As 2020 draws to a close (we can hear you cheering), it’s time to start thinking about Christmas gifts.
Despite all the other problems, it has been quite a good year for tech. Apple released its latest iPhone 12 in four sizes, with a new, much tougher covering on the front called “ceramic shield”, a different-but-familiar design, improved cameras and 5G connectivity. There were updates across the Apple range with a dazzling new iPad Air and cute HomePod mini, for instance.
Google released three phones and almost all at the same time. The new flagship is noticeably more affordable than rival manufacturers have done. And Fitbit produced one of the very best wearables of the year in the Fitbit Sense which is even smart enough to know when you’re stressed (again, after the year we’ve just had…). Bose managed to upstage Apple with its brilliant new in-ear headphones.
A technological gift is better than chocolates or socks: a year later that phone, smartwatch or tablet should still be going strong. And, unlike almost every other kind of gift, tech gets better with age, as software updates provide extra features, for instance.
Of course, it’s not always cheap, but its usefulness, longevity and delightfulness can still represent great value. Here you’ll find gifts that are designed for relaxation and enjoyment, like headphones or a games console, alongside more practical items – a new laptop or a smart home security camera.
These gifts have been tested for how well they work, and for how easy they are to use, even if you’re not a tech-leaning sort of person, and because they come from companies where design is as important as function.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
Sony PlayStation 5
The newest games console of all looks strikingly different to any that has gone before it and is amazingly powerful. Which means it can run games with exceptional graphics, load them fast and play them for a long time without a noisy fan distracting. Standout games for launch include Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Astro Boy which comes pre-loaded. Many more big titles will follow, but this is still a good buy right now because there’s significant backward compatibility with games from previous Sony games machines. As the most popular console launch of the year, the PS5 is currently out of stock everywhere, but retailers such as Argos and Amazon have had re-stocks recently, so keep your eyes peeled for it to return pre-Christmas.
Ruark R1 radio
The brilliant R1 radio has just had a handsome redesign for the fourth-generation model. Where there was a circular speaker, there’s now a slatted wooden grille with OLED display above. Audio quality is tremendous, with crystal-clear DAB and FM reception thanks to the speaker tech inside. It’s designed so the enclosure is acoustically inert to lessen vibrations and the amplifier and a bespoke driver control the sound.
As well as DAB, DAB+ and FM, there’s a Bluetooth receiver so you can play tracks from your phone, plus a USB-C connector which lets you charge the phone as well as play music from it. The build is solid and highly tactile. Choose between light cream lacquer with ash grille and espresso lacquer with walnut grille.
Apple iPad Air
The iPad Air has just gone through a big redesign so it now looks like the (much-pricier) iPad Pro. The screen size has been increased to 10.9 inches and the front is all screen, because the touch ID fingerprint sensor has now been moved to the power button on the top edge, making for a smooth, seamless unlock action. It also has the fastest processor ever in an Apple tablet. Oh, and it comes in five different colours which look cool, from the obvious ones (black, silver, gold) to the imaginative (green and sky blue).
There are more than one million curated apps built specifically for the iPad. You can add extra accessories such as the Apple pencil, a highly effective stylus, and the brilliant magic keyboard which is as comfortable to use as a laptop.
Oral-B iO series 8 toothbrush
This is a connected toothbrush, so you can see whether you’re brushing properly or not thanks to a smartphone app. The app is unflinching in telling you where you’re going wrong, no matter what you might think. You can, of course, brush without the app if you’re feeling a bit lazy and don’t want to grab your phone.
Electric toothbrushes can help your teeth and gums stay healthy, and encourage good brushing procedures. The small, round Oral-B brush heads aren’t to everyone’s taste but they get in close and do a great job. So, they should: this toothbrush is far from cheap, though shopping around brings the price down savagely from the recommended £450.
Google Pixel 5
Google decided to make this year’s Pixel flagship phone more affordable than last year’s Pixel 4. It did this by simplifying the range (there’s no XL version this year) and replacing the advanced facial unlock system from Pixel 4 with a fingerprint sensor on the rear of the handset. The loss of facial recognition may not be so important right now when we’re all wearing masks, mind. There are improvements such as 5G compatibility, different cameras and a bigger screen which now measures 6in. The Pixel 5 looks great – choose from just black or “sorta sage”, as Google calls them – and matches attractive design with a stellar display that’s bright, detailed and inviting. The wide and ultra-wide cameras are excellent and are as much down to the company’s advanced software as anything. The bottom line is whatever is making it happen, it takes really great photos.
