Despite the rise of machine-learning and other artificial-intelligence tools, it only seems to get harder and harder to find just the right gifts for the nerd in your life. We on the TR staff know just how hard to both pick gifts for our favorite techies and to have gifts picked out for us. That’s why we’re continuing our annual tradition of compiling the unusual, the useful, and the delightful items that we’ve used in the past year. Whatever your budget, we’ve got something for the nerd in your life.
Our gift guide is sponsored by Newegg. We’ll be using links to their product pages throughout the guide, though we reserve the right to link to other retailers as needed if Newegg doesn’t stock something we want to recommend. Support The Tech Report by purchasing your gifts through these links. Our thanks to Newegg for their continued support.
Without further ado, here’s what’s on our staff’s lists of recommendations for 2016.
We may still be waiting on the VR revolution to really take off, but if you’re interested in taking the plunge this holiday season, there’s no better way to go right now than HTC’s Vive, created in partnership with the mad scientists at Valve.
The Vive’s killer out-of-the-box room-scale experience, its included hand controllers, and an open software platform that fosters innovation all combine to create a VR experience that lives up to the hype. Put on the Vive, and it transports you to new worlds that you can walk around in and directly manipulate. Yes, the screens inside could do with more resolution, and the headset itself could be a little lighter, but those are minor complaints when every person who’s put on the Vive in my presence has had a visceral reaction to how neat it is. We can’t say the same about Oculus’ Rift.
Oculus’ Touch controllers may bring the Rift closer to what the Vive can do when they arrive soon, but we’re still waiting to see just how Rift developers will take advantage of those new tools. The Vive has had full room-scale support from day one, and we already know it’s great—plus it’ll be somewhat cheaper than a room-scale-ready Rift. If you have the space for the Vive’s room-scale setup and the PC to drive it, we think it’s the best VR experience available today.
Bose QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones
I’ve flown all over the world this past year to cover various conventions and hardware launches, and I gotta say: airports and aircraft are not fun places to spend any length of time. They’re often inescapably crowded and noisy, and as someone who needs his peace and quiet, the crushing humanity in those places can be hard to deal with.
I was able to claw back some solitude on the go with Bose’s QuietComfort 25 noise-canceling headphones. Yes, these cans are expensive at $270, and they won’t impress any audiophiles. The reason behind their dear price tag: flip a switch, and the sound of the outside world goes away. Bose’s noise-canceling mojo works especially well with lower-frequency noise, like plane engines and road hum, but they can make almost any room much quieter. Their audio quality is just good enough, but let’s be honest: that’s all you really need in otherwise rowdy environments.
If you or someone you know is a frequent traveler, you can grab a big part of the business-class experience by putting on a pair of these QuietComforts. The wired QC25s I have are nice enough, but Bose recently introduced a set of wireless QC35s that operate over Bluetooth (with a cabled fall-back mode). Get either pair in their blacked-out form and enjoy a slice of travel bliss.
As a member of the tech press, it can be tough balancing my cooking hobby with tight deadlines. Short of turning to Soylent, it’s difficult for me to get a good dinner made on some nights. The Instant Pot—an electric pressure cooker—is a lifesaver. I just picked up one of these gadgets over Thanksgiving weekend, and it’s already changing the way I think about home cooking.
For certain kinds of dishes that require long braises, like chilis or stews, the appeal of the Instant Pot is that it cuts down the time required to cook those delicious winter staples to just an hour or so. Compare that to the three to four hours of careful babysitting it might take in order to really tenderize a good cut of beef for chili, for example, and lovers of slow-cooked food should already be taking notes.
For example, this chicken-and-green-chili recipe from Serious Eats requires just about 18 minutes under pressure in the Instant Pot to produce an absolutely delicious meal with minimal effort (aside from some brief vegetable prep and some post-cook chicken-shredding). Just dump all the ingredients in, close the lid, dial in the time and pressure settings, and walk away. The Instant Pot does the rest. Dredge out the chicken, puree the remaining chilis with an immersion blender, add your shredded chicken, and you’re done.
