Gift Guide 2018

Gift Guide: 12 really useful gifts for the friends who just had a baby

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Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2018 Holiday Gift Guide! Need more gift ideas? Check out our Gift Guide Hub.

Buying the right stuff as a new parent is tough. Buying the right things for a new parent? Even harder.

There’s just way, way too much junk out there marketed at new parents. A lot of it seems useful until you realize it’s just taking up space.

As it turns out, Team TechCrunch had a lot of babies this year. Really — backstage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF was like a lil’ temporary nursery. I chatted with the new moms and dads of TechCrunch (past and present) to figure out the things that helped them the most in the early months.

We won’t get into things like carriers and car seats and strollers; those are pretty personal, and there’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation. Instead we focused on the things that surprised us with their usefulness. Some of them aren’t necessarily marketed toward parents, but make their lives easier. Some are things they didn’t think they’d need, but ended up using on the daily.

Here are some of the things that came up most:

Headrest mirror

Age range: Until the baby is moved to a forward-facing car seat.

For the first stretch of a baby’s life, their car seat is supposed to face the rear of the car. That means, of course, that you can’t see your baby in the rearview. That’s no fun.

These plastic (so no glass shards if it somehow breaks) headrest mirrors bring the baby back into view. I thought it was just comforting to us, until we were traveling and using a rental car. Our baby, who always seems to love car rides, was suddenly upset any time we placed him in the rental. We eventually realized it’s because his friend — the baby in the mirror — was nowhere to be found. As soon as the mirror was back, he was happy again.

We use the GO by Goldbug ($13). It’s easy to install, adjust and move from car to car, and it feels super secure once it’s in place.

Philips Hue bulbs

Age range: All ages.

We’ve had Philips Hue bulbs in our house for a few years, but I honestly can’t believe how useful they’ve been since our baby arrived. Being able to turn on the light from your phone when the baby cries without going across the room to the switch? Magic. Being able to dim the light a bit with your voice (with the help of something like Google Home or an Amazon Echo) when your arms are occupied by an upset newborn? Sorcery.

A two-bulb starter kit (including the required hub) goes for $70 on Amazon.

(There are lots of alternatives to Hue at this point, many of them cheaper. I like Hue because of the flexibility provided by the Hue line’s extensive options/accessories, because it works with Apple’s HomeKit and Google’s Home and because the app is nice and stable.)

Portable/moveable Philips Hue switch

Age range: All ages.

If you get the bulbs above, grab one of these Philips Hue Tap switches ($44 on Amazon) too.

I’ve probably poked this goofy little hockey puck a thousand times in the past four months.

That example I used earlier with the light switch being on the other side of the room? That’s my life. This thing, however, lets me bring a light switch anywhere; in our case, my wife and I each have one stuck on our nightstand. It has four buttons, each of which can set a Hue light to a different preset (like bright/dim/even dimmer/off). It lets me turn the light to just the right level of brightness without waking anyone up, without looking for my phone and without wandering across the room in the dark.

Oh, and the neatest part: It doesn’t need batteries. The action of pressing a button charges it up just enough to send the command to the Hue bulb.

Portable white-noise machine

Age range: First year, at least.

White noise (think the sound of radio static) helps some babies fall asleep, and sleep more soundly.

There are about a thousand options for bringing white noise on the go, but the Cloud b Sleep Sheep ($28) has become my go-to.

It turns off automatically after 45 minutes, has an adjustable volume level, has velcro tabs to hook it onto a stroller and multiple melodies/sound options like ocean sounds and lullabies in case the white noise gets tiring. And when it’s not in use? It just looks like a cute stuffed animal, rather than a whacky techno doodad. It requires two AA batteries, so consider also buying them some rechargeables.

Google Home/Amazon Echo

Like the Hue Bulbs, usage of my Google Home ($100) has skyrocketed since our baby came along.

Got a baby on the edge of falling asleep? Hey Google, play rain noises.

Want to watch your shows but the baby is already nursing in your arms? Hey Google, play The Good Place on the upstairs TV.

Hey Google, add “freezable teethers” to my shopping list. Hey Google, play lullabies from Spotify. Hey Google, dim the lights.

(Amazon Echos are a totally solid alternative. I like Google Home because it plays friendly with Chromecast, but if the recipient is more a Fire TV fan, go with the Echo)

A (more secure!) baby monitor

Age range: Any age, but extra useful in the first year or two.

Baby monitors are great! Sometimes it feels like baby’s naps are the only times you can get anything done, but you still want to keep an eye on them.

Unfortunately, a lot of baby monitors are insecure junk (see Rapid7’s report on baby monitor security here) requiring anyone who might want to eavesdrop into your house to use only the most basic of tools (like, say, another baby monitor).

One option is to use a Nest camera ($160) as a baby monitor — especially if the house already has Nest cams setup elsewhere. Built by Google and battle-tested by countless security researchers, it’s pretty dang secure. It’s not built specifically to work as a baby monitor, but it’s nice that it can just be used as a security camera once it completes its baby monitor duties.

Want something a bit more baby-focused? A few TechCrunchers use Nanit. The base model ($230) does HD Audio/Video, IR-based night vision, plus some neat bonus tricks like sleep tracking and temperature/humidity sensing. A slightly more expensive Plus model ($279) brings in two-way audio, if that’s a thing you want.

And, as a huge plus, the company is pretty open about their security practices and self-auditing efforts.

Instant Pot

Age range: Any

When baby comes, free time becomes a precious commodity. It becomes way easy to fall back to microwaveable meals or DoorDash every night. And hey, no judgement! If you’re finding time to eat most meals, you’re doing just fine.

But when you feel like making something for yourself but want it to be tasty and fast and relatively easy to cleanup, pressure cooking is a great option. InstantPot ($80-$100, depending on the size) makes pressure cooking less daunting — prep ingredients, pop them in, close the lid, press a button.

Get ’em a good pressure cooking recipe book too, while you’re at it.

Meal delivery Kits

Age range: Extra useful in the first few months, but ask ahead.

See above. If finding time to cook is hard, finding time to shop might feel impossible.

Meal delivery kits like Blue Apron and Sunbasket (both of which I used, the latter of which I ended up preferring) bring the ingredients to you, taking the least fun step out of the cooking process. They’ve boiled the instructions down to just a page or so, with most of the meals taking about an hour to do right. One month of meal deliveries will cost around $200-$250, depending on which service you go with.

As for which service to go with: This is the kind of gift that you want to consult the gift recipient about before. There are all kinds of different options now, with services that tailor to everything from veggie to keto to gluten-free. Don’t go sending them three months of meat if they’re herbivores, you know?

A really good protective phone case

Age range: Literally any time before or after the baby arrives.

I’ve asked a bunch of friends about this, and it seems wildly common: When the baby comes along, suddenly your phone gets dropped 10x as much. When the baby starts crying, it’s easy to forget that your phone was sitting on your lap before you stood up. And when the baby gets older, they will grab your phone and throw it off the table.

