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Nov 232017
 

Whether you’re looking for gifts for others, or wanting ideas to pass on for appropriate items for yourself, here’s a wonderful cornucopia of ideas, at least some of which are sure to delight everyone.

We’ve come up with a mix of the commonplace (but sometimes overlooked) and the unusual, giving preference to modestly priced items (so, no, we’re not going to suggest a new enormous new 8K TV or a Tesla) and also to items which might be on sale.  Here’s a summary list, followed by individual write-ups and links to reviews and where the items can be purchased.

  • Bose QC25 Noise Cancelling Headphones ($300, currently on sale at $179)
  • Memory Card ($10 to $100)
  • Travel Blanket, Pillow, Sleep Mask ($10 – $90)
  • Camera Monopod ($12 – $25)
  • Eight Port USB Charger ($22)
  • External Battery Pack ($10 – $50)
  • Mini (Travel) Flashlight ($20 – $50)
  • Amazon Echo/Alexa Device ($30 +)
  • Amazon Kindle eBook Reader and/or Fire Tablet ($50 – $250)
  • External Monitor for Laptop ($190)

Bose QC25 Noise Cancelling Headphones  (About $300, sighted on sale down to $179)

We’ve reviewed dozens of noise cancelling headphones, and pretty much every Bose set since the QC1, more than 15 years ago.  In the past, we’ve sometimes delightedly uncovered almost-as-good headphones at vastly lower prices, but the latest generational leap by Bose (when they brought out the QC15) moved them decisively ahead of the competition.

The Quiet Comfort 25 – the current best there is – is the successor to the QC15, and in turn, now exists alongside a newer model, the QC35.

The Quiet Comfort 35 is good, and is notable for offering a Bluetooth wireless connection as well as via a normal connecting cable.  But generally we feel Bluetooth is better avoided, both due to the slight loss in music quality commonly introduced by the Bluetooth circuitry and the regular hassles they pose with forgetting connections, so we’d not pay extra for that.  The QC35 is $350, almost exactly twice the price of the currently on-sale QC25 at $179.

We also don’t like that the QC35 uses a rechargeable battery.  Sure, it is reasonably long-lived, but if your battery dies on you, it may not be as easy to recharge it while traveling somewhere as it is to simply swap out one AAA battery for a new one.

The QC35 has also become, in our opinion, over-engineered with ‘features’ that get in the way of simply plugging in a set of headphones to listen to music.  Too many buttons and features and options.

Now, for the QC25 (usually visible on this page, a little bit down).  It gives you unsurpassed noise cancelling and good sound quality.  They have a simple single on-off switch and nothing else, which is the way a set of headphones should be.  They do have an inline microphone in their connecting cable so if you are listening to music and you  wish to take a phone call or maybe make a Skype call on your computer, you can do that, too.

Bose is famous for never allowing its products to be discounted, and for maintaining rigid and high pricing.  Seeing the QC25 headphones at $179 makes for an exciting opportunity to get what is probably the world’s best noise cancelling headphones at a great price.

Our review of the Bose QC25 headphones can be seen here.

Memory Card ($10 to $100)

Who can’t benefit from another memory card, or a larger capacity replacement for a present card – perhaps for your phone, tablet, security camera, regular camera or video camera?  Although memory prices aren’t dropping as much as they once were, it does seem that each time we buy more memory cards ourselves, the high-end in terms of capacities has expanded still further, and the middle range shows some price drops.

Generally we tend to get large but not the largest possible cards for things such as storing music or video, and medium-sized cards for our cameras (ie, the largest card in the ‘sweet spot’ price range rather than pay a huge premium for a slightly larger card).

We used to have music split over four 64GB cards, which was a nuisance to swap them in and out of our music player.  We then replaced them with two 128GB cards – an improvement, but still not perfection.  With technology’s continued forward march, we now have almost all we want on a single 200GB card.

Having all that music (about 500 hours) in our lovely Fiio music player at the same time is a great convenience.

