t’s easy to forget how far technology has come in just a few years. We went from praying that our CD players wouldn’t skip to streaming music wirelessly to wearing AirPods in our ears. But even some recent devices have made the jump from high-end items for tech enthusiasts to must-haves for many homes. Here are a few of them.
“Weird.” “Curious.” “Baffling.” “Quite Stupid.” These words all once described Alexa, the voice-activated digital assistant on Amazon’s Echo device. But Amazon says the Echo Dot, a smaller, less expensive version of the Echo, was its “top-selling device” during the holiday season.
In 2014, it was odd to even consider owning an Echo — and impossible to buy without an invitation from Amazon. Today, you can pick from five Echo models. Or, you can try Google’s version: the Google Home, Google Home Mini or Google Home Max. Apple has also released a digital assistant device, the HomePod, which is fully capable with Siri. You can have your pick of digital assistants — each with varying capabilities of improving your life.
Alexa now has more than 15,000 skills, meaning any Echo device can go beyond describing the weather or playing music. The Google Assistant, first released in 2016, is catching up.
So why buy one now? First, they’re relatively inexpensive and far easier to use and understand than they were when first released. Think back to MP3 players or early smartphones: People learned a lot about using the products and became so adjusted to them that they didn’t know how to go back. Second, the future is paved with smart home devices, and voice-activated assistants to control them are becoming ubiquitous. The Echo and Google Home are no longer “test products” — the companies behind them want them to last.
The skeleton key to streaming music, movies and TV shows
Prepare to feel either really old or really young: Roku players have existed for 10 years. The first Roku player streamed Netflix (and only Netflix) to your TV. Now, you have your pick of streaming devices, from Chromecast to Apple TV to a variety of Roku players. If you don’t have one, it’s about time you invested in one. Several devices are budget-friendly and portable. I f you’re all about video quality and immersive audio, there are options that deliver.
When many of these devices were first introduced, they could stream only certain services. When Google first offered the Chromecast in 2013, it could support only Netflix and YouTube. Now, it works with Hulu, HBO Go, the CW, Sling, VUDU and hundreds more.
Wirecutter, a New York Times company, recommends the Roku Streaming Stick+, which retails for about $65. It comes with an external Wi-Fi antenna, lots of supported streaming content (including 4K video), and a customizable home screen so you can go straight to the services you use. Best of all, you can take it with you on vacation or a business trip.
Of course, there are cheaper options, like the Roku Streaming Stick for $45 or Google’s Chromecast, for $35. The point, of course, is to finally embrace lying on the couch, binge-watching your next new favorite show.
The gadget that finds all your lost gadgets
In 2013, a small company started a crowdfunding campaign, met its goal, racked up more than 200,000 presales and earned a loyal customer base. Today that company, Tile, makes a well-known Bluetooth tracker that attaches to anything you deem important and keeps track of it via a mobile app. There are now other Bluetooth trackers that make finding your keys, wallet or anything else easier than ever.
Wirecutter recommends the Tile Sport for its Bluetooth range, alarm volume and handy crowd-finding feature. Basically, if you lose an item that has a Tile attached to it, anyone with the Tile app who passes by will help ping the location of your lost item to you. The person doesn’t have to actively use the app to help you (and won’t know you lost something).
If you prefer a Bluetooth tracker with a replaceable battery (but less stellar Bluetooth range and no crowd-finding), Wirecutter recommends the TrackR Pixel. You can replace the battery, rather than the whole product, and the alert system includes flashing lights.
So, while you’re reminiscing about making a trip to Blockbuster for movies or going through the couch cushions to find your keys, just know that there’s a gadget for that now. They aren’t perfect, but they do give you one less thing to worry about.