Cool stuff: Your 2007 holiday gift guide
- 06 December, 2007 12:40
The Cool Stuff Holiday Gift Guide is back, with tips for the very best gifts to buy for the tech lovers in your life. This year, be the one whose gifts are the biggest hits.
Our guide features the coolest choices in media players, flat-panel HDTVs, digital cameras, cell phones and much more, selected by the staff of Computerworld. There are also fun gadgets for the home office or your office cubicle, devices to keep you connected around the house, and electronic games for the whole family.
We've also included energy-saving devices for the green-computing enthusiast on your list, as well as "ultimate gifts" for true practitioners of conspicuous consumption -- and those of us who simply like to think big. We've included links to Web sites where you can find more information about each of the products, as well as estimates of how much you can expect to pay for each product online. Please keep in mind that prices do fluctuate, especially during the holiday season.
We hope this guide makes your shopping easier this holiday season. Find something to please even the early adopters on your list, or pass on a hint for something you'd like for yourself. Happy clicking!
Music and mobility
For those on the go, two things are of paramount importance: knowing where you're going and staying entertained on the way. We've got you covered with the best in portable music and video players, headphones that play music as well as they cancel noise, and a GPS device that'll show you the way without breaking the bank.
Personal audio player: iPod Touch
The first generations of Apple's iPod were wildly successful, but the competition was closing in. So what did Apple do? It introduced the iPod Touch (with a starting price of US$294) and blew the competition away.
No other media player approaches the Touch's, well ... touchability. As is the case with its cellular sibling, the iPhone (the Touch has been referred to as an iPhone without the phone), it is a pleasure to hold the Touch and play with its multitouch interface. Adding to its allure is its stunning 3.5-in. display and Wi-Fi access, which is useful for acquiring songs and other media from iTunes and, of course, for checking e-mail and browsing the Web.
Some critics don't think the Touch's screen quality is up to the task of prolonged video viewing. And, yes, you can buy highly competent (if less sexy) music media players for less money -- a lot less. Others gripe about the fact that, like all iPods, the Touch really only works well with one online media store: Apple's iTunes. But, in the end, there is simply no other personal music player that elicits even remotely as much desire as the iPod Touch.
Price: 8GB, US$288-US$299; 16GB, US$394-US$399
Summary: The aptly named iPod Touch is irresistible. Once you have one, you'll have a hard time keeping your hands off.
Personal video player: Archos 605 WiFi
The iPod Touch is remarkable, but for many mobile videophiles, a more satisfying choice is the Archos 605 WiFi.
The 605 WiFi has a crisp 4.3-in., 800- by 480-pixel display that makes watching movies and TV shows far more satisfying than is possible with smaller devices. Its hard-drive options range from 30GB to 160GB, providing significantly more storage than is possible with media players that use flash memory. And, for an extra hundred bucks, you can get an add-on that turns the 605 WiFi into a digital video recorder you can attach to your television.
Of course, the device also plays audio files, including music from subscription services such as Rhapsody and Napster. The 605 WiFi's Linux-based touch-screen interface is delightfully easy to navigate, and the built-in Wi-Fi capabilities make it a snap to collect media while you're out and about. That leads to the biggest gripe about the 605 WiFi: You have to pay US$30 more for a browser. Still, that isn't a huge sacrifice given the reasonably low base price (US$279) of the unit.
Page BreakArchos offers the 705 WiFi, which has a 7-in. screen, but the beauty of the 605 WiFi is the balance it strikes between compactness and viewability. At 4.8 by 3.2 by 0.6 in. for the 30GB model, it delivers outstanding video quality in a surprisingly small package.
Price: 30GB, US$279-US$299; 80GB, US$329-US$350; 160GB, US$379-US$450
Summary: IPods are wonderful, but mobile videophiles need the greater storage and larger screen offered by the highly competent and reasonably priced Archos 605 WiFi. David Haskin
Noise-canceling headphones: Aurvana X-Fi
Creative Technology's new noise-canceling headphones have accomplished a previously unthinkable feat by besting Bose's legendary QuietComfort 2 headphones with a combination of cushy comfort and excellent sound quality.
While the noise-canceling features of the Aurvana X-Fi headphones will be of great convenience to frequent fliers, the most impressive and unique attribute is Creative's integration of its proprietary X-Fi technology directly into the headphones.
Essentially an algorithm devised to restore high and low sounds that are lost during the compression of digital music, the X-Fi Crystallizer delivers a marked increase in sound quality with no distortion at all.
The headphones also feature Creative's X-Fi CMSS-3D technology, which simulates a home theater surround-sound environment, making them perfect for watching movies. Both of these features, as well as the noise-canceling functionality, can be activated or deactivated at any time.
With earpieces crafted out of soft simulated leather and a fairly light profile, the Aurvana headset is an ideal holiday gift for the traveler in your life.
Aurvana X-Fi Noise-Canceling Headphones from Creative Technology Ltd.
Summary: Creative has integrated its proprietary X-Fi technology into these noise-canceling headphones to deliver superior sound quality. George Jones
GPS device: Garmin Nuvi 200
The Garmin Nuvi 200 is a great entry into the world of Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. At about 4 by 3 in. in size, it can be mounted in your vehicle or carried for pedestrian travel or activities such as geocaching.
The entry-level device, which can be found on the Web for about US$200, doesn't include fancy extras such as Bluetooth capability or MP3 playback. But it does come with a picture viewer, a world travel clock, a currency and measurement converter and a calculator.
The Nuvi 200 includes preloaded maps of the continental US, Hawaii and Puerto Rico (other model numbers come with different map packages). With just a few pokes at the touch-screen display, you can be on your way to specific addresses or even "points of interest" such as the nearest ATM, restaurant, hospital or hotel (13 categories in all). It can also accommodate an SD memory card that lets you add your own points of interest. The maps are generally accurate and up to date, although in about one month of use I did find it chooses to completely ignore one shortcut near my home, instead sending me on a longer route.
For GPS navigation, it includes the options of a 3-D or flat map display, auto, bicycle or pedestrian travel modes and feature avoidance (for bypassing toll roads, for example). You can choose to travel by the fastest time or shortest route. You can even choose different vehicle icons, in case you want to pretend you're driving a monster truck, for example.
Navigation is a breeze, with audible turn directions and a display that constantly updates the distance to the next turn. This unit lacks the higher-end feature of text-to-speech, which allows for audible directions in which the service pronounces actual street names, such as "turn left at Main Street," for example, instead of "drive 1.2 miles and turn left." You can display your elapsed time, estimated time of arrival, compass direction, average speed, time spent stopped and more.
Summary: The Garmin Nuvi 200 is an inexpensive way to obtain basic GPS capabilities in an easy-to-use unit. David Ramel
Mobile phones and gear
Whether you're looking for a plain-old cell phone or today's richest media-embracing model, you'll find the cream of the crop here -- with a great Bluetooth headset thrown in for good measure.
Mobile phone: Helio Fin
The Helio Fin, Helio's branded version of the Samsung SPH-M513, looks innocent enough -- and thin enough. The blue-black magnesium clamshell phone is less than half an inch thick, 4 inches tall and 2 inches wide. It's the thinnest clamshell phone you can buy in the United States.
This phone is beautiful -- I mean iPhone beautiful. The elegant hardware and software design is breathtaking. Overall, the phone is optimized for a thrilling user experience -- and for pictures and video.
Although not a "smart phone," the Fin (US$200 with a two-year contract) boasts features that are superior to those of most high-end phones. For example, the camera is a 3.0-megapixel monster. Special software ties together the built-in GPS to "geotag" photos, which means the location of the phone when pictures are taken is encoded into the picture file.
Push a button, and pictures are uploaded to Flickr's geotag service, so your peeps can see your pix on a map showing where they were taken. Fin-captured videos are instantly uploaded to YouTube.
You can use the superfast 3G connection to get turn-by-turn directions and real-time traffic information. Helio's "Buddy Beacon" service tells you where your friends or family are (as long as they're Helio customers, too). The phone's "home screen" shows your favorite RSS feeds. The Fin also supports microSD, USB, Bluetooth, voice-activated dialing, speakerphone, video caller ID and T9 text input.
Honorable mention: Do you know someone who wrecks, breaks, drops and destroys cell phones? If so, give them the Casio G'zOne Type-S. It's shock-, dust-, freeze- and water-resistant, which is something of an understatement.
You can drop it in the toilet, then use a Bluetooth headset to take calls on the phone while it's still underwater. (We're not making this up -- it's been done.) You can literally carry on conversations underwater in a swimming pool (also been done).
