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Ihnatko's second gift guide offers some great ways to blow $200

Onward we go, into part one of my holiday gift guide. See part one here.

Anki Drive ($200)

I started off part one of the guide by talking about the unique nature of “gift guide” picks: these are cool things that any nerdy or nerdy-skewing people on your list would love to get to play with. They’re not necessarily the most practical ways to spend one’s money. To illustrate: I myself wouldn’t have spent a million dollars on the one-off red Mac Pro that Jony Ive designed for that big charity auction. But if someone bought it for me? Hooray! It would almost beat out the year my parents gave me The Six Million Dollar Man board game and a wristwatch with OCR-style numbers.

(Come to think of it, the buyer’s name was never disclosed. It’s entirely possible that someone did indeed buy it for me as a present. Perhaps even likely … keep in mind that I’ve been sucking up to Oprah pretty hard every December. Just in case, I ought to set fire to my iMac so I won’t need to unplug a lot of cables on December 25.)

This is a self-conscious and defensive way to say that I know that Anki Drive is a $200 race car set. But it’s a really really fun race car set.

Anki Drive is a sort of mashup between slot car racing and Bluetooth RC cars that can be controlled via your iPhone, without being completely like either one. The secret sauce are the optical patterns embedded in the surface of the huge race mat and the amount of data being shared between the cars and the app that hosts each game. When a car is being controlled by a human, the iPhone app can interpret “steer to the left” as a smart “change lanes to get around the car ahead,” freeing the player from finicky fine-turning of the phone. And when cars are controlled by the computer, they drive with intelligence, tactics, and a lack of remorse.

It’ll be a lot more fun when Anki expands the software to add more games. Out of the box, Anki plays a motor combat app in which you score points by slowing down and disabling other cars with your onboard weapons. We want a straightforward race game, too, though the cars’ eight minute battery life would make it a sprint rally instead of an endurance race.

You get two cars in the $200 kit; additional cars are $70 per.

Sonos Play:1 ($199)

I’ve always liked Sonos’ wireless audio products. With Sonos’ new Play:1 speaker, I think they’ve finally cracked a longstanding problem with the system: expensive buy-in.

Play:1 is a $200 wireless speaker that’s a great device in and of itself. It communicates to your network via either Ethernet (ugh) or a wireless bridge ($49, but it’s bundled free for a limited time). After five or ten minutes of setup, the speaker has access to your computer’s entire music library. Sophisticated mobile and desktop apps let you select and control what’s playing, totally independent of your Mac or PC.

The huge win of Sonos is expandability. It’s a great $200 speaker. Later, your friend might spend $200 for a second Play:1 and they can do just about anything with it. It can be paired with the first speaker for true room-filling separated stereo. Or, it can go into another room entirely and act as a second, independent stream of audio, controlled from that same app. Or! It can be set as an extension, so that when you dress in the morning the same 90 minute podcast is playing in your bedroom, bathroom (it’s humidity-resistant) and kitchen.

Glif ($30)

I love clever and I love useful and I love affordable. Studio Neat’s Glif is all three. It’s combination tripod mount and table kickstand for your phone.

These are each good features. The trouble with other gadgets in this line is that they either don’t work if you keep your phone in a case, or else it replaces your cool purple Ghostbusters-themed case entirely, or it doesn’t work with your phone at all. Glif has two sets of custom-adjustable jaws; it’ll work with just about any phone that’s sub-phablet size. It has no trouble gripping the 5” or so screen of the Nexus 5, inside a rubberized case.

And the Glif is about the size of a pen; it’s an easy carry.

Olloclip ($70)

The Olloclip is another member of the “clever and useful” club, though at $70 this lens accessory for the iPhone 4/4S/5/5S maybe isn’t exactly cheap. But boy, it might just be my favorite iPhone accessory of all time.

It looks like a tiny monocular, with lenses on two sides. It clips to the corner of your iPhone and clicks a lens over the camera. One side is a wide-angle. Flip it over, and it’s a fisheye. Unscrew a lens, and it’s a macro lens.

