November 21, 2008, 4:00 PM — 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
Acoustibuds from Burton Technologies LLC
Street price: $12.99 | Store locator | Phone: 231-845-5516
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
InFocus IN1102 from InFocus Corp.
Street price: $949 to $1,623 | Tech specs | Phone: 800-660-0024
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
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
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
XEL-1 OLED Digital TV from Sony Electronics Inc.
Street price: $1,950 - $2,500 | Tech specs | Store locator
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
Mr. Personality from WowWee Group Ltd.
Street price: $244 - $300 | Store locator | Phone: 800-310-3033
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
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.
Skip this if you are not a spec head: 21-megapixel, full-frame sensor; 14-bit A/D conversion; 9-point focus with 6 assist points; ISO speed range of 100-25,600; exposure metering in 35 zones; new ultrasharp LCD monitor; 3.9 frames per second shooting; state-of-the-art DIGIC 4 image processor; and built-in automatic sensor cleaning.
Translation: This is one awesome camera, with performance unimaginable a few years ago at any price. It may exceed the capabilities of your lenses, let alone your skills as a photographer.
Oh, I almost forgot -- you can make home movies with this camera. Seriously.
-- Gary Anthes
EOS 5D Mark II from Canon USA Inc.
Street price: $1,810 to $3,800 | Tech specs | Store locator
Summary: If you want your digital photos to look professional, you need the best -- and latest -- camera from Canon: the EOS 5D Mark II.
Off the Wall: Minoru 3D Webcam
You think having a conference with a colleague using a webcam is futuristic? Wait until you try it in 3-D -- using the Minoru 3D Webcam.
Designed for 3-D Web chat, the Minoru (Japanese for "reality") has two cameras spaced the same distance apart as human eyes, creating a stereoscopic effect.
"This creates an anthropomorphic look that means users tend to look into the eyes of the camera as they light up," says the maker, Promotion and Display Technology Ltd. in Manchester, England. Anthropomorphic is right -- the Minoru looks like the latest take on one of Pixar's cartoon robots.
The webcam has a multiposition stand that can sit on a desk or monitor. Viewers wear special colored glasses to see the 3-D image. It will sell for under $100 when it ships in December, according to the company.
Does it work? Heck, I don't know. I just want one because it looks so cool. In fact, I'd buy one for each member of my family if I could afford it.
OK, I suppose I could sell my Lehman stock.
-- Gary Anthes
Novo Minoru 3D Webcam from Promotion and Display Technology Ltd.
Price: Less than $100 when it becomes available in December
Summary: Let everyone see you in 3-D with the help of the robotic-looking Minoru webcam.
When it's time to up and leave everything behind, you want to be able to do it in style. Get behind the wheel of the best-equipped (technically speaking) automobile available. Use the latest GPS technology to track your travels and mark your photographs. And if you want to make sure you're in touch at all times, you can find that elusive Wi-Fi signal and impress the locals with your fashion sense simultaneously.
On a Budget: i-gotU Travel Logger
Going on vacation or visiting distant relatives for the holiday? The $49 i-gotU USB GPS Travel Logger lets you geotag your photos and then combine the locations and photos into a map mashup -- you can trace your journey and see photos or videos taken at various sites. It tracks your location in 15-second intervals and, using included PC software, syncs up with the photos' date/time information.
Compatible with most digital cameras and camera phones, the i-gotU works with Google Maps (or Google Earth for 3-D presentations). You can upload the trip mashups to various photo-sharing sites, including @trip, Flickr or Picasa. You can also connect it to your laptop to be used with compatible GPS navigation software such as Microsoft Streets & Trips.
The i-gotU is made by Taiwan-based Mobile Action Technology Inc. Don't let the Web site's occasionally awkward English throw you; it contains some handy video tutorials. And keep in mind that you can use the i-gotU for more than just tracking your own travels -- you can use it to find out where your kids were last night. Now that's multitasking.
-- David Ramel
Over the Top: Lexus LX-570
They've yet to release cars that drive themselves, but until they do, you might want to settle for the Lexus LX-570.
This Lexus offers state-of-the-art technology combined with luxury. Want to make sure you're safe? The radar detects an imminent collision and takes steps to avoid it; it also sets cruise control so you stay a certain distance behind the car in front of you. Cameras in the grille, passenger side-view mirror and rear let you see everything around you.
Have trouble parallel parking? A parking assist feature uses a series of ultrasonic sensors to give you a visual representation of the distances between your car and those in the front and back of you; you get an audible warning when the preset distance is reached.
More? The chassis actually lowers for easier entry and then raises back up as you drive. A GPS navigation system with Bluetooth voice activation provides real-time traffic monitoring to help you avoid traffic jams and road closures. Bluetooth-equipped mobile phones can also be used to operate the GPS system and place hands-free calls using the stereo system. A Lexus Link option includes its own dedicated phone to place personal calls or communicate with advisers to summon help or get driving directions or concierge services.
