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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Brad Moon, Contributing Writer
| November 22, 2018
The 2018 holiday shopping season is underway! To some that means thrills – from Black Friday hunting to Cyber Monday browsing. To others, it means dread. So many wish lists are full of high-tech gadgets, and there often seems to be no discernible way to tell good tech gifts from the bad ones. Do you go by brand name? Price? Advertising?
Kiplinger prefers to focus on approach of value. And no product is a considered a “value” on cost alone – we take into account factors that may be less obvious, including performance, features, quality, upgradability, durability and warranty.
To help you with your biggest shopping list of the year, we’ve put together a comprehensive list of 22 of the best tech gifts for the 2018 holiday season, covering the most popular categories. Included are many options I’ve had hands-on experience with in my time reviewing consumer electronics for outlets including Forbes, Wired, GeekDad, About.com and others. These products start at just $50 and top out at $2,800, but they all have a common thread: They’re high-tech gifts that represent a great value to both the giver and the lucky recipient.
Our pick: RIVA Concert
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $199.00
The problem with smart speakers is there’s little middle ground for people who want to use them to actually listen to music.
Most basic smart speakers sound pretty underwhelming. To get high-quality audio, you have to shell out $349 for an Apple HomePod or $399 for a Google Home Max. However, these are meant to be left in place, making them poor choices if you want a smart speaker you can take out on the deck.
RIVA may not be in all the big-box stores, but I’ve tested multiple generations of wireless speakers from the company since 2015. They always punch above their weight.
The $199 RIVA Concert has integrated Alexa with voice control, making it a bona fide smart speaker. It offers impressive audio performance, with three ADX drivers, three passive radiators and a 50W amp. Unlike Sonos speakers (which are also pricier), the RIVA Concert supports virtually any wireless protocol including Wi-Fi, Apple AirPlay and Bluetooth. It’s also splash-resistant for outdoors use and has an optional battery pack that lets it go outlet-free for up to 15 hours.
The clincher is a class-leading three-year warranty.
Courtesy Ultimate Ears
Our pick: Ultimate Ears Megaboom 3
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $199.99
Ultimate Ears has become my favorite brand for portable wireless speakers. The company has a wide range of offerings, ranging from $99 to $250, and they all sound impossibly good for speakers of their size and price. Out of the current lineup, my favorite is the $199.99 Megaboom 3, a portable Bluetooth speaker that represents a great value.
The Megaboom 3 follows Ultimate Ears’ iconic cylindrical design, with 360-degree sound. At just over two pounds, this one is big enough to pack a pair of full-range drivers and two passive radiators that produce audio that’s energetic, with surprising bass and plenty of volume. There’s also space for a battery big enough to provide 20 hours of music. And with the Boom app, you can connect up to 150 of these things together to really drive the neighbors crazy.
The Megaboom 3 is covered in tough cloth that’s available in multiple colors, it’s waterproof (IP67 – can be dropped into a meter of water for half an hour), it floats and it’s rugged enough to take just about anything you can throw at it. I test Ultimate Ears speakers by throwing them in our dog’s pool and I’ve yet to have one fail. The hardware is backed by a two year limited warranty.
Our pick: Libratone ZIPP
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $299
The $299 Libratone ZIPP made this list last year as well, but this time around I’ve moved it to a different category. While it does have an integrated battery for portability, I think it deserves the nod as a home wireless speaker: something that sits on a bookshelf, the kitchen counter or a coffee table.
ZIPP supports both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, so virtually any audio source can connect wirelessly. There’s also a 3.5mm AUX input for older music sources that require a physical connection (I have one hooked up to a turntable). You can pair two speakers for two-channel stereo sound or link up to six in a multi-room audio setup. However, with 360-degree FullRoom audio, even a single ZIPP sounds pretty good. That cylinder is concealing a pair of neodymium tweeters, two radiators and a 4-inch woofer, all powered by a 100W Class D amplifier.
Adding to its home appeal, the Libratone ZIPP features a minimalist Scandinavian design. Its cloth covers are removable and can be purchased in a variety of colors to suit a home’s decor, so it looks as good as it sounds. And yes, with a 10-hour battery, you can also bring the ZIPP out on the deck for an evening of music outdoors. This speaker makes a great gift for someone who enjoys listening to music and appreciates good design.
