There's a million geek gift lists out there, but this one is mine!
What makes my gift list this year different from everybody else's? Sure, you can technically argue it's by me, but what else? Well, I take a different attitude towards it.
- I recommend stuff I either own presently or would like to have.
- I stick to non-franchise stuff. Yes, I know, Baby Yoda owns Christmas 2019 already, but what's the point of sticking him on yet another list anyway? What if you somehow found somebody who is not a Star Wars fan? (CRAZY, but horrifyingly possible!)
- I stick to fun stuff. You can get me practical, useful stuff the rest of the year. Christmas is for spending all day playing with your fun new toys.
- I ignore collectible figurines. They're out there if you want them, God knows somebody has to rescue ten million Funko Pop figures from landfills. But I go for the stuff you can actually play with.
- I recommend geek toys for any age, but steer clear of intentionally educational STEM-marketed stuff. Educational STEM toys are boring and made by other people. True education comes from things you would want to play with even if it wasn't educational. It's fine to slap a STEM label on something after the fact, but there's a huge difference between toys that are fun anyway and toys designed by a scholastic grant committee charged to design a STEM toy.
- Lately, I'm also steering away from phone and computer items (except one hot peripheral) and traditional video games. We spend 364 days a year on our phones now. Let the holiday be a break from it.
See also: My desktop toys list, which has a similar philosophy. If you're looking for my cool local finds, that's here. I have a list of cool kitchen gadgets for the foodies. I did a list of devotional items for offbeat religions. I pick coolest Lego sets here.
Let's see, what else am I forgetting? Oh yes, my general recommendations for Magic: The Gathering purchases here. I'd better remember not to repeat the same items from those previous lists onto this list.
So that's our quality gift list commitment, some restrictions apply, offer void where prohibited. Now let's look at some toys:
Sky Viper Dash Nano Drone
Most drones are pricey, and the drone scene is professional, stuffy, and tiresome. Drones work best for presents when they're given to somebody who's never considered owning one before. And when they are cheap. This one comes under $30, built simple and without pretense, and small enough that you can conceivably fly it indoors.
The above video skips to the thing in actual flight. It's not too noisy - for a drone, that is - comes with an easy-to-handle remote and is simple enough that a kid can pilot it. You can see it's perfect for landings and takeoffs on the desktop. Naturally, you'll want to graduate to something you can strap a GoPro to.
Novie Interactive Smart Robot
Novie Interactive Smart Robot for Kids with Over 75 Actions & Learns 12 Tricks, Blue ~$15 at Amazon.com
This batty little goof is the epitome of frivolous Christmas morning fun. Don't get your hopes up too high; he's not very capable at useful functions. But he's a noisy, cute companion for interactive play, suitable for any age. He can actually learn tricks and do stunts, but that mostly consists of rolling around, popping wheelies, flashing his multicolored eyes, and chattering gleeful gibberish with the occasional music number.
The above befuddled unboxing video captures the personality of Novie quite well. He's high-spirited. You control him through hand gestures. You have to get your hand very close to his face, and it takes some practice to make him do stunts. He has two motion sensors on the front. He does not have any way to sense the edge of a surface, so don't play with him on a desktop unless you're prepared to catch him when he goes rolling off. His sensors do detect all solid walls in his environment, however, so you can build little mazes out of binders for him. Your kids will go crazy with him.
Modular Robotics Cubelets Robot Blocks
Continuing the theme of robotics, this is actually a step up from one-piece units. It's also a bit pricier ($140-ish) for one of these guides than I'd like, but considering you can build a nigh-infinite number of toys from just one kit, it's worth it. The Cubelets Discovery Set is a modular set of magnetized cubes, which do different functions. There's a motor, wheels, a light, a couple sensors for light and motion, and even a couple snap-on accessories for incorporating Lego pieces.
The guy in the video pegs the appeal of this kit. You can attach the Bluetooth sensor and code away more sophisticated instructions - but you don't have to! The kit works just as a set of blocks you build together, setting up your own little engineering experiments. That makes it great for idle desktop play. You might even be able to make a useful tool in a pinch, such as a motion-sensing light. The Lego component means you can integrate it with Mindstorms creations. There's tons of build-your-own-robot sets out there, but this one is simple enough for a child to grasp, and yet capable with possibilities for advanced hobbyists.