A good phone case — something that beefs up the phone without adding a ton of bulk, like an Otterbox Defender ($50) or a LifeProof Slam ($50) — will save your friends hundreds of dollars in screen replacements.

Snoo

Age range: Newborn to “about 6 months” says the company (our son grew out of it at around 4.5 months).

Let’s just get this out of the way: $1,200 for a bassinet is a little bananas. That’s one helluva expensive gift.

With that said, the Snoo is… just wonderful. Invented by pediatrician Harvey Karp (author of “The Happiest Baby on the Block”) and designed by Yves Béhar, it detects when a sleeping baby is starting to fuss and plays a bit of white noise to try to shush ’em back to sleep. If the baby continues to cry, it’ll gently rock them for a few minutes, gradually increasing the rocking through two additional stages. Baby still crying? It turns off and buzzes your phone in the off-chance you’re somehow still asleep. It’s by no means a substitute for loving arms providing snuggles and warmth in the middle of the night — but when a baby is still in the early days of figuring out how to transition between sleep stages and is accidentally waking themselves up in the middle of the night, the Snoo might help everyone get a bit more sleep. Plus, the built-in swaddling system keeps the baby on their back while sleeping (as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics).

We went 50/50 on ours with some close friends who were having a baby a few months before us, and it worked out just perfect — our son came along just as their son was growing out of it. Our son is just about to grow out of it and into a bigger crib… and, well, we’re gonna miss the Snoo.

Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play

Age range: Until a baby is 25 lbs or can pull up or sit up unassisted, says the manual.

This is one of the few things we bought, fell in love with, then bought another. When the crib is in another room and you just need a place for the baby to lay back and hang out for a few, the Rock n’ Play (~$60) is fantastic. It can gently rock the baby and play white noise (but, unlike the Snoo, it’s constant — not just when the baby is fussing). It’s great for smaller homes/apartments, with a relatively small footprint and a super-lightweight design that can fold right up when it’s not in use.

Keekaroo Peanut Changing Pad

Age range: Newborn to around 3 years.

Before our baby arrived, I didn’t quite understand why I needed a $100+ dollar cushion for our changing table. Any flat surface will do, right?

Turns out, babies are wiggle worms. They don’t understand why you’re pulling them out of their nice cozy crib just to set them on a cold table. Nor do they understand that falling from a few feet up would be bad news for everyone. They’ll roll right off, given the chance.

The Keekaroo Peanut helps make the changing table a bit more comfy, but also gives you a buckling strap and raised edges to help keep your lil’ acrobat from tumbling off (you still need to stay close to the table, of course). It’s also SUPER easy to clean, thanks to the water-resistant surface.

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Gift Guide: Indie games for players worn out on AAA titles

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2018 has been a big year for big games, and with new titles from the Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises all competing… it’s enough to make a gamer want to just quit and play something a little more low-key. Here are some of the smaller, independent games we liked from this year and who they might appeal to.

Bonus: Many of these can be gotten for less than $30, making them super solid/easy gifts. They aren’t for any particular platform or in any particular order, except that I’ve been playing the heck out of Ashen for the last couple of days, so it’s first.

Ashen – for “Souls” lovers

Available on: Xbox One, Windows

(To be fair, this is less of an “indie” than the others on this list, some of which were made by one person, but it’s just off the beaten path enough to qualify.)

If you’ve ever heard your loved one talk about “builds,” really hard bosses or which helmet completes their outfit best, they probably play games of the Dark Souls type. Ashen is a new action-adventure-RPG in the same vein but with a few notable twists. It has a lovely art style, a streamlined (but still byzantine) progression system and an interesting multiplayer style where other players drop into your game, and you drop into theirs, with no real warning or interaction. It works better than you’d think, and I’ve already had some great experiences with it.

Yoku’s Island Express – for people who like both pinball and Metroidvanias

Available on: Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Windows

Don’t be fooled by the cuteness of Yoku’s Island Express. This game is both unique and well-crafted, a fusion of (believe it or not) pinball mechanics and gradual exploration of an enormous map. It’s definitely weird, but it immediately clicks in a way you wouldn’t expect. It’s a great break from the grim environments of… well, lots of the games on this list.

Dead Cells – for action fans who won’t mind “roguelike” repetition

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Windows, Linux, macOS

The “roguelike” genre has you traversing procedurally generated variations on a series of levels and progressing farther by improving your own skills — and sometimes getting a couple shiny new weapons or abilities. Dead Cells takes this genre and combines it with incredibly tight side-scrolling action and platforming that never gets, old even when you’re going through the sewers for the 20th time. The developers were very responsive during Early Access; the game was great when I bought it early in the year, and now it’s even better.

Below – for atmosphere fans who won’t mind “roguelike” repetition

Available on: Xbox One, Windows

In some ways, Below is the opposite of Dead Cells, though they share a bit of DNA. This game, the long-awaited follow-up to Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP by Capy, is a slow, dark, tense descent into a mysterious cave; it’s almost totally wordless and shown with a pulled-back perspective that makes things feel both twee and terrifying. The less said about the particulars of the game, the better (the gamer should discover on their own), but it may be fairly noted that this is a title that requires some patience and experimentation — and yes, you’re going to die on a spike trap.

Cultist Simulator – for the curious

Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

It’s very hard to explain Cultist Simulator. It’s an interactive story, different every time, told through cards that you draw and play, and which interact with each other in strange and wonderful ways. One card might be a place, another an action, another a person, all of which can be used, investigated or sacrificed to other cards: ideas, drives, gods… it’s really quite amazing, even if you rarely have any idea what’s happening. But the curious and driven will derive great satisfaction from learning the way this strange, beautifully made machine works.

Return of the Obra Dinn – for the observant (and dedicated)

Available on: macOS, Windows

This game absorbed me completely for a few days earlier this year. Like the above, it’s a bit hard to explain: you’re given the task of determining the identities and fates of the entire crew of the titular ghost ship by using a magic watch to witness their last words and the moment of their death. That task, and the story it reveals as you accomplish it, grows increasingly disturbing and complex. The beautiful 1-bit art, great music and voice acting, and extremely clever construction make this game — essentially made by one person, Lucas Pope — one of my favorites of the year. But it’s only for people who don’t mind banging their head against things a bit.

Dusk – for connoisseurs of old-school shooters

Available on: Windows, Switch

If your loved one ever talks about the good-old days of Quake, Half-Life, Unreal and other classic shooters, Dusk will be right up their alley. The chunky graphics are straight out of the ’90s, but the game brings a level of self-awareness and fun, not to mention some gameplay improvements, that make it a joy to play.

CrossCode – for anyone who spent more time playing SNES Classic than AAA games this year

Available on: Windows, Linux, macOS

This crowd-funded RPG was long in the making, and it shows. It’s huge! A fusion of SNES and PSX-era pixel art, smooth but furious top-down action à la Secret of Mana, and a whole lot of skills and equipment. I’ve played nearly 20 hours so far and I’m only now starting to fill out the second branch of four skill trees; the overarching story is still just getting rolling. I told you it was huge! But it’s also fabulous.

Celeste – for the dexterous and those not inclined to anger

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, macOS, Windows, Linux

Celeste is one of those games they call “Nintendo Hard,” that elusive combination of difficulty and control that cause you to be more disappointed in yourself than the game when you die. And you will die in Celeste — over and over. Hundreds of times. It gleefully tracks the number of deaths on each set of stages, and you should expect well into three figures. The platforming is that hard — but the game is also that good. Not only is its pixel art style cute and the environments lovingly and carefully crafted, but it tells a touching story and the dialog is actually pretty fun.

Overcooked! 2 –  for friendships strong enough to survive it

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Windows, macOS

Much like the first Overcooked, the sequel has you and your friends attempting to navigate chaotic kitchens, hazards, and each other as you try to put together simple dishes like salads and hamburgers for never-sated patrons. The simple controls belie the emergent complexity of the gameplay, and while it can be frustrating at first, it’s immensely satisfying when you get into the zone and blast through a target number of dishes. But only do it with friends you think you can tolerate screaming and bossing each other around.

Into the Breach – for the tactically minded

Available on: Switch, Windows, macOS, Linux

The follow-up to the addictive starship simulator roguelike Faster Than Light (FTL), Into the Breach is a game of tactics taking place on tiny boards loaded with monsters and mechs — but don’t let the small size fool you. The solutions to these little tableaux require serious thinking as you position, attack, and (hopefully) repel the alien invaders. Matt says it’s “perfect for Switch.”

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Gift Guide: 6 rugged gifts for outdoorsy friends and family

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Shopping for someone who prefers hiking and camping to the great indoors can be tricky. Not only are outdoor enthusiasts usually less impressed by traditional gifts (clothes, games, etc.) but their preferred realm of technical gear is vast and confusing. If you’d rather not go deep on the research yourself, we’ve got some solid touchpoints for expert outdoor gear gifting.

1. Party tent

Okay, hear me out. As a pack weight-conscious backpacker, the idea of a light-up tent sounded ridiculous at first, but Big Agnes is onto something with their line of mtnGLO tents. I’ve been camping with the two-person Big Agnes mtnGLO Copper Spur tent for more than a season now and these things are really cool. The company has embedded thin strips of LED lighting into the tent itself, illuminating the inside more evenly than you can pull off with a headlamp alone without overpowering your hard-earned nature vibes.

Photo via Big Agnes

A small detachable battery pack powers the lights and you can jettison that bit if you’re really looking to shed ounces. If not, enjoy tent-bound activities like reading and looking for your prescription medication with the newfound freedom of ample light. If your special giftee prefers car camping, then even better: insta-party tent. Or you know, they can fish last night’s socks out of the bottom of their sleeping bag in record time.

If this is too gimmicky (I’m telling you, it’s not!) but you’re looking to gift a tent, check out REI’s in-house brand. They make super-solid tents that are generally priced well below the competition, and even offer a backpacking bundle and a camping bundle that make the perfect starter set of gear for someone new to losing themselves in the great outdoors.

2. Solar Charger

goal zero solar chargerIf you’re shopping for a car camper or a day hiker, battery life isn’t much of a concern, but if your special someone likes to get lost in the wilderness overnight, they’ve probably stressed about battery life. Many people rely on their smartphone as their primary camera in the outdoors, so keeping it charged deep into a hike, climb or backpack trip is key. In most of these circumstances, a traditional portable battery would be too heavy and wouldn’t be rechargeable in the field, but solar chargers can solve those problems.

Some people swear by solar panels by Suntactics, and the Suntactics sCharger-5 Solar Charger is a reasonably sized option. Goal Zero is another prominent brand in the solar gadget market, and the Goal Zero Nomad 7 Plus Solar Panel could make a good personal panel option. For car camping, #vanlife or something else epic yet experienced by car, check out the Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium Portable Power Station, a compact beast of a charger that’s priced accordingly ($599.95).

Note: Of course, solar chargers don’t work where sunlight is limited, so if you’re in the Pacific Northwest maybe skip this section.

Garmin Fenix 53. GPS watch

Why not an Apple Watch? Well, a lot of reasons. For anyone who does extensive hiking, climbing and camping in the backcountry, Apple’s smartwatch is far too puny and fragile. Sure, the Apple Watch is the go-to choice for running and day hiking, but is your loved one into bigger, burlier adventures? They’ll need something with more rugged housing, battery life worth writing home about and the capability for prolonged use of the GPS features that help keep them safe — and on route — outdoors.

Garmin makes a lot of solid options here at different price points, including the Garmin Fenix 5 ($449.99), which happily comes in three sizes to accommodate small wrists. Garmin claims up to to two weeks of battery life in smartwatch mode on the Fenix 5, up to 24 hours in its GPS mode and up to 60 hours in battery-saver mode. The Fenix 5 is configurable depending on your activity of choice, with profiles tuned to hiking, snowboarding and mountain biking.

Compass-maker Suunto also offers a few well-liked watches in the space, including the Suunto Ambit 3 Peak, which boasts “route altitude profile navigation and extremely long battery life,” i.e. the stuff you really need.

4. Compact camera gear

We covered camera gifting more extensively in our dedicated photography gift guide, but we’ll toss in a few ideas here just for fun. For anyone into the extreme outdoors (backcountry skiing, mountaineering, climbing etc.) a GoPro is a no-brainer. The company’s latest offering, the GoPro Hero7 Black, is top of the line for $399.99, but other GoPro models are available for significantly less.GoPro Hero 7 BlackIf you’re looking for something more geared toward photography rather than video, Sony’s RX100 line offers a killer compact camera that won’t take up much space in your pack. The new Sony RX100 V ($899) and RX 100 VI ($1,199) offer a higher-end tiny pro camera, but the still-excellent older models of the Sony RX 100 can be had for a fraction of the price.

5. Satellite messaging

Garmin InReach MiniThis one might sound a little morbid, but if your loved one gets into a sticky situation miles from civilization, they won’t be complaining. A handful of different devices can allow you to send an emergency signal when your phone can’t, and many of them also allow for non-emergency satellite messaging — handy for coordinating meet-up points or checking in from the backcountry. Among these, the new Garmin InReach Mini ($349.99) is well-regarded for its diminutive size and well-rounded feature set, though the Garmin inReach Explorer and Spot X are also solid options.

6. Small Stuff

Okay, so you need a gift for someone outdoorsy but you want to find something a little more low-key. Maybe a stocking stuffer or a casual-friend gift. We can do that. A lot of people have touchscreen-friendly gloves, but do they have technical touchscreen-friendly gloves? Snag a pair of the North Face’s ETip gloves, which are both cute and functional, or pick up a set of Mountain Hardware’s Power Stretch Stimulus Gloves, which make a nice grippy glove liner.Gaia GPS apps

And we’d be remiss if we didn’t recommend the Gaia GPS app, available for both iPhone and Android at $19.99. For navigating outdoors with topographical maps and even fairly complex routefinding, Gaia can’t be beat. Of course, we’d also be remiss if we didn’t remind you to bring a paper map — just in case.

