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Six Colors Holiday Gift Guide



By Jason Snell

Our favorite books of 2017

Dan and Jason read a lot. And both of them keep running into people who say they hear us praising books, and then they go and read them! This is a great responsibility, and not one we take lightly. Here are the books we loved this year. (Not all of them were published in 2017. But this is the year we read them!)

Borderline

Mishell Baker’s Borderline is what I’d call “fairy noir”. It’s got a lot of the features of noir detective stories—a hard-bitten investigator with a load of personal baggage who has to navigate a corrupt system and a bunch of deceitful suspects in order to do the job. That it’s set in L.A. and is about the rich and famous in Hollywood is an extra noir bonus. The protagonist, Millie, has Borderline Personality Disorder and is still reeling from the suicide attempt that left one leg amputated above the knee and the other just below. To top it all off, she’s just discovered that everything she thinks she knows about how the world works is wrong: Earth and a magical realm are joined by a series of portals, and magical creatures we might call fairies have been the source of human creativity and inspiration for centuries.

I’m not a big fantasy fan, but this mash-up of genres really works. And its beating heart is Millie, damaged and unhappy but trying to pick up the pieces of her life and make something of it. If only she can find her missing person and avoid being killed as she uncovers a worlds-spanning conspiracy. It’s the best book I read in 2017.-J.S.

The Pigeon Tunnel

I know you’ll all be shocked to hear that I’m a fan of espionage fiction. And though The Pigeon Tunnel is neither fiction nor wholly about espionage, that fact that it’s by legendary spy writer John Le Carré still explains why I picked it up. This assemblage of stories from Le Carré’s life is a delightful collection, including everything from his rubbing shoulders with Russian mafia members to Le Carré’s own meager time in the secret intelligence services to a chance encounter that involved him dancing with Yasser Arafat. It’s a quick but fascinating read and well worth it for Le Carré fans or those who enjoy tales of an interesting life well lived. —D.M.

Persepolis Rising

It’s hard to recommend the seventh book in a book series, but here I am recommending Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey, the latest in the Expanse sci-fi series. If you’re new to the series, start with Leviathan Wakes and go from there. The latest installment jumps forward in time, allowing the ramifications of the first six books to bake into the setting and cause some really interesting twists to fall back out. This book’s a bit dark—it’s definitely the “Empire Strikes Back” of the series—but I simply couldn’t put it down. That’s the sign of a good book.

After seven books and that time jump, the Expanse’s characters are lived in and familiar, but that only intensifies the changes to the world around them and the decisions they need to make. There’s large-scale war with spaceships, small-scale politics, freedom-fighter strategy, and a whole lot more. So if you’re reading the Expanse books, this one is good. If you’re not, and you like books about spaceships and the people who live inside them, why are you waiting? (You should also watch the TV series, which is excellent—and has only managed to get through about a book and a half of plot in two seasons.)-J.S.

City of Miracles

With each succeeding installment, Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy got better and better, and the finale, City of Miracles, is the capper. Set quite a bit of time past the previous book, City of Swords, this novel stars the bruising berserker Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, a supporting character in both previous entries in the series, trying to track down the people who murdered his longtime friend. Bennett’s series and his world have evolved considerably since it began in City of Stairs, gaining more depth as they go along, and he delivers an ending that is satisfying while still leaving you wanting more.—D.M.

Tool of War

Another book in a series, but a great series. Paolo Bacigalupi’s two previous books set in this world—Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities—are set in the near future after an environmental apocalypse has led to a dramatic reshuffling of the world order. Those two excellent books (suitable for teens and pre-teens, as they’re firmly in the Young Adult genre) can stand alone and be read in any order, though they share one supporting character in common.

That character is the genetically-engineered monster-who’s-also-a-mentor, Tool. And in Tool of War he takes center stage at last. This book’s about how Tool came to be, the purpose for which he was created, and how he feels about that. It’s sort of like reading Frankenstein from the perspective of the monster. Also, this book gave me my biggest reading surprise of the year, because it serves as a sequel to both Ship Breaker and Drowned Cities. Read those first, then read Tool of War. And if you want more from Bacigalupi, consider his adult novels The Windup Girl (my favorite book of 2010) and The Water Knife.-J.S.

A Conjuring of Light

Another trilogy ender, V.E. Schwab’s A Conjuring of Light brings to a close the story of multiple Londons first begun in A Darker Shade of Magic and continued in A Gathering of Shadows. Court magician Kell and thief-turned-pirate-turned-magician Delilah Bard try to save Red London from a monstrous evil that has already destroyed one world and now hungers for another. There’s magic, there’s romance, and plenty of action.—D.M.

