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Monday, November 27, 2023

This Season’s Most In-Demand Gifts

It's been a rough year, and the typically stressful holiday season is bound to be even more so. You might be having a hard time figuring out what gifts to give people, or even how to give them. Lucky for you, that's sort of our thing here at Gadget Lab.

This week on the show, we talk with WIRED senior product writer Adrienne So about what gifts are going to be big this year, then we offer up our own suggestions for what to give.

Show Notes

Find all of WIRED’s gift guides here. Check out more of our favorite small businesses here.


Adrienne recommends the movie Bridge of Spies. Lauren recommends The Gilmore Girls and also that you remember to tip the people who help you. Mike recommends Beethoven Around the World: The Complete String Quartets performed by Quatour Ébène.

Adrienne So can be found on Twitter @adriennemso. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

If you have feedback about the show, or just want to enter to win a $50 gift card, take our brief listener survey here.

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Michael Calore: Lauren.

Lauren Goode: Mike.

MC: The year is almost over. Can you believe it?

LG: No. Is it really over, though? We still have to get through the holidays. Honestly, it's all feeling a little bit dark this year.

MC: I hear you. I agree. Well, hopefully we can spread some holiday cheer with this week's episode.

LG: Sounds good.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music]

MC: Hi everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore, senior editor at WIRED. I am joined remotely by my cohost, WIRED senior writer, Lauren Goode.

LG: Hello. Hello.

MC: Hi Lauren. We are also joined this week by WIRED senior writer, Adrienne So.

Adrienne So: Hi guys.

MC: Welcome back to the show, Adrienne. It's great to have you here again.

AS: Yay.

MC: Somehow, it's December already, the last month of this year like no other, which means the holidays are looming. Today we're going to talk about gifts and gift giving. Of course, like with everything else this year, nothing about this holiday season is going to be typical. Money is tighter, shipping takes longer, and people's wants and needs have changed. Later in the show we're going to talk about our personal favorite things from this year in a little sort of look back on the gadgets that have gotten us through the pandemic. We'll also talk about our own favorite shopping websites, including some small businesses that we love. First, let's talk about the gifts that we know are going to be popular this year, whether it's because of the pandemic or in spite of it. We watch all the trends here at WIRED and we're going to share some of them with you right now. Starting with Adrienne. Tell us please, what gadgets do you think people are going bananas over this year?

AS: The Facebook Portal, what the heck. I have recommended it to at least five different families right now. It's such a weird thing to describe. I was trying to describe it to a five year old at my house the other day. I was like, it's a picture frame that lets you talk to your grandparents. You can put hats on yourself. You can have them read stories. Her mind was just totally, totally blown. We have three different Portals at my house now. One is attached to the 55 inch TV. Then we've got the little picture frame that the kids can have at the kitchen table. I really think staying in touch with your long distance family is going to be a really big thing this year. Whether you do that with an iPad or an Echo Show. The Facebook Portal is my personal favorite way to do that.

MC: Like you were saying, any sort of technological way of talking to people far away, that was the biggest surprise segment this year. I mean, a lot of us just use the same things that we use for our jobs. In fact, the thing that I've been noticing is that things that we would call work-from-home gear like laptops, Chromebooks, and even things like webcams and ring lights for Zoom, those are things that I think are even more popular this year. You couldn't find a webcam for Zoom for a long time. Also, Twitch got really popular this year. Just that mechanism for talking to other humans through your computer is something that is really, I think, going to spill over into gift giving.

LG: Right. I think that headphones are also a part of that too. I mean, headphones are always typically popular as a holiday gift. But this year, especially if you live with other people, you're probably in need of some good headphones to escape, whether that's to take meetings or phone calls or to go for walks and listen to podcasts. I like Apple's AirPods. I believe they are still the best selling wireless headphones in the world. If you're an iPhone user, you can't go wrong. The regular AirPods are $159. The AirPods Pro are more expensive at 249. We're not yet recommending the very expensive new AirPods Max because we haven't tried them yet. I don't think even if you order them now they're going to ship for a while. Mike, you also really like your Samsung earbuds, right?

