BY MOST REPORTS, consumers are opening their wallets wider this gift-giving season than last. Still there's good reason to keep thinking practical, even with gifts for the crazed techie on your list.
A FLAT SCREEN'S BEST FRIEND: Have (or getting) a high definition flat-screen TV? You might be tempted to hang it high on a wall, maybe over the fireplace. But the HD picture looks best and your body is most relaxed when the screen is positioned right at seated eye level. Filling the bill perfectly (and unusually affordably) is the Benno TV Bench from Ikea ($79.99) available in light and dark wood tones. The unit accommodates up to a 50-inch TV, with two shelves underneath for extras (just don't overdue it, Ikea states a maximum load of 66 pounds). Benno is fairly easy to put together. Just make sure you lay out the upright pieces with rough sides EXACTLY as diagrammed. And I'm loving its coaster wheels, easing access to back of the set wires and for pulling the set close for an even bigger, big-screen viewing experience.
BLU-RAY BABIES: Once you've converted to HDTV, it also makes sense to replace the old DVD player with a Blu-ray disc spinner, as it not only glories in those super sharp high-def discs but also improves (through "upscaling") on the presentation of standard def discs. Some second-tier-brand Blu-ray players have been spotted as low as $79, but I'd aim for one in the $120-$150 range from a reputable maker like Sony, Samsung or Panasonic, which also offers Ethernet or wireless Wi-Fi Internet connectivity for easily upgrading the player's software, delivering "BD-Live" movie extras and serving apps like Netflix, Vudu, and Amazon on Demand and Pandora.
Feeling flush? A PlayStation 3 Slim game console ($299) also functions as a dandy, full-featured Blu-ray machine.
Or check out the very slick Samsung BD-C8000 Blu-ray portable. It boasts a sharp 10.1-inch screen, wireless connectivity, varied Samsung Apps and even 3-D Blu-ray disc play on a connected 3-D TV. Good for three hours of movie play per battery charge, the BD-C8000 was selling for close to $500 a few months ago, but has just been spotted for $347 (including a $100 instant rebate) at www.Abt.com.
BABY IT'S COLD OUTSIDE: For those who can't resist answering a phone call outside, even on the coldest day, Isotoner SmarTouch gloves ($10-$40 at Wal-Mart, Macys, Kmart, JCPenney) offer a new solution. A special silvery conductive thermal thread spot woven at the tip of the gloves' thumb and forefinger makes it possible to activate your touchscreen smart phone, without going barehanded.
SPEAK TO ME ONLY: Motormouths also need help in the car, with a good speakerphone that lets you keep hands safely on the wheel, and yourself out of legal trouble in towns (like Philadelphia) where car-chatting carries restrictions. The new sun-visor-mounted Motorola Roadster works especially well with Android 2.2 smart phones, activating special MotoSpeak control and text-to-voice functions, but also works with other smart phones. $99 at Best Buy, Sprint and T-Mobile stores, $75 with special promo code (TXTSMART) through Sunday at www.store.motorola.com.
Designed as much for home as travel use, and for music playing as much as telephoning, are new ultracompact Bluetooth speakers from Monster and Jawbone. Running five and eight hours (respectively) on a rechargeable battery, these tiny boxes serve good sounds up to 33 feet from a Bluetooth-enabled device, then pause the music to let you take a call with the built-in microphone. Available in a variety of colors, the Jawbone Jambox ($199.95 at www.apple.com) boasts sleeker looks and a bigger, bassier sound. The Monster iClarity HD Precision Micro Bluetooth Speaker 100 ($99 at amazon.com in silver or black) offers a crisper high frequency response and speakerphone tones.
HIGH-TECH CLIMATE CONTROL: Your resident handyman will enjoy hooking up and activating the Filtrete Wi-Fi Enabled Programmable Thermostat ($99.95 at Home Depot). Sync it to the home wireless network to remotely access your home heating/air conditioning system through a smart phone or computer. Good for cranking up or lowering the temperature when you're coming home or leaving town.
BEAN ME DOWN, SCOTTY: What's the secret to making really good coffee at home? Start with freshly roasted beans and grind them just before brewing through a Capresso Infinity Conical Burr Grinder. The sturdiest, stainless steel-bodied Model 565 ($99.99 at Amazon.com) is unusually quiet and fairly easy to keep clean. Pair with a top-rated (by Consumer Reports) Cuisinart Brew Central DCC-1200 ($100) or Cooks CM4221 ($40 at JCPenney) automatic coffee maker, then pour into a Contigo Extreme Travel Mug ($19.99 for two at Target) and giggle past every $3-a-cup coffee shop in town.
