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Tired of 2020 stealing your joy? 11 tech tools to help make the holidays more jolly

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/25/2020 Jennifer Jolly, Special to USA TODAY

Everything really is different heading into this Holiday Season. The United States has been setting news records for daily coronavirus cases. Add to that the start of freezing winter temperatures, annual flu season, and record unemployment – and many families from one side of the map to the other – are making the toughest decision yet, to stay home this Thanksgiving, and delay family gatherings indefinitely. 

graphical user interface, application, website: Jingle Ring lets you visit Santa virtually © Handout Jingle Ring lets you visit Santa virtually

It’s enough to get to even the jolliest of us all – yes, I’m poking fun at my own last name and relentless positivity – but that doesn’t mean you should crawl under the blankets and hide till spring. Here are 11 simple tech tools to make your holidays feel almost normal: 

text: This lightbulb pairs with Bluetooth and plays music. © GED LED+ Speaker Bulb This lightbulb pairs with Bluetooth and plays music.

Fill your home with the sound of music

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Piping music into every room of your home used to cost thousands of dollars, but not anymore! The GED LED+ Speaker bulb (on sale for around $26 on Amazon right now) is a bright light with an onboard Bluetooth speaker built-in. Just screw the bulb into any lamp or light fixture, pair it with Bluetooth on your mobile device, and just like that, you get all your favorite tunes in any room you want. You can pair up to 10 bulbs and don’t need any extra apps, wires, or Wi-Fi.

This is part of GED’s “one bulb+one function” series of lights. You can also get them with changeable colors, motion detectors – and my other favorite – a lightbulb with a backup battery included, so you still have light if the power goes out. 

logo, company name: Rent the Holidays lets you rent outdoor lights and decorations and return when you're done. © Handout Rent the Holidays lets you rent outdoor lights and decorations and return when you're done.

Light up your life

Flip the switch on your outdoor decor this year, too, with an online service called Rent the Holidays. You can rent lights and accessories for as little as $70, and they deliver them right to your home, tangle-free, and ready to hang. The best part is you just pack them up and send them back to the company when you’re done with them. 

Hiring elves: Walmart delivering live Christmas trees, installing lights in a different holiday season

Explore the world from your home

If ever there were a year to try a gadget that can drop you into an alternate reality, this is it, and the Oculus Quest 2 ($299) virtual reality headset from Facebook is the exact right tool for the job. It’s an all-in-one, completely wireless headset that features faster performance and 50% higher-resolution (1832 x 1920 pixels per eye) than the original version. 

Jennifer Jolly plays the wireless Oculus Quest 2 at her home in Oakland, Calif. © Roddy Blelloch Jennifer Jolly plays the wireless Oculus Quest 2 at her home in Oakland, Calif.

It features a range of apps and experiences to help you get through the holidays this year. You can use it to get your heart rate up and burn off the holiday-induced calories without leaving home, travel the world from the comfort of your couch, take a much-needed mental health break, or meet up with friends at a virtual concert. I’ve been using it for three weeks, and I’ve had to make a rule that I don’t use it during daylight hours anymore because it’s good, I’m afraid I’ll stop going outside to exercise! 

'Bake' moments that matter

One of my favorite memories from childhood is making cookies, pies, and light fluffy bread rolls with my mom and grandmother during the holidays. It’s a tradition I carried on with my own daughter, too. But the last thing I want to do right now is spend time in a grocery store picking up specialty ingredients when Baketivity’s (starts at $32.95) subscription service can do it all for me. Order a kit – or subscribe for monthly delivery – and a kid-friendly recipe, easy-to-follow instructions, all the ingredients (minus eggs and oil) arrives at your doorstep. The kits also come with an activity book, game, hat, and apron. This is super sweet for the entire family.

Santa will 'see' you now

As much as I enjoyed taking my daughter to sit on mall Santa’s lap every year until she wouldn’t do it anymore, this is one tradition I’m happy to do from home this year. With online services like Jingle Ring (starts at $24.95) and How To Save Christmas (starts at $97) some of the world’s most popular Santa’s will video chat with children of all ages, and even send a “magical” photo where kids appear next to good ole’ St. Nick. (Luckily, the North Pole has great Wi-Fi!)

