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David Berlind

ZDNet News

COMMENTARY — Christmas is closing in, and you’re still trying to figure what to get your favorite geek. Or maybe you just want to treat yourself. Since I’ve had the opportunity to test all sorts of cool technologies (some of which were so compelling that I parted with my money to buy them), here’s a list that will satisfy any buyer’s budget.

1. The gift of digital music ($10 and up)
The beauty of this gift is that you don’t have pick out a CD at your local mall. The recipients decide what they want. Whether you want to make a one-time purchase for someone or give your kids $10 worth of music per month without setting up a credit card-enabled iTunes account for them, Apple’s Music store makes it possible. To set up a credit card-free iTunes account, use Apple’s allowance feature. (Make sure iTunes is downloaded and installed first and that you have your own iTunes account.) Pick any allowance level (for example $10 per month). Then, if you don’t want them to automatically get a fixed credit per month for free music, immediately cancel the periodic allowance. The result is an allowance-based iTunes account without any allowance established. Now, to buy your kids some music on a one-time basis, just buy them a gift certificate (they come in increments of $10). Or, if you just want to buy someone some music, you can get them an iTunes Music Store Card.

2. Shield those legs (and fertility) from crispy notebooks ($29.95)
Just last week, a study by State University of New York researchers concluded that the heat generated by laptops can significantly elevate the temperature of the scrotum, potentially putting sperm count at risk. But did they tell us notebook users something that we didn’t already know — that notebook computers can get hot enough to fry your honey’s legs off? So, regardless of gender, LapWorks’ LapTop Desk is one gift that your significant other is bound to love. Not only does the LapTop Desk offer a variety of positions that will suit any user, but it even makes it easier to work with a notebook computer while lying in bed. Best of all, when folded up, it’s super light and thin which means it doesn’t add much additional weight to your favorite geek’s computer bag. LapWorks has two models — Version 2.0 and the newer Ultralight. The Ultralight is lighter and thinner than Version 2.0 (which I wrote about more than two years ago), but it’s also not as sturdy. Even though I have both, I still prefer the older “version 2.0.”.

3. RAMcharge his or her memory ($50 and up)
Is someone you know always complaining about how slow their system is? Sometimes, a little extra random access memory (RAM) will do the trick. Thanks to some extra RAM, several of my computers that were designed to run Windows 98 are running Windows XP or recent versions of Linux without breaking a sweat. Even your favorite Mac addict will appreciate some extra RAM, especially if they’re upgrading to one of the newer version of Mac OS X. Hint: Unless you know exactly what you’re doing, call your local computer store and ask for advice on what type and amount of RAM would make the most sense.

4. 2004 — Year of the Digital SLR ($899 and up)
Until recently, getting the benefits of a digital camera (e.g.: look ma, no film!) combined with the benefits of a single lens reflex camera’s (choice of films, aperture settings, and shutter speeds, not to mention “what you see is what you get”), would set you back many thousands of dollars. But now, things are changing.

Although the prices can only go down from here, my wife and I finally bit the bullet this year and bought a digital SLR camera as our Christmas gift to each other. After taking some incredible pictures with a D70 that was loaned to me for testing by Nikon, and after playing around with a friend’s Canon EOS Digital Rebel (the D70’s leading competitor), the D70 took our hearts, and our money. That’s not to say that you wouldn’t be satisfied with the EOS. Although the D70 has a few features that my Digital Rebel-toting friend was jealous of, he has no regrets about owning his Digital Rebel. What sealed the deal for my wife and I was the ability to re-use all of the lenses that we had purchased for her old Nikon N70 35 mm SLR.

Indoors, the camera produced equally beautiful photographs and they only got better when I set up Nikon’s SB800 speed flash. Sure, like any flash, the SB800 can be mounted directly on the camera. But why bother? It’s wireless. If your significant other already has a D70, then the SB800 makes for the perfect companion. If not, and you’re ready to take a deep plunge into your bank account for a Christmas gift, Nikon is offering a $100 rebate. We picked as our source. For $1,200 (after rebate), you get the D70 with the same Nikkor lens (the 18-70mm AF-S DX f/3.5-4.5G IF-ED) that Nikon packages with the D70 when it’s sold as a body/lens kit (Ritz sells the camera without the lens for $999 (before rebate) which is also a great deal). In the New Year, I’ll write up a full review of the D70 (especially now that we own one).

5. When the SLR doesn’t fit ($220)
Almost two years ago, I wrote a story (see Desperately seeking digital camera nirvana) that reflected my need for a digital camera, as well as my hesitance to buy one. My angst was traceable to the way different camera types were pulling me in different directions. Should I go for broke and get the incredibly versatile but bulky digital SLR? Or should I buy a camera less capable but small enough that I could carry it with me at all times — and never miss a shot? Or, should I find a compromise camera with much of the flexibility and versatility (but not all) found in a digital SLR in a package that’s small, but not so small that you can always have it with you in your shirt pocket?

