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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Brad Moon, Contributing Writer
| November 26, 2019
With the first snow of the season in the rearview mirror, and Black Friday and Cyber Monday trending on Twitter, you know it's that time of year again: holiday shopping season. Once again, high-tech gifts – the shiniest of shiny new objects -- are in high demand. And once again, with hundreds of products claiming to be the "next big thing" or the "hottest gift this Christmas," making an informed gift choice can be confusing.
That means it's time for our guide to help you choose those high-tech gifts. But this is a slightly different approach than you might be accustomed to. Rather than flashy eye candy, Kiplinger is focused on value. Not just price, but other factors like performance, durability, quality and ease of use. I've been reviewing high-tech products for over a decade for outlets including Wired, GeekDad and Forbes, and this guide combines my hands-on experience with Kiplinger's approach.
I've put together 19 choices for high-tech gifts — ranging in price from $25 to $700 — that represent a great value for both you the giver, and the person who's lucky enough to receive them. Take a look.
Our Pick: Ryobi RY40860 Cordless Snowblower
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $499.99
The holiday shopping season coincides with winter weather, and, in much of the country, that means snow.
Traditional gas-powered snowblowers are big, noisy, polluting, and expensive. They require regular maintenance, and you have to keep a supply of gasoline on hand.
Ryobi has built a great reputation for battery-powered tools, including lawnmowers and snowblowers. The Ryobi RY40860 is equipped with a steel auger and a brushless electric motor powered by a pair of rechargeable 40V lithium-ion batteries (the same ones used by its most powerful cordless lawnmowers). It can tear through up to 13 inches of snow in a 21-inch-wide path, throwing it up to 35 feet away. What's not to like -- instant on, no gas, no oil, no pollution, low noise, a five-year warranty, and it folds up for compact storage.
Our Pick: Tile Trackers
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: Starts at $24.99
Bluetooth trackers make an excellent gift for someone who is always misplacing their stuff -- wallet, TV remote, purse, keys, you name it. Stick a Tile tracker on an object or slip it inside, and, with the tile app on a smartphone, you can trigger the tracker to ring so you can follow the sound to the misplaced object. The app can also show you the last known location of a Tile tracker on a map.
Tile trackers were one of the first and most popular Bluetooth trackers, and the company has improved and expanded its lineup this year. There are now waterproof versions and Tile trackers with replaceable batteries, and wireless range has been improved (up to 400 feet for some models).
Tile trackers start at just $24.99 for a Tile Mate with 200-foot range and a replaceable battery good for one year. You can also buy Combo Packs that include a variety of different Tile trackers starting at $69.99.
Our Pick: Ring Video Doorbell 2
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $199
One of the most popular smart home categories this year is doorbell cams. They offer a home security boost by providing a real-time view of the area around your front door, with alerts on your smartphone when someone approaches. Doorbell cams have played a big roll in busting "porch bandits" who make off with packages, but they also offer the convenience of seeing who's at the door without having to get up and open it.
A doorbell cam makes a great gift, but their popularity means there are dozens to choose from.
A top pick is the $199 Ring Video Doorbell 2 from Amazon. It features 1080p live-view video, smartphone alerts when motion is detected or the doorbell is rung, and two-way talk so you can speak to someone at the front door. It's weather resistant, and it supports Alexa voice integration. The Ring Video Doorbell 2 can be powered by an included rechargeable battery pack for simple installation — a big win when giving a doorbell cam as a gift and you don't know whether the recipient is comfortable with wiring. A paid subscription (starting at $3/month) is required to access stored videos, but live operation has no ongoing cost.
Our Pick: Simplehuman Rectangular Sensor Can
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: Starts at $200
Is a smart kitchen garbage can really worth $200? After evaluating the Rectangular Sensor Can from Simplehuman earlier this year, I can attest that one of these would make a great gift.
This garbage can has a motion sensor to automatically raise the lid, helping to avoid messes. But it also responds to voice commands, and you don't need to program a smart speaker to get that to work: just say "open can." The feature works perfectly, even screening to prevent background noise (such as a TV) from accidentally opening the can. The motor is a high-precision model that's virtually silent. The Simplehuman Rectangular Sensor Can can be plugged in for power, or you can use six AA batteries (they lasted about one month in my testing).
The icing on the cake? This trash can is treated with a nano-silver coating that resists fingerprints and prevents microbes from reproducing. It's available in multiple finishes to match kitchen decor, including brushed stainless steel and white.