MC: Yeah. Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus are the ones. I've never really liked wire-free headphones. I've tried like all of them since they've come out. Well, I mean, there's a gazillion of them, but I've tried at least half a gazillion. I've never really found ones that I like. Also, just like the Bluetooth connection isn't great. For some reason, Samsung has cracked it. Also, they're like the perfect size for my ears. They sound really good. I was super surprised because I've never had great experiences with Samsung headphones and this is the first time.

AS: These are the ones that look like the little shiny beans, right?

MC: No. They're not the bean ones. They're the ones that sort of have like a triangular touch pad on them. They're also BTS is like an endorsement deal. If you see the commercials with BTS for Samsung headphones, they're the BTS ones.

LG: Nice.

MC: When they first came out, there were like $140. Now they're like $100, $105, $110.

AS: My god, that's a totally reasonable price for a pair of wire-free buds.

LG: How long does the battery life last? Because I know the very first pair of Samsung totally wire-free buds, they had pretty poor battery life but that was a few years ago, at least. I think they've gotten better.

MC: Yeah. I can say I don't know because they've never run out on me and they're wireless.

LG: It's great.

MC: Whenever, like every couple of days I just plop them onto the wireless charging pad on my desk and I just never know how long they last. How about that?

LG: That's probably a good segue to one of the other trends I've been following which is personal fitness products, right? Everyone made fun of Peloton girl last year looking very afraid as she received her Peloton as a gift. But what did Peloton girl know about 2020? That's what I want to know, because of course, in-home fitness has been all the rage this year as gyms have been shuttered around the country and people have to find some way to stay fit. Apple Fitness Plus is launching this month. I'm not quite sure that Apple Fitness Plus is the thing you're going to want to give as a gift but one of the things that you'll need for Apple Fitness Plus is an Apple Watch. You can find the Series 3 for as little as $179 these days.

I mean, if you want to be the real hero in someone's life, you'd find them hand weights, because those are just impossible to find these days, or at least impossible to find without some crazy mark up. I haven't been successful in finding weights, so if anybody has any tips, please let me know. But if you really want to impress somebody this year and they like to exercise, just find them weights somehow. That's going to be a big gift.

AS: I know. I was thinking about that this year. A category that I cover is smart home and it used to be pretty clearly delineated. But now that our home is like our office and our personal gym and just all these other things, I feel like my category just suddenly got expanded. Especially here on the West Coast, air purifiers, vacuums, things for keeping your home really clean and nice became almost necessities now that we can't escape to an office with nice filtered air all the time.

LG: Adrienne, do you have a favorite air purifier?

AS: There are a couple. My favorite is just, I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, but the Dyson Hot + Cool. I think they have a couple of different variations. There's a humidifier version that might be useful since we've seen some evidence that humidity can help your body fight off the dread C virus that we're all working really hard to not mention during this episode. But that one is pretty pricey. Blueair has a couple of affordable ones for bedrooms that are really quiet. The Blueair 411 Auto, it has a sensor that automatically detects particulate matter in your bedrooms. That one is super quiet. If you're wanting a bedroom purifier that won't wake up your kids.

MC: Related to that, Adrienne, something that I've been following pretty closely and I see a lot of interest in gift giving this year is kitchen stuff, right? Because this is the year that we all relearned how to cook or got twice as busy in the kitchen as we ever have been before.

LG: You're so generous in assuming that I've learned how to cook this year, tried. Tried.

MC: I think everybody has given it a much stronger push this year than they ever have before. I see a lot of things, inexpensive stuff like pans, cast iron, skillets, Dutch ovens, combo cookers for people who like to bake bread on people's holiday lists. Also, like now is a good time to get experimental for people who are asking for things. They may want a sous vide machine or a pickling set, or a duck press or just something weird and bizarre because they're bored, because they've been cooking the same things for 10 months.

AS: Mike, are you over there pressing ducks in San Francisco?

MC: I am not, but people do. That is something that people like to do.

LG: Mike, what would you say is the must-have kitchen gadget of the year and something that's not prohibitively expensive?

