Gift Guide: 22 STEM toy gift ideas for every little builder

In 2020, parents and guardians are super spoilt for choice in the STEM toys gift department — which is great news in the midst of a pandemic that’s supercharging homeschooling needs. The category has matured to offer an interesting range of options for children across a wide span of ages, shedding some of its earlier reliance on Disney IP in favor of more original ideas. Below, we’ve rounded up 20+ gift ideas to get the (robotic) ball rolling.

It’s still true the educational value of ‘learn to code’ gizmos remains hard to quantify. And some price-tags can seem tricky to justify. But there’s no doubt a lot of thought has gone on creating child-friendly product design and into chunking and structuring the learning. The short story is there’s plenty to intrigue and inspire developing minds, even if there’s no guarantee you’ll have a future Googler on your hands. (But that’s okay; maybe your kid will invent the next paradigm shifting platform?)

It’s also good to see attention continuing to be paid to encouraging children to explore art & design, not just get their heads around engineering & science concepts. Maybe in the coming years we’ll get a little STEM ethics thrown into the mix — to further round-out the learning potential. While there’s clear value in kids understanding how digital tools work under the hood, helping the next generation appreciate that connectivity can change people’s behavior and reshape the world around them looks no less important a lesson to learn.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Arcade Coder

Arcade Coder targets budding game designers (Image credit: Tech Will Save Us)

UK startup Tech Will Save Us’ Arcade Coder is a STEM toy designed for budding game designers. It takes the form of interactive gaming ‘tablet’ with an array of LED-lit buttons rather than a touchscreen — preloaded with a few retro games. But hook it up to its companion iPad app and kids get guidance on how to tweak gameplay and design their own games via a drag-and-drop learn-to-code interface.

Age: 6-10
Price: $120 from Amazon
Made by: Tech Will Save Us

Boolean Box

The BooleanBox has Raspberry Pi inside (Image credit: Boolean Girl)

The Boolean Box is a build-it-yourself Raspberry Pi Model 3-based computer designed with the help of girls in coding camps and school programs run by its not-for-profit maker — though it’s designed for kids of any gender. The Pi-powered machine runs Raspbian OS and comes preloaded with STEM-friendly software, including Scratch, Python, and Minecraft, so little coders can get to grips with block-based and more sophisticated programming languages once the computer has been put together. The kit also includes a breadboard for building electronics projects. (NB: The basic box needs an HDMI-capable TV to act as a monitor for the computer, or there’s a $300 bundle that comes with a monitor.)

Age: 8+
Price: $150 from Amazon
Made by: Boolean Girl

Botley 2.0 Coding Robot Activity Set

The battery-powered coding robot, Botley 2.0 (Image credit: Learning Resources)

For parents looking for screen-free STEM toys Botley 2.0 is worth a look. The battery-powered rolling-and-sensing programmable robot comes with a remote control for coding directional sequences (of up to 150 steps) via simple button pressing. There’s also a loops button to introduce the code coding principle of recycling a previous sequence.

Botley’s maker, Learning Resources, has updated the robot for 2020 with new interactions, color-changing eyes and night vision so it can carry on line-sensing in the dark. There are also new programming sequences for kids to discover that transform the bot into fresh characters — such as a train, police car, ghost and frog — expressed via different sounds and movements. The kit also includes a 78-piece activity set so kids can devise obstacle courses for Botley to navigate.

Age: 5-10
Price: Around $70 from Amazon
Made by: Learning Resources

Botzees Go! – Dino Set & Color Sensor Kit add-on pack

The Color Sensor Kit add-on pack for the Botzees Go! — Dino Set (Image Credit: Pai Technology)

Pai Technology has been selling robotics kits with an augmented reality twist for a few years now. Newer offerings from the STEM toy maker are aimed at younger kids — offering a first taste of block-based construction plus a companion app to offer build instructions and simple visualization of the finished creation. The Botzees Go! – Dino Set extends the basic construction element by adding movement and a physical remote control so kids can bring the dino-bots to life. So a very soft introduction to STEM learning. An optional Color Sensor Kit further extends capabilities by enabling the bots to track lines and respond to different colors.

Age: 3+
Price: $80 ($40 apiece for the Dino Set and Sensor Kit)
Made by: Pai Technology

Circuit Explorer

Circuit Explorer space themed STEM playsets (Image credit: Educational Insights)

Circuit Explorer is a simple STEM toy that fuses Lego-style block building with snap-together electronic circuits for a range of space-themed toys — including a rocket, rover and Deluxe Base Station. Kids get to light up their creations with battery-powered LED lights and synthesized sound effects.

Age: 6+
Price: From $30 on Amazon
Made by: Educational Insights

Disney Codeillusion

Disney Codeillusion gamifies teaching kids coding (Image credit: Life is Tech!)

