Cool Yule Tools for Play

Life is too short for just working - we think the holidays should be about fun, fun, fun!

Editor's Note: For the past 16 years Network World has presented its picks of the geekiest, techiest or just plain coolest gadgets for holiday gift giving purposes. We’ve witnessed the birth of the smartphone, the dominance of the tablet and the shrinking size of the television (at least the depth, the width and height keeps getting better). We’ve seen robots, big and small, and every conceivable charger, phone case, travel widget, computer, printer and USB doohickey imaginable.

So here we are in 2015 – halfway through the second decade of the new millennium (does anyone use that term anymore?). We live in a world of instant news and social recommendations via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and countless other communication platforms. Most of your holiday shopping will be done this year online – whether it’s Amazon and other mega-shopping sites, or just the online site of your favorite retailer, depending on whether they’re offering free shipping or not. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are national holidays. There’s so much stuff out there and so many ways to buy that stuff that it’s no wonder that people freak out at the holidays.

Can we help you sort through the madness? Hell, no – that would be a full-time job here at the Cool Yule Tools Headquarters, and we’re really busy fending off pushy PR people who insist that their iPhone 6S case is absolutely the perfect gift guide item (and in one case, it was, since it also could charge our phone).

This article highlights our picks for gift items meant for "PLAY" - in other words, the really fun stuff - whether it's music-related gadgets, headphones or our favorite video games to enjoy with the family.

kidzgearbluetoothpink 620 Kidz Gear

Kidz Gear Bluetooth Stereo Headphones for Kids

$59.99

My kids are now at the age when the stuff they’re listening to on their iPods and tablets (whether it’s Netflix streaming, music or a bunch of games they’re playing) is beyond annoying. This means it’s time for them to start wearing headphones more often, so we can survive parenthood for another day.

Kidz Gear headphones are a good choice for the under-12 set, mainly because they offer low-noise functionality (so the kids won’t damage their eardrums like we did with our Walkman headphones) and a kid-size fit over their ears.

This year’s Bluetooth model is a step up in that it eliminates the cable between the headphones and mobile device, allowing your kid user to have a little bit more freedom. I’m sure many parents have discovered to their horror the act of a child tripping over their headphone cable and landing on or dropping their phone/tablet/etc.

The headphones are charged via an internal battery (a cable is included for recharging via USB), and there’s an on/off switch, so some training of your child is in order so they don’t leave the power switch on and drain the battery. In addition, you’ll probably have to set up the Bluetooth connection initially or show them how to do it, so older kids will likely master this before your 5-year-old does.

One other cool thing – these come with a detachable boom microphone, so kids can use this when they’re chatting with their friends via Facetime or Snapchat or whatever other app they’re using these days.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

grainaudiooehp 620 Grain Audio

Grain Audio OEHP headphones

$199

These high-end headphones offer users ear cups made out of walnut and a hand-applied oil finish, giving this a classical look and feel, but more importantly, improving the audio experience for listeners. The headphones also include a Grain Audio proprietary driver with Neodymium magnets and a CCAW voice coil to improve the sound of your music/audio.

Also as important, the headphones feel great on your head (I love over-the-ear styles instead of on-ear headphones or earbuds, for comfort purposes). These headphones are also lighter than similarly styled and priced high-end models – you can wear these for a long time before you start to feel pressure or discomfort.

The headphones come with a carrying case if you want to bring it along on trips (trust me, you’ll want to), and a headphone jack adapter for larger systems (like those old-school input jacks).

If you don’t care about showing off a designer pair of headphones (or about color choices) but still want great sound for your music, then these are worth a look.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

gamecom818 620 Plantronics

Plantronics Gamecom 818 wireless headset

$79.99

This headset (headphones plus a boom microphone) comes with a USB Bluetooth dongle that works with Windows PCs, the Macintosh and Sony PlayStation 4 gaming console. Given the brand name “Gamecom”, it’s designed for gamers to wear for a long time (hence the 10-hour battery life), with cushioned ear pads that aim to “reduce player fatigue”.

Controls on the outside of the ear piece allow for volume adjustment and play/skip tracks if you want to use this with your mobile phone or music player. The boom microphone automatically mutes when you raise it, in case you want to mute while on a phone call or in the middle of a game.

Configuring the headset was a little tricky in the beginning – I had to plug everything into my PS4 and then reset the console before the system would recognize the device. But once I did that, it automatically connected to the headset. The sound was pretty good, especially with games that take advantage of surround stereo features.

