Computerworld's holiday gift guide 2016: Nifty tech for $35 to $150

If you want to give a gift that is classy and high-quality, but that won't break the bank, try one of these cool devices.

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  • WobbleWorks 3Doodler Create

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  • PL-500 Salt Water Charger & Light Set

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  • Anker PowerPort Solar Lite

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  • Moshi USB-C Multiport Adapter

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cw gift guide 2016 nifty tech intro
Stephen Sauer

Cool gifts for reasonable prices

It's sometimes hard to find holiday gifts that hit the really sweet spot: With enough quality to show how much you care, but not so high-end that you'll find yourself starting off the new year with an unpayable credit card bill.  Don't sweat it -- part 2 of our holiday gift guide features an array of excellent devices, each of which costs less than $150.

You'll find gear to suit a wide range of tastes, such as a toolkit for hardcore tech enthusiasts and a programmable bot for budding geeks, an electronic writing pad for literate friends and a 3D "pen" for creative doodlers, streaming media devices for cord-cutters, and much more.

We've included prices and shopping links, but be aware that prices fluctuate. And, as always, don't let your holiday shopping be ruined by false deals and scams.

Check out the rest of our holiday gift guide if you're looking some great stuff over $150, or some low-cost stocking stuffers. (You’ll also find a video showing off some cool wearables.) Meanwhile, here are our suggestions for mid-priced tech gadgets to give (or perhaps to get?) this year.

amazon echo dot
Amazon

Amazon Echo Dot

Imagine if Apple shoehorned Siri into something resembling a hockey puck, then made her a lot smarter and more capable. That's the idea behind the Echo Dot, a smart-home gizmo operated almost entirely by voice.

In place of Siri, the Echo Dot relies on Alexa, Amazon's virtual assistant, which can respond to a huge (and growing) number of commands, from ordering pizzas to requesting Ubers to telling jokes (mostly corny ones, alas). In a home that already has other smart components, Alexa can turn off lights, adjust the thermostat, and much more. The Dot contains a small built-in speaker, but for better sound, music lovers can pair it with a wired or Bluetooth speaker, then crank out news, music, podcasts and even audiobooks.

The Echo Dot does all this for less than a third of the cost of Amazon's original Echo device, which makes it a lot more accessible for gift-giving. And just think: Every time your friend summons Alexa, he or she will think of you.

-- Rick Broida

ifixit pro tech toolkit b.jpg
iFixit

iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit

You know that buddy of yours who can magically fix busted phone screens, worn laptop batteries, and fried hard drives? It's not really magic: It's a bit of know-how and the proper tools. Hobbyists and pros alike would benefit greatly from iFixit's Pro Tech Toolkit, an aptly named bundle of drivers, tweezers, spudgers, opening tools and other essentials for repairing electronics.

It also comes with an anti-static wrist strap to prevent accidental zaps of sensitive parts and a magnetic pad to keep screws from rolling away. Everything stays tucked neatly in a fold-up carrying case, and iFixit backs the toolkit with a lifetime warranty.

-- Rick Broida

wobbleworks 3doodler create
WobbleWorks
  • WobbleWorks 3Doodler Create

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    on Amazon

WobbleWorks 3Doodler Create

You know that friend who's always making cool sketches on cocktail napkins? Help him add a third dimension to his drawings. The 3Doodler Create looks like a pen, but instead of putting 2D lines on paper, it produces 3D objects. Simple ones, to be sure, but amateur and pro artists alike will have a blast seeing what they can create.

Wireless and battery-powered, the 3Doodler extrudes heated plastic sticks that cool and harden almost instantly. It comes with a sampling of these sticks; the company offers inexpensive refills (starting at $10 for 25 sticks) in a wide variety of colors and materials (including glossy, sparkle and glow). This $99 (vendor price) gift should delight anyone with even the slightest artistic inclination.

-- Rick Broida

hydra light
Hydra-Light
  • PL-500 Salt Water Charger & Light Set

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Hydra-Light PL-500 Salt Water Charger & Light Set

Have friends who like camping? You can help light up their campsite and teach them some science at the same time. The Hydra-Light PL-500 is a camping lantern and portable USB charger that doesn't run on batteries. Instead, it relies entirely on salt water. Go science!

