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Holiday wish list must-haves

Here's what the experts at Consumer Reports want for the holidays

Last updated: December 2012

They test and write about hundreds of products each year, including lightbulbs, BMWs, olive oil, health-insurance plans, cell phones, and 3D TVs. So when it comes to gifts, we wondered: What do our lab technicians and editors want for the holidays?

First up: Electronic gizmos and gadgets from headphones and tablets to video consoles and stereos. Subsequent entries cover home and appliances, cars, and health.

Matt Ferretti, Senior Lab Technician, Electronics
Nintendo Wii U

The No. 1 item on my holiday wish list this year is the Nintendo Wii U, the company's newest game console, which comes with a tablet-like controller. We haven’t been able to fully evaluate it yet, but my anticipation is building. There are tons of new features on the system that I'm dying to try. I especially can’t wait to play Nintendo’s best games in HD.

I'm also looking forward to the option of being able to use the tablet controller screen itself, so my wife can watch TV while I play. That will go a long way toward keeping both of us happy this year!

Rich Fisco, Senior Project Leader, Electronics
Windows 8 devices

Microsoft is betting the ranch on its new Windows 8 operating system. Desktops—especially all-in-ones—laptops, tablets, and smart phones will all have their own version. And there's a clear advantage to using the same OS on everything you own. Being dedicated to Microsoft means you'll get a similar experience on all of your devices.

So what I really want this year are new Windows 8 devices: an all-in-one computer, perhaps the Toshiba LX835-D3300 23-inch with a touch screen ($1,088); a Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga-13 convertible laptop ($999); a Microsoft Surface with Windows RT and a Touch Cover ($599); and a Nokia Lumina 920 ($140 with contract). Windows Live Sync can make your desktops look the same, and Microsoft SkyDrive stores all your files in the cloud so you can access them from all your devices. The live tiles on Windows 8's new start screen create an easy touch interface, but you still get the comfort of running the familiar applications you’ve built up over the years on the desktop interface.

Why do I want to dive head-first into Windows 8? Because I'm a geek. This is too big an opportunity to pass up: a unified operating system across different computing devices with the promise of making all those gadgets easier to use. I am certainly not a Microsoft fanboy, but I am cautiously optimistic that Microsoft can pull this off. Of course, if all this falls flat and the Windows 8 “experiment” fails, there’s always the Apple ecosystem—an iMac, MacBook Air, iPad and iPhone, although their operating systems are not all the same.

See our buying guide and Ratings for desktops and laptops, tablets, and smart phones.

Dean Gallea, Senior Program Leader, Electronics
Apple iPad

What do I want? Ho, ho, hum: A new iPad, what else? I sold my original iPad in anticipation of getting the current one as an incentive gift from the company that I'm leasing solar panels from. (As of this writing, it hasn't arrived yet.)

Why an iPad? I really like its photo-showing capability, since the aspect ratio is just right for digital photos I take. Also, it shows photos full-screen, unlike Android tablets, which keep a black toolbar on the bottom that causes the photo to shrink. And the new iPad's screen is bright, crisp, and color-correct. I only wish it would let me keep my photos organized by folders and subfolders, like Places/Europe/Spain/2013. Maybe that feature will come in iOS 7.

See our buying guide and Ratings for tablets.

Carol Mangis, Web Associate Editor, Electronics
Amazon Kindle Paperwhite e-book reader

I resisted getting an e-book reader for years, but as soon as a Kindle became part of my life, I couldn't fathom how I lived without it! I'm still using a third-gen Kindle Keyboard, and I’m longing to upgrade this year to the new Kindle Paperwhite. I love the idea of being able to light the screen without having to deal with the backlighted glare of a tablet. And our testers found that type on this new Kindle is exceptionally crisp and stands out in unusually sharp contrast to its background. Sounds perfect to someone who, as a child, read books with flashlights under the covers after bedtime. Since it's my wish list, I'd prefer the 3G version without special offers—high end all the way!

See our buying guide and Ratings for e-book readers.

Eileen McCooey, Deputy Editor, Electronics
Audio-Technica ATH-ANC27 noise-canceling headphones, Roku 2 XD

I've resigned myself to being X-rayed and even frisked at the airport, but I'll never get used to the bedlam on the plane—way too much loud chitchat, crying, and general hubbub. All I want is some peace and quiet so I can immerse myself in Ken Follett's "Winter of the World." I'm hoping I'll have a new companion who can grant my wish: the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC27 noise-canceling headphones ($60). They did a very good job blocking intrusive sounds in our tests, and had very good sound quality to boot. Please, save my sanity!

Not to be greedy, but I do have a second wish. My plasma TV is capable of streaming video from Netflix and a few other services, but I must confess that I've never used it. Why, you ask? Logistics. My broadband modem isn't in the living room. It's in a spare bedroom that I use as an office. So if I wanted to stream Internet video, I'd have to run an Ethernet cable all the way upstairs. Forget about it. I could buy a wireless adapter (aka a dongle, which sounds vaguely kinky) for the TV, but for the same price or less, I can get the cute little Roku 2 XD, $80. It has built-in Wi-Fi for easy access to my home network, and it gets the services I want, including Amazon, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, and Netflix. Also, it can output 1080p, matching my TV's resolution. I want it!

