My favorite holiday tech gift requires no batteries or software updates. It’s not even a gadget, although it was made using technology.
Can you guess what it is?
Several years ago, my wife experimented with her iPad and digital stylus to create digital illustrations. Using Procreate, a drawing app, she uploaded a photo of our beloved corgi, Max, as a guide to circle him before decorating the image with a polka-dot bow tie and cartoonish long tongue. I loved it so much that I chose a background color that complements our home and uploaded the artwork to Keepsake, a printing service that collects your images into a pretty frame before delivering it to your door.
A large framed portrait of Max now hangs in the center of our living room in all its 2D beauty. It makes me smile and is always the beginning of a conversation when guests come to visit. That’s more than I can say about other tech gifts I’ve received over the years, such as video games and smart speakers, that have brought only short-lived joy.
These types of gifts – technical gifts that aren’t related to hardware or mindless Best Buy gift cards – can be especially helpful this year. This is because we live in an era of pandemic-driven shortages caused by global chip shortages and supply chain disruptions that have made it difficult to buy regular gifts. (Anyone who has tried to buy a game console over the past year understands the pain.)
So, here is a list of tech gift ideas we can give without buying technology, from gifts you can create to experiences that will last a lifetime.
The gift of fixation
Last week, I told a friend that I have a special gift for her: I will fix her iPhone problem.
She complained to me about her five year old iPhone SE. The device could no longer take photos or install software updates because almost all of the device’s data storage was used up.
So before she went on holiday for Thanksgiving, I met her at lunch and walked her through the process of backing up photos to an external drive before deleting all of the images from the device. Then I connected her phone to my computer to back up all of her data before installing the new operating system.
She was very glad that this problem had been resolved before the trip. Now she can take many photos on vacation. Additionally, Apple’s new software update includes a tool to add a digital vaccine card to the iPhone wallet app, making vacation travel a little less stressful in the face of the pandemic.
For those with a bit of a tech background, this can serve as a template. Listen to your loved ones’ complaints about their technology and give a gift to solve the problem. If it’s a slow Wi-Fi connection, see if you can diagnose the problem to improve the speed. If it’s a short-lived phone battery, consider taking it to a repair shop to replace the battery for a small amount.
In some ways, this is better than providing a completely new gadget because it saves them the hassle of learning how to use the new technology.
Gift of creation
Besides the digital illustration of my dog, there are many other ways we can use technology to create creativity for friends and family.
First off, I’m a fan of photobooks that can be easily created using web-based tools. A few years ago, my colleague’s Secret Santa gift was a calendar that she made using Google’s photobook service. She created it by pulling photos from my dog’s Instagram account and compiling them into a calendar – every month there was a different photo of Max posing next to a dish my wife and I cooked. I was delighted.
In general, photo printing services offer great ways to turn digital photos into physical souvenirs in the form of old school prints, large prints, and even mugs and Christmas decorations. (Wirecutter, our subsidiary that reviews products, tests two dozen photo printing services and highlights its favorites.)
Before the pandemic turned our lives upside down, my wife bought a DSLR, a type of digital camera used by professionals, in order to learn more about digital photography. Then there was isolation, vacation turned into relaxation, and the camera ended up in a drawer.
I am planning to give my wife a holiday gift – a two-hour digital photography lesson at a photo studio in San Francisco, in which students walk along the Golden Gate Bridge and teach the basics of photography. (I hope she’s not reading this column.)
What would your friends and family want to learn? We have a variety of options for potential gift-giving lessons as the pandemic has forced many teachers to offer virtual online instruction, including for cooking lessons and workouts. The gift of knowledge goes a long way and sometimes comes back, for example, when an online cooking class recipient uses that new knowledge to cook dinner for you.
Gift without technology
The pandemic may have provided us with more screen time than we could have imagined, so anything that distracts our attention from technology could be a great gift this year.
It can be renting a house in an area where there is no cellular connection, tickets to a show, a winter hike and a picnic – everything that gives us a respite from the inevitable return to screens.