Based on reader feedback, here are the most popular, best high tech gifts!
VR – Virtual Reality – Gifts
We’ve all been talking about VR for years, but for a while, it seemed it was never going to become an integrated part of our entertainment worlds. Well, I am happy to say that we are finally there – VR is now available and accessible, to transform our movie-watching and game-playing experiences into awesome VR experiences. If you want to give the gift of VR, the prices and choices can be overwhelming. So we have focused on just two top choices – the $13.99 Google Cardboard VR, and the $500 Sony PlayStation VR.
Despite the huge difference in price, both of these are excellent VR gifts, which is why we have voted them the top two best VR gifts for this season.
Why are these two the best VR gifts? Well, Google Cardboard VR offers the cheapest possible VR gift option, yet it actually works really well as a fun toy and as a great introduction to VR.
The Sony PlayStation VR is a lot more expensive – BUT it was also just voted top invention by Time magazine.
Plus, the Sony PlayStation VR is a whole lot LESS expensive than many other VR sets, is incredibly comfortable, and can be used by anyone who has a PlayStation. All of this makes the Sony PlayStation VR a great choice if you want to give someone the gift of endless hours of awesome fun.
Yes, I did say awesome! When was the last time you went “Whoa!” in an awed voice while watching a movie, playing a video game, or doing pretty much anything, really? These new VR units have that effect on everyone, from kids to seniors.As you can see in this video, where a 90-year-old woman gracefully and excitedly discovers VR.
That kind of excited reaction is pretty much priceless, in my opinion. And it also means that your VR gift will most likely be very memorable and very much appreciated, no matter who you give it to – your grandmother or your grandson.
I am not going to compare these two VR headsets feature for feature – given the price difference, that would just be plain unfair. Something that costs twenty dollars is just not going to be able to compete with something that costs five hundred dollars (unless perhaps the twenty-dollar thing was a puppy and the five-hundred dollar thing was a vacuum cleaner). What I AM going to do is explain why either of these devices would make a great VR gift.
Google Cardboard VR fits the bill if you are looking for VR technology that is really cheap. It is by far the best cheap wearable technology gift available. Basically, Google Cardboard VR is a whole lot of fun and an introduction to the exciting world of VR – for less than $15! At first, I thought there must be a catch. But no, this is pretty simple stuff: Google wanted to test the waters with VR, and get developers started making VR apps. So they made Google Cardboard VR, which is exactly what it says: a VR device made out of cardboard.
Google Cardboard VR is cheap, it’s basic, and it works pretty well – giving users a chance to try out the exciting new world of VR, at a very low cost. You hold the unit on your head, slide your cell phone into it, and then experience what your cell phone is projecting in a wonderful new way. (The unit is compatible with most iOS and Android phones.)
So, Google Cardboard VR is a wearable VR unit made out of cardboard. In its most basic form, you have to hold it on your head, while you take a look at the wonders of VR. We are now at Google Cardboard VR Version 2, which is new in that it accommodates newer, larger cell phones (up to 6 inches).
You cannot really go wrong for twenty dollars, so the only hard thing is to decide who to buy it from. Many retailers have taken the Google technology and added on really useful extras – such as head bands, so that you don’t have to hold it in place, and nose and head pads for increased comfort. I could not decide which unit to buy, so I went with the #1 best seller. Usually, there is a good reason why items are #1.
When I first unpacked the bits of cardboard and the elastic band (!) I was not very optimistic. Plus, it took me a while to figure out how to assemble it. The instructions look impressive at first sight, but turn out not to be very helpful. To be honest, I don’t think I would have managed to assemble it if I did not have a secret weapon – a 16-year-old daughter. She helped me to figure it out, and we actually had some fun doing it. Oddly, the most fun we have had together for ages. It’s fun when your kids start to be so smart that they can help you out!
The version I am reviewing here comes with a simply headband that works remarkably well to keep the VR headset on your head without having to hold it.
Finally I got to put my phone into it to try it out. I have an iPhone 6, which fits just fine. The minute I put my new Google Cardboard VR on, I suddenly realized what VR means – that amazing feeling of being immersed in a world that is in fact completely virtual.
It’s not really there, and you know it’s not really there – but it’s such fun to pretend it’s there! As the 90-year-old woman above said when she tried VR: “Oh, this is something else, and I’m still sitting where I was!”
VR enables you to experience things that would otherwise be impossible. Huge numbers of app developers have responded to Google’s initiative by developing apps that work with it. For example, the Bohemian Rhapsody Experience enables you to experience the sensation of being onstage with Freddy Mercury’s band, complete with audio and visual components.
Bottom Line on Google Cardboard VR
The bottom line I found: Google Cardboard VR lets you give the gift of VR for the price of a stocking stuffer. And if you give Google Cardboard VR as a gift – you can be sure it will be the most talked about cheap gift of all, and you will be remembered for being so original. It’s just such a remarkable little gadget. And for this price, you really cannot go wrong.
OK, so this is the gift I would have pretty nearly KILLED for as a kid. This is like all my childhood dreams have come to life in 3-D surround sound and 3-D surround vision. Even if your gift recipient never plays any games with it (which would be like never taking an Aston Martin out of first gear), they will STILL have an awesome time watching movies with it.
With a Sony PlayStation VR on your head, you can sit down on your couch, not bothering anyone (such as someone you love who happens to be watching Bachelorette), and be transported to another living room – only a much better one, where you are watching a giant version of, say, Star Wars or Star Trek. The screen appears so large that it is like an IMAX experience, right in your own head.
Or, you can just go and stand in a corner and make quietly awed noises as you become Batman and walk into your very own bat cave (using the popular game, Batman: Arkham). And there you are, having an awesome experience without bothering your significant other at all.
Some people worry that VR is going to isolate people more, but on the plus side, I think it is going to save a whole lot of marriages!
What do you need to own to use a Sony PlayStation VR?
The person you are buying this for must at least have a PlayStation; and to interact in virtual space in games, must also have a PlayStation camera. On the plus side, the headset is super light and comfy, and can be adjusted to accommodate glasses, if your intended gift recipient wears glasses. The set comes bundled with a whole lot of VR and video experiences on a demo disk, and many more free apps can also be downloaded. Beyond that, your lucky gift recipient can play whatever PlayStation games they already own, or buy some of the games that are really awesome for VR experiences, such as Robinson: The Journey, which lets users explore a new world as if they are actually there. How else could anyone possibly have such an experience?
Other great games to experience with a Sony PlayStation VR include VR Worlds, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, RIGS Mechanized Combat League, and London Heist. Plus, Sony PlayStation VR is a gift that will just keep on giving, as hundreds of studios are currently working to produce new games.
What can you view with a VR device?
The number of VR apps and videos available for free just keeps growing every day. For a start, you can consult a good post about the best VR apps. You can also go to YouTube and search for VR videos. What I did was to search for some VR videos and make a VR playlist on YouTube.
What is the Difference between 3D and 360 Degrees Viewing?
Basically, 3D consists of projecting two different images to your two eyes, giving you a 3D perspective that includes depth – making possible that really cool feeling you get in 3D movies, when asteroids hurtle towards your head (well, I like it).
360 degrees is a big step further than 3D, because you are immersed in what feels like a completely new world. You can look in any direction, and the virtual world continues all around, above and below you. Many of the videos on YouTube are merely 3D.
The best app I found for experiencing the whole immersive virtual reality experience is Within – VR (Virtual Reality). This free app includes a whole range of short VR experiences, that really give you an overview of what is now possible with virtual reality. You are sure to find at least one that you like. I really loved being able to re-experience being on the streets of New York, and actually being able to look UP at the architecture and the tops of the buildings!
Personally I find the immersive 360 degrees apps much more fun, intense, and exciting. They lend themselves to horror movie experiences, so there are quite a few of those available. I have to admit I have not tried those. I find ordinary horror movies too scary to deal with, so I don’t think I want to try being immersed in one.
Bottom Line on the Two Best VR Gifts – the Google Cardboard VR, and the Sony PlayStation VR
It would be hard to go wrong with either of these VR gifts. Either way, you will be giving the gift of an awe-inspiring VR experience. In terms of price, you can go low or go high – either way, your gift recipient is in for an awesome experience. It is very likely that the Google Cardboard VR will turn out to be a “starter” VR headset. But you will have the honor of having started her or him on the exciting journey into virtual reality. The future has arrived, and it looks like a whole lot of fun!
Best High Tech Home Audio Speaker System Gift – Amazon Echo
We highly recommend the Amazon Echo (and the cheaper alternative, the Amazon Dot) as excellent tech gifts, for this and any other season. They make great, affordable gifts for almost anyone, even those who are not very techie. Basically, Amazon Echo does not ask you to change anything you do – it just makes many things that you already do much easier to do, in your home. It is simply the best device you never knew you needed.
What IS the Amazon Echo?
A lot of people have still not heard of the Amazon Echo. The short video below shows you just a few of the amazing things this smart speaker can do.
