8 Great gifts for anyone working from home

This time two years ago, I changed up my annual gift guide feature’s focus from travel to working from home. After all, very few of us were doing much traveling at the time. I planned to switch back as the world reopened; it’s clear now, however, that for many of us, there is no going back to the before times.

The pandemic has had a number of lasting impacts in our lives, including how – and where – we work. But the transition from the office to home requires more than simply choosing not to get on that train every morning.

Creating a home office is a deliberate act. At its center is building a space where it’s possible to be every bit as productive in the absence of in-face meetings and awkward break room conversations. You need to build a place that will sufficiently separate work life from the personal for eight to 10 hours a day.

Here’s a handy gift guide for the person in life who needs a little extra push into that – or perhaps requires a refresh on some of the gear they purchased early into the pandemic.

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1. Mac Studio

Mac Studio desktop

Image Credits: Brian Heater

This thing is a beast. This is that money-is-no-object gift to really, properly transform that spare room into a home office. There are far less expensive options out there – including several from Apple – but the Mac Studio is a beautiful and wildly powerful desktop.

And hey, while you’re picking up that little square computer, why not shell out for the $1,599 27-inch 5K Studio Display? It’s a heck of a one-two combo – though fair warning, the Studio Display’s webcam continues to be lacking for a system at that price point. Aside from that, picking up one of these will make you never want to go into the office (or, perhaps, leave the house) ever again.

Price: Mac Studio $1,999, Studio Display $1,599

Available from: Apple

2. Opal C1

Opal C1 desktop video camera

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Speaking of webcams, I continue to get a lot of compliments on the picture quality from the Opal C1. The startup’s hardware had great image quality out of the gate that nearly rivaled a desktop DSLR, and subsequent software updates have only made things better. The company has worked out most of the beta bugs, with firmware that will work with all the major teleconferencing platforms and tweaks to image quality that make this is a hard one to beat.

Also worth a look is the Insta360 Link. The webcam is priced the same at $300, but the clever gimbal base makes for more dynamic shot tracking. That’s great for those who like to move around a bit more during remote meetings.

Price: $300

Available from: Opal

3. Shure MV7

Shure MV7 microphone

Image Credits: Shure

I love this mic. I asked Shure to send me one for gift guide testing purposes and wound up writing a bit of a love letter to the thing in the meantime. As I shifted from in-person to remote podcasting during the pandemic, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find the perfect USB mic. With design and sound-quality to rival its famous XLR counterparts, the directional MV7 is going to be a hard one to beat.

I recently recorded an NPR interview on the thing, and have turned it into my day-to-day teleconferencing microphone. It’s about as close as you’ll get to plug and play at this level, and the sound rivals studio quality recordings. Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about it. Pair this with the Opal cam and wow everyone on that Zoom call.

Price: $225
Available from: Amazon

4. Google Nest WiFi Pro

Google Nest WiFi Pro image

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The Google Nest WiFi Pro is a bit of an odd duck. Like some of the products above, it’s super easy to use. After years of wildly complicated router installs, it’s a breath of fresh air. Setup is effectively as easy as getting a smart speaker up and running. Also like the above, it may be a lot more powerful than most need. The system supports extremely fast download speeds via WiFi 6E – and there’s a good chance your existing ISP is going to be the biggest bottleneck.

I’ve happily ditched my ISP’s hardware for one and haven’t looked back. It’s reasonably priced at $200 (larger homes may want to go the mesh route with the two- or three-device bundle) and designed to blend in with its surroundings, much like the rest of the Nest line.

Price: $200
Available from: Google

5. Sony WH-1000XM5

Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones on woman

Image Credits: Sony

Unless you live alone in the middle of nowhere, a good pair of noise canceling headphones are a must — and over ear models don’t come better than this. Sony continues to be my top pick in the category, courtesy of sound quality, comfort, battery life and active noise canceling. And bonus: when it’s time to get back on the road, these are a perfect carryon companion.