Bored during a long drive? A 30GB hard drive stores up to 2,000 songs for the requisite mind-blowing stereo system (19 speakers), which has an auxiliary iPod/MP3/WMA port, along with CD, DVD audio and DVD video playback. A DVD rear-seat entertainment system sports a 9-inch screen and two wireless headphones.
The manufacturer's suggested retail price for all this road-ready tech is $75,705 -- for the basic vehicle. Adding all available options bumps the price up to about $89,000, and that doesn't include more than a dozen extra options that are priced individually by different dealers.
-- David Ramel
Off the Wall: Wi-Fi Detector Shirt
Do you really want to have to open up your laptop to search for a Wi-Fi hot spot? Of course not. For those of us who want to know where that hot spot is without any trouble whatsoever, ThinkGeek thoughtfully sells the $29.99 Wi-Fi Detector T-shirt.
It sports a decal with the ubiquitous symbol for Wi-Fi on the front; the bars glow to dynamically indicate the strength of any nearby 802.11b or 802.11g Wi-Fi signals.
ThinkGeek is proud of its invention. Straight from the Web site: "Finally you can get the attention you deserve as others bow to you as their reverential Wi-Fi god, while geeky chicks swoon at your presence. You can thank us later."
Uh huh, sure. I wouldn't advise canceling your Match.com or eHarmony account just yet.
The three AAA batteries are not included. The animated decal, along with the batteries, can and should be removed for laundering -- if someone who would wear one of these things would actually wash clothes.
-- David Ramel
Computers are considered tools rather than toys, but those of us who are into tech still appreciate a truly cool piece of engineering. Whether it's the latest top-of-the-line, no-holds-barred Apple Mac Pro or the smallest ultramobile PC that can run Windows Vista, there's somebody on your gift list who wants one. And if they're stuck with a legacy machine, an inexpensive Bluetooth adapter might be just the thing.
On a Budget: Iogear Bluetooth 2.0 USB Micro Adapter
If you want to give a gift that there's a higher-than-average chance the giftee won't have, wrap up an Iogear Bluetooth 2.0 USB Micro Adapter.
It is surprising, given how widespread Bluetooth has become, to realize how few PCs and laptops are Bluetooth-equipped. The Iogear gizmo makes it easy to remedy that omission. It's a lima-bean-size bump on the end of a USB connector.
Your giftee can stick it into a USB port, install its software and connect to Bluetooth headsets for VoIP applications like Skype. It's also handy for stereo headphones (how many times have you caught your media player's earbud cord in your coat zipper?), Bluetooth printers and other peripherals.
The Micro Adapter is a Bluetooth 2.0 device that works with both PCs and older Bluetooth-less Macs, and has a range of 30 feet. It's under $20. Buy two, and give your old laptop Bluetooth as well.
-- David DeJean
Bluetooth 2.0 USB Micro Adapter from Iogear Inc.
Street price: $16 - $28 | Tech specs | Store locator
Summary: An inexpensive and convenient way to add Bluetooth to your portable and not-so-portable devices.
Over the Top: Apple Mac Pro
Sometimes it's not the thought that counts, it's the price tag. And though prices of desktop computers have dropped to practically nothing lately, if you really want to make an impression, you can still manage to spend the kind of money that would turn heads even at an AIG sales meeting.
The quickest, easiest way is to put a really big Mac on your menu: Go to Apple.com and order up a Mac Pro desktop with two 3.2-GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon processors, 32GB of RAM, 4TB of internal storage, an Nvidia Quadro FX 5600 1.5GB graphics card, a 16x dual-layer SuperDrive and two Apple Cinema HD 30-inch flat-panel displays.
Throw in some software, along with a few other goodies -- such as an Apple wireless keyboard, an AirPort Extreme Card, Aperture 2 image editing software, Logic Express 8 music editing software and, of course, the AppleCare Protection Program (just in case something goes wrong) -- and your shopping cart total comes to $23,592.
You could save $1,799 if you bought just one 30-inch display -- but what the heck, the graphic card supports two. Besides, you're saving $100 by buying only one SuperDrive. And with the economy in the shape it's in, saving a little money is the right thing to do.
-- David DeJean
Mac Pro from Apple Inc.
Price: $2,799 (basic), $23,592 (completely tricked out)
Tech specs | Store locator | Phone: 800-MY-APPLE
Summary: Load up this Mac Pro and you've got yourself the ultimate Apple machine.
Off the Wall: Willcom D4 ultramobile PC
If good things really do come in small packages, then the Willcom D4 ultramobile PC may be the best gift you give anybody this Christmas. The D4 is, according to the manufacturer, the smallest device with a QWERTY keyboard that is capable of running Windows Vista Home Premium SP1.