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Gift Guide: the 17 best board games for holiday family fun

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Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2018 Holiday Gift Guide! Need more gift ideas? Check out our Gift Guide Hub.

Ah, holiday board gaming. A roaring fire. A glass of nog. And a raging debate over whether the blue guy was next to the red square or vice versa.

Buying a gift for a board game fan? Just need something new to bring along to the get together? In this roundup we highlight some of what we’ve been playing lately — from the easy to the immensely complex — and give you and your family fodder for your next bout of holiday fun. Some new, some old, all great.

 

Machi Koro

This super-cute card game involves building a city using special buildings and attractions. Will your city have a power station, a noodle bar and a playground? Or will you focus on a TV station, a bakery and city hall? Think of it as a whimsical Sim City in physical form.

 

King of Tokyo

Who do you want to be today? A giant lizard? A mech? An alien invader? With King of Tokyo you can take over a Japanese metropolis with your giant monster and, with the right moves, take out other players with your spiky tail or teeth. A great game for middle-schoolers, it offers some of the fun of card gaming with board game play.

 

Codenames

Codenames is a wildly different experience with each new group of players. You lay out a grid of cards, each with a single word on it. You pair off two-versus-two, with one player being the clue giver, the other being the guesser. The clue giver is trying to get their guesser to pick as many of their team’s cards as they can each turn, but there’s a catch: the clue giver can only say one word per turn… and there are sudden-death cards on the board. You’re looking for single words that can connect multiple cards without misleading the guesser into tapping any of the other team’s cards or, worse yet, the sudden-death killer card. Lead the guesser astray, and your team’s done for. There are all sorts of variations of Codenames at this point — including a picture-heavy Disney remix for when the littles want to join in.

Anomia

You pull a card. It has a seemingly random symbol on it, along with a category — like “Shoe brand,” or “Occupation,” or “Pop Star.” Look at the top cards of the other players at the table; does your symbol match anyone else’s symbol? If so, the race is on. The first one who can name something, anything that fits the category wins that round. It sounds simple, but it’ll leave your brain exhausted and your body sore from laughter.

Bohnanza

In this German card game, you’re dealt a hand of assorted types of beans (some more rare than others) that you must play in the order they’re dealt. You have a limited number of fields in which to plant your beans, which you can then harvest for money. The trick of the game is that as new cards/beans are introduced, they must be planted or harvested by someone at the table for play to resume, so a big part of the game is negotiating bean trades with other players to make the most of your own hand. The player with the most money at the end of the game wins. If you enjoy haggling and negotiating (and goofy cartoon beans) this game is for you.

Waldschattenspiel

I’ve talked about this game before on TC, but this version, in the original German, is one of the coolest versions. The gameplay is simple: you turn off the lights in the room and hide little elves behind tall trees. Then one player moves her candle through the forest, trying to catch the elves at play. Once all the elves are caught — or all the elves hide in one spot — you win. The best part? Fire!

Viticulture

Given that most games are played while drinking a bottle or two of wine, Viticulture is the drinking person’s board game. You and your family run a small winery in Tuscany and you have to grow your business by picking grapes, making wine and getting visitors. Another building game with a great premise.

 

Secret Hitler

Secret Hitler is a game about the rise of fascism. While it’s not a light-hearted game, it does teach us about the fragility of political systems and what it takes to go from a peaceable state to a fascist one overnight. Influenced by Werewolf/Mafia style games, one player is Secret Hitler and another player is a secret Nazi. Together, without telling the other players, they must work together to convert the government to fascism. It’s well worth a look if you like thinking games.

Spaceteam

Spaceteam is a cooperative game — you win, or lose, together. But just because it’s cooperative doesn’t mean it’s a calm, friendly hang. Oh, there will be yelling.

Spaceteam has you working together to repair your failing spacecraft. Everyone at the table has a set of goals they need to accomplish… but everyone else at the table has their own goals, too. And everyone seemingly has the wrong tools. Gather all the tools you need from other players, and that goal is complete… but everyone else needs their tools too, and with the timer counting down, you’re going to have to all go simultaneously if you’re going to survive. It’s frantic and ridiculous and OH MY GOD SOMEONE PASS ME THE CENTRIFUGAL DISPOSAL, I’VE ASKED 15 TIMES! Oh, nevermind, I have it right here.

Carcassonne

Carcassonne is one of my absolute favorite games. This city-building game lets little ones take part in the fun and, because it is so visually arresting, it can engross you for hours. This massive box includes almost all the expansions. I cannot recommend this game more highly.

 

 

Twilight Struggle

This massive game lets you play the USSR vs. the USA in a struggle for world domination. Designed to simulate the Cold War — I know, exciting! — it’s actually a truly engrossing title and well worth a look.

Scythe

Scythe is a sprawling game that uses cards and miniatures to describe a world of alternate reality. As a farmer in this broken world you must rebuild your armies, reclaim lost lands and start up the great gears of progress. It’s a long game — about 115 minutes — but it has gotten rave reviews.

Gnomes at Night

Gnomes at Night is a cooperative kids game with a twist. One player sees a maze while other player cannot. The players work together to move through the maze to the treasure, encouraging communications and interaction that online games lack.

 

 

Risk Legacy

Risk Legacy offers all the complexity of Risk with even more complexity! In each game the board and pieces themselves change, allowing you to create long stretches of gameplay that promise repeat bouts. While old-fashioned Risk is a still a classic, this amazing game is a great expansion to that military world.

Last Night On Earth

Last Night on Earth is a board game with multiple playthrough scenarios. Players get to choose if they play as humans or zombies. If you’re on the human team, you get to pick a hero card before the game starts. You then move around the board to solve the scenario — for instance, you can be defending a manor, escaping a location and more. Zombies will get in the way and you’ll have to find the best weapon to get rid of them.

 

Gloomhaven 

If your friends and family take board gaming serious, consider Gloomhaven. It’s a good bit more intense (and, at $140+, more expensive) than anything listed above, but it’s one of the most popular games of the year for a reason. A ready-to-play dungeon crawler in a box, it’s got thousands of cards, dozens of playable classes and nearly 100 playable scenarios. You’ll want to lock in a group of friends who can meet up regularly to play this one before diving in — but if you can do that, you’re in for something special.

Hero Realms

Hero Realms is like a trading card game (think Magic: The Gathering) but also quite different. If you hate buying card packs to build the best deck ever, Hero Realms is for you — everything is already in the box. Each player starts with just a handful of cards and slowly builds a deck by acquiring cards from the central pile. After that, it’s a matter of combining the effects of multiple cards to attack your opponent and destroy their heroes.

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Gift Guide: 16 fantastic computer bags

Posted by | Gadgets, Gift Guide 2018 | No Comments

Give the gift of organization this year. Bags are often ignored but are a critical part of anyone’s mobile gear. They’re the outward representations of our techie styles, and we put far too little thought into where we keep our most prized possessions. Here’s a collection of bags TechCrunch reviewed over the last year. You’ll find waxed canvas bags, camera backpacks, trail-ready commuter bags and bags designed with women in mind.

