It’s that time of year again. You have a nerd or geek in your life who’s impossible to buy for, and you’re flat out of ideas. Time is running out, too: there’s only three weeks left until Christmas as of this writing. Fear not. As nerds and geeks who are impossible to buy for ourselves, the TR staff has looked back over the hardware, games, and entertainment that surprised and delighted us the most this year, and we’ve tried to select our favorites for all ages and budgets. Here’s what we came up with.
Jeff Kampman, Editor-in-Chief
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti
It’s rare that a product doesn’t disappoint in any way. Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080 Ti is one of those rare beasts. The GTX 1080 Ti delights with high frame rates and smooth frame pacing at resolutions and graphics settings that make every other card on the market flinch, all with performance-per-watt that’s unequaled in the industry right now. I can’t think of a finer gift to give the gamer in your life (or to yourself).
Don’t pair a GTX 1080 Ti with a 1920×1080 display, or you simply won’t see what this card is capable of most of the time. The GTX 1080 Ti is best for high-refresh-rate 2560×1440 gaming or high-fidelity 4K experiences, and if you pair it with such a monitor, you’ll be elated every time you fire up your favorite titles. This card really demands a modern system to help it shine, as well, so if you or your intended recipient are still holding onto a Sandy Bridge PC or something older, it might be time for a shot of Coffee Lake on top.
Aftermarket takes on GTX 1080 Tis abound, and as you would expect for Nvidia’s highest-end consumer pixel-pusher, they all seem to be fine products. I would personally give the edge to Gigabyte’s $800 Aorus GTX 1080 Ti Xtreme Edition, whose trio of large fans and massive heatsink keeps the GP102 GPU cool while staying whisper-quiet. That said, you really can’t go wrong with any GTX 1080 Ti, even the Founders Edition. We don’t do year-end awards, but if we did, the GTX 1080 Ti would be graphics card of the year in my book.
For all the time I spend testing the world’s most powerful graphics and computing hardware, most of the gaming I’ve done for my own pleasure of late has taken place curled up under the covers with Nintendo’s Switch. That’s because Nintendo knows how to deliver games with heart and depth in a way that few other companies or studios can.
The Switch is a surprisingly versatile canvas for those titles, and I’ve enjoyed using it in my living room just as much as I have in its portable mode. The crisp and relatively large screen for a portable device makes this console the best Game Boy ever in a pinch, and I can’t wait to take it on planes or wherever else I might want to get some more Breath of the Wild in.
Some might argue that the Switch is an expensive platform for Nintendo’s first-party titles and little else, but if you value quality games that you can really dig into over the widest selection possible, the $300 price tag for this little gem is more than worth it. Like the GTX 1080 Ti, I’ve never had anything other than fun when I’ve fired up our Switch, and I can only hope that will continue as more developers and franchises get on board with it. TR contributor Eric Born also heartily recommends Nintendo’s latest console to put under your tree, so I’m not alone in my infatuation.
Sometimes the best things in life are simple tools that do one thing really well. Thermoworks’ Thermapen Mk4 quickly and accurately tells the temperature of any food item you might have on your stovetop or in your oven, and its lengthy probe, auto-rotating and backlit display, motion-sensing on-off switch, and water-resistant construction make it both convenient and durable in use.
I mostly use my Thermapen for cooking meats, and if you want to nail a perfect steak or figure out whether a massive pork roast has come up to temperature, this little gadget will let you find out whether you’ve hit temperature targets with enough swiftness to avoid overdoing fast-cooking cuts and with more than enough accuracy to avoid turning medium-rare into medium-well. The Thermapen will be used so often by the choosy chef in your life that it might not even remain in a drawer, much less end up at the back of one like so many other cheap thermometers I’ve tried. This thing is $100, sure, but it’s one of those “last-one-you’ll-ever-buy” kinds of purchases, and no gift is better than that.
Your Name (Blu-ray)
This smash-hit anime film, based on a tale written by director Makoto Shinkai, starts with a classic love story and adds a heaping share of twists and turns that will reward a second or third viewing (on top of whatever stop-and-rewind moments you might want to indulge in to really appreciate the gorgeously drawn and colored backgrounds). I won’t spoil the story here, but if you’re burnt out on the idea of watching yet another ponderous superhero movie (and don’t mind the potential for a tear or two), this surprisingly complex and charming tale might be just the ticket. Watch it with subtitles on the biggest screen you can. $20 for the Blu-ray-and-DVD combo pack is a steal.