I like how you can use this not just for the PS4, but you can also use it for any PC or Mac.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

goalzero620 GoalZero

GoalZero Venture 30 Solar Kit plus Nomad 7 solar panel

$169.99

This kit provides the Venture 30 electronic device recharger (phones, tablets, anything with a MicroUSB port) alongside the Nomad 7 solar panel, which gives the additional option of recharging a device via the power of the sun.

The Venture30 unit by itself is a great recharging device for giving you extra power for your phones, tablets, music players, etc., when you may be stuck in a location where a power outlet is unavailable (such as on the side of a mountain or in an airport where all of the other outlets are being hogged by other passengers). With a full charge (the company recommends charging the unit initially via a USB power source), the Venture 30 unit can recharge a tablet once, a phone two to three times, a point-of-view camera (think GoPro) five times and a headlamp between five to 10 times.

The unit also provides pass-through power, so you can recharge your device plus the Venture 30 at the same time from a single power source. The unit is ruggedized for outdoor use (good rubber grips and water resistant), and it comes with a flashlight (including a strobe mode) that can light the way if you happen to be stuck somewhere in the dark.

The Nomad 7 solar panel included with the kit provides direct power recharging capabilities from the energy of the sun. Connecting one of its cables to the device, you get direct power to the device from the sun. The panel itself doesn’t hold a charge, so you can’t put this outside all day and then charge up the device, you have to use the energy at that moment to recharge the device. Still, it’s another nice option for someone who might be outside, needing a quick charge so they can call someone for help.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

jaybirdx2 620 Jaybird

Jaybird X2 Wireless Bluetooth headphones

$179.95

If you like to listen to music or podcasts on your phone or iPod while getting in a workout but don’t like the cords getting in the way, you’ll want a sweat-proof pair of Bluetooth earbuds. The latest model from Jaybird, the X2, fit the bill quite nicely.

The earbuds have a single cord that connect the left side and right side, and can be adjusted with included cord clips. You can wear the earbuds either in-ear or over-the-ear, and additional ear fins provide stability options. Different sizes of both ear tips (memory foam or silicone gel options) and ear fins give you flexibility to find the perfect fit for your ears and comfort. A multitude of colors (black, red, green, white and blue) round out the customizability of these earbuds. The cable between the left and right earbuds also let you answer phone calls, increase the volume or play/pause your music.

The set also comes with a USB charging cable (up to eight hours of battery life promised by Jaybird) and a silicone carrying case that you can throw into a workout bag nicely.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

legodimensions620 LEGO

LEGO Dimensions

$99.99 for starter pack; level packs cost $29.99; Team packs cost $25; fun packs cost $14.99

LEGO has entered the toys-meet-video-game market with this entry, which combines the brick-building and mini-figure collecting of physical games with the on-screen antics of the LEGO style of video games. The game merges a multitude of pop culture brands in a single universe (see here for a list of characters), which means characters from Batman’s world will interact with characters from The Lord of the Rings, to give one example. It’s a geek’s dream come true, and a pleasure to see the humor that comes out of these combinations.

If you’re a fan of LEGO in general, or of the LEGO-based world of video games (or if your kids are driving you crazy asking for this), here’s what you need to know:

* First, this can be a very expensive endeavor. The base set costs $99.99, and it gets you the video game, the base portal and three mini-figures (Gandalf, Wyldstyle and Batman). The first major expansion part are the level packs – these come with an additional mini-figure and vehicle/weapon, as well as an in-game extra level adventure. Team packs include a few extra characters as well, but only include an in-game world to visit, which doesn’t include a story-based level. Fun packs include one extra character and vehicle/weapon.

* Having the extra packs isn’t required to finish the game; in the game’s “story mode”, you can finish everything with just the three base characters. But the other characters and their abilities will unlock other areas within the game, giving you extra things to do. Players who like to experience everything within a video game will likely need to purchase at least a few of the level packs and team packs in order to finish the entire game (thankfully, you don’t have to buy every single character to accomplish this).

* If you’ve played any other previous LEGO video games, the format will seem very familiar. Gameplay here involves solving different puzzles and fighting off enemies, with different characters having different powers or abilities that help solve the problem. For example, Gandalf has magic powers that can help build devices in the game, and Batman has his Batarang and grappling hook that can pull things apart. Dimensions adds a component of solving puzzles by moving characters from different locations on the base portal, something that is missing from other toys-to-game offerings.

