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Ten geeky gifts for the festive season

Here's a selection of gadgets and accessories that will make your life easier and won't break the bank.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

1.  Tylt's stylish Vü wireless charger

The Vü, from Tylt: a stylish stand for charging Qi-compatible phones.

If you have a phone that supports the Qi wireless charging standard, you can charge it in style — and keep an eye on it at the same time. Most wireless charging devices are flat pads that you lay your phone down on. The is an angled stand, big enough to accommodate a phablet, that puts your phone at a 45-degree angle so you can see the screen, or reach over and use the phone without any danger of pushing it off the charging pad.

Like other Tylt kit, the Vü is beautifully designed, with smooth curves and a soft-touch surface. Even the power cable plugs in neatly at the back of the stand and runs through a cutout. The green indicator light that tells you your phone is in position and charging is easy to see but not distracting; it turns red when you take your phone off the stand, or move it so it's not charging any more.

The Vü comes in black, red, blue and lime green.

Thanks to the wide charging area it's actually hard to put your phone in the wrong position — we were able to charge a Nokia Lumia 1020 balanced on one corner, for example. This is also a high-power charger: our test phones charged as fast as if they were plugged into the wall.

The Vü, which comes in black, red, blue and lime green, allows you to make phone charging a stylish and convenient experience. The only drawback is that, at $69.99 (£43), it is something of an indulgence. You can find a list of compatible handsets on Tylt's website (PDF).


2.  PKparis K'1: the smallest USB 3.0 memory stick

USB sticks are ten a penny and there's usually little to choose from between the different designs: they stick into any USB port and they stick out from the side of your device. That's not particularly convenient when you're toting a sleek tablet or a slimline Ultrabook, which is ironically more likely to need extra USB storage thanks to the equally svelte SSDs they come with.

K'Ring: sturdy and waterproof.

PKparis (a new French company) has some stylish but extremely practical USB keys that would fit nicely in any Christmas stocking. The K'Ring is a USB key that's also a keyring, so you're not likely to leave it behind (and unlike some quirky key-shaped USB keys, the keyring grip is large enough to get normal keys on). It's made of stainless steel and is sturdy but light — we found it stood up well to being dropped, thrown against the wall and trodden on. The edges of the case protect the connectors, and PKparis tells us that it's waterproof enough to take a cycle in the washing machine.

K'1: unobtrusive and fast.

At £10.99 for the 8GB K'Ring you're not paying a lot for the style, but if you want something smaller, higher-capacity and faster, the K'1 is one of the smallest USB 3.0 keys we've seen. It's pricier, at £33 for 32GB, but you get a tiny USB stick that you'll hardly notice once it's in your USB port, because there's only about a quarter of an inch sticking out. Leave it connected and you get an instant storage upgrade — USB 3.0 speed is fast enough for playing music and video without skipping a beat or a frame.

If you have a MacBook or other metallic silver device, the K'1's aluminium case blends right in, while the orange lanyard and matching orange indicator light make it hard to lose track of.


3.  Play with the Sphero 2 robot ball

Sphero 2: a programmable, motorised robot ball.

The second generation of this Bluetooth-connected robot ball is faster and shinier; the LEDs inside it shine twice as brightly as before (and the brighter white plastic helps too) and it can roll along at 7 feet a second (about twice as fast as the original).

If you haven't seen this toy, which is fully programmable and a great way to encourage kids to try out coding, it's a robot ball you connect to your phone or tablet via Bluetooth and steer with on-screen controls from up to 30 feet away. It's quirky and fun — even the name that shows up in your Bluetooth connection is based on the three coloured lights it flashes while connecting.

The packaging only mentions iOS and Android, but thanks to the excellent APIs there are controller apps for other platforms, including Windows Phone 8. However, the engaging augmented-reality games where you steer the real ball through virtual on-screen adventures (anything from playing music to squishing zombies) are only on Android and iOS so far.

Sphero 2 plus optional 'nubby' covers.

The clever packaging includes two ramps you can use for jumping the Sphero ball into the air and a cup you could use as a target to jump into. You'll have to work up to top speed; to stop it speeding away from you, the ball starts slow and speeds up as you get used it. It's waterproof, although if you're using it outdoors you'll want to slip on the optional  $14.99 (£9.16) 'nubby' silicone cover to give it more grip.

Like the original, the $129.99 (£79.39) Sphero 2 is huge fun — especially if you have kids, pets or both.


4.  LifeLink flat USB charging cable

LifeLink is available with Micro-USB, Lightning or 30-pin connectors for older Apple devices.

Portable batteries come in all shapes and sizes, but most of them have the same standard USB charging cable that's bulky and awkward to coil up. To date, our favourite neater cables are the Innergie Magic Cable (which combines Mini- and Micro-USB with an Apple connector) and the Charge Card (the size of a credit card with a flexible flat USB cable that pops out of the middle. The LifeLink from PlusUs is even smaller, with a clever folding design that snaps together to store neatly in a bag, wallet or phone case and clicks open to give you almost 7 inches of cable.

The two flat pieces are connected by a strand of Teflon cable (that you could loop over a keyring), which means the cable can twist if the two ports you're connecting have different orientations — if the USB port on your notebook is backwards, your phone doesn't have to be face down while it's connected. The LifeLink looks flimsy, but we found it stood up well to being toted around in a bag for days. At $24 (with a choice of both Apple connectors or Micro USB) it's a pricey cable, but it does include a donation to charity by Australian makers PlusUs.


5.  Charge in the car with the Nokia wireless charger

Nokia's CR-200 supports Qi wireless charging and NFC.

