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We Found 14 Popular Christmas Toys Worth Gifting (and 3 to Avoid)

We Found 14 Popular Christmas Toys Worth Gifting (and 3 to Avoid)

Picasso Tiles

Photograph: Amazon

Magnetic tiles are one of the most amazing little inventions for toddlers. It takes a while before littles are coordinated enough to put Legos or a lot of other building toys together, but they tend to pick up these snap-together tiles at a much earlier age—and get very creative! This Picasso set is perfect for filling out your collection so you can smash giant buildings like Godzilla—or build something totally calm and serene if you have that lovely kind of child. We intermingle Picasso Tiles with standard Magna-Tiles and haven’t had any issues. They also don’t seem to crack or break easily, so they should last through multiple children. —Jeffrey Van Camp

The Play Box and toys

Lalo 13-15 Month

Photograph: Lalo

There’s a lot to keep in mind when you’re shopping for baby toys. You’re looking for something that can stimulate their little forming mind—and for it to be age appropriate, which can be difficult to discern with those first two years. Lalo’s toy boxes come with multiple toys designed for three-month age ranges, so you can easily pick one for the age the baby is or will be when they receive it. It comes with a little booklet on how to use it, both in the intended age window and afterward. My son just turned 16 months, but he still loves most of the items from the 13-15–month kit – especially the drum. —Nena Farrell

3D Doodler Set

Photograph: Amazon

This was the trending toy in my daughter’s second-grade class last year. Almost everyone had one or wanted one. This pen is simple and safe enough for even a second-grader to use, and it fit easily in my daughter’s tiny hands. Just charge the pen via a USB-C connection, feed the colored threads through the pen, and watch your child magically create little 3D flowers and kittens to leave all over your house. I would also suggest shelling out for a storage case, or maybe an empty shoebox, because it’s been a year and I’m still finding stray little colored filaments in very strange places. —Adrienne So

Star Wars Grogu stuffed animal

Photograph: Amazon

I’ve lost count of the number of Baby Yodas I have in this house—my daughter has a water bottle entirely covered in Baby Yoda stickers—but this simple plush seems to be the one that gets the most action. It’s small enough for a kid to play with next to Barbies or stuff in a backpack but big enough to cuddle or engage in conflicts with other stuffies. —Martin Cizmar

Shiba Inu Stuffed Animal

Photograph: Amazon

However many animals Noah had on that Arc is about as many Squishmallows and Squishmallow-style round stuffies we have in my house. This dog (not technically a Squishmallow and made by the OurHonor brand) is next in line as a surprise this Christmas. I also highly recommend Target’s line of Pokémon plushes, especially Bulbasaur, which you can have extra fun with by introducing him using your imitation of the guttural voice he has in the original TV series. —Martin Cizmar

Melissa Doug Let's Play House Dust Sweep Mop 6 Piece Pretend Play Set

Photograph: Amazon

When this set first popped up at my toddler’s grandparents house when he could barely walk, I thought it might be a good day of fun. That was at least two years ago, and he has used it constantly ever since, along with other littles! Some weeks dusting was the hot item, other times the littles would sweep and mop up a storm. (A pretend spray bottle and squeegee are also a fun addition; just leave the actual water outside.) The pieces are made from wood and still look close to new after a lot of abuse. The house isn’t dust-free yet, but we’re working on it! —Jeffrey Van Camp

Toys to Avoid

Mini Dyson Vacuum toy

Photograph: Amazon

I don’t recommend this trending toy, despite its many positive reviews. There are a lot of ways to help your kid pretend to vacuum, but this one is a bit complex for its own good. It looks neat, and Casdon Toys advertises it as a working vacuum, but it sucks only the tiniest of items up through a half-inch hole on the bottom (barely). Anything an uncoordinated toddler is able to suck then has to fit in a tiny spoon-sized bin that you’ll have to empty frequently yourself because it takes finger coordination. You’ll also need four C batteries (not included) and some replacements handy. There are two switches, one to turn on the suction and another to swirl some beads so it looks vacuumy.

