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November 21, 2018
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Gift Guide 2018

Gift Guide: Black Friday tech deals that are actually pretty good

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Black Friday is, for the most part, bad. People are awful, retailers pull all sorts of shenanigans to make it seem like you’re getting a better deal than you are, and a lot of people end up buying junk they don’t need to make the day feel like a “success”.

But you know that. If you’re gonna do this, you might as well go in with some sort of gameplan. Our advice? Stay inside and shop online where you can, be aware that most of the best deals are stocked in hilariously low quantities, and don’t be stubborn and buy some no-name Android tablet just because the sign says its 80% off and, well, they’re out of the TV you wanted anyway.

We’ve had roughly 4 billion Black Friday deal emails hit our inboxes over the last month. We’ve sifted through most of them to try to sift out the junk. We’ll keep adding new deals as we find them, so check back on the regular.

Many (most?) of these are already live, unless otherwise noted.

Amazon

If you’re trying to load up on Amazon’s own gear (things like the Fire TV stick, or the Echo), Black Friday is one of the best days to do it. Plus, since it’s all online, no waiting outside in the cold for you!

If you’re buying something else on Amazon on Black Friday because it seems like a good deal, punch it into CamelCamelCamel to check the price history first.



Audible

Amazon’s audiobook service, Audible, is usually $15 per month. This week they’re selling 3-month plans for $7 per month. That gets you one audiobook per month (plus 2 Audible Originals)… so, in a roundabout way, you’re getting 3 audiobooks for roughly $21.

Just remember to cancel when you’re done if you’re not using it, as the price jumps back up to $15 after 3 months. Set up a calendar reminder or something, if you have to.

Google

If you’ve put off buying a Pixel 3 or updating your Chromecast in hopes that there’d be some sort of deal, you’re in luck. Google says the sale won’t start until 11/22, but they’re pretty solid

  • Buy one Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL, you can get a second one 50% off.
  • Just need one? The Pixel 3 will be $150 off its normal price ($649 instead of $799), while the Pixel 3 XL will be $200 off ($699 instead of $899).
  • Google Home Hub, Google’s first Home device with a big ol’ screen on it, is being dropped from $149 to $99
  • Google Home Mini, usually $49, is dropping to $25
  • The standard Google Home will drop from $129 to $79
  • Chromecast is going from $35 to $25, while the 4K-friendly Chromecast Ultra is going from $69 to $49
  • The Pixelbook will drop from $999 to $699

All of these will be available on Google’s own store but, again, they don’t go live until 11/22.



Samsung

Living that Android life, but don’t want a Pixel? Samsung has cut a few hundred bucks off both of its current flagship Android smartphones. The Galaxy S9 (64GB, Unlocked) is currently $520 — down from $720. The bigger, beefier S9+ (64GB, unlocked) is down to $639, usually $839. The same $200 discount applies to all capacities, so you can bump it up to 128GB or 256GB if you need the space.

Sony

Sony is making a huge push this season by selling the 1 TB PlayStation 4 Slim, usually $300, for $199 at most major retailers. Better yet: it comes with a copy of Spider-Man, the new(ish) and absolutely fantastic PS4 exclusive that ate hundreds upon hundreds of hours of my life.

They’re pushing this sale at all the big box stores, so you have your pick. You can find it at, for example, GameStop, Target, Walmart, or Best Buy.

You can also get a year of Playstation Plus, usually $60, for $40 from Walmart or Amazon. It’s a digital renewal code, so even if you’re not ready to renew right now, you can hang on to it for later.

GameStop, meanwhile, has PS4 controllers marked down to $38 (usually $60)

Microsoft

It’s not quite as good as the PS4 deal — but if you lean heavier toward the Xbox camp, Amazon has 1 TB Xbox One S with Battlefield V or with NBA 2k19, each for $230 (usually $299)

Need more controllers? Starting on Thanksgiving Day, Microsoft will also be selling controllers for $40 — down from the normal price of $60. Walmart is price matching the deal a little early, though the price isn’t showing until its in your cart.

Got your sight sets on the highest-end Xbox, the Xbox One X? It doesn’t come with any games, but both Amazon and Walmart have it marked down to $400 from its usual price of $499.

Apple

Apple doesn’t really play the Black Friday game. As a result, there are only a handful of Apple-related deals this year — expect stock to be super limited, and most of them won’t go live until Thanksgiving Day.

Walmart, Target, Costco, and Jet will all be selling the 2018 iPad (32 GB) for $250 — down from the usual price of $320. Best Buy, meanwhile, will sell the 2018 iPad (128 GB) for $329 — down from $429.

Target and a few other stores, meanwhile, are dropping the Apple Watch Series 3 down from $279 to $199…. but be aware that this is a generation behind, as Apple has already moved on to Series 4.



Sonos:

Sonos doesn’t often do sales on its speakers, but they’ve got a few lined up for this week. These ones won’t actually start until Thanksgiving day — but once they do, they should be available on Sonos.com and run until Monday, 11/26.

Sonos One, the company’s compact speaker with Alexa built in (and pictured above), will drop from $199 to $175.