Bruno Ferreira, managing editor and sysadmin
A nice pair of headphones
I’m a big fan of good sound, but night-time recording or gaming aren’t activities that lend themselves to the thumping volume of a speaker system. What you need is a proper pair of studio-grade headphones, like the $150 Beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro or the $140 Audio-Technica ATH-M50x. Either of these pair o’cans has a closed back (my personal preference) and sound quality that will blast any overpriced vegetable-branded set out of the water. There’s a reason why studio engineers worldwide trust either of the models above with their recordings.
An arcade joystick
Fighting games have seen a resurgence of sorts over the past few years. The Street Fighter franchise is going strong, and us PC gamers can now finally play Tekken 7. Me, I never really stopped playing them, as I have a collection of emulators that fill my old-school beat’em up needs just fine. Although it’s perfectly feasible to play fighting games on a keyboard, it’s hard to pull off certain moves and not very enjoyable altogether. Enter an arcade joystick.
Buying one of these things used to be an exercise in either frustration or expense, since sticks would tend to fall on two categories: cheap and nasty, or nice and expensive. Thankfully, it’s much simpler these days. Most beginners will be happy with either the Mayflash F100 ($40, for those with smaller hands) or the Mayflash F500 ($90, for larger gerbil paws). Either of these sticks is quite solidly built and easily moddable with aftermarket parts (we just know you’ll upgrade sooner or later). The higher-end model has extra functionality like rumble and a headset port.
A nice HOTAS set
Contrary to what you may be thinking, HOTAS is an acronym, not a way to type “hot behind.” It stands for Hands On Throttle And Stick, and references (at least) a joystick-and-throttle set for playing flight or space sims. Both those game types have become popular in the past decade after being ignored for most of the late 90s and early 2000s. Fans of War Thunder and Elite: Dangerous, for example, are legion.
While you certainly can get some serious bits of kit (as is the case with anything involving “simulation”), there are affordable choices that will let you punch holes in enemy planes instead of in your bank account. The Thrustmaster T.16000M FCS HOTAS is one of those. The joystick has Hall-effect magnetic sensors and exchangeable parts for ambidextrous operation. Meanwhile, the throttle is suitably big and has configurable resistance. Gifting a HOTAS set would often be an expensive proposition, but the T.16000M goes for a reasonable $107. There’s also a version with a pair of rudder pedals for $160.
Eric Born, mobile reviewer
Dominion: Second Edition
To be worth a place on my shelf, a board game needs to meet the following criteria. First, it shouldn’t take more than an hour to finish a round. Second, luck should matter, but it should reward strategic thinking more than luck. Finally, no one should ever be eliminated from the game, and they should have meaningful things to do until the game ends. Dominion ($28 for the base game) is a fun, addictive board game that not only meets these criteria, but transcends them.
In this deck-building game, players start with a relatively small stack of cards and add to it, card by card, developing powerful and fun combinations of effects. Players will need treasure cards and action cards in order to make big plays, but a major part of the strategy is knowing when to start investing in victory cards, which don’t do much in your hand but are the only ones that matter at game’s end. Dominion is one of the rare board games that’s just as fun with two people as it is with four, making it an ideal present for the couple who likes to game together.
Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End
In some circles, the 1940s and 1950s are considered the golden age of science fiction. With authors like Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and Dick publishing in this time, it’s hard to argue against its importance to the genre. Time is a cruel mistress to novels that seek to portray the future, but one novel from this period that has aged particularly well is Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (about $10 used). The sci-fi geek on your wish list will not only appreciate the trip down memory lane to a beloved classic, but also its resonant, sobering message about the divide between humanity’s outsized ambitions and its limited capabilities.
Ever since Christmastime revelers first started to go a-wassailing, alcohol has been a thoroughly appropriate holiday gift. With the recent whisky-drinking renaissance, it’s likely that many folks will wander into the whisky aisle this season to look for a gift bottle. Unfortunately, the whisky boom has meant steep price increases for many of the familiar brands of Scotch.