MC: Good food storage, like glass bottom plastic top with a little burp in it, food storage. Because we're just, you know, just cook and freeze, cook and freeze and then heat it up for lunch. If somebody is working from home, that's a gift that they will absolutely use.

LG: Is there a particular brand you recommend?

MC: No, I just get whichever one is BPA-free and on sale.

AS: I had no idea that you could bake in Pyrexes too, that you can store them and then reheat them. You can also bake individual sized ones in the oven. These things are magical. I really liked the Pyrex brand.

LG: I think I have a Pyrex brand as well. I think that may be because the Wirecutter recommended them. Oh no, can I say the other W word on the Gadget Lab Podcast?

MC: Absolutely.

LG: OK. I think I got the ones, actually, my aunt ordered them for me as a housewarming gift. She ordered me a whole bunch of the ones I sent her. I think it was the ones that the Wirecutter recommended. I agree, Mike, they're fantastic. Adrienne, to your point, you just heat food right up in them which is great.

AS: We're talking about the inside but I also wanted to mention the outside, because the one thing that I did buy for my family was the Mr. Buddy, the outside portable heaters. So much of our socialization, I'm talking about us like we're weird zoo animals now, but our social activities are taking place outside now. Things that will keep everybody warm. I think you can get the Mr. Buddy Heater for now. We got one that's about $70, and warm socks, little hand warmers, a nice coat. That's a good way to keep seeing people in person.

LG: I was going to say, I could see a real demand for fabric goods this year that keep people warm because we're trying to do so much outdoors. I've tried Patagonia Capilene Midweight Baselayers before, both the pants and the zip-neck baselayer top, which is really great. I've been checking out Lululemon's running headbands that cover your ears. L.L.Bean's $59 outdoor blanket would make a really nice gift. I've been loading up on L.L.Bean's stuff this season, to be honest, going back to my New England roots. One of the things I really like in particular about Patagonia brands and Lululemon, and I'm not quite sure what their policies are in the pandemic, but in the past at least, if anything was torn or needed repair, a hole in a seam or anything like that, I mean, you could take your products back to the store. They would repair everything for free.

I mean, I've had the same pair of Patagonia sweat pants I think for probably a dozen years at this point. I know people say Lululemon's workout gear does tend to be incredibly expensive, but with this free repair policy, I mean, you could go back and get your stretch pants patched up and sewn up again and again and again and really get some really long use out of them. Of course, here at WIRED, we're always trying to help people extend the use, the lifetime of their products. Check out products like that for your outdoor gear.

AS: Lululemon will also hem your pants for you for free if you are like me and have a three inch inseam. Lauren, I wore my Patagonia Better Sweater all through being pregnant and then I totally busted the zipper. Then I brought it right back and they zipped it, they fixed the zipper right at the store for me. They just replaced it in 10 minutes. It was awesome.

LG: That's amazing.

AS: Yeah, it was pretty cool.

MC: All right. Before we take a break, I have one more thing to mention which I'd be remiss not to, which is the fact that there are two new video game consoles out, the Xbox and the PlayStation 5. Those are going to be big gifts this year if people can find them. Good luck with that. All right. Let's take a quick break and when we come back we're going to go into our own gift ideas and some more recommendations on places to shop.


MC: Welcome back. In the first half of the show, we gave you some ideas and told you what we thought would be generally popular in gift giving this year. Now we're going to talk about specific products, services, and small businesses that we love. Hopefully, it will help inspire some creative ideas of your own or give you some tips that will help ease the burdens of the holidays. Adrienne, what say you?

AS: I'm so excited to share this hack. We discovered it for Thanksgiving, but local restaurants around us are offering holiday meal kits so you can just go over and pick up your six dishes or something, and then you don't have to cook. You don't have to plan like I am. I have got two small kids and I am just resisting it so much. I'm like, I will not be responsible for the holiday magic this season. I just want to pick up dinner. It's a great way to support your local restaurants and eat exactly what you want to eat and not have to eat mashed potatoes just because you have to. I think for Christmas we're doing a Charcuterie plate from Olympia Provisions. It's a restaurant that's based here in Portland, Oregon. I told everybody in my family that they could just pick whatever they wanted for Christmas dinner and they're so stoked. We're getting Charcuterie for my husband and the three year old is getting cookies. That is my favorite hack.

