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Gifts for Geeks on the Cheap

by Terrie Miller

What's better than giving a great gift? Giving one for less than $50! It's the holiday version of win/win.

But finding cool stuff on the cheap takes time. I opened Google and entered Gifts for less than $50. In return I got costume jewelry, golfing gadgets, and Aspen Country Fine Gifts. Aspen Country Fine Gifts? What the heck are those? Then I entered Geek Gifts less than $50, and Google did point me to Shawn Kresal's Listmania page with some interesting Amazon goodies. But still, I wanted something a bit more eclectic.

Since I hang around nerds all day at work, then go home to a technical writer/musician at night, I probably hear more about tech toys in a week than most people do in a year. Why not build my own list of geek goodies on the cheap?

So that's what I did. I ordered a variety of gadgets that soon had all of my coworkers enviously peering over my cubicle wall wondering what had just arrived. I then put each item through a set of rigorous tests to determine its overall value. OK, so what I really did was crack open the packaging and started playing.

In this article:

Making the Mobile Life a Little Sweeter

Digital Photography Done Better

For You -- or Maybe Even the Windows User in Your Life

Other (Untested) Possibilities

Comment on this articleWe may regret this, but let us hear your great gift ideas.
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After the biodegradable peanut dust had finally settled, I selected my 10 favorite gifts. Each costs $50 or less and can be purchased on the Web. These are great for giving to friends and family. Or if you have to put together a hints list for others less digitally minded than you, just cut and paste your favorite items into an email, and you're done.

Making the Mobile Life a Little Sweeter

Podium Coolpad and Traveler CoolPad
by Road Tools LLC
Works with: any laptop
Price: PodiumPad $29.95; Traveler CoolPad $19.95

I love my iBook, but I miss the little legs that were built-in on my previous notebook to get the keyboard on a slight incline. And, it's hard to believe that the amount of heat building up underneath isn't a potential problem.

Fortunately, there's an easy solution in the form of the CoolPads from Road Tools LLC. CoolPads elevate your notebook slightly, allowing air to circulate underneath. The Podium CoolPad comes with adjustable risers that let you control the incline angle. The Traveler CoolPad has non-adjustable risers built-in. Using a CoolPad couldn't be easier. Just put it on your desk or other surface--I've heard they work great on airline tray tables--and set your laptop on top. The risers have gripping rubber feet that hold onto the computer securely. In fact, my iBook feels more much more secure on my desk with a CoolPad than without it. A cat trying to scramble between the wall and the iBook on my little desk at home is less likely to cause a disaster when the iBook is sitting on a CoolPad.

Photo of the Podium Coolpad and Traveler Coolpad.
The Podium Coolpad, in front, features adjustable risers, while the Traveler version, in back, is designed to be more portable.

Both CoolPads pivot 360 degrees, but have just the right amount of resistance to prevent them from pivoting unintentionally. This is a really thoughtful feature, useful for when co-workers stop by to discuss a project. In an instant I can swivel the screen their way.

It's important to note that the CoolPads are not designed to solve the problem of a hot laptop on your lap. They're designed to use on a table-like surface of some kind. Still, I've quickly become hooked on the CoolPad. I never realized how much I needed it until I used one.

iSkin Keyboard Protector
Works with: iBook; PowerBook 667MHz and up
Price: $24.99

There's nothing quite like the sickening feeling of spilling something on your keyboard. But, let's face it, keeping liquids away just isn't practical, and there are all sorts of other substances--dust, cat hair--that can cause problems. For a gift for the neat-nik, or klutz, in your life, you might consider the iSkin Keyboard Protector.

The iSkin protector is better than the mail-order protectors you might have seen or used in the past. I've used those, and they're effective, but they're not pretty, and they have to be held in place by some type of adhesive. I wanted to protect my iBook, but my heart sunk at the thought of covering it with the typical, ugly mail-order protector.

The iSkin version fits exactly onto the keyboard, snug around the edges, and is so form-fitting that it doesn't require any adhesives. To clean it, just pull it off and rinse it off. It comes in six yummy colors: Blue Mist, Bubble Gum, Creamsicle, Lemonade, LimeLight, and White Frost. I chose White Frost and, after using it for two weeks, not a single person has noticed that there's something different about my keyboard.

Photo of iSkin Keyboard Protector.
The iSkin Keyboard Protector (Blue Mist).

