Cool Yule Tools 2014

2014 Holiday Gift Guide: The other NSA also knows what you want

The National Santa Agency's motto: “He Sees You When You’re Sleeping, He Knows When You’re Awake…”

gift guide 2014 intro
Credit: Troy Galluzzi

Our motto: “He Sees You When You’re Sleeping, He Knows When You’re Awake…”

After months of investigations, cups of coffee and several arm-twisting interrogation tactics, the Cool Yule Tools staff of writers and editors has discovered a shocking truth. The government group that has allegedly been spying on us, known as the “NSA”, is actually a cover group for a little-known organization with headquarters near the North Pole. Yes, we are speaking of the National Santa Agency.

nsa logo Troy Galluzzi

With advanced techniques of tracking our movements during the day, night and using highly technical algorithms to determine human behaviors (also known as the Naughty or Nice Theorem), the NSA has determined with 99.999% accuracy the following tech-related holiday products that should appeal to tech fans everywhere. It’s not the products you WANT, it’s the products you NEED.

+ ALSO ON NETWORK WORLD Cool Yule Tools: Best techie gifts for 2014 +

Our investigators have discovered the following “Field Reports” based on several days (or weeks) of in-home, in-office and on-the-road testing of these products, completed by Special Agents of the NSA. Be forewarned – several members of the Cool Yule Tools staff have gone underground, fearful of what might happen should the head of the NSA – aka “The Jolly Red Guy” – discover that these reports have gone missing.

gift guide intro2 Troy Galluzzi

REPORT #1: Phones, Computers and other Mobile Goodies

Apple iPhone 6 Plus

$299 for the 16GB model with 2-year contract; $749, contract-free

The iPhone 6 Plus represents the epitome of Apple's phone line, but if you're thinking of getting one as a gift, make sure your gift recipient can handle it. Literally. With a 5.5-inch "Retina HD" screen, this is one big phone -- the biggest Apple's ever made and its first foray into the phablet market.

As you'd expect from an Apple device, the design and engineering are top rate, and the screen is pixel packed, with 401 pixels per inch. That means everything is razor sharp, colorful and bright. It's easily the best iPhone display Apple has produced.

apple iphone 6 plus

The iPhone 6 Plus and its smaller sibling, the regular iPhone 6, are identical when it comes to tech specs. It comes in 16GB, 64GB and 128GB models (at $100 increments for the extra storage); our recommendation is to skip the 16GB model, if you can, because of the skimpy storage -- especially if this phone will be used for a long time. You can't add storage later.

Unlike the smaller model, the 6 Plus comes with optical image stabilization, which can help smooth out videos so they don't look jittery. And speaking of video, you'll want to try out the slo-mo option, which can slow things down to 1/4 speed, making for fantastic videos of anything showing action or movement. Despite its size, this isn't a heavy phone, weighing in at just over 6 ounces. And it will fit in most pockets.

As with all things Apple, the lucky owner will have immediate access to a well-stocked ecosystem for apps, music and video -- a boon to first-time owners of an iPhone. Battery life is excellent, which isn't a surprise, given that the phone has a large battery. Oh, and it works well as a phone.

One cautionary buying note: There's still a three to four week shipping delay, so if you want this in time for the holidays, buy it sooner rather than later.

-- Ken Mingis

kyocera brigadier2

Kyocera Brigadier smartphone

Price: $49.99 with two-year agreement, plus data plan

Kyocera Brigadier, where have you been all my life?

I once left a phone in my pants pocket and threw the pants in the washing machine. Oh, then I put the pants in the dryer. I wondered what that loud banging noise was, but by the time I got up the energy to go downstairs and check, the phone was toast. And I currently have both an iPhone and an iPad with cracked screens.

So, I was delighted to try out the Brigadier by Kyocera, which runs on Verizon’s 4G LTE network. I dunked it in water, dropped it on a hardwood floor, scraped the screen with a sharp knife. And nothing, not even a scratch. How is this possible?

Well, first the phone comes encased in a watertight phone cover that’s literally screwed into place. There are little, silver screws, like you would find on the back of a watch, at each corner of the face of the device. And there are two larger screws on the back. So, you never need to buy a phone cover.

There’s always a tradeoff, and the heavy-duty protection adds thickness, weight and a general clunkiness to the phone. You can have sleek or you can have waterproof, drop-proof and scratch-proof. But you can’t have both.

As for the screen, it’s scratch-proof industrial-grade sapphire, which is supposedly second only to a diamond in terms of hardness. Kyocera actually sent us a Brillo pad, some coins and a bag of rocks along with the phone for us to try and create a scratch on the screen – talk about confidence.

The functionality of the phone is pretty simple. The only controls on the face are a home key, back key and recent apps key below the screen. There’s a camera button and card slots on one side. And volume buttons and a ‘programmable key’ on the other side.

So, if you’re looking for an Android phone and you’re more concerned with keeping it in one piece than with making a fashion statement, check out the Brigadier.

-- Neal Weinberg

Lenovo Horizon 2 Tabletop PC

$1,500 (our test unit, available via Best Buy)

lenovo all in one desktop ideacentre horizon 27 with 2 strikers 20

When you lay this giant 27-inch computer flat on a table, the first thing people may think is that you somehow got your hands on the iPhone 7 Plus (a really really really big phablet). But in reality, it’s still a Windows 8.1 PC, but one with a touchscreen that multiple people can interact with. Some folks may remember Microsoft’s original Surface PC (before they took the name and branded that for its smaller tablets) when they see the Horizon, and the functions are similar.

The Aura interface that overlays the Windows PC to provide the tabletop mode lets multiple people pinch, expand, shrink and move objects around on the touchscreen. While you can collaborate with co-workers via this method (looking at photos, or watching videos, for example), the majority of your time spent with this machine will be spent playing games.

