By now you’ve no doubt seen a few gift guides for the holiday season—not counting the barrage of advertising that saturates November and December each year. We’ve offered TidBITS Gift Guides since 1993, and we encourage you to look at recommendations from recent years, because in many cases the suggestions are still good, like the perennial stalwart software Solitaire Till Dawn. In particular, the 2009, 2008, and 2007 Gift Guides should still be relatively useful.
This year, however, we’ve taken a different approach. While we certainly like shiny new gadgets—TidBITS covers Apple and technology, for goodness sake—we don’t need even more physical stuff cluttering our offices and houses, and inevitably migrating to the back of a drawer or a closet before eventually being donated to the Salvation Army or sent to the landfill. So this year, we’re emphasizing bits over atoms with a variety of recommendations from TidBITS staffers, focusing on virtual goods and services that don’t add more plastic and metal to the pile. That’s not to say that each of the recommendations below is entirely based on flittering electrons, but those that aren’t are listed with an eye toward improving our virtual lives.
We’d also like to hear your suggestions of gifts along this theme in the comments for this article!
Navigate with Navigon (Adam) -- Perhaps my favorite piece of consumer electronics over the past five years has been the car navigation GPS device, and I’ve reviewed a slew of them in TidBITS in that time (see our series “Find Yourself with GPS”). But don’t go looking for most of those models because they likely aren’t available any more—the field moves quickly, rendering older models obsolete.
My dirty little secret is that although I recommended these devices to friends and relatives, I never bought one for myself, since they were never quite perfect (though I liked the Garmin nüvi 255W quite a lot). I could see that the state of the art kept changing, and I didn’t want to get stuck with a model that suffered greatly in comparison with later incarnations. You’ll also notice that the last review in that series compared the device to early iPhone GPS navigation apps, G-Map and AT&T Navigator. I didn’t feel that I could quite trust either of those in stressful driving situations.
Hence my gift suggestion this year, for anyone who has an iPhone and could use navigation help when travelling in unfamiliar environs, is a GPS iPhone app I’ve tested extensively and feel comfortable recommending: Navigon MobileNavigator (hereafter referred to as Navigon). Put simply, Navigon is as good as or better than every standalone GPS device I’ve used, with only a few minor qualifications.
In the interests of space, we’ve continued the discussion of Navigon in a separate article—“Navigon MobileNavigator App Bests Standalone Devices,” 6 December 2010)—since, unlike many iPhone apps, it’s sufficiently deep and capable to warrant significant exploration and commentary.
Netflix Watch Instantly and Hulu Plus (Adam) -- In another bits-not-atoms effort, allow me to recommend a Netflix Watch Instantly account and a Hulu Plus account, which enable the account holder to watch an unlimited number of videos streamed over the Internet. Each account costs $7.99 per month, making even the combination cheaper than purchasing or renting individual items from the iTunes Store for most people. These accounts are even more economical than purchasing DVDs of movies or TV shows, with the added benefit that you don’t have to store yet another DVD box in your house.
The only significant downside of the Netflix Watch Instantly account is that it doesn’t include many recent TV shows and movies, but it’s safe to say that Netflix still offers thousands of hours of streamed entertainment for just about anyone. And, if you want to edge back toward atoms just a little bit, $9.99 per month adds a single physical DVD at a time, which could be perfect for the person who wants to see the occasional current movie.
Netflix in general lacks current TV shows, but that’s where Hulu Plus steps in, offering every episode of dozens of popular TV shows from the current season, along with past episodes from numerous other shows. Hulu Plus currently boasts more than 200 seasons and 2,400 episodes. I have to admit that we don’t subscribe to Hulu Plus since Netflix provides us with far more video than we have time to watch anyway, but many people feel the need to stay up with current TV shows. Be warned, even after paying for a Hulu Plus subscription, shows still have ads, whereas shows streamed via Netflix’s Watch Instantly service are ad-free.
Catalog Choice Unlisting Service (Tonya) -- Although I enjoy browsing through paper catalogs, my overall appetite for catalogs is modest—give me one with schlocky Christmas decor, a couple of clothing catalogs, one with products like laser-based bug zappers, and a few arty catalogs with high production values, and I’m happy for months. A few years ago, the catalog load became so heavy that we were getting a year’s supply each week—we’re talking actual poundage of paper.
