The best toys for a tech-filled Christmas 2014
With the big day creeping up all too quickly, Gizmag takes a look at, and plays with, our pick of the tech toys which are set to be big hits this Christmas. With toys like the self-balancing MiP Robot and the interactive My Friend Cayla doll, along with devices including the VTech Innotab Max tablet and LeapTV games console, it appears that Santa is going decidedly high-tech this year.
It's worth stating up front that you'll need an iOS or Android smart-device to get the most out of, or even use, a number of these toys. But that's modern tech toys for you.
The toys we'll be looking at are:
- VTech Kiddizoom Smart Watch
VTech Kiddizoom Smart Watch
While their parents might have to wait until next year to get their hands on the Apple Watch, children can jump aboard the smartwatch bandwagon this Christmas. Aimed at 5 to 12-year-olds (though we'd suggest it has a limited appeal for the older end of that range), the VTech Kiddizoom Smart Watch packs plenty to keep young ones entertained.
It's no grown-up smartwatch, but the Kiddizoom Smart Watch features a 1.4-inch touchscreen along with a camera for photography and video recording, and microphone for voice recording with funny voice changing effects. The device also comes loaded with a selection of touchscreen games, and there are over 50 watch displays to select from. The watch can also be used as an alarm clock, timer, stopwatch or countdown timer.
The battery is said to last for up to two weeks (take that grown-up smartwatches) and is charged via micro USB, which is also used to connect to a computer and upload your photos and videos. In our tests we found the Kiddizoom Smart Watch to be fun and a great way for kids to join in the latest tech trend, after all they've probably already got their own tablet.
The Kiddizoom Smart Watch is available in blue, pink or white and costs US$60.
The Ollie is the latest app-controlled robot from Orbotix, the makers of the Sphero ball and is essentially a faster tubular version which can now reach speeds of 14 mph. If you enjoyed racing a remote control car around the house or garden when you were younger, you'll love this, and so will your kids.
To control an Ollie you'll need an iOS and Android device loaded with the relevant app and it connects via Bluetooth. Users can then control Ollie as it speeds around, pull tricks, and change the color of its built-in LED. It's been designed to be tough enough to survive bumps and knocks whether it's speeding around the house or local skatepark.
Changeable tires and hubcaps mean that the Ollie can drive on a variety of surfaces, and its USB rechargeable battery is said to be good for 60 minutes of drive time on a full charge. So, remember to put it on charge before your child goes to bed so that you can play while they're asleep.
The Sphero Ollie will set you back $100.
My Friend Cayla
My Friend Cayla looks like your typical 18-inch tall blonde doll. But when she starts talking and responding to what you say to it, you realize she's something completely different. She's is an interactive smart doll capable of real (if slightly stilted and robotic) conversation and answering general knowledge questions.
The doll connects to the internet via an iOS or Android smart-device running the My Friend Cayla app and uses voice recognition to respond to what's being said. She's capable of millions of phrases and will even search the internet (sources deemed age-appropriate) to deliver the correct answer to questions. She can also play a number of games on her app.
When you inevitably test to see what swear words My Friend Cayla knows, like we did, be prepared for a "That is not appropriate!" telling off that's made all the more bizarre for coming from the mouth (or more accurately belly, as that's where the speaker is) of an 18-inch doll.
You child's annoying new know-it-all best friend will cost $100.
You could argue LEGO really didn't need a tech update, and you'd be right, the little building bricks have as much appeal now as they have for previous generations. However, this being 2014, LEGO has felt the need to release a series of interactive sets, and they're actually quite interesting.
The LEGO Fusion sets each consist of more than 200 LEGO pieces and a "capture plate" to build on, this is the key to interactivity. When the base and construction is scanned in using an app for iOS or Android they come to life in a digital world, where they can be played with virtually.
Different sets include ones where users build towns, battle towers or holiday resorts and then complete missions in the digital versions of their constructions on a tablet. Another set sees users build cars which can be taken for a virtual spin in the app.
Each of the four currently available LEGO Fusion sets costs $35.
Until the inevitable robot uprising, robot toys continue to be fun, and MiP is a great example of this. It's billed as a self-balancing robot friend, and uses the same mobile inverted pendulum principle to stay upright as a Segway. Though at 10 inches (25 cm) tall you're not going to be riding it.
MiP can be controlled using hand gestures waved in front of its face, or using more traditional controls on a iOS or Android device. Different modes mean it can also dance to music, balance things on its tray or perform tricks. With multiple MiPs user can play games such a boxing where the aim is to stop the self-balancing robot from balancing. Four AAA batteries should last four hours.
