Valentine's Day and consumer technology don't exactly go hand in hand. Every couple is different, but if you're getting a loved one a gift for the holiday, it should come from the heart. A new smartphone or portable hard drive is nice, but it doesn't always scream "romance."For the tech-obsessed robots at Ars Technica, though, good gear will always win out against fickle concepts like "human emotions." So instead of posting a more conventional gift guide, I decided to celebrate this Valentine's Day in a more Arsian manner: by asking my colleagues to point their hearts not toward other people but toward the tech in their lives that they appreciate the most.
Here are a few things we love.
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Apple iPad (9.7")
I fully acknowledge that, conceptually, the iPad is boring. But in the year since I sent my old iPad mini 2 to the big closet in the sky, Apple's 9.7-inch tablet has easily become the piece of tech I use most often.
To peel back the curtain a bit: Ars is a remote operation, so all of us work from home. I've used this freedom to experiment with my workflow. Instead of sitting in front of a laptop all day, I split my duties between a Mac mini in my home office and the iPad everywhere else. When I really need to hunker down for something, the old desktop-monitor-mechanical-keyboard triptych is still the most powerful way to plow through a project.
When I get inevitably tired of being chained to a desk, though, the iPad takes over for light writing, note taking, and Web browsing. Blogging is not the most processor-intensive job, so the A9 chip and 2GB of RAM in my iPad is still plenty for me to do the requisite research and emailing on iOS. (I have the 5th-gen model from 2017, to be clear; last year's successor is more powerful, and a 2019 model is expected sometime in the next couple of months.)
If anything, I find the experience of writing on the iPad to be less distracting than on the desktop. Since the iPad can only display one or two apps at a time, it forces me to focus on what's on the screen at any given moment. I use the excellent Bear and Ulysses apps for note taking and drafting up posts, respectively, and typing with this nice Brydge keyboard turns the tablet into a pseudo clamshell.
What makes the iPad so valuable comes after work, though. Web browsing and YouTube watching on its great-for-an-LCD display is more enjoyable than using a smaller phone screen and less unwieldy than plopping a laptop on my legs. When my girlfriend takes control of the TV to watch This Is Us, I can just fire up YouTube TV and watch literally anything else. (Love you, dear!) Before bed, the iPad becomes a luxurious tool for reading, the odd casual game, and podcasts. For me, this 9.7-inch form factor is the sweet spot: anything smaller would make work impossible, while anything bigger would be too annoying to carry around.
In other words, this is the closest thing I have to a 24-hour gadget—and for that, I love it. That it cost less than $350 is just a sweetener.
—Jeff Dunn, Tech Writer
Type my last name and "Koss" into any search engine, and you'll likely find me gushing about the company's headphone line. I've been hooked on Koss' wares since I got my first dirt-cheap KSC-75s in November 2007, which I sought out because I got tired of ill-fitting earbuds when I became a bus commuter. Turns out, the KSC-75s employ the same audio driver as their affordable and commonly lauded Porta Pro headphones. The things I want in portable audio—including solid frequency range, distortion-free loudness, and an agreeably carved bass oomph (read: not Beats)—don't come cheaper than the KSC-75s.
The Wisconsin company hasn't let up in terms of affordable, high-quality options, particularly in the Bluetooth era. Koss' comfortable FitClips series—which rest around your ear with a rubber, sweat-friendly grip—now includes a Bluetooth model. If that amount of rubber isn't your cup of portable tea, the BT190 line wedges inside the ear with a grip unlike anything else on the market. (I'm a particularly sweaty gym rat, and Koss' fitness-friendly products have never proven slippery or uncomfortable during my grossest duress.)
Best of all, this 12-year love affair has been buoyed by a tremendous customer-service promise of replacement cups and buds. Should portable wear-and-tear lead to an ear going silent or other issues, simply ship the broken pair and a check for roughly $7 to Koss HQ to get a replacement. I've spent maybe $120 on Koss products over the past decade, and I plan to continue for another 10 years. (But, while I have their attention: can we please get the KSC-35s back? I love those things.)
—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor
Yi Dash Cam
My dash cam is my favorite piece of tech that I use every day but don't actually interact with that much. It sits perched behind my rear-view mirror, quietly filming my driving activity in 1080p. It wakes up when I turn my car on, and it goes to sleep when I turn the car off—that means I rarely have to fiddle with it at all.
The built-in G-sensor detects harsh brakes and impacts, although, thankfully, I haven't experienced any impacts in my current vehicle. Like most dash cams, Yi's device automatically records over the oldest footage so you never have to worry about completely filling up the microSD card. I also love how you can quickly access videos and photos taken by the dash cam in the Yi mobile app. It's not the most polished app, but it easily lets you download videos to your smartphone and play them for whoever may need to see them.
