Winter is coming, and you know what that means. White Walkers! Also, Christmas—or the non-denominational holiday season, depending on your affinity for political correctness. Whatever. It’s gift-giving time for most of us, and you may be wondering what to buy for the techie in your life or, if you’re like us, what to put on your own Christmas list.
Fortunately, certain kinds of presents are right up our alley. We spend our days immersed in the latest PC hardware and the coolest consumer technology, so we have an acute sense of what makes a good gift for tech-savvy folks this season. Our staffers have made their lists and checked them twice, providing us with plenty of fodder for a Christmas gift guide.
My immune system must be pretty robust by now, because I’ve probably been exposed to twice the number of viruses and bugs as the average guy. You see, I’m always searching for a better computer mouse, and to me, mice are all about their feel in the hand. I have to grip one in my palm in order to know its worth. So, every time I step into a busy trade show booth or a retail store with mice on display, I’ve gotta grab each one and size it up.
During my long and microbiologically diverse career, I’ve handled a lot of gaming mice. I’ve felt up everything from Razer’s original Boomslang to Thermaltake’s new BMW-inspired contraption with tilt and height adjustments.
And, I have to admit, I’ve rarely liked any of ’em.
Most gaming mice seem “extreme” in ways that don’t make sense, and a lot of them have awkward shapes, as if they were made for people with rare and bizarre hand deformations. Razer’s mice, I think, are made for the little gray dudes from The X-Files; their long, slender digits should reach the scroll wheel and two main buttons. Mine will not, not without straining.
I really don’t get that. Many of the cheap, high-volume mice from Microsoft and Logitech seem superior, even if they don’t have 200,000 DPI sensors and programmable buttons. That’s why, although I’ve tried nearly every gaming-oriented rodent you could name, my daily driver has almost always been a middle-of-the-road Logitech.
You can imagine my shock when I first gripped Corsair’s Vengeance M60, then, and found its shape to be… pleasing? Impossible! The contours, the way it meets the palm, the button placement, even the beefy scroll wheel—they’re all nearly ideal. Better than anything from Redmond or wherever the heck Logitech is. The materials are first-rate, too. Your hand meets nicely textured, high-grade plastics with not even a hint of gloss. The base looks to be aluminum, and it accents a design that looks racy but maintains traditional contours—you know, the ones that fit your hand.
I suppose the M60 has gee-whiz DPI sensors and everything else in it. You can read the specs for that. There are lights and weights and such, but none of it gets in the way while I’m popping bandit noggins like pumpkins in Borderlands 2. I’m just happy to have found the right feel. Everything else is gravy.
As a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, I was cautiously optimistic about the BBC’s attempt to bring Holmes into present day London and update him to contemporary sensibilities. Although the original character is over a century old, Arthur Conan Doyle’s protagonist sleuth is a thoroughly modern man, so the potential is there.
Fortunately, in this case, the update works exceptionally well. The casting, tone, and substance of Sherlock are all rock solid, and the result is bliss for anyone who enjoys a good mystery—or, heck, just a good drama. I’m very happy to see the show delving into the darker Holmes meta-lore, too, not just doing a mystery of the week.
Yes, CBS has also brought Holmes to modern-day New York with Elementary, and that’s not a bad show, but it pales in comparison to the BBC’s Sherlock.
For years, my long-held ambition to produce my own delicious Kansas City-style barbecue in the backyard was kept on hold by the realities of my schedule. Like many folks, I simply can’t dedicate countless hours to tending a wood or charcoal-based fire and keeping the heat steady. Those GPU reviews aren’t gonna write themselves.
I was aware of electric smokers, with their convenient automatic functions, the same way display purists are aware of TN panels. Then a buddy of mine brought over some ribs he’d smoked in his electric smoker—some of the finest pork ribs I’d ever had—and I realized I was a snob for no reason.
This Bradley smoker was my Christmas gift last year, and I’ve successfully used it to produce ribs and chicken that would start a fistfight in the line at Oklahoma Joe’s. The Bradley keeps the temperature and smoke constant with very little fuss, so I can concentrate on devising evil new ways of torturing graphics cards and still have a tasty meal at the end of the day. Highly recommended.
