In the run-up to the holidays, tech guys like me are often bombarded with requests for great gadget gift ideas. Here, for your shopping convenience, is the best of this year’s gear, together with a few old favorites sure to please someone on your list.
I’ve got suggestions at three price ranges (<$50, <$100, and $200+) in each of four categories: coffee gadgets, cooking tech, audio gear, and gaming. Hopefully this will give you a leg up on winning your not-so-secret Santa competition. (Because who are we kidding, right? Christmas is always a competition.)
Finding new ways to make coffee is a centuries-old tradition. In the last few years, however, new coffee gadgets have brought us some especially interesting new ways to brew. At the low end, we have the Aeropress from Aerobie ($30). It’s essentially an oversized coffee syringe. You can do a full immersion brew similar to a French press, but then express the coffee through a paper (or metal) filter for a very clean cup of strong “espresso style” coffee.
Needless to say, it’s not real espresso, but it can make a great cup of coffee for very little cash. Like all brew methods, grind and water temperature is vital, but the Aeropress gives fidgety types a great deal of control over the final product. There are even international competitions for enthusiasts.
In specialty coffee shops these days, “pour-over” coffee is all the rage. This method is somewhat similar to your dad’s old Mr. Coffee, but tinkering has improved the process. Most drip machines don’t get hot enough, and don’t properly hydrate or “bloom” the coffee grounds before the extraction. Most coffee aficionados these days say the optimal extraction temperature for most coffee is between 195-205 F.
To get that you need a good kettle, like this Bonavita Digital Electric Gooseneck model ($100). In addition to digital controls that allow you to dial in a perfect temperature for coffee or tea, the long neck helps you pour the hot water exactly where you want. Electric kettles are extremely useful kitchen tools beyond coffee, so a more general use model like the Chef’s Choice 681 ($50) sacrifices the digital controls and long neck, but gives you more general kitchen versatility. Of course you’ll also need a filter holder, filters, and a good Burr grinder if you really want to complete the pour-over package.
Both the Aeropress and the pour-over methods are for hands-on types who like to fuss over their coffee. If you just want a one-button model machine, the Technivorm Moccamaster ($325) with thermal carafe gives you a lot of pour-over quality without the hassle of having to, well, pour over. It addresses the many of the deficiencies of regular drip machines by ensuring the water is actually hot enough, and the thermal carafe means no more scorched hot plate nastiness. The Bonivita BV1900TS is a well-reviewed and cheaper alternative at $200.
Now for some cooking gadgets. An important tip for beginning cooks: in the kitchen, temperature is a much better gauge of doneness than time. That means a good thermometer (or better yet, a good set of thermometers) can help you get excellent results every time.
Some of the best kitchen thermometers come from the Utah-based Thermoworks, and I’m going to recommend two models. At the low-end you can get their instant read Thermopop for less than $30. It’s not nearly as fast as my higher-end recommendation, but it will be a game-changer for anyone who has not cooked with a good thermometer before.
For the more serious cook, there’s the new $100 Thermapen Mk 4. This is an instant read like the Thermopop, but both much faster (three seconds) and more accurate. I just upgraded to one of these from the prior model and it addresses my biggest problem with the older Thermapens by adding a backlight and rotating display that lets you easily take a reading inside of a dark cover or outside on the grill at night.
While paying this much for a thermometer might seem extravagant, once you start using a Thermapen you can never go back, and keeping all those future steaks at a perfect juicy medium rare is priceless.
For my high-end pick, I’m going to suggest the Anova Culinary Precision Cooker immersion circulator ($150-$200). In the last view years, the “sous vide” cooking method has started to become mainstream. By vacuum-sealing food in plastic bags and holding it in a precisely temperature-controlled water bath, a level of cooking precision never before possible becomes routine.
This means you can get a steak to exactly the temperature you want without any danger of overcooking, or even poach an egg in the shell. An immersion circulator is basically an electric heating element united to a precision thermometer and rotating impeller to circulate the water. It allows you to keep a container of water at an exact temperature for however long you like. They were originally used as lab equipment, but now easy-to-use culinary models make sous vide at home an everyday time-saver.
