10 Must-have Gadgets for the 2012 Holiday Season

By: John Kelly

Boxes containing the iPad mini. Who on your holiday list wouldn't love one of these?
Oli Scarff/Getty Images News

Here's the good news on the topic of gift giving: Nobody has everything -- especially when it comes to technology. That's why high-tech gadgets can make ideal holiday gifts. Many fall into the category of something a person would love to have but might not need, which makes them seem like luxuries. And what makes a better gift than something you really want, but wouldn't buy yourself?

Gadgets also make ideal gifts because there's virtually no end to the possibilities. Every year, brand new products or updated models provide different and exciting options. Keep in mind, though, that if you're going to go for the most sought-after gadgets, you might want to shop early. Popular tech items can sell out long before the holidays arrive. To get jump on that shopping competition, though, you first need to know what you're in the market for. Read on to check out some of the coolest, must-have gadgets of 2012.


10: PlayStation Vita

The Vita's screen is bigger and more colorful than that of older PS's.
The Vita's screen is bigger and more colorful than that of older PS's.
©2011 Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

PlayStation came out with this new flavor of its ever-popular portable gaming device in 2012. The first thing that you'll notice out of the box is the PS Vita's vivid 5-inch (13-centimeter) organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screen. It's bigger and more colorful than older PS's. And the graphics rock.

The touch screen, rear touch pad, dual analog thumb sticks and 6-axis motion sensor make the Vita incredibly responsive. They allow you to touch, tap, tilt, steer and interact with your game environment in new and dynamic ways.


More than 250 games for the PlayStation Vita -- from Assassin's Creed III to Need for Speed Most Wanted -- are available for $30 to $50 each ($10 to $15 for download-only versions) [source: Bakalar]. As a bonus, the Vita lets you store your own videos and music and includes front- and back-facing cameras. Wi-Fi or 3G connections allow you to play against other Vita owners and send game invitations via voice chat.

The Vita isn't cheap. It sells for about $250, and you'll probably want an additional memory card to boost power. But as portable systems go, this one gives players one of the most graphic and user-friendly experiences available.

9: Microsoft Surface

A Microsoft Surface design team member shows off the new tablet at a news conference in the summer of 2012.
A Microsoft Surface design team member shows off the new tablet at a news conference in the summer of 2012.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images News

Microsoft has made a big splash in the tablet computer pond with the Surface. You can use the Surface strictly as a tablet with a touch-sensitive 10.6-inch (27-centimeter) screen. Or you can magnetically attach the Touch Cover, a piece of plastic that's both a detachable cover and a keyboard. Prop the Surface on a table or your lap and the ultra-thin "touch" keys offer the typing convenience of a notebook computer (you can also choose the Type Cover with more traditional raised keys).

The Surface runs on Windows RT, a version of Windows 8, the latest Microsoft OS. With up to 64 gigabytes of storage, it's a powerful on-the-go computer. Critics have been impressed by the thin magnesium alloy chassis, which gives the pad rigidity. The high-quality feel is enhanced by a tough, thin layer of magnesium deposited on the surface [source: Branscombe].


There are a lot of tablet computers on the market, but the Surface is running at the head of the pack, even competing with the more expensive Apple iPad. And it comes in five colors, to boot.

8: GoPro Hero3 Video Camera

You can mount the Hero3 to your helmet, chest or bike to catch action like this.
You can mount the Hero3 to your helmet, chest or bike to catch action like this.
Daniel Milchev/The Image Bank/Getty Images

With GoPro claiming that it's "the world's most versatile camera," the Hero3 puts a professional-quality high-definition video (and still) camera in the hands of your favorite gadget lover. And it literally fits in the palm of one hand -- the camera is only 2.4 inches (6 centimeters) wide by 1.6 inches (4 centimeters) high and weighs a mere 2.6 ounces (74 grams) [source: GoPro].

What's so versatile about this small, rugged camera? Well, for one thing, it's "wearable." You can mount it on a helmet or against your chest, or attach it to anything from a bicycle to a surfboard. It shoots great HD video in a wide-angle format, a perfect action camera.


For the active person on your gift list, it doesn't get much better than this for recording those death-defying exploits. Or just for taking interesting videos in challenging situations. A pole or suction cup mount lets you position the Hero3 almost anywhere –- even underwater. High-speed recording translates into slow-motion playback to make the most of the thrills.

