Well, in 3 days, Christmas time will be here again. The bells will be ringing, everyone singing, and it will be the most, wonderful time of the year. And, it will be the morning when people open up gifts they love, gifts they hate, and gifts that … should never have been given! Next to clothing and the ever risque ‘cleaning’ or ‘cooking’ product, is one of the more difficult gifts to give: technology!! From televisions to cell phones, technology is a big step in most peoples’ lives. It’s the lifeline to communications, productivity, and for some, social status. Giving a teenager an out-of-date i-phone is dangerous at best … depending on the response you were hoping to get. And, as the I.T. guy, I have seen my fair share of flops, failures, oopses, regrets, and just plain bad gift choices. So, whether or not you’ve filled your Christmas list and are sitting at home with your feet up on the couch, a dozen presents under the tree, and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” playing for the 34th miraculous time on your TV, here are 10 things to keep in mind when going tech, at Christmas:
[Sorry – this is long, but tech is my thang … so I gots a lot t’ say ’bout it! And, it’s the end of the year – so this is the big ‘un!]
1. Christmas Lights. No – this isn’t a gift item … this is about something in your own home, going on right now. From Christmas lights on the tree to the Chevy Chase inspired rooftop that can cause a black-out, Christmas lights are a bigger burden than most people realize. When we think of our power bill, it tends to be one of those helpless situations where we’re all just at the mercy of the utilities. However, there is a system of billing known as “on-peak” and “off-peak” hours. You can apply this to some of your other appliances this holiday season, too. On-peak hours are the most expensive. They vary from region to region and you would have to look up your specific power utility provider on-line to see what hours are on or off peak for you. The difference can be staggering! And, since Christmas lights are most effective at night, it’s better to wait until you reach those night time hours to start burning the midnight oil … er, um … LEDs! Based on some of my calculations, depending on the region where you live, on a daily basis, you could save as much as $15 per day (especially if you’re celebrating a National Lampoon Christmas). That doesn’t sound like much until you consider the 30 days those lights will be up (before, during, and after Christmas), which amounts to $450! The same is true for television, your oven, water heaters, and other high-wattage consumptive devices. So, this winter, save the showers for night, bake what you can after the sun goes down, and maybe get up in the morning, shut off your overnight Christmas lights and give them – and your wallet – a break!
2. Computers! Ah, yes … the wonderful world of computers. How many phone calls have I received on December 26th with the following, “I don’t know how to set this up, it’s just sitting in the box!” Computers are expensive. Typically, they’re not purchased for tech junkies (since those folks are pretty specific about what they do and do not like … and the list is expensive), and more frequently for kids going into college (who probably already understand how to operate their computer). But, what about buying a computer for a family member, like mom, dad, or maybe … grandpa? From 30 years old and up, computers can be intimidating. It doesn’t seem like it to a lot of folks since we live in a computer-era (at least in some parts of the world) … but not everyone lives on that box (which is surprising to some people!).
You can set it up for them and try to help them through it – but if you don’t know what you’re doing … your frustration WILL become theirs! You can try to teach them, but if you’re not well versed in the entire I.T. industry (and any I.T. person will tell you … we wear a LOT of hats … a LOT!), or you’re not understanding or patient enough to have to explain “click the mouse button” fourteen times over again, your efforts will really bring the joy of the gift down. While I’m a huge advocate against the WAY overpriced Geek Squad option of generally unskilled labor from Best Buy – there are always other options. Search around, ask at Church (if you go), check with a local community college and pay for a few lessons in advance as part of the gift, or maybe even ask your I.T. guys at work for a reference ( … don’t put them on the spot ’cause some I.T. guys can be real jerks and you want to be on their good side … which is why a box of donuts also helps when you ask). Find someone local in your area who knows their stuff! I can verbally talk people through almost any situation, training, repair, or other activity over the phone without ever having to see the screen. If you can find that – the gift is invaluable!
