The VAR Guy's 2016 Gift Guide Thinkstock

The VAR Guy's 2016 Gift Guide

I'm mainly writing this so my family will know what I want for Christmas, but I thought it might be useful for y'all, too. Read through each review if you want inspiration, or click on any of the links to the right to navigate if you know who you're shopping for. Either way, here are some things that will look great under my the tree this year. 

Throughout this year, there have been a few things cool things I've experienced that for one reason or another didn't make it to the site--usually because they weren't directly related to channel IT. But it's the holidays, and in the spirit of sharing gift ideas, I've reviewed them for you here.

For the Gamer Nerd

I’ve spent a lot of time staring at screens with Xbox or Playstation controllers in my hands. Ah, the days of having endless hours to skulk through the world of Assassins Creed or create a dozen different Skyrim characters. But I’ve never been a huge fan of computer-based gaming. I once used to hang my head in shame when my nerd friends waxed poetic about World of Warcraft, forced to redeem myself by dominating tabletop RPGs. I just couldn’t get behind the arrows and the spacebars when my hands were used to holding controllers that felt much more intuitive. But at Dell EMC World this year, I got a chance to swing by Alienware’s booth to see their latest gadgets.

Duuuuuuude.

I’m pretty behind the times when it comes to computer gaming, so maybe I’m just easily impressed. Then again, I do know my way around laptop specs, and I was still impressed with the new 17-inch gaming laptop powered by Nvidia’s 10-series GPUs and Intel Core i7 processors. I know it’s the hardware that really counts, but can I just talk for a second about how badass this computer looks? Alienware’s signature spaceship design is in full effect, and the black interior reminded me of a NASA control room. I was surprised at how thin it was, and the Alienware folks explained they’d moved the internal cooling system around so the heatsinks are behind the hinge instead of under the keyboard. They call it a “hinge forward” design. It’s used in some Dell and HP devices, but frankly, it just looks cooler here. There are futuristic beams of light across the back and around the base—just enough to impress, not enough to snicker at.

Okay, okay. On to the good stuff. When I was rhapsodizing over this experience to a friend of mine who’s a writer at a well-known game development company—and therefore spends way more time playing video games than I personally think is good for him—he was really enthusiastic about the ability to plug any desktop GPU into a port in the back of the laptop, giving it PC-level graphics. I didn’t have a problem with the graphics display as is, but I promised him I’d mention it. And the trackpad lights up, and the memory is easy to upgrade, and it has a super long battery life…look, if you want all the specs, look up a review from a gaming magazine because I wanna talk about the Tobii eye tracking tech.

Guys. This blew my mind. When you look at the logo, the device powers up. The keyboard illumination syncs with where you’re looking on the screen. And no need to enter a password; Tobii integrates with Windows Hello, which uses facial recognition for biometric logins.

After all this buildup, I was pretty bummed when the screen came on and I saw a spaceship window with meteors floating by it. No Fallout 4, no Tomb Raider, not even the WoW I always roll my eyes at (sorry!). The rep explained I was to press the spacebar to fire the laser at the meteors. I reached for the trackpad to aim, and my guide stopped me.

“Then how do I aim?”

“With your eyes.”

Understand, I’m not a youngster anymore. The last time I got so into a game I forgot to eat was when Skyrim was released. These days, my laptop experiences consist mostly of research, writing and procrastinating with Facebook. I now know there are a handful of other systems out there with this tech, but I’d never experienced it. Mind. Blown. All I wanted to do was load Halo, but I contented myself with blasting the bejesus out of some meteors.

Since you’re channel IT people and understand the importance of big data, I’ll also mention that Tobii and Alienware have teamed with Overwolf to provide analytics that help gamers improve. The tech tracks and records eye movement, allows replays and provides aggregated gaze data through a heatmap that shows gamers where they spent the most time looking.