The system we tested included a variety of multiplayer games, which turned our breakroom into a party atmosphere, as four people attempted to do things like fling beetles on an ice-style billiards table, or go “all in” with multiplayer roulette or Texas Hold-Em Poker. A neat touch on the poker game – you could peek at your cards by sliding up the edge ever so slightly so that others couldn’t see what you had, much like a real poker table. The system definitely draws a crowd when you’re using the Horizon 2 in this manner, and Lenovo also sells a rolling tabletop stand to make it a bit more mobile. Kids will flock to the system, especially if they’re accustomed to touch-based devices like the iPad or iPhone (or even some other Windows touch-based systems).

Some may scoff at the price tag, but in its heart the system is still a pretty powerful computer when you’re not playing tabletop games on it. The system features up to an Intel Core i7 processor (our unit featured an i5), NVIDA GeForce graphics, storage up to a 1TB hard drive and 8GB of RAM. The system comes with a wireless keyboard and mouse, a 1080p 16:9 widescreen and 1080p webcam for chats.

While you might not be using this system as your next office computer, it would fit perfectly in a home office or living room or other centralized family location. Just be careful when playing some of the games – we had some aggressive co-workers who enjoyed some of the motion games a little too much.

-- Keith Shaw

Logitech k480 Multi-Device Keyboard

$49.99

logitech k480 keyboard 3

You’re most likely to need/want a Bluetooth external keyboard when you acquire a tablet, but plenty of other devices (such as your smartphone and notebook) have Bluetooth as well, so it’s nice to have a single keyboard that can connect to multiple devices.

Logitech achieves this with its k480, a small, portable keyboard that includes a dial that switches between up to three devices, across multiple operating systems. If you want to connect a Windows PC, Android smartphone and Apple iPad, just turn the dial associated with each of those devices (it’s up to you to remember which device goes with each setting on your dial). The keyboard quickly and easily makes the Bluetooth connection to those devices.

The keys are comfortable enough to type with, unlike similar smaller-size portable keyboards aimed at tablets. Another nice touch is split key-labeling on OS-specific keys, such as the “Command” key for Mac systems and the “ALT” key on a Windows system. For dual-system users that always have to remember how to do a quick copy/paste command, it’s a nice touch.

The setup procedure is quick and easy for anyone familiar with connecting a device via Bluetooth, and the k480 also includes a handy cradle for resting your smartphone or tablet, turning it into a handy stand. The k480 runs on two AAA batteries, so there’s no additional USB cable to carry around for recharging, and additional software from Logitech (for the PC and Mac) can inform you if the batteries need to be replaced.

-- Keith Shaw

Lenovo Y50

Starts at $1,089

I’ve been in the Mac camp for about three years now, about the same amount of time that Windows 8 has been out. For me, that was the last straw with my relationship with the Microsoft OS, and it’s been a good three years for me.

But if I were ever considering coming back to the world of Windows, it would definitely be with this machine - the Lenovo Y50 . The latest systems include fourth-generation Intel Core processors, a brilliant 15.6-inch full HD displays (touch-enabled, too), JBL speakers and a very cool backlit keyboard. I’m even coming around on Windows 8.1, if only a little bit (the return of the Start menu and easier access to the desktop definitely helps).

This could be used as a cool gaming notebook without getting all hardcore gamer on your budget – one of the things I’ve missed in the Mac world is the ability to play some PC games. Yes, I know that I could play those games on my Mac through different methods (aka Boot Camp and/or Parallels), but my Macbook Pro systems are used mainly for video editing and I don’t want to tie up the hard drives with all of that gaming storage (gee, I’m starting to sound like my dad 20 years ago). With several new “classic games” available on sites like Steam and GOG.com (including “X-Wing”, “TIE Fighter” and “Sam & Max Hit the Road” from the Lucasarts library), it might be time to consider a return of sorts to the world of Windows.

-- Keith Shaw

Lenovo N20p Chromebook

$329.99 (as tested)

If a friend, family member or co-worker asks me to recommend a new computer for them, I usually ask them “What do you want to use it for?” Inevitably, I get the answer, “Oh, not much, just web browsing, email, playing music and watching movies.” While there are certainly plenty of computers that let you do that (for much more money), you might want to recommend that they purchase a Chromebook.

Chromebooks have been out for a few years now, so the rough edges from earlier models have smoothed out, and Google seems to be doing a pretty good job at filling in the blanks of things that were missing from the operating system (remember, Chromebooks don’t use a traditional operating system like Windows or MacOS). You have to be invested in the Google universe, which means email will be done through Gmail, your browser will be Google Chrome, your productivity applications will be done through Google Drive (Docs, spreadsheets, presentations, etc.), and your music will be located on Google Play Music, etc. In fact, you might want to ask your friend, family or co-worker how comfortable they are with all of these Google offerings - if so, then it’s a definite recommend.

The N20p model gives a Lenovo spin to the Chromebook, offering an 11.6-inch screen, 2GB of RAM (sure, 4GB would have been nice), a 16GB SSD hard drive (most files will be stored in the Google cloud) and an 8-hour battery. Another nice hardware feature is the dual-mode display. It operates in normal “notebook mode”, but then you can also swing back the display 300 degrees to put it into “stand mode”, which then provides a viewing stand for watching movies, for example. The touch display works in both modes, but benefits from the stand mode.

You do sacrifice some things in terms of speed (processor and graphics) and storage capacity, etc., but this is done in order to get the lower price for the overall system. But for people looking for that computer that does the basics, this is a good option (at least better than the “Ultrabook” options of a few years ago).

-- Keith Shaw

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