Three years ago to the month, Amazon unveiled its groundbreaking Kindle e-reader. The original Kindle featured a 6-by-4-inch grayscale screen, could hold approximately 200 titles, retailed for about $400 and—since it was the only device of its kind on the market—sold out a projected five months' worth of stock in a little over five hours. Holiday shoppers who weren't on top of their game would wait until April of the following year to get their hands on the coveted contraption.
This season, Amazon's reader is finally facing some stiff competition as the go-to gift for your favorite tech-tipsy bibliophile—from Barnes & Noble and Sony, which have both released their own models, and from a profusion of cheap knock-offs as well as a cadre of crossover tablets that do more than just present novels. With so many options to choose from, a person in the market for an e-reader likely won't be banished to the end of a long waiting list, but the decision will be a tougher one to make.
Giving the gift of literature these days is slightly more complicated. It requires an inquiry in to the reader's needs and habits. Is the giftee, for example, known to consume a fat stack of novels or multiple tomes of nonfiction while on extended vacations in the tropics? Then any one of the current class of e-readers—the Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook or any of three available Sony Readers—would be a fine choice. Each utilizes E Ink, technology that replicates the experience of reading a printed page so that even in daylight, words appear as clear as, well, day. E Ink uses very little power (each of the aforementioned models can provide nearly a month of reading with a single charge) and is easy on the eyes (literally; it's a much more gentle experience than staring at a backlit screen).
That said, E Ink has its limitations: it can't reproduce color, meaning that children's books, cookbooks, and comic . . . er, graphic novels are out, and the experience of reading most magazines is severely impaired. E Ink also updates very slowly, so it's not the choice for multimedia consumption or surfing the web.
Tablets, meanwhile, are ideally suited to precisely these purposes. Apple's iPad has been called the savior of the ailing magazine industry for the possibilities it affords. When reading a magazine about automobiles on an iPad, for instance, one will be able to rotate a 3D image of the car 360 degrees, change its color and zoom in for detailed information about certain features; theoretically the same will go for clothes in Vogue or a game-winning play in Sports Illustrated. Additionally, with tablets, it's possible to store photos, watch movies, listen to music, surf the web, read email and access thousands of apps of all kinds—games, guides and, oh yeah, books, downloadable via iBooks, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others.
Of the slew of tablet and e-readers available—some pretty good (Sony's Reader, Touch and Daily editions) and others prohibitively expensive and pretty terrible (HP's Slate)—these four represent the best of their respective genres.
Kindle: Today's Kindle can hold 3,500 books, and while it still features a 6-inch black-and-white screen, the newest model's screen has considerably higher contrast than previous versions. Even with the increase in competition, the Kindle retains some considerable advantages over its rivals: it has a very polished, user-friendly interface, and because it's an Amazon product, there are hundreds of thousands of titles available (725,000, according to the company).
That said, the Kindle can only process material purchased through Amazon, and rates hover around $10 per book. Some Kindle users gripe that books they've downloaded have typos that seem to be the result of scanning errors, but by and large it has far fewer reported errors than other available readers. While most readers on the market have the capability to process purchased audio books, the Kindle has text-to-speech capability, so it can also read any selected book aloud. It's one-third of an inch thick, weighs about nine ounces and costs $139 ($189 for the 3G-enabled model, which makes it possible to download books even when out of reach of a wireless network).
Nook: Barnes & Noble's reader, called the Nook, is available in two versions: the original black-and-white version and the NookColor, released just this month. The original Nook features two screens—a larger, 6-inch screen on which book pages are displayed, and a smaller touchscreen below for navigation. In addition to the more than 2 million titles Barnes & Noble boasts are available on the device, the Nook, unlike the Kindle, is open-source. That means it's compatible with third-party publishing formats like ePub, and it means you can bring a Nook into your local library and load it up with all kinds of books for free.
