Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Julio's recommendationsBy Julio Franco
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. Julio is our founder and executive editor, he's usually the one pulling the strings to make a certain review or feature happen on time, while providing content direction around the site day in and day out. Find his picks below, you can also see previous gift guide posts here.
Apple MacBook Pro Retina 15" Laptop $1750 and up
Although there are plenty of premium notebooks, the MacBook Pro Retina is arguably the only one that combines capable internals with a remarkable screen and software that takes full advantage of it. As a part time Windows and Mac user, it worries me how Windows 8 isn't as usable as OS X when driving a high DPI screen on the desktop since native rendering and miniature fonts won't cut it and neither will Windows laptops that catch up in specs but not software.
The bottom line is that this is the best laptop available if you care about quality over value. There's no going back from a Retina-grade screen and it makes me wish Ultra HD monitors were mainstream already. Between its crisp visuals, fast quad-core CPU, dual-switching graphics, quick storage, external expansion and all-around superb build quality, the 15" MacBook Pro Retina is worth every penny in my opinion, especially if it'll be your workstation.
Product Finder score: 88 | Review: MacBook Pro Retina 15" Review (similar 2012 model)
Chromecast / WD TV Live / Roku 3 Set-Top Box $35 - $99
The perfect streaming box for me would be an up to date Boxee Box but knowing that will never happen my pick is split between a few devices that fit different needs.
The Chromecast is the most affordable option ($35) and it works great as long as you don't need too many features and don't mind streaming from your laptop's browser. There are already a number of hacks that will allow you to stream from third party players like VLC, but official support via SDK is still in the works to allow that and more without major complications.
The WD TV Live comes well recommended for streaming local files as it can play many formats natively. However, WD's offering is a little rough around the edges compared to say, the Apple TV, which I can't recommend because I don't like being tied to the iTunes Store ecosystem.
The Roku 3 is also relatively inexpensive yet its popularity translates to fantastic app and service availability (Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Amazon, Flixster, you name it). The only gripe we have is with its weak local streaming capabilities, but it was still our choice when buying a new set top box for TechSpot's office.
Chromecast PF score: 81 | WD TV Live PF score: 84 | Roku 3 PF score: 82
House of Cards Season 1 Box Set $30-40
As an avid TV buff, I'm usually keeping up with my favorite shows or looking for something new to watch and it's a great time to join me with many A-list actors and producers crafting fine entertainment. Starring Kevin Spacey, House of Cards (adapted from a 90s UK series) is every bit as good as some critics claim if you like drama and perhaps a bit of politics. Netflix famously premiered the entire first season of House of Cards and you won't want to stop until it's over.
If you haven't checked them out yet, I also suggest checking out at least the first seasons of The West Wing (again, for the politics-oriented viewer), Breaking Bad, How I Met Your Mother, Game of Thrones, The Big Bang Theory and The Americans.
AMD Radeon R9 290 Graphics Card $400
If you've been following the ongoing battle between Nvidia and AMD, then you probably already know the Radeon R9 290 is today's best value enthusiast GPU. Unless your system is already outfitted with a pricey GeForce GTX Titan or a similarly powerful multi-GPU setup, the 290 should deliver top-notch performance in the months and perhaps even years to come. A word of advice, however: the stock R9 290 runs very hot, so spend a little extra on a card with improved cooling and you'll be a happy camper.
Product Finder score: 89 | Review: AMD Radeon R9 290 Review
Anker Astro Mini 3000mAh backup charger $20 and up
This mini backup battery will prove as convenient as it is inexpensive the moment you're facing a dead phone hours before you'll be near an outlet. Those situations are only more disastrous if you're reading work emails or nearing a high score. A backup battery can save the day and this model could charge your phone once or twice with its 3000mAh capacity. To me, this is the most convenient size for a smartphone but larger models would fit well in a carry bag and come as cheap as $19.99.
Samsung 840 Evo SSD $100 and up
This is a repeat from Jose's picks, so it must be good, right? If you want to revive an older laptop's performance or dramatically boost the speed of your system, a new SSD is often the solution. There are many top models that cost about the same and although you'd probably be happy with the OCZ Vector, Crucial M500, SanDisk Extreme II or even Samsung's own 840 Pro, I didn't look past the Evo 120GB ($100) for our recent Hackintosh project.
Product Finder score: 90 | Review: Samsung SSD 840 Evo Review
Razer Deathadder Mouse (2013 edition) $55
I admittedly don't dedicate as much time as I used to to play games these days, but that hasn't stopped me from trying numerous devices in the pursuit of the perfect keyboard and mouse combination for workstation use. As long as you go mechanical on the former, you won't look back (I love the Das).
As for mice, after using a slew of Microsoft and Logitech designs over the years, I settled on the Razer Deathadder. This is personal obviously, but the size, button positioning and grip suit me perfectly.
I particularly like how precise the Deathadder can be at resolutions at or above 1000dpi. I prefer the model so much I use it on all three of my PCs and I even have two spares boxed in case any of the others break, though that doesn't happen as easily as when I used Logitech mice.
Product Finder score: 83
TechSpot's Holiday Gift Guide 2013 is sponsored by Best Buy.
Image credit: Chromecast image by CNET, Razer Deathadder image from Sam Chen's Custom PC Review.