Price: $350
Available from: Amazon

6. Satechi Accessories

Satechi Accessories headphones stand with iPhone charger

Image Credits: Satechi

I love me a good Satechi accessory. The company makes clever, well designed products that blend in well with their surroundings.

The 2-in-1 Headphone Stand With Wireless Charger is a particularly good desktop companion. The bar up top gives you a place to keep the over-ear headphones, with a USB-C port in the rear to keep them charged up. Below is a MagSafe compatible wireless charging pad for your iPhone or AirPods.

The 3-in-1 Magnetic Charging stand is a bit pricier. It’s great way to charge up the iPhone, AirPods and Apple Watch in one fell swoop. The MagSafe pad is also designed to keep the phone upright, so you can continue to use it while topping up the battery.

Price: 2-in1 Headphone Stand With Wireless, $80 | 3-IN-1 Magnetic Wireless Charging Stand, $120
Available from: Satechi

7. Keychron Q5 QMK Custom Mechanical Keyboard

Keychron Q5 QMK Custom Mechanical Keyboard

Image Credits: Keychron

I asked my friend (and fellow TechCruncher) Frederic to recommend a nice, accessible mechanical keyboard for my work from home guide. He recommended the Keychron Q5 QMK Custom Mechanical Keyboard. The accessory is customizable, but it’s nothing too fancy, just a great feeling, terrific sounding, well-priced mechanical keyboard that will help your loved one reconnect with the joys of typing.

Price: $200
Available from: Keychron

8. Coway Airmega AP-1512HH Mighty

Coway Airmega AP-1512HH Mighty image in a baby's nursery

Image Credits: Coway

How about the person who seems to otherwise have their office in order? No one has ever regetted bringing a high-quality air purifier into their house. There are a lot of overpriced products and quite a bit of snake oil in this category, but the Coway Airmega AP-1512HH Mighty is a reasonably priced powerhouse. This HEPA filter is designed to cleaning a space up to to 874 sq. ft. in around half an hour, promising to reduce 99.999% of 0.01-micron particles.

In addition to removing pollen and odors, there’s a built in pollution sensor that showcases a room’s air quality in real time. It’s hard to imagine a better gift than the gift of breathable air.

Price: $220
Available from: Amazon

8 Great gifts for anyone working from home by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

We review Abby, a sleek one-plant weed farm for your apartment

Abby started its journey selling 120 or so of its “All-In-One Smart Hydroponic Grow Box” on Kickstarter, with a relatively modest $100,000 raised on the crowdfunding platform. The device promises to help you make growing your favorite plants more or less foolproof, especially if your “favorite plants” are marijuana. In its marketing, the company is careful to share that you can grow any plant you like, but realistically, there are not a lot of plants that need “replacement carbon filters delivered to your house every 3 months,” and the website issues a “you must be 21 or older to enter this site” warning. The community is eager and ardent about its love for smokable plants. Let’s just say that if you’re going to spend $1,000 on a single-plant hydroponic box, you’d really have to love tomatoes for it to make sense; most of its users appear to be growing a more, er, valuable crop.

Being based in California, where these things are legal, I figured I’d give it a whirl. I bought some seeds, got the plant to about 3 inches in height, and planted it in the Abby to see what would happen.

On paper, the product should be such a solid solution. The device features a water culture system with advanced automatic intelligent lighting with Samsung’s LM301H Full Spectrum Plant Lights and high-power LEDs that are specifically designed to maximize plant photosynthesis growth potential. It supposedly has “advanced sensors to consistently track growth, with ultrasonic, temperature/humidity, water temperature, water level, and 5.8G radar sensors so you never have to worry about plant growth again.”

The product is an elegantly designed cabinet. Sleek and white, with wooden legs and a wooden top, with a bunch of smart features on the inside of the device: water pumps, lighting and what it claims are “advanced algorithms, state-of-the-art sensors” and more. Measuring around 16x16x48 inches (40x40x122 cm), it’s sleek and you could probably find a spot for it in any home.

The exploded view of the Abby shows how much thought went into the device.

