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Gifts, Gadgets, and Software for Mac Geeks

by Derrick Story
11/23/2004

Winter is an exciting time for geeks. We're not distracted by analog activities such as baseball, cycling, BBQing, and other things that pull us away from our mad scientist laboratories. Winter's inclement weather demands that we stay inside and pass the time working on "projects."

Plus, regardless of your faith or culture, there's some sort of holiday going on too, meaning that a little shopping is in order. Along the way you might see something that would be a nice addition to your own "tool kit," so it's wise to pad the gift budget just a tad to accommodate those unexpected discoveries.

For me personally, I'm in prime form for compiling this year's guide. I've just finished two O'Reilly fan books -- one focused on the PowerBook and the other on the iBook -- that are designed to help folks connect quickly with these computers, then personalize them through tweaks, preferences, and, yes, cool accessories.

I've also had the opportunity to look at lots of great Mac software through my judging of the O'Reilly Mac OS X Innovators Contest. You'll quickly see that I believe software makes a great gift, especially when combined with clever hardware.

That's why many of this year's gadget recommendations are paired up with appropriate software selections. It's like choosing the perfect wine to accompany your meal.

The 2004 Mac DevCenter gift-giving guide spans the spectrum of fiscal responsibility -- from inexpensive stocking stuffers ($15) to top-of-the-line devices ($650+). Most of the suggestions are less than $80. Everything showcased works with Mac OS X. And I'm hoping that you'll find many of these items interesting and slightly tempting.

Flash Drives

Everyone needs a flash drive dangling off his or her keychain. I use them all the time for incremental backups, to move files among my computers (yes, it's faster and easier than any sort of network file transfer), and to share stuff with friends. I have three current favorites, and you can't go wrong with any of them.

Crucial Gizmo! Hi-Speed 256MB USB Flash Drive Crucial Gizmo! Hi-Speed 256MB USB Flash Drive

Crucial Gizmo! Hi-Speed 256MB USB Flash Drive -- There are lots of keychain Flash drives out there, but this one is the fastest I've used. Thanks to its great engineering and USB 2.0 connectivity, this petite drive works as fast as you do. You can buy it for $40 on the Crucial.com site, or shop around.

Lexar JumpDrive -- If you plan on carrying sensitive data around on your keychain, you better find a way to secure it. Many Flash drives include security software ... for Windows, that is. But Lexar is very Mac friendly and provides excellent security for Mac OS X users too. (You can read more about the JumpDrive in my article, Securing Key Chain Flash Drives.) You can score a 256MB version of the Lexar at Amazon.com for a cool $34.

Swiss Memory USB Swiss Memory USB

Swiss Memory USB from ThinkGeek.com -- It's a Swiss Army knife, LED light, ballpoint pen, and yes, a portable Flash drive (256MB, 128MB, or 64MB) all assembled into one handsome, durable package. I've had one on my keychain for about 6 months now, and I'll never go back. You won't either if you give in to this perfect marriage of practicality and techno-geekdom. Prices range from $65 to $110 from ThinkGeek.com.


Digital Music

Music is truly one of the great joys in life. It adds richness to work and play, or is perfect to be consumed all by itself. As Mac users we're fortunate to have Apple showing so much innovation in this realm. And others are following suit. Here are a few great ways to enhance your listening pleasure.

Griffin EarJams Griffin EarJams

Griffin EarJams -- If you've lost the foam covers to your earbuds once again, don't despair. Get a pair of Griffin's EarJams. Not only do they snap on snugly to your iPod's earbuds, then increase both volume and bass ... for real. You'll really notice the difference during air travel where the iPod isn't quite loud enough to overcome cabin noise. But pay attention to the warning on the package that reads: Please adjust volume lower before use. They're serious.

And if the EarJams weren't cool by themselves, you get a very handy nylon case with them that has two pouches and a zippered pocket on the inside. Not only have you totally upgraded your earbuds for $15, you now have a travel case to keep them from getting tangled up in your backpack.


The Onstage by Harman Multimedia - iPod not included The Onstage by Harman Multimedia - iPod not included

The Onstage by Harman Multimedia combined with Volume Logic Plug-in for iTunes -- If you're searching for great sounding portable speakers that work with both your iPod and laptop, take a look at the Onstage. You can plug its stereo mini-jack into your computer or AirPort Express to boost music playback with its 6 watts per channel output. Or you can dock your iPod or iPod mini (but not iPod photo) for even more portability. The Onstage produces big sound from its stylish, compact package. Available at the Apple Store for $200.

One of the best kept iTunes secrets is the Volume Logic plugin by Octiv Inc. This isn't a simple equalizer. Volume Logic actually re-samples your music in real time. The output is amazing. For $20 you can literally upgrade the quality of every song in your music library. In my opinion, it totally blows away Apple's Sound Check.

