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The ComputerUser Gift Guide

If you find yourself stuck on what to get for the techie in your life (or for yourself), look no further.

Around this time of year, magazines love to tell you what was the best in the categories they cover-the best movies, the best albums, the best new cars. Here at ComputerUser we realize that best is a subjective term, and what might be the godsend product of the year for one might be the dud of the year for another.

So think of the products highlighted in this article simply as stuff worth checking out, and stuff with the potential to make a great gift–nothing less, nothing more. We cherry-picked a handful of categories from the tech marketplace (out of the zillions available) and came up with our recommended pick for each one.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other good choices to be made, only that we found these products to be good at doing what they were supposed to do. In any case, any one of them would be right at home on a holiday wish list, whether it’s compiled by a tech-savvy sort or not.

As always, keep in mind, the prices listed are the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. With some legwork, you should be able to get all these goodies for much, much less.

Genealogy software

Ancestry.com Family Tree Maker 2006 Deluxe

Thanks to the Internet and products like Family Tree Maker , finding your roots has never been easier. FTM’s automatic search function and ability to merge and append data found on the Web is unsurpassed, and it boasts several impressive multimedia features. ($30)

Disc saver

SkipDR

Digital Innovations’ SkipDR Motorized Automax Disc Repair System promises to fix any DC, DVD, game disc, or data disc with its patented battery-powered radial wheel. Naturally, some discs are beyond hope, but SkipDR is especially impressive with discs that don’t look trashed, but simply refuse to do what they’re supposed to do. ($40)

Digital photo editing software

Corel Paint Shop Pro X

The first edition of Paint Shop Pro released by new owner Corel comes with enhanced tools that have the serious hobbyist in mind. Among many new features, version 10 suggests changes and lets you see what your photo will look like with the changes before you decide to accept them. Corel says it also runs lean and mean, zipping along at 50 percent faster than previous versions. ($59)

DivX/VCD video capture device

ADS Tech Instant VideoMPX

You’ll need to upgrade if you want to make DVDs, but if what you’re after is a device that can create PC-compatible video on the go, the VideoMPX is the pick. This powerful and flexible item connects to any Windows XP machine via a USB 2.0 connection, and allows a number of editing options with the included software. ($80)

Home phone/answering machine combo

Motorola Advanced cordless phone/answering system

No, the ’80s aren’t back, and we’re not cycling back to old-fashioned cordless phone. Motorola’s MD761 cordless system is an all-in-one communications package that boasts answering machine access, forwarding capability, caller screening, a handset-to-handset room monitor, memo recording, caller ID, wall-mount compatibility, and lots more. (Starting at $80)

Karaoke software

Ipe My Voice Audio CD Vocal Removal Software

How many times have you heard a song on the radio and thought, “I can sing better than that bum”? Well, here’s your chance to prove it. Ipe’s My Voice can remove vocals from most audio CDs in real time. How? It’s a secret, but if you know a little about out-of-phase stereo, you’re probably on the right track. With My Voice, you can also change a song’s pitch or tempo, and even record your voice mixed with the backing track. It even comes with a microphone to make your Star Search dreams come true right away. ($90)

Computer/TV converter

StarTech TV Jockey

Wish your computer monitor was more like a TV, or vice-versa? The TV Jockey converts signals from one to the other, and is compatible with either NTSC (North America) or PAL (Europe) standards. Its stereo outputs can go into either speakers or a sound card, and the unit’s inputs accommodate RCA audio and video, line audio, S-video, VGA, and cable. ($99)

Thrifty navigation tool

Delorme’s Earthmate GPS LT-20

The Earthmate is a reliable, easy-to-use GPS tool that you hook to your laptop via USB connection while you’re on the road (not when you’re driving, obviously, or your location will come up as ditch). It shows your real-time position on detailed maps anywhere in the United States. Sweetening the pot, the voice command-compatible LT-20 comes with DeLorme’s Street Atlas USA 2006 software. ($100)

Digital receiver

Harmon-Kardon DPR 2005 Digital Path Receiver

Convergence is a nice buzzword, but what do you do to make your high-end audio and video gear all get along? You get a powerful beast like Harmon-Kardon’s DPR . It links your program, no matter the source, directly to a powerful amplifier without any analog interference, resulting in the clearest sound and picture possible. It can handle all the latest surround formats from Dolby and DTS, including Dolby Pro Logic IIx, Dolby Virtual Speaker, and DTS 96/24. Multiroom options include A-BUS-ready connectivity, assignable rear channels, and a separate Zone II remote. Now, relax, watch, and listen. ($1,800)

Component digital video recorder

Pioneer DVR-533

Finally, a DVR that’s actually easier for newbies to use out of the box than a VCR. The Pioneer’s instruction book will gather dust until you feel like learning the finer points of its operation; once it’s hooked up, however, just turn it on and press record, and you’re on your way. Also, its “chase” feature can let you see that opening kickoff that you missed while stocking the fridge, all without missing a single play. The Pioneer also boasts one-touch disc copying, but on non-copyguarded discs only. ($399)

Junior’s first cell phone

The Firefly Mobile Phone

The Firefly mobile phone for kids is flashy and feature-rich enough for young users, yet easily enough controlled for grown-ups. It doesn’t use a keypad; rather, it has five programmable buttons designed to keep your kids connected to a shortlist of contacts (including you, one would hope) with a minimum of fuss. It also comes with a backpack clip that makes it hard to lose. It runs on prepaid minutes and its PIN-protected set-up mean you make the call on how and when your kids use it. ($100)

Alternative home-network tool

Iogear Powerline Networking Kit

Iogear’s powerline setup lets you network computers, networking devices, and gaming devices through your electric powerlines. The kit offers a 900-foot wireless range and up to 14Mbps bandwidth, making it useful for getting around Wi-Fi dead spots. ($100)

Digital music accessory

Ministry of Sound StikAx

The worlds of gaming, video, and DJing come together with this odd little item that lets you remix and reconfigure music files with a joystick-like controller that automatically saves your improvised sound collages. The StikAx comes with a library of 450 loops, and can be used to make photo and video “mixes” too. ($160)

Portable multimedia player

Systec V-Pod 250

Is the V-Pod the future of portable entertainment? Time will tell, but in the meantime they’re pretty nifty toys. Systec’s 250 can record and play digital video, play every variety of music file you can name, store a zillion pictures–and fit in your shirt pocket. It also has in and out jacks so you can watch what you’ve got on a “real” TV, record directly from a television or radio, and lots more. ($149)

Label printer

Seiko Instruments SLP-430 Smart Label Printer

The Seiko line of label printers makes it easy to mix and match fonts, graphics, and bar codes all on the same label. You can print labels with your company logo, with a Post Office-approved barcode–you name it. Also, the printers are compatible with Word, Act!, Goldmine, Palm Desktop, and Outlook, letting you grab any address in your address book with a single mouse click. ($179)

Power supply for gamers

XG Magnum Module Connector/Super Silent 500W Power Supply

If you’re tired of your PC practically melting after a hardcore gaming session, try XG’s Magnum . It boasts powerful yet whisper-quiet performance along with advanced airflow and cooling. Its LCD display tells you the status of the unit’s temperature, wattage, and all three voltage lines, and it includes an external radiator to keep the heat outside your system and in your hot little hands. ($199)

Voice-recognition software

Nuance Dragon Naturally Speaking 8 Professional

This edition of ScanSoft’s highly regarded voice software is fully integrated in the Microsoft Office applications you use: Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint. In fact, ScanSoft says, it works with just about any Windows application. And, it can synch up with any Nuance-certified handheld device, such as digital recorders, Pocket PCs, or Palm Tungstens devices. (Regular version: $199; professional version: $799)

Composing software

Sibelius 4

Can a software program make you into a composer? Of course not. But if you have the aptitude, a notation program like Sibelius 4 can make it lots easier to get those deathless tunes in your head on paper. It’s gotten the thumbs-up from such heavy hitters as Pat Metheny, the late Ray Charles, and Simpsons composer Alf Clausen. The company says 25,000 former users of its chief competitor, Finale, have switched over; try Sibelius 4, and maybe you’ll change your tune. (Academic version: $329; professional version: $599)

Monitoring camera

AXIS 207 Network Camera

The days of businesses having to rely on flickering, lo-res nanny-cams for security are over. The AXIS 207 offers top-notch bandwidth efficiency and image quality, and the progressive-scan CMOS image sensor does its job even in the lowest light conditions. It has a built-in microphone, and is compatible with PDAs and cell phones. Who’s minding the store? The AXIS 207. ($349)

Tech toy (silly and fun division)

Ignition Dance Pad

Not afraid to look like an idiot in front of your friends and family? Then this item, which is a variation on the “Dance Dance Revolution” arcade game, is for you. The idea is to replicate the steps you see on your TV (the pad works with the “In the Groove” console video game); the more accurate your hoofing, the better your score. And then it’s your turn to laugh. ($100)

