Tech gift guide

Nov 20, 2013

A slew of new smartphones, tablets and even gaming consoles have hit the market, complicating the decision-making process this holiday shopping season. Post tech reporter Hayley Tsukayama, who has reviewed many of the gadgets, chatted about all the newest and coolest tech and find that special gadget for you ... we mean, your loved one.

Good morning everyone -- thanks for joining us today. I'm happy to help, or at least try to help, anyone who's on the horns of a holiday tech gift dilemma. 

My top-of-mind topic today is the Xbox  One vs. PlayStation 4 debate. You can read my takes on both here:


Xbox One: A family-focused console that goes beyond gaming

PlayStation 4 review: Strong, but needs time to mature and gain more content


I'm really interested to hear how people are debating between the two in their own homes. But, of course, I'm more than happy to talk about gadgets of any kind.

Any suggestions on gifts that might marry my husband's love for both sports and technology? Thanks!

Great question! There are a lot of great fitness gadgets out there that can help your husband (obsessively?) track how he exercises. Companies like FitBit, Jawbone and Nike all have sleek trackers that have styling good for men and women and hook into your smartphone via apps to keep any fitness buff happy.

What would be your recommendation for a smartphone for my 22 year old son?

A lot depends on what he's looking for out of a smartphone. But I would say, for example, if he's a little rough on his phone as many people are in their younger days, you may want to consider plastic-backed phones. Luckily, there are a lot on the market this year, regardless of whether he's an Apple or Android user. The iPhone 5c, for example, stands up a little better to wear and tear than other iPhones because of its polycarbonate back. The Moto X is also a good phone that should let him express his personality a bit. And if he likes big screens for watching video, you may want to think about Galaxy S4. It's a little more fragile, but it's hard  to beat that screen.

Plastic-backed phones also tend to be a little easier on the wallet (not always!) so that's also a plus for gift-givers.

Hi. Buying my wife an iPad mini. It will be used to hold pictures and music, as a reader, as a web surfer, and for e-mail and skype while outside the home. Never for gaming, and maybe to watch the occasional movie on a plane. Managing content (i.e., not using the device to store ALL the pictures and music) is not a huge deal for us. So, can we live with the 2012 that seems to be on special at many stores, or is it worth it to hold out for the 2013 and the faster processor, even if it is not immediately available. And what size memory? Thanks.

Great question. The question of when to jump to the latest model or take the deal on last year's is always a really tough one, especially when you're talking about gifts.  From what you say, though, I think you may want to consider the first-generation of the iPad mini.

The main feature of the new tablet is a retina-screen, which is primarily for sharp video and photos -- which it sounds like aren't as high  priority for you. I should mention that the new screen is a little easier on the eyes for heavy reading, but I haven't heard too many eye strain complaints about the current mini. Hope that helps!

My dad is an idiot with tech, but he suddenly expressed a desire to get a tablet. I'm not even sure he knows exactly what a tablet is! He doesn't have a smartphone or a Kindle or anything so has had no exposure to this type of technology. What would be an awesome entry tablet for him that wouldn't freak him out?

Another stellar question -- and it actually made me laugh out loud. For an entry-level tablet you have a couple of good options.

The iPad is really one of the easier tablets out there to use -- all of its models -- and first-time tablet users tend to find them pretty intuitive. Android tablets are great, but they're definitely tend to be aimed more at digital natives or people who have higher tech literacy. I'm not saying your dad couldn't learn to use something like a Nexus 7, but it's probably easier to start with Apple.

If that's a little more than you want to spend on a first tablet, though -- an understandable thought -- the new Kindle Fire HDX tablets are also very easy to use and have fewer apps, which may actually help your dad out if he's likely to feel overwhelmed. They also have a built-in video help line feature, so he can have someone on call for him if you're not around. 

I'd also just stop and ask him what he wants to do with a tablet. If he wants something portable that he can use to go online, etc., then go ahead and walk through tablet options with him. But if he's more interestd in reading and not so much in the Web or movies, you may want to gently steer him toward an e-reader.

I went to buy a Samsung Galaxy S4 about a week ago (was time for an upgrade on my old phone), and they practically tried to shove a Note at me. They told me I could have it for free and reiterated the offer SEVERAL times. Any reason they're flogging these things? Is it because they're so terrible, or because they're so good?

The Note, I think, is a pretty strong device, but it's certainly not for everyone. As you probably noticed in the course of having one shoved at you, they're huge, with a 5.7-inch screen.

I don't want to speak for what your carrier or Samsung may be trying to do. My guess would be that they're pushing them because they're new, and also because that big screen means it's more likely that people are going to spend money on apps, videos, etc. I haven't seen recent sales numbers, though, so it's also possible that the big screens just aren't taking off and they need to sell them through.