Is Santa Claus still coming to the mall? Here's how the tradition is changing

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graphical user interface, text, application, chat or text message: The Saga App lets you record and save stories from family members in a private app. It's like having a private family podcast. © Handout The Saga App lets you record and save stories from family members in a private app. It's like having a private family podcast.

Create a family podcast

The new Saga audio iOS app (free) is a super simple way for families to record and save the life stories of loved ones – even if they aren’t tech-savvy. Just download the free app, share it with your family and friends, and it sends prompts like, "what's the biggest trouble you got into as a child," or “what is the most memorable trip you have ever taken?” From there, your chosen inner circle records answers by dialing a special phone number. The stories are automatically shared with you and your family on the app, regardless of location. The best part? It works with smartphones or landlines. 

Safely share magic moments from afar

Because a picture paints a thousand words – and Zoom fatigue is real – have everyone drop their quarantine holiday photos into one spot to share among family and friends. My Cloud Home by WD (starts at $159.99, but check for sales) is an easy-to-use personal cloud storage device that preserves your digital life and lets you access it anywhere using the My Cloud Home app without paying a subscription fee. 

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Get your spirits up

Be the envy of your Zoom cocktail hours with this Bartesian Cocktail + Margarita ($349.85) machine. This is expensive but totally worth it if you like your homemade cocktails to rival any you’ve had in a restaurant or bar. It lets all the adults at home enjoy their favorite drinks – think spicy margaritas, hot-toddies, old-fashioneds, and cosmos – with the push of a single button. 

From Reviewed.com: We tried the famed Bartesian cocktail maker. Is it worth the hype?

Shaken and stirred: This cocktail machine is the latest thing you didn’t know you needed

FitOn party © Handout FitOn party

Work it out with your pals

FitOn Party (currently on sale for $19.99 a year) is a new way to work out with friends and family with video calls, no matter where they are. Pick any workout from an extensive library of classes like high-intensity interval training, cardio, strength, Yoga, etc., and simply invite friends to join in live with video calls and work out together. The best part is you can cheer, tease, or gossip, with one another during the class, just like you would in real life, and the instructor won’t yell at you for it. 

Movie night magic

Here’s one I splurged on for my own family this year – a home cinema projector. I’ve reviewed 10 this year, and my favorite so far is the Epson Home Cinema 2250 ($999). The reason I like it so much is because it casts a crystal clear image on pretty much every wall, curtain, ceiling, and outside garage door I’ve used it with. The setup is crazy simple, and I really like the voice search feature, too. For less expensive and more portable choices, my favorites include, the XGIMI MoGo-Pro ($549) and the BenQ HT2050A ($649). I wish I could find others in the $200-$300 range that delivered as well as these, but I have yet to discover them! (You can also check with Reviewed.com for some suggestions.)

Pop the popcorn: How to make your living room a home theater on any budget

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a close up of an umbrella on a sunny window: Marc Rosenberg of Chicago is a CEO and cancer survivor who uses his Garden Igloo as an outdoor office. He set it up in his yard and decorated similar to his “real” office, complete with a chair for his dog to lounge in. © Marc Rosenberg via Jennifer Jolly, Special for USA TODAY Marc Rosenberg of Chicago is a CEO and cancer survivor who uses his Garden Igloo as an outdoor office. He set it up in his yard and decorated similar to his “real” office, complete with a chair for his dog to lounge in.

Build a bubble

As in, a real personal bubble for one, or an outdoor workspace for the whole fam. These ShieldPods ($79), Garden Igloo ($1,449), and Foammaker Inflatable Bubble ($1,079) are selling out across America! One of my good friends, who is in remission from cancer, bought the Garden Igloo in March of 2019 and streams his daily conference calls from inside his own private igloo from the outskirts of Chicago. That’s taking “work from home,” one step further – and we’re all super jealous!

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist and host of USA TODAY's digital video show TECHNOW. Email her at jj@techish.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tired of 2020 stealing your joy? 11 tech tools to help make the holidays more jolly

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