The Valentine’s Day Gift Guide You Might Actually Want To Read [Feature]



Warning: This article might deal in stereotypes. Why? Because no matter how much your woman friend might truly appreciate that power drill she’s had her eye on for the last six months (to the point of leaving a copy of Lady Power Tool magazine open on your desk with the page turned to a Makita ad), you’re still going to buy her some horrible pink iPad case with Hello Kitty ears.

So if you’re willing to make the stereotyped move, then so can I. I’ll recommend fancy lotions and cooking gadgets and the amazing (and mythical) “FourSquare for leg waxing.” But probably not for the reasons you’re expecting.

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Make It Personal

The only thing a Valentine’s gift has to be is personal. If you buy your other half an iPad when you’ve already been going out for a few years, then she might see it for what it really is — a thoughtless gift that you threw money at because your relationship is pretty much done. But a shiny new iPad mini in the first year? You’re golden.

So I won’t presume to tell you what might make your special person happy. Instead let’s take a look at a few ideas to get you started, and deal in a few evergreen stereotypes along the way.


Cooking gifts are great, because you get the benefit of them every time they’re used. My ex-roommate once bought a cookery course for her boyfriend (my other roommate) and he went from a messy-but-enthusiastic cook to a gourmet expert who shops at the local market every day. It really was the gift that keeps on giving.

Go on, butcher it!

Failing a cookery course, there are some great apps which will help the novice to get started, or the give the experienced cook some inspiration. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything is a beginners’ guide to the kitchen. It has recipes, but also sections on equipment, basic technique and some clever built-in timers so you can do everything from your iPad.

The app also links everything together. Example: The Chicken Adobe recipe requires you to actually chop up a chicken, so the “Related Content” section contains a link to the “Butchering Chicken” article. All this is in-app, too, so you can use it offline.

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You could just ditch all my advice and make these muffins instead. They’re pretty awesome.

For more advanced cooks, try the great Basil app, which is an iPad version of your paper recipe book. I use it and love it, and it’s especially good on the iPad mini, which lends itself to the kitchen way better than the big iPad. Basil lets you easily clip recipes from the web and wrangles them into a standardized, ultra-simple but beautiful text-only format. It too has built-in timers, and you can also add notes, and tell it to automatically convert recipes to metric. An upcoming version also adds support for photos and Dropbox sharing.

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Old school.

Other worthwhile apps include Epicurious (an iOS gateway to a vast and pretty good online recipe community), and a subscription (more on those in a bit) to Cooks Illustrated magazine. And the Serious Eats blog is just plain fantastic for any foodie, although you can’t give it as a gift.

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The iGrill, strictly for dorks.

If you’ve decided to buy your better half a cooking gadget, then Cult of Mac mightn’t be the place to find recommendations. But here they are anyway. The obvious iGift is probably the iGrill, a probe thermometer which talks to your iPhone via Bluetooth so you can monitor the temperature of your roast (or barbecue) from up to 200 feet away. But I just got started on a coffee improvement kick, so I’m going to tell you about a few neat gadgets. Bonus: if your Valentinee gets hooked on playing with these things, you will be guaranteed delicious coffee every morning until you split up, or one of your dies.

The Aeropress is a $30 coffee maker from the Aerobie (frisbee) folks. It looks like an oversized syringe, and it kind of is. It brews coffee fast, and amazingly well. I just took mine away for the weekend (along with a portable grinder and a digital scale — yes, I’m a nerd) and charmed the Lady’s mother with my geeky coffee skills.

Google “Aeropress recipes” for, well, plenty of Aeropress recipes, or just follow the instructions that come with it (the quick version: put on the end cap, add coffee, add off-the-boil water, stir, fit plunger and squirt into the waiting cup). Just be sure to put a pack of good, freshly-roasted coffee into the wrapped gift-box or you can forget about a quick Valentine’s bedroom romp.

In fact, you might combine the Aeropress with a coffee subscription. Yes, a coffee subscription. Tonx is a service which sends expertly-sourced and freshly-roasted beans to you every couple of weeks. Believe me, finding a good source of coffee (and grinding it properly) is the secret to a great cup.