It’s also available as a 2x telephoto. But the wide angle is the big win. You can always crop an image in tighter but if your lens isn’t wide enough to get all of your friends sitting in the restaurant booth or take in the full glory of a 400-year-old church’s interior, every good answer to the problem is “add a lens.” This one is small and convenient enough that it’ll be in a pocket when it’s needed.

Sony RX100 ($550 online)/Panasonic LX7 ($275)

“Which camera should I get for my … ” and then someone provides me with a three-word description of a person. It doesn’t offer me any clues as to the best kind of camera to give him or her as a gift.

But if I limit the question to “pocket cameras with online prices of $500 or less,” two cameras come immediately to mind.

Sony’s RX100 is technically $50 over my budget, but it was an arbitrary budget anyway, and the RX100 is technically superior to damned near everything in its price range. It buys you a tiny 20 megapixel camera with a relatively huge sensor, in a shirt-pocketable size. Though it has all of the manual controls an advance user would want, its spartan design isn’t the least bit intimidating to the “push this button to make photo happen” crowd.

If you’re truly under a budget, you can do no better than the Panasonix LX7, easily available for under $300. A hot shoe on an inexpensive camera is a force multiplier; armed with even a cheap accessory flash, the LX7 will whip the butt of the on-camera flashes of cameras well above its weight class. The star of the show is the lens, though: a gorgeous Leica-designed f1.4 makes every photo better.

I won’t get into semantics of features and controls. I’m picking each of these simply because they take great photos. That “feature” tends to get lost among obsessive reviewers and marketing hype. Each of these is “last year’s model” and lacks certain features like WiFi connect. In the end, though, it’s all about gorgeous photos. When I come across these two cameras’ photos in my picture library, I need to check the EXIF data to verify that they weren’t shot with a much more expensive camera.

Google Chromecast ($35)

The Apple TV and the Roku 3 are the kings of streaming video boxes. And truth be told, they’re the ideal way to bring content out of the Internet and into your living room. Until the next practical breakthrough in voice or motion sensors, the kernel of the TV interface will always be “eyes on the screen, fingers on a remote control with mechanical buttons.”

Chromecast is about $60 less expensive than either of them and in some (but not all) ways it’s a better gift. It doesn’t attempt to create a brand new viewing experience or change anyone’s habits. If you’re in the room with your phone or your tablet or laptop and think “Gee, I’d like to watch this on my TV instead,” you just click a button. Boom, the video or audio stream is being pulled down by the Chromecast instead of the device.

“Bandette” by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover

“Relish: My Life In The Kitchen” by Lucy Knisley

“Finishing The Hat” and “Look, I Made A Hat” by Stephen Sondheim

“Gift giving is often an opportunity to inflict one’s taste upon others.” I can’t remember where I read that. I think the speaker meant that as a bad thing.

Hmph. What a drudge. If there’s a book you absolutely love — and you sincerely think it’s something your friend will like — what greater gift is there than to share one’s own enthusiasm?

So here are a few books that I absolutely loved this year.

“Bandette” was probably my favorite single comic book series of 2013. It’s the story of a young Parisian woman who steals with a smile, and a little cape, and consummate skill and flair, and it’s told in pictures that remind me of the illustrations you’d find in a very smart magazine in 1959: lively, swooping brush strokes applied with frugality and precision. One or two PG-rated (or PG-13, if you’re particularly prudish) panels prevent this from being an all-ages book but there’s a clarity and timelessness to this storytelling that will appeal to everybody.

“Relish” is clearly my favorite graphic novel of the year. Lucy Knisley grew up as the daughter of a chef mother and a foodie father, and some of her best memories are about the acquisition, preparation, and consumption of good food. But this visual memoir to that part of her life isn’t just for “Food Network” junkies who’ve never prepared a recipe that included the phrase “Peel plastic off of steaming tray and mix in contents of sauce packet.” She communicates her love of food in a way that’s a) universal and b) going to send the reader out to find a good croissant somewhere. You will also learn how to make pickles.