One whisky that’s remained reasonably priced, yet widely available, is Glenmorangie (about $30, depending on your location). This Highland malt is smooth, floral, and sunny, a perfect drinking companion for the dour month of January. If someone’s been particularly good this year, consider getting them Glenmorangie Lasanta, which spends a couple extra years finishing in a sherry cask to help it develop a particularly rich flavor.
Wayne Manion, news writer and microcontroller wizard
A good soldering station
I spent a good bit of my free time this year fiddling with microcontrollers, mainly development boards based on Espressif’s amazingly inexpensive ESP8266 Wi-Fi-enabled chip. I don’t think a microcontroller necessarily makes a great gift, but the soldering station I got in order to assemble my various projects has come in handy for all sorts of things. Mine is a $97 Weller WES51 analog station, but the company makes a variety of units at various price points.
A real soldering station was a revelation after dreading every time I pulled my old cheap iron out of the toolbox. A soldering iron needs some accessories like some fine-gauge solder and a set of helping hands. Solder with lead isn’t healthy, but it is much easier to work with.
An air mouse
I have never been able to find a set-top box that does everything I want it to. We have a full Windows 10 PC connected to each TV in our house. Streaming boxes like Amazon’s various Fire devices are generally easier to use than an HTPC, but you can even the score a little bit with an air mouse. For the unfamiliar, an air mouse works a lot like a Wiimote. Wave the remote around and the mouse cursor responds in kind. On most models, the mouse can be flipped to reveal a miniature keyboard on the bottom. I keep a Logitech K400 around for some tasks, but when we are queueing up something to watch on Netflix or Plex, we use the air mouse.
Models with backlit buttons (about $12 for the one I like) are convenient in a darkened room, but battery life definitely suffers. Air mice with non-illuminated buttons ($13 for the one above) will last about a month on a pair of AAA batteries, so some Panasonic Eneloop rechargeable batteries and a charger could make a nice accessory. Most units have four programmable buttons that can mimic IR patterns learned by pointing a standard remote at the unit. I have the buttons on mine set to mimic the power, source, and volume control buttons from my TV’s remote.
A sturdy monitor arm
We have seen monitors adding some interesting features like logo projectors over the course of 2016, but in my opinion the best thing a monitor stand can do is get out of the way. If you someone on your gift list has multiple displays, consider a monitor mounting arm. If that person is a renter, something that bolts to the desk for about $36 might be in order. The more entrenched might prefer a wall-mounted monitor arm for about $40.
I use a 2×2 display array, and the wall-mounted extending arms make it easy to position all four screens exactly where I want them. I would recommend individual monitor arms rather than units that are designed for multiple displays for substantially increased mounting flexibility.
Zak Killian, news writer and systems reviewer
A USB hub with lots of ports
One of the most useful things that I got this year was actually a regular old powered USB hub. It’s one of those items that you would likely never think to buy, and yet one that actually presents a great quality-of-life improvement. Every time I use it, I think “why didn’t I get one of these sooner?” It’s so convenient to have a pack of ports right by your monitor that you can use to temporarily hook up flash drives, game controllers, cameras, charging cables, and so on.
The specific hub that I got was this ten-port self-powered model from Orico. Newegg has it marked down to $33 right now. It’s big and bulky, but it occupies a specific spot on my desk, so that’s not a problem for me. USB hubs come in a ridiculous variety of shapes and sizes, so they’re a nice gift because you can really personalize it for the intended recipient.
A wireless gamepad
Last year I recommended the regular old Xbox 360 controller for PC gamers, and that’s still a great choice. However, if you know someone who’s really into retro games, who games on Android a lot, or who wants a better controller for their Nintendo Switch, check out the 8Bitdo SF30 Pro. This controller supports Bluetooth and USB connections for Windows, macOS, Android, and the Switch. You can pre-order one now for $50 and it should ship on December 10, so you’ll have time to wrap it up for Christmas.
Does someone you love smoke, gerbils? I quit cold turkey, but the developed oral fixation is real. I ruined my teeth sucking on sugary candies for the last ten years, but in recent months I’ve discovered Zollipops. These sugar-free suckers are recommended by dentists and are simply the best thing to satisfy that craving and keep a mouth occupied with something other than a cancer stick. You can buy them in a variety of quantities, but your best value is the $30 150-pack.
