Essential Computer Accessories

When we talked about building your own computer, I’ll admit I left you in a bit of a lurch. Sure, now you’ve got an awesome PC personalized for your individual needs and ready to go, but it’s not going to do you much good without some way to interact with it. And let’s be honest: the accessories you choose for the outside of your computer are just as important as what we put inside it – you’ve just got to know what’s out there, and what will work best for you.

Logitech Keyboard

Logitech Keyboard

We’ll start with what we nerds call human interface devices: gadgets that let you interact with your computer. The three most important should be pretty familiar to anybody who has used a computer before: the monitor, mouse, and keyboard. Still, you have a lot of options available depending on what you use your computer for. Take your keyboard for example: for the average home user, this standard Cherry keyboard should be sufficient. Someone looking to reduce clutter in his or her workspace might instead opt for a wireless keyboard like this compact Seal Shield. Since wireless keyboards are dependent on batteries that could die at an inopportune time and they’re very slightly less responsive, gamers will probably want something more like this Bella USB keyboard, which has plenty of useful shortcut buttons. Any one of these is perfectly viable; it just depends on your individual needs as a user.

Microsoft Mouse

Microsoft Mouse

While you might not immediately realize it, buying a mouse warrants some thought as well. We gamers love models like this Microsoft four button mouse, since having readily accessible extra buttons can grant a competitive edge in online games. Users that don’t game (or only play casually) will probably be comfortable with something more standard, like this wireless mouse by Logitech or, if you’d prefer to avoid battery power and want to save some money, this basic and very economical model by Microsoft.

Samsung Syncmaster

Samsung Syncmaster

Nearly every monitor on the market today is a flat screen LCD display (rather than the old fat CRT monitors of yesteryear – see our previous post on televisions if you want to learn more about LCD technology), which can technically come in any size, from the screen of your smart phone to the 55-inch (and above) monster television sets. For use with a computer, you probably want your display between 15” and 24”. Models like this Acer are relatively economical and will look great without taking up too much space on your desk. If you play video games, use your computer to watch movies, or just need more screen space to work with, this 24” Samsung SyncMaster might be more your speed. Now, monitors certainly come larger than this, but keep in mind that the larger the display is, the larger the pixels are going to be – making for a less-crisp image – and the greater the risk of eyestrain. I wouldn’t go beyond 30”, but the option is out there.

Surge Protector

Surge Protector

Something easily overlooked but essential is a decent surge protector (not just a power strip). A good surge protector will protect your computer from spikes in electricity caused by malfunctions, tripped circuit breakers, power outages, and even lightning. Any one of these could easily overload and destroy the delicate components inside your machine.

Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word

Now that we’ve got your computer up and running and we can interact with it, we’ll need some programs. As a baseline, many professionals and certainly most students are going to need some form of word processing software to type up and spell-check their reports, essays, and documents, such as Corel’s WordPerfect or Microsoft’s Word. If you’re also going to need spreadsheet programs like Excel and personal information managers like Outlook, you can buy the entire Microsoft Office suite – sure, you’re getting a handful of programs you might not need, but depending on how many you intend to use, the entire suite is probably going to end up cheaper than buying three or four of the applications individually.

Dell Wireless Inkjet Printer

Dell Wireless Inkjet Printer

In the age of ubiquitous internet and lighting-fast email, we’re quickly becoming a paperless society. Still, most high school teachers and college professors still prefer a hard copy of completed assignments, and there are plenty of old-fashioned bosses left in the workforce. There are a wide variety of printers to suit your needs but they tend to come from two main camps: inkjet and laser printers. Which you should choose really depends on how you intend to use your printer: if you’re going to be printing a lot and mainly in monochrome, you’ll want something like this heavy-duty HP laser printer. For most home users, this Dell wireless inkjet will be more attractive – plus it comes with useful bells and whistles if you need them, allowing you to scan and fax as well as print.

Kingston Flash Drive

Kingston Flash Drive

With so much of our work done on computers, it has become increasingly important to back up our data and save our work – all it takes is one power failure, and hours if not days or weeks of work can be lost in an instant. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way on that front. Hard drives are hardier than ever before and less likely to crash, programs are better at consistently and automatically saving your work in the background, and the market is full of useful devices to help move and maintain all that precious data. If you’ve got a great deal of information saved on your computer, or it’s especially important, consider buying an external hard drive to use as a backup. This G-Technology external hard drive has an impressive one terabyte (or a thousand gigabytes) of space, and installing it is as simple as plugging it into one of your computer’s USB slots. If you only need to backup a few documents though, or just need a way to easily move them from one computer to another, consider this Kingston flash drive – it will encrypt your files if your flash drive is stolen, and sports an impressive 16 gigabytes of space.

These are just a few of the many useful accessories you can buy for your personal computer, and chances are if you need to do something, your computer can help. What device do you find indispensible in your day-to-day experience?

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Building Your Own PC for Fun and Profit

It’s getting increasingly difficult to function in today’s world without owning a personal computer, and it can be a little daunting to decide what you need from one – and even harder to spend the money. If computers are totally beyond your ken and you have no interest in learning more about them beyond how to use it to check your email, a tech-savvy relative or store clerk is usually all the help you’ll need. If you’re interested in saving some money, having a PC customized for you and your individual needs, and knowing the inner workings of the machine you use every day, nothing beats building your own computer from the ground up.

Consider this an entry-level crash-course about the types of things you’ll need to build your own PC – the products I use for examples here may not be the best option for you, and in some cases they may not even be compatible with one another. And though you’ll almost certainly need more guidance than I can offer here when it comes to assembly, I hope you’ll read on and be inspired to give it a shot – I promise, building a PC isn’t anywhere near as hard as it first seems.

Lian Li Computer Case

Lian Li Computer Case

Step One: Something to Put It In

This is almost certainly one of the easiest tasks when it comes time to building your own PC: choosing a case to put all the components in. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of options to choose from and really only a handful of limiting factors. In general, there are three main considerations when choosing your tower: is it big enough, does it ventilate well, and do I like the way it looks? If you’re building a PC to surf the internet, check your email, listen to music, and store text documents, you’re not going to need a very spacious tower and heat output probably isn’t going to be a concern – a cheap, standard computer case will be more than sufficient. If you’re a gamer, though, you’re probably going to want a heavy-duty video card (which is typically larger than normal) and a motherboard with all the bells and whistles. All those hard-working components are going to put out a lot of heat, too, so you’re going to want a case with plenty of ventilation – you might also consider a model with built-in fans or other cooling options.

Cases run the pricing gamut, from as low as $50 to as high as $200 and beyond. For good quality with plenty of ventilation and space without any excessively shiny bits, like this Lian Li case, you’ll be looking to pay between $65 and $80, roughly. If you want something really impressive though, there are plenty of fancier models usually sporting LED lights and glass faces to show off your PC’s high-end guts. As a final note, if your case doesn’t come with a sufficient power supply, be prepared to get one separately.

Asus Rampage Motherboard

Asus Rampage Motherboard

Step Two: The Motherboard

Every computer needs a motherboard – think of it as the foundation upon which your PC is built. Without getting too complicated, the motherboard is what allows the other components of your PC to talk to one another. High end motherboards will have more slots or “spaces” for components, and they’ll be able to handle higher quality or just plain newer gadgets. They may even have normally-separate components, such as a basic video or sound card, already built in. Motherboards vary wildly in price usually based on what chipset and video card they support: this Asus model commands a decent price largely because of its many RAM slots, while this MSI is less impressive but far more economical. There are a great many considerations when choosing your motherboard, but chiefly you want to be sure your motherboard supports your CPU, your video card, and the amount of RAM you want.

Motherboard with CPU

A Motherboard and CPU

Step Three: Whoa whoa whoa…the who in the what now?

Don’t be intimidated! The motherboard is definitely the most complicated and difficult part of this endeavor, but it’s nowhere near impossible to decode all this technobabble. Let’s start with the most important piece and work our way down.