WP Standard built the leather messenger bag you want

At $295 the bag is priced accordingly for the fantastic material and build. It’s a great bag to carry a few things and it will always be noticed. I have yet to see a bag as beautiful as the Vintage Leather Messenger Bag. If more space is needed, WP Standard now has a larger option that looks equally as good in the $310 Large Messenger Bag though I haven’t seen the bag in person yet.

Read the full review here.



Pad & Quill Heritage Satchel is a modern leather classic

This is a solid bag that I completely recommend. It’s a great size, able to hold most everything I threw at it while not being too big to carry even when lightly packed. After a few months with the bag, it’s aged nicely and is starting to feel like a well-worn pair of denim jeans. The leather is still delicious and seems durable enough to withstand a person’s daily grind.

Read the full review here.

The Bitcoin Genesis Block backpack will centralize your belongings

Unlike the blockchain, this backpack will centralize your stuff in a fairly large, fairly standard backpack. There is little unique about the backpack itself – it’s a solid piece made of 100% polyester and includes ergonomically designed straps and a secret pocket – but it is printed with the Bitcoin Genesis Block including a headline about UK bank bailouts. In short, it’s Merkle tree-riffic.

Read the full review here.

Chrome’s Vega Transit Brief makes your work vibe less uncool

The Vega isn’t Chrome’s most inspired design ever, but it isn’t supposed to be. If you want to show up to a meeting looking pro but still cool, like yeah you looked over the slides from the call but you drink shitty beer after work because you’re legit not because you can’t afford some triple-hopped bullshit, the Vega is probably for you. For anyone looking for a well-made bag that’s not too loud to carry to and from work meetings that happens to turn into a damn backpack, Chrome’s Vega Transit Brief is a great fit.

Read the full review here.

Chrome’s BLCKCHRM Bravo 2.0 backpack is a burly, stylish beast

It’s hard to overstate how good-looking this bag is. Like quality leather, the Hypalon breaks in with wear, picking up surface marks that fade into a kind of weathered patina over time. Between that material, the all-black mini Chrome buckle chest strap and central black leather panel, it’s a very sleek, sexy looking bag. Still, for anyone who digs the Bravo 2.0’s vibe but is wary of its heavy construction, the regular edition Bravo 2.0 might be a better choice. But if you like your packs fancy, serious and black on black on black, well, you know what to do.

Read the full review here.



Filson 24-Hour Tin Briefcase

This bag has a large main compartment with a padded laptop area that will hold a 15-incher easily, and a couple of pockets on the inside to isolate toothbrushes and pens and the like. On the outside is a pair of good-sized zippered pockets that open wide to allow access from either the top or side; inside those are organizer strips and sub-pockets for pens and so on.

Read the full review here.

Croots England Vintage Canvas Laptop

There isn’t a heck of a lot of room in there but this is definitely meant to be a daily driver briefcase and not an overnight bag — a “personal item” on the plane perhaps but I would take the Filson or ONA over it for space reasons. However as a bag to take to work the cafe, or the bookstore it’s a great option and a striking one. The Flight Bag is a slightly more expansive and unique option.

Read the full review here.

S-Zone $30 waxed canvas bag

To balance out the admittedly very expensive bags in this review I decided to grab a cheap one off Amazon as well. As I expected, it isn’t up to the quality level of the others, but for $30 it’s a bargain. If you want to experience how waxed canvas evolves and wears, an inexpensive bag like this is a great way to try it out.

Read the full review here.

WP Standard’s Rucksack goes the distance

This bag assumes that you’re OK with thick, heavy leather and that you’re willing to forgo a lot of the bells and whistles you get with more modern styles. That said, it has a great classic look and it’s very usable. I suspect this bag would last decades longer than anything you could buy at Office Depot and it would look good doing it. At $275 it’s a bit steep but you’re paying for years – if not decades – of regular use and abuse. It’s worth the investment.

Read the full review here.



The Nomadic NF-02 keeps everything in its right place

Nomadic is a solid backpack. It’s small, light, and still holds up to abuse. I’m a big fan of the entire Nomadic line and it’s great to see this piece available in the US. It’s well worth a look if you’re looking for a compact carrier for your laptop, accessories, and notebooks.

Read the full review here.

Chrome’s Yalta 2.0 is a roomy rolltop that keeps up

Compared to some of Chrome’s more heavy-duty bags and other less-technical packs, the Yalta is a likable middle ground. The pack isn’t as rain resistant as a bag made out of fully waterproof material and the laptop sleeve could use some structure, but it carries a fair amount and it’s got a nice slender profile that looks and feels good. The Yalta doesn’t really have any quirks or tricks beyond the strange side-zip compartment, and that makes it a good fit for anyone who needs a good-looking, weather resistant mid-sized rolltop backpack for work and what comes before and after.

Read the full review here.

Mission Workshop’s Radian rolltop starts simple but grows piece by piece

In the end I think the Radian is the best option for anyone looking at Mission Workshop bags who wants a modular option, but unless you plan on swapping out pieces a lot, I’m not personally convinced that it’s better than their all-in-one bags like the Rambler and Vandal. By all means take a look at putting a Radian system together, but don’t neglect to check if any of the pre-built ones fit your needs as well.

Read the full review here.

Why I still love the Peak Design Everyday Backpack

Like I said several months ago, the bag is best described as smart and solid. It’s a confident design with just enough pockets and storage options. The bag features one, large pocket that makes up most of the bag. Foldable dividers allow the wearer to customize the bag as needed. And quickly, too. These dividers fold in several ways, allowing the bag to hold, say, a large telephoto lens or several smaller lens.

Read the full review here.



P.MAI’s women’s leather laptop bag is luxury packed with utility

By designing a bag for women that blends a luxury aesthetic with comfortable utility, the P.MAI bag quickly rose to the the “Most Wished for” laptop backpack on Amazon last holiday season. Premium materials and quality design don’t come cheap. Still, the $450 price-tag may keep this one on the wish-list for now.

Read the full review here.

Timbuk2’s Launch featherweight daypack is tough and tiny

If you’re a longtime Timbuk2 fan know that the pack both looks and feels different from most of Timbuk2’s classic designs, and unfortunately doesn’t come in the bright, playful tri-color look that some of its classic messengers do. Still, if you’re into more natural, subdued tones and really don’t want your day-to-day pack to weigh you down unnecessarily, Timbuk2’s Launch is totally worth a look.

Read the full review here.

Osprey Momentum 32 is ready for muddy trails

The Osprey Momentum 32 impresses. I used it during a muddy week at Beaumont Scout Reservation and it performed flawlessly as a rugged, bike-ready backpack. It stood tall in the miserable rain and insufferable heat that engulfed northern Ohio during the camping trip. If it can withstand these conditions, it can withstand an urban commute.

Read the full review here.

