We at Kiplinger's pooled our collective expertise to bring you our favorite things in the world of shopping and travel. And just in time for the holidays too -- this gallery is full of gift ideas from tech gadgets to delectable chocolate. Plus, check out our slide show of More of Our Favorite Things for even more inspiration and personal picks from Kiplinger staff.
||Slide Show: More of Our Favorite Things|
||The Best of Everything|
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For everyday point-and-shoot photography, you can't beat the Canon PowerShot SD700 IS ($350). This pocket-size, 6-megapixel digicam weighs less than 6 ounces and takes great photos and video clips. The 4X optical zoom handles tight close-ups well, and the 2.5-inch LCD shows sharp, crisp images. A slightly upgraded version, the SD800 IS, was recently released. It offers 7 megapixels and a brighter screen.
BEST CELL PHONE
Few phones let you surf the Web at the speed of the latest models of Palm's Treo: the 700w (pictured above, for Verizon users), the 700wx (for Sprint users), the 700p (for Sprint and Verizon users) and the 750 (for Cingular users). Surfing speeds nearly match a basic DSL Internet hookup. Each model is compact,measuring about 4 inches high, 2 inches wide and 1 inch thick. Prices start at $250, but your total cost will depend on your wireless-service plan.
BEST BIG-SCREEN BUY
True, there are bigger high definition sets on the market -- and certainly pricier ones -- but the Vizio P50HDTV is hands-down the best value. This 50-inch, 4-inch-thick, HD plasma set has a bright, colorful picture and an HD tuner for receiving broadcast HD channels in your area (although most people use a cable or satellite box instead). Sold online at www.viziotv.com, or through warehouse outlets such as Costco and Sam's Club, the Vizio costs $2,000 -- hundreds less than competing sets from Panasonic and Toshiba.
BEST ENERGY-SAVING GIZMO
Smart Strip Power Strip
Consumers spend more money to power home-audio and DVD products when they're turned off than when they're active. Solution: Plug your devices into a power strip that stops drawing juice when your gadgets are off. Our top choice, the Smart Strip Power Strip ($31; www.smarthomeusa.com), has sockets that accommodate several types of plugs. And it pays for itself in lower electricity bills within a few months.
Looking for audio books and periodicals? Check out the selection at Audible.com. With more than 30,000 titles available for download, you can find everything from unabridged Chaucer to the Wall Street Journal to Portuguese lessons. Pay per title, at an average cost of $25, or choose a membership plan that will knock the price down to as low as $10 per book.
BEST LAST-MINUTE TRAVEL SITE
Site59 (www.site59.com) puts together last-minute weekend packages and suggests travel ideas tailored to your budget and destination. It also offers the easiest way to book a trip as early as 14 days before you go or as late as three hours before departure on domestic trips.
BEST AIRFARE SITE
Shopping for airfares online is the way to go, but entering your itinerary at each travel Web site can be inconvenient. Solution: Enter your itinerary just once at search engine Kayak.com and let it fetch fares (plus hotel rates and other travel products) from more than 120 sources. Kayak lets you conduct a single search for dates up to three days before and after your ideal travel dates and even offers to e-mail you when fares drop to your preferred price. One downside: The site doesn't report the fares from some discount airlines, such as Southwest.
BEST LUXURY HOTEL SITE
In the byzantine Web game of nabbing a great deal on a fine hotel room, Priceline.com's booking system is tops. You submit a bid on a room after specifying a star class, the dates of your stay and a neighborhood in a metro area. Bids of less than $100 a night on luxury lodgings are often successful. Two catches: Priceline doesn't disclose the name of the hotel you're booking until you buy, and it doesn't refund your money if you cancel.
BEST TRAIN EXPERIENCE
The Rocky Mountaineer
The Mountaineer is unsurpassed on this continent for its combination of scenery and luxury. It operates 78 days a year between Calgary and Vancouver in western Canada. A first-class GoldLeaf ticket ($1,069 to $1,699 per person) entitles you to breathtaking views from a domed car, gourmet meals in the diner, an open-air observation platform and comfortable overnight accommodations midway through the two-day trip. This is the way to enjoy Canada's Rockies and Selkirks (www.rockymountaineer.com).
Food and entertaining
FIRST-PERSON PICK: BEST CHEF'S KNIFE
Misono UX10 Gyuto
European chef's knives, particularly those from Germany, are made of heavy stainless steel and have a large bolster (the metal under the handle at the end of the blade). The blade is beveled on both sides. Japanese knives are lighter and made of harder steel. They have no bolster and are usually beveled only on one side. I used to swear by the European-style Wuuml;sthof 8-inch chef's knife, but it is difficult to maintain. Over many sharpenings, all but the area near the hilt is worn down, leaving a dead spot on the blade.
Then I discovered Japanese knives and haven't gone back. Because they are beveled on one side and have no hilt, it is easier to get a great edge and maintain it indefinitely, and the hard metal does not wear down quickly. My main chef's knife, which I use for virtually everything, is a 9.5-inch Misono UX10 Gyuto. It costs about $200, at www.chefknivestogo.com.
