Fa la la, it's that time of year again. The maddening weeks when you don't have a clue what to get others for the holiday. Happily, we're here to help, at least as best we can. Here are some suggestions of particularly impressive products that were reviewed during the past year, all within a (hopefully) reasonable gift budget. Whether you're shopping for a tech geek or, or just a person who likes something interesting, well-made and useful, perhaps an item here might come in handy.
• myCharge 6000
• REVOLVE xeMILO
• Sony ICF-CS15IP Speaker Dock
• Verbatim Tuff-N-Tiny USB 2.0
• Lexar Jumpdrive Triton USB 3.0
• X-Mini Kai portable speaker
• Braven 600 portable speaker
The myCharge battery pack holds a serious 6000 mAh of power. (That stands for milliampere-hour.) It not only will charge a typical Smartphone up to four times -- but is powerful enough to nearly charge an iPad or similar tablet. And can charge an eReader.
What's most notable about the myCharge 6000, however, is that it comes with integrated plugs, meaning that there's no need to carry around cumbersome cords. An Apple plug, as well as micro and mini-USB plugs are built in, which is seriously impressive. The myCharge 6000 is a bit bulky, about the size of a large pack of playing cards, but that's hardly problematic, since it is surprisingly light and can still easily fit in a coat pocket. It retails at the time of writing for $100, but can be found online for $58. (The company also recently released a very similar model, the Peak 6000. This has a built-in AC plug for easier charging -- though no mini-USB cord. It's excellent, though I personally prefer the model with the mini-USB cord. But some people might like to have the built-in plug.)
The xeMilo is an elegantly designed, high-end a hybrid solar charger. It has a 4400 mAh internal battery, slightly under the level of the highest-powered chargers, but will be able to charge your Smartphone up to three times, as well as eReaders and other devices, including tablets (though you won't get a full charge with such power-devouring devices.) There are also two USB ports, plus a mini-USB port for charging with an optional car adapter or connected to a computer. Especially nice is that there's an AC adapter plug built right into the xeMilo, letting you charge it directly in a wall socket. It's not the smallest, lightest kid on the block, but it's nonetheless respectably portable. It's also worth noting that unlike most chargers, the battery is replaceable.
But most notably, this is also a solar charger for road warriors, with a solar panel larger than most, and high quality silicon cells. It therefore charges faster than others. (It takes about five hours of ideal sun conditions to store enough energy to charge a Smartphone.) Because limited surface space impacts the effectiveness of solar charging, Revolve offers an option, the Sol-Sport. This is a very thin, ruggedly-made, portable solar panel that folds open to provide significantly-added surface space that will charge significantly faster. Revolve offers two models, headed by the Sol-Sport 5, [http://www.revolveusa.com/index.php?p=1_83] about the size of a TV Guide, which generates 5 watts of power to solar recharge a Smartphone in only about two hours. The smaller Sol-Sport 2.5 provides half the wattage and will charge a smartphone in perhaps four hours.
By itself, the xeMilo is a very good portable charger. It's not the smallest or lightest device to carry, and it won't hold its charge as long as non-solar devices, but the main reason to consider the xeMilo is its hybrid solar charging which, if you have a need for such a thing, extends the device's usability significantly. At the time of writing, the xeMilo retails for $125, but could be found online for $71. The Sol-Sport 5 should be available for $70.
I admit it -- I love devices that multi-task. This is particularly important in a home office where space can be limited. The Sony ICF-CS15IP Speaker Dock serves as a speaker with remote control for your iPhone/iPod or iPad, if you want music in the office. But it also doubles as an alarm clock and radio. It might not be the hottest new device from Sony, but it's a gem. You shouldn't expect home theater sound from any speaker other than a high-end unit. But the Speaker Dock is impressive for a small unit -- and seriously impressive for a clock radio, rich and booming, with respectable bass and crisp treble. So, if you only used this as a speaker, it would be extremely satisfying. As a clock radio, it's one of the better I've come across, and I tend to be picky in that arena. It's very configurable and easy -- for the most part, though it's good to keep the user manual handy. It was $100 retail at the time of writing, but could be found online for $80. (Note that it uses the 30-pin Apple connector, which has been changed for the new iPhone 5, however adapters are available.)
