Pro: You can never have too much battery power
Con: Needs to be charged on its own
Best for: Motor-mouthed mobile Web surfers
Retail price: $49.99
Just about everyone has run out of juice at a critical time because of a longer-than-expected conversation, Web-surfing session or airplane delay. Most solutions involve parking in front of an outlet somewhere. In most cases, that's not convenient.
Portable battery packs, however, give those with a little forethought an edge. There are plenty of options out there, but the most useful battery packs have multiple extensions that fit in more than one type of power-draining gadget -- smartphones, MP3 players, e-readers and more.
Models like the Powermat portable battery have two cords: one for Apple devices such as the iPod, iPad or iPhone 4S and earlier, and another with a micro-USB that should fit most other portable electronics. Accessories for the iPhone 5 are coming soon.
These external batteries are a fixture at airport kiosks around the country but aren't often charged at time of purchase, making them useless in the moment. They're a great option for frequent travelers -- or the frequently forgetful -- to charge and slip into their carry-on in case of an emergency.
Pro: More personal than cash
Con: Not gift-wrap friendly
Best for: Folks who have everything
Retail price: About $8 a month; $96 for a year
Digital subscriptions are a great way to extend your holiday spirit throughout the year and find a gift for people who seem to have everything. Subscriptions to services such as Netflix or GameFly, for example, get gift-buyers around the sticky situation of figuring out which movies or games their friends already own. (Or for parents to figure out what kind of games their kids like.)
Netflix subscribers pay $7.99 per month for either DVD or streaming video access, so you should figure out how folks like their movie nights before you pull the trigger on a subscription. Streaming generally will be more useful for those nights when you feel like a movie (or TV show) but don't really have an idea of what you want to watch. Physical disks definitely are for people who have a single movie in mind and are willing to wait a day or two to get their hands on it.
GameFly is particularly good for gamers of all ages, given that they have titles that span a variety of consoles going as far back as the early 2000s. You also can play PC games for free with a GameFly subscription while you wait for things to ship. Subscriptions start at $7.98 a month.
The major downside to these gifts is that they have nothing to box up. You'll have to be creative when it comes to gift-wrapping, particularly if you're one of those people who hates just giving a card.
Last year's smartphone
Pro: Kinks tend to be ironed out
Con: Not the hottest gifts around
Best for: First-time smartphone buyers
Retail price: $99 for the iPhone 4S
If someone you love has been dying for a smartphone but you can't quite justify the cost of the latest model, consider picking up an older smartphone. That may seem like a crummy thing to do, but actually there are plenty of reasons why getting the slightly less-hot item is better than opting for one straight from the factory.
These advantages extend beyond price, though that's a major selling point for older phones. For one, the pros and cons of a year-old phone are well-established, meaning that shoppers should be able to avoid the pitfalls faced by early adopters. Secondly, despite what electronics manufacturers may want you to think, many year-old phones still function as well as their hotter, younger siblings.
The iPhone 4S is the clearest example of this. Released in 2011, the 4S is slightly heavier and thicker than the newly released iPhone 5 but has many of its most appealing features, such as the voice-assistant program Siri. It even runs the same software as the new phone, so functions like the panoramic camera are available on iPhone 4S models as long as their software is up to date.
There are exceptions to this rule. Windows Phones released last year, for example, aren't able to run the latest version of the Windows Phone operating system, which limits the chances that they'll have full access to new features from developers. And even the iPhone 4 isn't privy to some features on the latest software from Apple, so keep in mind that you may miss out on a new feature or two before the time comes to upgrade. Finally, don't forget that while a smartphone itself may cost less than $100, the data plan that comes with it will be a running expense.
Pro: Lets you add to the fun
Con: May add to coffee-table clutter
Best for: Socially inclined gamers
Retail price: $40 to $50
Contribute to a social night of gaming by upping the number of people who can play at once. Video-game consoles are a serious investment, and gamers may not be able to afford all the extras they need to make gaming a group activity.
Extra controllers for the three major consoles -- PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii U -- range from $40 to $55. Supplementing a friend's bank of controllers is also a gift to yourself, since you'll be able to join in on the fun more often.
For a personalized gift, you could pick up a specialized controller that works for a game that your favorite player likes best such as racing games or shooters with a wheel or gun-shaped controller. For the Wii, some players may like the "Pro" controller, which gives you a more traditional console feel than Wii's tall, thin remotes -- something great for people who play the Nintendo games aimed at older players. It adds to the normal Wii controller buttons with dual-joysticks, often used for running and aiming, as well as shoulder buttons for additional functions. The "Pro" controller for the latest Nintendo console, the Wii U, costs $49.99 and boasts an 80-hour battery life.
Pro: Functional and stylish
Con: Requires a little research
Best for: The uber-connected
Retail price: $55 for the Sena Magia Wallet; $59.95 for Otterbox
Smartphone cases are practically an industry unto themselves, but that makes a certain amount of sense given how important smartphones are to people's lives now. Of course, getting a smartphone case for someone means you'll have to do a little footwork and figure out what model of phone they have. You also have to figure out what their priorities are -- should you choose something that preserves a phone's clean lines or something that will withstand a drop from shoulder height?
One stylish option comes from Sena Cases, which makes leather cases for smartphones of all stripes. Many of these cases, such as the Magia Wallet, also have space for SmarTrip or credit cards to keep all your essentials in one place. Its slim form should let phones keep sliding easily into pockets. Plus, it has a camera opening to keep users snapping pictures.
For people who want something a little sturdier, Otterbox also offers a protection for a wide swath of the market. Its Defender series, which sports a screen protector and two layers of protection, should be able to withstand whatever life throws at your smartphone. It comes in a variety of bright colors, too, so you can deviate from basic black.