Tech guys will almost always tell you that your computer’s CPU (central processing unit) is like its brain – it’s sometimes called the processor. Appropriately, your CPU is arguably the most important part of your computer, so you’re going to want to make an educated decision when buying one. If you’re a gamer or you work in graphic design, or you plan on working your computer hard by giving it many processes to complete at a time, a higher-end CPU will serve you well. Above all, don’t let the wide variety or complex names of certain processors scare you off! While they’re highly technical, the only thing you really need to concern yourself with is the processing speed (measured in gigahertz, a bigger number is better here). You may hear terms like “dual core,” which roughly means you’re getting two processors in one unit, or “overclocked,” which means the processor has been modified to handle more instructions at once. Tech-savvy home users, especially gamers, have been overclocking their processors for years, to the point that manufacturers are now getting on board. If you choose to dabble in overclocking, make sure you invest in some extra cooling! Processors give off a lot of heat and are generally limited in processing power to prevent overheating and damaging themselves.

Your CPU

Your CPU

When you’ve chosen your CPU and a compatible motherboard, take extra care when installing your processor. It’s not difficult to see where on the motherboard the processor goes (hint: it’s the square spot), but processors are delicate components and you can easily damage them by installing the unit improperly. This is the one step in the process where I would suggest seeking out a professional, even to experienced geeks. Any computer repair place will be perfectly capable of installing your CPU on your motherboard for you, and since it’s not a time consuming thing to do they shouldn’t charge you much, if anything.

Sticks of RAM

Sticks of RAM

Once the processor is out of the way, things get much easier. The next most important piece of the puzzle is RAM – which stands for “random access memory” and is sometimes shortened to just “memory.” Don’t let this confuse you though: this isn’t where your computer stores information. It might be easiest to think of RAM as a sort of data highway to your CPU – more memory means a wider highway, which means more data gets to your processor faster. Memory is measured in gigabytes, and you can expect to pay more the higher the “gigs” are, from the lowly 512MB stick (two of these will give you a gigabyte) up to two-gig sticks sold in pairs. There are different kinds of RAM, as well – make sure the kind you’re getting is compatible with your motherboard, and that it isn’t RAM designed for laptops (it won’t fit).

Diamond Radeon Video Card

Diamond Radeon Video Card

Step Four: Pick a card, any card

You’re almost there! In fact, if your motherboard has a built-in video and sound card, you may be able to skip this step. While this might seem convenient, you typically want on-board video and audio if you’re only looking for the basics in each. If you’re a gamer or you use any kind of video editing or graphic design software, you’re going to want a decent video card and, depending on how serious you are about it, this can end up being the most expensive part of your new PC. Video cards essentially do all the processor’s heavy lifting when your computer needs to display video. If you’re only interested in streaming video over the internet every once in awhile and you don’t care very much about video quality, you can definitely make do with an economic model like this Sapphire Tech video card. If you want to watch high definition movies or play the latest, most realistic video games, though, you’re going to want to dish out some money on something like this monster by Diamond. Again, make sure your video card is compatible with your motherboard, and make sure your case is big enough, these things can get huge.

Creative Labs Sound Card

Creative Labs Sound Card

Thankfully, your sound card is a great deal simpler and is always going to be much cheaper. A sound card does exactly what you’d expect – it handles the processing of sound for your computer. This is a great deal less strenuous than processing video, so your sound card is going to be much more compact and less pricy. I wouldn’t spend more than the $50 you’d drop on this Creative Labs card.

Zoom Telephonics Cable Modem

Zoom Telephonics Cable Modem

The last necessity you may want to install on your motherboard is an Ethernet card or an internal modem, depending on your needs. An Ethernet card will let you connect your computer to a network router (and usually the internet by extension). If you don’t have a network, router, or external cable modem, you can find relatively cheap internal modems to connect to the internet via a phone line.

Windows 7 Home Premium

Windows 7 Home Premium

Step Five: The finishing touches

There are only three pieces left before you have a fully functional computer: an operating system, a disc drive to install it, and a hard drive to save it on. For all but a very select few PC users, there’s really only one option for an operating system: Windows. As of this writing, Windows 7 is the newest version of the software and comes in a number of different varieties based on the user’s need. Chances are if you’re building a PC it’s for home use, so “Home Premium” should have everything you need, but if you’re building a computer for work you may want to visit Microsoft’s home page to see if the business versions of the software have features that would be useful to you. As a final note: Windows 7 and its predecessor (Windows Vista) were the first operating systems to come in 32 bit and 64 bit versions. For our purposes here we’ll keep it simple: the 32 bit version will be incapable of using more than 4 gigabytes of RAM, which is more than sufficient for users that don’t need a graphical powerhouse. Gamers may want to go for the 64 bit version, since more RAM may be needed to reduce video lag in the newest games.

LaCie Blu Ray disc drive

LaCie Blu Ray disc drive

Disc drives are the devices that play your CDs, DVDS, and Blu-Ray discs, and they’re relatively easy to shop for. Software is generally written on DVDs today, and the technology to read (and write) DVDs has significantly dropped in price over the last ten years – this Lite-On model is cheap and will be more than sufficient to run software discs and play music CDs, and burn (or write) discs of both types if needed. If you’re interested in watching high def Blu-Ray movies (or in using Blu-Ray discs for storage), the technology exists in models like this LaCie external drive, but it’s still new and therefore a bit pricey. No modern PC should have compatibility issues with a disc drive.

Seagate Hard Drive

Seagate Hard Drive

The final piece of our PC puzzle is the hard drive. The hard drive is where data is stored, so your choice here mainly revolves around size – the more a drive’s storage capacity (measured in gigabytes), the more you’re going to pay. For most casual PC users, and even some gamers, this 500GB Seagate should be more than sufficient. If you plan on storing a lot of data at once, though, especially thousands of music files or a handful of video files, something like this 2 terabyte option might be more up your alley. For most users today, more than a terabyte will probably be overkill, but there’s nothing more frustrating than having a full hard drive and no room in your case for a second unit so it may be better to be safe than sorry.

An Assembled Rig

Your Assembled Rig!

So, there you have it. That’s it! You now have a complete, working personal computer for a fraction of the price. Now that you know all the working parts in these amazing machines, do you think you would ever consider building one of your own?

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Planning An International Trip? Ten Things To Remember To Bring

Looking to take your first international trip? Even if you’ve traveled a lot on the continent, it can be difficult to know exactly how to prepare for your first experience in a foreign country. The rules are a little different, and not just culturally (though that’s a whole other post!) – you’ll be far away from everything you know and depend on, from 7-11 to your health insurance to your local law enforcement, and it’s important to be pro-active to ensure your trip is pleasant, even in the face of the unfamiliar. So if you’re about to set out on your first voyage, here are ten things you shouldn’t leave without.

1. Thief Proof Day Bag

Travelon Carry-Safe Anti Theft Messenger Bag

Travelon Carry-Safe Anti Theft Messenger Bag

In addition to any carry on or checked luggage you’re bringing (or in place of your “personal item” you should absolutely have a thief proof travel day bag if you’re going to need to keep anything on hand. Now I’m not just talking any tote here – look for something like Travelon Anti-Theft Messenger Bag that has slash-proof steel woven throughout the entire body of the bag, and a strap with an uncuttable steel cable core – the best ones will even have an additional cable to attach to your clothing or your seat to deter muggers as well as cutpurses. It’s always better to keep your most important documents out of reach, but if you do need a bag or purse, make sure it’s one that has a few extra safety features. As well, if you’re carrying an expensive camera, it can be extremely worthwhile to bring it in a discreet carrying case rather than a standard DSLR shaped bag which can attract unwanted attention.

2. Money Belt

Travel Money Belt - by Talus

Travel Money Belt - by Talus

Even if you have a thief-proof bag, and especially if you don’t, you should also have a Money Belt. These little pouches are like very flat fanny packs that fasten securely around your waist, directly against your skin and hidden beneath your clothing. This is where you should keep your very most important documents, and ones you won’t have to access very often, like your passport, travel tickets, at least one credit card, and a little spare cash in your local currency. That way even if your luggage gets lost or your bags get stolen, you won’t be completely up a creek.

