From building your own Iron Man suit to teaching your kid to be the next Tony Stark, gadgets in 2012 really do feel like the future has arrived. Dazzling, weightless tablets perform like something out of Star Trek; meanwhile, entry-level eReaders are now cheaper than dinner at a local restaurant. We took a look at some of the top tech toys on everyone's most-wanted list this holiday season. Here are our top picks.
iPad Mini, $329 for 16GB.
Apple continues its dominance of the tablet market with its first entry into the mini field: the iPad Mini. The 7.9-inch display is much better for reading than the tiny iPhone screen, and the device is overall less bulky than the regular-size iPad. There are a ton of other tablets on the market right now, but Apple fends off its rivals with a bulletproof operating system that's both elegant and simple. iPad Mini flawlessly handles books, magazines, HD video, email, and photos. It also comes with FaceTime, iSight cameras, and a huge battery life. A tablet is only as good as the apps that run on it, and Apple has more than 275,000 of them. The iPad Mini comes in three sizes: 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB. It's WiFi-enabled with access to cellular data networks.
Roku Streaming Stick, $100.
Get Netflix, Major League Baseball, and music service from Rdio without the big cable TV bill using the Roku Streaming Stick. The USB port on the Stick plugs straight into your computer (and a lot of newer TVs), and comes with built-in WiFi. Roku says it has more than one hundred online channels that the Stick can dial into, including Hulu, Amazon Instant Plus, Facebook, NPR, and Pandora. Sadly, YouTube isn't available. Roku also works with existing remote controls, and offers iOS and Android apps to control the Stick from your phone.
Arduino Starter Kit, $44.89.
There's this great scene in The Amazing Spider-Man where Peter Parker flips a switch on his computer and a deadbolt slides to lock his room. Such a nerdy apparatus is becoming more common throughout the world thanks to Arduino Kits — programmable computer boards that hobbyists assemble into any number of gadgets. This Arduino Starter Kit comes with a new Arduino Uno board, LEDs, a solderless breadboard, resistors, wire jumpers, a tactile push button, and a USB cable for programming and powering the Arduino Board. You can use these kits along with other Arduino parts to make remote door locks, robotics, lighting, games, and even gardening sensors.
Keep your kid off your new iPad Mini with a LeapPad2, one of the newest educational toys from LeapFrog. This leading learning tablet helps kids gain and hone 2,500 skills in subjects like reading, art, music, language, culture, science, geography, math, and health. LeapPad2 includes a faster processor and four gigabytes of space for learning games, front and back video cameras, and a touchscreen. It comes with five apps, but can also access the LeapFrog App Store and share cartridges from friends. Plus, the LeapFrog Connect online system keeps parents in the loop on their child's progress in a variety of subjects. Requires four AA batteries; rechargeable battery systems sold separately. Recommended for kids ages three to nine years of age.
MakerBot Replicator, $1,749.
The new fad in the geek community is making your own stuff with a three-dimensional printer. These printers use plastic for ink and lay down layers upon layers of moldable plastic to create objects such as shower-curtain rings, bathtub plugs, doorknobs, replacement parts for a vacuum, action figures, custom gifts, or whatever your mind can come up with. Most 3D printers come as kits that hobbyists have to assemble. Good luck doing that. We recommend grabbing a MakerBot Replicator, which is made by hand in the MakerBot factory in Brooklyn. The Replicator can fabricate things up to the size of a loaf of bread, allowing you to make an entire chess set with press of a button. Get your Tony Stark on.
Catch up on all your Game of Thrones books before the start of the new HBO season in March with Kindle's entry-level e-ink reader. Insanely affordable and perfect for those who love the printed word, the basic Kindle is ultra-light at six ounces, and as slim as a pencil. The e-ink display is much easier to read in the sunlight than the iPad Mini, and it uses WiFi to hook up to the vast Amazon bookstore, which has more than one million titles priced less than $9.99. Kindle holds more than 1,000 books and also supports a Lending Library function, so you can share the books you bought. It also has a built-in dictionary and tons of other features like bookmarks, notes, and parental controls.