CM Picks: Holiday Gift-Buying Guide

Update: We’ve updated the tablet list below to include some Cyber Monday deals, as well as featured 3D-printed Shapeways products.

 

Ah, ’tis the season.

‘Tis the season to shop like crazy people, loving the deals yet dreading the crowd. Here at CultureMass we’d like to provide you with a little arsenal – a holiday gift-buying guide with some information and tips to navigate the shopping insanity, blasting away the muck and fuss so you can focus on getting that special something for that special someone. Or that little thing for yourself. You’re not fooling anyone.

We’ll start with a few sites you should definitely consider this Black Friday and into the holiday season, look at some specific gadgets that are pretty hot right now, and conclude with some helpful tips.

Let’s get started!

 

Sites, stores galore

 

To get you started, here are some of our favorite sites to shop for Black Friday and other goodness:CM Picks - Holiday Gift-Buying Guide 02

 

Gadgets for everyone!

 

Now on to the juicy details! Myself and Nick Hahneman break down some of our favorite gadget picks for the holiday season. While these aren’t the only deals out there, this list should give you a great starting point to work from.

 

Nick Hahneman, Games Editor

Google Chromecast HDMI Streaming Media Player, $35

The Google Chromecast HDMI Streaming Media Player, or Chromecast, is an easy adapter that plugs into one of your TV’s HDMI slots and is powered via a micro-USB cable. A 2.83-inch (72 mm) device, the Chromecast is a modest little device that will likely go largely unnoticed. The adapter is plug-in-play, which means installation and set-up is easy, and once you have Chromecast hooked up to your TV, you can stream media from any other device, be it Android, iOS, OS X, or PC, to your TV.

Don’t have an Xbox or a Wii to stream Netflix? Chromecast is your answer. But Chromecast isn’t limited to Netflix. YouTube, Hulu Plus, Pandora Radio, and any music, movies or TV through Google Play can be streamed to your TV. It doesn’t hurt that Chromecast is also one of the cheapest ways to get a browser on your TV.

The Chromecast has a lot of potential, and while it’s functionality is still somewhat limited, at $35 you’d be hard–pressed to argue against the value proposition. It’s not the Apple TV, but it’s also a fraction of the price.

Nate’s side note: I own a Chromecast and would also recommend it. While the setup was slightly quirky (took a few tries to get it to connect to my home Wi-Fi), it worked extremely well transmitting Netflix and YouTube videos to my TV. For those of you like me with a non-smart HDTV, I would highly suggest Chromecast or a similar product (Roku, etc.). The Chromecast is also available at Best Buy for $29.99.

Next-gen video game home console, $300-500

It’s been eight years since the last generation of home video game consoles launched, and while Nintendo launched their newest hardware, the Wii U, last November, Sony and Microsoft have pushed the market forward with the releases of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, just in time for the holiday. While compared to previous generations there is much less variability in feature sets and what these machines can do, there are still plenty of differences. Which one is most appropriate for you?

Wii U

Family-focused, the technological improvements in this console are more about inputs than graphical fidelity. Still an HD device, what the Wii U lacks in photorealism and raw power it makes up for in ingenuity. The main advantage here is the Wii U GamePad, a mini-tablet that has all of the sticks and buttons of a regular controller, but also features a prominent touchpad. This touchpad allows for second-screen experiences (e.g. a map or inventory screen in a game), simplified gameplay controls for those not comfortable with traditional inputs, and even featuring the ability to play a game on the Wii U GamePad while the TV is in use.

With backing of Nintendo’s first party games such as Super Smash Bros., Super Mario 3D World, and Wii Fit U, along with third party games like Bayonetta 2, Batman: Arkham Origins, the Wii U is a great living room console for families that offers strong hardcore gaming experiences as well. It doesn’t hurt that out of the three next-gen consoles that are currently on the market, it carries the lightest price tag at $300.

