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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The best tech gifts that aren’t gadgets

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My favorite Christmas tech gift requires no batteries or software updates. It is not even a gadget, although it was made with technology.

Can you guess what it is?

A few years ago, my wife experimented with her iPad and a digital pen to make digital illustrations. Using Procreate, a drawing app, uploaded a photo of our beloved corgi, Max, for reference to trace before embellishing the image with a polka dot bow tie and a long tongue like a cartoon. I liked it so much that I chose a background color that would complement our home and uploaded the illustration to the app. I remember, a printing service that assembles your images into a beautiful frame before delivering it to your door.

A large framed portrait of Max now hangs as a centerpiece in our living room in all its two-dimensional splendor. It makes me smile and is always a topic of conversation when we have guests. That’s more than I can say about other tech gifts I’ve received over the years, like video games and smart speakers, that only brought short-lived cheer.

This kind of giveaway exercise – gifts that don’t require hardware or thoughtless Best Buy gift cards – may be especially welcome this year. That’s because we live in an era of pandemic-induced scarcity fueled by a global chip shortage and the supply chain disruptions they have made hard-to-buy conventional gifts. (Anyone who has tried to buy a game console in the last year understands this pain.)

So here’s a list of tech gift ideas that we can give without 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 would fix her iPhone problem.

I had complained about his iPhone SE for five years. The device could no longer take photos or install software updates because almost all of the device’s data storage had been depleted.

So before she left for her Thanksgiving vacation, I met her for lunch and walked her through the process of backing up the photos to an external drive before deleting all the images from the device. I then connected his phone to a computer to backup all his data before installing the new operating system.

She was delighted to have this problem fixed before her trip. Now you can take a lot of vacation photos. Also, a new software update from Apple has a tool to add a digital vaccine card to the iPhone wallet app, making vacation travel a little less stressful during the pandemic.

For those who are a bit tech-savvy, this can serve as a template. Hear complaints from loved ones about your technology and offer the gift of solving the problem. If it’s a slow Wi-Fi connection, see if you can diagnose the problem to increase speed. If it’s a short-lived phone battery, consider taking it to a repair shop to have the battery replaced for a small fee.

In some ways, this is better than giving a new device because it saves them the trouble of learning how to use a new technology.

Aside from the example of my dog’s digital illustration, there are many other ways we can use technology to create for friends and family.

For one thing, I’m a fan of photo albums that can be easily created with web tools. A few years ago, a colleague’s Secret Santa gift to me was a calendar he made using Google’s photo book service. She created it by taking photos from my dog’s Instagram account and compiling them into a calendar – each month there was a different photo of Max posing next to a dish cooked by my wife and I. I was delighted.

In general, photo printing services offer nice ways to turn digital photos into physical keepsakes in the form of old-school prints, large ones, and even Christmas mugs and decorations. (Wirecutter, our sister publication that reviews products, tested two dozen photo printing services and highlighted your favorites.)

Before the pandemic changed our lives, my wife bought a DSLR, the kind of digital camera professionals use, in order to learn more about digital photography. Then the closures happened, the vacations became stays and the camera ended up living in a drawer.

My plan for a Christmas present 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 fundamentals of photography. (Hopefully you don’t read this column.)

What would your friends and family like to learn? We have many options for potential gift classes, as the pandemic prompted many teachers to offer virtual instruction online, including for cooking lessons and exercise routines. The gift of knowledge goes a long way and sometimes returns, like when the recipient of online cooking lessons uses that new-found knowledge to cook you dinner.

The pandemic may have exposed us to more screen time than we might imagine, so a big gift this year could also be anything that diverts our attention from technology.

That could be renting a cabin in an area with no cell service, tickets to a play, a winter walk, and a picnic – anything that gives us respite from our inevitable return to screens.

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