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My Favorite Things of 2012: iPad Mini, Lego, Socks

By Will Smith

Will's favorite things of 2012

Apple iPad Mini 32GB

It’s the most expensive 7-inch tablet, it doesn’t have a Retina screen, and it’s a weird shape. All of these things are true, but they don’t matter. What does matter is that the iPad Mini is the iPad I’ve always wanted, even without the high pixel density and full NTSC gamut of its big brother.

The secret is in the size. When I imagined the tablet, before the first iPad launched, I envisioned something analogous to the Star Trek PADD--a device the perfect size and weight for single-hand use in almost any situation. While one-plus pound tablets are great for a short time, to use them for a longer time, you need to either hold your tablet with both hands or rest it in the crook of your arm. It’s not comfortable.

The iPad Mini fixes the problem. By dropping almost 3/4s of a pound from the weight of most 10-inch tablets, the Mini weighs the same as a paperback book. It’s light enough that I can hold it for extended periods of time and discreet enough that I don’t feel weird about pulling it out on the bus. It’s my favorite way to browse the web, check in on email, or browse Twitter.

That’s why the iPad Mini is my favorite tablet--at least until Apple releases a Retina-enabled version...

iPad Mini (www.apple.com, $330 and up, $430 as listed)

Zojirushi Thermal Mug

The Zojirushi 17-oz thermal mug has been a go-to gift of mine for several years--it keeps your beverage hot (or cold) for hours and has the best lid I’ve ever used on a thermal bottle. To drink, all you need to do is press the locking button and the lid snaps open, leaving you free to sip away. Last year, I noticed that Zojirushi had redesigned the lid, changing the button, so I wanted to make sure it remained as awesome as before.

It does. The latest versions of the thermal mug ditch the bottle’s lining in favor of polished stainless steel, change the button on the lid to make it slightly more difficult to press accidentally, and modify the lid to make it easier to clean. The lid is now two pieces, so the crannies where stuff grew are much, much easier to access (and clean).

There are several different versions of the thermal mug available now, so make sure you get the one with the snapping lid--the removeable lid versions just aren’t as good for drinking your coffee on the way in to the office.

Zojirushi Stainless Mug SM-KHE48 (www.zojirushi.com, $35)

LEGO

Gary and Norm introduced me to LEGO late last year, and I’m very grateful to them for it. It’s an expensive hobby if you get into kit building, but simply working with bricks has reawakened 3D spatial parts of my brain that were previously dormant.

The best kit that I built this year was the R2-D2 Ultimate Collectors Series, which is actually a pretty good deal for the number of bricks it includes, even though it usually costs at least $200. It’s a little spendy for someone just starting out though, so if you want to try something awesome that won’t hit your wallet, I highly recommend the classic X-Wing fighter.

LEGO X-Wing 9493 (www.lego.com, $50)

Indie Game Soundtracks

I’ve always enjoyed listening to instrumental music when my mind’s on other stuff, whether that’s working, driving, or just pondering the implausible. This year, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of a bunch of indie game soundtracks. Check out Disasterpiece’s FEZ soundtrack, Austin Wintory’s Journey soundtrack, Darren Korb’s Bastion, and Ben Prunty’s FTL soundtrack are all beautiful pieces of standalone music that I discovered this year. Most indie game soundtracks can be purchased for a few bucks more with the game in question, or you can pay a couple of bucks on the artist’s Bandcamp pages.

If you like the soundtracks above, you should also check out Jim Guthrie’s excellent Indie Game: The Movie soundtrack and Danny B’s Super Meat Boy soundtrack.

MacBook Air 13-inch with Ivy Bridge

I never really thought that a 3-ish pound laptop would serve most of my computing needs, but the 2012 edition of the 13-inch MacBook Air is a fabulous machine. It’s suitable for just about everything I do, from editing short videos to writing to podcast recording and post production. I don’t play games on it (aside from an occasional round of FTL), but I have a giant gaming machine at home for that. For everything else, this machine gets the job done and is light enough that I can carry it with me almost everywhere without noticing that it’s even in my bag.

