Entire industries rely on trying to convince us that we need things that we really don’t, or that the things we have aren’t good enough and need to be upgraded.
The older I get and the more stuff I accumulate, the more I realize that most stuff, especially the crap on cool-stuff sites and gift guides, is wasted on me. (And probably you, too.) I simply don’t need it, and if I had it, there’s a good chance it would end up in the closet after a month.
Big cool-stuff sites need to make many posts per day to stay relevant and profitable, so they can’t be very discriminating or give long-term reviews based on actual experience — all they can say is that something looks cool, which usually results in a collection of expensive things that photograph well, not things you might actually buy and find useful.
Small sites can fall into a different unhelpfulness trap: it’s hard to provide meaningful comparisons if you’ve only had one or two of something. Saying that your camera is the best camera isn’t useful to me unless you’ve spent a meaningful amount of time using many similar cameras and can distinguish what makes different models suitable to different roles and priorities. (And full-time reviewers have a different problem: they usually don’t spend long periods with any products or report back after living with them for a while, since there’s little economic upside and they usually review too many products to make this practical.) So comparisons are hard.
The concept of a “best” product of any nontrivial complexity is a fallacy. Sites like The Wirecutter and The Sweethome get it right much of the time, but when faced with a complex category with multiple product subtypes and different customer needs, like humidifiers or headphones, they often make unfair comparisons or dismiss entire product classes prematurely. It’s not that they’re doing a bad job picking the “best” — it’s that many product categories are more complicated or diverse than simply having one “best”, or are so large that the “best” might be one of the hundreds of models that they didn’t even test.
All I can do is tell you what I’ve used, but in an effort to be most helpful, I’ve narrowed the scope further than most recommendation sites can: these are products that I personally bought or received as gifts at least a year ago, use regularly, and still enjoy and recommend.
I own almost every type of drip-coffee brewer. (I don’t know anything about espresso, except that most people are better off not trying to make it at home.)
Most brew methods aren’t worth the trouble, including the moka pot and the fancy Yama vacuum/siphon brewer. My favorites, in descending order:
- AeroPress: The king of coffee-brewing methods. It produces what many agree is the best-tasting drip coffee, has the easiest cleanup I’ve ever seen, can be used almost anywhere, and costs less than $30. The only significant downside is that it only makes 1 cup at a time, or 2 if you push the limits. (Don’t let anyone tell you that the AeroPress makes espresso. It doesn’t. It makes very good drip coffee.)
- Chemex with Glass Handle: The best pour-over brewer I’ve tried. I prefer the Chemex in every way to my Hario V60 (a close second) and Clever Coffee Dripper (which I think is immensely overrated). If you get a big one, it’s a great way for an otherwise all-AeroPress fan to serve many cups at once. Slight rule deviation: I have the 10-cup wood-collar version, but I’m recommending the glass-handled one because it’s much easier to pour from and clean.
- Frieling French Press: Double-walled, stainless steel, and remarkably well-made. Compared to the common Bodum press you’ve probably used, the Frieling feels like a much higher-quality, heavier, more sturdy piece of equipment. Its filter is much finer and more rigid than the Bodum’s, so much less sediment escapes into the poured coffee and it’s easier to clean afterward. The insulated walls keeps the coffee hotter, and guests always compliment its design.
Measuring and grinding:
- EatSmart Kitchen Scale: The best way to make consistently great coffee is to keep a consistent beans-to-water ratio, and the best way to do that is by weight. Forget scoops. Even if you don’t drink coffee, get this. You’ll be surprised how often a kitchen scale is useful.
Baratza Virtuoso Grinder: High-quality, solidly performing conical burr grinder. Rather than spend a lot on a fancy automatic coffee machine, you’ll get much better coffee with a good burr grinder and an inexpensive AeroPress, French press, or pour-over cone.
Honorable mention: Baratza Encore. It’s about half the price of the Virtuoso, and I use one often at my in-laws’ house. It produces a similar grind to the Virtuoso, but it’s louder, much slower, lacks the timer knob (that’s just an on/off switch on the side), and doesn’t have the nice heavy base to keep it in place when you’re using the pulse button. If you can’t spend the extra for the Virtuoso, the Encore is a great choice — much better than the handful of $60-ish burr grinders I’ve seen. But if you can get the Virtuoso, it’s worth the difference.
I’ve never found a hand-crank travel grinder that was worth its cranking effort. It takes a lot of cranking to make one cup’s worth of a fine AeroPress grind. I think I’m better off just packing some good teabags (which I’ll get to in a minute) next time I travel, rather than trying to bring a ridiculous hand-crank coffee setup.
