Even though most people have and use the camera on their cell phones, there are still a number of different and cool video- and photo-related gadgets available for holiday shoppers to peruse.
The following are our picks for cameras (still or video) as well as devices and objects that let you view content on your TV or smaller gadgets.
Note: Products are listed in no particular order or preference. Prices are also rounded-up estimates from either the product's website or Amazon.com. Better deals may be offered online during the holiday season.
The Moverio BT-100 is a pair of glasses that provide a viewing screen when a user puts them on. This lets users watch videos, listen to music or even visit Web sites (if connected to a Wi-Fi network). Unlike other glasses that provide a virtual video screen, the BT-100 allows enough transparency for users to see what else is going on around them. This means if you're wearing them while sitting on a flight, you can still see when the flight attendant comes over to ask you if you want a drink. However, this doesn't mean you should use these while driving.
When you put the glasses on, you see an Android-based operating system and interface that lets you view photos, movies or listen to music. The interface is operated through an iPod-sized control unit, with a touch-pad and buttons that act like a computer mouse. However, this caused some problems, especially when trying to type in a very long Wi-Fi password on my network.
If you wear prescription glasses, you can adjust the BT-100 to let the unit slip over the glasses, but in my testing I found this a difficult fit. Thinner glasses work better than thicker ones. You can wear your own earbuds, or attach two separate ones (one for each ear) provided by Epson.
In addition, media is stored on a microSD card, and the unit doesn't come with an SD card adapter, so getting music and videos onto the BT-100 could be very frustrating for some.
Overall this felt like an unfinished symphony - the parts are there for something wonderful, but you keep noticing things that are missing or just not right. I'd keep an eye on this space for a second-generation unit from Epson (or if others create their own versions).
- Keith Shaw
D-Link has done an excellent job with this upgrade of its original MovieNite streaming media player, adding Internet streaming services that were sorely lacking before. The MovieNite Plus unit is very small and portable, connecting to your TV via an included audio/video cable or HDMI (which you'll want to get if you have an HD set). The box also connects to the Internet via an Ethernet port or Wi-Fi.
Setup is rather simple - connect to the TV, the Internet, power up and then configure any services that you might already subscribe to. The main appeal of the device is access to Netflix and Vudu for streaming movies and TV shows, but other services are available, including access to Pandora and Rhapsody for music, or Internet platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. The MovieNite Plus also allows access to Vudu Apps and its own MovieNite Apps, which include video content from brands such as Funny or Die, TED, TMZ, TVGuide, among others.
The remote control is powered by two AA batteries (included), and is easy to operate - the interface is clean and simple. The unit includes support for 5.1 audio (via HDMI) as well as 1080p (again, via HDMI, and the service needs to support it - Netflix currently doesn't, but Vudu does).
For users with access to other D-Link products, such as their Internet or Cloud cameras, you can access their feeds via the MyDlink app. For example, if you have a camera at a summer home, you can monitor it through your TV instead of a computer web browser.
Overall, D-Link has done a great job including the latest video services - this device should be on the short list if you're looking for a streaming media player for yourself or someone on your holiday gift list.
- Keith Shaw
If you have a high-definition TV and a video source that can transmit via HDMI cable, you may want to enhance that picture with the Darblet. The device is a small HDMI video processor that connects between your video source (game console, streaming media box, Blu-ray video player) to provide additional picture clarity - the company says it "embeds real depth information into the video stream".
The unit is easy to set up - just take an existing HDMI cable from your video source and connect it to the HDMI input on the Darblet. Then take another HDMI cable (sadly, Darbee doesn't include a cable, so you'll need to purchase an additional one) and connect it from the HDMI output port to your TV. Plug in the Darblet's power adapter and the unit is connected.
While looking at content with the naked eye might be a bit difficult to see a big difference in video quality, fortunately the company provides a remote control that can turn the unit on or off, allowing you to see the difference in the picture with and without the Darblet. There's also a "DEMO" button that splits the screen in half, again allowing you to see quality differences. In my tests, I connected the unit to a Roku streaming media box and an Xbox 360 - for the most part with the Darblet connected I could see a slight increase in the sharpness of the picture. Again, your experiences may differ depending on the video source you connect to - games and/or video from your TV box may give different ranges of picture improvement.
At $350, some people may balk at the high price in order to gain the picture quality improvements noted here. High-end videophiles may appreciate the improved sharpness and clarity from the system, but I'm not sure whether the average consumer would care enough about the differences.
- Keith Shaw
It's been several years since we've seen a new Slingbox model, a set-top box that lets you view your own TV content (from a cable box, DVR or satellite connection) over the Internet via a Web browser or mobile device app. The latest model, the Slingbox 500, adds up-to-date features that enhance an already excellent product.
