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Holiday Gift Guide 2016: TechRadar’s best tech gifts you can actually afford

In our line of work, we understand more than most that the holidays can get expensive – and fast. It seems that, these days, every gift worth giving has some semblance of technology inside. It’s what makes our lives not only easier, but more entertaining.

Of course, tech does not come cheap, and fulfilling your loved ones’ wish lists can see your post-holiday bank statements soaring into the thousands. So, this year we’ve devised a buying guide for the best tech gifts aimed to best meet a budget while still recommending products that your friends and family will love.

We like to think we’ve found 15 pieces of tech that fit within that happy medium. Save for a few minor outliers, every product you see below can be had for under $100 or £150 through Amazon and other online retailers.

So, whether you’re on your phone at the local electronics store or reading this with an online store open in another tab on your laptop, allow us to make your holiday shopping easier and lighter on the purse strings with 15 sound recommendations. Your friends and family will thank you for it.

Google Chromecast

A more colorful, reliable streaming dongle

Reasons to buy
+Faster streaming than before+Crazy low price
Reasons to avoid
-No native Amazon Instant Video-No remote control

If you want to make a dumb TV smart, or a smart TV better, Google’s streaming puck is the cheapest – and some might argue the easiest – way there. Powered by your Wi-Fi network to work in tandem with your smartphone or other device, you can stream tons of content from a large library of apps to your Chromecast-connected TV from said device. Imagine gifting someone an enormous TV upgrade for a fraction of the cost of, say, a new TV? And, if your giftee recently grabbed a 4K set, Google’s putting out an excellent-looking 4K version, Chromecast Ultra, for $69 (£69, AU$99) that’s worth looking out for our full review of.

Read the full Google Chromecast review

Sonic Foamer

Bring out the best in your beer

Reasons to buy
+Easy setup+Makes great beers better
Reasons to avoid
-Requires six AAA batteries-Makes bad beers worse

Like the Fizzics beer enhancer we recommended last year, the Sonic Foamer promises to bring out hidden gasses in your beer, unleashing a larger head and stronger aroma. It works using a whopping six AAA batteries to generate ultrasonic waves that excite these gasses and thus creating the aromatic head in your beer. However, it’s worth pointing out that this product won’t necessarily make bad beers taste better, and often quite the contrary, as its process only “enhances” what’s already there. Regardless, your loved one will appreciate a way to make their favorite beers even better.

Fitbit Flex 2

A solid if simple fitness tracker

Reasons to buy
+Comfortable and light+Water resistant
Reasons to avoid
-Battery life could be longer-Slow to charge

Fitbit’s sequel to its vision of the affordable fitness tracker is here just in time for the holidays, and it’s easy to recommend. While its four-day battery life isn’t the longest in the sub-$100 bracket, Fitbit’s software and the device’s water-resistance will win you over. The tracker is compatible with both iPhone and Android phones – not to mention Windows 10 Mobile handsets. Don’t expect deep tracking here for the price, so think about your loved one’s lifestyle before picking up this cheap gift that could afford a loved one a change in lifestyle. 

Read the full FitBit Flex 2 review

Nintendo Classic Mini: NES

Take a Nintendo-fueled nostalgia trip to the ‘80s

Reasons to buy
+Authentic retro-gaming experience+Subtle modern touches
Reasons to avoid
-Extremely short controller cables-No power adapter in box

This holiday, Nintendo is making a statement – nay, a proclamation – that it is back. For an excellent price, Nintendo’s rehash of the box that changed everything is miniaturized yet stuffed with 30 classic NES games. Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man … it’s all there. While its controller cables are short and Nintendo expects you to use any old USB power adapter to get it going, this is an affordable way to get your loved one back into gaming with an authentic retro recreation of their favorite childhood games. Or, introduce your little ones to the greats.

Read the full Nintendo Classic Mini: NES review

Pebble 2 SE

A fun, helpful Apple Watch alternative

Reasons to buy
+Excellent battery life+Fun interface
Reasons to avoid
-Limited functionality-Plastic design

Still standing as one of the few smartwatches that supports your iPhone without much headache or looking too weird next to your phone (ahem, Android), Pebble 2 SE upgrades the original, affordable wearable experience. Now, you can control the Pebble with your voice, as well as get every sort of notification to your watch. Plus, with 7-day battery life and water resistance, this looks like a fine alternative to spending 300-plus bones for the same functions and a bit more in a flashier package that needs to charge every 48 hours. And, if you want the new Pebble 2 with the heart rate monitor, that goes for $129 (£99, about AU$170).

Read the hands on Pebble 2 review

AtGames Sega Genesis

A ‘90s flashback with tons of games

Reasons to buy
+Huge game library+Two wireless controllers
Reasons to avoid
-No HDMI connection-Not enough hits

If your loved one was more of a Sega fan than Nintendo, then this is the retro gaming gift for them. While a bit pricier than Nintendo’s home-built offering, this device comes with two wireless controllers and 50 more games. Granted, many of games will be ones neither of you have heard of, but several major Sonic the Hedgehog games are included as are the entire Golden Axe and Mortal Kombat series. Also, be prepared for some below-average audio through a standard AV connection. Consider how persnickety your giftee is about the details or how strong their nostalgia is before picking this one up, because it does have lots of Sonic.

