With the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 dominating the headlines – and nearly 50 million overall confirmed cases in the U.S. reported so far – many families may be opting for a “staycation” this year instead of a winter getaway.
Whether it’s the fear of contracting coronavirus or the travel headaches tied to mandatory testing, it seems many will be home for the holidays yet again.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.
In fact, tech can play a critical role in keeping the family entertained and engaged over the Christmas season – and without breaking the bank.
Here are a few ideas for planning a stellar staycation.
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Especially in colder states, many may prefer to spend much of the holidays indoors with the family, perhaps basking in the warmth of “bingeable” TV shows and movies.
From $19.99, a Roku stick is a great way to turn a regular television into a Smart TV. Then, watch all the most popular subscriptions services like Netflix and Apple TV+.
If cash is tight, you can always cancel after the 30-day trial – or access free channels like the Roku Channel, Pluto TV, Tubi, Crackle and YouTube (now that a deal has been struck to keep the service on the Roku platform). Speaking of saving money, check your mobile phone carrier’s website to see if any services come free with your plan. For instance, some AT&T subscribers are eligible for HBO Max while Verizon offers Disney+ and T-Mobile has a deal for Netflix.
Our pick: the Roku Streaming Stick 4K ($39.99), which has stronger Wi-Fi than its predecessors and adds Dolby Vision support to HDR10+ (on compatible TVs).
Speaking of affordability, how about a 150-inch picture for a couple of hundred dollars?
Especially fun for kids to lie on their backs in bed and splash a movie on the ceiling, the Kodak Luma 150 Portable Wireless Projector ($219.99) is a versatile gadget that can beam 16:9 video content from an iPhone, iPad android or Windows device wirelessly (via Airplay or Miracast). Alternatively, pop in a microSD card packed with content or use the integrated HDMI or USB connection ports.
It supports up to Full HD (1080p) resolution (and 1000:1 contrast ratio), 60 ANSI-lumen brightness and has a built-in 1.5-watt speaker.
Battery life tops 2.5 hours (or simply keep it plugged in).
Free games and books
There are countless free games to take advantage of, for all platforms, including Fortnite: Battle Royale, Dota 2, League of Legends and EVE Online.
A brand-new one to try is Century: Age of Ashes, a high-flying, dragon-riding, fire-breathing multiplayer action game.
From developer Playwing and available on Steam for Windows PC gamers, this free-to-play battle game has you compete in intense aerial arenas, across various modes like “Spoils of War” (steal gold and protect your gold nest), “Carnage” (a 6 verses 6 “Team Deathmatch” game with special power-ups) and “Gates of Fire” (a variation of capture the flag).
If you prefer thumbing through a great novel over playing games, of course you can buy ebooks and audiobooks for your smartphone or tablet, but did you know you can also borrow them from your local library? Yes, for free.
You won’t need to drive to the library, nor are there late fees to worry about.
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So long as you have your library card and the Libby by OverDrive app installed on your device, there are tens of thousands of supported libraries worldwide. Just keep an eye on the expiration date – once it hits, your book won’t be accessible on your device unless you extend the loan period.
And no, it’s not just old classics available, but many of the new bestsellers, too. Libby also boasts an impressive built-in e-book reader, graphic novel viewer and audiobook player.
In fact, several Kobo e-readers (from $99) have OverDrive built in, allowing you to wirelessly reserve and download ebooks from public libraries and read them on your device.
Crafts can keep the kids entertained for hours on end – and parents will appreciate the screen-free activity.
Use your inkjet printer to print coloring pages, puzzles (like word search), mazes, connect-the-dots and more. Simply do a web search and you’ll find thousands of options, including licensed characters from popular kids brands, like Disney/Pixar, Marvel, Nintendo, LEGO and more.
Here’s a fun idea: purchase magnetic sheets of paper (about $20 for 5 sheets) and print out photos of the family, cut them down to size and dress up your refrigerator door or include them in holidays cards.
If you’re in the market for a new printer, the Epson EcoTank family (from $299.99) provides up to two years’ worth of ink out of the box. When it’s time to replace the ink, they’re inexpensive bottles instead of pricy cartridges, which last another up to two years. And since one set of ink bottles is equivalent to about 90 ink cartridges, less plastic waste is better on the environment, too. These are wireless “all-in-one” printers that are also scanners and copiers.
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In fact, EcoTank printers also let you print with your voice – provided you have a smart speaker from Google, Amazon or Apple – including several arts and crafts projects.
Speaking of projects, Epson also has its FastFoto Wireless High-Speed Photo Scanner ($599.99) that can digitize paper photos – memories trapped in shoeboxes, albums and in frames – as fast as 1 per second. The app also lets you interview loved ones (audio ) to archive stories from aging relatives and to preserve them for future generations.
For younger kids (age 4+), one more photo activity is the VTech KidiZoom PrintCam ($119.00), a durable camera (with flip-up selfie lens) that captures photos and videos, which can be viewed on a 2.4-inch color screen or copied over to a computer — but you can instantly print black-and-white photos out of the camera.
Then, color in the photos using crayons, markers or pencil crayons, including the option to create fun borders, special effects and speech bubbles.
You can also print activities from the PrintCam, like mazes and such or play digital games via the device’s screen.
Follow Marc on Twitter for his “Tech Tip of the Day” posts: @marc_saltzman. Email him or subscribe to his Tech It Out podcast at https://marcsaltzman.com/podcasts. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Affordable tech that can entertain your whole family over the holidays