* There’s a lot more building than I expected – when you start the game, you have to build the base portal with a lot of different LEGO pieces, and that can take some time to complete. My somewhat impatient kids wanted to jump right into the video game component, and I had to keep telling them, “We’re not yet done with the portal!”.

* The company is promising continued compatibility with future offerings – so if they come out with sequels, the existing technology will still work with the new games. That’s a sticking point on some of these other games – often you have to buy a new portal and hardware in order for the new game to work. Older figures will still work, but the additional hardware usually goes unused as you upgrade. Not so with this one, the game-maker says (we’ll see when new versions come out).

* Once you’ve played through the entire game, the replay value is a bit low unless you invest in the additional characters. You can replay levels and use the new characters to unlock some areas, but those areas just provide canisters to collect or other areas to explore – again, really just for the completist. Another annoying thing is that they’re stretching out the availability of some of the new characters into 2016 – for example, the Doctor Who Cyberman Fun Pack won’t be available to Jan. 19, 2016. By then, you or your kids may have completed the game.

* The best part of this game, however, is the great storyline and fun interactions between the different characters within this universe. Because the developers have gotten a lot of the original voice actors from these properties (Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Michael J. Fox, Chris Pratt, Christopher Lloyd and Peter Capaldi are all part of the game), it feels like you’re playing an extension of the original TV, movie or video game property that they’re a part of.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

disneyinfinity 620 Disney

Disney Infinity 3.0

$65 for base set; additional figures cost $10 to $14.

The third entry in Disney’s toys-to-game platform involves adding action figures and characters from the Star Wars Universe (the first game had Pixar characters, the second game added Marvel characters). Like previous games in the Infinity series, the game involves placing physical action figures on a portal connected to the video game console. The characters then “come to life” in the virtual world of the video game.

There are two modes to experience – a more traditional video game that includes levels, missions and achievements – all geared towards the Star Wars universe; and then the “Toy Box”, which is an open-world environment in which any character from this year’s game (as well as characters from previous versions) can interact with each other. After getting through most of the story missions, your kids will likely spend most of their time in the Toy Box, building creations and just hanging out in different areas with their favorite Disney, Marvel or Star Wars characters. The Toy Box is a lot like Minecraft in terms of the ability to construct things, if you or your kids also like that game.

The base set comes with two characters from the first three films of the Star Wars saga (Ahsoka Tano and Anakin Skywalker from the Clone Wars) – the story mode covers adventures and scenes from the first three movies. An additional “Rise Against the Empire” play set (sold separately for about $30) includes a Luke Skywalker character, Princess Leia and adventures from Episodes IV, V and VI. Another play set covering the new film, “The Force Awakens” will come out later in the year (about the same time as the movie does).

There’s also a play set covering the world of Inside Out, the Pixar film from the summer that tackled the “emotions” that live inside all of us, and additional characters from Disney and Star Wars are also available – some for the playsets, others just for the Toy Box. Getting all of the figures and sets can become a very costly proposition, so be careful.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

stikbotstudio620 Zing

Zing Stikbot Studio Pack

$9.99

If you have kids who are interested in making stop-motion videos, this is the perfect stocking stuffer. The Stikbot studio is a package that comes with two Stikbot figures and a mini-tripod that can hold your iPhone, Android phone or tablet. Along with the Stikbot app, this creates an easy way to make stop-motion videos that can be shared with friends, family or the Stikbot community.

Each Stikbot has small suction cups on the bottom of their arms and legs, so they can be easily positioned to the shape that you desire. A “ghosting” effect on the app shows you the previous location of the Stikbot, so you can move to the next shot quickly, figuring out if you want to do a fast stop-motion effect or a slower one. The included mini-tripod is great to have for other projects as well.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

jamstik 620 Jamstik

Jamstik+ Smart Guitar

$299.99

The Jamstik+ is a very cool device aimed at both guitar beginners and more advanced players, with different levels and options that should appeal to both. The device takes the main parts of a guitar (the fret and strings) and compacts it into a very small, portable device. With a Bluetooth connection, the guitar can connect to an iPhone, iPad or Mac to let you hear the notes you’re playing (with audio coming through connected wired headphones – don’t use a Bluetooth headset).

The main app lets you change the instrument style on different notes, letting you experiment beyond the classical acoustic guitar sounds (the drums, for example, are fun to jam out on). Other apps, such as the Jamstik Tutor app, get you started on the road to becoming a guitar guru, with lessons on how to strum, pick and use the fret with your fingers. As a total novice in the world of guitars, I found the tutorials helpful without being either too easy or too difficult. Still, I realize that I have a long way to go before I hit the stage.

