I’ll be honest: I’m tough to impress. I review hundreds of gadgets every year, going hands-on with all the hottest, latest, must-have tech that comes along. But I don’t love tech just for tech’s sake. I’m not a geek. I want my gadgets to make my life better, not more complicated, and they have to be super simple to set-up and use. If I have to read a manual to figure a gadget out, I’m already frustrated. So when it comes to shelling out my hard earned money on any bit of tech — it has to live up to some of the highest standards in the world — my own. Here’s what made the cut in 2015:
FOR A SMARTER-SMART HOME
The Amazon Echo ($179) smart speaker is one of the best bits of tech I spent money on in 2015. Why? Because I use it every single day and it just keeps getting better.
The Echo is an always-on voice-activated speaker that goes by the name “Alexa.” She’s a lot like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, but rather than come with a new smartphone, this electronic genie comes in the shape of a water-bottle-sized cylinder that fits on your kitchen counter or looks right at home in your living room.
Say her name anywhere in the house where she can “hear” you — up to 30 or so feet away — and this virtual assistant scours the Internet for an answer to whatever you ask. “Alexa, play NPR,” I say as I walk in the front door, or “Alexa, play Adele’s new song, Hello,” and sure enough, as if by magic, she does it.
I also ask her to rattle off news headlines, sports scores, weather, traffic reports, set a cooking timer, help with a homework problem, look up recipes, add to my grocery list, or tell me about my schedule for the day.
Sure, there are a few hiccups when she doesn’t understand what I’m asking, but it happens far less than I expected. Also a huge bonus, set up is nearly idiot proof. Just plug it in, connect to Wi-Fi, and you’re off. The best tech should make your life a little easier, not more complicated, and this device exceeds my expectations all the way around.
As far as I’m concerned, the big winner out of Apple this year is the Apple TV ($149) streaming media device. Oh sure, the new iPhones and iPads are great, and I just happen to be using a spiffy new MacBook Air as I type, but the new TV totally surprised me.
Basically, Apple’s fourth-generation box turns your TV into a giant iPhone. Getting it up and running takes all of about five minutes, then everything that you love about your iPhone or iPad is all right there on your home’s largest screen. You can use Siri to search for shows and apps, or the beautiful new remote with a glass touchpad on one end let’s you swipe and tap your way through all of your favorite content. It’s the most polished entertainment ecosystem I’ve seen yet.
Steve Jobs once said, “a lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” That’s exactly how I feel about the Apple TV.
I’m not sure what they put in the water in Redmond, Washington this year, but Microsoft came out with some of the best overall tech of 2015. If you haven’t upgraded to Windows 10 yet — start with that while it’s still free. I’ve never included software in my favorite’s list before, but this OS really masters multi-tasking and manages Windows better than ever. Upgrades to Microsoft’s virtual assistant, Cortana, can help you navigate your busy life too. She now works all kinds of new wonders, like cyber-clipping coupons while you’re shopping online with Microsoft Edge and keeping an always-on eye out for the best deals and discounts on just about everything from food to clothes to gadgets. And of course those gadgets include the other new Microsoft tech that’s impressed me this year, the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book.
The Surface Pro 4 ($899) is hands-down my favorite hybrid, and the first tablet that can actually replace your laptop without sacrificing form, function, or power. Conversely, the Surface Book ($1,499) is a stunning Windows 10 laptop with a surprising twist: You can pop off the detachable screen to use like a part-time tablet to make easy work of graphics-heavy projects like editing holiday photos and videos.
If you’ve been wanting a new laptop or tablet, this is a great year to grab super hardware at very decent prices. The Lenovo Yoga 900 ($1,199) is another of my all time favorites. It’s ultra light and thin, and sports an 813 piece watchband-style hinge that turns it oh-so-smooth-like from a snazzy full-time laptop to that fold-back part-time tablet.
Also out of Lenovo, the tablet that doubles as a projector, the Yoga Tab 3 Pro ($450). The full-size tablet is equipped with a Quad HD resolution 10.1-inch screen and Intel Atom quad-core processor. But the projector is the wow-feature. The kids loved having their favorite shows show up ‘magically’ on the wall, so it wins my ‘great for families’ vote.
Runners up: For hybrids, Acer Switch 10 E, Asus Chromebook Flip C100P (super budget pick at $249) and Toshiba Satellite Radius. For other terrific takes on tablets, it’s worth checking out the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9, iPads (okay, all of them), and Google Nexus 9.
In the wearables world, it’s tough to beat the Apple Watch ($349), which is why everyone else is talking about it, so I won’t say too much here. Just that it’s awesome if you love Apple-everything’s — but charging it every night is a real pain, and it needs to last longer between charges, period. (The new magnetic charging dock is a great add-on to someone who already has the watch.)
What I’m more excited about this year is the fact that this entire category is getting better. Smartwatches are catching-up with our real lives in terms of function, and even fashion (the latter is more important than you might think). Case in point, the new Samsung Gear S2 ($249) does all the important stuff — pairs with a variety of Android smartphones to get messages, look at apps, respond to messages or trigger voice-activated actions with the built-in microphone. What sets it apart is the eye-catching design with a spinning bezel for navigation.
For a smartwatch that works well with both iOS and Android, the Pebble Time Steel ($250) is a great pick. It’s an always on, shower-friendly, super-charged device that goes around 10-days before it needs a recharge. It doesn’t have all of the smartwatch bells and whistles of the higher end watches from Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Motorola, or LG, but it’s a fantastic start.
When it comes to real fashion though, Misfit Swarovski Shine ($169) is the first really useful tracker gadget that looks like a piece of expensive jewelry. It records and relays all your daily steps, calories and distance stats to its companion app on your smartphone. It also keeps track of your sleep, and nudges you to move when you’ve been sitting around too long. The only bummer is that it doesn’t have an actual screen display, just dots that light up.
I’m doing an entire story just on activity trackers, and have a lot to say about the redesigned Microsoft Band 2, Fitbit Surge, and Garmin Forerunner 225, to name a few. Be sure to check back to this section for that story soon.
Now for my very favorite part of the this list, the gadgets that are just plain fun. This was a big year for hoverboard-ish hybrid skateboards, and I tried a bunch of them. The one I actually bought is from SwagWay ($400). It’s a forward-facing two-wheel electric scooter powered by a lithium battery. I like the pedal feel of this particular board: flex your right foot — heel down, toe-up just a tiny bit while holding still with your left foot — to turn right. It’s not that hard to get the hang of and you have a ton of control.
Drones are also hotter than ever this year — for shooting aerial video and just flying around for fun. For my husband, who shoots video for a living, we ended up splurging on the DJI Phantom 3 Professional ($1259) drone. We tried several others out, but the Phantom was rock solid in the air and easier than most to maneuver. It also broadcasts live HD video to your smartphone or tablet, and the gimbal gives stellar camera-control for shooting amazing 4K video or stills.
I really like all of the Parrot Drones too. There’s something in every size and price range, from larger models capable of flying autonomously hundreds of feet in the air, to the smaller toys you can fly around your living room or backyard for a few minutes at a time (before you run out of power and have to recharge it or you get it stuck in a tree). If you’ve been thinking about dabbling in drones, this is a great year to start.
I’ve saved anything small enough to fit in a stocking, a bunch of fitness-y tech, and the best Star Wars toys for future columns and videos coming soon. I also left off a few things that my colleagues have already covered extensively. Be sure to check back here and read through their guides too. As always, we love hearing from you, so be sure to let us know what’s on your list in the comments section below. Jolly Holidays!
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