DIY-IT gift guide 2018: Practical, strange, and wonderful gifts your favorite geek will actually use

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2018 Holiday Gift Guide

Looking for the perfect gift? CNET delivers advice, reviews, and recommendations.

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It’s that time of the year again. Those weeks before the silly season when our thoughts turn to Black Friday, Cyber Monday, sharing holiday cheer, and buying stuff. It’s an entire season dedicated to the philosophy of “Such a deal.” But what to buy?

In this guide, which I warn you is going to be random AF, I’ve selected 11 interesting gifts that you might want to give (or buy for yourself). About half are items I personally use and couldn’t live without. The others are items I’ve selected, from the many I’ve been sent to look at, that show some promise and that you might find interesting.

So, without further ado and in no particular order, let’s kick this list off.

SimpleHuman automatic voice-operated sensor trash can

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It’s not nearly as silly as we thought it would be. Pricy, though. Quite pricy.


simplehuman

The video at the top of this story shows this can in action. If you want to be able to open your can by simply saying “Open can,” then this product is for you (or someone you really like).

When simplehuman reached out to me about reviewing this thing, I started off just completely amused by the idea of a trash can that responds to voice (not to mention all the tech, from voice processing to motors that has to be built inside). But after a few weeks’ use, we grew to like it. Quite a lot, actually.

Now, here’s the gotcha: This is a $200 trash can. Seriously. On the other hand, it works, it’s well constructed and thought out, and the trash can liners sold by the company fit perfectly. Is it worth two hundred bucks? Only you can answer that for yourself.

Thinkware F800 Pro dashcam

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Thinkware’s F800 Pro dashcam


Thinkware

I’ll be honest. I installed the F800 Pro in my car and not once have I used it as a traditional dashcam. Instead, I use it to capture driving video of the incredibly gorgeous scenery here in Oregon. If you want to see some of the footage in action, watch the voice-operated trash can video at the beginning of this article. The last 20 seconds is F800 Pro footage.

You, on the other hand, might want to give the F800 Pro as a gift. At over $300, it’s certainly not the cheapest dashcam in the world, but it does have a lot of great features, including automatic modes in case of “driving events” (in other words, a really bad day), geofencing, parking surveillance, and more.

Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home Mini

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They’re both small, inexpensive, and backed by the largest clouds on the planet.


Amazon and Google

If you or your gift recipient don’t yet have a smart home assistant, this is the time to buy. Both Amazon and Google are offering deals, either through their own stores or through retail establishments. You can enter the smart assistant market for under $30 if you shop around.

As for which to get, I like the Echo, but I’ll probably get one or two Google Home Minis, just for the ability to directly query Google by voice. We have a bunch of Echos around the house, and while having them can be sometimes just a bit creepy, their benefits as alarms, timers, calculators, home controllers, and music players has really grown on us over time.

Embr: wrist-based personal thermostat

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Have a hot time or take a chill pill — on your wrist.


EmbrLabs

At first glance, this $300 device seems ridiculous. You wear it on your wrist, and it will either warm you up or cool you down, at the push of a button. Or so the vendor claims. It’s not something that will replace a jacket in the winter, nor is it something that can make taking the dog out at the crack of dawn seem less miserable.

Where Embr appeals is for people who are in shared environments where they don’t control the thermostat. Is work too warm or too cold? Embr might help. It straps to your wrist, so it won’t warm you like a cup of hot coffee or cool you down like a delicious iced cold lemonade. But what it claims to do is control temperature at the skin level, like when you wrap your hands around a hot cup or put a cold towel around your neck.

We’ve got one in to test, and we’ll subject it to a full review soon. But in the meantime, if you or your giftee can’t tolerate the temperature in your office because your own Dwight Schrute refuses to make it comfortable, the Embr might have your back (or, at least, your wrist).

Drift Ghost X Action Camera

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This is a great little camera…once you pair it to its app.


Drift Innovation

I spent the week playing with the Ghost X Action camera. This is a nifty $150 action camera that takes excellent pictures and has a lot of different modes.

I mentioned it in my Niwa desktop farming article, but didn’t really get a chance to use it because plants grow so slowly. This week, I used it to take time lapse pictures of a 3D printing run, snapping a picture every 30 seconds over the period of 23 hours. It’s got a slot for a microSD card and another for USB power, so I was able to keep it live and powered for the whole print. That worked out extremely well.

