Phones and other tech items make great gifts, but you’d better make sure you follow some ground rules before you buy.
This story is part of Holiday Gift Guide 2021, our list of ideas, by topic, by recipient and by price, to help you discover the perfect gift.
Black Friday deals are in full swing, with sales already on or soon to come for Apple AirPods, Google Pixel 6, Amazon Echo Dot and smart bulb and oodles of other juicy tech deals on top gifts. The frustratingly hard-to-get PS5 is even back on the restock circuit, with more Playstation consoles becoming available to buy. But before buying any tech toy you plan to give as a gift, it’s our job to make sure you’ve thought through all the angles so your present doesn’t turn into an accidental burden.
Unlike a pair of supersoft bedsheets for hot sleepers or a badass and gorgeous Japanese style chef’s knife, tech gifts add another dimension of reward and usability, but they also introduce issues ranging from privacy and security to old-fashioned compatibility. Here’s what to know before you buy — and we’re not talking about the gift receipt.
Beware of extras someone else will have to buy
No matter what type of device you end up buying as a gift, keep any extra accessories it may require in mind. Ask yourself — or the salesperson — if the device is ready to use right out of the box.
For example, if you buy color-changing bulbs like Hue or Wyze, do they require a hub to get them to work? If it’s a phone or tablet, does it make sense to also give a case, or to let your friend or loved one pick one out later? Many phones have ditched the headphone jack, so a dongle to go from a USB-C or Lightning plug to a 3.5mm audio connection may be needed if you know your recipient has wired headphones or accessories they love.
Read more: How to get the best deals on Amazon today and every day
Another aspect to consider is if your giftee will need to replace stuff they already have. Maybe that new phone requires a different kind of charging cable than what they already use. It may not be your responsibility to replace that, but be aware that your gift could have ripple effects.
More examples to heed: For a Roomba, extra brushes, filters or virtual barriers are going to be items your loved one will eventually need. Odds are, if you gift a smart speaker, which also doubles as a voice-activated speaker for streaming music, a gift card for a subscription to Spotify or Pandora will also be appreciated.
Colorful smart lights make a fun and usable gift, but be aware — installation may take some time and effort.
Don’t buy gifts that clash with what they already have
You may have to be crafty about finding out what your friend or family member does or doesn’t already have, but it could make all the difference between a thoughtful gift they can start using right away or one they may need to swap, if integrating it into their life becomes troublesome.
You wouldn’t want to get an Apple Watch for a friend who uses an Android phone (use would be extremely limited) and an all-Apple household probably won’t appreciate the latest Amazon Echo, even if it does have cool new features.
Wireless earbuds are usually a safe bet, and smartwatches (outside of the Apple Watch) generally work with any type of smartphone. Streaming devices like Roku or Fire TV typically work with any TV, as well (just make sure they don’t already have a Roku-enabled TV).
We don’t mean to frighten you, just do what you can to suss out the situation first and of course include a gift receipt so your giftee can make a gift-free exchange if it comes to it. If you have a general idea of what kind of device (or devices) the giftee already uses around the house, here are more specific angles to consider when giving smart home gifts.
An Apple Watch could be a great gift for the right person — just make sure there are no strings attached.
If you’re buying a phone as a gift…
If you’re buying someone a phone, the most important thing to consider is making sure the device will work with their wireless carrier of choice. Wireless providers use different technology that can prevent phones from working across competitors’ networks. The last thing you want to do is buy a phone that only works on Verizon Wireless for someone who’s entrenched in T-Mobile.
Either ask the gift recipient which wireless carrier they use or consider buying an unlocked phone. Many phone-makers offer an unlocked version that will work on almost all wireless carriers. Just know that not every carrier feature might work, like Wi-Fi calling, which is tuned to specific networks. This gift is all about the gesture, but it helps to know your audience.
The Google Pixel 6 phones come in two versions: unlocked to use on any carrier, and a model locked to Verizon.
Watch out for privacy red flags
Some products have privacy and security implications. Even if you’re OK with having a Google Nest speaker (formerly Google Home) and its always-on microphone in your home, your giftee might not be as comfortable with the idea. We store a lot of information on our phones and gadgets. Private information such as banking info, frequently visited locations, our current location, photos and conversations are all things we blindly trust our devices with.
At the least, you should take note of companies such as Meta (the new name for Facebook) or Amazon, which are constantly surrounded by privacy questions and concerns, if you’re considering buying a next-gen Portal Plus or the latest Ring Video Doorbell 4 as a gift.
If you’re looking at a product from a company you’ve never heard of, or even for companies you have, a quick Google search is in order. Looking up “Meta/Facebook privacy issues,” for example, should surface any red flags.
For someone who’s uneasy with Facebook’s privacy practices, the Portal may not be a good idea.
Know how long a company will support its product
Routine software updates are an important part of owning a tech product. Not only do updates make a product better over time but they can fix and improve the security of a device.
As such, it’s important to have confidence that companies are going to continue to support a device through updates, especially when security issues are discovered (as they often are).
If you’re shopping for a phone, Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Pixel lineup receive consistent and timely updates. Outside of Google’s own phones, Samsung has a good track record for consistent updates to its Android phones, as do the OnePlus phones.
Software updates for smart speakers and streaming devices such as a Chromecast or Apple TV are handled in the background, without you ever knowing. That’s ideal for those who aren’t all that tech-savvy.
It’s a good idea to look into how long a company promises to support a product with software updates after its release.
Finally, there are bound to be many great deals and promotions this shopping season, especially around Black Friday. Don’t be swayed by a deal on a product that seems too good to be true. If the product is discontinued (or soon-to-be), your gift could end up becoming an expensive paperweight. Again, Google is your friend when it comes to learning more about a product and its future.
The Vive Focus 3 and Oculus Quest 2 are current options, but don’t buy an Oculus Rift no matter how cheap — that’s now discontinued.
Make sure you grab the right model
Even if you’re handed a list with a specific gadget gift idea, make sure you’re getting the right model. Many look and sound the same.
For example, the Nintendo Switch comes in three versions: the original ($300 full retail price), OLED ($350 retail) and Lite ($200 retail). If you’re opting for the Lite — the least expensive version — you should know that it doesn’t come with Joy-Con controllers, not all games are compatible with it and it doesn’t feature TV or tabletop mode. And while you could swing for the fences with the OLED model (which comes with a 7-inch touchscreen, 64GB of storage and a built-in wired LAN port), the original still packs a punch and comes with many of the features the Lite is missing.
Reviews are an important part of researching new products.
The same can be said for products that were released earlier in the year and are likely to be upgraded and replaced shortly after the holidays. Take some time, do your research and make an educated choice.
Still not sure where to start? Here are the best phones of 2021, along with our 2021 gift guide that includes items for different budgets and gifts for different kinds of people, such as Star Wars fans. You can also check out our favorite selections for popular products like smart speakers, tablets and laptops.
CNET Apple Report