Here are the top gift picks based on home and productivity gadgets.
What is it? A portable interactive touchscreen, ultra-short throw projector
Gift group: Visually and tactile-minded family members embracing their tech future now
Santa’s scoop: Puppy Robot unveils sci-fi magic that fans of “Iron Man,” “Star Trek” and “Minority Report” will truly appreciate, except it’s science reality with this black 8.5-inch-tall glassy black monolith offering a working virtual touchscreen projected on near any desktop surface.
The ultra-short throw, stand-alone entertainment system fueled by an Android operating system offers 1280x720p resolutions and 10-point, multi-touch technology called AnyTouch that works on all surfaces.
By far the most impressive part of the device is that it was ready right out of the box, and by gosh by golly, the darn thing really delivered the tech wonders.
I used it on a grayish-white surface, and the visuals were clear and bright, and the touch functionality was fully responsive.
The cube comes with almost 100 apps installed ranging from browsers such as Firefox; sites such as Twitter and Netflix; and games such as “Candy Crush” to keep the finger tapping and swiping.
A bonus to the Cube is that it also can project movies or presentations with navigation help from the included Bluetooth controller.
For best results, use the device in a dark room. It works using a 300-lumen bulb that can project up to a 100-inch image less than 3 feet from the wall.
The Cube runs for roughly 2.5 hours on a single charge (cord and charger included) and has onboard Wi-Fi and Bluetooth functionality as well as an HDMI, USB-A port and 3.5 mm headphone jack.
The innards feature an MStar 6A938 quad-core ARM CPU, 4 gigabytes of RAM, 32 gigabytes of storage and surprisingly loud 5-watt speakers.
Owners can get more apps in the Google Play knock-off UpToDown store, but costs may apply and installing the apps can be tricky.
What is it? Smart Wi-Fi Deadbolt
Gift group: Owners looking for extended control on who has access to their homes
Santa’s scoop: Schlage, home lock hardware solution experts for the last century, presents a high-tech solution to safeguard one of a homeowner’s most valuable possessions.
Owners install a boxed interface as their main door security with a large lit numerical touchscreen and can manage the deadlock via the Schlage Home app to unlock the door through the pad or remotely.
It can work with voice commands (additional device required), a finger to enter an access code, or a traditional key and quickly connects to a home’s Wi-Fi network and smartphone app.
Additionally, the app allows owners to set four-digit access codes permanently, temporarily or even scheduled for a set time to allow friends, family and trusted delivery services to easily enter a house.
The app also has push notifications that can be set when the door is opened, tracks past usage to see who is entering and will autolock the door after a set amount of time.
No subscriptions or adapters are required, and the lock touchscreen lights up with a blue checkbox icon in the corner when a code is entered correctly or locked with red lit home icon in the other corner.
Encode takes four AA batteries, offers up to six months of battery life with standard usage and has low-battery indicators displayed in the app and on the lock’s touchscreen.
The Commercial Grade 1 lock system comes with a limited lifetime mechanical and finish warranty.
Tech-savvy individuals can also connect Encode to the Amazon Key App (Amazon delivery men can get in to drop off packages), Ring video doorbell, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant.
So the good news is with help from a well-versed handyman, the lock installed easily and found a Wi-Fi network with the app though tapping a button on the lock to pair with the app and find the connection.
Battery life can be an inherent issue, so be wary of any shifts in the door positioning during or after the installation that could cause the deadbolt to rub against striker and might make the batteries work harder and lessen their lifespan.
Also, note that the lock needs to have a strong Wi-Fi signal and the touchpad has zero tactile feedback so fingers need a precise touch to trigger the lock.
Those controllable quibbles aside, Encode delivers as promised and expands the options of home security.
What is it? A portable induction burner cooking system
Gift group: Amateur chefs looking to up their game
Santa’s scoop: Hestan offers an easy way to cook, fry, sear and sauté nearly anything that will fit in the included 11-inch pan with help from an app-controlled, Bluetooth-connected smartphone.
The 1,600-watt, circular induction cooktop is a compact 21.5 inches wide, perfect for small or cluttered kitchens and looks like a silver-and-black flying saucer.
The temperature-sensor embedded pan is made of a sturdy tri-ply stainless steel with a steel handle and nob on its end to open and install a AAA battery (included).
The app walks the chef through the preparation and cooking process, down to a checklist of ingredients and equipment needed as well as videos, while telling the burner what temperature, with signals from the pan, is required for each cooking stage.
Hundreds of recipes are available in the app should satisfy most eclectic culinary taste buds and range from a country omelet to crispy skin duck breast, almond-crusted fried chicken strips, bacon-and-cheese crepes, shrimp scampi, crispy eggplant and New York strip steak.