Are they difficult to type through? Not at all. In fact, I think the iSkin might even claim to be an improvement on the keyboard experience, at least for me. It seems to dampen noise from typing, and the nubs on the F and J keys are a little larger than on an unadorned keyboard, making them a little easier for my fingers to find.

The iSkin Keyboard Protector gives you peace of mind without sacrificing the good looks of your Apple notebook. Such a deal. (And for those who are fortunate enough to have one, the folks at ackNOWLEDGE make similar protectors for iPods.)

by Sebastian Sindermann
Works with: TiBooks or iBooks (and many other notebook/laptops)
Price: $39.95

If you're familiar with the Missing Manuals, you might think of the TiBag as "the missing bag." Sebastian Sindermann was frustrated by the lack of a good bag that didn't cost a fortune for his new Powerbook, so he designed the TiBag.

The TiBag is a sort of cross between a backpack and a messenger bag. You don't so much carry it as wear it. The padded strap crosses the front of your body, keeping the weight of the bag close to your back. A detachable pocket fits onto the strap, giving you quick access to a cell phone, PDA, or other small items.

Four views of the TiBag.
The TiBag features a unique strap system and a nice array of pockets for accessories.

The large main compartment holds your computer and can accommodate a day planner or book or two. Six other organizer pockets provide room for your other stuff. It's larger than a sleeve-type bag, but more compact than the usual backpack bag.

Since I'm lucky enough to commute on foot, I carry my iBook a lot--usually about 3 miles a day--and I found the TiBag comfortable in action. The large, bandolier-type strap goes over your right shoulder and takes some getting used to, but since the weight is kept closer to your back, it makes the load seem lighter than with a traditional shoulder-tugging backpack. The only drawback to this system is that the strap always goes over your right shoulder.

The TiBag isn't for the person who carries everything with them, nor is it for the absolute minimalist. But it provides basic protection for an iBook or TiBook at a very reasonable price. It's a unique design and a good value.

O'Reilly Gear.

SI-5 Portable Speakers
by Sonic Impact Technologies
Works with: standard 3.5 mm audio ports on laptops, MP3, and CD players
Price: $49.95

The SI-5 Portable Speakers are compact and lightweight 3-D surround sound speakers, good for the traveler who might not want to use headphones. But keep in mind that this is a solution that's designed for portability, and while the sound is much better than what you get from your built-in iBook or TiBook speakers, it's not as good as what you would get from a high-quality set of headphones or non-portable speakers.

Each speaker is about the size of a regular CD jewel case; the amplifier is about half that the size and takes four AAA batteries. Batteries last about 15 hours, or you can use an AC adapter that is not included. They're available in red or blue.

Photo of SI-5 Portable Speakers.
The SI-5 Portable Speakers are slim and light-weight.

At first I was a disappointed with the sound quality of the Si-5 speakers. They seemed tinnier than I had hoped. But some experimentation paid off. I found that moving them further away and adjusting my equalizer settings in iTunes improved the sound.

These are a good value for people who want to travel with speakers but don't want to pay a lot for them. When plugged into an iPod, they help turn a boring room at the Marriott into a great place to gather with friends and raid the mini bar.

The SI-5 speakers are not for the audiophile in your life, but they might be appreciated by someone who spends a lot of time on the road and wants to enjoy music or gaming without the hassle of headphones.

by Wave Industries, Ltd.
Works with: standard 3.5mm (headphone) audio ports on laptops, MP3 and CD players
Price: $49.95

The Soundbug will catch the eye, or ear, of anyone who appreciates an unusual gadget. The Soundbug "turns any hard, smooth surface, such as a tabletop, door or window, into a sounding board for music or voice." The Soundbug is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and attaches to hard surfaces using a special suction cup. The Soundbug takes three AAA batteries, which should last for about four hours of continuous play.

The technology behind the Soundbug is a material called "Terfenol-D," which is a combination of iron and rare earth metals, and it was originally used for sonar applications by the US military. In the presence of a magnetic field, the Terfenol-D expands and contracts with "dramatic force," replacing the metal coil and speaker cone used by regular speakers.

Photo of the Soundbug.
The Soundbug is more compact even than portable speakers.

The sound quality isn't spectacular, and you need to daisy-chain two Soundbugs to get "stereo," but the novelty factor is quite unique. I had some fun experimenting with various surfaces. Glass windows and mirrors work pretty well, and enamel sinks aren't bad either. Desk surfaces can be tricky, as it's easy to lose suction if the surface isn't smooth enough.