Eric Frederiksen, news writer and peripheral reviewer
Xbox One X
It might be anathema to recommend a console purchase on a PC gaming site, but since we already talked up the Nintendo Switch, I’m going to do it all the same. Despite the beefy sticker price of $500, the Xbox One X is a stellar deal for a no-hassle gaming experience, especially if you have a 4K TV in your living room.
As a game console alone, the Xbox One X is much more powerful piece of hardware than anything else out the market. It’s got more muscle than even the PlayStation 4 Pro, and it’s able to both play “Xbox One X Enhanced” games that offer things like increased resolution and detail or higher frame rates. It can also play existing titles at a consistently higher level of quality. Many titles are reaching native or close-to-native 4K on a machine that costs about as much as a graphics card alone. On top of that, you get a stellar set-top box for Netflix and the like, plus an Ultra HD Blu-ray player that could cost at least $150 on its own (often more). A console experience isn’t for everyone, but if you don’t want to spend well over $1000 on an HTPC that can drive a 4K TV, this is as good as it gets.
A gigantic Thermos
You’re gaming, you’re working, you’re going to get thirsty. Sure, you could get up and get something from the fridge or boil up some hot water. Or you could just have it ready. The Thermos Stainless King is a real beast, with a 68-ounce capacity, but it does exactly what it promises on the box and is worth every cent of the $45 price tag. If you make tea in the morning, it’ll still be too hot to drink at night. It’ll even be lukewarm the next morning, if you’re really desperate.
I drink a lot of tea (like, a lot of tea), and this beast has become indispensible. In addition to the excellent temperature retention and the huge capacity, the tank has a twist-and-pour top that lets you pour yourself another cup without totally dismantling the thing. You can use the cap as a cup or get yourself a MegaMan E-Tank mug if you want to remember what this thing is really for. If 68 ounces is just too much, there are smaller sizes, but this thing is a perfect companion for a 1.7-liter electric kettle.
Logitech G603 Mouse
For a long time, picking a gaming mouse meant making a choice. You could pay a ransom for a low-latency mouse with limited battery life or grab a wired one to save a few bucks, tangling (literally) with the annoying cable. Logitech seems to have the problem licked wih its G603 Lightspeed Wireless Gaming Mouse. Despite how few buttons this little guy has, it has a host of worthy features.
First up, the G603 features both Logitech’s proprietary Lightspeed and general Bluetooth connectivity. When connecting via Lightspeed, you can connect at high or low speed with a switch on the bottom of the mouse for a choice between more frequent polling or better battery life. Even with the low-latency 1-ms setting, though, Logitech is still promising about six months of battery life on a pair of AA batteries in regular daily usage. The “high” latency setting has an 8-ms reporting rate, and Logitech says you can go 18 months on a single pair of batteries with that option. While the mouse doesn’t offer any weight adjustment, you can play with either one or two AA batteries with no performance difference should you want a lighter piece of hardware in hand for intense PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds sessions.
Beyond that, the G603 sports Logitech’s classic right-hand shape, a subtle black-and-grey look, and just enough buttons to get by; left and right, back and forward, and a rubberized wheel. The best part? This thing’s only $60.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins
Assassin’s Creed: Origins (Xbox One X)
When I talk to gamers, it seems like many have written off Assassin’s Creed completely. That’s thanks to a relentless yearly release cycle and consistently buggy games starring wholly unlikeable protagonists. It’s hard to hold it against them. But if there was ever a time to come back, it’s this year, thanks to Assassin’s Creed: Origins.
Origins takes us back to ancient Egypt in 49 B.C., during the reign of the Pharaohs Ptolemy and Cleopatra VII and just before the fall of the last dynasty of Pharaohs and rule by the Romans. The pyramids were already ancient by this time, and hieroglyphs were largely unrecognizable to the general populace. The game is filled with beautiful, eye-popping temples and giant monuments, and it’ll take you across deserts, seas, jungles, caves, and canyons. It’s the biggest Assassin’s Creed game yet, and the best one in a long time. Protagonist Bayek is fun to play with, and the game has overhauled both the combat and free-running systems for the better.