Beyond the scale, grinder, and brewer, I don’t use a lot of extra equipment:
- Aftermarket metal pour-over or AeroPress filters are harder to clean and I can’t detect a taste difference, so I never use mine.
- My stove heats water in my generic, easy-to-clean glass kettle so quickly that I’ve never been tempted by electric kettles. And I’ve never found water-pouring techniques to noticeably affect the taste, so I don’t use fancy gooseneck kettles, either. (Plus, metal kettles easily get secretly dirty inside. At least I can see how dirty my glass one is, then put it in the dishwasher.)
- Bean-storage options don’t make much of a difference in practice — if they’re airtight, they’re fine, and if they’re not, they’re bad. That’s basically it. The Airscape is fine (get the big one — it holds less than advertised), but I just keep mine in zip-top valve bags — they do just as good of a job, are easier to open and pour from, and take up less space in the cabinet. And your coffee beans probably already come in them. (Do not refrigerate or freeze coffee beans.)
- You can use fancy Bodum glasses if you want, although I wouldn’t AeroPress into one — I mostly use mine for evening tea or serving coffee to guests. (For my coffee, I just use a Useless mug.) But guests love the Bodum glasses. They’re very thin and fragile, so I’ve just been careful with mine, and I’ve only lost two in almost eight years (both when guests tried to wash them).
- Crate and Barrel’s Quadro Small Jug: The AeroPress’ bottom cap fits perfectly into the mouth of this little 16-oz. jug, so it’s great to press into when making multiple cups or my iced-coffee recipe.
And, of course, where you get the coffee beans matters quite a lot. I’d rather have great, freshly roasted beans from an automatic coffeemaker than old beans from an AeroPress. Coffee is best in the first week or so after roasting, so your best bet is either a mail-order roaster or, ideally, a local one.
I home-roast (another topic entirely), but before I did, I got great coffee from:
- Tonx: Great, but a bit light sometimes. (Tonx has previously sponsored my site and podcast, although I chose to become their customer first.)
- Square Mile: Great, but ships from the U.K., so it’s expensive for U.S. buyers.
- Stumptown: Decent, but too light for me, and inconsistent. I’ve found the same to be true at their coffeeshops.
(Granted, I don’t use any of those regularly now, so they don’t quite belong on this list. I’ll just not make them bold, and hope you ignore the rule deviation.)
- ThermoWorks RT600C Thermometer: Like the kitchen scale above, I use this far more often than I ever expected. Beyond just meat, you can even probe casseroles in the oven to see if they’re hot in the middle, or measure the water in your kettle so you don’t go past 180°F for green tea. I probe freezer burritos in the toaster oven to see if they’re still cold in the middle. You can even wave it around in the air to find cold spots in rooms or see how much your windows suck in the winter. I can’t recommend this highly enough — get a kitchen thermometer and scale, and you’ll be shocked how much you use them.
- Microplane Zester/Grater: Simply awesome. It’s especially nice for grating garlic above a pan, which is much faster and easier than finely chopping it.
- KitchenAid Flex Edge Mixer Blade: You know that KitchenAid mixer that everyone puts on their wedding registry? This makes it even better by significantly reducing (although not completely eliminating) the need to pause during mixing to scrape food off the walls of the bowl. (Mixer tip: make a spot on the counter for it to always be out, ready, and plugged in. You’ll use it far more than if you have to dig it out of a cabinet every time.)
- Glass Half-Pint Creamer: Fantastic when putting out milk or half-and-half for guests. Also available in the MoMA Store, which is worth browsing on its own.
Railroad Spike Bottle Opener: This thing is heavy and awesome. Its weight makes cap removal stupidly easy, it’s very satisfying to hold, and it looks cool. This also always gets comments from guests. If you like heavy, awesome things, get this.
If you like the old-train-rail aesthetic, you should also check out Railyard Studios. I was lucky enough to get a great deal on their Triangle Coffee Table and meet the artists a couple of years ago, and it’s truly fantastic as the focal point of my office, earning tons of compliments from visitors.
Specific food and drink picks beyond coffee:
- Harney and Sons Green Tea: I haven’t had a lot of high-end teas, but among those I’ve had, Harney is a noticeable step above in quality, especially in green tea (the only type I feel qualified to judge at all, since it’s the only type I drink regularly). I’m a big fan of the sachets of Japanese Sencha and Organic Green with Citrus and Ginkgo, each brewed at 180°F for 2 minutes. (Time it. Don’t estimate. You’ll go too long and it’ll be too bitter.)