Most people like music, but relatively few have really taken advantage of some of the excellent, new audio devices on the market. At the low end we’ll begin with the new Chromecast Audio ($35) from Google. This is actually one of two new second-generation Chromecasts. The other model is for getting Internet video on your TV, but the new Audio model is focused on high-quality music. Connect this little dongle to your amp or powered speakers, and you’ll have instant access to streaming music services like Spotify and Google Play Music.
These units are headless, which means you’ll need to use your iOS or Android phone to start the tunes, but once it’s going it streams directly from the Internet. Unlike Bluetooth streaming, it doesn’t require your phone to be on the whole time, and also offers generally higher sound quality. With a recent update, Google has added multi-room support and higher quality decoding, making the Chromecast Audio an excellent value alternative to the nearly universally praised Sonus multi-room audio system, especially since you can use your own better (powered) speakers.
For my mid-range pick, I’m going to suggest an old standby, but one that deserves its glowing reputation: the venerable Sony MDR-7506. This pair of over-ear, closed-back cans has been used in studios around the world for years. They’re tough, accurate, and, as headphones go, relatively cheap at around $80. There’s a good chance some of your favorite music was actually mastered on this very headphone. Of course, you can spend as much as you want on headphones (Sennheiser recently introduced a $55,000 model), but even these relatively cheap Sonys will be a revelation to anybody who has only listened to the packed-in earbuds that come with a phone.
Obviously, some audiophiles are willing to spend an obscene amount of money in pursuit of high-end sound, but in recent years there’s also been a significant improvement in the quality of budget equipment. One of the central figures in this has been Andrew Jones, whose budget line of speakers for Pioneer was nearly universally praised at their price points.
He has now moved on to the German speaker maker ELAC, and has a new Debut line of speakers that has been even better received. For less than $300 per pair, his new B6 bookshelf speaker offers outstanding sound for the money. I bought a pair of the slightly smaller B5s ,which are $50 cheaper and have a similar sound profile in a more compact package (though at the sacrifice of some low-end extension). Either of these (with a decent stereo amp) will be an ear-opening surprise to anybody whose only experience is with mass-market speakers.
I’ll finish off with a few gadget suggestions for the video gamer. Most consoles these days ship with only one controller, so an extra is always appreciated for couch multiplayer. In addition to the standard options for PS4 and Xbox One at around $60 each, Microsoft has this year released the new “Elite” model to excellent reviews, but also an elite $150 price tag.
On the PC front, Microsoft has finally released the wireless dongle ($25) that lets you use the Xbox One controller with Windows 10, and Valve has also debuted the radically different dual touchpad Steam Controller ($50), which promises to make mouse and keyboard games playable on the couch, though most reviewers seem to have found it less satisfactory as a replacement for conventional dual thumbstick controllers.
Most so-called AAA video games these days release for around $60, though they often go on sale shortly thereafter. There have been a number of highly regarded releases this year topping the end of year best of lists. These include the open-world action role playing games Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid 5, and my personal favorite, Fallout 4, which are all available on all three platforms (PS4, Xbox, and PC). Obviously, before you buy somebody a game you’ll want to make sure which systems he has or prefers.
Finally, at the high end I’m going to suggest the Nvidia Shield TV ($200). This Android-powered set top box offers 4k video Netflix streaming much like the recently released Roku 4 ($130), but it also packs a much more powerful GPU that offers a few console-quality gaming titles in addition to the Android staples. It comes with a game controller and has built-in support for game streaming, which allows you to stream games either from Nvidia’s subscription gaming service ($7/month) over the Internet, or for free from your own gaming PC on the same network in a different part of the house.
While the recently released Steam Link ($50 without controller) also offers in-home PC game streaming, the Shield TV is a much more versatile box and is the single most powerful streaming box on the market, including the new Apple TV ($150-200).