/ Technology

Opinion: gadget gifts destined to gather dust

Buying tech gifts for loved ones is a risky business. Rory Cellan-Jones explains why he doesn’t want any shiny new thingamajigs this Christmas.

It might not surprise you to hear that I love a new gadget. Lifting the lid from the box, removing the plastic film from its screen, throwing away any instruction manual and waiting for that delicious chime that tells you it has come to life for the first time – sheer delight.

The best Christmas present I ever had was a gadget from my brother, a glamorous figure 16 years older than me who worked in the theatre. When I was 10, he gave me a Soviet-built transistor radio with rechargeable batteries, which he brought back from his travels. This was the first piece of technology that was mine, all mine.

The gift of technology

We did have a beautiful 1950s radio set, which had a lovely warm tone and a dial with distant names – from Hilversum to Schenectady – nestling alongside the BBC Light Programme. But I couldn’t take that to bed and listen to Radio Luxembourg or late-night sports commentaries under the covers.

My little transistor spelled freedom: I was in charge of my listening and could retreat to my room when my mother turned on the misery-inducing Sing Something Simple on a Sunday evening.

Later, when I was a student with ambitions to be a journalist, that same brother gave me his Olivetti Lettera portable typewriter, not just an essential tool before the PC era but a design classic that I last saw in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

But if you’re tempted to give your loved ones gadgets this Christmas, stop and think again. For one thing, technology has become a matter of personal taste, attracting strong likes and dislikes. An Android fan won’t want an iPhone or anything from Apple; a Mac lover will be derisive about anything that wasn’t designed in Cupertino.

Bargain-basement mistakes

Then there’s the matter of cost. Any gadget that’s really desirable will be much too expensive as a present for anyone but your very nearest and dearest. And if you give them a Samsung Galaxy Z Flip or an iPad Pro with a 12.9-inch screen, they might be too embarrassed to admit they don’t like folding phones or giant tablets, leading to frosty conversations a few weeks later when you notice the present is still in the box.

But if you look in the bargain basement you’re likely to find that when it comes to tech, cheap all too often means either nasty or just plain daft. Remember roaming the Gadget Shop in its 1990s heyday?

It all looked very cutting edge, but let’s face it, from electric nose-hair trimmers to Big Mouth Billy Bass the singing fish, it was the kind of junk that ended up in the bin a few months later. Why do you think the retail chain went bust?

So please, don’t buy me a shiny new thingamajig for Christmas. Like the British ambassador who in a possibly apocryphal story was asked by a Washington radio station what his fervent wish was for the festive season, I would prefer a box of crystallised fruits. Failing that, the choice of most of his colleagues, world peace, will also do nicely.

Rory Cellan-Jones is a guest columnist for Which? Computing magazine.

Were you considering buying a loved one a tech-related gift this Christmas? Do you agree with Rory that it might not be the best idea? Let us know in the comments.


I agree. On the Amazon web site there are pages of fitness watches all at low prices from makers that I have never heard of. I wouldn’t buy any of these for myself let alone as a Christmas gift. To a lesser extent, there are anonymous tablets out there which could be made of stone. One of the problems is an over active Chinese market with thousands of back room industries, cobbling together safe and unsafe electronic ware, from bought components, or ones they have disassembled and copied using inferior raw materials. Some of these are deliberate fakes to fool the customer, and some just look attractive to undercut the real thing. There are products designed to do things that no one ever does.
In the automated world of today, I would be most displeased if someone sent me an Alexa or a Siri item or, for that matter a video door bell. Most of this kind of tech needs a personal input from the person who is going to use it.
If you are going to be extravagant, take the person with you on the journey. It may not be a Christmas surprise, but at least it will be appreciated.

Nowadays I ask people what they would like as a present, unless it is a small gift. Should I surprise them with a present of something they might not want or would not use?

We only buy presents for people we know well enough to know what they would like, and that is just family members. For children, we ask the parents.

I used to buy my grandchildren beautifully illustrated books of their favourite subject, which were well received and increased their interest and knowledge of it. Both went on to gain degrees in their subject.

Vouchers for well-known stores that family use make sensible presents. I also send flowers that will (should 🙂 ) arrive Christmas Eve. Clothes for very small children are good presents as far as the parents are concerned as they grow out of them so quickly; best to buy them 6months bigger than they currently are. But children like entertaining presents and I like to try to find ones that will last, hopefully be playfully educational ( starter keyboards, building bricks, construction kits……).
Gadgets – they usually go to the back of a cupboard or sit in a drawer.

My favourite gift to myself in 2020 came highly recommended by Which? and now sits in the corner gathering dust. It’s a Dyson 360 Heurist robot vacuum cleaner.

It’s good that it’s gathering dust. I hope Dyson did not take you to the cleaners.

Anthony Brooks says:
18 December 2021

they are suppose to gather dust whats the problem

Sue Neville says:
10 December 2021

I so agree! Anything worthwhile needs the person’s input or is probably too expensive. Also agree about the misery inducing Sing Something Simple – so depressing! And my husband used to work for Olivetti, so a memory inspiring article, thanks!

I agree. Especially when it comes to kitchen gadgets – there is only so much worktop (or cupboard) space available, and I hate cluttered worktops. I was once given a smoothie-maker (I don’t drink smoothies). Fortunately it was for someone else and had merely been mis-labelled. What a relief to be able to hand it back!

Thanks wave change; Ho! Ho! Ho! Brightneted a cold, dull day! Thought VynorHill made some excellent points!

I opted to buy my boy a cheap non-branded tablet instead of an overpriced Apple iPad. I remember hearing a colleague once waxing lyrical about the new iPad she was getting just as it was coming hot off the assembly line and had grown bored of it within 6 weeks. So, my boy got a cheap tablet, played with it for a while, and doesn’t play with it any more. He uses my laptop to watch endless amounts of YouTube and play Roblox instead

It may be OK for Rory, with his extensive knowledge and use of gadgets, to throw away the instruction manual and confidently operate a gadget without having to read it. However, I dare say I am not the only one who needs all the help I can get with any new gadget. I would hate manufacturers to get the impression that manuals are redundant, and rather they concentrate on making them more user friendly.

Baggy says:
19 December 2021

I’m an old fashioned grandma who believes in the power of books. Too many kids get these gadget toys and they have limited use. I have always read to my children and grandchildren in an attempt to use the imagination. In sheer desperation with my then 12 year old son, he’s now a computer coder, I read the entire Hobbit and Lord of the Rings out loud to him. He only read manuals then. He was totally hooked, he still loves it all. Now its my grandson, aged 4 and the Highway Rat. He loves books and I supply him with more all the time. I leave IT to others.