All posts by Tracey Dowdy

Top Toys for Creative Kids

By Tracey Dowdy

Back in February, over one thousand toy companies debuted innovative and imaginative toys at Toy Fair 2018. From this massive exhibition, a number of toys stood out for their creativity and pure fun for kids, and they’re proving to be a hit this holiday season.

If you’re looking for gifts that will spark imaginations and inspire your kids from STEM to fashion design, these toys should top your list.

If your kiddo is a Star Wars fan, Sphero’s R2-D2 App-Enabled Droid ($30 – Walmart) is going to be a big hit. Users can control R2-D2 via an app or a Force Band, with sounds and bright LEDs lights that mirror R2-D2’s onscreen personae. kids can use the Sphero Edu App to learn to program three different ways and complete STEM activities or explore a holographic environment like the Millennium Falcon to further immerse themselves in the Star Wars universe.

The smART sketcher Projector ($49.99 – Target) makes drawing, coloring, and writing fun through a simple-to-use app or preloaded SD cards. Kids simply upload any photo, and then the (free, downloadable) app automatically turns it into a sketch that they can then trace onto any write-on surface like paper, canvas, or wood. Kids can send photos from any smart device via Bluetooth. smART Sketcher comes with Colored Pencils, 20 Sheets of Bordered Paper & an AC Adapter.

Magformers are bright, colorful and educational 360-degree rotating magnets designed to attract the magnet encapsulated in the next shape allowing kids to construct in 3D. The Magformers 44-piece Sky Track Play Set  ($99.99 – Magformers.com) allows kids to build a space coaster then send the included sky-car speeding through its loops and hoops. As always, the Sky Track Play set is compatible with other Magformers sets, so the only limit is your child’s imagination.

Elenco Snap Circuits Bric: Structures takes ordinary bricks you have in your toy box – think Lego – and brings them to life. Kids can snap-together circuits to make their builds light up, move, or even make sounds. The set comes with 20 SNAP CIRCUITS® component parts, 75 Bric-2-Snap adapters, over 140 fully compatible building bricks, and a full-color, easy-to-read project manual so your kids can start creating from the moment they open the box.

Similarly, LittleBits Hall of Fame Kits ($27.95 and up) are designed so kids can use both their right and left brain so instead of STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math), it’s STEAM (science, tech, engineering, ARTS and math). Each LittleBits toy uses snap-together circuits so kids can create while learning STEM skills.  This years’ kits include a night light, a bubble bot, a crawly creature, and an arcade game.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Holiday Tech Gifts for Parents

By Tracey Dowdy

Like most parents, you’ve likely spent most of your list-making energy deciding who’s been naughty or nice and curating your kids’ wish lists to match your budget. But what about you? What about your partner? This holiday season, what are the best gifts for moms and dads?

This list of holiday tech should help you come up with some great ideas.

Whether you’re into the medicinal benefits of essential oils or think it’s the modern version of snake oil, you can’t argue that everyone enjoys a house that smells good. An essential oil diffuser can smell nice and scents are known to alter moods and performance. Soothing lavender or vanilla, energizing peppermint or eucalyptus, or even frankincense for relaxation.

If you’re in the market for a new TV or an upgrade for your home theater, consider swapping your flat screen for a projector. The cost of home theatre systems has dropped making customizable options more affordable than ever, plus they’re a great option if you have little ones who have trouble sitting through an episode of Peppa Pig let alone a feature-length movie. Individual specs vary, but some can project a 50-inch diagonal image from as little as 32 inches away, and with LED projection, you won’t have to replace the lamps.

Speaking of home theatre systems, even if you’re not in the market for a new TV or projector, you can boost your home theatre experience with a new surround sound system. You can choose from a Home-Theater-In-A-Box (HTIB), or if you prefer to customize, you can buy the speakers and the receiver separately. Keep in mind lower end systems will mean running wires and cables while higher-end systems will be totally wireless. Either way, a complete system is within reach for less money than you may think.

Tablets have come a long way since the introduction iPad, though tablets were around long before 2010. They keep our kids entertained, have become essential to the way many do business, with their lightweight portability and robust software. Whether you opt for a PC based tablet like Amazon’s Fire 7 Tablet with Alexa or Apple’s iPad Pro with iOS 12, whatever your need, there’s a tablet for that.