After a bit of initial interest, this toy tends to sit around my house. It doesn’t stand up on its own, so we regularly have to prop it up if it gets disturbed. My advice: Buy an actual, decent little handheld vacuum. They might have a lot more fun actually sucking up the dirt on your floors and in your couch cushions, and they might help a little, too. —Jeffrey Van Camp

Apple’s Pledge to Support RCS Messaging Could Finally Kill SMS

Apple’s Pledge to Support RCS Messaging Could Finally Kill SMS

Good news is coming to your group chat. Today, Apple said it will add support for the RCS messaging standard to the iPhone. The website 9to5Mac broke the news that Apple will release a software update some time next year that will bring support to iOS for the messaging standard, which is already widely used by Android phones.

RCS, or Rich Communications Standard, is a messaging service that’s a step up from the SMS and MMS messaging standards that smartphones have used since they first arrived. RCS can do more than SMS and MMS: It allows users to share higher-resolution photos and videos between their devices; it supports read receipts; and there’s more fun stuff, like the ability to easily drop emoji and GIFs into a conversation. It also adds extra layers of security that the older messaging standards lack.

Apple has famously shunned RCS in favor of its own iMessage platform, resulting in a layer of incompatibility that anyone with an Android phone—or any iPhone user who regularly texts people with Android phones—is painfully aware of. Videos shared between iOS and Android are crunchy and low-bandwidth, and Android users are often confounded by group chats, with missed messages, absent emoji, and other glitches.

For years, Apple has been relying on SMS and MMS to bridge the digital divide between these messaging platforms. It’s the last major holdout, as RCS is already supported by major players like Google, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. When Apple adds support for RCS, it won’t need that old bridge, and the move could signal the eventual death of SMS.

“It’s long been time for SMS to go away,” says Anshel Sag, principal analyst at the technology analyst firm Moor Insights and Strategy. “Now SMS can die, it can be sunset. So all the viruses and all the security flaws that are due to SMS can be eliminated.”

The move isn’t happening immediately; Apple told 9to5Mac that RCS support will come “in the later half of next year.” This timing suggests that support could arrive with the next version of iOS, which typically rolls out in September.

So it’s a ways out, but it’s certainly closer than Apple’s previous plan for the feature, which was apparently “never.” A year ago, it seemed Apple was not even considering supporting RCS on the iPhone. Apple CEO Tim Cook glibly joked that you could “buy your mom an iPhone” if you’re having trouble communicating with users on different devices. Since then, pressure has mounted on the company to implement RCS, and some compatibility has emerged between the platforms as they each have evolved.

What Is the Metaverse, Exactly?

What Is the Metaverse, Exactly?

The confusion and disappointment surrounding most “metaverse” projects are so pervasive that when a video from 2017 of a Walmart VR shopping demo started trending again in January 2022, people immediately thought it was yet another metaverse demo. It also helped demonstrate how much of the current metaverse discussion is built on hype alone. Walmart’s VR shopping demo obviously never went anywhere (and for good reason). So why should anyone believe that it’s the future when Chipotle does it?

This kind of wishful-thinking-as-tech-demo leaves us in a place where it’s hard to pinpoint which aspects of the various visions of the metaverse (if any) will actually be real one day. If VR and AR headsets become comfortable and cheap enough for people to wear on a daily basis—a substantial “if”—then perhaps a virtual poker game with your friends as robots and holograms and floating in space could be somewhat close to reality. If not, well you could always play Tabletop Simulator on a Discord video call.

The flashiness of VR and AR also obscure the more mundane ways that our existing, interconnected digital world could be improved right now. It would be trivial for tech companies to invent, say, an open digital avatar standard, a type of file that includes characteristics you might enter into a character creator—like eye color, hairstyle, or clothing options—and let you take that data everywhere, to be interpreted by a game engine however it chooses. There’s no need to build a more comfortable VR headset for that.

But that’s not as fun to imagine.