I’ve got a related con and pro for this camera. Until you get it paired with your smartphone, you’re limited to controlling it with an on-board screen that’s incredibly tiny. For folks with difficulty reading small print, getting it paired is going to require reading glasses or a magnifying glass.

That said, once the Ghost X is paired to its smartphone app, it’s a pleasure to use. The app is surprisingly well done for a low-cost camera device like this. It’s clean, quick, easy-to-understand, and feature rich. This is a camera I can see being used a lot once you get it, er, give it.

Stream Deck

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I’ve wanted a device like this for years.


Elgato

This $129 USB device has a place of honor on my deck. Its primary use case is as a custom set of keys for game streamers who use Twitch and OBS to live stream video game play. Live streaming often requires switching modes on the fly, and doing so using a regular keyboard can be challenging.

The Stream Deck consists of 15 little keys, each of which has its own LCD display. You can customize the look and behavior of each key. This allows you to create a totally customized keyboard for your specific use.

I don’t use it to manage game streaming, but I’ve customized it for Final Cut Pro X video editing. I can hit specific keys and automate some of my process. By mixing the Stream Deck with Keyboard Maestro, I can hit one custom key and make my machine do just about everything I want.

It’s not for everyone, but for some folks, it’s invaluable. There’s also a cheaper, six-key version.

Meural Canvas digital frame

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Lots of art, on demand.


Meural

Last year, I wrote about the Meural Canvas, a new-generation digital picture frame. This is a wonderful gift, either for your own family or for someone you really, really like. It’s way not cheap, at $695 (but there are Black Friday deals).

That said, the key things we like about Meural is that you can subscribe to the Meural service (most of which is free) and get an ongoing stream of gorgeous art that just shows up on your wall. You can also upload your own pictures to the Meural, so if you want a 32-inch by 21-inch picture frame that shows picture after picture of the puppy or the grandkids, this is perfect.

Meural also works with Alexa as an Alexa skill, so you can ask Alexa to change the picture, turn on, off, or change brightness.

ScanSnap S1300i

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It’s not exciting, but it’s proven to be incredibly useful.


Fujitsu

When my wife suggested I get a ScanSnap for my desk, I was understandably reluctant. I don’t use paper anymore. I’m not planning on doing any bulk scanning. And I don’t want another gadget on my desktop. As usual, she was right and I was about to learn something.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap line has been around for years, and the S1300i is also not a new product. But it’s small enough not to take too much space, and big enough to be able to scan in a small stack of papers. Here’s the thing: over the past few years, I’ve had to scan in quite a few items, often in a hurry. ScanSnap has been invaluable.

Also: Best holiday gifts 2018: CNET’s top picks

If you’re #Adulting, you probably have contracts to sign, real estate agreements to review, medical documents that require signatures, and more. When I had to manage the end-of-life care for my parents, having a faxing solution combined with a scanner was incredibly important. It’s not the most fun gift. But useful? Yeah. Fujitsu lists it at $300, but I’ve found it online (ahem, Amazon) for less.

Niwa One Smart Garden

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Niwa One Smart Garden

There’s not a lot weirder than a pink glow emanating from our windows every night. It’s almost like there’s some kind of alien sentience being born. As it turns out, it’s something much more useful: the special grow lamp that drives the Niwa One Smart Garden.

I did a full review on this “desktop farming” device a few weeks ago, but it merits another mention here in the gift guide. As I said, it’s pricy for what it does. But if you want to be on the leading edge of home gardening (we’re growing peppers and tomatoes), you may want to give this machine a closer look.

Cateck USB hub

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It’s not only attractive, but does the job. The one I have is in black.


Cateck

Last July, I reviewed a sweet little $36.99 USB hub that’s still providing me with value. Even with all the ports on the back of my new Mac mini, I’m still using this hub. There are a few things I specifically like about this hub, which is why I still use and and recommend it.

First, it’s independently powered. That means that my USB devices aren’t starved for power. It has a wall wart that provides power to the hub, so it’s not tapping into the Mac mini for power and sharing that power across all six USB ports.

Second, it has a full sized card slot and microSD card slot. I use full-sized SD cards in both my DSLR camera and in 3D printers, and use microSD cards in other 3D printers. Rather than trying to fit the microSD card into an SD card adapter, I can just insert the microSD card into its own slot. At first, I thought I’d be annoyed that the new 2018 Mac mini didn’t include a card reader, but using this hub is a lot easier, since there’s no reach-around required to load and unload the card.

