By Scott Baughman
It’s Christmas shopping season out there – but is the tech-loving kid in your family making it feel more like the winter of our discontent?
Fear not, your friendly neighborhood geek guru is here to help with your present-buying anxiety.
I’m going to divide this year’s holiday column into age groups.
Young kids: 1-5
When was the last time you took a trip with the kid in your life, what did they constantly ask you? “Do you have any games on your phone?” Yep, even the little ones are savvy enough to want some touchscreen device. Whether it be phone or tablet, these kids want to play games, read or immerse themselves in digital entertainment. While some parents get their kids phones of their own – I don’t think that’s the right play for a gift. You don’t want to be paying a monthly service bill. Instead, get them a tablet. Don’t go crazy and get a $500 iPad Mini 4 for this age. You need something sturdy, simple and most of all kid-friendly with parental controls and a built-in filtering service to protect little ones from accidentally buying up $1,000 worth of digital merchandise with an errant tap or stumbling upon things not meant for young eyes. My top two choices are – The Kindle Fire Kids edition from Amazon or the iPad Mini 2 from Apple. Amazon’s new Fire HD Kids Edition is a 7-inch slate, a new protective bumper and a year’s subscription to Amazon’s FreeTime Unlimited for just $99. FreeTime Unlimited has over 10,000 books, videos, educational apps and games for children. Best of all, a two-year guarantee promises to replace your Fire HD if your child destroys it. And it’s quad-core processor should offer speed and that leads to less whining. Apple’s iPad was the device that defined the category and getting an iPad Mini 2 for about $269 is way cheaper than the current Cadillac model. But you already know what you need to do with the money you’ll save – go buy a sturdy case for this thing before you hand it over to junior. They’ll need it and Apple doesn’t include it.
My tech gift recommendation for them this year encourages them to hold on to their kid identity just a bit longer and encourages that one thing we seem to lose as we age – IMAGINATION! The idea of having “digital toys” is all the rage these days and it combines two things I’m still passionate about; action figures and video games. There are three major players in this arena with a fourth upstart trying to get people’s attention. But the gist of all these digital playground apps is this: We now have toys that you can play with on the kitchen table just like all of us 1980s kids did with our Star Wars figures but that ALSO can show up in a video game! The big three are Skylanders, Disney Infinity, and Nintendo’s Amiibos. Quickly joining them is LEGO Dimensions videogames that take this idea to the next level and let kids build their own real and virtual LEGO creations with those bumpy, colored bricks we’ve all seen. My recommendation is for the simplest of these – the Nintendo Amiibo. The figures are chunky and fun, and their I/O method for the video games doesn’t require any extra hardware. You simply tap the figure’s base onto the WiiU Gamepad and your little buddy appears in your game. Unlike the other digital toys on this list you aren’t limited to just one game. Nintendo has many games that work with Amiibos including Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. Wii U. with more on the way. The best news? These guys are only about $12 a piece!
Teens: 13 – 18
As we get older, our tastes get more expensive. Sure you can plop down $349 for a Playstation 4 (there is a price drop this year!) or Xbox One, but in my estimation what these kids need is a more robust and yet expandable device. Console gaming is so last century. If you’re a teenager today the Internet is basically part of your DNA. New software, new coding, new apps are constantly evolving, so get them something that is just as modular. When I was a lad, having your own desktop that you could tear the case off and tinker with was akin to the 1950s greasers who were constantly ripping the hood off their jalopy in the garage and tweaking the guts of their wannabe hot rod. Both workshop and size are long gone, but the urge to experiment is paramount to the teenager lifestyle. Let’s keep it going in the virtual world with either a Google Chromebook or a Raspberry Pi. Google’s Chromebook is a fully-functioning laptop with Google’s software suite at the heart. But it is also able to be modified a bit with new apps coming from Google all the time. The Chromebook can do everything your laptop or Android tablet does and costs just $299. Trust me, you’ll get way more use out of it than if you spent that money on a console. But do you have a techie teen who REALLY wants a challenge? Get them the Raspberry Pi. At not much larger than a smartphone, it’s the world’s tiniest PC. Now, you can buy a kit that helps the kids learn to assemble tiny hardware themselves AND encourages them to experiment with coding and command-line computer usage for just $70. But be forewarned, this is real frontier computer use – the package includes all the nuts and bolts, but no mouse, no keyboard and most importantly no monitor. In a sign that the more things change, the more they stay the same – the Pi connects to your television via an HDMI cord to use that as your monitor. Also, this is no Windows or even Apple operating system, it runs on the world’s best free OS – Linux. Specifically, it is powered by the Raspberry OS version of Linux but DOES include a Graphical User Interface once the kids learn how to load it and run it. Oh, and it does run Minecraft so they have a game to play on it where they can design their own levels and characters.
These are my recommendations for a happy, geeky Christmas. Until next time…download complete.