- Penzeys Spices: It really does make a difference. Their website is comically bad, but they have a lot of retail stores. Visit one, smell everything, and you’ll become a convert. They also have some nice but expensive gift boxes.
- Blaze Balsamic Fig Glaze: Trust me. Get a thin slice of a nice dry sausage or prosciutto. Put a little lump of goat cheese on top. Drizzle with this. You’re welcome. (It’s also fantastic on Brussels sprouts.) I use so much of this that I get the big ones.
The recent retail expansion of The Art Of Shaving stores has brought the idea of fancy shaving stuff much more mainstream, but I wasn’t impressed with their products when I tried them a few years ago. Geeks like me have been buying obscure double-edged (DE) safety razors, badger brushes, and thickly lathering creams and soaps for years from places like Classic Shaving that are almost all better than anything I’ve tried from The Art Of Shaving.
I have sensitive skin and shave in the shower, and this is what works best for me:
Proraso “green” shaving cream: Shockingly good shaving cream for sensitive skin, with a hint of cooling menthol. It foams up nicely without a bowl — I just put it on a wet brush and foam it up right on my face. (Don’t use it without a brush. Get a brush.)
Honorable mention: Taylor of Old Bond Street shaving cream. Before switching to Proraso in 2007, I greatly enjoyed Taylor’s lavender variety, and the sandalwood is also popular. It’s less dense and more airy than Proraso, and doesn’t condition my skin as well, but has fancier scents.
- Vulfix #2235 Super Badger Brush: I had a lower-grade brush for years, then switched to this in 2010 and couldn’t be happier with it. It’s worth the extra $30 or so to get a really awesome brush. At the moment, this one’s out of stock at Classic Shaving, but Amazon has it for a bit more. There’s a slightly smaller #2234 model for a bit less.
- Gillette Fusion ProGlide: I used a nice Merkur DE safety razor for years, but no matter which blades I used (I tried every brand widely recommended online) and how I varied my technique, I could never get as close of a shave with as little burn as what I get almost every time I use a Fusion ProGlide. And I’ve never cut myself with the Fusion. I want DE razors to be better for me, but they’re simply not. Fusions also have the advantage of being convenient and universally available, although the cartridges aren’t cheap.
I’ve tried a lot of aftershaves, but most of them have too-strong smells that stick around all day, and very few are better for me than applying nothing at all. The least-bad one I’ve tried is the Taylor of Old Bond Street balm in “Shaving Shop” scent, but most days, I don’t apply anything. The Proraso/Fusion ProGlide combo is so good that I rarely need aftershave.
This is a huge category, but few products stand the test of time even for one year. And I don’t want to tell you the same things that every other gadget site is telling you to buy. Yeah, the iPad is great, but you know that already.
Fenix LD10 LED AA flashlight: High-quality, small, ultra-bright LED flashlights are always great gifts for pretty much anyone and great to own yourself. There are a lot out there, but I’m a big fan of this one — so much that last year, I bought four as gifts. (The recipients love them, too.) People accustomed to flashlights before the white-LED age are shocked at how much light comes out of such a small, lightweight source. I haven’t tried the newer LD12, but reviews comparing it to the LD10 are mixed and inconclusive, so I’d stick with the LD10. (The AAA-battery-sized Fenix LD01 series is worth looking at, too. They’re not nearly as bright, but they’re even tinier and weigh almost nothing.)
If you get an LED flashlight, use Energizer lithium batteries with it. They last longer than alkalines and rechargeables under the heavy drain of flashlight use, and they weigh almost nothing.
- Apollo TouchTec Leather Gloves: TouchTecs work perfectly with capacitive touch screens on modern smartphones and tablets. And unlike most “iPhone gloves” that just have a little triangle of touch-compatible fabric on the fingertips, these whole gloves work, just like your whole ungloved hands. They’re very nice, warm, soft-lined leather gloves in general, too — definitely the nicest pair I’ve ever had.
- Big Jambox: My full review. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Despite new competitors coming out every few months, I still like the Big Jambox so much that I just bought another to replace a flaky AirPlay speaker. (Bluetooth isn’t perfect, but I’ve found it to be far more reliable than any AirPlay speaker.) It sounds great, looks good (I recommend white), and has extremely long battery life.
