PLAY: Video game and other tech toy gift suggestions

We all like to play games, whether we admit to it or not. While everyone might not be a video gamer, I think we all still enjoy playing, to some extent, to bring us back to our youth.

See our listing of this year's gift guide.

A quick guide to Network World's favorite gifts

Presented here are our picks for our favorite toys, video games and accessories for the gamer on your holiday gift list.

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Note: Products are listed in no particular order or preference. Prices are also rounded-up estimates from either the product's website or Amazon.com. Better deals may be offered online during the holiday season.

Sony PS Vita

$250 ($300 for 3G version)

The PS Vita is Sony's latest portable video gaming system, the successor to the PlayStation Portable. But instead of just focusing on video games, the Vita includes features you'd expect on a smartphone or tablet - things a front-facing and rear camera for video chats, and a Wi-Fi or 3G connection for connecting to the Internet. A touchscreen and new user interface lets you easily access new features, such as shopping for additional games/apps through the Sony PlayStation Store, or purchasing additional music, videos and photos (you can also load up your own content to play on the device). Much like the PSP, there's a wide variety of games for the Vita, which this time are stored on an SD memory card instead of the PSP disc-based cartridge.

While you could certainly use the Vita as a stand-alone gaming device quite nicely, you get additional features if you own a PS3 home gaming console. The Cross-Play feature lets you play a game on the PS3, pause/save the game, and then continue playing it on the Vita. Simultaneous Cross-Play lets you play games against others, with one person using the Vita and another person using a PS3 controller, for example. Cross-Play requires specific games (including Hustle Kings, MotorStorm RC, Wipeout HD, Wipeout 2048, Street Fighter X Tekken, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, MLB13: The Show, Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault, Fuseball and When Vikings Attack!)

The remote play option is also cool - with the PS3 running, you can switch to remote play and operate the PS3's menu on the Vita's screen (and play games this way, too, if you would rather play a game on a smaller screen instead of the larger TV display, one assumes). This can be a nice option if the TV your PS3 is connected to needs to be used for something else (like, say, your spouse or kids want to watch regular TV).

Sadly, the remote play features can't control the streaming media apps on the PS3 - it would have been nice to watch movies that you've already purchased through the PS3 on the Vita. And content that you purchase via the Vita also doesn't show up in the PS3 menu. In a world where Apple and Amazon have successfully initiated cloud-based entertainment (purchase content and view on multiple devices), the inability to do this via a PS3 and the Vita is much more noticeable.

The final decision on whether to buy a PS Vita lies with your place in the Sony universe of products. If you (or your gift recipient) already owns a PS3, then great - the Vita is a great complement to this Sony ecosystem. If they are a gamer and want to have that same experience while out and about, then it's also worth a look.

But keep in mind that there are lots of other choices out there too - for example, Nintendo's DS gaming platforms for kids, and even the iOS devices (iPhone, iPod touch) for more casual gaming options.

- Keith Shaw

ThinkGeek iCade 8-bitty game controller

$30

The iPad is great for playing games, but sometimes the touchscreen is useless for controlling a character in the old-school arcade method (where you have to have someone move left, right, up down, fire or jump). For games like that (and there are many of them), ThinkGeek has helped develop the 8-bitty, giving users a Bluetooth-enabled handheld controller that looks like the old Nintendo Entertainment System controller. Powered by two AAA batteries, the 8-bitty has a D-pad on the left that lets you move up, left, down and right, and four buttons on the right. There's also two "shoulder" buttons as well.

Once connected to your iPad, you can then play games via this controller - it works with games like Atari's Greatest Hits, Activision Anthology, Midway Arcade, Namco Arcade and others (the full list is here). For most of the games, you can customize the game to react to which button you press.

After I got it up and running, it really felt like I was back in the '80s arcade of my youth. The controller is very responsive - I never felt any lag or latency (although playing Kaboom! in the Activision Anthology game still stinks without a paddle-like controller) or anything that affected my gameplay. The only downside was that the controller acts like a keyboard - if you decide you want a new game and need to type it in the App Store, you need to turn off the controller to activate the iPad's on-screen keyboard.

A minor quibble, though. Overall I was very impressed with the controller - if there's an iPad gamer on your holiday list, they will be even happier with the 8-bitty.

- Keith Shaw

Targus HD3 Gaming Chill Mat

$64

If you spend any time playing computer games (especially MMORPGs) or if you've recently purchased a high-performance gaming laptop, you'll notice that they tend to run hot with long-term use. Depending on the design of the notebook, you might need some additional cooling protection for the device, which is where the HD3 Gaming Chill Mat from Targus comes in.

The device sits under your notebook and connects to an open USB port to power the unit's three fans. If you are using an older notebook, you might need two USB ports, but for most notebooks one port should suffice.

The unit includes an aluminum alloy grill that aims to dissipate heat more efficiently, as well as airflow straighteners to help reduce "air turbulence" - it all sounds very cool, of course. The mat also has non-skid feet to keep the unit (and your notebook) from sliding around.

In my tests with my MacBook Pro (playing Guild Wars 2), I noticed a definite improvement in the amount of heat that the notebook generated during the game. While Targus says the fans are "ultra-quiet", you will definitely notice when the unit is powered on and working.

The gaming mat can fit notebooks up to 18-inches, so that should cover most of the major gaming notebooks as well as regular laptop systems. If you've been finding that your notebook has been running hot, or to protect your gaming notebook purchase, pick up one of these as well.

- Keith Shaw

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