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Originally published December 7, 2012 at 7:06 PM | Page modified December 8, 2012 at 8:44 AM

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Some tips for choosing iPhone, Mac and iPad gifts

Time is one of the most important components of much of the technology we’re looking to buy, or that we rely on at work and at home.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Practical Mac

This is the time of year when I start receiving a higher than usual number of pointed questions about what technology to buy, what to give as gifts, and whether I can get things that are otherwise sold out (sorry, nope). Ah, the holidays!

But wait.

No, really, just take a moment. Because it turns out that time is one of the most important components of much of the technology we’re looking to buy, or that we rely on at work and at home.

Consider the iPhone. A friend is equipping her teenage kids with iPhones this year, and wondered whether it’s better to get the more-capable iPhone 4S for $99 or the previous-generation iPhone 4 free.

Free is pretty compelling, right? But in most cases, when you’re buying an iPhone, what you’re actually buying is a cellular-service contract. Compared with spending a few thousand dollars over a typical two-year contract, $99 doesn’t turn out to be much.

The internals of the iPhone 4S are quite a few steps above the 4: much better camera, better processor and better graphics performance. Now, two years after the 4 shipped, that translates to a phone likely to still perform well by the end of the contract, which, if Apple sticks to its current production schedule (and this is Apple, so no one outside the company really knows for sure), would be running iOS 8, maybe not at its peak but competently.

To compare, the iPhone 3GS, last year’s free model, can run the current iOS 6, but minus many of the features and with a performance hit.

So my general advice is to get the best phone you can afford. And in the case of my friend’s teens, also get AppleCare and good protective cases.

But what about buying Macs? If you rely on a Mac Pro that’s starting to show its age, you know about serious waiting. The professional tower was upgraded in a small way earlier this year, but it lacks the fast Thunderbolt and Lightning ports found on even the inexpensive Mac mini.

In this case, Apple broke its vow of silence — a little — when CEO Tim Cook replied in an email to a customer that the company is “working on something really I great for later next year” (2013).

But clients and bills don’t wait, so the general rule of thumb for buying a computer is: if you need it right away, buy it. Waiting in this case can turn against you if you’re waiting for a specific feature that may or may not appear. Better to buy a decent Mac mini as a small and inexpensive workhorse now than to lose productivity on a machine that can’t keep up. (Of course, that advice is quite flexible depending on the need; a Mac mini can’t run specialized PCI Express cards such as those used in video-editing shops.)

Rounding out the product line is the iPad. The introduction of the iPad mini creates a quandary for some people. They like the price and the size, but wish it had the marquee feature of the full-size, third- and fourth-generation iPad models: the high-resolution Retina display.

I like the iPad mini a lot, and I’ve used it as my primary iPad for weeks without being worried about the screen resolution, including reading a novel and countless articles and other written material on the Web. If the size appeals to you, don’t let the non-Retina screen hold you back.

Yes, you could wait until next year when Apple might incorporate a Retina display into the iPad mini (though it might not; Retina requires larger, heavier, power-hungrier components that may not be small enough for a couple of years). The fourth-generation iPad is an excellent device, but you do pay the cost of its size if you have your heart set on something small and light.

When you’re looking to buy new technology, it’s important to not focus just on what’s available right now in front of you. Knowing the timeline of what’s been on the market for a while, like older iPhones still for sale, as well as what is likely to come up in the future, will make your buying decisions easier. If you can wait that long.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

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