Tech toy (useful division)

Cingular BlackBerry 7100g handset

Paris Hilton might have made the BlackBerry infamous when the contacts list on hers was hacked and spread throughout the Web, but this gadget is renowned for a much better reason. It’s great for those who want constant access to their e-mail, but don’t have constant access to a computer. It provides wireless access to enterprise and ISP e-mail accounts on Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes via BlackBerry Enterprise Server, BlackBerry Desktop Redirector, or the BlackBerry Web Client. The 7100g also provides access to IM services like Yahoo, AOL, and ICQ. And, it’s so simple and intuitive that even a Hilton can master it. ($350)

Headphones

Pioneer HDJ-1000

These headphones are being marketed to DJs and other people who need portable listening gear, but try the HDJ-1000s at home and see if they don’t become the cans of choice for your main audio setup. The 50mm phones capture frequencies starting at 5Hz, giving them bass response that most on-the-go headphones can only dream of, and the snug but comfortable housing means hours of listing with no fatigue. ($299)

Notebook computer

Alienware Area-51m 7700

Sure, it’s portable. But this is no wimpy stick-it-in-your-shoulder-bag laptop.

This monster is about as close to desktop speed and power as any notebook out there. The 7700 boasts Intel’s 915 chipset, a Pentium 4 processor, a spiffy 17-inch screen, surround audio capability, and the 256MB Nvidia GeForce Go 6800 Ultra graphics set. This custom-configurable system will make you the envy of your fellow travelers as you zip through another round of “Quake 4” while they’re stuck with the in-flight magazine. ($2,039)

Keith Mansfield writes from Mt. Laurel, N.J.

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Read all About It

Even if all you want is something to hold your attention during the Bowl Game commercial breaks, it’s always good to have some solid reading material at your disposal over the holidays. Here’s a stocking full of intriguing and useful books from the past several months, all of which would make perfect add-ons to any techie’s holiday want list:

Peter Buckley and Duncan Clark, “The Rough Guide to Macs and OS X” (Rough Guides, $15). Dyed-in-the-wool Mac zealots need not apply, but if you’re new to the platform-or if you play on both the Mac and Windows teams-this guide is more than handy. It covers everything from how to shop for a Mac to what to expect from the 10.4 (Tiger) iteration of the OS X operating system.

Peter Loshin and John Vacca, “Electronic Commerce (Fourth Edition” (Charles River Media, $50). If you’re serious about your online business, you’ll learn lots from this book. Loshin and Vacca presume you know the basics of online B-to-B and B-to-C, so they concentrate on such topics as security technology, enterprise applications, and online investing.

David Leavitt, “The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer” (W.W. Norton, $23). Turing, one of the true pioneers of computing, led a fascinating but tortured life. Leavitt’s account of how Turing devised a “programmable calculating machine” to help the allies crack Nazi codes is absorbing and enlightening.

Danny Briere and Pat Hurley, “Wireless Network Hacks & Mods for Dummies” (Wiley, $25). Setting up a wireless home network might be easier than ever, but there are things you can do to make your setup even spiffier. Briere and Hurley walk you through network protection, boosting cellular signals, taking wireless to your car, and more.

David J. Agans, “Debugging” (Amacom, $22). Even the best engineers and programmers must face the fact that their creations aren’t immune to defects, errors, and various other bugs. Agans outlines a number of simple strategies to avoid them, and fix them once they’re gumming up the works.

Matthew Moran, “The IT Career Builder’s Toolkit” (Cisco Press, $30). If you’re one of the two people who feel their IT careers couldn’t use a small nudge, you won’t be needing this book. For the rest of you, Moran provides timely tips on how to best present your skill set, take the guesswork out the job search process, and more.

J.D. Lasica, “Darknet: Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation” (Wiley, $26). Lasica argues that legal, pay-per-download movies should have been available long ago, and would’ve been if the film industry wasn’t spending so many resources trying to stop not-so-legal downloaders. The lessons in his book cross over to the music industry and others: Those unable to embrace the future are going to be left in the dust by it.

Chuck Easttom, “Moving From Windows to Linux” (Charles River Media, $45). A lot of us talk about it, but few of us go through with it: Making the shift to an open-source operating system. Easttom walks the reader through the process, showing how easy the transition can be if you’re willing to set aside your Windows-centric ways. — Dan Heilman

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