Holiday shopping season is underway, and there will no doubt be someone on your shopping list requesting a new tech gift. Here is a breakdown of some great options this Christmas.
Nintendo 2013: No new console, but plenty of value
With all the focus this fall on the new next-generation videogame consoles from Sony and Microsoft, it can be easy to overlook Nintendo, the company that helped invent the industry.
That's because Nintendo's latest console, the Wii U, launched in November 2012, and the reception so far has not been as successful and (ahem) game-changing as the original Wii.
Yet Nintendo does have new hardware and software in time for 2013's holiday shopping season. Those looking for gifts for the gamer in the family and among friends would do well to consider the company's offerings if they want to stay within budgets.
The Wii U, with its tablet controller, remains the lowest-priced of the three next-gen consoles at $299. If you haven't already acquired one, you'll need to if you want to play the latest title in the beloved Mario franchise, Super Mario 3D World ($59.99).
Mario, Luigi, Toad and Princess Peach are back, and this time they are representing some firsts for the company - the first 3D offering, and the first time up to four players can play simultaneously in a Mario game. Also, Super Mario 3D Word turns back the clock with a new feature; all Mario's friends have their own special abilities, something not seen since Super Mario Brothers 2.
Another favorite character from the Nintendo universe, the heroic Link, returns for The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds ($39.99), a new game for the 3DS handheld system.
The 3DS gets a companion system in the new 2DS hardware ($129.00), which Nintendo is positioning as an entry-level portable gaming device. The hardware has two screens like the 3DS but doesn't fold up. It can play all titles in the DS library, including those for the 3DS, but doesn't have 3D capabilities.
"If you've never gotten into portable gaming, of if you want to save a few bucks for the holidays, it's a great way to take your Mario gaming on the road," said Nintendo's Gil Ruta.
The company is also selling specially priced device/game bundles for the Wii U and 3DS.
The pros and cons of Chromebooks and cheaper smartphones
Some say it reeks of desperation. Others call it very smart marketing. The new commercial from Microsoft that uses the History Channel's "Pawn Stars" to diss Google's Chromebook laptop computer has divided the tech blogosphere, and added more hype to the software giant's "Scroogled" campaign.
The commercial shows a woman trying to pawn her Chromebook at Rick Harrison's famous pawn shop, but he and his notoriously cranky father are having none of it. When you see the Chrome logo on a notebook, the younger Harrison says, it means the computer "is not a real laptop." There's no Office or iTunes, and you have to have Wifi to use any applications, he adds.
With that kind of reality show heat lined up against it, I had to find out more about the Chromebook, because the $299 price tag and the instant access to all things Google could make it a compelling gift idea.
The first thing you notice about the HP 14-inch Chromebook (model #14-q020nr) is that it boots up just a few seconds after pushing the power button.
It's true you won't find the Office productivity suite or iTunes at the Google Web Store, but you will find the search company's version of office apps including Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive, etc.
The Chromebook does require Internet access. Once acquired, however, the company provides lots of free storage on Google Drive for two years. The battery is another top feature: it can run for nine hours on a single charge.
I know people who swear by their Chromebooks, saying they represent the future of cloud-based consumer computing. They're also the same ones who swear at Microsoft and all versions of Windows software. You do have to be a Google fan to enjoy this thin notebook computer, but it could prove to be an appealing budget-friendly option for family or friends who just want to surf, check email, play games and do a little work that doesn't require access to Office.
Some of the same qualities apply to Alcatel's One Touch Fierce smartphone. It's $99 through MetroPCS and $149 with T-Mobile, making it a possible choice for a family wanting to surprise a teenager with his or her first smartphone.
The Android-based Fierce, as you can imagine, gets all its apps from Google Play, so make sure your teen doesn't have their heart set on an iPhone. If they do, you might want to remind them that Google apps have more or less caught up to Apple's App Store in terms of variety.
The 5MP camera isn't going to make anyone forget the optics in an iPhone 5S, but it and the accompanying edit features should be good enough for selfies and other basic uses. Videos from TV shows look passable on the 4.5-inch HD display.
Keeping your music and phone calls under your hat
It was in the late 1970s when full-page ads started showing up in magazines touting the wonders of the Bone Fone, one of the first examples of wearable technology that I can find that doesn't have the word "Walkman" in its name.
The Bone Fone was a radio enclosed in a sleeve-type thing that you wore around your neck like a slightly boxy scarf. Your bones supposedly conducted the sound vibrations up to your inner ear, so you could enjoy full stereo music without disturbing those around you.
The Bone Fone came and went. Yet bone-conducting technology lives to see another century in the Cynaps V2 from Max Virtual a product that fits into a cap for earphone-free access to music and phone calls.
The Cynaps consists of a small square module for power, volume and other music controls, two attached bone conduction transducers (which sound suspiciously like mini-speakers), a USB cord for charging and a cap fitted with a pocket in the bill for storing the module. The transducers attach to Velcro strips around the headband.
After you pair the module with your smartphone via Bluetooth, simply store the module into the cap, place the transducers on the headband and put the cap on. You can now listen to music, control volume and skip back and forth to other songs and also answer calls (The bill also includes a small microphone).
I tested the Cynaps with Rush's "Clockwork Angels" because I wanted to see how well the transducers and bone conduction technology balanced Geddy Lee's bass and Alex Lifeson's guitar pyrotechnics. The verdict? "The Anarchist" didn't sound that great unless I pressed the transducers tightly against my head, then it came through loud, clear and semi-equalized, so make sure the cap is nice and tight. Cynapse also recommends that the transducers are as close to your temples as comfortable.
The Cynapse sells for $79. The company will sell you a $59 components-only version for fitting into your own favorite hats.