Tablets and TVs Top 2011 Holiday Gift Lists

Tech gifts for seniors include tools to help those with vision, hearing, and cognitive impairments.

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Assembling a list of top gifts for older consumers assumes there's something different about that age group than others. But that's usually not the case. Tablets, including iPads, lots of different Kindles, and the Nook, are popular and prices are attractive for iPad wannabes. And flat-screen TVs flew out of stores on Black Friday.

[See What to Expect from Retailers This Holiday Season.]

U.S. News looked at the most popular gifts for consumers of all ages, based on recent gift purchases on Amazon for different categories. The most popular items and their prices are listed at the end of this story.

We also looked at senior-specific electronics recommendations. Computer and communication advances occur quickly. It may be hard to keep up with trends, and specialized recommendations for older consumers make sense. ElderGadget.com provides "top 10" lists in multiple categories. Also, Laurie Orlov, a consultant and experienced tracker of technology trends for older consumers, weighs in on holiday gifts on her blog, Aging in Place Technology Watch.

Looking at different categories of computer and electronics products, a good starting place in all areas is how tech-savvy the intended gift recipient is, and how heavily they use various technologies.

For seniors new to computers or uncomfortable with them, there are special devices billed as being extremely easy to use. They often have pre-programmed settings and are already loaded with all the software that's needed. For households with Internet access, literally plug these units into the wall, turn them on, and you can be surfing the Web, writing emails, and looking at videos of your grandchildren.

These computers cost a bit more than off-the-shelf units, and may even have recurring monthly fees for user support services. While the recipient need not know much about computers, the purchaser should, at least in terms of the operating system, processor size and speed, and other basics. Two companies offering these types of computers are Telikin and MyGait.

"If they already have a computer," Orlov writes, "consider getting them an inexpensive web camera for Skype, a subscription to software that could make it more amenable: InTouchLink, PointerWare, or VitalLink—or Apple FaceTime. Meanwhile, netbooks (Acer or Asus) are cheap and highly functional—more than tablets at the moment."

[See Tips for Shopping With Your Smartphone.]

Giving a tablet to an older user who is not familiar with computers or mobile devices may make sense if you can also provide some training and tips on how to use them. If you can help an inexperienced user to navigate these devices, senior experts note, they will soon be independently heading off to the app store and following their interests.

iPods and other small music players are being used to help cognitively impaired seniors with some amazing results. Music can unlock memories and reopen communications pathways that have been closed for years. Dan Cohen, a Long Island social worker, is working to use music to help memory-impaired seniors. He advises children to buy music players and load them with their parents' and grandparents' favorite music. He has worked with a local nursing home, achieving some inspiring results.

The iPad, in particular, is proving a marvelous help for people with impaired vision and hearing loss. Type sizes can easily be increased and tools that convert text to speech, and vice versa, have become accurate and easy to use. "The potential is enormous," Cohen says. "Seniors who are 'with it' are starting to use iPads, but the real potential is to help compensate for the losses encountered by seniors who can't (or won't) say 'I want one of those.'"

There also are many dedicated telephone and television products for people with hearing problems. "If they are hard of hearing, there's Hamilton CapTel—captioned telephones with free captioning services (multiple phone types possible)," Orlov writes. "And while we're at that hearing topic, there's TV Ears to enhance/enable the TV-listening experience. And GreatCall has added the 5Star Urgent Response app and new wearable device/service."

[See Take Advantage of Free Shipping Deals This Holiday Season.]

Here is Amazon's list of popular gifts by category:

Books: Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson, $17.87

Music: Christmas, Michael Buble, $10.99

Electronics: Kindle Fire, $199; Kindle Wi-Fi; $79, $99, and $149

Software: Adobe Photoshop Elements 10, $54.99; Dragon NaturallySpeaking Home, Version 11; $39.99

Kitchen & Dining: Oster 4208 Inspire Electric Wine Opener with Wine Chiller, $20; Cuisinart CSB-76BC SmartStick 200-Watt Immersion Hand Blender, $33.79; KitchenAid KP26M1PGC Professional 600 Series 6-Quart Stand Mixer, $299.99

Video Games: Just Dance 3, $34.99; Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, $51.99; Kinect Sensor with Kinect Adventure and Gunstringer Token Code, $99.99

Camera & Photo: Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS 12.1 MP Digital Camera, $174.09; Canon PowerShot S95 Digital Camera with 3.8x Wide Angle Optical Image Stabilized Zoom and 3.0-Inch LCD, $297.45; Celestron 21061 AstroMaster 70 AZ Refractor Telescope, $65

Computers & Accessories: Apple MacBook Pro MD313LL/A 13.3-Inch Laptop, $1,138.94; Acer Aspire One AOD257-13685 10.1-Inch Netbook, $249.99

Patio, Lawn & Garden: Bounty Hunter BHJS Junior Metal Detector, $44.97; Ambient Weather WS-1171 Wireless Advanced Weather Station with Temperature, Dew Point, Barometer, and Humidity, $39.99

Twitter: @PhilMoeller