The internet of things isn’t just about home appliances: A growing number of connected things are designed to be carried in your pocket, in your car on your wrist and even on your dog’s collar. There’s no common theme that draws all of these gadgets together, except that they’re helping us impose our digital lifestyle onto a formerly analog and unconnected world.
A handy USB stick can turn any dumb TV into your own personal multimedia entertainment system. An activity tracker can not only trace your steps but also turn your home’s lights on. And a set of sensor blocks can turn ordinary LEGOs into a sensor-filled interactive playscape.
We’ve selected five devices we think would make compelling gifts this holiday season. These aren’t just for tech-geeks in your life. We think they’ll appeal across a broad base of users, from gym rats and dog lovers to auto enthusiasts and your kids.
$99.95, available through Whistle for pre-order (shipping before Christmas)
There is every manner of gadget for quantifying our own activity. It was only a matter of time before devices emerged that quantified our pets. As I wrote in my review of Whistle, the device today is designed to do a few things, but it does those things very well. Its three-axis accelerometer feeds a constant stream of data to your smartphone and the cloud through its Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios. Whistle then presents that data on an activity graph in your iPhone (Android support is coming next spring), and parses the information into walks, playtime, general activity and rest.
But Whistle does more than just serve up raw doggy data. Its app lets you set up daily goals, tracks historical how often your mutts meet those goals and compares their activity to dogs of similar breeds. The app also has social networking features that lets family members comment on and share photos of your dogs’ daily activities. — Kevin Fitchard
Automatic Labs’ automotive appliance Link won’t imbue your old Dodge with a vehicle-nav system or connect it to internet radio, but it will link your car’s embedded computer to your iPhone (An Android beta app will be available in December).
Billed as a smart driving assistant, Link plugs into a car’s OBD-II port — a standard feature in almost every car built after 1996 — and connects to your iPhone via Bluetooth. It maps every drive you take, and it rates your driving by the number of times you hit the brakes too hard, accelerate too fast or go over 70 mph on the highway. Finally Link has a direct line into you car’s diagnostic system: if your “check engine” idiot light comes on, it will tell you exactly what’s wrong.
Automatic’s service will ultimately become more useful as it adds more features, but it’s a very useful way of tracking where and how you drive – or where and how your teenage son drives – and depending how receptive you are to its feedback, it might actually make you a better driver. — Kevin Fitchard
$149.95 available on Jawbone’s website
If you’re looking to get fit for the new year, a wearable activity tracker is a good place to start. Lately I’ve enjoyed wearing the Jawbone UP24. It’s a relatively stylish wristband that tracks your motion and sleep and syncs that information with your iOS device.
All of the information the band tracks is displayed through the Jawbone UP app on your connected device. Here you’ll see how much you slept the night before, including how long it took you to fall asleep, how many times you woke up, and how long you were in light and deep sleep cycles. Even more helpful (to me, at least) is the motion tracking information. The UP24 tracks every step you take, so whenever you open the app you’ll see how much you’ve moved that day so far. And like a good trainer, the Jawbone app encourages you to go that extra mile when you’re almost there, sending push notifications when you only have a thousand steps left to go, or congratulating you for hitting a three-day streak.
There are some cool connected tie-ins as well. You can link the band with IFTT, for instance. And if you have some Philips Hue bulbs installed in your home, you can create a recipe that turns on the lights when you wake up. Or you can set a light to blink at any point during the day when you haven’t moved at least once in an hour. There are plenty of possibilities, but the end goal is simple – helping you stay fit as seamlessly as possible. — Alex Colon
Atoms are connected building toys that started shipping this month. The basic idea is that kids can use Atoms to add cool effects to their play — so you can make a robot that reacts to your voice or a gun that shoots “lasers.”
Kids get a package of sensors that track inputs like light, sound, infrared and output sensors that can make a light flash, or gears move or a box to spring open and a play kit. From that, they build the kit or add Atoms to their own creations. The sensors are durable and work with LEGOs. — Stacey Higginbotham
$35 available at Best Buy, Staples, Amazon.com and other online retailers
Chromecast is a simple adapter that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port to bring online video to the living room: Users can stream Netfix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, HBO Go and Pandora as well as other Google services straight to the TV.
The best thing about Chromecast is that it takes clunky remote controls out of the picture. All you need to stream video is an iPhone, iPad or Android smart phone or tablet. A Chrome browser extension can be used to mirror content from your computer. Think slideshow of the latest vacation pictures, work presentation and more.
There are plenty of devices that stream Netflix, but the simplicity of Chromecast is hard to beat – and the price is right to make it a great stocking stuffer. — Janko Roettgers