The newer NookColor features a 7-inch backlit LCD touch screen. In addition to being the only color reader currently available, it's also the only reader with a touchscreen, making it kind of a combination tablet and e-reader. The color screen makes it possible to read magazines and picture books, but because it uses LCD rather than E Ink, it reduces the device's battery life significantly; NookColor lasts just eight hours compared to Nook's 10 days. In addition to possessing all the functionality of the original black-and-white version, the NookColor can also read Word and Excel documents, surf the web, play movies and music and run Android apps from the Barnes & Noble store. It has the capacity to hold 6,000 books compared to the Nook's 1,500 and retails for $249, while the Nook goes for $149.
iPad: The iPad is a gorgeous, swoon-worthy, even product. Its giant, 9.7-inch crystal-clear display and super-fast 1-Ghz A4 processor make it the perfect medium for watching movies, surfing the web and reading magazines and newspapers (in app form). Strictly speaking of its functionality as a book reader, the backlit screen is slightly harsher on the eyes than an E Ink device, and while the Kindle and Nook both include a 3G subscription free with purchase, access to 3G on the iPad (and every other tablet) requires an additional subscription fee.
Weighing in at 1.5 pounds, it has more heft than a reader but could hardly be considered bulky. The iPad's beauty comes at a price, though, and not just the literal one ($499 for the low-end version; $829 for the high). In order to maintain the device's sleek design, Apple was forced to make some sacrifices, most notably in the connectivity department. The iPad has one single port, the power dock, which means uploading photos from a camera, documents from a flash drive, music or anything other data from an external hard drive can only be done one at a time, using cumbersome adapters called dongles. As a media-consuming device, though, that's where the complaints end.
Galaxy Tab: The other very impressive tablet on the market is Samsung's Galaxy Tab. While it features a smaller 7-inch LCD touchscreen and weighs less, it retains some significant advantages over the lordly iPad. Like the Kindle, the iPad suffers because it operates on closed format, only running apps approved by Apple. Conversely, the Galaxy Tab, like the Nook, uses an open-source Android operating system, so in theory users will ultimately have access to more applications.
The Android operating system also allows the Galaxy Tab to run Flash, which iPads (and iPhones) are not equipped to do. Today, the Galaxy Tab retails for $599 at Best Buy (that figure doesn't include a $50-a-month 3G data plan), but according to a leak reported by PC Magazine, there'll be big Black Friday deals on the device at Radio Shack, Office Max and Best Buy, who will all have them for $349 plus a two-year Sprint data plan.—Tessa Stuart
Say It Together: High-Performance Underwear
My old housemate, a strutting peacock of a man from Argentina, first put the words "high performance underwear" into my vocabulary, in that order, some years ago when he burst from his room wearing a pair of orange, well-tailored man-panties and nothing else.
"You can wear these for five days in the jungle!" he shouted, pelvis thrust out and covered in the best synthetic fiber nature had to offer.
This is where luxury meets utility, and then becomes slightly awkward at group gift exchanges and dorm-style living situations. The basic premise is that travelers, athletes and outdoorsy people need something more evolved than old cotton briefs to keep from getting adult diaper rash—but it doesn't stop there. The next generation in unmentionables is well-cut, bacteria resistant, spun from the best breathable, wicking superfiber du jour, and promises the type of longevity between launderings previously considered indecent. Five days seems to be the industry standard for how long a person can reasonably wear a pair of super-undies. Don't ask why; ask how.
The two main fibers for high-performance underwear are wool and synthetic. Each has its advantages. Wool has basically been reinvented in the last decade. It still has an amazing capacity to keep one cool or warm, but it's not scratchy anymore, it's not heavy, and it's not cheap—these wooly wonders can cost upward of $40. Still, there are at least three companies making high-tech knitwear for the nether regions: Icebreakers, Smartwool and Ibex.
They don't all have cute names, but they all seem to come in a "hipster" variant, which presumably refers to anatomy and not skinny, underachieving twenty-somethings. Ibex has the distinction of offering a "Balance thong," aptly named as it splits the old peach right down the middle. It's a deal at only $25, and even comes with an inspirational quote in its elastic band. Sadly, it's only available for women right now, but do look for the Balance banana hammock in time for Christmas 2011.