MacBook Air 13-inch (www.apple.com, $1500)

My Old Man Sweaters

It doesn’t get particularly cold in northern California during the winter, at least, you wouldn’t say that it’s cold when you look at the thermometer. Thanks to the combination of high humidity, biting winds off the Pacific, and poor architectural choices by the people who built my house, it’s frequently warmer outside than it is inside my house. You see, I live in a drafty, poorly insulated, 60-year-old home right by the coast--it’s great at keeping the cold in and the heat out. When the temperature dips below 50, it’s nearly impossible to get it warm inside. That’s where my old man sweaters come into play.

I have an awesome collection of wool cardigans of different shapes and sizes. Some were gifts, some I bought for myself, some are ridiculous, and some I could almost wear out in public. They’re sorted in my closet by relative warmth--from a thin LL Bean number that's great in the fall and late spring to a thick Orvis shawl collar that only gets pulled out on rainy winter nights in February in my house to the nuclear option, a thick Shetland wool monster with a zipper that leaves me sweating in the backyard in February.

Ol Man Sweaters (various places, various prices)

SmartWool Mountaineer Socks

These are $25 socks. I know that’s expensive for socks, but as I’ve mentioned before, it gets cold in my house. Really cold. During the darkest part of winter, I bust these bad boys out. The SmartWool Mountaineer Socks are the thickest, warmest socks I’ve ever owned. They’re so thick, they’re difficult to pull up over your feet. They’re that thick.

That thickness makes them warm. Their wicking liner makes them pull cooling moisture away from your foot, making them stay warm, even if your little piggies get wet or sweaty in the middle of the day. I’m going to repeat this one more time. These socks will keep your feet crazy warm.

Two things to note. If you plan to wear these with shoes, you’ll probably bigger shoes--they’re great with hiking boots. If you have hardwood floors, beware as they’re very slippery.

SmartWool Mountaineer Socks (www.smartwool.com, $25)

TiVo Stream

I’ve always wanted to live in a world where all my electronics can seamlessly interact with each other in novel new ways, designed exclusively to make me happy. TiVo’s Stream box lets my DVR talk to my iPad and iPhone in novel new ways that make me happy.

What does TiVo Stream do exactly? It lets me stream recorded show (or live TV) from the DVR to my iOS devices inside the house. Playback is fast and quality is great. Live streaming only works when your iOS devices are connected to the same network as the Stream, and requires the TiVo app be installed on the device, but other than those two requirements, it’s dead simple to use.

But what if you want to watch TV while you’re outside the house? The Stream will help you with that, as well. You can save recorded shows on your devices for later viewing, when you’re offline or just outside the house. Installation was a snap--I just had to plug the box into my router and tell the TIVo it was there, and at that moment every iOS device in the house became an additional screen that was seamlessly attached to my TiVo. In fact, the only problems I have with the Stream are that it requires a TiVo Premiere box and the Android app isn’t supported.

TiVo Stream ($130, www.tivo.com)

Kindle Paperwhite

With the rise of the 7-inch tablet, a dedicated e-ink reader just feels extravagant. To be clear, it is extravagant--the backlight on my iPad Mini gets almost dim enough to not feel like a backlit screen, even in a dark room. However, when I go to bed, I usually put my iPad Mini on the charger and grab the Paperwhite. The Paperwhite is just easier to hold and less of a hassle. Because it uses an e-ink screen, it only needs charging every few weeks and it’s easier on the eyes than a backlit LCD, especially late at night. It isn’t necessary, but it’s certainly nice.

