By Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media
Toys that talk, tablets that "grow up" with your kid, and robots you build (and then order around) -- yep, this holiday is shaping up to be the techiest ever for kids. And if you think you've seen it all before, just wait. The technologies fueling this year's offerings are finally ready for prime time. That means dolls that can have lifelike conversations, toys to play with in real life and virtually, and building kits that turn kids onto STEM concepts. Most of these picks are pretty pricey, but if you're willing to shell out the cash, you're likely to merit a giant "thank you" in return.
Fisher-Price Smart Toy Bear or Monkey
Some call it cute, some call it creepy, but whatever you call it interactive toys are the big new thing. This plush, huggable animal talks to kids and comes with activity cards to encourage play and help with everyday activities such as brushing teeth and going to bed.
Lots of parents love LeapFrog devices for the worry-free educational content and strong parental controls. But the complaint has always been that kids age out of an expensive toy pretty quickly. The Epic aims to extend the life of the kiddie tablet with more customization, including the ability to unlock a full Web browser.
Lego Dimensions Starter Pack (for Xbox One, Nintendo Wii U, Sony PS3, Xbox 360)
Fans of Skylanders or Disney Infinity might like this addition to the toy-and-video-game mash-up. Kids can build Lego toys and then bring the creations into video games starring favorite characters including the Simpsons and Doctor Who. Plan to shell out major money: This toy comes with expansion packs galore. On the plus side, these are great games to play as a family.
Google's self-driving car may be many years away, but Cardboard -- a fold-it-yourself virtual-reality viewer -- can take you anywhere you want to go. Just slip your Android smartphone or iPhone inside, download the free Google Cardboard app, tap the device's magnetic button, and "fly" around Google Earth, take a walking tour of Versailles, or examine cultural artifacts close-up. Check your app store for more you-are-there games, tours, and activities.
Kindle for Kids Bundle
Sure, kids can read on their Kindle Fires or iPads, but who really does that? This Kindle bundle has the advantage of being a tech toy that's squarely focused on books. A cute cover, a two-year insurance plan, and an ad-free experience for a pretty cheap price make this a great pick for cute little bookworms.
Gizmos and Gadgets Kit from littleBits
If your kid is a fan of circuit kits, he or she will love this high-tech version. With materials for 12 inventions and plenty of ways to extend the play and learning, this looks like a fun gift for tinkerers and wannabe inventors. It's gonna cost you, though.
Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4
Updated versions of these two favorite console games can be a great way to goof around with teens. And music lovers will enjoy new features that make gameplay more realistic and interactive. But these games aren't easy, so younger kids might get frustrated.
Teens can program these mini-devices with an iPad to make it light up, shake, make noise, and more. Creative kids will enjoy experimenting with creating remote controls, staging pranks, and bringing inanimate objects to life.
Gemio Friendship Bracelets
These colorful bracelets can be customized and coded to light up or sparkle when friends are nearby. They might even trigger an interest in coding. The downside: They're not as much fun if your kid is the only one with a bracelet. Not yet available in stores, but you can sign up to be notified when they come on the market.
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org