Like any respectable kitchen gadget these days, the Instant Pot has a million functions that probably aren’t required to really enjoy the advantages of pressure cooking, but hey—they’re there if you need them. Thankfully, this gadget does the basics just fine without much fuss, too. If you have an impatient cook in your life, one of these babies would be a great gift.
Robot vacuum lord and TR BBQ master
LG 25UM58-P ultrawide IPS monitor
According to the Steam Hardware Survey, the 2560×1080 resolution is nearly five times less popular than the enthusiasts’ darling, 2560×1440. However, even combined, those two resolutions only account for slightly over 2% of systems surveyed. As you might expect, 1920×1080 dominates the chart, representing over 37% of monitors. It’s probably safe to assume that most of those screens are sporting 60Hz TN panels.
Enter my first gift suggestion, the LG 25UM58-P. It stickers at $199, but it can frequently be found closer to $150, and at that price it’s a steal. Every aspect of the screen is an upgrade over your typical budget 1080p LCD, including the jump to 21:9, which I adore. Its IPS panel even runs at 75Hz natively. That’s a far cry from 144hz Adaptive-Sync displays, but it’s still a nice perk in this price range. Without the bump in vertical pixel count that the jump to 1440p comes with, the recipient of this gift may not immediately feel the need for a video card upgrade, another nice consideration.
I bought this screen’s cousin, the LG 25UM56-P, for my silly monitor arm experiment. Now, I almost never use the LG 34UC87-C at my desk anymore. I didn’t see that coming. All said, I think the LG 25UM58-P would be a great upgrade for anyone you know that’s still staring at an “average” screen.
Amazon Echo Dot
I bought an Amazon Echo on Prime Day this year. I may get around to reviewing “Alexa” at some point, but generally speaking, she’s fairly impressive. I don’t chat with her all that often, though, and while she may seem like a bargain at any price to some, I’m happy I only paid $100 for my Echo at the time.
However, at just $50, the second generation Echo Dot is easy to recommend as a gift for just about anyone, techie or not. Even if one doesn’t get much more utility out of it than I do from my full-size Echo, all the little things it can do should prove its worth quickly. Using it with existing speakers just makes sense. Plus, even if the recipient never integrates it with anything in their home beyond that essential connection, there’s still a ridiculously long (and growing) list of skills on tap that they can use.
As a bonus, I can personally attest that you won’t feel as silly using voice commands in the comfort of your home as you would in public with your phone. In my house, that means setting a lot of kitchen timers, rolling D20s, and playing music, of course. I’ll connect Alexa to the lights and thermostat someday…
Ricoh Theta S
Many TR gerbils have already seen the product of my Ricoh Theta S 360 degree camera. I have a few qualms with it, like how difficult it is to live stream from the HDMI output. Even so, it’s a really cool toy to have. I’ve gotten some great “pictures” with it. I’m not a photography pro by any stretch, but even as a novice, I recognize how spherical photos and videos create different rules for shot composition. It’s an interesting thing to wrap your head around.
At $350 the Theta S is on the pricier side for gift giving. Based on the impression mine has made with family and friends, though, it may still be worthy of consideration. People love this thing, but it’s likely something they wouldn’t buy for themselves. If one of those “impossible to buy for” types is on your list, the Theta S could be just the ticket… if you really like them.
Erisan UC40+ LED Projector
After an exhaustive search, I selected the Erisan UC40+ projector for coffee table D&D map projection duty in my house. It’s not going to win any contests for specs, but of the dozens of cheap LED projectors out there, it had the most consistent user reviews and was one of the only ones I was able to confirm would attach to a standard tripod mount for ceiling use (it comes with an adapter).
The specs may not be great—this thing only throws out 800×480 natively—but it down scales from 1080p decently, and the image is bright and colorful (as long as you room is fairly dark). Don’t count on super-readable text, but for big-screen Rocket League or Finding Dory on a bedroom wall it’s a great option. At just $80, it’s a lot cheaper than smaller but dimmer “pico projectors” too.
Bissell Spotbot Pet
There are too many pets in my house. Everyone knows it. My trusty robot vacuums aren’t the only ones keeping the house reasonably clean, though. When things get ugly, I need to call in the big guns with water and detergent, and that means I’m getting out my Bissell Spotbot Pet. It’s got just the right amount of geeky robotic-automation and practicality to earn a spot on my list.