3. Passport Case/Travel Organizer

Personalized Saxton Passport Holder

Personalized Saxton Passport Holder

This one is mostly for the in-transit part of your trip as opposed to the day to day, but it can be extremely helpful to have an oversized passport wallet like this Personalized Passport Holder that can hold all of your important documents – from your passport itself to boarding passes, train tickets, itineraries, and reservation information, as well as your credit cards, cash, and travelers checks. Once you get where you’re going, it can be a little safer to split some of these things up, but when you need all your documentation close at hand, they can be absolutely invaluable.

4. Plug Adapters/Power Converters

Universal International Travel Power Plug Adapter - 110V - max. 275W and 220V

Universal International Travel Power Plug Adapter - 110V - max. 275W and 220V

These days, unless you’re deliberately going off the grid, it’s hard to get anywhere without access to your technology. Problem is, not everywhere in the world has the same kind of electrical outlet, and not all outlets produce the same level of power. Translation: if you don’t show up prepared, you might find that your plugs don’t fit, and if they do, your electronics still might get fried. So long before liftoff you want to make sure you have at least a set of Universal Plug Adapters designed to fit the outlets for all the countries you’ll be visiting. Then, you want to look on the chargers of each of the devices you’re planning on bringing. If they say “Input 100V-240V 50 / 60 Hz,” you’re golden – if they don’t say that, or anything, you’re going to need to up the ante and get a Power Converter as well, which will ensure that higher levels of power coming from foreign outlets won’t fry your gadgets. If you have a lot of devices that charge by USB (phone, e-reader, camera, etc.), you might even want to opt for an International USB Adapter, which allows you to plug your usb device directly into the wall. A compact Travel Extension Cord can be handy, too, especially if you have more than a few devices.

5. TSA Approved Bag Lock

Eagle Creek TSA Travel Safe Lock

Eagle Creek TSA Travel Safe Lock

The TSA has a hate/hate relationship with bag locks – because they do spot searches of luggage, they have to be able to get into your checked bags, up to and including cutting off your locks. But if you’re concerned about the security of your luggage once it, well, makes it past security, you can buy a TSA-approved luggage lock like this one from Eagle Creek. These are designed to fit a master key carried by certain TSA agents so they can search your bags, then re-lock them so they’ll stay closed for the remainder of your trip.

6. A New SIM Card

Just Buy One Of These Prepaid Cards At Your Destination, Snap Out The Little Plastic Piece And Place It In The SIM Card Slot In Your Phone, And Voila, International Phone

Just Buy One Of These Prepaid Cards At Your Destination, Snap Out The Little Plastic Piece And Place It In The SIM Card Slot In Your Phone, And Voila, International Phone

A SIM card is a little chip that stores all the information in your telephone – from your contact list to the information that links you to your service provider. If you take yours out and put it in a friend’s phone, all your numbers will show up there, and any calls you make will be billed to you, not them. Now, where this gets interesting with international travel is that typically international calling will cost you an arm and a leg. But if you buy a SIM card with pre-paid minutes in your destination country, you’ll be able to make local calls at local rates, without racking up huge international and roaming fees – and if you have a smartphone, you can just use Skype to make calls home for free. Be aware that your phone has to be unlocked (and therefore able to link up to the prepaid service) for this to work, which can make it a little trickier to do with an iPhone (you’ll have to unlock it yourself and potentially get a SIM Card Caddy), but most other service providers will unlock the phone for free if you ask.

7. Important Medications

Loose Pills Can Arouse Suspicion Or Even Potentially Be Confiscated

Loose Pills Can Arouse Suspicion Or Even Potentially Be Confiscated

You want to make sure that you have an ample supply of all of your important medication for the duration of your trip, because trying to refill a prescription abroad can be a little tricky, especially if you have to deal with customs. For your flight, be sure to bring all your medication in their original bottles, NOT a Pill Organizer to get them past the TSA. Even if you regularly use a weekly pill box, bring it empty and make sure all bottles are clearly marked with your prescriptions. And even if you don’t take any medication regularly, you should take a few OTCs for your flight, just in case, specifically painkillers, anti-nausea medications, and laxatives, especially if you’re sensitive to travel or going on a long international flight.

8. Source of Clean Water

Platypus PlusBottle

Platypus Plus Bottle

If you’re going to be doing a lot of walking on your trip – around the city or through some mountains – you want to be sure you stay hydrated, and should always always have a refillable water bottle with you. I like the collapsible Platypus Bottles because they’re so lightweight and compact, but any bottle will do. It can be a good idea to bring a water bottle with a built in filter if you’re traveling in a country with a questionable water source (though, honestly, slight changes in water treatment even in developed countries can upset your tummy, which can make this a very worthwhile item no matter where you’re traveling). If you’re really concerned about water quality, or are going to be out in the middle of nowhere, you might want to bring along Water Purification Tablets or even a Portable Water Filter just to be safe.

9. Waterproofing For You And Your Camera

DiCAPac WPS10 Waterproof Case for SLR & DSLR's

DiCAPac WPS10 Waterproof Case for SLR & DSLR's

There’s nothing in the world that can ruin a vacation quite so fast as rain. Before you head to any country where there’s even the remotest chance that you’ll see wet weather, make sure to thoroughly waterproof your shoes, bags, coats, and tent if you have one. A simple Spray, Gel, or Wax should do the trick, just make sure you get the right kind for the material you’ll be using it on, and test it on a discreet area before applying to the whole thing. It’ll take a little time, but trust me, when you step in that puddle and your socks don’t get wet, you’ll be really glad you did it. As well, you absolutely want to have a waterproof bag for your Point-And-Shoot or DSLR to protect the camera from the elements. Many of them even have built in clear plastic windows so you can take pictures with them still in the bag. And, if you expect rain, don’t forget to bring an Umbrella!

10. Maps And Guidebooks

Yeah, This MIght Be A Little Much To Carry On

Yeah, This MIght Be A Little Much To Carry On

This is one that might actually be worth buying once you reach your destination, as local maps can be a little cheaper than buying international ones from home. That said, if you’ve been planning your trip out of a Guidebook, it might be worth bringing the book with you, or at least the relevant sections. Some people even rip pages out of bigger books for a little lighter travel, but I prefer to photocopy and take only what I need, and leave the book at home intact!

For any big international travelers reading this, what else would you tell a first timer never to forget?

Posted in holidays, Outdoor living | Tagged , , , , , | 144 Comments

HD Televisions Demystified

It seems that anything bought today comes with a dizzying array of technological bells and whistles, hard-to-follow jargon, and acronyms. Take televisions, for example. Do you know the difference between an LCD TV and an LED TV? What’s a plasma screen? Should you buy your HDTV in 1080i or 720p? Thankfully the answers to these questions and more are pretty straightforward. Here’s everything you need to know about buying a modern television set, and what the difference is between the various types.

Philips 32 Inch LED LCD HDTV

Philips 32 Inch LED LCD HDTV

1. HDTV

“HD” here stands for “high definition,” and it refers to screen resolution. Modern televisions like this Philips can display images with more than two million pixels per frame. Pixels, if you’re wondering, are the tiny colored dots that compose the images on our television displays and computer monitors, and more pixels means a sharper, more detailed image. You’ll notice that this specific TV is “1080p,” which denotes its resolution (it’s actually short for 1920 x 1080, which equals out to the number of pixels per frame). Television signals are now digitally broadcast in America at 720 and most people aren’t actually going to notice the difference between resolutions anyway, but if you’re a true videophile like me and you watch more Blu-Ray movies than run-of-the-mill television, a 1080 display is absolutely worth it.

