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What is technology for if not to help us? The car, the telephone, the refrigerator — these machines made life so much easier, in ways we now take for granted. Modern technological leaps may seem a little smaller in comparison, but they can still help a lot.
For example, are you still wasting precious time sweeping and mopping your floors? Bam: robot vacuum. Are you still babysitting your grill while you wait for chicken to reach the right temperature? Bam: wireless thermometer.
As we slide into this new year, let's make a resolution to take full advantage of these and other tech-powered helpers. Below I've rounded up some of my favorites; share yours in the comments section below!
Help with everything: Smart screen or speaker
Is your home smart yet? By that I mean, does it have a virtual assistant that responds to your voice? This is so incredibly useful, you'll soon wonder how you got along without it.
Personally, I just like being able to ask, "What's the weather today?" Or say, "Set the thermostat to 73." (I have a smart thermostat, too.) When I'm in the kitchen making dinner, I tell my assistant to play some upbeat jazz. When I want to know what time the playoff game starts, I just ask. And so on and so on. Adding a screen to the mix allows for things like recipe videos and video calls.
The main players here are Amazon, with its lineup of Alexa-powered Echo smart speakers and displays; Apple, with Siri-based HomePod speakers; and Google, which offers Nest smart speakers and displays. You can also find Alexa and Google Assistant baked into various third-party products, like the Lenovo Smart Clock and Sonos One speaker.
All of these devices offer the same core functionality, though Apple's HomePod works with fewer smart-home accessories (lights, thermostats, doorbells, etc.) than Alexa and Google Assistant.
What to choose? It's hard to specifically recommend one smart device over another, but I will note that Amazon's Echo products can also help with home security (by listening for breaking glass, for example), senior care (via the subscription service Alexa Together) and more. Google Assistant, meanwhile, is better at fielding information-oriented inquiries (because Google). With that in mind, here are some products I recommend:
Super-affordable smart speaker: Amazon Echo Dot, $30 (was $50)
Nightstand-friendly smart screen: Amazon Echo Show 5, $45 (was $85)
Kitchen-friendly smart screen: Google Nest Hub Max, $230
Great for music: Sonos One, $220
Great for video calls: Facebook Portal Go, $149 (was $199)
Help with housework: Robot vacuum
Early-generation robot vacs weren't great. They'd bump around like drunken uncles and produce barely enough suction to slurp up a Cheerio. Thankfully, modern models are much smarter and more powerful. Some add mopping to the mix; others can even empty their own dustbins.
Most of my hands-on (floors-on?) experience is with Roborock's robot vacuums, and for the most part I've found them to be great: strong suction, smart navigation, easy app-controlled features (like virtual boundaries). But there are lots of models to choose from, which can get confusing, with prices ranging from around $300 on up to nearly $1,000.
I think a good all-around choice is the Roborock S4 Max ($360 with coupon), which ticks the most important robot-vac boxes and has a 4.7-star average rating from over 2,500 buyers.
Help with parenting: Amazon Fire HD 8 Kids
Parents, this is for you. Looking after little kids is hard enough when there's not a global pandemic. And while I'm not saying you should just plunk them down in front of a screen, sometimes that's exactly the help you need.
The Fire HD 8 Kids ($140, but frequently on sale for less) comes with a free year of Amazon's Kids+ subscription service, which includes unlimited access to age-appropriate books, games, apps, videos and so on. There are front- and rear-facing cameras for fun with photos and video, and baked-in parental controls you can monitor and update remotely.
Plus, the tablet arrives inside a colorful, kid-proof case backed by a two-year warranty that covers everything — including accidental breakage. Obviously, a tablet is no substitute for real-world play, story time and the like, but there's no question it can make the parenting life a little easier.
Read more: The best tablets for 2022
Help with Wi-Fi coverage: Mesh router network
Your modem/router creates a Wi-Fi network in your home, but signal strength drops off the farther away you get from it. Weak Wi-Fi can hamper your ability to work, let alone stream 4K video on your TV, play multiplayer games on your Xbox and so on. Indeed, lots of the tech helpers in this story rely on robust internet connectivity.
So how can you blanket your house in fast Wi-Fi? By deploying a mesh network. This sounds more complicated than it is; you'll basically just plug a little box into your modem, then deploy one or two more boxes around the house. These are signal boosters; they link together to create the "mesh" of high-speed Wi-Fi.
