Do you or someone you love (or at least give enough of a damn about to buy a holiday gift for) want to explore this whole "smart home" idea without buying into a whole ecosystem? There are plenty of ways to get started, but these gadgets seamlessly integrate into your current, IQ-challenged abode. Best of all, they're pretty cheap.
Everyone has a smartphone nowadays, so why haven't outlet faceplates evolved with the times? SnapPower's created a faceplate for the modern era by introducing a USB port on the bottom, so you don't have to dedicate a valuable socket to your smartphone's daily energy needs.
The best part: It works seamlessly with duplex and décor outlets with two prongs drawing power from the screws on your outlet. It takes one screwdriver and about two minutes to install. You can also get ones with LEDs on the bottom to help light hallways. Seriously, it's the best. Head to SnapPower's online store, where a single faceplate charger will run you $US20 (although you can purchase up to packs of 10).
"Buying someone a battery as a present? I actually like this person, you know?" Hear me out, this isn't some lump of coal gift for your frenemy, this battery connects to your wifi network, retrofitting your dumb smoke or CO alarm into a smart one. The battery sends notifications while you're away, and you can also silence false alarms with the Roost app when you're cooking up that steak for dinner.
Philips Hue has long been the standard bearer for smart home lighting, mainly because it integrates with all kinds of personal hubs, like Amazon's Echo, Google's Nest, and now with Hue 2.0, it can be voice-controller via Siri and Apple's HomeKit. You can control lights through a smartphone app or create lighting "scenes" for movie-watching or sex-making. Listen, I don't know what you do in your free time. The hub costs $US60 ($US40 if you're upgrading from an old Philips Hue system), but the starter pack (including light bulbs) is a little bit more.
Home security is a scary term that can mean forceful installation of garish cameras that begin to turn your home into some kind of max security compound. If you just need a little visual peace of mind without all the pricey gear, the Nest Cam works wonders. It's part of the Nest lineup of products, but like its ancestor Dropcam, it can work with almost any home setup — just as long as you have wifi. It covers 130 degrees and films in 1080p. You can buy a monthly $US10 or $US30 subscription depending on how many days of playback you need (you can watch a livestream for free), so you might need to factor that plan into your present budget.
Do you lose shit? I lose shit constantly, so it helps to have things like Tile to give some sanity to my life. The idea is simple, and not exactly unique, but stick one of these tiles on something near and dear to you, like keys for example, and rest easy. Your smartphone will keep tabs on your things, making sure you're never having to flip over seat cushions in a frantic search. Oh, and if you happen to lose your phone, you can press any Tile to force your phone ring, even if it's on silent. Just...don't lose both. Then you're just screwed.
I've followed SmartThings ever since they were an ambitious Kickstarter. Now, they're owned by one of the biggest technology companies in the world, and for good reason. They make the idea of a "smart home" less scary with a suite of gizmos that just work. The starter set comes with a hub along with two all-purpose sensors, a motion sensor, and a smart outlet, but the system also plays well with a variety of third-party gadgets as well. The coolest advantage of SmartThings is a passionate DIY community, constantly exploring new ways to use the smart home system.
This gift requires a bit of sleuthing before you can pull out the credit card. For one, you need to know what smartphone your gift recipient is using and if they're changing anytime soon. Once you have that all figured out and you know the phone does support Qi wireless charging, then the Riggad IKEA lamp ($US79.99) is great for bring elegance and technology together. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that iPhones don't support wireless charging unless you have a compatible case, and Android seems to slowly stepping away from the idea to adopt USB Type-C charging. But hey, even if they don't use the charging part, it's still a nice lamp. You're welcome.
When Amazon announced the Echo, we called it "its most important product in years," and with the steady parade of updates its seen since, it's only gotten more impressive. Not only can it play nice with Belkin WeMo and SmartThings devices (see above), it can also play music, answer questions, and keep track of sports scores among a bunch of other things. It's basically a smart home hub, but with a personality.
I'll be the first to admit, I don't have a green thumb. Hell, I'd probably find a way to even kill a cactus, but hopefully Parrot's Flower Power plant-monitoring system can help. Stick this little gizmo in the soil and can data back on how well your plant is doing, including sunlight, humidity, temperature, and fertiliser. It's worth noting that Parrot's announced an update to the Flower Power, called the Flower Power H2O that can also water your plants for you. But it's yet to have any sort of announced release date, just a long-standing "Coming 2015" promise.
If you you want to exercise your brain beyond the "download app and enjoy" routine, maybe give LittleBits Smart Home Kit a try. Think of it as Legos for electronics. Build creations out of circuits to create fun little automations tied into IFTTT. You can also check out LittleBits website for projects and other sources of inspiration.