Coby 32 Inch HDTV

Coby 32 Inch HDTV

2. Old vs. New

High-def televisions basically come in two breeds: plasma and LCD, and each have their prospective pros and cons. Both types are an improvement over the old CRT televisions of yesteryear. “CRT” stands for “cathode ray tube” and refers to the giant electron gun hidden inside the “fat” television sets we all had before the advent of HDTVs. Ignoring the obvious problems of size and weight, CRT displays also consume a relatively high amount of electricity, generate a lot of heat when running, and they’re hazardous to repair and dispose of. The slim profile of modern televisions means a significantly lighter weight and the ability to mount the display on a wall. Consider this 32 inch Coby TV – the ultrathin design of LCD TVs means they can build a DVD player right into the television and have it remain invisible, saving on space and clutter in your entertainment center.

LG 55 Inch LED LCD HDTV

LG 55 Inch LED LCD HDTV

3. Plasma vs. LCD

So now that you’re sold on HD, the question remains: which is best, plasma or LCD, and what does that even mean? “LCD” stands for “liquid crystal display,” which is the same technology used in calculator displays and digital watches. LCD technology is compact, light, and versatile, and only gets better with further technological advancements. Plasma televisions are light and compact as well, but aren’t quite as versatile. LCD televisions basically come in every size imaginable, from the screen of today’s top-of-the-line smart phones to LG’s 55” wall-mounted monsters. Plasma screens are all big: it’s not cost-effective to produce the displays below 32” and it’s difficult to find them even that small, and a plasma television is going to be a bit thicker, heavier, and bulkier than its LCD cousins. Furthermore, plasma displays have a major flaw intrinsic to the technology: burn-in. You’ve probably seen burn-in without realizing there was a name for it: ever been to a sports bar and noticed the way the logo of their channel-of-choice remains as a ghostly after-image even as the channel changes or during commercials? Persistent images get “burned in” to the display, marring your high-def experience.

So why would you ever choose plasma? Well, it’s got one major benefit over LCD technology: it looks better. Plasma is up to four times better at reproducing color and produces deeper, sharper blacks than LCD, and plasma displays generally have a wider viewing angle (that is, you can watch from farther to the sides of the screen).

 

Panasonic 42 Inch Plasma HDTV

Panasonic 42 Inch Plasma HDTV

4. LED

Oh great, more acronyms. You may have noticed certain super high-end televisions with incredibly long, complicated names like this Panasonic Viera 42” 1080p LED LCD HDTV. It’s okay though! If you’ve been following along closely, you should know what all of that means save the LED they’ve got tacked on there. “LED” stands for “light emitting diodes” and it refers to a specific method of backlighting in LCD televisions. Let me explain: LCD screens need to be backlit because the liquid crystals don’t actually produce their own light. Your standard LCD televisions are backlit with…well, another acronym I won’t hit you with, but they’re basically florescent lamps, which are cheap but inefficient and relatively short-lived. LED technology brings LCD TVs more in line with plasma displays, improving color fidelity and contrast while using less power and lasting longer. Now, if you compare this standard 55” LG LCD TV with a rival brand’s LED offering in the same size, you’re going to quickly notice that LED technology commands a premium – $100 extra at least – but keep in mind that you get what you pay for (in this case a better image).
You’ll sometimes notice marketing materials declaring their LED LCDs “edge-lit” or “full-array” – edge-lit displays are going to be thinner because the diodes are located only along the edges, but your color quality is going to suffer a little as a result. Full-array models are as they sound: a full array of diodes positioned behind the entire screen for optimal color quality and a brighter picture. If you’re going for the best of the best, opt for a full-array. If you’re trying to decide between an edge-lit LED LCD and a regular LCD TV though, don’t get scammed: in terms of picture quality, an edge-lit LED and a regular LCD aren’t that different.

Sunbrite 46 Inch All-Weather Outdoor HDTV

Sunbrite 46 Inch All-Weather Outdoor HDTV

5. So what’s the verdict?

Look, nobody said buying the perfect TV was going to be easy. Now, more than ever, there’s a strong model to cater to everyone’s unique needs. If you’re going for the absolute best picture quality with the deepest blacks and sharpest colors, you’re going to want to go for the best plasma display you can find – perfect for an action movie fanatic and the guy who only watches on game-day. If you’re a video gamer though, steer clear: persistent elements like your heads up display guarantee burn-in, and if that’s a concern, opt for an LCD’s versatility. But don’t let yourself feel like you’re settling for a lesser design – LED LCDs handle picture performance at a near-plasma level, and the technology improves every year. They even have a waterproof LCD for use outdoors. What more can you ask for?

So, now that we’ve made sense of all those pesky acronyms…which is the perfect HD television for you?

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Sick Of “Non Stick”? Why You Should Give Silicone A Chance

Touted as the kitchen material of the future, silicone is like the Pyrex for the 21st century. Highly heat resistant, non-stick, easy to clean, easy to grip, flexible, and odor and stain resistant, silicone has found its way into almost every part of the kitchen, from bakeware to garlic peelers. But if worries about safety or stability, or just an unease with the notion of trusting your muffins to a floppy colorful tin has kept you from giving silicone a chance, there are a few things you should know that might change your mind.

1. Silicone Won’t Leech Anything Into Your Food

Freshware Silicone Loaf Pan

Freshware Silicone Loaf Pan

Synthetic silicone rubber, the material most “silicone” cookware is made of, is incredibly inert, which means that even under harsh circumstances, it doesn’t break down or change. So while some plastic bottles can leech harmful chemicals into your water merely if you’ve left them in the sun too long, you’d have to get a silicone utensil over 600 degrees Fahrenheit before it even thought about melting. All food-grade silicone materials are (and should be labeled as) 100% BPA free – in fact, the only two components in the silicone are silicone itself (which is found in sand, glass, and some stone) and oxygen. The process to combine the two is pretty complicated, but the components themselves are harmless and not chemical based. As long as it’s labeled “food grade,” like this Loaf Pan, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

2. Silicone Is Impressively Non-Stick

Wilton Silicone Mold Bite Size Brownie Squares

Wilton Silicone Mold Bite Size Brownie Squares

Food grade silicone has a non-porous surface that prevents just about anything from sticking to it. Practically, this has several applications: first and most obviously, silicone baking dishes- even complicated ones like this Brownie Pan – don’t have to be sprayed, buttered, or floured to make every dish come out clean. Just give the pan a little twist and shake, then flip and your baked goods will drop out clean. And when you go to wash it, anything left on the inside (which probably won’t be much) will rinse or wipe out easily. Something you might not think of, though, is that silicone utensils like this Basting Brush are non-stick as well. In this case, that means you can dunk, mop, or brush just about anything with this brush and when you’re done it’ll rinse completely clean. No more greasy buildup or unsightly stains – the silicone won’t even retain an odor once it’s rinsed, so you’ll be able to use the same brush for all your applications.

3. Silicone Is Very Heat Resistant

Wilton Silicone Mold 6 Cup Muffin Pan

Wilton Silicone Mold 6 Cup Muffin Pan

Most silicone kitchenware will come with its heat resistance printed right on the surface – usually between 500 and 600 degrees. That means your Spatula can stir in a hot pan – or even sit in a hot pan – without melting. Even over years of repeated use, the utensil will hold its shape no matter how tough you are on it. And because the material is soft and flexible, you’ll never have to worry about it scratching your pan. And when it comes to bakeware, silicone dishes like Muffin Tin heat up very quickly and evenly in the oven, ensuring even cooking throughout your dish, and cool down quickly once they’re removed from the oven, which will prevent the bottom of your dish from burning. And, unless you chuck it in with your cleaning cycle, it’ll retain its form perfectly and never melt or deform.

4. Silicone Can Be Used Almost Anywhere In Your Kitchen

Chantal Make & Take Square 8 in. x 8 in. Square Baking Dish with Lid & Silicone Gasket

Chantal Make & Take Square 8 in. x 8 in. Square Baking Dish with Lid & Silicone Gasket

Unlike glass, which responds poorly to rapid temperature change, or metal, which retains heat and doesn’t do so well with microwaves, silicone can move from fridge to oven to freezer to microwave to dishwasher and back, just like that. The same Tray Molds can even be used both for candy making (think: lollypops) and to make fun-shaped ice cubes. The dish or utensil won’t lose its shape, won’t be ruined in the intense cold of a freezer, and won’t break your microwave. Many of the baking dishes, like this Chantal Make & Take, even come with secure silicone lids, which can eliminate the need for saran wrap or foil covering typically used on lidless baking dishes.

