2020 Gift Guides

How I Built It
How I Built It
2020 Gift Guides

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It has become a bit of a time-honored tradition for me to do gift guides around the holidays. I often get asked for recommendations on office, podcast, and pen gear. I write the gift guides up on my personal site, but this episode goes into a bit more depth for people who work from home, podcast, and more!


Joe: Hey, real quick before we get started, I want to tell you about my weekly newsletter. It’s called the Build Something Weekly. I email everybody on the list some top stories with my thoughts, content I’ve written, and the latest episode of this podcast with takeaways and things like that. I also recommend a new tool every week and have some other news and things like that going on. It’s pretty packed with information. It shows up in your inbox every Monday morning, and it’s free.


So if you want to get tips, tricks, advice, and tools, and you want it delivered directly to your inbox for free, sign up for Build Something Weekly over at Howibuilt.it/subscribe. That’s Howibuilt.it/subscribe to get my very free, very weekly newsletter delivered right to your email inbox.


Intro: Hey, everybody, and welcome to Episode 193 of How I Built It. This episode is brought to you by Yes Plz Coffee, Hostinger, and iThemes. Now it has turned into a time honored tradition for me to do gift guides around the holidays. It’s November as I record this, so it’s that time. Black Friday’s coming up. You should know what to shop for by Black Friday.


I often get asked for recommendations on Office stuff, podcasting gear, and pens. So this year, I updated two of my gift guides, the Work From Home Gift Guide, which is especially relevant this year, and I updated my Podcast Gift Guide to include new gear and to make it clearer what a beginner should buy versus what somebody who is more advanced should buy. I added a Pen Buyers Gift Guide. This happened because I was asked more than once over the last few months. Hey, what fountain pen should I get? Or I’m looking for a good fountain pen and somebody would be like, “Casabona knows. Joe loves pens.” And so I put together a gift guide.


In this episode, I am going to walk through those gift guides. I’m not going to read them verbatim but I’m going to expand a little bit on some of the things. Starting with the Work from Home Gift Guide because I think that is even more relevant this year than in most years. So we’re going to get into that. But first…


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And now let’s get on with the show.


Joe: Okay, first let’s talk about my gift guide for people who work from home. I should say that you will be able to find all of the gift guides at howibuilt.it/gift. That’s howibuilt.it/gift for all the gifts guides. It’ll be linked in the show notes too over at howibuilt.it/193. So there are a lot more people working from home today versus when I first created this gift guide something like three or four years ago. And because of that, for 2020 I’m focusing not only on great gifts for people who are used to working from home but also for those who are doing it for the first time.


Because if you’re like me, you’re self-employed, or you’ve worked for a remote company for years now, you probably have a good office setup. You were expecting to set up an office in your home where you can work. But for the people who were forced to work from home, are forced to work from home, they probably did not. Maybe they didn’t have a home office. Maybe they don’t have the space. Maybe you are one of those people listening to this right now and you’re hunched over your kitchen table working.


Again, this maybe seemed more temporary back in March, but now I know people who are working from home until July of 2021. So if you are in that boat, or if you do work from home, and you need recommendations for better stuff, that’s who this gift guide is for. So I did keep a lot of the staples. For example, I have a “Connecting with others” section. This is where I recommend a good webcam and microphone or your meeting with people virtually and so you need a good webcam and microphone. I updated this section just a little bit. I included my live stream section, which is entirely too much for most people if you’re just meeting with coworkers.


But I also added an alternative because I know that a lot of this stuff is hard to come by right now. So I included an app. If you have a Mac and an iPhone, there’s this app Camo. I will link that specifically in the show notes. It turns your iPhone into a webcam. If you have a relatively new iPhone, that’s a 4k camera. That’s better than most cameras you’re probably looking at, better than most webcams. So that might be a good alternative either way.


For the microphones, I didn’t do too much but I did add a recommended headset. I know a lot of folks prefer the headset because then they have a little bit more freedom to move around and things like that. So I do recommend a headset, the Sennheiser PC 8 USB Headset.