Sennheiser PX 100 Portable Headphones -- If you prefer headphones to earbuds, you won't have to sacrifice much portability with this pair of Sennheisers. If you're not familiar with this excellent brand, you're in for a real treat the first time you slide these soft, padded earcups on and turn up the volume. And when you're finished, they fold up neatly and fit into their cleverly designed plastic case. Available for $40 from Amazon.com and other dealers.

Cases and Cloths

I learned my screen-protection lesson the hard way with my first Titanium PowerBook. You need to protect that delicate surface and the outer case if you want it to maintain the PowerBook's stunning good looks. In the Fan books, I felt this was important enough to dedicate an entire chapter to just these accessories. Fortunately, many of them make great gift items too.

PowerBook ScreensavRz by Radtech PowerBook ScreensavRz by Radtech

PowerBook ScreensavRz by Radtech -- This cloth, made out of soft Optex fabric, protects your display from abrasion caused by close tolerances between screen and keyboard. ScreensavRz also cleans and polishes your LCD without sprays or wet wipes. Dampen the cloth with water and polish away most of the existing light scuffing. $14 - $18.

Marware SportFolio Laptop Case -- These cases are terrific and don't cost any more than other brands that are far less luxurious. Marware combines excellent materials with quality construction to produce laptop cases that look good and provide excellent protection for your PowerBook or iBook. The SportFolio case runs around $40, but check out the other models too.


Input with Style

These are some of my favorite goodies. Input devices, such as tablets and external microphones add breadth to the Mac experience. And if you're into digital media, some of these items are downright necessary.

MicFlex USB Microphone by MacMice MicFlex USB Microphone by MacMice

MicFlex USB Microphone by MacMice recommended with Rogue Amoeba's Nicecast -- The MicFlex is a quality microphone coupled to a better than CD-quality USB audio conversion circuit (16-bit, 48KHz sampling), both housed neatly in a small aluminum pod at the end of a flexible stainless steel tubing stand. You can also detach the microphone from the stand and plug it directly into your USB port (great for on the road). During my tests the mic performed very well delivering crisp, clean audio. $50.

Nicecast puts your audio online and is a terrific software companion to the MicFlex. With it you can broadcast iTunes music, host call-in shows, even cover live events -- essentially turning your Mac into an online radio station. $40.

Belkin Hi-Speed USB 2.0 15-in-1 Media Reader & Writer recommended with Boinx FotoMagico -- This slim Belkin reader is my absolute favorite memory card reader. Thanks to its USB 2.0 connectivity, it downloads images from just about any Flash media with lightning speed -- far, far faster than directly from your camera. It's fully compatible with Mac OS X and iPhoto. And thanks to its slim design, it slides easily into my very crowded laptop case. $50.

FotoMagico opens new worlds for you pictures once you upload them from the memory card reader. You can create the ultimate digital slideshow with FotoMagico complete with pans, zooms, and music. It's fully compatible with both iPhoto and iTunes and outputs to QuickTime. You have to try this software to fully appreciate its power. $79.

Apple iSight Apple iSight

Apple iSight recommended with Delicious Library by Delicious Monster -- The iSight is one of the best hardware values offered by Apple Computer. Originally marketed as a high-quality companion to iChat AV for web conferencing, we've discovered lots of used for this FireWire camera with an f-2.8 auto-focus lens capable of recording full motion video. I've made short QuickTime movies with the iSight that look terrific. $149.

Delicious Library provides another innovative way to use the iSight -- as a bar code reader to catalog your DVDs, CDs, VHS tapes, books, and video games. Simply point the iSight at the bar code, and the application connects to Amazon.com, downloads the artwork and informative text (even including user ratings) and displays it neatly on a simulated wood shelf. Slick. $40.


Wacom Graphire3 Tablet Wacom Graphire3 Tablet

Wacom Graphire3 Tablet recommended with Curio by Zengobi -- The Graphire3 tablet will change the way you think about editing photos, drawing, painting, creating artwork for CDs/DVDs, signing your name, and annotating documents in Adobe Acrobat or Microsoft PowerPoint. You can even write directly using Apple Inkwell technology. Fully compatible with Mac OS X, the Wacom table is a truly addictive input device. $100 for the 4" x 5" model.

And if you want to use your tablet as an electronic cocktail napkin for brainstorming the next big thing, take a look at Curio by Zengobi Software. You can scribble, draw, make notes, create checklists, outline lists, and export your work in PDF, TIFF, PNG, JPG, or even HTML format (the HTML output is amazing!). Finally, an application that keeps pace with your thinking. $129.