Sonos Beam, their smaller sound bar, will drop from $399 to $349 (Alas, there’s no official deal on the company’s bigger, badder soundbar, the Playbar — but Amazon has a deal going right now that keeps it at the normal $699 price but also throws in a wallmounting kit and a $50 Amazon giftcard)

The Sonos SUB, meanwhile, drops from $699 to $599.

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Gift Guide: 10 suitcase-friendly gifts for frequent flyers

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Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2018 Holiday Gift Guide! Need more gift ideas? Check out our Gift Guide Hub.

I’ve been traveling a lot this year — more than any year in the past. It’s been both a blessing and a curse, so thanks, TechCrunch, for that. Honestly, I should probably be packing for Asia instead of writing this, but I’m looking out for you instead.

Rather than writing the standard Travel Guide or Holiday Gift Guide, we’ve opted to combine them into one. Because if there’s one key to making the most out of your time on the road, it’s efficiency. Technology can play an important role in helping streamline the packing process and generally making the most out of your trip.

Of course, as with everything, too much tech can also be a bad thing. I know I’ve found myself packing too many gadgets or jamming a messy rat king of cables in my carry-on, making a mess of things in the process.

What follows is a collection of gadgets, accessories and other products designed to remove some of the biggest pain points from travel and help you make the most of your trip, whether overnight or longer.

Amazon Kindle Oasis

Okay, maybe including a Kindle on here is a bit of a cheat, but very few devices have improved my travel life like an e-reader — and the Oasis is currently the nicest one you can get. It wasn’t all that long ago I used to jam several paperbacks into my carry-on. I do miss the tactility of real books from time to time, but when it comes to traveling, nothing beats the ability to jam thousands of books into a seat-back pocket.

Price: $249-$279
Available from: Amazon


Anker 40W 4-Port USB Wall Charger

A lot of modern hotels are getting better about USB ports. I recently found myself staying at one in LA where every single link had a place for me to charge my iPhone. But it’s still a crapshoot — especially when traveling to a strange city — and hey, if you can avoid plugging your personal devices into a strange port, all the better.

I started traveling with my own combo mini power strip/USB hub years ago, but Anker’s 40W 4-Port USB Wall Charger is a much more compact solution, bringing four USB ports directly to the wall. Best of all, like all of Anker’s products, it’s dirt cheap.

Price: $26
Available from: Amazon



BUBM Cable Bag

I’ve tried a LOT of cable organizers in my many years of gadget blogging. It’s the only thing that keeps my travel bag from turning into the Indiana Jones snake pit. At the end of the day, all of them ultimately suffer the same compromise: you can either have a lot of compartments for your various tech doodads or you can free up more space in your bag.

Ultimately, I tend to side with the latter. Especially when it comes to carry ons, anything you can do to free up space is a net positive. Lately, I’ve been digging this one from BUBM. It looks snazzy and the fold-over design helps free up precious bag real estate.

Price: $12
Available from: Amazon


Calm Subscription

This is one is admittedly an odd choice. Sure there are plenty of travel-specific apps out there, but when it comes to helping tamp down the stress associated with travel, the Calm app is a good place to start. This is coming for a very anxious flyer, mind you. It’s not a fear of flying — that part’s fine. It’s everything else. From the getting to the airport to the endless lines to the $3 airport water to the occasional middle seat.

I’m also, not coincidentally, an anxious meditator. I’ve tried a LOT of different apps to pursue mindfulness on my smartphone, and Calm is far and away the one I like the best. The guided meditation sessions are terrific and ditto for the the more freeform ones. It’s also a great way to get your bearings after waking up in a hotel room in some unknown city.

A year’s subscription runs $60, which is a small price to pay for peace of mind.

Price: $60
Available from: Calm


Harman Kardon Traveler Speaker

This one admittedly feels like more of a luxury than many of the others, but don’t underestimate how much a small Bluetooth speaker can improve hotel time. The vast majority of laptops have pretty terrible built-in speakers and even middling Bluetooth speakers are a major improvement.

Harman Kardon’s Traveler fits the bill and won’t add much size or weight to a carry on. It also has a built-in mic for teleconference — a definite bonus for work trips — and doubles as a power bank for charging up devices. The 2,500mAh battery isn’t much, but on the road, every little bit of juice counts.

Price: $150
Available from: Harman Kardon


HyperDrive USB-C Hub Attach

I travel with a LOT of gadgets. It’s kind of my job. As such, you’re no doubt catching onto the fact that lack of charging ports is a consistent theme in all of this. HyperDrive USB-C Hub Attach is a clever take on TwelveSouth’s iconic PlugBug that brings USB ports directly to the MacBook’s charging brick. Here, however, you’ve got the decided bonus of a third active USB-C port for data transfer. At $50 for the larger version, it’s also priced to match TwelveSouth’s offering.
Price: $50
Available from: HYPER



Luna Display

As I noted in my write up last month, the Luna Display isn’t for everyone, but those who need it will find it to be a downright lifesaver. Once this thumbnail-sized $80 device plugs into a MacBook, it connects to a nearby iPad over Wi-Fi, converting the tablet into a second screen.