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 “pancake” lens: We have a whole closet full of expensive Canon glass, but this is our most frequently used lens. It’s so small that it makes an SLR far more portable than with any other lens, it’s a useful general-purpose focal length (especially on full-frame), it’s optically excellent, it’s reasonably well-made (far nicer than the “thrifty fifty” f/1.8 and roughly equal to the build quality of the 50mm f/1.4), and its autofocus motor is decent. Most impressive of all, it’s only $150. This is the best value in Canon’s entire lens lineup by far, and it’s not even a low-end lens — I’d call it upper-midrange.
Update, 2014: There’s now a wider 24mm version for EF-S Canon SLRs (Rebel and 7D series) at the same price. I haven’t tried it, but I’d expect it to perform very similarly at a more useful zoom level for the EF-S cameras.
- Sennheiser PX 200-II i portable headphones: I don’t like earbuds or canalphones and I walk a lot, so I’ve tried a lot of portable on-ear headphones. Most of them sound mediocre at best, are uncomfortable, don’t fold very small, have terrible iPhone-clicker buttons (if they have them at all), and die after a year or two. These Sennheisers are the best I can find: they sound mediocre, they die after a year or two, but they’re reasonably comfortable, they fold small (and well), and they have very good iPhone buttons. They’re incredibly practical, and for portable headphones, that’s more important than high-end sound quality or extreme longevity. Just plan to buy another pair in 18 months. (The PX 100-II i variant is good, too, but it’s open-backed and has less-comfortable earpads. I have and use both, depending on needs, but the 200 is the better pair overall.)
Beyerdynamic DT-880 Premium 250-ohm open headphones: If your situation permits open-backed headphones, these are incredible. Headphone geeks have loved the DT-880 for years for having incredibly good sound quality, and even those who don’t love their sound (the treble is a bit strong for some) agree that the comfort is simply legendary. After years of envying them, my wife recently stole mine and gave me the opportunity to upgrade, but I had a very hard time finding a pair worth upgrading to at any price — I almost just bought another pair of these. And my upgrade ended up being the Beyerdynamic T90, which is effectively the DT-880’s sequel and is very similarly built. (So far, the T90’s amazing, but I’ve only had mine for a few months. (Yes, I’ve tried the Sennheiser HD-650. For its price, it was disappointing in sound quality and especially build quality.))
The only caveat to the DT-880s is that they take a bit of extra power to drive, so you should use a headphone amp or receiver with them if you want high volumes. (This doesn’t apply to the T90 — it’s much more efficient and can get very loud even from an iPhone.) There’s a 32-ohm version of the DT-880 more suitable for amp-less use — most reviews say it sounds worse, but I haven’t tried it.
I’ve omitted any full-sized, closed headphones from the list this year. I’ve only worn them recently while recording podcasts — at most other times that I’m at my desk, I’m able to wear open headphones, so I use the much-better-sounding T90s. I’ve previously recommended the 280 Pro and 380 Pro (review), but I don’t use them anymore — I lost my 380s to a hard fall and I’ve since upgraded to The Wirecutter’s recommendation of the PSB M4U 1, which is significantly more comfortable than most closed headphones but not worth its cost. For general closed-headphone picks, most people (who don’t suggest the 280 Pro) recommend the MDR-7506 or ATH-M50, neither of which I’ve spent much time with.
Now that Settlers of Catan has spread to your non-geek friends and family members and given them a taste for board games that require actual thought, you can introduce them to better ones. We’ve been subjecting our friends and family to geeky board games for years, and these are the ones that they’ve liked best and actually asked to play, in roughly descending order:
- Power Grid: I thought this would be a bit too nerdy and economics-focused for many people to care much about it, but it’s by far the family’s favorite game. And if you get bored of the board, it comes with two very different maps to play on and has more available as expansions.
- Blokus: Compared to most, this has huge advantages: the rules take about 20 seconds to explain, there’s almost no setup, and games don’t last very long, so it’s easy to get into and people are often up for consecutive games. Even after we play longer games, we often finish the evening with a few rounds of Blokus.
- Qwirkle: Imagine if Scrabble and Set got drunk together and produced offspring.
- Agricola: Not as popular as Power Grid in my family, but everyone enjoyed the few games they’ve played so far. (I always push for more.)
- Puerto Rico: Everyone liked it, but they never request to play it, unfortunately. It’s my favorite geeky board game, and it spent years at the top of the BoardGameGeek rankings, although it’s now surpassed by Agricola and a few others I have yet to try.
So there you have it. Coffee, kitchen, shaving, electronics, and board games. All you need.