Welcome back to TechSpot's 2013 Holiday Gift Guide! All of this year's tech gift recommendations are coming individually from our staff members and editors with their own picks on gifts they would like to receive or give. Rick is a long time regular TechSpot contributor who also works as a system administrator and an independent computer/network consultant. Find his picks below and be sure to check out the rest of our staff's gift guide posts here.
Actiontec 500Mbps Powerline Adapter Kit $39 - $49
Wireless is a fickle mistress. For armchair network engineers struggling to resolve their home Wi-Fi’s mystery spots though, sometimes the best solution isn’t actually wireless at all: it's your home electrical grid. An often overlooked technology, powerline networking (PLN) devices essentially convert your home’s electrical outlets into wired or wireless network drops. This works great for peripheral rooms and even adjacent buildings (e.g. an exterior office, cottage or garage), provided they share the same distribution panel (i.e. breaker box).
If you have anyone on your gift list struggling to keep their game console, computer or other networked device online, Actiontec’s 500Mbps powerline kit (PWR511K01) is an effortless (and dirt cheap) workaround to dodgy Wi-Fi signals. Unlike some competing offerings, this kit is truly zero-config -- just plug them in and you’re done. This makes the PWR511K01 well-suited as a gift for the unsavvy. Performance wise, the PWR511K01 holds its own against units twice its price from Netgear and D-Link. I’ve personally installed about a dozen of these over the past few years with no ill results, so I’m happy to recommend it.
Like most PLN starter kits, Actiontec’s bundle contains two ethernet-to-power adapters. Plug one unit into a power outlet near your router and the second one into a socket near your troubled device. Next, connect your router and device to each of their respective adapters via an ethernet cable, wait a few seconds and presto -- a stable, low latency (comparable to LAN) connection is born.
Although this inexpensive kit requires an available ethernet port on both your router and device, a Wi-Fi router or access point can be added to the other end to effortlessly extend your wireless coverage. Alternatively, PLN adapters are available with Wi-Fi already baked-in, like Netgear’s XWNB5201.
PLC (powerline communications) have been around for decades, but home PLN really wasn’t up to snuff until the HomePlug AV hit the scene several years ago. Earlier HomePlug standards could only muster an unfortunate 14Mbps. In recent years though, that speed has ballooned to 200Mbps, 500Mbps and even 1Gbps making PLN far more attractive.
Unfortunately, powerline networking isn’t a silver bullet for everyone. My experience has shown breaker boxes equipped with certain brands of AFCI breakers (typically used for bathrooms and bedrooms in homes newer than 15 years old) can interfere with performance. “Murray” is one such brand I’ve encountered. Oh, and don’t forget: always plug these directly into an outlet and not a surge protector.
Dexter: The Complete Series on DVD or Blu-Ray $179 - $219
Despite its flaws, Showtime’s “Dexter” endured eight seasons to tell the macabre story of a serial-killing serial killer to a sizeable, devoted fan base. Earlier this month, Paramount gave Dexter a truly proper send off in the form of this killer collector’s box. Fans of the series will immediately recognize the design: a befitting tribute to the show’s anti-hero and its eventual demise.
Dexter: The Complete Series is available in both Blu-ray (24 pc) and DVD (32 pc). The box set includes all eight seasons and three hours of bonus material like cast interviews, featurettes, promos and two all-new documentaries: “The Evolution of Dexter Morgan” and “The Code”. Also included is a “Grafix” book featuring highly-stylized art and photography originating from Dexter’s final season.
If you happen to have a die-hard Dexter fan on your gift list this year, this collector’s set is simply murder...
Roku 3 $99
Hands-down my favorite Internet media streaming box, Roku is a prime choice for beaming Internet content like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant to your television.
Although less than a hundred bucks and smaller than a quarter-pounder with cheese, the Roku 3 boasts a robust set of features: both 802.11n and ethernet connectivity, 1 x USB input, 1 x HDMI output with passthrough surround and a fancy Wi-Fi direct remote complete with headphone output and motion control. The tiny box also packs enough horsepower to churn out 1080p video but uses less than 4 watts of power. Nice.
