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David Pogue's 8 great tech gift ideas for 2016

·Tech Critic

Let’s face it. Every year, tech is the No. 1 most desired category of gifts—but the juiciest kinds are expensive. You’re not going to give anyone a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or gaming console unless it’s your kid, parent, or significant other.

What about everyone else? People who deserve your holiday consideration, but don’t quite qualify for the $400 big-ticket item?

That’s where I come in. Once again, I offer you a sleigh full of tech that’s reasonably priced, unexpected, and thoroughly delightful.

Ember Mug ($150)

This thing got its start as an Indigogo campaign. The concept is very simple: It’s a mug that keeps your coffee, tea, soup, or hot chocolate heated precisely to a temperature you specify. The company argues that your drink tastes best when it’s hot, so why not always have it hot?

The sleek, lovely mug can keep the liquid hot for two hours—or, if you set it down on the charger pad/coaster, all day (at your desk, for example).

The Ember mug lets you dial up a temp—and keeps your coffee there.
The Ember mug lets you dial up a temp—and keeps your coffee there.

You dial up the temperature you want by turning the bottom of the mug. A bright digital display indicates your target temp, and whether the mug is heating its contents or letting it cool down.

I especially like the lid. It doesn’t spill no matter what—until you click it. At that point, you can sip it from any side.

Echo Dot ($50)

There’s no dispute that the Amazon (AMZN) Echo makes a great gift. It’s like Siri for the home. It’s designed to hear your voice commands from across the room, and it’s fantastic.

There’s also no dispute that it costs $140. (Actually, it’s normally $180.)

But the Echo Dot is basically the same thing for $50. (Actually $40, if you shop around.)

The only difference is that the Dot is a short stubby cylinder instead of a tall one. Because you don’t have the big cylinder, the sound is a lot tinnier. That’s why Amazon added an audio output, so you can connect it to a bigger sound system if you like.

The Echo Dot costs 1/3 as much as its big brother.
The Echo Dot costs 1/3 as much as its big brother.

Meantime, you get the ability to ask for specific songs or kinds of music; news briefings; weather and stock reports; Uber rides and Domino’s pizza deliveries; jokes; and much more. The music thing alone is a life-changer.

Gekkopod Phone Mount ($15)

Here’s another Kickstarter triumph: the Gekkopod mount. It holds your phone or your GoPro in any position, at any angle. Its five stiff, rubbery, bendable legs can form a tripod, a grabber (of a bar or branch), a selfie stick, a rear-view-mirror holder, or just a propper-upper for your phone while you watch videos.

The Gekkopod holds your phone in any position.
The Gekkopod holds your phone in any position.

(My son has just gotten into stop-motion animation. It would have been much harder to use his phone for that purpose without the Gekkopod.)

Wacom Bamboo Slate ($130)

Sure, sure, you can take your notes on an iPad or something. But lots of people still prefer the portability, non-shatterability, and feel of a real pen on real paper. So Wacom’s come up with the Bamboo Slate.

It’s basically a magic clipboard that holds any pad of normal paper. You take your notes and make your sketches using the included ballpoint pen (whose tip location the software tracks.) When you press a button, boom: Your notes get sent wirelessly to the corresponding app on your phone or tablet, ready to export as standard graphics. (Or, for $3.50 a month, you can get a service that converts your handwriting to text.)

Draw with regular ink on regular paper, press a button to digitize.
Draw with regular ink on regular paper, press a button to digitize.

It’s old tech meets new, available in full-page or half-page sizes.

Ellipse Bike Lock ($200)

You know the keyless entry systems for your car, where it unlocks as you approach? Now you can bring the same kind of joy to your bike lock. The Ellipse lock was a hit on Indiegogo, and now it’s finally here. (It used to have the much cooler name Skylock…not sure why they changed it to Ellipse…)

It’s a solar powered bike lock that pairs with your phone. You can lock/unlock it either by tapping a button in its app, or by punching in a code on the light-up buttons, or, at your option, by turning on proximity unlocking: it unlocks when you approach it!

And get this: If you’re nearby when someone tries to steal your bike, it notices the jiggling and notifies your phone!

The Internet of Things comes to bike locks.
The Internet of Things comes to bike locks.

If you have an accident, you can set it up to notice the fall and auto-notify someone. (The lock and your phone must both register an impact simultaneously.)

Coming soon, we’re told, you’ll be able to permit someone else to lock/unlock the Ellipse, remotely, by sending permission to their smartphone.

And no, you can’t hack or cut this thing. You’d have to cut the chromoly steel in two places.

Cozmo Robot ($180)

Here’s a hot one this holiday season: The Cozmo robot. Clearly inspired by the cute, preverbal robot in “Wall-E,” he’s a little, chattering, personable, moody plastic robot. He explores, he plays, and he plays with you.

He plays games, he sets up and then knocks down his three toy cubes, he recognizes your face, he beeps hilariously when he backs up. You can even drive him around manually like a remote control tank—your phone shows what his cameras are seeing.

Cozmo has an unbelievably rich, childlike personality.
Cozmo has an unbelievably rich, childlike personality.

The company has been steadily adding new games and features over time.

The one disappointment is that your phone must have the Cozmo app open while your robot is active. That is, he won’t just putter around on his own, autonomously.

2.0, maybe.

LG Tone Infinim ($80)

OK, so the iPhone 7 doesn’t have a headphone jack. Apple (AAPL) cheerfully recommends its own Airpods, which are finally shipping after a long, unexplained delay.

The Airpods are great, but people have two huge concerns. First, they’re $160. Second, people worry they’ll fall out of your ears and you’ll lose ‘em.

What people don’t seem to realize is that there are hundreds of other Bluetooth earbuds out there that solve both problems.

Take, for example, the LG Tone Infinim. It sits around your neck like a collar, so you can grab it when you need it for a phone call or something. Obviously, you can run with it and it won’t fall out. It plays for 14 hours on a charge, it vibrates for incoming calls, and best of all—the earbuds are retractable. You pull them out when you need them, and press little buttons to pull them back into the collar. You won’t be able to tangle these cords unless you’re the Incredible Hulk.

Wireless earbuds that you can't lose or tangle.
Wireless earbuds that you can’t lose or tangle.

Motorola VerveLoop+ ($70)

Here’s another example of great Bluetooth earbuds that solve the two Airpod problems. These earbuds are connected, so you won’t lose one if it falls out. They’re also waterproof and less than half the price of Apple’s earbuds.

More earbuds that won't drop out.
More earbuds that won’t drop out.

Happy Hollydays

There you have it, folks—eight ideas for a happy high-tech holiday.

Stay warm!

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. Here’s how to get his columns by email.