More advanced guitar players will likely also enjoy the device, as it gives them a small device to practice on, without having to lug around a full-size guitar. I let a friend, a very accomplished guitarist, try this out, and for the most part he enjoyed the system. He did complain that the system was hard to do pull-offs on, but it could be related to the settings on the device or the app he was using.

The system comes with a guitar strap, a few picks and a nice carrying case, everything you need to either begin learning how to play or to practice with during some downtime. If the $299 price tag is a bit high for you, there’s a non-Bluetooth version for $199 (the original version).

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

iloud 620 IK Multimedia

IK Multimedia iLoud Portable Speaker

$215.92 (Amazon)

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been to parties over the past couple of years where the host proudly streams his extensive collection of classic rock tunes to – a teeny, tiny, tinny, positively wimpy Bluetooth speaker that can barely be heard a meter or two away (there’s still hope for the Metric system; who’s with me? Huh?). That’s not rock, classic or otherwise - that’s embarrassing at best. Doesn’t that special person on your gift list deserve better? You bet they do!

Enter the iLoud “studio-quality” (it says so on the box) portable speaker from IK Multimedia. This is one time where the manufacturer isn’t exaggerating, at least very much. No, this isn’t a replacement for thousand-dollar studio monitors, but it is one of the very best Bluetooth speakers I’ve ever used. Pairing is a snap, and you’re treated to excellent tonal quality and a very good deal of loud (the volume control is very precise, by the way) in seconds. The system also produces very good stereo imaging and decent, but not earth-shattering, bass from a very small box as well. Oh, yes – a rechargeable battery is built in. And there’s a 1/8-inch stereo jack and a 1/4-inch guitar input as well.

So go for it – the iLoud is a truly great gift that anyone with a Bluetooth music player will enjoy – so I guess that’s everyone, everywhere, today.

-- Writeup by C.J. Mathias

korglittlebitssynthkit 620 Korg

Korg littleBits Synth Kit

$159

Music synthesizers are an absolute blast. They’re great for creative musicians to experiment with new sounds and rhythms. They appeal to electronics aficionados who want to know how they work and push the envelope of what the electronics can do. And they’re fun and educational for kids. The bad news: a decent music synthesizer can run you hundreds, or even thousands of dollars. That’s a big price for a little fun and education.

Enter the littleBits kit from Korg, a recognized leader in synthesizers. But this isn’t a ready-to-go-right-out-of-the-box synth; rather, it’s a collection of little modules that magnetically clip together. The first module in a given configuration is always a power module (the whole thing is powered by a 9-volt battery, which is included), and the last is always an output module, usually a speaker. In the middle can be oscillator modules, which generate raw sound waves, a randomizer/noise module, a keyboard (which is just little switches), a simple micro sequencer (a key capability of any synthesizer is the ability to play repeating patterns automatically), and various other standard synthesizer functions – in other words, there’s lots to play with here. So, in a matter of minutes you can snap together a wide range of configurations, exploring, creating, learning, and otherwise having that proverbial blast.

I built a number of configurations suggested in the fun-to-read manual, and, even as an experienced synth user, I had a great time. Beginners should find the littleBits educational and hours of fun as well. This could be a great gift for an aspiring young musician, but I’d suggest ages 7+ and at least initial adult supervision, unless you have budding musical or an electronics prodigy on your hands.

Korg and many other firms build synthesizers of various forms, often with the advantage of a “real” piano-like keyboard. But while those can be fun and educational as well, really learning the basics of synthesis is the core advantage of littleBits.

-- Writeup by C.J. Mathias

yamahaag03 usbaudio 620 Yamaha

Yamaha AG03 USB Audio Interface/Mixer

$199

Is there someone on your gift list who does casual home-office or field recording, perhaps interviews, capturing bird songs, sampling interesting noises for that next Top-10 hit, or, as in my case, recording voiceovers for video productions? How about a musician who wants to record guitar and vocals, either when inspiration strikes or laying down tracks for that next Top-10 hit? How about an avid podcaster, who needs high-quality audio recording for just one microphone, but would like to add a little reverb for depth and effect? USB audio interfaces have been around for years, but none so far have offered the features and flexibility of the Yamaha AG03 – especially not at its bargain price.