I’ve been using the hell out of it every time I’ve found myself working from the road or at home. I’ve become entirely dependent on my monitor at work, and now find myself being the guy with both a laptop and tablet out on the table at the coffee shop. Totally worth it for the ability to monitor my RSS feeds while working on a story.

Price: $80
Available from: Luna


RAVPower Wireless Portable Charger

Powerbanks are a dime a dozen these days, but RavPower is making some of the cleverest ones out there. It’s tough to narrow them all down, but this one lands on my list for its inclusion of a Qi charging pad that lets users wirelessly charge compatible handsets on top of the brick.

Keep in mind, some airlines and airports are limiting the size of batteries that can be stowed in a bag, so if the person you’re buying for is a frequent visitor to, say, China, double check the limits — though this 10400mAh battery should be fine in most cases.

Price: $50
Available from: Amazon


Timbuk2 Never Check Expandable Backpack

I always thought I’d outgrow backpacks, but aside from a brief flirtation with the messenger bag in the aughts, I’m rarely seen without one. Of course, no two are the same, and if there’s a frequent traveler in your life, a solid backpack makes all the difference in the world.

Timbuk2 makes some truly terrific bags, and the Never Check certainly fits the bill. It has a spacious interior for clothes, shoes and anything else needed for an overnight trip, while maintaining a small enough footprint to be stashed in an overhead bin or under the seat in of you.

Price: $200
Available from: Timbuk2


Twelve South AirFly

This is one of those travel concerns that doesn’t really dawn on you until you’re face to face with it. Love your Bluetooth earbuds? Great. But good luck listening to the movie on your flight. Twelve South, in all of its infinite wisdom, has designed a small wireless transmitter that plugs into headphone jacks, so you can use your go to headphones with the seat-back entertainment system. Turns out it also comes in handy for the TVs at the hotel gym.

The biggest downside here is pricing — $30 doesn’t seem like much, but you can grab a pair of wired headphones for pretty cheap these days.

Price: $30
Available from: Amazon

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Gift Guide: The best security and privacy tech to keep your friends safe

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Libertarian on lockdown? Privacy minded or paranoid?

Security is more front of mind today than ever befroe. If it’s not a company vacuuming up your data or nation states trying to hack your email, it’s your own “opsec” that needs a refresh.

For this holiday season, we have over a dozen gift ideas — from practical gadgets that will make it harder for spies to listen in, and data-saving tips that will keep your information safe — without breaking the bank.

Passphrase dice

Coming up with passwords that are easy to remember is difficult. The better way is to use a longer and more memorable passphrase instead. It’s as easy as rolling a handful of dice and using wordlists! You can pick up a five-pack of dice to generate random passphrases for just a few bucks. Or, if you want mail-order dice-generated passphrases, you can always rely on teenage security prodigy Mira Modi to generate them for you for a small fee.

Price: $8.00 — $15.00
Available from: EFF | Diceware


A password manager subscription

Where are you going to store all those passphrases? A password manager, of course! Although most password managers are free, many come with premium features that let you securely synchronize your passwords across your many devices. Our favorite password manager is 1Password — which offers gift certificates. But, everyone will have their preference, and there are plenty of password managers out there to choose from.

Price: from $4.99/month
Available from: 1Password | LastPass | Dashlane


Yubikey

You might be done with your passwords, but now need to lock down your accounts to the max. Done right, two-factor authentication is a major barrier for hackers to beat. The strongest protection comes in form of a Yubikey, a physical, NFC-enabled USB stick that tells Google, Facebook, Twitter and any other supported service that it’s you and nobody else. Yuibikeys are the gold standard of two-factor keys.

Price: from $45.00
Available from: Yubikey



A burner phone

Ever needed to make a one-time phone call to a source, an ally — or even an enemy — without being easily tracked? A burner phone is your friend. Though they’re not perfect, burner phones make it more difficult for the powers that be to track you from place to place, or identify you in a vast sea of metadata and call records. Finding a good burner phone also isn’t easy — it depends on the kinds of threats that you face. A cheap, available phone like the ZTE Z233 is available at many department stores and inner-city pharmacies. You should pay in cash to avoid any financial paper trail. Just, don’t get too attached; the point of a burner phone is that you ditch it after its one and only use. You could always use an app like Burner that generates a temporary phone number number, if you don’t want to shell out money.

Price: around $19.99
Available from: Target | Sears


Counter-surveillance infrared eyewear

Nothing beats surveillance cameras like invisible infrared light — andlothing and accessory makers know that more than anyone. Pick up a pair of infrared-emitting spectacles that mask your face in CCTV-heavy cities. You can also buy “stealthwear” clothing that can help you blend into a crowd by deflecting heat.

Price: $95.00 — $125.00
Available from: Reflectacles


Privacy screens

These thin, sticky screens don’t look like much, but they are vital in preventing visual hacking efforts — that’s when someone looks over your shoulder and spies on your private information. Privacy screens block anyone looking at your display from outside your 60-degree viewing angle, so anyone sat next to you will see nothing but a darkened screen.

