Here’s the thing I tell people all the time when they’re shopping for tech gifts for loved ones: Know your audience.
That’s why I don’t advise people buy a high-end Android smartphone for someone who primarily uses their cellphone to make actual calls. Or why investing in a 4K television for a family that doesn’t subscribe to cable or any streaming services is a gigantic waste of money.
The best tech gifts are the ones that gift recipients will actually want to use, again and again, ideally on a daily basis.
Here’s a short list of some of the tech products that deliver a lot of value based on how often they’ll be utilized. For each, I’m also including some cheaper or comparable alternatives to give you more options.
A DIGITAL HOME ASSISTANT WHO LISTENS
No other tech product has impressed me as much over the last year than Amazon’s voice-activated speaker, the Echo. As features of the device have improved and integrated with more services (Spotify, Logitech Harmony universal remotes and Philips Hue smart lights, for instance), “Alexa” has only gotten better and more integrated into our home life.
We now use the Amazon Echo to set cooking timers, turn on Netflix, activate lights in our upstairs office, listen to daily news reports, stream the “Hamilton” cast album and even buy stuff on Amazon.com. Better yet, the device typically goes on sale for about $130 around the holidays.
And if you don’t need a big speaker in your life, you can get the same voice-activated features in Amazon’s Echo Dot device, which plugs into your existing stereo and costs $50 or less.
>> Alternatives: Early reviews suggest Google’s answer to the Amazon Echo, the Google Home, is good but not yet great at doing many of the same things via voice commands. It sells for $129, and if Google doesn’t scrap the project entirely in a year or two, it could become truly competitive against the Echo.
4K MEDIA STREAMERS HAVE ARRIVED
Streaming boxes, the ones that get services like Netflix, HBO Now and Hulu from the internet to your TV set, are fighting on multiple fronts now and adapting more quickly to our TV needs. For one thing, as more people buy higher-resolution 4K TV sets, you’re seeing more products like the Roku 4, which can stream that richer content.
On the other hand, most 4K TVs have services such as Netflix, Amazon streaming and others built in. So would you rather have an external box that does it or just rely on your TV?
I’d argue that a box like the Roku does a lot more than most built-in TV services offer, such as universal search and voice search across different services, an easier-to-navigate interface, a headphone jack built into the remote and backward compatibility with non-4K sets. It sells for about $100. For anyone who has a 4K TV or is thinking about getting one in the next year or two, this is a good option.
>> Alternatives: Amazon’s Fire TV costs less, does 4K and includes an Alexa voice remote, which works just like the Amazon Echo ($90). The newest Apple TV models (starting at $150) still don’t do 4K but offer a lot of channels and Siri voice control.
GAMING IN THE PAST AND FUTURE
Two Nintendo-related, nostalgia-fueled products have been surprise hits this year. The first was the “Pokemon Go” craze on mobile phones over the summer. The second is this holiday’s surprise toy hit, the NES Classic Edition, which bundles 30 classic games such as “Super Mario Bros. 3” and “The Legend of Zelda” into a miniature version of the original Nintendo Entertainment System and an old-school controller.
It’s been sold out everywhere and marked up ridiculously, but if you can find it for $60, you might make a gamer of a certain age very happy.
>> Alternatives: The price of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles kept dropping all year to make way for new 4K-compatible models, the Xbox One S (starts at $300) and the PS4 Pro ($400). If your gift recipient doesn’t care about 4K and doesn’t already own one of the consoles, now may be a good time to purchase one of the original systems for under $250.
And for PlayStation 4 owners, the new PlayStation VR add-on ($300 to $400) brings virtual reality home more cheaply than some PC-based options.
Our ever-more-powerful mobile phones and tablets always seem like they’re thirsty for a charge.
Nomad is a company that makes high-end chargers and adapters that are more durable and stylish than most. Its latest device is the Nomad Advanced Trackable PowerPack. If $100 (discounted 10 percent if you sign up for the company’s email newsletter) seems like a lot for a charger, you should know that it does a few things that you won’t find in others.
First off, it has a built-in Tile Bluetooth locator. If you lose the charger, you can find it with your phone or have the charger give off an audio signal. It also is one of the few chargers that has a regular USB charging port as well as the newer USB-C port that is likely to become a standard.And if that isn’t enough in one small package, it even senses ambient light so its indicator LEDs won’t blind you in the dark.
>> Alternatives: I love Jackery’s line of chargers and you can get them for as little as $14 online. They’re available in different sizes, prices and colors, and some include a built-in LED flashlight. And Anker’s popular PowerCore 10000 does fast charging multiple times over for under $30.