The AG03 includes a three-channel mixer, with channel 1 typically being used for a microphone. It provisions +48v phantom power, so even high-end condenser mics will work. Channels 2 and 3 can be a stereo pair, or an electric guitar can be plugged directly into channel 2, and even some high-end mixers can’t directly support a guitar signal. There’s an input for a headset microphone. There are two effects, compression/EQ and reverb switched on and off with a single button each, but extensively configurable via a PC or Mac – and Yamaha is legendary for the quality of their effects. There’s a 192 KHz/24-bit USB interface (as good as it gets), and both headphone and monitor (speakers, via an external amplifier) outputs, each with their own volume controls. This is an amazing amount of flexibility for a compact, inexpensive audio mixer/interface. Powered via USB, no batteries or wall-wart is required.

A sample recording using an Audio-Technica condenser microphone and the popular Audacity software on a Mac resulted in excellent audio quality. The default reverb is a bit “Mexican Radio” in tone (for those of you who remember that epic tune), so tweaking will likely be required – but that’s pretty easy, thanks to the included software.

If your giftee is a bit more demanding, there’s a big-brother AG06 with six channels for only $50 more – but the sliding fader (volume control) is replaced by rotary knobs on the AG06. Regardless, there’s a lot of value here - and, by the way, this is my gift to me for 2015.

In case you’re wondering, yes, this is the same Yamaha that makes motorcycles and other specialized vehicles as well as a wide range of musical instruments.

-- Writeup by C.J. Mathias

irig pro audio duo 620 IK Multimedia

IK Multimedia iRig Pro DUO Audio/MIDI Interface

$199.99 (direct)

IK Multimedia is famous for building some of the best guitar, microphone, and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface, used to interconnect assorted electrical and electronic musical instrument together) products available. I’ve been an avid user of their iRig Pro interface, and many of their other products, for some time, and now they’ve juiced the iRig Pro model into a dual-channel but still-compact unit that works with Lightning, USB, and USB-OTG (On The Go) connections.

The basic idea is to feed the signals of one or two musical instruments (such as an electric guitar or bass) or microphones, or a stereo signal from a single device, into a computer or related product for further processing. IK Multimedia includes a number of apps, including (for iOS) AmpliTube FREE (guitar effects), VocalLive FREE, for processing signals from a microphone, iRig Recorder FREE, which does just that, SampleTank FREE, for capturing sounds and playing them back as virtual instruments, and iGrand Piano FREE. As you might guess from the nomenclature, more sophisticated versions are available at an additional cost. A number of Android, Mac, and PC applications are also included as well.

But the out-of-the-box experience is no slouch. It’s entirely plug-and-play – every cable you’d need is included. I tried it out with the company’s high-end AmpliTube 4 [$149.99] software. Configuration took a little futzing, but the results were ultimately satisfying. Computer-based guitar effects and amplifier simulation are all the rage now, and – they do make great holiday gifts.

Hours of fun await any musician lucky enough to have one of these. And remember, the DUO is two-channel, so recording, say, guitar and vocals or two vocal tracks at the same time is easy. Any musician on your holiday list would be more than pleased to have one of these in their personal arsenal. You really can’t go wrong.

-- Writeup by C.J. Mathias

archt one front 620 Archt Audio

Archt One wireless audio system

$599.99

The Archt One has the most unique design for a wireless audio speaker that I’ve seen in a long time. First off, it’s huge – it looks like a cross between a portable coffee maker and a 1950s style rocket ship (also try to imagine a mutant Nutribullet). To say this will be a conversation piece in your living room is an understatement.

But if you’re looking for big sound for your portable audio, PC/Mac audio or other sources, the Archt One delivers. The speaker produces 360-degree sound wonderfully, meaning no matter where you’re sitting in the room, you’ll hear great audio. The technology also lets you place it in other parts of the room – you can put it in a corner to get maximum bass impact, or combine it with a second speaker and create a stereo effect for things like your TV.

Connection options are also awesome – you can easily connect the speaker to an existing Wi-Fi network, and it supports AirPlay and DLNA options also. If you want to hear audio from your phone/music player, a Bluetooth connection is supported. If none of those options work, you can connect your device directly via a USB cable (not included).

The system includes an app that helps you set up the speaker, but also provides an opportunity to get the maximum sound from the speaker. At the touch of a button, sensors in the speaker figure out your location and the relative size of the room, and switches its output to provide the best possible sound. It’s a very cool feature.

When using the Wi-Fi connection, there’s a slight delay from when you start your music and start hearing it from the speakers (I imagine it’s the small delay from the signal going through the Wi-Fi router), but other than that everything worked just fine. For audiophiles looking to enhance a room with high-quality audio, check out the Archt One.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

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