Price: $18.83 — $42.85
Available from: Amazon (phone) | Amazon (laptop)


An encrypted USB storage drive

Encrypted removable storage is hard to come by. Nobody should rely entire on hardware-based encryption because many drives use proprietary cryptography that are full of bugs. One encryption-supported flash drive stands above the rest — an IronKey D300. The key uses signed firmware to prevent tampering, enforces strong passwords and comes in several storages sizes.

Price: $65.00 — $86.20
Available from: Kingston | Amazon



Chromebook

Chromebooks are lightweight and practical, yet range from low-end disposable (almost burner) devices to the high-end and powerful. These Chrome OS-powered behemoths are highly secure — and capable — even if they’re the underdog in the operating system space. With the right tools and guides, Chromebooks can be considerably locked down and a determined defender against even the most powerful adversary. There is an entire spectrum of devices to choose from — including entry-level laptops, mid-range devices and high-end performance giants — a Chromebook for every need, with uncompromising security.

Price: $179 — $499 — $999
Available from: Google


A webcam cover

Almost everyone knows that hackers can target your webcam and remotely spy on you. So get a webcam cover! There are so many to choose from, you can be as inventive as you want — from sliding covers and customizable covers — even boutique homemade webcam covers from Etsy. Or, if you’re on a budget, you can never go wrong with a good old fashioned Post-it note.

Price: from $4.99
Available from: Amazon | Etsy


A microphone blocker

Don’t forget about your microphone! Microphone blockers work on most devices with a 3.5mm headphone jack by tricking a laptop or a phone into thinking that an external microphone is installed. Instead, the blocker picks up nothing more than sweet, sweet silence. Most microphone blockers will fit on a keyring and can be taken on the go, but anyone wanting to use a blocker on a newer iPhone or iPad will need a headphone adapter.

Price: $5.99 — $15.99
Available from: Amazon | StackSocial


A USB condom

You might think this is a joke, but USB condoms are real! These pocket-sized plugs are great for isolating your devices from alien or untrusted ports, allowing users to power up without transmitting (or receiving) malicious data. Most are USB-A, so any USB-C powered devices — like MacBooks and newer iPads — will also need an adapter.

Price: $11.99
Available from: Amazon


Raspberry Pi mini-computer

These mini-computers might not seem like much, but the Raspberry Pi revolution has taken the developer and hobbyist world by storm. They are ideal for beginners for learning basic coding, they’re highly adaptable and expandable, allowing even the more advanced users to build fully-fledged — from gaming machines to media centers, and security systems and virtual private network routers — and more. Nothing speaks to the security-minded geek than an open source platform to play with.

Price: from $35.00
Available from: Raspberry Pi



An RFID blocking wallet

RFID hacking is where someone swipes your personal data or information from an NFC-enabled credit card and make fraudulent purchases. RFID attacks aren’t a widespread issue but the threat from card skimming exists. The EFF has a decent RFID blocking wallet for a low price, while other, more upscale wallets cost far more.

Price: from $22.00 — 72.00
Available from: EFF | Ridge Wallet


Amazon Cloud Cam

You might think, why would I need a wireless camera if I’m trying to prevent surveillance? You’d be surprised at how useful a camera can be. Take Amazon’s Cloud Cam — it’s the most secure internet-connected camera available for its price. Think of it as your eyes and ears when you’re away from home — keeping your house and your things safe. Or, even take it with you, and use in your hotel room to prevent “evil maid” attacks. The camera works in the dark, can be easily hooked up to a Wi-Fi network, and its feed is remotely accessible using your Amazon account — which, like other camera makers, can be secured with two-factor authentication. You could even put your Yubikey to good use!

Price: $119.99
Available from: Amazon


pfSense router

You might not have heard of a pfSense router before, but these security gateways are ideal for protecting your Internet of Things applications. Many IoT devices are insecure or buggy, and can lead to a wider compromise of your home or corporate network. A pfSense router helps segment network traffic to isolate your potentially buggy devices from your production devices. pfSense routers are easy to set up and manage — so you’ll never really have to think about it again.

Price: $249.99
Available from: Netgate


A lock-pick training kit

For the fidgety types: a lock-pick training kit is a great gift for anyone who wants to learn the fundamentals of lock picking. Transparent padlocks work best, as you can easily understand how the innards work — and how to defeat them. There are many available, but you shouldn’t break the bank on a basic kit — especially for beginners.

Price: $30.00 — $59.95
Available from: Cool Material | Amazon


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Gift Guide: 11 picture perfect gifts for your photographer friends

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Photographers are tricky to get gifts for because every one of them has preferences they may already have spent years indulging. But we have blind spots, we photographers. We will spend thousands on lenses but never buy a proper camera bag, or properly back up our shots, or splurge for a gadget that makes certain shots ten times easier. Scroll on for gift recommendations that any photographer can appreciate.