The Cooperstown Casebook and Smart Baseball

I like baseball. I like books. If you like baseball and books, you might like books about baseball! And these are the two I read this year that I’d recommend.

Jay Jaffe is the single writer who has done the most work on the Baseball Hall of Fame in the last decade. He invented a new statistical standard for the Hall, JAWS, that helps understand who is enshrined and where the possible new inductees fit in. His book, The Cooperstown Casebook, features numerous smart essays about the Hall, what it has been, what it is today, and where it’s going. By position, he ranks existing Hall of Famers into the inner circle, the standard inductees, and the… er… questionable choices. Then he judges the current crop of players. It’s opinionated but smart, and Jaffe has plenty of data to back up his opinions. When I was younger I tore through Bill James’s Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame, and this is a fitting modern follow-up.

Keith Law’s Smart Baseball is a great modern update to baseball’s statistical revolution. Keith’s a longtime baseball writer and sometime baseball executive, and in this book he skewers the lousy statistics that still hang around baseball because they’re traditional, even though they don’t really inform us about how good a player is or whether a manager’s particular strategy is smart or stupid. And of course there are new statistics to replace them that are much better. If you loved Moneyball and want to know what the current state of affairs is in terms of understanding baseball, this is a great read. (For another great take on modern ways of viewing baseball, check out last year’s pick, Ahead of the Curve by Brian Kenny.)-J.S.

The Core

In The Core, Peter V. Brett’s sprawling Demon Cycle comes to an end after five volumes. Those who have followed hero Arlen Bales since The Warded Man will find this a fitting conclusion to the epic, as humanity prepares itself for the final fight against the demons that rise at night. There’s plenty of political intrigue and machinations, a few twists and turns, and a last act that is going to keep you turning pages until late in the night. Which is good, because at 800 pages, it’s going to take a while.—D.M.

Space Race: Battle to Rule the Heavens

As an American, what I learned about the Space Race is that the Soviets launched Sputnik and put the first man in space and then the Americans responded by catching up and passing them and going to the moon with the Apollo program.

So, how did that happen? Why were the Soviets out in front? How did the Americans catch up? What happened to the Soviet space program? Turns out, the USSR wasn’t really forthcoming with a lot of this historical information, but in the past few decades we’ve gained a lot more insight into that history. Deborah Cadbury’s Space Race: Battle to Rule the Heavens is essentially a joint biography of two of the biggest names in the early days of rocketry: Werner von Braun, the ex-Nazi designer of the V-2 rockets that bombed the UK, who was spirited out of a defeated Germany by the American military and put to work building the rockets that would ultimately get Americans to the moon; and Sergei Korolev, the man who went from starving to death in a Siberian gulag to becoming the “master architect” of the Soviet space program.

This is a history that doesn’t get told often enough. It’s a great read.-J.S.

The Stone Sky

Seems like it’s a year for series enders. I waited until the last volume of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series came out before I embarked on reading the whole thing, beginning with The Fifth Season, and I’m glad I did, as it reads more like one long unbroken story. The Stone Sky is an emotional conclusion to the long story of Essun, Nassun, and Schaffa, and sheds a lot more light on the history of this fantastical world. At this point, you’ve probably run out of excuses to read it, so just start at the beginning. Or, heck, wait for the TV show.—D.M.

Death’s End

Death’s End, written by Cixin Liu and translated into English by Ken Liu, is the third book in a series that started with The Three-Body Problem, the first foreign-language translation to win a Hugo Award for the best science fiction novel of the year.

These books are bananas. The first book made ridiculously audacious moves early on that I was positive that it couldn’t deliver on—and then it did. In spades. The scope and difficulty level of that book suggested a writer simply brimming with ideas, so many ideas that he could toss a dozen of them into a book, pulse the blender, and create one of the most inventive science-fiction books of the year. (In addition to giving me a very different perspective than what I usually get from English-language writers.)-J.S.

I had no idea. Death’s End is more audacious and more inventive than Three-Body Problem. Almost every chapter features ideas that would be mined for entire novel series by other writers. The scope of the story is the widest possibly imaginable. Yes, the characters in these books aren’t incredibly well defined—it definitely reminded me of old-school Asimovian SF at several points—but the ideas override all. I have never had as wild a reading experience as I had while reading Death’s End. It’s long and complicated and weird, a book written by someone who has read all the Science Fiction and decided he’s going to top it all, at once, in a single book.-J.S.

