You don’t need an article to tell you what the hot new big-ticket holiday tech gifts are. If you owe your spouse, or parent, or child something expensive and glamorous—well, the world is full of iPads, phones, game consoles, and TVs. Have at it.
But what about everyone else? What about people who deserve a little something this time of year, but, you know, aren’t that important?
For that, I offer four more cheap and unexpected tech gifts. Nothing over $80, and nothing they saw coming.
TaoTronics Bluetooth Transmitter
So the world’s moving to wireless earbuds. Great!
Except for those times when you want to listen to something besides your phone. How are you supposed to use wireless earbuds with an airplane-seat TV? Or your TV at home? Or your electronic keyboard or guitar? Or just about anything else in the world that doesn’t have Bluetooth?
Easy: With the TaoTronics transmitter ($27). It plugs into the headphone jack of anything that plays sound, no matter how ancient—and suddenly, you can listen on your own wireless Bluetooth headphones! (In fact, two people can listen simultaneously.)
This particular TaoTronics model, in fact, can also send sound the other way. That is, it can receive sound as well as send it. You plug it into some old speaker, receiver, or TV (into the input jack), and now you can play music from your phone to that formerly non-wireless speaker.
It makes sense if you think about it.
This charming square device is ($30) like a modern Lite Brite. It has 64 giant square pixels, each capable of lighting up in any color you choose. They’re very bright and very vivid.
I know, I know: why?
The Dotti comes with six fairly good answers to that question:
For visual notifications. The Dotti can light up with graphics that indicate incoming calls, missed calls, text messages, calendar appointments, Facebook/Twitter/WhatsApp notifications, and so on. Phone on vibrate? No longer does that mean you’ll miss important alerts.
For the time. When it’s not alerting you to calls and texts, the Dotti can serve as a digital clock.
For doodling. Using the accompanying phone app, you can “draw” on the Dotti screen, changing individual “pixels” to whatever colors you like. It’s real-time: Each time you tap a dot on the phone’s “map,” the corresponding pixel lights up on the Dottie. You can save your graphics, share them online, or download other people’s masterworks.
For animating. In fact, you can string eight of your “drawings” together into a simple, looping animation; you control its playback speed. I can think of quite a number of young budding programmers and animators who’d get a kick out of this process.
For rolling the die. Shake the Dotti to make its screen light up like a die, showing from 1 to 6 dots in the familiar layout.
For music. Choose one of your songs from within the Dotti app, and marvel as the Dotti lights dance in sync with the playback.
You switch among these modes by swiping a finger along the top surface. An additional mode shows the current battery charge. (The Dotti runs for five hours on battery—720 hours of standby—or you can plug it in.)
The Dotti’s software is not, ahem, what you’d call a masterpiece of elegance. But come on: the whole thing is bizarre, unexpected, and cheap—and isn’t that what matters?
The Ember Ceramic Mug
Coffee and tea taste worse as they get colder. The final sips aren’t anywhere near as delicious as the first ones.
If you drink from this $80 mug, though, that problem goes away—because a hidden battery and heating element keep your drink hot, at the exact temperature you choose in the accompanying app. It’ll stay at that temp for two hours, or forever if you set it on its saucer (which, when plugged in, is actually a charger).
The only indication that the mug is electronic is a subtle LED light near the base. You can choose what color it is, so that you can tell your mug apart from the other Embers in the office.
The Amazon Echo Dash Wand
What if I told you that you could get a free Amazon (AMZN) Echo? You know, Amazon’s voice-controlled assistant?
The Dash Wand is, in fact, a handheld Echo. Speak while pressing its big glowing button (you don’t have to say “Alexa” first): “What’s the weather in Chicago tomorrow?” “How did the Browns do last night?” “How do you spell ‘fluorescent’?” “Order a pepperoni pizza from Domino’s.” “Call me an Uber.” “Tell me a joke.” “Warm up the living room two degrees.” And so on. Thanks to the built-in speaker, it answers you, exactly like the bigger Echo devices.
(Well, almost. It doesn’t play music or audio books, and can’t set timers or reminders.)
So why is the Dash Wand free? Because Amazon is hoping that the commands you’ll use most are things like, “Buy Charmin toilet paper” or “Order cat food.”
Any time you say “buy,” you’ve actually bought that item, placed the order; it’s on its way. If you name something without saying “buy” (if you say “triple-A batteries,” for example), it gets put into your Amazon.com shopping cart; you can review these items and click Place Order before they’re on their way.
There’s even a barcode scanner on the Dash Wand, so that as you toss or recycle an empty container (cereal, mac & cheese, syrup, crackers, whatever), you can re-order that exact thing with one button press.
Technically, the Dash Wand costs $20—but the first time you order something with it, Amazon gives you $20 back. That’s why it’s free.
The wand itself is beautifully designed and built. The handle has a magnet in it, so you can stick it on the fridge, and the package even comes with a white hook for hanging someplace handy.
Grumps complain that if you’re not observant about what you’re ordering, you can sometimes wind up paying higher-than-local-store prices for things. True enough.
But even if you never order a single thing, the Dash Wand makes a fantastic handheld Echo. (It recently asked it to tell me a joke, and it said: “How many ears does Captain Kirk have? Three. His left ear, his right ear, and his Final Frontier.”)
And, by the way, it’s very, very cheap and very, very unexpected.
More from David Pogue:
David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, is the author of “iPhone: The Missing Manual.” He welcomes nontoxic comments in the comments section below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read all his articles here, or you can sign up to get his columns by email.