Consumers have more choices than ever when it comes to gadgets, including a range of options in categories that didn't even exist a few years ago. In 2014 we saw the ascension of 3D printers, smartwatches, drones, and action cameras. Cheapism.com took 10 of the most innovative products on the market and found less costly but highly rated versions of each.
VIRTUAL REALITY KIT
The Oculus Rift, a $350 virtual reality headset, has been met with considerable hype. Not to be outdone, Samsung has produced a VR headset as well ($200) and Sony is working on one codenamed Morpheus. Google's Cardboard (yes, it's literally made out of cardboard) is a much cheaper way to experience virtual reality. The kits cost $15 to $50 and work with select smartphones and a growing number of apps.
Just a few years ago, it was hard to imagine that a reasonably priced 3D printer would be available for the masses, or even to imagine a 3D printer at all. Today, there are several low-priced options to choose from. The $800 Da Vinci 1.0 AiO from XYZPrinting comes preassembled and calibrated. You can hop on the website Thingiverse, download a digital model, and get printing right away.
A New York Times reviewer prefers a basic action camera, such as the $100 Polaroid Cube, over a $400 GoPro. GoPro's recent lineup also includes a base model, the Hero ($130), which stands out as a high-quality, low-cost video camera. Although the Hero's battery life doesn't quite stand up to competitors such as the Cube or HTC Re ($200), the camera can take a beating and keep going. The many available attachments help tailor it to any situation.
Some of the latest smartwatches aim to add style and affordability to what could otherwise be a geeky, niche item. Among them are the Asus ZenWatch ($200), Pebble Steel ($180), Motorola Moto 360 ($250), and just-announced Withings Activite Pop ($150, coming soon). Which is best? They've all received enthusiastic reviews or previews thus far, so it may come down to which style and price fits you best.
Did the hit podcast "Serial" ignite your interest in starting a podcast of your own? First things first: You need a professional mic to capture your story. Beginners don't need to go overboard and spend hundreds, though. The Blue Microphones lineup includes inexpensive mics such as Snowball ($60) and Nessie ($63). Almost all of the company's products garner positive reviews.
PET ACTIVITY MONITOR
A high-tech collar can track your pet's location and behavior, providing an easy way to find a lost pet or just see what your dog is up to while you're out for the day. Tagg ($120) and Voyce ($299 plus $15 per month, available soon) are two much-talked-about options, but Whistle is similar and costs less ($99). Like activity monitors for people, this device sends data to an app where users can set goals for their dogs and see summaries of their daily activity.
One of 2014's biggest (and perhaps most dangerous) tech gifts was a quadcopter, aka a drone. DIY kits and ready-made models cost anywhere from $20 to more than $1,000. Gizmodo identified a sweet spot of about $35 to $90 for beginners, with specifics depending on the experience and needs of the operator.
STREAMING MEDIA PLAYER
Many consumers advocate cutting the cord and switching from a cable or satellite subscription to a streaming media player. Even after buying a set-top box and subscribing to Netflix and/or Hulu, the savings are immense. Amazon, Google, and Roku have also come out with smaller streaming sticks that offer most of the capabilities of a full-fledged player for $50 or less. They're all recommended by many experts, but the Roku Streaming Stick ($49) generally wins out because of its content options and user-friendly interface.
PORTABLE SOUND BAR
Although audiophiles may look down on anything but the ultimate sound system, the TDK Life on Record Trek Max A34 wireless speaker ($130) is a far cry from a smartphone dock. The speaker is reasonably sized, with good sound, and water-resistant for poolside listening. It syncs to mobile devices using Bluetooth or NFC, and USB ports allow for easy charging.
LED LIGHT BULBS
LED light bulbs save money on electricity by using a lower wattage to generate the same amount of light as an incandescent or compact fluorescent light bulb. Although each LED bulb can be relatively expensive initially, buyers can break even in about a year and half -- leaving another 20 years or so of money- and energy-saving usage. The latest LED bulbs are dimmable and many cost $20 or more, but Osram's 60-watt equivalent (it draws only 8.5 watts) costs $10.