Gnarbox or Western Digital backup drive

Okay, these are definitely expensive, so keep scrolling if you’re on a budget, but they can also totally change how someone shoots. If your photographer/loved one tends to travel or go out into the wilderness when they shoot, a backup solution is a must. These drives act as self-contained rugged backup solutions, letting you offload your SD card at the end of a shoot and preview the contents, no laptop required.

They’ve been around for years but early ones were pretty janky and “professional” ones cost thousands. The latest generation, typified by the Gnarbox and Western Digital’s devices, strike a balance and have been pretty well-reviewed.

The Gnarbox is the better device (faster, much better interface and tools), but it’s more expensive — the latest version with 256 GB of space onboard (probably the sweet spot in terms of capacity) costs $400. A comparable WD device costs about half that. If you and a couple friends want to throw down together, I’d recommend getting the former, but both do more or less the same thing.


Microfiber wipes

On the other end of the price spectrum, but no less important, are lens and screen wipes. One of the best things I ever did for myself was order a big pack of these things and stash them in every jacket, coin pocket, and bag I own. Now when anyone needs their glasses, lens, phone, laptop screen, or camera LCD cleaned, I’m right there and sometimes even give them the cloth to keep. I’ve been buying these and they’re good, but there are lots more sizes and packs to choose from.


SD cards and hard cases

Most cameras use SD cards these days, and photographers can never have too many of them. Anything larger than 16 GB is useful — just make sure it’s name brand. A nice touch would be to buy an SD card case that holds eight or ten of the things. Too many photographers (myself included) keep their cards in little piles, drawers, pockets and so on. A nice hardcase for cards is always welcome — Pelican is the big brand for these, but as long as it isn’t from the bargain bin another brand is fine.


Moment smartphone lens case

The best camera is the one you have with you, and more often than not, even for photographers, that’s a phone. There are lots of stick-on, magnet-on, and so on lens sets but Moment’s solution seems the most practical. You use their cases — mostly tasteful, fortunately — and pick serious lenses to pop into the built-in mount.

The optics are pretty good and the lenses are big but not so big they’ll weigh down a purse or jacket pocket. Be sure to snoop and figure out what model phone your friend is using.



Waxed canvas camera bag (or any good one really)

Every photographer should have a padded, stylish bag for their gear. I’m partial to waxed canvas, and of the ones I recently reviewed I think the ONA Union Street is the best one out there as far as combination camera/day trip bags go. That said everyone is into these Peak design ones as well.


Lomo’Instant Automat or Fujifilm SQ6 instant film camera

Everyone shoots digital these days, but if it’s a party or road trip you’re going on and capturing memories is the goal, an instant film camera might be the best bet. I’ve been using an Automat since they raised money on Kickstarter and I’ve loved this thing: the mini film isn’t too expensive, the shooting process is pleasantly analog but not too difficult, and the camera itself is compact and well designed.

If on the other hand you’d like something a little closer to the Polaroids of yore (without spending the cash on a retro one and Impossible film) then the Fujifilm SQ6 is probably your best bet. It’s got autofocus rather than zone focus, meaning it’s dead simple to operate, but it has lots of options if you want to tweak the exposure.


Circular polarizer filter

Our own photo team loves these filters, which pop onto the end of a lens and change the way light comes through it. This one in particular lets the camera see more detail in clouds and otherwise change the way a scene with a top and bottom half looks. Everyone can use one, and even if they already have one, it’s good to have spares. Polaroid is a good brand for these but again, any household name with decent reviews should be all right.

The only issue here is that you need to get the right size. Next time you see your friend’s camera lying around, look at the lens that’s on it. Inside the front of it, right next to the glass, there should be a millimeter measurement — NOT the one on the side of the lens, that’s the focal length. The number on the end of the lens tells you the diameter of filter to get.



Wireless shutter release

If you’re taking a group photo or selfie, you can always do the classic 10 second timer hustle, but if you don’t want to leave anything to chance a wireless remote is clutch. These things basically just hit the shutter button for you, though some have things like mode switches and so on.

Unfortunately, a bit like filters, shutter release devices are often model-specific. The big camera companies have their own, but if you want to be smart about it go for a cross-platform device like the Hama DCCSystem. These can be a bit hard to find so don’t feel bad about getting the camera-specific kind instead.


Blackrapid strap (or any nice custom strap)

Another pick from our video and photo team, Blackrapid’s cross-body straps take a little time to get used to, but make a lot of sense. The camera hangs upside-down and you grab it with one hand and bring it to shooting position with one movement. When you’re done, it sits out of the way instead of bumping into your chest. And because it attaches to the bottom plate of your camera, you don’t have the straps in the way pretty much from any angle you want to hold the camera in.

If you feel confident your photographer friend isn’t into this unorthodox style of shooting, don’t worry — a nice “normal” strap is also a great gift. Having a couple to choose from, especially ones that can be swapped out quickly, is always nice in case one is damaged or unsuitable for a certain shoot.


Adobe subscription

Most photographers use Adobe software, usually Lightroom or Photoshop, and unlike back in the day you don’t just buy a copy of these any more — it’s a subscription. Fortunately you can still buy a year of it for someone in what amounts to gift card form. Unfortunately you can’t buy half a year or whatever fits your budget — it’s the $120 yearly photography bundle or nothing.