Actually, a Fiio music player makes a great stocking stuffer too – even their entry-level and still excellent X1.  Here’s an article we wrote about high quality digital music players.  (No, neither an iPod nor an iPhone is a high quality music player.  High quality players, with FLAC type music files, are vastly better than MP3 type devices such as iPods and iPhones.

We prefer medium capacity cards for our camera, because even a 16GB card holds so many thousands of pictures as to be almost ‘too big’.  We don’t entirely trust the reliability and longevity of SD cards, so we like to limit how many pictures we have on each SD card, and we also quickly back them up to other media.

The sweet spot currently for memory cards seems to be when you are getting about 4GB per dollar.  So a 64GB card for about $16, and so on.  The largest 256GB cards are more expensive – you’re then getting less than 3GB per dollar, making a seldom justifiable leap in price between the 200GB and 256GB cards.

Note that many devices that are a year or two old will talk about accepting SD/micro-SD cards of up to perhaps only 32GB or 64GB in size.  But invariably, that is just because when their specifications were written by the marketing department, the maximum size card at that time was whatever is cited as maximum size.  The unit, whatever it is, will 99.9% definitely accept larger capacity cards (the remaining 0.1% seems to be in some rare cases when they have created an artificial software limit to try and force you into a more expensive version of the product.)  The actual maximum capacity of modern memory cards is 2TB, and currently micro-SD cards can be found up to 256GB and full-size SD cards up to 512GB.

Here’s Amazon’s page (better to say, pages) of memory cards.  Here’s an article we wrote about high-capacity memory cards and detailing some of the issues and considerations that apply.

Oh, and while talking about memory cards and backing up, you might want to think about a portable hard drive to take with you that will automatically read and copy/backup your files from your memory cards.  Regular external hard drives are now commonly available at very moderate prices; we suggest at least a 2TB capacity (probably costing no more than $70).  Even if you don’t have 2TB of data, this allows you to keep multiple generation copies of your data, making it easier to recover and restore in the case of a data loss/corruption.  Here is Amazon’s product listing page.  Get the smallest form factor possible, and if it doesn’t come complete with some type of protective carry case, get one of those too.

Such a device should be powered through its USB connection, and have USB 3.0 capabilities and speed.

Now for the very special element – being able to copy SD cards to the external hard drive without needing to control it with a laptop.  There are several ways of doing this with varying degrees of simplicity/complexity and cost/affordability.  The easiest/best approach is with a WD Passport Wireless Pro drive.  There is a Toshiba unit too.

Travel Blanket, Pillow, Sleep Mask ($10 – $90)

Whenever we fly coach (which is most of the time) we’re always keen for anything that will somehow miraculously transform the comfort and quality of the experience.

Travel blankets, once liberally given out, are increasingly rare in airplane cabins and it is now appropriate to consider traveling with one’s own.  We review four different types of travel blanket here, and found one of the four as clearly the best – the Travelrest blanket for $30.

We’re not sure if we’ve reviewed more travel pillows or noise cancelling headphones over the many years of The Travel Insider, and just like the Bose QC25 are a clear standout for headphones, there is a clear standout for pillows, too.

This is the Caldera Releaf, and here is our recent review of it.  Here’s a quick link to the Amazon page selling the $20 unit.

As for a sleep mask, Amazon offer lots to choose from.  We like the silk sleep mask from Silk Camel – soft and sufficiently ‘special’ as to make it suited for a stocking stuffer type item that its recipient will choose to actually keep and use.  $9 on Amazon.

Camera Monopod ($12 – $25)

  If you know a camera enthusiast, then here’s a wonderful device that gives you most of the steadying power of a tripod, but which doesn’t take up so much space and weight in a camera bag.

The best thing about this gift is that monopods are an underappreciated and often overlooked camera accessory, so there’s a good chance that whoever you’re getting one for will not have one already, and will be delighted with the unit once received.