Edtech company Life is Tech! has licensed Disney IP to inject the latter’s branding magic into a gamified and interactive learning environment that’s geared towards encouraging kids to acquire coding skills by building their own games, websites and movies featuring some of their favorite Disney characters. The online educational game — called Disney Codeillusion — is billed as teaching four coding languages (HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Processing), with a focus on visual arts thanks to the inclusion of Disney’s animated movie characters. The content features the usual cartoon suspects — from Queen Elsa and Aladdin to Mickey Mouse.

The web-based course is definitely not a cheap option — and requires an Internet connection via a desktop computer (not a mobile device) to work — costing $500 for a package that excludes any physical merch and also strips out some other digital elements (such as an RPG game). While the package with all the bells & whistles (aka the ‘Enchanted’ edition) weighs in at $900. But with 125 lessons (averaging 30 minutes a pop) kids should at least be kept busy working on their code creations for some time — which might be magic enough for parents stuck homeschooling during a pandemic.

There is also a free seven-day trial to get a taster of lesson content before committing to shell out.

Age: 8+
Price: From $500
Made by: Life is Tech!

Electro Explorers Club

The crafty Electro Explorer Club subscription box (Image credit: Tech Will Save Us)

Monthly activity kits have become a well established STEM toy niche that looks set to be supercharged as more parents take on homeschooling because of the coronavirus pandemic. UK STEAM toy maker Tech Will Save Us has been playing in this space for several years now. One of its most recent offerings to keep kids entertained and engaged is the Electro Explorers Club: A cutesy craft and electronics projects subscription box with a focus on story led learning. Expect plenty of squishy electro dough for character-building.

Each box covers a range of tech, science and design concepts — such as simple robotics and programs, electronic circuits, multi-line algorithms with conditions, character design and physics. As the months progress kids also build up a toolset of components to keep expanding their learning. Each box costs $20 a month via a recurring cancel-at-any-time subscription.

Age: 4-6
Price: $20 per month
Made by: Tech Will Save Us

Evo for Home and Homeschooled

Droid-based learning with Ozobot’s Evo (Image credit: Ozobot)

Ozobot’s programmable droid Evo can be paired with its block-based coding interface or used screen-free with the included color code markers as the sensing robots responds to different colors like a set of instructions in a program. The K-12 focused STEAM learning company sells plenty of kit direct to schools — and isn’t solely focused on teaching computer programming but rather it touts its tech as a teaching assistant for all STEAM subjects — but the Evo starter package is aimed at home learners, encouraging kids to use the bot to pick up coding by creating and playing with games and tricks.

Age: 5+
Price: $100
Made by: Ozobot

imagiCharm

Code your own tamagotchi? (Image credit: ImagiLabs)

Swedish startup imagiLabs is on a mission to get girls coding. The STEM toy they’ve devised for this inspirational task is a programmable Bluetooth charm — a sort of personalizable keychain/code-your-own tamagotchi. The connected gizmo works in conjunction with a companion mobile app that uses gamified tutorials to encourage tweens and teens to tinker with Python to change the look/function of the 8×8 matrix of colored LED lights. There’s also a social element to the app as girls can share their projects and check out what others have made.

Age: 9-15
Price: From $85 on Amazon
Made by: ImagiLabs

Kano PC

Not a Microsoft Surface — a kid-friendly Windows-based Kano PC (Image credit: Kano)

As we noted in last year’s gift guide, UK STEM learning startup Kano has pivoted from selling Raspberry Pi-powered build-it-yourself computer kits to a more convention ‘my child’s first PC’ proposition. The Windows-based plug-in-the-bits-and-play Kano PC is aimed at parents who want to set their child on the path to STEM learning in a more mainstream computing environment. At $300 the laptop-slash-tablet is hardly a ‘toy’ but the advantage of shelling out for a fully fledged computer is increased utility — and, hopefully, longevity. Kano touts the PC as capable of running “thousands” of applications.

Of most relevance to the STEM side, it comes preloaded with Kano’s Software Studio package: A set of learning tools geared towards teaching kids design, science, coding, and creativity “in simple and fun ways”, as it puts it.

Age: K-12 (from 4+ to 19)
From: $300
Made by: Kano

Kumiita

Even very young children can engage with coding concepts by playing with Kumiita (Image Credit: Icon Corp)

For very young kids point your peepers at Kumiita. The educational toy for kids who haven’t even reached their first birthday began as a Kickstarter side-project. Now its Japanese maker is selling the gizmo globally, via Amazon. The idea is to teach foundational programming concepts via screen-free (and Internet-free), tile-based floor play.

A battery-powered robot — Kumiita — responds to pictorial instructions on the tiles. Kids choose which tiles to place to ‘program’ the robot — getting immediate feedback on their sequence as the bot twirls, changes colour, plays animal sounds or moves off in a new direction. If the bot falls off the pathway there’s obviously a problem and kids have to set about ‘debugging’ by changing their choice of tiles. That in turn encourages problem solving and sequential thinking. Tiles in some of the packs also introduce conditional coding concepts.