Courtesy Como Audio
Our pick: Como Audio Musica
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $599
I recently had several evaluation units arrive from Boston’s Como Audio. And that company’s Musica immediately became my pick this year for the best value in wireless audio speaker for audiophiles.
Just looking at the Musica, you know there’s something different about this audio system. It’s a multi-room streaming speaker with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support. Specs include a pair of soft dome tweeters and dual 3-inch long throw, 4-layer voice coil woofers with tuned bass ports, and a Class D amp delivering 30W per channel. It sounds pretty sweet.
Unlike most streaming speaker systems – which lean toward plastic and cloth – this one is finished in furniture-grade real wood veneer (my review unit is walnut). That covers 1/2-inch medium-density fiberboard (MDF) that reduces vibration and improves acoustics. There is a high-tech 3.2-inch color LCD screen on the front that displays cover album art and it has a wide range of streaming music services onboard, including Amazon Prime Music, Tidal and Internet radio. Contrasting with this latest technology are retro touches like metal control knobs, FM radio (with an antenna) and even a slot-load CD player.
The Como Audio Musica looks fantastic, offers high-quality music playback and unbeatable flexibility, and seems like a bargain at $599.
Our pick: TCL 6-Series 4K Dolby Vision HDR Roku 65-inch
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $999.99
TCL has been making waves for a few years by releasing budget-friendly TVs that wow critics. The company is repeating as the maker that gets our nod for TVs 50+ inches in size, this time for the 65-inch 6-Series 4K Dolby Vision HDR Roku Smart TV.
This TV checks a lot of boxes, especially when you consider its $999.99 price tag. For one, 65 inches is a lot of TV. And this one includes all the latest features, including 4K resolution, Dolby Vision HDR, Wide Color Gamut and 120-zone contrast control. The enhanced remote has voice control. As if that weren’t enough, it has Roku’s smart TV platform and both 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity to ensure streaming content is lag-free.
The TCL 6-Series also got CNET’s nod as having “the best picture quality for the money in 2018.”
Our pick: Vizio E-Series 50-inch 4K HDR Smart TV
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $469.99
Vizio is another TV manufacturer that continues to impress without requiring a massive investment. At the high end, its new P-Series with quantum-dot technology is challenging OLED displays. But I want to focus on the E-Series for this list.
The 50-inch E-Series 4K HDR Smart TV is a particularly good value. This is a big-screen TV with 4K UHD resolution, Dolby Vision HDR and 10 local dimming zones that comes in at under $500. Just $469.99 to be exact. It also has integrated Google Chromecast functionality, supports Alexa and Google Assistant voice control, and Vizio’s SmartCast operating system means the TV is automatically updated with new features and capabilities as they’re released.
Our pick: Samsung Frame TV 65-inch
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $2,799.99
Which TV to pick if you have an unlimited gift budget? At this point, I’d go with the 65-inch version of Samsung’s Frame TV.
As a TV, the Frame has the expected features such as 4K resolution, HDR10+ and ultra-wide viewing angles. But at this price, you’re not getting a fancy OLED panel. Sound is more robust than most flat-screen TVs despite the fact that this one mounts flush against the wall. That’s because Samsung offloads ports and the 40W Dolby audio to a standalone One Connect Box that’s connected to the TV by a single thin, almost invisible cable.
When it’s not being used as a TV, the Frame lives up to its name, becoming a framed work of digital art. The frame itself is customizable (do you prefer white or perhaps walnut?), and you choose the artwork. It even has a motion sensor so when in Art Mode, the TV will wake if someone enters the room, then display images optimally based on the ambient light.
Our pick: Nest Secure
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $399+
This year, you can give the gift of home security (without the ongoing monitoring fees).
The Nest Secure alarm system is an extendable offering from Nest – the company you probably know best for its smart thermostats. Nest Secure is a do-it-yourself home security system that starts at $399. The basic system includes the Nest Guard base (the smarts of the system that tracks everything and connects via Wi-Fi to send alerts, with a cellular option), two Nest Tags that automatically disarm the system without having to punch a code in its keypad, and two Nest Detect sensors.
Those sensors can be positioned on a window door or wall – wherever motion detection is wanted. They also offer smart features like Pathlight that helps light the way in the dark and Dog Pass that prevents pets from tripping the alarm. The Nest Secure system can be expanded as needed, with additional Nest Detect units and accessories like Nest Security cameras and supported third party smart door locks.