High-End Devices

Mac OS X is the ultimate digital hub. You can add DV camcorders, digital cameras, portable music players, and smartphones to satisfy just about any creative endeavor. Here are four top-drawer devices that will supercharge your digital hub. All of these devices work beautifully with Mac OS X.

Canon Optura 40 DV Camcorder Canon Optura 40 DV Camcorder

Canon Optura 40 DV Camcorder recommended with iDive by Aquafadas -- The Canon Optura 40 is a geek's dream DV camcorder. Not only does it record outstanding audio and video on DV tape, it's a darn good 2MP digital camera, decent QuickTime video camera, and excellent FireWire web cam. The Optura saves photos and QuickTime to SD memory cards that are work with any media card reader and are recognized by iPhoto. I like the abundance of manual controls to adjust focus, exposure, and even audio input (rare feature in consumer camcorders). The Optura has a slick analog-to-digital converter so you can digitize old VHS and other analog media. Plus it includes both a built-in flash for still photos and video light for movies. The Optura 40 is compact and well made. $650 - $999 depending on where you shop. If you can live with a 12X zoom lens instead of the Optura 40's 14X, and you don't care about the built-in video light, you can save about $100 by getting the Optura 30 instead.

iDive is to video what iPhoto is to digital photography. Not only can you upload video directly from your DV camcorder with iDive, you can watch it, organize it, and most importantly, find it again! iDive is compatible with both iMovie and Final Cut. At last, digital video management that works. $70.

Kyocera Finecam SL400R Kyocera Finecam SL400R

Kyocera Finecam SL400R -- This stylish 4-megapixel camera has amazing horsepower under the hood thanks to the RTUNE technology that essentially enables the Finecam to write directly to a high speed memory card. That means continuous shooting at 3 frames per second until the card fills up. You can also record QuickTime movies at 640x480 at a full 30fps (with sound). The twist-design body enables your to hold the camera over your head and still frame the shot, and the 3X zoom lens helps you compose the perfect shot. The SL400R even accepts filters. $290 to $350 depending on where you shop.


Sony Ericsson T637 Smartphone Sony Ericsson T637 Smartphone

Sony Ericsson T630 & T637 Smartphone -- If you use iCal and Address Book on Mac OS X, then you'll love this stylish Bluetooth phone from Sony Ericsson. Just fire up iSync and you can transfer and keep current your appointments, ToDos, and contact info. You can display you data on a beautiful 65,000 color TFT screen, plus enjoy triband connectivity, built-in digital camera, polyphonic ringtones -- all encased in liquid black and weighing in at only 92 grams. The T630 connects to GSM 900/1800/1900 and the T637 connects to GSM 850/1800/1900. Unlocked phones are running around $275, and phones with carrier plans can be as low as $50.

Apple iPod mini recommended with Process by Jumsoft -- Even though it weighs in at only 3.6 ounces, the iPod mini packs a lot of punch. Yes, you can synchronize it with your iTunes music library and hold up to 4GBs of music, but I recommend that you save a little room on the mini to accommodate the rest of your life. Using iSync, you can transfer appointments, ToDos, and contact info. But there's more. For example, why not listen to an audio book? Or maybe save your meeting notes for quick review while waiting in the dentist's office. Unless you're a serious music head with a vast collection, the iPod mini will provide you with enough music for a weekend getaway while taking up less room in your crowded bag of tricks. $249.

And if you really want to get it together, add Process by Jumsoft. Process is a brilliant organizing and outlining tool that turns random thoughts and bits of information into positive action. You can save your lists and outlines to the iPod mini, and take your reminders on the road. Very handy. $25.


Final Thoughts

I hope you found my suggested software/hardware bundles interesting. To me, this kind of integration is very natural to Mac users. If you want to give someone a great gift, such as an iSight for example, consider how you enhance its value by adding Delicious Library too.

Software makes a great gift. It doesn't add clutter to the home but enhances the value of our existing hardware investments. And those purchases fuel the independent development community that is so vital to the health of our platform.

I want to plug three of my books because these also make excellent gifts. For the digital photographer in the family, my Digital Photography Pocket Guide, 2nd Ed provides everything you need to know in a book that slips nicely into the camera bag. For iBook owners, the hot-off-the-press iBook Fan Book is a handy travel companion that covers both cool accessories and lots of helpful information to customize its performance. The same goes for the PowerBook Fan Book. All of these guides are beautifully designed and in full color. You can purchase any of them for less than $15.

And finally, regardless of how you celebrate the holidays, I hope you finish 2004 on a high note. Let's all have a happy and productive 2005.

PowerBook Fan Book

Related Reading

PowerBook Fan Book
love at first boot
By Derrick Story

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.


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