I also added an entirely new section for lighting. One surefire way to make yourself look better on camera no matter what webcam you have is good lighting. Because your camera doesn’t have to work as hard to capture you. Cameras performed better in lighted situations, like bright situations as opposed to low light situations. So just having good lighting will go a long way in making you look better and you won’t look like you’re recording in a cave frankly.


So there are a lot of lighting setups. I recommend Philips Hue Lights because they can be automated. The same thing with the Elgato Key Light Air and the Elgato Key Light. One note on those is don’t get price gouged. The Key Light Air should be around $129 and the Key Light should be around $199. Now those are strong lights. I use them. I do a lot of live streaming. And they’re Wi-Fi connected.


But I also linked to a couple of more affordable options, either flat lights or box lights. If you’re in a pinch, maybe you can use a ring light. but I’m not a big fan of those because yes, they work in lighting you head on evenly but if you wear glasses or there’s any reflective surface you will see that ring. And you really want two lights kind of on either side of you to light you evenly. So there’s a lot of lighting best practices. You have two lights in front of you. One’s a key light, one’s affiliate light. And then behind you, you have the backlight so that you’re not just a silhouette.


But if you’re just starting out or you don’t need professional lighting, you just need a little extra lighting, there’s the Lume Cube for Video Conferencing that I link in the gift guide that looks really nice. It’s a square light that sticks to the back of your laptop. And I think that that’s fantastic.


So I think if you are shopping for somebody working from home and you want to surprise them with an improvement to their work from home setup, lighting is a good way to go because it’s generally unexpected. It’s not something a lot of people think of. They think, “Oh, I should probably get a better webcam or a better microphone,” but they don’t think, “I need better lighting.” So there you go. I recommend it. That’s going to be a nice kind of surprise and delight gift for someone.


The next section is productivity tools. I will leave most of these for you to explore yourself, just because it’s pretty much the analog tools I like to use. I will shout out the Theme System Journal here because I blogged about it earlier in the year and that did really well. So it seems like people are interested in that. And that’s on this gift guide. Then I just linked to a few apps I really like.


Again, shout out to Milanote, which I started using earlier this year and I’m now using for everything. It organizes my project thoughts. It organizes my research, both for work and for around the home. And so I’m just a big big fan of Milanote. So those are the two shout outs in the productivity section.


The analog shout out is the Theme System Journal. As I record this that’s actually on sale for $15 down from $20. So now might be a good time to get that. And Milanote, it’s basically a thoughts board online. Super great. Really pretty. Love it. So that’s what I would recommend and shout out too. I’ll cover the pens guide in a bit and I’ll go into more depth about the analog tools.


The coffee section I recommend…you know, if you’re working from home, it means you are also your own barista. So you want to have good coffee if you like coffee. I have an Aeropress. I love it. But we also have a regular Hamilton Beach Pot. But if you’re just making coffee for you, I genuinely do the Aeropress.


As far as beans go, this is the coffee I drink. Yes Plz Coffee. They are a sponsor. You probably heard them in the pre-roll ad at the top of the show. I also get Rook Coffee. Rook is based in central Jersey I guess, if central Jersey is a thing. And they are great. So we usually alternate weekly between Rook Coffee and Yes Plz Coffee here. Both are great. Rook has some darker blends if you like the more full body coffee. Yes Plz, generally their coffee is a little bit lighter. There’s like hints of fruit. I’m not a coffee guy but that’s what kind of I detected. So it all depends on what you like. But those are two that I recommend.


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And now back to the show.


Joe: All right. Another thing that people who work from home should think about is office ergonomics. If you are new to working from home, you probably haven’t invested in some important office gear. The kitchen table or the couch was okay for a temporary setup. But longer-term, you need a more ergonomic solution. So these items are things that I recommend. They will make a difference and your body will thank you.


First of all, you need a good desk chair. If you are working eight to 10 hours a day, that is a significant portion of your day, and you don’t want an uncomfortable chair. I use and recommend the Steelcase Gesture. It is very expensive. But if you think of price versus hours spent in chair, it’s really very affordable. Just like you want to spend money on a bed because you’re on that for a third of your day, you’re going to want to spend money on a good desk chair because you’re in that for a third of your day as well.


