Gift Guide 2013: Kid stuff and geek stuff

Satisfy the kid in all of us (or actual kids) with some very cool tech toys

As a dad of three youngsters, one of my favorite categories in the holiday gift guide is seeing what technology-related fun we can dig up and play with. Here our a bunch of our favorite toys and silly geeky things that will keep your kids (or the kid in you) entertained for weeks, months or even years.

[HAPPY HOLIDAYS: See a listing of all the products of Network World's holiday gift guide]

[ALSO: Unique and wacky gifts for the holidays]

Product: DiscoRoboCompany: TOSY Robotics

Price: $40 (Amazon.com)

disco robo

We love seeing advances in toy robots, so we weren’t disappointed when trying out the DiscoRobo, the latest from TOSY Robotics. The short and plump robot is very kid-friendly, featuring four color options and light-up hands, eyes and face. The robot runs on eight AA batteries and comes with a headstand accessory (more on that later).

The DiscoRobo basically does what its name implies - turn on some music and the robot will shake and dance along with the music. The more bass in the song, the better the moves, but we found in our experience that it will move to pretty much any song you play (although it probably won’t be as much fun watching it dance to a slow ballad). The robot will also dance better if there’s a speaker behind it, so I’d suggest something like a portable Bluetooth speaker or other large speaker system, rather than just relying on the tiny speaker in your computer, phone or tablet. TOSY sells a speaker accessory called the DiscoStage that also can store up to 100 songs, and you can purchase a bundle (via Amazon) that includes the robot and speaker/MP3 player.

With the handstand accessory, you can place a small plastic piece on the DiscoRobo’s head, and then place the peg inside the handstand accessory base to let the robot spin around on its head like a world-class break dancer.

There’s also a free app (via iOS or Android) that lets you control the DiscoRobo to create your own dance moves and do some other stuff (like take photos or record dances), but it work very well in my experience. The directions weren’t very good and the robot didn’t really react well to the moves I was trying to create.

All three of my kids really enjoyed the DiscoRobo, as soon as I booted it up and started playing songs, they danced right along with the robot, and were having a blast. Any kid between the ages of 4 and 10 will love to have this at their next dance party.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: Lego Builder Case for iPhone 5/5SCompany: Belkin

Price: $40

Buy this for: Anyone who enjoys both the Lego universe and the Apple iPhone universe.

Lego iphone

I promised myself that I wasn’t going to review/highlight a lot of iPhone or iPad cases this year, unless they added some functionality such as a keyboard, battery, extra protection or even a taser. But I’ll make the exception in this case because it’s Lego.

The Builder Case gives iPhone 5 and 5S owners a plastic iPhone case, but on the back side of the case are the familiar Lego bumps that let you connect other Lego bricks. Because this is an official Lego-branded product, you can take a bunch of bricks that your kids always tend to leave scattered around the floor and connect them to the case. If you’re so inclined, you can even get creative, creating a personalized backing or creating a nifty Lego stand for your phone.

Beyond that, there’s not much else to write about. The plastic case itself comes in some cool colors, and offers some additional protection for drops (but the phone would still likely break if it landed glass-side down). Get this for the Lego-obsessed iPhone 5/5S owner on your holiday gift list.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: Iron Man RC Extreme Hero remote control flying toyCompany: EB Brands

Price: $70

Buy this for: Kids who love flying toys and The Avengers (so, pretty much any boy between 5 and 10 years old).

Iron man

Remote-control flying toys tend to be either very expensive (such as those newfangled quadcopters), or so cheap that they break apart easily and never really fly as good as you’d like.

This Marvel-branded toy is somewhere in between those two extremes - it doesn’t take long for an average person to figure out how to fly it, but it’s also not so expensive that you won’t be too upset if it breaks after you’ve crashed it several times.

The unit is made out of a foam-like material that reminded me of those classic balsa-wood airplanes, but much less brittle. It’s shaped like a flying Iron Man (the head is made out of plastic), with two small propellers in the front that will help it achieve flight. The remote control is shaped like a video game controller - a thruster joystick is on the left, and a left-right directional joystick is operated with your right hand/thumb. A trim dial in the middle helps you make adjustments to the rudder once your Iron Man starts tilting to the left or right during a flight.

