A holiday shopping guide for engineers: 2021 edition

This is the third consecutive year that I’ve tackled this fun project; for your reference, here are the 2019 and 2020 editions (I skipped a few years between the precursor 2014 edition and its successors). I included up-front links to the prior-year versions because I did my best to not include any product category repeats this time around, since the stuff I recommended in the past largely remains valid…and I nearly succeeded (more on that in a bit). Projects like this are so much fun because, among other reasons, it’s almost as enjoyable (and far less fiscally harmful-to-self) to help others spend their money as it is to spend my own…although as you’ll soon see, I’ve already acquired examples of each product category in the recent past!

Without further ado, and in the hopes that you’ve been nice-not-naughty this year and Santa therefore doesn’t get a good chuckle from your wish list as he puts lumps of coal in your stockings instead…

Getting the goods

Last year’s edition of the Shopping Guide was developed with the awareness that we were in the midst of “sheltering in place,” courtesy of the pandemic. I therefore provided plenty of suggestions for how you could outfit your home office, entertain yourself in your living room, cook your own nice meals in your kitchen instead of going to restaurants, and the like.

This year’s edition is similarly COVID-19 influenced, but with a twist. Many of us are (prudently, hopefully) easing back into some semblance of our pre-pandemic lives. But courtesy of a combination of government stimulus- and return-to-work income-induced increased demand for goods, along with lingering COVID-caused supply chain labor-and-other constraints, “new stuff” is in short supply this holiday-shopping season.

Instead, this year, consider doing what I’ve long strived to do: buy someone else’s leftovers, i.e., manufacturer refurbished and otherwise used stuff. Aside from a brand new computer I got for my wife for Christmas a couple of years ago, for example, I honestly can’t recall the last time I bought anything other than a used PC or Mac. Refurbs I’ve purchased from Apple and Dell’s websites, for example, arrived looking brand new, with as-new warranties to boot. I’ve also had great luck with the used-equipment inventory at Adorama, Amazon (Warehouse, to be precise), B&H Photo Video and (for photography gear, specifically) KEH Camera. In nearly all cases, the equipment has arrived in better shape than its retailer rating suggested would be the case.

Another excellent source o’stuff that I’ve found is eBay’s Certified Refurbished section; anything you buy there comes with a no-extra-charge multi-year warranty. And VIPOutlet (which, from what I gather, processes and resells inventory that’s previously been returned to other retailers) is another good source of used goods. Frankly, much of what I’ve gotten from them is in brand new condition (i.e., it was never even opened by the original purchaser); they sell both through their own website and eBay. To be clear: I have no financial or other arrangement with any of these companies. I’m just a happy long-time customer of each.

Assemble (or otherwise acquire) a new (to you) computer

If you’ve been inspired by my 2021 tales of PC assembly, along with my documented parts accumulation for further assembly in the coming year, I encourage you to follow in my footsteps! Most components are at this point reasonably available at MSRP (or lower) prices, with the notable exception of discrete graphics cards, which remain scarce due to both supply constraints and unrelenting demand from cryptocurrency “miners”:

As an interim step, consider purchasing a CPU with an integrated graphics core. Intel processors absent “F” suffixes in their product names generally contain embedded GPUs, for example, and AMD recently started selling to consumers at retail (versus solely shipping to OEMs for inclusion in prebuilt systems) Zen 3 microarchitecture-based Ryzen CPUs with integrated graphics, too. These processors’ graphics performance and other capabilities may not match those of standalone GPUs, but at least you can drive a display decently with them…and (someday) when (if) supply constraints ease, you can stick a graphics upgrade in an open expansion slot.

If you don’t want to tackle building your own computer, you might (for aforementioned availability reasons) need to purchase a refurb. Make sure it’s got decent going-forward longevity; computers more than a couple of years old probably won’t be upgradeable to Windows 11, for example, and I also had to donate a couple of still-kicking-hardware Macs this year because Apple dropped O/S support for them, in a recent example of the company’s longstanding obsolescence-by-design strategy.