A Closed and Common Orbit

I enjoyed Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, though I found it a bit more like a series of vignettes than one whole story. No such comment about the followup, A Closed and Common Orbit, which narrows the scope by focusing on two specific side characters from the first book. Chambers intertwines these two characters’ stories in the past and present and in doing so delivers a tightly plotted and emotionally affecting story of self-discovery. You don’t need to have read the first book to enjoy this one, so feel free to jump on in; a third book in the same universe is on the way next year. —D.M.

Apex

Ramez Naam’s Apex is the final book in a series that began with the excellent Nexus. These are books about what might happen to the world if nanotechnology allows us to connect human brains directly to software—and one another. Oh, and also there’s an emergently intelligent artificial intelligence trying to break out of a computer center in China. There are augmented-human fight scenes, military maneuvers, and behind it all, a fascinating theme of what it means to be human when the edges between human beings and the technology that surrounds us are entirely eroded.-J.S.

The Hanging Tree

One of my favorite ongoing series is Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London novels, following the escapades of apprentice wizard and police constable Peter Grant. The latest installment, The Hanging Tree takes Peter into the world of the wealthy as he does a favor for Lady Ty, the goddess of the River Tyburn. As always, Aaronovitch’s book is eminently readable, replete with good humor and pop culture references. It also expands upon the books’ ongoing story arc of the Faceless Man and brings it around to some particularly timely, if uncomfortable, themes. —D.M.

Ganymede

I’m not a big Steampunk fan, but I can’t get enough of Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, set in a late 19th century where the Civil War rages on, airships fill the skies, and the city of Seattle has been taken over by zombies. It’s one of those genre-melting series that really does it for me. You should probably start the series with Boneshaker, but this year I finally read Ganymede, in which an airship pirate is recruited by the women of a New Orleans brothel (who are secretly spies) to raise an experimental Confederate steam submarine from a lake and navigate it down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, all while the Confederates have the city on lockdown. Oh, and there are Seattle-style zombies in the swamps.-J.S.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric novellas

I don’t tend to read a lot of shorter fiction, but I’ll certainly make an exception for the work of my favorite writer, Lois McMaster Bujold. Fans of her World of Five Gods (previous entries include The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt) will enjoy this series of novellas about the adventures of young Lord Penric, who accidentally becomes host to the demon Desdemona and, eventually, a temple sorcerer and learned divine of the Bastard’s Order. Most of the (currently) six e-book-only stories that make up this series are short, though Penric’s Mission is long enough to qualify as a novel in its own right. Start with Penric’s Demon and continue from there!—D.M.


By Six Colors Staff

Our favorite books of the year

Dan and Jason read a lot. And both of them keep running into people who say they hear us praising books, and then they go and read them! This is a great responsibility, and not one we take lightly. Here are 14 books we loved this year.

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By Six Colors Staff

Our favorites: Hardware and gadgets

We like technology. And we like gadgets. It has always been so. As the year comes to a close, we thought we’d share with you some of the favorite gadgets we’ve picked up in the last year.

echodot

Amazon Echo Dot

Yes, I extol the virtues of the Amazon Echo on what seems like a regular basis. But it was my favorite gadget of last year, and I’ve only continued to find it a benefit this year. If you’re looking to dip your toe into the voice-activated assistant pool, it’s hard not to like the second genration of Amazon’s Echo Dot. At just $50, it’s a bargain; it has all the same microphone and intelligence features of the full-size model, lacking only the better speaker. (And yeah, its speaker is really pretty poor.) Fortunately, a built-in aux jack lets you connect an external speaker, or you can pair one over Bluetooth.—DM

Logitech Harmony Hub

My house is a mess of conflicting smart-home technologies and home-entertainment devices. I’m slowly trying to clean it all up, or at least get it all working together. One way that I’ve managed to improve and simplify things is by replacing my old Logitech Harmony universal remote with the Logitech Harmony Hub.

