As I sit here making the final editing touches to our holiday gift guide, I can’t help but consider with deep gratitude what the holidays will mean for me this year.
The holidays cannot — and should not — be defined by the height of our Christmas tree nor the depth of presents at its base. My wife and I have been married nearly 10 years and we have two beautiful and rowdy boys. For me, the things I want most are the things I cannot buy: time, health, memories, deep conversations, roaring laughter, rest, and the opportunity to serve others.
With this in mind, our 2014 holiday gift guide is a bit different. We have done our best to avoid listing out a vast array of crap that has found the inferior sweet spot between impractical, unaffordable, and meaningless.
Instead, we have put together a list with short personal reviews of few items which meet certain criteria: they are products we own and use; we personally vouch for their quality; and they are useful and enjoyable.
We at Tools & Toys don’t believe we should buy stuff just for the sake of buying stuff. We believe gift-giving should genuinely benefit the recipient and increase the quality of their life. One way to do this is to give carefully-considered, quality items. We have done our best to make sure everything in our Tools & Toys Gift Guide meets that standard.
For example, one thing you’ll see below is our camera recommendation. The one we think you should buy is arguably the best mirrorless camera for the money. But that’s not all — the category itself is worthwhile. I personally get an enormous amount of value and joy out of my camera. Not only is photography as a creative hobby incredibly fun and rewarding, but so too is having our home’s photo frames and albums filled with quality images of our family.
We hope this upcoming holiday season will be filled with all the things you cannot buy: beautiful memories with your friends and family; restful moments to reflect upon this past year and to consider the upcoming one; happiness, health, and so much more.
And, as for the things you can buy, we hope you find just the right gift. That one which is just what they wanted without even knowing it. You see, giving a great gift can be tricky. Consider the recipient. People want to make something — they want to create. They want to contribute and help. They want to serve others. And they want to improve their life through a new skill, new experience, or new knowledge. So, our advice is this: give gifts that will help empower one or more of those goals. Don’t give just something neat — rather, give an idea, an opportunity, a tool. Give gifts that will help fuel memories, opportunities, experiences, or hobbies.
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Thank you, and happy holidays!
— Shawn, along with all the Tools & Toys Crew
Table of Contents
Kindle Voyage »
The new Voyage is the best of the best when it comes to Kindles, and that’s saying quite a bit because the Kindle Paperwhite from last year is pretty incredible on its own. The Voyage is thinner and lighter, making it incredibly comfortable to hold with just one hand for an extended period of time. The new touch targets on either side for page turning aren’t quite as nice as a physical button, but they are certainly nice to have. If there’s not already a Kindle (or two or three) in your house, this is a gift that can’t go wrong.
However, we recommend the Voyage with an ever-so-slight reserve. It’s great, but it won’t change your life. Honestly, if you’re on the fence regarding the price, you’d be fine to save $80 and buy the $119 Kindle Paperwhite instead. And if you’ve already got a Paperwhite, we don’t think it’s worth the upgrade because the most important differentiator between this year’s Voyage and last year’s Paperwhite — the screen — isn’t significantly different between the two.
JayBird BlueBuds X — Bluetooth Earbuds »
Perfect for use when biking, running the trails, or while working out at the gym. The sound quality is superb and the fit is great — unlike a lot of earbuds, these will actually stay in your ears while running. The biggest advantage is, of course, that these are Bluetooth. It’s so nice not to have a wire strung between the earbuds and iPhone to bounce around or snag while exercising. The JayBird battery life is a solid 8 hours. Which means if you work out about once a day for an hour at a time, they’ll last a whole week.
Related: this is an excellent armband for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.
UE Boom Bluetooth speaker »
Highly regarded as the best Bluetooth speaker out there. It’s compact, gets excellent sound and battery life, and comes in a variety of color options. If you’ve never used a Bluetooth speaker, you’d be surprised how fantastic and handy they are — camping trips, outside working on the car, backyard picnics, days at the park or the lake, and more are all made better with the right music.
For a smaller, cheaper version, the UE Boom mini is highly acclaimed.
Note (Dec 08, 2014): The UE Boom is currently on sale for $170 (save $30).
Olympus E-M10 »
Arguably the finest camera you can buy for the price, the E-M10 camera is a kingly gift. It’s inexpensive, small, and extremely capable.