The new model can connect to HD televisions via HDMI cables (and component, which can show TV channels that might be protected with HDCP). In addition, the 500 now supports Wi-Fi networks (I'd recommend having it connect via 802.11n for optimal bandwidth), but you can still connect directly to your router via Ethernet cable.
Setup is still relatively simple - the box sits between your TV source (cable box) and your TV, then you connect to your router or setup the Wi-Fi connection via the system's menu interface. After some quick configuration for your specific cable box, service provider and remote control, you're up and running.
Viewing the TV content via Web browser involves installing a plugin (at least for the Mac version I tested with), and creating a Sling login that tells the system to access your particular Slingbox. Picture quality over my Wi-Fi network was stellar, viewing both on the Mac and via an iOS app on my iPhone 4. The iOS apps (for iPhone and iPad) cost an additional $14.95 each, but are well worth it if you want to watch the TV content on an iPhone or iPad away from your home. Another big selling point is that there are no subscription fees - once you pay for the Slingbox upfront, that's all you need.
Viewing content over my phone's 3G network was a bit spotty - at times the system pauses due to system lag or latency - while you can adjust the stream quality from an HD stream down to SD, in spotty coverage areas you may still find some issues. Additionally, a stream of this sort could quickly use up any bandwidth caps on your phone's data plan, so use with caution and use sparingly if you can.
For a long time I figured the best use case was for travelers who wanted to watch a live sporting event for their favorite team while they were in a different part of the country, but I discovered an even better use for this. While out with my 3-year-old daughter waiting for a school event to begin, I was able to quickly entertain her by handing her my iPhone and letting her watch the Disney Junior channel without needing to dig for a special app or load up some other videos. Grumpy children issue solved - thanks Slingbox!
If you haven't considered getting a Slingbox up until now, the holidays are a perfect time to reconsider. The latest updates to the box keep up with the latest technologies on the audio/video quality and network speed fronts, making this a great gift for anyone who loves TV.
- Keith Shaw
The Obsess Nightstand is a pair of devices that let you stream video content wirelessly to a high-definition TV. It's aimed at the hotel/hospitality industry for them to put the devices into a guest's room, but you could certainly buy this for yourself and put it in your own bedroom, living room or even a guest room (boy, would people want to stay over at your house then!).
The receiver connects to the HDTV via an HDMI cable (fortunately, one is provided if you need it). The other unit is the nightstand, which includes an alarm clock and an Apple Universal Dock Connector (which also can recharge any iOS device connected to it). When an iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) is connected to the dock, any videos played from the unit is then wirelessly streamed to the receiver and TV. This includes any movies/TV shows purchased through the Apple Store, or a user's personal videos that they've loaded onto the unit.
The nightstand unit also includes an HDMI input for connecting devices like a laptop, Android tablet or video game console. This provides wireless streaming for those devices as well.
I would have preferred to see some kind of internal speakers on the nightstand unit that would let users listen to music through the base unit rather than requiring a wireless stream to the TV - while the inclusion of an alarm is nice for hotel guests, giving them the option to wake up to their own music would have been a cool idea as well.
Is this a holiday gift? It's hard to tell. Buying this unit requires contact with a G-Link sales staff member, you can't get this through Amazon or other online channels. But for the hospitality industry, it's a nice unit designed to give mobile device owners a chance to view their media content on a larger screen while in their hotel rooms.
- Keith Shaw
This 14.4 megapixel digital camera features 15x optical zoom, 3-inch LCD display, optical image stabilization, a wide-angle lens, HDR (high dynamic range imaging), HD video shooting, and a lithium-ion battery. It has eight shooting modes and allows for multiple exposures and panoramas. The camera can take up to 10 photos per second, perfect for photographing fast-paced scenes. It has a rubber grip that makes it easier to hold and an all-glass lens to prevent scratches. The camera is light and compact, yet has excellent shooting capabilities, making it a great gift for a photography enthusiast who wants a camera to carry around at all times.
I have an Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1, which goes for $400; the bodies of the two are roughly the same size, but the E-PM1 lacks a retractable lens, making it much bulkier (and prone to damage). However, the G100 has a longer delay between the press of the shutter button and the actual snap of the shutter. The G100 is a more cost-efficient alternative to the E-PM1, especially considering durability. I also have a Canon PowerShot SX130, about $125, which is much bulkier than the G100, and the buttons are more difficult to press. Although the G100 lacks some of the features of the E-PM1, it beats both other cameras in size, durability, and ease of use.