Blown minds don’t come cheap. The Alienware 17 starts at about $1,500, but can range up to $2,300 if you want the Oculus Rift-compatible version (OMG I WANT AN OCULUS RIFT-COMPATIBLE VERSION). Maybe too much for a stocking-stuffer from Santa, but if your kids are of an age where one big present will suffice, this one might make them drop the teenage cool act and jump around like 8-year-olds again. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

For the Book Lover

New Years Eve, 1999: I’m sitting on the roof of my boyfriend’s apartment building with a group of other teenagers, gazing out over the Dallas skyline and waiting for the world to go black when we hit Y2K. We’d all heard ad nauseum what would happen if all electronic communications suffered a catastrophic breakdown, but I’d only considered it on a theoretical level. I’m still not sure why, but right about the time we were chanting out “5-4-3” I got truly terrified about what it would mean on a practical level. Game over. For everyone. Everywhere. No law enforcement, healthcare, government oversight, food production or new episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Well, we all know how it played out. In perhaps the most anticlimactic NYE in history, the world didn’t end, and all those people with bunkers filled with bottled water and Spam were pretty red-faced. But I never forgot that insane terror I’d felt the few seconds before midnight. I’ve been obsessed with apocalypse stories ever since. (By the way, I’m totally going to rock the zombie apocalypse.)

Earlier this year, Spectra Logic CEO Nathan Thompson, along with Bob Cone and John Kranz, published a book custom-made to feed that obsession. Society’s Genome: Genetic Diversity’s Role in Digital Preservation explores our dependency on data as a civilization and the ways in which we’re falling down on our job of protecting it. We’re way past the point at which we could recover if we lost a significant portion of our digital information. The effects, Thompson argues, would send us into another Dark Ages.

Thompson has done his research, which he weaves through the book in the form of historical anecdotes and data surrounding what he considers the biggest threats. Never before had I held data storage technology and the Irish potato famine in the same thought, for example, but the parallels he draws between the lack of genetic diversity that led to the lumper potato blight and the lack of diversity in how we protect data are clever.

“We were looking for analogies or methods where vast amounts of data are protected and propogated forward for virtually eternity, or in the long run, at least. We came to realize that probably the best example can be found in nature. Each of us have 600 GB of digital data in our DNA, and, whether we fully realize it or not, our lives exist to protect and propagate that DNA into the future,” Thompson told The VAR Guy in an interview. “There's not just one copy, but there is a copy in almost every cell in our bodies. We're able to re-grow it, we're able to survive by the fact that our DNA gives us, essentially, the ability to have a genetic diversity so that not one disorder will affect us all.”

As technology like the IoT, mobile and social media become ever-bigger parts of our daily lives, our reliance on data is growing faster than our methods of safeguarding it. Society’s Genome argues that we should take a note from nature as we form best practices to defend against natural disasters, hackers and cyberwarfare. Essentially, data should be held in different formats, in multiple copies, spread out across geographies to ensure the greatest chance of recovery in case of catastrophic loss of information. The book is well researched and well written, and all of the examples and side stories make it a fun read for history geeks like me. Thompson manages to take some pretty dry subject matter—enterprise IT data storage—and elevate it to truly interesting reading.

Yes—it’s a vehicle for Spectra Logic to advocate for tape storage, which it’s heavily invested in. Spectra Logic self-published it, so technically Society’s Genome is a piece of terrific content marketing. But that doesn’t make it off the mark. The solutions Thompson pushes stop short of being really forward-thinking, but it’s solid thought leadership on current data storage challenges and solutions, and enjoyable to read to boot. If nothing else, it’s something your non-tech geek friends and family members will be able to follow. Maybe this Christmas, instead of trying for the 80th time to explain what you do to your brother-in-law, you can just give him this book.

Society’s Genome is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback form starting at $7.99.

 

For the iPhone-Weary

My iPhone 6 currently looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger at the end of The Terminator, so I’m due for a new smartphone. Like much of America, my love affair with Apple is growing tepid, and I’m not thrilled at the prospect of paying big bucks for a boring iPhone 7. Under the pretense of market research, I commandeered a friend’s new Google Pixel for a couple of hours a few weeks ago. I walked in the shoes of someone whose entire life isn’t papered with the Apple logo, and it was glorious.

A lot of non-tech people don’t understand why I get so excited talking about the Google Pixel. Finally, a company other than Apple is designing both the hardware and the software for a smartphone. One of the reasons I’ve stuck with iPhone for so long is because the OS and the phone design work so well together. It’s a fully integrated product, designed start-to-finish with my user experience in mind. As cool as a lot of Android phones are, they’ve never really felt “finished” in this way to me. It’s Google’s way of showing the world the full glory of Android, without any slow-to-market third-party manufacturers to mess it up.

