You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars if you’re looking for a tech gift that just about anyone will appreciate. Even with 2021’s burst of inflation, there are plenty of inexpensive gadgets out there. The trick is knowing what’s not only a good value but useful, too. Here’s a handful of our favorite products that cost less than $50.
The JBL Bluetooth speaker that received the biggest improvements for 2021 is among the company’s smallest. The JBL Go 3 has a completely new look — it’s now covered in durable fabric instead of having the naked plastic design of its Go predecessors — and that new design, coupled with surprisingly decent sound for its small size, makes the Go 3 ($40) one of the top micro Bluetooth speakers out there.
Available in multiple color options, it has an IP67 water-resistance rating (it can be dunked in water and is dust-proof). Battery life is rated at up to five hours.
The new Smart Clock 2 adds some nice bells and whistles, but the earlier model — which usually sells for around $40 — is a pretty sweet bedside companion that includes Google Assistant. There’s no camera, which I appreciate in the bedroom, and the USB port on the rear is handy for charging phones or other gadgets on your nightstand.
Mophie’s magnetic power bank is similar to Anker’s PowerCore Magnetic 5K Wireless ($54) but has a more refined design. Like the Anker, this isn’t an official Apple MagSafe accessory, but it magnetically adheres to the back of your iPhone 12 or 13 series or a MagSafe case — yes, it sticks nicely — and is svelte for 5,000-mAh battery. It can also be used with other phones that support wireless charging, as it comes with a stick-on magnet.
Wireless charging speeds are limited to 7.5 watts for iPhones, but if you need a faster charge you can connect a USB-C to Lightning cable to bump the speed up to 12 watts. This has enough juice to fully charge an iPhone 13 or 13 Pro once, but it’ll fall a little short of a full charge with an iPhone 13 Pro Max.
While it’s a bit pricey at $50, it’s half the price of Apple’s option. First-time buyers on Zagg.com can get 20% off if you sign up for the Zagg newsletter and it’s also available on Amazon for under $50.
Known for its value headphones and earbuds, JLab has released a pair of on-ear headphones with an integrated boom microphone — it can be rotated up when just listening to music — and multipoint Bluetooth pairing so you can connect them to your phone and computer simultaneously. I’m more partial to the Jabra Elite 45h, which list for $100 but usually sell for around $75. But if you don’t want to spend quite that much, the Go Work is a solid pair of headphones, and headset, for its modest price. They’re also comfortable to wear, with a lightweight design. You won’t mistake these for premium headphones but the build quality seems fine.
Battery life is rated at up to 45 hours at moderate volume levels, and you can mute calls using the multifunction button (an LED lights up at the end of the boom mic when the call is muted). I wouldn’t call the sound quality for music listening and the headset performance stellar, but it’s good, particularly for the price. For music listening, there’s ample bass and clarity and a cable is included for wired use. The headphones charge via USB-C. Bottom line: This is a solid gift for anyone who spends some or all of their time working remotely.
Here’s a gift anyone who’s susceptible to losing things will appreciate. Apple’s new-for-2021 AirTags accessories work with any Apple device and use the company’s FindMy network — the same one used to find lost iPhones. Attach them to keys, a backpack or just about anything else. It’s $29 for one, $99 for four — and if you buy through Apple, you can get free customized engraving, too.
Read our Apple AirTags hands-on.
I was a fan of the original Earfun Free buds, and now there’s an upgraded version called the Earfun Free 2. They’re not a huge upgrade, but like the originals they fit my ears well and deliver decent bang for the buck with strong sound — it has just a touch of treble and bass boost (there’s plenty of bass) — and extra features such as wireless charging.
Battery life is rated at up to seven hours at moderate volume levels, and these buds are fully waterproof with an IPX7 rating. These are equipped with Bluetooth 5.2 and use Qualcomm’s QCC3040 chip that includes support for the aptX audio codec if you’re using a compatible device (certain Android smartphones support that protocol).
They’re $50 but often have an instant coupon that lowers the price a bit.
Anker’s 10,000-mAh Power Bank is relatively slim for the size of the battery and includes one each USB-C port and USB-A ports with quick-charging features (up to 18 watts). You can also wirelessly charge the latest smartphones that have wireless charging capabilities, and the battery turns into a wireless charging pad if you plug it into a power adapter, which isn’t included. The battery will charge as your phone does in that setup.
