These Cool Gadgets Make Great Christmas Gifts

December 2015 / January 2016

As I write this, I'm expecting FedEx to deliver my new Apple TV device any minute. And I'm eagerly awaiting notice that my Kindle ebook reader has shipped. Add to these gadgets my new iPad mini, my Chromebook, and my Blu-ray player, and I'd say that my purchases in recent months have pretty much sated my gadget lust.

For now.

I have to admit that there are some appealing gadgets starting to appear on my radar. If you're looking for gift ideas for Christmas, check these out (in addition to the voice-controlled streaming-video set-top boxes that I wrote about last month).

Amazon Echo ($179) — Restrain me please, because this one tempts me the most. It's a cylinder 9 inches tall and 3 inches in diameter that sits in your house and responds to your every command.

You can ask Alexa, Amazon's voice recognition genie, to play specific music or an audio book, to tell you sports scores or weather, to tell you the latest news, to turn on lights or turn up the heat, to set a timer, to add items to your shopping list, to get traffic reports, to query Wikipedia, to check your appointment calendar, and more. The Echo has 7 microphones and can hear you across the room.

It has a set of speakers (2.5 inch woofer and 2.0 inch tweeter) built in so that it can respond to your requests and play music. Plus, you can use its Bluetooth wireless to stream music from your phone or tablet, including from services such as Amazon Music, Prime Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

The smart-home controls work with devices from companies such as WeMo, Philips Hue, SmartThings, Insteon, and Wink.

Amazon Fire tablet ($49) — No, that's not a misprint. Amazon is indeed selling a 7-inch tablet for $49. And they'll sell you half a dozen for $249. It's a full-featured tablet that you can use to watch movies, listen to music, read ebooks, surf the web, play games, etc. It has a 2-megapixel camera on back with 720p recording, a front-facing VGA camera for videoconferencing, and 7-hour battery life. It comes with 8GB of storage and a microSD slot for adding up to 128GB of storage.

It's not the fastest tablet, and reviews say graphics in games can sometimes stutter and that the web browser may be slow. But for many purposes, such as watching movies, it's fine. The display is 1024×600, which is somewhat less than HD resolution of 1280x720. But heck — you can buy a dozen of 'em for less than I paid for my iPad mini.

VivoStick PC ($129) — Asus has been wowing trade shows with this gadget, which they announced in September. But as I write this, their website still says, "Coming soon." What's the excitement? This is yet another thumb-sized dongle you plug into your HDTV to transform its personality. In this case, it turns your HDTV into a fully functioning Windows 10 PC.

You'll need to add a keyboard and mouse, or you can control it remotely with your smartphone. It comes with 2GB of RAM, 2 USB ports, 32GB of storage, and a headphone jack.

If this whets your appetite but still isn't available, an option would be the Quantum Access Mini PD Stick ($129 on Amazon). It runs the latest full version of Windows 8.1. The specs are similar, except that it has 1 USB port, a Micro USB port, and a microSD card slot.

Chromecast Audio ($35) — Google had a big impact on the streaming video market when they introduced their $35 Chromecast dongle for HDTVs in 2013. It's been quite popular, and the latest model is even smaller — about the size and shape of a silver dollar.

This fall they added yet another Chromecast device to their lineup: Chromecast Audio. If you have high-end speakers, you can connect them to a Chromecast Audio device and then wirelessly stream music from your smartphone or tablet to your speakers via WiFi.

UDI U818A quadcopter drone ($48 on Amazon) — Drones are expected to be a huge seller this Christmas. One of the most popular models on Amazon is the UDI U818A. Reviews say that it's an excellent starter (and durable) drone. Q: Why would someone want a starter drone? A: Because piloting one takes some practice. Expect crashes.

It has a built-in camera that captures 640 x 480-pixel video. The four motors are powered by a rechargeable battery that can keep it aloft for 7–9 minutes. You'll want to buy extra batteries, since it takes two hours to charge the battery. It weighs just 4.6 oz., and is 2 inches tall and 16 inches wide and deep.

Happy holidays, and may Santa put some great gadgets under your Christmas tree.


© 2015 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen