Holiday Gift Guide 5My first post for 9to5Mac is on a topic near and dear to my heart: best-of-breed Apple products and accessories. Why should you trust me? I’ve been a professional product reviewer for 23 years and an Apple user for 28 years. Last week, I finished an 11-year stint running the editorial side of iLounge, the leading Apple product review site, where I tested literally thousands of Apple accessories from every major company on the planet. Readers have praised my reviews as accurate and insightful, and I always put my readers’ needs first when testing new products.

I just joined 9to5Mac as Senior Editor, focusing on product reviews, so I’m excited to share some of my favorite picks with you today! One important thing you should know is this: even though I’ve tried the fanciest gear on the market for the past decade, I don’t lightly recommend expensive products over more affordable options. There has to be a very good reason to pay a premium, so I’ll typically let you know what the reason is if I recommend something that’s a little pricier than a quality basic option.

The Desktop Mac To Buy: iMac + Accessories


For years, most of my daily work has been done on a 27″ iMac (currently $1,749 and up via Amazon) – notably not the newer and pricier Retina 5K iMac ($2,449 and up), which I’d skip this year. If you need a large creative canvas, the regular 27″ model is an ideal compromise between pricing and performance, as it’s large enough for multiple windows, fast enough to match or beat any other Mac save the Mac Pro (which I would not recommend at all), and you probably won’t see individual pixels on the non-Retina version’s screen. Consider the 21.5″ iMac if you don’t need a big screen and want to save up to $500. I’d recommend future-proofing any 21.5″ iMac by buying it with 16GB RAM pre-installed for $200 more, because it’s not easily user-installable. For the 27″ model, extra RAM can easily be installed later, and bought less expensively from Crucial whenever you decide you need it.


The most important Mac accessory I own is a G-Technology G-Drive USB (2TB/$150, 4TB/$190, 6TB/$350) external hard drive – I went with the mid-range 4TB model. Family photos are critically important to me, and having a safe backup of my Mac contents is mandatory. Over time, I’ve learned that a hard drive is only worth buying if it guarantees long-term reliability. G-Drives are widely regarded as amongst the most reliable in the industry — capable of surviving industrial-strength punishment — and use Hitachi drives inside Mac-matching metal frames. I’ve owned five G-Drives and never had a problem with any of them. The brand new USB 3.0 version is fast, affordable, and small by desktop hard drive standards. I love it.


In the “optional” accessory category, my iMac sits between a pair of Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 Hi-Fi Speakers ($500). They are the single most luxurious accessory I use with my Macs, and unlike dozens of less expensive speakers I’ve tested, they don’t short out and stop working after a year or two. B&W built the MM-1 to match the iMac, look beautiful, and sound excellent given their size; they succeed in all regards. Refurbed ones can be had for $400.


My iMac sits on top of a Just Mobile Drawer ($100), which mimics the look of the machine and keeps my desk clean by holding a ton of little things inside. I could live without it, but continue to like having it around.

The Laptop Mac To Buy: Retina MacBook Pro


Right now, I wouldn’t recommend buying any Apple laptop other than a 13″ Retina MacBook Pro ($1,279 and up). It has the best screen of any Apple product I own, it’s not much larger than a 13″ MacBook Air — a machine I never much liked — and it’s blazing fast. I love the size and convenience of the 11″ MacBook Air ($1,079 and up), which can be taken everywhere with ease, but the Air’s screen is in dire need of an update. Apple has been working on a smaller Retina machine for some time, supposedly a slimmer model with a 12″ screen. Until that comes out, the 13″ Pro is Apple’s best laptop. Choose whichever version has enough hard drive space for your needs; you’ll be stunned at how fast the machine feels, even compared with an iMac.


I use a Cooler Master L-Stand (under $45 at Amazon) to hold the MacBook Pro upright on my desk for charging, but most users won’t find that to be necessary. If you want to use your MacBook with an external monitor, however, it’s a great option.

The iPhone To Buy: iPhone 5s, 6, or 6 Plus


Although there’s one desktop Mac I’d recommend for most people, one laptop, and (increasingly) one tablet, there’s no single correct answer as to which Apple phone is the best. Right now, the iPhone 5s ($99*), iPhone 6 ($199-$399*), and iPhone 6 Plus ($299-$499*) are all great. The one that will be right for you is the one that your hands and pockets feel most comfortable with. All three have pretty excellent rear cameras by phone standards — one of the most-used features of a phone — though the 6 and 6 Plus cameras are noticeably better than the 5s’s, and the 6 Plus’s is marginally better than the 6’s. For a variety of reasons, I wouldn’t recommend the iPhone 5c to anyone at this point. (* = Pricing with two-year cellular contract.)

What do I use? I have big hands, and using an iPhone 6 Plus has enabled me to type accurately on the screen for the first time in seven years. The 6 Plus footprint is a little too large — something most noticeable when pocketing it — but the battery life is awesome, and the screen is large enough that it completely displaced the iPad mini 2 I was using all the time before the 6 Plus came along. Most importantly, the rear camera has completely done away with my need for a standalone point-and-shoot. On the rare occasion I need zoom or markedly superior optical quality, I can use my DSLR, but that’s happening less and less these days.

