Aaron’s holiday tech guide, 2014 edition

This is a tradition I started for family and friends nearly a decade ago. This year, I’m moving from Google Docs to Medium because, well, it’s prettier.

Questions? Want to tell me I got something totally wrong? Leave a note using the comment icons to the right of each paragraph, or drop me a line on Twitter or G+.

Computers & tablets

Several years ago, these were different categories. Now it’s hard to tell the difference. I’m not sure that phones even belong on their own anymore. Instead of splitting this up by type, we’ll divide and conquer by price range this year.

$350 or less

On the far low end, you want a Chromebook. If you’re not spending much money, you’re probably just going to use your laptop as a web browser, and Chromebooks are excellent browsers. You never have to update them, worry about viruses, or figure out where to put your stuff. (Everything goes into the cloud. Google Drive is great.) Open them up, and they’re ready to go.

Toshiba 13-inch Chromebook 2

On the “high end,” (yes, that’s a relative term) check out the Toshiba 13-inch Chromebook 2 for $320. It’s got a 1920x1080 IPS screen, which gives it a leg up on all the other Chromebooks. If you can swing it, it’s worth the extra $70 over the standard $250 Chromebooks.

At $250, the ASUS Chromebook 12-inch is the cheapest Chromebook you can find with 4 GB of memory, which makes a big difference once you have more than a few tabs open at once. (The Dell Chromebook 11 is also excellent, but $50 more.)

Acer C720: Older but still great

And for less than $200, go with last year’s Acer 720 Chromebook. Great performance at an insanely great price.

Best of all, Google’s now tossing in 1 TB (yes, a terabyte) of cloud storage for two years with new Chromebooks. If you paid for that yourself, it would run you $240, so it’s actually cheaper to buy a Chromebook than pay Google $10 a month for online storage. A terabyte is enough to store about 100,000 photos, so you’re not going to fill it up anytime soon.

WARNING: Stay away from Chromebooks with non-Intel processors. The Samsung Chromebook 2 and Acer Chromebook 13 use ARM processors like you find in phones and tablets, but they’re just not optimized for Chromebooks. Stick with Intel here.

$350–600

Don’t think about it, just get an iPad. Apple is still so far ahead of Android tablets it’s almost sad. Even leaving the hardware aside, apps on Android tablets basically suck. I mean, seriously… this is Google’s own Contacts app, showing you all of 9 people and a screen full of white space:

Andrew Cunningham/Ars Technica

Facebook is even worse on Android tablets. Just don’t go there. And Google’s latest attempt at a premium tablet, the Nexus 9, debuted with mixed-to-negative reviews.

So you want an iPad. My one piece of advice: Get more than 16 GB storage. Unlike Chromebooks, where you don’t care about local storage because you live in the cloud, iOS apps can be very large. Download a few iPad games and a handful of movies, and you’re very quickly out of space. So spend the extra $50 or $100 for 32 or 64 GB storage.

The modeling agency call for this shoot: “Hand model needed. The bigger the better.”

On the low end, last year’s iPad Mini 2 is a heck of a tablet for $350 with 32 GB. Look for crazy sales as low as $275 over the holidays. (Skip the original iPad Mini, which doesn’t have a Retina screen.)

On the high end, the new iPad Air 2 is worth every penny of its $600 price tag with 64 GB. (Again, don’t get the 16 GB version for $500. Opt for the original iPad Air at $450 with 32 GB storage.)

As always, you’ll rarely find discounts on Apple devices, but Target, Walmart, and others are offering $75–100 gift cards as Black Friday (or Evil Thursday) incentives this year, so it may be worth braving the stores for those.

WHAT ABOUT CHEAP WINDOWS LAPTOPS? Skip ‘em. Poor battery life and performance, limited storage, and (for tablets) awful app selection. The sweet spot for Windows devices is north of here. If you want a keyboard and a traditional laptop experience, get a Chromebook. If you want a tablet, get an iPad.

