It’s late. Or early, depending how you look at it. It’s edging up on two o’clock in the morning and I’m just now finally getting ready to close my laptop and my eyes for a few hours after three days of non-stop TV appearances in three different time zones across the country. It’s that time of year, when I offer up gadget gift guides far and wide, delivering advice on what to buy for every budget and everyone in the family. As soon as I finish this round of deadlines, it will be time to reflect over tech trends of the year past, and take a turn with the crystal-ball forecast of what’s in store for innovations next year. And somewhere, in the middle of all of this holiday madness, there’s me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want this Christmas. As someone who goes hands-on with just about every tech gadget invented at some point, there’s not a lot that I want for when it comes to “stuff.” I, like so many super hard working moms (and dads) I know, would give just about anything for more time in the day, more moments of peace and pure bliss with my daughter and husband. More quiet, disconnected hours. A real vacation. But this year, there’s something I actually want to do for myself. It’s something that I’ve put on the bottom of my bucket list for too many years to count. I want to fix my teeth.
My bottom teeth are crowded in the front and they’ve ached for a good 20-years (about the time I stopped wearing my retainers from my high school metal-mouth braces). They’re not crazy crooked, and because of that, I’ve actually felt self-conscious and guilty about getting them fixed. I’ve also never been able to swallow the idea of spending $3,000-$5,000 on myself for something that isn’t life threatening. I’m sure a lot of moms feel this way. There’s college to pay for afterall, how could I spend so much on myself?
I did a story that included Invisalign* clear aligners as a high-tech alternative to traditional braces last fall, and they’ve been there in the back of my mind ever since. Many insurance plans pay around 50% of the cost. I can use my flexible spending health savings accounts for Invisalign treatment, and make my money go farther with pre-tax dollars. I even found a local orthodontist that offers financing for around $100 per month. Hmmmm. Why not wear a set of nearly-invisible braces for a few months? The trays are clear, would slip right over my teeth, and fix up the trouble in no time. Why not?
It sounds crazy, but I would love to start another year rocking a sparkling straight smile with teeth that don’t ache so often. So the next time I file a selfie-blog post like this one, all tired and all … hopefully I’ll be updating you on my newest review: Invisalign clear aligners.
*Disclosure: I’ve partnered up with Invisalign clear aligners brand, but all opinions expressed in this article are my own.
These lined, down ear muffs have built in QuantumSound headphones. Great look and great sound, all while keeping your ears toasty warm. Fits comfortably over your ears and can be worn with other hats, glasses, helmets, you name it, and they collapse for easy storage on the go.
This red plaid 100% fleece blanket covers two people, plugs into your car charger, has automatic temperature controls, and has an automatically safety gauge to turn off after 30 – 45min. Great for cuddling in or outside of your car. The cord is even long enough to reach all the way back to the tailgate.
7. Sunpentown Portable Handheld Electric Warmer ($61.00)
This palm-sized heating gadget can heat up to 113 degrees for up to 10 hours. You can adjust it to be warm or hot. You just plug it in and charge it up – it stays hot for 7-10 hours. Comes in three colors, black, white, and pink. You can recharge the lithium-ion batteries about 500-times. You can also plug it into AC or USB to power it up. Recharges in about 5-hours.
This is a rechargeable heated fleece scarf with up to six hours of cozy warmth at the collar. Flexible, ultrathin material. A controller at one end of the scarf lets you adjust the temperature to one of three heat settings. Recharges in two hours via AC adapter.
This plush microfleece beanie stays toasty warm for about five hours. LED lights let you know whether temperature is at low, medium or high, and you can adjust the heat even with gloves on. Recharges in two hours via AC adapter.
These are no ordinary track pants – these Arctix Tailgate Pants are loaded with everything you could need at the game to keep you warm and then some: there’s a keychain clip, bottle opener, and even a hidden beverage holster. They’re also waterproof, windproof, and stainproof.
The material is meant to be comfortable while keeping you warm and away from the elements.
You pick your team and they come decked out with a design striping down the side to let everybody know who you’re rooting for.
The Selk’bag is an ultra-warm sleeping bag that you wear like a snowsuit. This Lite version is good down to 45 degrees Fahrenheit on it’s own (not including whatever you’re wearing underneath), has reinforced nylon soles so you can walk around in it and lateral grips that give traction on ice and snow. You can wear it, sleep in it, stay totally warm in it – as it keeps out snow, rain, and even icy wind.
MeetBall is a free mobile app that lets you privately share your location with friends, so that you can all find each other in a sea of people at your next tailgate or big game. You “throw” a MeetBall to your friends, they get your invitation individually and can navigate right to you with a built-in compass. Originally created to help sports fans navigate the crowd and quickly locate their friends, MeetBall gives you everything you need to make meeting up with your friends as easy and quick as a few taps.
The Pit Pal App can make you the boss of the barbecue. Every time you grill, you log the important details: The tailgate description, temperature, wood type, charcoal, location … weather. You also tell it what kind of meat, type of cut, weight, price, sauce, rub, mop and more. Then every time you cook, Pit Pal BBQ calculates the necessary cook time, temperature, and other nuances to help you win the grilling game. With the Pit Pal BBQ app, the perfect brisket or barbecue is just a few clicks away.