Our Pick: Dyson V11 Torque Drive
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $699.99
Robotic vacuum cleaners have an undeniable cool factor, but they don't necessarily make the best gifts. Yes, they promise to eliminate vacuuming as a daily chore (and who wouldn't want that?), but the reality is often much more complicated. Obstructions, stairs and pets can all be issues, and, in a multi-level home, you'd need one on every floor. Operation can also be complicated, especially the initial setup. Limited power and dustbin capacity means robotic vacuums are really best suited for light-duty cleaning.
If you're considering a "smart" vacuum cleaner as a gift, I'd skip the robot and instead go with Dyson's latest cordless stick vacuum cleaner, the V11. I tested one this year, and it easily dealt with the mess of three teenagers, two large furry dogs, and two cats. Dyson also tops the 2019 J.D. Power Customer Satisfaction awards for stick vacuums, so I'm not the only one who liked it.
The Dyson V11 Torque Drive is priced at $699.99 and includes a selection of tools and a docking station. What makes it "smart"? Among other features, the vacuum senses when you switch surfaces and automatically adjusts the suction power. The rechargeable battery is good for up to 60 minutes of run time, and the V11 has a display that shows you the real-time battery life remaining. This cordless vacuum develops suction that can beat many traditional corded models, and it also quickly converts to a hand vacuum — great for cleaning the car.
Photo by Brad Moon
Our Pick: Ultimate Ears WONDERBOOM 2
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $99.99
Ultimate Ears' WONDERBOOM 2 is proof that you don't have to spend a fortune to get a good wireless speaker. At $99.99, the WONDERBOOM 2 delivers 360-degree audio with a surprising bass punch. It also offers 13-hour battery life, and its IP67 waterproof and dustproof rating combined with a rugged, knit cloth cover make it virtually indestructible.
During testing, I dropped the WONDERBOOM 2 on the deck from railing height with no issue. When I threw it in a pool, it floated and kept playing. The speaker is covered by a two-year warranty, double the industry standard.
If you're willing to double your spending, a pair of WONDERBOOM 2 speakers have a really handy trick: At the push of a button, they pair for true left- and right-channel stereo playback.
Our Pick: TCL 50S421 4K TV With HDR and ROKU
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $319.99
If someone on your list is still making do with decade-old TV technology, you can introduce them to the latest and greatest for a surprisingly affordable price.
China's TCL has been making big inroads in the U.S. market by offering budget TVs with good quality and a wide feature set. The TCL 50S421 4K TV With HDR and ROKU is a great example. This is a 50-inch, flat-screen TV — not huge but large enough for a family room, den or even a bedroom. Despite a budget-friendly $319.99 price tag, it offers 4K support with HDR for a picture that will make 1080p look ancient. It supports both Alexa and Google Assistant, and this TV has ROKU built-in, for access to the best of streaming TV services including Netflix, Prime Video, Apple TV+ and Disney+.
Our Pick: Vizio SB2020n Soundbar
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $69.99
Even the best flat-screen TV can use an audio upgrade. You can easily spend thousands of dollars on a home theater audio system, but soundbars are a great way to improve the sound of a TV without the expense — or the wires. And no company does affordable soundbars better than Vizio.
The Vizio SB2020n retails for just $69.99, but this 20-inch soundbar packs a big punch. With dual mid-range drivers, it's a two-channel (stereo) system, but built-in support for DTS Virtual: X means it can also deliver virtual multi-dimensional surround audio. It includes Bluetooth connectivity, so it can also be used to play streaming music from a smartphone.
The look of the SB2020n is also upscale, with its black cloth and metallic finish giving it a sleek, modern and premium appearance. It also includes a remote control.
Our Pick: Nixplay Seed 8-inch (Wi-Fi)
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $159.99
Digital photo frames were big a decade ago, then languished for years as consumers lost interest. But several years ago, two factors helped to kick off renewed interest: 1) high-quality display panels became more affordable, and 2) manufacturers started to add Wi-Fi connectivity.
I've evaluated a handful of connected photo frames at varying price points over the past two years, and the one that hits the sweet spot is the Nixplay Seed 8-inch (Wi-Fi). There are less expensive options, but they tend to have lower quality displays, flakey software and cheap-looking frames. More expensive frames get bigger and higher-resolution displays.
The Nixplay Seed 8-inch (Wi-Fi) frame shows off digital photos that are larger than a 4 x 6 inch print, and the IPS display has 1024 x 768 resolution. It's bright, has good viewing angles and looks pretty crisp — especially from a few feet away. Photos can be displayed in a slideshow, and a motion sensor automatically turns off the frame when nobody is in the room. It's Wi-Fi connected, and, with the Nixplay app, photos can be easily uploaded from social media feeds, a smartphone, or friends and family. It even has a pair of tiny speakers for playing audio on uploaded video snippets.
