Every year around this time I round up my favorite hardware items of the year. These are items that I use personally and love and that the discerning Apple user on your list will enjoy finding under the tree this year. This year's list has a little something for everyone including hardware and accessories and one of the year's sweetest backpacks. Keep in mind that there are only four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year (usually five), so you lose a week of shopping time. If you're planning to shop online (who isn't?) Apple's deadline for ordering an iPad in time for Christmas is December 12, most other Apple gear is December 18.
And with that, let's dive in!
Waterfield Staad BackPack (Slim) – $319
If you carry a MacBook and and iPad you need a good bag. A computer bag is the ultimate technology accessory because it has to be functional (protective) and has to look good at the same time. I don't know about you, but I loathe computer bags that look like, well, computer bags. There's nothing less comfortable (and stylish) than a black shoulder bag with a silver "Dell" nameplate on it.
My favorite bag company WaterField Designs has released its long-anticipated Staad backpack and it doesn't disappoint. It's the un-backpack because it's gorgeous and it doesn't look like any backpack before it.
It's refined, elegant and would look more at home in the pages of GQ than PC magazine. The Staad Slim combines tan waxed canvas with beautiful leather (or black ballistic nylon) to form a streamlined backpack that comfortably houses my 13-inch MacBook Pro, iPad and their accessories. The Slim version is a comfortably-sized backpack that isn't ridiculously large, in fact it fits within Spirt Air's ridiculously-small specifications for a personal item (which is important because a "carry-on" bag will cost you $25-50).
It's the attention to detail that makes Staad an excellent bag. The combination of top-of-the-line materials and vintage materials (including a sweet vintage WWII-era ammunition clip) make the narrow-profile Staad backpack the synthesis of substance and style. If the Slim model is too small, Waterfield offers a Stout model ($329) that fits 15-inch notebooks perfectly. While it's far from cheap, you get what you pay for. Waterfield proudly makes their bags in San Francisco from the highest quality materials.
Staad is available in two sizes (Slim and Stout) and your choice of tan waxed canvas or black ballistic nylon, with three naturally-tanned leather flap and accent colors.
Honorable mention: If Staad's out of your price range, check out Waterfield's new Victor wallet. It's dime-thin and has space for bills and slots for cards, all held together with a stretchy nylon strap. And it's only $29.
Cobra SPX 7800BT Radar Detector – $229.95
You drive a vehicle, right? Of course you do. There's nothing worse than getting a speeding ticket, it's expensive and inconvenient and it's probably the reason that you use Waze. Well, Waze will only get you so far, and it's no replacement for a real, hardware-based detector.
The Cobra SPX 7800BT ($229.95) is the smallest and most powerful radar detector ever brought to market, it's about half the size of other radar detectors. It comes with AURA speed and red light camera notifications, verified user-reported alerts of upcoming live police locations and other real-time traffic threat information via a paired smartphone.
Pro tip: Buck up for the hardwire cord ($10) and have a pro connect it to your vehicle's fuse box. I installed my detector under the sun visor (next to the rear-view mirror) so I permanent power and don't have a cable draped across my dash.
Honorable mention: The iRadar ATOM (iRAD 900) is smaller and less expensive because it doesn't have the slick OLED display in its big brother. Pick one up for $199.
iPad mini with Retina Display – starting at $399
I've been a huge fan of the iPad mini since it came out. Being a writer, I'm never far from my MacBook Pro 13-inch, which is powerful, fast and has a gloriously tactile keyboard. My use case for a tablet is when I have a small bit of time to read email, Twitter or surf the web, which is why I prefer a 7-inch tablet. If I need a larger screen, I have my MacBook Pro within arm's reach. When I just want to read for a while, I prefer the compact size and lighter weight of a 7-inch tablet.
The problem with the original iPad mini was that it played second fiddle to the full-size iPad with a slower processor and an inferior screen. Well, not any more. The new Retina iPad mini (starting at $399) has a Retina Display and the same A7 processor found in the full-size iPad Air. In fact, the Retina iPad mini has the same number of pixels (2048 x 1536) as the iPad Air (and higher PPI – 326 vs. 264), but in a smaller package.
What's not to love?
Honorable mention: The Kindle Fire HDX 7" (starting at $229) is a viable competitor to the iPad mini. If I wasn't locked into the Apple ecosystem of apps, movies and music I'd probably be carrying the HDX instead. It has a better display and Amazon Prime which gives you access to 41,000 movies and TV episodes, 350,000 eBooks and the company's eponymous two-day shipping service. Amazon's trivia and character backgrounds in X-Ray for Movies and TV (and lyrics with X-Ray for Music) are a value-add that Apple doesn't offer and its Immersion Reading integration between Audible and Kindle ebooks, which features real-time highlighting, is the icing on the cake.
