Nine go-to gadgets for the holidays

Our tech expert picks her favorite digital gifts -- from the basic to the deluxe -- that will keep your kid learning all year long.

By Christina Tynan-Wood

GeoPalz

GeoPalz

Sure, WebKinz, Club Penguin, and RuneScape offers wee ones plenty of online fun. But while their avatars — puppy dogs, sea birds, or medieval warriors — are getting a workout, the kids are just sitting in front of a screen. The cleverly designed GeoPalz pedometers ($19.99) change all that by making a game out of walking and running around. 

Kids simply clip on one of the cute characters (such as a princess, skateboarder, or ladybug) and start moving. Every step your child takes in the real world will also move her avatar through the virtual one, where she can earn points and unlock new games. Unlike in other virtual worlds, points here translate into actual prizes: toys, sports equipment, Target gift cards, and games (you pay for shipping). In the current version, kids must follow an honor system by logging on and entering their steps taken (so you'll have to stop them from, say, clipping a pedometer to the dog and taking credit for his perpetual motion). Future versions will log steps automatically.

Bottom line: Turn online gaming into real-world exercise with these kid-friendly pedometers.

Eye-Fi

Eye-Fi Connect X2 memory card

It might seem like a small thing (it is very tiny), but the Eye-Fi Connect X2 memory card ($49.99) will do all the hard work of managing the photos you, or your shutterbug kid, take with a digital camera. The perfect gift for a soon-to-be college student who may be so busy studying that she can't be bothered to organize her pics. The Eye-Fi Connect not only stores thousands of photos but also makes transferring them to a computer miraculously easy.

Keep your camera within reach of your home WiFi network, and the Eye-Fi Connect will automatically move photos from the memory card to your computer — or the website it's been told to use. It will also store them online at a private site for seven days, so you can log in from anywhere and email pics to friends and family, post the funny ones to Facebook, or download them to a phone.

Bottom line: No need to buy a new camera — this card will connect your current one to the Internet and upload your photos wherever you want them to go.

Sony SD Camcorder

Sony SD 4GB Flash Memory Camcorder

Make sure this present gets opened first so your aspiring filmmaker can use the feature-rich Sony Handycam ($249.99) to document the rest of the holidays. (And, while he's at it, his skateboarding feats and award-winning science fair project, which he can post on YouTube so his tech-savvy granny can watch online.)

This easy-to-hold camera packs a powerful punch in a compact, eight-ounce package, making it easy to carry in a backpack. It boasts exceptional zooming features, using either the 60x optical zoom (for flawless images) or the 2000x digital zoom (so you can see right up-close). Not only are you getting a high-quality video camera for a reasonable price, there's no fussing with tapes or disks. It stores images on its 4GB of embedded flash memory. Or buy a Memory Stick PRO Duo card or a tiny SD/SDHC/SDXC card (you might have one around the house) and never run out of space for more video hilarity. Just pop the card out of the camera and into your computer (using the included software) for easy viewing and editing.

Bottom line: Let teens sharpen their filmmaking skills with this feature-rich yet easy-to-use camera.

Sansa Fuze

Sansa Fuze

One reason reading aloud to children helps them learn to read is that it shows them the pleasure of a good story (so they have a reason to persevere). So does listening to audio recordings. Give a beginning reader her own MP3 player loaded with a few good reads, and you'll encourage her to get caught up in books. Young kids are hard on gear, though, so the small, durable, and relatively inexpensive Sansa Fuze ($89.99) is a great choice. It even works with Audible (audio books) and Napster (subscription music).

The Fuze is simple to use, comes in bright colors, and will also play movies and slotRadio music cards for kids too young to manage downloading.

Bottom line: A versatile, pretty affordable starter MP3 player for books and music.

LaCie WhizKey

LaCie WhizKey

"The dog ate my homework" was the excuse du jour when we were kids. But today kids can pull from a long list of plausible digital excuses. First on that list: "I lost my flash drive." These dongles have become required school supplies now that homework is researched online, typed, and transported from class to home and back again. But children lose these doodads as often as they break pencils.

The solution? A reliable, water-resistant, key-shaped drive that fits on a key chain: the LaCie WhizKey ($19.99 for 4 GB). Keeping track of house keys is a life skill — let keeping track of the flash drive hitch a ride on that lesson.

Bottom line: The best flash drive is the one your child can always find.

Pandigital Novel

Pandigital Novel e-reader

It’s 8 p.m. and your ninth grader admits he's six chapters behind on a reading assignment and has lost the book. Old-school solution: Jump in the car and drive to Barnes & Noble to hunt down a copy. Modern solution? Pause the episode of House you’re watching and download a copy from the B&N eBookstore using the Pandigital Novel ($179) so he can start reading right away. True, this is a pricey investment, but it's one the whole family can use for years to come.

Other bonuses: The seven-inch color LCD screen and built-in WiFi make reading easy and as cool as YouTube. Plus your tech-savvy scholar can also use it to research online, set alarms to get to school on time, and, when he's taking a break from all that homework, update his social networks.

Bottom line: Books, Internet, games, and apps on a 16-ounce device that fits in a backpack — for a fraction of the price of an iPad.

Pulse Smart Pen

Livescribe Pulse Smartpen

Good notes are what separate the A student from the one who's barely passing. But note taking is a skill not everyone has mastered. Why let that hold your brilliant teen behind? Give her an unfair advantage.

The James Bond-like Pulse 2 GB Smartpen by Livescribe ($129.95) records both writing and audio and links them so she won't miss a word. Simply tap Record on the special — and required — dot paper, and the Pulse starts watching and listening. At homework time, when those formulas that seemed so clear in class look like a foreign language, she has only to tap on one to listen to an instant replay of the teacher's explanation.

Bottom line: Bring note taking into the digital age with this pen with a brain.

iPod Touch

iPod Touch

You know he wants one. But did you know the iPod Touch ($229) is also educational? Sure is. Download audio books from Audible so he can listen to the required reading during his commute to school. Find him a dictionary app, one that gets him playing with math, another that puts flash cards in his pocket, or even one that turns this music player into a scientific calculator. The best part? He'll be thrilled.

Bottom line: This year's "it" gadget is, almost surprisingly, a terrific, multi-purpose educational tool.

iPad

iPad

What could be more educational than putting the entire readable, viewable world — and a ton of apps — in the palm of your high schooler's hands? Add to that the high hipness factor of the iPad ($499 for 16 GB WiFi), and you will score major points with your honor roll student.

If you're looking to justify the cost, make it the family iPad so everybody can get in on the multi-feature action. Another thing to consider to soften the expense: The WiFi-only version will spare you the monthly cellular charges of an iPhone while still netting a slick touchscreen, apps, and cool factor — not to mention straight-out-of-science-fiction access to unlimited websites, books, newspapers, and magazines.

Bottom line: How can an unlimited supply of books, magazines, and sites not be educational?

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.