5. Silicone Won’t Wear Out With Age

Freshware 11-Cavity Mini Cheesecake, Pudding and Muffin Silicone Mold and Baking Pan (Pack of 2)

Freshware 11-Cavity Mini Cheesecake, Pudding and Muffin Silicone Mold and Baking Pan (Pack of 2)

Unlike many plastics, a good silicone dish or utensil won’t discolor or absorb odors when you use it – even pieces that get used every day will retain their same look, color, and consistency, and won’t ever develop a funky smell. Unlike metal baking dishes, silicone won’t rust, and unlike glass, it won’t break if you drop it. That said, like most other kinds of baking dishes and utensils, it’s not a good idea to leave your silicone ones over an open flame or directly on a hot stove – Silicone Spatulas won’t melt in a pan, but they might if pressed against direct heat. You also want to take a little extra care with very sharp knives. Just like a metal pan, silicone can scratch, and if you’re very aggressive with a knife or other sharp object, you could puncture or slice the silicone. It’s safer and easier to remove your food from the flexible pan and then cut it, rather than the other way around, and with something like this Muffin Tin you shouldn’t even need to loosen your baked goods with a knife at all, just wiggle your dish until they shake free on their own.

6. Silicone Makes For A No-Slip Grip

Winco Silicone Square Baking Mat

Winco Silicone Square Baking Mat

Used on the handles of utensils as well as the heads, along with a whole range of Pot Holders that double as trivets and jar openers, silicone will give you a solid, heat-proof grip. While the silicone is engineered not to stick to food, it has a sturdy hand feel and is easy to grab, and will create friction on pots, pans, and dishes to help you get a solid hold. Plus, silicone’s heat resistant qualities ensure you won’t get burned, no matter what you’re pulling out of the oven. You can even buy whole paper-thin Silicone Mats that can serve as reusable parchment paper, creating a perfect non-stick layer for the bottom of your metal or glass pans that can be rinsed clean and used again and again.

So if you haven’t given silicone a try, and you’ve been longing to add a pop of color to your kitchen (or just find a lighter weight alternative to the cast iron crock you keep in your RV), now might be the time. The floppy construction might seem feeble at first, but these things hold their shape – and many of the larger containers come with sheets to prop them up, just in case. If you’re still nervous about it, start out with a simple utensil like a spatula to get a feel for the material – if you love it, you can always go from there! Do you own any silicone utensils or bakeware? Love it, hate it? Let me know in the comments!

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Eight Simple Steps To Keep Your Skin Happy And Healthy All Winter Long

Winter can be really rough on your skin, and if you don’t take the time to ramp up your normal skin care routine, your skin can wind up feeling, at best, dry and tight, and at worst flaky and chapped or even cracked, raw, or bleeding – especially your hands. Over time, consistently overlooking winter skin care can age your hands and face, and even in the short term it can make things pretty uncomfortable. So what do you need to do to save your skin from the savages of cold, dry winter air?

1. Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize

Regular Use Of The Right Kind Of Lotion Will Keep Your Skin Healthy All Winter Long

Regular Use Of The Right Kind Of Lotion Will Keep Your Skin Healthy All Winter Long

If you already have a moisturizing routine, ramp it up, and if you don’t, now’s the time to start. There are so many factors that combine in the winter months to leech moisture and natural oils from your skin, and the only way to protect against them is to add moisture to your skin, and seal in what’s already there. To do that, you want to swap from water to oil based lotions that will help your skin retain moisture. Your winter lotion should be thick and creamy, like this Wild Lavender Lotion and use a non-pore-clogging plant-based oil like jojoba oil, avocado oil, or almond oil. Keep petrolium based products and shea butter away from your face, but use these thicker, oilier creams like this Shea Hand And Body on tough dry spots like your feet and elbows. Plan to moisturize your whole body at least twice a day – preferably right after your morning shower while your skin is still damp (to help your skin retain and absorb that extra moisture) and then again before bed. On drier days, there’s a good chance your skin will soak up your lotion faster than that and will need to be reapplied more often. As well, be sure to give special attention to your face and hands, which are generally the only parts exposed on very cold days.

2. Don’t Skimp On The Sunscreen!

Perfecting Day Cream

Perfecting Day Cream

Many people associate sunscreen with summer sunshine, but even an overcast day in the depth of winter can be just as harmful – if not moreso – to your skin. Especially if you’re in an area with a lot of snow, you get a double dose of sun from the light reflecting up off that gorgeous white stuff. So start every day with a facial moisturizer with at least 30 SPF, like this Perfecting Day Cream on your face and neck, and rub a little extra onto your hands  to make sure they’re protected as well. Makeup with SPF like this Vita-Mineral Loose Powder is a nice extra touch, but even if you use it, in winter you shouldn’t skimp on that moisturizing/spf base layer.

3. Lay Off The Treatments

Hydra Collagenist Deep Hydration Intense Re-Infusion Mask

Hydra Collagenist Deep Hydration Intense Re-Infusion Mask

Even if you have naturally oily skin and have a regimen of peels, face masks (especially clay masks), alcohol based toners or astringents to help keep you skin in check, you want to do them less frequently in the winter – probably no more than once a week. In the winter time your skin’s natural oils can actually be an asset rather than a nuisance, so if your skin is starting to feel tight or irritated, reduce the frequency of your routine until your skin starts to rehydrate, or switch to a deep hydrating face mask like Intense Re-Infusion Mask for the season.

4. Don’t Forget Your Hands And Feet

Smoothing Salt Scrub - Lavender Mint by GloMinerals

Smoothing Salt Scrub - Lavender Mint by GloMinerals

With hands in gloves and feet in lace ups and boots, it can be easy to forget to give them a little love, but your hands can rack up permanent damage, and if you forget your feet, they won’t be slingback sleek come spring. Treat them both regularly to a simple salt or sugar scrub (look for ones with a natural plant-based oil like Smoothing Salt Scrub or make your own), and rub a thick, creamy moisturizer all the way in before slipping on your socks and gloves (and repeat after washing your hands). And always – always! – remove wet socks and gloves as soon as possible because they can irritate and damage your skin, and even cause it to crack and bleed.

5. Skip The Hot Water Soak

Amba JEEVES Model C Towel Warmer Curved

Amba JEEVES Model C Towel Warmer Curved

This is personally the hardest rule for me to follow, and the one that might surprise you: those long, hot hot baths and showers you take to warm up on a cold morning or after a long trek through the snow are actually drying out your skin. Because the hot water evaporates so quickly, it takes your natural moisture with it, and very hot water can even break down the lipid barriers in your skin which exacerbates the problem. Opt instead for shorter, warm-not-hot baths and showers, and if your skin is already irritated, try mixing oatmeal or baking soda into your bath water to help soothe the itch. Using less soap will actually help, too – as there won’t be residue to make your skin itch and flake. If you really can’t stand the cold, try installing a towel warmer like this Amba Jeeves Model C in your bathroom. These function a little like radiators, and will keep your bathroom warm all day and night, and will give you something cozy to wrap up in once you step out of the shower.

6. Humidify

Pink Pig Ultrasonic Humidifier

Pink Pig Ultrasonic Humidifier

One of the most important winter skin care products isn’t one you put on your skin at all. Because the main cause of dry skin in winter is dry air (from low atmospheric moisture outside and the hot, dry air you use to warm your home), one of the best ways to combat it is…to re-hydrate your air. Humidifiers regulate the humidity in your room, keeping the air at a comfortable moisture level to help protect your skin. It won’t help you on your morning jog, but one of these cute Animal Humidifiers placed in each room of your home can really ease the pain of winter dryness.

