Yup, it's starting to look to a lot like a "connected" Christmas and Hanukkah. Some of the most entertaining gadgets on our gift list take cues and content from the internet, creating a modern "miracle and wonder" all their own.
Smart Speakers: Used to be a negative comment that Gizmo Guy had his "head in the clouds." But it's a compliment for the Amazon Echo and its new rival, the Google Home. These electronic genies are disguised as small speakers; they process and respond, via distant "cloud" computing power, to whatever you say out loud. And with no button-pushing required!
You want the news and the weather, or maybe a recipe for roasted chicken? Just ask. You want specific music or a radio station from anywhere on earth? Poof, it's beaming. Need room lights on, the thermostat temperature turned up? Your voiced wish is its command.
Answering to the wake-up name "Alexa," Amazon's original Echo ($179.99) is still our pick of the smart speaker litter, with the best sound quality for music and support galore (ever building!) from hardware and software makers and service industries (like Uber and Domino's Pizza).
Echo's $49.99 little brother Dot is a pip-squeak, OK for talk radio and taking verbal orders (including stuff you want to buy from Amazon). Or, plug a Dot into a better-powered speaker/sound system.
New kid on the block Google Home ($129) lives somewhere in between, with mid-fi sound suitable for kitchen, bedside, or bathroom listening and at present just a few home automation/service tricks up its sleeve.
But Home does excel at answering questions. Triggered with a gawky "Hey Google," this chatty thing goes far deeper and wider than Alexa on the meaning of life, the best music (with lots free to hear for six months), or the price of tea in China.
Toys with Talents: Hasbro's Furby Connect ($70-$85) is this season's mass-market smart toy I imagined I'd dislike; and the Cognitoys Dino ($79.99-$99.95. ) is the intelligent, internet-connected chat buddy I hoped would bury the "electronic toys-are-brain-drainers" argument. Neither has worked out that way.
Intended from the get-go as an educational playmate for kids ages 5+, Cognitoys Dino boasts IBM Watson brain power (residing in the cloud). It claimed to be tops at artificial intelligence and voice recognition and with custom user profiling that improves over time.
Out of the box, Dino's skill set is limited, though. This gruff-voiced creature likes only some WiFi networks, while snubbing others. And his speech-recognition/info-processing skills are iffy. The creature is dandy at multiplication and addition; it can spell well and knows some decent knock-knock jokes. But after Dino asks a human playmate to supply words to slip into a story, the thing too often misinterprets what the child or an adult is saying. Grrrrr…..
Latest in a line of fuzzy robotic clown-abouts stretching back to the late 1990s, Furby Connect is a wisecracking, rude noise-emitting (a.k.a. farting) creature for ages 6+ with extra-wiggly, motorized ears and hyper-animated color LED eyes.
On his own, the toy responds to tickles and cutely goes "night-night" when you put on his sleep mask. Link the thing (via Bluetooth) to the Furby Connect app on a smart phone or tablet, and the furry creature really starts rockin' and squawkin', encouraging your on-screen game moves to hatch and nurture more Furbies. Hasbro says it will support/update the interactive software, heavy on the "collect the whole set" message, for at least a couple of years. Mark this gizmo blatantly commercial, socially irredeemable, and lots of fun.
Cord Cutting A to Z: We've got several new reasons to give and get one of those small Web TV receiver boxes or "sticks" available this season (for as little as $30) from Roku, Apple, and Amazon Fire -- devices that pull in streaming TV channels through a wired or wireless internet connection.
DirecTV has just jumped into this alternative TV world with an offering called DirecTV Now, featuring an especially good introductory rate ($40 a month) for a midlevel bundle of basic channels plus HBO and a free Apple TV if you commit to three months' service. DISH will soon upgrade its no-contract, $20-and-up Sling TV streaming service with 100 hours of user-accessible show recording and playback "in the cloud." Sony's PlayStation Vue remains the best Web TV option in terms of local channel coverage, even offering Philly's Comcast SportsNet in bundles starting at $45 a month.
Still happy with your cable service? We've got other reasons to give/get one of these little gizmos – say, to try out internet-only specialty channels or to extend the reach of your pay channels to TV set locations where there's no cable box. (Streaming versions of basic and movie channels are unlocked after entering a valid cable or satellite TV account's email address and password.)
Some Roku and Amazon Fire receivers let you stream razor-sharp 4K Ultra High Definition content from Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and Hulu, among others.
Roku's $99 Premiere + and $129 Roku Ultra also pile on the 4K picture enhancement HDR – short for high dynamic range color and contrast.
Apple TV boxes ($149-$199) can't show anything 4K, but Apple's sleek touch-pad controller is best suited for sweeping through the program guides, especially dense with bonus on-demand offerings on Sling TV.