PlayStation 4

The PlayStation 4, which retails at $400, is by contrast the most powerful of the new home gaming consoles in terms of raw hardware capabilities. With a newly-redesigned controller, the DualShock 4, and a small, sleek design, the PS4 is a cutting-edge console both in design and technology. With the ability to share and stream games on Twitch, option to use real-life profiles from Facebook, and a much improved online storefront, the PS4 is a great connect gaming console.

But the games of course are the focus here. While the PS4 is currently a bit light on exclusive-launch, currently-available titles, there are a good number of games to play for it right now. Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin’s Creed IV, Battlefield 4, and Lego Marvel Superheroes are all excellent games that look incredible on the system. Adding to that is Sony’s strong support for cheaper, smaller-scale digitally-released and independently-developed games, such as Resogun and Contrast, with the former being the best game on the system. Not only is Resogun incredible, but it’s also free with the excellent PS+ subscription service, which offers tons of free games to members and is required to play online games on the PS+ (which retails for $50/year or $6/month).

Xbox One

The Xbox One is the most expensive next generation video game console available this holiday season outside of building a gaming PC yourself. Bundled with the Kinect camera sensor (to which many people attribute the console’s $500 pricetag), the Xbox One and Kinect are an impressive piece of technology. With the ability to control your cable TV, jump over to Netflix, see what your friends are doing, and then jump into a game, all using voice commands using the same operating system within the Xbox One, the console is very impressive, and speaks to those of us who consume great amounts of media and like to multitask and/or have attention deficit disorder. While not as powerful on paper as the PS4, the Xbox One is in the same league, and provides next-gen experiences with prettier environments, bigger play spaces, and on the balance, more impressive games.

The Xbox One launch lineup is a bit bigger and more diverse than the PS4’s, which helps justify the $500 expenditure for the console. In addition to Call of Duty: Ghosts, Battlefield 4, Assassin’s Creed IV, and Lego Marvel Superheros, the Xbox One has several exclusive launch titles set to impress. Forza 5 Motorsport will become the obsession of any motorhead, and the use of cloud-computing to populate races with AI opponents named as your friends and based on their driving behaviors makes the whole experience much more competitive. Dead Rising 3 offers a huge open world filled with thousands upon thousands of zombies, a goofy sense of humor, and the ability to craft you own weapons to take on the undead hordes is a blast. Ryse: Son of Rome is a bit less compelling in terms of gameplay, but is an excellent showcase for the console graphically. Overall there’s a good chance that there are several games out right now that you will enjoy for the Xbox One.

 

Nate Humphries, Tech/Science Editor

HDTVs, $268.94-1297.99

3D HDTVs

If you’re a 3D nut, check out either the 55″ Samsung in Best Buy’s Black Friday ad ($1297.99or the same one in Amazon’s), the 60″ Samsung plasma ($1197.99) recommended by Consumer Reports (gives it an excellent rating for 3D performance), or the 50″ Vizio in Best Buy’s Black Friday ad ($599.99).

Smart HDTVs

Both of the above 3D TVs are smart HDTVs, but what if you don’t care about 3D? Check out the 60″ Samsung in Best Buy’s Black Friday ad ($997.99), the 55″ Samsung in Walmart’s Black Friday ad ($727), or the 42″ LG in Amazon’s Black Friday sale ($519).

HDTVs on a budget

If you’re not too picky about features and size, there are plenty of HDTV options available on a budget. Check out the 40″ Samsung on Amazon ($398; #1 Bestseller), its 32″ sibling ($297.99), or the 32″ LG on Amazon ($268.94).

Smartphones, $free-189

Android

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is $99 at Walmart with a 2-year contract, with the option of the trade-in bonus plus a $100 gift card. It’s only 1 cent at Staples with a 2-year contract. The SIII is 97 cents, the Motorola Moto X is $49, and the Samsung Galaxy Mega is $79, all with the same bonuses. The LG G2 is available at Best Buy for $49.99 with a 2-year contract. Verizon will be offering the Motorola DROID RAZR HD for free on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 for $49.99 on Cyber Monday, and the LG G2 for free on Cyber Monday.

iOS

You can get the iPhone 5C at Walmart for $45 with a 2-year contract, which can be further discounted if you trade in your old phone, with the added bonus of a $75 Walmart gift card. Best Buy has it for $48. The iPhone 5S is $189 at Walmart with a 2-year contract, with the same trade-in and gift card bonuses. Apple will be having some kind of iPhone deal on Black Friday through the Apple Store, but the details haven’t been disclosed yet.