Try out a new mobile form factor

Back in February, I was admittedly pretty cynical about the then-current status of the Arm-powered, Windows-based ecosystem. However, I admitted in that write-up that my opinions were based solely on anecdotal evidence I’d read elsewhere; I hadn’t actually tried out any of the systems myself yet. Since then, I’ve remedied that blind spot via the acquisition of an eBay Certified Refurbished-sourced Microsoft Surface Pro X.

Suffice it to say that I’m using it a lot more than I thought I would; I’m typing on it now, in fact. It’s sometimes challenging to find application software that’s compatible (whether native or emulated) with the system, though a recent upgrade to Windows 11 has made great strides in that regard (with a few notable exceptions: I’m looking at you, Dropbox). As such, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest such a setup (yet, at least) for a non-tech-savvy recipient. But since this write-up is intended for engineers like me, I feel comfortable recommending the Surface Pro X or one of its siblings from other PC OEMs to you. It’s more than speedy enough for my daily needs. And the battery life and form factor are pretty darn awesome. More coverage to come…

And as for phones, the dual-screen Microsoft Surface Duo is worth considering if you’re up for living life on the sometimes-bumpy bleeding edge:

The second-generation Duo 2 just came out, and reviews are admittedly mixed. But from what I’ve read from others in Reddit-and-other forum and retailer-comment-sections, some folks are “over the moon” for even the first-generation offering (while others, admittedly, send them back for refund within 24 hours). Hey, if nothing else, it’d be a cool cocktail-party conversation starter, right?

Shoot cost-effective 4K video

On my to-donate pile are two lightly used early-generation DLSRs, which I’m passing on to others for a few fundamental reasons:

  • They’re just sitting here collecting dust, having already been superseded by newer, higher-resolution and otherwise fuller-featured successors in my image-capture stable.
  • They still work great, and would be perfect for a student or other newcomer to the digital photography hobby.
  • Due to the already-mentioned dearth of brand-new presents-for-others this holiday shopping season, they’d be especially compelling alternatives for gift-givers.
  • They’ll provide a nice revenue bump for one of my favorite charities, and,
  • They’ll admittedly also provide a nice tax write-off bump for yours truly.

They also don’t shoot video, unlike newer DSLRs, only stills. And speaking of video, although I go back and forth, I’m also considering adding my JVC GR-HD1 HDV video camera to the donation pile. Admittedly, I may end up hold onto it for nostalgia reasons; it was the world’s first consumer HD camcorder, after all. But whereas more than a decade-and-a-half ago it was one of the hottest things in consumer video tech, it’s now getting quite “long in the tooth.” It’s long-GOP MPEG-2 format was never easy to edit with, and it “only” captured content in 720p and 1080i resolution options. Plus, none of my in-active-use computers include integrated Firewire connectivity any longer, although adapters can still get me there.

My wife’s current DSLR isn’t video-capable, either, and mine “only” captures 1080p. In contrast, 4K is the new buzzword in video cameras; while I remain convinced that it’s of limited-at-best usefulness as an end display format, it admittedly (like high-res audio) does give some useful capture “headroom” for subsequent crops, lossy-compression degradation and other editing functions. So, what am I going to do: buy a new prosumer camcorder or 4K video-capable DSLR? Nope. I’m going to use what’s already in my pocket: my smartphone.

Let me be clear upfront: I’m not suggesting that smartphones’ capabilities are the match of standalone high-end video cameras with their interchangeable lenses, large-format image sensors and the like. But smartphones are getting more capable all the time; indicative of this trend, latest-generation high-end iPhones even leverage Apple’s ProRes as their capture format. Keep in mind that today’s high-end smartphones will be mainstream in a few short years. And heck, my 2.5-year-old Google Pixel 3as are already 4K video capture-capable.