The Olympus OM-D E-M10 takes sensational images and has excellent performance. It has access to the broad array of prime and zoom lenses available for the Micro Four Thirds format. The battery lasts forever. It’s powerful enough that if you know about photography you’ll appreciate it’s industry-standard controls and dials, and yet it’s simple enough that you can hand it to just about anyone and they could point and shoot it just fine.
For lenses: the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 and Olympus 25mm f/1.8 are both excellent choices for your first good lens. Our personal favorite is the Panasonic Summilux 25mm f/1.4.
ONA Bowery Camera Bag »
Speaking of cameras, this is our favorite camera bag of all time. It’s small, incredibly handsome, versatile, and has a ton of personality. You can fit an iPad mini in the back sleeve pocket, and it’ll hold your mirrorless camera, plus a few extra accessories, or heck, because of its versatility you can use for things other than carrying a camera and lens.
Apple Photo Book »
A wonderful way to share photos and memories with loved ones. It’s a hardcover book, with 20 (or more if you want to add them) full-color pages, printed and shipped for about $32. The pages are full-bleed, the color is brilliant, and the construction quality is top notch. Not to mention it’s easy to make. You do it within iPhoto by picking the “theme” you want your book to have, dragging and dropping the photos you want, and clicking the button that sends it off to print. A few days later it shows up at your doorstep.
Something to keep in mind: if you’d rather the book didn’t include an Apple logo on the inside back cover, while building the book click “Options” (lower-right corner in iPhoto) → Book Settings → uncheck “Include Apple logo at end of book”.
Strider Balance Bike for kids »
At first glance, you might think a pedal-less bike is a weird purchase to make. But believe us when we say this is one of the best (and funnest) ways to improve a toddler’s sense of balance, motor skills, and self-confidence.
Without the distraction of figuring out how to pedal, kids can use a propulsion system they’re familiar with — walking — and instead focus on learning how to balance and turn. By the time they’ve outgrown the Strider, they should be able to bypass training wheels entirely and graduate to a regular bicycle.
Tissot Visodate automatic watch »
Tissot has a long and respected heritage of fine watches — they’ve been making them for over 160 years. The Visodate is a gorgeous step up from the Tissot I wear. This watch has a 40mm diameter, which is an excellent size that looks comfortable and appropriate on wrists of all sizes. The watch face shows both the day and date, it comes in white or black, has a convex sapphire crystal dial window, and the overall watch design nods to that classic and handsome watch style that was popular during the 1950s and ’60s. The watch is both dressy and casual.
Automatic movement means the watch takes advantage of your arm movement throughout the day and winds itself — no batteries allowed. The way a mechanical watch works is absolutely fascinating. There are ingenious mechanics and principles for how a mechanical watch stores and releases energy in order to keep near-perfect time.
Also, Tissot uses the butterfly clasp — also known as a deployment clasp — for securing the strap around your wrist. I’m a fan of the butterfly clasp because it preserves the integrity of the leather band while also making it easy to put the watch on and remove it.
I was recently at a design conference where lots of folks were wearing neat and trendy watches. But the Tissot on my wrist stood out to many as being classy, timeless, and “not like the watches everyone else was wearing”. Just sayin’.
Saddleback Leather passport wallet »
If you frequently travel internationally and want a wallet that will last you the rest of your life, look no further. It holds up to ten cards, along with cash and boarding passes, and has an RFID-shielded inner sleeve that can hold up to four passports (useful for family trips). Fair warning though: this is a large wallet (4 1/4″ x 5 1/2″), better suited for being in a bag than a front pocket.
We also really love the wallets from the folks at Bellroy. Their Note Sleeve and Slim Sleeve wallets are especially fine.
Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking »
When we started writing this gift guide we knew we wanted to include a cookbook, but it needed to be more interesting than the typical “here are 50+ recipes you’ll never actually make while this book collects dust on a shelf somewhere” concept.
After some deliberation, we decided Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio was the perfect choice. Armed with the knowledge within, you’ll be able to ditch following recipes altogether because you will have mastered something far more important: the fundamentals of cooking. In the words of the author, “Ratios liberate you—when you know the ratios and some basic techniques, then you can really start to cook.”
If you still want to go the traditional cookbook route, go with Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations »
A staple of the T&T gift guide. The first edition was compiled by John Bartlett in 1855 and was a mere 258 pages thick. Now, the 18th edition weighs in at 1,438 pages jam-packed with interesting, inspirational, and memorable quotes. It’s an excellent gift for the curious, the discerning, the learned, the bored, or all of the above. Also makes for a great reference when writing and for great reading on a lazy afternoon.