We review monopods here and identify the best value ones.  Or you can click here to go direct to Amazon’s monopod listing page.

Eight Port USB Charger ($22)

We all continue to add more battery-powered devices to our lives.  Particularly if traveling with someone else, a single charger that can simultaneously charge a lot of devices is a tremendous convenience.

After earlier reviewing six and seven port devices over the past several years, here now is a review of our new favorite – an eight port device, which we like even more than other devices with up to twelve ports (the review explains why).

Here’s a direct link to the Amazon product page for our favorite.

External Battery Pack ($10 – $50)

  Yes, the eight port charger is a great device, but alas, there will be times when your phone or tablet or something finds itself running out of charge and needs to be topped up, but you’ll be somewhere where you can’t just plug in your eight-port (or any other) charger.

In such cases, an external battery pack that will transfer its charge into your needy device can be a life saver.  I never travel without one.

We’ve written about such things regularly over the years, and it has been interesting to watch how the amount of charge capacity such units can hold is increasing, while the cost of the units are decreasing.

At the same time, the demands on these units is also growing – we now expect units to be able to charge two or more devices simultaneously, and not at the sedate 0.5A speed of yesteryear, but instead at speeds greater than 1A and possibly greater than 2A.  We also expect the devices in turn to be capable of being recharged at a decent rate.

Currently the sweet spot seems to be for devices of capacities ranging from 10,000 mAh to 20,000 mAh.  We’ve seen 10,000 mAh devices at prices down to $10, and 20,000 mAh devices going down to $20.  But we’ve also seen units at two or three or even four times the price.

We have also empirically noted in our past testing of such units an apparent shortfall between claimed capacity and actual delivered charge.  With that in mind, we are embarked on an ambitious program of testing, using special USB type amp hour meters, and a selection of external battery packs.

Here’s a link to Amazon’s pages listing external battery packs.  Some are on special for Black Friday/Cyber Monday, but they appear to be more expensive than normal to start with and far from compelling bargains.

We suggest you wait until we’ve published our complete report next week and then decide on the best of what is currently a bewildering variety of choices.

Mini (Travel) Flashlight ($20 – $50)

  Light defines our lives.  While most phones have a flashlight feature these days, a small pocket flashlight is still much better for most purposes, and a nice little stocking stuffer.

Here’s the article we wrote about mini flashlights, and while we identified several ‘short listed’ favorites, here is the Amazon product page for perhaps the best all-rounder of them all.

Amazon Echo/Alexa Device ($30 +)

  Although we are sometimes frustrated by what these devices can’t do, or don’t yet do well, we are also impressed with the rate of ongoing development of new features that is happening with them.

Amazon’s Echo range of voice controlled devices using their ‘Alexa’ assistant service are clearly a key strategic future direction for them, and as such, increasingly the wave of the future for us all.  We like the small Echo Dot units, which list at $50 on Amazon and sometimes can be found for $40 or less (sighted today for $30).

We’re less excited by the more expensive full-sized Echo units, or the various other Echo variants such as the Echo Spot and Echo Show.  Well, to be exact, we definitely agree that all these units are so much better when combined with a display screen, but we’re dismayed by the ridiculous prices Amazon is asking for them.

We don’t mind paying something less than $50 for Echo Dot units.  But over $200 for a unit which is essentially nothing more than an Echo Dot and 7″ Fire combined is of little appeal.

At $50 or less, an Echo Dot is a great ‘stocking stuffer’ and a low-cost introduction to this new type of interface.  Here’s one of the several reviews we’ve written on the Echo Dot, and here’s a link to the Amazon Echo product page.  We expect the units will be on sale for much of the time between now and Christmas.

A related product would be a  remote controllable switch or plug outlet that will work with the Echo unit.  We have several Wemo brand devices, and they’re sometimes to be found on special (here’s Amazon’s product page).  Note that some of the other brands also need the purchase of a special ‘hub’ unit to control them, the Wemo units don’t need a hub as well which is why they are our preferred choice.