Origins is still Assassin’s Creed, but it feels fresh, and it’s easily one of my favorite games of the year. It’s a can’t-miss title, especially if you’re going to be playing on one of the new consoles or a properly high-end rig that can render the world in all its splendor. The game retails for $60, but there are sure to be plenty of sales between now and Christmas. If that’s not your jam, though, why not check out Horizon: Zero Dawn (PS4 exclusive), Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, or Super Mario Odyssey (Switch exclusive)?
Some Ultra HD Blu-rays
Planet Earth II
If you picked up that Xbox One X I recommended above and the 4K TV I suggested last year, you’re going to need some proper 4K content to watch on it. You can stream on Netflix, sure, but the truth is that streamed 4K just doesn’t measure up to an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc. Picking out the right movie to show off your dope TV can be tough, though, so here are a few recommendations to get you off the ground.
While a few of its visual effects are questionable, the $50 UHD version of Blade Runner‘s focus on practical effects means that it holds up pretty well, and the combination of a dark world and neon colors mean there’s tons of room for the improved contrast and expanded color gamut available from an HDR cut to make the movie look better than ever. There’s no question that this is a great-looking 4K movie. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the Dolby Atmos sound mix yet, but if you’re on the bleeding edge with your audio setup, then this disc will do right by you.
If you want some more comedy and action, though, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($30) is going to be one of the most vibrant, colorful Ultra HD Blu-rays around. The movie was plenty colorful in the theater, but the HDR presentation blows it out of the water, and the level of detail revealed on a 4K screen is impressive.
On the more grounded front is BBC’s Planet Earth II documentary (about $32). Simply put, this is the best-looking thing on 4K HDR. Every shot pops, whether it’s a close-up of a lizard’s iridescent scales or a shot of a bobcat bounding headfirst into a snowbank like something out of a cartoon. If your goal is simply to show off your gear, this is where it’s at. While many movies are captured in 4K or 8K and mastered in 2K, much of Planet Earth II was captured in 6K and mastered at 4K, so there’s absolutely no loss of detail. You might cry while you watch it, and I promise, that’s normal.
Or, hey, if you’re willing to cut it really close? Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy ($85) will be out just in time for Christmas, with a December 19 release date. I can’t make any judgments about its quality since it’s not out just yet, but Nolan’s a picky director and was involved with this release, so we should be in for a treat.
Colton “drfish” Westrate, Shortbread wrangler and BBQ master
Logitech Harmony 650
Sure, there’s been some drama surrounding some of Logitech’s Harmony offerings recently. However, it appears that smarter minds prevailed and Logitech has done right by their customers. Personally, I don’t go in for insanely expensive universal remotes in the first place—I have simpler needs.
The Harmony 650 has worked well for me for the better part of this year after replacing my previous Harmony model (which met a, uh, “physical” death). At just $40, the Harmony 650 is priced perfectly for the job of wrangling a family member’s collection of DVD players and TV remotes. Just be sure to plan on a hour or two of setting it up for them.
Neko Atsume Cute Cat Sweater & All Black Cats are Not Alike Book
Cheese didn’t make the cut for the gift guide, so I had to go with a gerbil’s next favorite thing, cats. Neko Atsume, I’m told, was popular once upon a time. This sweater, adorned with some of its most iconic felines, is sure to please someone you know. The book, well, everyone knows someone with an ABC. Gift this to them so they’ll know that you totally “get” it.
Generic Mouse Bungee
Nothing says “gift” like something with the word “generic” in it. Say what you will about the more ostentatious options out there, but don’t knock the concept until you’ve tried it.
At just $8, this thing could be a stocking stuffer, gag gift, or Secret Santa contribution—all the while having the possibility of being something the recipient will legitimately grow to appreciate.
Fisher-Price Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar
So far, we’ve covered gift options for family, friends, and the geeks in your life. This last suggestion is for the youths.
According to the box, the $29 Fisher-Price Code-a-Pillar is for kids aged three to eight, but I know I’d play with one if I had the chance. I bought one earlier this year for a special three-year-old that shares my birthday. It’s gotten rave reviews so far. I’m looking forward to Christmas because it’s the excuse I need to send along a couple of the expansion packs with new modules, one of which teaches for-loops. Fun, fun.