3. New PC Software! Okay – so you got them a computer. Great, now what? Surf the internet. Wow … fun. Do they have internet? How much do they pay? Is it high speed? Do they have an email account set up? Do they have a password? DO THEY KNOW WHAT A PASSWORD IS (yes … I’ve encountered this as recently as the last couple of months!)? These are all important planning tips you’ll need to and want to have (and if you do bring a professional in to give them a crash course, you’ll want to make sure those are the types of questions you hear asked to know the teacher is good). But, now you’ve let them surf the internet and they’re inspired! Grandma wants to know what to do with those pictures. Can she download them, edit them, or print them? Is there software for that? See, a lot of misleading campaigns in the p.c. world that include words like “Microsoft Office Included!” FAIL, on an EPIC scale, to be honest (and really – I don’t think it’s legal but I also don’t think anyone checks on it). I encounter this problem on a non-stop basis. Even when you talk to your Best Buy reps or other sales persons, they may fail to tell you that the software is “trial” and you’re going to have to spend another $200 and up to get Microsoft Office. But, what do you get? The $600 enterprise package that will NEVER be used by mom or dad, or the $110 Student and Home Edition? This is not the time to think “Hey, I bought them a computer, it’s up to them to get the add-ons.” That’s great for a blender, because the blender can be used straight out of the box. For a computer – it means a frustrating hassle for the person you just gifted! Other software, like games – yeah, that’s an add-on.
Maybe you want to use Office 360, the online version? (Although, I will simply recommend that you spend a LOT of time reading the disclaimers about intellectual property ownership, security of information, etc. BEFORE choosing that option … there’s a reason the software is still being sold and everyone’s not online … not to mention internet instability!). But, no matter what you do, when you buy the computer, just make sure that if someone wants to type, copy recipes, download some photos and print them, etc. – that you’ve made sure the software is on there … or else you just bought a great, big paperweight!
And, help people understand … please … that computers are not monsters of infallibility! Computers are highly sensitive, fragile pieces of technology. They don’t like smoke, dust, moisture, bad talk, negativity, or Microsoft (oh … well … NOBODY likes Microsoft). While I don’t like to advocate brands for people since most computers, regardless of brand, come from only 1 or 2 source manufacturers, all computers break and that should be a key consideration. I personally only go through Dell because I like being able to pay for the replacement plan, super cheap, and just getting a new one sent to me to replace the current one and not have too much of a hassle. Other vendors offer different plans – so take a minute and read the details. You want to give a gift someone will appreciate … not “re-gift”. I don’t buy new – I buy those certified, refurbished, dented machines (because they actually rarely mean that … when what that actually means is that some company ordered a dozen and then cancelled the order and now the vendor is stuck with them!). Lots of vendors have their certified refurbished systems available only online, and will also back those up with a replacement plan, too.
One more thing to keep in mind: my rule of thumb is as simple as this: if you’re not happy, I’m not doing my job. You’ve got to be comfortable with the brand, whether or not I like it or it does what I think it should. Remember that as a gift giver … if the person you’re giving it to isn’t “comfortable” with it … you just threw away a LOT of good money ’cause they won’t use it.
Finally, in the computer category: backup! Yes, for a lousy $99 (well … for some of us, that’s still a fortune), you can buy a 3 terabyte (<= BIG number for those who don’t know), external drive. Why? Computers fail. The internet fails. Online backups – not what you hear in advertising. I’ve seen online backups work literally 35 – 40% of the time, and the rest of the world spends tens of thousands trying to fix what has been lost. I, personally, would NEVER leave a company subject to only on-line back-ups. Even your email system, Google, Hotmail, or a private service provider, has a disclaimer that says not to use their system as a back-up for your emails and if they’re lost … too bad. Yes, it says that – go read that disclaimer you previously clicked past if you want. An external drive is great if properly used. There is an article that was written in 2013 with a lot of good info that is available publicly, here. Among the things it covers is also buying an external safe to protect the external hard drive. Fire, water, and other damage will destroy everything – so better to protect that hard drive because frankly, that’s what it’s for. Now – grandma doesn’t need an external hard drive and will probably never learn to use it. But, kids who love their music, Netflix, and other streaming game services (that they can’t live without), would be prime candidates!
