kitzcorner - Fotolia

Amazon Echo, Google Home dominate gifts for IT geeks in 2016

Geek gift wish lists took a turn off the beaten path this year, with suggestions from our panel of experts that range from the nostalgic to the futuristic.

It's hard to believe, but another holiday season is upon us, as the minds of IT geeks fondly turn to the gadgets they'd like to unwrap before the end of the year.

Aside from the latest phone or tablet, power pack or popular toy, there are some pronounced new trends in gifts for IT geeks in 2016, whether they are cutting-edge conversational artificial intelligence (AI) units for the home or old-school technologies for children of the '80s. There is, of course, the usual fare, including a lightsaber, Raspberry Pi Model 3, programmable drone or Google Pixel phone -- all the rage, we hear -- or perhaps an iPhone 6 battery case for the Macolyte on your list.

This year, productivity-enhancing gifts for IT geeks also look past the keyboard and screen to the desk, chair, shelf and office beyond.

Home automation, robots and AI, oh my!

By far, the most popular geek gift this year is a conversational AI system, such as Amazon's Echo or Google Home.

"I have my Echo system connected to my Insteon smart-home products, so it handles turning on and off lights for me, but it's also a fun tool too with the Alexa Skills Kit," said one of our geek advisers.

If your geek already has such a system, look into smaller components and accessories for it, such as Echo Dot. Sonos speakers, a popular item on past IT geek wish lists, will integrate with Amazon Alexa in early 2017, according to a geek in the know.

"We have the big Echo in the kitchen, and I have the Echo Dot in my office," another geek said. "The big one is a great Bluetooth speaker; the kids love asking it for jokes; we use it a lot to set timers for cooking or other stuff -- the Dot I use to connect my phone to my speakers in my home office."

Geeks can also hook up such a conversational AI system to smart-home automation devices, such as Nest thermostats and Philips light bulbs, so lights, heat or air conditioning turn on and off automatically or in response to voice commands.

"Who would have ever thought one could get excited about opening up the gift of a light bulb during the holiday season?" one of our geek buddies asked -- rhetorically, we believe.

Make sure you're certain of any preference between the Echo and Google Home -- you can expect strong feelings about tech when you're picking gifts for IT geeks.

"Although Google Home doesn't have APIs yet, I think Google Now has much better voice recognition and answers versus Amazon Alexa," one opinionated geek said.

Home automation can even include a geek's car.

"When I arrive at home, lights turn on outside my house when it's dark outside," said a geek who's integrated his ride into his home network. "I also do analytics on my car's performance to understand what routes on a given day were fuel-effective or not and what influences caused the changes, such as worse traffic or weather."

Who says you can't buy friendship?
Geek consultant

These days, the internet of things can be applied to just about anything in the home, office or car with kits such as Particle or Insteon smart-home products.

"The Particle chips are useful for all kinds of projects, from rocket guidance to drone systems," the advanced automotive geek said. "I use them many times a week."

Your favorite geek may also like to keep the company of robots, such as a replica of BB-8 from Star Wars, or the Cozmo robot from Anki. "Who says you can't buy friendship?" one of our geek consultants laughed.

Back to the future: Technology nostalgia

As future-oriented and forward-thinking as geeks tend to be, this year, there's also a soft spot in their hearts for reminders of technology of old.

By far, the most popular nostalgic tech gift for IT geeks this year is the NES Classic, which includes 30 classic games in a miniature replica of the original Nintendo console.

"It's nostalgic, for us Gen X'ers that grew up with the first versions of gaming systems," an old-school geek said. "It has all of the classic games, with controllers that look and feel the same."

The NES Classic sold out in two hours when it was first marketed this year, so your geek may already have one. Never fear -- any kind of antiquated technology is sure to fascinate them.

Another hot item is a Leica instant camera: "Classic camera meets Polaroid," said a tech CEO, who we thought had everything, and who would love to get their hands on one.

"My favorite gift is old technology: that ancient computer sitting in someone's basement," another sentimental geek said. "I also really like electronic art, like my office clock made out of an old clamshell MacBook."

Three-dimensional printers, portable whiteboards and more

Following close on the NES Classic's heels is a 3D printer such as the da Vinci 3d mini printer, which is more compact and affordable than previous 3D printer models.

"[The] 3D printers have been pretty nerdy for a while; it takes some pretty technical skills to operate them," said one of the geeks we consulted. "Most things are pretty much just knickknacks that you can produce, such as Dungeons and Dragons figurines, tokens or action figures."

Readymade figurines are also available for geeks who don't want to create their own, from companies such as Metal Souls.

"I'm waiting for my Optimus Prime," one of our geek friends told us.

Know a geek who prefers interactive desk décor? Check out the Fidget Cube.

"My co-workers would appreciate my usage of such a device over the typical desk drumming, pacing, etc.," one of our geek advisers admitted.

Even further off the beaten path, geeks also recommend the Betabook, a portable whiteboard.

"It is fabulous," said a busy tech executive. "I have one. I use it daily, and take pictures with my smart phone and email them to myself and others of the diagrams I make."

Also recommended: ergonomic devices, such as the Lumo Lift.

"Those of us that spend most of our day in front of screens really need help with posture, and the Lumo Lift does a great job of reminding you that you are no longer standing or sitting up straight," said a senior strategist with a major software company we caught up with.

For similar ergonomic reasons, the strategist also recommends the Varidesk, "which makes it simple to go from sitting to standing and back again as your comfort level mandates. I am torturing mine with four monitors and can still move the whole mess without straining myself."

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Write to her at [email protected] or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

Next Steps

The tangible difference IoT makes

Keep yourself safe from IoT risks

The bold new world of 3D printed devices

Dig Deeper on DevOps and IT Certifications and Training