Sharper Image Robotic Arm
SHARPER IMAGE Full Function Wireless Control Robotic Arm Toy with Spotlight, Jumbo Claw Grip & Tank Tread Wheels, 2.4GHz ~$45 at Amazon.com
Yes, we're going on with the robots theme, because robotics have gotten to the point where you can have multiple robotic pets in the home for an affordable price. This is an upgrade to everything we've covered so far though because it's actually built to be useful! It's a robotic arm with an LED light on a set of tank treads, remote-controlled with a simply-laid-out controller.
I like having this backwoods country guy giving us the demo. If he finds it practical, so can you. You have an automated camera holder for one. He demonstrates you can use it to pick up cans and deposit them. The treads are solid enough to go over grass. You could use it for a mobility aid for the partially disabled and elderly. Have it bring you a beer. And then have it take the empty can to the recycling box. There's a million remote control cars out there, but only this one can fetch the newspaper. For around $40! It's just as much fun as a remote-control car, but also lends a helping claw when you need it too.
Auking Home Projector
Mini Projector 2019 Upgraded Portable Video-Projector,55000 Hours Multimedia Home Theater Movie Projector,Compatible with Full HD 1080P HDMI,VGA,USB,AV,Laptop,Smartphone ~$70 at Amazon.com
So media consumption, especially with the younger generations, has changed. Most of us don't want to lug around a giant $5000 TV for the rest of our lives. Everybody has a smartphone, a tablet, or a laptop (some of us have all three)(some of us have multiples of all three and may need an intervention). And the new generation of "cord cutters" means we'd all rather pay a few bucks a month for a Netflix subscription than keep a cash-gobbling cable or satellite TV account around. Are you ready for this? You're going to wonder why you didn't think of this before.
Sadly, no competent unboxing and demo video of this particular product exists, so here's a demo sales video. But here's what it is: You plug your phone, tablet, or laptop into it - Apple or Android. And it takes video from your screen and projects it onto the wall, for about $70 currently. Have you ever wanted to share a YouTube video with the whole household? Turn your phone into an impromptu box office? Have a giant wall projection TV that fits in your pocket? Broadcast your game? This hooks up with XBox, PS3, DVD, HDMI, or a TV stick, all for the same price. Why doesn't everybody own one?
Magformers Magnetic Building Blocks
Magformers Basic Set (62-Pieces) Magnetic Building Blocks, Educational Magnetic Tiles, Magnetic Building STEM Toy ~$60 at Amazon.com
So let's give the electronic toys a rest in favor of some old school building block fun. We've all seen a hundred magnetic building kits in geek toy lists. But why not get the biggest and best for around $60?
This schoolmarm gives a timid demonstration, but there was a viral GIF running around a few years back, showing somebody just snapping together big soccer ball shapes. Fun for kids, teaches geometry and spacial engineering skills, and makes a fun desktop toy too.
Gravitrax Track System
We've all seen those cool YouTube videos with marbles running around on tracks doing zippy Rube Goldberg stuff. Aren't those satisfying to watch? Ever want to build one yourself, but lacked the advanced engineering skills and materials to make one by hand? Well the Gravitrax system gives you a starter kit and several expansion packs to make your own marble-ramping fun! Starting from $60, you'll spend Christmas morning and many a rainy day besides inventing your own marble races.
As Fedora McSuspenderPants shows here, the whole system with expansions is a great modular kit with infinite designs possible. Needless to say, kids of all ages will be fascinated, but you grownups will also have neat ideas for tracks with stunts and tricks you can film and share too. And we haven't entered the possibility of integration with other toys yet - what if you could mix in elements from other hobby building sets? If you have Legos already, it's easy to see where you could combine them with this to make even more contraptions.
Well, this concludes our list…
Hopefully you found some items of broad general appeal that stimulate your STEM glands, are fun to play with, and got you off your phone for a few hours. Go forth and play!