Laptop Laidback – $79
Notebook computers emit a fair amount of heat and Electro Magnetic Fields (EMFs) and shouldn't be used directly on your lap for extended periods of time. Apple's MacBook Pro Product Information Guide (PDF) notes that the bottom "may become very warm during normal use" and advises that "if your MacBook Pro is on your lap and gets uncomfortably warm, remove it from your lap and place it on a stable work surface."
Enter the innovative Laptop Laidback ($79) from Laidback We "R" Inc.
This laptop desk/table is practically a requirement in my house. If you work at home, you're used to occasionally working from the couch, recliner and even from bed at times. But doing so requires creative positioning of your computer so that you can be both comfortable and productive. People recovering from surgery, confined to bed or suffering from back-related injuries will also appreciate the benefits of being able to use their computer in comfort from a horizontal position.
The Laptop Laidback is fully adjustable so it can be used in bed or on the couch or in a recliner. It has two adjustable front ledges that can accomodate even the thinnest laptops and tablets. When not in use the Laptop Laidback collapses down to a slim profile so that it can be stored under your bed (which is where I keep mine) or even taken on your next trip. I've been using a Laptop Laidback since 2002 and it's a must-have product in the O'Grady household.
23snaps & Pix-Star Frame – $149
Instead of posting your children's pictures on Facebook or Instagram (where they might end up in a Budweiser ad one day) I post my kid's pictures on 23snaps, a modern "baby book" for parents to share pictures and videos with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends that's both free and private.
Family that you've invited can see your photos and videos three ways: in the 23snaps app (free, App Store) which includes handy push notifications, on 23snaps.com, or in a weekly email which is great for the less tech savvy.
This year 23Snaps has partnered with Pix-Star, a digital picture frame that's a great gift for the grandparents. Pix-Star FotoConnect XD ($149, Amazon) is a gorgeous 10.4-inch photo frame that displays photos from a number of web albums including 23snaps accounts. Once connected to your 23snaps account and Wi-Fi the photo frame displays the photos from your current feed. It's a great gift that's automatically updated with the latest photos of your kids.
Honorable mention: If $150 is to spendy, 23snaps has recently added printed photos books (starting at $24.95) which make great holiday presents.
JackeryAir external battery – $60
Mobile technologies require batteries, that's a fact of life. External batteries are especially important because in 2007 Apple decided that gadgets could be smaller and thinner with a fixed (non-removable) battery. It started with the iPhone, and later spread to the iPad and MacBook too. Without the option to swap in a second battery, mobile technologists need to keep a charged battery nearby.
The world's thinnest portable charger is JackeryAir ($59.99, Amazon) which measures a svelte 4.9 x 2.3 x 0.3 inches and weighs only 5.4 ounces. It's almost the exact size of an iPhone 5 and could hide directly beneath it. In fact, the world's coolest battery would be an inductive JackeryAir that I could attach to my iPhone 6 (Cupertino: are you paying attention?). Anyway, I digress...
The JackeryAir packs 5,000 mAh of juice which will charge a dead iPhone 5s just over three times and it's made of aluminum for that high-quality feel. There's also a status LED, which indicates how much power remains.
Honorable mention: RAVPower Luster battery is a compact, lipstick format 3,000 mAh external battery that features an ultra bright LED flashlight. It comes in gold (to match the iPhone 5s) and it's on sale at Amazon for only $19.95.
HyperJuice 2 100wH external battery – $299
As I mentioned in my previous pick, batteries are a fact of life. Since Apple began building notebooks with non-removable batteries, an external battery can really save the day. So, in addition to small and light external battery for your iPhone or iPad (like the aforementioned JackeryAir and RAVpower models) a larger battery pack has the advantage of being able to charge your MacBook.
Sanho's HyperJuice batteries are my favorite large-format external batteries and the HyperJuice 2 ($249) is the top of the line. It's a 100Wh/27,000mAh pack that charges all MacBooks (including Retina) and comes equipped with dual 12w (5V/2.4A max) USB ports which can charge two iPads simultaneously at maximum speed. And since they're USB power outlets they can charge almost any gadget, provided that you have the cable.
HyperJuice 2 has a slick OLED display that displays the battery percentage, temperature and remaining charge time, which is extremely handy to know. The industrial grade Lithium-Ion cells are rated for up to 1,000 charge cycles and are replaceable when they reach the end of their useful life.