Patagonia basically has the market cornered on high-tech, high-priced synthetics. Wool may be the closest (politically correct) thing to your own skin, but synthetics have their own appeal. Patagonia's synthetics are recycled, or at least made from recycled materials. They're lighter than wool (so you can afford to pack an extra pair for the journey), but still claim all the same keep-you-dry, odor-vanquishing, quick-dry properties as wool. If $40 for woolies still sounds steep, synthetics run about $20. Bounding, pelvis-thrusting Argentinean not included.—Kylie Mendonca
It seems like just yesterday everyone was talking about the "Hot Coffee" cheat code in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The mod-enabled, fully clothed mini sex scene hidden in the code caused a legal stir, and subsequent copies of the title removed it altogether. But simulated sex isn't the only concern parents might have in purchasing the latest video game release. As everyone knows, video games contain violence too. Here's a look at some of this year's games that parents are sure to get in a tizzy over. Alongside a summary of lurid gaming details, we've added a parent-freakage point guide to rate the game's level of concern.
It ain't Avatar, but for some reason Sam Worthington is voicing lead character Alex Mason, an agent who blows shit up for the United States in the game Call of Duty: Black Ops ($60), set in the 1960s. In this gun opera, players can shoot limbs off of enemies and deliver a direct head shot to Fidel Castro—take that, communism! In one level, Mason meets up with President John F. Kennedy and points a hand gun at him. Yes, that's in this game. Afterward, gamers can play a zombie death mode as John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Robert McNamara or as Fidel Castro. Parent freakage points: 9/10.
Parents looking for some girl power in video games for their daughters might find it enticing at first, but Bayonetta ($20) basically makes the player feel like a dirty pervert. Female demon slayer Bayonetta doesn't wear clothes in the traditional sense; as it turns out, Bayonetta's "clothing" is simply her own hair wrapped around her body, like skin-tight S&M leather clothing. As Bayonetta players chain together multiple attacks with each successful blow, she becomes increasingly naked. Bayonetta's "special attack" involves her clothes coming off and her giant stiletto heels stomping on her enemies. It's not particularly violent, but perhaps a tad sexist? OK, OK, outright perverted and sexist times a gazillion. Parent freakage points: 8/10.
Remember Rush Hour 2, with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker having to cross a Hong Kong highway naked after an ambush at a massage parlor? In Kane and Lynch: Dog Days ($40), Kane and Lynch avoid gunfire, run from cover to cover and murder the bad guys while wearing no clothing at all. The game's developer, IO Interactive, says the game features "gritty realism." Somehow playing a game featuring grainy, digitally blurred asses seems less like gritty realism and more like censored Japanese porno— violent, Heat-inspired censored Japanese porno. Lynch's '70s porno 'stache tops it all off. Parent freakage points: 7/10. (Bonus uncomfortable gamer points : 10/10.)
Did you know Harry Potter's wand can shoot magical spells at a similar rate as a submachine gun? Neither did we, until we saw a preview of EA's vision of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ($50). Potter can take cover behind trees, concrete pillars and wooden crates as well as shoot—with his wand. He can deliver powerful wand-based attacks like Confundo, Expelliarmus and Crucio. Maybe it's just wholesome entertainment, but the image of Harry Potter aiming down the sight of his wand and dishing out rapid-fire, submachine gun&–like magical damage is, well, kinda weird. Parent freakage points: 5/10.
In God of War 3 ($60), as the wife- and daughter-murdering antihero Kratos, players are tasked with delivering pure vengeance upon the Greek Gods. The first kill? Poseidon, god of the sea. After a lengthy opening fight sequence, players must gouge out Poseidon's eyes. Afterward, Poseidon gets his head smashed into ancient Greek concrete until the entire screen is covered by the sea god's digital blood. At another point in the game, Kratos rips Helios' head from his body and then uses the decapitated sun god's head as a lantern. Parent freakage points: 9/10.Happy gaming!—Rothtana Ouch
It's easy to lament the onset of winter's shorter, chiller days, but to do that is to ignore the opportunity to accessorize. Holiday shopping offers the perfect chance to snap up some of the more wild and wooly options that Californians don't need the 10 other months of the year, and now's the time to seize the stockings (and scarves, hats, mittens and muffs) and relish the fashionable add-ons of the season. Here are some style guidelines to keep in mind.
Rule No. 1: Show your socks. If wearing booties or midcalf boots, pair them with knee-highs. And make 'em count. Chevron stripes, contrasting patterns and bright colors are more fun than basics. Tall boots, like the over-the-knee models out this year, call for tall stockings. Over-the-knee socks are a must-have this winter and required wearing for the fashionista on your list. French Curve offers a classic gray cable knit option ($26) that pairs nicely with tall black boots. The more daring giftees on the list will appreciate RockNSocks' striped over-the-knee numbers ($17.50). These black, maroon, olive green, orange and purple socks are earth-friendly foot fashion at its finest, made in the U.S. with recycled yarns, and they'll keep the toes toasty.