Age: 7 months+
Price: From $200
Made by: Icon Corp

littleBits At Home Learning Starter Kit

littleBits kits offer guided electronics projects to spark young minds (Image credit: Sphero)

Sphero-owned littleBits makes introductory circuit kits with magnetic snap-together connectors to help children get to grips with basic electronics through interactive learning. This home starter kit promises to get children brainstorming ideas and tinkering to bring a variety of projects to life — with five guided inventions in the bundle. The learning activity can be entirely screen free as introductory paper guides are included in the pack. Additional learning resources are also available online via the littleBits Classroom platform.

Age: 8+
Price: $65
Made by: Sphero

MakeCode Arcade & a codable console to run retro gaming creations

Inspire kids with the help of a dinky codable games console (Image credit: Adafruit)

Budding game designers can have fun coding their own retro games in Microsoft’s arcade game editor, MakeCode Arcade — based on its open source learn-to-code platform. The free online project builder includes tutorials to create simple games using either a block-based coding interface, JavaScript or Python — building up to more complex types of gameplay. You can then turn this free STEM resource into a gift by adding a codable console that supports MakeCode Arcade projects. Such as KittenBot’s GameBoy-esque Meowbit ($40); or the Adafruit PyBadge ($35) which can also run CircuitPython and Arduino — both of which are stocked by Adafruit. The maker-focused and electronics hobbyist brand stocks a range of MakeCode compatible hardware and plenty more besides.

Age: It depends
Price: From $35
Made by: Adafruit, others

MindLabs: Energy and Circuits

Kids learn about electronics circuits via augmented reality (Image credit: Explore Interactive)

This STEM toy lets kids learn about electronics circuits virtually. This means no fiddling with actual wires, batteries or components thanks to augmented reality. Instead, the MindLabs: Energy and Circuits pack has kids play with a set of physical cards — viewing them through the screen of a tablet where they get to build out circuits that are brought to life digitally via the companion app. The kit offers 20+ interactive lessons with step-by-step instructions on basic circuit concepts. (NB: Children will need access to a tablet.)

The approach offers a relatively affordable way for kids to learn about electronics components and concepts through (virtual) trial and error — though clearly if it’s a screen-free toy you’re after this isn’t it. An added advantage is children are able to collaborate remotely with friends for group learning opportunities.

Age: 8+
Price: $25
Made by: Explore Interactive

NextMaker Box

NextMaker Box is a new monthly subscription box stuffed with STEM projects (Image credit: Makeblock)

Chinese firm Makeblock is getting in on the the monthly STEM activity kit action this year with its NextMaker Box. At the time of writing the subscription product is up for pre-order via Kickstarter with an earliest estimated shipping date of December 2020 — so the usual ‘risk of shipping delay’ caveats apply.

For parents willing to take a gamble on a gift not turning up in time for the festive season, the NextMaker Box is slated to deliver monthly hardware projects and coding courses designed to keep young minds engaged. The content focuses on robotics, coding and engineering concepts and design work. MakeBlock also says the boxes will follow a Computer Science Teachers Association standard-aligned coding curriculum.

Age: 6-12
Price: From $40
Made by: Makeblock

Piper Command Center

Screwdrivers at the ready for this Arduino project (Image credit: Piper)

The Piper Command Center is an Arduino project for teens to build and configure their own gaming controller — following instructions available via Piper’s online portal. The (beta) project offers a hand-held introduction to physical computing, hardware hacking and the maker movement. Requires access to a desktop computer with Arduino IDE installed for configuring the controller and troubleshooting the firmware.

Age: 13+
Price: $60
Made by: Piper

Raspberry Pi 400

The $100 Pi 400 bundle includes an official beginner’s guidebook (Image credit: Raspberry Pi Foundation)

The UK-based, STEM-learning focused not-for-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation’s latest bit of kit — the Pi 400 — houses its top-of-the-range microprocessor (Pi 4) inside a sleek keyboard in a retro throwback to how home computing started. Add your own TV or monitor — et voila! A powerful STEM learning device in a very affordable package, given the keyboard-computer can be picked up for just $70. For children in need of guidance and all the various accessories to get going with Pi there’s a $100 kit bundle that includes the official beginner’s guide book too.

Kids can cut their teeth coding on the Pi 400 via block-based programming languages like Scratch or by tinkering with Python in Minecraft Pi (a version of the popular 3D mining game that comes preloaded on the Pi’s OS, Raspbian). So there’s plenty to recommend the Pi 400.

Age: It depends
Price: From $70
Made by: Raspberry Pi Foundation

Robo Wunderkind Explorer Kit

The Explorer Pro kit now features an LED block (Image credit: Robo Wunderkind)

Austrian STEM toy maker Robo Wunderkind has updated its programmable robotics kits for 2020 with new sensor modules, including an LED display block that can show designs or display scrolling text; a line-follower block so the bots can detect and follow lines; and an accelerometer block to give them spacial awareness.

For those not already familiar with the STEM toy, kids snap together the magnetic blocks to build sensor-laden robots and program them via a drag-and-drop coding interface in the companion app.

Blocks can be combined in multiple ways to build different sensing objects — from rolling robots to smart flashlights. The cheapest kit comes with six modules and ten guided projects, while the top-of-the-range Explorer Pro kit ($400) has 15 modules and 30 projects. The blocks are also compatible with Lego pieces so children can augment the design of their constructions with additional elements if they have a few bricks lying around.

Age: 5-14
Price: From $200
Made by: Robo Wunderkind

ScoreBot Kit

A programmable robot for soccer-mad kids (Image credit: Ubtech)

Get soccer-mad kids into STEM with Ubtech’s ScoreBot Kit — from its JIMU Programmable educational robot series. This build-it-yourself, code-controlled robot exhibits ball-dribbling skills that children can hone via the companion app’s block-based coding interface. A memory programming mode allows them to record and replay an action to try to gain a competitive edge when battling against other ScoreBots in a game of competitive floor football.

Age: 8+
Price: $120
Made by: Ubtech

Sphero Mini Golf

Sphero’s robotic ball has rolled onto the green (Image credit: Sphero)

Edtech player Sphero sells learning wares for schools and home focused on its spherical, remote-controlled robot. This version of its programmable gizmo takes the form of a mini golf ball — encouraging kids to devise their own mini golf courses to remote-control the bot around. They can also turn the connected orb into a gaming remote control, making use of the embedded gyroscope and accelerometer. The companion Sphero Edu app is where the coding gets done.

Age: 8+
Price: $50
Made by: Sphero

Spike Prime Set

Lego Education’s kits combine plastic bricks and electronics (Image credit: Lego Education)

Lego’s education division has made some of its classroom kits available to the home market to cater to students who are learning at home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — such as this Spike Prime Set. The STEAM learning kit is aimed at students in grades 6-8. The core piece is a programmable Bluetooth hub that can be used to power a variety of project builds — from robots to rovers — making use of the array of motors, sensors, components, bricks and pieces packed in the 528-piece kit. Programming the hub is done via a Scratch-based drag-and-drop interface or text-based coding with Python so kids will need access to a computer.

Age: 10+
Price: $330
Made by: Lego Education

Turing Tumble

Kids can learn logic concepts with the help of this mechanical computer (Image credit: Turing Tumble)

Build logical thinking into your child’s playtime with the help of a marble-based ‘computer’.

The Turing Tumble is a tilted boardgame plus an assortment of ‘logic’ gates for devising pathways to solve puzzles. The aim of the learning game is to guide colored marbles from top to bottom in the correct sequence. A cartoon puzzle book guides kids through the challenges, making this an entirely screen free way to approach STEM learning.

Age: 8 to adult
Price: $70
Made by: Turing Tumble

Gift Guide: 7 great gifts for anyone working from home

Let’s just get this out of the way: For the past several years, I’ve contributed the “Best Gifts for Frequent Travelers” segment to TechCrunch’s annual gift guide. I love it. It was easily my favorite gift guide to write, and it was an audience favorite, as well. But I am no longer a frequent traveler. I’ve left New York City exactly once since March. Odds are that special person in your life isn’t traveling much, either.

So, in honor of this new sedentary life to which we’ve all grown accustom over the past eight or nine months, I’m bringing you the polar opposite. This, friends, is the gift guide for those who have come to carve out office space in their homes. For everyone who’s come to blur the important lines between work and personal life.

The transition hasn’t been an easy one for everyone, but here are a handful of gifts that can help ease the transition and make someone’s home office a…well, a home, I guess. They’re not necessary the most fun gifts, but odds are someone in your life can really use them.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Hyken Mesh Task Chair

Image Credits: Staples

I never truly appreciated the value of a good office chair until this pandemic. I’ve been lucky to work for a corporation that considers Herman Millers a necessary expense. I honestly can’t remember which manner of ratty Amazon bargain bin chair I had held onto for the last several years, but a month or two into this, I rolled it into the donation pile.

There’s truth in the conventional wisdom that you get what you pay for when it comes to office chairs. And, indeed, it’s an investment. But there are deals to be had. I didn’t spend an arm or leg, so I’m not going to encourage you to. After a good about of research, I landed on this beast from Staples. It’s big, and comfortable and offers great full body support that won’t leave you sore after eight hours in front of the computer (I mean, do get up and move around at least once an hour for your health and sanity).

Best of all, it’s almost shockingly affordable.

Price: $169-200 from Amazon, depending on color

Apple iMac

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Remember how I told you I wasn’t going to encourage you to spend an arm and a leg on the chair? Well, consider this a gift for the person in your life who was really good this year. If a good office chair is an investment, a computer is lifeline. I wouldn’t recommend an iMac for, say, a 3D designer, but for many or most, you can’t really argue with ease of use for Apple’s all-in-one.