Fortunately, there is packaging, because without it, the Tuff-N-Tiny USB Flash drive would be a near-impossible gift to wrap. This is a Flash drive that's about the size of your fingernail. There are faster drives around, but the Tuff-N-Tiny offers quite good speed (except on very large files) at a low price...and (most of all) in a miniscule size. It's this latter feature that, combined with everything else, makes the drive so appealing. At the time of writing, the 16 GB model was available online for $16.
For those with USB 3.0 capability, the Lexar Jumpdrive Triton Flash drive is an impressive device. There are faster ones available (though not many), and less expensive ones by far. But the Jumpdrive Triton combines crushingly-fast speed, a good size, impressive design and reasonable price all together. Further, it's even appropriate for people who don't yet have USB 3.0 boards on the computer -- the Triton is blistering fast even when running on USB 2.0. In fact, it's overwhelmingly faster than most native 2.0 devices on USB 2.0. This does come at a price -- at the time of writing, a 16 GB model could be found online for $50. Yes, that's much more than most USB 2.0 Flash drives, but if speed is important to someone, this is a terrific gift
X-Mini has long been one of my favorite makers of tiny, but wildly powerful pocket-sized speakers. There are now other competitors, but X-Mini leads the way. They've added a couple new entries into their line, and most notable is the Kai. At first glance, it looks like the company's standard-bearer, the X-Mini II. It's golf ball-sized, and twists open to provide a richer bass. But then the differences appear. Most notably, the Kai allows for a Bluetooth connection, so you can now listen to the speaker the traditional way (plugging in the connected cable) or wirelessly. The Kai also has a microphone, so it can serve as a speaker phone. If you're listening to music when a call comes in, the music cuts off when the phone is answered.
The sound is even more impressive than the original X-Mini. The Kai is a touch larger, and uses 40 mm drivers now, for a speaker output of 2.5 watts. The quality is wonderful, and even richer than the X-Mini II. It doesn't have a deep bass, but the sound is vibrant and seriously loud for something this small. Don't be fooled by its pocket-size -- the speaker boom out enough volume to fill a medium-sized room. It retails for $140, but at the time of writing, the Kai could be found for $81 online.
Braven has a line of three portable, Bluetooth speakers that find their place in-between products of pocket-sized portability and those with highest-end stereo audio. The model here is their low-end (albeit high quality) 600. What sets them all apart from most small speakers is that they can also serve as a portable charger.
The Braven is small, but not a speaker you'll stick in your pocket to go, more suited for a backpack, or for moving around a home. It's not uncomfortably heavy at all, though does weigh 12 ounces which you'll notice when carrying. The sound quality is extremely good. Very crisp and clear, with no muddiness, an extremely nice treble and respectable bass for a small device. There are two HD speakers, so you get stereo, as well (-- somewhat. It won't give you a wide separation). Volume won't blast, but it puts out sound loud enough to fill a good-sized room.
Notable is that the Braven line can also function as a charger, in case your phone or audio device runs out of power on the road. It's not the most powerful charger (1400 mAh), and is only for phones and music players, not tablets, but you should be able to get a full phone charge from it. The quibbles I have are minor, mainly stylistic. At the time of writing, it retails for $150, but could be found online for $130. Not cheap, but you're getting a speaker and charger.
Robert J. Elisberg's new comic novella, A Christmas Carol 2: The Return of Scrooge, has just been published and is available in paperback and in ebook edition. It makes a swell holiday gift, as well, though batteries aren't required. Except arguably for the e-book version.
"The Writers Workbench" appears monthly on the website for the Writers Guild of America. To see this entire column, with complete product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," please click here
To see this column with complete product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," visit the WGA website.