The Harmony Hub is clever because it’s a little pod, including infrared blaster, that’s connected to your home internet. You can use your mobile device as a remote or buy a bundle that includes a physical remote (which I recommend). Now we’ve got a physical remote, with clicky buttons, that doesn’t need to be pointed in exactly the right location in order to turn various devices all and off. (My kids had a terrible habit of waving the remote around when the remote was still blasting out commands, leaving the TV on but the speakers off, or the game console on and the TV off.) The new remote is just sending radio signals to the Harmony Hub, which fires off infrared commands from an out-of-the-way location in view of all the devices it needs to control. (It also comes with remote infrared blasters, if you’ve got devices hidden behind a cabinet door.)

It gets better. My old Harmony remote could only be updated with a janky web app with a Mac app wrapped around it, and required a USB connection to update and reboot the remote. The Harmony Hub is programmable via an iOS app, and updates itself seamlessly as I sit on my couch. And since the Hub is on my local network, it ties in to my other smart home stuff—I can, for example, trigger an action on the Harmony Hub via my Amazon Echo.—JS

Sonos Play:1

I’ve been a fairly new convert to the networked speaker arena, but I picked up a Sonos Play: 1—which is discounted to $169 as of this writing—this year on the news that it would at some point integrate with the aforementioned Echo. I’ve found myself enjoying the Play:1 quite a bit—so much so that I picked up a second one. The sound quality is phenomenal, and Sonos’s integrations with popular music services like Amazon, Spotify, and Apple Music make it a friendly and easy-to-use device, though I still wish I could simply have it play music from iTunes or audio from my computer.—DM

black_interface_headon1

Anova Bluetooth Precision Cooker

So it turns out that sous vide cooking—a method by which you cook food in a plastic bag at a constant temperature—is all the rage these days. But you know what? One of the most satisfying gadgets I’ve bought recently is Anova’s immersion cooker.

It comes in a box that is clearly inspired by Apple’s packaging, and the product itself is beautifully designed silver-and-black appliance. The Anova cooker is a cylinder that you attach to the side of one of your pots with an included clamp. Plug it in and dial in your target temperature, and it starts to churn and warm the water in the pot. There’s a Bluetooth feature—and on newer models, even a Wi-Fi feature—that let you connect the cooker to a mediocre iOS app. I wouldn’t bother—the cute little translucent dial lets you easily pick a target temperature.

There are no end to the sous vide cookbooks and websites out there, so all I’ll say is that with the Anova cooker I can make chicken that is guaranteed to not be overcooked—very hard to do on the grill or in the oven—and beef that is exactly at the level of doneness that I desire, every time. Brian Chen’s sous vide explainer in the New York Times led me to buy a $14 chuck roast that, after a day of immersion cooking, turned into eight tender steaks. Eight steaks for $14! Amazing.—JS

Bose QC-35s

Noise-canceling headphones have always struck me as a bit of a luxury, but with several multi-hour flights in the past few months, I decided to treat myself to a pair of the $349 Bose QuietComfort 35s. Most reviewers seem to agree that even if Bose models don’t always have the best sound, their noise-cancelation is second to none, and I’d have to agree. Putting on the headphones and flipping on the noise-cancelation feels like a curtain dropping around you. They’re particularly brilliant in places with constant noise, like a plane or train. I found I could hear my music or watch a TV show without hearing any background noise. The Bluetooth version works pretty well, pairing with two devices simultaneously, and featuring a quoted 20-hour battery life, a backup cord for wired use, an airline adapter, and a very nice hardshell carrying case.—DM

The Amazon Kindle Oasis (left) with the Kobo Aura One.

Kobo Aura One and Kindle Oasis

Look, if you want to buy a Kindle you should buy a Paperwhite. But I love Kindles and the new high-end super-premium Kindle Oasis is pretty great. It’s got physical page-turn buttons, is ridiculously thin and light, and comes with a leather case that offers not just protection, but battery recharging.

If you’re outside the Amazon ecosystem, it’s worth looking at the Kobo Aura One, which is a great piece of hardware. It’s got a big screen that makes it feel like you’re reading a hardcover book, and it’s waterproof, to boot.

I can’t decide which one I’m going to take on my upcoming vacation. The Aura One’s waterproof but the Oasis is so light! Oh well—either way, I can’t go wrong.—JS


By Dan Moren

Our favorites: Grab bag!

Roll20 is great for playing D&D and other board games on the Internet.

‘Tis the season when we list a bunch of our favorite stuff of the year. But some stuff doesn’t fit in a tidy category. And so, I present to you: My favorite uncategorizable stuff!

Codenames

For that sweet spot of a party game that’s easy to learn, fast to play, and still a challenge, Codenames is exactly what you’re looking for. The premise involves a thin veneer of spying, but the game is really about trying to clue your partner into identifying which words in a 5 × 5 grid of cards are “your” words, without having them guess those of your opponent. It’s a bit Taboo, a bit Pictionary, and a bit Guess Who, but I’ve found that everybody I’ve played with has enjoyed it, and you can generally find it for under $15.

Star Wars: Rebellion

Fair warning: I’ve only played once, and it’s not for the faint of heart, but if you have a friend who’s a die-hard Star Wars fan, Star Wars: Rebellion is a heck of a lot of fun. The expansive one-on-one game (which has a two-on-two variant) sees one player in the role of the Rebel Alliance, challenging the other player’s Galactic Empire. The Empire is trying to find the Rebels’ hidden base while the Alliance is attempting to sway the galaxy to its side. Settle in, because this $70 game takes a few hours to play—and you’ll probably want to blast some Star Wars soundtracks while you do so.

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1

I enjoy most cooperative games—there’s something refreshing about battling a common enemy with your friends—and Pandemic Legacy takes that formula to the next level, by creating a “year”-long campaign where you and your team of CDC battle the outbreaks of disease around the globe. The game starts off much like the traditional Pandemic, but an ongoing narrative throws in some twists and turns. (I won’t spoil them.) Much like its predecessor, Risk Legacy, decisions you make as you progress affect the ultimate outcome of the story, and the very board and game mechanics change as you go. It’s a fun ride, even if it can be finicky about rules and proper procedures at times.

Cloak

If you travel a lot, or if you simply end up using random Wi-Fi networks a lot, you might be concerned—rightfully so—about the security of your network connection. That’s a good reason to turn to the security of a VPN like Cloak. The service, which offers both monthly/yearly subscription plans for $10/$99 and time-limited passes starting at $4 for a week, offers both iOS and Mac apps that you can use on all your devices. Whenever you connect to network that you haven’t designated as trustworthy, Cloak will automatically log into the VPN, encrypting all the data from your device. You can also choose from a variety of different locations for the VPN you’re connecting to, which may help deal with some geographic restrictions.

Doodle

I’m not sure how we could accomplish anything over at The Incomparable without the help of Doodle. The free service lets you find the time that works the best for any meeting, whether it be a podcast, party, D&D session, or, I don’t know, a work meeting I guess. Choose a handful of dates, send an invitation to everybody on your list, and everybody can pick the times that they’re available, making it easy to pick the one that works for the most people. The iOS app even lets you know if you have conflicts on your calendar. There are paid private and business plans, but the free option is probably sufficient for most people.

Roll20

As fun as it is to play role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons or board games like Trivial Pursuit in person, sometimes you just can’t get everybody into the same place. For The Incomparable’s Total Party Kill and Game Night podcasts, we’ve managed to span the vast abyss of space and time zones by using Roll 20. It’s an online gaming service that incorprates video and voice chat as well as a shared map where you can move gaming tokens, roll virtual dice, and even create complicated macros and scripts, if you’re so inclined. The basic model is free, but pony up a little bit and you can add more storage space for your game assets, tablet support, or even access to the API if you’re feeling ambitious.

[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]


By Six Colors Staff

Our Favorites: iOS apps

The iPhone may be approaching its tenth birthday, but it often seems as though the iOS app scene is doing anything but slowing down. That said, the huge preponderance of apps has made it trickier to separate the wheat from the chaff. Still, we soldier on, testing new apps as they arrive, and where necessary, pitting them against old favorites. We’ve combed through both recent and more longstanding apps for the ones that have stood out for us.

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By Six Colors Staff

Our favorites: iOS/Mac Games

All work and no play make all of us more than a little bit dull. Great games abound on Apple’s platforms, and you shouldn’t feel the least bit guilty about indulging in them. After all, sometimes the brain does its best work when it’s distracted. At least, that’s totally what we keep telling ourselves.

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By Six Colors Staff

Our favorite things: iOS apps

From quick-check iPhone apps to super-deep ones for the iPad Pro, there’s a broad spectrum of iOS apps out there, and a bunch that we love. Here’s a look at 18 of our favorite iOS apps of 2015.

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By Six Colors Staff

Our favorites: Mac apps

Even as the iPad gets more and more capable, the Mac remains the beast of burden for much of our days. Whether it’s a MacBook or an iMac, we spend a fair amount of our days behind a keyboard and trackpad. And, more importantly, to get that work done, we need apps—lots of apps. Here are a few of the ones without which we simply can’t get things done.