LG: That sounds delightful. The cookies sound pretty darn good too.

MC: Lauren, what are your picks?

LG: Well, I was going to divide my favorite things or recommendations into three categories this year. I don't know how you want to go through them, but I would describe them as gadgets, greetings, and then giving, which is going to be really important. I guess, well, for gadget, I'm a fan of the iPad. It's taken me a long time to come around, but I am a fan of the iPad. I use it to watch shows in the evening. I use it for reading and responding to messages. I use it to cast free YouTube yoga videos to my television. I'm lucky because we get to try these things out for our jobs and so I've had the chance to try some of the more super duper expensive iPads. You can also buy an iPad these days for as little as $300. That's still not cheap, but relative to other prices for the iPad-

MC: It's a great gift for parents as well.

LG: It is, it really is. It goes back to what Adrienne was talking about earlier, about how connecting with family, Zooming and Facetiming is so important these days. That's a good way to do it. If only Apple would reposition the camera on the iPad, but that's for another podcast.

MC: All right. Well, that's your gadget. What's your greeting?

LG: All right. For greetings, I have mentioned this before on the Gadget Lab Podcast, but a friend of mine started this really cool greeting card subscription service called Warmly. The website is warmly.press. It sounds a little twee but it's really handy because if you need greeting cards to send to people or you like just dropping friends notes from time to time, it means you don't have to go to the pharmacy to get a card. You just have them sent to you for a monthly subscription fee. You can also gift this to people. If there's somebody in your life who likes to have cards on hand or likes dropping people notes from time to time, you can gift them a Warmly subscription. Then my giving recommendation is for the Second Harvest food bank of Silicon Valley which is near me. They serve as many as 500,000 people per month.

I think a lot of people think about Silicon Valley as an incredibly wealthy place, and it is. In fact, as we're taping this, another tech startup is IPOing and people are getting very rich, but there's an incredible wealth gap here. A lot of people and a lot of families are struggling right now. I really like to support the Second Harvest food bank of Silicon Valley. But of course, there are lots of food banks around and people could really use the help. If you can afford it, look up your local food bank. You could go to Charity Navigator and check out their rating. Learn a little bit more about how they operate and maybe make a donation.

AS: Yeah, that's a really great idea about the food bank. The great thing about that is that it doesn't have to be an enormous amount of money. You don't have to donate like $500 to your local food bank to make a difference. Another small way of supporting your favorite small businesses or nonprofits that might be struggling around you is merch. If you have someone in your life that really likes 99% Invisible or a podcast that you don't normally contribute to, I am really looking at getting a Beautiful Nerds T-Shirt for myself because I am quite a beautiful little nerd. Another thing, when you mentioned like checking in on your friends, so many people this year are just like not OK. We've got to go through so many milestones alone, like having do babies or deaths in the family or something.

I set calendar alerts on my Google Calendar to check in with my friends who are just like not really doing great. Gift subscriptions are also a pretty convenient and not too expensive way of just popping up into somebody else's life from a long way and just be like, hey, I'm thinking about you. It's a good way to support small businesses too. I think Trade Coffee is one of our favorite coffee subscriptions, and Kiwi Crates are a great one for kids. I think Universal Yums is the one that I was looking at to give to friends too, because we can't travel right now. That's another fun way of bringing the world into my tummy.

LG: Another fun thing about some of those is you can often buy somebody a three-month gift subscription, right. Then they can get the boxes for a short period and to decide if they want to extend the subscription.

AS: Yeah, definitely. The weird thing about gifting, not just now but during the year is just like parents in particular just got fixated on the one thing that was going to fix everything that was wrong with their kids' lives. For this summer, it was like a pool by Intex specifically. It was this one specific 10 foot pool that would fit into everyone's backyard. Right before Christmas, everybody was going nuts about the Nugget couch, which is awesome because Nugget is a small, independent manufacturer. It's always great to support those instead of bigger ones. Also, I'm going to kill the Nugget guy because we can't get one. If you're thinking about buying that one magical thing from the small business, better do it now.

