WE ALWAYS knew that Santa was well-connected. This year, the man's really showing his plugged-in nature. The coolest gadgets we've found for holiday giving and getting all feature a connected component that wirelessly uses your smartphone or tablet to do their thing, or do it better.
MUSIC ON CUE: Almost every song and radio station on the planet is just a tap away on an Internet content-streaming, powered Sonos speaker that you control with a sleek app on a smartphone or tablet (iOS or Android). Sprinkle several speakers around the house and wirelessly "network" to play the same or different music.
Start this grand adventure with a Sonos Play:1, the brand's newest and smallest, yet still-fine-sounding, product. It's priced at $199 (World Wide Stereo; Best Buy) and is bundled for the holiday with a free Internet "bridge," the only piece that's hardwired to your Internet router.
It's Gizmo Guy's top gift pick of the season!
SELFIES MADE SIMPLER: Selfies - cellphone-captured self-portraits - have become so popular, even the Oxford Dictionary has added the term. Now you can give the gift of smoother, easier snapshooting with an Audiovox ShutterBall, a remote, wireless shutter release ($25) that triggers image grabs on iPhones, iPod Touches, iPads and Samsung Galaxy products. The remote has a belt-hanger strap and a folding stand to place your camera phone on, up to 60 feet away.
Don't forget to say, "Cheese!"
BIG THINGS/SMALL PACKAGES: Larger screens on tablet computers are better for productivity. So why are so many hoping that a second, smaller Wi-Fi-enabled tablet magically appears under the tree or near the menorah?
For reading and watching movies in bed, a 7-inch tablet is more pleasurable to have and hold. And the latest, best models with high-definition displays and beefy processors run the show super smoothly.
The king of the heap is Apple's new iPad Mini 2, which has the deepest inventory of apps (almost a half-million) and great integration with other Apple products, helping to rationalize its steep price (starting at $399).
But we've found everything that's essential (Web search, email, casual games, Netflix, Flipboard, HBO Go, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Rhapsody, Pandora) in the almost-as-snappy, equally sharp-screened and far more affordable (starting at $229) Kindle Fire HDX, from Amazon.
Also worth considering are the Googled-up Nexus 7 ($229) and just-out Monster M7.
The former slips easiest into a coat pocket. The latter is a tidy $129 (Walmart exclusive) package with a nice screen and classy touches, like an expandable memory-card slot, wireless appliance/light control and super-tweaked (aptX) Bluetooth audio streaming to wireless headphones, like Monster's bass-heavy iSport Freedom.
TO YOUR HEALTH: Smart wristband products that calculate your exercise and bodily responses (via connected smartphone app) are getting a workout in gadget stores this season.
Gizmo Guy's been won over by the slimline Fitbit Force, a glorified pedometer/watch/sleep tracker ($129.95, Brookstone), and even more so by the snazzy Mio Alpha ($199, REI), the first fitness watch that takes EKG-accurate heart readings from the wrist, eliminating the need for an uncomfortable, strap-on chest monitor.
Also serving exercisers is the iRiver On, the first wireless Bluetooth headset ($199, shop.iriver.inc) with a heart-monitoring sensor built into the earbuds. With controls built into a snug, wraparound neck band, the rig delivers voice feedback coaching, music playback and call answering. Pretty cool, though its tracking software could use some tweaking.
ET, PHONE HOME: Want to share a gift of comfort and joy that's also a money saver? Spring for the new, improved Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat ($224, Home Depot). This gadget lets you text home to check and change the temperature and has a color-adjustable screen, outdoor climate tracking and programming that's much easier to use than that of the much-vaunted Nest.
Hoping to come home late to find lights on and dinner ready in the slow cooker? Ask Santa for a magical Pivot Power Genius, a flexibly jointed power strip ($80, Home Depot, Best Buy) developed by GE and Quirky. It has two "smart" sockets that are Wi-Fi-controllable via your phone.
HOME VIDEO, REINVENTED: Unexpected doorbell ringers an annoyance? Deal with them smoothly with the new VTech Video Doorbell System ($117.22, TigerDirect). It comes with two cordless phones (DECT 6.0) and a small box (battery- or AC-powered) that replaces the front-door bell and packs a slow-scan video camera and speaker.
When someone rings the VTech's bell, an image is sent wirelessly to the companion phone screens along with the bell sound. Picture quality is often blurry, but a visitor's voice comes through loud and clear.
A Wi-Fi-connected home-video camera that beams sharp images and sound to the cloud and then to your smartphone or tablet makes a swell gift for folks with children, pets and property they'd like to watch (and even chat with) from afar. A primo example is the Dropcam HD Wi-Fi Wireless Video Monitoring Camera ($149, Amazon). It sets up quickly and works well, though it eats through 60 GB of data monthly with its 24/7 monitoring.
ROBOT LOVE: Santa's elves also have been hyperactive, tweaking robotic toys that run under their own steam - er, battery power - but take kiddie commands via smartphone apps.
As the name suggests, DiscoRobo ($37, Amazon) loves to dance and spin (upside down) to the music. DR's especially turned on by cranked-up bass beats. A good party expediter.
For kids with serious allergies, Spin Master's robodog Zoomer ($80, Walmart) makes a surprisingly fun surrogate pet. It sniffs around smartly (infrared sensors prevent mishaps), shares lots of cute sounds and moves (from rolling over to faux peeing) and responds (at times) to voice commands in English, Spanish or French.
Gizmo Guy's (nonrobotic) cat Rufus has found Zoomer fascinating. They sniff, chase and paw one another. And Zoomer never eats the Ruf-ster's lunch.
RoboMe ($99.99, Target) is quite the wise guy. WowWee's talking, rolling Segway look-alike comes with a dedicated remote control and unique powers of integration with an iPhone or iPod Touch.
One of those Apple smart-screens can be attached to RoboMe's head to create a customizable face. And the dude can be programmed to say different (even rude) things in your voice when you poke him in the eyes or nose.
Oh, and with two iPhones/iPods at your disposal, RoboMe will snoop around the abode, functioning as a video-surveillance camera, a feature best left for the big kids to program.
MORE ANIMATRONICS: Wireless Bluetooth speakers that play music from a mobile phone or tab are another big holiday-gift trend. None are cuddlier than Twilight Turtle Tunes, the latest iteration of Cloud b's popular children's night light that adds streaming-music play to its feature list. (Cloudb.com or Amazon, $51.95).
There's something old and new, too, in Porkfolio ($70, thinkgeek.com), a smart, connected piggy bank dreamed up by Lansdale's Jason Hunter and brought to market by Quirky.
As coins go in, a graph measuring financial goals goes up on the companion smartphone app. This savvy critter even boasts piggy-bank-robber protection. An accelerometer detects and alerts via text message if Porkfolio has been moved.
What a squealer!