For the ultimate cool Yule


Ah, the holidays… when all good geek brains turn to thoughts of e-goodies and tech toys. Yes, it’s time for the annual round-up of my top tech gift ideas for you and yours, with items for all budgets and every tech lover on your gift list.

I led off late last year, with a post-holiday wrap-up of all the things Santa forgot or that people didn’t realize they (or others) might have wanted to find in their stocking or unwrap for Hanukkah. And, looking back, I see a number of things that tech lovers will still have on their list for this year.

Starting on the low and practical end, let’s start with power. I still think the flexible outlet options offered by PowerSquid will be vastly useful in many a household. But as we all get ready to wrestle with “batteries not included” and “batteries quickly exhausted,” one of the power options that’s new this year is something that I’ve been waiting for: pre-charged rechargeable batteries.

The usual suspects in the battery world have been working on my wish list this year and came out with AA and AAA batteries that not only can be recharged up to 1,000 times and can charge in 15 minutes with a high-speed charger, but that also come pre-charged in the package. This means that you no longer have to choose between rechargeable batteries and getting that gadget going the moment you step out of the store.

They go by various names: hybrid, pre-charged rechargeables, etc.… But the key here is that they merge the function of those pre-charged alkaline batteries we are still buying (and throwing away, for most of us) by the boatload with the more expensive and much longer lasting rechargeable. A 15-minute charger was a major step ahead for rechargeable batteries (and the environment) but taking inconvenience out of buying a rechargeable at the time you need instant power is a huge leap forward.

These are great companions for the new portable battery-powered device chargers, such as Energizer’s Energi to Go, (about $20) which generally take two AA batteries and can charge or operate a variety of cell phones, music players and other portable devices even while you’re far away from an outlet, without interrupting your use.

Solar, wind power goes portable

As long as we’re going a little green with our power technology, this is another great year for alternative power options for all that tech. The Solio solar charger (www.solio.com, about $100) is beginning to move from cutting edge wonder to mainstream usefulness, with connectors available for everything from your iPod to your cell phone and portable gaming device.

HYmini (www.hymini.com) is taking a page from BlueWater Wind but scaling things down to the portable technology level with a mini wind-powered charging device, as well as some solar options.

About the size of a small hand-held fan, the HYmini ($50, or $60 on sale now with its solar component) is designed to be taken on the road, where it can be attached to a bicycle handle for cycle-based GPS operation or rest atop a tent to collect the breeze and power your music player. These things are so hot the manufacturer’s direct sales site has sold out for the holiday season already.

And, expanding on the features in the portable emergency radio/flashlight combinations I particularly recommended for coastal dwellers last year, there are now a number of crank-operated, human-powered chargers available that will keep your cell phone operating in a pinch, or in a true emergency. The SideWinder, for example, includes a flashlight and a handy strap for portability.

I’m still waiting for the day when I can put my laptop bag on its side in the sun and have it charge the computer that rides inside. But, for now, it appears that small solar charging stations will be limited to charging smaller, less power-hungry devices, such as your phone or music player.

But neither that or fashion sense should be a deterrent from considering some of the new solar-powered charging bags. One major advancement in these is the move away from direct charging and toward a battery pack that can continue to charge anytime sun is available and then supply power to your devices whenever you need it, until its supply is exhausted (potentially never).

Recently, I ran across some new entries from Noon Solar (www.noonsolar.com) that not only offer these features but quite a bit of style as well. The price tags aren’t for the faint of heart, of course, starting around $275 for a leather tote, but even solar-powered backpacks with little to say for themselves in terms of style have been running upwards of $200 in recent years.

Component costs are still on the high side for most solar products, but recent breakthroughs in solar technology could drive that price way down in the coming years, if you can wait that long. And, yes, there is a men’s or unisex-style satchel that says “messenger bag” rather than “man-purse.”

While it’s easy to classify these power options as “green” technology, I can’t ignore the larger ramifications of having some of them handy. Not only are you no longer reliant on your car charger, home or office outlet, or throw-away batteries, you’re ready should the power go out throughout the area for any length of time, whether that’s a two-hour outage because of a car accident or a days-long weather event that could bring the area to its knees.

