Compiling a technology gift guide just before November’s Black Friday shopping frenzy has been a little more complicated than usual this year.
Several items that might have made it on to my list are missing in action. Apple’s wireless AirPod headphones? Delayed just before release a month ago, with radio silence from the iPhone maker ever since. GoPro’s long-awaited Karma drone? Launched with much fanfare in September but abruptly withdrawn from sale this month after several fell out of the sky.
So here is a list of the most desirable tech products this Christmas — as long as you can find them.
Google Home and Amazon Echo
Smart speakers are the must-have gift of 2016. Amazon’s Echo ($180/£150) has an array of “skills”, from playing Spotify and Pandora to calling an Uber, and is now available in the UK and Germany. At $50/£50, the cheaper Echo Dot model is a steal. Google’s $179 Home is better at answering questions — as you might expect from a search engine — but for now it is only available in the US. If you are feeling extra generous, pair Echo with a “smart home” accessory such as Philips Hue lightbulbs or iHome’s smart plug. A Chromecast video or audio player is a great way to get the best from Google Home.
NES Classic retro games console, $60/£50
For video games nostalgics the 1980s is still the epitome of cool. Nintendo’s NES Classic is a miniature version of its console and comes with 30 games pre-installed (no cartridges required) including three instalments of Super Mario Bros and two Legends of Zelda. If you can find one — and fresh deliveries are selling out in minutes from retailers — pick up a pair of extra-long HDMI and USB cables at the same time, as the wired controller’s cord is awkwardly short.
Cozmo toy robot by Anki
After last year’s hit BB-8 droid by Sphero comes Cozmo, an artificially intelligent Wall-E. The uncannily smart Cozmo learns to recognise its owner’s face and plays a variety of games with three interactive “power cubes”, which the “self aware” robot will idly stack if you leave it to its own devices. Thanks to regular updates via its companion mobile app, this pet robot will keep learning new talents, such as being able to identify and greet real-life dogs and cats.
PlayStation VR, $399/£349
Even if 2016 has not quite turned out to be the year virtual reality went mainstream, Sony’s PlayStation VR hits the sweet spot between price and quality for mass appeal. Although not quite as sociable on Christmas Day as Wii Sports, the headset is comfortable for extended wear and there are several decent games available. My favourites are the silly and witty Job Simulator and the retro-futuristic tank shooter Battlezone. Horror movie fans can scare themselves with Until Dawn: Rush of Blood’s sinister rollercoaster.
Sales of iPads have declined in recent years but several consumer surveys have put a tablet high on many people’s wish lists. If cost is no issue, the 10-inch iPad Pro ($600/£500) is a lightweight and versatile slate. With Apple’s add-on keyboard, it has replaced my laptop for working out of the office. I suspect that most people, though, want to use a tablet more like a television than a PC. In that case, Amazon’s Fire HD 8 tablet is a great value sofa companion for $90/£90.
… and away
Pearl Auto rear-view camera, $500
Nothing says “I love you” like a gadget that helps with reverse parking, right? Well, it may not be sexy, but Pearl Auto’s RearVision camera kit is one of the smartest pieces of tech I have tested this year. A depth-sensing camera attaches to a car’s rear number plate and sends live video wirelessly to your smartphone, which is attached to the dashboard using an included mount. Pearl uses computer vision to warn of hidden obstacles or passing cyclists. It works on most cars up to 20 years old, although only in the US, for now.
GoPro Hero 5 Black, $400/£350
Continuing this year’s trend of talking to your gadgets, the latest GoPro camera is a serious step-up from its predecessor. The Hero 5 Black has a touchscreen, is waterproof without a case and shoots video in ultra-high-definition 4K. It responds to simple voice commands, meaning you can start and stop a recording hands-free. Almost as importantly, GoPro has radically improved its mobile apps, making it far easier to download and edit the footage you shoot.
If you have friends with Fitbits, then its super-slim and waterproof Flex 2 ($100/£80) is a worthwhile purchase — peer pressure is still the best motivation. For a more distinctive look, I am a fan of Amazfit’s $80 circular activity and sleep tracker. The black Equator and white Moonbeam models are made from strengthened ceramics, bringing an elegance not usually associated with wearable technology. For more sophisticated health tracking, Apple’s latest Watch Edition, $1,250/£1,250, is also made of a stylish white ceramic material and comes with the latest update’s waterproofing and GPS.
Speakers and headphones
Even without AirPods, wireless headphones are everywhere this Christmas. None come more highly recommended than Bose’s Quietcomfort 35 ($350/£290), which have impressive noise cancellation and are comfortable enough to wear for a long flight. For those who have not taken the “courageous” leap into the wireless future with an iPhone 7, and at the other end of the price spectrum, try OnePlus’ Bullets earphones (V2). From the maker of well-priced, well-made Android smartphones, these wired in-ear buds look and sound so great you would never expect they cost only $20/£16.
DJI Mavic Pro drone, $1,000/£1,000
I put this at the bottom of the list because I still worry that a drone is a potentially hazardous gift, either to the recipient or their neighbours. That said, DJI’s Mavic Pro is a remarkable technical achievement: it folds up small enough to carry in the palm of your hand but also shoots 4K video. Perhaps more importantly, it comes with sensors that help prevent it from flying into things (or people). Just don’t go testing it out on Christmas Day after a few sherries.