Our Pick: Renogy PHOENIX 100 Mini Power Station
With all the gadgets we carry around these days, it's no wonder that portable power banks are so popular. These devices make great gifts because they are inexpensive (you can find ones that will top up a smartphone battery for under $20), and practically everyone needs one.
If you're gift-shopping for someone who's really into tech, the Renogy PHOENIX 100 Mini Power Station is a better bet. Those $20 battery packs usually have just enough juice to charge a smartphone, and are equipped with a USB port. The PHOENIX 100 is still small enough to hold in a hand (it weighs just over one pound), but it has a whopping 27,000mAh capacity. That's the maximum allowed by FAA regulations on an airplane, and enough to charge an iPhone XR nine times.
The PHOENIX 100 also includes USB-C fast-charge ports, and it has a 100W AC power outlet. In testing, I was able to run a large table fan for two and a half hours, but you could also plug in a laptop, light, or small TV. Given its capacity, flexibility and the AC power outlet (usually available only on much more expensive power banks), the Renogy PHOENIX 100 is a great value and something any tech fanatic will really appreciate.
It would also make a great addition to any home emergency kit.
Our Pick: Apple Watch Series 3
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: Starts at $199
The best value in smartwatches remains the Apple Watch Series 3. Even though it is now two years old, the Series 3 remains a solid smartwatch choice — at least if the person you are shopping for uses an iPhone. It lacks newer features such as an always-on display or built-in ECG test, but it runs the latest version of watchOS smoothly, it has all the key features most people are looking for (including heart-rate tracking and GPS), and there are thousands of compatible bands to dress it up.
The Apple Watch Series 3 is even more affordable than last year, after Apple lowered the starting price from $279 to $199.
Our Pick: Fitbit Inspire HR
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $99.95
While smartwatches continue to grow in popularity, there are still a lot of people who prefer a fitness tracker. They get all the health and fitness-related data without the short battery life, bulk and constant notifications. As a gift buyer, a fitness tracker is also a great option because it's less expensive than a smartwatch.
The Fitbit Inspire HR is priced just under $100, but it's an attractively designed wristband-style fitness tracker with an OLED touch display. All the key features are onboard, including 24/7 heart-rate tracking and movement reminders, plus the Inspire HR can be worn while swimming (it will track that too). It also tracks sleep. Battery life is rated at up to five days.
While there's a little uncertainty around Fitbit after the announcement that it is being acquired by Google, don't expect support for Fitbit's fitness trackers and class-leading software to disappear anytime soon.
Our Pick: Apple iPad 10.2 Inch
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: Starts at $329
When it comes to tablets, it can be tempting to save money with inexpensive options such as Amazon's Fire HD series. These are fine for basic use, but for a tablet that is going to see a lot of action, the Apple iPad leads the way. The display is superior, performance trounces the competition, the range of available accessories can't be matched, and the App Store has the best selection of apps that are designed for (or optimized for) tablet use.
In recent years, Apple trimmed the price of its base iPad for consumers to a more affordable $329. This year the company expanded the size of its high-resolution Retina display to 10.2 inches — even better for viewing streaming video — and upgraded the processor to the powerful A10. The new 10.2-inch iPad also supports the optional Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil.
Our Pick: ASUS Chromebook Flip C434
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: Starts at $569
While Windows and Apple laptops tend to get all the accolades, Chromebooks have continued to grow in popularity. That has allowed manufacturers to expand beyond the "cheap" mantra that used to define the category, and now Chromebooks are among the most exciting laptops on the market. The ASUS Chromebook Flip C434 gets our nod as the best value because it does an admirable job of delivering a modern and attractive mobile computing experience — while still offering a very affordable price.
With features like a 1080p NanoEdge display, an 87% screen-to-body ratio, an all-aluminum body with diamond-cut anodized edges, and an available Intel Core i7 CPU, this doesn't sound anything like a Chromebook.
The ASUS Chromebook Flip C434 gets its name from a 360-degree "ErgoLift" hinge that makes typing on its backlit keyboard more ergonomic, while allowing the display to rotate (or flip) 360 degrees for use as a tablet. It's not built for demanding tasks like gaming (although Google's Project Stadia will allow for that), but the ASUS Chromebook Flip C434 is an elegant, capable and cost-effective way to use G Suite, stream video, surf the web and use Android apps. It would make a great gift for a student or anyone who needs a laptop for home or general use.