Rule No. 2: Show your fingers. Fashionable and functional, fingerless gloves make a great stocking stuffer. They're like wearable comfort food that won't make you fat. Boho by Moe Munroe fingerless gloves are practically works of art that adorn your hands. The two-toned wine and gray gloves ($98) showcase a row of six mother-of-pearl buttons of differing sizes. They keep hands warm and cloaked in cashmere while the fingers remain free to type, hold a wine glass, whatever. The Wooden Ships by Paola Buendia 'Montreal' long fingerless gloves ($24), in a mohair acrylic blend, come in all colors—winter white, gray, violet, black and strawberry—and make for an unbelievably soft knit that stretches from knuckle to elbow. The matching slouchy rib beret ($29) is a snug second helping of comfort. Which brings us to . . .
Rule No. 3: Cover your head. This year it's all about the hats. And whether you're shopping for a classic beanie-wearing type or a trendsetter more likely to go for a floppy wool number, keep in mind there's a style for every personality. One look that's hot this season: spots. They're adorning satchels, faux fur coats, you name it. They also make for show-stopping lids. Try Urban Outfitter's faux fur Pins and Needles Leopard Trapper Hat ($34) or a classic with a twist, a Jeanne Simmons felt leopard fedora ($17). If you're shopping for a stylish man, take a lesson from Ol' Blue Eyes: the classic Sinatra fedora ($46), in charcoal or black, is a classic look that never gets old. The Sinatra hat inspired by Frank himself is the only one authorized by the singer's estate, and it's an elegant topper when, baby, it's cold outside.—Jessica Lyons
Bodacious Bike Gear
Bike people are the worst. I mean that in the best possible way. Namely, bike people have such a physical and spiritual connection to their bikes that to give them a bike-related gift and expect them to use it traipses on blasphemy. If they're serious about cycling, chances are they've educated themselves about every gadget on the market and tailored their ride just so to their liking, ne'er to be altered by a meddling present. If they just dig cruising around town on a single-speed, they'll probably laugh in the face of anything remotely like clip-pedal shoes or spandex gear. What to do?
First things first: get them some new Knogs. No, they're not some weird sex toy or drug accessory, but rather those stretch-rubber LED lights that started replacing bracket-mount lights a couple years ago. Small, easily removable and with just enough brightness, they're what every cyclist can always use for nighttime rides. The old Knogs broke easily, burned through batteries and only had one tiny LED. The new ones have a larger, brighter LED, thicker rubber and four flash cycles instead of just two. Go for the Frog Strobe; at $18 each, they're a no-brainer gift.
Just about every cyclist needs a hand pump, and though newer pumps like the Blackburn AirStik SL offer compact, lightweight economy, they're hell on the arms. This year's must-have pumps are made by Lezyne, with stunning modern design and utilitarian features. A solid midpriced option is the Pressure Drive at $40. Made of machined metal and capable of inflating to 120 psi, the seven-inch pump includes a detachable, flexible tube that flips around for both Schrader or Presta valves—basically, no more hunching over a tire on the side of the road, and if your nephew gets a flat on his 1981 Raleigh, the pump can handle his valves, too. Not bad.
So what about the cyclists who have it all? It's likely they don't have the Garmin Edge 800, which is setting the cycling-computer world on fire. If you're a glutton for detail, you can find tons of bike blogs with complete rundowns of its features and photos of the component on a precision scale (3.45 ounces, if you care), but the gist is that this is the iPhone of GPS bike computers. The sleek touchscreen interface is just the beginning. With a USB connection to a computer, the thing maps rides completely, with route, altitude, speed, calories burned, goals reached, heart rate, temperature and more. At $450, it's not for casual cyclists, but for those super-serious about their bikes, it's a racer's dream.—Gabe Meline
If you've really got a wad to spend on that bike enthusiast, well then, who doesn't love new around-town toys? Like Swobo's Baxter ($1,099), an eight-speed commuter bike, for example. It's got a lightweight aluminum frame and carbon fiber fork so you can ditch the car and speed around town without breaking a sweat or ditching your work-to-happy-hour-appropriate attire. The rear brake cable is hidden in the top tube, which means it won't catch on your clothing. Other cool features include a Shimano hub, disc brakes and 36-hole wheels for better durability and riding ease on rough roads, potholes and railroad tracks. Plus, there's no need to worry about the limited daylight hours on this bike. The seat post has an integrated tail light, and the tires come with patented 3M reflective strips so cars can't miss seeing you. You're highly visible—and looking good—on this bike.—J.L.