The Soundbug is certainly smaller and more portable than speakers, and its one-piece design might make it a hit with travelers who have the occasional need for sound for small groups of people, for instance, those gathering around a table at a meeting. You can use the EQ settings in iTunes or on the iPod to fine tune the output once you've found a surface with the right tonal quality.

I'd love to see some real hackers get a hold of these because I'm guessing that there are some very interesting uses for them that I would never think of.

Digital Photography Done Better

You don't have to be a professional photographer, or even a gadget hound, to appreciate things that help make your photographs better.

Since my family seems to have caught the digital camera bug during the last year, I went looking for gifts that even a non-geek could love, and found these terrific stocking stuffers.

UltraPod I and UltraPod II; UltraClamp
by Pedco
Works with: anything with a standard tripod socket
Price: UltraPod I, $14.95, Ultrapod II $21.95, UltraClamp $29.95

It's fairly common knowledge that avoiding camera movement using a tripod can be a great way to improve your photos. But we've all been there. We pack up our gear for an outing, and though we want to get great photos, we don't want to carry the big old' tripod with us.

Enter the Pedco UltraPods. These handy table-top sized tripods are compact and light-weight, yet they're sturdier and more carefully constructed than some of the drugstore varieties you may have seen. They're cleverly designed with a built-in Velcro strap, so if there's not a tripod-friendly surface available, you can strap the Ultrapod to a more convenient branch or fence post.

The Ultrapod II is larger and more heavily constructed than the Ultrapod I and may be better suited for all but the most compact cameras. My Nikon Coolpix 775, which is about 6.5oz or 185g without the battery, seems like it's about at the upper limit for the Ultrapod I. There's a trade-off, however, and the Ultrapod I is quite a bit smaller and lighter.

The Ultrapod II is currently available in black only. The smaller Ultrapod is available in black, red, yellow and blue.

Ultrapods and Ultraclamp.
The Ultrapod II is about twice the size of the Ultrapod I. Its cousin, the Ultraclamp, is a heavy-duty solution for situations where a tripod just won't work.

You might also consider the Pedco Ultraclamp. The Utraclamp lets you attach your camera to anything you can clamp to--a car window, bicycle handlebars, or just about any sturdy object that's less than 1.5 inches wide. I can imagine using this for great fun on road trips.

This year, digital camera owners on my Xmas list will be getting a great little bundle of a Pedco Ultrapod and our next item here:

Digital Photography Pocket Guide
by Derrick Story (published by O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.)
Works with: anyone who wants to get better photos from their digital camera
Price: $14.95

Digital cameras are subject to the same fate as many film cameras: folks are excited to get them and love to take snapshots, but can often be disappointed with the results. The wildlife that seemed so very close at the time turn out to be tiny specks, or you get the perfect portrait of your toddler niece only to find out her skin comes out blue. Fortunately, this is a situation where a little learning can go a long way, and this pocket guide by professional photographer (and Mac DevCenter editor) Derrick Story may be the best investment you make in your photography.

Related Reading

Digital Photography Pocket Guide
By Derrick Story

I should be clear about my own bias here: I work with Derrick at O'Reilly, and I've also been a client of his photography business. That said, I also know that he has an unwavering passion for photography and technology, and he's a great teacher. It's a winning combination for this little book. Digital Photography Pocket Guide distills the essentials of digital photography in a friendly and yet complete portable guide. It's jam-packed with tips and examples and covers an amazing variety of digital camera features.

The guide goes beyond camera features, though, and discusses situations in which you might use them. What should you consider when planning a museum visit? What are some general rules of thumb about composition? This book helps you get the most out of your camera, and the most out of the photographer.

One problem with most how-to photography books is that it's difficult to find the information you need when you're actually in the process of taking photos. That's why I especially like the comprehensive "Quick Reference Charts" in the Appendix of this book. It's all right there. The book is small enough to take with you, but still big on content.

At last, an O'Reilly book that my not-so-technical family can appreciate.

P-500 Digital Photo Printer
by Polaroid
Works with: CompactFlash and SmartMedia cards
Price: varies wildly -- seen online anywhere from $28. 95 to well over $100; try searching Google or your favorite price comparison site for best prices.

Polaroid cameras can be a lot of fun. There's nothing quite like getting that instant print. Wouldn't it be great to get those instant prints from your digital camera? The Polaroid P-500 Photo Printer lets you do just that, instant Polaroid prints without sacrificing everything wonderful about your digital camera.