Apple refreshed the system earlier this year, with some improved features, including, notably, an improved webcam — that’s obviously an important upgrade these days. There are no external monitors to deal with and minimal futzing required out of the box. There is, of course, a big Apple Silicon redesign coming in the next year or two, but that won’t do you a whole lot of good in the meantime.

Price: Starting at $1,019 from Apple

Razer Kiyo

Image Credits: Razer

Much like the office chair, Webcams were one of those those things I really didn’t pay much mind to before the pandemic. But the truth is this: Built-in webcams, as a category, suck. There are exceptions to this, of course, but unlike with smartphone makers, cameras have nearly universally been an afterthought with PC manufactures. I do suspect there’s a good chance this will finally shift in the next year or so, but for now, you really want to avoid using your computer’s built-in camera for those important Zoom meetings, if you can.

There are a ton of options out there, and you can get a decent webcam at a decent price — Logitech is usually a pretty solid choice. This time out, however, I’m giving the prize to Razer. The gaming company has delivered a clever and versatile camera. It’s got an adjustable clip/stand, can capture video at 1080p @ 30FPS / 720p @ 60FPS and best of all, there’s a built-in light ring. It’s not going to replace a pro-level camera set up, obviously, if they do a lot of conference appearances or frequently appear on CNN. But if they’re looking to liven up a Zoom call or two, this is a solid choice.

Price: $100 from Razer 

RØDE NT-USB Mini

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Okay, so, as a long-time podcaster this is something I’ve been thinking about well before the pandemic started. The truth is a decent set of headphones should double as an okay meeting mic. But if conference calls are central to work days, a good mic is a great way to up that game. And hey, everyone’s starting a podcast these days, right?

RØDE has some great USB mic options. The NT-USB Mini wouldn’t be by first (or probably even 10th) choice for podcasting. But its price and size make it a nice option for augmenting meetings and other calls. It also has the advantage of size and a removable stand that will make it a good travel companion if we’re able able to travel again.

Price: $100 from Amazon

Cubii Pro desk elliptical

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Living in Queens at the height of the pandemic in New York — and dealing with my own personal health issues — I basically didn’t leave my apartment in April or May. Cubii’s sit down elliptical isn’t a replacement for full body exercise, but it’s a nice supplement, if you’re housebound for any reason.

 

I might have to put it under my desk again as the weather starts getting cold. There’s a mobile component, as well, that tracks progress and integrates it into third-party trackers like Apple Health.

Price: $349 from Amazon

Nest Audio

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Headphones are necessary for working from home, but I’d also recommend getting a semi-decent speaker for your desk. A smart speaker is likely the path of least resistance for listening to streaming services like Spotify, and Nest Audio is probably the most well-rounded of the bunch. Google Assistant is great for all of the smart stuff and the new hardware sounds really solid.

Price: $100 from Amazon

Aarke Carbonator

Image Credits: Aarke

Did I need to spend $200 on a seltzer maker? No, of course not. Do I regret spending $200 on a seltzer maker? Also no. Aarke’s system looks great, has a solid build and the pulling down that hand crank is decidedly satisfying. Hydration is important, friends. Honorable mention to the LARQ UV disinfecting bottle. You’ll need something to drink that carbonated water out of, after all.

Price: $200 from Aarke

Really good, customizable lighting for the entire office

Image Credits: Philips

Bonus entry, this one from TechCrunch Editor Greg Kumparak:

I’ve been working from home for a few years now, and honestly the most important change I’ve made this year is vastly improving my home office’s lighting situation. Lighting — both natural and artificial — is hugely important to how we feel throughout the day, and being able to customize the lights to your exact likings is one of the huge plusses of working from home. No more awful flickering fluorescent lights! Want to make the lights purple and blue? You do you.

Smart lighting lets you do fancy things like shifting the colors to those that make you feel alert/productive, or dim them as evening approaches. During the California wildfires, when smoke and haze dyed the sky a terrifying orange, I shifted all of my lighting to be way more blue than it otherwise would be to help my brain realize it was the afternoon and not, as it seemed, an impossibly long sunrise.

Philips Hue bulbs are a solid pick, generally. They offer a ton of flexibility and options, the downside being that they’re generally on the more expensive end. I also don’t expect Philips to drop support for the Hue line or go out of business any time soon. New competition has been entering the market at lower price points, but my hesitation there is always how well they’ll be supported in the years to come.

If they’ve already got other smart lights around their house though, try to stick within the same brand. It makes things considerably easier to not have to deal with new hubs, apps, etc.

Price: $90 for a starter pack of two Philips Hue color shifting bulbs from Amazon

Gift Guide: Which next-gen console is the one your kid wants?

