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Gifts for geeks

A holiday guide to all the gadgets that can complete your PC’s mission.

The demise of the PC has been greatly exaggerated. Far from being replaced by smaller, more portable gadgets, the PC is made more complete with them. Users have found that their palmtops, digital cameras, MP3 players, and other gadgets are so much more useful when they can be hooked together through the common medium of Internetworked PCs. And PC owners are looking to add more of these gadgets to the growing tentacles of their favorite desktop companions. It’s the time of year to start thinking about what new toys that certain nerdy someone will want to plug into her PC, making it the ultimate hub for all her digital hobbies. And we have the guide to the products you should consider first in shopping for her holiday gifts.

Home theater in a white box

Savvy users are finding ways to converge their PCs with their entertainment centers. With a TV and radio tuner card, sound card, video card, built-in DVD player, and a monitor that could beat most TVs for price and performance, the PC actually makes a very good entertainment hub. And the tools that were created for the PC user transform passive stereos and TVs into interactive devices, enabling users to mix CDs and DVDs, make their own movies, and find boatloads of content no TV could match.

Still, the object of your affection probably won’t want to watch the big game on a 17-inch monitor. And don’t even think about getting him a huge flat-panel display just for that purpose. But look among his business tools and you’ll find his projector might just suit the purpose. Trouble is, that old thing doesn’t offer the kind of resolution he needs to take full advantage of the Replay and Pause features on his do-it-yourself personal video recorder. And it’s too bulky to set up just anywhere.

IBM has the solution. With a silhouette that looks more like a traditional 35mm slide projector than an LCD model, the IBM Micro-Portable Data/Video Projector will provide a bright clear picture and, at 2.4 pounds, it’ll allow him to set up the home theater anywhere with a big white wall. It may be small, but it offers the performance of larger machines including 1,024-by-768 XGA output, 1,100 lumens of brightness, and a 2,000-hour lamp life.

If he’s already schlepping around an IBM ThinkPad notebook, the Micro-Portable Data/Video Projector’s auto-sensing electronics instantly identify the video signal and automatically sets up the picture. If not, the projector has Digital Visual Interface (DVI) connectivity to let you work with both digital and analog PCs or notebooks. What’s really cool is that he can act like John Madden and use the laser pointer built into the remote to pinpoint items on the screen and enhance the presentation, thus highlighting his superior knowledge of the game. Oh, and it makes a good presentation tool as well. At $3,499, the price tag might be out of your holiday budget, but when you compare it to most projection systems, the price is right, especially considering its versatility.

The picture is just the first step toward interactive home theater. He can get better sound than he could with many off-the-shelf stereos with the Altec Lansing’s 5100 PC Gaming and Desktop Theater sound system. This six-piece system supports surround sound and extreme dynamic range, so it can catch the nuance in every bone-jarring hit. Turn up the volume and he won’t have to hear his buddy sing “We Will Rock You,” even when they’re sitting next to each other on the couch. Of course, it plays subtler music crisply and supports the wide range of sounds produced by today’s games. It’s not high-end by any means, but neither is the price. At around $140, you won’t find a better 5.1 surround-sound system for the price.

As for making movies that he can show to friends at halftime, there are programs for stitching together photos from his digital camera to make choppy movies. But if he really wants to make free-flowing, do-it-yourself short films, there’s no substitute for the digital video recorder. And the one to get him is the Sony DCR-IP5, the smallest and lightest camcorder on the market. Simply put, it packs more features into a small package than most other camcorders twice its size, including a Carl ZeissVario Sonnar lens that zooms to 10-by optical and 120-by digital; a swivel color LCD screen; and Super Steady Shot picture stabilization. At around $1,200, it’s not the cheapest digital camcorder on the market, but it’s worth the price.

