Each year we pull together a gift guide full of connected gadgets that we’ve tried — and loved — over the previous 11 months. Given that in 2020 we’ve spent most of our time at home, we’ve focused this year’s guide on gifts that will help us maintain our new habits, whether they involve cooking, exercising, or even tending to houseplants. If your new habit is to sit on the couch and binge Netflix (no judgment here!), then may we suggest two gifts from last year’s guide: the Philips Hue Play Sync Box for making the entire TV-watching experience more immersive, and the Ember coffee mug, which will ensure your loved one’s hot beverage stays warm throughout every show.
If your friends went nuts and bought a bunch of houseplants during quarantine, then this $30 sensor is going to be their new best friend. It also makes a great stocking stuffer or add-on to a small houseplant gift. The Ollivan Plant Monitor is $29.99 at Amazon and the Flower Care app that accompanies it is available for Android and iOS. The sensor tracks moisture, light, soil fertility, and room temperature, while the app will let them select from a database of plants before they jam it into the pot, then shares the data based on that particular plant’s needs. They can use one sensor and swap it among several plants, for spot checks, or just leave it in their favorite. I will note that it doesn’t track moisture well in gravelly soils, and there’s no way to tell the app that it’s winter so that plant doesn’t need fertilizer right now. But for the price, it’s proving to be really helpful in tracking the health of both my weeping fig and my lemon tree. The final caveat is that the sensor is Bluetooth, so your gift recipients will have to remember to check the app. — Stacey Higginbotham
I’ll be the first to admit that this wouldn’t be the prettiest gift you could buy for a plant lover due to the morass of wires and water tubes. However, the $59 Arduino Automatic Smart Plant Watering Kit (currently discounted by 10% at the time of writing) is super useful and fun to put together. I spent all of 20 minutes connecting the wires, tubes, and sensors, so the project isn’t time-consuming. It comes with four soil moisture sensors that send data back to the small Arduino board, which sends signals to an attached water pump with four valves that can be placed in four different pots. Whenever, based on the sensor data, it becomes clear that one of your plants needs water, the pump shoots water into the appropriate pot. You just need to provide water in some type of bottle or reservoir to keep your plants happy. I also like the little OLED display, which shows the moisture levels in the soil of your four plants. — Kevin C. Tofel
I moved this year and in the process, got really into plants. My purchases included a Meyer lemon tree that I am hoping will produce lemons next year, because even though 2020 was terrible, maybe I could get some lemons out of it! If you are feeling generous, your plant-loving friends and family deserve this attractive LED grow light for their newfound houseplant habit. The Soltech Aspect light comes in small ($149.99) and large sizes ($199.99) and isn’t smart unless you count the full-spectrum LEDs. But these lights should be plugged into smart outlets to replace the analog timers they ship with so you can control how much light each plant gets. I initially plugged mine into Wemo outlets, but the scheduling in the app was hit or miss, so I swapped them out for the TP-Link Kasa outlets and its app, which is more reliable. The lights are expensive compared with the full-spectrum LEDs one can buy from Amazon and clamp to a shelf, but I look at them as a form of decor in my living room, and they are actually cheaper than comparable sconces. I also purchased a wall mount ($22.95) to make mine a little fancier. — Stacey Higginbotham
If you heard a friend or relative grumbling about having to water their lawn throughout the year, maybe the $60 B-hyve Smart Hose Watering Timer is the gift to give. The name is a bit misleading because while this device is a smart timer for distributing water to a lawn or garden, it’s not just a timer. The Wi-Fi bridge it comes with can grab weather data for your home and automatically stop the watering if rain is imminent; likewise, when expecting a hot, dry day, the B-hyve can extend watering times. You can also program it as a faucet timer for sprinkling grass any day or time of the week. The B-hyve works with Bluetooth for direct control from your phone, while that Wi-Fi bridge supports water completion alerts, flow information, and remote control of your faucet, which is slick. — Kevin C. Tofel
Honestly, I don’t think you can go wrong by gifting someone a $99 smart speaker. And even at that low price, the latest from Amazon, Apple, and Google are all quite good. It’s best if you know which smart home ecosystem your recipient already uses so you can buy the brand that supports it. From a pure audio standpoint, we prefer the Apple HomePod mini and Google’s Nest Audio over the Amazon Echo, but audio quality can be subjective. And if you’re in a generous gift-giving mode, any of these will sound better if you buy a pair, allowing them to act as connected stereo speakers with separate left and right channels. — Kevin C. Tofel