It’s currently $50, but sometimes a clip-and-save coupon can bring the price down.
These days, it’s nearly impossible to get a TV without a bunch of “smart” streaming apps built in. But that’s not true of older TVs, and even newer ones don’t have all the top new services and simply don’t offer the faster performance of a dedicated video streaming box that plugs into an HDMI port. For under $50, the Roku Streaming Stick 4K — newly updated for 2021 — boasts access to just about every online video service you can think of, including Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus and hundreds more, at resolutions up to 4K. The Streaming Stick 4K Plus comes bundled with a step-up voice-enabled remote for $20 more.
I was a fan of Creative’s original Sound Blaster Jam headphones that came out in 2015 and had a decidedly retro look and feel, as well as good sound for the money. Now these headphones are available in a 2.0 version with some key upgrades, including Bluetooth 5.0, USB-C charging, improved call quality and multipoint Bluetooth pairing that allows you to pair them to two devices simultaneously. Battery life is rated at up to 22 hours.
Biolite’s TraveLight 135 is a multifunction portable — and wearable — LED light that can be used as a flashlight (bright white light), bike light (with a flashing red light) and even a power bank for charging your phone. It fits easily into a pocket and is a good safety item for anyone who hikes, bikes or camps.
Tribit’s StormBox Micro lists for slightly more than $50, but often dips below the $50 mark, so I’m including it on this list. It’s one of the best sounding pocket-size Bluetooth speakers I’ve tested, with bigger bass and volume than most other tiny speakers.
Aside from its great design, Bose’s SoundLink Micro stood out because it was able to deliver more bass than every Bluetooth speaker in its size class, and it also managed to limit distortion at higher volumes. And it’s the Tribit’s bass and overall volume level for its tiny size that allows it to stand out.
It’s IP67-rated so it’s dust-proof and water-resistant (it can be fully submerged in shallow water for a short time) and has up to eight hours of battery life at moderate volume levels with USB-C charging. Like other speakers in this category, this Bluetooth model has an integrated strap so you can clip it to your backpack or bike’s handlebars.
Read our Tribit StormBox Micro review.
This one isn’t a fun gift, but it’s the type of thing they’ll use every day. This wall wart is one of the better values out there, with dual USB-C PD (power delivery) ports, a USB-A and a total of 65 watts of power. That will allow you to charge most devices, including some larger USB-C laptops. It uses GaN technology, which helps reduce the size of the charger, and the plug is foldable.
Edifier has a few different new true-wireless earbuds and most, including the TWS 330NB, are great values. While the TWS 330NB buds are missing a sensor that automatically pauses your music when you take them out of your ears, they feature very good sound quality for the money, decent active noise canceling with a transparency mode, and solid voice calling (they have three microphones in each bud for noise canceling and noise reduction during calls).
They fit my ears well — they’re essentially AirPods Pro clones — and while the touch controls are a little limited, they are programmable using the Edifier Connect app for iOS and Android (you can set the level of touch sensitivity). They have an IP54 rating, which means they’re splash- and dust-proof, and battery life is rated at four hours with noise canceling on and five hours with it off, at moderate volume levels. That’s only OK, but you do get an additional two charges in the charging case.
The TWS 330NB lists for $60 but are often discounted to around $50. Right now they’re a little more than $50, but they were close enough to include on this list.
If you’re looking to gift a solid set of true wireless earbuds without spending a fortune, the EarFree Free Pro are a solid choice. They offer active noise cancellation with a transparency mode, wireless charging and Bluetooth 5.2. Rated for seven hours of battery life without the noise-canceling function on, or about six hours with it, they’re IPX5 water-resistant, which means they can withstand a sustained spray of water.
They sound very good for the money, with relatively clean, balanced sound and bass that has some kick to it — they’re pretty open-sounding. Lightweight and comfortable to wear, they have little fins that help keep them securely in your ears, and they’re fairly discreet-looking.
Don’t expect them to cancel noise as well as the AirPods Pro, but they do provide some decent muffling. It’s worth noting that you can use either the left or right earbud independently, and there’s a low-latency mode for video watching (and presumably gaming). Call quality was decent, too — callers said they heard some background noise, but it wasn’t intrusive and they could hear my voice well. The touch controls were responsive.