When the smartwatch was introduced back in 2015, many thought it was going to be one of those “Nice try, not interested,” devices. Not so. Today’s smartwatches are sleek, pack user-friendly interfaces with larger buttons than previous iterations, and longer battery life than ever before. If you’re in the market, this list can help you decide which best fits your needs.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Is It Time to Drop Cable?

By Tracey Dowdy

Are you thinking about cutting the cord? There are pros and cons to keeping and cutting, so before you take the plunge, there are a few things to consider.

COST For most of us, the discussion of whether or not to cancel our cable subscription starts with the rising cost of services. Your cable and internet provider are likely from the same service, and providers commonly bundle their services to appeal to a broader customer base. For example, it’s better for me to subscribe to a monthly phone/cable/internet package than to purchase internet as a standalone service, not only because of cost but because the bundle offers unlimited data. We watch a lot of Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, and nothing eats up data faster than streaming. You can sometimes negotiate a better rate by calling your provider and threatening to leave, but most price breaks and promotions have an expiration date when the cost bumps up again, sometimes without notice, and you’ll have to start bargain shopping again.

NEED At my house, we watch more shows on streaming services than on cable, which is one of the original reasons we looked at canceling cable. But, I’m a hockey fan and adding Sling TV to watch my Penguins comes with a $25/month price tag. My husband is a baseball and football fan, so access to NFL and MLB games means additional subscription fees for each. You can see how quickly any savings are wiped out. The best plan is to sit down, make a list of what you watch, what you can wait for – streaming services don’t always have the latest episodes on-demand – and go from there. Consumer Reports has a great list of streaming services, what they offer and what they cost.

DVR vs. ON DEMAND Live TV streaming services like Sling or HBO Now provide access to content via a “cloud DVR,” but there are limitations. Often, you have to sit through commercials, there’s a cap on the number of shows you can store, content expires, and some channels don’t allow shows to be recorded at all.

ANTENNA The one workaround for cord-cutters to access local channels is to use an antenna. Most TV’s come with an over-the-air tuner built-in, allowing you to plug in an antenna to access networks like ABC, NBC or PBS. However, depending on where you live, reception may be excellent or non-existent. Streaming services often offer local channels, but not nationwide, and the channels available are limited.

One final note, many people who’ve cut the cord share login information across households, e.g., with family or friends. Be aware this contravenes the Terms of Service with your provider who can track logins and potentially restrict access based on location.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Best Tech Gifts Under $50

By Tracey Dowdy

If you’re part of a Secret Santa gift exchange at work or even if you’ve got hard-to-buy-for family members, figuring out a gift that won’t be re-gifted can be tricky. These gadgets and gizmos – all under $50 – are sure to be a hit with even the trickiest and pickiest.

  • The Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote ($40) is one of the less expensive streamers out there. Though it lacks some of the features of pricier versions (4K HDR video or Dolby Atmos sound), it offers 1080p HD and a good amount of content. My favorite feature is the Alexa voice remote, which allows you to find, launch, and control content with the push of a single button.
  • The Anker Soundcore 2 Portable Bluetooth Speaker ($29) is one of the best Bluetooth speakers under $50. It’s water resistant, providing protection against rain, dust, snow, and spills, features 24-hour battery life, a 66-foot Bluetooth range, aux input, and solid sound quality, it’s a steal.
  • The Hamilton Beach Set and Forget Slow Coker ($49) is a dream come true for busy moms. Just program the slow cooker to cook your dish for a specified time, choose the appropriate internal food temperature, and the slow cooker automatically switches to WARM once that temperature is reached.
  • Shure’s SE112 earphones ($49) provide solid sound quality for the price point – these are at the low end of what Shure offers. Their design muffles some external noise and limits the amount of sound that escapes from the earpieces, though not.
  • Consumer Reports recommends the Hamilton Beach 46205 Programmable Coffee Maker ($39) as it can “brew a mean cup of joe at a fantastic price.” While there are more high-end coffee makers out there, this model is programmable, has an auto-shutoff feature, and makes a good cup of coffee in under 10 minutes. Plus, Consumer Reports gives it a Very Good rating for “predicted reliability.”
  • The Anker Wireless Qi Phone Charger ($22) allows you to charge your phone up to 2x faster than without plugging it in. No more hunting for cords – place your phone on the pad and voilá! A fully charged phone in no time. Its LED indicators, temperature control, surge protection, short-circuit prevention, non-slip pad, compact design, and worry-free 18-month warranty make it safe unobtrusive, and a steal at just $22.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.