$600–1,000

This is where Windows machines still shine. You get enough power for real photo and video editing, without a Macbook price tag.

There are two specs you should look for: RAM and screen resolution. Avoid anything with 4 GB RAM or a 1366 x 768 screen. You want at least 8 GB of memory and a 1600 x 900 (or 1920 x 1080) screen.

The Lenovo Flex 2: Ugly but affordable.

Most of what you’ll find in this price range will come with 15- or 17-inch screens. The best deal will vary any given day, but this Acer is a good example of a well-equipped machine for less than $700. Lenovo also has some good touchscreen models in the $700–900 range. And if you don’t mind hauling around a tank of an old-school laptop, you can get decent gaming rigs for $900–1,000.

On the smaller side, you can find some Windows ultrabooks that are slightly cheaper than their Mac counterparts (like this 13-inch ASUS Zenbook for $900), but most good ultraportables will run you north of a grand.

$1,000–1,500

If you’re spending this much, you probably want a MacBook. They’re just better hardware than most PC laptops, they get better battery life, and Windows 8.1's bizarre half-Metro/half-desktop environment is much harder to use than OS X. (I’m cautiously optimistic about Windows 10, but you should never buy a product based on features that haven’t shipped yet, let alone an entire operating system.)

13-inch MacBook Air

With MacBooks, you should always spend the extra $100 for at least 8 GB of RAM. The 128 GB drive that ships on the base MacBook Air is also a little skimpy, so pony up for the 256 GB upgrade, or buy an external USB 3.0 drive for video and photo storage.

That puts you at $1,000 for the lowest-spec MacBook you should buy, the 11-inch MacBook Air with 8 GB of memory. Going up from there, a well-equipped 13-inch Air will run you $1,300, or upgrade to a Retina screen and a 13-inch MacBook Pro for $1,500.

TO RETINA OR NOT TO RETINA? The 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are similar in price and features. Retina screens are gorgeous, but they come at the cost of battery life — you’ll get around 7 hours with the Pro, but 12-13 hours with the Air. Verdict: Unless you’re a designer, go with the Air.

It’s a laptop! It’s a tablet! What the hell is the pen for?

BUT I REALLY LOVE WINDOWS! (Or, more likely, you have to run Windows for work.) Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 is a beautiful piece of hardware. Here’s the catch: Once you add the keyboard and a reasonable hard drive, you’re looking at a $1,400 Windows convertible, which is kind of hard to swallow. As a tablet, the 12-inch screen is pretty big, it weighs nearly twice as a much as the iPad Air, and there’s a fan inside. So it’s definitely more laptop than tablet. Plus, most Windows apps are terrible without a mouse. And you’ll only get 8 hours of battery life. And many Windows apps are wonky on high-resolution screens like the Surface has. So I’ll only recommend the Surface Pro 3 if you’re willing to put up with the tradeoffs and absolutely need to run Windows. Otherwise, you’re better off with a MacBook.

What about desktops?

Who buys desktop computers these days? If you’re the kind of person who’s building her own tower, you certainly don’t need my advice. If you’re not building your own tower, you’re probably better off buying a laptop then adding a monitor, mouse, and keyboard for your desk.

ASUS Chromebox

That said, I’ll put in a good word for the ASUS Chromebox and HP Chromebox, especially if you’ve got a spare monitor, keyboard, and mouse lying around. For $160 (or $220 for more RAM), it’s a great spare guest room or kitchen box.

You can also find similar small & cheap Windows machines like the Lenovo Q190 ($200) which make a decent living room PC hooked up to your TV.

On the Mac side, the minimum Mini I’d recommend is $700, which is a little steep considering the specs. And you can’t upgrade its memory after the fact, so it’s an extra $200 for 16 GB of RAM. Add your own monitor/keyboard/mouse and you’ll still end up saving a little bit compared to an iMac, but those iMac screens are just gorgeous. Go with the $1,300 21-inch iMac or $1,800 27-inch iMac.

Sure, it’s expensive. But you’re worth it.

