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tech lab

Gift ideas for the tech set

For Christmas, I’d like a nice fluffy sweater or a pair of warm slippers. Something that doesn’t light up or need its batteries recharged. But most Americans feel differently; one survey found that three-quarters of you plan to buy something electronic as a Christmas gift. Smart move: The latest smartphones, tablets, and computers offer lots of value. And there are other appealing options — headphones from Denmark, or a fitness monitor to help you keep New Year’s resolutions. Here are a few items that ought to produce smiles Christmas morning.

Headphones

  • Headphones are bigger and gaudier than ever. The popular Beats headphones from music mogul Dr. Dre have spawned countless celebrity headsets, endorsed by Ludacris, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and even former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow. But the Danish audiophiles at Bang & Olufsen are reaching out to a different audience with their $400 BeoPlay H6 over-the-ear headphones. Crafted of brushed aluminum and buttery leather, the H6 lacks popular amenities like noise cancellation circuitry or a Bluetooth feature for wireless connection to a smartphone. It’s an old-school plug-and-play headphone that serves up lavish sound.


Laptops

  • Do people still buy personal computers for Christmas? There are bargains aplenty, and Microsoft’s Windows 8.1, a pretty good upgrade to the misbegotten Windows 8, should help move a few more machines. But shrewd shoppers ought to consider a Chromebook. These are stripped-down laptops running an operating system developed by Google Inc. For around $200, you get a full-sized keyboard, a big, bright screen, a few gigabytes of data storage, and enough Google apps to perform an array of standard tasks, from writing documents to streaming videos and music. Chromebooks don’t run Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac software, and they are intended for people who frequently connect to the Internet. But these machines excel as a low-cost backup laptop or a secondary machine for the kids.

Streaming TV

  • Google also served up one of the year’s most pleasant surprises, a cheap and easy way to feed Internet videos to your TV set. The $35 Chromecast looks like an oversized USB drive, but it plugs into the HDMI port found on newer HDTV sets. Chromecast connects to the household Wi-Fi network, and to the Wi-Fi chip in a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. Next you install a free app on your computing device that lets you select and play videos from popular services like Netflix and YouTube. With Chromecast, you can play movies on the TV simply by launching Netflix on your smartphone. You can also adjust the volume, rewind, or fast forward just by touching the phone. Dead simple and dirt cheap, Chromecast is a near-perfect stocking stuffer.

Tablets

  • It’s been quite a year for tablets. We got the exquisitely thin and light new iPad Air, starting at $499, and the $399 iPad Mini is blessed with Apple’s superb Retina display. Google Inc.’s Nexus 7 mini-tablet also got an upgrade, and its price of $229 makes it a good bargain. But the most impressive overhaul of all comes from Amazon.com. The new Kindle Fire HDX costs $229 for the 7-inch model or $379 for the 8.9-inch version. Each features not only a much improved new video display, but also the biggest innovation in customer service since the 800 number. Amazon’s new Mayday service will connect you with a company technician at the touch of an on-screen icon. You will see your helper through an on-screen video link. And Amazon is using only American-based techies, so there are no language issues. I hope Amazon doesn’t patent the idea, so every other tech company can copy it.

Wearables

  • Never mind those feature-packed smart watches like Samsung Corp.’s $300 Galaxy Gear. If you must strap something digital to your body, you are better off with a fitness monitor like the Fitbit Force. This $130 device tracks your body movements during the day and your sleep patterns at night. Sync the data with a smartphone to keep a permanent record of your physical activities. It’s not quite as exciting as reading e-mail messages on your wrist, but it’s a lot more practical.

Cellphones

  • It’s easy to find a first-rate smartphone. HTC Corp. is a money-losing mess, but the HTC One($199 with a two-year contract) was my favorite new phone of the year. Market leaders Apple and Samsung each served up excellent new products. Neither Apple’s iPhone 5S nor Samsung’s Galaxy S4, both $199 with a two-year contract, featured major technological breakthroughs. But you can’t go wrong with either of them.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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