Amazon Kindle eBook Reader and/or Fire Tablet ($50 – $250)

 

 

It is almost exactly ten years since the introduction of the first Amazon Kindle eBook reader – a device that when released in November 2007 cost $400.

What a difference a decade makes.  Now there are better Kindles for little more than one tenth that price, and even the top of the line lovely new Kindle Oasis costs only $250.

An entry-level Kindle costs $80 and may sometimes be discounted down to as little as $50.  The Kindle we recommend, the Paperwhite, lists for $120 and might be found sometimes for under $100 (currently $90).  There is also a Kindle Voyage, priced between the Paperwhite and the Oasis, but it is little better than the Paperwhite, while appreciably more expensive, and also definitely inferior to the Oasis, while only a little less expensive, so it ‘falls between the cracks’ and makes no sense.

While you might think that the eBook reading programs on tablets have now obsoleted dedicated eBook readers, their light-weight, small-size and very long battery life give them a continued niche existence, particularly for reading fiction.  If you wish to read books that come with color illustrations, then a tablet based reader would be better.

We travel with both a Kindle and a tablet.  (Well, in truth, we travel with a Kindle, usually two tablets, and a laptop, but that’s not entirely essential for everyone!)

Here is a link to the Kindle page on Amazon.

If you wish to get a tablet instead or as well as an eBook reader, Amazon’s Fire range of tablets are the very best value tablets available at present.  They have a 7″ unit for $50 – an amazing price compared to their first ever 7″ Fire, which was released in 2011 and priced at $199.  Astonishingly, the original Fire not only cost $199 but its optional cover was $50 – as much as a new Fire today!

But these days the 7″ unit is largely obsolete, because the 8″ unit is very much better, and only a little more expensive – listing for $80 but sometimes dropping down in price to $60 or possibly even less ($50 today).

Amazon released a new 10.1″ screened tablet just a month ago, and it in turn is as massively better than the 8″ unit, as the 8″ unit is better than the 7″ unit.  The 8″ unit is acceptably good for most purposes, whereas the 7″ unit has quality and functional compromises right from the start.  The 10.1″ unit is simply better for every purpose and application, although of course also slightly larger/heavier.

In terms of price, it was a bargain when released at $150, and currently is on a temporary ‘Black Friday’ type special for the astonishing price of $100.  Rush to buy one of these as quickly as you can.

Here’s our most recent of many reviews/writeups on the Kindle tablets, it has links within it to additional pages.  And here’s a link to Amazon’s Kindle product page.  Hopefully you’ll get lucky and find a unit on sale; we expect that will be the case intermittently between now and Christmas and certainly is so at the time of writing.

External Monitor for Laptop ($190)

  Do you have multiple monitors connected up to your regular at-work and at-home computers?  If you don’t already, that is definitely something you should do – studies show that adding a second monitor increases your productivity by about 50%, and that has absolutely been my own experience; if anything, I feel I’m closer to twice as productive with two screens than I am with one.

My ideal desktop screen is the less common 1920×1200 screen.  Plenty of screens these days are 1920×1080, but the extra 10% offered by 1200 rather than 1080 dots in height makes another small extra difference.  The Asus 24.1″ VS24AH-P seems like a great product at a good price, and I have two of them, both of which I’m thrilled with.

But what about when you’re traveling?  Isn’t your need for productivity even greater when you’re traveling?  You probably have less free time then, and many things you want to see/do while on the road.  I used to hate going from two 24″ screens to one single 15.6″ laptop screen when traveling, so I added a second monitor to my laptop too.

Doing so is very easy, and uses a regular USB connection.  We write about and recommend an ASUS MB169B+ (here is an Amazon link) because it seems to be small and lightweight, but there are AOC monitors which are similar and slightly less expensive, too.

 

We hope that somewhere on this list of ten items (and really, to be exact, there are way more than ten items in this list!) you’ll find something for you and all the people on your ‘nice’ list this year.

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