The G'zOne (US$150 with a two-year service contract and a US$50 rebate) supports Bluetooth and has a nice speakerphone. The phone has a unique but low-tech round black-and-white LCD panel on the front, which displays the time and date, plus caller ID and battery information when the phone is closed. Inside, a middle-of-the-road 1.8-in., 176- by 220-pixel screen is good enough.
The phone has a wimpy VGA camera, no V Cast support and is, overall, a feature-poor phone. But the sound quality is great, the keypad is very usable and -- best of all -- it's the ruggedest phone you can buy directly from any major U.S. carrier.
Helio Fin Price: US$200 with a two-year contract
Summary: The thinnest clamshell phone available in the U.S., this phone is optimized for fun, with high-quality camera, GPS and cool applications to put the impressive hardware to work.
G'zOne Type-S Price: US$149.99 with a new two-year service agreement and a US$50 rebate
Summary: The Casio G'zOne Type-S meets military specs for ruggedness, plus it's a really good phone on the basics of call quality, keyboard usability and Bluetooth support. Mike Elgan
Media phone: iPhone
If you were offended by the prodigious hype Apple's iPhone received before its release, get over it: In the end, the device easily proved worthy of the hype. It's that good.
Apple completely rethought the experience of using a mobile phone, replacing key presses with its remarkably intuitive multitouch interface. Want to type a URL in the Safari browser? Touch the URL text box and an on-screen keyboard appears. Want to zoom in on something displayed in Safari for easier reading? Touch what you want to read.
This radical new interface is so intuitive that Computerworld's usability tests found people often completed phone and media-related tasks twice as quickly with the iPhone than they did with more traditional devices. And it's so compelling and fun to use that many people can't put it down.
The iPhone ($399) is full of other innovations, such as visual voice mail that makes it simple to pick precisely which message you want to listen to. And, of course, this is also an iPod with a gorgeous 3.5-in. display.
Sure, there are a few weak spots. The iPhone doesn't offer video capture or an instant messaging application, for example, and in the U.S., your only cellular service option is AT&T and its slow EDGE data network. But despite a few glitches, the iPhone is a delightful and significant game-changer, which makes it a superlative holiday gift.
Price: US$399, plus AT&T service plan (in the US) starting at US$59
Summary: This game-changing phone and media player is easily worthy of the hype it received prior to its release. David Haskin
Bluetooth phone headset: Plantronics Pulsar 590E
Was it the result of my teenaged self cranking up the AC/DC to "11" too many times, or was it the fault of my otherwise trusty BlackBerry? Either way, I've had a problem hearing callers on my cell phone.
The wired headset that worked great with my other cell phone generated earsplitting feedback when plugged into the 'Berry -- a common problem, I later discovered, that's related to the GSM technology used by AT&T and T-Mobile. Meanwhile, the tiny single earclip headsets I tried neither achieved the volume I needed nor kept me from feeling self-conscious. (Call me neurotic, but I prefer the illusion that no one else on the street is privy to my conversation.)
Thank heaven for the Motorola Rokr and other music-playing cell phones, but not because my suburban self wants to strut to the beat down an urban street like some hipster fool. Rather, it's because they've led to a small wave of double-ear headsets. David Beckham's handsome mug almost convinced me to get Motorola's sleek S9, but practicality won out in the form of the Plantronics Pulsar 590E headset.
With the Pulsar, my calls come in loud and clear. Callers hear me fine on the stubby-but-extendable microphone. The Pulsar also pairs perfectly with my BlackBerry. The controls are as minimalist and intuitive as anything that has come out of Apple's design labs.
Sure, the Pulsar is chunky enough that I look like a communications officer on the bridge of the Death Star. On the other hand, it's got a bit of that club DJ thing going on, which is what my 37-year-old self will pretend to be when my BlackBerry gives out and I upgrade to an MP3 cell phone.
Summary: For the hardish-of-hearing, a great-sounding, easy-to-use mobile headset that plays music too.
For the shutterbug in your life, how about a high-end digital SLR or a subcompact point-and-shoot? If he or she already has a great camera, our on-the-go storage pick may do the trick.
Digital SLR camera: Canon EOS 5D
It's not the newest digital SLR (single lens reflex) camera on the market and it's not the most expensive -- you can spend US$8,000 or more for a high-end professional model -- but if you're looking for a great camera to take beautiful photos and inspire confidence, take a good look at the Canon EOS 5D.
Around since late 2005, the 5D is a 12.8-megapixel camera with a full-frame CMOS sensor, meaning that every part of the original image received by the camera is taken into account for the best-possible exposure and reproduction.
The camera starts up quickly and has an ultralow shutter lag, giving users the ability to take photos faster instead of waiting for the camera to catch up. It also has a nine-point electronic autofocusing system and a manual override. The camera body also supports the use of earlier Canon EF, TS-E and MP-E film camera lenses.
Another great option is to buy a kit that includes a more useful 24mm-105mm zoom lens, rather than the 18mm-55mm lens typically packaged with a low-end digital SLR. The longer lens gives you more flexibility and creativity right out of the box.
Money-saving tip: This camera was originally priced at US$3,299 when it was introduced in August 2005, but Canon just cut the price to US$2,499 (for the body only), so be sure you're getting the right price when you buy.
If you don't want to spend this much, there are several good alternatives, including Canon's new-for-2007 10.1-megapixel EOS 40D (at US$1,499 with a 28mm-135mm zoom lens) or the very competent 6.1-megapixel Nikon D40 (at US$550). Both offer excellent photo quality and feature sets at a lower price without substantially sacrificing performance.
Price: US$2,050-US$3,000 (body only); US$2,800-US$3,200 (body with 24-105mm lens kit)
Summary: The latest model? No. Amazing image quality and performance? Yes. That's the reason for buying the Canon EOS 5D digital SLR.
Todd R. Weiss
Subcompact digital camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3
There are lots of choices out there for affordable, thin, compact digital cameras that take nice photos. But if you're looking for a stellar lens, 10x optical zoom and great picture quality, look no further than the US$300 Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3.
What sets this camera apart from the others is its marvelous lens, a Leica DC Vario-Elmarit zoom unit that provides great optics and a widely accommodating 4.6mm to 46mm focal length, which is equivalent to 28mm to 280mm on a 35mm camera. The lens -- backed with Panasonic's Mega optical image stabilization feature, which helps keep the images in clear focus -- produces photos with great clarity, colors and vibrancy.
One drawback, though not everyone will mind, is that it has no viewfinder to look through, leaving only a 3-in. LCD screen to compose photos, which can be tricky in bright sunlight. The Lumix DMC-TZ3 is a bit larger than some of the other subcompact cameras, but it's still small enough for easy storage.
It's even versatile enough to accept any of three styles of memory cards: SecureDigital, SDHC or MultiMedia Cards. Powered by a 1,000 mAh lithium-ion battery pack, the camera is good for 270 photos per charge (with a two-hour recharge time), according to Panasonic. It comes in silver, black or blue.
Honorable mention: Need a sturdier, more indestructible model that still takes nice photos? Then check out the Olympus Stylus 790SW, a $300, 7.1-megapixel subcompact digital camera that's shockproof (withstands drops from five feet), dustproof, waterproof to 10 feet and freezeproof to 14 degrees Fahrenheit.
It comes in five fun colors and takes nice photos, but Olympus' press release highlights the really cool part: "When the camera gets dirty, just rinse it off in the sink!"
Lumix DMC-TZ3 Price: US$230-US$350
Summary: With its great lens, a powerful 10x optical zoom and small size, the Panasonic DMC-TZ3 is a great all-around subcompact digital camera choice.
Stylus 790SW Price: US$245-US$299
Summary: Waterproof, shockproof and freezeproof, the Olympus Stylus 790SW is just the camera to toss in your backpack for your next outdoor adventure.
Todd R. Weiss
Camera for taking YouTube videos: Casio Exilim EX-Z77
For videographers, last year was all about hard drives and high-definition video. This year is all about convenience and instant gratification. Specifically, it's about quick-and-dirty shooting and simple, instant uploading to YouTube. A handful of companies have introduced cameras that let you shoot in the format best suited for YouTube and then use supplied software to simplify the posting process.
This new category of digital still/video cameras is being pushed primarily by Pure Digital, Casio and Sony. And because it's all about simplicity, Casio's Exilim EX-Z77 takes the prize as the gift of choice, mostly because Casio has an exclusive agreement -- at least through the holiday shopping season -- to market the "YouTube Capture Mode" in its cameras and to include bundled software that connects directly to YouTube. You don't even have to access the YouTube Web site with a browser.
The EX-Z77 is basically a 7.2-megapixel still digicam with enhanced video features. It features a 0.5-in. square pixel color CCD (charge-coupled device), 2.6-in. LCD and 3x optical zoom -- pretty much standard fare. But it's the "get it on the Web" features that make it stand out. Besides the YouTube optimization, it also caters to eBay sellers with an eBay Best Shot setting -- basically a setting preset tailored for optimum eBay presentation of still photos.