Where exactly do phone manufacturers expect us to keep these huge phones? Pockets aren't cutting it and make sitting difficult. Nice to see HTC offer a "mini" version of the HTC One for those of us who don't want or need tablets for phones.

This goes well with the Note question! So, there are a lot of forces at play when it comes to screen sizes, though I agree that smartphone makers may want to check in with fashion designers pretty soon. Pockets on women's clothes, especially, are not up to the task.

The main reason that these big-screened phones are so popular with manufacturers is because these phones are popular in Europe and Asia, where there's the most smartphone growth. There, people aren't as interested in getting a smartphone AND a tablet, so they want something in between.

That said, we're certainly a country that likes big screens, and with people watching more video and doing more Web browsing on their phones, it's not surprising that there's some demand to pump up screen sizes. The question, of course, is what the upper limit for a phone is. Already, there are quite a few phones out there that I would feel silly holding up to my face -- they definitely need a headset.

I don't have a question but do have a gift recommendation for other folks! My husband is super tech savvy and impossible to buy for in this realm because he's already got everything. Recently, however, I bought him a CD-slot magnetic phone holder for the car... it's a simple contraption but he had never heard of it and LOVES it. You get two very thin magnets, one sticky-sided if you don't have a case, and the other to slip inside a case. No fumbling to snap the phone in, you can just about fling it at the mount and it sticks. Strong magnet and the mount doesn't interfere with CD operation. (Thank you Amazon!!) My husband is very tickled by the thing and I am glad to finally be able to surprise him with something tech-y!!

Thanks for the suggestion! 

Hi Hayley, My 8yo son has been using a Wii for a few years and seems ready for the "next step." If I'm going to invest, I want something that will be current/relevant for a while. I know it's hard to say, but do you think this is current technology at its best, or is it a trend that will burn out? Is this your top pick for kids, or is it too complicated for an 8yo (and his 5yo sister as she gains interest)?

That is a tough one, but I do think that the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 are both going to mature into really strong consoles. In both cases, you shouldn't be left holding the bag on a console that doesn't have good games.

When it comes to the Xbox One, it might provide a better value for your family as a whole, since it has good integration with video streaming apps -- maybe some kids shows for the five-year-old? -- and your cable box in addition to games. There are also some fun Kinect titles for kids, though it's not a super-rich platform right now, since it's just getting off its feet.

But  I would caution that as you move from the Nintendo world into the games for other consoles that you'll have to keep a closer eye on the age-appropriateness of the games. Titles for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are both way more intense than for Nintendo, because they're aimed more at adults. 

If you want something for him this Christmas, you may also want to consider a Nintendo 3DS, which is a handheld device that has a good range of games. That way you can wait to invest in a console until you think both kids are ready to game.

Anecdotally, I've talked with several people who have damaged their Notes by inadvertently bending the large phone. I tried one a couple years ago and took it back when it wouldn't fit in my hip pocket.

Yowch. That would be very disappointing.

Help! My husband would love a Chromebook for Christmas to flesh out his repertoire of electronic devices. Are there new ones being released for the holidays? If not, which one do you recommend? He has no specific needs - some passive and some interactive interputzing, and occasionally some light work on documents or spreadsheets.

There are some new Chromebooks out for the holidays, though the flagship laptop in the line, from HP, has had its sales halted because of overheating problems. 

Acer has a new $200 Chromebook that I haven't had the pleasure of spending too much time with, but Chromebooks are good for people who only want to use their machines fo "interactive interputzing," as you so wonderfully said. It's worth taking a look at the new Asus, which has gotten pretty good buzz for their latest.

My wife is disabled and reads a lot, so I'm thinking of an e-reader. They all seem to be about the same - access to the local public library, custom screens to magnify text and bookmarks if she dozes off. Can you give me recommendations for ones with and without access to video content?

E-readers with what they call e-ink screens tend not to have access to too much video content -- these are the Kindle (not the Kindle Fire), Sony's e-reader, etc. In this category, I'd recommend the Kindle Paperwhite, because it has a screen that lights up and access to a lot of good content.

Smaller tablets such as the iPad mini and Kindle Fire HDX or Nexus 7 have access to video and are good for reading if you download reading apps, though the glare on screens made for video can make reading for long periods of time a bit difficult. In the glare department, I think the Kindle Fire HDX has the most sunlight-friendly screen, but it is a light on apps, so if she wants to use the device for much more than reading, you're better off with the iPad mini or Nexus 7.

Am I missing something by not getting an Apple TV, Roku or similar box? I watch nearly all my television on my computer. I'm completely fine watching it on my computer screen rather than on the TV screen (I always tell people that I keep the laptop so close to me at all times that the screen ends up looking larger). Is there other functionality that I'm missing by consuming on the computer rather than through one of those services for my TV?

