Every year when the holidays roll around some of the hottest gift ideas are always the latest and greatest gadgets and games, and this year is no different.
At Best Buy in Minot, connectivity sales manager Lesley Degele was running out of breath before she ran out of new tech products to talk about.
At the top of her list were the two most popular cell phones on the market - the Apple iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy S4.
Easily one of the most popular Android phones this year, the Galaxy S4 has a vibrant 5-inch screen and a fast quad-core processor. While the air gestures Samsung has touted, such as waving a hand above the screen to answer a call or move between pictures, are more gimmicky than useful, that hasn't stopped millions of people from snapping up the device.
The iPhone 5s was released more recently this fall and continues Apple's tradition of slowly but surely improving its flagship device each year. At 4 inches, the screen is among the smallest in the smartphone industry, but it does have benefits, namely being much easier to use one-handed than the larger Galaxy S4. The iPhone's big new addition this year is Touch ID, a fingerprint scanner built into the home button that works to reliably and quickly unlock the phone. With more and more sensitive personal information being stored on smartphones, Touch ID is an easy way to add a layer of security so someone who finds a lost iPhone 5s or steals one can't access its contents.
As for tablets, Degele said Apple's iPad mini with Retina display and iPad Air, both introduced this fall, are the big sellers. The two tablets are virtually identical except for screen size, with the iPad mini having a 7.9-inch screen and the iPad Air getting a bigger 9.7-inch screen.
The holidays are always a popular time to snap photos of friends and family, and while the cameras on modern smartphones are just as capable as many point-and-shoots, there are some family photographers who want something more than an iPhone or other smartphone camera can give them.
A step up from point and shoots are entry-level DSLRs, which have a wide variety of interchangeable lenses and other accessories to help photographers get the most out of their equipment. Two popular models at Best Buy are the Canon T5i and Nikon D5200, which both can be found for under $1,000 with a lens.
Both entry-level models offer several features that set them apart from each other. The Canon has a useful touch screen that makes accessing the menu system easier than ever, while the Nikon has an excellent 39-point autofocus system that is taken straight from the more expensive Nikon D7100. Newly released is the Nikon D5300, which is very similar to the D5200 but adds built in WI-FI and GPS. Since it's so new, the D5300 might be a bit tougher to find than the D5200.
TVs are always a popular gift around Christmas, and Degele said the new hot thing is 4K televisions. While Sony models in particular are extremely popular, other models are selling well, too. Set to replace the current 1080p standard, 4K televisions have four times the pixel density, thus can offer a much sharper image.
The catch, however, is that content like a movie or television show must be filmed with a camera capable of 4K to take advantage of all those extra pixels. While 4K TVs will play current programming, including standard definition, 720p and 1080p, just fine, viewers won't start seeing a big difference until content starts being filmed natively in 4K.
Along with new TVs, surround sound systems are also hot buys. While traditional systems with 5, 7 or even more speakers still sell well, a smaller and less complicated solution is quickly gaining in popularity.
"Everybody wants a soundbar. It doesn't matter what brand it is," Degele said. "Soundbars are kind of the new thing that everyone is jumping into."
Soundbars offer some of the benefits of a full surround sound system in a long speaker bar that generally sits underneath the TV. While the sound separation isn't as pronounced as it is in a full surround sound system, the upside is there aren't speaker cables strung all over the living room to be an eyesore or trip hazard.
While video games always put in a strong holiday showing, this year has consumers in a bigger frenzy than ever because both Microsoft and Sony released new consoles within a week of each other. First up was Sony's PlayStation 4 on Nov. 15, followed by the Microsoft Xbox One on Nov. 22. Both have proven to be extremely popular and sold out within hours of their respective launches.
"The PS4 and the Xbox One, we don't currently have any stock on those, but that's definitely something that everyone wants to have under their Christmas tree," Degele said. "We sold out of both of those on their release nights."
All is not lost, however, as Sony and Microsoft are both working to get more consoles into stores. The best advice to get one or the other is to keep calling local retailers to see when they get their next shipments in.
Jonah Lantto, general manager of Gorilla Games at Dakota Square Mall, echoed those sentiments.
"We can't keep them in stock," Lantto said. "People are excited for the new generation of consoles and everybody is informed enough to the point where you know that you're getting something awesome either way."
While both consoles, especially the Xbox One, are designed to do more than just play games, games are still at the heart of each one.
"If you get an Xbox One, I feel the one game you want to play is 'Ryse,' but if you like racing games you want to grab 'Forza,'" Lantto said. "Ryse has blown me away."