Add in the eventual dollar savings over conventional power options, and these kinds of gifts could pay off for both the recipient and the giver for years to come — not to mention the planet.

Wii still hot, and getting sweaty

And speaking of paying off, I’m going to repeat another gift recommendation from last year, simply because most people haven’t had the chance to get their hands on this popular device yet due to supply shortages.

Having had my Wii game console (about $250) for the better part of the year, I have to say that this is one indulgence I do not regret buying for a moment. In the last year, I have watched a 2-year-old boogie-down with the Boogie rhythm and karaoke game, zapped Dementors with Harry Potter, bowled several perfect frames, thrown balls at stacked milk bottles and clown dolls (to the delight of a 5-year-old with autism) and watched several kids compete to race cows down a path filled with scarecrows.

I’m not going to tell you that the Wii is the game console for everyone on your holiday list. Hard-core gamers continue to complain about a lack of more in-depth games and the first-person shooter genre that have been a mainstay of console gaming for years. But those people either have a console already or know which one they want.

For everyone else, go with the Wii. It won’t be easy, I warn you. It’s looking like at least April or May until supply starts to finally catch up with demand, even a little. You’re still looking at an early Sunday morning, repeated phone calls to the area’s big-box stores or even a premium price on eBay or Craigslist before you’ll be able to stick that Wii under the tree. Either that or, as in my case, some considerable luck after finding a timely tip on the Internet. But once you manage it, prepare for many hours of family fun.

Nintendo and the GameStop chain may make that easier if you’re reading this late on Thursday or early Friday, with a plan to offer rainchecks at all GameStop stores that will guarantee January delivery of a Wii system with the full payment of the $250 retail price on Dec. 20 or 21 only, and only until those rainchecks run out.

There are some games for the Wii that the hard-core gamer, and the average teenager, will enjoy. But my family is the target market for this console, and we’ve enjoyed extending our summer amusement park experience with Carnival Games, testing toddler coordination with Boogie, challenging a simulation of kitchen reality with Cooking Mama, enjoying some retro fun with PacMan and Donkey Kong Country and generally having some fun together time that left us considering the purchase of another Wii remote or two for full-on family gaming. Even grandma was intrigued.

Every month or two, there’s a new game we’re really looking forward to playing, and it’s money well spent when it gets us up and moving — together — instead of just pushing buttons on the computer or staring at the TV. If the kids were older, we’d jump on the bandwagon for the new Guitar Hero III game and see who can challenge the genius of Carlos Santana or Guns ’n’ Roses’ Slash. Maybe with Guitar Hero VI?

One of the upcoming games is bound to be the next big hit of the gaming world: Wii Fit, which is the long-awaited fitness title that came on the heels of all those reports of better fitness through playing Wii Sports. A “balance board” will allow gamers to follow a series of fitness games involving balance, strength and movement, all of which will be tracked over time to track fitness progress.

Wii Fit is likely to also be in short supply when launched in the U.S. early next year. The Japanese snapped it up when it launched there several weeks ago.

HDTV market growing, and getting cheaper

So, what are you watching those Wii games on this year? Did you hold off on the HDTV purchase, or did you go all-out with the big plasma screen?

The latest rumors are of a glut in the market for LCD screens in the early part of 2008, so it may be time to look at getting a new TV if you’ve been considering it. LCD is decidedly the recommendation for the lower end of the price range for HDTV-compatible units, as well as small- or average-size rooms. It also uses less power than plasma and is not subject to burn-in when images are displayed repeatedly or for long periods of time.

Plasma prices are coming down, however, even though most are still well upward of $1,000.

The deadline for manufacturers to clear out any remaining stock without a digital TV tuner has come and gone, meaning that you’re safe buying virtually anything still on store shelves without having to worry about whether you’ll have to buy a separate box to receive any sort of TV signal when the 2009 scheduled deadline for the switch away from analog broadcast signals hits.

Most TVs sold these days will be HDTV compatible and take advantage of better quality in the HDTV signals. But you may still have to make some decisions about how you’ll receive your TV signals. Your cable or satellite provider should be making provisions for needed equipment, or you can look forward to taking advantage of the government’s stipend for up to two boxes so you can convert over-the-air digital broadcast signals into a format your old analog TV can understand.