Do you have a student or someone setting up a home office in your life? If so, the $34.99 Mi LED Desk Lamp is a smart, inexpensive present that looks more expensive than it really is. I’m not excited about giving someone a desk lamp as a present, but Kevin says it will appeal to practical people, plus its minimal design doesn’t take up a lot of space. If they don’t connect it, the LED light can still be switched on or off, or dimmed, using the knob on the lamp’s base (push for on/off and turn for dimming). But if they sign up for a Xiaomi account they can also link the lamp to Google and Alexa and can control the lamp with their voice. And if you give this to a teen, you can toggle the lamp on and off from your smart speaker as a way to call them to dinner without shouting. At first I didn’t think it was bright enough, but after spending two weeks working with it, I like the quality and output of the light quite a bit. And I love the design. — Stacey Higginbotham
Sales of wearables have risen more than 30% this year thanks to the pandemic. If someone you love is still sporting an older pedometer or interested in really ramping up their fitness, I have two options for you, depending on the recipient. For the hardcore athlete who wants to optimize the heck out of their fitness routine and their recovery, the Whoop band is an excellent gift. Be aware, however, that the $180 purchase only gets your recipient six months of the service; after that, they’ll have to subscribe to the band+service for $30 a month. While this is pricey for those who just want to ensure they are taking enough steps, the service is an excellent tool for data-driven people who are likely drinking Bulletproof coffee and re-reading Tim Ferriss books. For the rest of us, the Amazon Halo is a really interesting option that will track steps, sleep, heart rate, and overall activity with the goal of pushing users to meet the minimum 150 minutes of activity each week. It also has a feature that interprets your tone of voice and can perform highly accurate body composition scans. And nothing says lay off the holiday sweets like unwrapping a device that’s going to take a 3-D image of you in your underwear. The Amazon Halo also offers a service. Its band sells for $64.99 (it’s currently invite-only, but so far a lot of people have been able to get an invite) and the monthly subscription is $3.99. The best part, however, is that it offers access to workouts, meditation apps, and nutrition information. I wouldn’t spring the Halo on an unsuspecting parent who has never expressed interest in a tracker, but as a gift for someone who is rethinking their Fitbit or wants to upgrade their pedometer, it’s really different. — Stacey Higginbotham
I was impressed by the Embr Wave bracelet when I first tried it at the Consumer Electronics Show back in January. This wearable may look like a house arrest monitor (my wife’s words, not mine) but it does something no other device (at least that I’ve tried) can: It makes you feel cooler or warmer. How? By sending waves of cold or heat to the temperature-sensitive skin on your wrist, which in turn causes your nerves to send temperature change sensations to your brain, which then interprets them as comfort. That might sound strange, but there’s plenty of medical research to back up the theory. And it worked for me as well as for three other people I asked to test it, although one, my wife, said the sensation at times made her feel dizzy. She says the same about my driving, however, so take that for what it’s worth. Not only can you customize the time and temperature, you can even send an in-app 30-second “embrace,” which mimics the feeling of being hugged. At $299, the Embr Wave isn’t cheap, but it’s discounted by $70 for an early Black Friday sale. For someone who never seems comfortable with room temperatures or deals with hot flashes, it would make a nice gift. — Kevin C. Tofel
Do you have someone in your life who is really into cooking? Or even someone who is a fairly indifferent cook, but needs to feed their family during quarantine? If so, the Chef IQ cooker ($149.99-$199.99) is an excellent present for them. I think of it as an upgraded Instant Pot or a poor man’s Thermomix because it’s essentially a pressure cooker that uses connectivity to guide the user through the meal preparation process, from prep to plate. I tried to get on the Instant Pot bandwagon, but after decades of cooking without a pressure cooker, I found all the buttons, timers, and release valves to be a bit much. The Chef IQ cooker provides 204 recipes (with five added each week) that your recipient can follow, complete with videos and cooking time countdowns. The appliance also has a scale so when it comes time to, say, add 48 ounces of broth to a dish, it can weigh that out. Substitutions are easy (although if you don’t add an ingredient you may want to pretend you did, so the timing doesn’t get messed up). The recipes are pretty basic, and some need a bit more oomph, but for a beginner or indifferent cook, it’s a great starting point. And for experienced chefs, it’s pretty easy to modify at will. You can also use it as a plain old slow cooker (with a really good sauté function), or as a pressure cooker and steamer. — Stacey Higginbotham
Jim Person says
Are you still using this?