All it takes is some water and a dash of ordinary table salt. That, combined with the included alloy "PowerRod" and a carbon-based membrane inside the lantern's fuel cell, delivers juice to both the LED lantern and an internal lithium-ion battery, which can be used to charge phones and other small USB devices. According to the manufacturer, the rod will last for up to 250 hours and can be stored dry for over 25 years -- so it's a good item to keep on hand for the apocalypse or the next power outage, whichever comes first.

-- Rick Broida

phonesoap 2.0
PhoneSoap

PhoneSoap 2.0

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but your smartphone is disgusting. Lots of studies have found "ick!"-inducing amounts of bacteria on our mobile devices -- more than is typically even found on toilet seats, according to some reports. (Now, there's an image for your office holiday party...)

Give someone the gift of good health with the PhoneSoap 2.0 smartphone sanitizer. All they'll have to do is drop their phone in the apparatus, turn it on and then breathe easy as it uses UV-C lights to zap all the nasty germs away. The $60 (vendor price) gadget even charges a phone while it's cleaning. Peace of mind and power -- an electrifying combination if I've ever seen one.

Your favorite germaphobe will never stop thanking you. From a distance, at least -- seriously, do you know how much bacteria a typical hug transfers?

-- JR Raphael

interent to streaming
Google / Roku

Google Chromecast Ultra / Roku Premiere+

Getting video content from the internet onto a TV doesn't have to be a hassle. Help your friends or family members stream sanely with Google's new Chromecast Ultra or Roku's Premiere+.

Both devices can handle 4K and HDR content, and both support a wide range of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and HBO Now. The main difference between them is that the $69 Chromecast has no remote control or on-screen interface; it's just a simple little dongle that plugs into the back of a TV, and you use any phone or tablet to "cast" content and control playback from regular mobile apps. The Roku, in contrast, which goes for $100 (vendor price), is a more traditional set-top box with a standalone remote; it relies on menus and apps on the TV for interaction.

The Chromecast has the perk of working with Google's new Google Home tabletop assistant. If you're considering getting one of those as part of your present, your giftee will be able to start and control playback simply by speaking aloud -- a pretty neat feature.

The Roku, on the other hand, has the distinction of supporting Amazon Video -- which the Chromecast does not.

Decisions, decisions...

-- JR Raphael

wacom bamboo slate
Wacom

Wacom Bamboo Slate

If you've got friends who would rather write with pens than type with keyboards, consider Wacom's Bamboo Slate. This lightweight electronic "smartpad" lets users take notes or sketch naturally on normal paper and then save their work to the cloud.

Unlike other digital writing systems, the Bamboo Slate doesn't need specialized paper -- just place any paper on the clipboard-like device (you can also slip a pad into the slot at the top) and use the included pen. The Slate stores whatever you write as a graphic file -- when you're finished, just press a button on the device and that content is sent to Wacom's Inkspace cloud app. (Slate owners get 5GB storage free and 50GB for $3/month after a three-month trial.) From there, documents can be exported or synced with other cloud services such as Dropbox, Evernote or OneNote.

The Bamboo Slate comes in two sizes: a large for 8.5 x 11 in. paper that costs $150 and a small for paper half that size that goes for $130 (vendor prices). If you're looking for something fancier, the $200 Bamboo Folio package includes the larger smartpad along with a nylon cover that has space for extra paper and business cards.

-- Barbara Krasnoff

fitbit charge 2
Fitbit

Fitbit Charge 2

Is giving someone a fitness tracker as a gift like buying them a gym membership? Well, maybe, but it's a lot cheaper and perhaps a little less pointed.

If you're going to go that route, the Fitbit Charge 2 is a great choice. For $150 (vendor price), it tracks steps plus exercises like running, biking or weightlifting; connects to your phone's GPS; and does a pretty good job of monitoring your heart rate (although it's not as accurate as a chest strap and should not be mistaken for a medical device).

More than that, it's actually pretty attractive. Its interchangeable bands come in six colors, it has an unobtrusive monochrome OLED screen, it can go nearly a week on a single charge, and it connects with Fitbit's terrific app and website.

Fitbit is far and away the leader in the "basic" fitness tracker category -- ones that don't run third-party apps -- and the Charge 2 illustrates how it got there.