I have a confession. I’m a little bit addicted to this year’s top tech toys for kids. And by a “little bit,” I really mean: “completely and totally and it might be time for an intervention.” This year, the best of the bunch lands smack-dab in the center of the modern toy-trifecta, blending the best of online activity with real hands-on play. Here are my very favorites:
Activision Skylanders Trap Team
A few years ago nobody knew what “Skylanders” were, but it took all of about one hot second for these colorful figurines to become one of the best-selling brands for kids nationwide. Kids collect the Skylanders action figures, set them on the glowing portal, and watch as the character magically appears in the Skylanders video game. It basically brings toys to life … or life to toys. Either way, it’s super cool.
Skylanders Trap Team ($74.99) is the fourth installment of the fantastical franchise, and the first to work with a tablet. You trap villains in the “Traptanium” and then use them to help you fight against the evil Kaos. This is an insanely fun toy/game and my daughter literally has to pry the controller from my cold, cramped hands. I just love this new game, and chances are both you and your kids will too. And since it’s on a tablet, parents, you can have the TV back. Bonus.
Let’s be honest, even your youngest kids spend as much time on a tablet as you do, so you might as well combine the digital games they love with real puzzle pieces, word games, and drawings that build skills they can use for life. Osmo ($79) lets you do just that. Just slide your tablet into the Osmo base unit, snap the reflector onto the camera, and watch as the games they play with their hands appear magically on the tablet screen. Sure, it’s kind of like tricking them into playing with real toys for a change, but there’s no harm in that, right?
Sony PlayStation 4
Gaming bundles are great deals right now, and this one is one of my favorites. The PlayStation 4 Limited Edition Destiny Bundle in Glacier White ($449) combines the most powerful game console currently available, with a #1 best-selling game. Add to that a whole bunch of extras like multiplayer maps, strike missions and exclusive content, and you have a tough-to-beat deal.
Legos have come a long way since the days when they were just a bucket of brightly colored blocks. LEGO Technic sets (starting at $39) let kids create some amazingly intricate wheeled thingamajiggy’s, complete with moving parts, and they bring a tablet along for the ride. Every Technic set includes a digital build guide with 3D models of every single brick, showing where it goes and how to place it perfectly. It turns the actual building into a game itself, and it’s the perfect gift for the creative kid on your list.
Building isn’t just for boys, and GoldieBlox turns those tired old gender roles completely on their head. GoldieBlox kits encourage young girls to build, experiment and create all kinds of amazing things. The Movie Machine kit ($29) is my favorite — it teaches kids how to shoot their own movie using the GoldieBlox tablet app. They can draw their own animations and merge it all into their very own short film.
Kids of all ages love video games, but most parents worry their youngsters will turn into tuned out little thumb-twitchers who forget to get off the couch for days at a time. LeapFrog’s LeapTV is a game system ($149) specifically made for kids ages 3 to 8 that’s leading the charge on another major new trend of toys that focus on physical activity and healthy lifestyle. With this game, kids engage in a bunch of fun, active games such as Disney adventures, super hero crime fighting, sports and dance.
Last fall, I went to LeapFrog Enterprises‘ Emeryville, Calif., headquarters to get a rare, behind-the-curtain glimpse into how this particular toy and the LeapBand (more about it below), were made and molded, in large part by the brutally honest feedback of preschool product testers. The result of this painstaking attention to what’s actually important for kids is a tech toy that really does keep them off the couch and moving. The LeapTV controller is super easy to use and fits even the smallest hands, and you don’t need to worry about “mature” games sneaking in under the radar, as all of the LeapTV’s games are approved for young players.
I know you normally think of those aluminum kick scooters when you think of Razor, but the electric models are really where it’s at. The E200 ($199) — or E300 ($399) if you need some additional stability and muscle — are perfect for quick trips to the corner store or your kids’ short zip over to a friend’s house without wasting precious gas. They can hit speeds of up to 15 mph and can speed along for up to 40 minutes before needing a recharge. And don’t kid yourself, they’re just plain fun to ride, too. Of all the gadgets that come through our home throughout the year, this is my own daughter’s favorite. Just be sure to get your kids a helmet for this one, as a new study shows scooters leading the toy-injury pack.
There’s no getting around it: Kids absolutely love tablets. The games, the touchscreen and the compact design makes them super addictive, but sometimes they’re a little too intense. There are several kid-friendly tablet options out there that are easy on the eyes and the wallet. There’s the VTech InnoTab ($59) for the very young, the Nabi Jr.($99) for the preteens, and the Kindle HD Kids Edition ($149) for the ones old enough to be trusted online.
Ok, I confess: This one is partly for your kids and partly for you, the parents. The Toymail Mailmen ($59) are super cute, super durable characters your kids can play with all day long, but they have a secret. These quirky toys are actually Wi-Fi walkie talkies that you can use to check in with your youngsters wherever in the house — or world — they might be. The adult can use an app on their smartphone, and kids get the message through the toy right away. It’s a pretty sweet way to keep in touch and the kids can even reply right from the toy itself.
Bands for kids
Kids love to mimic everything their parents are doing, and since smartwatches and fitness bands are about to take over your own wrist it’s only a matter of time before the same happens to your children. The Leapfrog Leap Band ($29) is all about activity, and encourages kids to get up and play in an active way, and the VTech Kidizoom smartwatch ($49) is a durable wrist gadget with built-in games, a voice recorder and even a camera. Wait a second, that thing is more impressive than my watch!
With this many great gadgets made with kids in mind your biggest challenge might be trying to keep from buying something for yourself. Don’t worry, if the temptation is too much you’re secret is safe with me.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY’s digital video show TECH NOW. E-mail her firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferJolly.