Everything really is different heading into this Holiday Season. The United States has been setting news records for daily coronavirus cases. Add to that the start of freezing winter temperatures, annual flu season, and record unemployment – and many families from one side of the map to the other – are making the toughest decision yet, to stay home this Thanksgiving, and delay family gatherings indefinitely.
It’s enough to get to even the jolliest of us all – yes, I’m poking fun at my own last name and relentless positivity – but that doesn’t mean you should crawl under the blankets and hide till spring. Here are 11 simple tech tools to make your holidays feel almost normal.
Fill your home with the sound of music
Piping music into every room of your home used to cost thousands of dollars, but not anymore! The GED LED+ Speaker bulb (on sale for around $26 on Amazon right now) is a bright light with an onboard Bluetooth speaker built-in. Just screw the bulb into any lamp or light fixture, pair it with Bluetooth on your mobile device, and just like that, you get all your favorite tunes in any room you want. You can pair up to 10 bulbs and don’t need any extra apps, wires, or Wi-Fi.
This is part of GED’s “one bulb+one function” series of lights. You can also get them with changeable colors, motion detectors – and my other favorite – a lightbulb with a backup battery included, so you still have light if the power goes out.
Light up your life
Flip the switch on your outdoor decor this year too with an online services called Rent the Holidays. You can rent lights and accessories for as little as $70, and they deliver them right to your home, tangle-free, and ready to hang. The best part is you just pack them up and send them back to the company when you’re done with them.
Hiring elves: Walmart delivering live Christmas trees, installing lights in a different holiday season
Explore the world from your home
If ever there were a year to try a gadget that can drop you into an alternate reality, this is it, and the Oculus Quest 2 ($299) virtual reality headset from Facebook is the exact right tool for the job. It’s an all-in-one, completely wireless headset that features faster performance and 50% higher-resolution (1832 x 1920 pixels per eye) than the original version.
It features a range of apps and experiences to help you get through the holidays this year. You can use it to get your heart rate up and burn off the holiday-induced calories without leaving home, travel the world from the comfort of your couch, take a much-needed mental health break, or meet up with friends at a virtual concert. I’ve been using it for three weeks, and I’ve had to make a rule that I don’t use it during daylight hours anymore because it’s good, I’m afraid I’ll stop going outside to exercise!
‘Bake’ moments that matter
One of my favorite memories from childhood is making cookies, pies, and light fluffy bread rolls with my mom and grandmother during the holidays. It’s a tradition I carried on with my own daughter too. But the last thing I want to do right now is spend time in a grocery store picking up specialty ingredients, when Baketivity’s (starts at $32.95) subscription service can do it all for me. Order a kit – or subscribe for monthly delivery – and a kid-friendly recipe, easy-to-follow instructions, all the ingredients (minus eggs and oil) arrives at your doorstep. The kits also come with an activity book, game, hat, and apron. This is a super sweet for the entire family.
Santa will ‘see’ you now
As much as I enjoyed taking my daughter to sit on mall-Santa’s lap every year until she wouldn’t do it anymore, this is one tradition I’m happy to do from home this year. With online services like Jingle Ring (starts at $24.95) and How To Save Christmas (starts at $97) some of the world’s most popular Santa’s will video chat with children of all ages, and even send a “magical” photo where kids appear next to good ole’ St. Nick. (Luckily, the North Pole has great Wi-Fi!)
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Create a family podcast
The new Saga audio iOS app (free) is a super simple way for families to record and save the life stories of loved ones – even if they aren’t tech-savvy. Just download the free app, share it with your family and friends, and it sends prompts like, “what’s the biggest trouble you got into as a child,” or “what is the most memorable trip you have ever taken?” From there, your chosen inner circle records answers by dialing a special phone number. The stories are automatically shared with you and your family on the app, regardless of location. The best part? It works with smartphones or landlines.
Safely share magic moments from afar
Because a picture paints a thousand words – and Zoom fatigue is real – have everyone drop their quarantine holiday photos into one spot to share among family and friends. My Cloud Home by WD (starts at $159.99, but check for sales) is an easy-to-use personal cloud storage device that preserves your digital life and lets you access it anywhere using the My Cloud Home app without paying a subscription fee.
Planning a Zoom Thanksgiving?: Here’s what you need to know
Get your spirits up
Be the envy of your Zoom cocktail hours with this Bartesian Cocktail + Margarita ($349.85) machine. This is expensive but totally worth it if you like your homemade cocktails to rival any you’ve had in a restaurant or bar. It lets all the adults at home enjoy their favorite drinks – think spicy margaritas, hot-toddies, old-fashioneds, and cosmos – with the push of a single button.
From Reviewed.com: We tried the famed Bartesian cocktail maker. Is it worth the hype?
Shaken and stirred: This cocktail machine is the latest thing you didn’t know you needed
Work it out with your pals
FitOn Party (currently on sale for $19.99 a year) is a new way to work out with friends and family with video calls, no matter where they are. Pick any workout from an extensive library of classes like HIIT, cardio, strength, Yoga, etc., and simply invite friends to join in live with video calls and work out together. The best part is you can cheer, tease, or gossip, with one another during the class, just like you would IRL, and the instructor won’t yell at you for it.
Movie night magic
Here’s one I splurged on for my own family this year – a home cinema projector. I’ve reviewed 10 this year, and my favorite so far is the Epson Home Cinema 2250 ($999). The reason I like it so much is because it casts a crystal clear image on pretty much every wall, curtain, ceiling, and outside garage door I’ve used it with. The set-up is crazy simple, and I really like the voice-search feature too. For less expensive and more portable choices, my favorites include, the XGIMI Mogo-Pro ($549) and the BenQ HT2050A ($649). I wish I could find others in the $200-$300 range that delivered as well as these, but I have yet to discover them! (You can also check with Reviewed.com for some suggestions.)
Pop the popcorn: How to make your living room a home theater on any budget
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Build a bubble
As in, a real personal bubble for one, or an outdoor workspace for the whole fam. These ShieldPods ($79), Garden Igloo ($1,449), and Foammaker Inflatable Bubble ($1,079) are selling out across America! One of my good friends, who is in remission from cancer, bought the Garden Igloo in March of 2019, and streams his daily conference calls from inside his own private igloo from the outskirts of Chicago. That’s taking “work from home,” one step further – and we’re all super jealous!
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist and host of USA TODAY’s digital video show TECHNOW. Email her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: From Thanksgiving to Christmas: 11 tech tools to bring the joy in 2020