Summary: Looking for a Holiday Gift Guide thatís a little different, a little bit off the beaten path? The Dang brothers chime in with their Holiday guide...
For those looking for enlightenment
Everyone has a flashlight, but with the constant threat of floods or earthquakes, are you sure that yours is up to the task? Flashlight technology over the past few years has shifted towards LEDs and with complex voltage regulation circuitry. This means that your lights will be much more efficient than before, and make the most of your batteries. The color of the LED light is also much more pleasing than regular flashlights. Think of it as HID versus halogen lights.
If you are on a budget, you can still get a Luxeon LED light with lithium batteries and similar brightness for a little less. Inova makes the XO3 which uses a 3W Luxeon driver and lithium batteries.
$79 retail, but under $40 from Amazon Partners.
Now if you donít really want to make too big of a statement with your gift, there are still a few options. There are emerging companies out of Asia that are making some fine looking lights. One that comes to mind is Fenix which offers Luxeon lights with hard anodized aluminum and use AAA, AA, or CR123 batteries. They range from $30-60. My pick is the Fenix P1D CE which will fit on your keychain and put out more light than a 2D Maglite. It uses a CREE driver which is another next generation LED.
$50 for Luxeon
Weíre not done yet. If you are on an even tighter budget and you are just looking for stocking stuffers to pass out to the office staff, you can still get them a Luxeon-style LED for less than $10. Try the overseas sites such as www.fifthunit.com or www.qualitychinagoods.com. I havenít purchased enough from these sites to officially endorse either, but I have bought stuff from them in the past and received it.
These blenders also designed with fully electronic controls, reducing the potential for wear/tear. The buttons are pre-programmed blend settings that will vary blend speed to give you the smoothest drinks available. A few years ago, they even had a version with a serial port to program your own blend patterns. The basic home model will set you back about $400.
If it can turn glass marbles into glass dust or make mulch out of hockey pucks, it will be able to make that smoothie. This could become an essential part of your New Yearís resolution to eat healthier and lose weight.
For smaller budgets, the 900 watt, 32,000 rpm Juiceman Blender ($140; cheaper at QVC) is a good alternative that will run circles around most department store blenders. Iíve got the previous generation Juiceman blender in my kitchen.
A primary goal of detailing is to have no swirls. You want your paint finish to reflect a point source of light, i.e. the sun, without any sense of scratches or swirling. Most of these swirls are in the clear coat. Thankfully these swirls can be removed with the proper skills and equipment. The workhorse of this is the Porter Cable 7424 Random Orbital Sander. Initially developed for furniture finishing, you can find it in all the best detailing shops. If your detailer is still doing everything by hand, he hasnít made it to the modern era.
With 3.7 amps of power, the Porter Cable allows you polish out the swirl marks, with minimal risk to the paint. It isnít hard, but it is surprising how many dealers tell customers that swirls are a natural part of car paint.
Along with the Random Orbital Sander, youíll need a selection of polishing pads and polish. These will only set you back a bit more, and thankfully there is a plethora of information on the web, check out www.autopia.org for more information. You can always go with Zaino, which is four times as expensive as anything else and takes about twice as much time to use, but many good alternatives are now available. For your beater car, a good starting point for a wax would be Collinite #845 Liquid Insulator Wax. It was engineered for use on high voltage wires to preventing arcing, fires, and explosions. The gloss is better than most off-the-shelf waxes you can find at Wal-Mart, but the durability and protection has to be seen to be believed. Even Dawn detergent wonít take Collinite #845 off!
Ok, Iíll admit that Iím not the expert on this subject, but many of my colleagues canít stop raving about their dedicated wine chillers; itís become an early Christmas present for many of them. Prices can vary quite a bit depending on how many bottles you want to store and if your chiller has separate temperature settings for red or white wine. You can get started with a cooler that is around $100 to $700 for one with dual temperature control.
For the gourmand on your list whoís not into wine, a good alternative is the gift of precision cutlery. While forged cutlery from Solingen, Germany (i.e. Zwilling J.A. Henckels and Wusthof) have traditionally been the most popular kitchen knifes for enthusiasts, Japanese kitchen knives with their harder steel and sharper edges have increasingly become the favored choice despite the difficulty in sharpening these knives. Indeed, Zwilling J.A. Henckelís flagship line is now manufactured in Japan. Our favorite knives are the Hattori KD series knives which are available from www.japanesechefsknife.com. ($300 to $1200)
Unfortunately, when we last checked, the Hattori KD knives were out of stock at JapaneseChefKnives.com.
The sharpest blades continue to be Kyoceraís KYOTOP design. Unlike other ceramic blades which are incredibly brittle and very prone to chipping, the KYOTOP blades are Hot Isostatic Pressed in which the density of the ceramic is maximized Ė this makes the KYOTOP knives only moderately brittle and prone to chipping.
The Zwilling J.A. Henckels Cermax M66 is probably the best overall value. While it doesnít have the same luxurious look as the Hattori KD knives, its Rockwell hardness rating of 66 makes it one of the sharpest knives you can easily purchase. You know itís good when one of the premier German cutlery manufacturers is producing these blades in Japan. Expect the Cermax M66 line to set you back anywhere from $130 to $300.
Finally, for those of you who just want a taste of what high-end cutlery is all about, the Victorinox (Forschner) line of stamped knives is a good start. These wonít have the feel, balance, or durability of any of the aforementioned knives, but theyíre dirt cheap and give you a taste of what a sharp knive is really supposed to feel like. A set of paring knives will just set you back $13 at Amazon. No typo Ė thirteen bucks.
Sadly, no oneís made kitchen cutlery out of Oxinium yet (zirconium alloyed with niobium).