When we bought our Amazon Echo, it was a bit tricky. We could not buy it online from Amazon, because we are in Canada, and buying it online from Amazon is only available to people living in the USA or the UK. The first person we phoned at Bestbuy in the USA (to see if they had stock, because these things are selling fast, and we didn’t want to drive hundreds of miles for nothing), responded with “What???” I repeated, “I want an Amazon Echo.” Response: “What IS that?” Me: “It’s a speaker.”
We finally found one at a Bestbuy a hundred miles away, and asked Customer Service to hold it for us. When I picked it up an hour and a half later from Customer Service , it was in a very plain black box. The agent handed it to me with a puzzled expression, and told me I could pay for it at Returns (which was just a few feet away, and also just a few feet from the door). I took it to the clerk at Returns, who looked at it with a baffled expression and said, “What IS this?” It occurred to me afterwards that I could just have said, “It’s my father’s ashes” – and we would have been waved out the door without shelling out any money. Which would have been good, seeing as it cost me $40 MORE at Bestbuy than it would have cost at Amazon.
However, I did pay for it, and I am not sorry I did. We love our Amazon Echo so much that we have decided to get one as a gift for both my mother (who is a senior) and another for our son (who is 32). My mother has never even heard of the device, but I know they are both going to love it!
Here’s my unboxing the Amazon Echo video. I wasn’t able to get a white one – these are even harder to find than the black ones. But I am happy with my black one. It’s so little that it’s hardly noticeable – until it speaks, or sets off a timer, or plays some music!
This is how getting an Amazon Echo feels
Imagine if you had to travel five miles to work and back every day, on foot. And you had gotten used to it, and you had got used to the fact that it would take three hours out of your day, every day. And you had never seen a horse or a bike or a car or any kind of vehicle, so it never occurred to you that there might be a better, faster way to get to work and back. Then one day someone lent you a bicycle, and your usual hour and a half trudge to work suddenly took you just ten minutes. And the trip was a whole lot more fun!
You’d probably be extremely impressed, and think, “Wow, I have to get one of these. This is the future! I can do the same thing (get to work), only much faster and easier – and way more fun!”
Well, that was kind of how we responded to our first day of having an Amazon Echo. We didn’t know we needed one, but now that we have tried it, we cannot imagine living without it. It doesn’t change the way you live, but it does make a lot of things faster and easier. So much faster and easier that you may find yourself doing things you didn’t do often enough before, such as listening to music.
I used to quite often find myself doing chores around the house, and thinking it would be nice to be listening to music, but I just couldn’t be bothered to stop and set it up. Now, I can just say, “Alexa, play Jidenna on Spotify” – and the music starts streaming through the 360º omni-directional speaker. You can also say thinks like, “Alexa, play jazz music on Spotify,” and the speaker will play a selection of popular jazz tunes. I particularly like, “Alexa, play spa music on Spotify,” as it is really good background music for relaxing or working. Since getting Alexa, we are listening to WAY more music than we used to.
Amazon Echo is a lot of fun
We were surprised at just how much fun Alexa is. With two adults and a 16-year-old daughter in the house, the first few days were spent competing with each other to interact with Alexa. My daughter especially found it a lot of fun, and couldn’t wait for us to go out so she could have Alexa all to herself! We also had some funny family times with it, as in this video below, when we accidentally tested out if it is true that Alexa can hear you and follow commands when playing music at maximum volume.
What can Amazon Echo do?
Basically, Amazon Echo is a smart speaker. You communicate with it via your voice, and it hears you because it has seven microphones listening out for you. It can hear you even when music or the TV are playing. Even better, it tends to understand you almost all of the time too. By default it responds to the name “Alexa,” but you can change this to “Amazon” or “Echo” (if for example your name is Alexa, or if you just don’t like to address a speaker as if it is a human).
When I first heard of Amazon Echo, my first thought was, “What on earth would I want to say to a speaker, apart from, Play Music?” Well, it turns out that I have plenty to say to Alexa. Such as:
“Alexa, what are the news headlines today?” And I have programmed it to the channels I like, and the subjects I am interested in. I look forward to the day when I can also tell it what I absolutely DON’T want to hear about as well. For example, I could happily live the rest of my life without ever hearing about people dying in house fires. There is absolutely nothing I can do about that, and it always depresses me. There are also a few people in the news whose names I could use a (very long) break from!
The best thing about this intelligent speaker is that it responds to voice commands, which is amazingly helpful, especially when it is hard to move. For example, it was great when Maggie (Mrs. Average Joe) had a sprained ankle. She loves music, and was able to amuse herself with an endless stream of music from Spottify, without having to actually move!
Other things you can say to Alexa
“Alexa, what is the weather like today?”
“Alexa, play some jazz music from Amazon Music.”