Print services

Too many digital photos end up sitting on hard drives, only to be skimmed now and then or uploaded to places like Facebook in much-degraded form. But given the chance (and a gift certificate from you) they’ll print giant versions of their favorite shots and be glad they did it.

I bought a nice printer a long while back and print my own shots now, so I haven’t used these services. However I trust Wirecutter’s picks, Nations Photo Lab and AdoramaPix. $30-$40 will go a long way.


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The ultimate guide to gifting STEM toys: tons of ideas for little builders

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The holiday season is here again, touting all sorts of kids’ toys that pledge to pack ‘STEM smarts’ in the box, not just the usual battery-based fun.

Educational playthings are nothing new, of course. But, in recent years, long time toymakers and a flurry of new market entrants have piggybacked on the popularity of smartphones and apps, building connected toys for even very young kids that seek to tap into a wider ‘learn to code’ movement which itself feeds off worries about the future employability of those lacking techie skills.

Whether the lofty educational claims being made for some of these STEM gizmos stands the test of time remains to be seen. Much of this sums to clever branding. Though there’s no doubt a lot of care and attention has gone into building this category out, you’ll also find equally eye-catching price-tags.

Whatever STEM toy you buy there’s a high chance it won’t survive the fickle attention spans of kids at rest and play. (Even as your children’s appetite to be schooled while having fun might dash your ‘engineer in training’ expectations.) Tearing impressionable eyeballs away from YouTube or mobile games might be your main parental challenge — and whether kids really need to start ‘learning to code’ aged just 4 or 5 seems questionable.

Buyers with high ‘outcome’ hopes for STEM toys should certainly go in with their eyes, rather than their wallets, wide open. The ‘STEM premium’ can be steep indeed, even as the capabilities and educational potential of the playthings themselves varies considerably.

At the cheaper end of the price spectrum, a ‘developmental toy’ might not really be so very different from a more basic or traditional building block type toy used in concert with a kid’s own imagination, for example.

While, at the premium end, there are a few devices in the market that are essentially fully fledged computers — but with a child-friendly layer applied to hand-hold and gamify STEM learning. An alternative investment in your child’s future might be to commit to advancing their learning opportunities yourself, using whatever computing devices you already have at home. (There are plenty of standalone apps offering guided coding lessons, for example. And tons and tons of open source resources.)

For a little DIY STEM learning inspiration read this wonderful childhood memoir by TechCrunch’s very own John Biggs — a self-confessed STEM toy sceptic.

It’s also worth noting that some startups in this still youthful category have already pivoted more toward selling wares direct to schools — aiming to plug learning gadgets into formal curricula, rather than risking the toys falling out of favor at home. Which does lend weight to the idea that standalone ‘play to learn’ toys don’t necessarily live up to the hype. And are getting tossed under the sofa after a few days’ use.

We certainly don’t suggest there are any shortcuts to turn kids into coders in the gift ideas presented here. It’s through proper guidance — plus the power of their imagination — that the vast majority of children learn. And of course kids are individuals, with their own ideas about what they want to do and become.

The increasingly commercialized rush towards STEM toys, with hundreds of millions of investor dollars being poured into the category, might also be a cause for parental caution. There’s a risk of barriers being thrown up to more freeform learning — if companies start pushing harder to hold onto kids’ attention in a more and more competitive market. Barriers that could end up dampening creative thinking.

At the same time (adult) consumers are becoming concerned about how much time they spend online and on screens. So pushing kids to get plugged in from a very early age might not feel like the right thing to do. Your parental priorities might be more focused on making sure they develop into well rounded human beings — by playing with other kids and/or non-digital toys that help them get to know and understand the world around them, and encourage using more of their own imagination.

But for those fixed on buying into the STEM toy craze this holiday season, we’ve compiled a list of some of the main players, presented in alphabetical order, rounding up a selection of what they’re offering for 2018, hitting a variety of price-points, product types and age ranges, to present a market overview — and with the hope that a well chosen gift might at least spark a few bright ideas…


Adafruit Kits

Product: Metro 328 Starter Pack 
Price: $45
Description: Not a typical STEM toy but a starter kit from maker-focused and electronics hobbyist brand Adafruit. The kit is intended to get the user learning about electronics and Arduino microcontrollers to set them on a path to being a maker. Adafruit says the kit is designed for “everyone, even people with little or no electronics and programming experience”. Though parental supervision is a must unless you’re buying for a teenager or mature older child. Computer access is also required for programming the Arduino.

Be sure to check out Adafruit’s Young Engineers Category for a wider range of hardware hacking gift ideas too, from $10 for a Bare Conductive Paint Pen, to $25 for the Drawdio fun pack, to $35 for this Konstruktor DIY Film Camera Kit or $75 for the Snap Circuits Green kit — where budding makers can learn about renewable energy sources by building a range of solar and kinetic energy powered projects. Adafruit also sells a selection of STEM focused children’s books too, such as Python for Kids ($35)
Age: Teenagers, or younger children with parental supervision


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Anki

Product: Cozmo
Price: $180
Description: The animation loving Anki team added a learn-to-code layer to their cute, desktop-mapping bot last year — called Cozmo Code Lab, which was delivered via free update — so the cartoonesque, programmable truck is not new on the scene for 2018 but has been gaining fresh powers over the years.

