I’m pretty sure that, for most people, 2021 isn’t going to be one of fond remembrances. For Kevin and I, it has been a year of reckoning, as people continue to lose trust in technology and the companies that sell consumer gadgets. Add to that the ongoing pandemic and the in-your-face reality of climate change, and it’s hard for us to tell you to go out and buy a bunch of data-gathering devices or hunks of electronics and plastic that may only last a couple of years.
But I love giving people gifts and seeing the joy that arises when someone is offered a new experience or item that proves just how well you know them. So in that spirit, we have tried to showcase a few extremely cool IoT devices amid a smattering of more practical gifts that acknowledge the reality of our current times. We’ve also included services and a few books so as to prevent anyone from contributing to a landfill. We hope you can find something surprising or useful as you embark on your gifting journey.
Air purifier: With Amazon launching an air quality sensor this week, it’s clear that mainstream consumers are interested in their air quality. But after playing with three or four different air quality monitors, I came away frustrated, because one can’t always open a window to clear out the bad air they detect. So I recommend giving loved ones an air purifier with its own air quality monitor. Bonus points if the monitor doesn’t communicate with you often, but instead just starts cleaning the air when it detects problems. I recommend the Filtrete Smart Air Purifiers sized for medium or large rooms, which are available for $274.99 and $329.99, respectively. These purifiers track and filter out particulates, as well as measure CO2, temperature, and humidity. They do not track nonvolatile organic compounds (VOCs), so if that is important to you, then you might need another option. As gifts go, this one is incredibly practical; it’s also the sort of thing a parent might buy their kid who lives in a region with a lot of pollution or wildfire risk because they know that kid would never spend their money on something like this. In that case, maybe splurge for a filter change every six months, too. Image courtesy of S. Higginbotham. — Stacey Higginbotham
The Kinsa thermometer: You may not think you need a connected thermometer, but this is a good gift for any parent or public health-oriented friend. That’s because if they set up the app, not only will this thermometer take the recipient’s temperature, it will share data about the illnesses spreading in their community. Crowdsourcing epidemiology wasn’t something people used to care about, but we’ve been living with this pandemic for almost two years now. Plus, when you’re really sick, it’s nice to have a record of your temperature rising and falling on your smartphone. The Kinsa thermometer comes in three versions, ranging from $24.99 to $39.99. Image provided by Kinsa. — Stacey Higginbotham
Donate some electronics for a cause: My sister-in-law used to be an elementary teacher on the east side of Austin, Texas, and some of her students were too poor to have shoelaces, much less school supplies. Since she would spend tons of her own money on supplies, one year my family asked her what else she’d like to be able to provide them; we ending up buying shoelaces, clean socks, toothbrushes, school supplies, and more. To be sure, not every school teacher will need a basket of shoelaces for her classroom, but I guarantee that every teacher needs something. And it’s hard to go wrong with donating supplies on behalf of someone, especially if you search for classrooms located near the gift recipient or look to support projects that they might especially appreciate. I like to scroll through Donors Choose and search for IoT when I’m looking for classrooms to support, but choose according to your recipient’s needs. Image provided by MakeyMakey. — Stacey Higginbotham
“This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race”: In keeping with my less-tech-is-more holiday gifts, I’m tossing in one of the better reads from 2021. Nicole Perloth, a New York Times reporter, wrote a cogent and eye-opening book about the threat of cyber warfare that includes a lot of relevant history and takes a deep look at the threat that an attack on industrial assets poses. She also provides recommendations as to how we can improve our overall information security even as we connect more and more assets to the internet. And unlike many non-fiction books about cybersecurity, it’s an entertaining read. Prices are dependent on where you shop for books but are listed at $27 for the hardback and $21 for the e-book. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing. — Stacey Higginbotham\
Subscriptions: To all those well-intentioned gift givers who forget to buy something for a friend or loved one and then realize that due to the mess of the current shipping infrastructure and supply chain a physical gift will never make it in time: Go digital. Provide a gift card for an established streaming service subscription, for example, or gift a year’s worth of access to a workout site or fitness app. Most smart home companies don’t provide an easy way to do this, so your best bet is to provide the recipient with a Visa or Mastercard gift card in the appropriate amount with a note explaining what it’s for (if the person isn’t interested, they can just take the card and buy whatever they want.) To make it feel a little less like you’re handing over cash, you can package your gift card with a small related accessory, such as a bag of popcorn with a streaming service gift card or a water bottle with a fitness app gift card. If you want to buy someone Alexa Guard or a Nest Aware subscription, package it with an ornament or a nice-smelling candle for the home. — Stacey Higginbotham
