Retro computing with a touch of modern and the home for all things, retroCombs (aka Steven Combs).

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29 November 2014

Best gadgets under $200, 2014 Edition

by Steven B. Combs, Ph.D.

To assist others with some holiday shopping, today I present my recommended 2014 holiday gadget buys under $200. Any of these gadgets are sure to make the gadget fan in your life happy. While $200 is the max on my list, you will also find some downright great bargains that offer a lot for their gadget buck. Every gadget below is one I own and use. I present them in alphabetical order.

In each case, I list the normal price of the item. As is the case this time of year, be sure to check my links (click the item name) or with other online vendors for even lower prices during the holiday season. I’ve not included images in this post (its a lot of work folks!) and will probably regret it; however, I encourage you to take a look at each device using the link provided.

Acer C720 Chromebook, $150 - I’m convinced that the majority of individuals on the planet do not need a Windows PC or a Mac. A Chromebook with Chrome OS would be perfect for them and they would save tons of money initially and over the life of their device. This has to be the best value in a laptop on the planet. Haswell processor for 8 hours of battery life and a no maintenance operating system equals the laptop for the masses we have been looking for. There are other Chromebooks, but this is the best and least expensive way to see if this can serve as your primary laptop or a supplement to your desktop. Need a desktop replacement? An Asus Chromebox, $139, might just fit the bill as well (although I have not tried one of these). Act now on one of these device and you receive 1Tb of Google online storage for two-years.

Airport Express, $89 - Having a small Wi-Fi router when you travel can be a lifesaver and this particular router also includes AirPlay. Simply connect a set of powered speakers and you can stream music from your iOS device or Mac to these speakers while connected to the same network. You can also use this router to extend the range of your current wireless router. Also includes a USB port so you can connect your printer wirelessly to your network.

{UPDATE: 2014-12-01} Amazon Fire Basics Lightning Cables, $10-$15 - Apple charges entirely too much for their Lightning Cables and have one size, 3 feet. Amazon, through their AmazonBasics line, has cables from 3 inches to 6 feet and in both black and white. All are Apple certified and come with Amazon’s amazing warranty and return services. Don’t waste your time on expensive or knock-off cables. These are exactly what you need for your iOS devices.

Amazon Fire TV, $99 - I’ve tried them all: Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast and the Amazon Fire TV is my favorite media box connected to our HDTV. It’s faster than the others and includes all the Internet streaming services I use. Add an Amazon Fire Game Controller, $40, and play Android games on your HDTV. Buy the Amazon Fire TV Gamers Bundle, $124, and save more money on the Fire TV and the game controller. Save even more money and opt for the Amazon Fire Stick at $39. It’s smaller and not quite as powerful. You will sacrifice some gaming options, but it’s a great starter device for those of you that picked up Amazon Prime recently and want to watch all the great programming included with your subscription on your HDTV.

Arduino Uno Ultimate Start Kit, $55 - For the geeky, do-it-yourself maker types, this starter kit includes all the components you need to enter the world of micro-controllers. The Arduino micro-controller is a small programmable device. Connect to your computer, connect other external devices to the Arduino, and you can create devices and systems that are now computer controlled. It takes a bit of work to get things up and running and you will need to learn some programming, but that’s half the fun for the electronics fan. Already have a bunch of electronic components around the house? Then grab the Arduino UNO R3, $15-$26, by itself. Makes a great stocking stuffer.

Chromecast, $35 - I mentioned above that my favorite HDTV box was the Amazon Fire TV; however, I do find that I use the Chromecast quite a bit as well, but with a completely different use case scenario. The Chromecast doesn’t come with a remote control. You send video to the device from your Apple or Android phone or tablet. In those cases where you want to share a YouTube video with others in the room, this device makes it simple. I’ve seen the device as low as $23 on Amazon. At that price, you probably just want to make this a part of any new HDTV purchase.

Adonit Jot Script Evernote Stylus, $57 - Looking for a good stylus for your iPad? I like this one. It uses low energy bluetooth to make a connection to your iPad and works well with Evernote and their Penultimate app. When I need to highlight, annotate or sign documents, this is my go to device. Caveat: this device can be a bit quirky. It does take some time to get used to. You have to use it for a while to see the real value.