The EX-Z77 stores up to 10 minutes of video in the MPEG-4 H.264 format -- ideal for the Web -- at 30 frames per second and 640- by 480-pixel resolution. It also offers 848- by 480-pixel resolution for video to display on 16:9 aspect ratio widescreen TVs. The camera has about 11MB of internal storage, but it also accepts several different kinds of memory cards. For less than US$200, it puts the YouToo into YouTube.
Price: US$161-US$200 Summary: Casio's Exilim EX-Z77 is a digital still/video camera that simplifies shooting Web-optimized video and posting it on YouTube. David Ramel
Handheld storage device: Epson P-3000 Multimedia Storage Viewer
If you've got a digital photography enthusiast on your list, chances are he's looking for better backup, or should be. Serious photographers shouldn't wait until after they trek down the mountainside -- or return from a wedding -- before copying those I'll-never-get-to-shoot-that-again images.
That's where the Epson P-3000 comes in. Yes, you've got lots of other no-laptop-needed backup choices. However, there are good reasons the Epson series is a favorite of professional photographers.
The P-3000 has a sleek form factor for a backup device, as well as a gorgeous 4-in. LCD viewing screen. It zooms in on images so you can check details and displays raw as well as JPEG formats. You can pop a Compact Flash or SD card into the device, or connect a camera directly to the USB slot just as you would to a computer.
With 40GB of storage, the P-3000 retails for US$369 after an US$80 rebate, and the 80GB P-5000 goes for around $650 at various online outlets. That may sound like a lot if you've already got, say, an iPod. But an iPod wasn't designed to be an in-the-field backup device (as I discovered in Iceland last year when mine choked on a large file download).
Show a P-3000 to photography buffs and they'll want one, even if they're not paranoid about backups. It's also a fun way to show off your pictures soon after you've shot them.
Price: US$369 after US$50 rebate and US$30 instant rebate (when purchased from Epson)
Summary: This in-the-field digital photo backup device offers 40GB of storage to keep those once-in-a-lifetime shots safe.
The connected home
Know an audiophile with a vast digital music library? These devices will spread that music throughout his or her home in style.
Digital sound system: Sonos Digital Music System
It's nice to have thousands of songs on your PC, but finding a good way to listen to them can be frustrating. You can always listen through your computer speakers, but let's face it, they don't do the best job of reproducing music.
Meanwhile, you've probably got a better listening environment -- amplifier, kick-ass speakers, comfy chair -- set up someplace away from your computer. Wouldn't it be nice to have a way to access the music on your PC throughout the house?
The top-of-the-line solution here is the Sonos Digital Music System -- but you'll pay for its top-of-the-line-ness. The Sonos relies on ZonePlayers, tissue-box-sized components you distribute to the locations you want music in. (The ZonePlayers come in two models, one with a built-in amplifier and one without.)
You plug a ZonePlayer into your home network via Ethernet, grab the remote control, and fire up the music. You can also listen to Internet radio, assuming you have a broadband connection.
The screen on the remote control makes it easy to navigate your music collection and gives you room-by-room control of the ZonePlayers. The Sonos system lets you have different music playing in each room, or the same music playing throughout the house.
The chief drawback to the Sonos system is its cost: The ZonePlayers cost US$350 (unamplified) and US$500 (amplified) each, and the remote costs US$400. If your house isn't wired for Ethernet, you can connect the players wirelessly -- with the addition of the US$100 ZoneBridge, which creates a proprietary wireless network called SonosNet.
There's no simpler or more flexible digital music offering than the Sonos, but you're looking at about a US$1,000 gift. We recommend giving this one to someone you live with, so you can enjoy it too.
Honorable mention: If the Sonos system is a bit much for your budget, consider the US$300 Squeezebox from Logitech instead. It requires more setup than the Sonos system, and you'll need to BYO amplifier, but you'll end up with much the same funtionality.
The Squeezebox is a slab of circuitry measuring 7.5 x 3.75 x 3 in. and sporting a two-line display, Ethernet port, built-in 802.11g wireless, and RCA analog and optical and co-ax digital outputs.
You download and install the SlimServer software (available for Windows, OS X, and varieties of Linux, as well for an Infrant ReadyNAS) and point it at your music folder (or at your iTunes library). Then you hook the Squeezebox up to your amplifier, plug it in, and use the included (screenless) remote to connect it to your network.
You can browse playlists, listen to Internet radio, and even access your Rhapsody or Pandora accounts. You can put another Squeezebox in another room, and play either different music or the same music. The only real limitation is that it can't stream iTunes-purchased AAC songs. (Neither can the Sonos, or any other third-party player.) But as your giftee sits on the couch listening to his Best of 2007 playlist, he'll be thanking you with every song.
Sonos Digital Music System Price: US$350-US$1,200 for various configurations
Summary: The most flexible and capable home streaming music system available, the Sonos is definitely a high-end gift. Buy it for someone who'll let you listen too.
Squeezebox Price: US$299-US$305
Summary: The Squeezebox lets you stream the music on your PC to any room in the house -- just supply amplifier and speakers.
iPod speaker system: Geneva Sound System
Most iPod speaker systems take their function quite literally: They're iPod docks with speakers attached. Not that there's anything wrong with that. If you just want to listen to your iPod over something other than earphones, there are several models that do a fine to good job.
Geneva, though, is after something else. Rather than just adding speakers to an iPod, they've built iPod connectivity into a complete home stereo system in a single component. The three Geneva Sound System models (US$500--US$1,275) feature iPod docks on the top, but they also have FM radios, CD players and jacks for attaching other components.
Model M has two tweeters and two woofers driven by a 4x25-watt amplifier; Model XL has two tweeters, two woofers and two subwoofers driven by a 6x100-watt amplifier. It's all enclosed in a seamless box made of piano-lacquered wood in black, white, or red.
Most astonishing is the way the incorporated EmbracingSound technology can create a stereo image that's much wider than the box itself. Stand in front of it, and it sounds like the sound extends a good 12 inches to the left and right of the unit; sit off to the side, and the stereo image remains intact. (Geneva claims a 120-degree sound stage.)
Available direct from Geneva or at Design Within Reach stores, the Geneva Sound System makes a great gift for someone setting up a new household in limited space.
Summary: The Geneva Sound System packs a complete stereo system along with an iPod dock in a single box that can fill a room with high-quality stereo sound.
Internet radio player: Roku SoundBridgeRadio
Who doesn't like Internet radio? You can listen to stations from Poland or France, or search for programming that matches your taste or mood in a way that few over-the-air stations can.
But again, unless you have a device like the Sonos or Squeezebox, you're tethered to your computer. Wouldn't someone you know love an Internet radio that acted like a regular radio -- a radio you could put in the kitchen or the bedroom but still listen to SomaFM or AnnapurnaLive?
Give them the Roku SoundBridgeRadio (US$300). Most stand-alone Internet radios look like cheap plastic clock radios designed by engineers, but the sleek Roku is something they won't mind looking at every day.
It's like a regular radio, but it's pretty well tricked out: It's got stereo speakers with a subwoofer, AM/FM, six preset buttons, a headphone jack and an alarm clock with snooze and sleep. But it's also got 802.11b Wi-Fi and can tap into your PC's music library to stream your music from iTunes, Rhapsody, or other music servers, plus an SD card slot for playing music offline. You can even assign the preset buttons to your favorite playlists.
Give that special someone the future of radio.
Summary: The Roku SoundBridge Radio frees your favorite online stations from the confines of your PC -- and doesn't look like a piece of junk. Jake Widman
iPod clock radio: iHome iH8SR
Apparently, a lot of people would rather wake up to their own choice of music rather than whatever the Zoo Crew feels like playing at 7 a.m. How else to explain the proliferation of iPod clock radios that wake you up to whatever early-morning playlist you feel like putting together?
When I first saw the iHome iH8SR unit in a discount department store, I was skeptical -- I wouldn't expect a US$100 unit from a rack next to the blenders to deliver decent sound quality. I figured it was another product rushed onto the market to ride the iPod wave.
But then I visited a friend who had one in her kitchen, and I had to reconsider my original impression. The silver iH8SR (there's also an iH8BR model, in black) put out well-balanced stereo sound with a surprising richness for such a small device.
It's also got a built-in AM/FM radio with presets, a line in for other audio sources, a line out for an extension speaker, and a remote control. There's nothing particularly flashy about the iHome Clock Radio for iPod, but there's a lot to be said for a product that just does what it's supposed to do and does it well.
Summary: Surprisingly rich sound and a solid assortment of features make the iHome Clock Radio for iPod a good choice for someone who wants to wake up to their own tunes.
