Seven last minute tech Christmas gifts to buy
Still haven’t sorted your Christmas gifts out? Don’t panic: here are seven excellent tech options available in Irish shops now, from smartwatches to headphones to VR headsets.
1. Apple Airpods (€179 from CompuStore)
Apple’s Airpods, which are finally here, are a brilliant wireless alternative to big headphones. They give great audio and come with a cool little recharging box that gives them extra juice after just 15 minutes of charging. Each AirPod has a microphone as well as an in-ear speaker, meaning you can use them as hands-free accessories for phone calls. And tapping the back of either AirPod automatically kicks off your (still pocketed) phone's Siri voice command system. That means that you now have the potential for searching, calling or messaging without ever touching your iPhone. For basic functions (audio and microphone) the Airpods work with any phone or Bluetooth device. But they work quickest with iPhones. Probably the biggest question most people will have is whether they'll fall out and get lost. In several months of use walking around I didn't come close to one slipping out.
2. Samsung Gear VR (€99 from Argos)
If you’re looking to gift an affordable virtual reality present, this is probably it. The basic proposition is that you slip a Galaxy S6, S7 (or the Edge variants) into the Gear VR’s hatch and the hardware turns it into a giant immersive experience. You control things largely by moving your head to ‘look’ at things with the help of a couple of manual controls on the side. There are quite a number of VR apps now available for use with the Gear VR. It’s also helped by services such as Facebook releasing 360-degree photos, a technology optimised for VR set-ups. Most apps are still games. However, movies and TV shows are catching up: Netflix has an app that makes you think you’re in a mountain lodge watching a giant 80-inch screen while watching any Netflix movie or programme. Even with this relatively limited kit (the full Oculus Rift hardware is far more powerful), it’s a convincing process.
3. Sony XB950BT headphones (€199 from PC World)
There are now dozens - if not hundreds -- of wireless headphones you can get for under €200. But if you’re willing to push it up to the €199 mark, Sony has an excellent pair of comfortable, high quality ‘over-ear’ cans. The MDR-XB950BT (catchy name, eh?) headphones squeeze out a bit more audio prowess than normal headphones thanks to a large (40mm) driver and an impressive range. As with almost all wireless cans, these have a microphone on board to so you can make or take hands-free calls when tethered to your phone. There are also control buttons for volume and tracks (pause, rewind and forward). An extra ‘bass boost’ button is on hand for times when you really need to mine your choons. The headphones are very comfortable, with nice soft leather around the ear cups and on the inside of the band. These cans don’t have active noise-cancelling technology on board, so you won’t completely shut out a persistent racket around you. However, they’re large and cushy enough to envelop your ears so as to significantly muffle unwanted cacophony.
4. Roberts Stream 93i (€180 from Power City)
This is a great present for someone who likes a wider choice of radio streams. It’s a comprehensive FM, DAB and internet radio that also connects directly to Spotify and external audio sources wirelessly or over cable. The sound quality, for a radio, is excellent with a three way speaker system and a bass subwoofer. This can easily hold a large kitchen or a sitting room. Its design is practical, with rubberised nubbin legs to stop it slipping on a kitchen surface and a silver handle on top that makes it easy to move from spot to spot. It has a three-inch (non-touch) LCD screen that guides you through controls and shows you what you’re listening to. It’s also handy in giving you extra information (if supported by the station) about what you’re listening to.
5. Apple Watch (Series 1 from €350, Series 2 from €450 at iConnect stores)
For anyone with an iPhone who wants a smartwatch and something for fitness, this is the one to get. In its new Series 2 model, Apple has added three new things to the Watch: GPS, waterproof (to 50 metres' depth) and extra battery life. The first two of these now make the Watch a much more natural companion for those who want to track or program their walks, jogs, runs, cycles or swims. The third element -- extra battery life -- is just plain useful. It also means that it now lasts reliably for two full days (or close to three days in a basic mode) without requiring a charge. Other than fitness, the main usefulness of the Apple Watch is its notification system, which reduces the number of times you have to take your large phone out of your pocket. You can use it for Siri voice commands too, which is starting to get genuinely useful. Whether you get the (older, cheaper) Series 1 or the newer Series 2 model, it still comes in two sizes, 38mm and 42mm.
6. Panasonic Lumix TZ100 (€650 from Conns Cameras)
This is a brilliant camera that matches good quality photos with an excellent (10x, 250mm equivalent) zoom. The TZ100 is generally aimed at beginners or novices that just want to switch it on and start shooting. This is good in that it’s easy to use as an automatic that works immediately. There’s also a red button for instant video recording (either full HD or 4K), again with stabilisation applied to avoid shaky videos. One big advantage to the TZ100 is its super-compact size. You can slip this in a pocket without much trouble. Another is that it recharges using a common Micro USB cable (the same as used by most smartphones and portable gadgets). There’s a nifty pop-up flash and an electronic viewfinder, too. The image quality is generally very good. The TZ100’s lens lets in a lot of light (f2.8) at its widest (25mm or 1x zoom). When you zoom to the maximum, it lets in a lot less (f5.9). This is fairly normal, but bear it in mind when shooting in low light situations. If image quality is the be-all and end-all, you’ll get one or two higher end products at around this price (such as Panasonic’s wonderful LX100 or excellent LX15). But for portability, decent zoom, solid picture quality and a high-performing all-rounder, the TZ100 is a very good choice.
7. Samsung TabPro S (€689 from Harvey Norman)
If you want to give a tablet-laptop hybrid and prefer Windows, Samsung’s TabPro S is the best value option on the market. Its superb 12-inch screen is a near-perfect size for portable computing. You get 128GB of internal storage and its battery life is excellent. The keyboard case is good to type on and really solid (it has two angles). Crucially, it also comes with the device -- you don’t have to buy it separately (for around €150), as you do with its main Windows hyrbid rival, the Microsoft Surface. The only drawback is that you’re stuck with a Core M processor, which is the weakest of Intel’s top lines. So it doesn’t quite have the zip of competitors like the iPad Pro.