Even though Hanukkah was early this year, we still have more than a week before Christmas, which means a lot of people are doing some relatively last-minute shopping.
If you're thinking of ordering online, you had better get to it. Tuesday is the last day Amazon will offer free shipping in time for Christmas and Wednesday ends their standard shipping for pre-Christmas delivery. There are still two-day and even one-day shipping options until Dec. 23. The same is roughly true with other e-retailers. Walmart.com is giving customers until Tuesday for standard shipping and Wednesday for "rush" shipping.
Of course, if you're an extreme procrastinator you can always buy a gift card and have it delivered via email. You can also go online to send holiday greeting cards or electronically create or print your own cards. Blue Mountain offers a really easy-to-use online "create and print" tool. You can create a card online for free within your browser and customize text, add your own photos or add art. But you have to join to print. You can buy a one-month membership for $3.99 (you have to cancel or it auto-renews) or get a free seven-day trial account but you have to remember to cancel to avoid being charged.
There are also plenty of offline ways to print greeting cards, including using one of the card templates that come with Microsoft Word. I printed a couple of test cards using Word and was pretty impressed at the quality and how easy it is, especially since it's free for those who own the software.
Tech gifts are really popular this year, including tablets, smartphones and game consoles. Both Microsoft and Sony have released new game consoles just in time for Christmas. The Sony PlayStation 4 and the Microsoft Xbox One have both done well out-the-gate. I wouldn't buy a game console for anyone without first checking with them -- people often have very strong feelings about which they prefer. The PlayStation seems to be doing well among hard-core gamers while the Xbox One has a wider appeal, even to folks like me who rarely play video games. That's because it's more of a family entertainment and communications system that streams video and plays Blu-ray and DVDs. PlayStation does that, too, but Xbox can also be used to control your TV with voice commands and gestures and used to make Skype video calls. At $499 it's $100 more than a PlayStation 4, but it comes with Kinect, the technology that senses who you are and responds to movements and voice.
Tablet shoppers have a lot of choices this year. The three leading platforms: iPad, Android and Amazon Kindle Fire, all support a great many apps that allow you to stream video, read books, surf the Web, access social networking sites and so much more.
A lot of people love iPads, but I'm also impressed with the Android and Kindle Fire tablets I've tested that are considerably less expensive than an iPad. I really like the Google (GOOG) Nexus 7 that I've been using for a few months, which is available for as little as $200. Amazon now has four Kindle Fire models, including the new Kindle Fire HD 7" that sells for $139. It's a great gift for someone with an Amazon Prime account because you cannot only stream video, but also download it for no extra cost so you can read it when you're offline. Kindle owners who are Prime members can also borrow books for free. Amazon clearly knows how to leverage its e-commerce and media smarts with its hardware sales, which helps explain why the Kindle Fire is so inexpensive.
There's a lot of talk about wearable computing and "smart watches" but I'm not expecting brisk sales this year. Pebble is an early player with a nice, but very limited, watch that allows you to view your incoming emails and text messages and control your music without having to touch your Android or iPhone. Its real strength is in the apps that are being develop for it, including some fitness apps that are probably the device's strong points.
Another type of wearable device is specifically designed for fitness. The Fitbit is probably the most popular. The $99.95 Flex Wireless tracks steps, distance, calories burned and active minutes and monitors your sleep. You can get some feedback directly from the LEDs on the device, but you can also connect via Bluetooth to a PC, Mac or smartphone for additional feedback and tracking.
Digital cameras are still popular, despite the fact that many of us now have pretty good ones built into our phones. If you have $550 to spend, the Sony RX100 gives you amazingly good pictures and video in a compact camera small enough for a (large) pocket. There are plenty of excellent inexpensive cameras from Sony, Canon and others. One thing I like about most Sony cameras is that you can charge them with a standard micro USB cable and charger, which is great for people who tend to lose or forget their chargers.
If you're looking for a low-cost gift, consider accessories like a smartphone case or a USB charger for the car or as an extra one for home or office. Or just wonder around an office supply or electronics store until you stumble upon something that just seems fun or useful.
For more gift ideas and safe shopping tips, go to larrysworld.com/gifts.
Contact Larry Magid at email@example.com. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.