm to wake you at a certain time and only when it senses that you’re in a light sleep instead of a deep one. Connect it to your iPhone and it’ll upload sensor data, which you can use to track your fitness goals.

Video

It’s likely that you’ve seen the GoPro HD Hero camera: it shows up regularly on reality shows strapped to people’s bodies or bikes in situations where the producer is concerned that the camera (and, to a lesser extent, the talent) is in jeopardy. The GoPro is a super-ruggedized video camera: it’s shockproof and weatherproof. A big catalogue of accessories allows it to be worn anywhere on the body or mounted to damned-near anything. More than that, it’s just plain fun. It has a super-wide-angle lens. When shooting video, it provides a “you are there” sensation that no other camera can match, and with its still photo mode it’s the best way to capture the full dimensions of an impressive space. People often use it to record extreme sports. It works just as well when you want to leave it outside all day in all weather to catch the squirrels at your bird feeder, or to passively record your long walk through an exotic city that you’ll never visit again. GoPro sells many variations of the Hero HD ranging from $149 to $299.

Road ready

I spotted Osprey’s “Veer” bag on someone’s shoulder at a conference this year and was so impressed that I bought one via my iPhone almost immediately. It’s not a laptop bag. It’s designed specifically to hold the small smattering of analog and digital things that come in handy during the Long Walk In An Exotic City, the six hours you’ll spend crossing the country in an airline sear, or just a few hours at a coffeeshop. It’s the perfect size for my iPad, a keyboard, a camera, sunglasses, a bottle of water, and a few odds and ends. The Veer is $49; the $59 Warp is one size larger and is big enough to hold a 13-inch notebook.

A great gift for your oft-traveling loved one? The Outlets To Go travel power strip ($25). It delivers three or four grounded outlets, depending on the model, and folds into a small-footprint wonder. It’s the handiest thing ever. Plus, if you write “I Love You, Mom” on the side in a paint marker, it’ll draw a tear as it draws 110V AC from the desk outlet at yet another Courtyard By Marriott room.

Hack the halls

Would this person appreciate an awesome set of tools? Get them the Home Tech Toolkit from iFixit.com ($25). It’s a purpose-built kit filled with all of the special security screwdriver bits and disassembly tools necessary to safely take apart consumer electronics without doing more damage than what what was inflicted when this $250 phone was dropped in sand.

Pray it isn’t altered any further

I’ve been talking about tech gifts here, but I’ve saved the geekiest, most analog, and coolest one for last: an ice cube tray that freezes ice in the shape of Han Solo trapped in a block of carbonite.

I’m old enough to have seen “The Empire Strikes Back” on its first day of release. It angers and saddens me that I have lived 31 years since that day without having the option of cooling my drinks this way. And it’s just $10 from ThinkGeek.com.



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