Yes, we know: You're not really likely to buy a plasma HDTV or a high-def DVD player for a friend. But these home theater knockouts make great family gifts -- which means you get to enjoy them, too.
Large-screen HDTV: Will that be plasma or LCD?
Plasma: 50-in. Panasonic 1080p TH-50PZ700U
In a world in which the real-world performances of hot new consumer electronics products rarely live up to their billings, we have the antidote: Plasma HDTVs really shine.
Early this year, leading plasma HDTV makers issued the first 1080p plasma TVs, an advent I'd been waiting for. After an intense round of specification and visual comparisons, I selected Panasonic's 50-in. 1080p plasma HDTV, model number TH-50PZ700U.
I paid more than US$3,000 for it, but you won't have to. The prices have dropped, and you can buy it online for US$2,200 or in big box consumer electronics stores for around US$2,600.
Over the six months I've owned this HDTV, I've been extremely happy with this it. The picture quality is superb, the sound quality is very good (even with just the built-in speakers), and it does a very good job with standard definition TV.
Just recently, independent testing by Consumer Reports confirmed my assessment of this model, picking it as the best-performing plasma in its test. This is the one to get if you want the state of the art without paying for features you don't really need.
But do you really need 1080p? That depends on what kind of programming you want to view. You can get away with a 720p plasma screen -- such as Panasonic's 50-in. 720p plasma HDTV, model number TH-50PX75U, which will save you US$1,000 or so -- if you're mostly focused on HDTV and not all that interested in watching movies at their very best.
If you're a movie buff, however, the first time you connect a Blu-ray or HD DVD player to this plasma model, you'll experience the proverbial "aha" moment. That's what 1080p is all about. (1080p sets also handle HDTV just as well as 720p sets.)
There's no question that if you want the best picture quality, plasma is the way to go. The other flat-screen technologies are improving, and they come close. But nothing matches the overall plasma experience. Go to a Circuit City or Best Buy and compare with your own eyes. You'll see what I mean.
LCD: 46-in. Sony Bravia 1080p KDL-46V3000
Plasmas are for quality purists. Practical people should give strong consideration to the very best LCD flat-screen HDTVs too. For one thing, many 50-in. plasma TVs suck up 600 to 700 watts of power whenever they're turned on, while comparably sized LCDs run in the 200-to-300-watt range. Plasmas are also much heavier than LCDs, a factor that complicates installation and leads to safety concerns. And the reliability of plasma over time is less well known.
On the other hand, LCDs don't display shades of black as well as plasma, and their colors are less saturated. And HDTV LCDs tend to display ghosting and lack plasma's crisp edges when playing standard definition TV.
Sony's Bravia line, however, successfully compensates for these minor shortcomings. Bravia LCDs are very bright, but the light is controlled so it doesn't wash out the colors. Up close, you'll see some pixelation, but Sony's Bravia HDTVs do a pretty good job on fast-motion scenes, such as sports action.
All in all, Sony's LCD models excel. We recommended them in last year's holiday gift guide, and we still can't find a cost-effective LCD product model lineup that beats them at displaying HDTV, DVD, and standard definition TV.
Over the summer, Sony released nine new high-end Bravia models (the W, XBR4 and XBR5 series), but they're pricey. The model we're recommending is the more economical 46-in. Sony Bravia LCD 1080p KDL-46V3000. It's this year's mild update of the KDL-46V2500, which Computerworld's Ken Mingis purchased late last year by. He's been very happy with it.
The 1080p KDL-46V3000 is available online and in big box stores in the US$2,050 to US$2,500 range.
TH-50PZ700U Price: US$2,200-US$2,700
Summary: Panasonic's first 50-in. 1080p plasma offers gorgeous, deeply saturated colors, superb HDTV and DVD playback, and very good quality standard-definition television.
46-in. Bravia V series KDL-46V2500 Price: US$2,050-US$2,500
Summary: Sony's 46-in. KDL-46V3000 1080p LCD HDTV occupies the sweet spot on the price/performance scale, offering near-plasma picture quality for a bit less money than plasma -- and it uses a lot less power.
High-definition DVD player: Sony BDP-S300 Blu-ray disc player
The war is still raging between Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD, the two new high-definition DVD formats, but my mind has been made up for some time about which format is best. That's why I'm not going to recommend you hedge your bets and buy a dual player that can handle both formats. Blu-ray is going to be the winner. There, I said it.
In light of that, my recommendation for a midrange player is from Sony. I didn't just test the player myself, I toured retail stores asking sales managers what they'd recommend and why. What I came away with was that the Sony BDP-S300 is known in the industry as a workhorse of a machine that can play movies 17 hours a day -- day after day -- and never freeze a single frame.
While most of the people I talked to agreed that there isn't much difference among players when it comes to picture quality and durability, the BDP-S300 excels in both. The player handles DVD Video, DVD+R/+RW, DVD-R/-RW4, and CD playback. The BDP-S300 retails for US$499, but you can find it online for US$385 or so.
Summary: If you believe that Blu-ray is the DVD format of the future, then this is the player you want for picture quality and durability.
Video stabliizer: Grex
As time goes by, your DVD movie collection keeps getting larger, and you're probably using that old VCR less and less, if at all. But there are moments when you wish you could convert some of those copyright-protected VHS movies onto DVDs so you can clear out the space those huge tapes take up.
There are a variety of conversion software and hardware products available for this purpose, but one of the easiest to set up and use is the Grex advanced video stabilizer from Dimax Ltd. in Tel Aviv. The US$89 Grex plugs in between your VCR or DVD player and your DVD recorder using RCA connectors or S-video cables and allows you to copy, capture and view almost any copyright-protected content from protected TV channels via satellite or cable TV, set-top boxes, or PVR, DVR and TiVo units.
The Grex works well, though on some VHS-to-DVD conversions, a very light banding can be visible on the screen when playing the copied DVD.
One great use for the Grex is to burn backup copies of DVD movies to take on a car trip with the kids or on a plane on a business trip so you don't have to worry about losing or damaging the original discs.
Price: US$89 (online orders preferred)
Summary: Here's a small, easy-to-install device that makes it simple to transfer your old VHS tapes onto DVDs and to make backup copies of copyright-protected DVD movies you already own.
Todd R. Weiss
LP-to-CD recorder: DAK System
Along the same lines, here's a gift that will get the music lovers on your list into the 21st century by providing a way to convert favorite LPs, 78s and 45s -- even reel-to-reel or cassette tapes -- into great-sounding CDs or MP3s that are ready for mobile music players.
The LP to CD System (US$219) from DAK Industries includes a turntable with an aluminum platter, tone-arm lift, tone-arm balancing system and antiskate control for good audio quality, as well as a specially designed preamp mixer box, customized DAK conversion software, cables, a detailed online tutorial and good e-mail technical support. (It can also be purchased for US$70 without the turntable if you want to use your own.)
Plug it all into the line-in jack on your computer's sound card using the detailed video instructions available online, download the two needed software applications from DAK's Web site, and you'll be set to go after watching the online tutorials. (Laptop users need an additional US$39 USB line-in jack.) There is a learning curve, but 30 to 60 minutes of practice will produce great CD recordings of your old albums.
Once recorded and saved, you separate the tracks using the software, and can then save them in WAV or MP3 formats. It works right out of the box, and the sound quality is great, almost as if you are listening to the albums but without the pops and clicks, thanks to software that filters them out.
Not all the music you want is available on CDs, but it might be sitting right there in your closet. With this system, any audiophile can burn CDs from albums with great results.
Price: US$219, or US$69.90 without turntable
Summary: Know an audiophile who wants to convert old vinyl record albums into CDs and MP3s? Here's the perfect gift.
Todd R. Weiss
Computing and home office
Nothing brings a smile to a giftee's face faster than unwrapping a shiny new laptop computer. And on the extremely practical side, consider giving peace of mind in the form of fast networking, protection from Internet threats or secure online backups.
Laptop: Apple MacBook
Looking for the best all-around laptop? Your first -- and last -- stop should be your nearest Apple Store to check out the MacBook line.
The MacBooks, which start at US$1,099 and run up to US$1,499, recently got a mild speed boost, a new graphics chip and, best of all, a new operating system -- Mac OS X 10.5, better known as Leopard. More speed, new apps, no price change. They'll even do Windows using Apple's Boot Camp software, included in Leopard.
The basic model and the midrange version come in shiny white. The top-end model comes in flat black, but you'll pay a premium for the Darth Vader look.
The sweet spot is the midlevel model priced at US$1,299. For that price you get a speedy Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 2.2GHz, 1GB of RAM, a 120GB hard drive, a CD/DVD burner, a built-in "iSight" webcam, 802.11n compatible wireless, Bluetooth wireless, a glossy 13.3-in. display offering 1280- by 800-pixel resolution, and the new Intel X3100 graphics subset to drive the display.