Courtesy Goal Zero
Our pick: Goal Zero Sherpa 15 Power Bank Micro/Lightning
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $49.95
Portable power banks are popular gifts, for good reason. They’re inexpensive, they’re compact (making them great stocking stuffers), and virtually everyone could use one. Smartphones, action cameras and other mobile devices run out of battery at the most inconvenient times.
Goal Zero has a reputation for making high-quality power-related equipment that’s rugged and cleverly designed. The Goal Zero Sherpa 15 may cost a little more than some power banks (although it’s still under $50), but the extra cash outlay is a good investment. The battery is sufficient to fully charge most smartphones one to two times, power output is regulated to protect devices, and everything is housed in a durable and stylish aluminum case.
A power bank does no good without cables, and guess what people tend to forget to bring along with them? That’s OK: Goal Zero’s Sherpa 15 has both Micro USB and Apple Lightning cables built-in, so they’re never left behind. This power bank also has a standard USB charge port to cover off anything else.
Our pick: Apple Watch Series 3
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $279+
Few people will debate that the new Apple Watch Series 4 is the best smartwatch on the market. But it’s also one of the most expensive, starting at $399.
The Series 4 offers some upgrades that previous generations can’t match including a larger display, faster processor and ECG capability. But last year’s Apple Watch Series 3 is no slouch, either. It still has a beautiful display, runs the latest watchOS version, tracks heart rate and offers most of the same features as the latest model, including optional LTE connectivity. At a glance, it’s tough to tell the two apart.
But the Apple Watch Series 3 now has a much more budget-friendly starting price of $279, making it a great value.
Our pick: Google Pixel 3
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $799
If you are shopping for someone who needs a new smartphone, my pick for best value this year is the Google Pixel 3. That’s despite the fact that I’m an iPhone guy, through and through.
Why? The Pixel 3 isn’t a particularly flashy looking phone. It doesn’t even have a notch! But in the era of $1,000 flagship phones, a $799 price is refreshing. As a Pixel device, it will get all of Google’s Android updates, and it has all the company’s latest AI-powered features right out of the box. That includes the amazing Night Sight mode that revolutionizes nighttime photography. Nothing else out there even comes close to what this smartphone can do with low-light photos.
If you’re dealing with an iPhone fan, then forget all this and go with the iPhone XR (you’ll have to guess on the color, though!). For everyone else, the Pixel 3 is an excellent value.
Our pick: Apple iPad 9.7-inch
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $329
Tablets still make great gifts, even in the age of super-sized smartphones. Their combination of big display, thin form factor and long battery life make them ideal for web browsing, reading, casual gaming and watching streaming video.
Plenty of tablets are cheaper than Apple’s iPad (even now that Apple has lowered the price to $329), but few can match the iPad experience.
The base model iPad has a 9.7-inch Retina display that looks fantastic, it’s equipped with a powerful A10 Fusion processor, battery life is rated at 10 hours and it weighs just a smidge over one pound. With an iPad, the owner has access to Apple’s App Store, which offers an unbeatable selection of tablet-optimized apps.
My only suggestion: If you are able to spend a little more, boosting onboard storage from 32GB to 128GB costs an extra $100 but provides a lot more breathing room for installing apps.
Our pick: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $49.99
One of the easiest and least expensive ways to make an older TV seem like it has the latest cool new technology is by adding a video streamer. That makes streamers a great tech gift for the 2018 holiday season.
All the big tech companies are in the video streamer game, but Amazon offers one that has a nice combination of affordability and features, the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K. For $49.99 you get an HDMI stick that wirelessly streams video from services like Netflix, Hulu and of course Amazon Prime Video. And it does so in 4K with Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos audio. The remote also has Alexa voice control.
A few disclaimers here. The stick can only stream services the owner has a membership with, and features such as 4K and HDR require both the streaming source to make the content available in that format, and the TV to be capable of supporting it. In other words, it won’t magically make an HDTV capable of displaying 4K video. But the streaming video access and Alexa voice control alone will be a huge upgrade for many older TVs.
Photo by Brad Moon
Our pick: Jaybird Tarah Pro
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $159.99
Wireless earbuds are all the rage right now. It’s getting tough to find a smartphone with a headphone jack, and streaming music is becoming more popular, so that makes sense.