Now, if you are looking for something more affordable, the chairs by HON are popular and good. They’re sold at Staples. So you can try those out. Or if you are taking the loved one that you’re shopping for, you can take them to Staples and have them try out some chairs. So that is priority number one because everybody’s going to be sitting at a desk or at a table at some point.


Now, if you are looking to really upgrade your office setup, I recommend a standing desk. Sitting all day isn’t good for you or your loved one. There are lots of sit stand desks out there. But I recommend Jarvis by Fully. I absolutely love all Fully stuff. They really put time and effort into the quality of their products. So I love my standing desk. Actually, when we moved into our first apartment as a married couple, I knew I would have a dedicated office and the first thing I did was buy this standing desk. It’s served me really well. It’s fantastic.


Now if you’re not quite ready to spend that kind of money on a desk and you’re looking for something more affordable, Fully also offers a converter that sits on top of your desk and you kind of like crank it up when you stand, and then crank it down when you sit. It works best for laptops. But if it’s something that you might be interested in, I would check that out.


Along with a standing desk, you would want an anti-fatigue mat. I thought this was like a bunch of mumbo jumbo at first. I was like, “You don’t need this.” But like one day without it and I was like, “Yeah, I need one of these things.” So this is just like a soft mat that you stand on while you’re at your desk. The TOPO Mat is good. It’s got different heights and surfaces and like areas of the mat so you can stand comfortably. I found mine broke, like ripped pretty quickly. So now I’m using the Imprint CumulusPRO. It is flat. It’s got like ramped edges to get a little variety. But I like that. I like it a lot. So far it’s really serving me well. So that’s your desk setup.


But there’s other gear that you can get too. Something to elevate your laptop or monitor is great because again, you don’t want to be hunched over at your keyboard looking at your monitor, because that’s extremely bad posture, you have neck pain. So you want something that will elevate what you’re looking at so that you could sit up straight. If you heard me get far away, I actually sat up very straight there. I’ll adjust my microphone here. So I have good posture while I record. I like this stuff by Twelve South. They have something called the Curve Rise, and they make that for both laptops and the iMac. The iMac series fits with like the foot of the iMac and elevates it to eye level, which is again you’re sitting up straight.


If you’re using a laptop and you get the Curve Rise or whatever it’s called, the high rise or something like that, then you’re probably going to want a keyboard and mouse. Now I don’t use an ergonomic keyboard. I have a Keycron K1 full-sized Mechanical Keyboard. I got that one because it’s a low profile and so my wrists don’t hurt as much. But Microsoft makes a really good ergonomic keyboard that I’ve seen recommended. There are also more expensive options out there that I do link to in the gift guide. But again, an ergonomic keyboard will improve the way you type and your wrist. Especially if you suffer from carpal tunnel, you’re going to want an ergonomic keyboard.


A good mouse also goes a long way in economics. I have the Logitech MX Master 3, which is great because it is sculpted to fit your hand. So it’s ergonomically designed for comfort but it also has a bunch of programmable buttons and things like that. So it’s actually a little bit more efficient than a normal mouse.


Then finally, if you want to go that extra mile, get a monitor arm. Once again, I’m going to recommend Fully here. Their arms are beautiful and flexible, and sturdy. But I also had one by Amazon that served me really well for my monitor. When I got the iMac Pro, I didn’t have a use for that arm anymore for a monitor, but I converted it to an articulating arm for my camera for my live stream. So it is still serving me well. But again, a monitor arm is great. And that like clears up space on your desk too. So that is the ergonomic stuff.


Home decor or office decor is also fun, but that’s extremely personal. So that really depends on the person you’re shopping for. I will say I have The Gather Desk Organizer by Ugmonk. And that’s great because that’s another thing that clears up space on my desk.


Then another thing that you can do for your office is automation. Last year, I added NFC Tags, WeMo Smart Plugs, and the Sonos One to the automation section, because these are all things that has Amazon Echo integration and the smart plugs and the NFC Tags. You can automate with shortcuts on iOS. But I added a few new things this year because I really gotten into automating my office. So home automation could really be its own gift guide and a giant rabbit hole. But there are some advanced techniques that I think are worth doing.


Today as I record this, I also published a blog post on my lighting setup that you can read. But some of the things that helped me with that are the El Gato Stream Deck. This is a programmable button interface where you can control all sorts of things. It’s meant for live streaming, the Stream Deck. But I also use it…like I push a button and then like my podcast workspace is set up on my computer, the right apps are open in place and things like that. It’s just truly fantastic.


It can also control lights. So the Key Lights which are also made by Elgato work with the Stream Deck, it works with Philips Hue and a few other automation tools. The things in the gift guide, the Stream Deck, Philips Hue Lights Strips, I guess there may be expensive for light strips. You can get Bluetooth ones for 20 bucks. But the Philips Hue Lights Strips work with the Stream Deck, they work with HomeKit. So I can control them and I have them automated to like turn red at 5:30 to remind me of what time it is and the fact that I should be hanging out with my family.


I also added Motion Sensors because there are some cool automation things you can do with that. For example, if you leave the office but leave the lights on and there’s no motion detected in your office for whatever an hour, it can turn the lights off. So home automation is something that’s cool. It’s like comforts of home but it also can make you more efficient depending on how you use it. Maybe you can set the lights to focus or turn the volume down on some speakers or turn on “Do Not Disturb mode” if it’s a certain time so that nobody can distract you.


Wrapping up, the tech and accessory section didn’t change at all. I recommend headphones and backup gear here. The smartphone gear hasn’t changed. It probably will later, like closer to the holidays as I get to try MagSafe for the iPhone and stuff like that. Then the bag section changed a little bit. I added the Nomatic Backpack messenger bag because that’s the one that I’ve been using. And then I added a new accessory organizer. But for the most part those are the big changes. I also removed the get out of the house section.


The last thing I’ll just say is a few ways to make the office more relaxing. I got an oil diffuser, because I’ve been very stuffy lately, and I hear like Eucalyptus helps with that and headaches. So that’s been really fun to use. A humidifier is also good or candles to make it smell nice. Those are things I’ve added to my office recently. So that is the Work from Home Gift Guide.


If we want to get into the gift guide for podcasters at all stages, this did not go through a big change. The main thing is I am only recommending one hosting service now. And that is Castos. My podcast is on Castos.  They are the guys I recommend because they do things very well, they’re constantly evolving, they integrate with WordPress.


For web hosts, SiteGround was the only one I recommended, but now I recommend Hostinger. They are a sponsor of the show you heard their ad earlier. I think that they are good for affordable web hosting. Again, I would encourage you to look at this guide. I did add a new recommendation for the preamp and interface. I bought the Rodecaster Pro earlier this year. I had the Universal Audio Arrow which was generously gifted to me. My friend Shawn Hesketh who is an audio guy, he knows…I mean, he knows a lot but he knows a lot in this area. It’s absolutely perfect for him. He loves to tweak and tinker and he knows exactly what he’s doing.


I am not an audio engineer. I don’t know what I’m doing. I know enough to work with the Rodecaster Pro at this stage. It has enough processing. You can record right to the board. The music that you’ve heard me fade in and out I’ve actually been controlling with the Rodecaster Pro, this episode. Usually, my editor Joel adds it in but I think this is a little bit of an experimental episode for me since it’s just me talking and I can control my whole environment. It’s not going to be heavily edited. But the Rodecaster Pro has been my little production buddy here.


So if you’re looking for an interface and mixer, it’s great. It’s got four microphone inputs and then you can connect your phone and things like that too. I should really do a whole blog post on it because it’s fantastic. So I would highly recommend the Rodecaster Pro. If you’re looking for something with a small footprint, don’t get the Rodecaster Pro. Get the Universal Audio Arrow. They’re around the same price, but the Arrow is a single USB C cable and it fits on the foot of an iMac. I have significantly more space of my desk being taken up but I’m playing a lot more with the Rodecaster Pro.


So the big change on the Podcasters Gift Guide is the “Let me make it easy for you!” section. I basically have three kits that I link to. One for beginners, one with the upgraded setup, and then one with my setup. So if you are looking for “just tell me what to buy,” the Podcasters Gift Guide has that. So those are the big changes. But as always, if you’re just getting started, I recommend the ATR2100 with a pop filter. If you’re looking for your first upgraded microphone, the Rode Pod Mic is 99 bucks and it’s good.