Also, I subscribe to the theory that the Pixel is really just a way for Google to gain dominance of all mankind more quickly. Of all available markets, smartphone hardware is not one that Alphabet really needed to establish a presence in. The margins are pretty small compared to its other ambitions, but the opportunities associated with dominating the mobile space are ginormous. Google already owns most of what we do when we get online. With Pixel, it’s expanded its reach to the actual gateway that gets us there. This isn’t just about whether Pixel or iPhone will sell better over the holidays. It’s about who’s going to prevail in the battle to own our data and control the user experience of our own lives in the future.

That scares some people. But I long ago gave up any hope of keeping my user data out of corporate hands. Unless I’m willing to live completely off the grid, it’s a fait accompli. And let’s get real. I order my groceries through Amazon Prime, pay for purchases with Apple Wallet and order dinner through Favor at least twice a week. Off the grid is not an option for me. Grid me up, baby. Google released Pixel and Home, its answer to the Amazon Echo, in the same year. Both utilize voice recognition to control the data you receive when you use it to search, shop, play media or anything else you want to use a virtual assistant for. Which, in my mind, is everything because I am a princess.

So yeah. The Pixel is a big deal. But it’s also a great phone. The camera is excellent, the UI is intuitive and the 24/7 customer service app is a genius move. All of the things you don’t like about Android like slow updates and clunky UIs likely won’t be a factor with Pixel since the software comes straight from the hardware designer (though, to be clear, the phone designs themselves are executed and manufactured by HTC, similar to Apple's relationship with Foxconn). The phone comes with unlimited photo storage, finally freeing us to take as many selfies and photos of our food as we damn well please. And the kicker? It’s VR compatible. Google’s Daydream View headset takes Google Maps to a whole new level.

My friend had to wrestle me to the ground to get his phone back. Save your loved ones from a brawl and get them their own. The regular Pixel starts at $649 and the 5.5 inch-display Pixel XL at $769.

 

For the Security-Phobe

Part of writing about technology is that I cover a lot of security breaches. A lot. Like, to the point where I wonder how people haven’t learned their lessons yet. I change my passwords to nonsensical strings of letters and numbers every three months. I use two-factor authentication on everything. And I don’t put anything on a public cloud that I wouldn’t want…well, public.

Now, maybe that’s insane paranoia. I choose to think of it as reasonable suspicion. So earlier this year, I was stoked to try out the Apollo private cloud from long-time enterprise storage company Promise Technology, which I can see sitting in my living room and is protected by my (over)abundance of private network security features.

Full disclosure: the folks at Promise sent this unit to me for review this summer. It was a bit of a mess at first, actually. The apps weren’t finalized, and the product took weeks to get to Dallas from Taiwan. But now that it’s up and running, it’s in constant use at my house.

Apollo is marketed as a private cloud, but it’s really more of a 4-terabyte network-attached storage device. High-tech users will probably scoff at its simplicity, but I mainly wanted a secure place to store research and automatically sync photos and videos from my smartphone so Apple would stop sending me that annoying message that I was out of storage. The one feature I really miss is a better way to sort and filter photos. They’re literally all dumped into one folder, and you have to manually organize them. Once I started doing that on the reg, though, it got a lot easier.

It’s a little irritating that you have to have the app to connect rather than being able to map it to a drive or access it via the web, but after they got the initial kinks worked out, setup was super easy.  And the collaboration feature is nifty. Promise is designed for small offices and families, so while one person is the main owner, files can be shared and uploaded by other members who each have their own private corner of the drive that not even the owner can access without permission. Unlike a lot of NAS devices, Apollo defaults to privacy. Accessing files can be a sluggish process, but that’s my network’s fault, not Apollo’s. But it can be a pain when other users are trying to download it from the sharing link.

The file transfers are fully encrypted, one more thing that soothes my security nerves. And the latest software update lets you schedule automatic backups to a USB drive, a feature that was notably lacking before. As of now, the software is pretty limited. That doesn’t particularly worry me since the device will automatically update with new features when new software is released. Supposedly, there are big announcements scheduled for CES next year. I hope they include easier sorting and filtering of files, as well as adding a “Music” category, something that’s oddly missing now. Apollo can be purchased from the Apple online store and from Apple retail stores for $299. 

 

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