I’m pretty sure this isn’t the kind of gift that would get you smacked by the recipient, even though it might look the part at first glance. The SpotBot is fast and simple to deploy and clean after use. Critically, it legitimately works well. Unfortunately, mine has gotten a lot of use since I picked it up earlier this year. But at least I know that for $110 you’d be hard pressed to find a better gift for any pet fanatics in your life.
Anova Precision Cooker
Alton Brown is a personal hero of mine. I have every episode of Good Eats recorded and saved on my home server. When people are talking about food, I’m the guy that says, “Alton Brown says to do it this way” to just about every culinary conundrum. My terrible secret, though, is that I almost never cook anything myself. I’m all talk and no wok.
I recently bought a Anova PCB-120US-K1 immersion circulator so I could further pretend to be half the food nerd that that I act like I am. Think of it as a geeky Crock Pot (not that there’s anything wrong with a normal Crock Pot, of course). I’ve only used it a few times so far, but it turns out eggs like I’ve never eaten before and delicious steaks that only need a 30 second sear on each side at the end.
At around $100, I think an immersion circulator’s precise, low-maintenance, set-and-forget style makes it a kitchen tool that a lot of gerbils would be proud to present to friends or family.
I’ve played Rimworld on and off for a couple years now. It just hit Early Access on Steam this year though and it deserves gift-consideration for anyone you know who’s ever enjoyed playing a city-builder before. Not that Rimworld is a city-builder per se. If you already know what a colony-builder is though, you’ve probably already tried to get your friends to play Rimworld, making further description superfluous. Now is the time of the year to guilt them into playing it by gifting them a copy.
Have I told you about the time one of my colonists became best friends with a bear that tried to eat her? Oh man, and then there’s the many psychotic ways I’ve optimized killing chickens (the secret is to let the babies starve to death while they are already in the freezer). I could go on and on, but really, these are things you need to let others experience for themselves (and probably warn them not share publicly).
Let’s wrap up on a lighter note, shall we? If you somehow missed this indie gem when it broke the internet earlier this year then it needs to be on your radar now because it’s a terrific gift for an extremely wide range of people. Stardew Valley out-Harvest-Moons farm-life simulator Harvest Moon in every way.
If you’re skeptical, pretend you’re Fred Savage from the beginning of The Princess Bride. I’m the grandpa telling you “this game has everything, sword fighting, romance, monsters, uh, agriculture…” Trust me, whoever you get it for will love it.
Data Shark 70007 Complete Network Tool Kit
I love the reliability and consistency of wired networking, but I cannot stand excess wires. I bought the Data Shark 70007 kit to run wires to install a couple of surveillance cameras in my home, but once I started making custom cables, I couldn’t stop. Every wired device in my home network is now connected with a cable that has been cut to length with just enough slack at either end for a little bit of movement.
Countless other RJ-45 crimper kits exist, but this one can be found for $35 on Amazon or for about $40 on the shelf at the local Home Depot if you’re the type that procrastinates past the point that even Amazon Prime can help you. The 70007 kit includes a dedicated cable cutter and stripper, a crimping tool, and a punchdown tool for wiring up keystone jacks.
Ubiquiti Unifi AP AC Lite
Even the most ardent fan of wires has to admit that some things must live untethered. For these devices, the Ubiquiti Unifi AP AC Lite delivers a level of performance and reliability that I haven’t experienced with other wireless access points. I’ve used several different wireless routers with stock firmware and aftermarket software like OpenWRT and dd-wrt, but none have delivered the speed or consistency I’ve experienced with my UAP-AC-Lite. The $80 asking price isn’t the cheapest 802.11ac solution around, and other devices offer higher claimed throughput, but the combination of consistency, speed and features is excellent.
Keep in mind that Unifi access points can only augment an existing router. The Unifi unit does not have routing capability and must be plugged into another router via Ethernet. Ubiquiti’s access points are controlled through a special program rather than the standard web interface, as well, so expect just a little bit of a learning curve to get the device running. If someone on your list complains about poor Wi-Fi service, this is one possible solution.