There’s one more decision for those moving to HDTV: Do you want to take a side in the format wars between HD-DVD and Blu-ray, or do you want to hold out and side with whichever is the eventual winner? There is no clear leader at the moment, though Blu-ray is currently eking out some small advantage according to some sources. This is one decision I’m tempted to recommend you put off making for the moment, lest you end up on the wrong side of a VHS/Betamax-style battle.

The saving grace for HD DVD buyers who don’t want to be on the losing side no matter what is that LG and Samsung have been considering or actually producing players that will play both formats in a single device. It’s not an idea that’s guaranteed to stick around but could be a solution if you’re stuck on the fence and still want to see now what that new HDTV can do with your favorite movies.

Tiny computers get big play

A notion that I’ve been wanting to share for the last few weeks falls into the category of computers. Specifically, the new XO laptop from One Laptop Per Child (www.laptopgiving.org).

This initiative was originally targeting development of a $100 laptop that could be affordable for charitable organizations and governments to purchase for children in third-world nations. The price tag has come in closer to $200 each, but even that is well below the price of the average laptop computer that most consumers consider, thanks to the use of a non-Microsoft Linux operating system and other software with open licenses.

Beyond the plans to sell the computers to governments and charitable organizations for use in developing nations, OLPC noted interest from the general public in the cute little lime green laptops with their ear-like wireless antennas on either side of the screen and the $200 price tag.

And thus a further idea for philanthropy emerged, with OLPC opening up sales of the XO to the U.S. public for $399, which buys you not only a basic laptop that could be a great gift for the child in your own home but a second laptop that will be given to one of those kids who might never otherwise see a computer and thus gain the view of the world the Internet can now provide even in the poorest countries.

The “give one, get one” program was recently extended through the end of the year, with up to $200 of the purchase being tax-deductible. That makes it a doubly great holiday present, particularly with the late-2007 tax implications.

A side-effect of the development of the OLPC has been price competition from other computer manufacturers, such as Asus, which recently debuted its Eee PC – another Linux-based $200 sub-notebook computer that has quickly become one of the hottest computer items for the holiday season and is targeted more at the U.S. education market than the developing world.

Also targeted for U.S. students is the Intel Classmate, which again is a sub-notebook running a little higher, at around $300, this time with the Windows operating system. Again, a great gift for a young child as a first computer, functional well beyond the toy-grade computers that have been the rule for this age group.

Tiny is also hot among adults, as smaller, lighter sub-notebooks, tablet- and convertible-style PCs and “ultra-mobile” PCs (UMPCs) appear to be taking off with certain computer buyers, with screen sizes ranging from 4 or 5 inches to 10 inches.

I’m in the market for one of these right now, having seen the tremendous value in tablet-style input when I take my notes at our local meetings. I’ve come to value the ability to quickly pull something out of your jacket pocket or totebag that’s not much bigger than a paper notepad and have it also be a PDA, music player, Internet browsing device, full-function artist’s sketchbook and supplies, Web cam and Internet phone, voice recorder, e-book reader, information storage device – and pretty much everything else a standard tablet computer can do. Some of them even have small keyboards these days, for limited typing.

Prices also run lower than for most sub-notebooks, though the top-of-the-line models can run up to the cost of a high-end notebook PC. There are too many options out there for me to get into on my gift list, but you can find a starting point at www.tabletpcreview.com if you’re in the market, too.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Gateway One and the Dell XPS One, which are direct competitors for some of Apple’s latest computers. Both feature a big LCD screen with most of the hardware built right into that display unit. The computer basically comes down to the monitor component and a keyboard with mouse. Simple and sleek, but running Windows, they’re a great alternative for the person who loves the Mac aesthetic but has a Windows mindset or investment in Windows software.

Family photo sharing gets easier

Also on the aesthetic side of gift-giving for 2007 is the latest in digital photo frames, the eStarling (estarling.com). This device takes the increasingly affordable world of digital photo frames to the next level, with a built-in wireless connection that allows the frame to automatically pull down photos from online photo storage and sharing accounts.

