The Writers Workbench
by Robert J. Elisberg

Holiday Gifts 2015

November, 2015

I’m trying something a little different this year, and we’ll see how it goes. In the past, I’ve had a Holiday Gift Guide, and published it appropriately for my December column. The problem with that, I’ve realized, is that that means it usually doesn’t show up until perhaps the first week of December, at the earliest. That might be perfectly fine for many people, most notably those who look at the calendar a week before Christmas and think, “Oh, perhaps I should start shopping now.” But for those who don’t like to wait until the last minute, nah, not so much. And further, because Hanukkah jogs randomly around the calendar, there have been times in the past when the column hasn’t been online until after that holiday has passed.

So, this year, as I said, a little different. While I’m not thrilled about having a Holiday Gift Guide in the middle of November, I think that that might be best, if only to give folks a chance to begin ruminating. And besides, I saw some Holiday Shopping ad as early as September this year, the swine, so I placate myself in that context as being late to the party.

Anyway, here are a few products that I reviewed during the year that might make nice presents or stocking stuffers for the tech-lovers among your near-and-dear loved ones. I’ve tried to keep them within gift-range in terms of price, though that’s as subjective as anything. There are links for each to the original reviews.

Well, then, with out of the way – ‘tis the season. Fa la la.

HP STREAM 11 SIGNATURE EDITION

The Stream 11 isn’t “great” to the point of being a desktop replacement, but that isn't the point of it. It only has 32 GB flash storage (though the system can be expanded with a Flash storage card), no touch screen, and doesn’t have the power for significant multi-tasking, nor a great deal of RAM memory, just 2 MB. BUT – (and it's a big "but") – It's a pretty good Windows computer that only costs $199 at the time of writing. It's extremely solidly made (far more so than you'd ever expect for the price), loads programs quickly, and runs fast (provided you don't overload it, like with resource-hungry programs or want to open too many programs at the same time, though a few would be fine), has two USB ports (one of them even for USB 3.0), an HDMI port, a respectably crisp 1280x720 monitor, clean-enough sounding speakers, and (let me repeat) is a real, full computer that runs Windows 8.1. And runs it well. Also, though the keyboard touch is a bit more light and slick than I prefer, it's very responsive and was easy to type with. Plus, it has no fan, so it’s near-silent yet never gets hot. It’s very thin, pretty light at 2.75 pounds, has an 11.6-inch screen, and is about as portable a good-sized tablet, and a webcam for making voice/Skype calls.

But even that’s not what makes this great as a gift. It’s because, although just $199, it comes with a free year’s subscription to Office365 which is a $70 value…and lets you also install a second copy on a tablet or mobile phone – which makes the Stream 11 in essence just a mere $129. But it also includes a $25 gift card for the Microsoft Store. Which means you are getting a real, full-featured, good Windows 8.1 computer for just $104. Yet...it's better than that. Because it also comes with 60 minutes a month – every month – of Skype world minutes, which is another savings if one uses it. (Basically around a $50 value.) So the cost of the computer is now down to a paltry $54. AND you get one teratbyte of OneDrive cloud storage included, which can cost hundreds of dollars elsewhere.

ZAGG AUTO-FIT FOLIO

The Auto-Fit Folio is a one-size fits all keyboard cover for all 7” tablets. It’s extremely easy to install any small tablet, which snaps into place. The case is a hard plastic – not a leather-like folio feel, though with a soft-ish thin layer and very protective.

The Bluetooth keyboard is quite good. Keys are well spread out, so typing was respectably comfortable for a small layout. The keyboard is built into the case, which means there’s no sliding around – you could stand and type. Open the case, and it’s like having a mini-laptop. Importantly, the edges of the case don’t block any of the tablet face, so you get full usage of the screen. Perhaps most notably of all it was quite thin, something that is very important for me. The two caveats are that, being a universal device, there’s no hole for a tablet’s rear camera, and the case is a bit wider than I prefer, so it won’t fit in most pockets. At the time of writing, it sold for $71, a bit pricey, but is a well-made device.