What’s the Metaverse Like Right Now?

The paradox of defining the metaverse is that in order for it to be the future, you have to define away the present. We already have MMOs that are essentially entire virtual worlds, digital concerts, video calls with people from all over the world, online avatars, and commerce platforms. So in order to sell these things as a new vision of the world, there has to be some element of it that’s new.

Spend enough time having discussions about the metaverse and someone will inevitably (and exhaustingly) reference fictional stories like Snow Crash—the 1992 novel that coined the term “metaverse”—or Ready Player One, which depicts a VR world where everyone works, plays, and shops. Combined with the general pop culture idea of holograms and heads-up displays (basically anything Iron Man has used in his last 10 movies) these stories serve as an imaginative reference point for what the metaverse—a metaverse that tech companies might actually sell as something new—could look like.

That kind of hype is arguably more vital to the idea of the metaverse than any specific technology. It’s no wonder, then, that people promoting things like NFTs—cryptographic tokens that can serve as certificates of ownership of a digital item, sort of—are also latching onto the idea of the metaverse. Sure, NFTs are bad for the environment and the public blockchains most are built on come with massive privacy and security problems, but if a tech company can argue that they’ll be the digital key to your virtual mansion in Roblox, then boom. You’ve just transformed your hobby of buying memes into a crucial piece of infrastructure for the future of the internet (and possibly raised the value of all that cryptocurrency you’re holding.)

It’s important to keep all this context in mind because while it’s tempting to compare the proto-metaverse ideas we have today to the early internet and assume everything will get better and progress in a linear fashion, that’s not a given. There’s no guarantee people will even want to hang out sans legs in a virtual office or play poker with Dreamworks Mark Zuckerberg, much less that VR and AR tech will ever become seamless enough to be as common as smartphones and computers are today.

Watches & Wonders 2023: Rolex Has an Emoji Watch

Watches & Wonders 2023: Rolex Has an Emoji Watch

Having debuted the tech in a limited-edition watch last year, Oris is now applying it to what was already one of its most tech-forward models, the ProPilot Altimeter (£5,250, or $6,485). First seen in 2014, it contains a mechanical altimeter, with a dial displaying time, air pressure, and altitude. The new version is an upgrade on all fronts: The altimeter, which works by reading fluctuations in air pressure in a sealed chamber, now goes to 19,700 feet (up from 15,000); the power reserve is up from 38 hours to 56; and the carbon-fiber case reduces weight by 70 grams. At 46 mm, it’s a specialist item, only now a bit more special.

Hermes H08 Chronograph

Hermes H08 Chronograph

Photograph: Hermes

Hermes is also going for a strengthened take on carbon fiber, though it’s mixing the material with powdered graphene, which acts as a hardening agent for what’s otherwise an extremely lightweight watch case. Hermes describes its H08 watch, a softly square-form number introduced in 2021, as an “all-terrain watch with a sporty spirit,” and now the brand is pushing the sporty element in a series of iterations that pair the lightweight carbon/graphene case with colorful rubber straps and dial accents. Most importantly, it’s introducing a £13,100 chronograph version of the H08, also with the carbon/graphene case. Rather than disrupting the flow of the case profile with traditional chronograph stop/start/reset pushers, the chronograph is entirely operated by a single pusher set within the winding crown.

Rolex Yacht-Master 42 RLX Titanium

Along with the resurrection of chronographs, another theme for this year’s W&W is titanium. Numerous pieces employed this lightweight, strong, and corrosion-resistant material, and after competitive sailor Ben Ainslie was spotted wearing a prototype in 2021—and following Rolex’s first titanium timepiece, last year’s Deepsea Challenge—it came as little surprise to see the final version of the company’s Yacht-Master in grade 5 titanium. The 42-mm, £11,800 piece has a satin finish, apart from its crown guard, lug bevels, and bidirectional bezel, which are polished. An intense black dial adds to the aesthetic, while water resistance to 100 meters and a 70-hour power reserve make it functional too. 

