by Ben Taylor
At SpecOut, we set out to create the ultimate tech gift guide, with product selections from more than a dozen categories. The gadgets, gizmos and geek-approved devices on this list range from inexpensive ($35) to pricey ($3,000), but they all represent the top tier of their respective markets.
But wait a minute: who are we to say these are the best gifts?
Our credentials: we collect and visualize data for tens of thousands of products, from smartphones to tablets to fitness trackers. For each product, we track a variety of metrics, including expert review scores, full spec-sheet stats and real-world performance.
The following 25 products emerged as the very best of 2015. For your convenience (read: our eccentric enthusiasm for data), we’ve ordered the list from least to most expensive, so if you just need a quick stocking stuffer, the beginning of the list will suffice. You can jump straight to the list, or read more about our methodology below.
More about the methodology
Our SpecOut team of data geeks and tech writers started by scoring every product in our database on scale of 0 to 100, based on a combination of expert review scores, features, specs and real-world performance. While the specific weights vary by product (AKA we believe a smartphone’s camera is more important than a tablet’s), the overall method is similar across each product line. You can view the specific weights by following the links to each topic on our site.
Once we had a list of top-rated products, we voted as a team for which items to place on this final list. It’s important to note: there is subjectivity throughout this process. Many excellent products barely missed inclusion on the list. The final items on this list simply represent the consensus favorite, as decided by the full team.
#1. Google Chromecast 2
Approximate Price: $35
With Apple unveiling a pricey $150 upgrade to the Apple TV, Google is sticking to simple and cheap. The Chromecast 2 lets you beam any Chrome browser window from any device to your TV, whether that’s your iPhone or Galaxy, MacBook or ThinkPad. And all for $35.
If you prefer using a classic remote to navigate content directly on your TV, look to the more expensive Amazon Fire TV, Roku 4 or Apple TV. But if you tend to stream most shows from your phone, tablet or laptop anyway, Google’s Chromecast 2 offers a convenient, cost-effective alternative.
#2. Amazon Fire Tablet (2015)
Approximate Price: $50
We’ll be honest: the Amazon Fire Tablet isn’t a leading tablet. It’s got specs from 2012, and any modern alternative from Apple or Samsung will beat it in real-world benchmarks.
But just look at that price.
The Amazon Fire Tablet is still a workhorse of a device, a gadget that can store all of your books, games and (some) movies on a handy, seven-inch screen.
Call it an awesome stocking stuffer for a relative who just broke an iPad.
#3. Roku 4
Approximate Price: $129
Apple, Amazon and Google tend to dominate conversations about TV boxes and dongles, but we still think Roku’s box is the best of the pack. With better controls, more features and 4K video support, the Roku 4 is the way to go … so long as you aren’t already neck deep in Apple, Amazon or Google’s tech ecosystems.
#4. Parrot MiniDrone Airborne Night
Approximate Price: $130
The Parrot MiniDrone Airborne Night is the perfect entry-level drone for the curious tech geek. Its stats are nothing special, and you won’t be able to go much beyond your own backyard, but for $130, you won’t find anything better.
Willing to drop more on fully featured drone? Stay tuned for a pricier recommendation later on this list.
#5. Samsung 850 EVO 500GB MZ-M5E500BW
Approximate Price: $150
It used to be a speed boost for your laptop cost several hundred dollars. Today? You can get a respectable performance increase for a mere $150. Grab this one for the geek or PC gamer. Just check to make sure she didn’t already buy one for herself.
#6. Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (2015)
Approximate Price: $189
The Kindle Paperwhite remains Amazon’s best product, at least in our humble opinion. It brings the best of physical books and electronic tablets together into one, reasonably priced device. And no one makes a reader that is so easy on the eyes, even after several hours.
#7. Nintendo New 3DS XL
Approximate Price: $200
With mediocre Wii U sales and the rise of mobile gaming, the press has been quick to dismiss Nintendo, the old-school video game maker.
But quietly, the company’s handheld 3DS is still selling well. And $200 for the newest, extra large model is close to highway robbery.
Snap one up, then grab Shovel Knight, Animal Crossing: New Leaf and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.
#8. Google OnHub
Approximate Price: $220
Most routers still look and perform like they were designed in 1999, with blinking lights and inconsistent coverage throughout the house. Google designed OnHub to fix that, with a classy design, stronger signal and special features designed for modern streaming needs. It’s a router without all the frustration.
#9. Fitbit Surge
Approximate Price: $250
While Fitbit has had a checkered history of product recalls — some users have complained of rashes caused by the company’s bands — the company has rebounded admirably. It remains the king of fitness trackers, and the Fitbit Surge is its best, most fully featured product yet.
#10. GoPro HERO4 Session
Approximate Price: $299
GoPro’s smallest and lightest camera yet is also a bit pricey … but if you want the full GoPro experience, this is the one.
The simple, flexible design allows you to mount the camera anywhere, and you’ll barely remember it’s there while you ride, climb or race.
#11. Garmin Forerunner 225
Approximate Price: $300
Compared to the well-rounded Fitbit Surge, the Garmin Forerunner 225 is made specifically for runners. If you’re more inclined to hit the trail than the gym, consider opting for the Forerunner, which experts praise for its precise step-tracking and run-pacing.
