Getting a gift for your home is like giving a gift to your entire family--everyone enjoys it.
A new TV is the cliché family gift everyone can enjoy together. And while adding new windows or insulation to your home will make everyone feel warmer this winter, they're as utilitarian as giving your spouse a vacuum cleaner for the holidays.
But this year, we're thinking outside the box. There are some great holiday gift options that will not only give your home a techy upgrade, but also save you money throughout the year.
Here are six holiday gifts for your home that not only serve an important purpose, they're also fun and they don't require a home equity loan for you to afford them:
There are plenty of ways to stream video from the Internet to a TV, including Apple TV, Wii or a Web-enabled DVD player. But none offer as many channels or websites to view as the streaming player Roku. From $50 to $100, depending on the video resolution, the hand-sized device will wirelessly stream content from such sites as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, and HBO. You can even watch NHL games. Many of the channels are free, buy you'll have to pay for some, such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and others with premium content. Roku may make you want to cancel your cable TV service, which is a gift by itself.
2. Weather beacon
The $100 Weather Beacon from Ambient Devices makes the outdoor thermometer look boring. Like other products the company sells, the small device shaped like a box uses light to change colors as the weather forecast changes. The Beacon receives information wirelessly from a radio signal. The glass glows red if warm weather is coming, and colder blue hues if cooler temperatures are on the way. It also subtly pulses to show the chance of rain or snow. It's more fun than a weather vane, or checking your cell phone or computer for the weather forecast.
3. Nest Learning Thermostat
Tired of getting up and changing the thermostat when it's cold, and then forgetting to turn it off or lower the temperature setting when you leave? After the first week of use, the $249 Nest Learning Thermostat doesn't need to be programmed or have the temperature changed manually. Instead, it learns your energy consumption behavior and automatically reacts accordingly. It has five sensors--temperature, humidity, light and two activity sensors--that turn down the heating and cooling when no one is home. It also has a "time to temperature" feature that shows how long it will take to heat or cool the home. The thermostat can also be set remotely from a smartphone.
4. Smart fridge
Samsung's LCD refrigerator has a touch-screen LCD on the front that has apps to provide recipes, check the weather and then tweet what you're making. Forget about those old-fashioned things called paper and pencil to leave a note for the kids. Just type it on the screen of this $2,700 Wi-Fi-enabled fridge.
5. Light sensors
Outdoor light sensors are common for homes, but indoor sensors such as the ones Leviton sells are less typical. Leviton's indoor motion sensor turns lights on when you enter a room and off when you leave, saving money on electricity bills. The sensors work because they use "passive infrared technology" to detect infrared heat that people naturally emit. A sensor is about $20 on Amazon.com.
6. Smart phone apps for home
If you don't want your thermostat, lighting or other items at home to control themselves, control them remotely with iPhone apps. Some apps only work with specific products, so check with the manufacturers of your home products before proceeding. HomeWorks, for example, has an app to control its lighting system from a phone. There are also apps to manage home energy consumption, alarm systems and even motorized blinds.
Images courtesy of Roku, Nest and Leviton.
Aaron Crowe is a freelance writer in San Francisco. He has worked as a writer and editor for websites and newspapers, most recently covering personal finance for WalletPop.com. He has also written for Bankrate, AARP and was one of the initial writers at AOL Housing, covering the housing and rental markets.