Stories & Features

2016 tech gift guide boasts a few smart home devices

Grow your herbs and veggies indoors, all year round with a Click and Grow herb gardens, which features automated watering and a special soil. Show caption
The Wink Hub, available at The Home Depot, can seamlessly connect you to an assortment of devices, including lighting, smart plugs and cameras. Show caption
Griffin's Cove charging station features five 12-watt USB ports, and  it can charge anything from tablets to smartphones to Bluetooth earbuds. Show caption
The new Xbox One S is sleeker and way more efficient than its predecessors, reportedly using up to 50% electricity than the original Xbox. Show caption
The The Dyson 360 Eye robot vacuum uses its camera to map out your rooms to plot an efficient clean-up plan. Show caption

Some of the most fun products out there get an energy-efficiency upgrade

Blaine Kyllo

If you're struggling with that gift list, whether it's your own or for that special someone, we can help. Here's our annual list of some amazing tech gadgets we've discovered, including several smart home products and others that offer improved energy efficiency.

Video game and entertainment consoles

Both Microsoft and Sony have released updated versions of their video game consoles in recent months, and the Xbox One S and PS4 Slim are not just smaller than the predecessors, they're also more efficient.

According to benchmarks by third party reviewers, the two new consoles use up to 50% less electricity than the launch editions released in November of 2013. Each of the systems also supports high dynamic range video, too, which makes for more realistic looking images.

Available online and in stores.

Keep that device charging station neat and tidy

We've all got multiple things to charge, and they often end up cluttering up our countertops and bookshelves. Griffin's Cove charging station is the answer. With five, 12-watt USB ports, it can charge anything from tablets to smartphones to Bluetooth earbuds. The Cove uses ChargeSensor technology to make sure that the devices you’ve plugged in get the right amount and rate of charge, too.

The three shelves are lined with a soft fabric, so you don’t have to worry about scratching screens or cases.

Available from Griffin Technology.

Control and monitor your smart home

Recent trends in home automation are giving us all more control over our living environments. The Wink Hub is a device that connects to your home's router, and talks to all of the different devices you may be using, no matter which communications protocol they use.

What that means is that you can centralize your control over lights, thermostats, and slow cookers. The new Wink Hub 2 adds support for more protocols, including Bluetooth.

Wink Relays are touchscreen panels that you can install on your wall that use the Wink Hub to control your smart home devices.

Wink products are available at The Home Depot or at Wink, and The Home Depot offers Wink-compatible products such as Philips Hue and Connected Cree lighting, Lutron Caseta dimmers, iHome smartplugs and Nest Cams.

Monitor electricity use with a smart plug

With your smartphone and from anywhere in the world, you can control anything plugged into the Smart Plug from TP-Link. You can also schedule the plug to power electronics on and off. And the Smart Plug also measures consumption, so with the smartphone app you can look at a device's electricity use, both real time and historical.

Available online and in stores.

Automate your home's temperature control

The Wiser Air smart thermostat is the latest device to automate the control of your home's environment. Developed in Montreal, the Wiser Air uses sensors to detect inhabitants and is equipped with an advanced algorithm to adjust the temperature without you having to constantly interface with it.

It's fully programmable, of course, so you can set it to reduce the temperature at night and when the house is empty for long stretches. And for those nights when you're up a bit late and need an extra burst of warmth, simply touch a button to trigger a 15-minute boost of heat. The Wiser Air also incorporates detailed weather information, and will notify you of any extreme weather alerts. It works with any heating system that is controlled by a central thermostat. You can get the Wiser Air at Amazon.

Other programmable thermostats for your smart home can be found at The Home Depot, which carries Ecobee, Emerson Sensi, Honeywell, and Nest, but they work only with forced-air heating systems. If you have a baseboard electric heating system, Best Buy have two thermostats that are programmable and can be controlled with a smartphone: Casa and Sinope.

