Must-have gadgets for the discerning geek

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AMD ATI TV Wonder 650 Combo USB HDTV converter for PCs and Macs

Why you must have it: For many of us, our PCs double as a TV -- at least occasionally. There's been no shortage of cards and dongles to bring TV into a PC, but chances are the gadget you have isn't ready for HDTV. The ATI TV Wonder 650 Combo is. When an HD antenna is attached, this inexpensive USB-connected box will pick up HD signals over the air, as well as conventional analog signals. (There's also a PCI version for desktop PCs.) It can not only receive digital signals from the standard free networks and local stations; it also has cable/satellite inputs to get signals from your paid service, including the unencrypted ClearQAM HD channels that you may be getting from your cable provider but can't see on your regular TV without a compatible HD tuner.

As with previous ATI Wonder models, the 650 Combo comes with TiVo-like ability to pause TV while you're watching it, as well as DVD-burning capabilities.

Your chances of having the first one on the block: Medium, given the mania around digital TV and the low cost of the device.

What you should know: Use of ClearQAM to transmit unencrypted HD signals to digital TVs is very uneven, so there's no guarantee that the Wonder 650 will give you access to HD channels your analog converter box can't detect. There's also no guarantee your provider will continue to send any ClearQAM transmissions it now delivers in this transition period to the FCC's 2009 digital TV mandate. So consider ClearQAM support as a bonus that may in the end deliver little or nothing at your specific residence. Check out AntennaWeb to see what your over-the-air HD signal coverage is.

What you need: A USB 2.0-equipped Windows XP or Vista PC with a DirectX 9 or later graphics card, or USB 2.0-equipped Mac running Mac OS X 10.4.10 or later (an OpenGL 2.0 or later graphics card is recommended). An HD antenna (about US$30 to US$50) is required to receive HDTV signals over the air. The ATI Wonder 650 Combo costs US$150.

Data Robotics Drobo intelligent backup drive

Why you must have it: MP3 files, TiVo videos, vacation photos, you name it -- a lot of precious information now resides on our hard drives, vulnerable to becoming so much electronic dust in case of a system crash or a drive failure. The Drobo takes a step beyond the large external drives widely available today by adding intelligence and configurability to the device, both simplifying operations and giving you more control. The Drobo enclosure can take up to four half-height or full-height SATA hard drives and combine them into a massive, multiterabyte backup system -- no need to figure out RAID settings or worry about whether the drives are the right capacities to work together. And as you add or replace drives within Drobo, it handles the updating and migration of affected backup data automatically. It also initiates the backup for you, so there's no need to have backup software on your PC or Mac.

You can use the Drobo with multiple PCs, backing each up on it. The Drobo personal storage array is also compatible with Mac OS 10.5 Leopard's Time Machine, letting you back up your data and allowing access to the various changes to individual files that Time Machine provides.

Your chances of having the first one on the block: Very good, as Drobo has been available only a few months.

What you should know: To support both Macs and PCs simultaneously, Drobo drives should be formatted with FAT32 partitions. Drobo has no network interface for LAN-based backup, but users have successfully connected it to a USB-equipped Apple AirPort Extreme wireless router to enable network backup in all-Mac environment. The company says Windows-only and mixed-platform network backup should be possible if you use another vendor's USB 2.0-equipped router (AirPort requires that attached devices use Apple's HFS+ partitions for storage).

What you need: A USB 2.0-equipped PC running Windows 2000, 2003 Server, XP, or Vista, or a USB 2.0-equipped Mac running Mac OS X 10.4 or later.

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Galen Gruman

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