Remember those halcyon days when children hand-wrote letters to Santa, and parents kept the Toys "R" Us bounty wrapped in the backs of closets? Today kids e-mail Santa with cross-referenced Excel spreadsheets, and 8-year-olds throw around words like Froogle with disturbing nonchalance. Welcome to the age of the overeducated gift recipient.
What's a self-respecting gift-giver to do? Spend days online trolling for the perfect gift? Brave the crowds at the mall? The easier solution is to consult a professional—which is why each year, legions of magazines publish gift guides. Since no one has time to sift through the dozens, if not hundreds, of guides (and since so many are wretched), we've reviewed which will leave gift recipients ecstatic—and which will make them wish they'd put a lump of coal in your stocking.
Here are the results, from worst to first, judged on a scale of 1-10:
Outside, December 2006"Drool-worthy digital cameras, the perfect winter jacket, an MP3 wetsuit for surfers and more"For: Lance Armstrong worshippers whose idea of fun is a triathlon. The Approach: Organization seems to be an afterthought. The "holiday gift guide" is teased on the cover, but it's not listed in the table of contents: Instead, gifts are scattered throughout, making them difficult to find. Online, the magazine offers an interactive guide that has suggestions based on criteria you input (gender, price, gift type), which is more useful than the print guide. Holiday Folly: Ibis Mojo Carbon SLX bicycle ($5,399), an ultra-light, ultra-exclusive bike. Selling Point: Brunton Solaris 12 solar charger ($260), which can charge most portable electronic devices within several hours. Useful if you find yourself out of batteries and far from an electrical outlet on a sunny day. The Verdict: It's not clear what exactly makes this a holiday gift guide, besides the yawningly standard assortment of digital cameras. Score: 1
Elle, December 2006"Our biggest gift guide: 100+ ideas for him, for home, for you." Not the only magazine that pitches their guide to the giver as well the receiver. One for you, one for me … For: Fashionistas with cash to burn and trends to follow. The Approach: Overly high-concept and hard to navigate, with gifts arranged into categories by elements—fire, earth, air, and water—as well as subcategories ("Earthly Delights," etc.). Each section features a hodgepodge of clothing, accessories, decorative items, books, etc. Holiday Folly: Swarovski-crystal embroidered dress, price upon request, by Chloé; Majolica antique bowl ($4,998), at Bergdorf Goodman. Selling Point: For the new homeowner, black-and-white espresso cups with painted butterflies ($40) are delicately thoughtful; a gold-plated dragon cuff bracelet ($125) looks more substantial than its price. The Verdict: This is a gift guide of beautiful objets—hand-painted ostrich eggs, anyone?—for the woman who has everything, several times over. The rest of us may get some inspiration but will likely find most gifts to be outside our price range. Score: 4
Gourmet, December 2006"Great Gifts for Cooks and Everyone Else"For: Everyone from serious cooks to serial Williams-Sonoma browsers. The Approach: Scattered, and doesn't live up to the cover hype. A page of gifts for cooks (cordless blender, stylish serving utensils) is followed 18 pages later by gifts for "tipplers" (mostly liquor gifts, like 32-year-old malt Scotch). Holiday Folly: Dorothy Draper revolving bar ($7,974) from the Kindell Furniture Co.
Selling Point: Alessi"La Cintura" aluminum casserole ($149) is a more stylish alternative to ubiquitous All-Clad. The Verdict: A well-curated collection for epicureans and those who love them—though labeling this a gift guide is a stretch. The upside: The layout is so luscious, it may encourage takeout habitués to return to the stove. Score: 4
Consumer Reports, December 2006"Best Gifts in 50+ Categories"Target: Savvy, price- and value-conscious consumers who aren't swayed by labels or peer pressure. The Approach: No-nonsense. For those unaccustomed to CR's approach, it can seem like information overload, especially because the main guide mostly lacks photos—items are clearly divided by category and then listed by name and price with no information about where to buy and no description. Extended sections on TVs, wine, mail-order food, food processors and choppers, and cordless drills get more in-depth. Holiday Folly: Even the section on 50-inch plasma TVs (ranging from $2,500 to $5,500) makes them sound practical. Selling Point: Oenophiles may find the wine section—"Values in reds and chardonnay"—simplistic, but for someone in need of a quick hostess gift, it's helpful, with wines recommended at several price points. The Verdict: Though obviously exhaustively researched, CR's guide takes some of the fun out of holiday shopping. This is the gift guide for obsessives who have the time and energy to research their shopping to death, or people who already know they're getting Aunt Rose a blender for Christmas and just need to know which one to buy. Score: 5
InStyle, December 2006"232 Great Gifts! For you (and everyone else too)."For: Girl-next-door types who own all the Sex and the City DVDs. The Approach: This perky guide covers all the bases, with sections like "Your Trendy Friend" and "A Fab, Fashionable Teen." Each section has several stand-alone gifts, plus a helpful list of stocking stuffers, and the layout is easy to follow. Holiday Folly: Slashed metallic calf Keeya bag ($1,480) by Jimmy Choo (for "Gals Like Us"—er, not this gal); Luminox diving watch ($1,500), from Vivre, for "The Head Honcho" (ew). Selling Point: An 11-bottle wine fridge with eight temperature settings ($179) from Cuisinart is a practical yet impressive-looking gift for a budding wine enthusiast. The Verdict: InStyle offers a crowd-pleasing upscale array of gifts (additional selections are online) that would be comfortably at home in both a well-appointed McMansion or a PR assistant's studio (though including the InStyle Instant Style book in the magazine's roundup is a tasteless touch). It's unlikely anyone will be disappointed if you buy them something featured here, and the gift-giving categories are more helpful than arbitrary. Still, there's something vaguely upscale-mall-like about the whole guide—if you use this guide, you're probably not going to win points for originality, but everyone will admire your taste. Score: 6
