Gifts for smart home enthusiasts
It's crazy that smartphones and social media apps get all the press. If you really want to explore cutting-edge tech, you'll look into smart home gadgets, which deliver surprise, delight, and utility in spades.
In the following slides, we showcase our favorite digital assistants, security cameras, smart light bulbs, and home entertainment products. Very few of these products could be described as inexpensive, and none of them are perfect 10s. But we've tested every last one of them, and they each have a special place in our homes.
Google Home is a Wi-Fi-connected speaker that’s powered by Google Assistant, the same almost-all-knowing digital assistant that runs the show on Google’s Pixel phones. With a user interface driven entirely by voice prompts, Google Home ($129 on the Google Store) can tell you about traffic and weather conditions, the latest news headlines and sports scores, and thousands of other informational tidbits. Basically, if a factoid is available via Google Search, there’s a good chance Google Home can find it, and read it back to you.
Google Home also lets you control other gadgets with voice commands. The list of supported devices is currently short, but includes the Nest Thermostat, Philips Hue smart bulbs and Google Chromecast. The little speaker also streams music from Spotify, Pandora, and Google Music, as well as internet radio via TuneIn.
Relative to the Amazon Echo, its direct competitor, we think Google Home looks better, has a better-sounding speaker, and is powered by a more intelligent digital assistant. Indeed, Google Home even has a remarkably accurate language translation engine. Overall, Google Home is the best overall Wi-Fi-connected speaker, but the Amazon Echo can’t be beat for its support of other smart home gadgets.
Our review of Google Home ran in early November.
Amazon Echo and Echo Dot
Without the Amazon Echo, Google would never have had a gadget to copy and improve upon. Running Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant, the Echo pretty much does all the same tricks that Google Home can do, although its search intelligence isn’t as smart (Amazon taps Microsoft's Bing search engine for that). We also think the Echo’s column-style design looks outdated, and we’ve found its speaker distorts at high volumes.
Nonetheless, the Echo currently has much better third-party support than Google Home (you can read all about Echo compatibility here), and is also complemented by sibling products, including the awesome 2nd-generation Echo Dot.
In fact, we’d argue the Echo Dot, at $50, is a better value than the $180 Echo. You can deploy a bunch of Dots throughout a sprawling house to control smart gadgets and Wi-Fi-connected speakers in every room. Just don’t expect good sound quality from the Dots. Their tiny speakers are fine for reading news reports, but don’t have the dynamic range for anything approaching acceptable music playback (plug powered speakers into the Dot if you want to listen to music).
Netatmo Presence outdoor security camera
At $300 the Netatmo Presence isn’t cheap, but it’s still one of our favorite home security products. This 1080p camera is relatively easy to install, and thanks to a powerful, dimmable LED floodlight, it can replace your existing porch light.
Unlike other Wi-Fi-connected security cameras, the Presence stores its video locally on a microSD card instead of in the cloud. The upshot is that while you can still stream camera action to your smartphone, you won’t have to pay for subscription fees. You can even set the Presence to automatically back up video to your Dropbox account or NAS box.
There’s a lot to like about the Netatmo Presence, but if you’re looking for something different, check out our security camera roundup.
Our review of the Netatmo Presence ran in early November.
Nest Cam indoor security camera
The Nest Cam isn’t just one of the best indoor security cams—it’s one of the best smart home products, period. This Wi-Fi-connected camera can stream 1080p video to your phone or computer; boasts a 130-degree field of view, night vision and motion alerts; and lets you retrieve video from the cloud (assuming you pay for cloud subscription fees).
Set-up is remarkably easy, making the $200 Nest Cam a great gift for tech-challenged relatives. And, hey, even if you’re not interested in capturing video of crooks stealing your TV, you can still access cloud recording to see your cat knocking over that prized glass vase.
We reviewed the Nest Cam in November, 2015.
Ring Video Doorbell
The Ring Video Doorbell is a cloud-connected doorbell camera that connects directly to a smartphone app, letting you see who’s at the door—whether you’re at home, or a 1000 miles away. The upshot is that when that bad guy rings your doorbell to see if anyone’s home, you can see him on a live video feed, and tell him to scram. And for all he knows, you’re talking to him from inside the house.
You’ll need strong Wi-Fi reaching your home’s entryway. My Wi-Fi is relatively weak, so I’ve had my share of connectivity problems. Nonetheless, I’d never give up the $200 Ring. It’s easy to install, and can run on battery power, so hardwiring isn’t necessary. I also love how Ring provides motion alerts whenever someone merely approaches the door. This way, I can see when my dog walker has arrived—and he never even needs to ring the bell. You’ll need to pay $30 annual subscription fees to access video from the cloud, but that’s a small price to pay for what could very well become useful video evidence.