The P-500 uses the same Polaroid 500 instant film as the familiar "JoyCam." These film packs include a single-use battery, so the P-500 itself doesn't require any power source. In fact, no batteries, cables or computer are required to use the P-500. To use it, you remove the CompactFlash or SmartMedia card and insert it into the P-500 and then print your photos directly from the card.

The P-500 Photo Printer.
The P-500 Photo Printer gives you Polaroid gratification with digital camera convenience.

Most digital cameras have a Digital Print Order Format (DPOF) feature that allows you to specify photos to be printed, the number of prints, and the print order, and this information is stored on the memory card. The P-500 reads this information, which allows you to control exactly what gets printed.

This little photo printer even includes an infrared interface. You can download software for your Palm OS device that will let you view and edit images on your PDA before printing them.

For You or Maybe Even the Windows User in Your Life

I'm sure that one effective switcher campaign would be to simply give the Windows users in your life a Mac. Wouldn't that be nice?

While I can't offer a $50 solution for that, I did find some cool gadgets that will work for Windows users, too.

Digital Media Remote
by Keyspan
Works with: Mac OS X 10.1 or greater; Mac OS 8.6 or greater; Windows 98/Me/2000/XP or greater
Price: $49.00

This handy device lets you control your computer from across the room. It comes with an infrared remote and a receiver that plugs into your computer's USB port.

It's a snap to use. Just install the software, and you're pretty much up and running. I was able to figure out how to control iTunes pretty quickly. If you're not happy with the default settings, it's easy enough to use the KeyspanDMR software to change them by simply mapping the remote buttons to keyboard commands. It's even possible to get the software to "listen" for other types of remotes.

Keyspan Digital Media Remote
The Keyspan Digital Media Remote (and receiver).

The range with the included remote is about 35 feet, more than enough for most presentation situations. The remote itself is about the size of a business card and about a quarter of an inch thick, making it easy to stash in a pocket.

If someone on your list has to make a lot of presentations, or if they use their computer as their stereo, the Keyspan Digital Remote might be the perfect gift. (The higher-end "Presentation Remote" is about $30 more, but includes a built-in laser pointer).

PowerMate USB Multimedia Controller and Input Device
by Griffin Technology
Works with: Mac OS X (or OS 9.0.4 or higher); Windows 98SE, Me, 200 or XP
Price: $45.00

Yes, that's right; it's a volume control knob that glows. They say it does more than that, so I had to try it for myself.

OK. They're right. It's a volume control know that glows fabulously and does lots of other stuff. Plus, it's very cool.

The PowerMate USB Multimedia Controller and Input Device--let's just call it the PowerMate--has standard global functionality out of the box. Turn the knob clockwise to increase volume, counter-clockwise to decrease volume; pressing down on the knob to toggle mute on and off.

But there's more than just volume control here. In Internet Explorer, turning the knob lets you scroll up and down through pages; pressing down (or "clicking") on the knob works like the back button. You can use the Powermate in video editing programs as a shuttle control. Since the Powermate controls are all customizable, including the key repeat rate, you can adjust exactly how quickly it moves through frames. The settings for the PowerMate live right in the System Preferences of OS X, by the way, no need to go searching through your Applications folder to find them.

There's even a CPU monitoring application, Cee Pee You , that can make the PowerMate display your CPU usage by glowing at different brightness or even different blink rates.

The Powermate.
The PowerMate USB Multimedia Controller and Input Device -- a great gift for the discriminating gadget lover.

Beyond all the cool things it does, the Powermate is the most beautiful and tactile-satisfying accessory I've seen yet. The knob is heavy machined aluminum and it turns nearly effortlessly. The PowerMate was conceived and designed by a jewelry designer, and it shows.

Other (Untested) Possibilities

I couldn't get my hands on everything I wanted to try. So here are a few items for you to investigate on your own. Selections marked with an asterisk (*) are ones that I've heard good things about:

Wrapping Up

Still can't decide? For the geek who has everything, check out the new O'Reilly swag on Thinkgeek. Somebody's niece is getting a Perl Creeper this year.

One last thought: If you choose something that requires power, don't forget to include the batteries. There's nothing more frustrating than getting a new toy and not having the juice to run it.

So, have a great holiday season, and enjoy playing with the toys.

Terrie Miller is an amateur naturalist, citizen scientist, permaculturist and writer from Northern Calfornia. Her personal weblog is

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