Becoming a parent for the first time left me with little time for non-essentials. As any new parent will tell you, adjusting to life where you’re occupied from the moment you wake up until you lose consciousness at the end of the day can be tricky.
With that in mind, I reviewed my favorite things list from last year, and I was surprised at what had changed, and what hadn’t. I still love everything on the list, warm socks and a good way to keep my coffee hot have never been more useful. But with limited recreational time that’s rarely available in multi-hour chunks, TV viewing and LEGO building are rare treats. I quickly learned that I should put aside my wool old man sweaters for a material that didn’t that doesn’t require dry-cleaning every time it’s exposed to bodily fluids--enter the hoodie.
So what made the cut for me in 2013? This year, it’s a mix of things that makes my family’s life easier or more convenient or lets us sneak a moment or two of entertainment into otherwise busy days.
7 Wonders is a quick-to-learn German-style board game whose primary mechanic involves playing a card each turn, then passing the leftover cards in your deck to an adjacent player. It's a great game for large groups, because players resolve each round simultaneously instead of sequentially, so adding more players doesn't dramatically increase the length of time a game takes. A game with seven players takes just a few minutes longer to resolve than the 30 minutes a three player game takes.
While the publisher doesn't list two-player support on the box, 7 Wonders comes with an official two-player variant that involves each player taking turns playing a third deck. This allows a little more interaction between players, and makes the game a bit more strategic.
Uppababy Vista Stroller
Finding the right stroller was incredibly difficult. Everyone has different needs, if you live in the city and ride the bus every day, you’ll likely want something different than your typical suburbanite. Regardless, the stroller ends up being your home base anytime you’re away from home for a substantial length of time--anything from a day running errands to a trip to the zoo or a theme park. With that in mind, we splurged and bought an Uppababy Vista, which has an MSRP of $730, but which we were able to find for just over $600 online.
I never thought I’d love a stroller, but I love the Vista. When my daughter first came home from the hospital, the included bassinet was a portable bed that we could keep with us all the time, both when we were in the house and when we were out and about. When she was too small to ride in a shoping cart, the storage basket underneath the seat is big enough to hold a weeks worth of groceries or even our Christmas shopping. The cargo area holds a ton of stuff.
The stroller folds and unfolds quickly and easily, the seat can be placed in the forward-facing or back-facing orientation, and it goes from a full recline to seated vertically with the pull of a handle. My only complaint is that it’s big even when folded. It requires a fair amount of trunk space to store, and you really need to have the seat in the forward-facing orientation when you fold it up.
Now that my daughter is a little bigger, we’ll probably add a smaller umbrella stroller for plane trips and other times when space is at a premium, but you can rest assured that I’ll be bringing the Vista when we make the first trip to Disneyland.
While my iPhone 5s has great battery life for normal days, there are always exceptions. That's where my backup battery comes in. It weighs little enough (4.4 ounces) that I never notice it in my bag, but it's always there when my phone or tablet need a quick charge and I don't have an outlet handy.
The 4000mAh Powerstation is good for two or three full phone charges, but in reality, I only completely fill the phone using it when I'm camping. There are definitely better products available in this category now, but they aren't big enough improvements to warrant an upgrade for me, and the Powerstation I have is enough to let me use my phone when I need it without worrying about my battery dying.
The days of handheld gaming consoles died when smartphones got smart, right? I don’t think so. The types of games that are coming out for the 3DS have few analogs phones. Part of the problem will go away as real, dedicated controllers start to come available for the iPhone, but the real issue is economical. It’s difficult for a team to make a game with the scale of Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds or Super Mario Land 3D and sell it for between $0.99 and $10. But perhaps the best thing about the 3DS is that Nintendo hasn’t figured out microtransactions yet, so you if you buy a game for that handheld, you can rest assured that you won’t end up being nickel and dimed to death.
There are currently three different 3DS models available, the 2D-only wedge 2DS, the original 3DS, and the larger 3DS XL. They range in price from $130-200.
Taylor Stitch Jeans
I wear jeans pretty much every day. My absolute favorite jeans in the world come from a small shop in San Francisco called Taylor Stitch. The folks at Taylor Stitch make their jeans using gorgeous raw denim from mills around the world. There’s no stone washed, weathered denim here. The jeans start stiff and take a while to break in, anywhere from one to three washings, in my experience. They come in several cuts (I find the democratic cut both looks great and fits very comfortably) and the fabric selection and cuts available are constantly being cycled in and out.
Yes, the Taylor Stitch jeans are more expensive than an average pair of mall jeans, they start at about $130. But the untreated denim and elastic free selvage make a huge difference in durability. They last like no other jeans I’ve owned. My oldest pair (pictured here) is more than two years old and going strong despite heavy wear. It’s also worth mentioning that these jeans are actually sewn in a factory in San Francisco, instead of sweatshops in southeast Asia or Central America. That's worth a few extra bucks to me.
Norm may have a big-boy camera, but my mirrorless has let me shoot some amazing pictures this last year. This year, I realized that I needed better glass than the 18-55mm kit lens, but I was a bit disappointed in the available options. By buying the Speed Booster to adapt Nikon lenses to the NEX's E-mount, instead of spending money on NEX-specific glass, I was able to uptake advantage of my old Nikon lenses. Plus, if I want to buy new lenses in the future, I'll be able to choose between the growing selection of E-mount lenses and full fledged Nikon glass I could use if I ever decode to upgrade to a DSLR.
With a new baby in the house, we went from running the dishwasher every three or four days to running it at least once a day and sometimes more. When I realized what running my ten-year old dishwasher cost in terms of electricity and water usage, I started looking at more efficient models. We ended up buying a Bosch unit, because of its energy efficient drying technique and relatively quiet run cycle.
I don't buy into the "You won't even know it's on" hype common to dishwasher marketing, but I'm a believer in the energy efficiency of these dishwashers. Instead of using a resistive heating element to dry the water off your dishes, the Bosch dishwashers use condensation to wick water off of your dishes. I don’t understand exactly how it works, but the upshot is that the dishwasher heats the stainless steel walls of the dishwasher tub, which somehow encourages the water to fall off of your dishes. While the condensation effect doesn't work on plastic stuff, it isn't a problem for us, as we don't have many plastic dishes.
The dishwasher holds twice as much stuff as our previous model, features adjustable height shelves, so we can fit tall stemware on the top shelf without a problem, and you can remove the top rack entirely if you need to run a load of lots and pans after a big cooking day. I leave all but the most caked on food on our dirty dishes, and have never had a problem with food surviving a complete cycle.
Dishwashers that use condensation drying from Bosch start at $650 and get crazy expensive, depending on the trim and options you want. It's very difficult to price match different models across stores because the manufacturer makes store specific models with equivalent feature sets, but slightly different handles and control panel layouts and rack configurations. When you go shopping for a dishwasher, make sure you take one of your larger plates with you to test out the fit.