The one thing you'll want to consider is adding more RAM. We recommend 2GB of RAM, though the MacBook can take twice that amount. Word to the wise: Don't buy extra memory from Apple. Installing RAM is wicked easy, and you'll save serious bucks by buying from a third-party vendor such as Data Memory Systems.
Summary: The recently updated MacBook offers a stylish package of hardware and software at a good price, and it runs Windows to boot.
Editor's Note: What about Windows laptops? There's no standout for standard business/home use this year.
Gaming laptop: Alienware Area-51 m9750
Alienware wrote the book on high-performance gaming desktops and laptops, so it's no surprise that the company's Area-51 m9750 makes our cut for high-end notebooks. The m9750 boasts an attractive, sleek-looking magnesium alloy chassis and a slew of configuration options in prices ranging from US$1,700 to US$6,000.
In its most awe-inspiring configuration, the portable features Intel's speedy Core 2 Duo T7600 (2.33GHz, 4MB cache, 667MHz FSB); twin 512MB NVidia GeForce Go 7950 GTX 3D cards in SLI configuration; a 17-in. 1920- by 1200-pixel LCD display; 4GB DDR2 RAM, and two 320GB SATA drives in RAID 0 configuration. And get this: True seekers of high performance can even choose to tack on two 64GB solid-state hard drives in RAID 0.
The result is an absolute monster of a gaming laptop. The most pleasant surprises about the m9750, however, are its size and weight. At 15 in. wide by 11 in. deep by 1.5 in. high and weighing in at just under 9 lbs., it's not the behemoth we expected.
Price: starts at US$1,699
Summary: Fast, sleek and utterly droolworthy, Alienware's m9750 delivers the goods in a pricey package.
802.11n router: Linksys WRT600N
The recipe for home routers once was simple: Plug in your broadband and connect your PCs, add a firewall and Wi-Fi support, and voila -- computers all around the house are connected. These days, however, things aren't so simple because of streaming video, voice-over-IP and other bandwidth-hungry applications that demand more speed over greater distances.
Enter the Linksys Dual-Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router (WRT600N), which supports the widely accepted but still not officially ratified Draft 2 of the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard. That standard provides typical wireless speeds of roughly 100Mbit/sec. and spreads the Wi-Fi signal over a far wider area than older technologies such as 802.11g.
If you prefer to use traditional Ethernet, this router supports gigabit speeds. It also has a USB 2.0 port for attaching an external hard drive, an increasing need in these days of ever-growing media collections.
More impressively, this router supports simultaneous access over both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrum bands. That enables you, for instance, to have a separate network for your computers and for your streaming media or VoIP.
All this power comes at a price -- at US$279 retail, the WRT600N is considerably more expensive than those older, simpler routers. But you can do so much more with this well-engineered, richly featured router than we even dreamed possible in the simpler old days.
Price: US$225 to US$277
Summary: This do-everything home router provides significantly greater speed and range than older routers and offers many extras, including the ability to manage network-accessible storage.
Internet security appliance: D-Link SecureSpot
Everybody wants to feel secure, but not everybody has the technical ability to secure their home computers and networks. D-Link's SecureSpot, however, puts implementing top-notch security solidly in the no-brainer category.
Rather than installing and managing software for a variety of security needs, this little box connects to your broadband modem and router and automatically provides intrusion detection, antivirus and antispam capabilities, content filters and a firewall. After installation, the device protects as many as four computers on the network and automatically upgrades itself -- new protection files are available with no intervention on your part. If you do need to tweak it in order to, say, set up specific sites you don't want the kids to visit, you use a simple, browser-based control panel.
In other words, SecureSpot (US$99) is like an enterprise-class security appliance for the home and for average, nontechnical home users. That makes it not only an ideal gift not for your family but also a gift that can be given by IT managers who want to make sure home-working employees stay safe and secure.
Price: US$84 to US$110 (plus US$79 per year for as many as four computers; the first year is free)
Summary: This little box offers enterprise-class security to home and home office users without enterprise-class complexity.
Online backup service: MozyHome
Know someone who needs a little help keeping up with their backups, or who needs to access files from multiple locations? Why not treat them to an online backup service like MozyHome? The first 2GB of storage is free; beyond that the service costs US$4.95 per month for unlimited backup.
What I like best about this service is its extreme ease of use. It takes less than a minute to sign up for the service and download the software. Mozy walks you quickly through scheduling your backups by scanning your hard drive and preselecting a recommended list of file folders, programs and directories that you can check off for backup. These include e-mail and contacts and the Music, My Documents and Photos folders.
With an Intel 1.86GHz Pentium M processor, 2GB of RAM and a connection speed of 3Mbit/sec., my initial 560MB backup took 1 hour and 20 minutes. (Note that the initial backup takes longer than subsequent ones.)
You can also choose whether to have Mozy encrypt your data. The service also allows you to select either "quicker backup," which requires more CPU utilization, or "faster computer," which slows the backup process but reduces the performance impact on other applications running on your PC.
After the initial backup, MozyHome will ask you to schedule a time to back up. From then on, it's automatic. Another great feature of MozyHome is block-level incremental backup. After the initial backup, MozyHome backs up only files that have been added or changed, making subsequent backups extremely fast.
Price: US$4.95 per month for unlimited backup; the first 2GB is free Summary: An online backup service that offers unlimited backup of files, photos and other data for $4.95 a month -- that's what I call peace of mind. Lucas Mearian
Green gadgets for the home
There's no question that green gifts are in. Help your loved ones save money and the planet at the same time.
Energy use auditor: Kill A Watt meter
Mention an energy audit this time of year and most people think about leaky doors and windows. But electrical appliances can also leak energy -- even when turned off. P3 International's Kill A Watt P4400 meter (US$40) can help you audit your household electrical devices so you can find the energy hogs and take action.
The results may surprise you. After using the device in my own home office I made changes that cut my electricity usage by 75%.
The Kill A Watt sits in between the power outlet and the device you want to monitor. A small LCD displays power consumption in watts as well as cumulative power use in kilowatt-hours -- the unit of measure that appears on your utility bill. For the more technically inclined, it also measures and displays current volts, amperes, hertz and volt amps at the touch of a button.
If you know your cost per kilowatt-hour for electricity (listed on your electric bill), you can quickly calculate exactly how much you're spending on each appliance.
Summary: The Kill A Watt tracks the load and power consumption over time for any 110-volt device you attach to it.
Robert L. Mitchell
Desk lamp: Personal Lighting System LED
It's as cool as Pixar's famous hopping desk lamp, but more svelte, modern and efficient. Finelite Inc.'s ultrasleek Personal Lighting System LED desk lamp lets you go green and look good doing it.
This lamp uses state-of-the-art LED technology to do in 9 watts what your garden-variety incandescent desk lamp achieves in 100. The PLS uses half the power of fluorescents, doesn't contain any mercury, and it does the job better.
Substantial amounts of light in radiant lighting sources such as incandescent and fluorescent lamps miss the target, so they tend to bathe an entire area, overlighting the target surface and creating glare that can be tiring. LED lighting, on the other hand, is highly directional, which means a surface can be illuminated to the right degree using fewer watts of power.
With its spring-loaded swivel base and a cast-aluminum lamp head that spins 360 degrees, the PLS is highly maneuverable. It comes in 3-, 6- and 9-watt models. I recommend the 9-watt model as a desktop work light. The PLS produces a warmer, more natural light than some models I've tried, which tilt more toward the blue end of the spectrum.
At US$283, the PLS 9 is one of life's little extravagances that you might never buy for yourself, but as a gift it just might be a perfect fit.
Summary: This stylish LED desk lamp, which uses just 9 watts of energy, is less harsh and easier on the eyes than a standard 100-watt incandescent fixture.
Robert L. Mitchell
Universal power supply: APC Back-UPS ES 750
You turn out the lights when you leave your home office, and your computer is configured to go into standby mode, but what about all those peripherals? From PC speakers to printers, home offices continue to leak power even when equipment is supposedly in "off" or standby mode.
Altogether, your office equipment may be consuming 30 watts of power when you're not even there, says American Power Conversion (APC). Those losses, which continue seven days a week, 365 days a year, cost on average about US$26 per year in wasted energy -- and push about 40 pounds of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. APC's Back-UPS ES 750 with master-controlled outlets puts a stop to that by automatically cutting power to peripherals when your desktop or laptop goes into low-power mode.
You attach your PC to the master outlet. When the PC goes into standby mode, the UPS detects the power drop and cuts off power to three controlled outlets. The master outlet can be set to trip when power drops below 10, 25 or 60 watts. The 450-watt UPS is also power-efficient in its own right. It draws just 2.5 watts of power when trickle-charging the battery, which amounts to about US$2 a year in electricity costs, APC claims.