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By Six Colors Staff

Our favorites: Services and stuff

Hardware and software are great, but services are the gifts that keep on giving. Sure, subscribing to a service can often be pricey, but the returns you get are often well worth it. So here are a few of our favorite services that might make a good gift for someone—or even a treat for yourself.

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By Philip Michaels

Christmas music: The 10 biggest holiday playlist mistakes

Image: Shutterstock, of course.

Doubtless, if you are reading this article, it is because you are taking time out of your holiday preparations to catch up on the latest Mac news. This is a wise choice by you, partly because Jason does a fine job packaging Mac News You Can Use in a compelling and engaging way, as does the other guy whose name I forget. Scott? Steve? I want to say it’s Steve. Anyhow, nicely done, Steve.

But your decision to temporarily postpone your holiday ramp-up to visit this particular corner of the Internet is fortuitous for another reason. Because at some point in the build up to the Festive Period, you are going to put together a Holiday Playlist, and you are going to get it spectacularly wrong.

I say this because I’ve been at this for a dozen years — as long as Apple has made buying a la carte music as simple as tapping on a Buy button — and the holiday music section of my iTunes Library is a horror show. Should a panel ever be convened to examine musical crimes against humanity — and under President Huckabee, I put the possibility at even money — I will probably be called as an expert witness and, even more probably, will be first against the wall for my history of regrettable downloads.

The difference between you and me is that I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I’m here before you today to serve as a warning against following my regrettable lead. Think of me as Jacob Marley offering a chilling warning to all of you Scrooges out there. Instead of being bound by the heavy chains I forged in life, I’m lugging around a metric ton of 99-cent downloads I’d just as soon be able to return for store credit. Mark my horrible errors in judgment, and make sure you don’t repeat them.

These are the 10 mistakes people making when assembling holiday playlists.

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By Six Colors Staff

Our favorites: Board and card games

Tear the kids 1 away from the video games and gather round the kitchen table for some honest-to-goodness real life gaming. Board games are a great way to get some family togetherness time, and always a good excuse to get some friends together. Here are a few of our favorites, if you’re not sure where to start or what to get next.


  1. Or, to be fair, parents.  ↩

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By Six Colors Staff

Our favorites: iOS/tvOS games

Welcome back to the Six Colors gift guide, in which Dan and Jason tell you about of a bunch of stuff we liked in the past year. You might like them too!

Frankly, there are so many games on iOS it’s hard to know what to recommend: do you like action? Adventure? Puzzles? Strategy? We could go on all day. So here are a few of the games we’ve been playing the most in the past year, which might appeal to you or someone for whom you still need the perfect gift. And if this isn’t enough for you, we’ll remind you that the apps on last year’s list are still available, too.

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By Jason Snell

Our Favorite Things: iOS Games

I always say I am not a “gamer,” yet I seem to spend a lot of time playing games, especially on iOS. My Six Colors collaborator Dan Moren is someone I consider much more of a gamer than I am, so I asked him to join me to create this list of iOS games we have enjoyed over the past year. We hope you can waste as much time on them as we did.

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By Jason Snell

My Favorite Things: Games (non-software edition)

carcassonne
Carcassonne

I live in a house with three other people. My wife and I have been living under the same roof for quite some time, but at some point we welcomed these tiny crying creatures into our house. They keep getting bigger, though. One of them is now 13 and the other one’s 10, and to keep them entertained sometimes we play games on our dining-room table.

If you also live with people—children or otherwise—and enjoy playing games, you might be interested in buying one of these and giving it as a gift. I don’t know, is it still gift-giving season?

Note: I’m including Amazon links here, but I strongly encourage that you consider visiting your local game store, if you’ve got one. Local game stores are an amazing resource, filled with people who will help you pick exactly the right game for the needs of your friends and/or family.

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By Jason Snell

My Favorite Things: iOS Apps

I have an iPhone and an iPad. Do you have an iPhone and/or an iPad? Did you know that you can add small programs, or “apps,” to it? Here are some of these so-called “apps” that I enjoy.

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By Jason Snell

My Favorite Things: Geeky Holiday Music

A few years ago I wrote a story about one of my favorite holiday playlists, one featuring a bunch of geeky holiday music. Well, I’m no longer employed by the publisher of that story, so I’m just going to write a new story here on the site that I actually own. Merry Christmas empowerment!