4. Cell Phones! Yes – the awesome leash that American communities are now tied to, day and night. The glorious picture of the Cowboy, riding into the sunset … with his bluetooth earpiece flashing in the wind … *sigh* (as you can see, I’m not the biggest fan). Android or I-Phone? (Yeah right … as if you even have to ask … because guaranteed, every person you know has an opinion on it and has shared it!). Ask any salesperson and the answer’s the same … if they’re on commission … it’s the most expensive. Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, and others that push 2-year commitment plans make some money on those and some on the sale of the box. Some stores, even though they carry the logo and brand name, are not “Corporate” stores. And, in those stores, there may be less of a push for a data plan and more for an expensive phone because they make their money by selling as many boxes as they can. And, having been involved in that industry for a while – it doesn’t matter who you are – they are there to sell you whatever they can whether or not you need or want it.
The AT&T kind hearted gal … doesn’t exist (well … in real life she’s Milana Vayntrub, I meant as a Progressive/Flo/Santa Claus kind of awesome salesperson). The professional who wants to pair you with the “right” phone … doesn’t exist. I-phones will be pushed because they represent status … not because of quality. Here’s the deal: every phone breaks. Every phone has highlights and shortcomings. A $700 I-phone with night-time picture taking ability sounds awesome … on paper. How many night-time pictures will you take in the next year before buying the next I-phone? C’mon … realistically? Some phones offer ‘cool’ features like interactive virtual pictures … or 3D photos … that, by the way, they will conveniently fail to tell you that those can’t be transferred or used elsewhere. Yay … sounded neat … but be forewarned (and tell the person you’re giving it to), and don’t let it be some crappy downer that they learn after going out and using that feature repeatedly (in the hopes they can share it with all their friends). Some services like Facebook are making those options a reality … but it is slow coming. Samsung has dominated the Android market and gone so far as to make higher quality phones that … they have been known to sometimes conveniently leave external micro SD card options out of and try to push people on-line. This may not matter to people who use their phones mostly for phone calls, but for those who use the cameras non-stop – this is a problem (so make sure if you bought a cell phone, you’ve taken that into consideration – or quick – take it back!). Unless you have unlimited data … stupid. That’s another concern: what kind of data plan does the service provider offer and at what cost? A gamer, movie watcher, e-mailer, picture taker/uploader, etc., unless they’re on their home network, will suck up a LOT of bandwidth. Unlimited – fine. Otherwise … those are some big bucks.
And, while we’re on the topic, what about coverage? If you’re in a metropolitan area and won’t travel out of it much – you’re probably good with ANY provider. Urban and rural … may have some issues. Country – everyone will. You can’t trust the service maps (as has recently become a big joke on T.V. among the fighting advertisements of service providers). It’s best to try it out yourself. Drive through the neighborhood, or check around, to see which provider offers the best coverage at the place the phone will be used the most: home. Otherwise, you’re dooming someone to some pretty frustrating head tilting and standing outside just to have a conversation. What about those pay as you go, phones? This is an especially great option for someone who is lower income and also for younger kids. If you’re getting cell phones for kids (although I HIGHLY advocate against sucking them down the spiral with the rest of the country at such an early age), and you want them to be able to receive phone calls at all times (for safety), you can still get pay-as-you-go phones that give them unlimited talk, and pay-only data (for a WHOLE lot less cost). That way, games require them to do some chores, act nice, or at least pretend to – and it can be a highly motivational tool that keeps you saving money (great for making them keep grades up, too).
So, consider checking cell coverage, price options, and a person’s needs and wants before buying a cell phone. (You have time to fix it – go do it – right now! Or, you’re giving the gift of headaches with customer service and exchanges to whomever the phone is given). Maybe your kid wants the newest I-Phone ’cause that will give them the false impression that it has made them cool in school. If it really does make them cool … it makes you look like an ass because that means no other kid has a cell phone and you’re the one parent who lacked restraint and good parenting skills. Otherwise, every kid has a cell phone, they’re not supposed to be using them in school … and a $500 toy is REALLY expensive! I don’t care HOW much money you have. Kids are ROUGH on phones, lose things – and phones hold little value to most kids … so losing or breaking it, doesn’t really impact them.
