It’s the most wonderful time of the year … to break out of apps and smart home gadgets to take the stress out of your holidays! Seriously, we’re all walking around with these incredibly powerful tools in the palm of our hands, so why not put them to better use than Googling to make your point at family dinnertime? (I’m not the only one who does that, am I?)
From an Alexa-enabled Christmas tree and ways to track Santa, to apps to help you connect with loved ones in more meaningful ways, having the right tech tools at the right time can take the stress out of some of the most common holiday headaches.
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Get a little help from Alexa
Parties, presents, guests, decorations — juggling it all can turn the best holiday wishes into a nightmare before Christmas. This is a great time to use the tech tools you already have as your own, personal holiday elves.
Amazon’s Alexa is my go-to example here. Use any of your connected speakers or smart displays to ask Alexa for holiday recipes, add items to your shopping lists, and set reminders to buy gifts. Once your guests arrive, ask Alexa to put on your favorite holiday playlist via Amazon Music or Spotify. I use it a lot to play fun party games like Heads Up or to keep track of Santa! Most people have no idea how much this tech-y personal assistance can take off your plate!
No-stress holiday decor
Grab a few smart plugs or find the ones you already have to automate everything! Using Alexa, Google Home, or any personal-assistant app you’re comfortable with, you can create or pair with Routines. For example, I say, “Alexa — let’s get festive,” to cue entire scenes throughout my house. It turns on my tree lights, turns on my holiday playlist, and turns both my Echo Show and FireTV into digital photo frames to show off our family’s favorite moments from the year before.
If you have a smart doorbell or are thinking of getting one, these can act as guards against porch pirates, while also elevating your decor. Smart doorbells send alerts every time someone’s at the door, let you see and talk with delivery people, guests as they arrive, and even Santa!
On the lighter side, Amazon’s Ring doorbell can play songs like “Deck the Halls” or “I Have a Little Dreidel” when someone pushes the button. They even have faceplates so you can dress up your smart doorbell.
Getting from here to there
Travel is backing up this year, and some 55 million Americans took to the streets and skies over Thanksgiving, according to AAA. We expect to see more of the same during the December holidays too. But whether you’re driving or flying, Google Maps now has a host of new features to help make the journey easier in a myriad of ways. Here are three of them that I just used on a trip to New York.
Navigate through crowded malls, airports, or train stations: Google Maps expanded its Directory tab for airports, malls, and transit stations. Open up Maps > enter the location (such as an airport) > then tap Directory. This is a lifesaver for finding a place to grab a snack or a last-minute gift before catching your flight. It also includes the business hours, location, and even parking lot details.
Make a restaurant reservation: Google Maps can now help you book a lunch or dinner reservation, which is a real lifesaver when your entire family is starving and you can’t find it just tuck into a quiet In Maps, tap the Restaurants button at the top of the map to see a list of places to eat. Pick the restaurant that looks the best, then in the window that pops up, reserve a table or join a waitlist, if it gives you that option (not all do).
Find out how crowded a popular attraction might be at a specific time: Use Google Maps’ new Area Busyness tool. Open the Google Maps app > move around the map to find the general area you’re aiming for, such as a downtown shopping mall, a monument, or a popular area to go for a hike. The “busyness” information now automatically appears on the map, so you don’t need to specifically search for a place to see how crowded it is.
Cheers to you!
Wine is always a hot topic when friends and family gather. Guests bring it to dinner, we give it as a gift, and everyone wants to know where it came from, and what pairs best with it.
Vivino (iOS, Android) is a free wine exploration and education app that doubles as the world’s most convenient wine shop. When party planning, it’s great to match wines with specific foods, and the expert reviews keep you from spending big bucks on something that tastes like vinegar.
Just take a snapshot of the label, and the app finds all the relevant info. You can even buy wine right from the app, or take it with you to your local wine shop and get an inside scoop of everything on the shelf. It’s like having a tiny sommelier in your pocket, and you’ll score major points with your guests.
If mixed drinks are more your style (and who can blame you?), the Cocktail Party app ($3.99, iOS, Android) is going to be your best friend once thirsty friends and family start lining up at your door. It’s not particularly flashy, but the clean interface is incredibly easy to use and powerful, too.
Search for drinks based on name and style, or just tell the app what ingredients you have on hand, and it’ll come up with drinks that match, saving you a trip to the store. New drinks are being added all the time, so there’s always something fresh to try.
If a glass of something tasty doesn’t get the conversations flowing, you might need to get scientific. The Remento app (free, iOS, Android coming soon) captures family stories so you can hold on to them forever, but first, it helps get things started with scientifically-backed conversation prompts.
“The best way to foster engaging conversations is to create a safe and inviting space for your family members, both physically and emotionally,” Charlie Green, Founder and CEO of Remento, tells me via email. “The conversation starters provide a roadmap for people to lead conversations into often overlooked areas of someone’s life. And when it comes to great questions, simplicity is the goal.”
I love the prompts because they’re kind of like a shortcut to nostalgia, but it still feels natural. When you record conversations with Remento, they get stored locally on your device, so nobody sees them unless you choose to share them yourself.
Giving your holiday photo collections a bit of added style is easiest with PicCollage (free, iOS, Android). With holiday themes and countless layouts and templates, just pick the photos you want to include, try out some different designs, and find one that tickles your holiday fancy. You’ll get seriously professional-looking results in seconds, and you can easily share them on social media, send them to friends, or print them out.
Of course, with so much talk about the metaverse and augmented reality lately, you know we’re getting close to a time when reliving memories means strapping on a headset. We’re not there yet, but I’ve been experimenting with an app called Polycam (free, iOS, Android) that gives me a little bit of a preview into what the world might look like.
The app uses high-powered cameras and sensors on modern iPhones and Android smartphones to capture objects and even entire rooms in 3D. Designers use it to grab real-world objects and create 3D models of them, but the rest of us can use it to capture 3D versions of whatever we want, like a particularly perfect holiday dinner spread, or a dessert that you want to keep with you forever.
It’s seriously mind-blowing, and it’s so cool to be able to revisit these scenes in full 3D like they’re living right inside your phone.
For sharing your favorite recipe!
Cooking the perfect turkey or holiday ham is no small feat, and once guests sink their teeth into your magical main course, everyone’s sure to want the recipe!
Recipe geeks all use Paprika — no, not the spice, the app — to keep track of their DIY successes. Paprika ($2.99, iOS, Android) has a simple design but is packed with food-crafting power. It helps you create grocery lists for the recipes you like, plan meals well in advance, and save recipes from your favorite sites, so you don’t have to scribble them down to copy/paste them into a notepad.
For big gatherings, the app automatically adjusts the ingredients to match the number of servings you need and converts measurements with a tap. It’ll even walk you through a step-by-step recipe, like Google Maps walks you through the directions to a destination, making it the ultimate holiday cooking companion.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.