GoPro cameras range in price from $199 to $399, depending on the features you want. The top-shelf model comes with a remote control and shoots even in low light [source: GoPro].

7: iRobot Roomba 790

The Roomba 790, introduced in 2012, is an update to this 780 model.
The Roomba 790, introduced in 2012, is an update to this 780 model.
Photo courtesy of iRobot

Even if the person on your gift list likes to vacuum, he or she might want a Roomba just for the fun of it. Imagine a vacuum cleaner that crawls around your home sucking up dirt while you're out having fun or asleep in the hammock.

Robotic vacuums aren't entirely new, but the Roomba 790 from iRobot, introduced in 2012, is loaded with high-tech features. It senses where it's been and covers an entire room before moving on to the next. It takes its time, detecting the dirtiest spots and going over them thoroughly. It automatically adjusts to different floor surfaces -- carpet, wood or tile -- and crawls under furniture and into other hard-to-reach spots. When it's done, it ambles back to its docking base and starts recharging its batteries.


If that's not enough, the Roomba 790 also features dual HEPA air filters to eliminate dust and a suction system designed to deal with animal hair and other tough forms of dirt. The wireless command center lets you start, stop, steer and schedule regular cleanings [source: iRobot]. At about $700, the Roomba is a luxury. But as a holiday gift, it's hard to beat.

6: Nike+ Fuelband

A Nike FuelBand worn by Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder during an NBA All-Star Weekend in 2012.
A Nike FuelBand worn by Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder during an NBA All-Star Weekend in 2012.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Looking a like a futuristic version of a plastic charity wristband, the Nike+ Fuelband is one of the most fascinating new gadgets of 2012. It automatically tracks your physical movements in order to encourage you to be more active. You set your goals, and Fuelband tells you if you're meeting them. It lets you see how much energy you're using in real time. Which burns more, a game of softball or climbing a flight of stairs? Fuelband will tell you.

The Fuelband functions using an internal accelerometer, a device that detects movement in any direction. It tracks things like running, walking or dancing, as well as sports activities. When the Fuelband is synched to a computer or cell phone, data related to your workouts appears in graphics that record progress, turning your daily life into a kind of game. For example, a meter moves from red to green as the day's goal is reached. Long-term improvement becomes obvious in easy-to-read charts.


Unlike a simple pedometer or GPS device, Fuelband tracks activity in several different ways. It accounts for intensity, length and style of a user's movement [source: Rundle]. Priced at approximately $150, the Fuelband is all about motivation. By making progress visible and passing on rewarding messages, it might prompt a user to climb the stairs rather than take an elevator, or walk rather than drive. With a mobile app, the person can share progress on Facebook or compete with friends in meeting goals.

5: Zenith El Primero Stratos Watch

If the Stratos can handle conditions like this, chances are it can withstand most Earth-bound extremes.
If the Stratos can handle conditions like this, chances are it can withstand most Earth-bound extremes.

In October 2012, Felix Baumgartner became the first human to break the sound barrier in free fall. Millions held their breath as the adventurer jumped from a balloon 24 miles (39 kilometers) above Earth. He reached a speed of 833.9 miles per hour (1,342 kilometers per hour). During the historic jump, he was wearing a Zenith Stratos watch (Zenith was one of his sponsors) [source: Heaton].

This holiday season, someone on your gift list can own that same model watch: the "El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th Tribute to Felix Baumgartner." It makes a great conversation piece, and it's a handsome luxury watch for everyday use, too.


The back of the Stratos is engraved with Baumgartner's motto: "Learn to love what you have been taught to fear." The markers and hands on the dial are luminous for reading in low light -- on the edge of space or elsewhere. Some additional stand-out features: The face is covered with a durable sapphire crystal, the chronograph is accurate to a tenth of a second, and the flyback feature lets a user restart timing intervals with the push of a single button, no stopping and resetting required.

The recipient of a Stratos can rest assured that the watch has proven to withstand extremes of temperature, pressure, speed and impact. It's definitely a high-end gift -- the price is in the $10,000 range -- but one that's both commemorative and useful.

4: Roku Streaming Stick

The Streaming Stick plugs directly into your TV's HDMI port.
The Streaming Stick plugs directly into your TV's HDMI port.
©2012 Roku, Inc.