Or make us all jealous and spring for the brand new Retina iMac. Once you’re spending that much on a computer, you might as well load it up, so you’re looking at $3,350 once you upgrade to 16 GB RAM, 3 TB hard drive, and a beefier video card (which you definitely want). Believe it or not, that’s a screaming deal, since the only other 5K monitor you can buy today sells for $2,500—without a computer!

Phones

Lest anyone think I’ve turned into an Apple shill, I’m still a huge fan of Android phones. Having spent most of this year with both a Moto X and an iPhone 5S, I can say without a doubt that if you forced me to pick one, I’d take the Moto every day and twice on Sundays.

Moto X (2014)

Here’s the bottom line: Android has surpassed iOS in usability. Full stop. Google Now is better than Siri. Sending information between apps is a piece of cake on Android, but still a kludgy mess on iOS 8. Custom keyboards are hit or miss on the iPhone, but second nature on Android. And the new features in Android 5 (Lollipop) take the best bits of last year’s Moto X and extend them to all Android phones.

So, what should you buy? This won’t come as a shocker given the previous two paragraphs, but the 2014 Moto X is the best phone for most people. Best of all, it’s only $100 on contract, and Verizon is making it free on contract for Cyber Monday.

The HTC One M8 is also a great on-contract choice. HTC’s additions to Android don’t worsen the user experience, which is more than I can say for Samsung. That’s why I can’t recommend the Galaxy S5—Samsung added so many bells and whistles that it’s a worse phone at the end of the day.

iPhone 6 Plus: Large and in charge.

The iPhone 6 is also a great phone, of course. Apple’s cameras are still head-and-shoulders above anything in Android land, even though HTC and Moto are improving. And if you’ve invested a lot of money into the Apple ecosystem of apps, music, and movies, switching to Android can be an expensive proposition.

WHAT ABOUT PHABLETS? I don’t personally see the appeal of putting a piece of toast in your pocket (or next to your face), but if you really want a 6-inch phone, go with the Nexus 6. It’s an oversized Moto X. And the iPhone 6 Plus is basically an iPad Mini Mini, which is not a bad thing.

I HATE CONTRACTS! Good for you. If you’re willing to escape the 2-year upgrade cycle, there are finally affordable off-contract phones that won’t leave you with (too much) device envy or a $600 hole in your pocket.

The 2014 Moto G is almost as good as the Moto X, but it’s only $180. That’s nuts! And you’ll save serious cash by switching to a prepaid plan. Lifehacker has a great guide to ditching your contract and finding the best prepaid company for you.


Cameras

Cheap point & shoot

Don’t bother. Anything small and under $200 will take only marginally better photos than a high-end Android phone, and worse photos than an iPhone 6.

Upgrade point & shoot

The Sony RX100 is an amazing pocket camera—it’s got a large 1-inch sensor and a razor-sharp fast lens. It’s also two years old, which means it’s now available for $350 or less. It’s the best camera bang-for-your-buck today. (Its successors, the cleverly-named RX100 II and RX100 III, are also amazing pocket cameras, but they’re $650 and $800, respectively.)

Expensive point & shoot

Now we’re getting into serious photographer territory. There are two cameras worth mentioning here:

Small camera, big sensor.

The Panasonic Lumix LX100 is slightly bigger than the Sony RX100, because it crams in an even bigger DSLR-class four-thirds sensor. It shoots 4K video that looks better than cameras costing much more. (Good enough that you can pull 8 megapixel stills from the video files. It’s like having a still camera that shoots at 30 frames per second. That’s crazy.) Yes, it’s $900, but if you don’t need a long zoom, it’s as good a lens/sensor combination as you’ll find anywhere.

So retro it hurts.