Kindle Paperwhite ($120, www.kindle.com)

Eye-Fi Pro X2 16GB

You’re probably going to think I’m very lazy, but since I put a Wi-Fi-enabled SD card in my mirrorless Sony camera, I use it much, much more. I simply setup the card to upload the photos I take with the camera to a folder on my PC. That folder, conveniently, is the Upload folder for Photo Stream. When Photo Stream sees a new image in there, it uploads it to iCloud, where it’s instantly available on all of my computers, as well as my phone and tablet. The Eye-Fi card brought the convenience of Apple’s Photo Stream to my fancy Sony camera. That may be lazy, but I think it’s also pretty awesome.

Eye-Fi Pro X2 16GB (www.eyefi.com, $100)

Rickshaw Bagworks Zero Messenger Medium

I’m really specific about messenger bags. I need something that’s comfortable to carry, is lightly constructed, and waterproof. I need room for all my stuff, too. That means I want a couple of interior pockets, room for my laptop, tablet, camera, some notepads, pens, and maybe my 3DS. That’s why I love the Rickshaw Zero Messenger--it meets all those requirements and adds a few things I didn’t know I need.

I chose the medium size bag, which is pretty spartan by default. It has a big main compartment and a couple of small front pouches that don’t seal. But, it also includes massive Velcro straps inside, which allow you to mount a variety of Rickshaw accessories (or creations of your own) inside. I tacked on a Deluxe Drop pocket (which has a zip pouch and room for business cards and pens) as well as a padded laptop sleeve, to help my Air survive unexpected drops. The whole thing ended up costing less than a premium laptop bag, and it serves my needs perfectly. It’s small enough to carry every day, but has enough space to take as my only bag on one or two night trips.

But what about colors and materials, you ask? These intensely personal choices are up to you. Rickshaw lets you construct your bag from a handful of materials in a wide, almost crippling number of colors, then they’ll build it in their San Francisco factory. You can even select the color of the bag’s label. (If you don’t want to face that kind of choice, you can also pick off-the-rack designs.) My bag has a red, waterproof sailcloth exterior, grey cordura interior, and blue piping, but if you want something a little lower contrast, they’ll do that for you too.

Rickshaw Bagworks Zero Messenger Medium (www.rickshawbags.com, $90 base, $160 as configured)

Weber Firestarter Lighter Cubes

We’ve already established that my house is cold and I’m lazy, right? Even though I know how to build a fire using nothing more than tinder, a pocketknife, and a flint and steel, sometimes I want to make my living room toasty warm with minimal effort. I used to buy big boxes of firestarters from the grocery store, but they’re overkill--they’re too expensive and take up too much space for my taste. These Weber Lighter Cubes are designed for use with charcoal grills, but they’ll work great to start a fire in your living room too. Just put one on your grate, pile a little kindling on top of it, and put a log or two on top of that. Light the cube and your fire will be roaring away in no time.

Weber Firestarter Lighter Cubes (http://www.amazon.com/Weber-7417-FireStarters-Lighter-Cubes/dp/B001AN7RGG, $8 for 24)

Liquid Nitrogen Dewar

Now that we’re into unnecessary and even dangerous stuff, I love having ready access to liquid nitrogen. What do you need to have access to LN2? Nothing more than a safe way to haul it. For cryogenic liquid, that means you need a dewar. A dewar is essentially a really well-insulated thermal bottle with a lid that lets expanding gases escape so pressure won’t build up inside the flask.

Why do I like having access to liquid nitrogen? It’s a cryogenic liquid. That means it’s really, really, really cold. That’s -200C (or -328F if you’re not into SI). You can freeze stuff good with liquid nitrogen, but you need a dewar to get most places to sell it to you.

Once you have the dewar, it usually costs $20-30 for 5L. That should be more than enough LN2 to make a few batches of ice cream with enough left over for silly stuff, like freezing stuff and then smashing it with a hammer. Just make sure that you treat the LN2 with respect. Avoid using it in enclosed spaces, always wear eye protection, avoid contact with your skin, and follow all the other safe handling procedures for cryogenic gases.

International Cryogenics LN2 Dewar, 5L (http://www.amazon.com/International-Cryogenics-Liquid-Nitrogen-Storage/dp/B007XYHY82, $440)