Last Friday kicked off the holiday giving season, so my IoT Podcast co-host Kevin Tofel and I have pooled our experiences over the last year to create a list of tried and true devices that make a good gift. Some are for kids, some are for pets, and some are for the guy or gal who already has a connected home. I hope you can find something worth gifting or buying for yourself.
Smart Home Picks
Wyze Camera ($19.99): For $20 you might expect this camera to be a piece of junk, but in our two weeks of testing we found it works really well. The camera offers two-way audio, night vision, 1080p resolution, 14-day cloud storage and motion detection. It’s wired and rated for the indoors, but if you want a simple security camera this one is an excellent place to start. With a microSD card (not included) you can even see a time lapse shot of the day, a feature that the more expensive Nest Cam also offers. The camera’s makers licensed the hardware from a Chinese company and have placed their bet on making good software while offering the cheapest prices they can. The team is based in Seattle and hail from Amazon. It doesn’t work with any other smart home platforms today, but Jessie Zhou, director of marketing at Wyze, says the company plans to add support for popular options over time. And for $20, the lack of integrations is not a huge deal killer.
Arlo Pro outdoor 2 cameras and hub ($349.99): For the security conscious homeowner and renters alike, these cameras make for a nice outdoor or indoor option. They are rechargeable, offer 720p video resolution, two-way audio, motion detection and night vision. We leave ours on the roof deck when we have parties and want to keep an eye on children from the Amazon Echo Show or from our phones and then toss them outside or on window ledges when we leave town for vacation. These are not always recording, so they aren’t foolproof. They have to detect motion in order to turn on, and one or two people have told me the cameras missed an event. If you want failsafe security, wired cameras are probably the way to go. That being said, these are good enough, durable, convenient and a decent price.
Google Home ($79 during the holidays): In the smart speaker category, our choice is the Google Home, which has managed to surpass the Amazon Echo at offering responses to everyday inquiries and has mostly met the challenge in the smart home. If you haven’t decided yet on a smart speaker option for the home, for $79 during the holiday season, you can pick up a decent-sounding device that can control hundredsof smart home devices and process almost any query you can think of. Plus, it can make phone calls, which turns the Google Home into a de facto land line for people as long as there is internet access and power. My only quibble with this device is that the slanted design of the top means that you can’t always see if the device “heard” your initial voice command.
Sonos One ($174 from 11/23 to 11/27): As an alternative to Google Home, we also recommend the new Sonos One for specific people. For example, this new hands-free speaker supports Alexa voice controls for your smart home, as well as for music playback on Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify and more. Even better: You’ll have a choice of digital assistants in 2018 when Sonos adds support for Google Assistant. Sound quality is excellent on the Sonos One and you can combine multiple units for multi-room audio. Plus, the Sonos companion app includes a smart configuration option to optimize audio playback for your specific room set up.
Wink Hub 2 ($99): You can buy the Samsung SmartThings Hub for less, but we recommend the Wink Hub 2 for the extra money. This second-gen hub improves over its predecessor with a faster processor, more memory, and dual-band WiFi support. You don’t need to hardwire it to a router either, making it easy to place in the center of your smart home for maximum range of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, Zigbee and Z-Wave devices. It’s easy to use the Wink app to add new devices, create schedules or automate devices as well. Local processing means that even if your internet service goes down, Wink can still control your home; a feature that Samsung only just added to its hub. With broad device support, simple setup and the ability to work with either Alexa or Google Assistant, the Wink Hub 2 is a great choice to be the brains of your smartphone.
Ecobee 4 ($199 on sale): Nest may be the most recognizable smart thermostat brand but we think the Ecobee 4 is better. It’s just as easy to install and includes a Power Extender Kit for older HVAC systems. It also has two key benefits: Remote sensors — one included, additional sensors cost $79 per pair — to monitor temperature in additional rooms and a built in microphone/speaker combo that works with Amazon Alexa. The Ecobee 4 is compatible with Apple HomeKit so you’re covered regardless of your hub or smartphone platform.
Google Wi-Fi ($289 for a three pack / $249 on Black Friday at Best Buy): Unless you need super advanced router features, the Google Wi-Fi mesh network units are a great addition to any home. They’re simple to set up and less expensive than most other competing products. The three pack covers 4,500 square feet and creates a single network for your devices, making them a better choice than older network extenders. Although you use Wi-Fi to connect the units, each has an Ethernet port for wiring a device as well. Some standout features include scheduling a Wi-Fi pause for family time, guest network support and the ability to prioritize your wireless signal to a specific device for a certain length of time.
Nvidia Shield TV ($149 on Black Friday) and Samsung SmartThings Link ($39.99): This recommendation might seem like it doesn’t belong on an IoT gift guide but bear with us while we explain. The Nvidia Shield TV is primarily a powerful Android TV streaming box and Chromecast unit that supports 4K HDR playback with ease. You can also play Android games on your big screen with the optional (but recommended) game controller included in the $169 Black Friday bundle. Nvidia also offers 1080p console games through a monthly $8 subscription fee: These titles are played on Nvidia’s cloud servers and streamed to you without any noticeable lag, provided you have a fast enough broadband connection. Here’s where the IoT part comes in on this double-duty device. The Shield TV supports Google Assistant voice commands through a microphone found in both the remote and the game controller. And Nvidia also plans to sell small plug-in microphones you can put throughout your home to use Google Assistant in any room. Lastly, you can add the new Samsung SmartThings Link USB stick for $40 which adds Zigbee and Z-Wave support, turning the Nvidia Shield TV into a fully functional SmartThings hub.
For the kids
Kano motion sensor kit ($29.99): This gizmo is made by the same company that makes the Kano build-it-yourself computer for kids. The sensor plugs into the USB port on a computer and lets the user wave their hand in front of it to make music, control games and more. It’s designed for the younger set, with kids as young as five likely to understand what the device does and start interacting with it. My 11-year-old thought it was a little young for her and was not excited to see the coding challenges that Kano has set up to help youngsters learn how to program the games that use the sensor. “Oh no, coding again!” However, with a less jaded audience the games are fun, and the product is simple and intuitive to use. I’ll also add that the Kano community is wholesome and full of good child-safe computing activities.
Littlebits R2D2 Droid Inventor Kit ($99.95): I have not tested this device, but we’re huge fans of Littlebits in this house so I’m excited about this package. Basically, the company has combined several of its bits into a Star Wars-themed Droid to excite kids. It solves one of the challenges my daughter and I had with the original Littlebits package, which was we had all these servo motors, lights and computers, but no real plan on what to do with them. We overcame that, but the cool part of this toy is that once the magic of the Droid wears off, the nits can be used to build whatever your kid desires. Or not. Either way, they still have a fun toy to play with. I’d recommend this for older kids, roughly in the tween demographic.
TrackR Pixel ($49.99 for 5): Bluetooth tracking devices are ideal for purses, wallets, backpacks, keys and any other personal item you don’t want to lose. The TrackR Pixel is roughly the size of a quarter so it’s easy to attach to just about anything without calling attention to itself. Once paired with the TrackR app on your smartphone, you can use Bluetooth or even enable an LED or a sound on the TrackR Pixel to find that lost item. It works in reverse too: By pressing a button on the TrackR Pixel, your phone will sound a tone. No more searching around the house for your smartphone! If you leave something behind while on the go, TrackR crowdsources data so if another TrackR app user passes by your lost item, you’ll see where it is in the app.
Flosstime ($39.99): This might be an insulting gift for an adult but it makes a good gift for a teen or child. Basically, this is a connected dental floss dispenser that suctions to your mirror and has an LED smiley face or frowny face on it. When you grab the floss, it will dispense the right amount automatically and then the frown turns upside down to cheer you on for flossing. As someone who doesn’t floss like she should I look at this as something that would compel me to actually floss in ways that my thrice-annual dental check ups do not. A warning though, this does require special refills that cost $6 a pop.
Fibaro Z-wave Button ($49.99) This is not a gift for the smart home novice. This is a stocking stuffer for the person who already owns a SmartThings hub or Fibaro’s own Home Center line of hubs. The button is a beautiful device that can be programmed to respond to 6 different types of touches to set a pre-programmed scene or action in motion. It comes in 8 colors (I have orange) and it’s basically like a magic wand (button) that your loved one can use to impress people with their existing smart home setup and scenes.
Crazy, expensive gifts
June Oven ($1,495): Without a doubt this an expensive gift but we’re both glad we bought ourselves one. June is a smart, connected convection oven that resembles a large toaster oven. Don’t be deceived though: In addition to the ceramic heating elements, the June Oven has a built in camera and included temperature probe. While the camera is fun for watching your food cook, it’s really meant to identify the foods you place inside the oven by combining the camera with a growing food database. This way, the June can pick the proper cooking mode, temperature and timer. You can always control the settings manually through the touch screen display or your connected iPhone with the June Oven app installed. Recently, June added support for an Alexa skill, so now you can preheat the oven with a voice command. Pricey, yes, but worth it if your budget allows.
CleverPet ($299.99): Does your loved one have fur? If there’s a really good dog in your life who is food motivated and smart, then consider the CleverPet. The device is like a treat-dispensing Simple Simon game for your dog that uses its Wi-Fi connection to update the treat dispensing devices with new games and to track the treats or kibble your dog takes. It takes a while for dogs to warm up to the full capabilities of the devices and if your dog is indifferent to food, this isn’t going to work in your home. At $300 it’s pricey, but if you have the right pet, this will keep it entertained while you are out. It’s loud though, so if you work from home be prepared for a constant whirring noise in the background. Combine with the $20 Wyze camera if your pooch is home alone and you can show your officemates how smart Fido really is.
Nanoleaf Aurora Rhythm ($229.99): Part light, part art, this product is the gift I’d love to get. Unlike my many connected bulbs and switches this doesn’t have much of a purpose, but boy, does it look cool on the wall. The starter kit comes with nine light panels and a controller that’s capable of controlling up to 30 of the triangle LEDs. The Rhythm aspect of this kit means it will change the lights in response to your music, effectively turning your room into a disco. So if you have a fat wallet and a loved one who likes playing with light, this makes for a great present.