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By Jason Snell

My Favorite Things: Mac apps

I spend a lot of time at my Mac. I love my iPad and iPhone, but my Mac is still where I spend most of my time. Between writing and making podcasts, this is the place where my tools of choice reside. Since it’s the end of the year, I figured, why not mention a bunch of Mac apps that I use every day? If there were a gift-giving holiday coming up, you could even use that as an excuse to buy them.

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By Jason Snell

My Favorite Things: Services and stuff

It’s hard to write about web services in a holiday gift guide. They’re intangible, for the most part. Who likes giving the gift of intangibility? “Merry Christmas, Grandma, I got you a year’s subscription to Amazon Prime! This empty box is a representation of all the boxes you’ll be getting via free two-day shipping!”

So it’s settled, then. Only a dummy would write a gift guide entry about favorite services and stuff you order over the Internet.

Continue Reading "My Favorite Things: Services and stuff"


By Jason Snell

My Favorite Things: Hardware

As a newly minted independent content creator or whatever, I am no longer required by my employer to brainstorm shameless ways to mention products in conjunction with an upcoming set of gift-giving holidays. Fortunately, I’m not barred from it, either.

That being said, on the site I’m going to write a few articles about things I like, so that if they sound good, you might try them out or even give them as a gift. If it was the sort of season when one would do that sort of thing.

27-inch iMac with Retina 5K Display

iMac from the side

As I was reviewing Apple’s new Retina iMac I went out and bought one for myself. Yes, I was in the market for a new computer and had some money I needed to spend, but using the new iMac for even a few days was enough to convince me that I needed to get one.

Yes, the display is gorgeous, but the iMac packs processing and graphics power too. Outside of a high-end Mac Pro you will not find a faster Mac. No, it’s not cheap, but $2499 for one of the fastest Macs around attached to a screen so big that even 4K video plays with room to spare… that seems like a pretty good deal.

[Starts at $2499, Amazon link.]

MacBook Air 11”

I love the 11-inch MacBook Air. It’s Apple’s cheapest laptop, but it’s still fast and versatile. Yes, there may be Retina MacBook Air models appearing in 2015, but will they start at $899? All signs point to no. As a travel Mac the 11-inch is a perfect size. Until I got my iMac, I also hooked my MacBook Air up to an external display and used it as my desktop Mac too. The Intel i5 processor and the fast flash storage meant I rarely felt any slowdowns.

[Starts at $899.]

iPad mini 2

Yes, Apple came out with the iPad mini 3 this year. I think the iPad mini 2’s the better buy. The iPad mini 3 is $100 more expensive than the iPad mini 2, but all that’s really changed is the addition of Touch ID. I like Touch ID on my iPhone, but it seems less necessary on an iPad, especially if that addition is going to cost you $100.

Unfortunately, the existence of the iPad mini 3 means that the iPad mini 2 isn’t available in as many variations as it used to be. There are only 16GB and 32GB models, so if you need to max out on storage, you can’t choose this path. Even the $349 32GB iPad mini 2 is a pretty good deal, compared to the $499 64GB iPad mini 3.

I wish Apple had upgraded the iPad mini 3 with the same tech as the iPad Air 2, but that didn’t happen. Instead, by keeping the iPad mini 2 on the price list, Apple’s providing an awfully nice price for a great little iPad. This is the iPad I use every day, happily.

[Starts at $299, Amazon link.]

iPhone 6

iphone6

The question of the fall was iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus? I’m firmly on the side of the iPhone 6. I’ve been loving my iPhone 6 since the day I got it. Though the iPhone 6 Plus has its fans, I don’t think it’s an iPad replacement and it’s just too large for my taste. It’s not a bad product, especially for basketball players and similarly giant people, but it’s not what I would choose. Or recommend.

[Starts at $199 with contract.]

TiVo Roamio

I bought a Tivo Roamio a year ago and I’m still loving it. I haven’t used the latest iterations of every cable and satellite company’s DVRs, obviously, but after several years with DirecTV’s serviceable DVR technology, moving back to TiVo was a pleasure. I can offload recorded shows to watch on the TiVo app, and the two other TVs in my house have a TiVo Mini attached, so they’ve got access to live TV and all the recordings on the main DVR.

The Roamio does more than just TV, too. We also use it to watch Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Comcast On Demand, MLB TV, and Vudu. I love it.

[Plus model starts at $400, $320 now on Amazon. TiVo service extra. Pro model starts at $600, $493 now on Amazon.]