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This grinder will also give you an upper-body workout.

And speaking of grinding, you need a burr grinder. These are the kind used in coffee shops, and result in a very even grind. Those grinders with blades, like the battery-operated one Billy Crystal caused a stampede with in City Slickers, smash up the beans into a mixture of grit and powder, which will give poor results. An electric one would be great, (check Brian Lam’s The Wirecutter for some great coffee gear recommendations), or check out the Hario Mini Mill, a ~$40 hand-cranked burr grinder which has the added benefit of giving some muscle tone to your boyfriend/girlfriend’s upper arms.

And what does all of this have to do with the Cult of Mac? Well, we all love coffee. Plus, you need to time the steeping of your grounds, and Siri can help out there.

Not a coffee lover? Then buy a romantic picnic set. The Lady suggested this one, actually specifying a bike-mountable picnic box. I’m in, if it means a bike trip with a delicious lunch at the end of it. And the Apple tie-in? Well, you’ll need to use Apple’s Maps app to get really lost in the countryside, for that authentic romantic wilderness adventure.


Who doesn’t like to travel?

Travel is about as romantic as it gets, and Apple gear is just about perfect for it. Yes, you could buy an iPad mini as a gift, but for cheaper options you can combine hardware and software to get creative.

Tripit Pro is, on the surface, an app to help businessmen get to the airport on time. But Tripit Pro also offers some romantic aspects: It’ll let you share your travel plans with others, so they can keep track of you as you trot the globe. And any version of TripIt offers a great vector for a romantic vacation delivery. Just create an account for your boo ahead of time and forward the plans for your dirty weekend to that account.

Then, on the big day, gift the app to them, have them sign in and boom! The vacation details are right there in front of them.

Or try Travel Essentials, which is essentially (ha) the same kind of thing, only better designed and more personalizable.


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Jawbone’s Up. Photo by Ariel Zambelich/Wired

There’s nothing the laydeez love more than a hastily-purchased lotion grabbed from Walgreens at 5PM on Feb 14th. WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? If you’re going down this route, either peek in her bathroom cabinet first to check favorite brands, or recruit the help of a girlfriend (or gay boyfriend). Otherwise, stick to tech.

What could be more romantic than sleep-tracking apps and gadgets? Nothing, that’s what. There are any number of sleep-monitoring apps in the store, but they involve setting the iPhone on the nightstand with a clear view of the sleeper, or need you to launch the app, tuck the iPhone under a pillow and remember to plug it in (lest the batteries drain).

None of these seems very romantic, despite the beauty gains to be had from a good night’s sleep. And apps can be kind of lame as gifts (well, this kind is lame, anyway. My cooking and traveling picks are clearly awesome).

So what about something like the Jawbone Up? Fresh from a redesign that lets it work for more than a few days before going belly-up, the Up is a bracelet (jewelry!) with a knob (tech!) which will track your movements and your sleep, letting you keep an eye on your activity levels day and night (tip: if you wear the Up on your dominant wrist, then consider removing it before enjoying your afternoon “special alone time.”

When she called it “the FourSquare for waxing” I was hooked.

When I asked the Lady about this section, she suggested an app which tells you where you can get waxed when visiting foreign cities. I know, right? But when she called it “the FourSquare for waxing” I was hooked. I have no idea if such an app exists (I checked FourSquare itself, and got one result from a search for waxing — it was a spa), but it surely should.

Why? Let me tell you a story. A few years back, the Lady and I were spending a winter in Berlin (don’t ask). She needed to get her legs waxed, so she got a recommendation for a place in the neighborhood (Neukölln, if you know it) where the local women went. The next thing she knew she was trapped in a tiny white cubicle with a huge, thick-armed woman and a bubbling, pasta-pot-sized cauldron of wax.

The woman spoke no German or English, and communicated with gestures. And when I say “communicated,” I mean “muttered in Polish and giggled every time the Lady screamed.”