Nightingale Smart Home Sleep System

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It’s not sold as a smart plug with extra features, but maybe it should be.

The Nightingale is, essentially, a smart white noise generator. Some people find white noise can help them sleep, while others don’t. Personally, I’m not convinced it helped me sleep, but the $129 device does have some features that take it beyond the various white noise skills you can enable with your Alexa device.

First, the designers were smart enough to not hijack one of your precious wall sockets. It plugs in, but also allows other devices to plug into it. The way they did this is pretty smart design. The plugs become smart plugs, so you can have something like IFTTT turn on a device plugged into the Nightingale based on various inputs. The Nightingale also lights up, and you can change the color of the light, again depending on external situations. Finally, the sound emitted by Nightingale (which the company says is tuned to fit your room) can also be remotely controlled by the app or IFTTT.

All this means that Nightingale is a lot more than an app-based white noise generator. It’s a full smart home device that controls plugs, generates a colored light, and sound. For instance, I have mine set up to turn blue first thing in the morning if there’s rain outside, and play rain sounds. That way, when I wake up, I can immediately tell if it’s a rainy day (and therefore roll back over for ten minutes more precious sleep).

You can go beyond use in the bedroom. You can use it as a quiet alert system for any external event, playing sounds and displaying light that’s not disturbing, but still informative. It’s a surprising win.

Ear Trumpet Labs Edwina mic

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The mic is a lot prettier than the guy in the picture.

I am often asked about the microphone I use in my video interviews and roundtables. As you can see from the image, it’s a beautiful mic. What you can’t tell, just from my spoken word discussions, is it also records beautiful sound and is ideal for live performances.

It’s called the Edwina, and it’s hand-crafted by a local Portland master craftsman and his team. Ear Trumpet Labs makes a variety of mic styles, all of which are gorgeous and have incredible sound. In addition to being a great piece of studio gear, I love the fact that Ear Trumpet Labs was founded by a former software engineer. Yes, there is life in meatspace for those who live in code!

At $599, the Edwina is a bit of an investment. But if you’re looking for a gorgeous sound that makes a statement, the Edwina can’t be beat.

Feiyutech SPG C 3-axis stabilized gimbal for smartphones

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When I was a kid, we did some of our holiday shopping at Gimbels. Now, I’m recommending a gimbal as a gift.

GearBest sent this to me last year and I’ve used it a number of times in my walking and talking videos. If you’re shooting video using a smartphone and you don’t like the bouncing that shows up in your video when you’re walking and filming, this $123.54 device might be right for you.

My primary filming smartphone is a cherished iPhone 6s Plus. I love this phone because it’s the last one that has both image stabilization and a headphone jack for recording audio from an external mic. But even with the built-in external stabilization, walking can still be bouncy on film.

The Feiyutech SPG C helps that by using a powered gyroscope to compensate for movement. It works well as either a balanced selfie stick or as a point-and-shoot in walking direction. It charges with USB and holds its charge for, well, to be honest, longer than I’ve ever needed. As an inexpensive device that can vastly improve your movement-based videos, it’s well worth the cost.

Wiz connected lights

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Light up your holidays!


WIZconnected

I’ve talked a lot about Hue lights over the years, particularly about how they connect to Alexa. I’m a huge fan of the Hue lights and, in fact, own about 20 of them. But recently, the folks at WIZconnected Co., Ltd sent me a couple of Wiz connected white and color lights, and I’m pretty impressed.

CNET


Smart Home Guide

From connected light bulbs, to plant sensors, to smart locks, and beyond, smart home tech is growing and evolving rapidly. Here you’ll find the latest product reviews, news, and how-tos to help you connect your surroundings to the internet in the smartest way possible.

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First, function-for-function, the Wiz lights are about half the price of the equivalent Hue bulb. But if the benefit was price alone, I wouldn’t include them in this gift guide, I’d include them in my next budget smarthome guide.

A big benefit to the Wiz bulbs is that you don’t need a dedicated hub to use them. Just twist them into a socket and set them up with the Wiz app. Now, for you networking geeks out there, they do take individual IP addresses on your network, where the Hue bulbs only use one for the hub. If you have a ton of devices on your network that might be an issue. But for most folks, having a hubless implementation is simply easier.

Finally, the bulbs come with a remote control. So while you can control them with the app or with Alexa, you can also make a very simple setup with a bulb and a remote control. For the price, these are a great buy.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.


Affiliate disclosure: ZDNet earns commission from the products and services featured on this page.

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