Even if I'm not giving my dash cam one-on-one time every day, it's a crucial device to have in my car. After a relatively minor car accident when I didn't have a dash cam, I quickly realized how a dash cam would have helped me provide evidence to the police and my insurance company. Now, I'm not driving if I don't have my dash cam with me.
—Valentina Palladino, Associate Reviewer
Philips Sonicare electric toothbrush
Few people need an electric toothbrush. Generations of humans have survived by brushing the old-fashioned way, and with some willpower and dedication, I'm sure I could, too. But at this point in my life, I know myself: give me a normal toothbrush and eventually I'll half-ass it. I won't always brush for the recommended two minutes, I'll forget to replace the brush when it starts to fray, or I'll just brush in a manner that doesn't actually clean my teeth as well as it should.
At the risk of sounding hopelessly inert, going electric has taken most of the "work" out of brushing the right way, and my teeth look and feel better for making the switch. I technically own this souped-up Philips Sonicare brush, but that was a Christmas gift—my brother has a sharp sense of humor—and it has since been discontinued. It has this special "gum care" cleaning mode, but that, like most of the features you'll find in the pricier Sonicare or Oral-B brushes, isn't needed to get the most out of this kind of device. A more basic model like this does all the essentials for about $40-50.
The real appeal of a good electric toothbrush is that it breaks down your brushing into four 30-second intervals. This creates a psychological effect that coerces simple minds like mine into consistently getting through a "full" brushing session in a healthy manner. Once a half-minute passes, the brush beeps, and I just move on to the next quadrant of my teeth. The device does most of the actual brushing for me, so all I have to do is hold it at a 45-degree angle, make little circular motions, and let the thing go to town.
The Sonicare even indicates if I'm brushing too hard. My model gets between 2-3 weeks of battery life, which isn't a hassle for a device I use four minutes a day.
Clearly, going this route is more expensive than brushing the normal way, and that's before you factor in having to buy new brush heads every three months or so. If your teeth are doing fine today, by all means save your cash and keep doing what you're doing. It's hard to definitively prove electric brushes are more effective than normal ones. (There are studies that suggest as much, but those are often reliant on unsupervised reporting; the ADA says both methods are fine.) Good oral hygiene ultimately comes down to people, not tools—for me, using an electric brush has helped me ingrain good habits without having to expend as much effort as I'd have to otherwise.
—Jeff Dunn, Tech Writer
Look, I know. Losing the headphone jack in the iPhone (and then in most Android flagships, too) has been a nasty shock. Apple believed it could offer a wireless headphone solution that would make users wonder why they ever cared about the headphone jack in the first place, but the move was a little too aggressive and a little too soon.
When the headphone jack was removed, I cried foul. When AirPods were announced, I mocked them. "You'd lose those things in a heartbeat, and EarPods already sound bad anyway—surely their wireless counterpart will sound even worse."
But I was wrong. Early last year, I finally broke down and bought AirPods, and now they seem indispensable.
They sound better than EarPods, though you could admittedly get better quality for the price in wired headphones. But it didn't take long using AirPods for me to realize that wired headphones are a hassle I never want to deal with again. Yes, wireless headphones have also been a hassle historically—but that's just not the case with these, thanks to Apple's proprietary W1 Bluetooth chip.
I've never met anyone who actually hated using AirPods, but I know no shortage of people who, like me, knocked 'em before trying 'em. They turned out to be one of my favorite things I've bought in the past few years.
—Samuel Axon, Senior Reviews Editor
Instant Pot, sous vide cooker, and vacuum sealer
Last year, I took over primary cooking duties. Our oldest daughter was heading to college, and my wife's psychotherapy practice had taken off. As our high school freshman son's cooking skills are largely confined to operating the microwave and toaster ovens, it was my turn to be in charge of meal prep.
In the months since, I have come to rely on three devices: an Instant Pot for pressure cooking and slow cooking, a sous vide cooker, and a vacuum sealer. I won't spend any time on the Instant Pot other than to say that there is a ton of resources online.
I originally bought the sous vide cooker as a Christmas present for my wife a couple of years ago. She has never used it, but in the past three months or so, it has become a crucial part of my meal prep. I've made short ribs (cooked for 48 hours), salmon (about 40 minutes), pork tenderloin (2-3 hours), and tastiest of all, ribeye steaks (an hour or so).
The great thing about the sous vide is that it takes all the guesswork out of the equation. And using a vacuum sealer is much easier than forcing the air out of a zip-top plastic bag. The sealer is also fantastic for freezing leftover soups and stews from the Instant Pot.