So you see, an app pointing out the best, user-reviewed waxing spots would be a useful thing indeed. And remember, this was just the legs. Imagine the dangers involved if a gentleman went to the same place for a “back, sack and crack” treatment.

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“Safety” razor.

And speaking of hairy gentlemen, my next gift suggestion is a wet-shave kit. This also has a rather tenuous link to Apple: Macworld’s Lex Friedman wrote a great article about how to wet shave in Issue 2 of the iPad-only Newsstand app The Magazine.

Reading Lex’s excellent article almost (almost) made me reverse my decade-long policy of not shaving. I keep a grizzled, electrically trimmed visage, but my baby-smooth cheeks haven’t felt the blade’s glancing kiss for over 13 years.

A wet-shaving kit is as intimate as gift giving gets.

A wet-shaving kit is pretty intimate stuff as far as gift-giving goes. You get to buy a handsome shaver, preferably heavy steel or silver plate. Then you add a pack of old-fashioned double-edged razor blades (the kind you see in cartoons), a brush for whipping the soap into shape, and the shaving soap itself. The opportunity to mess up is pretty big, but if you get it right your man will think of you every morning as he performs his most relaxing and intimate ritual of the day.

I used to wet shave, and I’d recommend an addition to Lex’s regime: King of Shaves oil. King of Shaves (was started by Englishman Will King in the early 1990s) and originally mixed from the contents of (so legend has it) Will’s girlfriend’s bathroom cabinet. The company makes a tiny bottle of oil, of which you rub a few drops onto your face before applying the soap. It helps the razor glide and pretty much eliminates razor burn.


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Geocaching is about the hunt, not the treasure. Photo Flickr’Edward Goodwin

The trouble with buying hobby-based gifts is that the recipient nearly always has very specific ideas about what gear they want, and you will almost certainly get it wrong, resulting in an awkward dance of fake, embarrassed thanks from the recipient and “you can change it if you like — I kept the receipt” from you.

Still, there are a few safe options. You could encourage a blossoming hobby — buying a few brushlike capacitive styluses for an iPad-owning painter would be one. Or starting a whole new thing together would be another. Geocaching, for example, is a fun way to get outdoors, and has the advantage of actually being relevant when listed on a Cult of Mac feature. Geocaching is pretty much a high-tech treasure hunt where you (and your lovely partner in this case) search for a hidden item using its GPS co-ordinates. As you can imagine, this can all be done from your iPhone these days. A fine place to start is, which also has an app to get you started. Just don’t forget to take a thermos of hot tea or coffee.


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Most newsstand apps are crap. Not these.

Subscriptions are a great gift that keeps on giving. Try any of these:

  • Netflix — movies and TV — $8 per month
  • Audible — audiobooks, fantastic for commuters and frequent flyers — from $15 per month
  • Spotify or Rdio — unlimited music streaming — from $5 per month
  • BBC iPlayer (Global) — BBC and other UK TV shows on demand — $10 per month.
  • Newsstand subscriptions — NYT, The Magazine, The Guardian. There are plenty more, but these have been designed with the iPad in mind, instead of just repackaging a PDF.


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Blurb’s book of my Instagrams.

There are two opportunities here. One is to give actual photos printed on paper — quite a novelty these days — or give a photography related gadget.

The latter should, as we said up top, be personal. A new lens might not cut it, but a new plastic Holga lens which costs just $50 might be perfect. Or a cheap off-camera flashgun like the LumoPro, along with a pack of colored gel filters and a copy of David Hobby’s excellent Strobist Lighting DVDs.

But the king of the photo gifts is the photo book. You can order these right from iPhoto on your Mac, or you can use any number of apps or sites like Blurb. The idea is that you pick the photos and the service does the layout and printing. And if you like, you can get your on hands dirty and tweak the design yourself.

Believe me — a book containing your lover’s Instagrams will be a winner.

What kind of thing should you put in there? You could make a book about a great vacation you took together (or — if this is a revenge gift, a book about the vacation you took with your ex’s brother/sister). Or you could gather together all the Instagrams from your beau’s stream and publish those (and believe me, this one will be a winner).

