Cool Yule Tools 2016: Digital disruption at Santa's Workshop

The 17th annual Network World holiday gift guide has something for every techie (and techie-wanna-be) on your list.

silicon santa banner 3 Stephen Sauer
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Computers / tablets / notebooks / phones

Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus
Starting at $650 (iPhone 7); $769 (iPhone 7 Plus)
More info: http://www.apple.com/shop/buy-iphone/iphone-7

For what was expected to be a “boring” update, the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus seem to be good sellers for Apple, and with reason. It’s trite but true that this year’s iPhone is the best smartphone from Apple yet, but the feature list of upgrades is long – and that’s especially important if you’re a photographer on the go.

If you’re big on form, and less concerned with function, then you should know the latest iPhone looks pretty much like the iPhone 6 and 6S. So if you hope to stand out from the crowd by flaunting a radically redesigned iPhone, wait a year. Apple is rumored to have big plans for redesigning the iPhone in 2017. But if you want the best Apple has to offer, particularly if you haven’t gotten a new phone in two years, the iPhone 7/7 Plus is a smart choice.

Here’s why: Better cameras, including the new dual-camera setup in the larger iPhone 7 Plus; faster internal hardware that’s almost desktop-class in terms of processing power; better speakers that deliver a more stereo sound; a revamped Retina display with better color reproduction that’s been described as the best smartphone screen ever; and, if you’re sometimes clumsy near bodies of water, waterproofing. Oh, and it comes in two new colors (so maybe you can flaunt your new phone for those in the know: The Black version is a matte black (and the one I chose) and Jet Black, which is a high-gloss inky black that’s gorgeous in person. Other colors available include silver, rose gold and gold.

There’s just one hitch with Jet Black. It’s so shiny that it’s likely to show micro-abrasions and scratches easier. So you’ll almost certainly want to get a clear case for it to protect the finish. (And why would you get it in Jet Black only to cover it up?) This year’s entry-level models start with 32GB of storage but you can get 128GB or even 256GB if you’re a music/video/movie hog.

Helpful hint: If you opt for an iPhone 7 Plus, you get 2X optical zoom and the ability to use Apple’s fancy “portrait mode.” It uses software and the two cameras to blur the background behind your subject.

As always, quality comes at a price: The iPhone 7 starts at $649, with the top-end 256GB model going for $849; the iPhone 7 Plus starts at $769 and tops out at $969.

-- Ken Mingis

Lenovo YogaBook
$500
More info: http://shop.lenovo.com/us/en/tablets/lenovo/yoga-book/yoga-book-android/

For years, many computers and notebooks have looked basically the same, without much in the area of innovation other than faster memory, more storage, faster processors, etc. But there are some very cool innovations with the YogaBook – mainly the sketch pad area that can digitally transform real paper-and-pen writing or drawings. The same area can also transform into a virtual keyboard – it lights up and offers haptic feedback for users who want to type on this book-sized device.

It’s a very cool system, and the price is very affordable if you’re looking for something to give to a burgeoning artist on your gift list (the Windows 10 version is slightly more expensive, but only by $50).

See a larger review here - http://www.networkworld.com/article/3132708/consumer-electronics/review-lenovo-yoga-book-advances-the-state-of-digital-pen-based-input.html

-- Keith Shaw

Acer TMP648-MG-789T notebook
$1,200
More info: https://www.amazon.com/Acer-TMP648-MG-789T-I7-6500U-Notebook-NX-VCWAA-001/dp/B01FAK72O6

While you may never need an 802.11ad notebook  (the really short distance of the 60-GHz frequency makes it useful for only fast data transfer within 20 feet between the notebook and router), it’s nice to have the technology available in a nice notebook.

This model by Acer is the “world’s first 802.11ad notebook”, which runs on Windows 10, includes Intel 6th-generation Core i7-6500U Processor and has 4K display support and a Thunderbolt 3 port. It’s also ruggedized (MIL-STD 810G support), with a carbon and glass lid, magnesium-aluminum cover and palm-rest, and dust resistance. The notebook also has a spill-resistant design, so if you spill your eggnog on the keyboard during the raucous office party, you should be protected. Other features include 8GB of DDR4 memory (with up to 20GB supported), a 14-inch LED backlit display and 256 GB solid-state hard drive.

See here for a longer writeup of the notebook.

-- Keith Shaw 

Acer Chromebook 14 CB3-431-C5FM
$300
More info: http://www.acer.com/ac/en/US/content/series/acerchromebook14

First off, I really love Chromebooks, and I think they are going to become the PC of choice for just about every casual user in the future, especially people who primarily consume (instead of create) content. There are lots of apps available, and the whole Chromebook ecosystem is perfect, even for those who don’t quite get computers.

The only real problem I’ve had with Chromebooks over the years is the lack of a version with a larger screen at a reasonable price. That’s fixed - you really need to consider the Acer Chromebook 14 for anyone on your list who’s asked for a PC. This thing really fills the bill – and without compromise.

First, it’s got an enormous-by-Chromebook-standards, glare-reducing full-HD (1920 x 1080) 14-inch display – plenty big, bright, and clear. Next, it has an aluminum frame - many will mistake it at first glance for a Macbook. The Intel Celeron N3160 quad-core processor runs at 1.60 GHz and is plenty fast – I’ve watched glitch-free Netflix movies (over Wi-Fi, of course) on this one, and they look great. There’s even 4GB of RAM, as opposed to the 2GB common in most Chromebooks. Battery life is great (all day, really!), and the Wi-Fi is the latest 802.11ac. There are two USB 3.0 ports and HDMI out for connecting to an even larger screen – with screen extension, by the way, not just duplication. If there’s something one might want that’s missing here, I’ve not found it. And the price, right at $300, is amazing for what you get.

So, if someone on your list wants a PC, does most of their activities on the Web, and doesn’t want to spend a lot of time learning anything about computers, this latest Chromebook is absolutely perfect. OK, I’d really like a touchscreen version, but that’s what tablets are for. 

-- C.J. Mathias

Lenovo Ideacentre Y700 desktop
Starts at $800
More info: http://shop.lenovo.com/us/en/desktops/ideacentre/y700/

Let’s take a small trip back in time, to the early days of the personal computer, before notebooks even existed. The desktop was the computer, and that usually meant a big tower, separate monitor, keyboard and mouse. Ah, those were the days.

Eventually, the world moved on to notebooks, tablets, smartphones and other small devices, but the desktop tower system still exists, at least in the gaming market. With many people liking the ability to custom configure their setup, the desktop remains their computer form of choice.

The Lenovo Ideacentre Y700 is such a system – aimed at hardcore gamers that want to experience the latest processors, graphics and other hardware components. For example, the tower includes four hard drive slots that can store up to 2TB each, and four DIMM slots that you can upgrade up to 32GB of memory. This is done in a frame that’s easy to open, but also is very nice to look at. It felt weird putting this on the floor during our testing (but we were afraid that its weight would do something to the desk/table we were using).

To keep the price under $1,000, the system comes with the Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of DDR4 memory, but the upgradeability features make it interesting and something that could become more powerful later. Personally I preferred the laptop gaming system (also from Lenovo), but this system works just fine as well, for a lower cost.

-- Keith Shaw

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