It's that time of year again where we help the nontechnical spouse, sibling, or friend identify gifts for the techno-geeks in their lives. Let's peek inside Santa's bag to see what might be in there.
If You Didn't Buy It Last Year
Last year, we talked about televisions, Raspberry Pi computers, 3D printers, and cell phones. These are all good gifts again this year, but the suggestions have changed.
The 3D printer space hasn't changed much, but the prices are lower this year with several printers available for less than $200. The Monoprice Mini has earned a good reputation for a small 3D printer. It currently retails for $220 on Amazon and will probably be less than $200 for Black Friday sales.
Last year, the Raspberry Pi 3 for $35 and the Pi Zero for $5 were the latest tiny computers from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. This year, there is the Pi Zero W. The Pi Zero W adds WiFi and Bluetooth to the Pi Zero and sells for $10. Recently, I have found these computers on sale at Micro Center at $30 for the Pi 3, $5 for the Pi Zero W, and $1 for the Pi Zero. I wouldn't be surprised to see these prices repeated for Black Friday.
Televisions have dropped dramatically in price this year with Amazon offering TVs for as little as $69 during its multiday Black Friday sale. This year you should skip considering the ordinary HD TV and go straight to the Ultra High Definition (UHD) High Dynamic Range (HDR) TVs. The prices of these newest technology TV's have dropped to the point that they compete with last year's prices for plain HD TVs. Where an HD TV offers a screen resolution for 1920 by 1080 pixels, the new UHD/HDR TV's offers twice the number of pixels in each direction, horizontally and vertically (3840 by 2160 pixels). HDR expands the number of colors the TV can show and improves the contrast between light and dark, giving the TV a better image.
These TVs will downscale to watch the traditional TV sources, but to get the best picture, you will need UHD/HDR content. This is available through streaming sources like Netflix and Amazon and through Ultra HD Blu-Ray disks play on an Ultra HD Blu-Ray player.
This Year's Phones
Of course, all of the buzz this year is about the new Apple iPhones, the 8, 8+, and X and the Google Pixel and Pixel 2 phones. Some reviewers say the Pixel 2 may be the best phone ever made, but the iPhone X (at over $1,000) may have the best camera. For me, they are all too expensive. This year, the phone to look at seems to be the Moto G5 and G5 Plus. These phones can be found for under $200 and will work with any US-based carrier. They run a nearly pure version of Google's Android operating system and provide premium phone features at a low-end phone price.
New This Year: Voice Assistants
Two very hot products this year are the Amazon and Google lines of voice assistants. Amazon has an early lead with the Echo and the Alexa voice assistants. There are several Echo models; the Echo which is about 6" tall and sells for $99 or $79 when on sale, the smaller Dot, which is half the size and price of the Echo, the new, larger Echo Plus listing for $149. Amazon has recently added similar devices with video screens, the Echo Show and the Echo Spot. These devices allow you to talk to them and will play music, answer your questions, and act on your commands. The latest versions have improved voice recognition that can work from across the room. The devices can play music and interact with many Internet of Things (IoT) devices you may have installed in your home like lights, thermostats, and the Amazon Fire TV. Of course, you can place orders for merchandise from Amazon as well. The Echo can also be used to make hands-free phone calls using your Internet connection.
Google offers very similar devices known as the Google Home for $109 and Google Home Mini for $49. Google Home works much the same as the Amazon Echo and offers many of the same features except for the ability to order merchandise from Amazon. Instead, merchandise can be ordered through a service called "Google Express." Google Express connects to retailers like Walmart, Target, Costco, and Home Depot. Your purchases are paid through a credit card installed into Google Pay. Google Home also integrates with the Google Nest Thermostat and the Chromecast streaming devices.
I wrap up this year's list with streaming TV devices because you may need a new one to get the UHD/HDR signal for your new TV. There are basically four popular devices: Roku, Google Chromecast, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV. Roku models are the most popular and are compatible with most streaming services. Roku offers two new models the Ultra (~$100) and the Stick+ (~$70) supporting both UHD and HDR. Google's Chromecast Ultra (~$70) is the latest Chromecast device with these features. Amazon Fire TV Ultra adds UHD/HDR to the Amazon Fire but also adds the Alexa voice assistant to the remote control. Apple TV has a new model, the 4K ($180 to $200). If you have a lot of movies and TV on iTunes, then this may be the way to go because iTunes is not well supported outside of the Apple community.
As usual, I have more to say than fits in the column. I wish a joyous holiday season to everyone, and may this be a blessed time for you and your families.