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December 10, 2015

Technology Corner: Technology gifts – What to consider

tech corner


Temperatures are dropping, holiday music is everywhere, and we’re all making those lists and checking them twice. Here are some technology-related gifts to consider.


Once you’ve ruled out desktops and tablets and decided to buy a laptop, you’re still faced with more options today than a few years ago. Mac, Windows and Android all have good laptops, so follow your personal preference in terms of an operating system. Then you have to choose between the full standard laptop, the ultra-light and the laptop that converts into a tablet.

After that you need to consider processor and memory size. The first rule of thumb is to buy just enough laptop for what you need it to do. People have been purchasing higher-end laptops for years only to find out 18 months later that they used only a third of its features and, as per Moore’s Law, that one twice as powerful is now available at half the price. Don’t be that person.

You need to choose a laptop that looks and feels right for you (or the lucky gift recipient). For example, some people may require a larger, wider-spaced keyboard, which means a larger screen, which means, in turn, a heavier laptop. Visit a store and “test drive” different laptops to find the right feel.

Once you choose the operating system, display type, weight and screen size, your options come down to processor, memory, storage and battery life. For comparison purposes, a mid-level laptop uses the Intel i5 (or equivalent) processor, has 8GB of RAM and 256GB solid state drive.

Video streamers: The 4 Cs

You’ve seen the confusing array of digital video streamers: the Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku and the Amazon Fire TV. How do you go about buying the right one?  Consider the four Cs: cost, content, “casting” and clicker.

Devices range from $35 for the basic Chromecast without a remote to $200 for the Nvidia Shield sporting 4K video and games. Your Internet connection and wireless capability at home are costs to consider, too. If you have the lowest bandwidth offering from your internet service provider, you may need to bump up your bandwidth for streaming. Streamers need an open HDMI port on your TV. If you don’t have one, you may need to invest in an adapter to convert HDMI to another input.

Most of the major video streaming services, such as Net-flix, are available on all streamers. If you are interested in some of the niche services, however, such as Popcornflix, you will need to compare what’s available on which platform.

Is screen “casting” important to you? By casting, you can mirror your small device’s screen onto a big-screen TV. If a particular service isn’t available on your streamer, you can play it on your mobile device and project it on the big screen as long as the streamer has operating system support for your device.

Lastly, the less expensive devices do not have a remote control; you need to use your mobile device to control them. If a separate “clicker” is important, then choose a streamer with a separate remote.

Rev up that older PC/laptop with SSD

When solid state disk drives (SSD) first came out for PCs, they were very expensive, but these low-power, no-moving-parts devices are lightning fast in transferring data. Fortunately, the price per gigabyte now is low enough that you can replace or augment the magnetic disk drive in an older desktop or laptop.

Know what you’re getting. Upgrading to solid state is not going to speed up the PC’s processing. Startups, however, will be significantly faster and programs will launch faster. The SSD uses less electrical power than magnetic drives, so you’re also getting longer battery life for laptops.

The most technical aspects of upgrading to an SSD are installing the new drive hardware and transferring the programs and data.  If you know how to install a hard drive in a desktop, then installing an SSD should not be a problem. However, when you are installing it in your laptop, issues such as the physical drive size, interface and where the drive is located in the laptop mean that installation is not for the faint of heart. Consider professional installation.

One more thing …

While battery life has improved over the past few years, modern gadgets still are power hungry. Consider a portable external battery pack/charger for this year’s stocking.

These range from the very inexpensive (and sometimes free, since they’re all the rage as giveaways at technology shows) to fairly expensive. When buying one, look at battery quality and capacity; ignore all the add-ons like LED flashlights. Look online to compare brands’ battery quality. Capacity, measured in milliampere-hour (mAh), is more complicated, but a simple calculation based on how long you want to extend the life of your device determines whether you need a “lipstick case”-sized pack or one with enough capacity to charge your device and jump start your car at the same time. More mAh means a larger battery, which means a bigger battery pack.

The formula is: Total mAh  x (% battery life in decimal form) = pack size. For example, the iPad Air has a battery capacity 11,560 mAh. If you want to extend the battery life by half (50 percent) you would need a battery pack of around 6000 mAh. To double it, you would need a pack around 12,000 mAh.

Happy shopping!

Jay Graham is an enterprise architect in CSSD, helping to make the most effective and strategic use of Pitt’s IT assets.

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