I don’t actually own a Kindle Paperwhite. I don’t own a Kindle Paperwhite because Amazon inexplicably and systematically takes months to start offering new Kindle devices north of the border. That said, if it were available right now—or if Amazon let me import the thing from its U.S. website—I would buy the Paperwhite in a heartbeat.
I played with a friend’s Paperwhite the other day, and I was immediately seduced. The device shares all the positive traits of my current Kindle Touch: it’s light enough to hold comfortably with two fingers without getting tired, it’s readable in broad daylight, and it uses convenient touch input. However, Amazon has improved the formula by adding adjustable display illumination, increasing the pixel density, offering fonts other than the default Caecilia and Helvetica, and implementing capacitive touch input. The previous model uses infrared sensors to detect touch, which forces the display to be recessed more deeply and leads to annoyances, like the corner of your sleeve triggering input.
Sure, you could just as well do your reading on a tablet. The problem is that tablets are heavier, offer substantially shorter battery life than any Kindle, and have conventional LCD screens with harsher backlighting. Those screens don’t fare well in direct sunlight, either. The Paperwhite’s display is incredibly easy on the eyes even with the backlight enabled—and thanks to the higher-density e-ink panel, text looks beautifully sharp.
My only gripe with the Paperwhite is that the picture above isn’t totally accurate. In reality, the backlight looks a little blotchy and uneven in places. Still, the device is more comfortable to read on than any tablet I’ve used to date, and it’s worlds better than a cheap paperback. Considering the $119 price tag, this is a no-brainer.
This fall, like every fall, we seem to be buried under an avalanche of sequels—Assassin’s Creed III, Borderlands 2, Far Cry 3, Hitman: Absolution, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, and so on. Warfighter is apparently terrible, while the others seem to range from good to great. That’s all fine, but even the best sequel is still just that—a sequel. It’s old gameplay mechanics and a familiar visual style transplanted into new levels and bad guys with, hopefully, a little extra eye candy.
Dishonored is like a bubble of fresh air amid this torrent of encores. Bethesda, unlike other publishers, thought it might actually be a good idea to give some new intellectual property a chance. And unlike other publishers, Bethesda didn’t insist on shoehorning in a multiplayer component. The firm allowed developer Arkane Studios to focus on the single-player campaign and polish it to a mirror shine.
The result is a game that looks and feels like a total departure from the parade of old-hat shooters on the market today. The story is engrossing, the art style is unique and memorable, and the gameplay is both captivating and fun. I wrote at length about why Dishonored is such a good game on my blog back in October, so I won’t regurgitate more of my praise here. Suffice it to say Dishonored is easily worth the $59.99 asking price.
Okay, so this is a little out there. Everybody knows Photoshop, but outside the professional world, few bother to purchase it. Sometimes, that’s because cheaper tools do a good enough job. Other times, it’s because… you know. Yarr.
I bought an upgrade to Photoshop CS6 on a whim last week, and I couldn’t be happier. Adobe has made a few tweaks to the interface and polished up many staple features. I love the new crop tool, which moves and rotates the source image instead of the cropping frame and allows non-destructive cropping. Adobe has also fixed up the healing brush to work better around picture edges, and it’s implemented some very powerful blur and angle correction tools. There’s even an improved version of the animation tool, which now basically allows for video editing.
For me, though, the biggest selling point is the new Camera Raw 7 plug-in. I’ve been shooting in RAW format for years, and Camera Raw has become integral to my workflow. The new version feels like it totally leapfrogs past releases. There are separate sliders to control the image’s shadows and highlights, and because Camera Raw operates on 12-bit lossless source files, these are much more powerful than simple gamma and levels controls. With a little tinkering, I can approximate a multi-exposure high-dynamic range shot from a single photograph. Add some lens correction, and the result looks like this:
The pseudo-HDR version looks much, much closer to the actual scene as I perceived it before taking the photo. The regular, non-HDR version blows out the sky and makes the areas around the trees a lot darker. It looks okay, but it’s not what I actually saw.
If you have a camera capable of shooting in RAW format—or if you just need good software for image editing—then it doesn’t get much better than Photoshop CS6. By the way, Adobe says folks who own Photoshop CS3 or CS4 are eligible for the $199 upgrade price until December 31. Alternatively, you can sign up for a $19.99-a-month subscription to Creative Cloud. Even at full price ($530 on Amazon right now), Photoshop CS6 is well worth it.
