Gone are the days when a spinning top or wind-up car were the pinnacle of toy technology. Nowadays kids expect their toys to connect to the internet, pair with smart devices, and let them join in the latest tech trends, often before their parents. To help you (and Santa) keep up, here's Gizmag's guide to the 11 best tech toys which are expected to be hits this Christmas.
We've selected our pick of the best toys which are likely to be mentioned in letters to Santa. In each case we've tried to give you an idea of what age children they would be suitable for, how much they cost, and what other devices, if any, you need to use them.
While Scalextric will always have a place in our hearts (and our spare rooms), the connectivity, smart game features and slotless cars of Anki Overdrive look set to have the same effect on today's kids. This second-generation kit has a number of improvements over the original, including using a modular track rather than the roll-up mats of its predecessor.
Anki Overdrive is aimed at kids aged seven and over, though we think there will be many a parent who is keen on getting it set up on the living room floor on Christmas morning. Each user will require an Android or iOS smartphone or tablet to control their car. The starter set (track and two cars) will set you back US$150, with additional cars available from $50.
The toys-to-life market has exploded in recent years, and though there are new Skylanders, Disney Infinity and countless of Nintendo's amiibo being released, it looks like this could be the year of Lego Dimensions. Being launched for most recent games consoles, the core game set consists of a toy pad "portal" and buildable Lego minifigures which are placed on it to be used in the game.
As with other Lego video games, it's the franchises represented which are the big draw. For example, pop on figures from TV shows and movies like The Simpsons, Back to the Future or Doctor Who, and you can get playable worlds based on them. The starter pack will cost $80, with fun and level packs coming in at $15-$30. Age-wise, the recommended range is 7-14.
Mattel ViewMaster VR
Last year, early-adopting kids were able to join in the smartwatch craze thanks to devices like the VTech Kiddizoom Smart Watch. This year they can get their VR fix ahead of the curve, with the ViewMaster VR. A modern take on the classic 75-year-old ViewMaster, the new model is a virtual reality viewer which works with your smartphone, much like Google Cardboard.
Users pop their phone (or more likely their parent's phone) into the $30 ViewMaster after installing the companion apps. Different virtual reality experiences can then be accessed via paid-for downloads, or retail reels which use NFC. The ViewMaster VR is intended for kids aged seven and up, and will obviously require a compatible phone to use.
BB-8 by Sphero
We've been fans of Sphero robotic balls since they were launched, they are fun, can be educational … and now have added Star Wars. The Sphero BB-8 is similar to other Sphero robot balls, but this time around it's come dressed as BB-8 from Star Wars - The Force Awakens – complete with a "head" which magically (okay with magnets) balances on the top as the ball spins along.
This BB-8 is controlled via a smartphone running a custom BB-8 app, or via voice commands, such as telling it to patrol the room. As with other Sphero robot balls, this $150 toy isn't going to run as well on carpeted as wooden floors, and requires a compatible iOS or Android smart-device. However, if you can deliver on those fronts, it will give one hour of Star Wars play on a full battery charge, and is great for kids aged seven and up.
The MiPosaur is what you get if you combine the technology behind last year's hit MiP robot, with kids' love of all things dinosaur. The balancing MiPosaur will follow its track ball and respond to gesture controls, or a pull of its tail. You can also control it more precisely via an iOS or Android smartphone app, or use the same app to give it rewards and play games.
Kids aged 6-12 are going to get the most out of the MiPosaur, and because there are things they can do without a smart device, they will still be able to play with it without always depriving you of your phone. The MiPosaur will set you back $85 and runs on AA and AAA batteries, meaning no waiting to play again once the battery is drained.
Osmo has been knocking around for a couple of years now, with its educational games which mix an iPad and physical play in a quite frankly borderline magical way. This year it added a "Numbers" math game where kids can throw little numbered tiles in front of a iPad to answer questions and progress in the game.
We've found Osmo to be a massive hit with youngsters aged 4-12 who would often rather play with it rather than less educational toys and games (score one for parents). Game apps can be downloaded for free and include ones focused on spelling, drawing, maths and physics. However, most require a matching physical playset. A starter kit including the base stand, mirror unit and Words and Tangram physical sets sell for $70, with additional sets like Numbers costing $30.
Meccano is a toy which has inspired generations of engineers, and now it could also have the same result for roboticists. The G15 KS and G15 are a build-your-own robot friend duo which combine classic Meccano and robotic parts. While building the robots is fun in itself, completed bots can then be easily programmed, and controlled by an app, with features like motion capture also able to be activated by using a smartphone. They will also tell jokes, play games and have over 1,000 pre-programmed phrases.
Aimed at children aged 10+ the Meccano Meccanoid comes in two versions, with the $140 G15 measuring 2ft (60 cm) tall and using 600+ pieces, and the $250 G15 KS being 4ft (120 cm) tall and build from 1,100+ parts. Because the Meccanoids can be programmed by simply moving their arms or speaking to them, they don't constantly require a smart-device, though using one will make more advanced features available.
i-Que Intelligent Robot
The i-Que Intelligent Robot follows in the footsteps of last year's My Friend Cayla interactive toy. It connects to the internet via a smart device app and is then able to respond to questions and play games. The bonus of i-Que looking like a robot is that the synthesized voice is a lot less creepy than it was with Cayla.
Costing $100, the i-Que is going to be fun for 6-12 year olds, and runs on AA batteries. He has six points of articulation and motorized movements can see him dance. An iOS or Android device is required for it to recognize your speech or answer questions by searching the internet (with a kid-safe search).
After looking at the best kid's tablets available in 2015, the LeapFrog Epic is our pick for younger children (aged 4-8). With a kid-tough design, a 7-inch screen and an Android-based operating system, the Epic is powerful enough to keep kids happy. Meanwhile, offering a kid-safe environment packed with LeapFrog's educational apps, it will also appeal to grown-ups picking a first tablet for their child.
The LeapFrog Epic costs $140, with apps – including some popular Android titles – available for paid download. If you're looking for an affordable tablet for older kids, you might also want to look at the $100 Fire Kids Edition from Amazon.
Parrot Airborne Night
While you might be hoping someone leaves you DJI's Phantom 3 Drone under the Christmas tree, it's probably overkill as a gift for your younger child. However, there's nothing to stop them joining in the flying fun. The Airborne Night Drone is part of Parrot's mini-drone range and offers a fun and affordable entry to the drone party.
Able to be used indoors or outside, the Airborne Night Drone is controlled via a smartphone app, which also lets you adjust its lights and take (admittedly low-res) aerial photographs. The $100 drone comes in a number of style options and gives 9 minutes of use on each 1-hour recharge.
Dash and Dot
Dash and Dot are great toys to play with, but the robot duo have actually been designed to guide kids through the world of coding and robotics. Using the iOS or Android apps to play with the robots, children will need to use their imagination to solve puzzles while inadvertently learning.
Children aged 8+ are likely to get the most out of Dash and Dot, though that's not to say younger users wouldn't enjoy some of the apps and the ability to connect LEGO, control Dash to play a Xylophone, or have fun with a new projectile-launching accessory. The pair are available individually, but together cost $200.
Summing up …
While we're told Christmas isn't all about technology, it can be a great time to play with and experience some of the latest gadgets. Hopefully this list has helped you identify the ideal tech toy which will get plenty of use, both on Christmas morning and beyond.
Prepared parents should plan ahead by making sure any new tech toys are set up, which could involve pairing with other devices, installing firmware updates, or just loading up on batteries. You might also want to invest in some ear-plugs, since as was the case with last year's list, some of these toys can get quite noisy.