A nice camera
Admittedly, smartphone cameras have become good enough for most people over the past couple of years, but some situations demand better than good-enough performance. Smartphone cams still fall on their faces in low-light conditions most of the time, and their lenses can't be changed out for wider or narrower fields of view without awkward add-on glass from third parties. Plus, bigger is simply better when it comes to image sensors if you care about overall image quality. As TR's resident camera geek, I strongly recommend having a DSLR (or mirrorless camera) around for times when a phone cam just won't cut it.
Nikon's D3300 remains my entry-level camera recommendation. The D3300 has a 24MP APS-C (read: big) sensor that appears to be better than that of any other DSLR in this price range right now. Its 18-55mm VR II lens is perfect for shutterbugs who are just starting out, and when it comes time to buy a second lens, Nikon makes great, cheap step-up lenses like the 35mm f/1.8 DX.
What don't you get in an entry-level DSLR like this? The D3300 is a relatively primitive device when viewed next to smartphones and some mirrorless cameras. It has no Wi-Fi or GPS capability built-in. it lacks an articulated touch screen, and it's pretty impractical for video. You'll have to decide whether those shortcomings matter to you.
Limitations aside, the Internet is nearly unanimous in its praise of this camera. The Wirecutter hails the D3300 as its "best entry-level DSLR." DPReview gives the D3300 its Silver Award, and a 77% rating. Ken Rockwell, love him or hate him, says the D3300 is the camera he'd recommend for most people, too. At $446.99 new, or just $309 refurbished, I think the D3300 is a great value.
If you (or your recipient) need help with basic photographic concepts like ISO, aperture, or shutter speed, be sure to pick up a copy of Understanding Exposure for $20, too.
I have to admit, I got Google's Chromecast completely wrong when it first came out. After we got the first-generation version for our home, this tiny streaming device upended the way we watch TV and movies. Instead of firing up a dedicated app on our PlayStation 3, we just cast videos from Netflix and YouTube to our TV, right from our phones. It's amazingly simple and it works seamlessly most of the time.
Google updated the Chromecast earlier this year with faster internals and a richer mobile app for easier content discovery, so it's an even better value now. Smart TVs and more advanced set-top boxes like a Roku or Apple TV might make this device redundant for some, but for just $35, the next-gen Chromecast is still one of the easiest ways to add some brains to older TVs or dumb screens with an HDMI input.
The Tech Report's news and reviews simply wouldn't happen without a hefty dose of caffeine, and coffee is the preferred delivery vehicle for most of the staff. Scott and I rely on espresso machines for our fix, but doing espresso at home might not be affordable or practical for most folks.
The Aeropress is a major upgrade if all you're used to is the brew from the average Mr. Coffee. At $35 or so with an extra 350 filters, it's priced in stocking-stuffer territory, as well. Before I went full-on coffee snob and started pulling espresso shots at home, this coffee maker was my preferred method of making my morning cup, and it's quite simple to use.
Coffee nerds across the Internet have devised dozens of different ways of using this thing, so if the included instructions don't produce a brew to your taste, it's easy to find an alternative method of java production. For the obsessive, pair an Aeropress and some fresh beans with a cheap digital scale, a temperature-controlled kettle, and a high-quality grinder, and learn to brew by weight. You'll get a cup that matches or beats even the fanciest drip brew at your local coffee house.
Studio Neat Glif
The idea of a tripod mount for a phone may seem kind of silly, but hear me out. Image stabilization can help with shaky hands when you're shooting photos or videos, but for the best image quality from today's high-end phone cameras, it still helps to strap the phone to a solid platform. Sometimes you want to shoot video or time lapses without the phone in your hands, too. That's where the Glif comes in.
This simple device can be adjusted to fit most phones snugly with the included Allen wrench, and it can double as a convenient phone stand for watching videos or scrolling through those tack-sharp pictures you just took. The Glif's adjustability should allow it to last practically forever as new phones come out, and its small size means it's easy to slip into a pocket or camera bag. For $30, a Glif seems like a no-brainer for the serious phone photographer or videographer. Pair this mount with a mini-tripod or your existing camera support and enjoy hands-free stability for smartphone shooting.
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