Technology

Home for the holidays? Curl up with Roku, Alexa and a Kindle

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Don’t be jealous if your snooty friends won’t stop talking about their upcoming holiday vacation.

Let them deal with crowded airports, (someone else’s) noisy kids, and watered-down booze at overpriced resorts.

OK, your masked resentment might be a bit of a defense mechanism, if you simply can’t afford some fun in the sun for the family this year. After all, many have been forced to do some belt-tightening this year because of higher costs due to inflation and other factors.

The good news is a “staycation” can also be relaxing and entertaining – especially with all the awesome home tech you can pick up.

From inexpensive smart speakers (that can play tens of millions of songs) and big-screen TVs that won’t break the bank to retro gaming systems and curling up with an ebook by a roaring fire, there’s never been a better time to be home for the holidays.

The following are a few cost-conscious suggestions.

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Free streaming services on your TV

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What you need to get your stream binge on

On sale for under $30, the Roku Express 4K+ plugs into the back or side of your television (HDMI cable included), joins your Wi-Fi, and then you can use the included voice remote (or optional Roku app) to stream hundreds of thousands of movies and TV episodes.

As the name suggests, this model delivers crisp 4K resolution with High Dynamic Range (HDR) for exceptional contrast, brightness and color – providing your television supports these technologies.

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Access many popular services, including Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Hulu, and Apple TV+, to name a few, as well as exclusive Roku content.

Feel guilty eating too much poundcake over the holidays? There are also dozens of free fitness channels on Roku, too.

If you’re in the market for a new TV, the Hisense U6GR 65-inch Roku TV is on sale for $300 off, therefore $499 instead of $799.

Music and voice-enabled games

Tech the halls with music, whether it’s your first or next smart speaker. Amazon Echo Studio ($159) is one of the better-sounding voice-activated speakers, with spatial audio processing technology for room-filling sound. Its five speakers yield well-balanced lows, mids and highs, along with support for Dolby Atmos for extra depth and clarity.

Stream songs from Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, and many more, including Amazon Music HD’s 90 million songs in lossless audio formats. Then use your voice to ask for a specific song, album, artist, playlist, or genre.

Oh, in case you didn’t “hear” the news, you can now change Alexa’s accent, such as having your smart speaker sound like a dapper 007 James Bond or Aussie supermodel.

There are nine English accents in total between Alexa’s American, Australian, British, Canadian, or Indian voice options. Simply say, “Alexa, change your voice,” and you’ll hear sound clips of available options.

And did you know you can play games on your smart speaker?

Simply say “Alexa, open Song Quiz,” Volley Inc’s take on “Name That Tune,” that tests your knowledge about pop songs. In fact, you can challenge friends and family beside you, or, if you’re alone, play over the Internet against someone in the same city you’re in.

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After you choose a decade, such as the ‘80s, you’ll hear a short clip from a song and will be awarded 10 points for correctly guessing the title and an extra 10 points for correctly saying the artist.

The game boasts thousands of songs over the past 60 years, says its developer, and new songs added often, so don’t expect to hear duplicates.

If you prefer story-driven adventures, The Magic Door has you explore a magical land with several regions – including the mountains, sea, castle, garden, and dark forest – and by playing this verbal adventure you will unravel the tale, collect hidden items, solve puzzles, and help magical creatures.

Depending on the decisions you make, the 10- to 15-minute story can veer off in different directions, like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.

Retro toys to consider 

While you likely don’t have room in your home for 50 pinball tables, that’s essentially what you’re getting with Legends Pinball Micro (on sale for $349 instead of $449) from AtGames, a compact and connected pinball machine that houses a collection of virtual tables to play on a 15.6-inch LCD playfield (and see your score on a smaller 8-inch backglass screen).

That said, the ball rolls realistically thanks to lifelike physics and authentic flipper feedback. Heck, there’s even a “nudge” sensor.

Among the included tables are TAITO’s Space Invaders, Bubble Bobble, Arkanoid, and Zaccaria’s deluxe tables, plus you play more via the ArcadeNet streaming service.

Other features include online multiplayer support, global leaderboards, voice chat, and stereo speakers – but be aware this is sold as a “tabletop” solution (read: no legs), but AtGames says you can purchase third-party ones to install underneath.

What you need to know about e-readers

The 2022 Kindle ($99 with ads on the lock screen or $119 without) is Amazon’s lightest and most compact, to date, with a 6-inch anti-glare display (measured diagonally) and high-resolution 300 pixels per inch clarity. An adjustable front light lets you read in a dimly lit room. Battery life tops 6 weeks

Another solid 6-inch e-reader is Rakuten’s Kobo Clara 2E ($129), which is made with an 85 percent recycled exterior, including 10 percent ocean-bound plastics.

Along with being the most “eco-conscious” e-reader around, and speaking of the ocean, it’s also fully waterproof, so you can bring it to the beach, by the pool, or to slip into a bubble bath with on your staycation. The device features a high-resolution touchscreen, integrated light, and 16GB of storage (same as the Kindle), but also has built-in Bluetooth support to stream audiobooks to a pair of wireless headphones or a nearby speaker.

Budget permitting, if you prefer a versatile new tablet over a dedicated e-reader, Apple’s new 10th Generation iPad (from $449) is perfect for reading ebooks, streaming videos, playing games, online shopping and social media. It packs a bright and colorful 10.9-inch Liquid Retina display, powerful A14 Bionic chip, multiple cameras (perfect for FaceTime calls) and works with a Magic Keyboard Folio and Apple Pencil (both sold separately) for creating content and not just consuming it.

Follow Marc on Twitter for his “Tech Tip of the Day” posts: @marc_saltzman. Email him or subscribe to his Tech It Out podcast. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

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