There are plenty of power adapters that can charge your phone from the cigarette lighter socket in your car, and plenty of car cradles that can hold your phone so you can use it for navigation with an app like CoPilot. Plugging in the power cable is extra-fiddly in the car, and if you have a wireless charging phone, the Nokia CR200 Qi charger holds your phone in place nicely and charges it as soon as you snap it into place. The suction pad holds firmly on the dashboard (with a lever to release the suction if you want to take it off) and the adjustable padded arms hold the phone in place firmly too  — even if you turn it sideways to get a landscape navigation mode, which isn't something all the car cradles do.

If you have a Lumia phone with NFC, you can program the charger to automatically launch your navigation app when you tap the phone against it, which is an extra convenience. MobileFun (who sent our test unit) has a special offer for Christmas: use code USCR200 to pay $69 instead of $79.


6.  Aftershokz Bluez and Sportz: bone-conducting headphones that leave your ears free

The wireless (Bluetooth-connected) Bluez.

If you want to listen to music, or listen in to online meetings, without drowning out all the sounds around you, these cornily-named headphones sit on your temples and use bone conduction to relay sounds. The sound from the Aftershokz headphones is crisp and clear, but you can still hear conversations going on around you — or the car coming round the corner behind you.

The wired Sportz 2.

Both the Bluetooth model (the Bluez) and the cable-connected Sportz 2 also work as mobile headsets, so you can answer and make phone calls with them. What you're listening to is audible to someone sitting right next to you, but far less so than if you have a WebEx session playing through your speakers, for example, so it's a reasonable compromise on being in two places at the same time — or staying safe while you run or cycle.

The Aftershokz Bluez costs £100, while the Sportz 2 costs £60 (inc. VAT).


7.  Doxie One portable scanner

The Doxie One measures 26.7 by 4.3 by 5.6cm (10.5 x 1.7 x 2.2in.) and weighs 386 grams (13.6 ounces).

The latest version of this compact scanner is a little heavier than previous models, to make room for the rechargeable batteries you can run it off if you don't want to plug in the power supply (although the batteries aren't included). That means you can carry the Doxie One around with you to scan pages onto the SD card that plugs into it (that is included, but you can swap it out for a higher capacity card, or the wireless-enabled Eye-Fi if you want to connect the Doxie One without a USB cable).

When you get back to your PC, you can plug it in via USB or pop the SD card in if you have a media card reader. All the scans are JPEGs, but the Doxie software lets you rotate images, convert them to PDF or combine multiple scans into a single PDF and send files straight to cloud services like Evernote, Google Docs and Dropbox (and other cloud services if you can get the right connection details). If you scan a document, the text will be OCR'd but only into PDF format. If you need to scan files when you're out and about, or you just don't want to drag papers across the office to your PC, the $149 (£91) Doxie One is a handy way to do it.


8.  Give your notebook the fastest Wi-Fi

TrendNet AC600.

Dual-band 802.11ac is the next wireless standard and there are plenty of AC wireless access points available, but far fewer notebooks and tablets with 802.11ac built in. Netgear and TrendNet both have USB Wi-Fi adapters that will speed up your connection. Annoyingly, both need their Windows drivers installed manually.

The TrendNet AC600 is small and it delivered 34Mbps compared to 20.2Mpbs from the 802.11n Wi-Fi built into the Samsung Ativ Pro on which we tested it.

Netgear A6200.

The Netgear A6200 is much larger (95.3 x 31.4 x 14.3mm) but the USB connector is hinged so you can swivel it to fit conveniently in more notebooks, or to improve your signal. In our tests, tilting the adapter boosted throughput from 29Mpbs to 35Mbps.

The WPS setup button on the end of each adapter is a nice touch, as you don't usually get that on a notebook.


9.  Wireless-powered Wirefree lights

Look, no wires...

If you want to put a light inside a cupboard or on your desk without drilling and routing wires, these Swedish LED Wirefree lights might be what you're looking for. There are spotlights, table lamps you can put a shade over and lights that fit onto the ends of glass shelves to shine a light through them.

They're all powered by flat plates that can send power through a couple of inches of wood — in our tests they lit up the Wirefree lights through shelves, tabletops and the top of a cupboard, and you can move the light an inch or so to either side before it starts to dim. The plates are lightweight enough to stick on with adhesive pads or Bluetak.

The Wirefree lights are powered from plates that plug into a mains-attached hub.

So far, so flexible, but you have to get power to the plates and that does mean wires. The cables from the plates plug into a mains-attached hub (up to eight plates per hub), so you have quite a lot of hardware to conceal. The power switch is on the cable running from the hub to the wall socket, so you have to switch them all on or off at once. You also have to put the power cable somewhere convenient; what we'd really like is some kind of remote control for the lights. 

A kit comprising two spotlights, two power plates and a hub costs 949 Swedish Krona, or around $144/£88, so it's something of a luxury item.


10.  Boost wi-fi on your entry-level tablet with Amped Wireless

The Amped Wireless TAN1 USB antenna, connected to an Acer Iconia W8.

Some Windows 8 tablets, like the 8-inch Acer Iconia W3, keep the price down by using an inexpensive wireless antenna. As a result, the Iconia W3 sees a fraction of the wireless access points that other devices find in the same location.

The Amped Wireless TAN1 'high power' Wi-Fi Adapter can help with that: plug it in and you'll see a much longer list of hotspots you can connect to, with far more bars on the signal. The adapter is a bit fiddly, though: the clip supplied to attach it to your tablet isn't very secure and you have to deal with the USB cable running along the edge of your tablet. It needs a full-size USB port (or an adapter), and only works with Windows 8 — not Android or even Windows RT. And to stop it taking too much power, it's just a 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n adapter; it doesn't give you access to 5GHz access points or the newer 802.11ac standard. Throughout doesn't go up significantly; think of this as a way of connecting from further away if you can't move your access point.

The Amped Wireless TAN1 costs $49.99 (£31).

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