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Gift Guide: 11 picture perfect gifts for your photographer friends

Posted by | Gadgets, gift guide, Gift Guide 2018, hardware, Photography, TC | No Comments

Photographers are tricky to get gifts for because every one of them has preferences they may already have spent years indulging. But we have blind spots, we photographers. We will spend thousands on lenses but never buy a proper camera bag, or properly back up our shots, or splurge for a gadget that makes certain shots 10 times easier. Scroll on for gift recommendations that any photographer can appreciate.

Gnarbox or Western Digital backup drive

Okay, these are definitely expensive, so keep scrolling if you’re on a budget, but they can also totally change how someone shoots. If your photographer/loved one tends to travel or go out into the wilderness when they shoot, a backup solution is a must. These drives act as self-contained rugged backup solutions, letting you offload your SD card at the end of a shoot and preview the contents, no laptop required.

They’ve been around for years, but early ones were pretty janky and “professional” ones cost thousands. The latest generation, typified by the Gnarbox and Western Digital’s devices, strike a balance and have been pretty well-reviewed.

The Gnarbox is the better device (faster, much better interface and tools), but it’s more expensive — the latest version with 256 GB of space onboard (probably the sweet spot in terms of capacity) costs $400. A comparable WD device costs about half that. If you and a couple friends want to throw down together, I’d recommend getting the former, but both do more or less the same thing.


Microfiber wipes

On the other end of the price spectrum, but no less important, are lens and screen wipes. One of the best things I ever did for myself was order a big pack of these things and stash them in every jacket, coin pocket, and bag I own. Now when anyone needs their glasses, lens, phone, laptop screen or camera LCD cleaned, I’m right there — and sometimes even give them the cloth to keep. I’ve been buying these and they’re good, but there are lots more sizes and packs to choose from.


SD cards and hard cases

Most cameras use SD cards these days, and photographers can never have too many of them. Anything larger than 16 GB is useful — just make sure it’s a name brand. A nice touch would be to buy an SD card case that holds eight or 10 of the things. Too many photographers (myself included) keep their cards in little piles, drawers, pockets and so on. A nice hard case for cards is always welcome — Pelican is the big brand for these, but as long as it isn’t from the bargain bin, another brand is fine.


Moment smartphone lens case

The best camera is the one you have with you, and more often than not, even for photographers, that’s a phone. There are lots of stick-on, magnet-on and so on lens sets, but Moment’s solution seems the most practical. You use their cases — mostly tasteful, fortunately — and pick serious lenses to pop into the built-in mount.

The optics are pretty good and the lenses are big but not so big they’ll weigh down a purse or jacket pocket. Be sure to snoop and figure out which model phone your friend is using.



Waxed canvas camera bag (or any good one really)

Every photographer should have a padded, stylish bag for their gear. I’m partial to waxed canvas, and of the ones I recently reviewed I think the ONA Union Street is the best one out there as far as combination camera/day trip bags go. That said, everyone is into these Peak design ones, as well.


Lomo’Instant Automat or Fujifilm SQ6 instant film camera

Everyone shoots digital these days, but if it’s a party or road trip you’re going on and capturing memories is the goal, an instant film camera might be the best bet. I’ve been using an Automat since they raised money on Kickstarter and I’ve loved this thing: the mini film isn’t too expensive, the shooting process is pleasantly analog but not too difficult, and the camera itself is compact and well designed.

If, on the other hand, you’d like something a little closer to the Polaroids of yore (without spending the cash on a retro one and Impossible film) then the Fujifilm SQ6 is probably your best bet. It’s got autofocus rather than zone focus, meaning it’s dead simple to operate, but it has lots of options if you want to tweak the exposure.


Circular polarizer filter

Our own photo team loves these filters, which pop onto the end of a lens and change the way light comes through it. This one in particular lets the camera see more detail in clouds and otherwise change the way a scene with a top and bottom half looks. Everyone can use one, and even if they already have one, it’s good to have spares. Polaroid is a good brand for these, but again, any household name with decent reviews should be all right.

The only issue here is that you need to get the right size. Next time you see your friend’s camera lying around, look at the lens that’s on it. Inside the front of it, right next to the glass, there should be a millimeter measurement — NOT the one on the side of the lens, that’s the focal length. The number on the end of the lens tells you the diameter of filter to get.



Wireless shutter release

If you’re taking a group photo or selfie, you can always do the classic 10-second timer hustle, but if you don’t want to leave anything to chance, a wireless remote is clutch. These things basically just hit the shutter button for you, though some have things like mode switches and so on.

Unfortunately, a bit like filters, shutter release devices are often model-specific. The big camera companies have their own, but if you want to be smart about it go for a cross-platform device like the Hama DCCSystem. These can be a bit hard to find, so don’t feel bad about getting the camera-specific kind instead.


Blackrapid strap (or any nice custom strap)

Another pick from our video and photo team, Blackrapid’s cross-body straps take a little time to get used to, but make a lot of sense. The camera hangs upside-down and you grab it with one hand and bring it to shooting position with one movement. When you’re done, it sits out of the way instead of bumping into your chest. And because it attaches to the bottom plate of your camera, you don’t have the straps in the way pretty much from any angle you want to hold the camera.

If you feel confident your photographer friend isn’t into this unorthodox style of shooting, don’t worry — a nice “normal” strap is also a great gift. Having a couple to choose from, especially ones that can be swapped out quickly, is always nice in case one is damaged or unsuitable for a certain shoot.


Adobe subscription

Most photographers use Adobe software, usually Lightroom or Photoshop, and unlike back in the day you don’t just buy a copy of these any more — it’s a subscription. Fortunately you can still buy a year of it for someone in what amounts to gift card form. Unfortunately, you can’t buy half a year or whatever fits your budget — it’s the $120 yearly photography bundle or nothing.


Print services

Too many digital photos end up sitting on hard drives, only to be skimmed now and then or uploaded to places like Facebook in much-degraded form. But given the chance (and a gift certificate from you) they’ll print giant versions of their favorite shots and be glad they did it.

I bought a nice printer a long while back and print my own shots now, so I haven’t used these services. However, I trust Wirecutter’s picks, Nations Photo Lab and AdoramaPix; $30-$40 will go a long way.


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The ultimate guide to gifting STEM toys: tons of ideas for little builders

Posted by | adafruit industries, Anki, artificial intelligence, Asia, BBC Micro, Disney, Education, Europe, Gadgets, Gaming, Gift Guide 2018, hardware, Kano, littlebits, makeblock, mattel, robotics, TC | No Comments

The holiday season is here again, touting all sorts of kids’ toys that pledge to pack ‘STEM smarts’ in the box, not just the usual battery-based fun.

Educational playthings are nothing new, of course. But, in recent years, long time toymakers and a flurry of new market entrants have piggybacked on the popularity of smartphones and apps, building connected toys for even very young kids that seek to tap into a wider ‘learn to code’ movement which itself feeds off worries about the future employability of those lacking techie skills.