ZAGG UNIVERSAL KEYBOARD

Different from the aforementioned ZAGG Folio, the Universal is a standalone keyboard for any-sized device. What’s so nice about the Universal is how light and small it is, yet has a keyboard that provides for fairly easy typing. It’s not full-sized, but allows for comfortable typing, though if you have chubby fingers typing will be a bit cramped.

It has a curved ergonomic design which I found to be a plus and minus. The plus is that this allows for a comfortable typing angle. The bigger negative is that, being slightly curved, it takes up a touch more space in a briefcase than a flat keyboard would and is a bit less practical to pack.

As a result, I don’t think I’d regularly use the ZAGG for daily use (though might on occasion), but it’s quite nice – small and light most especially for travel. Toss it in a suitcase, and you can turn your tablet into almost a full-service work device. It retails for $70, but was sold at the time of writing on Amazon for just $20.

DIVOOM VOOMBOX TRAVEL

The Voombox is about the size of a flattened baseball. And though not the smallest of small portable speakers, it has among the best sound of any small speaker I’ve tested, if not the best. (Note that all judgment of sound is subjective.) The bass was particularly impressive for something this small, and the sound was crisp and quite clear. High treble wasn’t as strong, but still solid and there was nothing tinny about the sound.

Another valuable feature (especially for traveling) is that it’s water-resistant. To be clear, this isn’t “waterproof,” you can’t drop it in a lake and expect it to keep working. But there’s a hook to hang the speaker on a showerhead, and if it fell briefly in some shallow water for a brief period, you’d be safe. So, when you’re on the road and don’t have your favorite radio in the bathroom, you can just stream your music here. Plus, there is a built-in microphone for hands-free phone calls. At the time of writing, it retails for $50.

SATECHI TRAVEL ROUTER / TRAVEL ADAPTER

Though most people won’t have a burning need for it, the Satechi is an impressively versatile device for travelers, especially international. As a travel adapter, it converts the standard plugs of your home country to those of whatever country you’re visiting. And it also has two slots each with an output of 2.1 amp to plug in any standard USB device, like if you need to charge your tablet. Therefore, it eliminates the need to pack an extra charger.

But it’s the travel router that makes this unique. Most people probably don’t have a need for a travel router, but…there are advantages to having one, even if you are low tech. It can boost the signal of a hotel’s weak WiFi, or convert a hotel’s Ethernet cable to WiFi (helpful if you’re device doesn’t have an Ethernet port), or it will create a personal Wi-Fi connection for you, just like any home router. At the time of writing, it retailed for $44, but could be found online for $22.

X-MINI ME PORTABLE SPEAKER

The ME is very small – thumb-size would be a good description (provided you have a big, fat thumb…), but impressively it has very reasonable sound. Not for an audiophile, obviously, and not even for someone looking for really good, loud audio. This is the size of your thumb, for goodness sake. But for something that tiny the sound quality is quite good. Not much bass, and thin treble on the high end. But in the mid-range, you get pretty crisp, and reasonably loud sound.

It’s very similar to the previously reviewed X-Mini WE. The difference is that this ME unit does not have Bluetooth. You can only connect with the included speaker cord. I prefer the WE for that reason, but the reason I offer the ME here is price. If you want a good, but especially inexpensive stocking stuff, it retails for $25 and could be found online for just $17, about half the price of the WE.

MALWAREBYTES ANTI-MALWARE PREMIUM

Yes, yes, I know, buying anti-malware software is not generally considered the most heart-stopping holiday gift item. But there are techie people out there who do love All Things Tech, and the reality is that almost more than any other program, a good anti-virus program is critical. It’s the first thing I install when I get a new system. And there are so many to choose from that a techie geek might appreciate a subscription, at least as a stocking stuffer.

For many years, I’ve used Malwarebytes as one of those free, once-a-week programs. It’s always been very good, with a top reputation. I decided to check it out finally as my real-time program that’s running actively, all the time. This Premium version doesn’t cost much – only $25 which lets you install it on up to three PCs, which works out to just $8 a PC, not shabby. And while the free version is very good, it must be run manually and doesn’t provide round-the-clock protection, which is what’s critical.