This holiday season the next generation of gamers, bless their hearts, will be hoping to receive the next generation of gaming consoles. But confusing branding by the console makers — not to mention a major shortage of consoles — could lead to disappointment during the unwrapping process. Before making any big promises this year, you’ll want to be completely clear on two things: which console you’re actually trying to get, and how much of a challenge it might be to get one.

By the way, it’s totally understandable if you’re a little lost — particularly on Microsoft’s end, the branding is a little weird this time around. Even the lifelong gamers on our staff have mixed up the various Xbox names a few times.

If you’re not 100% sure which brand of console your kid (or partner or whoever) has, go take a look right now. An Xbox will have a big X somewhere on a side without cables coming out of it, and a PS4 will have a subtler “PS” symbol embossed on it. The “Pro” has three “layers” and the regular one has two.

Okay, now that you know what you’ve got, here are the new versions that they want:

Sony PlayStation 5

The PlayStation 5, or PS5 for short, is the newest gaming console from Sony. It’s the one your kids want if they already have a PlayStation 4 or even a PlayStation 4 Pro, which they might have gotten a year or two back.

The PS5 is more powerful than the PS4, but it also plays most PS4 games, so you don’t need to worry about a game you just bought for a birthday or whatever. It has some fancy new features for fancy new TVs, but you don’t need to worry about that — the improved performance is the main draw.

There are two versions of the PS5, and the only real difference between them is that one has a disc drive for playing disc-based games; they both come with a controller and are about the same size. The one with the drive costs $500 and is the one you should choose if you’re not completely certain the recipient would prefer the driveless “Digital Edition.” Saving $100 up front is enticing, but consider that some titles for this generation will cost $70, so the capability to buy used games at half-price might pay for itself pretty quickly.

The PS5 doesn’t come with any “real” next-generation games, and the selection this season is going to be pretty slim. But your best bet for pretty much any gamer is Spider-Man: Miles Morales. I’ve played it and its predecessor — which Miles Morales comes with — and it’s going to be the one everyone wants right off the bat. (Its violence is pretty PG, like the movies.)

The PS4’s controllers sadly won’t work on PS5 games. But don’t worry about getting any extra ones or charging stands or whatnot right now, unless your gamer plays a lot of games with other people on the couch already.

Microsoft Xbox Series X

The Xbox Series X is the latest gaming console from Microsoft, replacing the Xbox One X and One S. Yes, the practice of changing the middle word instead of the last initial is difficult to understand, and it will be the reason lots of kids unwrap last year’s new console instead of this year’s.

The Xbox Series X is more powerful than the Xbox One X, but should also play almost all the old games, so if you bought something recently, don’t worry that it won’t be compatible. There are lots of fancy-sounding new features, but you don’t need to worry about those or buy them separately — stuff like HDR and 4K all depend on your TV, but any TV from the last few years will look great.

There are two versions of the next Xbox, and they have significant differences. The $500 Xbox Series X is the “real” version, with a disc drive for old and used games, and all the power-ups Microsoft has advertised. This one is almost certainly the one any gamer will be expecting and hoping to get.

Like Sony, Microsoft has a version of the Xbox that has no disc drive: the $300 Xbox Series S. Confusingly, this is the same price, same color, and nearly the same name and type of console as last generation’s Xbox One S, so first of all be sure you’re not buying the One. The Xbox Series S is definitely “next-gen,” but has a bit less power than the Series X, and so will have a few compromises in addition to the lack of a drive. It’s not recommended you get this one unless you know what you’re doing or really need that $200 (understandable).

For a day-one game, there isn’t really a big must-have exclusive. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is probably a good bet, though, if bloody violence is okay. If not, honestly a gift certificate or subscription to the “Game Pass” service that provides free games is fine.

No need for extra controllers — the Xbox Series X supports the last-gen’s controllers. Genuine thanks to Microsoft for that one.

Difficulty level: Holiday 2020

A PS5 and controller.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey/TechCrunch

Now that you know which console to get (again … a PlayStation 5 or an Xbox Series X), I’ve got some bad news and some good news.

The bad news is they’re probably (read: definitely) going to be sold out. Microsoft and Sony are pumping these things out as fast as they can, but the truth is they really rushed this launch to make it in time for the holidays and won’t have enough to go around.

Resist the urge to buy the “next best” in last year’s model — the new ones are a major change and are replacements, not just upgrades, for the old ones. It would literally be better for a kid to receive a pre-order receipt for a new console than a brand new old one. And don’t go wild trying to find one on eBay or whatever — this is going to be a very scammy season and it’s better to avoid that scene entirely.

The pandemic also means you probably can’t or won’t want to wait in line all night to grab a unit in person. Getting a console will almost certainly involve spending a good amount of time on the websites of the major retailers … and a good bit of luck. Follow electronics and gaming shops on Twitter and bookmark the consoles’ pages to check for availability regularly, but expect each shipment to be sold out within a minute or two and for the retailer’s website to crash every single time.