Lock and unlock your doors with your smartphone

The August Smart Lock system is much more than just an app-enabled deadbolt. Sure, it lets you use your smartphone to lock and unlock your door, but it can also be configured to automatically lock when you leave the house. You can operate it with your Apple Watch, or use Apple's digital assistant, Siri, to do the locking for you.

You can enable an unlimited number of virtual keys that can be created in an instant and revoked at any time. You can give access to a delivery person so they can drop off your new TV when you’re not at home. Or if you're renting your home while you're on vacation, you can create keys for the temporary occupants. In addition to the lock, you can also get a Smart Keypad to provide numeric codes to people who need to unlock the door and who may not have a smartphone.

It's perfect for kids. And August also has a Doorbell Cam which can be installed in place of your doorbell, and which gives you visibility into who’s at your doorstep, whether you’re at home or not.

Available at Apple retail stores and online at Apple, Amazon, and August.

Light, portable laptops with power to spare

Whether you are a fan of Apple or prefer Microsoft Windows, there are new laptop computers that are more powerful and more efficient than ever.

There are three models of Microsoft's Surface Book available, all featuring Intel i7 processors. These systems, with removable keyboards, are available in both laptop and tablet. But they run the full Windows 10 operating system, so you can use all your regular software. The Surface Book with Performance Base, recently announced, provides 16 hours of battery life.

Apple, meanwhile, just revealed a new MacBook Pro with an all-new feature: Touch Bar. Replacing the row of function keys at the top of the keyboard, the Touch Bar supports multi-touch, and displays controls that are contextual to what you're doing.

If you're watching a video, the Touch Bar will have pause, fast-forward, and volume controls. If you're working on a document, it could instead have delete, backspace, and insert controls. The Touch Bar also includes Apple'’s Touch ID fingerprint sensor so you can unlock the laptop and switch profiles with a fingertip.

The thin, Retina display on the new MacBook Pro is brighter than ever, but with power-efficient LEDs, uses 30% less energy than previous models.

Apple and Microsoft computers are available online and in stores.

Let a robot vacuum your house

Why vacuum if you don’t have to? The Dyson 360 Eye can do all its own vacuuming, freeing you up for more important things.

Driven by the powerful Dyson digital motor, what makes this robot so special is in how it “sees” and maps its environment. The 360 Eye has cameras that can see all around and which take pictures at a rate of 30 frames per second. It uses those pictures to construct a floor plan which it then uses to map an efficient cleaning pattern. The robot knows where it is in the floor plan. It knows where it has yet to clean. And it can avoid any obstacles it detects with its infrared sensors, moving around the environment with its tank tracks that allow for tight cornerning.

This robot knows when it needs to charge, will return to its dock, and can find its way back to the spot it left off when it’s fully powered again.

Available at Best Buy and at Dyson Canada.

Cook meals faster and more efficiently

Induction ovens cook food faster because they heat from the bottom and the top at the same time. And they're more efficient because they don’t need to preheat.

This used to be something only full-size ovens could do, but Panasonic has just released a countertop model that is about the size of a microwave. The Countertop Induction Oven uses an induction plate at the bottom of the unit to heat from beneath, while an infrared broiler heats from above. Panasonic has programmed the oven with multiple presets, so you can cook things to perfection with the touch of a button.

Available at Costco and Panasonic’s eStore.

Grow your own herbs and plants at home

Grow your strawberries, tomatoes, and basil and reduce your food waste with Click and Grow herb gardens, now available in Canada. Instead of dirt, you grow things using “Smart Soil” as a growth medium. It’s biodegradable, made of natural materials, and means that less water is needed for growing to occur.

There are three models available, each equipped with growing lights.

The Smart Herb Garden is small enough to sit on your counter, and can accommodate fresh herbs and flowers. There are also Wall Farms, the largest of which can support 57 plants and has an automatic watering system, so you just keep a reservoir tank full and the device will distribute the water to where it is needed. The Wall Farm Mini can grow 38 plants and requires you to fill individual water trays when they run dry.

Order directly from Click and Grow.

Blaine Kyllo is a North Vancouver-based freelance writer who regularly contributes to the Connected eNewsletter and