7. Dress For The Weather

Keeping Covered Is The Secret To Keeping Hydrated

Keeping Covered Is The Secret To Keeping Hydrated

This one may seem a little silly, but winter gear isn’t just meant to protect you from the cold – it can help keep your skin hydrated, too. Even a simple Knit Hat can save your scalp from drying out (and thereby prevent seasonal flaking), and paired with a thick Scarf it can keep wind off most of your face in the harshest weather. Don’t underestimate gloves, either – even fingerless gloves can help protect the thin, delicate skin on your hands. Just  be sure to avoid putting wool directly against your skin wherever possible – the itchy feel can irritate dry skin and promote scratching, which only causes further damage. The same goes for the rest of your winter clothes – opt for removable layers with a breathable cotton base to make sure you don’t get too hot or cold or start to sweat, which can further irritate and dry out your skin.

8. Remember Your Lips

UnPetrolium

UnPetrolium

Lips are something of a barometer of overall skin health – like a canary in a mine, they’re the first part that goes bad, but at the same time they can be easy to overlook or ignore. Keep a stick of at least SPF 15 lip balm on hand at all times and use it whenever you think of it, at least a couple times a day – this all-natural UnPetrolium stick is super hydrating and comes with an uncommonly high SPF 18. As well, try not to lick your lips, as this can cause them to dry out, even if it makes them feel a little better when you do it. Finally, while the amount of water you drink may not have a big impact on your overall skin health, it definitely makes a difference when it comes to your lips. If it’s winter, and your lips are chapped, chances are all that dry air is getting to you and you’re starting to get dehydrated.

Dried out, tight-feeling, flaky skin doesn’t have to come hand in hand with the winter months. With just a little conscientious effort and a little daily maintenance, you can banish many of the skin-woes of winter and be ready to meet the spring with fresh, youthful skin. How do you keep your skin healthy during the winter months? Do you have any favorite products? What changes do you make to your normal routine?

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Six Types Of Toys Every Cat Should Have

Cats are, by nature, incredibly intelligent creatures, which makes them excellent companion pets. Unfortunately, when smart cats get bored, the results can be disastrous. A bored cat is an unhappy cat, and an unhappy cat is a naughty cat – and naughty cats break, claw, and worry things they know they aren’t supposed to. Especially for very smart indoor cats, it’s vital to ensure that they have a sufficient outlet for their energy and curiosity, to keep them happy and out of trouble. So if you’re keeping your cat indoors (which is a good idea and can significantly extend your kitty’s lifespan), make sure that they have something to keep them entertained all day long with a wide variety of toys tailored to keep them stimulated (and tire them out). The more toys they have, the better, but there are a few basic types of toys you should be sure to have to keep your cat’s attention.

1. Something Tall

Majestic Pet 55 Inch Kitty Cat Jungle Gym

Majestic Pet 55 Inch Kitty Cat Jungle Gym

Even the most domesticated of cats still have a little something of their jungle-cat ancestry in them, and love to be up high. For jaguars it’s treetops, for cougars it’s mountainsides, and for your cat it should be the highest pet-friendly fixture your home can comfortably accommodate. Jungle gyms like this 55″ Majestic Pet are coated in carpet and twine to make them easy to climb (and double as scratching posts you won’t have to teach them to use!). These should have several different levels, and if possible at least one should be placed so it has a view out a window. Cats love to look outside, especially if they have a view of a bird feeder, and can stay amused for hours watching the activity outdoors. They come as tall as Eighty Inches with lots of comfortable rests, but look for dangly ropes and crawlable tunnels and hidey holes to make the space extra inviting for your feline.

2. Something Self Sustaining

Pure Commotion Cat Toy

Pure Commotion Cat Toy

A single cat with working owners is a recipe for despondence and naughtiness – when cats have all day to themselves without much to do, they get, at best, bored, and at worst lonely and depressed, and are much more likely to be overactive or clingy while you’re trying to sleep. To combat this, make sure your cat has at least a few toys that don’t require your intervention to be interesting. This Pure Commotion Cat Toy has a battery operated base that can be set to spin and flip a feather birdie around at various speeds for up to two hours while you’re gone, which means your cat won’t even have to bat it to get it started, like some other models (though the cat-activated spring toys can be more fun long-term). As a bonus, the wand detaches, so when you come home, you can spend a little quality time with your cat and tease him yourself.

3. Something For Their Predatory Instincts

Screening Mouse

Screening Mouse

Feathers, fur, rattles, squeaks, shrieks, and tails all activate a cat’s predatory instincts, which is what their play is meant to hone. So look for a wide variety of smaller toys with prominent feathers, rattles, squeaks, or anything that squirms or rumbles, like this Jittery Mouse. Also, if your cat responds to catnip, don’t be afraid to give it to them – even little Catnip Mice can put your cat in a positive, playful mood. My cat’s personal favorite, though? This Screening Mouse, which makes shrill (but not human-irritating) squeaks and shrieks with every bat, bounce, or toss – next best to the real thing for your kitty.

4. Something With An Obstacle

Kitty Fast Track

Kitty Fast Track

Cats, especially smart cats, love a challenge, and will even seek out obstacles to make their play a little more difficult. I once had a kitten that would get unreasonably tangled in chair and table legs just for the sport of it. So getting your cat a closed-circuit toy is sure to keep them challenged and active. Simpler Cat Circles spin a plastic ball around in circles faster and faster the more your cat bats at them through small openings in the side, mimicking the feeling of grabbing at something small and quick. Larger ones like these Kitty Fast Tracks can be configured into different shapes or linked with additional sets to keep your cat poking, pawing, and chasing the ball across the length of the toy for hours. Any jingly toy inside a mesh ball, like this Tumble Bug Ball also works great for this, as your cat will have to work to poke a paw into the complicated ball in order to get at the toy inside.

5. Something That Moves

Ethical Pet Cat Motion Activated Cat Ball

Ethical Pet Cat Motion Activated Cat Ball

This one is related to your cat’s predatory instincts – the faster and more prey-like a toy moves, the more exciting it’ll be for your feline. Fuzzy, furry, Pull Back Toys that you can race across the floor are great for this (matchbox cars work, too, but these are a little more fun), and battery powered Roller Balls with attached feathers that wriggle and dance around are sure to attract your cat’s attention. As well, this Motion Activated Ball, though it doesn’t move on it’s own, gives an amazing impression of motion, with a reflective surface that casts sparkling lights, as well as a rainbow of flashing LEDs that light up every time the ball gets moved – which is sure to keep your kitty batting it all over the floor.

6. Something Fun For Both Of You

Plume Crazy Cat Wand Toy

Plume Crazy Cat Wand Toy

More than just about anything, it’s important that you take time to play with your cat. The interaction will help you bond and make your cat feel loved and content – and can do wonders for you, too! So have a few toys that you’ll both enjoy – whether that means a Laser Pointer if you get your kicks watching your cat run around like a maniac, or a small Remote Controlled Mouse to maneuver him all the way around your house. And I’ve never met a cat that didn’t go wild for a Cat Dancer – whether you opt for something Dangly, Fuzzy, or just a really long cloth ribbon. The built in feathers on that fuzzy one probably won’t last long, but that doesn’t lessen the appeal of the toy.

No matter what kinds of toys you get your cats, or how many, there really is no substitute for one on one interaction. For cats, play time is also bonding time, and is always more satisfying when they can do it with you, even if it’s just your cat, your toes, and a milk ring, no fancy cat toys needed. Spending good, quality face time with your cat is not only the best way to keep them entertained and exercised, but also the best way to keep you close – and can even make your cat a little more cuddly! If you have a really smart cat, I’d love to hear your tips and tricks to keeping them amused.

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Great Gifts In Small Packages: Eight Great Compact Gifts For This Holiday Season

Participating in several white elephant exchanges when I was young taught me a very important life lesson: while it may be tempting to grab the biggest present in the room, with the brightest bow and the prettiest wrapping paper, chances are that package contains the ugliest punch bowl you’ve ever seen, or a big jug of windshield wiper fluid. Over time I’ve come to learn that, in a sometimes very literal sense, it’s the little packages that contain the most special gifts. So this holiday season, if you’re stumped for what to get your special someone – think small!

VuPoint iPhone Photo Printer

VuPoint iPhone Photo Printer

Now that most smartphones come equipped with high-resolution cameras and digital zoom, point and shoot digital cameras are becoming a thing of the past. Instead, if you’ve got a shutterbug on your gift list, consider getting them an iPhone Photo Printer to go with their fancy phone. This compact cube acts as a charging dock and allows you to print photos directly from your iphone (or ipod or ipad) onto high-quality waterproof photo paper, up to 4″x6″, no uploading or outsourcing needed to get beautiful physical prints of your favorite pictures. Each Replacement Cartridge can print up to 36 standard sized photos, or up to 360 thumb-sized photos (like those from the digital photo booths at the mall). It’s both fun to watch and much faster than waiting for Walgreens.

Bushnell Backtrack Point-3 GPS Digital Compass

Bushnell Backtrack Point-3 GPS Digital Compass

I’m seriously considering getting one of these Bushnell Backtrack GPS keychains for my directionally impaired mother. It’s a really nifty device – you turn it on, program in your current location, and then no matter how far you wander it will accurately guide you back to exactly the spot you left. It stores up to three locations (the slightly smaller but less rugged Point Five model can store five and has a weather display), works as a standard compass, and attaches easily to any keyring to ensure that you’re always able to find your way home – whether you’re lost in the mountains or just misplaced your car. Great for outdoorsey types or the absentminded.

Pacsafe SlingSafe 100 Sling Purse

Pacsafe SlingSafe 100 Sling Purse

Have someone on your gift list that does a lot of traveling? Especially if they spend a lot of time in big cities or abroad, an Anti Theft Travel Bag is a great way to keep your favorite tourist safe. Anti theft bags come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and designs, but the important features you want to look for are steel wire reinforced straps and steel mesh reinforced sides, which make the entire bag slash-proof. Locking pockets are nice, too, and this particular bag has a strap that can attach to a stationary object (like the arm of your chair while you’re at a restaurant), and a little hole to string your earbuds through so you can listen to music with your mp3 player in a secure, locked pocket. An excellent all around theft deterrent that could end up paying off in a big way!

Handpresso Wild

Handpresso Wild

Know someone who loves espresso but doesn’t have the room or budget for a full sized espresso machine? This Espresso Hand Press is a totally manual, hassle free device that brews single shots of espresso in minutes. All you need is a few pumps to build up pressure, boiling water, and an easy serving espresso (ESE) pod, and you’ll have a barista quality shot with a thick, rich crema. Because it uses disposable packets of grounds, cleanup is a snap, and it’s small enough to stow easily, which makes it a perfect gift for caffeine starved college students or campers who want a strong cup o’ joe on the go.

Klipsch Image S4i In Ear Headset

Klipsch Image S4i In Ear Headset

These days, with so many gadgets that have music playing capabilities, a pair of earbuds or other compact headphones makes a great stocking stuffer for just about anyone on your list. But these high performance Kipsch Image S4i sound cancelling headphones should probably be reserved for someone high up on your “nice” list. They’re about the best in-ear headphones on the market right now, hugely outclassing all other offerings in the less-than-$100 range (and many more expensive ones, too), and even come with an in-line microphone, call answer button, and volume controls, which makes them unbeatable for an iPhone user.

Silk Velvet Infinity Loop

Silk Velvet Infinity Loop

I’m told that loop scarves are “in” this season, but trends or no trends, this Silk Velvet Scarf is something just about any lady would be overjoyed to find under the tree. Made of real silk velvet, it’s about as soft as soft gets, cushy, smooth, and warm – and the burnished copper, red, russet, and gold hues will look lovely paired with just about any outfit.

Vinturi Red Wine Aerator

Vinturi Red Wine Aerator

A frequent staple of wine tasting establishments, vineyards, and even some restaurants, this Red Wine Aerator is a great gift for your favorite oenophile. What it does, essentially, is separates the wine as you pour it, filling it with tiny bubbles of air and “opening” it much faster and more thoroughly than traditionally decanting or simply letting the wine breathe, and dramatically improving the flavor and profile of any wine that’s run through it. Just pour through the top and directly into your glass and immediately taste the difference. Makes a great party trick, too – comparing the same wine side by side before and after aeration.

Zagg ZAGGmate Aluminum Case with Wireless Keyboard for iPad

Zagg ZAGGmate Aluminum Case with Wireless Keyboard for iPad

iPads and other tablets are becoming more and more prominent among everyday users, but their lack of a physical keyboard can be a real bummer. If you know someone that loves their ipad but still lugs around a laptop or netbook for typing, this iPad Keyboard Case is sure to make their day. Part protective aluminum shield for the touch screen, part wireless bluetooth keyboard, it’s ultra compact and incredibly functional. Snap it on one side to stow, or lay it flat and place an iPad either portrait or landscape wise in the center seam for instant laptop functionality on your tablet, with no extra bulky weight to carry around (click through if you’re having trouble imagining it!). Great way to help your favorite technophile get streamlined.

What are a few of your favorite holiday gifts this season? Do you agree that sometimes the best things come in small packages, or do you always go for the biggest box?

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Looking For A Last Minute Gift? Truly Unique Stocking Stuffers For Under $25

In a holiday season where money is tight, it’s important to make every dollar count – but just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t give a really memorable gift. If you’re strapped for gift ideas and low on cash, consider one of these unique stocking stuffers. They’re all under $25, many under $15, and are sure to surprise and please your recipients.

Primula Flowering Tea

Primula Flowering Tea

These Primula Flowering Tea sets are both incredibly elegant and very affordable, containing 12 tea flower buds that “bloom” when placed in hot water. Hand crafted by Chinese artisans, each bud is made of intricately sewn green tea leaves that expand and unfurl as soon as they’re put to steep, creating a beautiful leafy flower blossom that can brew a whole pot of tea up to three times. They look great in a glass bowl or tea pot, produce a strong jasmine flavor and fragrance, and are just plain fun to watch as they “grow” while your tea steeps.

Whiskey Stones

Whiskey Stones

These Whiskey Stones from Teroforma are one of my favorite stocking stuffers. They’re compact, relatively inexpensive, and get some of the greatest expressions. So what are they? No, it’s not like stuffing your best friend’s stocking with rocks – these babies are the best ice cubes you’ll ever get. Made of specially designed squares of soapstone, these whiskey stones retain cold (or heat) extremely well, and allow you to chill (or heat) your drink without diluting it. They’re non-porous, so they won’t absorb any odors or flavors from whatever you soak them in (and won’t make your drink taste like rocks, either!), and won’t scratch your glassware or ceramic mugs, so they’re safe to use even with your nice bar glasses. It brings a whole new meaning to “on the rocks” and is sure to get a few good laughs, and plenty of use.

Isotoner Smartouch Women's Gloves

Isotoner Smartouch Women's Gloves

In colder climates, smartphone owners are finding out just how hard it is to use a touch screen with gloves on. If you’ve got an iphone fiend on your Christmas list, Smartouch Gloves might be the perfect gift. Designed with conductive thread in the index fingers and thumbs, these gloves are fully touch screen compatible, warm, and have a sturdy rubber grip on the palms – no more one frozen hand and a glove in your mouth while you try to return a call!

Platypus Collapsible Platy Water Bottle

Platypus Collapsible Platy Water Bottle

The Platypus Water Bottle is the lowest-tech-looking green innovation out there. Totally BPA free, this 1 liter bottle is ultra flexible and easy to fit into just about any space. Better still, when it’s empty, it rolls and folds down to about the size of your finger and weighs almost nothing. Great for frequent fliers and backpackers, or anyone that wants to stay hydrated but might not have a lot of purse or backpack room to spare.

iBottleopener

iBottleopener

Another great gadget for a smartphone lover. From the front, this iBottleopener looks, well, just about like any other iphone case. But on the back it comes complete with a simple, ergonomically designed bottle opener. It works great, is unobtrusive to the phone, and is really just about the best way to always have a bottle opener on hand at all times, without having any extra weight to carry or anything to remember to bring.