The secret sauce is the Magic Box, a $50 companion accessory that allows you to convert your MacBook's MagSafe AC adapter to work with the HyperJuice 2. After a 5 minute conversion, the HyperJuice 2 can charge your MacBook (including Retina models) and an included adapter allows you to charge your MacBook from your vehicle's 12 volt power outlet.
The battery itself costs $299, or $349 with the Magic Box DIY conversion kit. For $399 Sanho bundles a pre-modified MagSafe adapter and Magic Box adapter. Each of the HyperJuice 2 models is $50 for Cyber Week ($249, $299 or $349), which ends on Monday, December 9, 2013. I can't emphasize enough how important a good backup battery is, mine paid huge dividends during hurricane Sandy last year and I bring a battery or two when we go camping in the summer.
There are a couple of products that I earmarked for inclusion in this year's guide but either they weren't ready for primetime or I didn't get a change to fully test them in time for this guide. They're noteworthy nonetheless and worth a look:
Epson WorkForce WF-2540 color inkjet printer ($89, Amazon) – I have two printers in my home office, a color laser for the important stuff and an inkjet for everything else. My trusty Canon PIXMA inkjet blew a print head and the part was more than a new printer costs, so it's ewaste and needed to be replaced. My criteria were pretty simple: a wireless inkjet printer that worked with AirPrint. I first checked inkjet printers sold at the Apple Online Store because everything they sell is tested to work with Apple products. The problem is that Apple charges full list price ($129), where Amazon sells it for $89, Prime. I didn't seek out the non-printer features (i.e. fax and scanner), but the ADF/scanner feature is nice for making a quick copy.
Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 scanner ($409, Amazon) – This is the successor to the company's wildly successful S1500M which I've used since 2009. My Mom needed a scanner, so I gave her my S1500M and upgraded to the iX500. While spendy at $400+ the ScanSnap is a high-quality scanner. My first project was to scan about 800 pages of 30-year-old letter-sized pages of historical information and the iX500 handled it deftly without missing a page (grabbing two pages at once), jamming or damaging any of the less-than-perfect originals. The updated scanner is wireless and can scan directly to an iPhone via the ScanSnap app (free, App Store) without being connected to a Mac. The wireless feature works great and is incredibly power for the occasional quick scan. I'm using the iX500 to scan and archive an entire file cabinet of old papers in the new year, and you should too.
Nest Protect ($129) – This is a reboot of the smoke and CO2 detector by the folks that rebooted the household thermostat (which landed in my 2012 Gift Guide). Nest Protect solves two annoying smoke detector problems, ours emits a death shrill any time I overcook the bacon (which makes my children cry). Then I have to open windows and wave newspapers at it to make it stop. Battery-powered smoke detectors also chirp when their batteries get low, often at all hours of night. Nest Protect solves both problems with a heads-up warning (in a human voice) which you can dismiss by waving your arm at it. It also tells you (again, in a human voice) when it's batteries are low. I haven't installed ours yet, but I can't wait to.
Range Thermometer (pre-order, from $49) – Everyone has to eat, so why not make it fun? I'm a big fan of cooking on our gas grill and charcoal smoker, and both methods of cooking require a digital thermometer to get temperatures right so that you don't overcook your steaks, chicken or burgers. Smokers add another level of difficulty because cooking "slow and low" requires a consistent temperature over a long period of time (typically 2-8 hours) and you don't want to keep opening the lid to test the temperature of your meat. This is where a remote thermostat is critical. I currently use a $30 remote thermometer that I purchased from Bed, Bath and Beyond, but I can't wait for Range to start shipping so that I can monitor my Tri-Tip from my iPhone. Mmm...
Sony Alpha 7R full-frame digital camera ($2,298, body) – This dSLR killer is the world’s first 35mm full-frame compact system camera and the world’s smallest, lightest interchangeable lens camera with a full-frame sensor. The a7r has an ISO range of 50-51200, fast intelligent auto focus, XGA OLED electronic viewfinder, tiltable 3-inch LCD screen, NFC and Wi-Fi connectivity, Full 60p/24p HD movie recording and 4K photo output for viewing on Ultra HD displays and TVs all packed in a dust/moisture-resistant magnesium alloy body. Most importantly is that is weighs one-third of my Nikon D4 that is just replaced.
Sony RX100 II ($749) – When you don't need a full-frame sensor a little point-and-shooter is a better fit. It's easily pocketable and won't get stopped going into a concert or live performance. But don't let it's diminutive size fool you. It packs a potent 20MP sensor, a bright F1.8 Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T lens (with 3.6x zoom), Wi-Fi, NFC and a tiltable screen. I've only had mine a couple of days and it still continues to blow me away.