Roku has become a big name in streaming content from the Internet to high-definition televisions and Blu-ray players. This year, the company came out with a new twist on streaming: a stick barely larger than a USB flash drive that plugs directly into a television's high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) port. The Streaming Stick brings you the same HD content as Roku's regular media hub, but in a much smaller package.

The Streaming Stick is just the thing for the person on your gift list who likes to be on the cutting edge of technology. Keep in mind, though, that the stick only works with a television or other device with mobile high-definition link (MHL) capability. Hitachi, Insignia and Mitsubishi are among the TV makers who are coming out with sets guaranteed to work with Roku in this respect [source: Greenwald].


Once the Streaming Stick is up and running, users have access to hundreds of channels through Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu and other services. Some channels are free, while others require a monthly subscription fee. The Stick also lets users play games like Angry Birds and listen to personalized music via Pandora. You control it all through the TV's remote. An app also allows the Streaming Stick to stream music and photos from a smartphone. For about $100, this gadget is a big deal in a small package.

3: Samsung Galaxy S III

The GS3 seemed to be winning the smartphone popularity race in 2012.
The GS3 seemed to be winning the smartphone popularity race in 2012.

Smartphones just keep getting smarter. Which is the best? It's a matter of opinion, but the new Samsung Galaxy S III (GS3) is definitely in the running and would make a great gift for a gadget-lover.

The first thing you'll notice about this phone is its roomy, 4.8-inch (12-centimeter) active-matrix organic light-emitting diode (AMOLOD) display, which supports brilliant colors and sharp graphics. The GS3's brushed polycarbonate exterior gives it a nice feel and light weight. And this phone is loaded with features.


For example, the phone's Every Touch function lets two Galaxy S III phones transfer photos, videos and documents just by placing them back to back. The phone also has other share features that let you send photos and videos to groups of friends instantly.

Techies will be impressed by the replaceable battery and the Galaxy S III's ability to take more memory on board -- up to a whopping 128 gigs [source: Beazsvis]. The phone's Motion Gestures feature allows simple movements to activate various capabilities. For example, lifting the phone to your ear can initiate a call. Speak into the phone, and it will get directions or search the Web for you. And the number of Android apps that the GS3 can access is practically unlimited.

Is the Galaxy S III as good as the Apple iPhone 5? Many users think so [source: Roth]. The Galaxy moved ahead of the iPhone in 2012 in terms of sales. And depending on the carrier, you can often pick up a Galaxy S III for substantially less than an iPhone -- as low as $99 with a new contract [source: Myftiu].

2: Lytro Light Field Camera

With the tube-shaped Lytro, innocent bystanders may not even notice you've got a camera on hand.
With the tube-shaped Lytro, innocent bystanders may not even notice you've got a camera on hand.
Photo courtesy of Lytro

Here's a great gift choice for the shutterbug who has (almost) everything. The Lytro is the first consumer camera that records a light field rather than a picture. That means the user can adjust the focus by tapping the touchscreen after taking the shot. Once the photo is downloaded onto a computer, clicking on it will change the focus.

This is a camera gift that's unique from the get-go. You might not even guess it's a camera: The aluminum housing looks like a long square tube. The zoom and shutter release are built into the silicone grip at the rear, and no focus means no delay once the button is pushed. A touch screen at the end serves as view finder and allows you to change the focus after the shot is recorded. It also gives access to settings and controls [source: Lyrtro].


The camera shoots in two modes. Regular mode allows a wide range of refocusing options from about 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) to infinity. Creative mode narrows the focal range and gives the resulting photo higher resolution. It also lets the user get closer to the subject, making it great for macro shots and portraits.

Another great feature of the Lytro is the ability to share. The user can post photos to his or her page on the Lytro Web site as well as to Facebook and Twitter. The really cool thing is that once the person shares, friends can have fun by tapping on the pictures to refocus them -- in effect creating their own photos. The innovative Lytro sells for $399 to $499, depending on internal storage capacity.

1: Apple iPad Mini

An Apple employee uses the iPad mini at the tablet's launch in the UK in November 2012.
An Apple employee uses the iPad mini at the tablet's launch in the UK in November 2012.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images News

Just in time for the 2012 holidays, Apple released its new, smaller, less expensive tablet computer, the iPad Mini. It has the capabilities of the popular, full-sized iPad packed into a tablet with a 7.9-inch (20-centimeter) screen. Users can take pictures, surf the Web, watch video, read books and listen to music all on this one diminutive device.