If you're happy to watch on the computer, than you're not missing a whole lot. The main appeal of those set-top boxes is being able to watch on the biggest -- and often sharpest -- screen in the house, which is normally the television. Roku's made some effort to build in games, and Apple TV is nice because you can put your photos, etc., on your television via your computer. But if you're happy with the status quo, there's need for a fear that you're missing out.

My 5th grader is now doing the bulk of his homework on the computer and I think the time has come for him to have his own device. I want to get him something that will be useful over the next few years but not something that is so expensive that I have heart palpitations whenever he fumbles around with it. His work is primarily online (the school has a portal site that he uses to access online texbooks and other resources) or Office based (so much powerpoint!). He rarely has to print anything and he is allowed to either email things to his teacher or bring them in on a flash drive. Any suggestions on what to aim for?

That's a little tricky. Tablets still aren't fantastic for creating content -- I'd probably go batty if I had to write an article on one -- so  laptop here is probably your best bet. You could look into the Chromebook line, which would give you a lightweight laptop at a reasonable price.


The Microsoft Surface 2 also  has a good keyboard, but it's certainly not cheap; something I might recommend for college students rather than for a fifth-grader. 

Do you have a favorite? I've looked at them both online and it seems that the major difference is the availability of their libraries.. How long a life do I have with a kindle before it is overtaken by the next generation. Do you like the Paperwhite Kindles?

I tend to fall on the side of the Kindle, mainly because of the point you raise: they have a much wider selection of books. Barnes and Noble has also had some trouble selling Nooks, so I'd worry about support over the long term. Kindles actually have a pretty long life -- the one I use has worked for mesince my junior year of college (6 years ago)  and haven't felt a need to run out and upgrade. While it gets a little clunky sometimes, it's still perfectly serviceable for long plane rides. And so much lighter than a stack of books.

The only one that has tempted me has been the Paperwhite, because of the light in the screen. Being able to read in the dark without having to worry about a lightswitch is nice...though I honestly just bought a bedside lamp instead.

The poster should look into a refurbished Dell laptop for the 5th grader. They are pretty cheap, durable, and easy to use.

Thanks for the tip!

Any suggestions for gifts to get someone who recently purchased the PS4? Are there any accessories, games or add-ons you'd recommend?

I'd say an extra controller is always a nice thing to have around. Game wise, it's a little hard  to say exactly what people's preferences are going to be. Sony's launch lineup isn't as strong as I might have liked, but Killzone: Shadow Fall is a good looking game and not bad for people who like the genre. If you're PS4 buyer is a little quirkier, Knack is also good fun though I'd probably give it a B rather than an A if pushed to grade. 

So, XBox v. PS4. Which one would you get?

Good question! My standard answer is that if you want all those entertainment options and don't mind the extra $100, then the Xbox One is probably the better buy for most people.  That said, the PlayStation 4 is really strong and once they get some of their titles up and running -- Uncharted, for example -- it's going to be a great platform. And since it's $399 rather than $499, if  you're not that interested in getting all those video apps, it's easier on the wallet.

Personally, I struck a deal with my significant other that I'll get the Xbox One and he'll get the PlayStation 4 ; sorry I ducked the question a little.

My friend is super into tech. Knows everything about every new device that's coming out, is super savvy about customizing things to his needs, etc. I'm looking for a gift for him in the $20 range (friend-level gift), so not a new device or anything like that. But can you think of anything cool to get a tech lover that he'd appreciate?

Tech gifts are hard to come by on the cheap, for sure. I find that thoughtful, funny cases are always a welcome buy, as are those external battery packs. The latter isn't too sentimental, but they can really be a lifesaver.

After much deliberation, I went with Kindle because I felt like Amazon was going to be around longer than B&N. I have had the Kindle Touch for a few years now and it still works great. I got my SO a Paperwhite last year for Christmas and he LOVES it. It's small, light, and the lit screen works wonderfully. He can be reading in bed while I'm asleep without keeping me up due to light. Also, they work really well outside, even on the beach, in the direct sun.

Good insight there. 

Alright folks, I'm out of time -- sorry if I didn't get to your questions!  Be sure to stay tuned here, though, for our forthcoming holiday gift guide, in the Washington Post's Technology section.  And if you ever have questions, please feel free to shoot them my way at Thanks!

In This Chat
Hayley Tsukayama
Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology and technology policy for the Washington Post. A Minnesota native, she joined the Post in 2010 after completing her master's degree in journalism. She lives in Washington D.C. where she sings alto with a local choir and plays video games in her copious free time.
Recent Chats
  • Next: