2020 Christmas Gift Giving Guide

Beware of late deliveries this season.

Perhaps you’ve already started collecting things to be given as Christmas gifts this year.  With Black Friday/Cyber Monday only now receding into the background, and Amazon’s Prime Day just weeks before, maybe you’ve already been tactically buying in advance.

But even after whatever you’ve acquired so far, the chances are there are still a few names on your list without gifts alongside, and of course, maybe you feel you deserve a little something for yourself, too.

Here are our suggestions of an interesting miscellanea of predominantly very affordable items.  Chances are there’s something on this list, even for the hardest-to-buy for people.

Oh – one very important point.  Our sense is that delivery service will be bad this year.  So don’t wait until the last minute to buy things.

Several friends are already reporting delays, and Amazon has already urged people to choose to pickup their orders from an Amazon location rather than to ask for delivery.

Plus, look at the appalling tale of woe with a package being shipped to me.  It only had to go from the Los Angeles to me in the Seattle area, and was promised to be delivered on Monday.

So far (Thursday evening) it has had four unexplained delays, and has apparently arrived at their Seattle distribution facility five times.  But as for arriving here, for me, not yet.  There have been no weather related or other disruptive events to interfere with this shipment.  Frustratingly, the shipper (Google) set the shipment for “signature required” so I’ve been unable to leave the house for four days while waiting (and waiting) for this shipment to arrive.

Even worse – I’ve bought a few things from other online stores over the last few weeks.  The stores seemed to be based in the US, but only after ordering and paying for the items do they then reveal that the items are being shipped from China – shipping time 2 – 4 weeks.  That’s a nasty surprise, and deliberately withheld until it is too much of a hassle to try and cancel the order.  I’m sure it will be closer to 4 weeks, because in each case, it has taken over a week from when I paid before they even send me a shipping advice note with a tracking number which they say might take another week or more to appear in the system.

But, enough of such challenges – definitely a “first world problem”!  It is time to move on to happier things.  The List.

 

Roadie Resources

Travel Chopsticks $13 - $17

Two part travel chopsticks.
Don't you hate, when sitting down to a Chinese meal, being given a typical disposable set of chopsticks that comprise two rough wooden sticks joined at the top. I surely do, although I've learned one trick, after breaking them apart, is to then rub them against each other to smooth out the roughest of their sharp edges.

I was dining with a well-traveled fellow tour member on our North Korean tour some years ago, and noticed how he and his wife both pulled out their own personal chopsticks to use. What a great idea. It gave them decent chopsticks, and of known cleanliness too.

Travel chopsticks are often made of metal - easier to clean and less likely to retain odor than wood. They should have some type of carry-case for them. The might be an inch or so shorter than full-sized chopsticks, but usually are longer than disposable ones.

In addition to single piece chopsticks (such as these or these), some, like the ones illustrated, can be unscrewed partway up, and then the lower part fits inside the upper part, reducing their length for carrying purposes.

Travel Coffee Maker $30 - $90

A combo portable French Press and Insulated Mug
I always shudder when approaching a coffee maker in a hotel/motel room. Often it is coated in dried coffee bean dust and oil, and requires a thorough cleaning before being pressed into service.

These days the concept of a portable high quality coffee maker is increasingly appealing. However, in order for this to be practical, you need to have a source of truly hot water of course, to say nothing of an appropriate supply of quality ground coffee. Your quest for perfect coffee can end up with an impressively complicated collection of bulky and heavy items accompanying you, while a nearby Starbucks looks on at you mockingly.

There are a few reasonably portable travel coffee makers that include a water heater, and some interesting units that combine a type of French Press unit with an insulated mug to drink from.

None of them offer large sized 20 oz or whatever drinks, or foamed milk, of course. But if you like your coffee as plain espresso, they can do an adequate job.

We were intrigued by this mains powered unit and this battery powered unit (but haven't tried either). The battery powered unit (can also run from a car power outlet or regular mains power with an adapter) has the benefit of using Nespresso pods, making it a bit easier to take coffee supplies with you.

An AeroPress Go is the portable version of the very popular coffee maker - even their regular sized units are reasonably portable too.

Travel Kettle $35 - $50

Tremendously clever idea, and everything included that you'll need.
Did someone just say "you need to have a source of truly hot water"? That can be a problem in a hotel room, and here's a very clever solution - a collapsible rubber kettle/jug.

These units come in various configurations, and can be single voltage or multi-voltage. We are featuring a "top of the line" goes-anywhere multi-voltage unit here with a one pint (16 oz) capacity. Others are probably almost as good.

$50 on Amazon.

Amazing Audio

Ear Buds $25 - $150

Stylish, great sound, and much better value than Apple's overpriced earbuds.
Disclosure : I don't like ear buds. I find them uncomfortable in my ears.

But I'm seemingly in the minority, and I can't ignore the growing number of people with wireless/Bluetooth earbuds to connect to their phone. Apple charges outrageously for their earbuds, of course ($250) but there's no need to pay that much, no matter whether you have an Apple device or any other device.

