Christmas shopping: The worst tech gifts we give (and how to do better)

Consider this a guide to steering away from presents that end up in landfills and toward buying what may bring your loved ones joy

By Brian X. Chen
Published: Nov 28, 2019

g_124211_bg_techfix5_280x210.jpgNetworking gear like routers is essential for connectivity in a home — but one of the worst gifts you can give is the type that creates headaches for the recipient.
Image: Tom Grillo/The New York Times

I will never forget the worst holiday gifts I have received over the years.

Among them: A tech-accessory holder that lives between couch cushions. Countless Best Buy gift cards I never used. (More precisely, they were a bonus for Best Buy shareholders.) And the Chopula, an oddly shaped spatula designed to flip and chop food.

There’s no mystery behind why this lousy gift-giving happens. Many holiday purchases happen during Black Friday, when retailers slash prices to clear their inventory of unwanted junk. And that means a lot of dreck goes on sale.

For years, I have collaborated with Wirecutter, a New York Times company that tests products, to warn shoppers about dubious Black Friday deals while advising them on how to score discounts on quality items.

This year, we are rounding up the worst tech products we often see presented as holiday gifts and are recommending superior alternatives, many of which may go on sale on Black Friday. Consider this a guide to steering away from presents that end up in landfills and toward buying what may bring your loved ones joy.

— POWER ACCESSORIES

Don’t buy: Sketchy brands.

Power chargers and battery packs make popular gifts because they are theoretically very useful. Just about everyone owns a mobile device and could use extra juice throughout the day.

But it’s too bad that not all power accessories are created equal.

Some charging cables from obscure brands fray easily or are slow at replenishing your phone. In rare cases, poorly made battery packs have the potential to explode. More often, battery packs are just frustrating to use: Over the years, I’ve tested many battery packs from unknown brands that were bulky and couldn’t recharge my phone even once.

Do buy: Reliable brands like Anker and Jackery.

Of the power accessories we have tested, these will make better gifts: For iPhones, Anker’s $10 PowerLine Lightning cables are durable and fast. For Android devices, Anker offers superb PowerLine II USB-C cables for $20.

As for battery packs, we recommend the $36 Jackery Bolt, which has built-in charging wires for iPhones and Androids, and Anker’s $32 PowerCore Slim, which fits easily in a pocket. Both can replenish a phone twice.

— KITCHEN APPLIANCES

Don’t buy: “Smart” kitchen gadgets.

Manufacturers are now making nearly every electronic appliance “smart” by adding an internet connection or a Bluetooth connection so it can wirelessly talk to your phone. These features usually drive prices up, tend to be glitchy and won’t help people cook better food. Smart kitchen appliances like the June Oven and Wi-Fi crockpots fall into this category.

“Cooking is largely too hands-on and sensory based to make smart appliances all that useful,” said Marguerite Preston, Wirecutter’s senior kitchen editor.

Do buy: The dumber Instant Pot.

For kitchen devices, err on the side of dumb appliances, like a reliable toaster oven from a well-known brand, such as the $170 Panasonic FlashXpress or $280 Cuisinart Chef’s Convection Toaster Oven. The Instant Pot, which costs around $50 on Black Friday, is also an excellent device capable of pressure cooking and slow cooking — but avoid the model with Wi-Fi because its smartphone app works poorly.

— TABLETS

Don’t buy: Cheap tablets.

Plenty of children ask their parents for tablets, and a popular holiday gift has been Amazon’s cheap Fire Tablet. For $50, it’s a cost-effective solution to keeping kids’ hands off your fancy tablet.

But let’s be frank. For anyone who wants a tablet for work and play, the Fire is inadequate. It’s sluggish, the colors don’t look good, and it’s tied to Amazon’s ecosystem, which is focused on books and entertainment.

Do buy: An iPad.

If you want to show someone you truly care, it may be time to shell out a bit more on a high-quality tablet like Apple’s iPad. The newest iPad starts at $329, but retailers will most likely still be selling the previous-generation iPad — which remains a great tablet — for a deep discount on Black Friday. Look for the model with more storage (128 gigabytes) because it will hold more apps, games and photos in the long run.

— NETWORKING GEAR

Don’t buy: Gear that is difficult to use.

Networking gear like routers is essential for connectivity in a home. But one of the worst gifts you can give is the type that creates headaches for the recipient. There are plenty of expensive, fast Wi-Fi routers that tech professionals love to geek out about, but for most of us, the devices are extremely confusing to set up.

Do buy: Tech that will improve people’s lives, like Eero.

A mesh Wi-Fi product would be a better gift for most people. It’s basically a system of multiple Wi-Fi stations that work together to blanket every corner of your home with a strong wireless data connection. Amazon’s Eero, which starts at $99, is such a product. It is fast and easy to set up with an intuitive smartphone app. Amazon is also likely to give a discount on Eero bundles on Black Friday.

— AUDIO GEAR

Don’t buy: Obscure, cheap brands.

Like power accessories, audio gear such as earphones and speakers varies widely in quality. Bad earphones sound crummy and can damage people’s hearing. And many Bluetooth speakers sound as if they are playing music from a tin can.

Do buy: Quality earphones and speakers from Jabra and 1More.

You can still pay little for good audio accessories for your loved ones, but the key is to stick with quality brands. There are many options with great sound, like Jabra’s $100 Move headphones or, for $30, 1More’s Piston Fit Bluetooth earbuds. Both products have warranties of at least a year.

— GIFT CARDS

Don’t buy: Cards for stores where nobody shops.

Gift cards are a borderline thoughtless gift, and the worst ones confine your loved ones to buying from a narrow set of products that they may not want. I mentioned Best Buy gift cards earlier as an example; I never want them because as a person who is constantly testing new gadgets, I have no space for more.

I would throw in Apple’s iTunes gift card in this category. Apple has phased out iTunes as a service. Sure, you can still buy iPhone apps with the card, but come on: iTunes isn’t a cool brand anymore.

Do buy: A general-purpose card from Amazon.

If you give a gift card, go for something more versatile. Amazon gift cards can be applied toward a vast array of products. Even better is a generic Visa gift card, which can be used anywhere that accepts Visa card payments because it is essentially a prepaid debit card.

Or there’s always a gift that will never be uncool: cash.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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