Amazon Kindle Paperwhite
Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets are infinitely more popular than the company’s e-readers, but if you like to read in all conditions from a darkened bedroom to a sunny afternoon with one device, e-ink reading devices like the Kindle Paperwhite deliver a written-word experience far superior to LCD tablets.
The e-reader category seems to be quite mature these days, and the last major innovation in the category was the integrated backlight introduced in the original Kindle Paperwhite back in 2012. The ability to read in bed with one hand while your partner sleeps is something that can’t be done with a real book, though, and that lasting convenience is what really sells a good old Kindle.
Raspberry Pi 3
The Raspberry Pi Foundation’s single-board computer isn’t the ideal tool for many jobs, but it can be press-ganged into many applications. The right disk image and a couple of controllers can transform it into a retro gaming machine. With a different disk image, the Pi 3 can be used as a Kodi (nee XBMC) media center. Those with a desire to dabble in Linux can use the Pi Foundation’s Raspbian OS to poke around with the Linux command line without the hassles of virtual machines or hard drive partitioning.
For the more adventurous, the Raspberry Pi 3 can also be used as a basis for robotics or home automation projects. We suggest buying the Pi as part of a kit, as the $35 bare board needs a microSD card, a relatively beefy 2.5A 5V power supply, some kind of case, and an HDMI cable just to get started. We recommend the Pi 3 over the other models for its integrated 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity.
Amcrest IPM-721 IP camera
If someone on your shopping list has something or someone at home they worry about during the day, a little surveillance can give some peace of mind. The Amcrest IPM-721 IP camera has remote pan and tilt, infrared LEDs for nighttime use, as well as a built-in microphone and speaker for audio communication with the camera’s subject. The camera can communicate using onboard Wi-Fi or over a wired Ethernet connection.
The camera can be used with the company’s provided software for PC, iOS, and Android devices. The more ambitious can use the IPM-721 with ZoneMinder or another surveillance DVR system for recording.
100-pack of melamine foam
Think of this suggestion as a high-tech replacement for giving someone a piece of coal. The melamine foam bricks are very similar to the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser sold in stores for about $1 each. These bulk-packaged copies go for less than $15 for a 100-pack on eBay. The erasers are great for cleaning all kinds of things, including dirty keyboards and all forms of plastic. Keep them away from shiny things, though, because they clean with microabrasives. If you don’t know 100 naughty children, you could always keep some for yourself.
Samsung KS8000 television
After years of watching 4K televisions arrive and go obsolete within the year, it seems like 4K has finally gotten its feet under it. The standards that help establish the technology and feature sets of the new generation of televisions is, well, set, and you can safely buy a TV this year knowing it won’t be painfully out of date next year.
Right now, I think the best TV among the affordable range is Samsung’s KS8000 line. I picked up the 55″ Samsung KS8000 myself, and I’ve been pleased with it every step along the way. The TV sports a clean, clear picture that gets brighter than most of the other Ultra HD televisions in this price range, and it does a good job of representing colors accurately. If you’re playing games on this set, it also features low input lag even with HDR turned on.
Other 4K HDR sets have high input lag, don’t allow HDR settings on their gaming modes, or have variable input lag that makes them almost unusable for games. Samsung’s KS8000 and KS9000 televisions handle games with aplomb while earning their value and then some with movies. Pair this TV with one of the new gaming consoles, and the HDR color will make your eyes pop out. The best part, though, is the price. While the KS8000 is $1,400 at retail, it’s often on sale for less.
Customized Xbox One controller
If any old controller will do, there are plenty of choices out there. The Xbox One Elite controller is worth every cent, while the Xbox 360 controllers are an old stand-by. Sony even has an official wireless adapter for its DualShock 4 controller for use with PCs.
But you spent all this time customizing the look of your computer. You picked the right color case, spent tons of time customizing the lighting both in the case and on your peripherals, and even let the look influence which headset you chose. So why not go after a matching controller? Microsoft’s design lab will let you design a controller for yourself or your loved one. Buyers can pick the colors for the sticks, buttons, and shell to fit their preferences. This newest version of the Xbox One controller also has Bluetooth radios in it, allowing it to work wirelessly.