Coby Keychain Digital Photo Frame

Coby Keychain Digital Photo Frame

These Digital Keychain Photo Frames make great gifts for moms. I don’t think I’ve ever met a mom that wouldn’t proudly display pictures of her children (or grandchildren), and this little 1.8 inch screen displays a slideshow of up to a megabyte of your favorite160x128px images. These devices have come down hugely in price over the last year or two – this one is just over $10 – but will still look almost like magic to a parent or in-law without a lot of tech savvy.

VICTORINOX Swiss Army Slim Flight Alox - 4GB

VICTORINOX Swiss Army Slim Flight Alox - 4GB

In the quest for the world’s most perfect hide-a-USB-key, this Swiss Army USB Key ranks pretty high. On the outside, it’s a totally standard looking swiss army style knife. Inside, there’s no knife at all – but a 4GB USB 2.0 thumb drive that hides completely and discreetly, and is totally TSA friendly for frequent fliers. It also has 256 bit encryption and password protection, automatically backs up your files, and allows you to browse anonymously on public computers, which makes it an especially great gift for a business traveler or a student.

XMI Red Capsule Speaker (X-Mini II)

XMI Red Capsule Speaker (X-Mini II)

Finally, for all your favorite audiophiles, this compact Xmini Speaker is perfect for listening to music on the go. It plugs into just about any smartphone, mp3 player, or laptop with a 3.5 mm audio cord that stows on the bottom of the speaker. It expands ever so slightly when in use, and produces amazing quality sound and big, boomy base – especially for a speaker so small you can carry it in your pocket. The Xmini speakers easily outclass ones that are much larger and more expensive, but are still priced low enough to make a great stocking stuffer.

What are some of the best budget gifts you’ve found this season? Anything you’re especially proud of? I’d love to hear your best gift ideas in the comments!

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Love A Good Waffle? How To Find The Right Waffle Iron To Please Your Palate

I’m a pretty big breakfast person – any breakfast food, almost any time of day. But my favorite? Waffles, hands down. From big crunchy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside Belgian waffles to lean mean Waffle House fare, I could eat ‘em all day long. But waffles are also the one piece of breakfast food that most kitchens aren’t equipped to make, since waffle irons can’t really be used to do anything else. That said, if you’re a waffle lover, too, a good waffle iron really does deserve a place in your kitchen – especially if it’ll save you a few trips to Ihop every week! So what should you look for?

Shape

Chef's Choice Waffle Pro Classic Deluxe Belgian Waffle Maker

Chef's Choice Waffle Pro Classic Deluxe Belgian Waffle Maker

This is largely a question of personal preference, but probably one of the first things you’re going to have to decide on. Typically square irons are American style waffles and round ones are Belgian style, but that isn’t universally true. Be certain, though, that when you’re picking, you get one that makes the style waffle you like. I personally like big, square waffle irons because you can make a lot of waffle at once and split it between a group. That said, round ones like this highly-acclaimed, ultra-fast Chef’s Choice 840 distribute batter more easily, letting it spread evenly all the way to the edges whereas square ones tend to miss the corners. Regardless of which style you choose, look for a wide well around the edges to prevent the batter spilling over, and plastic or rubber handles to protect you from the hot metal.

Material

Hamilton Beach Four Square Belgian Waffle Maker

Hamilton Beach Four Square Belgian Waffle Maker

This one is actually pretty simple – plastic waffle irons, like this one from Hamilton Beach, tend to be the least expensive, and also quite lightweight, but that’s because the parts are made of lower quality materials and often have fewer heating coils, which can lead to uneven heating. Instead, if you’re on a budget, opt for a less expensive metal iron – though you should look to spend at least $40. The heavier it is, the better. I’m partial to my own handy dandy Classic Cuisinart, which is small but heats and cooks quickly, and is very hefty for its size.

Features

Presto FlipSide Belgian Waffle Maker

Presto FlipSide Belgian Waffle Maker

The least expensive waffle irons come with hardly any features, and some really only have a plug or on/off switch. At the other end of the spectrum are pricier models that come loaded with buttons and gizmos that you might not need. So what should be sure to get? You definitely want an iron that has at least some kind of temperature control to get the right level of crispiness, a light indicator to let you know when the unit is heated and when your waffle is done cooking, and maybe one with an alert noise as well, so you don’t have to keep your eyes on the iron while you’re cooking. This Presto Flip Side goes even one step farther and gives you a digital timer that counts down to waffle time, which is nice, but anything more won’t really do much to improve the taste or texture of your waffle.

Size, Shape, And Design

One of the biggest drawbacks of most waffle irons is that you can only make one waffle at a time, which can put a damper on big family breakfasts. Double sided waffle irons seek to remedy the problem by making two waffles at once, one on top and one on bottom with an iron that flips. Unfortunately, these generally don’t have enough oomph (with the exception of the pricey KitchenAid Pro Line Waffle Baker), to make both waffles crisp on the outside while soft on the inside, and turn out slightly floppy waffles.

6 Slice Traditional Waffle Iron in Brushed Stainless

6 Slice Traditional Waffle Iron in Brushed Stainless

A better alternative is this Black&Decker model, which makes a regular sized waffle that tears or cuts easily on perforated lines into several smaller waffles. For those that prefer round waffles, you can get waffle makers like this Chef’s Choice that make heart-shaped waffles. There are also some that make custom animal shapes, which can be nice for kids, but are much much less efficient than ones that take advantage of the whole heating area. If you’re looking to put out as many waffles as you can as possible, opt for one with a larger cooking surface, like this Cuisinart 6 Waffle Maker.

Hinge Type

Waring WWM400BJ Rotating Belgian Waffle Maker

Waring WWM400BJ Rotating Belgian Waffle Maker

This is one I’m personally torn over. I think waffle irons like this Waring Rotating Waffle Iron that you fill, close, and flip to cook are pretty fun – it’s the kind I grew up with, and in theory turning the iron over helps distribute the batter better for a more evenly cooked waffle. That said, in practice there really isn’t much difference between expensive “pro” models that you flip and regular open-and-close models, and I’m a strong believer that the fewer the moving parts, the better – and the longer your machine will last. Which brings me to…

Electric Or Manual

Nordic Ware International Specialties Aluminum Silver Dollar Waffle Griddle

Nordic Ware International Specialties Aluminum Silver Dollar Waffle Griddle

This is definitely the oddest option, and probably one you hadn’t even considered – but there are some perks to buying a totally manual waffle iron. Manual waffle irons, like this Nordic Ware Griddle, can make one or multiple square or round waffles, just like regular irons, but have no electronic parts. Instead, they’re made of one or two pieces of shaped cast aluminum or cast iron or other dark, non-stick metal. Because they sit flat and disassemble, manual irons store in a much much smaller space than their hefty plug-in counterparts, which makes them great for a crowded kitchen.

Nordic Ware International Specialties Heavy Cast Aluminum Original Stovetop Belgian Waffler

Nordic Ware International Specialties Heavy Cast Aluminum Original Stovetop Belgian Waffler

The catch is, you have to heat the plate or plates over a gas or electric stovetop (or campfire, for you campers out there), and then finesse some batter into waffle form over the heat. This takes a little practice (no timer and no pre-set heat controls to help!), but can also give you a much greater control over the consistency of the final product once you get the hang of it. Plus, they’re much, much easier to clean than traditional irons since you can submerge and soak them in water.

Finally, you want to look for a waffle iron that comes with a good set of instructions (and recipes, of course!). This may seem a little silly, but not all waffle irons are completely intuitive, and knowing how long your iron SHOULD take can help you adapt your existing recipes and keep you from being tempted to peek! What kind of waffles do you like? Do you opt for Belgian or American style? Crispy or soft in the middle? Are you looking to replace an existing iron, or are you shopping around for your first one?

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