The holidays can be stressful even in the best of times, but this year's dismal economic climate is bringing new headaches. Not only do we have to grapple with the usual questions about what to buy for whom ("Should I get an iPod case for Aunt Mabel? Wait, no, I got her one last year..."), we also have to look for ways to cut expenses.
That's why we've done something a bit different in our 2008 Cool Stuff Holiday Gift Guide. As usual, the staff at Computerworld looked for cool, fun and useful gadgets for home and office computing, for entertainment at home or when you're on the go, and for when you're traveling and taking photographs. But this time, we offer three specific suggestions within each category.
For those of you who have a lot of gifts to buy, we present our "On a Budget" choices -- gadgets that cost under US$50 (some way under $50) but will still please the techies among your friends and relations.
If you're one of the lucky ones who can count on a big bonus or a golden parachute (or perhaps you're planning to buy just one big gift for the whole family this year), we've got suggestions that are, monetarily speaking, "Over the Top."
And finally, if you're just looking for something so weird that nobody else would think of it, take a look at our "Off the Wall" ideas.
As always, we've included links to Web sites where you can find more information about each of the products listed, as well as estimates of how much you can expect to pay for each online. Keep in mind that prices do fluctuate, especially during the holiday season. Happy clicking!
It's great that you can carry your media with you everywhere -- but that's not enough. You want to be able to listen to it comfortably, watch it without squinting and not have to worry about when your battery will conk out. Here are three portable gadgets that will make sure your music won't die -- no matter where you are.
On a Budget: Acoustibuds
There are two kinds of people on your gift list: those who are fussy about the earbuds they use with their portable players, and those who aren't. Give the fussy ones Acoustibuds.
These silicone rubber adapters turn standard flat-front buds that sort of sit in your ears (like the ones that come with iPods and Zunes) into down-your-ear-canal, seal-the-exits-and-crank-up-the-party buds. The multiple circular fins on the Acoustibuds make a better seal to keep out ambient noise and improve volume and fidelity, and they hold the bud in your ear better.
They fit most flat-front earbuds and come in a package that includes two sizes (five-fin, for petite ears; and six-fin, for regular jug handles) in black or white.
And what should you get for the people who aren't fussy? Give them some Acoustibuds, too. Once they've slipped these hypoallergenic silicone jackets onto their whatever flat-front buds, they'll realize what all the fuss is about. For $13, how can you go wrong?
Acoustibuds have just hit the market and aren't available everywhere, but you can get them at Amazon.com, and they may find their way into other retail outlets in time for the holidays.
-- David DeJean
Summary: If you don't want to spring for premium earbuds, Acoustibuds can turn standard buds into snug-fitting, high-quality music makers.
Over the Top: InFocus IN1102 projector
Gift-giving is tough when the giftee is a media freak. These people tend to be hardware-obsessives who are way ahead of you. There's almost nothing you can give them for a reasonable amount of money that they haven't already given themselves. So do the obvious: Spend an unreasonable amount of money on something truly superb: the InFocus IN1102 projector.
InFocus has been the conference-room Cadillac of video projectors for years, and the recently released 1102 is the baby of the family. It lists for a breathtaking $1,199, but it's the real deal: 2200 lumens, 1800:1 contrast ratio, 1680 by 1050 maximum resolution, and image size from 28 inches diagonal at 3.9 feet to 304 inches at 39 feet, just in case they want to do auditorium shows. It's got necessary features like USB connectivity to laptops (PCs and Macs), wireless remote and digital keystone correction.
At 2.75 pounds and 2.5 by 8.3 by 7.1 inches, the InFocus IN1102 is not exactly pocket-size, but it will fit in a carry-on -- and give great, no-compromises media when it gets there.
-- David DeJean
Summary: The InFocus IN1102 digital projector lets media fans create their own theaters wherever they travel.
Off the Wall: Eco Media Player
If you're trying to go greener with your gift-giving this year, here's something that will help: a hand-powered media player. Turn the crank on the Baylis Eco Media Player for one minute, and it will play audio for 45 minutes or video for about half that time.
Sleek is not a word you would apply to the Eco. In fact, it's a 4.5-by-2.5-by-1-inch, 6-ounce handful of clunky, mostly because of its built-in generator and crank. But it's also a big bunch of clever. It's actually a dual-power device -- its lithium-ion battery charges from USB as well as the hand-crank. There are 4GB and 8GB versions available, and both include a standard SD slot for expansion.
On the audio side, the Eco supports MP3, WMA, WAV, OGG and AAC files, and also includes an FM radio tuner. Its 220-by-176-pixel screen will display AVI and WMV files (it comes with conversion software for other formats) and photos.
This is no mere read-only device, either: The Eco records from the FM tuner, and includes a built-in microphone for recording voice memos and a line-in connector for recording from other audio sources. And beyond its media functions, it also works as a flashlight and cell phone charger. And all this is only $199.
-- David DeJean
Summary: You can literally crank out your mobile media with this eco-friendly player.
It's hard to keep everyone in one household happy. The kids want to watch that obscure movie you think you might have bought five years ago; your dad demands the clearest, sharpest TV around; and you ... you just need somebody to put a smile on your face. We've got you covered.
On a Budget: Movie Collector
My friends and my 16-year-old daughter rarely visit local movie rental stores anymore -- they call me to see if the films they want to watch are in my 500-plus DVD/VHS movie collection. But until recently, keeping track of it all was a problem, because I just couldn't remember what I had.