This year the company has turned its attention to adults, launching a new but almost identical-looking assistant-style bot, called Vector, that’s not really aimed at kids. That more pricey ($250) robot is slated to be getting access to its code lab in future, so it should have some DIY programming potential too.
Age: 8+


Dash Robotics

Product: Kamigami Jurassic World Robot
Price: ~$60
Description: Hobbyist robotics startup Dash Robotics has been collaborating with toymaker Mattel on the Kamigami line of biologically inspired robots for over a year now. The USB-charged bots arrive at kids’ homes in build-it-yourself form before coming to programmable, biomimetic life via the use of a simple, icon-based coding interface in the companion app.

The latest addition to the range is dinosaur bot series Jurassic World, currently comprised of a pair of pretty similar looking raptor dinosaurs, each with light up eyes and appropriate sound effects. Using the app kids can complete challenges to unlock new abilities and sounds. And if you have more than one dinosaur in the same house they can react to each other to make things even more lively.
Age: 8+


Kano

Product: Harry Potter Coding Kit
Price: $100
Description: British learn-to-code startup Kano has expanded its line this year with a co-branded, build-it-yourself wand linked to the fictional Harry Potter wizard series. The motion-sensitive e-product features a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer and Bluetooth wireless so kids can use it to interact with coding content on-screen. The company offers 70-plus challenges for children to play wizard with, using wand gestures to manipulate digital content. Like many STEM toys it requires a tablet or desktop computer to work its digital magic (iOS and Android tablets are supported, as well as desktop PCs including Kano’s Computer Kit Touch, below)
Age: 6+

Product: Computer Kit Touch
Price: $280
Description: The latest version of Kano’s build-it-yourself Pi-powered kids’ computer. This year’s computer kit includes the familiar bright orange physical keyboard but now paired with a touchscreen. Kano reckons touch is a natural aid to the drag-and-drop, block-based learn-to-code systems it’s putting under kids’ fingertips here. Although its KanoOS Pi skin does support text-based coding too, and can run a wide range of other apps and programs — making this STEM device a fully fledged computer in its own right
Age: 6-13



Lego

Product: Boost Creative Toolbox
Price: $160
Description: Boost is Lego’s relatively recent foray into offering a simpler robotics and programming system aimed at younger kids vs its more sophisticated and expensive veteran Mindstorms creator platform (for 10+ year olds). The Boost Creative Toolbox is an entry point to Lego + robotics, letting kids build a range of different brick-based bots — all of which can be controlled and programmed via the companion app which offers an icon-based coding system.

Boost components can also be combined with other Lego kits to bring other not-electronic kits to life — such as its Stormbringer Ninjago Dragon kit (sold separately for $40). Ninjago + Boost means = a dragon that can walk and turn its head as if it’s about to breathe fire
Age: 7-12


littleBits

Product: Avengers Hero Inventor Kit
Price: $150
Description: This Disney co-branded wearable in kit form from the hardware hackers over at littleBits lets superhero-inspired kids snap together all sorts of electronic and plastic bits to make their own gauntlet from the Avengers movie franchise. The gizmo features an LED matrix panel, based on Tony Stark’s palm Repulsor Beam, they can control via companion app. There are 18 in-app activities for them to explore, assuming kids don’t just use amuse themselves acting out their Marvel superhero fantasies
Age: 8+

It’s worth noting that littleBits has lots more to offer — so if bringing yet more Disney-branded merch into your home really isn’t your thing, check out its wide range of DIY electronics kits, which cater to various price points, such as this Crawly Creature Kit ($40) or an Electronic Music Inventor Kit ($100), and much more… No major movie franchises necessary


Makeblock

Product: Codey Rocky
Price: $100
Description: Shenzhen-based STEM kit maker Makeblock crowdfunded this emotive, programmable bot geared towards younger kids on Kickstarter. There’s no assembly required, though the bot itself can transform into a wearable or handheld device for game playing, as Codey (the head) detaches from Rocky (the wheeled body).

Despite the young target age, the toy is packed with sophisticated tech — making use of deep learning algorithms, for example. While the company’s visual programming system, mBlock, also supports Python text coding, and allows kids to code bot movements and visual effects on the display, tapping into the 10 programmable modules on this sensor-heavy bot. Makeblock says kids can program Codey to create dot matrix animations, design games and even build AI and IoT applications, thanks to baked in support for voice, image and even face recognition… The bot has also been designed to be compatible with Lego bricks so kids can design and build physical add-ons too
Age: 6+

Product: Airblock
Price: $100
Description: Another programmable gizmo from Makeblock’s range. Airblock is a modular and programmable drone/hovercraft so this is a STEM device that can fly. Magnetic connectors are used for easy assembly of the soft foam pieces. Several different assembly configurations are possible. The companion app’s block-based coding interface is used for programming and controlling your Airblock creations
Age: 8+



Ozobot

Product: Evo
Price: $100
Description: This programmable robot has a twist as it can be controlled without a child always having to be stuck to a screen. The Evo’s sensing system can detect and respond to marks made by marker pens and stickers in the accompanying Experience Pack — so this is coding via paper plus visual cues.