In addition to the master and three controlled outlets, the 750 includes six noncontrolled outlets. APC recommends attaching powered speakers, printers and other peripherals on the controlled outlets. I attached a printer, powered speakers and a desk lamp, which snapped off 10 minutes after I left my office. It recommends placing networking equipment and computer monitors on regular, protected outlets. (You'll need to use the monitor to shut down the computer if a power event occurs.)
The new ES 750, which ships in mid-November, will sell for US$99 -- the same price as the current BE750BB model. APC also plans to introduce a power strip with a master controller feature early next year.
Price: US$99; available starting mid-November
Summary: The ES 750G not only keeps devices running during a power outage but it also helps you save energy by cutting power to peripherals when your computer goes into standby mode.
Robert L. Mitchell
Carbon-neutral computing purchase: Dell Plant a Tree for Me program
Buying an Energy Star 4.0 certified computer to replace that old one will reduce your carbon footprint but won't eliminate it. "What you can't reduce you should offset," says Eric Carlson, executive director at Carbonfund.org in Silver Spring, Md. Dell's Plant a Tree for Me program lets you buy carbon offsets with computers (US$6), notebooks (US$2), and other peripherals.
Dell, the only major PC vendor to offer such a program, sends the money to the nonprofit Carbonfund.org and The Conservation Fund, organizations that plant trees in sustainable reforestation projects on your behalf. The trees consume an amount of carbon dioxide equal to what the use of those products generates over their useful life. Current projects supported by Carbonfund.org are located on protected federal lands in Louisiana and Kansas.
Does it really offset your PC's carbon footprint? The carbon accounting requires some math skills. The power needed to operate a desktop is responsible for one ton of carbon dioxide emissions over the product's three-year life cycle. A tree recaptures the same amount of CO2, but over a 70-year lifespan. Most of the recapture starts once the seedling is mature -- after about five years. In other words, you're actually running a carbon deficit over time, repaying in future years emissions from the electricity you consume today.
Viewed from another perspective, it would take 11.7 full-grown trees to offset the carbon emissions from that computer in real time. But Carson thinks that's the wrong way to look at carbon offsets built on reforestation projects. "It's the only carbon offset which actually reduces CO2 emissions," and the benefits of that forest continue to accrue long after your carbon debt is repaid, says Carlson.
Carbon offsets are just one leg of a strategy to combat global warming that includes conservation, energy efficiency and using as much renewable energy as possible. About 20% of global warming, Carlson says, is a result of 150 years of deforestation. "Whether it's done today or over the next generation, we have got to reforest our planet for habitat reasons, for water security, for weather patterns and for climate change," he says.
While the program is just getting going, Carlson hopes to post pictures of the trees and buyers will be able to visit the sustainable forests they helped create. That's a gift that keeps on giving.
Price: US$6 per desktop, US$2 per notebook, US$3 per LCD monitor, more prices
Summary: Purchasing carbon offsets for computers and peripherals shows you care about the Earth as well as your gift recipient.
Robert L. Mitchell
Who says the whole family can't have fun together? We've found a grab-bag of games and systems that will keep the whole gang entertained.
Video gaming console: Nintendo Wii
The most affordable console on the market is also the most fun for the family.
At US$249, the Nintendo Wii has been wooing casual and hardcore gamers alike with its innovative interface: motion-sensing controllers that are as easy to pick up as a TV remote and as intuitive to use as a baseball bat, doing away with controllers that have more buttons than you have fingers. Without pushing a single button, first-time Wii players can hit a grand slam.
Nintendo's popular franchises -- Mario, Zelda, Metroid -- have all returned in new offerings rated "E" for everyone. But the Wii is imminently playable right out of the box: a pack-in game, Wii Sports, offers five sports and 15 mini-games for one to four players, and its daily Wii Fitness test will determine your age based on how well (or poorly!) you perform.
With the Wii's Virtual Console, you can also purchase and download classic games from decades past. Rudimentary e-mail and Web surfing are also part of the Wii's built-in wireless Internet. (An Ethernet adapter is sold separately.)
Even though Wii has been available for a year, demand for the gaming system still exceeds supplies. Check with your local retailers often to see when they're expecting new stock to arrive; keeping an eye on eBay can't hurt, either.
Price: US$249 (more with bundled games)
Summary: Nintendo's Wii video game console uses motion-sensing controllers to simulate actions such as throwing a punch, swinging a sword and firing a gun.
Console game: Rock Band
The Guitar Hero video games have become smash hits, with their authentic rock tunes and guitar-shaped controllers, which give players the opportunity to rock 'n' roll their way to fame. Though the third installment in that series is due out soon, Harmonix, the development studio that created Guitar Hero, isn't responsible for Guitar Hero III.
Look instead for this company's latest experiment: Rock Band, coming this holiday season to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 2 and 3. Having created both the Guitar Hero and Karaoke Revolution video game series, Harmonix is pooling all aspects of music performance into a single package.
With Rock Band, you and your family can be the next Osmonds as you jam together on guitar, drums and microphone to one of 45 songs from groups like the Foo Fighters, R.E.M., Bon Jovi, Nine Inch Nails and the Rolling Stones.
Fame comes at a price: The game and all instruments are bundled together for US$170. (Rated "T" for Teen)
Summary: Get Mom on the drums and your brother on bass and practice those classic-rock riffs. Can a world tour be far behind?
PC and Mac games for the whole family
It may seem like computer games are dominated by first-person shooters, but there are plenty of alternatives that provide hours of fun and challenge to all ages.
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
This combination of role-playing and puzzle genres offers an alternative to the violent conflicts of other games. Journey the world to discover dungeons, castles, magic and monsters in this epic story of good vs. evil -- but when battle occurs, break out your tiles.
Combat occurs in bejeweled fashion as players take turns swapping gemstones to make colored combinations that will disappear. Local and Internet multiplayer options are included. (Also available for Xbox 360, Wii, Nintendo DS, and Sony PSP)
Nancy Drew: Legend of the Crystal Skull
The famous girl detective is back in a mystery that sends her through mansions and crypts looking for clues. Plenty of puzzles and notetaking compose a challenging case for gamers at least 10 years old.
Complementing the 4Kids TV cartoon, Viva PiA±ata challenges players to cultivate a garden that will attract colorful piA±ata residents. Gamers can then make and accessorize their piA±atas or have them compete in various minigames. (Also available for Xbox 360)
Bee Movie Game
Jerry Seinfeld leaps off the silver screen and into this video game adaptation. Barry Bee Benson rushes around his hive in his little bee car before voyaging outside, where he must avoid cars, rainfall, and other menaces as he collects pollen and tries to save his colony's honey. (Also available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, Nintendo Wii, and Nintendo DS)
You're an alien stuck inside a transparent ball, and you roll around various landscapes collecting gems. The difference between this and similar rolling-marble games is that you can make your ball sticky to climb up walls or stop short of a cliff. GooBall is just one of Ambrosia's lineup of creative arcade and strategy games -- check out Bubble Trouble and Apeiron (like Centipede) as well.
Seat customers, take their orders and deliver their food. Sound easy? Ever been a waitress? Start with the original game or jump to the latest Hometown Hero version. Once you're hooked, join the dinerdash.com community.
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (for Windows) Price: US$19.99
Summary: Puzzle-solving meets epic adventure -- and jewels!
Nancy Drew: Legend of the Crystal Skull for Windows Price: US$19.99
Summary: Track the clues to solve the mystery.
Viva Pinata for Windows Price: US$39.99
Summary: A strategy/management game with an ecological twist.
Bee Movie Game for Windows Price: US$19-US$20
Summary: A bee's-eye-view adventure game.
GooBall for Mac Price: US$25
Summary: A rolling ball game with a sticky twist.
Diner Dash for Mac and Windows Price: $19.95
Summary: See if you can manage a restaurant full of hungry customers.
Ken Gagne and Jake Widman
Weird and wacky
Get silly with these fun-loving gifts.
WowWee Alive Elvis
If Elvis were assimilated by the Borg, he might look like this. WowWee's animatronic Alive Elvis captures the King's classic facial expressions and moves as the Borg bust belts out eight songs and issues famous monologues.
The robotic, life-sized talking head uses 10 precision motors to get facial expressions such as Elvis' famous lip curl down pat. (See it for yourself by watching the video.) You can get a microphone to sing along and add extra memory cards to expand the repertoire of songs and monologues.
The cyborg Elvis, which comes dressed in a simulated leather jacket, includes an "automonous" mode in which the head uses infrared sensor "eyes" to track and follow your movement and issues occasional Elvis sound bites ("I get lonely sometimes"). While Alive Elvis' lip-syncing won't fool anyone, some of the facial expressions are fascinatingly lifelike.