If you want a really affordable option, I recommend the Vilo Mesh Wi-Fi System ($64), which has a range of up to 4,500 square feet and includes an Ethernet port on each node — helpful for devices that might benefit from it.
If you want arguably the best option, I recommend the Eero 6 ($181), which supports the newer Wi-Fi 6 standard and can double as a smart-home Alexa hub.
Help with the garage: MyQ Smart Garage Control
Have you ever climbed into bed and realized you're not sure if you shut the garage? Have you ever needed to let a neighbor into the house while you're away? Are porch-pirates making off with your packages? Here's an incredibly easy and affordable fix: the Chamberlain MyQ Smart Garage Control. With it you can open or shut your garage via your phone, let Amazon deliver packages more safely and more.
Compatible with most garage door openers, the MyQ is reasonably easy to install. You do need a decent Wi-Fi signal in your garage; see the above mesh-network option if you discover the signal strength is too low.
If you're an Amazon Prime subscriber and willing to let delivery drivers open your garage, you can sign up for Amazon Key In-Garage Delivery — a great way to thwart package thieves. In fact, if you apply promo code KEY30 when making your first Key-delivery purchase, you'll get a $30 Amazon credit — which more than covers the cost of the MyQ itself. (Amazingly, it's just $20.)
I've used a MyQ for the past few years; it works like a charm and definitely makes life easier.
Help with meetings: Big-screen Zoom
Let's be frank: The smaller the screen, the less productive the Zoom meeting. So if you're still using a phone or tablet to converse with co-workers, it's time to consider a larger option — like your TV.
There are a couple ways to go about this. First, if you want to make an existing TV Zoom-friendly, look no further than the Facebook Portal TV ($79, was $149). It puts a 12-megapixel camera atop your screen and allows for video calls via Zoom, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. (It's also a streamer for services like Netflix and Hulu.) It even pans and zooms to keep you in the frame if you move around during a call.
In the market for a new TV? Amazon's Fire TV Omni Series was recently updated to support the Zoom app and USB webcams. Prices start at $300 for the 43-inch model; you can get Omnis as large as 75 inches.
Needless to say, while big-screen Zoom is great for business calls, this is also a great way to connect with friends and family. Sitting on the couch while you catch up definitely beats clustering around a phone or laptop.
Help with cooking: Wireless meat thermometer
Tired of babysitting the grill, oven or air fryer while you wait for your beef, chicken or fish to reach the desired temperature? This is one of the easiest tech fixes ever: Just insert a wireless meat thermometer and kick back with a beer until your phone notifies you the food is ready.
There are dozens of these available, but I recommend the Meater Plus ($100), which is fully wireless and earned overwhelmingly positive reviews from over 16,000 Amazon buyers. It features dual sensors and a rechargeable battery, and it's safe to run through the dishwasher. The companion app not only notifies you when meat hits a set temperature, it can also walk you through each step of the cooking process — great for novice grillers.
Help with sleep: White-noise machine
Can't quiet your mind when you get in bed? That's an incredibly common problem. Many folks swear by white noise as the solution, as it gives your brain a place to rest its attention rather than focusing on sleep-preventing thoughts and worries.
There are phone apps available, but I like having a dedicated white-noise machine for this, as it allows you to choose between a variety of timers and sounds with just the push of a button. One top-rated choice is the Big Red Rooster White Noise Sound Machine ($20 with coupon, down from $30), which includes six different sounds (rain, ocean, etc.) and can run off batteries or the included AC adapter.
Looking for more great Amazon deals? Check these out:
Headphones and earbud deals:
Beats Studio Buds, $100 (was $150), amazon.com
Beats Flex Wireless Earbuds, $50 (was $70), amazon.com
Smartphone and tablet deals:
Samsung Tab A7, $119 (was $160), amazon.com
Video game deals:
Smart home deals:
Google Nest Thermostat, $100 (was $130), amazon.com
Facebook Portal TV, $79 (was $149), amazon.com
Aucma Stand Mixer, $140 (was $156), amazon.com
Organic Vitamin E Oil Bundle, $20 (was $25), amazon.com
Lush Decor Comforter Farmhouse Stripe 3 Piece Full/Queen Reversible Bedding Set, $59 (was $97), amazon.com
Bedsure Queen Comforter Set, $55 (was $78), amazon.com
Mellanni King Sheets, $38 (was $51), amazon.com
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