My favorite holiday tech gift requires no batteries or software updates. It is not even a tool, although it was made using technology.
Can you guess what it is?
A few years ago, my wife tried an iPad and a digital pen to make digital illustrations. Using the drawing app Procreate, she uploaded a photo of our beloved species, Max, as a reference for her to trace before decorating the photo with a polka dot bow tie and long, cartoonish tongue. I loved it so much that I chose a background color that complements our home and uploaded the illustration to Keepsake, a printing service that collages your photos into a beautiful frame before delivering it to your door.
A large framed picture of Max now hangs as the centerpiece of our living room in all its two-dimensional glory. It makes me smile and is always a conversation starter when we have guests. That’s more than I can say about other tech gifts I’ve received over the years, such as video games and smart speakers, which have brought only short-lived pleasure.
This kind of gifting exercise—tech-neighborhood gifts that don’t include hardware or thoughtless Best Buy gift cards—might be especially welcome this year. This is because we live in an era of pandemic-induced scarcity driven by a global chip shortage and disruptions in the supply chain that have made buying traditional gifts difficult. (Anyone trying to buy a game console last year understands this pain.)
So here’s a list of tech gift ideas we can give without actually buying tech, from gifts you can create to experiences that will last a lifetime.
Last week, I told a friend that I had a special gift for her: I’m going to fix her iPhone problem.
She complained to me about her five-year-old iPhone SE. The device can no longer take pictures or install software updates because nearly all of the device’s data storage space is used up.
So before you leave for Thanksgiving, meet her for lunch and walk her through the process of backing up photos to an external drive before removing all the photos from the device. Then she connected her phone to a computer to back up all her data before installing the new operating system.
She was thrilled to have this issue resolved before her flight. She can now take a lot of pictures on vacation. In addition, Apple’s new software update includes a tool to add a digital vaccine card to the iPhone wallet app, making holiday travel less stressful in the event of a pandemic.
For those who are somewhat tech-savvy, this may serve as a model. Hear your loved one’s complaints about their techniques and offer them the gift of solving the problem. If the Wi-Fi connection is slow, check if you can diagnose the problem to increase the speeds. If the phone battery is short-lived, consider taking it to a repair shop to have the battery replaced for a small amount.
In some ways, this beats giving them an entirely new tool because it spares them the hassle of learning how to use a new piece of technology.
gift of creation
Aside from the example of digital drawing of my dog, there are plenty of other ways we can use technology to create friends and family.
For example, I am a fan of picture books that can be easily created using web tools. A few years ago, a secret Santa gift a colleague gave me was a calendar I made using Google’s photo book service. She created it by pulling photos from my dog’s Instagram account and grouping them into a calendar—each month it was a different picture of Max standing next to a doorway my wife and I made. I was happy.
All in all, photo printing services offer cute ways to turn digital photos into physical old school memorabilia, large prints and even Christmas mugs and decorations. (Wirecutter, our sister publication that reviews products, tested over two dozen photo printing services and highlighted their favorites.)
Before the pandemic turned our lives upside down, my wife bought a DSLR, the type of digital camera used by professionals, with the goal of learning more about digital photography. Then the shutdowns happened, vacations turned into vacations, and the camera ended up in the stairs.
My plan for a holiday gift for my wife is a two-hour digital photography lesson with a photo studio in San Francisco that takes students for a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge while teaching them the basics of photography. (I hope you haven’t read this column.)
What do your friends and family want to learn? We have so many options for potential gift classes that the pandemic has prompted many teachers to offer online virtual instruction, including cooking classes and exercise routines. The gift of knowledge goes a long way and sometimes you return the favor, like when the recipient of an online cooking class uses that newfound knowledge to make you dinner.
The gift of no technology
The pandemic may have exposed us to more screen time than we ever imagined, so a great gift this year could be anything that catches our eye away from technology.
That could be a cabin rental in an area with no cell service, tickets to play, a winter picnic and a picnic—anything that gives us a respite from our inevitable return to the screens.