The exploded view of the Abby shows how much thought went into the device. This is legitimately a well-designed hardware product. Image Credits: Abby

When the device arrived at my house, it had a dented door and a missing door hinge (!) which could presumably be attributed to shipping rather than poor QA. The Abby team was quick to get a replacement door shipped out, along with replacement instructions for the door, which involved unscrewing and re-screwing nine screws. I’m no stranger to taking tools to equipment, but it wasn’t the best first impression. On the whole, the hardware seems very well designed, which makes it all the more painful that, at every turn, the product’s software tries to prevent you from being able to grow efficiently. The list of issues is as long as my arm; there wasn’t an Android app for starters (the company did finally release an Android app last month), and from there, it just got worse.

The app and integration with Abby is so bad that I originally had just given up on writing a review altogether, but when the cabinet flooded my apartment floors due to a software error, I figured it might be best to write up some of my experiences…

One thing after another

Connecting to the device in the first place was impossible, and it took a fair chunk of troubleshooting to figure out what was going on; it turns out that the Abby only supports 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi, which I didn’t have set up in my house.

The app supposedly is able to give you 1-on-1 expert live support from the company, but the first few times I tried to submit a photo on my (admittedly old) iOS device, the app kept crashing. When I was finally able to upload a message, the message simply vanished. I don’t believe I ever got a reply from Abby. The app itself is riddled with typos and bugs, and I’d almost be able to look past that if it hadn’t been for the fact that the device itself doesn’t seem to have any interest in notifying me about what I need to do with the plants.

The Abby occasionally chimes at me, and pulses a pretty green light, but whenever it does that, the app doesn’t seem to have an opinion on what I need to do, and the display on the device itself — which would have been such a good place to communicate what the device needs — just shows the Abby logo.

The Abby controller feels great and looks good, and the display is awesome. It’s a shame it doesn’t actually do anything other than opening the door. Image Credits: Abby.

The water needs changing every once in a while, but the app never notified me when that needed to happen. The Abby box itself has a small display on it, which rotates left and right, and has a button — much like a Nest thermostat. However, the display never shows anything useful. Such as “hey, you need to change the water,” for example.

When I finally did figure out that I needed to change the water manually, the app gives you simple instructions: Take the hose out of the box, and put it in a “minimum 1-gallon container.” Which I did, but it didn’t stop automatically after a gallon, and the app crashed when I pressed the “stop pumping water” button, which meant that the pump just kept going and sent the full amount of water in the device’s tank all over my floor as I was running to the sink with my overflowing one-gallon container. Not… ideal.

Water all over the floor

Step 1: Get a one-gallon container. Step 2: The machine never stopped pumping, and there was water everywhere. Well, crap. Image Credits: Haje Kamps / TechCrunch

The box comes with a really clever nutrient system: It has two spots where you can place the “silver” and “gold’ nutrient packs. It does this because one of the packs needs to dissolve fully before the other one is added, to avoid a chemical reaction between the two packs. Unfortunately, this only worked the very first time I set up the machine: After that, it never asked for additional nutrition packs, so the packs I had so diligently placed in the supply holes eventually just dissolved in place, and made a sticky mess all over the machine.

Toward the end of my review period, the plant had grown quite a bit — I eventually just resorted to dumping the nutrition packets in manually, since the cabinet and app never asked for nutrients. Which seemed suspect; for my own, home-built hydroponic system, I have to balance and add more nutrients every few weeks at least. Unfortunately, because Abby never warned me that the thirsty plant drank almost all of the water, the plant went for a few days with almost all of its roots out of the water, leading to a lot of the leaves on the plant dying. Not great, and another strike against the “foolproof” nature of the Abby cabinet.

I had the Abby plugged into a power meter to see how much power it was consuming during my review. Over the course of 108 days, it burned through 198 KwH, which translates to around $50 spent for a crop of weed.

