gift guides

The 8 Gadgets That Improved My Life in 2013

Photo: Shutterstock

It’s Cyber Monday, and as a tech writer, I’m legally obligated to write a year-end gadget gift guide. The only issue with this rule is that when I think about the things I’ve acquired in the last year, only a handful of the best ones have been gadgets, in the traditional tech sense of having plugs or batteries. So I made a list, but I defined gadgets broadly, as any mass-consumer technology.

Granted, this is a completely arbitrary list, based only on my purchases in the last eleven months. I didn’t buy a laptop, a new tablet, or a satellite radio in 2013, so I can’t put any of those things in my roundup. But if life improvement is what you’re going for — and isn’t that the point of technology? — here are eight things that might help.

1. A fitness-tracker band

It feels a little cliché, recommending a fitness-tracker band in 2013. They’re commonplace, and practically already pedestrian in cities like San Francisco and New York. But I bought one last summer — a Jawbone Up, but there may be others out there that are better – and haven’t looked back. It’s a device that tracks my steps and my sleep patterns, and tells me how much of each I’m getting. (Not enough is the answer, always.) I’ve gotten a lot healthier this year, and while I won’t give my band all the credit, having a little plastic thing on my wrist that vibrates every time I’m sitting down for more than half an hour has been a good motivator. It’s like having a personal trainer follow you around, except that you have to plug the personal trainer into your phone to get it to yell at you. (Jawbone’s new version will sync wirelessly, though, so problem solved!)

2. A good knife

I know this sounds crazy, but one of the most life-changing devices I bought in 2013 was a knife. I’ve had a set of terrible Ikea knives since college, but this year, I used some leftover Amazon credits to buy a real, grown-up chef’s knife. On the Sweethome’s recommendation, I shelled out $39.95 for the Victorinox Fibrox, and using it to cut tomatoes was like switching from black and white to Technicolor. There’s not much to say about a knife — it’s sharp! — but seriously, get a nice knife. Even if you don’t cook much, it’s worth it.

3. SmartThings

SmartThings is an “Internet of Things” console that links a bunch of stuff in your home, like your doors and lights and key chains, into one sentient, app-controlled network. It’s by far the geekiest device I wrote about this year, but unlike most other high-concept gadgetry, it actually is immediately useful. I played with it for about a week, and found new uses for it every day: as a makeshift security system, as a way to conserve energy when I left a room, and as an alarm that would send me a text every time my dog left the yard. At $299 for a starter pack, it’s still expensive, but it’s a good gift for your dorky dad, or anyone else who wants to feel a little more like a Jetson.

4. CrashPlan subscription

If you’re still backing up your computer to an external hard drive, like I was earlier this year, you’re playing a dangerous game. Your house could burn down, god forbid, or the external drive could die at the exact moment as your computer, throwing all your old files and photos into the abyss. Once I realized this, I spent $60 for a year’s worth of online storage with CrashPlan, which backs up my files automatically in the background and gives me unlimited space. It’s worth it for neurotics like me, and unlike Dropbox, it will hold your entire hard drive.

5. An Android phone

After reading Paul Stamatiou’s very convincing “Android Is Better” post this fall, I finally decided to do the unthinkable and switch from iPhone to Android. I miss a few things about the iPhone — namely, iMessages and the accompanying emoji — but overall, I’m really happy with the change. My Samsung Galaxy S4 is faster, more powerful, and better to look at than my old iPhone. And having all my Google Stuff (e-mail, docs, Chrome bookmarks) work together seamlessly has made the transition easier than I expected.

6. Print magazines

I admit that this one is a little self-serving, and the seeming antithesis of forward-thinking gadgetry. But 2013 was the year I decided to take advantage of some absurdly low rates on some of my favorite magazines and get them delivered to my door. I know! Crazy! But the thing is that I actually read these magazines now, instead of half-skimming them on the web. I don’t have any specific recommendations for magazines (except for, obviously, the one that pays me), but just browse through what’s available on Amazon for, like, five bucks a year. It really is amazing, and a little depressing.

7. A new bank account

There have been all kinds of innovations in paying for stuff this year: Bitcoin, Square Cash, Google Wallet. I’ve tried some of these, and they’re fun novelties. But the biggest and most satisfying change I made to my financial life this year was finally leaving my terrible multinational bank. Regrettably, it took being duped by an misleading overdraft policy (the same one Felix Salmon wrote about) to the tune of thousands of dollars to get me to leave. But once I started shopping around for banks, I found some real gems.

I tried Simple, the bank of choice for web geeks, but found that I didn’t use the tracking and saving features on the smartphone app, and I missed being able to go into a physical bank branch to talk to a human. Instead, I opened accounts at a mid-sized regional bank near me. The bank is big enough to have things like mobile check depositing, but small enough to have good customer service and perks like refunding out-of-network ATM fees. If you’ve been screwed by your bank — and you probably have — maybe this is the holiday season to look around.

8. Amazon Prime

If you already subscribe to Amazon Prime, you don’t need me to tell you how revolutionary it is. I made the leap earlier this year, and I now buy probably 75 percent of everything I buy through Amazon. I’m not sure whether the change is good (free two-day shipping! The Good Wife on streaming!) or bad (destroying local businesses! Enabling bad-labor practices! Getting a single toothbrush shipped to you in a gigantic cardboard box!). But you might want to try it, if you haven’t already, just to see what the future feels like.