Whether you’re buying a tablet for your 8-year-old or a new smartphone for Mom, you don’t want to gift a gadget that’s going to end up gathering dust in a closet somewhere. It’s easy to get drawn in by a bargain or fall for advertising hype that makes a tech product look a lot more useful than it is in real life.
Unfortunately, when Dad discovers that the $300 computer you gave him doesn’t run his programs and Junior complains because he can’t play the same games as his friends on that console you bought, you’ll feel more like the Grinch than Santa Claus. Save yourself from standing in that return line and don’t give anyone these five gadget gifts to avoid.
At first glance, Chromebooks such as the HP Chromebook 11 and Acer C720 look like a great deal. For under $300, you get a lightweight laptop that’s virtually idiot-proof and stays safe from viruses and spyware. The catch is that Chromebooks run Google’s Chrome OS, which is little more than a Chrome Web browser floating on top of a desktop. Chromebooks can’t run Windows apps, Mac apps or Android apps. All they can run are Web apps, most of which are nothing more than glorified Web pages. Some of the apps in Google’s Chrome Web store won’t even run on a Chromebook, because they require plugins such that you can’t install in Chrome OS. While you can perform many tasks offline on a Chromebook, you often have to jump through some hoops, such as enabling a hidden setting in Google Docs or downloading a special app for offline Gmail. Grandpa may say that he only needs email and “the Internet,” but when he finds out that he can’t write letters in regular Microsoft Word, listen to his songs in iTunes or play his pals in a Java-based online scrabble game, his Chromebook will take up permanent residence in a drawer somewhere. Get him a low-cost Windows laptop instead.
More: Top Laptop Gifts
Microsoft Surface 2
Microsoft has some fantastic commercials for its Surface 2 tablet, but don’t believe the hype. The Surface 2 may have a gorgeous 1080p screen, an innovative keyboard cover and a neat flip-out stand, but it doesn’t actually run Windows. Instead, the tablet uses a hobbled operating system called Windows RT, which can’t run standard Windows programs, only new touch-friendly “Modern UI apps” from the new Windows store. Windows RT looks exactly like Windows, which makes it all the more insidious. Your sister will love her new Surface 2 until she tries to install Photoshop Elements, iTunes, "World of Warcraft" or her Printshop card-making software and gets an error message saying that it’s incompatible. Meanwhile, you can get a full Windows tablet like the ASUS Transformer Book T100 for $399 with a keyboard dock while the Surface 2 costs $449 plus another $119 for its Touch Cover.
More: Top Tablet Gifts
Nothing says “cheap” like buying a rebadged version of last year’s phone, particularly when everyone can tell that you spent less just by looking at it. The $99 iPhone 5c has the same specs as last year’s iPhone 5, including an outdated processor and a lesser camera than the iPhone 5s, which only costs $100 more. That’s a pittance when you consider the cost of phone service over the length of a two-year contract. Worse still, the budget-minded iPhone 5c is made of candy-colored plastic while the mainstream 5s is a classy metal so everyone can tell which one you got.
More: Top Smartphone Gifts
You know what kids like? Adult gadgets. Even a 1-year-old knows the difference between a Fisher-Price phone and a real one. No matter how young she is, your child wants a “real” tablet with access to the top children’s websites and the leading kids’ games. Child-friendly slates like the Discovery Kids techTab and Oregon Scientific Meep look like they’ll make great gifts, because they feature age-appropriate software, parental controls and durable chassis. However, almost all of these tablets for tots suffer from serious performance issues, dim and low-res screens, short battery life and extremely limited software. Your child will thank you for buying a grown-up slate and turning on parental controls like the Restricted Profile feature on the Google Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire HDX’s FreeTime, which limits the amount of hours she can spend on the device.
More: Gift Ideas for Kids
A Wii U
If you plan to gift the Nintendo Wii U Game console, make sure you include the receipt. If your friend or family member is into gaming, they want a Sony PlayStation 4 or XBox One, both of which have excellent performance, a bevy of high-end games and huge communities of gamers you can play against. Unfortunately, the $300 Wii U is a waste of metal and plastic, with a lame touch-screen controller, mediocre graphics capability and almost none of the games people actually want to play. Whether your giftee likes racing games, first-person shooters or sports, they won’t find what they’re looking for in the Wii U’s nearly empty library of games. You’d be better off giving a Nintendo DS, because at least that’s portable.