And it is small -- about 7.5 by 3.25 by 1 inches, the size of a large candy-bar phone, when it's all folded down. Opened up, the screen slides up and tilts forward to resemble a micro-miniature laptop, with a 1024-by-600 touch screen and 64-key keyboard.
It also gets credit for being the first device to run Intel's 1.3-GHz Atom processor. The Willcom D4 comes with 1GB of memory, a 1.8-inch 40GB disk, a 2-megapixel camera, a Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, a microSD slot and Wi-Fi.
Besides being a very small Vista computer (assuming you want a very small Vista computer), the D4 is also a cell phone, which explains why it's being marketed by Willcom, a Japan-based wireless company. It's actually a rebranded version of Sharp's WS016SH, and while originally produced for the Japanese market, it is available in the U.S. for about $1,400 from a variety of online retailers.
-- David DeJean
You want to be popular at work, don't you? Well, here are some ways to accomplish that laudable end. You can give your bored cubicle buddies something to do with their fingers besides drum them on their desks, and you can provide them with a way to work off all that excess hostility.
And if you really, really want to impress one of your favorite colleagues, we've got a way to do it -- although you'll probably need a loan to get it.
On a Budget: Finger Drum Mousepad
Are you itching to become the next Ginger Baker? Get set to roll -- the Finger Drum Mousepad from Hammacher Schlemmer lets you play eight different percussion sounds: bass, snare, two rack toms, a floor tom, hi-hat, crash and ride cymbals. All using just your fingers.
But wait -- there's more. A connection for your MP3 player allows you to put drum tracks over any song in your digital music library, and you can record up to 30 of your own creations to accompany, say, your favorite B.B. King or polka album. The mouse pad even sports separate volume and tempo controls. And if you, or your intended recipient, work in a cubicle, don't fret -- the mouse pad kindly includes a headphone jack.
With all these features, it seems a great waste of time and effort, not to mention musically shameful, to use this mouse pad with an actual mouse to do actual work. Unless, of course, your spreadsheet turns out to have a great beat.
-- Johanna Ambrosio
Over the Top: Diamond Flower mouse
There are very few people who are into bling to this degree (except, as a colleague of mine cracked, perhaps one of the athletes who's wearing a 2008 Celtics championship ring).
The $23,250 Diamond Flower mouse from Pat Says Now is available in 18-carat white or yellow gold and has 59 diamonds set in the shape of a flower. If flowers are too girly, you can order the diamonds in other configurations. The mouse's maker promises that they're politically correct gemstones, too; in other words, they're not "conflict diamonds" that come from countries sanctioned by the United Nations. What a relief!
I don't know of a computer or a monitor that wouldn't look pretty darn shabby next to this particular mouse. Then again, I probably just don't travel in those kinds of circles, small as they are. A spokesperson for the mouse's U.S. distributor said just seven of these have been sold worldwide in the five years they've been on the market.
For the less ostentatiously wealthy, or perhaps for the not-quite-as-deserving on your holiday list, this same outfit also sells unjeweled mice (for about $30) in other shapes, including a green brain, an American flag, a glow-in-the-dark ghost and a few other varieties that wouldn't be all that welcome in most work environments.
-- Johanna Ambrosio
Diamond Flower mouse from Pat Says Now GmbH & Co. KG
Price: $23,250 from Pat Says Now or Mousenvy.com
Tech specs | Phone: +49 (0)201-8619 206
Summary: If diamonds are a girl's best friend, then this diamond-decorated mouse should be a real hit with today's techies.
Off the Wall: USB Missile Launcher
It all started when Computerworld's Web development group -- with whom we editor types share office space -- all got the exact same Nerf guns. (Rumor has it that they all went out and bought the same model on their own dime -- this was not company-sponsored play.)
Call it Nerf envy, but they had been having so much darn fun that the editors felt it was time to bond, James Bond-style. So after some consultation, we decided on Dream Cheeky's USB Missile Launcher.
The missiles shoot up to 10 feet using pressurized air, and the included software installs a control panel on your computer, allowing you to swivel the launcher 180 degrees and hit one button to shoot the missiles.
It would be nice for the aim-challenged among us to have more than three projectiles included, but the software also sports a missile target, so at least you can practice by shooting at the computer. Not to worry -- these are foam-tipped darts, so no co-workers -- or computers -- were actually harmed in the making of this gift guide.
If you've got some extra dollars to spare, you can get even geekier -- the $40 USB Wireless Missile Launcher can be commanded up to 15 feet away from your computer using a USB controller, while the $60 Webcam-equipped USB MSN Missile Launcher can be fired from anywhere on the Internet by anyone on your MSN Messenger buddy list.
Let the Great Cubicle War begin.
-- Johanna Ambrosio