There is also a digital, block-based coding interface for controlling Evo, called OzoBlockly (based on Google’s Blockly system). This has a five-level coding system to support a range of ages, from pre-readers (using just icon-based blocks), up to a ‘Master mode’ which Ozobot says includes extensive low-level control and advanced programming features
Age: 9+


Pi-top


Product: Modular Laptop
Price: $320 (with a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+), $285 without
Description: This snazzy 14-inch modular laptop, powered by Raspberry Pi, has a special focus on teaching coding and electronics. Slide the laptop’s keyboard forward and it reveals a built in rail for hardware hacking. Guided projects designed for kids include building a music maker and a smart robot. The laptop runs pi-top’s learn-to-code oriented OS — which supports block-based coding programs like Scratch and kid-friendly wares like Minecraft Pi edition, as well as its homebrew CEEDUniverse: A Civilization style game that bakes in visual programming puzzles to teach basic coding concepts. The pi-top also comes with a full software suite of more standard computing apps (including apps from Google and Microsoft). So this is no simple toy. Not a new model for this year — but still a compelling STEM machine
Age: 8+


Robo Wunderkind


Product: Starter Kit
Price: $200 
Description: Programmable robotics blocks for even very young inventors. The blocks snap together and are color-coded based on function so as to minimize instruction for the target age group. Kids can program their creations to do stuff like drive, play music, detect obstacles and more via a drag-and-drop coding interface in the companion Robo Code app. Another app — Robo Live — lets them control what they’ve built in real time. The physical blocks can also support Lego-based add-ons for more imaginative designs
Age: 5+


Root Robotics

Product: Root
Price: $200
Description: A robot that can sense and draw, thanks to a variety of on board sensors, battery-powered kinetic energy and its central feature: A built-in pen holder. Root uses spirographs as the medium for teaching STEM as kids get to code what the bot draws. They can also create musical compositions with a scan and play mode that turns Root into a music maker. The companion app offers three levels of coding interfaces to support different learning abilities and ages. At the top end it supports programming in Swift (with Python and JavaScript slated as coming soon). An optional subscription service offers access to additional learning materials and projects to expand Root’s educational value
Age: 4+



Sphero


Product: Bolt
Price: $150
Description: The app-enabled robot ball maker’s latest STEM gizmo. It’s still a transparent sphere but now has an 8×8 LED matrix lodged inside to expand the programmable elements. This colorful matrix can be programmed to display words, show data in real-time and offer game design opportunities. Bolt also includes an ambient light sensor, and speed and direction sensors, giving it an additional power up over earlier models. The Sphero Edu companion app supports drawing, Scratch-style block-based and JavaScript text programming options to suit different ages
Age: 8+


Tech Will Save Us

Product: Range of coding, electronics and craft kits
Price: From ~$30 up to $150
Description: A delightful range of electronic toys and coding kits, hitting various age and price-points, and often making use of traditional craft materials (which of course kids love). Examples include a solar powered moisture sensor kit ($40) to alert when a pot plant needs water; electronic dough ($35); a micro:bot add-on kit ($35) that makes use of the BBC micro:bit device (sold separately); and the creative coder kit ($70), which pairs block-based coding with a wearable that lets kids see their code in action (and reacting to their actions)
Age: 4+, 8+, 11+ depending on kit


UBTech Robotics

Product: JIMU Robot BuilderBots Series: Overdrive Kit
Price: $120
Description: More snap-together, codable robot trucks that kids get to build and control. These can be programmed either via posing and recording, or using Ubtech’s drag-and-drop, block-based Blockly coding program. The Shenzhen-based company, which has been in the STEM game for several years, offers a range of other kits in the same Jimu kit series — such as this similarly priced UnicornBot and its classic MeeBot Kit, which can be expanded via the newer Animal Add-on Kit
Age: 8+


Wonder Workshop

Product: Dot Creativity Kit 
Price: $80
Description: San Francisco-based Wonder Workshop offers a kid-friendly blend of controllable robotics and DIY craft-style projects in this entry-level Dot Creativity Kit. Younger kids can play around and personalize the talkative connected device. But the startup sells a trio of chatty robots all aimed at encouraging children to get into coding. Next in line there’s Dash ($150), also for 6+ year olds. Then Cue ($200) for 11+. The startup also has a growing range of accessories to expand the bots’ (programmable) functionality — such as this Sketch Kit ($40) which adds a few arty smarts to Dash or Cue.

With Dot, younger kids play around using a suite of creative apps to control and customize their robot and tap more deeply into its capabilities, with the apps supporting a range of projects and puzzles designed to both entertain them and introduce basic coding concepts
Age: 6+


News Source = techcrunch.com

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