See our buying guide and Ratings for headphones and our review of set-top boxes.

Rich Sulin, Program Leader, Electronics
Ultrabook computer

This year, I want a light but powerful computer—an Ultrabook. And (unsurprising, considering my occupation) I know exactly what I want inside it.

My must-haves: one that's 1 inch thick or less and 5 pounds or less, with an Intel CPU i5 or i7 that balances speed and a low power drain. I prefer a large screen, but I'd be happy with a 14-inch display. And though I like high-resolution images, I may have to settle for a 1600x900, 14-inch screen (around 130 ppi).

Standard options are fine: a Windows 7 64-bit OS (with an upgrade path to 8), a backlit keyboard, and 6GB or 8GB of RAM. A touch-screen interface and SSD storage (in lieu of HDD) would be great, but a regular HDD or a hybrid drive works, too. Also cute are the models that can flip their display panel all the way back, for a tablet-like mode. I don't need an optical drive; I can load apps from the Web or a Flash drive, and I won't be watching any DVD or Blu-ray movies.

Here's the Ultrabook I have my eye on: the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon, which is only about 3 pounds and about three-fourths of an inch thick. It's not cheap, though, at $1,354 to $1,679 (depending on the configuration). But I'm easy; I'd also consider an Ultrabook from Acer, Asus, Dell, Gateway, HP/Compaq, Samsung, Sony, or Toshiba.

See our buying guide and Ratings for Ultrabooks (in our laptop Ratings).

Terry Sullivan, Associate Editor, Electronics
Sony Cyber-shot RX100

It’s compact, lightweight, and just 1 3/8 inches thick, but the 20-megapixel Sony Cyber-shot RX100 is not your ordinary point-and-shoot. It offers precise controls, lots of features, and the potential to capture images and video of exceptional quality.

I really enjoy using the RX100. First, I can easily carry it in a pocket, which makes it a great travel camera. And I love how it generally does a great job when I shoot in one of several auto or scene settings, including low light.

I also like the camera's options. I can let it do some of the thinking for me, since it includes smart technology such as Auto Portrait Framing, which analyzes and crops an image to create what the camera "thinks" is a more pleasing composition.

But when I want to get into the details—in other words, when I want to be a control freak—it lets me do that, too. There’s a ring at the base of the lens that controls settings depending on your shooting mode. For instance, in Scene mode, you can select a new mode by turning the ring. In Aperture Priority mode, the ring dial changes the aperture or lens opening. Best of all, you can go into the menu and assign one of several settings to the ring, including Zoom, White Balance, and Picture Effect.

Finally, one of my favorite features on this camera is a mode that takes any subject you shoot and morphs it into an illustration. I just loved what it did to my self-portraits!

See our buying guide and Ratings for digital cameras.

Donna Tapellini, Senior Editor, Electronics
Apple iPad Mini

The iPads topped our Ratings from the very first time we tested tablets. But it's big, and when you’re holding it for more than a few minutes, it's heavy. Then there’s that hefty $500 (minimum) price tag. That’s why I really want the new iPad Mini. Its weight is the same as the lightest tablets. It's 0.7 pounds and super-thin, and the $330 price tag won’t break the bank.

To succeed with the iPad Mini, Apple had to squeeze all the features of the larger iPads into this smaller model. And it did just that. Magazine and book text looks crisp and is easy to read. The viewing angle and color are every bit as good as the iPad with Retina display. The games I love to play look and work the same as they do on the larger models. And I can hold the iPad Mini in one hand.

Sure, the resolution is lower than what’s on iPads with a Retina display. But so is the strain on my wrists.

See our buying guide and Ratings for tablets.

Jim Willcox, Senior Editor, Electronics
Jolida Glass FX10

Although most tech I cover these days is digital, my secret is that when it comes to audio I’m an analog guy at heart. And I love gear that uses vacuum tubes rather than transistors. My guitar amps have them, my stereo power amps have them, even my turntable preamp has one. One cool thing about tubes is that you can swap types, brands, and vintages to change the sonic signature of your gear.

Since I know I’m NOT getting the high-ticket item on my wish list—yes, $5,000 Olive 06HD media server, I'm talking about you—this holiday season I’m setting my sights on Jolida’s Glass FX10 integrated amp ($599). The FX10 breaks the rule that tube gear has to cost a fortune, though its solid construction—brushed aluminum chassis, removable heat-resistant safety-glass cage, and gold-plated speaker binding posts—belies its price. (Plus you can choose from silver, black, or blue powder-coat finishes.)

Best of all, the FX10 not only proudly shows off its tube complement—a pair of 12AX7 preamp tubes and four EL84 power tubes—via the glass cover, it also fires up some colored LEDs to bathe them in a soft blue glow. And because the amp is self-biasing—it adjusts the current that runs through the tubes automatically—I can swap out tubes from different brands to my heart’s content. But, of course, none of this would matter if it didn’t sound great—and it does. Just pair the FX10 with a set of efficient speakers and it’ll rock your world, giving you a taste of what high-end audio is all about without the typical high price tag.

See our buying guide and Ratings for home theater systems.

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