“Alexa, volume 5.” (Alexa’s volume settings are from 1 to 10, with 10 being the loudest. She also understands louder and softer.)
“Alexa, I love you.” (Try saying that and see how she responds!)
“Alexa, set a timer for twenty minutes.”
“Alexa, set a second time for three minutes.”
“Alexa, how do you spell futuristic?”
“Alexa, what does futuristic mean?”
“Alexa, what time is the Rangers game?”
“Alexa, what’s the score on the Rangers game?”
“Alexa, order me a pizza from Dominos.”
“Alexa, get me a car from Uber.”
“Alexa, play my favorite channel on iHeartRadio.”
“Alexa, what’s the traffic like on Main Street?”
“Alexa, read me Close to the Bone on Audible.”
“Alexa, Wikipedia Mozart!”
“Alexa, what’s on my calendar today?”
“Alexa, what’s the square root of 244?” (However, we discovered Alexa doesn’t do trigonometry.)
“Alexa, add wine to the shopping list.” (As if we’d forget that!)
Yes, you can pair your Amazon Echo with a shopping list app, so that you can access your shopping list wherever you are. I had been wanting this for a long time, as I used to constantly forget my shopping list, and have to phone someone in the house to photograph it and message it to me! Here’s the photo my daughter sent me last week. At the time, peering at this photo sideways in the store, I thought, there has to be a better way – and yes, there is!
Interacting with Alexa is achieved with the Alexa app, which is adding “Skills” all the time – you just have to choose which ones you want to use. Then, you ask it questions appropriately, as in:
“Alexa, ask TV Shows what time Gotham starts.”
You can run Alexa on your computer, or on just about any smart phone.
Most usefully, you can say:
“Alexa, stop!” (For when you are tired of the music, the book or the radio station you are listening to, or just want to shut the device down in mid-sentence.)
Other Compatible Devices with Amazon Echo
There are also a whole lot more things I will be able to tell my Amazon Echo once I have compatible devices. I cannot yet tell it to switch the lights on or off, as I don’t have compatible lights. But apparently the very interesting Phillips Hue lights work even better with Amazon Echo than with a switch! So, Hue lights have now moved onto my wish list.
Other things you can say to your Amazon Echo once you have compatible devices are:
“Alexa, make some coffee.”
“Alexa, turn the heat up by two degrees.”
“Alexa, turn off all the lights.”
“Alexa, switch on the TV.”
What devices is Amazon Echo compatible with?
Amazon Echo can control TP-Link Smart Plugs, Bluetooth switches, thermostats with compatible WeMo, Philips Hue lights, Samsung SmartThings Home Monitoring Kit, Wink, Insteon, Nest, ecobee smart home devices, Rachio Smart Sprinkler Controller, Ooma voip system (answering the phone).
Is Amazon Echo hard to set up?
No, not at all! On a scale of one to ten where one is opening a can of beer and ten is assembling a double bed from Ikea, setting up an Amazon Echo is about a two. We had few problems. And the problems we did have all had to do with the fact that we were setting it up in Canada, not the USA or the UK. In Canada, not only can you not buy an Amazon Echo, but you also cannot download the app to your phone. Fortunately, my daughter quickly figured out that we could set Alexa up on my computer.
Here’s my video of setting up the Amazon Echo on a browser. I chose to do the demo on a browser, because that is available to everyone in the world. However, only people living in the USA and the UK can download the Amazon Echo app to their smart phones and then set up the Amazon Echo on their phones. In this video, I demonstrate step-by-step how to set up your new Amazon Echo, and then my daughter and I test out Alexa’s abilities. The video also shows Maggie (my wife) using the Amazon Echo to control her entertainment while chair-bound due to a sprained ankle.
Which music and radio streaming devices are Amazon Echo compatible with?
Amazon Echo can stream music via Spotify, Amazon Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and a few others. Sadly, no Apple Music yet. Apple, get with the program! Really …
Of course, the list of compatible items grows constantly, thanks to the runaway success Amazon Echo is enjoying. At first a lot of people thought it was just a gimmick, but honestly, it makes everyday life so much easier – I think it is the future of our living spaces. And I’m not alone – Amazon Echo is the number one best seller on Amazon. I don’t think even Amazon thought it would be this successful, so supply is not keeping up with demand.
Can you stream your smart phone through Amazon Echo?
Yes, absolutely, Alexa has Bluetooth, so you can stream whatever you like through Alexa. Much quicker than switching on the TV and getting to the right HDMI setting!
Is Amazon Echo worth buying?