Grandma and grandpa don’t need the newest, 3-D goggles enabled cell phone because they WON’T use the features when they’re on their own (contrary to the recent bout of stupid and misleading commercials from Samsung). They may enjoy it when you’re shoving the goggles on their head … but this year, try to be considerate of THEIR feelings. Is the screen big enough? Can they see icons? WILL IT BE EASY ENOUGH FOR A 6-YEAR OLD TO USE? <= That’s NOT derogatory. That’s actually the BEST way to get someone into a new phone … for REAL! You can show them how, and they can repeat it on their own: voila! You have created a cell phone addict for life! (Hmmm… doesn’t sound so awesome when I say it like that ….)
5. Cell Phone Data control: I have seen it a thousand times and more … parents come in fuming in the ears, fire in the eyes, and daggers in hand, literally screaming about how they’ve been cheated because they weren’t told about the data overages and it’s all a mistake and now they owe $1,800!! (YES! More than once have I seen that dollar amount be the ACTUAL bill for ONE MONTH!). If it’s an Android (I’m not sure about I-Phone … make the sales rep PROVE it to you before you buy) – it is supposed to have data control features (be careful, not all of them do). What can you do with data control? Allow streaming and downloading ONLY over wireless networks and NOT the mobile network (thus eliminating ALL possibility of data overages). Cap data usage to LESS THAN 50 mb of your monthly, total allotment (the “less than” gives you a little wiggle room in case some program accidentally circumvented it). It can give you warnings when you reach data limits. And, so on. Don’t be fooled or trapped into $1,800 bills! If you buy yourself or ANYONE else a cell phone – be sure you explain to them what their data cap is AND HELP them keep that in control!
Also, be careful about Mobile Phone apps and tracking. Cell phone tracking is a real problem. It’s not just because of government agencies or the authorities, but because of strangers, hackers, and potentially harmful people. Angry Birds might be a fun game … but the fact that it requires permission to make and receive phone calls WITHOUT YOU … should be a little bothersome to everyone! And, maybe you’re not personally worried about invasiveness … but what about your kids? Who do you want spying on them? Worse, since you keep detailed information about your friends and family on your phone, failing to be conscientious about how you use your phone also puts them at risk and makes you a bad friend. Don’t be a bad friend … nobody wants that … Leave that for the know-it-all, pompous jerk who can’t keep secrets anyway (and you know who you are!!! That’s right … I’m giving you the stink eye even as you read this!). Maybe you want to give a cell phone – but maybe, right now, just isn’t the right time. It doesn’t make you a bad parent or friend – it makes you the GOOD one!
6. Tech Insurance! Insurance is NOT just for cell phones – it’s for computers, too. Sure, there are “limited manufacturer warranties.” Go online and look this up for yourself if you want … these SUCK. There are some exceptions. For example, HTC offered an unlimited warranty for the 1st year of the phone’s life (on one of their models) … and it was under ANY condition. Even if the phone was stolen! Now – provider insurances are not cheap, have massive limitations and terms, and are subject to change on a whim. So, search around. I believe Squaretrade offers a pretty inexpensive (literally only dollars per month) warranty that is unlimited to any condition (and, although I don’t know if the reviews are real … first time I’ve seen ALL positive reviews on phone insurance!). Just be sure to do your homework – there are good options out there – and it’s almost as valuable as the gift itself! Folks, I’ve seen phones dropped in toilets, the ocean, bath tubs, kitchen sinks, chewed up cell phone by a seal (<= yep, the animal!), and the worst of all … sweat infiltration from cell phones kept under large sweaty breasts (yes, that’s a thing … and it’s a disgusting thing). And, no matter how much you scream at the service folks that your phone has never even been exposed to water or left its box, when they open it up and water drains out (<= yep, been there, too), you might be up the creek (<=hahaha … water reference) as far as getting a replacement on a limited warranty. Don’t trust service centers. It’s left to the discretion of the worker. While my family and I ran some awesome service centers back in the day, when I left, the quality of the staff tanked – BAD. Service techs were turning away countless service requests because they thought the phone had been dropped or mistreated WHEN it WASN’T. The truth is … they were just being jerks about it without good supervision or oversight. But, insurance companies will default to the tech who looks at your phone and as per the contract you signed .. that’s the final word. So, GET INSURANCE (preferably from a 3rd party)!