Ditch the Dongle
Though Nintendo has dominated past holiday seasons with the Wii, this year both Microsoft and Sony join the motion-gaming movement with the Microsoft Kinect ($150) and the Sony PlayStation Move ($100). Although Nintendo may have done it first, the big question remains, who does it better?
Microsoft's Kinect has a clear wow factor, as it requires no controllers at all. Want to throw punches? Throw them. Want to jump left? Just jump left. The Kinect tracks body movements and gestures, essentially matching the advertised experience of the user as "the controller." The Kinect must be paired with an Xbox 360 to work, and features a depth sensor, camera and microphone inside a hammer-head-like plastic casing; the console takes what it "sees" and "hears," and processes that data as the user moves and speaks, with no buttons required.
Video games might not be the only use for the Kinect. Resourceful hackers have created unauthorized code to make the peripheral function with ordinary computers, albeit in a much less refined experience. Is gaming's motion control innovation a test bed for revolutionary Minority Report&–style ways of computing? Chances are software giant Microsoft has an eye on where things are moving.
Meanwhile, Sony has conceived a design to strike a technological middle ground between the Kinect and the Wii through the release of the PlayStation Move. Like Kinect, Move uses a camera for plane tracking; like Wii, Move features a controller with buttons and internal sensors to track the controller's rotation. When coordinated with the camera and internal sensors, Move gives more precise movement tracking than the Wii Remote and trumps Kinect's lack of a physical user interface through the use of vibration feedback and buttons.
Finally, perhaps in reaction to the motion controller war, Nintendo has taken its Wii MotionPlus ($40) dongle—an attachment that improves Wii's ability to track hand movements—and internalized the external dongle into a Wii remote. The new, cleverly named Wii Remote Plus removes the extra girth, and for those attached to their Wiis, it may suffice for an entirely new console. For high-definition aficionados, the Xbox 360 and PS3 might be a better option than Wii's 480p picture, but one thing is clear: PlayStation Move, Microsoft Kinect and Wii all provide a much less couch-potato gaming experience.—R.O.
Giftoids for Gearheads
Whether winter sporting endeavors put you on a bike, boat or simply two feet, it's nice to stay warm and dry. So as the rainy season approaches, waterproof hiking boots like the Keen Targhee II ($125) are a good away to keep avid hikers tromping through the redwoods and along ocean-view bluffs. The waterproof, breathable membranes keep feet dry from the inside and outside of the shoe; the rain can't get in, while the technology dissipates sweat before it saturates the boot's inside. The shape of the footbed cushions feet and provides arch support—all of which means it's easier to stay active as opposed to going stir-crazy indoors.
And speaking of getting wet, all water babies—surfers, stand-up paddle boarders, kayakers, extreme ocean swimmers—on your list will appreciate O'Neill's Psychofreak 4.5/3.5 FSW wetsuit ($529.95). It comes with or without a hood, keeps you warm in our cooler (read: nearly frigid) waters with more insulating and water wicking and has added flex for your legs. Pair it with a longboard or a surf kayak, and you'll win Santa of the year.
For those who are bound for the snow, Sessions' Boz insulated jacket ($165) marries retro, ski-slope neon stripes and pocket detailing with baggy board style and has a warmth rating of 10, useful on the mountain and for drinks outside around those fire pits that really don't put off a lot of heat.
Whether biking, surfing, snowboarding or skiing, capture it on HD video with a GoPro Hero ($179&–$299), a tiny wearable digital camera with a waterproof casing that you can attach to a helmet, surfboard, mountain bike or just about anything else. Not only do you get to relive your adrenaline rush from multiple points of view, depending on where you attach the camera, but you get to make your friends jealous, too. And that is truly priceless.—J.L.