The Best Tech Gifts That Aren’t Gadgets

My favorite holiday tech gift doesn’t require batteries or software updates. It’s not even a gadget, though it was made with technology.

Can you guess what it is?

A few years ago, my wife experimented with her iPad and a digital stylus to make digital illustrations. Using Procreate, a drawing app, she loaded a photo of our beloved corgi, Max, as a reference to trace over before embellishing the image with a polka-dot bow tie and a cartoonishly long tongue. I liked it so much that I picked a background color that would complement our home and uploaded the illustration to the app Keepsake, a printing service that assembles your images in a nice frame before delivering it to your door.

A large, framed portrait of Max now hangs as a centerpiece in our living room in all its two-dimensional glory. It makes me smile and is always a conversation starter when we have guests over. That’s more than I can say about other tech gifts that I’ve received over the years, such as video games and smart speakers, which only brought short-lived joy.

This type of gifting exercise — tech-adjacent presents that don’t involve hardware or thoughtless Best Buy gift cards — may be especially welcome this year. That’s because we are living in a pandemic-induced era of scarcity driven by a global chip shortage and supply chain disruptions that have made conventional gifts difficult to buy. (Anyone trying to buy a game console for the last year understands this pain.)

So here’s a list of ideas for tech gifts we can give without actually buying tech, from the presents you can create to experiences that will last a lifetime.

Last week, I told a friend I had a special present for her: I would fix her iPhone problem.

She had complained to me about her five-year-old iPhone SE. The device could no longer take photos or install software updates because nearly all of the device’s data storage was used up.

So before she left for her Thanksgiving vacation, I met her for lunch and walked her through the process of backing up photos to an external drive before purging all the images from the device. Then I plugged her phone into a computer to back up all her data before installing the new operating system.

She was thrilled to have this problem fixed before her trip. She can now take lots of photos on vacation. Plus, a new Apple software update has a tool to add a digital vaccine card to the iPhone’s wallet app, which makes holiday travel slightly less stressful in the pandemic.

For those who are somewhat tech savvy, this may serve as a template. Listen to your loved ones’ complaints about their tech and offer the gift of solving the problem. If it’s a sluggish Wi-Fi connection, see if you can diagnose the issue to boost speeds. If it’s a short-lived phone battery, consider taking them to a repair shop to get the battery replaced for a small sum.

In some ways, this beats giving a brand-new gadget because it spares them the hassle of learning how to use a new piece of tech.

Apart from the example of the digital illustration of my dog, there are plenty of other ways we can use tech to create for friends and family.

For one, I’m a fan of photo books that can easily be created with web tools. A few years ago, a colleague’s Secret Santa gift for me was a calendar she made using Google’s photo books service. She created it by pulling photos from my dog’s Instagram account and compiling them into a calendar — each month was a different photo of Max posing next to an entree cooked by my wife and me. I was delighted.

In general, photo-printing services offer nice ways to turn digital photos into physical keepsakes in the form of old-school, large prints and even mugs and Christmas ornaments. (Wirecutter, our sister publication that reviews products, tested two dozen photo-printing services and highlighted its favorites.)

Before the pandemic upended our lives, my wife bought a DSLR, the type of digital camera used by professionals, with the goal of learning more about digital photography. Then the lockdowns happened, vacations turned into staycations and the camera ended up living in a drawer.

My plan for a holiday present for my wife is a two-hour digital photography lesson with a photo studio in San Francisco that takes students on a stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge while teaching the fundamentals of photography. (Hopefully she doesn’t read this column.)

What would your friends and family like to learn? We have plenty of options for potential gift classes, since the pandemic drove many teachers to offer virtual instruction online, including for cooking lessons and workout routines. The gift of knowledge goes a long way and sometimes gives back, like when the recipient of online cooking lessons uses that newfound knowledge to make you dinner.

The pandemic may have exposed us to more screen time than we could ever imagine enduring, so a great gift this year could also be anything that takes our attention away from tech.

That could be renting a cabin in an area with no cellular service, tickets to a play, a winter hike and a picnic — anything that gives us respite from our inevitable return to screens.