The controller is powered through six AA batteries, which also then help recharge the battery on the Iron Man toy. Charging takes about 45 minutes, which will give you approximately 5 to 7 minutes of flight time. This amount of flight time is way too short - when testing, we were able to go outside for about 15 minutes (in between retrieving the unit after we landed) before we needed to head back inside to recharge the unit. During one play session, we basically went to lunch and had the unit recharge in the van before we got our second session in.

When fully charged and operational, the Iron Man toy is fun to fly. The wireless range (it uses 2.4GHz) goes up to about 200 feet from your controller, so if you’re in a large enough field you can fly this for great distances before worrying about making the turn to come back. We also discovered that on windier days, the unit has trouble staying straight or flying into the wind - instead, it could fly great distances with the wind, but then would either crash or fly too low on the way back. We found it easier to just land/crash and have the kids run to retrieve the toy - hey, it got them outdoors and they got some exercise as well. The toy is durable enough to survive crashes (as long as you kill the propellers before crashing), and in our tests we landed him into assorted fences (and once into a tree) without too much damage. The foam pieces will get dinged and dented - in one case a leg fell off - but patching it back up just meant using some clear tape to re-attach (it probably affected the flight a bit, but that’s why you can use the trim dial to correct any imperfections during flight).

If you have experienced RC flyers who won’t crash the toy as much as we did (my kids found as much enjoyment from crashing than the actual flying), the toy should be durable enough to last for a while. For younger kids, the $70 investment might be too much, and the hassles of a short flying time for a long recharge time also make it somewhat annoying.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: Shark with Frickin’ Laser PointerCompany: ThinkGeek

Price: $13

Buy this for: Friends who give presentations and like to make references to older movies, or just plain goofballs that want to have fun in their presentations.

laser pointer

OK, let’s start with this - the Austin Powers movie this product references came out about 14 years ago. If you’re OK with this not being “modern,” this laser pointer is great, and should get you some laughs if you need to cut the tension at your next board meeting. It can also work well to break the ice with a new group, or just get for your kids and have them play with the funky laser beam.

The gadget is more comfortable to hold than a regular laser pointer, so if a grumpy colleague seems to miss the point of your humor, just point out that it’s ergonomic and good for you (although there’s no official evidence of this anyway, it should just get the grumpy colleague off your case).

Also, it works better in small conference rooms than large lecture halls as the laser point is a little small.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Jennifer Finn

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Product: Infectious Disease Stress BallCompany: ThinkGeek

Price: $5

Buy this for: Silly friends with a good sense of humor; germophobic friends you want to freak out - or kids to throw into their stockings.

stress ball

Not much to describe here - it’s a stress ball, plain and simple. The fun begins when you squeeze it, the ball pushes out around a net that surrounds the orb. These come in different “disease” flavors - my personal favorite was the Bubonic Plague ball. When squeezed, it looks like it’s covered in green pustules. Gross, but funny.

I guess this takes the stress ball concept to another level, because it destresses you when you see how humorous it looks. Or it lets you torment your co-workers, also relieving your stress.

The outer ball does tend to loosen after using this for several times, and the ball’s life expectancy is about the same as an Ebola victim - after about two weeks of heavy use, our plague ball developed a hole and started to leak some green pus. But at least the ball was cheap so we weren’t too upset.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Jennifer Finn

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Product: Screensters portable screen cleanersCompany: ToddyGear

Price: $10

Buy this for: Kids who need reminding that their fingerprints smudge their favorite phones or tablets.

If your kids are constantly “borrowing” your smartphone or tablets, you likely notice that when you get them back the screen is smudged badly - especially if your little cherubs have sticky fingers from whatever food they happened to be eating as well. The ToddyGear Screensters can help remind them to polish/clean the screen when the smudging occurs. These fun characters have names like “Texterella”, “Harmonia”, “Shredster” and “Gameawn”, and have two sides - one for cleaning, one for “polishing”. A small hook lets you place them onto a backpack or hook onto other gear for easy access, or you could just leave them lying around your desk when you need to do a quick screen clean. At $10, these make for a nice stocking stuffer for any gadget-obsessed child.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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