- Abigail Weinberg
I've always been a huge fan of place-shifting appliances, such as the Slingbox family and the Monsoon Multimedia Vulkano product reviewed last year. The idea is simple - take whatever is on your TV and shift it to where you want to watch it, even a mobile device on a wide-area wireless network.
Belkin's @TV Plus is the latest entry in this exciting space, although it is just a repackaged Monsoon product. Basically, the device takes video input (on component or composite jacks, plus stereo audio) and converts this to a video stream over Ethernet or the built-in 300Mbps 802.11n Wi-Fi (single-band 2.4GHz. only). There's an IR blaster that can control a set-top box for changing channels. Screen resolutions up to 1080i are supported.
What's missing, though, is HDMI, and that's basically unforgivable today. It's not that the picture quality suffers (it doesn't, either on the PC or the TV via the the pass-through feature of the device); and, after all, the target device for viewing will often be a handheld. But the convenience of one-cable HDMI is undeniable, and Belkin needs to add this feature to future products. There's also no manual, a serious oversight.
Setup is a fairly long process - plan on about an hour to download the software, update firmware, configure the device, and set your preferences. There's a bug that prevents your location from being properly set, but I got the device working with Verizon FiOS with only a few bad words involved. There's about five seconds of latency with respect to the original signal, but audio and video are nicely synchronized on the PC, and image quality is excellent.
I'm not sure how usable this device will be in the general wide-area (3G/4G, as opposed to Wi-Fi) case, given the increasing popularity of metered data plans and the highly variable response of even LTE data. But the convenience of placeshifting is undeniable - I use it (via a Monsoon product) over the WLAN in my house, and TV is thus available if I want on essentially all of the screens in the house.
Now, if I only had time to watch it.
Assuming the techie on your list isn't quite so busy though, the Belkin isn't a bad gift. I'd personally wait for an HDMI version, but the current product is more than useful.
- Craig Mathias
It's been a while since I've tried out a digital camera - for the most part my cameras these days are dedicated video camcorders or the camera on my smartphone. The last time I owned a digital camera was about eight years ago, a Nikon point-and-shoot (I usually pass out the digital cameras for this gift guide to the other Cool Yule elves).
If you're like me and take more photos with your smartphone, you're missing out on some new and unique features in the digital camera space. I was quite surprised and very impressed with the features of the Samsung Smart Camera (WB850F), both with the hardware and the on-camera software.
First, the hardware details - the camera has a 16.2-megapixel CMOS Sensor, a 23mm wide 21x optical zoom lens and a 3-inch AMOLED screen for viewing photos and videos. Videos can be recorded at 1080p resolution at 30 frames per second. In fact, you can boost the frame rate to 480 fps if you don't mind shooting at a lower resolution (176 x 128) - I may try to make some slow-motion videos with that mode. The camera also has built-in Wi-Fi that lets you transfer photos (and small movie clips) to social sharing sites, email addresses or back up to the cloud (via Microsoft SkyDrive). GPS is used for geotagging images if you so desire.
Buttons on the camera are solidly built, and navigating through menus was easy and intuitive. I've been annoyed by cameras with touch screen interfaces that never seem to register accurately - it was nice to be able to choose options and settings by using a nav-pad and OK button press.
Now, the software. Included on the camera are some really fun modes that you've likely seen on digital cameras before - 3D shooting, Magic Frame, and multiple panorama modes. A split shot mode lets you take two photos and merge them into one image (like put heads on different bodies). In addition, there are several modes and settings that the average pro-sumer photographer will appreciate, including a full manual mode that lets you set aperture and shutter priorities.
My favorite bit of software on the camera was the Creative Movie Maker. This takes photos you've taken and movies you've recorded and mashes them up into an edited movie, complete with your choice of music for the background. You can basically create a cool movie from your photos and videos before you even offload them from the camera. Wicked nice!
The Wi-Fi mode did have some limitations - for movies, you could only upload 30-second clips, and they were sent at reduced resolution (320 x 240) - so don't expect to take a video and automatically upload them.
If you want to graduate beyond your smartphone's camera or point-and-shoot but don't want the huge expense and difficulty of a DLSR, this camera is a great option for you. I can see many happy faces if this is a gift that appears under the tree (or inside a gift bag) during the holidays.
- Keith Shaw
I love this camera! The pictures are stunning. The reaction time is snappy. You have the option of manual or automatic, so you can go out and create your own artsy photos or you can let the camera do the thinking if you're at a wedding and would rather focus on the subject of the candid shots than on the aperture opening. Oh, and it was so simple to use that my 5-year-old nephew was taking pictures within five seconds of saying "Can I try?" However, along those lines, I would never buy this camera for my mother or grandmother who just want to easily take pictures of family and pets. It has more capability than they would need. This camera is more serious than that. Plus, this isn't the kind of camera that will fit into a pocket, but that's not what it's built for.