With the Mini's smaller size comes maximum portability. It weighs half as much as a regular iPad, a little less than 11 ounces (308 grams), and its tough aluminum and glass case -- barely more than a quarter-inch (.64 centimeters) thick -- gives it a solid feel [source: Tsukayama].

This smaller tablet features 16 GB storage capacity and a 10-hour battery life. It also has front and back cameras that can record HD video and 5-megapixel photos. And the cover, which doubles as a stand, comes in a variety of colors.

Like an iPhone, the Mini includes SIRI voice recognition and synthesis and Apple's FaceTime, which lets users make video calls. It can link to the Internet via an advanced Wi-Fi connection that offers twice the speed of earlier iPads and allows for 4G cellular connectivity. Starting at $329, the Mini is not cheap. But it runs the same 275,000 apps available for full-sized iPads, and for the person who has everything else, just might make the perfect gift.

Lots More Information

Author's Note

We all absorb cheer around the holidays -- getting together with friends and family, enjoying traditional celebrations. But for children, it's a truly special time. In fact, much of the enjoyment of the season springs from our nostalgia and memories of our own childhood anticipation and joy.

Researching this piece made me think that the principal quality of a good holiday gift is its ability to evoke that sense of childlike wonder. Not whether it's needed or useful, but whether it fascinates. Something new, something clever, something wonderful.

Related Articles

  • Bakalar, Jeff. "What's the best portable gaming system?" CNET.com, February 17, 2012. (November 2, 2012) http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-57380554-1/whats-the-best-portable-gaming-system/
  • Beavis, Gareth. "The Samsung Galaxy SIII - a phone worthy of the hype," Techradar.com, October 3, 2012. (November 2, 2012) http://www.techradar.com/us/reviews/phones/mobile-phones/samsung-galaxy-s3-1078667/review
  • Branscombe, Mary. "Hands on: Microsoft Surface review," Techradar.com, October 24, 2012. (November 2, 2012) http://www.techradar.com/us/reviews/pc-mac/tablets/microsoft-surface-1085839/review
  • GoPro.com. "Hero 3 Cameras." (November 2, 2012) http://gopro.com/hd-hero3-cameras
  • Greenwald, Will. "Roku Launches $100 Streaming Stick," Pcmag.com, September 20, 2012. (November 2, 2012) http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2409912,00.asp
  • Heaton, Jason. "ZENITH - Baumgartner's Zenith Stratos Flyback Striking 10th," Worldtempus.com, October 17, 2012. (November 2, 2012) http://www.worldtempus.com/en/news/top-news/detail/article/1350478914-zenith-baumgartners-zenith-stratos-flyback-striking-10th/
  • iRobot.com. "iRobot Roombar 790 Vacuum Cleaning Robot." (November 2, 2012) http://www.irobot.com/us/Roomba_790.aspx
  • Lytro.com. "Discover a New Kind of Camera." (November 2, 2012) https://www.lytro.com/camera
  • Myftiu, Matt. "iPhone 5 vs. Galaxy S3: Who wins the battle between the two hottest phones on the market?" DailyNews.com, October 25, 2012. (November 2, 2012) http://www.dailynews.com/ci_21731314/iphone-5-vs-galaxy-s3-who-wins-battle
  • Roth, Alex and O'Neal, William. "Number 1: Samsung Galaxy S3," TechRadar.com, August 10, 2012. (November 2, 2012) http://www.techradar.com/us/news/phone-and-communications/mobile-phones/20-best-mobile-phones-in-the-world-today-645440/page:21#articleContent
  • Rundle, Michael. "Nike+ Fuel Band Review: The Sports Watch You Never Knew You Needed," Huffingtonpost.co.uk, June 20, 2012. (November 2, 2012) http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/06/20/nike-fuel-band-review-the_n_1612388.html
  • Tsukayama, Hayley. "Apple's iPad mini: the pros and cons," Washingtonpost.com, October 24, 2012. (November 2, 2012) http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/apples-ipad-mini-the-pros-and-cons/2012/10/24/3382173c-1de1-11e2-ba31-3083ca97c314_story.html