Logitech Harmony Smart Control, $99 - You’ve no doubt noticed that I have several devices hooked up to my HDTVs and wonder how I keep up with all the remotes. That’s my secret, I don’t. I have one remote to rule them all and the Logitech Harmony Smart Control is the absolute best! This system includes a hub and a remote. The hub sits next to your entertainment devices to send IR signals and the remote sends signals to the hub via radio frequencies so you don’t have to worry about line of site. The secret sauce to this is that the hub is programmable from your computer or iOS device when on the same Wi-Fi network. You tell the hub what devices you need to control and it sets everything up for you. Three buttons at the top of the remote select one of six programmable viewing activities. It may not make much sense here, but once you have this thing programmed, you can turn on all your devices and select proper HDTV inputs with a single push of a remote button. As a plus, if you can’t find your remote, you can use your iOS device to control your devices. I’ve used that feature many times!!!

Pebble Watch, $99 - No need to write any comments about the Pebble. You can check out the My first month with the Pebble watch blog post for all the details. Want to step up a bit? Get the Pebble Steel, $199.

Pencil by FiftyThree, $49-$59 - Earlier I mentioned the stylus I use to highlight, annotate or sign documents. This stylus is a bit different and works with the Paper by 53 iOS app (in-app purchases). This stylus is for artistic work. It too uses low energy bluetooth. For art, it feels a bit more “artsy.” Turn it over and the other end acts as an eraser, as it should. It has a great feel and anyone into electronic art on their iPad will appreciate this stylus and the Paper by FiftyThree app. The first time you use both to mix virtual colors, you will smile.

Photive 50 Watt 6 Port USB Desktop Rapid Charger, $27 - If you want to charge six devices at once and ensure they charge as quickly as they are capable of charging, this is the device. Using intelligent auto-detect charger technology, this device is able to determine the maximum amperage a device uses to ensure the fastest charge possible. If you have a family of devices to charge, this charger should be with you at all times and will reduce your travel clutter. It’s a great way to make friends at the airport too!

Raspberry Pi Model B+, $39 - Like the Arduino above, “‘cept different”, the Raspberry Pi is an entire computer on a board. Connect a keyboard, mouse and monitor (HDMI to your HDTV) and you have small Linux computer. Using the included GPIO connectors, you can connect and control all those devices you received in your Arduino starter kit. It’s a hackers dream device. If any of that makes sense to your gadget friends, get them one of these. Even if they already have one, they will love that they now have two. Upgrade to $70 and grab the CanaKit Raspberry Pi B+ Ultimate Starter Kit.

Sonos Play:1, $199 - Just barely making it under our $200 limit comes this special little speaker. I know I can’t do justice to this device in a paragraph and I encourage you to read the Amazon reviewer comments. In short, this is a speaker you connect to your home network wirelessly that gives you access to “all the worlds music.” As an example, we listen to our local radio stations, our SiriusXM online channels and our own MP3 music located on our home Mac. We queue the music using an iOS or Mac app. We also have the Sonos Play:3 on our network in the living room and we can run both speakers simultaneously or independently. Our Sonos Play:1 sits in Nikki’s office. She has said that she loves her Sonos. That seals the deal.

Soundfreaq Sound Kick, $88 - I wasn’t sure I would include this one as I have the older SFQ-04 model and it is becoming hard to find; however, when I travel, I like to have a good bluetooth speaker to enhance the audio of movies and/or music on my Mac or iOS devices. I also use the Soundfreaq with the White Noise iOS app to drown out sounds when sleeping in noisy hotels. The Soundfreaq Sound Kick has great sound for its size and lasts for about 6-8 hours on its rechargeable battery. It also includes a USB charging port which has been very handy.

** {UPDATE: 2014-11-30}Zagg Folio Case for iPad Air**, $60 - If you need a bluetooth keyboard for your iPad Air (or other models for that matter), I highly recommend the Zagg Folio line. The keyboard has a very nice feel, includes selectable multi-color backlit keys and has outstanding battery life. iPad removal is easy to facilitate using without a keyboard.

That’s my gadget list for 2014. There are many more devices I use; however, I choose to list those I thought the most interesting and made the best gift ideas. If I happen to think of something else, I’ll be sure to pop back in and add it. I’ll include an {Updated} label. Have a question about any of these gadgets? Drop a comment below. I’ll do my best to answer your question. I’m also curious what gadgets you used this past year, so list those in the comments below as well.