Mom's big day is nigh. Might one of these gifty gizmos bring a really big smile?
Bring back refrigerator art: Instant-print cameras spitting out palpable pictures on glossy paper were a surprise "retro" hit last year. Holding a still image in your hands, keeping it close to your heart, or posting it on your office wall or refrigerator door is an odd and exciting novelty in this everything-digital age. But instant-print cameras have shortcomings, with the optics often playing second fiddle to the print technology and no option to capture before you print (at 56 cents a pop) on the most popular FujiFilm Instax cameras.
Presuming mom already has a digital camera or smartphone, a better idea is to enhance her shooting experience with a dedicated photo printer, hard-copying just the very best images. The smallest and easiest to use is the Polaroid Zip, a rechargeable gizmo (about the size of a deck of cards) which prints cute 2x3-inch pictures perfect for slipping into a wallet or handing out like business cards. A dedicated app loaded on Apple iOS- or Android-based phones automatically finds and transfers stored snapshots via Bluetooth. As with bigger photo printers we also tested, you can crop and dress up selected images with fancy borders, icons, and text. The "Zink" printing process (different from the original "one-minute" Polaroids) spits out a pic in 43 seconds — and the copy looks respectable in color, contrast, and clarity if the original was well-composed. A Zip goes for $99. The chemically treated paper (no separate ink cartridge needed!) costs about 50 cents a print.
For thumbtackable and framed photos, go with a Canon Selphy CP1200 or Epson PictureMate PM-400. Both have tilt-up 2.7-inch color screens and dedicated buttons to pick and adjust shots, both are stupid-proof when printing images from a digital camera's SD memory card or from Apple devices on the same WiFi network — with no software to download, no drivers to install, no cables to connect. But mom will likely need help setting up printing from other tablets or smartphones using direct printing options such as Canon PRINT and Epson Connect, as instructions are vague.
The Canon, selling for $95-$110 in AC-powered form and $150 with the optional battery pack, cranks out a drugstore photo lab-ish 4x6-inch print (with detachable borders) in 47 seconds, using a heat-activated, dye sublimation transfer cartridge that lays on the color and gloss in four separate swipes of the paper. It's a fun process for the kids to watch, but requires room behind the printer for paper shifting.
The Epson's display screen is sharper and so are the glossy prints (up to 5x7 inches) cranked out with its four-color ink-jet cartridge engine in about 32 seconds each. Colors also looked a tad brighter and more accurate than on the Canon, and the Epson's auto-image correction did a much better job pulling details out of shadows. But you'll pay more for the device, $199, and its 4x6-inch prints are 33 cents per, vs. 26 cents on the Canon. There's no battery option and ink-jet cartridges, once opened, have a bad habit of drying out over time if not removed from the printer and recapped.
Not losing it: Does mom misplace keys, wallet, pocketbook, the TV remote? Treat her to a set of Pixies — battery-operated tracking devices (resembling oversize guitar picks) which she'll hang off, slip into, or otherwise attach (with sticky tape backing) to those pesky things that walk off by themselves. The master Pixie attaches to the back of an iPhone (5S or later) or iPad 4 (or later), then works in tandem with an app to "home in" on the missing item you've selected on the screen. While hardly the original tracking fob, Pixie is the first with augmented reality. As you hold up the iPhone or tablet, the app screen displays your actual room with superimposed arrows and a cartoon guide pointing the way toward the tagged item. Sometimes a burst of celebratory blue bubbles also guides the quest. Get really close and a heat meter starts cranking warm, warmer, warmest. Gotcha! A Pixie four pack is currently on sale for $69.99 (reduced from $99) at getpixie.com.
Kitchen tools: Is mom happiest in the kitchen? Sure to put a big grin on — a snazzy Bialetti Mineral DS sauté pan with an interestingly textured (with steel-pellet blasting) "micro-divot" interior that's hard-anodized and "PFOA-free" nonstick-coated. Cooking oil and heat spread evenly and the pan cleans up like a dream. It's $34.99-$54.99 in 8- to 12-inch sizes at www.bialetti.com. Also discovered at Chicago's International Housewares Show: Chicago Cutlery's 6.5-inch Sandwich Hero Knife, a multitasker perfectly sized for dipping into and blending jar contents (like separated peanut butter), slicing bread, and cutting cheese ($11.24 at shopworldkitchen.com.) Another find: a beautifully honed Cangshan S1 59694 8-inch chef's knife, mixing German steel and Asian-edged tempering at a relatively modest price — $59.95 cangshancutlery.com, 60 cents cheaper at amazon.com.