-- Dan Rosenbaum

ozobot evo
Ozobot

Ozobot Evo

For the STEM-curious kids (ages 8 and up) on your list, the Ozobot Evo offers both remote-control fun plus the opportunity to pick up some basic programming skills. About the size of a large marble, the Evo has a couple of wheels on the bottom that enable it to move and turn. Kids can let it roam around by itself -- an infrared proximity sensor helps it avoid obstacles -- or download the Ozobot app (iOS and Android) to direct its movements. The app also allows messaging with other Ozobot owners, including special emojis that trigger actions in the Evo.

Fun, right? But also educational: Your giftee can direct the Evo's movements by drawing lines on paper. While they're doing so, they're learning a few fundamentals of programming. The robot follows a black path, while sequences of other colors trigger actions like speeding up and turning around. For more advanced learning, they can use the browser-based OzoBlockly (based on Google's Blockly) to create a sequence of actions and download it to the Evo.

Ozobot has recently partnered with Marvel Comics to offer Avengers caps ($30 each) that fit over the Evo, and players can download special missions they can program the 'bot to complete.

-- Jake Widman

booq daypack
Booq

Booq Daypack

Your commuter or student friend will be glad you gave them a Booq Daypack every morning they head out on their rounds. The $80 (vendor price) backpack holds laptops up to 16 in., with a strap to secure them in place. It also has plenty of room for other stuff inside its main compartments and expandable side pockets for water bottles, umbrellas or other quick-access items.

The Daypacks have padded contoured straps and ventilated back padding to make them comfortable to carry all day. They come in an appealing assortment of colorways -- blue-aqua, "cream-dream," clay-canvas, and "grayfetti," in addition to the navy-red and brown-canvas shown here -- with new ones being added regularly. And if the recipient should misplace their bag, its Terralinq ID tag can help them find it again.

-- Jake Widman

weego jump starter 44
Weego

Weego Jump Starter 44

Do any of your friends own cars? Of course they do! Give them the Weego Jump Starter 44, and they'll never need to worry about a dead battery or finding someone to give them a jump. The Weego 44 jump-starts gas engines up to 7 liters in size via its special "Smarty Clamps," which make it easy to get a good connection. The charger also uses lights and sounds to guide the user through the process, and anti-spark and surge protection features help reduce any uncertainty or nervousness.

The Weego's not just for jump-starts, though. For $150 (vendor price), you also get a backup battery with a USB port to fast-charge phones, tablets and other mobile devices; a 19V port for charging Windows laptops; and a 12V port for air compressors and other equipment (adapters sold separately). Plus, it's a 500-lumen flashlight with strobe and emergency signals. This do-everything device is IP65 rated for durability and comes with a water-resistant carrying case, cables and clamps, and a hook for hanging the light over an engine or workspace.

-- Jake Widman

anker powerport solar lite
Anker
  • Anker PowerPort Solar Lite

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Anker PowerPort Solar Lite

Ah, the great outdoors. You've got clear skies, fresh air -- and absolutely nowhere to charge your phone.

Get the camper or hiker on your holiday list the gift that keeps giving: a solar-powered portable phone charger. Anker's PowerPort Solar Lite pulls in power from the sun and sends it directly to a mobile device's battery. That means your outdoorsy pal can focus on enjoying the elements without having to worry about running out of juice. And it only costs $50 (vendor price).

The 12.5 oz. unit is made of foldable fabric, too, which makes it easy to carry (elastic loops let you attach it to your backpack while it recharges) and store -- no matter what type of terrain your giftee might tackle.

-- JR Raphael

moshi usb c multiport adapter
Moshi
  • Moshi USB-C Multiport Adapter

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Moshi USB-C Multiport Adapter

Are you planning to give somebody a brand new MacBook Pro but aren't sure if their peripherals can handle the new Thunderbolt ports? Or is a colleague worrying about being unable to power old devices with her new Surface Studio? Don't worry about dealing with tiny, easily misplaced dongles -- just present your gift recipient with a Moshi USB-C Multiport Adapter.

The compact hub plugs into any USB-C or Thunderbolt 3-equipped computer with a built-in cable that folds neatly into the device when it's not needed. The adapter, which sells for $80 (vendor price), has three ports: an HDMI port that provides 1080p/4K output, so your giftee can enjoy streaming video on a big screen; a USB-C port for moving data to an external drive or fast-charging a laptop (an LED turns from orange to green when it's done); and a USB-A port for legacy devices.

-- Barbara Krasnoff