The Roku 3 can even make a nice gift for the more technical-minded do-it-yourselfer. Streaming your own video library locally (e.g. Plex Media Server, iTunes library) is a snap with Plex (free) and works remarkably well.
Product Finder score: 83
Chances are, someone on your gift list -- someone with otherwise irreplaceable data -- never bothers to backup their data. The perils of this phenomenon are well-understood; understandably though, it’s an easy thing to put off until the inevitable happens.
Cloud backups offer a simple answer for backing up multiple devices, but subscription fees make for a less-than-ideal gift. Additionally, digital hoarders on slower connections are bound to have a less-than-good experience. So, what’s the best way to give the gift of data safety? How about this: a network attached storage device.
Synology’s recently released DS214se earns high marks for straddling two worlds: Synology quality at a low price point. Despite its relatively low price tag, the DS214se retains the essential features, fit and finish of its more expensive offerings. The DS214se includes support for the largest disks available (4TB), respectable performance, gigabit ethernet and runs Synology’s feature-rich DSM software for simple management with plenty of options. USB 3.0 is notably absent here, but seeing as the DS214se is a NAS, don’t let that be a deal breaker.
If backups bore you, RAID-1 still provides redundancy, making this a viable, central storage hub. And for those who live dangerously, you can double your storage capacity with two drives in RAID-0 and share massive amounts of data with reckless abandon.
More than one Western Digital Red NAS hard drive $79 - $214 each
This is a gift that, if you should give it, should be given at least twice. If you’re eyeballing the DS214se (or any RAID device, for that matter), consider populating it with some Western Digital Red hard drives.
Available in 1TB, 2TB, 3TB and 4TB flavors, these “NAS-optimized” drives tend to be a little pricier, but feature longer warranties (three years vs. two) and introduce a few tricks well-suited for NAS and RAID environments.
Essentially, the primary differences boil down to modified firmware which WD bills as “NASware”. Red drives feature less aggressive head parking (of which Green drives are infamously guilty), active hardware-based vibration reduction (ideal for side-by-side installation), reduced power usage though variable RPM (Intellipower) and a configurable error recovery value (aka. TLER, a potentially valuable thing for RAID setups). In short, Red drives maintain good performance, but also aim to reduce some of the risk associated with NAS and RAID applications.
Product Finder score: 87
Lenovo Erazer X700 Gaming PC $1200 - $3000
Okay… this one is for all the kids out there hoping for a gaming PC this holiday season, but have parents who aren’t comfortable making huge online purchases. With the slightly upgraded base config at nearly $1700, the Erazer X700 is an expensive gift to be sure, but the holidays are rife with generosity. With that in mind, now is a better time than most to take the plunge.
It’s clear the Erazer X700 isn’t the fastest gaming PC out there. What the X700 is though, is the most capable gaming PC available at big-box retailers. So, if you’re intent on picking up a gaming PC for your little gamer this holiday season -- and it has to be from a major local retailer -- this is the rig to get (TechSpot's full review coming very soon).
The Erazer X700 houses decent quality and speedy components in a sharp-looking package that many gamers will find agreeably cool. The CPU (3.6GHz Intel Core i7) and graphics card (GeForce GTX 660) are powerful enough to wade through modern game titles with very few compromises, but the price tag also remains smaller than higher calibre options from online boutique PC makers. This makes the X700 a great mainstream option capable of handling the demands of users who take their gaming very seriously.
The system boasts 12GB of DDR3 RAM, a 1TB hard drive and 128GB SSD (Best Buy configuration). Some of the X700’s nicer touches include ample expansion options (lots of storage bays, SLI-ready for dual graphics cards), built-in Wi-Fi, liquid cooling and an big red overclock button begging to be pushed. The system ships with Windows 8 Pro and a standard one-year warranty.
Product Finder score: 78
TechSpot's Holiday Gift Guide 2013 is sponsored by Best Buy.