Don’t buy them a Nintendo Switch, either, unless they’ve asked for one of course. The Switch is fantastic, but it’s completely different from the consoles above.

The good news is they won’t be missing out on much right now. Almost every game worth having for the next year will be available on the new and old consoles, and in some cases players may be able to start their game on one and continue it on the next. Good luck figuring out exactly which games will be enhanced, upgraded or otherwise carried between generations (it’s a patchwork mess), but any of the hot new games is a good bet.

Good luck!

How China’s Realme sold 50 million phones in just over 2 years

Starting a new phone brand in 2018 might seem too late in an already crowded market, but Sky Li was convinced that consumers between 18-25 years old were largely under-served — they needed something that was both affordable and cool.

A few months after Li founded Realme in May that year, the smartphone company organized a product launch at a college campus in India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market. It brought its own production crew, built a makeshift stage and invited local rappers to grace the event.

“I was amazed. No one was sitting down and it felt like a carnival, a big disco party,” Chase Xu, Realme’s 31-year-old chief marketing officer, told me at the firm’s headquarters in Shenzhen.

“No foreign company had ever entered the campus. They didn’t think it was possible. Why would a university let you do a launch event there?” Xu, clad in a minimalist, chic black jacket from a domestic brand, recounted with enthusiasm and pride.

“Realme became widely known thanks to the event. People found it very interesting that it was mixing with students. It didn’t just launch a product. It was showing off a youthful, flamboyant attitude.”

Within nine quarters, Realme has shipped 50 million handsets around the world with India as its biggest market, even larger than China. The target this year is to double last year’s target to 50 million units, a goal that’s “nearly complete” according to Xu. It’s now the world’s 7th biggest smartphone brand, trailing only after those who have been around for much longer — Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, Apple, Oppo and Vivo, according to a Q3 report from research firm Canalys.

Realme didn’t accomplish all that from scratch. It’s yet another smartphone brand rooted in BBK Group, the mystic electronics empire that owns and supports some of the world’s largest phone makers Vivo, Oppo, OnePlus, and now Realme.

Oppo family

In 2018, former Oppo vice president and head of overseas business Sky Li announced he was resigning from Oppo to start Realme as an independent brand, similar to how OnePlus started in 2013. Today, Realme, OnePlus and Oppo all belong to the same holding group. That entity, together with Vivo, sits under BBK, which started out in 1998 selling electronic dictionaries in south China and has been diversifying its portfolio ever since.

While Realme and OnePlus operate independently, they get access to Oppo’s supply chain, a model that has allowed them to have lighter assets and consequently fewer costs.

Realme’s pop-up store in India / Photo: Realme

“Realme has an advantage because we share a supply chain with Oppo. We are able to get very good resources from the supply end, stay ahead globally and obtain what we should have,” said Xu.

For instance, the nascent phone maker was among the first to get Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 865 chips and put four cameras into a handset. Priority isn’t always guaranteed, however, because “there is definitely competition between us and our peers to fight to be the first,” Xu admitted. “Of course, it also depends on the progress of each team’s research and development.”

The light-asset strategy also means Realme is able to offer competitive technologies at relatively low prices. In India, its 8GB RAM, 128GB phone cost less than 1,000 yuan ($152) and its notch screen one was under 1,500 yuan ($228).

Realme isn’t concerned about increasing margin in the “growth stage,” Xu said, and the firm has “been profitable from the outset.” On the other hand, the phone maker is also introducing a slew of IoT gadgets like smart TVs and earphones, categories with higher markups.

The smartphone-plus-IoT strategy is certainly not unique, as its siblings in the BBK family, as well as Xiaomi and Huawei, have the same vision: smartphones and smart devices from the same brand will form a nicely interconnected ecosystem, driving sales and data collection for each other.

Another way to cut costs, according to Xu, is to avoid extravagant outdoor advertising. The company prefers more subtle, word-of-mouth promotion like working with influencers, throwing campus music festivals and fostering an online fan community. And the strategy seems to be clicking with the young generation who like to interact with the brand they like and even be part of its creative process.

The most enthusiastic users would sometimes message Xu with pencil sketching of what they envisioned Realme’s next products should look like. “They have very interesting and excellent ideas. This is a great generation,” the executive said.

Chinese brands go global

A Realme event during Diwali / Photo: Realme

Realme’s India chief executive Madhav Sheth is equally adored by the country’s young consumers. A former distribution partner of Realme, he made an impression on Realme founder Li, who “understands the Indian market very well despite not speaking fluent English,” according to Xu.

“Sheth is very charismatic and good at public speaking. He knows how to excite people,” Xu spoke highly of Sheth, who is an avid Twitter user and has garnered some 280,000 followers since he joined in the spring of 2018.

The Indian boss’s job is getting trickier as India becomes warier of Chinese influence. In June, the Indian government banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps over potential national security risks, not long after it added more scrutiny on Chinese investments. Anti-China sentiment has also soared as border tensions heightened recently.