Pebble

I’m still wearing the Pebble, and still liking it. It’s a basic smartwatch with some good hardware, improving software, and very long battery life. I get the distinct feeling that next year will be an Apple Watch kind of year for me, but at $99 the regular Pebble is priced right. It’s the watch I wear most days. I’m wearing it right now.

[$99 for base model. Pebble Steel, which I don’t like as much, costs more.]

Avantree Roxa

This is a weird one, but I use it all the time: The Avantree Roxa is a tiny Bluetooth receiver. I have it plugged in next to my (long-discontinued) Squeezebox Boom music player. The Boom’s a great music player and it’s got a line-in jack for auxiliary input, but no support for Bluetooth. That’s where the Roxa comes in: I connect my iPhone to it via Bluetooth, and it plays the audio through the Boom’s aux jack. It’s even got a USB port for device charging. I picked this up at CES and I honestly haven’t compared it to other, similar devices. But I highly recommend devices like these to retrofit older speakers with line-in jacks into Bluetooth-capable devices.

[$70 list, on Amazon for $35.]


By Jason Snell

Gift Guide: Marvel Unlimited

marvel-event
It’s a lot easier to read comic events in an app when there’s a reading order.

If you or someone you know loves, loves, loves Marvel comics—and especially if we’re talking about someone who doesn’t buy many or any comics the week they’re released—I highly recommend the Marvel Unlimited service.

It’s like Netflix for Marvel comics. (And only Marvel comics—I wish other publishers would offer a service like this, but they don’t!) For $10 per month or $69 annually, you get access to more than 15,000 comics in Marvel’s library. Read as many as you want.

To read the comics, you’ve got to be on the Internet—though you can offload 12 at a time onto any device, so even if you’re out of range or on an airplane, you can have access to the equivalent of two trade paperbacks worth of comics.

The selection on Marvel Unlimited is pretty great. There are classic runs from all of the comics you’d expect—Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men—plus newer books. In fact, Marvel seems to be posting most of their comics with a six-to-nine month lag. I buy a handful of brand-new Marvel comics on Comixology every month, but most of their stuff just doesn’t appeal enough for me to pay $3 or $4 per issue. Once that stuff hits Marvel Unlimited, though, I’m all over it.

kittypryde
You can tap to reveal a toolbar, but otherwise you’re just reading comics pages on your iPad. It’s good stuff.

The economics of a service like Marvel Unlimited are pretty simple: If you read enough comics in a year to make it worth $69, it’s a service worth getting. I’ve had it for two years now, and have no regrets.

Recently I spent a weekend catching up on last year’s Infinity event, written by Jonathan Hickman. (It was surprisingly good!) Marvel Unlimited provided a suggested reading order for the entire event, which was a huge help. All told, there were 22 comics in the main sequence of the event. Most of those comics are now for sale on Comixology for $2, meaning in a weekend I read $44 worth of comics. It adds up quickly.

And not having to weigh whether a particular storyline or plot synopsis is worth several dollars opens you up to exploration. I’ve read numerous excellent runs of comics that I never would have bought, based on stray Twitter recommendations. (Brubaker and Fraction’s Immortal Iron Fist and Mark Waid’s Daredevil, to name two.)

When the service launched, it only worked in web browsers and was Flash based. When the iOS app arrived, it was usable but really ugly. It’s come a long way since then. The app is more stable, does a better job of pre-loading issues as you start to read them, and there’s even a Smart Panel mode that—while not as good as Comixology’s Guided View—still does a decent job of guiding you from panel to panel if you prefer to read that way.

marvel-next
When you finish an issue, hit the feeder bar—er, Read Now button—to read more.

And when you get to the end of an issue, it prompts you to immediately jump to the next issue. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer you the next issue in an event, which would’ve been nice when I was reading Infinity.)

Marvel Unlimited isn’t perfect. The app still has a few bugs—the inability to zoom properly on two-page spreads when in portrait orientation bugs the crap out of me, and it still crashes a little too often. The catalog of comics is still missing some classic issues (only the first eight issues of John Byrne’s Alpha Flight, really?), though in the past couple of years they’ve filled in many of the holes—all the Uncanny X-Men issues I missed are now there.

If you’ve got a comic fan who likes Marvel on your gift list, or you want to do yourself a solid, I highly recommend Marvel Unlimited. I wish Marvel’s distinguished competition offered a service like this—it might actually get me back into DC comics for the first time since I was a teenager.