This custom version isn’t exactly cheap at $79.99, but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than the unofficial custom versions offered elsewhere.
Cable organization gear
Once you get the wiring inside your case just right, you shouldn’t neglect the wiring outside it. Cables pour out the backs of our computers and all over our desks. Taming them keeps us from tripping over them, resting our feet on a power switch, or accidentally tugging a cable out during a heated in-game moment. And for some of us, organizing our cables is even cathartic.
There’s a ton of room to move around here. Velcro ties and zip ties are just the beginning. Neoprene sleeves will clean up and guide the cables you can’t hide without forcing you to wrap them in countless ties. A cable corral will get that power strip off the floor so that the only cable hitting the floor is your power strip’s wall plug.
Once you start looking, the possibilities are endless—headphone hangers to put under your desk, cable clips to keep from losing charging cables, and floor guides are all out there to keep it from looking like you live in one of those nightmarish server rooms that end up on Reddit.
You do, however, have to really know your audience for this one. Some of us are going to look at this pile of stuff with glee, and others with confusion and disappointment. If you don’t have a fortune to spend, those neoprene sleeves and velcro ties are a good start.
A good pair of headphones
A good pair of cans is indispensable. Whether you live in a busy home, travel a lot, or just love to hide inside music, there are countless uses for headphones. The one universal rule I’ll offer before I link to a few solid options is that you get what you pay for. If you go too cheap, you’re picking up junk. If you pay audiophile-level prices, you’re probably dumping money down the drain. So what about the middle?
If you’re sitting at a computer or in a cafe, getting some comfortable over-the-ear headphones is a good idea. Pictured above are Audio Techica’s ATH-M50x headphones. They’re comfortable, well-built headphones that sound good for the price (just above or below $150 depending on when you look). They come with a pouch and three different detachable a cables to best suit your needs.
For travel and transit, something more discrete and isolating might be worth a look. Shure’s SE215 sound isolating earbuds come in at $110 and have a few handy bonus features. First, they come with a nice case to protect them from the elements (and cats). The buds themselves detach from the drivers, allowing you to replace the cable if it frays or the buds if they don’t fit.
If most of your listening gets done while you’re out and active, the Jaybird X3 wireless Bluetooth headphones are sweat-proof and feature secure-fit ear fins to ensure they stay in while you’re on the move.
TR code monkey
Asus Z170-Pro motherboard
About six months ago, I decided to take the plunge and upgrade from my trusty Sandy Bridge setup to something a little more modern. Along the way, I knew I had to make a choice for the motherboard I’d be using. Motherboards are often an overlooked component, but I consider them worthy of careful consideration if your needs go beyond the basics.
I don’t like noisy PCs, so I needed a mobo with decent fan controls. After having some bad experiences with older ASMedia USB controllers, I decided to not settle for anything less than a bona-fide Intel Alpine Ridge chip, powering at least one a USB 3.1 Type-C port. Intel Ethernet adapters are next to bulletproof, so that was also on the menu. Finally, since I run my main PC to a receiver and bookshelf speakers (for now, anyway), I wanted to keep my options open when it came to multichannel audio, so I was on the lookout for DTS Connect functionality. Needless to say, an M.2 PCIe x4 slot was a requirement for a future PCIe SSD upgrade, too.
Enter the Asus Z-170 Pro motherboard—not to be confused with the lower-end Pro Gaming model. This baby fills all the above requirements, and then some. Just by looking at it, you wouldn’t think it’s packed full of goodies—and that’s just how I like it. The overall layout, cushioned I/O shield and front-panel connector block made the installation a total breeze. And even though I have a low opinion of mobo firmware in general, I found the one on this board simple, to the point, and most importantly, stable—even when overclocking. The setup was completely uneventful, which is the absolute best thing you can say about a motherboard. Okay, I’m lying. The Z170 Pro made me furious for a few minutes when I turned it on and saw white LEDs running along the audio circuit path. Being a man of standards, I considered that unacceptable and rushed to turn them off.
Intel Core i7-6700K
Yes, this recommendation is pretty unoriginal as these things go. And still, it’s worth doing. My overclocked Core i5-2500K CPU served me well for many a year, but heavy-duty games and some work tasks were clearly showing its limitations. Enter the Intel Core i7-6700K. This baby is among the top-end quad-core desktop CPUs in Intel’s lineup, and it’s stock-clocked at 4.0 GHz base and 4.2 GHz Turbo speeds. It’s a bear to keep cool, and my previously-overkill Scythe Yasya is now only adequate, but it was all worth it. Oh yes, it was.
Previously, updating VMs was an exercise in pain for me. No more, as the Skylake chip doesn’t even have to bring up the fan to full to do that. Most games play way smoother than before, and I could get away with maxing out the pretties in some titles even with my now-lowly GTX 970 card. I’ve had very few cases where I felt the computer stall due to lack of CPU horsepower. In hindsight, I really should have upgraded sooner.
Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves
Do you have a penchant for contemporary, realistic science fiction with a touch of the humane? Look no further than Seveneves, by the genius Neal Stephenson. Here’s the basic outline: the moon breaks up in seven pieces, then the feces hit the rotary air displacement device. It all goes downhill from there (or uphill, in a way), as mankind rushes to sort the problem out.
In his usual style, Stephenson goes to some lengths to explain precisely what’s going on and exactly why all the information he presents is important. The blast of information may not sit well with every reader, but rest assured that it all makes sense in the context of the book and adds a much-needed touch of real-world accuracy to what is essentially a science-fiction story. Needless to say, the story evolves far away and beyond the “simple” fact of the moon blowing up. If you were ever wondering “what would actually happen” in a strange situation like the one this book presents, then go ahead and read it. Fair warning: you may not look at schlock science-fiction books and shows the same way afterwards.
Xbox 360 controller
Those “PC Gaming Master Race” kids might call it heresy, but some games just play better with a gamepad. Speaking as an expert on the matter, I’ve tried just about everything, and nothing decisively beats the regular old Microsoft Xbox 360 controller. The Xbox One’s controller is a shade more comfortable, but it’s twice as expensive and doesn’t work with some older games, so I’d stick with the classic. Assuming you don’t already have one of these, Newegg has the real deal from Microsoft for $21 as of this writing. At that price, I wouldn’t even consider cheaper knock-offs.
Sandisk Extreme CZ80 USB 3.0 flash drive
USB flash drives have been stuck in a race to the bottom for a long time now, and as a result most USB flash drives on the market are a bucket of hot garbage. Even drives with high sequential performance can be slower than hard drives on random accesses. Still, you don’t have to pay a lot to get a really nice flash drive. Sandisk’s Extreme CZ80 USB 3.0 flash drive boasts over 4200 IOPS on 4K random read tests, and 2500 IOPS on 4K random writes. Those specs creep up on some budget SSDs, and it makes this drive faster at launching applications than a hard drive. Newegg has the 64GB version for just $29.
Behringer U-Control UCA202
While the old Realtek crab logo doesn’t inspire the dread it once did, some folks just aren’t satisfied with the bone-stock “High Definition Audio” from their motherboards. USB audio cards are one solution to bad sound, and my pick for USB audio devices is the Behringer U-Control UCA202. This little silver box plugs into USB 2.0 and has a headphone jack, a Toslink optical output, line-level stereo RCA outputs, and stereo RCA inputs. It also has a volume control (for the headphones only), and a switch to toggle the headphone jack from monitoring the input or output. The audio quality from this box is fantastic, and the interface requires no drivers or setup. Newegg has it for $30.
Rockit 88 CPU delidder
This last one is purely for the hardcore tweaker in your life. Intel’s desktop CPUs since the third generation (Ivy Bridge) have used thermal paste under the integrated heat-spreader. Sometimes, this results in poor mating between the IHS and the CPU die itself, or even an air gap. That means poor thermal transfer, and that means high temperatures. Resolving that problem means popping the top on your $300 processor, and that can be a tricky process without something like Rock-it Cool’s Rockit 88 delid tool. For $30, you get a re-usable tool that can be used to safely remove the heatspreaders from Intel LGA 115x processors time and time again. This writer saw a 15° C drop in CPU core temperatures after opening the lid on his Core i7-4790K, and others have seen larger gains.