7 Wonders Board Game »
One of my favorite annual holiday traditions is playing board games with the family after our huge Christmas Eve dinner at Grandma’s house. 7 Wonders is perfect for us because it’s fairly easy to pick up and each game takes only about 30 minutes to an hour, despite how the game is all about building civilizations. This video gives a good overview of the gameplay and strategy.
If your family plays games over the holidays, consider 7 Wonders as a gift that’s meant to be opened early, perhaps on Christmas Eve.
The Neat Ice Kit »
The Neat Ice Kit uses an insulated, block-shaped ice mold to freeze water from the top down, pushing impurities to the bottom. The result is a rectangular block of ice that is crystal clear at the top. Using the chisel and hammer/muddler provided with the kit, the cloudy portion can be broken off and used in a drink shaker before being tossed, while the clear portion can cut into one giant cube, several smaller cubes, or crushed. It’s a fun and fussy way to make awesome ice.
What Tools & Toys gift guide would be complete without the AeroPress? Like a gateway drug, it’s the simplest way to get into the world of hands-on coffee brewing. We don’t know what we would do without it. Not get as much writing done, that’s for sure. Need an introduction to brewing with an AeroPress? This video covers the basics nicely.
To accompany your AeroPress (or other coffee-maker of choice), here are some critical assistants:
Bonavita Varable-Temp Electric Gooseneck Kettle: No matter what manual coffee method you choose—AeroPress, pour-over, you name it—a gooseneck kettle will make your life a lot easier. This particular kettle’s ability to heat to the exact temperature you set and maintain it for an hour—not to mention the pouring accuracy granted by its gooseneck spout—make it the fairest in all the land.
Baratza Virtuoso burr grinder: Good coffee ultimately starts with good beans, a good grinder, and a simple brewing contraption. The single best upgrade you can make is to buy fresh beans, but as far as a long-term investment in your kitchen, you want a great grinder.
Coffee thermos / travel mug: The space shuttle of vacuum-insulated travel mugs. It keeps drinks hot or cold for hours—up to half a day, in our experience. We couldn’t believe how consistent the temperature retention is, and yet the exterior is always comfortable to the touch. It’s totally spill-proof, and even has a lock to prevent the lid from opening accidentally. The lid also disassembles for easy cleaning, so no worrying about gross gunk building up in there.
2015 Hobonichi planner book »
A beautiful planner—known as a techo in Japanese—that goes beyond schedule-planning by also acting as a journal, notebook, sketch(note)book, scribble pad, and generally a place to capture thoughts and moments. Delightful details permeate the planner, such as the daily moon phase and quotes that range from the heartfelt to the humorous to the whimsical.
For an even more open-ended notebook, we recommend…
The Leuchtturm 1917 »
When you want to give a notebook but you’re not sure how the recipient will chose to use it, The Leuchtturm 1917 is an excellent choice. As they say on the notebook itself, “details make all the difference”. And we agree. The Leuchtturm 1917 comes in a variety of color options and page designs — from white to orange to blue to black, and more. Also available in blank, ruled, or — our personal favorite — dotted grid.
What else makes The Leuchtturm special is its 3-page index at the front followed by its 249 numbered pages. Making it ideal for using as a personal journal, a daily log, a task-management notebook, or all of the above.
Notebooks as nice as the ones above deserve to be written on with a fine pen. The TWSBI 580 is an awesome and affordable fountain pen; the Uni-ball Signo DX gel pen is the best fine-tip gel pen in the world.
At Tools & Toys we have always donated 10% of our gross income to charity. If you click this link before you do your shopping on Amazon, we’ll be donating 10% of our affiliate earnings for the months of November and December specifically to these three charities.
We also encourage you to consider making some charitable donations this year, and we invite you to give alongside us to these three organizations.
St. Jude Children’s Hospital: St. Jude is unlike any other pediatric treatment and research facility. Discoveries made at St. Jude have completely changed how the world treats children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases. Moreover, their hospital has been described as “a hospital without walls” where children in need are treated at no cost to their family.
Operation Christmas Child: Samaritan’s purse is a Christian ministry, and every year they work with volunteers and donors from around the nation to pack and ship shoe boxes full of gifts to children in need around the globe.
App Camp for Girls: App Camp For Girls is a place where girls can put their creative powers to work, designing and building apps, while learning more about the business of software and being inspired by women mentors in the field. This is an organization we proudly support as they spread the message that women play a vital role in the technology field and offer a significant contribution.