NO – you will most likely (less than 90% of the time), get a brand new phone. This is insurance on cell phones … not cars. But – don’t be a brat about it. Really – I spite those people! The phone you’re using … the brand new one … is NOT brand new. Why do you think there are phone recycling programs that BUY BACK your old phone? Don’t be stupid … parts are shipped overseas, sweat factories disassemble them, take the parts, and make new phones. It’s not a secret. It’s not some conspiracy. It’s just the way it is. Be glad you can pay $80 per year and if you lose a $500 phone, get a replacement without having to pay another $500!
7. Televisions. Well, this seems easy, right? Bigger is better! And, sadly, while that’s sometimes true, it also means a bigger price tag. If you’re on a budget and getting someone a 30″ screen, 4k HD smart television on sale for $79 – then GOOD for you! Those bad boys are normally, really expensive! If someone gets grumpy about it or seems ungrateful afterward – hey … that’s ENTIRELY on them! But, there are a few things to consider. I am NOT a fan of letting others buy me electronics (although I probably wouldn’t have much without their help). Why? They get what THEY think is good. Big screen means awesome television, right? Well … what about the sound? At max volume – I can barely hear it. Of course, that will also be affected by the type of cable or satellite box, whether you run it through a video game console, and so on. Remember, demonstration models are set up to run the best quality audio and video (and most likely the audio doesn’t come from that television, but rather, from one of the nearby stereo systems or the PA system). So, when you buy a gift, try to not be you. Be them. Do they like their theater and expect to recreate that at home? Then … a 30″ screen won’t cut it. Do they need a bigger screen to see? That may mean higher cost – but anything less – and it’s just another frustration for them. Does the TV have buttons on it/is it easy to use (I’ve encountered this problem with 3 different “smart” tv’s)? Do the people you’re buying for have home owner’s or rental insurance to protect their new T.V., or should you buy the warranty?
8. Stereos, DVDs, and Blu-Ray players, oh my! I’ve seen some awesome surround sound systems purchased for folks that used them to hold up their DVD players – and that’s it (making me cry since “I” want a surround sound system ….). I’ve seen Blu-Ray/home theater stereo systems purchased that only play surround sound for the Blu-Ray player, leaving everything else falling flat and making for a LOT of frustration and ungratefulness. Is an $89.99 Blu-Ray player better than a $59.99? Well, the more expensive units will support a higher-definition quality output. Does that matter when watching Pixar vs. live action? Your younger children don’t care about high definition with their Sesame Street and older adults who watch 80’s throwback movies will never get the full effect of the high definition. Plus, consider what a person’s purchasing ability is. Can they afford the higher priced HD, 4k, 1080p, super-ultra 3D movies, or are they going to stream it or rent it on DVD at basic, high quality? If you’re going to buy someone great audio – don’t necessarily buy “the sound bar“. It’s neat … it sits in front of everything, it’s sort of in the way of the remote sensor on the bottom of the TV, and it’s more a way of making you buy speakers for your TV because the TV happened to come with cruddy audio even if it did cost near $1000. How much should you spend and what types should you get? Well … don’t think of yourself, think of the people you’re shopping for and wanting to see THEM smile! CNet has a great review on bars from $300 and up. The Klipsch Joint has a great review explaining some of the trade-offs for a full, surround sound system vs. a sound bar. For those counting and willing to send me my present early … I want the surround sound system!
9. Smart Watches – are they too smart … or just too dumb? Wired Magazine has a good article on the ever-improving quality of smart watches. But, for $400? Hmmm… vs. a Timex Ironman series watch for around $129 that’s durable and awesome … I’m not so sure that a smart watch is a “smart” idea. Their primary purpose is fitness. But, I’ve now been in meetings with people tapping their watches that ring, talk to them, bleep, bloop, and do ten other things that seem more annoying than productive. The bluetooth in the ear fad was big for a while and it became a status symbol. I’m just going to speculate here and say that smart watches are quickly becoming the current trend in wearable tech status symbols. Nobody’s going full James Bond and ever going to have all that much success with it. Eventually, they’ll forget to charge it, it won’t pair up properly, their phone’s O/S will upgrade and it will stop syncing, etc. etc. etc. I’m not sure I would spend $400 on a ‘fad’.