WATCH THIS: Techies love interesting watches. So sure to please and spark conversations is the first adaptation of e-Ink screen technology (now used in eReaders like the Kindle and Nook) for dramatic watch designs, in a new line of stylish, curved face timekeepers from Phosphor. The fun starts with setting the display to do black numerals on a white background, or vice versa. Spotted at prices from $130-$205. Scope out the offerings at www.phosphorwatches.com.
Recharging its battery with light (even fluorescent) and taking radio-synched time cues from towers in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Japan and China, the features in the Casio Wave Ceptor WVM1201J-1 used to be available only in "Solar/Atomic" watches selling for big bucks. Now it's all in a diver-style, stainless and plastic-cased, resin-banded timepiece selling for $40 at Amazon.com. Amazing.
PHONE FREEDOM: Many people already get by with only a mobile phone number. Now, Panasonic Link-to-Cell home phone systems (like the two-handset bundled KX-TG6582T, $109.99 at Staples) may inspire others to follow suit. First, lay down your Bluetooth-enabled mobile near the Panasonic's base station. Now, with one of the Panasonic's cordless handsets (up to six accommodated) you can make and take calls on the mobile's phone number wherever the spirit moves you. And that's pretty far given the DECT 6.0 Advanced circuitry built into this excellent quality system. Landline calls can likewise be taken/made and conferenced with mobile calls through the Panasonic package. It also offers base station speakerphone calling, an 18-minute digital answering machine and talking caller ID and works with an optional (though I found unnecessary) Range Extender device (KX-TGA405).
Want to double your pleasure? Check out the wireless magnetic induction charging stations and companion powering cases from Powermat and Energizer. The fast and easy way to plop your smart phone (iPhone, BlackBerry) down near a Link-to-Cell system and be assured the communicator will still be good to go next time you pick it up. Induction power mats sell for around $80-$100, custom-charging sleeves about $35. They also work with some portable game systems, wireless game controllers and GPS devices.
WIRELESS IRONING: That ultradiversified Panasonic organization also is making a difference on another home front, adding high-tech pizzazz and improved functionality to the lowly steam iron. The designated laundry doer in your house may groan on first unwrapping a Panasonic NI-WL600 Electric Cordless 360 degree Freestyle Steam Iron, but will soon be kissing you all over after a test drive.
After preheating/energizing for a couple of minutes on a companion (corded) base, this compact, lightweight iron goes cordless and fancy free, with no wire tangling up and rewrinkling clothes. A specially curved soleplate - pointed at both ends - encourages ironing back and forth in two directions. To keep the iron hot, just replace it on the base station whenever repositioning a garment. $99.95 with $10 instant rebate through Dec. 15 and free shipping using promo code PANAIRON at www.panasonic.com.
A NEW MOVIE COMPANION: Fashion- and comfort-conscious "premium" 3-D glasses to wear at the movies are starting to get a big push. Some have been priced north of $100, but just $30 buys the very handsome, lightweight Polaroid Perfect 3D Vision specs available in styles appealing to young and old, male and females. The circular polarizing lenses work great at RealD, Technicolor and Disney 3-D presentations, but not at IMAX theaters or on flat screen 3-D home sets. Not meant as a sunglass substitute, either. Order at www.polaroideyewear.com.
SOUNDS TO GO: A good pair of earphones is always a well received gift. In the ultracompact portable vein, nothing else quite compares to the Bose IE2 ($99.95), featuring a proprietary "StayHear" silicon tip for excellent-in ear stability without having to shove the sound makers hard (and painfully) into your ear canal. These Tri-ported mini-phones virtually "float" in your ears, yet deliver a full-bodied, natural-sounding, high quality performance.
For listening while engaged in serious outdoor sports, or just 'cause they look really cool, wear the Philips O'Neill Stretch headset in Black Bordeaux ($80-$100). Made of super-resilient materials, ultracomfortable and quite good-sounding.
Cordless headphones that communicate with a radio frequency-beaming transmitter are terrific for keeping the peace at home, for watching TV or listening to music while the "better half" is otherwise engaged or sleeping. I've oft touted the Sennheiser RS120, a still-available bargain at $50-$60.
But I've been newly convinced of the merits of the upscale, $200 (discounted) Sennheiser RS170 cordless headphones which deploy a higher quality, 2.4 GHz digital technology that doesn't let you travel quite as far from the transmitter, but sounds a bit cleaner, better. Maybe most important, for us night owls, the RS170s (unlike the 120s) offer a tight seal around the ears and closed-back construction, for zero sound leakage. So to all, a good night.