The best tech gifts that aren’t gimmicks

My favorite holiday tech gift doesn’t require batteries or software updates. It’s not even a gimmick, even though it was made with technology.

Can you guess what it is?

A few years ago my wife experimented with her iPad and a digital stylus to do digital illustrations. Using Procreate, a drawing app, she uploaded a photo of our beloved corgi, Max, as a reference to trace before embellishing the image with a polka dot bow tie and long cartoonish tongue. I liked it so much that I chose a background color that would complement our house and uploaded the illustration to the app Memory, a printing service that assembles your images into a beautiful frame before delivering them to your door.

A large framed portrait of Max now hangs as the centerpiece of our living room in all its two-dimensional splendor. It makes me smile and is always a talking point when we have guests. That’s more than what I can say about other tech gifts I’ve received over the years, such as video games and smart speakers, which have only brought short-lived joy.

This type of giveaway exercise – tech-adjacent giveaways that don’t involve hardware or thoughtless Best Buy gift cards – can be especially welcome this year. This is because we live in an era of pandemic-induced scarcity due to a global chip shortage and supply chain disruptions that have made it difficult to purchase conventional gifts. (Anyone who’s been trying to buy a game console in the past year or so understands this pain.)

So here’s a list of tech gift ideas we can give without buying tech, from gifts you can create to experiences that will last a lifetime.

Last week I told a friend that I had a special gift for her: I would fix her iPhone problem.

She had complained to me about her five-year-old iPhone SE. The device could no longer take pictures or install software updates because almost all of the device’s data storage was used up.

So before she left for her Thanksgiving vacation, I met her for lunch and walked her through the process of backing up photos to an external drive before purging all images from the device. Then I plugged his phone into a computer to back up all of his data before installing the new operating system.

She was delighted that this issue was resolved before her trip. She can now take a lot of photos on vacation. In addition, a new Apple software update has a tool for add digital vaccine card to iPhone wallet app, which makes vacation travel a little less stressful during the pandemic.

For those who are a bit tech-savvy, this can serve as a role model. Listen to complaints from your loved ones about their technology and give them the gift of solving the problem. If it’s a slow Wi-Fi connection, see if you can diagnose the problem to increase speeds. If it’s a short-lived phone battery, consider taking it to a repair shop to have the battery replaced for a small fee.

In some ways, this is better than giving away a brand new gadget as it saves them from having to learn how to use new technology.

Besides the example of my dog’s digital illustration, there are many other ways that technology can be used to create for friends and family.

On the one hand, I am a fan of photo books which can easily be created with web tools. A few years ago, a coworker’s Secret Santa gift to me was a calendar she created using Google’s photo book service. She created it by pulling photos from my dog’s Instagram account and compiling them into a calendar – each month was a different photo of Max posing next to a dish cooked by my wife and I. I was delighted.

In general, photo printing services offer good ways to turn digital photos into physical keepsakes in the form of old prints, large prints, and even Christmas mugs and decorations. (Wirecutter, our sister product review publication, has tested two dozen photo printing services and highlighted their favorites.)

Before the pandemic turned our lives upside down, my wife purchased a digital SLR, the type of digital camera used by professionals, in an effort to learn more about digital photography. Then the lockups happened, the vacation turned into a vacation, and the camera ended up living in a drawer.

My plan for a holiday gift for my wife is a two-hour digital photography lesson with a photo studio in San Francisco that takes students for a walk on the Golden Gate Bridge while teaching the basics of photography. (I hope she’s not reading this column.)

What would your friends and family like to learn? We have plenty of options for potential giveaway classes, as the pandemic has prompted many teachers to offer virtual education online, including cooking classes and workout routines. The gift of knowledge goes a long way and sometimes gives back, such as when the recipient of online cooking classes uses that new knowledge to cook dinner for you.

The pandemic may have exposed us to more screen time than we could ever imagine putting up with, so a big giveaway this year could also be anything that takes our attention away from tech.

It could be renting a cabin in an area with no cell service, tickets to a play, a winter hike, and a picnic – all that give us a break from our inevitable return to the screens.


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