The final complaint I have about Abby is that the charcoal filters aren’t as efficient as they might need to be; especially toward the end there, my apartment stank to high heaven of weed. Not the best first impression for my landlord and a plumber when they came by to repair something. I did manage to stammer “Er, it’s for work?” which was true, of course, but… yeah. Not great.

I should add that the app is in active development, and a lot of the original complaints I had about the device have been addressed, at least partially. The company launched an Android version, and the process for changing water was “optimized” last month. How-tos and troubleshooting instructions are built in to the app, and more detailed instructions are being added. The company is also adding a growing calendar, metric units and later batches of the device are quieter than the one I reviewed (the company claims it hums along at 40 dB now, which is an improvement).

All in all, you’d have to be very interested in growing a plant indoors if you’re willing to drop a grand for the admittedly neat hardware that’s so heavily hampered by impossible-to-use, buggy software) and $50 worth of power to keep it all growing. It’s frustrating; I really wanted to love Abby, but ultimately it needed way too much manual babysitting to warrant the cost. If someone launches a product that actually delivers on Abby’s promises, I can imagine it being a great buy. This ain’t it yet.

We review Abby, a sleek one-plant weed farm for your apartment by Haje Jan Kamps originally published on TechCrunch

If EVs can work in rental car fleets, they can work anywhere

When I went to book a rental car for Thanksgiving a few months ago, all that Hertz had left at O’Hare International Airport were Teslas. Usually, I end up with something like a Nissan Altima — not an amazing car, but one that gets the job done. Cheaply. But not this time.

Hertz is in the process of adding 100,000 Teslas to its rental fleet, so it was statistically probable that one day I’d end up renting one. I’m certainly in their target demo — all of our cars over the last seven-plus years have had a plug, and while none of them have been Teslas, I am what you might call Tesla-curious. Aside from a test drive of a Model Y a couple of years ago, I’d never driven one for an extended period of time.

What the heck, I thought. Let’s go for it.

Even though I’m far from an EV novice, I still wasn’t sure about renting an EV. I do the vast majority of my charging at home, and I’m familiar enough with my vehicles to know their real-world range and how the weather will affect it. I don’t have that same familiarity with the Model 3, and I wouldn’t have anything more than a 120v outlet at my parents’ house, which is two hours from the airport.

But I’ve got a weak spot for new technology and new ways of experiencing it, especially when it comes to electrification. Here went nothing.

How it went

When we picked up the car at the airport, I was directed to the kiosk, where a nice Hertz rep behind the counter explained that she had to give me a spiel, the same one she gives to all Tesla renters. She asked if I had any questions, and I told her that while I didn’t own a Tesla, I was familiar enough with EVs that I was confident I’d get by.

One difference she pointed out was that in place of the usual offer to pre-pay for a tank of gas, there was an option to place a $35 deposit in case I wasn’t able to return the car more than 70% charged. If I was able to charge it before returning it, the $35 would go back on my credit card. Seemed like a reasonable offer, so I took her up on it.

In our conversation, she mentioned that Hertz’s O’Hare fleet was largely being replaced with Teslas. Ah, so that’s why only Teslas remained.

We found the car, got the kids situated, adjusted the mirrors and steering wheel (no small feat), and headed out. Anyone who’s driven an EV is addicted to instant torque, and the Model 3 has it in spades. The twitchy accelerator pedal reminded me of our old BMW i3 — in a good way — as did the one-pedal driving, which activates regenerative braking when you lift your foot, allowing you to largely ignore the brake pedal. The suspension was tight, but not horribly so. It was certainly far better sorted than the Model Y, which on rough roads felt like it was pummeling my kidneys.

Though the car had enough range to make it to my parents’ house, I wanted to charge on the way to ensure we’d have enough for the return. (120v outlets are excruciatingly slow.) After entering our destination into the nav, we added another stop and searched for “supercharger.” Helpfully, the top hits were Superchargers along our route, starting with the one closest to our destination.

Driving the car was great, but letting it drive itself … not so much.

If EVs can work in rental car fleets, they can work anywhere by Tim De Chant originally published on TechCrunch