Where did I end up? (And where should you if you’re looking for a gift for someone that doesn’t want to miss any photo opportunity?) The Konica Minolta Dimage Xg is the successor to the model Xt that I bought a year and half ago and am extremely happy with. At .79 inches thick and less than 5 ounces, not only is the Xg tiny enough to fit in any pocket, but this camera is surprisingly versatile for something so small. Inside the tiny package is a 3.2 megapixel still image/movie camera that contains a unique periscope-like 3x optical zoom mechanism that doesn’t require a protruding lens.

Ultimately, the route I took to outfitting the family with digital cameras (one digital SLR, one pocket-sized point-and-shoot) wasn’t cheap. But, having the option to take the stunning photos that an SLR is capable of, while also having the option to pack a camera when I have nothing with me for holding a camera but a shirt pocket is a decision we are not regretting one bit.

6. Prestone for a Notebook ($29.99)
Does your favorite notebook owner complain about how the fan in their notebook keeps turning on in order to cool off the system? A fellow PowerBook owner turned me on to MacMice’s iBreeze and said it was a must have. Since I don’t have one yet, it’s on my wish list. It’s already endorsed by someone I trust, so rather than re-wordsmith a description of it, here’s MacMice’s:

“This is a product with just the right design features to satisfy even the most discerning Apple computer fan. Instead of using one large, loud fan, the iBreeze uses two small (60mm), fans, each operating at less than one-half their maximum rated speed. The iBreeze is a bit quieter than your internal Powerbook or iBook fan. And, as clutter is very inelegant, the iBreeze gets its power not from an ugly wall transformer, but directly from the USB port of the connected Powerbook. Not only that, but there’s a female USB passthrough port on the iBreeze, so you don’t even have to lose one of your precious USB ports. Any (low-power) USB device can simply be plugged into the rear of the iBreeze.”.

I’m fairly certain that this would be just as helpful to someone using an Intel-based notebook-cum-hot plate (for Windows or Linux). Feel free to comment below if you can think of a reason why it wouldn’t.

7. All your pictures tell a story (free)
Whoever said cool stuff doesn’t come from Microsoft’s Labs probably never saw the company’s Photo Story technology. I first saw Photo Story — one of Microsoft’s best kept secrets — when Microsoft’s Mobile Windows team was on the road demonstrating the latest greatest version of its PocketPC operating system. There, on one of their demo units (an HP iPaq), a team member showed me how he had turned a bunch of his digital photos into a slide show with music, narration, and special effects. As it turns out, Photo Story gets authored on a Windows PC, and can be e-mailed to-and-from and viewed on other Windows PCs. But they can also be synched up with a Pocket PC.

Originally, Photo Story could only be had with Microsoft’s Plus! Digital Media Edition ($19.95). Plus! DME had some cool extras (like Windows Media Player skins). But it’s probably not worth the splurge now that Photo Story 3 can be downloaded for free. So, if your budget is strapped, here’s what to do. Download Photo Story 3 and create some great Photo Stories that your loved ones will appreciate. Then burn the stories, as well as the download, onto a CD and give out the CD. Your friends and family will not only love the stories, but they’ll also be able to reciprocate by authoring their own stories and sending them to you.

8. Gale force winds in a can ($5)
Looking for the perfect stocking stuffer? Look no further than your local office supplies store where you’ll find something that no computer user should be without — a can of compressed air. I went almost 20 years without ever owning a can of this stuff and then, a few weeks ago, I picked up a can to clean out my notebook’s keyboard. I never realized how dirty my keyboards and displays were until I cleaned them all with a shot of wind. Now I’m addicted. While it’s not exactly the gift that says I love you, it’s one of those practical gifts that fits perfectly into a low budget (or a stocking) and that no geek should be without.

9. 5.8 GHz Cordless Phone ($22 and up)
If you’ve got a favorite geek, chances are that he or she has already gone wireless with a Wi-Fi setup for their computers’ Internet connection. But, because 802.11b and 802.11g Wi-Fi products (the majority of the installed base) use the 2.4 GHz frequency to communicate, they can conflict with the oft-used 2.4 GHz cordless phones. The result? In my experience, if there’s crackle of noise on the Wi-Fi network, it just tries again. But, if the Wi-Fi network interferes with the cordless phone, the cordless phone may simply disconnect. The best way to prevent this from happening is to get a cordless phone that doesn’t use the same frequency as the Wi-Fi network.

10. You can dress him up, but… ($40 and up)
When ScottEVest came out with its first garment for the geek on the go — a vest that holds MP3 players, PDAs, large documents, phones, and other electronic accessories while hiding all the wires in concealed “channels” — the company may have defined the category of road warrior-ware. But the vest (which has since been updated) was not the sort of garment that could be worn all the time, to all occasions. Since that time, however, the company has come out with everything from sport jackets to neck ties to slacks that do what the original vest did — they allow your favorite geek to go just about anywhere with all of their mobile gear and look stylish too. On my personal wish list is the $40 TEC Windshirt.