I really appreciated the settings within the automatic feature. While most cameras have options like "sports" and "distance," this camera has settings that explain more about what the camera will be doing such as "shutter focus" for fast objects.
The only thing I was even remotely disappointed with was the video capability when using the zoom. I think I was asking too much of the camera. I probably zoomed in on something about 40 feet away and then recorded a 3-minute video. Unfortunately, the background wiggles throughout the entire video. The people who I focused on look just fine, but the grass, trees, and everything else behind them are participating in a weird dance party. Other than that, I love this camera. The quality is so high for such a low price.
For those who love specs - the camera features 14.4 megapixels and a 26x optical zoom, with image stabilization. It has a 2.7-inch LCD screen and an old-fashioned viewfinder (I know, I might be the only one left on the planet who likes those). Videos can be shot in full 1080p HD, and the camera includes an HDMI output to connect to a projector or HDTV. For those looking for the manual feature, it has 3200 ISO.
I like how this camera can make you feel like a pro, but at an affordable price.
- Jen Finn
This is an easy-to-use video streaming device that links Internet-based HD content to your TV, opening up a world of movies and other content available online. It would make a great gift for someone with an HDTV, a Wi-Fi router, a fast Internet connection and a basic cable subscription they want to augment.
The device itself is dead simple: a tiny box with a power cord, an HDMI cable and an Ethernet port (It's also got an audio/video port and cables). The power cord plugs into the wall, the HDMI cable plugs into the TV and the Wi-Fi in the box connects to the local Internet-connected Wi-Fi router via an easy-to-follow setup wizard displayed on the TV screen.
After that, browse the Internet or use dedicated site buttons (Netflix, Hulu Plus, VUDU, Pandora, YouTube and CinemaNow) to find content on the Internet, sit back and enjoy.
Note: not all streaming video is equal. A viewing of Discovery's "Eating Giants" video revealed less-than-HD quality, even in scenes shot in a studio. (This is a fascinating yet grim portrayal of crocs eating hippos and elephants that you won't want to watch before bedtime. Or mealtime.) But a YouTube streaming of the creditable "Killing Bono" indie movie had video quality indistinguishable from that of an HD video rental via FIOS.
The device comes with its own remote, which was a little finicky and required pointing it carefully at the box. There's also an Android app that turns a smartphone into the remote, but during testing it downloaded but wouldn't install on a Samsung Droid Charge.
NeoTV MAX can also stream from laptops that support Intel Wireless Display, enabling browsing for video content via mouse and keyboard rather than the remote. Or the feature can be used to turn the TV into the screen for whatever is going on on the PC.
- Tim Greene
This camera is a really sweet little gift. It's extremely slender, and could fit in the pocket of a pair of jeans, but still takes very crisp pictures.
My only complaint with this camera is one that I feel I've been having with most point-and-shoot cameras lately: the speed is too slow. It felt like after taking one photo, the camera takes a significant amount of time to reset in order to take a second image. I used this camera at a wedding - while the bridal party was walking down the aisle, I tried to take each couple's photo. At this particular wedding, the couples were about 15 feet apart. I could get a nice shot of the first bridesmaid and groomsman, but the camera wasn't ready to take another photo until the third couple was on their way. I missed the second couple entirely. Perhaps I should have used the multi-shot feature, as this claims to continuously shoot 10 frames per second, but I didn't realize this until after the wedding.
However, the images that you do capture are very high quality, at 18.2 megapixels. The camera also sports a 10x optical zoom and the unit has a 3-inch LCD screen. It can record videos in full 1080p HD. Other features include the "smile feature," which snaps a photos when the camera recognizes a smile, and something similar that doesn't take a photo if someone is blinking. A "natural flash" tries to auto-correct colors, and the "soft skin" feature aims to reduce blemishes on a subject's skin, as well as even out the skin tone. Another feature focuses the foreground and blurs out the background, putting emphasis on the subject.
This camera is a great gift for someone who loves to read manuals and test all of the features. If someone wants to get a lot out of their camera, this is the perfect one. If however, they simply want something to point and shoot with ease, this may not be the product for them.
- Jen Finn
I really liked this camcorder. Simple setup is always a plus in my book, and this was certainly easy. This was a product that my 4- and 5-year-old nephews were able to figure out (needless to say, when I was reviewing the videos afterwards, I found some interesting/adorable surprises). In addition to being easy to use, it has some of its neater features defaulted on. That way, if you don't read the owners' manual until after you use the camera, you don't lose out. For example, when this camera is in video mode, it will also take still photos any time the camera detects smiles, known as the "smile shutter." So in addition to recording a video, the camera surprises you with a bunch of cute stills. Of course this feature can be turned off if you don't like it.