-- Will Frailey, chef, New York City
BEST DARK CHOCOLATE
Felchlin's Cru Sauvage
We sniffed, sampled, pondered, stared into middle distance, sipped a little water, and sampled again. Finally, we rendered judgment. Of 20 dark chocolates, we gave top honors to Felchlin's Cru Sauvage, a limited-edition bar made of wild cocoa beans from Bolivia. The Swiss-crafted chocolate, with 68% cocoa content, placed first for its soft glow, silken texture, citrusy undertones and bitter-sweet equipoise ($20 for a package of two 1.8-ounce bars from www.chocolateco-op.com; 10% off through October with a KPF-01 discount code).
Schott Zwiesel Tritan
If you've ever broken or chipped a wine glass, you've probably wondered why someone hasn't found a way to make resilient stemware. Well, Schott Zwiesel has. Its Tritan line of crystal glass is made with titanium, resulting in a stronger glass that is much less likely to chip or break and is dishwasher-safe. And you don't have to sacrifice looks -- it's elegant stemware that comes in ten styles, such as the timeless Classico, which runs just $9 a glass. The rest range from $8 to $18 a glass. For vendors, contact Schott Zwiesel's U.S. partner, Fortessa (www.fortessa.com).
Talk about tough -- the decision, that is, not the steaks. It came down to Lobel's of New York (www.lobels.com) and Niman Ranch (www.nimanranch.com), a California company that sells hormone-free beef. Both steaks had been dry-aged; neither had been frozen. Buttery? Check. Juicy? Absolutely. Tender and gristle-free? Yes and yes. Flavor? Darned good in the case of the Niman Ranch steak -- but not quite as rich, nutty and complex as Lobel's. Two 12-ounce strip steaks from Niman Ranch will run you $50, plus $20 for shipping; two 8-ounce strips from Lobel's cost $50, plus $26 for shipping.
BEST CRAB CAKES
The Crab Place
Sometimes surfing the Web can be almost as good as a trip to the best dockside joint -- in this case, The Crab Place (www.crabplace.com). Crammed with large chunks of flavorful crabmeat, the cakes are light on filler. Six 2-ounce crab cakes run $33 plus $20 shipping for next-day delivery. We got to pick the delivery date, and the company sent a follow-up to see if we were satisfied. We were.
Gifts and leisure
FIRST-PERSON PICK: BEST MIDLIFE-CRISIS CAR
This is mainly a guy thing: You reach an age when you feel as if something's missing. You flirt with the idea of having an affair, but you still love your wife and you don't have any candidates anyway. Or you consider taking up surfing, but you can't stand California. What to do?
Buy a roadster. The majority of these two-seater droptops are purchased by forty- and fiftysomething men at the peak of their earning power. They're ragtops, so you feel the wind in your thinning hair, and they're two-seaters, so you can take your wife (or your golf clubs) on exciting outings without back-seat interruptions.
My top choice is the Porsche Boxster roadster. The Boxster starts at $45,800, so it's not financially prohibitive if you trade in the sedan or SUV you've been driving. With precision performance at midlife-crisis speeds, it's one of the best rides on the road. Unlike many of its roadster rivals, the Boxster has cargo space fore and aft, so you can take luggage on your road trips.
--Mark K. Solheim
Next-day delivery of fresh, beautiful, yet-to-blossom flowers, plus a well-designed Web site, make Flowerbud.com the place to order flowers. Unlike sites that have stockpiled inventories or that contract with local shops, Flowerbud provides flowers that are cut on a farm in the U.S. or Ecuador after you place your order, says president Mark Hayes. Flowers are shipped straight to you. Flowerbud's bouquets start at $60, with most in the $70s and $80s. That includes shipping charges, which easily run $10 to $15 at other sites.
BEST TENNIS RACQUET
No longer do you have to choose between power and precision. Head serves up two racquets that give players both. The Flexpoint Radical ($200-$250) gives you blistering power, but it also "cups" the ball, so you can direct it better. The Radical runs heavy and may be better for male players. But women have a clear choice in the Airflow ($180-$225), developed with Steffi Graf just for women. It's lighter than most racquets and has a grip designed for females.
BEST WALKING SNEAKERS
A good stroll puts less stress on your joints than running, with roughly the same health benefits. But you don't have the cool shoes that runners wear and discuss endlessly. Not so with New Balance 843 ($105), a shoe for the serious fitness walker. The 843 gives you more comfort and support than your old running shoes, plus they don't look like orthopedic oxfords.
BEST WRINKLE-FREE SHIRTS
No matter how you starch a shirt, by mid afternoon it's wrinkled like origami gone horribly wrong. Not so with Brooks Brothers' all-cotton, no-iron dress shirts, which stay creaseless even after a cross-country flight. These shirts resist wrinkles until they've been washed about 30 times. Men's and women's shirts sell for $75.