Nanoleaf Lines: After warming up to color-capable connected lights over the past few years, I can easily recommend the new $199.99 Nanoleaf Lines as a gift for nearly anyone. The starter pack includes nine of the 1-foot-long but thin lights along with everything else you need: connectors, adhesive for attaching them to the wall, a built-in microphone, and the power cord. Just add inspiration for a creative layout of the light bars and use the Nanoleaf app (Android or iOS) to customize the colors. Music support sets the lights pulsing to the beat, so these have some fun functionality. Yet they can also double as conversation-starting ambient artwork or as a way to provide background color to the content on a television or a computer monitor. Image courtesy of Nanoleaf. — Kevin C. Tofel
“Androids: The Team That Built the Android Operating System”: This is the first year I’m recommending a book, but only because it’s just that good. “Androids: The Team That Built the Android Operating System” by Chet Haase ($9.99 Kindle, $14.99 paperback) is a highly detailed account of how Android 1.0 came to be. Haase spent an enormous amount of time interviewing the whole cast of characters, which makes it feel like you’re right there next to the people who made Android a reality. You’ll have to keep up with them, though; this was a super small team of people with insanely challenging deadlines back in 2008. Interestingly, before coming to Google, most of them worked together at various points in their careers at three main companies, none of which are around any longer. Not a developer? No worries. Haase makes this story accessible to non-coders by explaining many of the technical details in a vast number of footnotes. This story of how the world’s biggest mobile operating system emerged is simply fascinating. Image courtesy of Dan Sandler, who also illustrated the cover. — Kevin C. Tofel
Apple AirTags: Got family members that keep losing things? If they carry iPhones, then I can’t recommend Apple’s AirTags highly enough. These small, button-like devices have both Bluetooth and ultrawideband radios inside; just tuck them in a wallet or a bag or attach them to keys and their location will appear in Apple’s FindMy app. The Bluetooth radio provides a general location of the tagged lost item, but the magic happens as you get closer to it. That’s when the FindMy app shows a directional arrow and exact distance between you and your missing object, courtesy of the ultrawideband chip. And if you’re nowhere close to what you lost, other iPhone users connected to the FindMy network report where the tag is. Apple’s AirTags are $29.99 each, but a 4-pack at $100 saves you a little money while ensuring everyone who needs one, gets one. Note that the Bluetooth functionality works with any iPhone; the precise location feature is supported on iPhone 11 and up. — Kevin C. Tofel
An external battery: If the last 18 months have taught me anything, it’s to be prepared for anything. So I invested in a rechargeable portable battery that’s capable of powering my small gadgets, multiple computers, and even my refrigerator in a pinch. Priced at $349.99, the EcoFlow River is a great gift for any homeowner who isn’t ready for the next power outage. This 6.3-pound battery has 288Wh of power capacity and easily provides between 600 to 1200 watts of juice for devices and appliances. You can recharge it in 90 minutes simply by plugging it in (when your power is back, of course), or supplement it like I did with a small solar panel. I bought this folding 110W panel and use it exclusively to recharge my EcoFlow River, but any small solar panel would be a nice related gift. For an additional $249.99, you can double the River’s capacity with an easy-to-attach second battery. Aside from multiple USB ports and three AC outlets for output, this battery bank also has Wi-Fi built in. With EcoFlow’s mobile app, you can turn the battery off or on and monitor charging or discharging rates from a phone. Image courtesy of KC Tofel. — Kevin C. Tofel
Vilo Mesh Wi-Fi: Tired of hearing from friends or family that their home wireless network is less than stellar? Consider dropping $60 on a Vilo Mesh Wi-Fi System as a gift for both them and you. While this 3-pack of devices doesn’t support the newest and fastest Wi-Fi 6 standard, it actually works really well. And you won’t hear complaints about the setup process, either, because it’s quick and easy. Best of all, if your gift recipient ever needs to expand the reach of their wireless network, it will only cost them $20 to add another Vilo access point. Chances are that won’t happen, though; this mesh Wi-Fi system already covers 4,500 square feet. Although this is less expensive than a lot of other mesh wireless gear, it still comes with some nice features, such as parental controls and guest network support. So if you do give it as a gift, make sure your recipient gives you that guest network password as a thank-you. Then again, never hearing them complain again about slow Wi-Fi is probably thanks enough. Image courtesy of Vilo. — Kevin C. Tofel
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