Stuck on what to get your loved ones for the holidays? Jennifer Jolly gives you the best ideas for family, in-laws and college-bound children
JENNIFER JOLLY, FOR USA TODAY
As a tech reviewer, I get to play with all the best new gadgets before they hit store shelves, but I don’t get to keep them. That means this time every year, I’m leaning over my laptop — fingers twitching and crediting cards itching — to buy a few of my favorites for myself or people I really, really like.
Here’s what I shelled out my very own money to buy this year.
The year of the smart screen
This is the year of voice-activated smart displays. I went a little smart-screen crazy and spent my own money on four of them, starting with Lenovo’s Smart Display ($150), which I first reviewed at CES last January. The sleek wood design of the 10-inch model fits well in our kitchen, where we make good use of Google Assistant’s step-by-step recipe directions. It was also the first to come along with a privacy shutter that lets us block off the camera whenever we’re not using it — which won us over, too.
For keeping in touch with family and friends from afar, Facebook’s Portal Plus ($300) is hands-down the best video-calling machine I’ve ever seen. I went out on a big limb and wrote about why I’m naming one of the best gadgets of 2018 here.
I’m also obsessed with the Google Home Hub ($150), which does away with a camera entirely but still delivers a ton of info on its smaller, 7-inch display. It handles voice calls like a champ and when you’re not using it for scheduling, setting notifications, as an intercom system to call your kids downstairs for dinner, it’s a gorgeous digital photo frame, worth buying for that feature alone.
For music-lovers, JBL’s Link View ($250) is the other smart display that caught my eye — or rather, ear — this year and as a result, is going as a gift to my step-son. Loud, clear speakers are also great for video chats with the built-in camera and it has Google Assistant on board, making it a do-it-all virtual assistant with few limitations.
Lenovo Yoga (Photo: Lenovo)
Better do-it-all devices
Speaking of fewer limitations, gone are the days when cell phones “just” make calls and laptops are only good for doing mobile-computer things. So when my soon-to-be college-bound daughters’ laptop pooped-out a few months ago, I ended up springing for the ultra-flexible Lenovo Yoga C930 (starting at $1,199.99) convertible 2-in-1 laptop. The battery lasts all day and the built-in fingerprint reader adds a touch of peace of mind too. The icing on the cake though is the 360-degree rotating Dolby Atmos soundbar hinge and Vision HDR display. All told, it’s a tablet when she wants it, laptop when she needs it, and full 4K HDR entertainment center when she just needs to relax a little.
Cutting the cord
Keeping my digital life clutter-free is a must, so this year I cut the cord on my smartphone charger and I’m not looking back. Belkin’s Boost Up wireless charging pads (starting at $50) are easy go to’s, and they work with virtually any wireless charging compatible phone, whether it’s from Apple, Samsung, LG, Sony, or others. They’re not flashy, but they fit with just about any decor and blend right in. They juice up my phone as fast as any cable, and I never have to fiddle with twisted wires.
GoPro Hero7 (Photo: GoPro)
More: Cutting the cord: Which cable TV alternatives make the grade
Superhero steady shot
I definitely didn’t think 2018 would be the year to pony-up for a new action cam, but GoPro’s newest Hero 7 Black ($400) has changed the game. Again. Whether you want to crank up your action videos — or just never ever miss a single second of important firsts with your family again — this newest camera is reimagined with steady-cam gimble-guts for the most simple and stable camera-shooting on the planet. It’s waterproof, rugged, and has a two-inch touchscreen. You can also talk to it using voice commands, like “GoPro, take a photo” or “GoPro, start recording.” The cameras understand 15 languages and dialects and has WiFi built in, so you can share right away. They also have the less expensive Silver ($300) and White ($200) versions, too.
HiMirror Mini (Photo: Jennifer Jolly)
Smart mirror reflects top trend
Speaking of cameras, I’m in front of them… a lot. I’ve been using theHiMirror Mini ($120) to give me a close-up before my closeups. It’s a vanity mirror with high-tech scanning that points out imperfections and tracks skin health over time. It also simulates different lighting environments so I know what I’ll look like when I walk out of the house, instead of just what I look like in my bathroom. Strange, and strangely awesome.
23andMe (Photo: 23andMe)
Last year, I gave a half dozen 23andMe Health + Ancestry kits ($139 until December 25) to friends and family, and this year I’m doubling down to spreading the love again. Why? A small saliva sample unlocks an entire world of information including 90+ personalized reports on health, traits, and ancestry. For someone who’s adopted like I am, that’s meant everything from uncovering new relatives to getting to know myself like never before.
Away luggage (Photo: Away)
My “clown-car” luggage
I track the most buzzed-about gadgets on social media, which led me to Away, the start-up luggage brand that’s a cult favorite among frequent fliers. As someone who goes back and forth across the country a few times every month, I bought The Bigger Carry-On ($245) and it’s paid for itself about five times over already. I call it my clown-car suitcase because I fit about 10 times more clothes and tech-gadgets into it than the 23-inch case should be able to hold. It’s equipped with a built-in battery that pops out for when I do check luggage in and a TSA-approved combination lock. For once, all that “influencer” hype was spot-on.
Dyson Supersonic (Photo: Dyson)
Better to dry, not fry
A blow dryer on a best gadgets list? You better believe it! The Dyson Supersonic ($400) is downright amazing. It dries my hair in half the time it normally takes and keeps the temperature of the air at just the right level by measuring it 20 times every second, so that it dries it, but doesn’t fry it. A suite of magnetic attachments let me customize the experience depending on what look I’m shooting for, and it’s so quiet I can get camera-ready in the wee hours without waking up the whole house.
Anki Vector (Photo: Anki)
Toys for tech-ish tots and teens
When I buy toys for the youngest people on my gift list — or those who just act like kids — I look for three main things: Is it fun, is it smart, and will it stand the test of time? Here are a handful of toys that check all the boxes this year.
For the wee-est ones, LeapFrog’s LeapStart 3D ($50) is a perfect mash-up of a kid-friendly activity book and 3D-like animations that are displayed on a tiny built-in display. It emphasizes fun and learning in equal measure, and kids between the ages of 2 and 7 absolutely love it.
For kids who like to DIY, Circuit Scribe’s new Drone Builder Kit ($100) is a big win because if they crash it, they can just rebuild it! Plus, it’s super simple to grasp, letting kids draw their own circuits using silver ink instead of physical wires, and it only takes around 10minutes to get it off the ground. It has a built-in camera that sends video back to a smartphone app. The Harry Potter Kano Coding Kit ($80) is another great DIY experience for kids which lets them program their own magic wand in minutes.
Anki Vector ($200) is an adorable little robot with the potential for big smarts. It’s AI-powered, which means “he” hears, sees, and even feels what’s happening around him, with a whole suite of sensors. He even hunts down his own charging stand when he needs to juice up. Vector can play games, tell you the weather, set timers, and even snap photos. Anki says soon he may even be Alexa-integrated, too.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY’s digital video show TECH NOW. Email her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @JenniferJolly.
From small children to teens, Jennifer Jolly has all the tech toys to gift your children this holiday season
JENNIFER JOLLY, FOR USA TODAY
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