Watching a seasoned chef in action, the advantage was immediate when trying to sear scallops. A common complaint is the sometimes impractical process of carefully monitoring the cooking temperature, as it’s a fine line between searing and burning.
The Hestan Cue system handles that process flawlessly with the automatically controlled temperatures and alerting the chef when to flip the delicate seafood.
Also worth noting is the inclusion of a metal measurement stick. Certainly not high-tech, but the stick is crucial when determining the thickness of a meat for the Cue to set the correct cooking time.
Also available for the system is the Hestan Cue Chef’s Pot ($299.95) that will open up even more recipes for the cook in the family.
Ultra Thin Signal Finder
What is it? A multidirectional antenna
Gift group: Serious cable and internet cord cutters in the family
Santa’s scoop: RCA helps those who remember the days when television watching was free with this indoor antenna that picks up the highest-quality HDTV network broadcasting signals up to 65 miles away.
Owners first use a smartphone app to pinpoint broadcast towers and use the information to initially position the antenna.
The paper-thin, black-and-white sheet, roughly 12 inches square, then plugs into an AC outlet and into the coaxial connection on the television.
A dual-stage amplification process with smart boost technology that will block wireless interference helps hone into the broadcasting stations.
The attached signal meter allows for the final positioning of the unit with help from a roughly 9-foot cord.
Owners can either use the included quartet of mounting squares or thumbtacks on the antenna holes to mount the unit keeping in mind to stay away from metallic surfaces.
My testing found fairly clear station reception in a slightly rural West Virginia location.
Obviously, the pitfalls for watching high definition television can be many depending on location and signal strength with also a limited range cord that may not allow the optimal positioning in a room.
However, the price combined with saving thousands of dollars a year in cable television costs makes it a worthy choice to give a shot.
What is it? A multifunctional air fryer oven
Price: $99.95 to $119
Gift group: Chefs looking for healthier versions of some of their favorite, especially fried, foods
Santa’s scoop: Instant Brands’ 14-inch-tall, 10-quart black box with a stainless steel front unleashes a world of cooking options with it 7-in-1, preset smart programming technology that allows owners to air fry, roast, bake, reheat, dehydrate, broil and rotisserie cook their favorite foods.
The stylish unit has a 1,500-watt heating element that will bring cooking temperatures up to a 400 degrees and comes with an air fryer basket, two nonstick trays, double-forked rotisserie spit and drip pan (all dishwasher-safe) to help make the magic happen.
The wide range of uses includes creating beef jerky, broiling souvlaki on the spit or simply and efficiently cooking bacon, fried shrimp, chicken wings, mini pizzas, hot dogs, steaks and even making doughnuts.
The motorized function is the heart of the Vortex Plus allowing the canned-shaped basket and the rotisserie spit to slowly turn the foods to cooking perfection. Viewers can keep on eye on their creations with the built-in oven light.
The bright LED display on the oven’s top face offers one-touch options to get the cooking going or to adjust cooking temperatures and time on the fly, and it beeps in air fry and roast mode to remind cooks to turn the food if required.
Even crisp technology will cook, for example, a 4-pound chicken in roughly 40 minutes using its rotisserie attachment evenly. The only caveat is the tight space in the oven (10 inches tall by 7 inches wide) lends itself to an almost too small bird, and cooks might try other accommodating meat sizes.
A test with a 24-ounce bag of frozen waffle fries delivered a fully cooked basket in 12 minutes. The fries evenly cooked while turning in the basket and were almost too crispy for some.
A handy fetch tool allows owners to pull the extremely hot basket out of the oven. Getting the lid off of the basket while the food is still piping hot will require oven mitts to avoid burns.
The Vortex Plus is a great choice for those addicted to fried foods and looking for less caloric and oily options. It might be slightly too large for compact kitchens but certainly works well for single households or college students looking for an easy-to-clean quiet option for cooking a variety of their favorite foods.
Jackery’s Explorer 240
What is it? A portable power station
Gift group: Adventurers or homeowners in need of a nearly limitless energy boost.
Santa’s scoop: Jackery delivers a compact, multifunctional box of power (9 inches wide, 8 inches tall and 5 inches thick) with two USB ports, an AC outlet and a 12V car charger and weighing in at less than 7 pounds.
For families on the go or dealing with unexpected home power outages, that translates into the ability to run a 32-inch TV for three hours, recharging smartphones 20 times, running an LED lamp for 40 hours, recharging a computer laptop four times or running a 60-watt mini-fridge for four hours.
