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Tech gifts in store for holiday: Presenting a few useful ideas

Updated: January 3, 2013 6:31AM



“Because it’s a season of peace and love and family and warmth.” Blah blah blah, you know the rest. I’m not saying that this isn’t one of the top five reasons why I look forward to the holiday season.

Or 10. As I was writing that sentence, I suddenly remembered that the fine folks at Nabisco are producing a seasonal variant of the Oreo cookie with gingerbread-flavored filling. Good God! This idea is so very obvious, yet so utterly brilliant. I’m confident that the man or woman who came up with this idea could have turned around Hostess just as quickly and dramatically as Steve Jobs turned Apple around in 1997.

Peace and Love and Family are still tops on the list. But if I have an opportunity to swap Warmth for a bag of Gingerbread Oreos, I’ll happily throw on an extra sweater.

Sorry. I’ll steer this column right back on track.

Also jockeying for a Top Five position: the opportunity to ditch my epic bouts of beard-stroking about the tech industry’s Big Picture in favor of a few columns about Tech-Related Holiday Gifts. I think so highly of some of these recommendations that I’ve bought several to give away as gifts.

I’m going to kick this season off with the selections that you’re going to need to order sooner rather than later. These are esoteric items that aren’t widely available and therefore aren’t produced in Walmart quantities. Or, they’re produced by a small company that often needs a week or two to assemble and ship and order.

The Wingstand tablet stand (info at wingstand,com; order direct from Amazon for $15) is flat-out genius: ten points out of ten from every judge. It’s the perfect product at the perfect time, for the perfect price.

Tablets have become so popular and diverse that we need to start talking in terms of “Tablet-Like Devices.” There’s the iPad, of course. But there’s also a slew of larger Windows 8 devices, gaggles of smaller 7 and 8” Android (and iOS) tablets, and flocks of e-ink readers. In addition, the line between “phone” and “tablet” keeps blurring. More folks are using their phones for books and movies than ever before.

The Wingstand is one easel stand that will support Tablet-Like Devices of practically every shape and size, from widescreen Windows tablets to the relatively svelte iPhone 4S or Samsung Galaxy S III. No need to accumulate a collection of single-device easels; Wingstand handles them all.

It’s molded out of dense plastic and looks like a vertebra from some extinct creature. It’s been designed as two separate clip-on feet that spread out independently and span any width. By its nature, it doesn’t care whether you want to view your screen in portrait or landscape orientation, either. And when you’re not using your Wingstand, the two feet click together like Legos so that you’re never stuck rummaging through your bag for the missing half of your easel.

Yes, go right ahead and applaud. They’ve taken an extra step to make the user’s life a little bit easier. That’s extra valuable, because the Wingstand is so small. It doesn’t just fit into a pocket . . . it damn near vanishes.

And there’s a bonus feature: it clips and locks onto the battery compartment of Apple’s Wireless Keyboard, turning the keyboard and the tablet into a single unit.

Wingstand is one of those “money in a box” products that comes along all too infrequently. It’s so well-designed, and so insightful, and delivers such value, that it fills me with a desire to just send its designers some money in a box.

Besides, it’s not like I don’t have money left in my pocket. Just fifteen dang dollars!

Sticking with tablets: a stylus is a great add-on for a tablet or a large phone and many users never even think about acquiring one.

Which is a shame, because a pen opens up even a little phone to new possibilities. It allows you to operate your device on a cold subway platform without removing your gloves. It also lets you draw. I bought my first stylus “with intent” after a week in Dublin, where I repeatedly found myself in museums and historic sites plastered with “No Photography” signs. I wanted to remember these experiences and these places, so I opened an art app on my iPad. Sketching with your fingers is fun...but sketching with a pen in your hand is Kindergarten Art Class-level fun.

Two styluses are my favorites, for two different reasons. Studio Neat makes a fat crayon called the “Cosmonaut” ($25 from Amazon or StudioNeat.com). It’s thick and it’s coated in rubber. My drawing hand loves it. It’s also easy to keep a grip on the thing when you’re wearing thick gloves. The size of it another strong point if you’re going to hand the Cosmonaut to a kid, or someone with chronically-sore hands.

When I’m feeling like Leonardo-da-freaking-Vinci, I pull out the Adonit Jot Pro. ($29 from adonit.com; available on Amazon and also at many big-box stores). The iPad wasn’t designed with stylii in mind. It was designed for fingertips, which is why most stylii have round, stubby, squishy tips. The touchscreen sensor requires a pretty fat point of contact to register your taps and strokes accurately. But sometimes, dammit, you want to draw three lines that meet at a corner...and that’s when you appreciate the Jot Pro’s design.

Instead of ending in a rubbery stub, Jot Pro ends in a thin tip akin to that of a technical pencil. This tip clicks into a transparent plastic disc. Ideally, this clever design makes everybody happy. The touchscreen sensor gets a nice, wide, easy-to-detect circle of contact, and the human gets to see exactly where the line is going.

My one complaint about the Jot? It ought to ship with a pocket clip. The only reason why I haven’t lost my Jot yet is because I’m paranoid about losing my it.

I seem to have used the word “Clever” in two consecutive sections. Okay, I’ll score the trifecta and put the Olloclip next ($69 from olloclip.com or Amazon, as well as many retailers).