The eStarling even has its own e-mail address, which can be shared among a number of users and devices, meaning that uploads can be automatically sent to any number of eStarling frames owned by distant family members, without the need for those owners to lift a finger or click a mouse button. Camera-phone users can even send photos directly to the frames, without the need to upload them anywhere, or it can get photos from RSS feeds on the Internet.

There is no charge for a connectivity service, either, which is something that tripped up early developers of this kind of “shared” digital content model. Setup is very simple and could be done once over the holidays for family members who aren’t Internet savvy and still allow them to receive all the newest photos throughout the year.

Along with the technology comes a relatively hefty price, at $250 for an 8-inch frame. But with an 800-by-600 pixel display size, that’s not outside the range for similar devices that don’t have the kinds of connectivity and user-friendliness of the eStarling. This might be something for the teenage or grown-up kids to get their parents — great for sharing photos of grandkids, even from far away.

On the subject of grandparents keeping up with the times, I have to include on this list something my mother and I have both had our eyes on for a while: the Crosley Songwriter recording turntable/cassette player ($300-$400 retail). This tabletop device will automatically record both LPs and cassettes directly onto a blank CD-R, preserving your record collection and all those cassette recordings, without having to find a computer-compatible turntable and manually set up each recording session and track on a computer.

With services charging $10 to $30 per album just to do this same process manually, this is an easy pick for a gift the whole family could use, with the added benefit of having a new turntable, cassette player, radio and CD player all in one compact, handsome device.

Connectivity goes ultra-portable

Another combo device that caught my eye this year could be the realization of the old Dick Tracy phone/watch concept. The “touchscreen cell phone/PDA wristwatch” for sale through ThinkGeek (www.thinkgeek.com) for about $200, works not only for telling time but also has a GPRS-network cell phone in its slightly oversized housing, as well as a mini-touchscreen PDA that operates with a toothpick-size stylus and will also play MP3s on its built-in speaker or over headphones.

This thing is not for the tech-phobic, but if that person on your gift list is looking for a new cell phone with PDA functions and dreads having to tote around a separate device in their pockets, this could be the answer.

Another potential gift for the cell phone user is a new Bluetooth headset device that I spotted earlier this week. Rather than the ubiquitous over-ear headset that so many people are wearing now, the Jabra BT3030 Bluetooth stereo headset (about $70 to $100, from first reports) comes in the form of a dog-tag like Bluetooth device with a port to plug in your headphones.

For me, this ends the nightmare of putting down your headset and forgetting it, as well as that “I’m connected 24/7” look. But the device also has the ability to work with two Bluetooth devices and to work over a small distance, so you can walk away from your phone more than a few steps and still take your calls, as well as listening to music on Bluetooth-enabled devices.

I’ve also seen some entries lately in the jewelry-style Bluetooth headset arena, which could make them a lot more inconspicuous for the fashion-conscious, too.

Finally, for those who are constantly plugged in but who don’t want to be out of touch with the rest of the world, there are the new AirDrives earphones, which are designed to rest in front of the ear rather than inside them.

It’s kind of the inverse of the current trend of sound-isolating, noise-blocking earphones, guaranteeing you’re able to have a conversation without turning off your music or seeming like you’re not really listening to the other side of the conversation. This is also a bonus for those who jog, bicycle or in-line skate, since they can hear traffic around them while still enjoying their music.

They come in an adult version for $100 and a kids’ version for $70.

Even nature goes high-tech

I have to include one last item before I end this year’s tech gift list. This one’s for the cook or gardener in your life, but even though it’s a down-to-earth pursuit, this qualifies as a tech gift by virtue of how it’s done.

The AeroGarden (www.aerogrow.com) is a counter-top hydroponics-style garden that will let you grow a variety of herbs, salad greens, tomatoes, strawberries, petunias, etc., in a system that utilizes water, pre-planted seed pods and a special fertilizer.

Starting at $150, this is something I’ve had on my list for a couple years, primarily because it means I could grow fresh food year-round and conveniently right in my kitchen. The variety of seed packets available has expanded dramatically since I first saw it, so this provides a great opportunity for a little wintertime gardening fun even if you can’t afford to give that someone special a heated greenhouse.

Here’s hoping your holiday is bright and filled with the best that technology has to offer. But, moreover, that it brings peace and happiness into your life.