This story is part of Holiday Gift Guide 2020, CNET’s gift picks with expert advice, reviews and recommendations for the latest tech gifts for you and your family.
Just like everything else in 2020, the holidays are going to be weird and different this year — and a lot of us will be avoiding frequent trips to the store and instead looking online for gifts for friends and family.
The $100-to-$250 range could be a sweet spot to find a thoughtful present that sparks joy without wreaking havoc on your gift budget. In this holiday season gift guide, you’ll find a wide range of ideas in our picks for the best gifts under $250.
Backyard fire pits have been a keystone for social activity during the COVID-19 era — and this is the best of them, hands-down. Built from durable stainless steel, and with a vented design that promotes air flow, the Solo Stove produces a beautiful and deeply warming fire with very little smoke or airborne ash. (Perhaps best of all, your clothes do not reek of smoke the morning after.) Available in three sizes and prices, this is a slam dunk holiday gift for any fire pit enthusiast.
If you’re looking to get your kids offline and out of the house — or want to feel like a kid yourself again — the Traxxas Stampede is cool (and fast) enough to get anyone to look up from their phone. With a top speed in the 30mph range, this high-performance remote control monster truck can roll over a variety of terrain and, courtesy of its waterproof electronics, through any mud puddle. I laughed and howled like a 10-year-old during my first few test rides.
Though there’s a little bit of a learning curve — you’ll need to bone up on lithium polymer batteries and recharging peripherals — it’s no more complicated than setting up a new smartphone. (An entry-level LiPo battery and charger combo will run you another $60 or so.) And beginners will also benefit from the truck’s “training mode,” which cuts its considerable speed in half to help you cultivate your handling skills. But if you do wreck your rig, it’s OK: Traxxas is known for its reasonable replacement parts and repair fees.
New for 2020, Bose has just released its second-generation Frames. Yes, they are sunglasses with wireless headphones built-in. They also sound incredibly good. We really like the Tempo style shown here, but you can also opt for the Tenor or Soprano styles instead.
Since dropping in price during Amazon Prime Day, the Apple AirPods are easier to recommend as a killer pair of wireless in-ear headphones. With a winning design and fit, solid sound quality and bass performance, and very effective noise canceling, they’re excellent for making calls and listening to music — even during a workout. They also now offer an amazing spatial audio feature when used with compatible Apple devices — something you won’t find on other true wireless headphones.
Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.
The Glow lamp is a highly portable, rechargeable nightlight that’s undeniably beautiful, easy to setup and pleasant to use. It’s become integral to my family’s bedtime routine, and we now have two of them. We use them every night and take them with us wherever we go. (And that’s another thing — they’re surprisingly tough.)
Thanks to its built-in gyroscope, you flip the Glow over to turn it on and off, twist it to dim it up or down or shake it to trigger the low nightlight setting. The lamp produces a pleasant ambient glow — hence the name — that dims gradually over 15 to 60 minutes. You can control the span using Casper’s streamlined iOS and Android-compatible app, and set the light to come on in the morning — a reverse nightlight, of sorts.
Read our Casper Glow preview.
When it comes to gaming consoles, your entry point for the new, cool stuff is basically $300 — that’s the price tag for the Xbox Series S, the Oculus Quest 2 or a full-featured Nintendo Switch. But you can get in on our sub-$250 budget here with the Nintendo Switch Lite, which drops the detachable controllers and the TV-out functionality of its older sibling in exchange for a more wallet-friendly $200 price point. You’ll still be able to play nearly all the same games, including Nintendo-only exclusives from the Animal Crossing, Zelda and Mario series. After disappearing from (virtual) store shelves early on in the pandemic, the Switch Lite is increasingly, though still intermittently, available from multiple national retailers.
Read our Switch Lite review.
With a lot of families working, learning and streaming from home, household wireless networks are being tested like never before. We installed a Google Nest Wi-Fi system at our house this spring and have been impressed with its speedy performance. The connection is perceptibly faster, more expansive and more robust than our prior setup, and the $169 router will likely be sufficient for most homes. That said, the range-extending Wifi point — which doubles as a Google Assistant smart speaker — may be worth the extra dough. Also keep an eye on the Eero mesh networking set. The older three-node version sometimes drops as low as $200, with a freebie Echo speaker thrown in, and the company just debuted a new model for 2020 that folds in support for the Zigbee home automation wireless standard.
Read our Nest Wifi review.
Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET
The most affordable Apple Watch ever released, the Apple Watch SE boasts a more powerful processor, a Retina display that’s 30% larger than the Series 3’s display and support for Apple’s new Family Setup plan. Amazon’s $20 discount gets us close enough to $250 to include here. But the Apple Watch Series 3 is currently selling for $169, making it the least expensive option in the current lineup. Read our Apple Watch SE review.
Strike price: Any discount of $30 or more
Having spent hundreds of dollars on lousy suitcases over the years, I can say that the Monos Carry On is worth the money, and it’s the perfect gift for travel lovers. With a similar aesthetic and price point as Away’s lineup of modern suitcases (which you may have seen on Instagram), Monos delivers everything you want in a roller bag: a lightweight but durable shell, a nice variety of compartments, pockets and straps and a well-engineered retractable handle. Plus, it comes with a 100-day free trial and lifetime warranty.
Made from recycled ocean-bound plastic bottles, this fantastic duffle bag has exactly the right amount of storage capacity, with handles on every surface, and it can be worn on the shoulder or as a backpack. Personally, I love the Olive Dot Camo design.
I’ve been using this beautiful Victorinox chef’s knife for the past year and it’s become one of my indispensable kitchen tools. The blade is fluted, so it won’t stick to what you’re cutting, and the elegant wooden handle gives it the perfect amount of heft. It’s sharp enough to make cutting meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and cheeses an absolute pleasure.
Having gone through a series of overcomplicated food processors, the simplicity of this Cuisinart model is appealing. There are two paddle buttons — on and off, which doubles as a “pulse” option — and the large 14-cup bowl is sturdy and easy to clean. It comes with three blades and discs — do you really need more than that? — and the 720-watt motor is strong enough to power through whatever you throw at it.
I have a small, simple one-zone home, where the thermostat controls only the furnace. Last year, I bought several different top-rated smart thermostats and, with the assistance of my neighborhood electrician, installed and tested them one at a time. The Nest was the one I kept. It’s a snap to set up and it totally delivers on the few features I wanted: scheduled temperature adjustment, appealing aesthetics, an intuitive interface and absolute control via iPhone or Android.
That noted, CNET’s current top pick for best smart thermostat, the slightly pricier Ecobee Smart Thermostat is definitely worth a look.
Read our Ecobee Smart Thermostat review.
More holiday gift ideas