Looking for something more unusual than a gift card to give this Christmas? Here at OFB we have a sampler of options that are (mostly) inexpensive and useful for those with a wide variety of interests.
Tim’s 2021 gift guide remains full of good choices, too. Note: some recommendation links are affiliate links that support the ongoing publication of this site.
One of the handiest smart home products is the humble smart plug, of which TP-Link makes a boatload of slightly different, inexpensive, broadly compatible ones (for example). They’re all quite good.
Smart plugs don’t sound exciting, but once you begin considering the possibilities, they bring the right level of “smart” to almost anything. Things that are hard to reach or things that should come on at particular times of day (say, sunset), for example. If your recipient has a smart assistant (Alexa or Google Assistant), those can control all of them, as can the Kasa app or a compatible smart switch. Apple’s stricter requirements for HomeKit devices means you have to upgrade to a more expensive (yet still affordable) model if your giftee wants to use Siri to control the plugs, unless he or she is a geek like me and wants to use HomeBridge to connect non-HomeKit devices to Siri.
They even have an outdoor-ready variant for those who want to control outdoor lights and such — whether for Christmas or for a summer patio arrangement.
(TP-Link makes a very similar Tapo smart plug that is Matter enabled, which is the most forward-looking option, though Matter is off to a rocky and confusing start.)
Nothing says Christmas like a lightbulb, right? It might sound weird, but this particular one can change your recipient’s everyday life. I’d seen similar lights (with fan blade-like arms that fold out) for years, but never from a reputable brand I felt safe regularly feeding electricity to. Honeywell’s light can screw into a regular light socket in a garage, basement or anywhere else aesthetics aren’t the main priority, and it provides the sensation of I-just-walked-outside-into-daylight wherever it is placed. To say it is extremely bright is an understatement. The Honeywell utility light will make life a little brighter for whomever you give it to (Honeywell, $19.99 at SamsClub.com).
I recently went on the quest for the perfect cookie. Repeated recommendations online took me to this French baking sheet that works incredibly well. If you know someone who loves to bake but who hasn’t yet found a great, reusable, non-stick surface to bake on, give them a Silpat. Cookies bake beautifully on it and it eliminates the constant fighting with bits stuck on the cookie sheet that makes clean up a hassle and the bottoms of the cookies misshapen (Silpat, $24.99 at Amazon.com).
Do you have a Mac-using shutterbug in your life? Give the gift of a different kind of photo editor. Unlike the excellent Affinity Photo, the Gimp and most other contenders that don’t include “Adobe” in the name, Pixelmator marches to its own drummer with a decidedly non-Photoshop interface. That can be initially a downside for the PS-familiar user, but its machine learning tools make it earn its keep. The first major photo editor to offer an AI-powered Super Resolution tool for intelligent enlarging (and shrinking) of photos, they’ve subsequently added one of the best AI subject selection tools, AI detail restoration and a very good AI “healing brush” for removing unwanted details. (Uncanny as it might be, Pixelmator was erasing the unsightly before Google’s “Magic Eraser” dropped on the unrelated Pixel phones.)
AI aside, Pixelmator is a smart, well-designed photo editor that has also gained useful video editing capabilities in recent releases. Those and other additions have come as free updates and there’s no subscription involved (Pixelmator, $25 on sale on the Mac App Store).
(Unfortunately, the Mac App Store does not support gifting of apps right now, but it is on sale for $25. Give your recipient a $25 gift card and then encourage them to download it. They’ll thank you later after they see how well it works.)
The coffee lover amongst you needs a better coffee maker and this is it. It is a better Keurig brewer than a Keurig, brewing coffee faster and with more personalization options than most official K-Cup brewers. It does regular, strong and iced coffee modes. Plus, it is a very good regular drip coffee maker, replacing the trusty Mr. Coffee your recipient might have for entertaining.
So, when your recipient is in a hurry, it’ll take those ever-so-convenient K-Cups, but when he or she has more time, less money or more guests, it’ll brew a highly customizable, delicious pot of coffee using ground coffee. A knob on the side even allows the DualBrew Pro to route hot water directly (skipping the filter basket) for tea, ramen bowls and anything else that just needs hot water (Shark/Ninja, $135 on sale at Amazon.com).
I seldom drink soda, which makes this recommendation odd. But, I’ve fallen in love with the SodaStream system. Not for the saccharinely sweet sodas (which are all artificial sweetened, albeit not from saccharine), but the “Bubly drops” that provide unsweetened, lightly flavored carbonated waters. The SodaStream carbonates a 1 liter bottle of water in seconds, for pennies, and then 3/4 of a teaspoon of syrup from a variety of Bubly drop flavors turns that fizzy water into something fun and refreshing. The entire experience is made dead simple as the company offers an easy carbon dioxide tank exchange system by mail, keeping one well stocked in the gas that adds all the fizzy magic to water (SodaStream, $79 on Amazon).
(Unfortunately, SodaStream followed Keurig in finding a way to add new proprietary tweaks to its system to keep people locked in, changing the CO2 bottles to ones that have a patented valve. That may be a reason to try one of the clones, but users of those alternative soda makers report mixed results with those.)