Our Pick: Jaybird Tarah
The Jaybird Tarah wireless earbuds aren't as rugged as the company's Tarah Pro, their six-hour battery life isn't as good, and they lack features such as magnetic bud connection. But they come in at under $100, making them a more affordable gift choice.
Pretty much everything else about the Jaybird Tarah earbuds is on par with the Tarah Pro: the same great fit with super comfortable Ear Gels, the same high-performance sound, the same audio-customization capabilities with the Jaybird app, the same IPX7 water resistance, the same compatibility with Siri and Google Assistant. If you're shopping for someone who needs a new pair of earbuds, you won't find many choices in the sub-$100 price range that offer this combination of great sound, comfort, battery life and water resistance.
Our Pick: Govee Smart Music Light Strips
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: Starts at $28.99
An often-overlooked category in the increasingly popular smart lighting market is strip lights. These thin strips of adhesive-backed LED lights are great for adding lighting and a splash of customizable color virtually anywhere. I use them for TV backlighting and under-cabinet lighting and to illuminate a turntable. I've reviewed a number of offerings over the past few years, and I really like the Smart Music Light Strips from Govee.
A 16.4-foot strip of LED lights with 3M adhesive backing costs just $36.99 and with the Govee mobile app you can connect it to Wi-Fi for Alexa or Google Assistant voice control. However, one of the things I like about the Govee Smart Music Light Strips is you can also use them without a mobile app or Wi-Fi connection. A wired controller (also adhesive-backed) lets you turn the lights on and off and cycle through different colors and patterns at the push of a button. This means they are also a great choice as a gift for people who aren't comfortable with apps and setting up Wi-Fi connections.
This light strip also has a built-in microphone and can be set to pulse to the beat of music, adding to the entertainment value.
Courtesy: Como Audio
Our Pick: Como Audio Turntable
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $399
Despite the fact that streaming music service continue to grow in popularity, records continue their resurgence as the format for buying music. And that means record players and turntables are in high demand as gifts.
While the price may be attractive, I recommend skipping the colorful, retro-looking "record-player-in-a-suitcase" for anyone who is at all serious about record collecting. They aren't known for producing great sound, and the stylus used in some of these can actually damage a record. Instead, go with a turntable that uses quality components. It will last longer, records played on it will last longer, and the listening experience will be much more enjoyable.
I've tested a dozen turntables this year, and one that stands out as a great value is the Como Audio Turntable. It was designed and manufactured in partnership with Pro-Ject, using high quality Pro-ject components. It's equipped with an Ortofon OM10 MM cartridge, so records are going to sound great. It has a built-in preamplifier so it can be connected to anything from a traditional stereo system to a portable speaker, and also offers Bluetooth streaming — so records can be played over a wireless speaker or headphones.
Our Pick: Nintendo Switch Lite
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $199.99
When gift shopping for a video game fanatic, holiday deals on the Xbox One and Playstation 4 will be tempting. But these consoles are on their way out, with replacements arriving next year. The best value is a console that still has life, because developers will continue releasing new games for it. That leaves the Nintendo Switch, which still has years of life left in it.
This year Nintendo has a more affordable option in the Switch Lite. At $199.99 it's $100 less than the original Switch console. It is lighter and more portable, its display is sharper, and it gets better battery life. It plays the same games as the Switch but is strictly a handheld system — no connecting to the TV.
Our Pick: Google Nest WiFi
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $169
What many high-tech gifts — from game consoles to smart TVs to laptops — share in common is a need for high-performance Wi-Fi. But many homes are still using older-generation Wi-Fi routers that result in symptoms such as slow downloads, video buffering, game lag, dead zones, and devices being dropped off the network.
For anyone whose Wi-Fi is not up to par, a new router makes a great gift. The latest and greatest standard is Wi-Fi 6, but routers supporting this standard just began to make an appearance this year, and they are expensive. Devices that take advantage of Wi-Fi 6 are also rare at the moment. The best value for this year is in 802.11ac (now called Wi-Fi 5) routers, which still offer big improvements for stuttering Wi-Fi networks.
One of the most compelling choices right now is Google's recently released Nest WiFi. This is a mesh router system designed to blanket a home in fast Wi-Fi. The system can be expanded by adding additional Points as needed (the router itself is good for 2,200 square feet of coverage), and traffic is optimized automatically. Setup is easy and doesn't require an engineering degree, while the router itself is designed to blend into home decor. Great Wi-Fi may just be the best gift of all this holiday season.