LG: Mike, what's one of your go-to gifts to give to people?

MC: Well, I think at this point we're right around the middle of December. Hanukkah is starting. Christmas is two weeks away. We've probably already figured out the thing that we're going to get for our ride or die, but we haven't quite figured out the things that we're going to get for the people who live just outside the periphery of our inner circle. I would recommend shopping like we've all been saying for the whole show, shopping at a local small business. But particularly, masks are a really nice way to give somebody something fun because you can pick something that matches their personality so it shows that you care. You spend about $20. Also, a lot of small businesses have pivoted to mask making, right? Like any sort of crafty business, any clothing business in your neighborhood if you live in a city is most likely selling handmade masks and they make great gifts.

You can also go to Etsy. Just know that if you do that, shipping is probably going to take a little bit longer than you're used to in the Amazon era just because a lot of things are made to order or people only are able to ship a couple of times a week because of life stuff. Also, I would say to look at WIRED.com because we have this comprehensive guide to masks and it has something for everyone, like people who like to workout, it has masks for kids. They make great gifts. Who doesn't need another one, right? At this point, I'm sure some people don't need another one, but they make great gifts. It's a way to show that you care. It's a way to appeal to somebody's own personal taste. The other thing that I would say is there was probably somebody who you know, either in your home or outside of it who does all the cooking in the house or the majority of the cooking in the house. Get them something really nice.

I would say go big because the trick is to get them something they wouldn't buy for themselves. Like if they don't have a nice blender, get them the best blender, which is like the Vitamix, right? If they have a bunch of janky knives, get them a really nice knife like $100, $150 chef's knife. Something they can use for everything they do. If you don't have a lot of money but you still want to get them something, find out if they have a kitchen scale. If they do a lot of cooking and they don't have a kitchen scale, you have to get them one because it is a total game changer.

AS: That reminds me my favorite category of gifts if you're shopping for kids are toys that aren't toys, because my five year old is in the kitchen with me all the time. She actually asked for her own chef's knife for Christmas. I think there are some starter plastic kid's knives that I might be getting her for Christmas, but thanks to supplement remote learning too. We had a little bug catcher, it's just a little plastic box with a magnifying glass on top so you can just have them running around the yard. Rock tumblers, binoculars, telescopes. The Christmas star, the star that was supposed to have led the three wise men to Bethlehem, it's going to be visible on the week of Christmas for the first time in over 800 years. That is something that we're going to be doing with the binoculars and my new Mr. Buddy heater for the week of Christmas. Toys that aren't toys.

MC: Nice. All right. Even though we've just spent most of the show talking about recommendations for gifts, we're still going to do the recommendation segment as the last segment of the show where we're going to tell you some things that you can check out that aren't necessarily gifts. We'll be right back. All right.


MC: Welcome back. Here is the end of the show where we make our recommendations for things that listeners might enjoy. Adrienne, you go first. What is your recommendation?

AS: My recommendation is Bridge of Spies. It's a Tom Hanks movie. I think it came out in 2015. Kind of like the basic overview is that it's like spy versus spy. Then Tom Hanks is this super decent civil servant that is caught in the middle trying to negotiate the return of the Russian spy in order to get the American student out of communist Russia or whatever. But all you really need to know about this movie is that Tom Hanks is just trying to do really hard things in cold places. He's just trying to take a bus in East Germany. He's just like, oh, where's my coat. He's got a cold through the whole movie, I think. I don't know. It felt really seasonally appropriate to me to be watching movies about really decent people trying to do the right thing all by themselves in cold, hard places full of snow. That's my recommendation.

MC: Very nice, very nice. It's streaming, right? Bridge of Spies?

AS: It is. It's on Amazon Prime.

MC: Nice. Lauren, what is your recommendation?

LG: While we're recommending things to stream, I am just getting into The Gilmore Girls on Netflix. The Gilmore Girls has been around for a very long time. I think it started airing on The WB back in the 2000s. I think the year 2000, which just feels like, well, decades ago. It's a very nice, light, easy breezy watch in the pandemic. I'm surprised it's taken me this long actually to watch it.