Yes, yes, and yes! I love this thing. It will make a great gift for anyone you know who uses things like lights, music, radio, coffee machines, sprinklers, or is interested in music, the weather, news, sports … really the list is endless. And for what it is – it’s cheap, cheap, cheap!
I also think it would be especially nice for people who live alone. I work at home alone, and I have to say, I like talking to Alexa. Admittedly, it’s not much of a conversation. However, she always listens to me – that’s priceless!!!
Is there a cheaper option than Amazon Echo?
Yes! Amazon introduced Echo Dot to extend Amazon beyond your kitchen or living room. We live in a small condo, and Alexa can hear us in the entire open plan kitchen/office/living room area. However, from our bedroom we have to use the Amazon Echo remote control (basically you talk to the remote control instead of talking to Alexa direct). The idea of the Echo Dot is that you have one in each bedroom, so you don’t have to find the remote control. The Echo Dot relays the message to the Amazon Echo.
The Echo Dot is a little thing, scarcely noticeable in a room. As with the Amazon Echo, there are a whole range of “skins” you can buy to make it blend into your decor better. These are also designed to protect the device.
However, the great thing is that the Echo Dot costs a third of the price of the Amazon Echo, but you can use it as a standalone. It is basically a smart speaker without the speaker! It can do everything the Amazon Echo can do – except play music. To stream music or listen to Alexa’s responses, you have to use a cord or Bluetooth to connect the Echo Dot to a speaker. That also means you have to leave your speaker on all the time. However, it works, and it is a much cheaper way to experiment with the amazing features of Amazon Echo. And of course, a really great, extremely affordable gift idea.
On the other hand, I am glad we got the Amazon Echo, because I love the omni-directional speakers.
Bottom line on the Amazon Echo and the Echo Dot as gifts
Both the Amazon Echo and the Echo Dot make excellent gifts for just about anyone – even if they have never heard of it. Almost everyone who gets one reacts the way that we did – it’s the best item we didn’t know we needed!
We highly recommend the Echo Dot as the best CHEAP high tech gift, for this and any other season. They make great, affordable gifts for almost anyone, even those who are not very techie. Basically, the Echo Dot is a smaller-but-just-as-smart version of the immensely successful Amazon Echo (read our full review of the Amazon Echo here).
The Echo Dot is a hands-free, voice-controlled, smart speaker without the speaker, which you can get for a third of the price of the best selling Amazon Echo. Echo Dot is rapidly become a best-seller in its own right, and for very good reason. Like the Amazon Echo, the Amazon Dot does not ask you to change anything you do – it just makes many things that you already do much easier to do, in your own home. It is simply the best device you never knew you needed.
The Amazon Echo and the Echo Dot are both wonderful high tech devices that can really enhance the quality of our family life. In the short video below, you can see just a few of the amazing things Alexa can do for you – with just voice controls!
The Echo Dot offers a cheaper option than Amazon Echo
Amazon introduced Echo Dot to extend Amazon Echo beyond your kitchen or living room. We live in a small condo, and Alexa (aka the Amazon Echo) can hear us in the entire open plan kitchen/office/living room area. However, from our bedroom we have to use the Amazon Echo remote control (basically you talk to the remote control instead of talking to Alexa direct). The idea of the Echo Dot is that you have one in each bedroom, so you don’t have to find the remote control. The Echo Dot relays the message to the Amazon Echo.
The Echo Dot is a tiny little thing, scarcely noticeable in a room. As with the Amazon Echo, there are a whole range of “skins” you can buy to make it blend into your decor better. These are also designed to protect the device.
However, the great thing is that the Echo Dot costs a third of the price of the Amazon Echo, but you can use it as a standalone. It is basically the smart speaker without the speaker! It can do everything the Amazon Echo can do – except play music. To stream music or listen to Alexa’s responses, you have to use a cord or Bluetooth to connect the Echo Dot to a speaker. That also means you have to leave your speaker on all the time. However, it works, and it is a much cheaper way to experiment with the amazing voice-control features of Amazon Echo. And of course, a really great, extremely affordable gift idea.
Bottom line on the Echo Dot as a gift
The Echo Dot would be an excellent gift for just about anyone – even if they have never heard of it. Almost everyone who gets an Amazon Echo reacts the way that we did – it’s the best item we didn’t know we needed! The Echo Dot puts the same technology in your hands (or the hands of the lucky person you give it to) for a fraction of the price. And for about $50 for some of the most impressive technology I have ever seen in my life, you really can’t go wrong! When we first switched on our Amazon Echo, my teenage daughter, my wife, and I all instantly fell in love with Alexa’s amazing technology – and had tons of fun. Echo Dot gives you all that for much less money, provided of course you already own a speaker.