Or you could pick a theme. I have a series of photos I take of the creative mess that the Lady often leaves in the kitchen. Squeezed orange halves piled up in a column; dead flower stems tossed into a pile of wine glasses. I started the series as a kind of deterrent, but now she actually arranges the garbage, which probably takes longer than just throwing it in the trashcan, but still — it’s a theme and now I actually like it when I find a mess in the kitchen.


Bags, bags bags. You can buy specialist bags (camera; bowling; iPad) or just neat hi-tech messenger bags or old-school leather satchels. If you know your beau then you can totally score by buying them a bag — everyone loves them. If they’re a bag geek, then they’ll appreciate one more bag for their too-big collection. If not, they’ll love whatever you give them.

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I love this case so much I’m planning on buying it a Valentine’s gift.

I have a couple of specific suggestions, plus one clever hack. First, try the new SurfacePad for the iPhone, from Twelve South. This is as close as you’ll get to a Smart Cover for the iPhone. I got one on Friday and I love it. The SurfacePro is like a soft leather book cover. The back sticks to the iPhone with a nano coating, and leaves space for the camera. The front wraps around and just sits in place. The design means that it can also be swung out to make a horizontal stand for movie watching or — my new favorite — a travel alarm clock.

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A bag in a bag.

Next up is a bag-in-a-bag. I swap bags a lot. I’d like to say it’s for testing purposes, but I test very few bags. The truth is that I have a problem so bad that the Lady has enacted a one-in-one-out policy: I can’t buy a new bag unless I get rid of an old one. This hasn’t slowed me down any. It’s just made me more popular with my friends, to whom I give the retired models.

But one thing I have managed to sneak in is the VIP 2 from French company Tintamar. It’s a super lightweight bag which goes inside another bag. It has a couple of big main sections surrounded by lots of smaller pockets, and the idea is that you keep your essentials in the VIP and move it from bag to bag, ensuring nothing is ever left behind or forgotten.

The VIP is the one you want — its central pocket is big enough to fit an iPad mini (plus a paper notebook if you like), and the outside pockets fit pens, an iPhone, an iPhone battery pack, plus cables and so on. I like mine quite a lot, and I’m very fussy.

And here’s the “hack”. Instead of buying a designer purse or bag, you can rent one by the month. At Bag, Borrow or Steal, you can order any accessory and pay monthly until you send it back. It’s still not cheap — a Marc Jacobs bag will still cost you $130 per month, but it’s great for the fickler person in your life.


This is the section containing the list brainstormed gifts the Lady and I came up over the last few days. These don’t really fit in anywhere above, but they’re worth a mention. And some of them are even tech related:

  • A bet (where legal, I guess): Make a bet on their favorite team, or some other appropriate event, and give them the betting slip. If they win, the gift could be huge. If not, then they enjoyed its potential. I had a friend who would do this all the time. He also hung out in a lot of strip clubs, so take this advice as you find it.
  • Trip to IKEA with no arguments — guaranteed! (This will take a monumental effort on your part, and will probably still end in a breakup. In fact, it’s probably only worth the risk if the bragging rights earned upon a successful trip are very, very important to you.
  • A console game, a case of beer and you go away for the weekend. Probably best to give to a boy.
  • Amazon wish list. Lame, but hard to get it wrong.
  • Smart Cover with engraving. I’d buy this one for myself.
  • Anti-RSI massage. Neat, right?
  • Battery pack for their iPhone so they have no excuse not to call you.
  • A real watch. If it’s for a nerd, go for a classic like the Casio Calculator. I wear one with nerdy pride.

What Not To Do

Don’t go to a restaurant on Valentine’s Day. It’s a cattle market. The tables are split into two-tops, there will be at least three sittings, and the cheesy set menu is designed for speed and ease of serving to lots and lots of people. Hardened alcoholics call New Year’s Eve “Amateur Night,” and with good reason. Valentine’s Day is the same thing for “romance.” Avoid it, and cook something from Mark Bittman’s app instead.

Good luck!


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