The camera also lets you make basic edits to your videos right on the Handycam. For example, you can split one video into multiple parts, which can be particularly nice if you want to delete parts, such as those awkward moments at the beginning or end of your video. The supplied software also lets you merge two (or more) videos together, but on the computer instead of the camera.
The coolest feature of the camcorder, though, is the projector. While you can play back recorded videos on the flip out, 3-inch LCD screen, you can also use the built-in projector and show them on a wall (or screen). In our tests, I attended a wedding and we were able to review my boyfriend's best man speech the next morning on the wall of our hotel room. Setting up the camera to project and focus on the wall was very easy to do. My only complaint - the touch screen to select what videos to watch wasn't as responsive as I wanted. That said, the camera does come with a remote control, which makes selecting videos to watch more accurate than a finger.
In terms of video quality, it was a bit difficult to judge, as the majority of my videos were taken at a distance with low lighting, so they ended up being a little blurry on my HDTV. They did look great on the camera's smaller screen, as well as the hotel wall. When zoomed in or with a better light source, the videos looked great on the TV. The camera does film in full 1080p HD with an 8.9-megapixel camera for still images. It has a 30x optical zoom, which works very nicely, and those images were crisp and even. The camera has an internal memory of 16GB, but you can also record to an SD card for additional space. Fully charged, the battery would last for 140 minutes of recording.
Other nice features are that you can instruct the camera on how to focus. For example, choosing "face priority" keeps people's faces on focus; "tracking priority" lets you tap the screen to tell the camera to focus on something specific (the manual suggests using this when filming pets). The camera can group videos by date recorded or by location recorded, using its internal GPS. This could be helpful if you want to see all videos from a vacation, or perhaps all the videos you filmed at grandma's house, for example.
Another default feature I enjoyed was voice detection for the microphone's volume, and detection for whether the unit is on a tripod, or if the camera should minimize movement if you're walking and recording. The microphone also records voices from a variety of locations, so if you watch videos with a 5.1 surround sound system, you'll get the full benefit of that sound.
I feel this camcorder would appeal to several types of users - from those who want something easy to those who like to maximize their camera to perform many functions. The projector feature alone makes it a unique and fun way to share recorded videos in real time.
- Jen Finn
The 3M Projector Sleeve is a portable projector about twice the size of an iPhone that you can slide an iPhone 4 or 4S into and dock. It’s lightweight, and there are no additional apps to install, as it works directly with apps already on your iPhone.
You can play movies, TV shows and videos from iTunes - you can also go into your photos and play slideshows or videos you’ve taken with your device. The unit works directly with Netflix and Hulu streaming apps. The picture quality was good, and you can project up to 60-inches diagonally. It holds a charge for up to 100 minutes of projection time and can recharge your iPhone in a pinch.
I only had two issues with the device. First, it didn’t work with the new YouTube app - while it works fine from the YouTube website, it didn’t work with the app. Second, you can’t project your photo album in static form. You have to run it as a slide show in order to see your pictures.
In the end this is a nice consumer projector that would work well on a camping trip, or to provide some entertainment when the lights are out - but as long as you have a way to recharge your phone, as this eats up battery life.
- Tom Lupien
I had the pleasure of testing this device during an important 3-hour meeting. I tested it with my laptop (a three-year-old Lenovo ThinkPad). There was no need to load any software or read the directions, unless you wanted to take advantage of its wireless capabilities. The projector was plug-and-play, very intuitive, yet capable of delivering impressive results.
I streamed a few YouTube videos and ran through a presentation on the laptop using the provided VGA cable. The quality of the picture is as good as its source. It’s amazingly bright and crisp (2,600 lumens and a 1,280 x 800 resolution). The projector also includes a USB port and HDMI connectivity, as well as a wireless USB Key, compatible with the Epson iProjection app for iPad, iPhone or iPod touch presentations.
The projector sets up as fast as you can connect your devices, power up your source device (unless you’re running a PowerPoint presentation through a USB thumb drive, very cool feature) and adjust the picture on the viewing screen or wall.
The only downside was a relatively weak speaker - I’d suggest connecting to a sound system or external speaker.
This would be a great gift for a casual or more involved user - it’s great for watching sports, music videos, family photos/movies, movies for the kids (maybe include the neighborhood for a large-screen movie party), or even using for business. The lightweight nature of the projector makes it very easy for the constantly mobile worker.
- Juan-Roberto Ortiz