When it comes to amazing and delighting young family members, it's hard to top an electronic toy. With holiday shopping in full swing, we picked seven cool gifts that feature some surprisingly sophisticated technology—the kind that’s transforming our world—and yet, each one somehow manages to make that tech instructional, easy to master, and, yes, fun. Of course, many of these tech gifts require apps, which means you should be prepared to hand over your tablet and smartphone for the holidays.
Sphero BB-8, $150 (age 8+)
Based on the heroic droid in the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie, this app-controlled tech gift was the big hit at our annual party for pint-sized testers. It instantly drew kids in with its chirps and beeps and LED-infused glow—not to mention the marvelous, head-scratching way that its head remains firmly perched atop its rolling-orb body. (Hint: magnets.)
Beneath all that charm, though, there’s some fairly advanced technology, including an inductive charging system and an internal guidance system governed by a gyroscope and an accelerometer. But you don’t need to know anything about that stuff to operate it. You just need to download the app and swipe your finger across the virtual joystick on the screen of a Bluetooth-enabled phone or tablet.
Little Live Pets CleverKeet, $60 (age 5+)
If you know a child who likes feathered-friends, this parakeet makes for a charming companion. It talks, sings, dances, swings, and drives its own plastic cart. It’s also billed as an interactive toy. What does that mean? Well, the CleverKeet asks questions. It records words and phrases it hears and, yes, parrots them back to you. And it has sensors on its chest, back, and feet that initiate responses when touched or engaged. It does take a little muscle to attach and detach the feet from the various perches, though.
Osmo Numbers, $30 (age 6+)
In our view, any game that teaches math skills without feeling like homework deserves extra credit and this one earns that distinction.
Part of the Osmo Gaming System (sold separately for $80), Osmo Numbers uses a little red mirror that clips over the camera on an iPad to scan numbered tiles placed on a tabletop in front of the device. Numbered bubbles on the screen encourage kids to add by placing tiles side by side, subtract by taking tiles away, and multiply by linking tiles together. When a child settles on the correct answer, the bubbles pop, freeing a cartoon fish or token.
The game has multiple levels and numerous solutions to each task, but, thankfully, no time constraints. Why pressure kids when they’re having fun?
Crayola Color Alive Easy Animation Studio, $25 (age 6+)
This tech gift is designed to appeal to the budding filmmaker in your family. It comes with 12 colored pencils, a booklet featuring 10 characters, and a small plastic mannequin you can use to bring those characters to life. Once you color in the superhero, for example, you can scan it into a tablet (iOS or Android) and, using a free app, direct it through a series of pre-programmed moves, adding short snippets of dialogue to create a story.
That part works okay. But you can also place the mannequin in a series of poses, snap them with the tablet’s camera, and the toy’s app is supposed to fill in the stop-motion gaps for “ultra-smooth life-like motion.” But our pirate’s beard somehow slid down his neck and his right arm mysteriously morphed right through his upper body—which is not exactly the sort of production quality a young Spielberg would accept. More disheartening still, the app often crashed when we tried to re-edit videos.
Kano Computer Kit, $150 (age 6+)
This kit won’t appeal to the diehard gamer set, but for 6- to 10-year olds fascinated by how things work—and DIY-happy moms and dads—the Kano is a great way to learn the fundamentals of computer science. Powered by a Raspberry Pi 2 processing unit, it takes roughly 20 minutes to assemble and includes WiFi and a touchpad-enabled keyboard. The open-source operating system invites safe exploration in a contained environment.
PowerUp 3.0, $50 (age 14+)
Flying paper airplanes is always fun, but this gadget literally takes it to a whole new level.
Armed with the PowerUp’s mini motor and app, you can pilot your new craft by remote control, adjusting the speed of the propeller and the rudder via a Bluetooth-Smart-connected smartphone or tablet (iOS or Android). The kit comes with paper templates, a micro-USB cable for charging, and a spare rudder and propeller.
Because the craft can be controlled from up to 180-feet away and it takes a hearty throw to get it airborne, you’re better off using it in a wide-open space, preferably with little wind. Our indoor flights tended to end quickly—with a crash.
If you're concerned about safety, the rotors on the PowerUp 3.0 and the SKEYE Pico Drone below are not large enough or powerful enough to break the skin or cause serious pain. They can potentially get tangled up in hair, though. And both of these tech gifts move fast so take precautions to keep them from flying into someone's eyes.
SKEYE Pico Drone, $45 (age 14+)
Billed as the world’s smallest drone, this aircraft is less than an inch square and weighs only a quarter of an ounce. But don’t let the tiny size throw you off.
The four rotors and six-axis flight control system allow you to perform some expert maneuvers, including hovering, flipping, spinning and diving. It takes some patience to master the controls, though, so you should probably reserve this gift for teens or flight-happy grown-ups. Once again, you'll want to use it in a wide-open space, at least until you earn your wings. If you’re indoors, we recommend high ceilings, too. And it’s a good idea to buy extra rotors.
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