Tablets are sure to be a hot commodity this holiday season. Most of my favorites ring in at $400 or more, which is a little on the pricey side for a single gift. Fortunately, Google’s Nexus 7 provides a budget alternative that’s truly compelling. This seven-incher combines a decent-looking IPS panel with Nvidia’s Tegra 3 processor and the very latest version of Google’s Android OS. Asking price: $200 for the 16GB version and 50 bucks more for the 32GB.
Budget tablets are usually fraught with compromises, but the Nexus 7 gets the important things right. The quad-core Tegra SoC combines with the “Project Butter” responsiveness enhancements built into Android 4.1 to provide a silky smooth user experience. It probably helps that the Tegra processor is clocked only a little bit slower than versions the chip that power much more expensive tablets, but most of the credit goes to the Jelly Bean OS. And, because this is a Nexus device, users should benefit from a steady stream of OS updates. Our own Nexus 7 has already been bumped up to Android 4.2.1, which adds multi-user support and lock-screen widgets, among other perks.
Retina display snobs may scoff at the Nexus 7’s relatively low resolution, but 1280×800 is a good fit for the 7″ panel. The smaller screen also makes the tablet easier to hold with one hand, at least when compared with larger alternatives. Throw in excellent battery life and a body that doesn’t feel cheap, and you’ve got the best budget tablet around. If anyone you know has the 7″ Kindle Fire HD on their list, you’re better off getting them the Nexus 7 instead. I also prefer the Nexus 7 to the iPad Mini, which has a lower pixel density and a much higher price. Be careful when making that kind of substitution, though; you just might ignite a religious debate.
Cyborg Gaming’s Rat 7 gaming mouse might be my favorite PC peripheral of all time. I’ve had one connected to my primary desktop for over two years, and it’s definitely the finest mouse I’ve ever used. The first thing you’ll notice is the radical body, which looks like what might happen if the Dark Knight’s Tumbler mated with one of the Insecticons. This is form following function rather than the other way around. The funky design is simply an artifact of the Rat’s adjustable nature.
While most high-end mice offer tweakable sensitivity and removable weights, the Rat 7 goes much further. The shape of the mouse can be adjusted in three dimensions to perfectly suit your hand. Individual panels can also be swapped depending on whether you prefer a smooth or textured surface. There’s no provision for lefties, but that’s the only real catch.
As is fashionable these days, the Rat 7 is loaded with buttons and backed by powerful macro software. I’m particularly fond of the thumb wheel, which can be configured for horizontal scrolling in Windows or programmed to perform all sorts of other tasks in games. Thanks largely to the horizontal scrolling capability, the Rat 7 transitions between work and play more smoothly than any other mouse I’ve used. The ability to switch profiles on the fly certainly helps, too.
The Rat 7 is selling for as little as $86, and it’s worth every penny in my book. Wireless types will want to consider the Rat 9, which cuts the cord but is quite a bit pricier, at $127 online. Just make sure to avoid the cheaper Rat 5 and Rat 3, which look similar but don’t boast the full range of adjustment options.
While some think it sacrilegious to take technology products into the wild, I have a habit of doing just that. Tablets, smartphones, and digital cameras have accompanied me on numerous backpacking, snowshoeing, and kayaking trips into the wilderness. They’ve become indispensable companions for my outdoor excursions, not just to snap photos and provide evening reading material, but also to direct my journeys via GPS. Thing is, battery life can be a bit of a problem on longer trips.
I’ve been looking at solar-charging solutions for a while now, and I’ve settled on the one I want: the SolarFocus SolarMio Pro. This puppy combines solar panels with a separate battery pack, allowing devices to be charged even after the sun has retreated from the sky. There are some limitations, of course. All charging is done through the battery, so you can’t juice devices directly from the solar cells. Additionally, the battery’s output is limited to a USB jack that pumps 5V at a maximum of 2A. That should suffice for most mobile devices, and the SolarFocus rep I spoke to at Computex assured me there’s enough power to charge an iPad. The SolarMio Pro also comes with multiple adapters, including one that can charge the removable batteries for my DSLR and waterproof cameras.