"Ryse: Son of Rome," follows the career of a Roman soldier as he rises through the ranks of the Roman army. It features stunning graphics and brutal gameplay showing many of the horrors of war, thus earning its Mature rating. While many of the reviews for "Ryse" have been harsh, complaining in particular about the repetitive gameplay and short 5- to 6-hour length, Lantto feels Ryse is definitely worth the consideration of all Xbox One owners.
"Forza Motorsport 5" is the other graphical showcase for Xbox One. It is a driving simulation that puts players behind the wheel of everything from the modest Hondas or Fords one can buy at a local dealership to some of the most powerful supercars and race cars on the planet.
Another game doing well for the Xbox One is "Dead Rising 3," a zombie-killing exclusive title for Microsoft's new console.
For Playstation 4, smaller, independent games have been a big hit, along with a new "Killzone" game, Sony's big first-person shooter franchise.
"We didn't sell a single PlayStation 4 system without 'Killzone: Shadow Fall.' People are pretty excited about that, and there's a lot of really excellent indie titles," Lantto said. "One thing Sony did brilliantly with their release was offer customers some of the best available next-gen titles right now for free on their independent releases, foremost amongst them being 'Resogun.' So the Sony owners really have an advantage there."
It should be noted that getting games such as "Resogun" for free on PS4 requires the purchase of PlayStation Plus, an online service that costs $50 annually. "Resogun" and the other free games on the service can be purchased individually without having to sign up for PlayStation Plus, however.
For third-party games available on both systems, as well as the older PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, two popular multiplayer military shooter games are "Battlefield 4" and "Call of Duty: Ghosts." In years past the "Call of Duty" series has been the undisputed king of multiplayer popularity, but Lantto said this year the pendulum is starting to swing toward "Battlefield."
"Are people buying 'Ghosts?' Yes," Lantto said. "But this is by far the least well-received 'Call of Duty' game I've seen. From reviews, from longtime 'Call of Duty' fans, we've seen the power start swinging in the favor of 'Battlefield'."
Other multi-platform games that are available for many current and last-gen systems that Lantto said are doing well include "Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag," "Need for Speed: Rivals," and pretty much any version of "Minecraft."
"If you're a parent wondering what game do I buy my kid, if your kid doesn't already have 'Minecraft,' that's the game you buy your kid this year," Lantto said. "And it's only $20."
"Minecraft" is not yet available on PS3, PS4 or Xbox One, but versions for all of those consoles are in the works. In addition to consoles such as Xbox 360, it is also available on PC, Android and iOS.
Other games to be on the lookout for on the PS3 and Xbox 360 systems include "Grand Theft Auto 5" and "WWE 2K14."
For the Nintendo Wii U, Degele said the bundle that includes a remake of "The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker" has been selling very well, as has the new Mario game "Super Mario 3D World."
However, the Wii U has had disappointing sales since its release this past year, and Gorilla Games in Minot has made the decision to stop carrying it, choosing instead to concentrate on the consoles from Sony and Microsoft.
Although Wii U has been struggling, Nintendo's portable systems have still been doing extremely well, and are carried by Gorilla Games. The 3DS and 3DS XL, which play the same games, are both still in high demand, and Nintendo hopes the recent 2DS, which is basically a cheaper 3DS without the 3D capabilities, will sell well too.
A bundle including a gold 3DS XL and a copy of "The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds" has sold out all over town. The game itself, which has received much critical acclaim, can still be found fairly easily, however.
Other 3DS games Lantto suggests are "Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers," which is part of the popular "Shin Megami Tensei" role-playing game series; "Adventure Time," a series of games based on the Cartoon Network show; "Skylanders," which combines a video game with real toy models that can be collected and interact with the game; and "Disney Infinity," which is basically a Disney-branded version of "Skylanders."
He noted that "Skylanders" and "Disney Infinity" are available on all platforms, not just 3DS.
Of course, any discussion about popular 3DS games isn't complete without mentioning "Pokemon." Although the premise of collecting various monsters to train and fight is simple, the game has been popular for years with many different versions produced and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. The latest games in the franchise are "Pokemon X" and "Pokemon Y," and they have been flying off the shelves.
"Anything 'Pokemon,' if you've been a part of that for a long time or if you're just looking for something new and engrossing, something in depth, and you have a 3DS, try 'Pokemon' out. Give it a shot," Lantto said. "I know bikers that play 'Pokemon.' People of all types love 'Pokemon.' Don't ever overlook it if you own that machine."
Other gift ideas Lantto offered are game- and pop culture-related items at Gorilla Games, including a hand-painted "Diablo" statue by a local artist, Marvel Select action figures and the iconic leg lamp from "A Christmas Story."
"You can come in here, find things here that are exclusive to our store in Minot - unique gifts," Lantto said. "We like to think that we have the type of stuff that everybody wants but nobody buys for themselves."