AS: After you watched all the episodes, Lauren, can you just explain every Gilmore Girls meme to me? Because I keep seeing them popping up in Twitter and I have no idea what's going on.

LG: Yes. Apparently there's now a new version of it on Netflix, which is maybe why it's getting attention again. But I haven't gotten that far yet because I'm back watching the original series. It's just a pleasant watch. It's a way to sort of block out all of the news of the day. My other quick recommendation is just a small tip because we're talking so much about gift giving and just giving in general. Don't forget to tip. Don't forget to tip the people in your life very well. If you have the means, don't forget to tip essential workers who are delivering items to your home, pet sitters maybe who have been losing work this year because everyone is home with their pets. Anyone else who has helped you out in a big way this year, just tip well. That's my recommendation.

MC: $5 is the absolute minimum of someone who's bringing you food, I think.

LG: Absolutely. Mike, what's your recommendation?

MC: I recommend you go to the bank and you take out 50 bucks all in fives and you just keep them all stacked up on your desk.

LG: Just have it in an envelope at home.

MC: Have it in an envelope because there's nothing worse than trying to tip somebody and not having cash because we don't use cash anymore, but cash is how you should tip. Right.

LG: I mean, I think so. I think that what we've seen with some of the delivery apps is they can be pretty opaque in terms of understanding what's actually going to the driver or delivery person versus what's going to the restaurant versus what's going to the big venture capital funded tech start-up that's running the delivery app. Cash is always a good idea.

MC: Nice. All right. We'll actually have a recommendation that's not just piggybacking on yours. Around the world right now, December 2020, we are celebrating Ludwig van Beethoven's 250th birthday. He was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770. All we know is that he was baptized on the 17th of December so he was probably born within a few days before that. Right now is Beethoven's 250th birthday. To commemorate this, a lot of ensembles spent the beginning of this year and the end of last year and had plans for big Beethoven festivals. A few of them happened before the pandemic, the rest of them got canceled. Some of them are happening online, but there's one in particular that I want to recommend. It's a French string quartet called Quatuor Ébène, which is the Ébène Quartet. They did a concert where they went to cities on all the continents and they performed Beethoven's string quartets.

Everybody knows Beethoven symphonies, right? Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 9. The thing that a lot of people tend to overlook if they're not huge classical music nerds is Beethoven's string quartets. He did some of them very early in his career. He did some of them at the very, very end of his career right before he died. You really get by listening to string quartets, you get a comprehensive view of his approach to his music. The series is called Beethoven Around the World: The Complete String Quartets. The Quatuor Ébène puts it out as a box set that you can buy if somebody is into CDs, it's like 35, 40 bucks on Amazon and similarly priced elsewhere. It's also all streaming. If you know a Ludwig van Beethoven lover, or if you are curious, then that is my recommendation, Beethoven Around the World.

AS: Can you get it on vinyl for the person that I also bought the portable turntable for this Christmas?

MC: I'm not sure. I think I saw somewhere that there was like a distilled best of, kind of two vinyl piece. But I think on vinyl it would be the size of your bookshelf.

AS: Good to know. Nice.

MC: It is many hours of string quartets and just gorgeous, beautifully played.

AS: Oh my gosh, I'm looking forward to checking that out.

LG: It sounds really lovely.

MC: All right. Well, that is our show. Thank you Adrienne for joining us once again.

AS: Thanks guys.

MC: Thank you all for listening. If you have feedback, you can find us all on Twitter. Just check the show notes. This show is produced by Boone Ashworth. We will be back next week with one last show for the year to wrap it up with a special year end episode. Until then, goodbye.

[Gadget Lab outro theme music]

[Sounds of various rummaging]

MC: Sorry. My cat is doing impossible things here.

[AS laughs]

LG: Cutie. Oh, hi. Hi, girlfriend.

MC: [to his cat] Get out of here!

LG: [Also to the cat] Do you want to join the Gadget Lab?

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