We reviewed the Ring Video Doorbell in August 2015.
Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Kit
Smart light bulbs can make a big impact very quickly, and Philips makes one of the best smart bulb systems around. For $180, this kit includes three color LED smart bulbs (which can be adjusted to shine in all colors of the rainbow, plus variations of white) and the Philips Hue Bridge, which can connect up to 50 bulbs to the Philips Hue mobile app.
So why buy a Hue smart bulb? For starters, you can precisely define the color and brightness of the bulbs on your smartphone. You can also schedule the lights to turn on and off at certain times, and even activate the lights with voice commands via Amazon’s Alexa platform or Google Home. But of course, you’ll need to supply your own lamp—the Maria Berntsen glass lamp shown here is sold very much separately.
We reviewed the Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Kit in mid October.
At just $60, the iDevices Socket is a relatively inexpensive path to smart lighting. Instead of building smart features directly into a bulb (the bulb here is just for illustrative purposes), iDevices puts all of its intelligence directly into a socket, which in turn plugs into your lamps and lighting fixtures.
The iDevices Socket works with standard Edison bulbs up to 60 watts. Using a smartphone app, you can turn bulbs on and off, set schedules, and dim the lights (assuming your bulb is dimmable). The socket can also respond to Siri and Amazon Alexa voice commands, and there’s an independent LED light ring on top that can be customized for different nightlight colors. We haven’t yet reviewed the iDevices Socket, but we’re using it already and really like what we see.
Amazon Fire TV
Every cord-cutting enthusiast has different platform preferences—so we’re going to recommend two different video streaming devices for two different users. The $90 Amazon Fire TV 4K is the box to buy for folks who already have an Amazon Prime subscription, and make heavy use of Amazon Prime video, particularly its 4K content.
The Fire TV interface is fast, and its remote control can summon Amazon's Alexa digital assistant. And of course, the Fire TV supports a ton of third-party services. If you’re buying a streaming video box for a Transparent fan who owns an Amazon Echo, this is the one you’ll want.
Google Chromecast Ultra
The Chromecast has always been a key tool in the cord cutter’s arsenal, and the latest Chromecast Ultra adds 4K support and speeds up load-time performance. At $69, it’s not worth buying if your loved one already has an earlier Chromecast version and a 1080p television. However, if that person doesn’t have any video streaming device, and is a proud Android phone user, the Chromecast Ultra makes sense.
The tiny Chromecast dongle plugs directly into a free HDMI port on your TV. From there, you use your smartphone (iPhone users are welcome too) to find and control content from a wide variety of streaming TV services, including Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and HBO. But where the Fire TV highlights Amazon Prime, you won’t find any Amazon content available on Chromecast. Still, the Chromecast Ultra is a great vehicle for getting 4K video from Netflix, YouTube, and Vudu onto your new 4K TV.
We reviewed Chromecast Ultra in November.
Oppo Sonica Wi-Fi Speaker
Bluetooth is a super convenient when friends come over and want to share music from their smartphones. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, delivers way more bandwidth and it doesn’t compress your music as it streams from source to speaker. We dig Oppo’s Sonica Wi-Fi speaker because it supports both wireless technologies. And if you live in an Apple house, the Sonica supports Apple’s AirPlay technology, too.
Unlike most speakers in its $299 price class, the Sonica Wi-Fi uses two discrete Class D amplifiers to drive a pair of 2.5-inch “wideband” drivers, while two additional Class D amps power the 3.5-inch woofer mounted between them. A pair of passive radiators on the speaker cabinet’s left and right endcaps add to this speaker’s copious low-end thump.
You know we wouldn’t recommend this speaker if it didn’t bring joy to our ears. Whether it's the soaring vocals of an Adele anthem or the glorious majesty of a Mahler symphony, the Oppo Sonica Wi-Fi delivers music with spectacular fidelity.
We reviewed the Oppo Sonica Wi-Fi in late October.
Nest Protect smart smoke and carbon monoxide alarm
A combo smoke alarm and carbon monoxide sensor, the $99 Nest Protect removes a bunch of pain points endemic to old-school alarms. For starters, you can silence false positives—like when you overcook that steak—directly from your phone. Your phone will also receive alerts when there’s a problem with the Protect, or when its batteries are running low (no more incessant beeping!). And Nest Protect can also communicate via natural language prompts, voicing “There’s smoke in the kitchen” before the full alarm actually goes off.
Because this Wi-Fi-connected alarm hooks into a mobile app, you can receive alerts anywhere in the world. You can buy either wired or battery-powered versions, and each contains a circular LED light that shines when you walk underneath the Protect at night. We’ve been using the second-generation Nest Protect for months now, and the entire experience has been trouble-free. It’s not a glamorous smart home product, but it really does reinvent a home necessity.