Amazon Kindle paperwhite
Real books, we’d say, are still better than ebook readers in lots of ways (the feel, the way you can tell how far through a book you are by the way it weighs in your hands, it can’t run out of battery). Even so, the best electronic readers have gifts of their own. Like the capacity for holding hundreds of books at one one time in a lightweight, slim device.
The paperwhite is the best balance of value and capabilities from Amazon’s range. It has a 6in display which is higher resolution than on the entry-level Kindle and a more advanced front light for reading in dark environments. The design is also slicker and it’s waterproof, so reading in the bath is now worry-free. Navigation on Kindles has got much better – it’s now easy to find your way back to your original page when you’ve checked out a footnote, for instance.
You can choose a wifi model or one that also offers free, lifetime 4G connectivity, specifically so you can download another book without needing to be in a wifi zone. There’s also compatibility with Audible audio books if you have wireless headphones.
Bose QuietComfort earbuds
The freedom of true-wireless earbuds has to be experienced. No cable to trip you or catch on anything, just a direct connection from your phone to your ears. Of course, there’s more to it than that. Decent in-ears need noise-cancelling to keep the world at bay, and Bose’s proprietary version is phenomenal.
There are three sizes of ear tips included so you can ensure a tight fit and keep a lot of noise out, but it’s the adjustable noise-cancelling that really shines. Choose from 11 different levels according to the environment you’re in. There are also neat twists such as the music pausing automatically when you remove one bud – that’s a pretty common feature now, but the difference here is it will turn off noise-cancelling in the other earbud, too.
Smartwatches aren’t just about counting your steps. The newest model from Fitbit has strong health-monitoring credentials. It can take ECG readings, monitor your heart to alert you if the rate goes surprisingly high or low, and even stress. It gives you a stress score from a two-minute test and if it thinks you’re stressed, offers mindfulness and meditation sessions. This smartwatch also tracks your temperature and blood oxygen levels, which could be useful during the pandemic. But Fitbit’s trackers are also good at the basics, such as supremely accurate step and calorie counting, in-depth sleep tracking and an increasing series of wellness features. The watch is comfortable, lightweight and effective.
Apple HomePod mini
The new smart speaker is astonishingly affordable, especially given it’s an Apple product. It’s small, too, not much bigger than a tennis ball. While it doesn’t have the advanced audio of the original HomePod, it still sounds great, and way better than small speakers from rival brands. The touchscreen on top lights up to let you know it’s listening or playing music and Siri, Apple’s virtual personal assistant, is smart and sassy, answering questions, forecasting the weather or telling you a (corny) joke. To make the most of it, you need to have an iPhone and if yours is iPhone 11 or iPhone 12, as you walk up to the speaker, it will spot you and the music playing on your phone will automatically transfer to the speaker.
Withings sleep analyser
Slide this sleep analyser under your mattress and the next day check out the Withings app on your smartphone. It’ll tell you how long you slept and the quality of your slumbers. It shares the data from the pad to the smartphone app via wifi. You won’t feel the pad under the bed and there’s no need to wear any kind of gadget. It’ll monitor how much light, deep and REM sleep you had, and can detect sleep apnea. It’ll also tell you if you snored. Of course, you didn’t, you never do, do you? It must have been the dog.
Sony WH1000-XM4 headphones
Sony’s noise-cancelling headphones are exceptionally good, keeping the outside world’s noises at bay. It does this via multiple microphones which listen to the noise and feed the opposite sound in as well so they cancel each other out. Not all noise-cancellers are equal, but Sony’s is great.
The headphones sound excellent even without this feature turned on and are comfortable to wear for long periods of time. There are other features, too, like speak to chat which means that you can have a conversation without taking the headphones off. A sensor recognises when you’re talking and stops the music to let ambient noise in.
Apple iPhone 12 silicone case with MagSafe
If the person you’re buying for recently upgraded to the latest iPhone, this case is a great stocking filler. Of course, you can buy cases from lots of manufacturers but this case is MagSafe compatible. The iPhone 12, iPhone 12 mini, 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max all have a ring of magnets inside so if you buy the MagSafe charger, it will snap into place perfectly for wireless charging.