For me, the most attractive thing about the SolarMio Pro is the fact that it’s relatively compact and weighs less than a pound. Those are important considerations for something I’ll be hauling up mountains and stuffing into kayak hatches. Even if Santa doesn’t come through, I’ll be picking up this solar charger for the epic kayaking trip my girlfriend and I have planned for the summer. It costs only $135, which seems like a bargain given the potential convenience. I’ll be sure to let you know how it works out.
My selection is unfortunately limited in scope to tech-related stuff, because I was told that guitars, amplifiers, and effect units do not fall within the purview of The Tech Report. Weaklings, I say. Onward we go, into the realm of how to make my
gaming rig workstation a bit more badass.
Let’s start with the obvious: the monitor. Due to other financial priorities (those things with four wheels and an engine), my main monitor is a 22″ TN variant, an aging Samsung Syncmaster 226BW. It’s actually a pretty good one as these things go, but I could really use both bigger and better. I feel quite limited and even somewhat depressed. I stab people in Borderlands and the blood isn’t… red. Not nearly red enough. I nuke cities in Civilization V and the oranges and grays aren’t quite… nuclear. This is unacceptable and must be corrected. So, what’s the obvious choice? A cheap Korean 27-incher:
Scott reviewed a close cousin to the Auria EQ276W pictured above, and he had the Auria in his lab for a spell. The Auria is every bit as good as the model Scott reviewed, with vivid colors, wide viewing angles, and a high 2560×1440 resolution—for about half the price of typical 27″ IPS displays. The Auria is sold through Microcenter, so you won’t have to import it from across the ocean. You can pick it up from a brick-and-mortar store staffed with people you can turn to if there’s a problem. As a bonus, the EQ276W has a full array of inputs, including VGA, DVI, DisplayPort, and HDMI.
Yes, I know all the horror stories about OCZ’s reliability history—but you see, the good thing about Christmas is that you can ask for gifts and other people will spend money on them. That’s a perfectly valid excuse for me to gamble on OCZ’s latest shiny goodness: the Vector 256GB. As we discovered in our review of the drive, it happens to be the fastest consumer-grade SSD around right now.
For the vast majority of users, buying an SSD is the single best way to improve their computer. In fact, I’m a firm believer that we’re about to enter a new era of expectations about PC responsiveness due to SSDs. Given that my computer unfortunately still has those annoying silver platters with needles floating above them, I am also in need of something that doesn’t jam up the works every time I fire up a virtual machine, work with a large dataset, or go for some digital killing. 256GB is enough for my needs; some games will have to be reside on the spinning platters of my mechanical drive, but that’s it.
My other recommendations were expensive, but here’s something a little more wallet-friendly. It’s a microfiber cloth mousepad. The Mionix Sargas 320 is pretty thin, so it doesn’t bulge out against your wrist. But that’s not the main selling point. It’s smooth as silk. It’s a baby’s bottom. It’s velvety pleasure. It’s a lot of other stupid analogies, most of which aren’t PG-13 anyway.
What matters is that once you start mousing around on this thing, you’ll immediately feel the difference in both movement and tracking precision. I’m pretty sure your opponents in online shooters will notice, too. At just 18 bucks, the Sargas is also cheap. Who doesn’t like cheap and sexy?
Ahhhh, Christmas: that odd time of year when we commemorate the sacred in the most secular of ways. I guess the same can be said of many holidays, so let’s get to the shopping, shall we?
At the top of my list would be “peace on earth,” but Amazon’s results for that search don’t carry the kind of warranty that convinces me it’ll stick. If I can’t have peace, how about a fantasy tale of good triumphing over evil in a nine-disc Blu-ray boxed set with new commentary and 91 minutes of goofs and outtakes? Yes, the originals were great, but my kids won’t care if the Ewoks blink or the ice on Hoth is white or blue. Star Wars: The Complete Saga is perfect for late nights during the Christmas break.
Watching movies is entertaining, but it’s not interactive. I’m hoping to find F1 2012 in my stocking and am dying to play it on one of those 27″ IPS panels we’ve been raving about.
My final pick was going to be the Nexus 7, but Geoff told me that’s on his short list, so go read his justification for wanting it. He’s owned many a tablet and should have far more to say about it than I would.