Peripherals, extended computing, fitness

Best Buy has the Fitbit Force for $129.99 and the Pebble SmartWatch for $149.9, each with a bonus $20 Best Buy gift card.

Tablets, $79-449.99

Android

The Samsung Galaxy 3 10.1 is $299 at Walmart and Best Buy, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is available at Best Buy for $399.99, plus a $10 Best Buy gift card. Staples is selling the 7″ Samsung Tab 3 for $159.99 and the 8″ version for $249.99, and the Galaxy Note 8 for $349.99. Verizon has a few specials going on for Black Friday – all Samsung tablets are $150 off with a 2-year contract, and the Verizon Ellipsis 7 is free with a 2-year contract. Amazon is selling the 7″ Kindle Fire HDX without Special Offers for $244 $194 (Cyber Monday special; HD version is $154) and the 8.9″ Kindle Fire HDX without Special Offers for $394 (previous generation is $244). You can get the 7″ Kindle Fire (previous generation) for $79 at Staples, as well as the 7″ Kindle Fire HD for $139, the 8.9″ Kindle Fire HD (previous generation) for $169, and the 7″ Kindle Fire HDX for $229. The Nexus 7 is $199 at Staples. In Android-based e-readers, the NOOK SimpleTouch GlowLight is on sale for $49 and the non-GlowLight version is $39 (Cyber Monday specials).

iOS

The iPad Air will be available at Best Buy for $449.99. Other deals may be available on the Apple Store on Black Friday.

Windows

The Surface (original) will be available at Best Buy for $199.99.

Computer upgrades, $5-whatever your budget is

NewEgg is still the place to get computer components for Black Friday or Cyber Monday. Check out their PC Components section if you’re building your own, or their Computers section for pre-built rigs.

3D-printed gifts

If you’re lucky enough to have a 3D printer, check out some of these featured items from Shapeways: meme-related gifts, a typographical chess set, a non-tie bowtie, mini basketball, a gramophone for the iPhone 4 or 4S, and a bracelet for your iPod Nano.

 

How to stay sane, and other helpful tips

 

Holiday shopping is nuts, but technically we’ve made it that way. Here are some ways to keep your blood pressure down while focusing in on the point of buying presents.

Tip #1: Don’t buy everything. Whoever made up the notion that you have to buy a gift to make it a good one is ridiculous. While you need to be careful with crafty gifts (don’t make a particular craft because you like that CM Picks - Holiday Gift-Buying Guide 01craft, make something that the person you’re giving it to will enjoy), there are other options as well: delicious, wonderful, baked goods come to mind. Who doesn’t like some good ol’ Christmas sugar cookies? Seriously.

Tip #2: Shop smart. Use all of the above sites, check out circulars and magazines, look around, etc. If you have to buy a present, might as well get a great deal on it!

Tip #3: Most importantly, it’s not about you. The whole idea for Christmas presents came about because people, encouraged by the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, the legend of the gift-giving of St. Nicholas, and the gift-giving of the magi who visited Jesus, wanted to have a symbolic, physical representation of the gift of Jesus. It’s a holiday with symbolic meaning, where people give gifts because they have received a gift. While Christmas obviously has real, strong religious ties at its core, no matter what worldview you hold to, gift giving has become a way to celebrate with others. Don’t let the shopping craze take that away from you.

 

With Thanksgiving coming up tomorrow, we here at CultureMass would like to thank you, our readers, for checking out our site. We hope this article and others have been helpful to you, and we hope you have a great Thanksgiving and Christmas!

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