For a point and shoot, key features that I find valuable are: image stabilization, a wide angle lens, and face recognition. When shopping for image stabilization, make sure that it is optical image stabilization; this uses gyrosensors to with mobile lens elements that will counteract your unsteady hands. Most of the time we are using the small cameras in group settings, like at dinner and this is where the wide angle lens is critical to ensure that everyone gets in the shot.
One of the latest features to show up is face recognition. Iím sure the actual algorithm must come from the future somehow, but this technology virtually eliminates those shots where everyone in the foreground is out of focus, but the wall in the back is in perfect focus. Cameras incorporating face detection into the auto exposure also ensure great results in heavily backlit conditions. The Canon PowerShot SD800 IS has everything we are looking for. The camera can actively track three faces, Terminator T-100 style, and we find the algorithm to be better than some of the others weíve tested.
An alternative would be the Fuji F31fd which has a superior sensor, with better low light performance, but lacks optical image stabilization and it uses less popular xD memory cards. It can detect 10 faces as opposed to Canonís 9 (3 in real-time), but thereís no advantage in real-world pictures. Both Canon and Fujiís implementation of face detection algorithms are hardware-based.
What about Digital SLRs?
Now with the pro-amateur crowd, the competition is fierce. Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, Pentax, Olympus, and of course the creators of the two party system, Canon and Nikon, are all vying for your money. What is often lost in all the marketing is that the lens makes the picture, not the camera body. Here, Nikon and Canon have the clear advantage with a wider selection of interchangeable lenses. In terms of in-body technology, the independent parties have led the way with innovations such as in camera image stabilization, self-cleaning sensors, and affordable waterproof bodies.
The key with subwoofers is air displacement. You can do it with a larger surface area or with more excursion. Bigger drivers are heavier and require more power to drive, likewise, increasing excursion requires more power as well. So we have the adage that bigger and more powerful is better than smaller and weaker. Subwoofers believe in Darwin.
The players to watch in this market are SV Sound and HSU Research. Both are small companies that started by making subwoofers sold directly to the public. They donít have high overheads to spend on marketing or on training the folks at your electronic superstore. In short, you get more for your money.
For the entry level subwoofer, we recommend the SVS PB10 or the HSU STF-2. They are $430 and $400, respectively, and will blow any store-bought sub out of the water, until you are spending nearly a grand.
If you have a little room in your budget, both companies make plenty of nice, bigger, subs. I kinda like the 190lbs SVS PB12 Ultra/2 for $2200. If you need something even better than the SVS PB12 Ultra/2, try JL Audioís Gotham g213 weighing in at 305 lbs and $7500.
The biggest news about the Core 2 Duo is that the performance benefit will be obvious to anyone who hasnít upgraded to dual core technology. A few years ago, you only needed a fast CPU if you were a gamer or if you were doing some sort of computational research. Nowadays, the popularity of digital photography and encoding music and video for portable video players means that everyone will appreciate the performance benefit of a high-end CPU. The Core 2 Duo is obviously the least inspired item on our gift guide this year, but thatís just a reflection of how good this CPU really is.
Keep in mind that youíll want to pair the Core 2 Duo with some high quality memory, especially with Windows Vista. Stick with brand-name memory, and youíll be fine. As always, weíve got to mention our advertising sponsors: Corsair and OCZ. By now itíll sound like a broken record, but we really do use Corsair and OCZ memory in our own personal systems. If itís good enough for us, itís good enough for you too.
I know what youíre thinking. Whatís the difference between a $5 coffee maker and one of those fancy $3600 espresso machines? The difference between your traditional drip coffee and espresso is the difference between an integrated Intel GPU and a GeForce 8800 GTX. With traditional drip coffee, hot water flows over ground coffee beans and you just hope and pray that the water will pick up whatever flavor is in those beans along the way.
With espresso, itís all about power. Instead of using gravity and hot water, you force super-hot high-pressure stream through extremely fine ground coffee. Weíre talking over 260 psi. This allows for maximum extraction of the flavor and the result is an elixir thatís much richer and sweeter tasting than your regular cup of Joe. Now, instead of adding regular milk to smoothen the flavor, you can add steamed or foamed milk.
Usually this whole process of creating the espresso shot is the work of a barista who has spent an eternity perfecting his art. Fortunately, technology allows us to get artisan quality espresso with the simplicity of a pod system. The Jura Capresso machines you can find at stores such as Williams and Sonoma are considered to be the best. Pour whole coffee beans into one bin, fill up the water reservoir, attach the milk carafe to the machine and the rest is taken care of.
The flagship Impressa Z6 will set you back a hefty $3600; fortunately, there are a couple of good options. If youíre willing to foam/steam your own milk instead, you can get something like a Jura-Capresso Impressa E8 for just $1000.
If the person on your wishlist is just looking to move up from Folgerís instant coffee, but isnít ready to jump to espresso, a great alternative is the French Press in which the coffee is brewed in a similar manner to tea. If you use freshly ground coffee, you can get a taste of what real coffee is supposed to taste like. The trick is to get a conical burr grinder rather than a blade grinder. Conical burr grinders operate a lower RPMs, and therefore keep the coffee beans cooler... preserving all the flavor until youíre ready to extract it. You should be able to get a press pot for under $20 and an entry-level conical burr grinder for around $80.
With the new 1GB Apple iPod Shuffle, Apple has done a great thing for gift givers all around the world. With todayís Shuffle, you can spend $80 on an MP3 player and not feel guilty about skimping on the memory capacity. As a bonus, buy the iPod Shuffle from the Apple store and get it engraved with a personalized message.
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