I love to grill, but I will never grill another steak at home. If you want perfect steaks on Valentine's Day (or any other day just because steaks taste awesome), here's how I do it:
- Unwrap steaks (I generally go with ribeye), rub with salt on both sides, and refrigerate them for at least six hours
- Set up your sous vide cooker. We like our steaks rare or medium rare, so I set mine at 124°F
- Sprinkle a wee bit of kosher salt and pepper on your steaks and then vacuum seal. If you do not have a vacuum sealer, use the air-displacement method with a zip-top bag
- Immerse the steaks in the water and keep them there for one to two hours. Leaving them in too long will cause the meat to break down
- Right before you take the steaks out of the sous vide, heat a cast-iron skillet on your stove with the burner on high. I spray mine with avocado oil because of its high smoke point
- Once the skillet is heated, throw the steaks in the skillet and give them a good two- to four-minute sear on each side
- Serve and enjoy
—Eric Bangeman, Managing Editor
Apple Watch Series 4
Those of you who've been following my coverage know I got an Apple Watch Series 4 for one reason: its ability to help me monitor my heart arrhythmia. And, after using it for several months, I can confirm that it works brilliantly for that: functional, easy to use, and almost always present when I need it. But the Apple Watch's price was a big jump from other heart monitors, so I was also hoping that there'd be other things about it that made it worth the premium.
There are. A lot of them.
The Watch makes my phone a better phone. Rather than the annoying buzz of a vibrating phone embarrassing me in a conference room or lecture hall, I now get a subtle ping on my wrist. A quick flip of said wrist helps me identify whether it's something worth pulling out the phone for. The fitness functions are probably helping my heart, too, by making me sufficiently aware of my inertia that a healthy feeling of guilt kicks in. (Although I admit that I regularly inform my watch that the words of a story are finally flowing, so there's no way in hell I'm stopping that for some deep-breathing exercises.)
But, strictly from a technology perspective, the Apple Watch has also been fun to have. My computers and phone are now pretty mature platforms; there's not much in the way of surprises there. The watch feels like anything but. There's still a lot of discovery to do and software to try out, and I look forward to whatever new and unexpected comes in the next software update. It's been a while since I felt that expectation for a tech item, so for as long as it lasts, I'll be a fan of this watch.
—John Timmer, Senior Science Editor
iRobot Roomba 890
I went through a few cheap, regular vacuums before splurging on a Roomba—and now, I don't think I'll ever go back.
First, a disclaimer: I live in a moderately sized two-bedroom apartment, and I (regrettably) have no pets. However, my Roomba manages to find dirt and dust I didn't even know existed in my carpets, and the Roomba cleans all of it up every time. Both my boyfriend and I are crafty people, so the Roomba has to pick up bits of paper, tape, and other supplies almost every time it runs, and it does so with ease. While its dirt bin is small in comparison to that of a regular vacuum, I only have to empty it once after every cleaning job.
The battery inside my Roomba allows it to vacuum my entire apartment at least once and sometimes twice-over. I appreciate that I can control it through the buttons on the top of the device or through the mobile app. I'm usually home when I run the Roomba, but the mobile app lets me start the robot from anywhere or set routines for the robot to follow. That means I can tell it to automatically clean on certain days and times each week.
A Roomba may not fit everyone's lifestyle, but it's matched with mine almost perfectly. While cleaning is therapeutic for me, having a Roomba to take care of one part of my home-cleaning routine has proven to be just as convenient and efficient as I thought it would be.
—Valentina Palladino, Associate Reviewer
Like everyone reading this, I'm sure, I have a lot going on. I wear multiple hats at Ars, from section editor to Apple reporter to all sorts of other things. I moonlight as a game developer, spending hours most nights building complex projects. I am a former professional musician, who still likes to create new compositions and recordings when he can. And I'm knee-deep in planning a wedding, which is one of the most stressful things I've ever done, even though we're keeping the wedding extremely small and low key.
Trello is a lifesaver. I remember the first time I used one of these project management tools—my first was called Basecamp, and I think I learned it at a job at AOL around 2007. I immediately recognized how powerful it could be and started an account just for my own stuff in addition to the work one.
Basecamp eventually gave way to Trello, though, and I use it to manage everything. I have a Trello board for tracking reviews and Guidemasters by the Ars reviews team. I have Trello boards for other Ars projects. I have a Trello board for each of my three game development projects, and one master Trello board to rule them all. We even have a wedding planning Trello board, and I have a board for just tracking my daily to-dos.
Trello is most useful when you're collaborating with others, sharing notes and files and the like. But I've found its flexible, visible way of managing information to be useful even if no one else is sharing the board with me. At this point, I couldn't live without it. So in that sense, I love it.
—Samuel Axon, Senior Reviews Editor
Shoes last longer because you
Don't let the backs stretch.