However, it can only power devices under 200 watts, so don’t plug an electric heater into it.
The unit wields a 240WH lithium-ion battery with pure sine wave inverter technology to safely power devices by producing a cleaner power source to protect more sensitive equipment such as laptops and even medical CPAP devices.
The 2-inch-wide backlit LCD screen offers a battery drain status percentage and an input/output power use.
The package includes a car charger cable and two-part AC cable. Recharging the Explorer takes about seven hours via a car charger or AC wall outlet. The device also comes with a two-year warranty and bag for the cords.
And, for the limitless power option, pair the Explorer 240 with the Jackery Solar Saga ($179.99).
The easy-to-carry, waterproof, 60-watt moncrystalline solar panel energy converter (measuring 18 inches wide by 12 inches tall folded, and 36 inches wide unfolded) will, in full sunlight and moderate temperature, charge the Explorer in roughly eight to 10 hours.
The less than 4-pound, three-panel Solar Saga includes a rubber handle, two-zippered bag on the back of the center panel to hold the 9-foot cable; rings to tether the panel; and it comes with a carrying case. The unit will easily fit in a hiker’s backpack.
Lifejacket Jolt (Altec Lansing, $129.99) — The company known for speaker technology delivers a nearly indestructible Bluetooth-tethered option for lovers of compact, musical power.
Roughly the size of two adult fists side by side, the rectangular box with metal grills front and back, and covered in multiple rubber textures, offers roughly 30 hours of life (depending on use) and a wireless range of 100 feet to play tunes or talk via hands-free calling with a connected smartphone.
A lit button array on the top includes volume control, pairing, turning the unit on, a “just ask” option to connect to Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant, and a button to control the five LED glowing lights options around the speaker cones.
More impressive, its IP67 protection-rating means the box is, within reason, waterproof (up to 30 minutes of submersion), shockproof, snow proof, and it even floats.
Best of all, the music pumping through the 360-degree speakers is loud, crisp and with plenty of bass for the outdoor holiday party.
And, just for the icing on the cake, owners can lay a Qi-enabled smartphone on its top to charge or use the side USB connection (cord not included).
Overall, just love it for the legendary sound, but gift receivers will appreciate the extra benefits.
A cautionary note: Extricating the Jolt from its hard plastic display case will take a toll on human fingers. Specifically, pulling the top clear plastic cover off exposes some sharp edges on the lower case that can cause a slew of paper cuts if not careful.
Boost Up Wireless Charging Vent Mount (Belkin, $59.99) — Charge any Qi-certified smartphone (10 watts of power) while attached to a car’s dashboard with this extremely helpful gadget.
It’s more than simple enough. Owners use the arm grips to attach the roughly 3-inch-square unit. Attach the phone, centered, to the low-profile mount clips that rotate at the base for portrait or landscape views,
Now plug the mount into the car’s 12V car adapter port using the permanently attached 3.5-foot-long cord and we are charging.
The car vents blowing cool air will keep the charging consistent (not so much with hot air blowing in the dead of winter). Charging will work with plastic cases up to 3 mm thick, and the mounts stretch to hold up to 5.5-inch phones while keeping the device securely in place.
Wemo Mini Smart Plug (Belkin, $29.99) — While on the road, easily turn on or off an electronic device right from a smartphone or tablet with no subscription or hub required using this compact unit.
Simply plug the 4-inch-wide device, which looks like a typical outlet extender, into a wall outlet; plug in a household item such as a lamp, floor heater, fan or coffee maker; and use the free Wemo app to deliver the magic.
To set the app up, use the phone to connect into the smart plug’s Wi-Fi source and take a picture of the device being controlled (just for reference in case using multiple smart plugs).
That’s about it unless any scheduling options are required including syncing to sunrise and sunset, which is an added benefit. The smart plug can handle up to 15 amps/1,800 watts to cover most products.
It even works with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple HomeKit and Nest Thermostat.
USB-C Multimedia Hub (Belkin, $99.99) — For new Apple laptops, especially Macbook Air owners gritting their teeth with the changeover to a limited number of onboard USB-C ports to charge and extend their computer’s functionality, Belkin has got you covered.
Its 5-inch-long, brushed metal hub consumes one laptop port and offers a USB-C, HDMI, Ethernet, SD card and a pair of USB-A ports to handle the attachment of most devices.
That translates into connecting a 4K-30MHz monitor, a keyboard, a mouse or thumb drives and a 1-gigabyte Ethernet cable while the USB-C port also acts as a pass through for powering the laptop through a standard charger.
Thank you, Belkin, and thanks for nothing, Apple.