Gift Guide 2013: Home and digital life gadgets

Home-based gear that will improve your lifestyle when away from work (or working at home)

Like many categories that we've chosen for this year's holiday gift guide, the lines are blurred. Several devices within the "home" category could fall into the "Audio Gear", "Video gear" or "Work/Office Gear" categories, considering how much work we do at home, or how much home technology we bring to work.

[HAPPY HOLIDAYS: See a listing of all the products of Network World's holiday gift guide]

[ALSO: 20 of the hottest tech toys of the holidays]

For the most part, we chose devices and gift ideas for this category that we think would work best within a person’s home situation, whether it’s watching TV in a new way, or listening to music on a bigger, non-portable system.

Product: Expression Home XP-410 Small-in-OneCompany: EPSON

Price: $100

Epson

The Expression series of printers are aimed at home users who want all-in-one functionality (print, copy, scan) for a reasonable price. The XP-410 model is at the high end of this series, providing a 2.5-inch LCD touch screen to the compact model (other models have smaller screens or no screens).

Like most printers these days, the XP-410 can connect to your home network via Wi-Fi, allowing you to place it anywhere within your home wireless network range. This can make it more convenient than placing it directly next to your computer, and the small size allows you to place it on an end table in the living room, or in some other out-of-the-way location if you desire. Connecting to the home network was relatively easy, and I was able to print to the XP-410 from both my Mac computers and Windows one without too many problems. Epson also makes it somewhat easy to print documents/photos from mobile devices, such as an iPad or iPhone, through their appropriate apps. It also supports the EPSON Connect service, cloud-based printing of documents from beyond your home.

A variety of menu options via the LCD touchscreen let you do things like create lined paper, graph paper, music paper or even calendars. You can use the scan function to restore old photos with interesting touch-ups, or scan directly to an inserted memory card.

For printing basic documents such as printing emails or other black/white text items, the printer worked fine, and I was impressed with its ability to print on harder stock, such as matte presentation paper. The printer uses 4-color DURABrite Ultra pigment ink, a fancy way for saying it has four different ink cartridges (black, cyan, magenta and yellow). While this is good for those basic print jobs, I was disappointed in photo printing with the XP-410, compared with higher quality prints from EPSON’s other products, including the Artisan line of photo printers. If your main goal is to print lots of photos, I’d look at those printers (or even the PictureMate series) rather than this one. But if you need a good solid device for other print jobs (such as printing out coupons, kids’ projects, emails, etc., the XP-410 certainly fits the bill.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: MediaFlairCompany: Escort

Price: $100

Buy this for: The family that needs to keep the media-hungry kids happy during long car trips.

Escort’s new MediaFlair device helps you consolidate stored digital media files (music, videos, photos, even regular documents) and stream them to multiple mobile devices (phones, tablets, iPods, etc.) via a direct Wi-Fi connection. Unlike wireless storage systems or media streamers, there’s no hard drive on the MediaFlair - users can load up an SD card with the media (the device comes with an 8GB card, but you can go up to 32GB if you need to) and insert it into the unit.

The best use case for the MediaFlair is for long family road trips. You can load up the SD card with your kids’ favorite movies, TV shows or songs, and each child can stream what they want (hopefully with headphones attached) to their iPad, Android tablet, iPhone or iPod. As the survivor of many long road trips, having my kids stream their preferred content from a single device is much easier than trying to remember which movie, TV show or song is on which specific device. This also frees up space on those devices if you like to centralize that content. The MediaFlair comes with a car charger that can keep its internal battery running, so you don’t have to worry about a movie or TV show ending too soon (and gasp - having to talk with your kids during the trip to Grandma’s!).

Every user can connect to the MediaFlair through a free app (iOS and Android supported), and once the app is running, users connect to the MediaFlair’s own Wi-Fi network. A bridge mode feature lets you program an additional Wi-Fi network that the MediaFlair can connect through, giving your mobile device Internet connectivity if they want. This is more useful for using the MediaFlair within a home network rather than when inside a car, but in theory you could connect this through a 4G MiFi device if you had to.

The device can also be used for work purposes - you can load documents onto an SD card (such as a presentation) and then stream it to every colleague’s phone/tablet (if they don’t mind having the app either). Another feature I liked was the ability to easily download media from the MediaFlair unit to a mobile client. For example, you could load up a bunch of photos on the device, bring them to the family reunion, and family members could download them directly to their own phones or tablets (assuming, of course, that everyone has their own phone/tablet).

At $100, this device is less expensive than purchasing a separate wireless media storage device, although you would have to add in the cost of extra SD cards if you need to go beyond the 8GB provided by the MediaFlair unit.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: Perfect Drink App-Controlled Smart BartendingCompany: Brookstone

Price: $70

Buy this for: Today’s generation of mixologists and amateur bartenders who want to learn how to make more exotic drinks - or those looking for the right way to make a perfect Martini.

brookstone

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I would watch my father create a bunch of mixed drinks (for his friends, of course, not me) using a bunch of different bartending equipment, and he had a small book with a bunch of different recipes that covered things from how to make a Martini, a Manhattan and other fancier drink names that I’ve long-since forgotten.