The iPhone Accessories To Buy: Cases, Stands, Speakers, Headphones + Car Accessories


Cases: The case I’m personally using with the iPhone 6 Plus is Griffin’s Reveal. At less than $20 including shipping from Amazon, it’s one of the least expensive major-brand iPhone cases out there, but it’s also an excellent choice for the 6 Plus, which can become really uncomfortable to hold with an overly thick case. Reveal shows off the color of your 6 Plus, provides full button protection, and feels smooth in your hands.


For the iPhone 6, I’m a fan of SwitchEasy’s Odyssey ($20), which is similarly inexpensive, provides full button and port coverage, and looks pretty cool. There are many more options for the 6 than the 6 Plus right now.


For iPhone 5s, Speck’s CandyShell (under $20) is a case I actively loved using. It’s superb in protection and neutral visually. I’m still waiting for a regular CandyShell for the iPhone 6 Plus.


Desktop Stand/Dock: I’m a big fan of Twelve South’s HiRise ($35) and HiRise Deluxe ($60, shown), the former a stand — you have to self-supply a Lightning cable — and the latter a dock, as it comes with Lightning and micro-USB (for battery cases) cables in the package. They look nearly identical to one another; pick Deluxe if you need the cables.



Speakers and Headphones: As the speakers inside iPhones and iPads have continued to improve, I find myself using external audio gear less these days. But the recent products that have really stood out to me are Braven’s Mira ($100), an affordable and really well-built little speaker that lets me safely listen to music or podcasts in the shower, and Bowers & Wilkins’ C5 S2 In-Ear Headphones ($180), which combine great sound and incredible in-ear stabilization. Neither of these is the biggest or the most expensive option out there, but they both hit sweet spots in terms of performance for the dollar.


Car Accessories: Two car accessories are “must haves” in my personal book – a mount and a charging solution. During summer months, it’s easy to recommend an inexpensive car vent mount for the iPhone such as Kenu’s Airframe ($25) for iPhone 5/6 or Airframe+ ($30) for iPhone 6/6 Plus. They’re small, super-easy to attach and detach, and mount your iPhone at exactly the right level.


But if you live in a climate where your car’s heating system will be blasting hot air onto your iPhone, it’s worth the extra $5 for Just Mobile’s Xtand Go Z1 ($35). This mount works on most car dashboards using a smart adhesive solution, and after using the included screwdriver to tighten its preferred position, it’s rock steady with even the iPhone 6 Plus.


For charging, I personally recommend Just Mobile’s $30 Highway Max. It’s beautiful, has two 2.1-Amp USB ports, and has worked reliably for me over a year of testing. There are many other charging options out there, but not one I’ve tested is definitively better than Max for the price.

The iPad To Buy: iPad Air 2 + Accessories


Before the new iPhones came out, I was a semi-enthusiastic iPad mini 2 user. I loved the mini 2’s size, weight, and speed, but the screen’s colors aren’t great, which bothers me as a photographer — I can’t use a mini to color-correct photos. The day I got my iPhone 6 Plus, I put down the mini 2 and never came back to it. Believe it or not, I was nearly ready to give up iPads altogether. Soon enough, the iPad Air 2 came out and won me back over. It’s the first iPad, ever, that felt so meaningfully thin to me that I didn’t want to saddle it with a gigantic case. While I prefer the mini’s footprint, particularly for typing, the Air 2’s new anti-reflective screen, speed, and speaker output are much better than I’d expected when Apple announced it in October. I’d recommend the midrange Wi-Fi 64GB version to most people, as that’s the sweet spot for storage capacity. Like many people, I think the iPad mini 3 is a joke, and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.


Accessories: My speaker and car charger recommendations are the same for the Air 2 as for the iPhones. But finding a great case for the Air 2 is a problem right now. Most companies are still struggling to release case updates that match the new model’s thinness, and too many are releasing “new” cases that make the Air 2 as thick as the original Air. For that reason, I would not recommend buying a case right now unless you absolutely have to do so. Some people have recommended Apple’s $79 Apple iPad Air 2 Smart Case, which is too bulky and expensive in my view. I’d suggest saving your cash for a month or two, when the next round of great cases is likely to start popping up. If you need something right now, Moshi’s Muse (above, $30) is a wonderfully made soft sleeve that you can keep around for use with any iPad, storing accessories in the front pocket if needed.


For any iPad mini, or the first-gen iPad Air, I’d strongly recommend ZeroChroma’s Folio-Slide or Vario-SC cases. They have superb stands built into their backs, adding almost no thickness, and provide great (Folio-Slide, sub-$70) or close to great (Vario-SC, sub-$50) protection. If I had to choose only one case for any iPad I’ve owned, it would be a Folio-Slide, but they tend to arrive very late for new iPad models.

Obviously, I’m going to have a lot more to say on accessories in the near future, but this Guide points you towards some of my very favorite items, most of which have stood the test of time. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

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