Whether the lofty educational claims being made for some of these STEM gizmos stands the test of time remains to be seen. Much of this sums to clever branding. Though there’s no doubt a lot of care and attention has gone into building this category out, you’ll also find equally eye-catching price-tags.

Whatever STEM toy you buy there’s a high chance it won’t survive the fickle attention spans of kids at rest and play. (Even as your children’s appetite to be schooled while having fun might dash your ‘engineer in training’ expectations.) Tearing impressionable eyeballs away from YouTube or mobile games might be your main parental challenge — and whether kids really need to start ‘learning to code’ aged just 4 or 5 seems questionable.

Buyers with high ‘outcome’ hopes for STEM toys should certainly go in with their eyes, rather than their wallets, wide open. The ‘STEM premium’ can be steep indeed, even as the capabilities and educational potential of the playthings themselves varies considerably.

At the cheaper end of the price spectrum, a ‘developmental toy’ might not really be so very different from a more basic or traditional building block type toy used in concert with a kid’s own imagination, for example.

While, at the premium end, there are a few devices in the market that are essentially fully fledged computers — but with a child-friendly layer applied to hand-hold and gamify STEM learning. An alternative investment in your child’s future might be to commit to advancing their learning opportunities yourself, using whatever computing devices you already have at home. (There are plenty of standalone apps offering guided coding lessons, for example. And tons and tons of open source resources.)

For a little DIY STEM learning inspiration read this wonderful childhood memoir by TechCrunch’s very own John Biggs — a self-confessed STEM toy sceptic.

It’s also worth noting that some startups in this still youthful category have already pivoted more toward selling wares direct to schools — aiming to plug learning gadgets into formal curricula, rather than risking the toys falling out of favor at home. Which does lend weight to the idea that standalone ‘play to learn’ toys don’t necessarily live up to the hype. And are getting tossed under the sofa after a few days’ use.

We certainly don’t suggest there are any shortcuts to turn kids into coders in the gift ideas presented here. It’s through proper guidance — plus the power of their imagination — that the vast majority of children learn. And of course kids are individuals, with their own ideas about what they want to do and become.

The increasingly commercialized rush towards STEM toys, with hundreds of millions of investor dollars being poured into the category, might also be a cause for parental caution. There’s a risk of barriers being thrown up to more freeform learning — if companies start pushing harder to hold onto kids’ attention in a more and more competitive market. Barriers that could end up dampening creative thinking.

At the same time (adult) consumers are becoming concerned about how much time they spend online and on screens. So pushing kids to get plugged in from a very early age might not feel like the right thing to do. Your parental priorities might be more focused on making sure they develop into well rounded human beings — by playing with other kids and/or non-digital toys that help them get to know and understand the world around them, and encourage using more of their own imagination.

But for those fixed on buying into the STEM toy craze this holiday season, we’ve compiled a list of some of the main players, presented in alphabetical order, rounding up a selection of what they’re offering for 2018, hitting a variety of price-points, product types and age ranges, to present a market overview — and with the hope that a well chosen gift might at least spark a few bright ideas…


Adafruit Kits

Product: Metro 328 Starter Pack 
Price: $45
Description: Not a typical STEM toy but a starter kit from maker-focused and electronics hobbyist brand Adafruit. The kit is intended to get the user learning about electronics and Arduino microcontrollers to set them on a path to being a maker. Adafruit says the kit is designed for “everyone, even people with little or no electronics and programming experience”. Though parental supervision is a must unless you’re buying for a teenager or mature older child. Computer access is also required for programming the Arduino.

Be sure to check out Adafruit’s Young Engineers Category for a wider range of hardware hacking gift ideas too, from $10 for a Bare Conductive Paint Pen, to $25 for the Drawdio fun pack, to $35 for this Konstruktor DIY Film Camera Kit or $75 for the Snap Circuits Green kit — where budding makers can learn about renewable energy sources by building a range of solar and kinetic energy powered projects. Adafruit also sells a selection of STEM focused children’s books too, such as Python for Kids ($35)
Age: Teenagers, or younger children with parental supervision


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Anki

Product: Cozmo
Price: $180
Description: The animation loving Anki team added a learn-to-code layer to their cute, desktop-mapping bot last year — called Cozmo Code Lab, which was delivered via free update — so the cartoonesque, programmable truck is not new on the scene for 2018 but has been gaining fresh powers over the years.

This year the company has turned its attention to adults, launching a new but almost identical-looking assistant-style bot, called Vector, that’s not really aimed at kids. That more pricey ($250) robot is slated to be getting access to its code lab in future, so it should have some DIY programming potential too.
Age: 8+


Dash Robotics

Product: Kamigami Jurassic World Robot
Price: ~$60
Description: Hobbyist robotics startup Dash Robotics has been collaborating with toymaker Mattel on the Kamigami line of biologically inspired robots for over a year now. The USB-charged bots arrive at kids’ homes in build-it-yourself form before coming to programmable, biomimetic life via the use of a simple, icon-based coding interface in the companion app.

The latest addition to the range is dinosaur bot series Jurassic World, currently comprised of a pair of pretty similar looking raptor dinosaurs, each with light up eyes and appropriate sound effects. Using the app kids can complete challenges to unlock new abilities and sounds. And if you have more than one dinosaur in the same house they can react to each other to make things even more lively.
Age: 8+


Kano

Product: Harry Potter Coding Kit
Price: $100
Description: British learn-to-code startup Kano has expanded its line this year with a co-branded, build-it-yourself wand linked to the fictional Harry Potter wizard series. The motion-sensitive e-product features a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer and Bluetooth wireless so kids can use it to interact with coding content on-screen. The company offers 70-plus challenges for children to play wizard with, using wand gestures to manipulate digital content. Like many STEM toys it requires a tablet or desktop computer to work its digital magic (iOS and Android tablets are supported, as well as desktop PCs including Kano’s Computer Kit Touch, below)
Age: 6+

Product: Computer Kit Touch
Price: $280
Description: The latest version of Kano’s build-it-yourself Pi-powered kids’ computer. This year’s computer kit includes the familiar bright orange physical keyboard but now paired with a touchscreen. Kano reckons touch is a natural aid to the drag-and-drop, block-based learn-to-code systems it’s putting under kids’ fingertips here. Although its KanoOS Pi skin does support text-based coding too, and can run a wide range of other apps and programs — making this STEM device a fully fledged computer in its own right
Age: 6-13



Lego

Product: Boost Creative Toolbox
Price: $160
Description: Boost is Lego’s relatively recent foray into offering a simpler robotics and programming system aimed at younger kids vs its more sophisticated and expensive veteran Mindstorms creator platform (for 10+ year olds). The Boost Creative Toolbox is an entry point to Lego + robotics, letting kids build a range of different brick-based bots — all of which can be controlled and programmed via the companion app which offers an icon-based coding system.

