After focusing on gifts for the road and gifts for the home, Ars’ third installment in our 2018 Holiday Gift Guide goes a different route. Since Ars is a site for people who don’t mind digging deep into how tech works, the theme today is gift ideas for “power users”—those who are more involved with modern tech and can’t stand to use less than fully featured gear.
Basically, these items seem tailor-made for the people in your life who may already read a site like Ars Technica. The protocol here is the same as it was with our first two guides: we’ve looked back on a year of gadget testing and rounded up a smattering of items we think would make your loved one happy. Fair warning: because this particular guide is aimed at people who demand high utility and/or high performance, some of the items below are a little pricey. But, as always, you get what you pay for.
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Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+
Oh, the things you can do with the Raspberry Pi. Everyone’s favorite mini computer is still an affordable gateway to a world of weird side projects and hacked-together DIY gadgets.
The latest iteration of the tiny Linux PC, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+, added a speedier quad-core, 64-bit, 1.4GHz Cortex-A53 processor, faster Ethernet support, and more robust dual-band Wi-Fi alongside the usual audio jack, Bluetooth 4.2, and HDMI port. The base motherboard costs $35, though you’ll want to ensure your loved one has a microSD card, power supply, heat sinks, and a spare HDMI cable handy if they’re a first-time Pi user. (You can get a bundle that includes all of that if you don’t have such parts already.)
Once that’s all set, there are a billion different things your loved one could make with the Pi. A retro game console—with no game limits!—is a popular one, but they could also build their own smart speaker, garage door opener, flying quadcopter, or any other project with a good tutorial. The Model B+ itself isn’t strong enough to be a great media streamer or full-fledged PC, but it’s technically capable of being those things, too. Whatever the use case, as long as your loved one has enough patience to get by the initial learning curve, the Pi tends to bring fun to those who genuinely love tech.
Mophie Powerstation AC
A portable battery is eternally useful for someone who lives on the road, but most packs are designed for smartphones and tablets more so than bigger laptops. If you’re buying for someone who frequently works on the go, a more robust battery like the Mophie Powerstation AC is strong enough to keep their notebook charged when they can’t reach a wall outlet.
The Powerstation AC carries an ample 22,000mAh of juice and can put out a little more than 100 watts of power through its built-in AC port. That’s borderline overkill for thinner Ultrabooks and strong enough to add several hours of use to many bulkier 15-inch laptops. Whether or not it can completely recharge a larger laptop will depend on the size of that notebook’s battery, but it should at least get between 70-80 percent of the way there, which is still strong relative to other batteries in this market.
There’s a 30W USB-C Power Delivery port for quickly recharging smartphones and other USB-C devices on top of that, as well as a USB-A port for recharging older devices at 12W. The USB-C PD makes it so that refilling the Powerstation AC itself doesn’t take as long as it could, either—though, as with most giant portable batteries, it will still take two to three hours to get back to 100 percent. This Mophie is designed well, too: a rubber flap protects the AC port from potential debris; activating the AC power is as simple as pressing a little power button on the top of the device; and I personally enjoy the fabric coating covering the device. It comes with a two-year warranty on the off chance something goes wrong, and Mophie is a well-known, relatively trustworthy name in a market filled with shady brands.
The Powerstation AC isn’t without its flaws. While it isn’t all that loud compared to other AC packs, it still makes more noise than a traditional portable battery. Likewise, while many competing packs are bulkier, the Powerstation AC isn’t exactly small: it’s 7.5 inches tall and weighs 1.7 pounds, so it’s meant to be stashed in a backpack. Mophie probably could have added at least one more USB port, too. Most notably, this battery is undeniably pricey for a 22,000mAh capacity. But some of these issues are inevitable for an AC battery. For this particular use case, the Powerstation AC is a powerful and polished choice for frequent flyers or power emergencies.
Ubiquiti UniFi AP AC Lite
On a broad level, the rise of “mesh” Wi-Fi systems over the last few years is great. The consumer networking industry should make it easier to eliminate coverage dead spots around the house. But if your loved one suffers from that brand of bad Internet and doesn’t mind running a few more Ethernet cables around their place, they can solve that problem for much less money by investing in more traditional wireless access points like those in Ubiquiti’s UniFi AP line.
These little discs connect to your home network through a wired Ethernet port and beam out Wi-Fi to their surrounding area. This eliminates any issues a mesh system might have transferring a wireless signal from access point to access point. As a result, even the entry-level UniFi AP AC Lite, which costs $80 per unit, usually performs better or at least on par with mesh WI-Fi kits that are two to three times as expensive.
How well it performs will depend on the size and layout of your loved one’s place, but they don’t necessarily have to go full Lee Hutchinson with their setup: one AC Lite should be enough to cover a typical apartment, while one or two should be good enough for most houses. So long as your gift recipient is OK with a few more cables and running Ubiquiti’s software controller on a computer to set up the device (it’s not as complicated as it sounds), this should help provide smooth, reliable Wi-Fi in spots that were once a source of frustration. That said, we do like Netgear’s Orbi (RBK50) mesh kit for those who are willing to pay up for a simpler, more wireless setup—Orbi’s raw throughput is still incredibly impressive for that class of device.