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Some Cool Productivity Gift Ideas for Under $100



Every year I put together gift guides with items that are innovative, clever, well-designed, and/or unexpectedly useful. This year is no different. Here are the rules:

  • I talk to a lot of companies about potential products for this guide and pass on most offered items.
  • If something seems potentially good, the company sends samples to test (because you might be surprised at how many don’t live up to their claims).
  • The best go into the guide.

In this case, I’ve used the word “tech” broadly. It could mean electronics, something useful from materials science, smart mechanical engineering, or products of any other discipline.

A good night’s sleep

There’s nothing unusual about finding pillows with foam, down, or other fillings. But you’re stuck with the size you’ve bought. If after some use you find it too tall or flat, that is your problem. Or it has been. The Sleep Number PlushComfort Ultimate Pillow uses microfiber fill inserts. There are three, and you can use as many of them as pleases your sleeping position (one to two for those who sleep on the stomach and two to three if you’re on your back or side). Normal price is $80, but through December 24 it’s $48.

And coffee for your morning wake-up

Whether you brew your own or head to a drive-through, you’re covered. Krups has its SAVOY EC415 Coffee Maker ($80 list, available at Target, although I’ve seen it around for less at a local Marshall’s). There’s the usual timer for next morning automatic brewing and one-button adjustments when brewing 1 to 4 cups or seeking a stronger results. A turbo feature will make coffee about a third faster, which is fine if you’re really in a hurry, but you’re still better off taking the few extra minutes. Any time you speed brewing, you’re not doing the cup any favors. A metal filter means you don’t need to stock paper. I’d suggest experimenting to find the right amount of coffee to add. As with most coffee machines, the marked number of cups measure far less than most people look for. If you want a mug of coffee, go for 4 tablespoons of grounds and add water to halfway between the 2 and 4 cup marks. Given that, the results are thoroughly good.

And speaking of coffee, a recent MIT grad created something she calls the Coffee Cookie. It’s a disk, chargeable with a USB cable, that fits snugly into the bottom outside recess of a Starbucks paper cup (and others, I suspect). Turn it on, fit it in, and a heating element keeps things toasty for a while. I poured 140-degree liquid into such a cup. Without the Cookie, the temperature dropped by 20 degrees in about half an hour. With it, the change was a bit under 10 degrees. The device seemed to pump out heat for about that long; I wouldn’t guarantee it past that. But if you’re getting coffee on the go and don’t use a thermos mug, this is a great item for about $10.

Write on

Yes, you use screens all the time, but there will always be occasions where you need to write by hand. If you’ve tended to ballpoints or gel pens, give a fountain pen a try. I used one early in my life, forgot about them for years, and took them up again, mostly for drawing. But many of the characteristics of a good drawing fountain point serve well in writing. Pilot, a company with global headquarters in Japan, makes many types of pens, including some excellent fountain pens. One, the Vanishing Point fountain pen, has a clever design: a retractable point. You press a button down, as you would with a retractable ball point, and the nib comes out. Press again, and it retracts. A hidden door prevents it from drying out and the pocket clip keeps the point upright, so you are pretty safe from leaks. No cap means you can’t misplace it and wonder how you’re going to transport that pen without an awful mess. A 18-karat nib is flexible for expressive writing. (Or drawing.) List prices run from $120 to $185, but a look on Amazon shows some models available for $75.

Sounds of silence

Earphones that can push the noise of the world away and let you sink into whatever music fuels your creative streaks are worth the investment. Etymotic sent a pair of its mk5 Isolator earphones ($65 list). I was greatly surprised that they’d even stay in my ears, as I usually have to settle on over-the-ear models. The sound is good and offers 35dB to 42dB, which is equivalent to making a vacuum cleaner sound about as loud as bird calls.

Keep on down the highway

If you’re running errands, or driving to meet business contacts, having the battery go dead and listening to that pitiful wheezing sound as an engine tries unsuccessfully to turn over is anything but a treat. Get a Weego model 22 ($99). It’s a lithium battery with built-in flashlight and car cables that act as a portable jump starter. I was trying to use my son’s old car and the battery had gone. I opened the Weego container, which looks like a small kid’s lunch box. Cables plugged into the front. I opened the hood, turned on the unit, connected the cables to the battery, and was able to start it up. And the flashlight part is extremely bright and handy.

Photos on the fly

The Kodak Printomatic camera ($70) is a cross between an old point-and-shoot Brownie and a digital camera. A 10 megapixel sensor lets you take a reasonable picture. A built-in printer cranks out 2×3 prints that are decent. Plus, there’s a USB cable to charge the camera and a MicroSD slot so you can save the digital images and transfer them to a computer. The printing part seems quaint, but I can see how it could be fun. Plus, for many business uses, being able to immediately crank out a small print could be useful.

Keeping images instead of paper

The Visioneer RoadWarrior Lite scanner ($99) is about the size of a rolled-up magazine and weighs a little less than a pound. It plugs into your laptop and is powered through the USB cable, so no separate power adapter or batteries. Scan papers, business cards, notes, and other things that will run through the device. There’s some good software with it that lets you store the images or send them out as PDFs. When you’re on the road, you inevitable have down time. This way you can keep all the info you need and toss the paper, making travel easier and more comfortable. One gripe: software installation. Everything was on a DVD, which is fine if your laptop has the appropriate optical drive. Many don’t. I had to copy the lot from the disk to a thumb drive on my desktop and then move the thumb drive to my laptop. Not the worst thing, but annoying, particularly if the company’s website doesn’t seem to allow you to download the software from the Web.

Move it with a mouse

Need to move files back and forth between computers, laptops, and tablets? You could set up a network — once you do it, things are pretty easy. But if you don’t have that option for whatever reason, like maybe you’re traveling and didn’t pack a router, you can use the Logitech MX Master 25 ($100) wireless mouse. Built-in memory lets you copy files or an image or text selection to the mouse from one device, flip a switch, and then control another one and drop the file onto it. They say a full charge lasts 70 days. I don’t know yet, but the one I’ve used has been running on its first charge for weeks. The tracking is smooth and the device is comfortable to use. The MX Master 25 works with Bluetooth but, if one of the devices doesn’t offer support, a “unifying receiver” plugs into a USB slot and connects the mouse.

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