They can provide a good way to listen to music with surprisingly high sound quality, and also to make phone calls too, often with reasonably good noise cancelling if you're in a noisy environment. But they do come with all the gratuitous complications of Bluetooth, as compared to good "old fashioned" wired headphones.

If you want stylish high end, then the London Urbanista earbuds (illustrated, left) at $150 will save you $100 off the equivalent featured Apple Airpods Pro. If you'd rather drop down another notch in cost, then the almost as good Rademax earbuds cost a mere $26.

Noise Cancelling Headphones $50 - $270

The Bose QC35 II noise cancelling headphones are an excellent choice.
At the risk of being unoriginal, any time you can find discounted Bose noise cancelling headphones, they should be considered - either the QC35 or the NC700.

We've seen some discounts at Costco stores locally for a generic set of Bose headphones - we suspect they are unlabeled QC35 headphones. Otherwise, Amazon has the QC35 for $270 at present. They are almost as good as the considerably pricier NC700 model.

As an alternative, we now have a set of the new Wyze noise canceling headphones. They seem to have excellent noise cancelling capabilities, and cost a mere $50. Their design is a bit clunky, and they don't fold flat for travel, and if you order them now, they'll not be delivered prior to Christmas. But for excellent noise canceling and a bargain price, if these issues aren't problems, they're a great choice.

Kitchen Konveniences

Instant Pot/Pressure Cooker $80 - $180

We love our Instant Pot. Chances are you will too.
We're all spending more time cooking at home at present, and so it is time to look at enhancing some of one's basic cooking equipment.

Instant Pots have been taking the country by storm over the last few years. Essentially they are not much more than a repackaged pressure cooker with automation to give them more flexibility about how they do the simple job of heating the contents of their sealed pot. Add a substantial measure of marketing to support claims such as "10-in-one" functionality, an infrastructure of recipes, and there you are - a new category of kitchen gadget.

We recommend you get a unit with an 8 quart capacity, even if you're just cooking for yourself. Beyond that, don't get too carried away with how many different functions it claims to have - most of them are of little use. We also think that air frying is better done in a separate air fryer, so don't recommend paying more for that.

Amazon seems to be somewhat sold out of many models of Instant Pot at present, after their Black Friday sales on them, but have a look and see what is currently available. Chances are you'll find them at Target, Walmart, and Costco too. Other brands that do the same thing are just as good.

Sous Vide Heater $80 - $200

We're not sure if a phone app is a blessing or curse, but we love the sous vide unit itself.
One of the cleverest things to be developed in terms of meal preparation/cooking technology in the last several decades is sous vide cooking - putting a meal in a sealed vacuum bag and cooking it very slowly in moderate temperature water.

You can of course either eat it then, or, as we do, store it in the freezer until you're ready to eat it, at which point you can quickly thaw and reheat it.

Some Instant Pots offer a sous vide function, but we don't think they work very well. You want a free-standing unit that you simply clip onto the side of a pot. The key thing is how the unit will then stir the water to ensure the water temperature is even throughout the pot.

Key things to look for are a modest size and a powerful heating element (over 1000 watts is best). Some come with a daunting amount of "automation" and even have a Smartphone app that is either optional or, horrors, mandatory. That's over-complicating a simple heating/stirring device.

This unit for $80, is slightly underpowered, but otherwise great value. If you preheat the water first, the 800 watt element is not such a problem. This Anova unit for $140 is discounted from $200 and is a popular model and brand name.

Gadgets Galore

Amazon Echo Unit(s) $25 - $90

Look for extra savings in a combo deal rather than buying an Echo by itself.
There's every reason to expect you have already bought one or more Amazon Echo units already. But do you have one in your kitchen?

I find I'm using my kitchen unit more and more. I use it for listening to music while cooking, I use its intercom feature to call my daughter down when dinner is ready, and - most of all - I use its list feature so that any time I'm using nearly the last of an ingredient, I can simply call out to Alexa and have it add the item to the appropriate one of my shopping lists. (See our lengthy list of Alexa commands for more information on how to get best use from Amazon's Alexa service.)

An Echo Show allows you to display menus on its screen, whereas a regular Echo Dot is strictly audio only.

If you're getting a Show, we recommend you get the larger 8" size unit, so you can read the screen from across the kitchen, rather than the smaller 5" unit that requires you to get much closer to clearly see its display.

If you're getting an audio only Echo, the small Echo Dot is perfectly good enough for most purposes, and the third generation units are essentially identical in function to the newer fourth generation units - the only difference is cosmetic, and price.

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K $30

The Fire TV Stick 4K has Alexa capabilities built in and works with almost every streaming service.
Even though many televisions now have built-in internet streaming capabilities, we still feel that the Roku and Fire TV Stick external units give you more flexibility and features.

Of the two, our current favorite is and remains Amazon's bargain priced Fire TV Stick 4K. Even if you don't have a 4K television at present, almost certainly the next one you buy will have 4K resolution, and the extra capabilities, overall, of the 4k version not only "future proof" it but easily justify the small added cost over the two less expensive and less capable alternative Fire TV Sticks.