These cases from Apple also have the same magnets, which means that the case attaches to the phone much more easily but is held in place securely. There’s one cool extra, when you put the case on, the phone can recognise which one you’re putting on it and flash the colour of the case. Speaking of which, choose from the following rainbow of colours: plum, deep navy, kumquat, Cyprus green, red, pink citrus or the more demure shades, white and black.
Nest cam IQ indoor
Nest’s security cameras get better and smarter. They have high-resolution sensors to ensure great-quality video. When the camera spots something it can notify you immediately and includes neat extras such as facial recognition so you know that it’s a familiar face and not a stranger. Some features need a monthly subscription, but this has dropped in price recently. You can set the camera so that it turns off when you get home, something it recognises from your mobile phone being nearby.
Anden domino Apple watch stand
If your giftee has an Apple watch, this is a delightful accessory. Made of metal and wood, the Apple watch’s charging puck slides perfectly into the domino, with a carefully crafted cable pinch to hold it securely. A solid metal base (brass or aluminium) holds the whole enterprise steady and secure, with the watch being held in place at just the right angle. The wooden domino is attached to the metal by powerful magnets.
Apple MacBook air
The MacBook Air, a super-slim and lightweight laptop from Apple, has just had a significant upgrade with the introduction of a new processor. If that sounds boring, it becomes less so when you try the new machine – it is now much faster than before thanks to this chip which is now made by Apple, not Intel. So power-efficient is it that Apple has removed the fan, so it’s silent. And it has also meant there are other benefits, such as hours more battery life. The MacBook Air has a fingerprint sensor in the power button, so it’s very secure, and its latest keyboard is amazingly comfortable to use. It comes in space grey, silver and a highly attractive gold colour.
Amazon echo show 5
The 5 in the title refers to the 5in screen on this smart speaker. The audio is decent rather than outstanding, but the size and design make it a perfect alarm clock – though it has many other use cases. There is a camera so you can make video calls to other echo show users but if the thought of a camera in your bedroom seems disturbing, there is a physical switch which covers the lens when not in use.
It does all the other things speakers with Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant do, such as answering questions (great for kids’ homework), controlling compatible smart home devices, playing music from sources like Spotify and Apple Music and more. It plays radio stations including BBC, and this last feature is something the HomePod mini can’t match.
Away tech case
Away’s travel cases are excellent, with perfectly gliding wheels and sensational design, especially the aluminium-finish models. The cases can even include a removable battery so you can recharge your gadgets easily (and eject it from the case if you need to check your bag). And now, there’s a neat holder for your tech, with a zip compartment for chargers and elastic loops to secure headphones such as AirPods in their case, cables and so on. Of course, it perfectly complements the main case.
Beosound A1 2nd gen waterproof bluetooth speaker
The portable speaker from Bang and Olufsen matches classy design with exemplary audio, and sounds way bigger than it is. A domed 13cm circle with a handy leather strap, the A1 has clear, detailed audio which it delivers in every direction. The battery lasts for 18 hours between charges and it’s a great poolside speaker as it’s waterproof. B&O recently redesigned the A1 so it now looks better than ever, and it comes in five colours, including a delicate pink and punchy gold tone.
Nextbase 222 dashcam
Nextbase has a wide range of dash cams, but this is the most affordable. Although there are much pricier models, this one still manages 1080P HD recording for clear footage, so that number plates should be fully legible. It attaches easily to the mount by magnets so it’s easy to remove from the car.
When you park and turn off the ignition, it automatically switches to intelligent parking mode and only uses the G force sensor. This increases sensitivity so it registers movement if, say, someone bumps into you while parked. The power draw is so low in this mode that the internal battery can keep tabs on movements for a week.
Mous Galaxy note 20 ultra case
Of all the phone cases we’ve tested, nothing has beaten the Mous for protection. A special material called “airoshock” acts as a powerful impact absorber and a clever design means the case is ridged around the front of the phone, too – high in the corners, low on the long sides so you never notice it. You can choose from aramid fibre, speckled fabric and walnut backs, but all are strong and protective. Mous makes cases for lots of models of phones from Apple, Google and Samsung.
The verdict: Tech gifts
Tech gifts come in all shapes, sizes and prices. The Sony PlayStation 5 is one of the biggest, though it is so powerful and versatile, it deserves the room space. The Apple iPad Air and Bose QuietComfort Earbuds offer radical improvements to previous versions, and are respectively the best of their kind these companies have yet made. Phone accessories are gifts at good prices and the Mous and Apple items here are good choices.
IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.