Amazon Fire HD 8 ($90 at Amazon) I have a longstanding antipathy toward the Fire ecosystem because it forces you to shop only through Amazon for your entertainment media. I am making an exception for the Fire HD 8 because it represents a great value and it is easily jailbroken so that the Google Play services can be added. After all, a tablet without Gmail, Google Maps, etc. Is little more than a paperweight. For the person with more hacking skills than $$$, this just might be your tablet.
Acer Chromebook R13 with Android apps ($400 at Best Buy). There are still some niches that Chrome OS cannot adequately address – no desktop version of Lightroom or Photoshop, no powerful video editing. Even with its Android apps, you often are getting versions of desktop apps that are hamstrung. But for everyone in my family except myself (serious photography) and my son (a professional game programmer), Chrome is the way to go. Just be sure to get a laptop that is compatible with the Google Play Store like this one. It flips over for use like a tablet, has a serviceable keyboard, and a touch screen. The HDMI, microSD, USB 3.0 (2X), and audio ports make the connectivity on this thing rival a MacBook “Pro”. Although limited to a paltry 32 GB SSD, at least you can expand that with a microSD card. If you use software that requires Windows or MacOS, you know who you are. But otherwise, you should really give the Acer Chromebook R 13 a hard look. If you already live in the Chrome browser on your current device, the transition will be as easy as falling off of a log.
Lenovo Yoga Book ($550 for the Windows version from Lenovo) Unlike the much more expensive iPad Pro, the Yoga Book includes a pen, a Halo keyboard, and a Wacom-powered digital drawing pad. It can even run desktop software at full strength. Unlike an iPad Pro, this tablet starts with a 64 GB SSD and has a microSD slot to add an option 128 GB more. Closed, it is a slim 9.6 mm thin and weighs a mere 52 lbs (690 g). To be fair, typing on the Halo keyboard is pretty much like typing on a screen, but having the keyboard off the screen leaves your display fully visible as your type. As tablets and computers have become more and more blasé, the Yoga Book grabs our attention with real creativity. If you’re a digital artist or college student, this is your throw-it-in-my-bag-and-go device.
360fly 4K Action Camera ($500 from 360fly) Once you’ve experienced 360 degree video it is very difficult to be content with merely shooting 4K. Don’t expect professional results – those systems can run as much as $9,000. There will be a little purple fringing and softness. But the overall result is just so much more immersive than any conventional video you can shoot. The prospect of shooting with the 360fly really stirs my creative juices.
Yuneec Breeze Drone ($400 from the Yuneec Store) You don’t have a drone, yet? Well, get on that before the air is more crowded with drones than mosquitos. Drone enthusiasts with money to burn are more likely to get a DJI Phantom 4 Pro or some other over-$1000 drone. But for those of us who want to take some fun aerial selfies, there is this year’s unique Yuneec Breeze. It shoots 13 MP stills or 4K video and live streams 720p back to your mobile device. It has a Follow Me mode that makes a GoPro just seem a little pathetic. There’s no camera gimbal or object avoidance, but then again you don’t have to decide between buying this or buying a car.
Google Home ($129 from the Google Store) Let’s face it. Google Home is late to the starting line. Echo has been out for a couple of years and just does a stellar job. But if all you want is to play music and have a smart voice-activated assistant, you won’t go wrong with the newer, less expensive Google Home. Google Assistant just knows more than my gal Alexa. Alexa has far more skills than this Google Home upstart. But Google Home can voice control select apps on your Google Cast which is way cool. If you have more than one, you’ve got the option to have all of them playing the same music together. I’m all in on the Echo ecosystem, but if I was just starting out, I’d bring Google Home home.
Daydream VR ($79 from the Google Store) On the low-resolution Pixel, VR suffers from a marked screen door effect while watching videos. For some reason the games looked much better. But when I watched the YouTube VR video from School of Rock: You’re in the Band my mind was blown. Google Streetview VR was likewise impressive. I went down alleys in Paris and finally got to see London. The included hand controller was very good. Some of the few games were a bit buggy, like VR Karts, rendering it almost impossible to control my Kart. Another one made it possible to fly my starfighter between mountains pretty effortlessly. Of course, it is no Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but then again it doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars. This is a great value.
Pixel and Pixel XL (available from the Google Store) Every flagship phone is great these days. But I traded in my iPhone 7 for a Pixel because after having the power and flexibility of Android, iOS was a yawn. And Siri-smeery. That poor girl has nothing on Google Assistant. I also missed things like seeing my step count in a widget and arranging icons on a page where I wanted them to go. The Pixels aren’t exactly stunning in appearance, but since I put a case on it, it really doesn’t matter, because it looks fine now. But what I love about my Pixel is that it is just so fast. There is no waiting or stuttering unless I’m having a problem with my internet. The operation of this phone is plain slick. The pixel density is a bit low for use with VR on the Pixel, but I understand the XL handles it quite well.
Over the Top “Cable” 2016 was the year I gave up my DVR and moved to streaming my TV shows. I tried Sling, PS Vue, and DirecTV Now. I’ll take any one of these over my cable service which also required that I rent their equipment. I finally settled on the DirecTV Now “Go Big” package, locking in its introductory rate and scoring a free Apple TV. We’ll have to see whether net neutrality is repealed under the new government. If it is, expect OTT provider costs to skyrocket and competition to die. But 2016 was gloriously liberating as competition finally came to television service providers.
Amazon Echo Dot ($50 at Amazon) In March of this year, Amazon offered a less expensive version of their Echo. The Dot lacks the Echo’s larger speaker and larger price tag. The speaker it comes with works perfectly well and it is every bit as smart as its larger sibling. (It can be paired with a Bluetooth speaker when louder, better music is desired.) I use it to listen to the music to which I fall asleep, tell me the weather and customized news topics for the day, control the thermostat and the TV (paired with a Logitech Hub). The $50 Dot might just be the best value in the Internet of Things. The hope for all technology is that it will actually make our lives better. I believe that having an Echo Dot will enhance the quality of your daily life. The low cost of entry democratizes the smart home assistant in a way that pretty much any one can enjoy its benefit.