The autonomous mode, however, seems a bit creepy. Like one of those paintings in Disney's Haunted Mansion, Elvis is always watching you. Alive Elvis is the kind of present you don't want in your bedroom at night.
Summary: A head-and-shoulders replica of Elvis Presley sings, speaks and follows movement. WowWee successfully captures some of the singer's classic facial expressions and moves in this animated reproduction.
Robert L. Mitchell
WowWee's Roboquad is a four-legged, crab-like robot designed to maintain a constant state of suspicious alert. If anything moves, or if lights come on or something makes a loud noise, Roboquad reacts more or less like a nervous chihuahua: It looks startled, fidgets, has a minor freak-out, then goes back to just hanging out, beeping, chirping and looking around.
You can use the included remote control to give it any of several personalities, modes or activities -- such as dancing to music -- and any of 27 different "emotional states." You can also control it directly, using movement and motion buttons on the remote.
It even has a guard mode. If an intruder breaks into your house, Roboquad will track him down, follow him with its "eyes," and, ultimately ... get stolen. It's just too cool to leave behind.
Interestingly, Roboquad's legs were developed for a NASA Mars robot. The designer left NASA to found WowWee -- and used his expertise to create Roboquad.
Price: US$79 to US$99
Summary: A crab-like robot loaded with personality, Roboquad interacts with light, motion and objects and can be programmed or controlled with a handheld remote. Mike Elgan
Estes Astrovision Video Rocket
Model rockets are fun, but the Estes Astrovision Video Rocket (US$55) is extra fun, because its digital camera takes either video or still pictures of the flight. After the rocket floats back to Earth using the included parachute, you can plug the rocket nose cone into your Windows PC via USB, and transfer the video.
Using the rocket takes zero skill as a rocketeer -- no assembly is required. The entire nose cone is a lightweight, solid-state, special purpose camera. And it's easy to use: Just choose video or picture mode, turn the camera on, and launch the rocket. In video mode, the camera captures about 12 seconds of flight. In picture mode, it takes three pictures, 1.5 seconds apart.
A typical video taken with the Astrovision shows the launch pad fading into smallness, and the surrounding area, straight down. Then, as the rocket peaks, you can see the horizon, then sky, then parachute.
Summary: The Astrovision Video Rocket is an easy-to-use rocket that soars into the sky and then parachutes down to Earth, taking video or digital pictures along the way.
Is there a cook or homemaker on your list who always sniffs a package of meat to make sure it's safe? Get them the SensorfreshQ ($90) from Food Quality Sensor International. This small handheld device replaces your nose with four electronic sensors -- you point it at your meat, press the button, and it "inhales" whatever bacteria might be nearby and measures their concentration.
A green light means it's perfectly fresh, a yellow light means eat it soon, and a red light means it's probably not fresh any more. You can find the SensorfreshQ online or at Sur la Table outlets. No more recoiling in disgust at that rotten meat smell!
Summary: Is that meat fresh? Now you'll never have to guess.
Most robots walk like, well, robots. The i-SOBOT, which Tomy Corp. calls the world's smallest "high-tech humanoid," can truly walk the walk. Nearly a year after the product was announced, Tomy's karate-chopping, dancing bot finally went on sale in the US last month.
The 6.5-in., US$300 biped boasts capabilities normally found in more expensive kit robots; i-SOBOT's 17 servo motors and gyroscopic sensors allow more realistic movement and balance than has been available in robots in this price range. Using a remote control, the operator can choose from 80 different preprogrammed actions and can store up to 80 command sequences on each of three remote buttons and play the routines later.
I-SOBOT spouts some 200 words and phrases as it goes through its antics, and it uses an embedded microphone with a voice recognition processor to respond to 10 "commands." The commands are designed more to elicit a response than to then execute a specific function.
Commands such as "How are you?" or "Make me laugh" cause i-SOBOT to respond with "appropriate but unpredictable actions," according to Tomy. Preprogrammed "special action" commands play back routines, such as this one, where the i-SOBOT walks and talks as if it's drunk.
Summary: The first preassembled robot to achieve "well articulated" walking movement uses 17 servo motors and a gyro sensor to help it maintain balance as it walks, does somersaults, dances and performs other actions. Robert L. Mitchell
Haptic feedback is all the rage in video games. Xbox and other controllers shake and rattle to simulate impact and augment on-screen action. Haptics dramatically improve realism, even when applied in a small handheld controller.
The 3rdSpace Vest (US$170) from TN Games provides "eight active zones" of rib-crushing haptics. When someone shoots you on the right side, you feel it on your right side. When you get kicked in the chest, you feel that, too. You'll feel every shotgun blast to the torso, every body slam and every frag grenade. You'll even feel light nudges and taps.
The 3rdSpace Vest is bundled with a game written by the company called 3rd Space Incursion, a first-person shooter game. The vest comes in black, camo and hot pink, and is currently for the PC only.
Price: US$169.99 Summary: The 3rdSpace Vest boosts the realism of games by letting you feel the explosions and body impact of on-screen action. Mike Elgan
USB Toaster box
No, you can't really make toast on your computer. But wouldn't it be great if you could? Don't you have a co-worker who eats breakfast at his desk who would think that was just the best idea ever? Well, put whatever your real gift is inside this USB Toaster box ($8) from The Onion and watch his excitement grow ... and then fade.
It's the thought that counts, right? Why not give a gift that's nothing but thought?
Price: US$7.99 Summary: A gag gift for those who love to eat breakfast at their desks. Jake Widman
Seven gifts under US$50
Not everyone's getting a plasma HDTV this year. Try these budget-conscious gifts instead.
USB Chocolate MP3 Player
Everyone's got an iPod. But how many people do you know with a Chocolate MP3 Player?
This tiny music player is more or less the size of an Apple iPod Shuffle. It's brown, with a white top that features four cryptic symbols for controlling music -- forward, back, volume up, volume down -- represented by two people, a dog and a rooster (hey, don't ask us -- we just report on these products, not design them).
The USB Chocolate MP3 Player (US$39) holds 2GB of music, and weighs just 12 grams. It plugs into your USB port for both music transfer and recharging.
The USB Chocolate MP3 Player is tiny and looks awesome. Just don't eat it.
Summary: The tiny USB Chocolate MP3 Player plugs into your USB port for both playing music and recharging.
USB-Powered Mini Greenhouse
This US$20 kit from Geeks.com comes with soil, seeds, software and a USB-powered greenhouse pod. The software has a calendar, so you can track events in the life of your marigolds. The USB cable powers a grow light, which points down from a height-adjustable arm.
Of course, you can reuse the Mini Greenhouse, using your own soil and seeds to grow herbs, other kinds of flowers or just about anything. The light will stay on as long as the computer is powered up and the Mini Greenhouse is plugged in.
Summary: Nurture a green thumb with the USB Powered Mini Greenhouse, a PC-powered environment for growing flowers on your desk.
Yubz Talk Mobile and Yubz Talk Online
Remember those giant landline telephone handsets back when landline handsets were the only kind? No? A company called Yubz does. Yubz Talk Mobile (US$45) connects to your cell phone. When a call comes in, you press a button on the old-school handset to answer the call. It's just like a tiny Bluetooth earpiece, except it's not tiny, it isn't an earpiece, and it isn't Bluetooth. The handset comes in black, red, white, yellow, orange and pink.
For the same price, the company also sells a VoIP version for Skype or other Internet telephone services (including Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, MSN, AIM Express and others). It's a retro handset with a cable that terminates in a USB connector. Just plug it in and use it as your VoIP handset. It comes in black, red, white and yellow and works with both PCs and Macs.
Summary: The Yubz Talk Mobile and Yubz Talk Online retro handsets take you back to the days when everyone used giant landline telephone handsets.
Identiflyer Singing Alarm Clock
There are thousands of different alarm clocks out there, and most have one thing in common: They all wake you up to a hideous, unpleasant noise. But who wants to start each day with an electronic buzz, brassy clanging sound, or something that sounds like a busy signal?
The Identiflyer Singing Alarm Clock ($30) does the opposite: It wakes you up to the pleasant sound of birds singing. And you get to specify exactly which birds. The clock comes with a song card, which shows pictures of nine birds on it. You slide it into the clock's holder, select a bird, and go to sleep. You can even choose a rooster.
You can accessorize, too, with additional cards featuring songs from a variety of categories. Choose from "Birds of Prey," "Forest, Forest Edge, Field & Meadow," "Lakes, Rivers, Marsh & Wetlands, Seashore," "Eastern Yardbirds, Birds of the Night," or "Western Yardbirds, Birds of the Night." This is music to the ears of hardcore Audobon Society bird nerds and laypeople who just like the sound of birds singing.