Mattel View-Master Deluxe

Kid-friendly VR with a nostalgic twist

Reasons to buy
+Compatible with Cardboard+Lots of exclusive content
Reasons to avoid
-No strap for hands-free use-Exclusive content costs extra

If you’re looking to get a loved one into the virtual reality craze on the cheap and with lots to do, Mattel’s updated View-Master is one to seriously consider. The Google Cardboard-compatible device has a much-improved locking mechanism this time around and now comes with headphone support for better immersion. Better yet, you can now adjust the viewing position and lens focus to account for poor vision, potentially eliminating the need for glasses. In addition to support for all of the Cardboard apps, Mattel offers a series of experiences through app expansion packs offered in discs that look just like those the old View-Master used – only with AR activation.

Turtle Beach Stealth 350VR

Audio for the VR gaming generation

Reasons to buy
+Ready for Rift, Vive and PS VR+Comfortable, custom fit
Reasons to avoid
-No surround sound

If someone in your life just bought into the premium end of the VR phenomenon, give them something that might improve their experience. These over-ear cans were designed specifically for the big three VR headsets, with an ergonomic design that accounts for the head-bound hardware and cushioned ear pads for extra comfort. Plus, with 30-hour battery life that powers extra amplification, the virtualnaut in your life will get plenty of time to escape. If only they included virtual surround sound.

Wink Hub 2

Jump start a DIY smart home project

Reasons to buy
+Compatible with several devices+Easy software
Reasons to avoid
-No on-device controls

If a friend or loved one wants to upgrade their home with smart appliances or wants to simplify what they’re working with, the Wink Hub 2 should do that nicely and easily. With support for all sorts of connectivity protocols used by the leading accessories and compatible with iOS, Android, watchOS and Android Wear as well as Amazon’s Alexa-enabled devices, this device manages all of those in a single app via an Ethernet-connected device. The platform even supports IFTTT recipes for complex automated functions. Make their starter smart home setup simpler for a decent price.

Neewer 2-Axis Smartphone Gimbal

Upgrade someone’s mobile photo and video game

Reasons to buy
+Fits plenty of smartphones+Bluetooth controls
Reasons to avoid
-No USB power adapter included

For that friend or loved one that takes woefully shaky video or blurry photos from their smartphone, consider this affordable gimbal. Supporting phones as large as the iPhone 7 Plus or Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, users can control their phone cameras from the gimbal’s handle buttons over Bluetooth. It’s rechargeable, too, though the AC adapter end is not included.

Parrot Mambo

A drone with more fun tricks than most

Reasons to buy
+Unique, fun accessories+60fps vertical camera
Reasons to avoid
-Short battery life-Not quite like it is in the ad

There has to be at least one drone nut or burgeoning enthusiast in your circles these days, so consider this gift to add to their fun with some unique functions. The Mambo comes with both a Nerf-like ball cannon and a claw-like grabber tool that you can control via the drone’s smartphone app or a separately-sold controller. However, don’t think you can start dropping sugar cubes into cups of coffee or popping balloons like in the ad, we tried it. Despite that and a short 8-to - 9-minute battery life, the thing charges in just 30 minutes and is a lot of good fun regardless.

UE Roll 2

Perfect for taking poolside, and at a pittance

Reasons to buy
+Decent mids and highs+Waterproof
Reasons to avoid
-Muddy bass-Average battery life

This may very well be the ultimate, jack-of-all-trades Bluetooth speaker. With water-proofing, a 50-foot wireless range and decent sound to boot, it’s tough to beat the UE Roll 2 at under 100 clams. Upgrade your loved one’s pool party game with one easy gift. Just look out for whether your giftee is a bass nut, as this Roll lacks a bit there – otherwise, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one better at this price.

Read the full UE Roll 2 review 

Moto G4 Play

This low-end phone raises the budget bar

Reasons to buy
+Android Marshmallow-powered+Simple, appealing design
Reasons to avoid
-No gyroscope-Doesn't handle multitasking too well

A smartphone? On the “affordable” gift guide? That’s right. Motorola has once again crafted what’s debatably the best smartphone you can buy for less than 100 bones via Amazon. And, that price is unlocked, full stop. A 720p screen, a Snapdragon processor, access to the latest Android updates, water-resistance and impressive all-day battery life in an attractive design? We think you just found Johnny’s first smartphone.

Read the full Moto G4 Play review

Amazon Fire HD 8

The best tablet you can get for the price

Reasons to buy
+Decent gaming performance+Lots of storage
Reasons to avoid
-Screen lacks sharpness-Poor speakers

If somehow someone on your gift list doesn’t yet have a tablet, then consider Amazon’s latest in affordable slates. While it doesn’t have the sharpest screen or fullest speakers, it offers a ton of content for gaming, streaming and browsing through Amazon’s Appstore. If your giftee is already using Amazon to buy things online, then this makes an even better present. In fact, it’s better that they are.

Read the full Amazon Fire HD 8 review

Skullcandy Grind Wireless

Stellar sound without shredding your wallet

Reasons to buy
+Comfortable ear pads+Deep, rich sound
Reasons to avoid
-Short battery life-Too few accessories

Skullcandy offers some of the most popular headphones around, but also some of the most affordable and powerful for the price. These over-ear cans work wirelessly over Bluetooth for less than 12 hours, though at least they work over a 3.5mm audio cable, too. However, to keep costs down, you’re expected to provide the USB AC adapter, like most budget gadgets these days. Regardless, for someone in your life that wants a new set of headphones that work wirelessly and offer rich sound, you can’t better than these for the price.

Read the full Skullcandy Grind Wireless review

This article is the first of several, part of our ongoing holiday shopping coverage for 2016. Be sure to follow TechRadar throughout the season for advice regarding the top tech deals during the holidays, culminating in our epic guide to the absolute best Black Friday deals.