If he would rather play Madden NFL 2002 than listen to Cris Collinsworth drone on, he can hook up a good controller into his PC and let the games begin. But why restrict him to PC gaming when he can connect a Sony PlayStation 2 to the PC and get the full range of games available, as well as play his pals on the Internet? The PlayStation 2 YPsPr VGA Box makes the PC the ultimate gaming environment and opens up a whole new realm of converged gaming.

And if he actually goes to games, one of the most interesting and practical gifts you can give him is the Pentax Digibino DB-100 digital camera/binoculars. As binoculars, the Digibino offers 7-by magnification in a package that will easily slip into his shirt pocket. As a digital camera, it offers less than one megapixel resolution (1,024 by 768). So it’s not a replacement for the Canon EOS D60 (our editor’s choice). But it will serve for games and concerts of all types, or catching photos of rare wildlife in the woods. At 5 inches by 2.7 inches by 1.7 inches, the DB-100 has the look and feel of a real pair of binoculars, making it perfect for situations where no cameras are allowed. At a little under 12 ounces (with two AA batteries), it’s lighter than any combination of binocular and digicam. Eye width is adjustable from 2.2 to 2.8 inches, allowing it to be used by people with all kinds of hat sizes.

Desktop photo lab

No PC is complete these days without the ability to print stills of all the multimedia flowing through the digital hub. And, as the output quality of photorealistic inkjet printers continues to increase, the prices continue to decrease. One of the best deals around is Epson’s Stylus Photo 825. With an estimated street price less than $200, you get 5760dpi output and don’t even need a computer. While you can print from Mac OS and Windows computers through the built-in USB port, the Stylus Photo 825 has a built-in Type II PC Card slot and adapters for CompactFlash, (Type I), Memory Stick, SmartMedia, as well as Secure Digital and MultiMedia cards. An optional adapter provides access to CompactFlash Type II devices such as IBM’s Microdrive, allowing you to make prints directly from digicam memory cards. This is a six-color printer that lets you produce borderless prints up to full letter size, including the popular 4-by-6 and 5-by-7 sizes. Computerless printing is controlled by a LCD screen built into the printer’s top and if you want to get a sneak peek of what the images look like–not just their file names–spring for the optional ($79) Preview Monitor that lets you see the images before you print them. Techies will appreciate the subtleties in image output made possible by the four-picoliter ink droplet, but everyone will marvel at the image quality for the price.

Extending the PC’s range

At one time people thought handheld devices would replace PCs as thin clients attached to the Internet. Now it is obvious to everyone that palmtops, MP3 players, and smart phones are just OK as standalone devices. But they’re nerdly necessities when you think of them as extensions of the PC. For example, how much more useful is your contacts database if you can synch it with your palmtop or smart phone? And they do make great gifts.

Our pick for pure handhelds is the Handspring Treo 90. Many people are trying to converge the phone and the PDA in a smart phone, but in our tests, the concept may need time to work its way out. Complexities include buggy e-mail integration, poor voice quality, and high cost. The Handspring Treo 180 is a solid attempt, but at around $500, adoption has been slow. Still, you can’t beat the Treo concept for PDAs. Handspring got the interface right and the Palm OS is still the best for power management and ease of use. Well, the Treo 90 is the PDA without the phone integrated. And with a color screen and a competitive price (around $300), it may still leave a few dollars in your holiday budget for additional gifts.

And of course, if she has just a PDA, she needs a cell phone as well. But the run-of-the-mill device just won’t cut it. For the past month, I’ve been carrying around a new PCS Phone 1010 by LG, a 2.8-ounce clamshell phone that’s available in silver, blue, or purple. The 1010 by LG includes an external Caller ID screen (96 by 12 pixels) to see who’s calling without opening the phone, easy four-way navigation for quick access to phone book numbers, embedded games, and one-touch silent mode for when users just can’t take a call. The 1010 provides 150 minutes of talk time and six days of standby time. My service was provided by Sprint which worked perfectly whether in metropolitan areas or out in the country, where I live. The 13 customizable ringing tones can identify and personalize incoming callers and the built-in games are ideal for making airport downtime less boring. The internal 120-by-80 pixel LCD screen lets you take advantage of the built-in scheduler and calendar in English and Spanish, and the 99-entry phone book (with room for up to five numbers per entry) makes it easy to keep organized.