The best value I’ve found in wireless earbuds all year landed on my test bench this fall. Jaybird’s new Tarah Pro wireless sports headphones are something special that should appeal to a much wider crowd that the company’s fitness-focused core demographic. For 99 cents more than Apple’s AirPods, you get ultra-comfortable buds designed to stay in place even during vigorous activity. Audio quality is excellent, you can use Siri or Google Assistant, and they are IPX7 water-resistant (can be dropped into up to a meter of water).
A thin cable connects the two buds (connectivity to your smartphone is via Bluetooth wireless), but this is a plus in my books. It makes the buds themselves smaller and more comfortable, they’re hard to lose, and they offer an incredible 14-hour battery life.
Our pick: Brainwavz HM100 Studio Monitor Headphones
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $199.50
You may not be familiar with the Brainwavz brand, but the audio company has been in business for a decade and makes some very high-quality headphones.
If you’re shopping for a true music lover – someone who values hearing music the way it was recorded – you want studio headphones such as the new Brainwavz HM100 Studio Monitor headphones. I’m just in the process of evaluating a pair of these, and they’re pretty impressive.
The HM100s are equipped with big, 52mm drivers and boast a frequency range of 10Hz-40KHz with a neutral sound signature (no Beats-style bass boost). There’s no Bluetooth, because that compresses audio, and these are all about musical perfection. Instead it’s old-school cables with a gold-plated plug. The design approach includes construction that largely banishes plastic in favor of materials with a pleasing tactile feel, including wood, leather and metal. The quality construction is backed by a 24-month warranty.
Our pick: Ecobee 4
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $249
Smart thermostats make a smart gift. They are cool, smart tech – which everyone likes. They also promise to save energy. That means the recipient saves money!
Last year the Nest Thermostat E got the nod as the best value. It’s still a good choice (in fact I installed one in my home), but my current pick is the $249 Ecobee4. It does all the expected smart thermostat stuff including scheduling and remote access via a smartphone app. It also offers the high-tech LED display that stands out on a wall. But the Ecobee4 has Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant onboard, so the thermostat acts like a smart speaker that you can shout questions at.
The Ecobee4 also includes a remote temperature sensor, so the home’s heating and cooling system isn’t just reacting to readings on the main thermostat – it also can adjust operations based on the temperature in another room.
Our pick: Nanoleaf Canvas
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $248
Why would I pick a smart lighting kit priced at $248 – one that’s not even launching until Dec. 3 – as the best value in its category? I’ve been playing with Nanoleaf’s Canvas light panels for the past few weeks (under embargo) and you’ll have to take my word for it: They are amazing.
Give these as a gift, and you will make someone very happy.
Nanoleaf Canvas made its first appearance at CES 2018. The system consists of thin LED panels, about 6 inches on a side. They connect together and include adhesive strips to stick them to the wall. They are Wi-Fi connected smart lighting and can display a huge range of colors. They can react to music, pulsing in time to the beat. They respond to touch, too. As a gift, this is a smart light system, a music visualizer, a design project and home decor, all rolled into one.
The $248 Nanoleaf Canvas Smarter Kit (not starter kit) contains nine panels and the controller, additional panels are sold in four packs for $80 and up to 500 panels can be connected.
Our pick: Pro-Ject Essential III
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $349
I really enjoy listening to music the old-school way: on a turntable. And the way record sales keep churning along, I’m not the only one. I evaluated a half-dozen or so new turntables this year, and one of those was an easy pick as best value: The Pro-Ject Essential III.
Pro-Ject is an audio company that makes only turntables and related accessories. While it’s known for making some of the best audiophile systems out there, the knowhow and design of some its more expensive offerings have trickled down to the $349 Pro-Ject Essential III.
This turntable would make a great gift for a vinyl lover who’s ready to graduate from a beginner record player. It features premium components like sapphire bearings and an aluminum tonearm, and comes with a high-quality Ortofon OM10 cartridge pre-mounted. Pro-Ject also gave this turntable a snazzy piano finish in black, red or white. One of the reasons this model is such a great value is that besides sounding great out of the box, it has upgrade potential (with a new cartridge and acrylic platter for example) should the vinyl fan decide to take their listening to the next level.
Our pick: Acer Chromebook 14
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $299.99
Laptops are always in high demand as gifts, but their price and value proposition is all over the map. The best choice for someone on your list is going to depend on whether they have specific requirements.
However, if you’re looking for a pick that covers most typical users’ and students’ needs, and offers value in spades, the Acer Chromebook 14 is tough to beat.