And now we go from comics to Sondheim. Why? Because my copy of “Finishing The Hat” was within my line of sight as I started this section and I couldn’t not recommend it. These two volumes reprint the lyrics from all of Sondheim’s musicals and incidental compositions and explains, in detail, not only how each of these shows were written, but why. Along the way, Sondheim teaches a master class in storytelling. Even if you’re not particularly interested in musicals or writing, there’s something about a craftsman explaining his process that’s always interesting. It’s true when Norm Abram explains his technique for making screen doors and equally so when Sondheim talks about how he put together the patter song in “Company” or how he keeps trying to fix “Merrily We Roll Along.”

FitBit Flex ($99)

If you think carefully, I’m confident that you can give your friend a fitness product without implying that he or she is an insufferable lard-butt who wouldn’t see a vegetable unless they crashed their stolen car into a farm stand in “Grand Theft Auto.”

I believe in you.

The way to frame such a gift is that the Flex is a simple little rubber bracelet that wirelessly communicates data about your level of activity with an app on your phone or laptop. It doesn’t provide the user with any kind of judgement. Just data. Over time, the wearer can look at the number of steps he or she is taking every day and the number of hours they’re spending motionless and then make their own decisions.

The only harsh thing I have to say about this thing is that it makes fitness fun by “gamifying” it. Will I take my daily constitutional because it will improve my health and extend my life? Maybe. Will I do it because when I tap the FitBit, three of its lights come up and I want to get all five lit before the end of the day? Oh, definitely.

Automatic ($99)

Like the FitBit Flex, Automatic tricks you into engaging in behavior that’s obviously in your best interest by making it look like a game, as opposed to something that any rational adult would want to do on their own.

This Bluetooth gadget plugs into your car’s diagnostic port and communicates a live stream of engine data to a companion app on your iPhone. Over time, it trains you to be a better driver by keeping an eye on your braking, acceleration, fuel consumption, and other data. It also shames you into driving safely by virtue of the fact that if you wreck your car, it’ll tattle on you to busybodies like your emergency medical rescue teams and your loved ones.

I’ve been testing Automatic for a couple of weeks and yup, it makes you aware of your “mistakes” in a nurturing and non-disruptive way (as in, “the total opposite of your mom or dad the one time you thought you’d like to have them give you a driving lesson).

I’ve been a similar device for years now (Linear Logic’s ScanGauge II) and I can certify that these devices really work. It quickly trained me to ease off of the accelerator and drive more cautiously and smoothly. Result: a consistent and provable 20% fuel savings, and I’m also convinced that my smoother driving habits have extended the life of my car.

Website/Webcomic/Podcast Swag

The final item in my gift guide might be the most thoughtful: support the “free” content that your friends like by visiting the creator’s website and buying stuff.

The marketplace of content is turning in one clear direction: independent creators making stuff that they think is important and/or cool, giving it away for free, and hoping that Step Three involves money of some kind.

Which is why if you visit their websites, you’ll usually find all kinds of cool stuff for sale. Clothing, printed books, or even something as direct as a PayPal donation box or a subscription for annual bonus services.

So. If your friend keeps quoting lines from “The Bugle” podcast, go and buy them a pair of socks with the show’s logo. If at some point in 2013 you complimented your friend on the way-super-cool otter drawing they were using as a phone lock screen and they launched into ten minutes of praise for “The Abominable Charles Christopher,” go and buy a print, or both anthology volumes of Karl Kerschl’s (truly exceptional) webcomic.

Et cetera. In a way, this could be the most meaningful gift you can give. With one Canadian House Of Pizza And Garbage t-shirt, you’re a) giving them a gift that they’ll wear and enjoy, b) through your financial support, helping to ensure that there’ll be more episodes of his or her favorite podcast in the future, and perhaps most importantly c) proving that you were truly listening when they kept quoting lines from “Judge John Hodgman” to you all year long.

See part one of Ihnatko’s gift guide here.