If she simply must have a smart phone, there is a solution that fits just about any budget. The Sidekick, a T-Mobile (formerly VoiceStream) licensed version of the Palo-Alto, Calif.-based Danger Hiptop concept. The keyboard interface on the Sidekick and other future Hiptop incarnations rivals the Treo for ease of use. But its unique scrolling wheel makes it even easier to use in the long run. And at around $200, it’s the first affordable smart phone on the market.

One of the hottest gifts this holiday season will be the Apple iPod, especially since it now easily synchs with Windows and Macintosh machines. Simply put, the iPod is the ultimate MP3 player. With up to 20GB of internal storage, the iPod can hold the contents of 400 CDs. It has no moving parts, so she’ll ditch her portable CD player and all its skips and jumps for this baby. And its easy interface makes navigating through that huge library of music a breeze. At around $800 for the 20GB version, this is definitely a high-end gift. But she’s worth it, isn’t she?

One of the iPod’s strengths is in portable storage. It’s not just a music player, it’s a portable solid-state disk, albeit an expensive one. Several manufacturers make smaller, cheaper solid state disks that plug into the USB plug and act like tiny hard drives. Some of them have additional functions as well. Smarthome Inc.’s Pocket Hard Drive Voice Bank is the kind of device that will put an end to the portable microcassette recorder. It has a USB interface and can transfer audio notes directly to any computer running Windows 98/2000/ME. It also doubles as an FM radio receiver so you won’t miss your daily fix of news, weather, and sports. The voice bank can record up to 16 hours of audio and has a power-off feature that automatically turns off the recorder when it’s not in use. The price for this useful device is around $270.

For really small USB storage, SimpleTech’s new Bonzai USB Mini-Drive measures 2.5 inches by 1.3 inches by .25 inches. The Bonzai offers the storage capacity of 90 floppy disks full of documents, digital photographs, MP3 tunes, or streaming audio and video clips in the most compact form factor. Unlike solid-state mini storage devices, the Bonzai uses SecureDigital or MMC cards, making it more of a tiny card reader than a portable drive. The cute little Bonzai plugs directly into a Windows or Mac OS computer’s USB (1.1) port for file transfer at 1.5Mbps, or the flash card can be inserted into any device that uses an SD or MMC card, including PDAs, smart phones, MP3 players, and digital still or video cameras. Bonzai’s direct-transfer capability eliminates the need for external cables, cords, or cradles. It’s compatible with all Windows systems starting with 98SE and Mac OS operating systems starting with 8.6, and is available in capacities of 64MB to 512MB. Suggested retail prices are around $80 for 64MB and $120 for 128MB.

If you’re looking for a real solid-state storage device, why not get one from the people who invented the Microdrive? The IBM Memory Key is hands-down the best deal in a pocketable solid-state memory device. It is the smallest one available and doesn’t dance around by offering useless 16MB models. Only one size–128MB–is available, and it lets you share data between any notebook and desktop system with a USB port. The 128MB USB 2.0 Memory Key offers 88 diskettes’ worth of space to store digital images, text, presentations, spreadsheets, or multimedia files. It’s truly plug-and-play and requires no software, batteries, or power. Using the USB 2.0 interface facilitates read/write speeds up to three times faster than that of other USB 1.1 devices, and the unit is backward-compatible with slower 1.1 ports. You can protect files by selecting the amount of storage you want secured on your Memory Key; and to access files on the protected partition, users must enter a password. The Memory Key includes a write-protection switch to prevent accidental overwrites and supports emergency booting, like a floppy diskette drive, for antivirus and diagnostic applications.

Before going shopping online, you might want to visit PriceGrabber.com, a free site whose services include detailed product information, e-mail notification of the best prices on the Web, and side-by-side product comparisons.

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