#12. Samsung Gear S2 Classic
Approximate Price: $300
If you want a smartwatch, but you’d rather not buy Apple, the Samsung Gear S2 Classic is your best bet. It’s got a classy design, brilliant screen and smart, simple interface. It’s also loaded with all the latest features.
Some experts report a bit of bugginess and connection issues, but these are flaws that seem to plague almost every smartwatch on the market. Call it the curse of a new product category.
#13. JBL Xtreme
Approximate Price: $300
Bluetooth speakers are great … when you can hear them. That’s why we picked the JBL Xtreme, which experts praise for its raw power and deep bass, both of which seem a little too good for a wireless speaker.
#14. The Apple Watch
Approximate Price: $349
The Apple Watch certainly has its detractors. Some argue the device hasn’t been as revolutionary as the company claimed it would be. Others (rightly) point to the disappointing performance of most third-party apps.
But the Apple Watch remains the best smartwatch on the market, with elegant watch faces, great iPhone compatibility features and the most fashionable bands in the business.
For the geek in your life, this is still a stellar holiday gift, revolutionary or no.
#15. Xbox One
Approximate Price: $399
Some video game enthusiasts might be surprised to see the Xbox One — and not the PS4 — as our holiday game console pick.
Sales-wise, the PS4 is in the lead for this generation, and the console has lots of support from independent developers.
But over the last year, the Xbox One has actually become underrated. If you’re mostly into sports and shooters, and you spend most of your time online, the Xbox One is just as good as its PS4 counterpart — perhaps a bit better. Throw in the three-games-and-one-terabyte holiday bundle ($399), and the Xbox One is simply the better deal right now.
#16. Sennheiser MOMENTUM 2.0 Wireless
Approximate Price: $500
When you go wireless with your headphones, you usually sacrifice some sound quality. Here’s your solution. While these headphones aren’t cheap, they accomplish the rare feat of sounding phenomenal without wires — well worth it for any serious audiophile.
#17. iPhone 6s
Approximate Price: $649
It might look identical to last year’s iPhone 6, but the iPhone 6s has more than enough under-the-hood improvements to justify an extra $100.
Among the more notable upgrades: new 3D touch technology that recognizes the force of each tap, “live photos” that seem straight out of Harry Potter and vastly improved Touch ID speed, such that your phone unlocks almost instantaneously.
#18. Samsung Galaxy Note 5
Approximate Price: $699
If you’re looking for a phone that can double as a tablet, the Galaxy Note 5 is the phablet to choose. It’s on the pricier end of smartphones, but with newly designed features for the S Pen (the included stylus), 4 GB of RAM, and a top-of-the-line display, the only doubts we had were if it’d fit into our skinny jean pockets.
#19. iPad Pro
Approximate Price: $799
While it might just look like a giant iPad (the screen is as big as a standard MacBook), the iPad Pro is a significant departure for Apple.
The company has marketed previous iPads as casual, consumer devices, but the iPad Pro is all business: powerful, fast and built for productivity. The iPad Mini might be made for wiling away a Sunday afternoon on the couch, but the giant iPad Pro belongs in the boardroom, playing field or art studio.
If you’ve been waiting for a truly productive iPad — and you can stomach the price tag — try the iPad Pro.
#20. DJI Phantom 3 Standard
Approximate Price: $800
The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is the best drone you can buy for under $1,000, with a max flight time (25 minutes), operating range (1,000 meters) and max altitude (6,000 meters) worthy of a drone double the cost.
#21. Canon Rebel T6s (760D)
Approximate Price: $1,199
As smartphone cameras have gotten better, some have begun to wonder whether DSLRs still have a place. The answer is yes, so long as you really are serious about creating great images and really learning how to use your camera.
If that’s you or your gift recipient, the Canon Rebel T6s (760D) is a great place to start. It’s a legitimately good camera, but not so nice that’ll it set you back three thousand dollars.
#22. Sony Alpha a77 II
Approximate Price: $1,199
Canon and Nikon might be the two DSLR titans, but Sony has been coming on fast in recent years. For photographers who do a lot of low-light shooting, the Sony Alpha a77 II is a smart, independent pick.
#23. Apple 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display 2015 Base Model
Approximate Price: $1,299
You might be tempted to buy the new pencil-thin MacBook, the one with a single USB port and a profile to make a paperclip look fat.
For our money, however, the latest 13-inch MacBook Pro is still the better deal. Sure, it’s heavier than the new MacBook, but it’s light compared to most competitors. Plus it’s got the most power per dollar of any laptop in Apple’s current line.
#24. Microsoft Surface Book
Approximate Price: $1,500
Microsoft has long marketed its Surface Pro as “the tablet that can replace your laptop.” But some people would prefer it the other way around: a legitimate laptop with tablet-like features.
Enter the Microsoft Surface Book. The product is a laptop at heart, but it has a detachable touchscreen and companion stylus. You might call it “the laptop that can masquerade as a tablet.” Kudos to Microsoft: this one is a winner.
#25. LG 55EG9600
Approximate Price: $3,000
If you’re shopping for a TV, you probably either want something simple and affordable or crazy cool, regardless of the price. If you want cool, this is the set you splurge on: LG’s curved display is a legitimate showstopper, giving you a cinematic, movie-theater experience, even on just 55 inches of display.
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