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Your mission is to avoid the closet, drawer or trash bin as a gift destination

November 21st, 2016

Here's the thing I tell people all the time when they're shopping for tech gifts for loved ones: know your audience.

That's why I don't advise people buy a high-end Android smart phone for someone who primarily uses their cell phone to make actual calls. Or why investing in a 4K television for a family that doesn't subscribe to cable or any streaming services is a gigantic waste of money.

The best tech gifts are the ones that gift recipients will actually want to use, again and again, ideally on a daily basis. Here's a short list of some of the tech products at a range of prices I think actually deliver a lot of value based on how often they'll be utilized. For each, I'm also including some cheaper or comparable alternatives to give you more options.

A digital home assistant who listens

I'm pretty sure I sound like a broken record at this point, but no other tech product has impressed me as much over the past year than Amazon's voice-activated speaker, the Echo. As the features of the device have continually improved and integrated with more services (Spotify, Logitech Harmony universal remotes, Phillips Hue smart lights, for instance), "Alexa" has only gotten better and more integrated into our home life. We now use the Amazon Echo to set cooking timers, turn on Netflix, activate lights in our upstairs office, listen to daily news reports, send text messages, stream the "Hamilton" cast album and even buy stuff on Amazon.com. Better yet, the device typically goes on sale for about $130 around the holidays. And if you don't need a big speaker in your life, you can get the same voice-activated features in Amazon's Echo Dot device, which plugs into your existing stereo and costs $50 or less.

Alternatives: Early reviews suggest that Google's answer to the Amazon Echo, the Google Home, is good, but not yet great at doing many of the same things via voice commands. It sells for $129 and if Google doesn't scrap the project entirely in a year or two, it could become truly competitive against the Echo.

Smart chargin'

Nomad Goods, Inc.Nomad's Advanced Trackable PowerPack is a charger that includes a Tile Bluetooth device locator. It sells for $100. 

Our ever-more-powerful mobile phones and tablets always seems like they're thirsty for a charge, especially if you go to a lot of all-day conferences or music festivals where power outlets aren't always within reach. Nomad is a company that makes high-end chargers and adapters that are more durable and stylish than most. Its latest device is the Nomad Advanced Trackable PowerPack. Yes, $100 (discounted 10 percent if you sign up for the company's email newsletter) seems like a lot for a charger, but it does a few things that you won't find in others. First off, it has a built-in Tile Bluetooth locator. If you lose the charger, you can find it with your phone or have the charger give off an audio signal from underneath the couch. It also is one of the few chargers that has a regular USB charging port as well as the newer USB-C port that is likely to become standard in a few years and offers faster charging on some devices. It also looks incredibly rugged with its military-grade exterior and is likely to last a while. And if that isn't enough in one small package, it even senses ambient light so its indicator LEDs won't blind you in the dark. The new device starts shipping on Nov. 30.

Alternatives: I love Jackery's line of chargers; I keep an orange Bar in my work bag at all times and you can get them for as little as $14 online. They're available in other sizes, prices and colors and some include a built-in LED flashlight. And Anker's popular PowerCore 10000 does fast charging multiple times over for under $30.

Mobile phones: The landscape has changed

ContributedGoogle’s Pixel phone.

You don't need me to tell you what brand of cell phone you should give someone. For such a highly personal decision, you'll want to ask the person what they prefer or at least get a sense of whether they want to be in the iPhone world or the Android world, since those are really the main options for about 99 percent of people. This year, things have changed dramatically with Apple's decision to remove the headphone port from its latest phones causing some to question their loyalty to the iPhone universe. And Samsung's Note 7 exploding device fiasco led to a costly and embarrassing recall. That left room for Google to debut its premium Pixel phone, which starts at about $649 and has received generally great reviews for its camera, battery life, Google Assistant feature, dazzling display and overall design. It's an Android phone available in two sizes (Regular and XL) and several colors. The price might be hard to swallow, but wireless carriers are offering trade-in discounts and other incentives. 

Alternatives: Headphone jack aside, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are still very good phones and for an even cheaper option, the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are still perfectly decent. And despite Samsung's woes in 2016, its flagship Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge phones are likely to be deeply discounted as the company prepares to launch new devices in the spring. And despite what you might have heard, they're not prone to overheating and exploding like the Note 7.

4K Media streamers have arrived

Roku via APThis photo provided by Roku shows the Roku 4. Roku joins TiVo, the Shield and Fire TV in supporting super-sharp video in an emerging format known as ultra-high definition, or 4K. Roku goes further in creating a special app to point you to what little 4K content is out there.

Streaming boxes, the ones that get services like Netflix, HBO Now and Hulu from the Internet to your TV set, are fighting on multiple fronts now and adapting more quickly to our TV needs. For one thing, as more people buy higher-res 4K TV sets, you're seeing more products like the Roku 4, which can stream that richer content. But on the other hand, most 4K TVs have services such as Netflix, Amazon streaming and others built in. So would you rather have an external box that does it or just rely on your TV? I'd argue that a box like the Roku does a lot more than most built-in TV services offer, such as universal search and voice search across different services, an easier-to-navigate interface, a headphone jack built into the remote and backward compatibility with non-4K sets. It sells for about $100. For anyone who has a 4K TV or is thinking about getting one in the next year or two, this is a good option.

Alternatives: Amazon's Fire TV costs less, does 4K and includes an Alexa voice remote, which works just like the Amazon Echo (see above) ($90). The newest Apple TV models (starts at $150) still don't do 4K, but offer a lot of channels and Siri voice control. 

Gaming in the past and future

ContributedNintendo Entertainment System NES Classic Edition from Nintendo.

Two Nintendo-related nostalgia-fueled products have been surprise hits this year. The first was the "Pokemon Go" craze on mobile phones over the summer. The second is this holiday's surprise toy hit, the NES Classic Edition, which bundles 30 classic games such as "Super Mario Bros. 3" and "The Legend of Zelda" into a mini-sized version of the original Nintendo Entertainment System and an old-school controller. It's been sold out everywhere and marked up ridiculously, but if you can find it for $60, you might make a gamer of a certain age very happy. How do we know these games will get played and again? They've already survived for almost 30 years.

Alternatives: The price of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles kept dropping all year to make way for new 4K-compatible models, the Xbox One S (starts at $300) and the PS4 Pro ($400). If your gift recipient doesn't care about 4K and doesn't already own one of the consoles, now might be a good time to purchase one of the original systems for under $250. And for PlayStation 4  owners, the new PlayStation VR add-on ($300-$400) brings virtual reality home more cheaply than some PC-based option. In terms of games, my favorites of the year include "Overwatch," "Inside," "Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition" and I'm hearing great things about Austin-made "Dishonored 2," "Forza Horizon 3" and "Rez Infinite" for PlayStation VR.

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