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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Giving Gadgets As Gifts? Get Ready to Answer These Questions

Gift giving has become a bit onerous. In the past, a recipient could keep a present or return it, but the gifts didn’t raise significant questions or concerns. Even electronic gifts like a DVD player or remote-controlled car were inconsequential. That’s no longer the case.

Giving tech-focused products now requires a different mindset going in. A $20 or $30 Amazon Echo Dot might be the right price and readily available with free two-day shipping, but it raises some legitimate privacy concerns that you, as the giver, should be able to answer for.

Imagine surprising a parent with a voice assistant and then them noticing a very targeted ad. There’s a solid chance you might forever be reminded by them, subtly or otherwise, that it was you who put a “spying machine” in their house. Even though there’s been no evidence the two things are related.

Here are a few gift types that may spark questions or concerns. There’s nothing wrong with these types of gifts—in fact, there’s probably a lot of people who would love to receive one. But when the questions start, here’s how to answer.

When Giving a Voice Assistant

Giving someone an Amazon Echo or Google Nest speaker is a relatively easy way to inject some smarts into a home. Even without other smart gadgets, voice assistants are handy for hands-free kitchen timers and settling debates with their internet-based knowledge.

What you need to know: If someone already has a digital assistant, try to stick with the same one. That means if your recipient has an iPhone, consider an Apple Homepod, or if they shop on Amazon a lot, an Echo might be a better bet. Android users may enjoy a Google Nest speaker. After all, remembering different wake words with different assistants is a pain. If this is someone’s first smart speaker, the first thing you’ll need to know is whether the person has wireless internet available to connect it to.

Common question: Is this assistant listening to me all the time?

How to answer: No, it is not listening all the time. Smart speakers from Amazon, Google, and Apple only transmit audio when they hear the wake word. You need to speak its wake word before it will transmit information back and forth over the internet. Amazon, as an example, will show you in its app what it heard and how it responded. It may be a little creepy to see that history, but it also provides clarity on what it’s doing. Of course, some speakers will start listening by accident from time to time, but they usually shut off very quickly when that happens. We have a full guide on how to make your smart speaker as secure as possible.

By the way, those targeted ads? Yes, they can sometimes be too on-the-nose. It’s normal to look for explanations, but there’s no significant evidence to show that these devices are spying all the time. Ad targeting is just really good—which makes it especially creepy.

When Giving a Music or Video Subscription

Most media services have the option to easily give access as a gift. I think this idea feels more personal than a generic eatery gift card. It allows access to a world of content for the person you’re gifting to explore and enjoy. The first gift I gave my wife’s parents 15 years ago, before we were married, was a three-month subscription to Netflix. I think they still use that same DVD plan to this day too.

What you need to know: Most important, you should know whether they have devices they can use one of these services on. Before you give the gift of Disney+, does the person have a way to stream it on their TV? Do they have a smart speaker to listen to that Spotify gift subscription that supports it? Of course these services should all work on their phone. But it is nice to watch and listen in bigger ways too, and it adds value to your gift.

Common question: Will I end up having to pay for this subscription?

How to answer: No, or yes if they want to keep using it after your gift period is over. Subscription services work in different ways, but generally speaking, once the gift period ends, they'll simply lose access. If they liked it and want to keep access, then one of you will have to foot the bill. There may be different tiers available if the person wants to switch to a lower-cost plan or access different content.

Also, most of these services offer free trials, sometimes substantial ones. If they’ve never done a trial with that service before, make sure the person does the free trial period first before activating your gift subscription.

When Giving Smart Home Products

Smart home products can range from connected light bulbs, door locks, connected electrical outlet plugs, and security cameras. This is a vast category. Most people could benefit from some sort of smart, connected device, but you don’t have to go overboard and do their entire home.

What you need to know: For smart home products, you’ll want to consider how the recipient will access these devices. If they have a smart speaker already, does the product you’re planning to give work with that platform? Some products are more universal than others. Hue lights, while on the pricier side, are compatible across HomeKit, Google Home, and Amazon Echo devices. Others, however, may cause more headache than joy when it’s time to set them up. Sticking to reputable or well-known brands can also signal a minimum level of security and the likelihood they’ll work and be supported for the long term.

You’ll probably also want to know how comfortable the recipient is with smart home technology, and whether they’re OK setting it up (or you’re giving yourself a job as well as giving them a gift). Connected lights are neat, unless they constantly leave the person in the dark.

Common question: Can it be hacked and my house be taken over? (Additionally: Will this use a lot of internet data?)

How to answer: No, your house won’t be taken over. But since a device that’s connected to the internet is potentially vulnerable to an outside source, it’s important to take some easy security measures.

Make sure the Wi-Fi network the new device is connected to is password-protected. (And make sure only people you trust have that password.) Make sure the device itself has a strong password, or any account you have to set up to use it has one. If the device or service offers two-factor authentication, that will help as well. Finally, don’t reuse passwords across devices or accounts. Even complex passwords are less secure if they’re used over and over again.

As far as data usage, it varies. A connected light bulb will only use trace amounts of data, while security cameras can be data hogs, especially if you have them set up to save video to the cloud.

When Giving a Smartwatch or Fitness Tracker

Not only have smartwatches and fitness trackers become popular gifts, they’ve also become more affordable. Even Apple is trying to lower the Apple Watch’s entry price through older models and the new SE model.

What you need to know: Smartwatches can provide a range of functions. You should probably learn whether the person is serious about health and fitness and wants a tool to help with that, or they’re more interested in general-purpose things like checking notifications and answering phone calls. Some Android Wear watches can be used with an iPhone, but Apple Watch cannot be used (very well, at least) on Android. You should definitely know what type of phone they use.

Common question: Is the health data accurate? And where does that data go?

How to answer: Consumer smartwatches may not be as accurate or as useful as professional equipment, but the data may provide useful insights. While some sensors and features like Apple Watch’s ECG have been looked at by the FDA, others, like the product’s newest blood oxygen sensor, has not. Still, there are plenty of stories from smartwatch wearers that claim notifications of irregularities have prompted them to head to the doctor, in some cases possibly saving their lives. Doctors might feel differently about the readily available information, but the data is usually accurate, and at best it’s useful, though never a replacement for a professional medical opinion.

The data collected from these devices often goes to different places, depending on the manufacturer. Be sure to check out our guide to securing the health and fitness data that Fitbit, Garmin, Samsung, and Apple devices collect.

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