Here’s where this gets interesting, though. I’m not convinced the 24-year old corporate guy or gal, working out in the gym and on the move, needs to care about their heart rate 24/7. On the other hand, the older, 50 years and up folks taking blood pressure meds, do. This may be one piece of technology that’s actually good to get for the older crowd. It tells them you love and care about their health enough to spend a LOT of money on them, and it gives them a way to avoid going to the doctor so often! Sadly, I probably know about 30 – 40 ‘older’ folks, who have the watch for that reason – and just stopped wearing it after a while. Having to upload data online and review it for their doctor and themselves is actually a real pain in the rear for some. Taking it on and off so frequently to charge it is also a bother. So, the watches are not being worn as much by those who need it and continue to be a novelty item. When the price drops and the data can be automated with doctors, then, this might be a good idea.
10. Last, but certainly not least: Drones! Everybody wanted a drone for a while. Then the remote control robot and car industry boomed again. And, inevitably, they joined forces with the video cam industry and … boom! A nation of perverts that the FCC has to crack down on! *sigh*. Have you seen the drone prices? These things are over-priced, mostly hollow, excessively fragile plastic. The motors are not really that high end and the battery life still sucks. Drones are not all they’re made out to be, and you should REALLY read an article on this before making any investments. Drones are making their way into the robotics industry and as part of clubs that join together for stunt or track flying. In this way, they are fun, entertaining, and highly educational toys that can teach people a lot about teamwork (or initiate a lot of fighting among really competitive kids). The point is – they have their place in the market, and right now, it seems to be moving toward corporations, safety, Hollywood, and the military. Individual use is still limited and expensive. However, drones are fun, and if they’re in the budget, then it’s probably not too bad of a gift … as long as you understand it’s a novelty gift that will end up in a closet, with dust on it … eventually. (And, when considering the camera of choice for drones – do your homework, there are cameras out there now that are ‘proprietary’ about how they store photos and will REALLY screw up micro SD cards! I’d list some links to the trouble-support reviews on this – but you ‘gots Google, I’ll let you do it!).
So, there you have it. Really long as always, but hopefully some good information that can help give you some ideas of what to do for Christmas and how to be best prepared for those tech gadgets you want to give. Remember the most important part of gift giving: it’s about their needs, and not yours. If you put the person you’re giving gifts to, first, then more than likely, in the infamous words of George Carlin, “… it won’t suck!”
I mean, there’s nothing wrong with gift giving, is there? Well, aside from the multitude of issues pointed out in this article that you most likely didn’t think about and the massive commercialism overdose of Christmas … here’s a few things to consider:
And, one of my favorites: stress. Yes, stress. You want to buy the right gift, give the right thing, worry about whether or not they’ll like it, worry about if you lose the receipt so it can’t be returned, and so on and so on. That doesn’t sound too … “Christmas-y” to me. Commercialism has hurt Christmas. But, you still want to do something nice for someone else because it’s one way you can pretend that everything in life is good and be happy. No – that is not mean of me to say. You are valuable as a person and so is your time, but, you do not get to “make” other people happy, that’s their own choice. And, as an example, more than likely, you’ve listened to someone in your life be ungrateful for what they received, no matter how much good intention was involved with it. Gift giving is an emotional high – and in winter time when people are more apt to be depressed, it helps – really (that’s a pretty well established fact and explains the excessive levels people go to at Christmas time). That is NOT to say that it’s not also just a nice thing to do – but it all comes down to “intention“, and only YOU can answer that question!
Of course, there is one gift you can always give that is more important than any other: togetherness. Just knowing you’re loved, that someone cares, sharing a friendly conversation, laughing at a joke, and hugging someone is more powerful than any “thing” you might give.
So, take care to consider the ramifications and complications with a technology-based gift and what you can do to make it a better experience. And, in the words of that great, immortal elf, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
(yes … I know it was written “Happy Christmas,” but I don’t care .. that sounds stupid. BAH HUMBUG I SAY!)