Now it's a breeze. I simply use Movie Collector from Collectorz.com. Available for Windows or Mac OS X, this incredible application allows you to type in the title or UPC code of your DVD or VHS tape, then click through several options to quickly catalog your collection.
What's really cool is that Movie Collector automatically downloads and imports information about the films, including front and back cover art, a synopsis of the storyline, the names of the actors and director, the length of the film, and much more. All of this makes it easier to find that film starring Humphrey Bogart about searching for gold in the West.
The software also lets you print a detailed list of your films so you can share your collection with friends.
The downloadable standard version is $29.95, or you can opt for the $49.95 Pro version, which includes extras like an integrated loan manager so you can track who is borrowing your movies. For people with really large collections, you can buy the Pro version with your choice of handheld scanners ($99.90 or $199.90, depending on the scanner you choose).
-- Todd R. Weiss
Price: $29.95 | Phone: +31-207724411
Summary: Keep track of your movie collection with this easy-to-use software.
Over the Top: Sony XEL-1 OLED Digital TV
This may not be the most expensive LED television you can buy. But at $2,499 retail, the XEL-1 OLED Digital TV from Sony is probably the most expensive LED thin-panel television that you can buy with a screen that's less than 12 inches by 10 inches.
Despite its diminutive size, this newfangled, 11-inch diagonal, OLED (organic light-emitting diode) television -- the first of its kind from Sony -- may be the technology of the future for amazing television images. OLED technology is able to reproduce the color black more correctly, which gives spectacular dark-scene detail compared with previous TV technologies.
The XEL-1 also features jaw-dropping picture quality, with a screen that's just 3mm thick and a 1,000,000:1 contrast that has largely been unseen in previous generations of LED televisions.
The XEL-1 also includes two HDMI inputs, a digital tuner and a memory stick media slot. If you can wait, Sony has promised that it will begin selling larger OLED screen TVs next year -- but expect prices even higher than those for this tiny debut model.
-- Todd R. Weiss
Summary: You don't want just a good TV display, you want the best -- and you can't do better than the diminutive Sony XEL-1 OLED Digital TV.
Off the Wall: Mr. Personality
Fess up, now -- you've always had a thing for all those sleazy talk show hosts on late night TV, haven't you? Want one of your own to keep your spirits up when your boss yells at you, or when your monthly credit card bill shows up?
What you need is Mr. Personality, a rolling robot from WowWee who cracks wise, reads your daily fortune and answers your questions about the future. Mr. Personality also makes a great gift for the lonely geek who doesn't want to deal with real people.
He comes equipped with a color LCD screen, which creates the animated "face"; four infrared sensors so it can avoid obstacles (and, hopefully, your pet cat); a built-in microphone so you can make voice memos; 64MB of built-in memory; and an SD memory card slot. You can even change Mr. Personality's personality using the included PC software, and download more from WowWee's Web site.
Mr. Personality isn't a cheap companion -- he lists at $300 and needs six C batteries in order to tool around your home. But isn't that a small price to pay for your own robotic stand-up comedian?
-- Barbara Krasnoff
Summary: Hey, didja hear the one about.... You didn't? Then try Mr. Personality, the wise-cracking home robot.
These days, almost anyone can produce photos that look professional -- if they have the right equipment. If you want your friends or family members to have the right imaging stuff, make sure they have a really great camera and a really great photo editor. And for an extra thrill, you can give them the ability to show off in three dimensions.
On a Budget: IrfanView
If you've been into digital photography for more than a week, you know that you need photo editing software, an essential tool for removing that ugly green skin tone or cropping your ex-boyfriend out of the image. You could try the $700 Photoshop CS4, which is so complicated it will upgrade to CS5 before you learn to use it. Or you can get IrfanView, a free toolbox of digital photography utilities.
IrfanView was created by Irfan Skiljan, who calls the software a photo viewer. But it is much more. For example, I recently sent 50 TIFF images, all about 50MB, through the IrfanView batch conversion utility.
I asked it to resize the pictures to 300 dpi with the long dimension at 1600 pixels; to apply moderate sharpening; to "auto-adjust colors"; to rename the files; and to output them in JPG format. I could have also asked it to crop, flip or rotate; convert to black and white; adjust brightness, contrast, color saturation or color balance; or a half-dozen other things.
That's a huge amount of processing, but it took just 160 seconds, or about three seconds per image, on my midrange Dell desktop. It's the sort of thing you might want to do when preparing photos for production of a book (as I was), for uploading to a Web site, or for downsizing and making bulk improvements to your images before archiving them. Or when you simply want to make your ex disappear.
But wait, isn't this supposed to be a gift guide? If you must stand on ceremony, just download the software, put it on a CD, maybe make a nice CD cover, and voila! Instant stocking stuffer.
-- Gary Anthes
Summary: You want a good photo editor? You want a good free photo editor? IrfanView isn't quite Photoshop, but it will do a lot that other apps won't.
Over the Top: Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital SLR camera
If you really want to spend this season, you could go for the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III SLR digital camera: $7,999 with free shipping but no lens. On the other hand, you don't need to bust your FDIC-insured savings account to buy a digital SLR camera that would bring smiles to a pro picture-taker at National Geographic.
For less than half that price -- $2,699 without lens -- you can get the brand new and amazing Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital SLR camera. In some ways, it's better than the venerable 1Ds Mark III.