Dang, this little lens accessory for the iPhone is exactly the right answer to the limits of phone photography. The iPhone 4 and 5 are excellent little cameras. Like all phones, it has limitations. You can negotiate with most of them, though: lack of a zoom, lack of a real flash, relatively narrow dynamic range...if you shoot with those problems in mind, and know how to use iPhoto, they’re not big problems.

You can’t negotiate with the limitations of the lens, though. If you’ve stepped back as far as you can go and you still can’t fit everyone at the table into the shot, well, it’s time to cross your fingers and hope that your sister’s new boyfriend and the brother you’re still angry with don’t figure out why you’ve asked them to move to the left and right sides of the group photo.

Olloclip is the solution. It’s a pair of wide angle and fisheye lenses mounted back-to-back around a clip that clicks securely around a corner of the iPhone (any corner...but I recommend you choose the corner with with the camera lens in it).

The whole thing is no larger than about $4.50 in quarters, which means that there’s no reason not to throw it in a pocket every time you head out the door. This alone puts the Olloclip way ahead of the other available iPhone lens kits. You don’t need to snap your phone into a special bulky case, and you don’t even necessarily need to be particularly careful about how you handle the lenses.

Whether you use the lenses for stills or video, the wider angles bring a stronger sense of “presence” and “place” to your photos. The iPhone’s built-in camera lets you take a photo of the building at the center of Beijjing’s Forbidden City. The Olloclip lets you capture the full feeling of standing in the middle of that vast sea of stones, surrounded on all sides.

Bonus: if you unscrew one of the lenses to expose just its rear element, you can shoot ultra-close macro shots of bugs, money, and fingerprints. Neat.

Just make sure you order the right edition. There’s one for the iPhone 4/4S, and a new flavor just for the iPhone 5.

The humor potential of the brand name “Silly Putty” has not gone unnoticed by the world comedy industry. I remember David Letterman demonstrating “Sensible Putty” as part of a comedy piece in the early Eighties.

At last, someone has actually made a working version of Sensible Putty. Allow me to introduce you to this wonderful stuff called “Sugru.” It’s a self-curing rubber that lives in an airtight foil pouch.

Once you expose an individual wad of Sugru to the air, you can work the stuff for about thirty minutes before it sets in whatever shape and in whatever spot you’ve left it in. It sticks to almost any surface. It doesn’t give off any odors. Even when it’s cured, it remains rubbery, flexible, and grippy.

Its most obvious function is as a repair tool. Many of my iPhone dock cables fall apart after about a year; the insulation separates from the wiring at one end of the cable or the other for some reason. When that happens, I don’t throw this $20 cable away. I just roll out a little sheet of Sugru and wrap it securely around the wire and the connector, forming a solid rubber shield.

You can also think of Sugru as the ability to make almost any (flexible) physical object you need, or modify the design of anything you already own. Add a little red bump to the smooth “Play/Review” button of your digital camera, so you can find it by touch in the dark. Add a rubberized storage receptacle high up on the power cord of a multitool, so that a vital accessory bit stays with the tool at all times.

On and on. You don’t buy Sugru because you know exactly what you’ll do with it. You buy it so that you’ll have it when the perfect situation presents itself.

Sugru is sold in groups of pouches, usually in assorted colors. Buy a $20 pack as a great gift for one person, or break it up into stocking stuffers for 8 people. Order it directly from sugru.com.

One of the best presents I ever received as a kid was a Radio Shack electronics kit. It was a wooden box inside which were mounted all of the components for dozens of little electronic projects. The first time I successfully commanded a seven-segment LED display to display Carl Yastrzemski’s jersey number was the first time I knew dizzying power.

I’m barely joking. Building things with this kit shifted my whole perceptions. An LED display? I only encountered them things in clocks and VCRs. Incredibly complicated devices made by hundreds of people in huge factories. But that simple electronics project taught me that electronic devices aren’t just things that can be bought: they’re also things that can be made. Yes, even by a little kid in his bedroom.

Every time I browse through the Adafruit site, I feel that exact same buzz of excitement. The whole store is focused on the concept of engineering empowerment. No matter where your skill level is, there’s something on this site to encourage you to build electronic things. I’ve built hundreds of things since I was ten years old, but I’ve never even considered designing something that incorporates a full-color graphic LCD display. The presence of these components, and the full graphics library Adafruit includes, has started me thinking about what I could build.

If you’ve never built anything even as complicated as a flashlight...oh, boy, what opportunities. The “Discover Electronics” kit ($49) is a box of components, a prototyping breadboard, and a book of project plans. Push these standard components into the holes in the breadboard, push in some wires to create functional circuits, and just watch things happen. Pure play, 100% discovery...without any soldering.

Poke around the “Young Engineers” section of the store, too. It contains loads of terrific kits based around the Arduino programmable controller. Arduino adds an extra level of fun and experimentation to electronics. It allows you to accomplish with a few lines of code (which you can just cut-and-paste from an outside source) an effect that otherwise would require piles of custom circuits that are way beyond the capability of the average experimenter. A few weeks after receiving my first Arduino board, I’d wired up my electronic Darth Vader bank to light up and go into action every time I got another hundred Twitter followers.

And I’m kind of stupid.

. . . As my fascination with Gingerbread Oreos probably demonstrates. They’re patently not a good purchase for a man who doesn’t have a household of kids on-call to ensure that he can’t eat more than five of them. And yet, here I am, heading out the door with a phony-baloney errand to run as a pretext for checking the store yet again.



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