In our tests we were impressed by the amount of tech crammed into this little guy, and it's certainly fun to interact with it for a while. But we're not sure about its longevity and whether users will still be playing with it regularly this time next year.
MiP comes in black or white and will set you back $100.
N-Strike Elite Nerf Cam ECS-12 Blaster
Not only does the Nerf Cam ECS-12 promise to be great for stalking younger siblings from behind the sofa, but also for getting to re-watch the look on their faces thanks to a built in camera. This is not the Nerf gun from your childhood!
A built-in 1.77-inch screen sits at the back of the blaster and can be used as a sight while shooting, or to play back footage. An included 4 GB SD card will store 2,000 photos or 3 hours of video and is used to transfer shots to your computer for uploading. The blaster itself comes with a 12 dart clip and 12 N-Strike Elite darts, which it can fire 90 ft (27 m).
While we loved the idea of the built in camera on a Nerf blaster, the reality didn't quite live up to the hype. The 20 frames per second footage from the 0.3 megapixel camera doesn't quite cut it nowadays, even if your little brother looked ridiculous as you unloaded your darts on him.
The cost of reliving your best Nerf assaults with the N-Strike Elite Nerf Cam ECS-12 Blaster is $80.
As any parent knows, it's always worth trying to sneak a couple of educational presents under the Christmas tree, especially if they're enough fun to mean they might actually get used, and Osmo is certainly that. The gaming device brings real world and social play (which also happens to be educational) to the iPad.
Once an iPad is placed in the included base, and a mirror unit attached over the camera, the space in front of the tablet is transformed into an interactive environment. After picking their game app, users then place corresponding pieces in front of the screen and they are instantly recognized. Current games include word and shape based puzzles.
In our tests (okay hours of playing) with Osmo, we found it delivered an incredibly smooth and impressive experience which lived up to the promotional videos. There really is something magical about throwing a playing piece in front of the iPad and seeing it instantly incorporated into the game.
An Osmo set including the base, mirror unit and two games packs sells for $80, the game apps can be downloaded for free.
Parrot Rolling Spider Minidrone
The Rolling Spider Minidrone is an older-child-friendly and beginner drone from Parrot, makers of bigger and more serious devices like the Bebop and AR.Drones. This model fits in the palm of your hand, weighs just 55 g (1.95 oz), but still boasts the same sort of flight stability for drone-based fun.
The drone is operated through Parrot's FreeFlight 3 app, which is available for iOS, Android, Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1. From there users can not only pilot their drone, but also snap mid-flight aerial photographs via a built-in camera.
Another feature which makes this drone more child-friendly than many others is its large side wheels which protect it from the inevitable bumps and crashes into walls and furniture. However, would-be pilots will need patience, each 90 minutes of charging via Micro USB will give just eight minutes of flying. Check out our Rolling Spider Minidrone review for more details.
The Parrot Rolling Spider Minidrone is available in blue, white or red for $100.
The LeapFrog LeapTV has been described as a kid-centric cross between the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox Kinnect, because that's exactly what it appears to be with its motion-controller and motion-sensing camera. LeapTV is designed as a my-first-games-console and is aimed squarely at three to seven-year-olds.
As you'd expect from a LeapFrog product, the games each have an educational focus, but thanks to control methods which encourage physical movement, kids are unlikely to realize they are learning. For example, a motion-sensing dancing game teaches reading, while a sports one improves mathematics ability.
Though you won't find the likes of Mario or Sonic on the LeapTV, there are a number of games focused around characters from Disney including Sofia the First and Jake, of Never Land Pirates fame, along with the gangs from Toy Story and Monsters Inc. Games can be downloaded or purchased on cartridges.
The LeapTV console sells for $150 and games are priced between $5 and $30.
Scalextric ARC One (App Race Control)
We have fond memories of racing little slot cars around living-room filling tracks for much of the 80s. But Scalextric as it was then would be unlikely to cut it with the tech-savvy kids of today. Luckily the classic toy has recently undergone an upgrade overhaul.
Scalextric ARC One (App Race Control) – or RCS Race Control System as it was called when we had a hands-on earlier this year - uses a wirelessly-connected iOS or Android smart device to control the race and display information. This means you can set race length, and turn on features such as fuel load and tire wear, before monitoring your progress throughout the race.