Now that I’m old enough to drink (OK, for the last 24 years I’ve been old enough), the world of becoming a better bartender is enhanced through the use of a great new iPad app and bartending system from Brookstone. The Perfect Drink App-Controlled Smart Bartending system comes with a scale, mixer/shaker and other bartending tools, as well as an iPad app that offers up hundreds of cool mixed drink recipes. The iPad connects to the scale, and then the app can measure the proper amounts of liquor to put into a drink recipe, allowing the amateur bartender to look like a pro when creating the drinks.

The biggest problem is just making sure that you have all of the alcohol available for the drinks you want to make, and also to make sure that you don’t spill your liquid on the iPad - maybe buy a waterproof iPad case in the event things get out of hand.

For all of your holiday parties, this can be a great way for your guests to sample new flavors and be a conversation-starter as well.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: My Cloud Personal Cloud StorageCompany: WD

Price: $150 (for 2TB; $180 for 3TB)

Buy this for: The family or small business that wants to centralize its digital content and access it from anywhere on any device.

The latest network-attached storage (NAS) device from WD offers up 2TB or 3TB of storage capacity, enough to store all of your videos, music, photos and tons of other files that have likely been piling up on your assorted computers and devices for years. Connecting quickly and easily to your home router (or a small-business router), the My Cloud also includes a USB 3.0 expansion port (for attaching additional storage if you desire).

The “personal cloud” nature of the device means that once connected to your internal network, users can also connect to it when they’re out and about. This also means connecting via smartphones and tablets - as WD provides an app for users to access, stream or download files stored on the Personal Cloud drive.

Like other NAS devices, this one offers a bunch of options for adding multiple users with different accounts (for public and private sharing), and for the most part it was easy to access. I did notice that filling the device up with content took longer than I expected, although I was transferring content via my Wi-Fi network instead of being connected directly to the router via Ethernet (that may speed it up a bit). But once I was able to access the content via my mobile device (or a browser on a PC/Mac), I didn’t have any problems.

If you have a lot of content stored on multiple devices that you want to centralize (either for your own peace of mind / backup purposes), or if you want to share content (music, videos, etc.) with multiple users, the My Cloud device certainly fits the bill.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: KX-TG7643M DECT 6.0 Bluetooth Cordless Phone SystemCompany: Panasonic

Price: $98 (Amazon)

Buy this for: Anyone who still appreciates a home-based, landline cordless phone system, but who wants mobile features such as Bluetooth connections for headsets.

I’m a big fan of DECT 6.0 cordless phones because they operate at 1.9 GHz. -- meaning the vast number of 2.4- and 5-GHz WLAN systems I operate see no interference. I’ve been using an earlier Panasonic DECT phone system for about three years now, and I’ve been very pleased with both voice quality and range.

But I was missing a couple of features that I think that special person on your gift list will absolutely require (as I do): the ability to connect, via Bluetooth, of course, to a cellular handset so I can answer and make calls on said device from anywhere in my house, leaving the handset conveniently charging near the DECT phone, and the ability to use a Bluetooth headset with the cordless handset. Getting all caught up in the corded headsets I’ve been using over the years is getting pretty old. Anyway, in short, this is the best cordless phone I’ve ever seen. It literarily has it all; I can’t think of any other features I’d require.

Talking caller ID? Check. The ability to use the handset in the base station as a backup battery for the system, letting you make calls with extension handsets when the power goes out? Check. Adjustable audio quality (tone)? Check. And the usual speakerphone in the base unit (this time with a full keypad, by the way), answering machine (which I don’t use; I have network-based voicemail, which is, of course, supported, including a flashing call-waiting indicator), and much more. It's even possible to copy the dialing directory from your cell phone to this system. Panasonic makes versions that include two to five extensions - the one we tested had three extensions.

Ignore the Quick Guide and just use the manual, which, despite the vast range of options, isn’t too hard to understand. 

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: C.J. Mathias

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Product: Phorus PS1 Speaker and appCompany: Phorus

Price: $200 for PS1; free app; $150 for PR1 Receiver (connect existing stereo to system)

Buy this for: Anyone who wants whole-house audio streaming via multiple Wi-Fi speakers.

phorus

The Phorus PS1 speaker (and the PR1 Receiver if you have an existing stereo system that you want to network-enable) provides you with a cool audio speaker system that can wirelessly stream music over an existing Wi-Fi network as well as stream audio from a variety of Internet radio stations. Music played on the system can be streamed from mobile devices such as a phone or tablet, and you can also stream from any network-enabled media servers. Initially built for Android phones and tablets, the company recently announced iOS support for the speakers (although full functionality wasn’t present when I tested these with my iPhone 5 compared with my Android-based Kindle).

Setup was quite simple - plug in the PS1 speaker to power, wait for about 20 seconds for initialization, then use the app on your tablet or phone to scan for a new device. Once found, you type in your Wi-Fi password, which then sends that password to the speaker system. Give it a name (basically label which room you want the speaker to be in) and then you can disconnect and move the speaker to the new location. Multiple speakers can be set up at the same time, but it’s probably easier to set them up individually, move them to the room and then set up the next one.

The free Phorus app lets you select which speaker you want to hear the music from, and you can also group speakers together to hear the same song, creating a whole-house audio system. The speakers provide great sound quality - even at the highest volumes I didn’t detect any cracking or poor audio.

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