Jennifer Jolly| Special to USA TODAY
This is the first time in 17 years that I don’t have a child going back to school this fall. My only daughter graduated from college in June and won’t be back in class until she starts law school in the fall of 2024. (Cue the mom-milestone sniffles…)
I admit, I kind of miss running to Target all last-minute-like with a list of supplies we forgot about − only to bump into a half dozen other parent friends doing the exact same thing.
Also? I’m still obsessed with finding the coolest, most helpful, and most affordable gadgets and go-to gear on the planet. It’s just that this year, I’m doing it less selfishly and more for your family than mine. That’s a good thing to do with my empty-nest angst, right?
I call these my “pretty little problem solver” gadgets and gear − with a fix for a modern family’s daily dilemmas, large and small. Let’s dive in.
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Is there a portable battery charger for smartphonesandlaptops?
These days, a trusty portable battery charger is more important than number two pencils and glue sticks combined. I recommend one that works for smartphones, tablets,andlaptops.
Yes, they exist, and they’re total lifesavers.
Look for power packs that are small and light enough to slip into a backpack or coat pocket without adding too much bulk or weight. It also needs to fast-charge your mobile devices at least once, start-to-finish, before you have recharge the power pack. (Bonus points for chargers that are cute and colorful too.)
There are a few I’ve tried that meet most, if not all, my standards, including models fromZendure(I love the blue color), the Nimble Champ,Einova Eggtronic, and Anker. Expect to pay at least $40 for a decent, multitasking charger that delivers enough juice for a handful of devices.
One charger to stay away from, though, is Apple’s $100 MagSafe battery pack. It’s handy because it sticks magnetically to the back of your iPhone, but the two we bought earlier this year only add about 30% more battery life. Very disappointing, especially for the price.
Is there a video doorbell for your garage?
Video doorbells can be a great way to keep track of your kids getting home safely from school, especially if you’re still at work. But what if your child uses the garage door to come and go from your house?
Garage doors are the new “front door” for some70% of Americans. And sure enough, there’s a new gadget that lets you see and control who goes in and out of this modern-day “busiest entryway.”
We found, bought, and installed a new smart garage video keypadcalledMyQ($100) earlier this month. It’s an “eyes-on” safety gadget that’s a cross between a video doorbell and a garage keypad, and it’s loaded with next-gen features.
It took me about 10 minutes to replace my old pin pad with this new one, including connecting it to an app on my smartphone. The app is intuitive and easy to use and has some fabulous features like setting customized codes for each specific family member. You can also get notified when each particular person gets home and get real-time motion and activity alerts, advanced motion detection, 1080p HD video night vision, two-way audio, and more.
Is there a gadget to help kids adjust to new routines?
One of the biggest problems I hear about from families this time of year is how to help little ones transition from summertime schedules to school-year routines. There are several ways to use varioustech toolsto aid in this process, but I really like to use gadgets that are totally screen-free. (The last thing we need is another meltdown over "time to turn off the tablet" rules.)
When my daughter was in elementary school, I had a DVD with customized songs using her name. (I still sing the “wake up Jeneva, it’s time to start your day…” song to her. She doesn’t love it now, but she sure did then.)
The 2023 version of that (but packed with a lot more magic tricks) is a small, screen-free, interactive, educational audio player calledStorypod.
It’s similar to other audio playerswe’ve coveredin a few ways, such as kids can read books interactively with the device, which can really help with early reading comprehension. They can also use the included “Craftie” – a cute little yarn character that children set on the top of the large-softball-size device – toplay a set of songs or stories around a theme. They can even collect Crafties (my favorite isFrida Kahlo), or use the company’s additional paired items such as books, tiles, and trivia cards.
The superpower of this particular kids’ speaker though, is that parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, and anyone with theStorypod app(iOS, Android) on their phone, can record and share a customized message. Parents can then download that message onto a book, photo frame, or just about anything really, by using a Storypod sticker.
I tested this out by having my dad tell my daughter about his first day of school, then paired it with theOwl iCraftiethat came with the Storypod. Even though she’s much older now, the idea of hearing her grandpa tell stories in a way that can be preserved for her own children to listen to? Well, that’s just priceless.
Are there charging docks to put gadgets away at night?
I never let my daughter keep her devices in her bedroom overnight, and I highly recommend that many to other parents. What good happens on a mobile device for a school-age child between the hours of say, 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.? None. (No, they don’t need it as an alarm − just buy a clock.)
Years ago, I created a central charging station in our house, and it’s worked wonders for all of us to unplug at dinnertime and bedtime. (Our now-grown kids thank us for it.)
I useArianna Huffington’s Phone Bed Charging Station($65) because it looks like a bed, and you can tuck your gadgets in at night − so it’s funny and cute and kids like the ritual of putting devices to bed. Charging docks now come in every shape, size and configuration. There’s even a line of furniture now called “decortech” with chargers built in.
Having your go-to gadgets in one central area, like the kitchen counter or a table by the front door, also ensures they’re charged up and ready to go when you leave the house. No more frantically running around looking for that phone!
If you need to go one step further with your mobile device management, you can get timed “lockers.” I’ve used the ySky Portable($24) smart auto phone timer lock box recently to sidestep the struggle of trying to keep my eyes off my phone when I’m under a tight deadline and the pressure’s on. (Of course, I use “focus” mode too, but when desperate times call for desperate measures, this sort of "phone jail" is perfect.)
What’s the best high-tech calendar for a family?
Juggling schedules for everyone in your household can be an exercise is absolute madness. One gadget I found about a month ago offers the best fix I’ve found yet. It’s called theSkylight Calendar(15-inch), and its sole purpose is to synchronize schedules in one place, on one main screen, at home.It does other tricks too, such as tracking everyone’s chores, so you don’t have to ask your kids a million times if they’ve done the dishes yet.
It comes in two sizes, but the smaller of the two, the 10-inch model, doesn’t feel quite as upscale to me, so I went for the larger one. Onboarding all of my Google, Outlook, iOS, and Yahoo calendars wasnoteasy or intuitive the first time I used it, and I wish the app interface was less clunky overall. But…my old calendar system – which includes a paper planner, pin-up calendar, and a half-dozen digital calendars – was much, much worse!
Once you get it all set up, it really does work like a charm, and the company is super responsive helping you out if you have any problems with it. What I like most about the Skylight Calendar is the massive potential it has to really streamline our modern lives. I also appreciate the touchscreen displays, the way itcolor-codes events for each family member, and shows to-do's, grocery lists, helps with meal-planning and more.I left out smartphones and laptops here for a reason. They’re in my next column, on “training wheel tech” which grows along with your kids. Check back here for that one very soon!
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist and on-air correspondent.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.
Contact her at JJ@Techish.com.