It’s a Chromebook, so that means the owner is tied into Google’s suite of apps – although they now also have the ability to run Android apps. Specs are modest, reflecting Chrome’s low system requirements, but the $299 Acer Chromebook 14 offers some premium touches including a Full HD display, an upscale aluminum case, 802.11ac MIMO Wi-Fi and 12-hour battery life.
With Chrome, a Celeron CPU, 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, this is not the laptop for playing Fortnite. But for web browsing, streaming video and doing homework, it’s fine. I’ve reviewed dozens of laptops this year, including several that were in the $3,000-plus range.
The Acer Chromebook 14 is the one I bought for my daughter.
Our pick: Netgear Orbi (RBK50) AC3000
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $399
Home Wi-Fi can be a complicated and underperforming mess. Take the growing demands of 4K streaming, multiple connected smart-home devices, smartphones and online gaming, then throw variables like wireless interference, walls and connected devices fighting for bandwidth in the mix. It can get ugly, fast.
Carefree, high performance Wi-Fi is one of the best gifts you can give. And It doesn’t get much better than Netgear’s Orbi whole home mesh Wi-Fi system. I’ve tested a dozen high performance routers over the past year and the one I’ve used for most of 2018 was a 5.4 Gbps tri-band monster. But it was still far from perfect.
I’ve been evaluating a Netgear Orbi AC300 system for the past month and it delivers what is easily the best Wi-Fi experience I’ve ever had. Setup was simple. The router and its satellite both have LED rings on top to ensure ideal positioning and they are self-contained with no garish external antennas. Once fired up, the system pretty much runs itself (including updates). With 5,000 square foot coverage there are no Wi-Fi dead zones anywhere in the house. Everything connects with no lag and no buffering, even with multiple simultaneous 4K video streams.
At $399, it’s a little pricier than other mesh routers, but it’s worth the premium. The Netgear Orbi AC3000 has a combined 3 Gbps of throughput (compared to 1200 Gbps for Google’s Wi-Fi mesh system) for high performance under extreme load and to protect against future Wi-Fi demands.
Our pick: Pioneer AVIC-W8400NEX
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $1,200
The easiest way to get the advanced capabilities of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto is to buy a new vehicle. That’s a little expensive, so the majority of car and truck owners will wait years before their smartphone becomes a fully integrated part of their driving experience.
However, third parties offer replacement car decks that replace the factory-installed version. Pioneer has always been a leader in car audio, so it’s not a surprise that the company is bringing CarPlay and Android Auto to the forefront with its NEX series. If someone on your list loves their smartphone and would like nothing better than to use it to seamlessly navigate, make phone calls, play music and respond to text messages, then receiving Pioneer’s AVIC-W8400NEX as a gift would make their day.
At $1,200 plus installation, it’s not an inexpensive gift – although it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a new car. But the price tag is justified by a long list of features. It has both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There’s Bluetooth for wireless operation, or smartphones can plug in to keep their battery charged. A big 7-inch LED backlit WVGA touch display is ideal for displaying navigation details and Pioneer includes an integrated mapping system covering the entire U.S. and Canada. It has dual inputs for backup cameras. HD Radio and Pandora are integrated, and it’s SiriusXM satellite radio-ready.
Besides all this high-tech functionality, there’s the Pioneer’s legendary audio performance, including 4 x 50W output, high-res FLAC support and a 13-band EQ.
Our pick: Nintendo Switch
During the holiday shopping season, there is no shortage of deals for Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4. So why would the more expensive and less powerful Nintendo Switch be the pick as best value in video game consoles?
It comes down to flexibility.
The Xbox and PlayStation are traditional consoles. They connect to a TV and stay there. But the $299.99 Nintendo Switch is a hybrid. Connected to a TV, it’s capable of playing games at 1080p, and its JoyCon controllers pop out and connect to form a full-sized wireless controller.
Slide it out of the dock and snap the JoyCons back in place and the Switch transforms into a battery-powered mobile gaming system. The player can continue with the same game while riding in the car, sitting on the bus or hanging out at a friends’ house. With the recent addition of YouTube support, the Switch can also be used to stream video on the go. It doesn’t have the same extensive library as the Xbox One and PS4, but the Nintendo Switch has a growing library of AAA games, offers optional online gameplay, and it’s hands-down the most versatile gaming system on the market.