A Lange & Sohne Odysseus Chronograph

Lange Sohne Odysseus Chronograph

Photograph: Lange & Sohne 

The Odysseus range is German maker A Lange & Sohne’s entrant into the sports-luxe field: Launched in 2019, and made in tiny numbers, it’s rapidly become an investment-grade grail watch. The new Odysseus Chronograph (€135,000, or $146,256) is also A Lange & Sohne’s first automatic chronograph, and it takes a novel approach to a very traditional genre. Instead of sub-dials for stopwatch functions, as are found on most chronos, the stopwatch second and minute counters are both mounted centrally, so as not to obstruct the large day/date display. Discrete pushers (resembling protectors for the crown) set the date functions and operate the stopwatch elements, which offer a bit of eccentric, why-the-hell-not flair. When the chronograph is reset, the minute timing hand jumps immediately back to zero, but the second timing hand does a lighting-fast revolution for every minute timed before resting back at zero.

Dating Apps Crack Down on Romance Scammers

Dating Apps Crack Down on Romance Scammers

Michael Steinbach, the head of global fraud detection at Citi and the former executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, says that—broadly speaking—fraud has transitioned from “high-volume card thefts or just getting as much information very quickly to more sophisticated social engineering, where fraudsters spend more time conducting surveillance.” Dating apps are just a part of global fraud, he adds, and high-volume fraud still occurs. But for scammers, he says, “the rewards are much greater if you can spend time obtaining the trust and confidence of your victim.”

Steinbach says he advises consumers, whether on a banking app or a dating app, to approach certain interactions with a healthy amount of skepticism. “We have a catchphrase here: Don’t take the call, make the call,” Steinbach says. “Most fraudsters, no matter how they’re putting it together, are reaching out to you in an unsolicited way.” Be honest with yourself; if someone seems too good to be true, they probably are. And keep conversations on-platform—in this case, on the dating app—until real trust has been established. According to the FTC, about 40 percent of romance scam loss reports with “detailed narratives” (at least 2,000 characters in length) mention moving the conversation to WhatsApp, Google Chat, or Telegram.

Dating app companies have responded to the uptick in scams by rolling out manual tools and AI-powered ones that are engineered to spot a potential problem. Several of Match Group’s apps now use photo or video verification features that encourage users to capture images of themselves directly within the app. These are then run through machine-learning tools to try to determine the validity of the account, rather than letting someone upload a previously captured photo that might be stripped of its telling metadata. (A WIRED report on dating app scams from October 2022 pointed out that at the time, Hinge did not have this verification feature, though Tinder did.)

For an app like Grindr, which serves predominantly men in the LGBTQ community, the tension between privacy and safety is greater than it might be on other apps, says Alice Hunsberger, who is vice president of customer experience at Grindr and whose role includes overseeing trust and safety. “We don’t require a face photo of every person on their public profile because a lot of people don’t feel comfortable having a photo of themselves publicly on the internet associated with an LGBTQ app,” Hunsberger says. “This is especially important for people in countries that aren’t always as accepting of LGBTQ people or where it’s even illegal to be a part of the community.”

Hunsberger says that for large-scale bot scams, the app uses machine learning to process metadata at the point of sign-up, relies on SMS phone verification, and then tries to spot patterns of people using the app to send messages more quickly than a real human might. When users do upload photos, Grindr can spot when the same photo is being used over and over again across different accounts. And it encourages people to use video chat within the app itself as a way to avoid catfishing or pig-butchering scams.

Kozoll, from Tinder, says that some of the company’s “most sophisticated work” is in machine learning, though he declined to share details on how those tools work, since bad actors could use the information to skirt the systems. “As soon as someone registers, we’re trying to understand, ‘Is this a real person? And are they a person with good intentions?’”

Ultimately, though, AI will only do so much. Humans are both the scammers and the weak link on the other side of the scam, Steinbach says. “In my mind, it boils down to one message: You have to be situationally aware. I don’t care what app it is, you can’t rely on only the tool itself.”