If you choose, the alarm will also, play a short bird song on the hour, or on command.
Summary: Wake up to the pleasant sound of birds singing with the Identiflyer Singing Alarm Clock.
USB Roll-Up Drum Kit
Everybody secretly wants to play the drums. Trouble is, drum sets are huge, loud and expensive. But now you can play the drums anywhere -- even at your desk at work. The USB Roll-Up Drum Kit ($42) is about the size and shape of a dinner table placemat. It plugs into your PC and gives you a complete, programmable electronic drum set with five playing pads, each representing a different drum or cymbal.
The kit comes with 50 percussion sounds, 20 preprogrammed percussion sets and 100 preprogrammed percussion beats. A three-level learning feature will teach you how to play. You can select the play-along option if you want to play to your MP3 files. You can even record your beats and annoy people with them by sending the sound file. The package comes with drum sticks and software.
Price: US$42 Summary: Play drums anywhere on a set the size of a placemat with the Roll-Up Drum Kit. Mike Elgan
iPhone/iPod 8-in-1 FM Transmitter with Remote
This handy US$40 gadget 8-in-1 FM Transmitter with Remote connects an iPod to a car. It has a dashboard cradle for just about any iPod or iPhone. It charges the iPod via the cigarette-lighter plug and lets you play music through car speakers.
You can connect to your car sound system with the included 3.5mm line-in plug. If you don't have one of those, connect via FM, and the frequency is displayed on a small screen on the cradle.
It comes with a remote control unit. You can have it in any color you like, as long as you like white or black.
iPhone/iPod 8-in-1 FM Transmitter with Remote from USB Fever.com
Summary: This handy device connects an iPod to a car sound system.
USB Doomsday Device Hub
The USB Doomsday Device Hub (US$50) looks and works like a nuclear missile launcher. You need to flip the first, then the second switch -- and then only authorized personnel with the key can open the safety cover to press the Big Red Button. (The device makes a "boom" noise.) Co-workers will naturally assume the user of this Armagaddon hub is some kind of evil arch villain bent on world domination, which is nice.
Oh, and it also turns one USB hub into four, so you have more places to plug in all those gadgets.
Price: US$49.99 | Phone: (703) 293-6299 Summary: The Doomsday Device Hub is a four-port USB hub that looks like a nuclear missile launcher. Mike Elgan
These are the gifts we'd buy if money truly were no object. Until then, we can always dream...
GPS-enabled electronic telescope: Meade 12" LX200R
Looking at stars, planets and nebulae across the vastness of the universe through the eyepiece of telescope is a romantic idea, but if you've ever tried using a simple home device in your backyard at night, the romance can dim quickly. That's because a traditional manual telescope can be difficult and discouraging for novices to use. It can be quite a trick to find those tiny objects in the viewfinder and see them clearly.
That's where a new generation of high-tech, electronically controlled, GPS-enabled home telescopes come in. At US$4,699, the Meade LX200R tripod-mounted telescope brings together GPS control, high-quality optics and a large 12-in. aperture for excellent light-gathering that provides higher-resolution images.
There's also a built-in electronic database of about 145,000 celestial objects that you can view almost automatically by entering the desired object into a keypad. Once the data is entered, the telescope automatically turns to the proper spot in the night sky for easy viewing. As an ultimate gift for your family, deep space observation just got very special.
Honorable mention: At US$2,899, the Celestron CPC 1100 GPS tripod-mounted telescope offers an 11-in. aperture for excellent light-gathering ability, as well as its own fully computerized system to automatically find objects in space. The Celestron has a database of some 40,000 space objects and can be updated via an Internet connection.
Meade 12" LX200R Price: US$4,699-US$4,869
Summary: Amazing backyard star-gazing and exploration is easy and eye-opening with one of the newest and coolest electronic, GPS-enabled telescopes on the market today.
Celestron CPC 1100 GPS tripod-mounted telescope Price: US$2,800-US$2,900
Summary: GPS-enabled telescopes are expensive -- but this model will save you about $2,000 over our top pick. Todd R. Weiss
High-tech car: 2008 BMW 5 Series
Maybe they should call it the "Ultimate Technology Machine." We're talking, of course, about the the 2008 BMW 5 Series, which edged out the Lexus LS for honors as the most technology-laden car for the current model year. Don't take our word for it; the Telematics Research Group, which actually measures these things, says so too.
Of course the 5 Series offers GPS, voice recognition and "iDrive" -- a function control knob widely maligned as too complicated when it appeared several years ago. (BMW has since cleaned up the iDrive's UI.) What makes the 5 Series Beemer hot for '08 are treats like active steering, "night vision," a heads-up display and a couple of new goodies -- Lane Departure Warning (LDW) and Active Cruise Control (ACC).
A lot of cars now have variations on these technologies, but BMW is the only one to put them all in one gotta-have-it package. The LDW system is designed to keep you (and your car) in the correct lane. It uses a camera mounted near the rearview mirror, and if it notices you're drifting into someone else's lane -- and you haven't used a turn signal to indicate you're moving over -- it vibrates the steering wheel.
The ACC allows you to use cruise control, even when there's traffic in front of you -- and it'll keep you the same distance back, even if the car ahead slows. Our fav? The night vision, which is available on the pricier models and uses infrared cameras to "see" farther down the road than you can.
The basic 528i starts at US$45,075. With most of the technologies we've already noted, this Beemer would set you back US$56,155. Go full bore and get the 550i with the V8 and a few more options and you're north of US$70k. At least you'll be safe and having fun as you drive off to the poorhouse.
Price: starts at US$45,075
Summary: Luxury meets technology in the sweetest ride for 2008.
Supercomputer: IBM Blue Gene/P
For the computer enthusiast with everything, there is only one true gift: Blue Gene/P. With a lineage that goes back to Deep Blue, the famous IBM parallel processing supercomputer that beat chess master Gary Kasparov back in 1997, the P version may just be the world's fastest supercomputer.
The P is nearly 2½ times faster than its predecessor and current record holder, the Blue Gene/L. (The largest implementation of the L architecture to date, the 104-rack, 212,000-processor behemoth at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, capable of 478.2 trillion floating-point operations per second (TFLOPS), is currently ranked by Top500.org as the world's fastest supercomputer.)
The P, which in its base configuration packs 4,096 processors into a single rack and delivers 13.9 TFLOPS, should be available in time for the holidays, according to Herb Shultz, marketing manager for IBM's High Performance Computing group. But hurry -- initial quantities will be limited, he says.
The entry-level price is cool US$2.8 million -- pocket change if you're part of the Saudi royal family. That buys you one six-foot server rack filled with 32 processor boards, each of which holds 32 850-MHz quad-core processors based on IBM's PowerPC 450 design. Fully configured, the system is about 1,300 times faster than the best home PC money can buy, Shultz says.
The P also has its green credentials in order, delivering performance per watt that's 66% better than the L. Early P builds already own the top five spots in Green500.org's Green 500 list, which measures energy efficiency in MFLOPS per watt.
As an early adopter you'll be able to hang out with a small vanguard that includes the U.S. Department of Energy, Brookhaven National Lab and the Max Planck Society in Germany.
Best of all, as systems continue to scale upward, you'll be able to keep up with the Joneses without trading in that dusty old supercomputer. Blue Gene/P scales to three and a half PFLOPS. All you do is add another 255 racks to bring the system up to the maximum 1.04 million processors. The cost: a mere 20 cents per megaflop. I'd add that up, but if you have to do the math you probably can't afford it.
So what do you do with all that power? The sky's the limit. You can impress your scientist friends by performing earthquake simulations (what happens in the china cabinet if the epicenter is in your front yard, or 20 miles away?), simulate how your car will do in crashes from all different angles and conditions, examine all possible outcomes from your current situation in Halo, analyze what will happen to your portfolio in 1 million different scenarios, or assess the risk and proper valuation of options to become the low-cost producer and corner the market for those and other complex financial instruments.
As long as your applications are designed to run instructions in parallel and support the industry standard Message Passing Interface, there's no need to worry about investing in new software. "It's very straightforward to recompile it for Blue Gene," says Schultz.
If US$2.8 million is a tad outside of your gift budget, don't worry. IBM plans to offer access to Blue Gene/P as a hosted service in its Deep Computing Capacity on Demand Center in Rochester, Minn. That service, however, won't be available until after the holidays.
Alternately, you could order up time on Blue Gene/L, which is available on demand and -- for now -- still holds the top spot as the world's fastest supercomputer. But that's so last year.
Price: starts at US$2.8 million
Summary: For the geek who has everything, the world's fastest supercomputer is the ultimate gift.
Robert L. Mitchell