For elementary uses, I’ve acquired on-sale a $10 handgrip, the JOBY GripTight POV Kit, to help me hold the phone steady:

When I want to get fancy, I’ve also purchased a refurbished DJI Osmo Mobile 3 Combo gimbal (yep, from the same folks that make my drone, which come to think of it also captures 4K video) on sale for $59 (plus a free $10 gift card) from Newegg:

And if I want to use something more robust than my smartphone’s built-in mics, there’s the Shure MV88+ Video Kit that I recently got gently used for $140-and-change on eBay:

Ditch the ambient noise

This is the one area of slight overlap with a previous year’s gift-suggestion list. Two years ago, I gave recommendations on wireless headphones; this time I’m going to be more precise and suggest that you focus your acquisition attention on models with built-in active noise cancellation, which between then and now I’ve had the chance to try out and am now totally sold on. Saturdays, for example, are usually house-cleaning days at the Dipert abode. When I’m manning the vacuum cleaner, I inevitably have one of three sets of ANC-capable “cans” on my noggin to drown out the din, depending on what my music-source-of-the moment is:

A refurbished Apple AirPods Pro pair, Bluetooth-mated to my Mac:

An on-closeout acquired set of first-generation Microsoft Surface headphones, wirelessly tethered to the aforementioned Surface Pro X:

Or some Sennheiser Momentum 2s that I’d snagged during an eBay Certified Refurbished promotion, over-the-air receiving music from my smartphone:

The linkage between “wireless” and “ANC” is key. If you’re auditioning audio in your listening room in your home, where the ambient noise level is (relatively) controllable, a conventional wired headphone set is probably fine. But “wireless” implies “portable,” which implies “uncontrollable and unpredictable environment”…which implies “ANC.” You with me?

Support a crowdfunding project

This past year, I funded my first crowdfunding project, this one specifically hosted on Indiegogo. It’s the AAWireless Android Audio widget:

Here’s a promo video for it:

I got my unit early, before IC constraints clobbered the developers’ on-time delivery abilities, and it works great. Admittedly, I’m one of the lucky ones; there are plenty of horror stories of folks who’ve shelled out cash on Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Patreon or the like for something that never ended up shipping. But my investment was modest. And I felt pretty good about helping bootstrap a couple of entrepreneurs whose vision otherwise never would have gotten off the ground. Give it a try!

Capture your music performances

One of the things that I didn’t cover in last year’s list (in the interest of reasonable write-up wordcount constraints), for those of you sitting around the house with time on your hands, was the idea of picking up and learning a music instrument. But plenty of you apparently figured it out for yourselves; retailer Guitar Center, for example, went from bankruptcy to an IPO in just one year courtesy of the incremental demand. Well, folks, now it’s time to take your new skills to the next level. Record yourself strumming your guitar (or striking your cowbell) and singing along, at minimum for your own audition, and (if you’re brave) also for others’ enjoyment (?):

The above photo is of Focusrite’s Scarlett Solo Studio, a second-generation example of which I happen to own courtesy of a killer open-box promotion price (which was particularly “killer” because when I received it and realized that what was inside was the Solo, not the claimed 2i2, I demanded-and-got a generous partial-refund). The 24-bit/192-kHz-capable low-latency USB audio interface supports two inputs, one of which optionally leverages the integrated mic preamp with phantom power capabilities. It also bundles a passable cardioid microphone and set of headphones, along with an entry-level audio software suite; you can always also go with open-source Audacity or higher-end Reaper here. Need two mic inputs? There’s the ~$50 more expensive Scarlett 2i2 in such a case; both audio interfaces are also available standalone if you want to use your own mics and headphones. And if you also need MIDI capabilities, I can recommend the PreSonus Studio 24c, an example of which I also own:

Play on! And remember… you can always press “delete” and nobody will be the wiser…

Adopt a(nother) NAS

Just one year ago, I told you about the QNAP TS-453Be, which had become my primary NAS subsequent to its long-obsolete predecessor’s PSU demise. As I suspected (and mentioned) at the time, the TS-454Be has indeed now also been obsoleted by its manufacturer, although it remains fully supported from a software standpoint. However, in anticipation of its eventual full phase-out, and unable to resist a great deal I saw on eBay for an open-box (no-box, to be precise) but otherwise brand-new unit, I’ve already acquired its successor, the TS-453D:

As I mentioned a year ago, if your needs are solely focused on network file storage, a fuller-featured NAS like the TS-453D is admittedly overkill. If, on the other hand, you want to run a virtualized operating system on the unit, for example, or use it as a media streamer particularly for a direct-tethered display, then the TS-453D neatly fits the bill. Versus the TS-453Be predecessor, the TS-453D runs on a one-generation newer Intel CPU, which translates to (among other things) more robust hardware-accelerated video decoding, along with support for a more advanced HDMI output and faster DDR4 (vs DDR3 with the precursor) memory. The TS-453D also embeds 2.5 Gbps Ethernet transceivers, versus the 1 GbE support in the TS-453Be. And like its predecessor, it supports add-in cards for SSD caching purposes.

In 2019’s shopping-recommendation piece, wherein I suggested high-capacity external HDDs for backup (and other) purposes, I wrote:

You could get them a network-shared NAS … but brace yourself for potential ongoing IT responsibilities if you go down this more convenient and otherwise robust but also more complicated-setup alternate route.

That year’s list, however, was broadly focused on tech gifts for one and all. Since the focus this time around is on your techie friends, relatives and colleagues, who are likely perfectly capable of managing network storage, an inherently shared resource is an infinitely preferable alternative to “sneakernetting a really big external HDD around from one computer to another.” While I happen to have invested in the QNAP ecosystem, Synology is another heavyweight in this particular market segment. From what I gather, there’s little practical differentiation between the two; they both seem to have periodic security gaffes, and the talking points between advocates and detractors of each camp remind me of MacOS-vs-Windows arguments. So, pick one, have at it, and have fun!

Sign up for a magazine (or few)

I get more magazines per month than I care to admit, some (but not all) with focuses on various tech topics. Many of them come courtesy of discounts I’ve received thanks to DiscountMags, a bulk subscription reseller. In other cases, where the price tags are too salty for me to rationalize purchasing for myself, my wife renews them for me each year as birthday, anniversary or Christmas presents (I’m thinking specifically of audioXpress, Recording Magazine and Sound on Sound, for example). Generally speaking, supporting independent publishing is a key cause of mine, for perhaps obvious reasons. And if you’d like to keep your engineering skill set finely tuned while getting lots of reading done at the same time, consider a membership to a professional organization such as the ACM and/or the IEEE, like me:

Secure your digital assets

I confess that I’m not one of those somewhat-pedantic-but-admittedly-more-perfect folks who sets up a unique password for each website they have an online account with. I further confess that I only use 2FA (two-factor authentication) if I’m dragged kicking and screaming into it by an Internet service that demands I do so (as Google apparently is in the process of actualizing). That said, 2FA isn’t a perfect panacea, as recent successful spoofing efforts have made clear, and 2FA apps are also hit-and-miss.

Better yet is the use of a hardware security key. I recently picked up two first-generation Google Titan sets on eBay, one of which I plan to subject to teardown analysis in the near future. They’ve subsequently been phased out, however, and replaced with a Bluetooth-less successor set. Yubico’s products also frequently come highly recommended by The Wirecutter and elsewhere. Stay safe out there!

Keep track of the rest of your gifts

After you’ve accumulated this year’s holiday hoard for yourself…err…your friends, relatives and colleagues…how do you…err…they…monitor where it’s all located? Fortunately, mobile devices often come with built-in services (Apple’s “Find My” network, for example, which was extremely handy when I left an iPad Pro on an airplane a couple of years ago, and Google’s “Find My Device,” which seemingly has broader upcoming aspirations). But what about your wallet? Your car keys? Your car, for that matter? That’s where Bluetooth trackers come in.

If, like me, you’re a cross-platform guy or gal, and/or if you like the idea of choosing from a suite of trackers with application-optimized form factors and feature sets, Tile’s various offerings (one of which I tore down recently) are probably your best bet:

Conversely, if you’re an Apple-ecosystem devotee, AirTags (one of which I have queued up in my teardown pile) may be the way to go:

And with that, having just crossed through 3,000 words, I’m going to put my cyber-pen down and pass it along to you for your thoughts in the comments. Happy shopping, happy giving, happy getting and happy holidays, everyone!

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI nd Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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