Real Simple, December 2006"50 Gifts Under $50: Unexpected Ideas to Delight Everyone"For: Agoraphobics. Or, busy moms who don't have time to hit the mall—everything here is available online or by phone. The Approach: By relationship—mothers, best friends, fathers, husbands, kids, etc. (it's not-so-subtly implied that women are reading this guide)—and several other categories, like stocking stuffers under $10 and gift cards. There's also a handy list to keep track of purchases. Holiday Folly: Few and far between—almost everything on this list is überpractical—though we suggest thinking twice before buying the carpet skates ($20) for anyone but your own kids. Selling Point: Frame-worthy wall maps from the U.S. Geological Survey ($6) are available by city and neighborhood, making them a surprisingly personal and inexpensive gift. The Verdict: A nice range of practical (if not completely inspiring) gifts, though the draw here is more proving that you don't have to leave your living room to shop. Like its Time Inc. sibling InStyle, the magazine manages to get in a plug for its own book (Real Simple: Celebrations), which feels tacky. Score: 6
Lucky, December 2006"Fifteen jam-packed pages filled with incredible options sure to please even your pickiest gift recipient."Target: Trend-conscious 20-somethings looking for unique gifts that seem more expensive than they really are. The Approach: Divided into several themes, including black-and-white, safari, $25 or less, and madcap tea party. Each category has 12 to 14 items, with a heavy emphasis on accessories and home decor. Holiday Folly: A $350 elephant-shaped "piggy" bank from the Conduit Group; 18K gold and diamond bracelet with the word oui spelled in cursive script, for $2,690 from Dior Fine Jewelry. Selling Point: Brightly colored melamine studio dinner plates ($8 each) from the Working Class Studio are designed to look like glazed tiles, and would make a perfect gift for a young hostess who turns up her nose at Crate & Barrel. The Verdict: Like Lucky itself, this gift guide is whimsically practical. Why buy a regular dictionary when you can get a $170 mock-croc-bound version at Barneys? That said, the tech-inclined and the slightly more grown-up may find this guide a bit thin. Score: 7
Cookie, December 2006/January 2007"106 perfect presents for kids, husbands, & parents (from $4)"Target: Busy grup moms who take their kids' wardrobes and toy collections as seriously as they do their educations. The Approach: Beautifully photographed, numbered gifts correspond to descriptions in age-appropriate categories (up to age 8). Extra section of food and wine gifts for grown-ups. Holiday Folly: Cashmere sweater from Brooks Brothers ($228)—recommended for ages 3 to 5; 10-inch LCD TV, set into a toy firetruck, with a fireman-shaped remote control ($500), from HANNspree. Selling Point: Waterproof iPod case, recommended for dads ($120), from H20 Audio. The Verdict: Tickle-Me-Elmo is nowhere to be found. Cookie's put together an impressive collection of items for families who limit TV watching and take their kids to museums, and at a surprisingly broad range of price points (perhaps class really is a state of mind). Tastefulness reigns, with lots of European wooden toys and handmade-looking gifts. (N.B.: In the adult section, vegetarians may want to skip the food layout, which features prosciutto with hoof and hair attached.) Score: 7
Wired, December 2006"We're convinced you'll want to get your hands on all 107 cool tools in this guide. We do."Target: Early adapters who already have the flat-screen TV and the tiny digital camera, looking for the coolest new gadgets. The Approach: Categories ranging from phones and video to toys and household. Mostly easy to follow, save for the slightly cluttered "30 under $30" section. Holiday Folly: Kitchen in the Round, a $99,000 prefab, space-age spherical kitchen with a hood that lowers at the touch of a button to encase everything under it. Selling Point: SlingboxPro ($250), a box you set up at home that allows you to access your home cable, satellite, or DVR box over the Internet, then streams the programs to a computer—wherever you are. Perfect for the frequent traveler who misses watching their favorite shows while on the road. The Verdict: For those who take their tech seriously. For dabblers, the gifts skew expensive, but they'll clue you in to what you'll be able to afford a few years down the line. And there are a few inexpensive choices in each category, plus the slightly random collection of gifts under $30 that veer into gag/joke territory (to wit: a Deluxe God Detector). Score: 7
New York, Nov. 27"A complete strategy for total holiday victory"For: People who think holiday shopping is equal parts giving and showing off how tasteful you are. The Approach: Hyper-organized. Divided by recipient (child, grandpa/dad, sister/best friend, etc.). There is also a hodgepodge of under-$20 gifts. Only disorienting note is a somewhat random food gift guide that shows up pages later, in the food section. Holiday Folly: Chinchilla vest ($11,800), at Loro Piana; PlayStation 3 ($499.99)—good luck getting hold of one; limited-edition and author-signed In Love With a Wanton: Essays on Golf, by John Updike ($1,250). Selling Point: Cheese of the Month Club ($200 to $500), from Greenwich Village mainstay Murray's Cheese. A gift that keeps on giving, deliciously. The Verdict: This guide plays to holiday shoppers' competitive spirits, with its thoughtful, wide-ranging collection of gifts at various price points. It emphasizes boutiques and local New York chains (most gifts are available online or by phone for those outside the city) but has also managed to find the unique gifts lurking at the bigger chains. There's also a welcome guide to managing the holidays, from personal shoppers to Christmas-tree decorators-for-hire, though non-New Yorkers will likely gloss over this. Score: 9