Best of all, especially if you've got a collection of old Scalextric up in the loft, the new ARC powerbase is compatible with older sets too, meaning you can set up some giant tracks to while away the festive holiday.
If you want to relive your childhood, the Scalextric ARC One set will cost around $150.
Last Christmas the Teksta Robot Puppy was a must-have present which flew off shelves as fast as it could be put out. This time around, Teksta's T-Rex Robotic Dinosaur looks like it could be just as popular. This friendly pet robo-dino is designed to respond to your voice and touch, and will walk around, growl and bite accordingly.
Powered by four AA batteries, its eyes will also light up with different patterns to express its feelings depending on how you are treating it. If you really want to treat it, you can feed it a bone which will be chewed on before being burped back out. Lovely.
The Teksta T-Rex can also be controlled with hand gestures waved in front of its face, or a companion app for iOS or Android. This is probably the easiest way of interacting with the dino, and you can make it sing and dance, perform tricks and move in a specific way. While we didn't find it a massive upgrade from its puppy sibling, the Teksta T-Rex could be a good option for dino-fans who missed out last year.
The Teksta T-Rex is on sale for around $70.
For some people, a list of Christmas toys without an offering from Nintendo just wouldn't be right. But our Nintendo entry this year doesn't come in the shape of a home console, handheld, or even a game. No, it's Nintendo's entry into the toys to life market, Amiibo.
Nintendo's Amiibo works in a different way to Skylanders and Disney Infinity, and that could be good news for parents. They do not look like they'll be required to unlock key aspects of games. For example, in Super Smash Bros, placing an Amiibo on the NFC point on the Wii U gamepad or New 3DS (or using an upcoming adapter with older 3DS and 2DS) gives you a digital training buddy and fighting partner.
They will also work across several games from Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart to the upcoming Mario Party 10 and Yoshi's Woolly World. Most Nintendo favorites including Maio, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Pikachu, Link and Princess Peach are represented and there will be 18 to pick from by Christmas.
Each Amiibo with cost $14.
Barbie's Color Changing Handbag
Barbie may be forever associated with pink, but the latest Barbie & Me toy doesn't have to be, because it's a clever color-changing bag. The 37 cm (14.5 inch) long handbag uses a sensor on the rear and a series of LED lights to turn into whatever color bag you want, as long as you don't mind the pink trim and detailing.
Users simply hold Barbie's Color Changing Handbag against an item they want to color match, and press the button on the front of the little purse. A couple of seconds later the otherwise white bag lights up and changes color turn into whatever color it was placed against.
In out tests this toy stood out because it's the one we were probably least interested in, but which turned out to be one of the most intriguing. Now, if only we thought we could get away with using it.
Barbie's Color Changing Handbag will cost $40.
Zoomer Dino Boomer
That's right, we have not one but two robot dinosaurs on out list of the best tech toys, it's going to be one of those Christmases. This one is the Zoomer Dino Boomer, a T-Rex that balances on two wheels as it roars, chomps and races around the room.
As with the Teksta T-Rex, the Zoomer Dino Boomer can be controlled with hand gestures and is fitted with an array of sensors and infrared. Its LED eyes also light up to show what mode and mood it is in. However, this T-Rex also comes with a joystick remote control which can be used to unlock more features.
Designed for kids aged five and up, Boomer is understanably not a fan of having its tail pulled or its head pushed and will let out an angry roar as it spins around let you know he is displeased. The dino needs to be charged via USB, while the remote requires three AA batteries.
A Zoomer Dino Boomer will set you back $80.
VTech Innotab Max
The VTech Innotab Max is currently our pick as the best tablet for younger children. That's because it combines most of the features we decided were important when putting together our guide for choosing the best tablet for kids. It's rugged enough to survive in the hands of a three-year-old, has a large screen and a selection of educational and entertaining apps.
A 7-inch 1024 x 600 pixel touchscreen is bigger than you will find on many tablets aimed at the three to seven-year-old target demographic, and there's a stylus which can help improve handwriting. The VTech Innotab Max also features built-in Wi-Fi, a 2 MP camera, and 8 GB of internal storage with the option of popping in a 32 GB microSD card.
But the best part of the VTech Innotab Max is that because it runs on the Android 4.2 operating system you get access to a selection of educator-approved Android apps in addition to the usual offering of VTech educational titles.
The VTech Innotab Max retails for $100.
Many of these tech toys will take a certain amount of setting up before you can get playing. As a result you might want to do that ahead of the big day, along with making sure batteries are fully charged ready for some serious play time soon after they are unwrapped on Christmas morning.