Pushing the limits of how much sensor you can fit into a small camera, the Fujifilm X100s (and its successor, the X100T) have quickly become the cameras professional photographers take with them on vacation. Don’t look for bells and whistles—the X100 series doesn’t even have a zoom lens. You get a fixed 24mm lens that’s matched perfectly to Fuji’s exclusive X-trans sensor. Plus there’s a crazy hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder, and an internal neutral density filter, so you can shoot with shallow depth of field in bright sunlight. Check out photographer Zack Arias’s review for a sense of what this camera can do in the hands of a pro. When you see a camera with no zoom that sells for $1,000 (or $1,300 for the X100T), you’ll either see an amazing value or a baffling overpriced piece of gear.

Cheap superzoom

See that window under the flash? It’s actually useful.

The small sensors on these superzooms means you’ll get image quality on par with a good phone camera, but with a bigger zoom range than you can get even with big DSLR lenses. The two worth looking at are the Olympus Stylus SP-100 and Canon Powershot SX50 (both around $350).

The SP-100's claim to fame is a pop-up glass window that lets you easily track far away objects, even while you’re zoomed in. The SX50 has been the market leader among superzooms for a couple of years now.

Upgrade superzoom

There’s not a whole lot of mid-range for superzooms, but if you’re willing to spend quite a bit more, look at two high-end “bridge” cameras that combine larger sensors with extremely high-quality glass:

Sony RX10

The Sony RX10 ($1,000) takes the amazing 1-inch sensor from the RX100 and pairs it with a big, bright 24–200mm equivalent zoom lens. It’s f/2.8 across the whole zoom range, which means you can use very fast shutter speeds even while zoomed in.

The Panasonic FZ1000 ($900) doubles the zoom range, going all the way to 400mm equivalent on the far end. Unlike the RX10, that lens gets a bit slower on the far end (f/4), but you can zoom twice as far.

Both of these high-end superzooms include a mic input, so they’re very well-suited to video work. The RX10 shoots full 1080p HD and has a built-in neutral density filter. The FZ1000 adds in 4K capability, but you’ll have to put an ND filter on it yourself.

DSLRs and mirrorless cameras

There are so many great affordable options for getting into the DSLR or mirrorless game, it’s hard to go wrong. My big advice for anyone starting down this road: Spend your money on lenses, not cameras. Great glass is the easiest way to improve your photos.

The kit lenses that ship with entry-level cameras are fair at best. Pro-level glass is expensive, especially new, but you can find great older lenses on eBay or Craigslist that are in a different league from the cheap plastic kit lenses. Start there.

If you’ve got old film cameras sitting in the closet at home, check to see what kinds of lenses you have—if you discover a treasure trove of great Nikon glass in grandpa’s attic, that’s a great reason to buy a Nikon camera.

First things first: Ditch that kit lens.

If you’re starting from scratch, I recommend starting mirrorless. The Sony Alpha a6000 ($700 w/ lens) is loaded with pro-level features (including a great electronic viewfinder) at a nearly entry-level price. The great thing about Sony’s E-mount system (what the a6000 uses) is that you can easily mount any vintage manual lens on it. I’ve had great luck with adapters from Fotodiox.

Sidebar: I shoot on an older Sony A57, mainly using Pentax Takumar lenses from the late ‘60s. This is why I love them:

Sony is way ahead of the competition right now. Its pro-level cameras (the A7 series) changed the game by putting a full-frame 35mm sensor in a compact body. The brand-new A7 II includes a crazy stabilized sensor, so even old lenses get image stabilization. While the A7 series is relatively expensive ($1,500 and up), that technology will quickly trickle down into its consumer cameras, so if you buy into the Sony E-mount world now, you can keep using your lenses as you upgrade.

If $700 is too steep, you can get last year’s NEX-5 for less than $500 including a lens.

Of course, be on the lookout for Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals on cameras—I’ve seen rumors of a6000 kits for $750 including two lenses, and Nikon D7000 kits with major discounts.

Game consoles & settop boxes

I’m still not sold on the latest generation of game consoles. The visuals are better than the last generation, but the games are basically the same, even a year after launch. You can’t go wrong with either the Xbox One or PlayStation 4, and while I wish I could point to some great platform-exclusive games that would drive you one way or the other, there’s not much difference in what’s available. (I’ll give the Xbox One a slight edge for having Halo and Forza Horizon, but if you’re not into racing games or re-playing decade-old shooters, it’s not that big a deal.)

The PS3 and Xbox 360 are still going strong, but at only $100 less than the new consoles, it’s hard to recommend those either.

What about the Wii U? Buy it if you’ve got a boatload of old Wii and Gamecube controllers lying around and really love Super Smash Bros. Otherwise skip it. Unlike the Xbox and PlayStation, the Wii is a pretty poor settop box for entertainment.

Yes, they put a headphone jack on the remote. Clever.

If you’re not playing games, there are lots of great settop streamers for getting Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go, etc. on to your TV.

In general, go with the Roku 3 ($80) or Roku Streaming Stick ($40)— they support the most services and sites. The only caveat is IF you have Comcast/Xfinity and HBO Go; Comcast blocks HBO Go on the Roku, because they’re awesome and consumer-focused that way. In that case, look at the Google Chromecast ($35). It requires your phone, computer or tablet to stream video, but lots of apps are supporting it these days.

Kindle Voyage

E-readers

Amazon is so far ahead of the competition in e-readers it’s not even worth looking elsewhere. Go for the Kindle Paperwhite ($120) over the base Kindle. The new Kindle Voyage ($200) is even better if you’re an e-book addict. Again, expect big post-Thanksgiving deals here.


Speakers and headphones

I’m just going to dive into the budget side of things, because if you’re going to spend $300 or more on a Bluetooth speaker, you should just go listen to them yourself.

Yes, it’s ugly. But it’s $24, so stop complaining.

There are some great deals out there on well-reviewed Bluetooth speakers. The Wirecutter loves the UE Mini Boom ($80). Cheaper than that, the Monoprice Portable Bluetooth Speaker is marked down to $24(!), and it gets great reviews.

For headphones, don’t waste your money on Beats—they’re great fashion, but terribly overrated for actually listening to music. The Grado SR60 and SR80 headphones consistently test well, are comfortable, and get you a huge upgrade in sound quality for $80 or $100, respectively.

Grado SR60: They sound better than they look.

If you like earbuds, but like me you’re always worried about losing them, the consensus bargain picks these days are the Panasonic Ergo Fit ($14) and the venerable Monoprice 8320 ($8).

Watches and wearables

Nope. Not yet.

I was really hoping 2014 would be the year of the smartwatch. We’re not there yet. The Moto 360 is the best of the bunch, but it’s not great. The Pebble isn’t really a smartwatch as much as an e-ink display for your wrist. The Apple Watch is on the way, but Tim Cook was conspicuously silent about battery life when he announced it, and Apple has never missed a chance to point out when its products last longer than the competition. My advice: Wait a year.

Clip it. Clip it good.

That said, fitness trackers are big right now. The Fitbit One is the most popular clip-on tracker, and the Garmin Vivofit is the best watch-style tracker, mainly because it doesn’t try to be a smartwatch—the batteries last for a year! Unless you really want to get motivated after the holidays, though, I’d recommend waiting—Apple and Google are both making big pushes into fitness tracking, and you’ll want to see what new products work best with your phone before buying in.

Warnings & disclaimers

Here’s my usual boilerplate about deals that are too good to be true: Beware the factory refurb. Any product that comes with a 90-day warranty is guaranteed to break on day 91. Go ahead and buy a cheap refurb Bluetooth speaker for $10, but don’t think you’re getting a great deal on a $500 camera if it’s got a short warranty. Similarly, don’t buy discount cameras marked as “Import” or “Japan”—they’re grey-market cameras that may not be serviceable if they break in the States.

The only exceptions to the refurb rule are from Apple and Dell, which back their refurbs with the full factory warranty. In those cases, it’s probably worth buying the extra year or two of coverage.

What did I miss? What’s on your wishlist this year? Send me questions/comments/rants. I’m @aweiss on Twitter.

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