Many tech products launched in 2015 have been described as “smart” but few live up to the hype. In this first part of a personal technology gift guide focused on the home, these present ideas offer a taste of the future we really want: useful, easy and fun. (Prices are guides only).
For kids (and big kids):
Sphero BB-8 Star Wars robot toy ($150/£130)
With the robots indefatigably on the rise, this smartphone-controlled Star Wars spin-off is doing its bit to promote human-machine collaboration.
Sphero, a start-up that has been making friendly droids for five years, joined Lucasfilm parent Disney’s accelerator scheme last year and this charming toy is the result. The personality of BB-8 — an R2-D2 cousin that appears in The Force Awakens movie — really shines through, with its head bobbing around above its wobbling spherical body.
For the restless:
Sense sleep monitor ($129/£85)
Activity-tracking devices such as Fitbit have been able to monitor sleep for a while now, but doing so requires wearing an uncomfortable (and, er, unromantic) wristband. Instead, Sense’s “sleep pill” attaches to your pillow and tells you not just how well you slept but why.
It links to a small sphere that gathers data about light, noise, humidity, temperature and air quality in the bedroom, sending tips to a smartphone app on actions you could take to ensure a better snooze.
For the inquisitive:
Amazon Echo ($180)
If you like having a virtual assistant, Google Now, Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana are a few taps of a smartphone away. But, while testing Amazon’s Echo speaker, a thin black cylinder designed to sit on any flat surface, I called on its virtual assistant Alexa more often than I had expected thanks to its easy, hands-free “call and response” voice control.
Whether checking the weather, sports scores or your own schedule, the Echo is fast and often helpful. Alexa speaks in a more natural, fluent way than its AI peers.
The addition of “smart home” control of lights and switches such as SmartThings and Philips Hue made Echo, available only in the US for now, one of my favourite gadgets this year.
For the lazy:
Philips Hue starter kit ($79/£60)
Few “smart home” devices actually are. Wirelessly operated Hue lightbulbs from Philips have always been a standout but they recently became more affordable with a kit that includes two white bulbs, rather than its fun but slightly pointless colour-changing lights.
Turning several lights on and off in one go is great but doing it with a spoken command — via Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Echo — is almost luxurious. A Hue kit is simple to set up, avoiding Christmas Day headaches so many domestic gadgets can induce.
For the audiophile:
Sonos Play:5 ($499/£429) Subscribers to Spotify or Apple Music are used to being able to play any song in an instant but, with many Bluetooth speakers, such convenience comes at a trade-off with sound quality and connections can often drop out.
The ease and clarity with which Sonos’s new flagship Play:5 speaker streams music will actually make you listen to more of those millions of tracks from the cloud. Its Trueplay system will tune the sound to the speaker’s immediate surroundings, for faithful reproduction even when hidden behind the sofa.
For the TV viewer:
Apple TV and Amazon’s Fire TV offer a more extensive vision for the future of TV, that encompasses not just video and audio but video games and shopping, as well as voice-activated control and search.
But for the price, it is hard to beat Google’s Chromecast. The $35 HDMI dongle turns a smartphone into a remote control, throwing video and audio from the small screen to the big. When testing the recently redesigned Chromecast, I was surprised at how many apps now support it, from Netflix and BBC iPlayer to Spotify and my favourite podcasting app, Pocket Casts.