Boost components can also be combined with other Lego kits to bring other not-electronic kits to life — such as its Stormbringer Ninjago Dragon kit (sold separately for $40). Ninjago + Boost means = a dragon that can walk and turn its head as if it’s about to breathe fire
Age: 7-12


littleBits

Product: Avengers Hero Inventor Kit
Price: $150
Description: This Disney co-branded wearable in kit form from the hardware hackers over at littleBits lets superhero-inspired kids snap together all sorts of electronic and plastic bits to make their own gauntlet from the Avengers movie franchise. The gizmo features an LED matrix panel, based on Tony Stark’s palm Repulsor Beam, they can control via companion app. There are 18 in-app activities for them to explore, assuming kids don’t just use amuse themselves acting out their Marvel superhero fantasies
Age: 8+

It’s worth noting that littleBits has lots more to offer — so if bringing yet more Disney-branded merch into your home really isn’t your thing, check out its wide range of DIY electronics kits, which cater to various price points, such as this Crawly Creature Kit ($40) or an Electronic Music Inventor Kit ($100), and much more… No major movie franchises necessary


Makeblock

Product: Codey Rocky
Price: $100
Description: Shenzhen-based STEM kit maker Makeblock crowdfunded this emotive, programmable bot geared towards younger kids on Kickstarter. There’s no assembly required, though the bot itself can transform into a wearable or handheld device for game playing, as Codey (the head) detaches from Rocky (the wheeled body).

Despite the young target age, the toy is packed with sophisticated tech — making use of deep learning algorithms, for example. While the company’s visual programming system, mBlock, also supports Python text coding, and allows kids to code bot movements and visual effects on the display, tapping into the 10 programmable modules on this sensor-heavy bot. Makeblock says kids can program Codey to create dot matrix animations, design games and even build AI and IoT applications, thanks to baked in support for voice, image and even face recognition… The bot has also been designed to be compatible with Lego bricks so kids can design and build physical add-ons too
Age: 6+

Product: Airblock
Price: $100
Description: Another programmable gizmo from Makeblock’s range. Airblock is a modular and programmable drone/hovercraft so this is a STEM device that can fly. Magnetic connectors are used for easy assembly of the soft foam pieces. Several different assembly configurations are possible. The companion app’s block-based coding interface is used for programming and controlling your Airblock creations
Age: 8+



Ozobot

Product: Evo
Price: $100
Description: This programmable robot has a twist as it can be controlled without a child always having to be stuck to a screen. The Evo’s sensing system can detect and respond to marks made by marker pens and stickers in the accompanying Experience Pack — so this is coding via paper plus visual cues.

There is also a digital, block-based coding interface for controlling Evo, called OzoBlockly (based on Google’s Blockly system). This has a five-level coding system to support a range of ages, from pre-readers (using just icon-based blocks), up to a ‘Master mode’ which Ozobot says includes extensive low-level control and advanced programming features
Age: 9+


Pi-top


Product: Modular Laptop
Price: $320 (with a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+), $285 without
Description: This snazzy 14-inch modular laptop, powered by Raspberry Pi, has a special focus on teaching coding and electronics. Slide the laptop’s keyboard forward and it reveals a built in rail for hardware hacking. Guided projects designed for kids include building a music maker and a smart robot. The laptop runs pi-top’s learn-to-code oriented OS — which supports block-based coding programs like Scratch and kid-friendly wares like Minecraft Pi edition, as well as its homebrew CEEDUniverse: A Civilization style game that bakes in visual programming puzzles to teach basic coding concepts. The pi-top also comes with a full software suite of more standard computing apps (including apps from Google and Microsoft). So this is no simple toy. Not a new model for this year — but still a compelling STEM machine
Age: 8+


Robo Wunderkind


Product: Starter Kit
Price: $200 
Description: Programmable robotics blocks for even very young inventors. The blocks snap together and are color-coded based on function so as to minimize instruction for the target age group. Kids can program their creations to do stuff like drive, play music, detect obstacles and more via a drag-and-drop coding interface in the companion Robo Code app. Another app — Robo Live — lets them control what they’ve built in real time. The physical blocks can also support Lego-based add-ons for more imaginative designs
Age: 5+


Root Robotics

Product: Root
Price: $200
Description: A robot that can sense and draw, thanks to a variety of on board sensors, battery-powered kinetic energy and its central feature: A built-in pen holder. Root uses spirographs as the medium for teaching STEM as kids get to code what the bot draws. They can also create musical compositions with a scan and play mode that turns Root into a music maker. The companion app offers three levels of coding interfaces to support different learning abilities and ages. At the top end it supports programming in Swift (with Python and JavaScript slated as coming soon). An optional subscription service offers access to additional learning materials and projects to expand Root’s educational value
Age: 4+



Sphero


Product: Bolt
Price: $150
Description: The app-enabled robot ball maker’s latest STEM gizmo. It’s still a transparent sphere but now has an 8×8 LED matrix lodged inside to expand the programmable elements. This colorful matrix can be programmed to display words, show data in real-time and offer game design opportunities. Bolt also includes an ambient light sensor, and speed and direction sensors, giving it an additional power up over earlier models. The Sphero Edu companion app supports drawing, Scratch-style block-based and JavaScript text programming options to suit different ages
Age: 8+


Tech Will Save Us

Product: Range of coding, electronics and craft kits
Price: From ~$30 up to $150
Description: A delightful range of electronic toys and coding kits, hitting various age and price-points, and often making use of traditional craft materials (which of course kids love). Examples include a solar powered moisture sensor kit ($40) to alert when a pot plant needs water; electronic dough ($35); a micro:bot add-on kit ($35) that makes use of the BBC micro:bit device (sold separately); and the creative coder kit ($70), which pairs block-based coding with a wearable that lets kids see their code in action (and reacting to their actions)
Age: 4+, 8+, 11+ depending on kit


UBTech Robotics

Product: JIMU Robot BuilderBots Series: Overdrive Kit
Price: $120
Description: More snap-together, codable robot trucks that kids get to build and control. These can be programmed either via posing and recording, or using Ubtech’s drag-and-drop, block-based Blockly coding program. The Shenzhen-based company, which has been in the STEM game for several years, offers a range of other kits in the same Jimu kit series — such as this similarly priced UnicornBot and its classic MeeBot Kit, which can be expanded via the newer Animal Add-on Kit
Age: 8+


Wonder Workshop

Product: Dot Creativity Kit 
Price: $80
Description: San Francisco-based Wonder Workshop offers a kid-friendly blend of controllable robotics and DIY craft-style projects in this entry-level Dot Creativity Kit. Younger kids can play around and personalize the talkative connected device. But the startup sells a trio of chatty robots all aimed at encouraging children to get into coding. Next in line there’s Dash ($150), also for 6+ year olds. Then Cue ($200) for 11+. The startup also has a growing range of accessories to expand the bots’ (programmable) functionality — such as this Sketch Kit ($40) which adds a few arty smarts to Dash or Cue.

With Dot, younger kids play around using a suite of creative apps to control and customize their robot and tap more deeply into its capabilities, with the apps supporting a range of projects and puzzles designed to both entertain them and introduce basic coding concepts.
Age: 6+


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