And then you should get the Focusrite Scarlett Solo with that. I use the Shure SM7B for my microphone. So that’s the podcast. Check out the Podcasters Gift Guide if you want more in-depth stuff. Not a lot has changed by it but there are specific kits that I recommend. And then I just named some gear. All of that gear, again, that’ll be in the show notes over at howibuilt.it/193. Now we will hear the Rodecaster Pro in action here. Let’s hear from our third sponsor.


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And now back to the show.


Joe: We’ve heard about the Work from Home Gift Guide. We spent a lot of time there with just improving your office and ergonomics and your workspace. We took a brief look at the Podcasters Gift Guide. Again, I would recommend the ATR2100 if you are a beginner. I would recommend maybe the Rode Pod Mic and the Focusrite Scarlett Solo if you are looking to upgrade your setup. But they’re over there at the Podcast Gift Guide linked in the show notes over at Howibuilt.it/193. You will be able to get just full kits. If you’re a beginner, buy this stuff. If you’re looking to upgrade, buy this stuff. If you want my exact setup, buy this stuff.


The next guide that I’m really excited about is pen recommendations. Again, one of the things that I’m really into is stationery. I tell people that all three of my brothers and I—I’m the oldest of four boys—we all got two things, one from each parent. We got an affinity of knives like pocket knives from our dad and we got an affinity for stationery from our mother. Again, over the last few months, I’ve gotten a lot of questions, like, “What pen should I get? What pen should I use? So I don’t know if just people were spending a lot of time at home thinking, “Hey, I need some better pens.” But I got the question enough that I thought putting agGift guide together would be beneficial.


So I recommend Pen Chalet. There’s a link in the gift guide for you to get $5 off your first purchase. They are #notasponsor, but they should be. If people at Pen Chalet are listening, get in touch. Before we get into the expensive pens, here are some well-priced ballpoints that I recommend. My current favorite is the Uniball Signo DX. It’s a little scratchy, but it’s really nice. It’s got like really pretty inks. And I like that a lot. The Pilot Precision V7 is also a good pen. You’ll find that in Staples along with the Sharpie Pens and the Paper Mate Inkjoy. All of those are going to be available at Staples or another stationery store. But those are the basic pens that I recommend. Those are couple of dollars or less per pen.


The rest of the pens we’re going to talk about range from $30 a pen to $300 a pen. This is a commitment. But if you’re looking for a nice pen, there are some recommendations here. So first let’s recommend Rollerball Pens. Rollerball Pens are nice because they’re refills. You don’t need to worry about inking them up like a fountain pen. And there’s a wide variety of them. All of the pens that I recommend except what’s called a Parker-style refill, it’s a specific size. My favorite Parker-style refill is the Schmidt easyFLOW 9000. The ink draws nicely. It doesn’t clump up or it’s not too watery or scratchy or anything like that. Really good refill. That’s the Schmidt easyFLOW 9000.


My current favorite Rollerball Pen is the Mark One. I’m going to grab it for you here. It’s built beautifully and the knock or the click sound is satisfying. So I’m going to do that for you right now. That is the pen. It is very satisfying every time. It’s made by Studio Neat and they really really put a lot of just effort and love into their products. And the Mark One is amazing. I strongly recommend it. It has a white barrel or a black barrel and the clicky part, the knock comes in either silver or copper so you can mix and match. I have a black one with a copper top and a white one with a silver top. I love the pen so much I have two of them.


But if you are looking for variety, look no further than Retro 51. Retro 51 create fantastically designed the Rollerball pens. My first Retro 51 was a Disney themed pen. I also have one that is locomotive themed for the Leviathan. I have a couple of ugly Christmas sweater pens that they’ve sold. Just they do really great work. There’s a wide variety, different shapes, and sizes for Retro 51. So I would recommend checking them out as well. So those are my favorite rollerball/ballpoint pens.


Oh, I should also mention I didn’t write this down in the guide but the Caran D’ache 849, also a very good pen. That’s really small. That’s around you know 15 to 20 bucks. You know, you’re not looking at 50 bucks for a single pen. And it’s really nice. I have one. I really love it. It was the first more than $5 pen I ever bought when I was a teenager, so they will always hold a special place in my heart.


