10 holiday gifts for tech lovers

-November 21, 2014

I can't believe I'm writing this post in early November, 1.5 months before Christmas. Then again, I noticed that brick-and-mortar stores were already putting up their holiday-shopping displays before Halloween this year, and I've also been seeing "leaked" Black Friday (day after Thanksgiving sales) ad previews since the beginning of the month, so maybe I'm late. Sigh. Bah, humbug.

My buddies at EDN recently asked me, admitted perpetual follower of any and all things consumer electronics-ish, to come up with a top-10 Christmas shopping suggestion list for y'all. Their only qualifiers were "no smartphones or tablets." Alrighty, then, here goes, in no particular order save for how they streamed out of my noggin.

1. Go solid-state

A SSD (solid-state drive) is, IMHO, the single best upgrade you can make to an existing system, or component you can choose for a new system you're purchasing or building, to maximize its usable life from a performance standpoint (as I've written about many times in the past, and recent commenters also rightly noted). And at today's prices, they're a no-brainer choice; check out, for example, the 240GB SSD I recently saw for $64.99 after coupon and rebate. Performance differences exist between SSDs, but versus the HDD alternative, there's no comparison, especially on random read-intensive tasks. And, if you need more capacity, consider a flash memory-plus-rotating storage hybrid.

Samsung 840 Series SSD

2. Good fiscal sense

Why pay your DSL or cable provider $10 or so a month for the "privilege" of renting equipment (along with, in Comcast's case, the "privilege" of allowing other subscribers to sip from the same bandwidth straw that you're paying for), when for a scant upfront investment you can dispense with rental fees forever via your own broadband modem and standalone router? Note, for example, that state-of-the-art cable modems now regularly sell for less than $50, as do full-featured 802.11n routers (and even some 802.11ac units). Plus, by separating the modem and router functions, you can more easily upgrade each unit to keep up with state-of-the-art technology, versus with an integrated alternative.

3. Fiscal sense redux

Continuing the theme of the prior list entry, if you're a cable television service subscriber, why spend good money every month to lease a set-top box or DVR for each TV in your household? Instead, buy (or build) a Windows 7- or 8-based PC, and leverage its large HDD and built-in Media Center facilities in combination with an ~$100 CableCARD-based HDHomeRun Prime receiver. Xbox 360s or Xbox Ones (which you may already own) make for excellent Media Center Extenders. And the $1-or-so per-month CableCARD usage fee comes with high-def service for free.

Motorola CableCARD

4. Cut the cord

Long-time readers may remember my ongoing ATSC reception coverage; apparently I was a cord-cutter way before cutting cords was cool. Further extending the "fiscally sensitive Christmas" theme, why not drop your coax-, fiber- or satellite-served subscription television service entirely and go with free (advertising-supported) over-the-air TV instead? Replace the above-mentioned HDHomeRun Prime with a well-under-$100 HDHomeRun ATSC receiver, mate it to a capable indoor or outdoor antenna, and you're good to go assuming you're in an adequate reception region.

5. Get tangled up in Blu

Long-time readers may be initially shocked to see a Blu-ray player on the list, considering my longstanding critique of the format. To be clear, I was never opposed to Blu-ray in an absolute sense, only relative to the amount of money you were expected to pay for the privilege (its discard of laser technology backward compatibility with DVD, versus the HD DVD alternative, admittedly also irked me). And the amount of money you have to pay has now largely become a non-issue. Bare-bones Blu-ray players that also upscale DVDs can now be found for well under $50, with fuller-featured Wi-Fi-inclusive units still coming in at around the Ulysses S Grant point. And better yet, given my cord-cutting suggestion above, they also support a variety of alternative online content distribution services ... Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, VUDU, etc. Hey, even HBO's getting in on the cord-cutting act.

Philips BDP2100/F7 Blu-ray player

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