The Roku units are still great, but the Fire TV Stick 4K is greater. We review the Fire TV Stick 4K here.

Bluetooth Hands-Free Speakerphone $11 and up

Avoid "using a phone while driving" tickets with a speakerphone unit such as this.
Don't get stung with a $200 ticket for using your phone while driving. Get one of these very simple to use and very affordable units so your phone automatically switches to a remote speakerphone whenever you're in the car.

See our detailed review here. Here's a link to the $11 unit mentioned in the review and shown alongside, here.

Miscellaneous Marvels

Underground Cities Book $26

A lovely "coffee table" book, beautifully presented, and crammed full of interesting information.
We're fascinated by all elements of transportation, and so this was a book we knew we'd love, and it didn't disappoint.

It is a lovely hardcover "coffee table" type book of 224 pages richly filled with illustrations, schematics, maps and photos of underground transportation systems and other structures in 32 cities around the world.

Currently available at a great price on Amazon, this is a lovely book for yourself or anyone else. I've reviewed the book here.

Security Key $30 - $70

Keep this computer/phone authentication key with your other keys (and don't lose it!)
As we move more of our lives and our financial and banking data to our phones and other electronic devices, the issue of security becomes more and more important.

Increasingly, banks and other businesses are asking, and soon will be insisting, on "two factor authentication". You've experienced that already when you have to key in a code from a text message as part of logging in to a service.

Another approach is using a security key. This would be a present for your more technically competent family members - they are not hard to set up at all, but someone with some confidence and familiarity with configuring log-in options would probably be more comfortable updating their programs to require a security key.

Yubico are a market leader and have lots of helpful advice on their website to walk you through configuring many common programs to use their keys. They're available on Amazon, of course.

The keys are all very similar, but have different plug connectors. Make sure you get one compatible with your phone.

A Fancy Growler $130 - $200

The Growlerwerks 64oz and 128oz pressurized insulated growlers are a great item.
This is an interesting product - a heavily insulated and pressurized growler. Ostensibly it solves the "problem" of beer not keeping long in a regular growler, but believe me - for most of us, that isn't a problem at all!

So we think their 64oz growler is a gimmick. But the 128 oz growler is an interesting and appealing product - the extra life it offers, and retaining the beer's head and carbonation - is a true value add.

Growlerwerks has a special on the 128 oz size currently. Costco has a special on the 64 oz size.

Dual Connector Thumb Drive $11 - $25

Styles vary, but all dual drives have two different connectors on them.
Here's a device few people even knew they needed. It is a regular thumb drive with a special extra feature.

You're probably familiar with standard USB thumb drives. They're a handy way of storing and transferring files, and have become a modern day equivalent of the former floppy disk. Dual connector thumb drives have both a regular USB connector and also a modern USB-C connector (you can also find them with iPhone Lightning and other specialty connectors too) - this allows you to connect them both to your computer and your phone.

This makes for a great way to transfer pictures and video clips from your phone to your computer, and to transfer music files and other data from your computer to your phone.

We suggest getting one that has a similar capacity to your phone, so you can get everything you need on it at once, rather than needing to do a multiple series of file transfers.

Amazon has them available in 64GB and 128 GB capacities which are probably ideal for most phones, as well as larger capacities too. Be wary of unknown brands at low prices - they are sometimes spectacularly disappoint. Buy Sandisk or Samsung or another name grand.

New Cell Phone $free and up (recommended $300 - $350)

Google's house-brand Pixel 4a 5G is a fully featured phone at a great price.
How old is your present cell phone? Is it time to upgrade, and perhaps to try out the new 5G capabilities that are appearing? If you're thinking it is time to get or give a new cell phone, you probably should choose a new model which supports the latest 5G frequencies. We explain what 5G is all about here and here, and we've a lengthy list of 60 different current phone models and their key features here.

If you already have Google Fi, or might be interested in switching (we review Google Fi here), Google currently has great prices on its Pixel 4a 5G and the Samsung A71 5G phones; if you're happy sticking with 4G capabilities, they have almost free Motorola phones.

Because 5G is still evolving, we advise against buying a ridiculously expensive 5G phone, but the current $300 or $350 prices on the two 5G phones Google is selling are definitely enticing.

Camway EMF Pollution Meter $26

This meter not only shows you dangerous levels of radio and magnetic fields, but can also be used to search for bugs and hidden wireless video transmitters.
You can be fairly certain this is a gadget that no-one on your Christmas Gift List already has!

The Camway EMF meter measures radio and magnetic radiation and shows you "hot spots" in your home (or anywhere else) that should be avoided, or which suggest devices that need to be moved or replaced.

We review it here, and it can be purchased on Amazon, here.

 

We hope you’ve found something(s) on this list.  Don’t forget all the helpful suggestions in our 2019 Christmas Gift Giving Guide.  Most of the items on that list remain as sensible and often unusual as they were a year ago.

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