But most people are looking for recommendations for fountain pens. Fountain pens are the most fun and there’s a lot of stuff to know, different styles, and inking methods and things like that. So here are a few good first fountain pens, ones that I still use. I have too many and I rotate between all of them. But these are the ones that all recommend like good beginner fountain pens. I’ll tell you my favorite fountain pens.


The TWSBI Eco is a no brainer as far as beginner recommendations go. It’s like $30 which is very affordable for a fountain pen and it has what’s called a piston filler. So it’s really easy to ink up. You twist the bottom of the pen down or I guess the top of the pen however you’re looking at it and then you stick the nib into an ink bottle and you twist it back up and you have a barrel full of ink. It comes in a variety of colors. I have an orange one, I want to get the yellow one next. And it includes the fabulous TWSBI nib. I love the TWSBI nib so much. It’s really nice to write with. I would recommend either a fine or medium nib for you for your first time. But the TWSBI Eco, no brainer.


Another no brainer is the Lamy Safari. It comes in a variety of colors. It’s about 20 or $25. It’s great because these are fountain pens that you’ll find in a store so you can try it. Actually, if you have a local Barnes and Noble you can go there and you can try a Lamy Safari. So those are great. They do come with a cartridge and you can get a converter if you want to use your own ink. That gets pretty deep. I’ll recommend a podcast episode soon that will help you with the beginner stuff.


Other beginner fountain pens. The Kaweco Sport is good. That’s another $20 or so fountain pen. The Pilot Metropolitan. Again, I alluded to some of this, but there are different nib sizes. Those nib sizes vary based on the manufacturer. Usually fine and medium are safe in most cases. And there are generally two ways to ink up a fountain pen excluding TWSBI. A cartridge which is a prefilled disposable tube that you basically punch a hole into when you connect it to your pen. Or there’s a converter which is a refillable tube that you can put any ink you want into it. And that’s the fun part of the fountain pens for me is you buy the ink, and then you can mix and match your pens with the ink.


So speaking of some of my favorite inks, I link all of this over on the gift guide. Robert Oster Dragon’s Night is this beautiful dark blue with  hints and flecks of gold. Robert Oster African Gold, really nice. It’s like a dark, dark yellow.  Pilot Iroshizuku Fuyu-gaki. That’s an orange ink. And Sailor Mayno Akebi, which is a purple-pink ink, which is fantastic. That’s all beginner stuff. So if you check out Episode #400 of the Pen Addict podcast, it’s a great primer on all pen related things, that’s what I would recommend for a deep dive. Brad Dowdy and Myke Hurley are great. I’ll link that in the show notes as well.


Now as far as upgraded picks, the Lamy 2000 is a good upgraded pick. It’s sub $200 with a gold nib. A gold nib is just a softer metal. So it’s a more pleasurable writing experience. The Platinum 3776 is another good upgraded pick. My two favorite pens right now are the Sailor Pro Gear and the Platinum President which I think is an underrated pen. But those are both going to be $250 to $300 or more. So when you’re really into it…those are like gifts that I got myself essentially when I launched my book or when I landed a big client or something like that. But again, if you’re looking for a beginner, the TWSBI Eco is a fabulous first fountain pen.


Man, that’s everything. That’s the whole shebang, the whole gift guide episode. You can find all the gift guides over at howibuilt.it/193. I will link them over there. I want to thank you for listening. I want to thank our sponsors, Yes Plz Coffee, iTheme Security Pro, and Hostinger.


First of all, if you have any questions about the gift guides, feel free to reach out via email, joe@casabona.org, or on Twitter, @Jcasabona. Be sure to thank all of our sponsors. Again, check out the gift guides over at howibuilt.it/193. If you want to get more content like this, and helpful tips and tricks for WordPress and podcasting, and a whole bunch of other things, you can subscribe to Build Something Weekly. There will be a signup form over at howibuilt.it/193. So you can hit everything over there, get the gift guides, say thanks to the sponsors, and sign up for the mailing list. But that’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening. And until next time, get out there and build something.

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