Against all odds, Realme is seeing robust growth in India. In Q3, it grew 4% from the previous quarter and currently ranks fourth in India with a 10% market share, according to research firm Counterpoint.

“During the start of the quarter, we witnessed some anti-China consumer sentiments impacting sales of brands originating from China. However, these sentiments have subsided as consumers are weighing in different parameters during the purchase as well,” the researcher wrote in the report.

“Of course the India-China conflict is not something we want to see. It’s a problem of international relationships. Realme doesn’t take part in politics,” Xu assured. “There will always be extremist users. What we can do is to expand our fan base, give them what they want, and leave the extremists alone.”

Next year, Realme is looking to ramp up expansion in Europe, Russia and its home market China. None will be a small feat as they are much-coveted markets for all major phone makers.

Realme’s onion-inspired model designed by prominent Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa

Part of Realme’s effort to associate itself with what Gen-Z around the world considers “cool” is to work with prominent designers. Xu’s eyes lit up, raising his hand in the air as if he was holding a ball. He was mirroring Naoto Fukasawa, the renowned Japanese industrial designer who came up with the onion-inspired color and pattern of the Realme X model.

“The afternoon sunlight slanted through the large windows. [Fukasawa] gave me a playful look, took an onion from beneath the table, and told me that was his inspiration,” Xu recalled. “He slowly turned the onion in the sun. I was dumbfounded. The veins, the pink, gold color, the texture. It was so beautiful. You wouldn’t think it was an onion. You’d think it was craftwork.”

Transfr raises $12M Series A to bring virtual reality to manufacturing-plant floors

The coronavirus has displaced millions of workers across the country. In order to recover, companies must focus on re-skilling their workforces in a measured and sustainable way. However, training and recruitment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for companies, a heavy investment that is hard to explain during volatile times.

To Bharani Rajakumar, the founder of Transfr, the dilemma of displaced workers is the perfect use case for virtual reality technology. Transfr leverages virtual reality to create simulations of manufacturing-plant shop floors or warehouses for training purposes. The platform’s entry-level gives workers a way to safely and effectively learn a trade, and companies a solution on mass up-skilling needs.

At its core, Transfr is building a “classroom to career pipeline,” Rajakumar says. Companies have influence over the training they need, and students can turn into entry-level employees within vocational schools, on-site or within training facilities. Below is a presentation from the company highlighting the trainee experience.

Transfr’s core technology is its software. Hardware-wise, the business uses Facebook’s Oculus Quest headset with Oculus for Business, not the generic customer hardware available in stores.

Transfr makes money by charging a software-as-a-service licensing fee to companies, which can go for up to $10,000 depending on the size of the workforce.

Transfr started as a mentor-based VR training programming play. The business sold courses on everything from bartending to surgery skills, as shown below:

The shift to displaced worker training, Rajakumar says, came from realizing who had the purchasing power in the relationship of entry-level employees. Hint: It was the companies that had the most to gain from a higher-skilled worker.

Virtual reality has gotten an overall bump and better reputation from the coronavirus pandemic, but is yet to massively be adopted among edtech founders. Rajakumar thinks that it could be revolutionary for the sector. He first saw virtual reality when he attended a gaming conference in San Francisco in 2017.

“I can’t believe that gaming and pornography are the two big industries for this technology,” he said. “I don’t think anybody understands what this is gonna be for teaching and learning.”

Labster, which offers schools VR simulations of science class, had product usage grow 15 times since March. The company raised money in August to expand to Asia.

Labster CEO and co-founder Michael Jensen says that Transfr’s gamification and simply UX is good for adoption, but noted that production costs could be the biggest barrier toward making the company scale.

“It’s simply too expensive to build a stable, well-polished VR application still today, and all players, us included, need to think about reusability, testability and scalability to be able to truly succeed.”

Transfr is trying to lower costs by creating a catalog of work simulations, a Transfr virtual reality training facility of sorts, that it can then repurpose for each different customer. Each month, it adds to the training facility with new jobs that are in demand, helping it scale without needing to start from scratch with each new customer. Since March, Transfr’s customers have quadrupled.

Most notably, though, is Transfr’s recent work in Alabama. The company is behind a statewide initiative in Alabama where its software is being used in the community college system and industrial workforce commission for re-skilling purposes. It’s through these large contracts that Transfr will truly be able to scale in its mission to train workforces. Rajakumar hopes to sign 10 to 15 similar contracts in the next year.

It’s an ambitious goal, and one worth raising financing to achieve. Transfr today announced that it has raised $12 million in a round led by Firework Ventures . The money will primarily be used to grow Transfr’s catalog of virtual reality simulations. While the company is not yet profitable, Rajakumar says that Transfr “could be” if they wanted to move at a slower growth rate.

“Before COVID, people would say we’re such good Samaritans for working on workforce development,” he said. “In a post-COVID world, people say that we’re essential.”