As good as it’s been in the past, Malwarebytes has always had a sort of stodgy user interface, not only in appearance, but in not being user-friendly. That’s changed. It now has a vibrant look that lays out information clearly on its home screen. Most importantly, though, the program has a reputation as one of the best for finding and cleaning viruses.

myCHARGE TALK & CHARGE

I write about portable charges A LOT. And the myCharge Talk & Charge may be my favorite, or at least high among them, which is saying a great deal. As the name suggests, the myCharge is made for charging your phone when talking – and for people who don’t want to have a charger case on their phone, which allows for the same thing but adds bulk to the phone 100% of the time. The Talk & Charge is a very thin, light charger with a small built-in micro-USB cord well-situated near the top so that you can lay your mobile phone flat on it and plug in to charge, while holding the phone and charger together comfortably while you talk.

The myCharge holds 4,000 mAh, enough to charge your mobile phone almost three times. It’s thin, small, and bizarrely light it was (about a mere 4 ounces), thanks to a high density battery. It’s rated for an 18 hour talk time, 14 hours online browsing. There’s also a USB port, and comes with a spare micro-USB cable, so you can charge two devices at the same time. Also notable, this USB port impressively allows for 2.0 amps, which means the device can charge a tablet. (Not fully, perhaps halfway, but most portable chargers this size don’t have the ability to charge a tablet at all.)

Know that myCharge makes two versions of the Talk & Charge. The one tested here is for microUSB devices, and retails for $60, but could be found online at the time or writing for $45. They also make one specifically for iPhones with a Lightning plug that retails for the same price, though it’s only 3,000 mAh (enough, still, for likely two charges).

A CHRISTMAS CAROL 2: The Return of Scrooge

This is a rollicking parody of the beloved Dickens Christmas classic that…oh, okay, so it has absolutely nothing to do with technology. Zero, nada. But this is my column, and I wrote the book, so if I want to fudge the rules a little (or, fine, a lot…), that seems fair. Hey, I’ve never mentioned it before, and for all I know you might think it makes a swell holiday gift and even be appreciative. So, you’re welcome.

The story begins five years after Scrooge has died and left his firm to Bob Cratchit, only to return one Christmas Eve to teach his former clerk the true meaning of money. Adding to the swirl are dozens of characters from other Dickens novels woven throughout the story. God bless them everyone. The paperback is inexpensive, and the Kindle e-book version significantly so. Hey, wait a second, Kindle e-book. That’s technology! Good, I knew I’d work it in some way…

TWW Notes

  • The Firefox browser has long had a "private browsing" mode allows users to browse the Internet without any record of where they’ve gone. In the new version 42, the company has added a “tracking protection option” that will block advertisers from using analytics for sending user-specific ads.
  • When Microsoft released its new Surface Book “ultimate laptop” that is a 2-in-1 convertible, it received high praise from reviewers, but some new units came with flickering and problematic screens (which can be removed to become a standalone tablet). The company has said that a software fix should be available soon.
  • If your iPhone battery has seemed to be draining faster than you think reasonable, the cause may be the Facebook app. The company says it’s working on a patch to fix the problem.
  • Sales of the iPhone continue to be up, but iPad sales have been sliding all year and have hit a four-year low.
  • After a highly successful launch of Windows 10, downloads of the new operating system have slowed, but after three months now hold 7.9% of the desktop market. The leader continues to be the legacy Windows 7 software with over half of all desktops still using the O.S. Windows 10 continues to be a free download until next June.
  • Stories have cropped up about a glitch where Windows 10 was accidentally downloaded onto users systems. Many, if not most of these articles seem to be making a mistake of their own in reporting the occurrence. It’s important to know that “downloading” the software is not the same as “installing” it. The software just resides inactive on users’ hard drives. It requires actively deciding to upgrade one’s operating system and accepting a series of prompts before the new Windows 10 software is actually installed.

To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about other matters from politics, entertainment, technology, humor, sports, and a few things in between, see Elisberg Industries. He can also be followed at a distance on Twitter or Facebook.

Note: The Writers Guild of America, West neither implicitly nor explicitly endorses opinions or attitudes expressed in this article.

Copyright 2015, Robert J. Elisberg. All rights reserved.