What to know before buying top technology gifts

This year’s holiday sales offer a number of exciting options for consumer electronics gifts, including drones, wearable devices, hoverboards, and virtual reality gear. Since these new technologies are still rapidly evolving, the TechTank team wants to make sure that you have all the information you need when you go shopping this holiday season.

Recreational drones

As their prices continue to drop, recreational drones are expected to be big sellers this year. Recreational drones can perform aerial stunts much like model airplanes, but they can also hover in place long enough for aerial photography. Their prices depend on flight time and capabilities such as Wi-Fi, GPS, and camera compatibility.  Small drones with short flight times are available for $100 or less, while larger drones with camera mounts and live video feeds can cost $1,000 or more. DJI makes some of the top selling models of larger drones, while Parrot offers a full line of mini-drones.

If you plan on buying a drone, be aware that a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) taskforce has released recommendations for registering recreational drones. While final details are forthcoming, the recommendations call for registering every drone heavier than .55 lbs. with the FAA and including a registration number on the drone itself.  This measure is intended to aid law enforcement with investigations as well as allow the FAA to educate buyers on how to use drones responsibly

Virtual reality headsets

While strapping a smartphone to your forehead in what looks like ski goggles may seem a bit odd, Santa might be asked for a few of these virtual reality (VR) headsets this year. VR headsets integrate with a smartphone, computer, or gaming system to provide an immersive virtual experience. The technology is on the cusp of becoming mainstream; the models available now will likely be primarily used by early adopters for gaming and watching movies. Google Cardboard will probably be most people’s introduction to VR, and you might have gotten one courtesy of the New York Times. The big releases this year are the Samsung Gear VR and the Zeiss VR One; the HTC Vive is coming out in time for the holidays in a limited release. More VR headsets will be released in 2016, including the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR.

VR has the potential to transform everyday communication and experiences, but it’s hard to predict just how disruptive this technology will actually be. Companies are working hard to combat the issue of “sim sickness” – motion sickness caused by the disconnect between your brain thinking you’re moving, and your inner ears knowing you aren’t. Return to reality after prolonged exposure often leaves users in a drunken state, with hand-eye coordination challenges. One thing is certain: you definitely don’t want to ride a hoverboard while wearing your virtual reality headset.

Self-balancing scooters, AKA hoverboards

While self-balancing scooters are often referred to as “hoverboards”, it is important to know that they do not actually hover off of the ground. Think of them instead as a Segway without handles: a rider operates them by leaning and balancing, they and are powered by a lithium battery.  Battery life can range from 10-20 miles on flat terrain, with a maximum speed of 10 mph and a maximum weight limit of 260-300 lbs. Hoverboards are poised to be a huge seller this holiday season, so finding them in retail stores may be challenging.  Your best opportunity may be looking online at Amazon, eBay, Target, or other online stores. Prices range from $300-$4,000, but most are closer to $400. 

Knowing where you can ride hoverboards is also important. They are illegal on streets and sidewalks in New York City and the United Kingdom because they are motor vehicles that can’t be registered, but most cities have not announced their policies yet. Hoverboards can also cause injury if used improperly or carelessly. Despite safety concerns, hoverboards are quickly growing in popularity thanks to appearances in music videos and on Instagram. Many celebrities have become early adopters, including performers like Justin Bieber, Missy Elliott, John Legend, and Wiz Kalifa, as well as athletes like Cleveland Cavaliers player J.R. Smith and Washington Wizards player John Wall.

Wearable devices

Wearables have come into their own in 2015 with several worthy devices available this holiday season.

The newest wearable device is the Samsung Gear S2 (Starting at $299), which pairs nicely with Samsung’s fleet of Android Galaxy phones. The smartwatch features a rotating bezel on a round display, a unique user input method. The watch boasts a robust health and fitness tracker along with all you would expect from Android Wear devices—messages, apps, and wireless music playback. One innovation of the watch is the ability to download customizable watch faces from apps like ESPN, CNN, and Yelp. That means app services are delivered right to your watch face—something Apple Watch offers in only the smallest bits. The watch however lacks some features of its competitors. No speakerphone for one, but who makes phone calls on their watch anyway? (Besides Dick Tracy of course).

The other wearable many may find on their wish lists this year is the Apple Watch (Starting at $349). Already eight months old, the watch is still a best seller. If you’re already an iPhone user, the Apple Watch is definitely for you (If you’re not, then you should definitely look elsewhere because the watch requires an iPhone to function). The device boasts health and fitness tracking, turn-by-turn directions (with some help from the iPhone), notifications, and messaging thanks to dictation right from the wrist. However the biggest draw of the Apple Watch is if your closest friends have the device as well. The watch allows you to send virtual taps and drawings that appear on your friends’ or significant others’ watch, a very personal and unique way to keep in touch.

Of course any buyer of a wearable device should realize that local laws are likely to view use of these devices in the same way they do handheld devices like smartphones and tablets. Although many statues remain one step behind the latest technology innovations, wearable devices offer new distractions for drivers, so make sure you stay safe.

Elsie Bjarnason contributed to this post.