Fortunately, we found a simple way to manage our catalogs in the form of a suggestion from TidBITS reader Matt Henderson. Matt pointed TidBITS readers to a Web site run by a non-profit organization called Catalog Choice. Since signing up in late 2007, Adam and I have opted out of receiving catalogs from 176 merchants! (To read our original write-up, see “Stop the Catalog Madness with Catalog Choice,” 3 December 2007.)
Turning someone on to Catalog Choice would be a nice thing to do, but it’s not quite a gift. However, you can give a special Catalog Choice annual subscription, which includes removal from higher-level lists maintained by third-party marketing services that supply the catalogs with fresh meat, er, names. Catalog Choice is presenting this gift subscription as a “Gift of Less.” What you buy is a code that you can email to your recipient or that’s included in a card that you can print from the Catalog Choice site. Whether you also give a laser bug zapper is up to you. But I’m betting they don’t really work.
Give the Gift of Sleep (Tonya) -- When it comes to sleep, forget the whiskey, the hot milk, and the sleeping pills (though a little nookie is never a bad thing). For chronic insomnia, a well-chosen audiobook is the ticket to dreamland. The trick is to play it on an iPod (or iPhone) with the sleep timer set for 15 to 30 minutes. The sleep timer automatically turns the audio off at the appointed time with no click (Adam discussed this back in 2005, in “iPods Defeating Insomnia,” 28 February 2005).
This gift means you’ll be providing the necessary tech support to help your recipient connect an iPod or iPhone to an external speaker (an older, hand-me-down device works admirably for this single-purpose function), fully understand how to operate the sleep timer, and put some audio on the device. To the best of my knowledge, all iPods except for the iPod shuffle have this function. The sleep timer in the iPod touch and the iPhone is available in the Clock app’s timer; the Sleep iPod option is at the bottom of the list of alarm sounds in iOS 4.2.1. The iPhone 4’s built-in speaker is loud enough that you likely don’t need an external speaker.
The trick is choosing the right audio. It must be interesting, but it can’t be too scary or funny, or too closely related to personal worries, or read with an overly perky voice. My all-time top pick goes to Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” which is available at Amazon and iTunes, but costs less at Amazon. We’ve listened to a number of other books (make sure to get unabridged versions—you want these to go on as long as possible), but have recently become fond of iTunes U class lectures, most notably Donald Kagan’s Ancient Greek History class.
iTunes U offers a treasure trove of free audio (and video) from college courses. You have to pick carefully because sound quality can vary, and classes with many student questions can prevent you from dropping off. I also recommend Paul Bloom’s Psychology 110 at Yale University, a course that was among the iTunes U picks reviewed recently in the New York Times article “Audit This: 12 Online Courses Worth Watching” (individual reviews are linked to below the article’s main body). I want to emphasize that we listen to these audio files repeatedly until we have absorbed them, and we like them a great deal, even if they do put us to sleep.
One more thing. Although we plug in Adam’s iPhone 4 beside the bed every night for this purpose, you can get an external speaker for the iPhone 3G or 3GS that does not use batteries or cables. It’s called the Griffin AirCurve, and I adore mine. You just plunk the iPhone into it, and the shape of the device conditions the sound waves to add about 10 decibels to the volume. It doesn’t work with other iPhones or the iPod touch, unfortunately, and although there’s an AirCurve Play to amplify the iPhone 4, the iPhone 4’s speaker is itself louder than the iPhone 3GS with the AirCurve.
Flickr Pro Membership (Jeff) -- Digital cameras encourage us to take more photos than we ever did when shooting film, but how are people going to see them if they’re stuck on a computer’s hard drive? Of the many services that let you publish and share photos on the Web, Flickr has long been my favorite. I appreciate its clean interface and easy photo sharing and embedding controls.
Flickr is also free, but a free account is restricted to 300 MB of photos and two videos (which must be shorter than 90 seconds) per month. Your photostream is also limited to the most recent 200 images, you can post to up to 10 group pools, and you can’t re-download higher-quality originals that you uploaded.
For friends or family members that want to share more than that, a great gift idea is to purchase a Flickr Pro account for them at a yearly cost of $24.95 (or $47.99 for two years). They’ll get unlimited uploads (up to 20 MB in size per photo, or up to 500 MB per video), the capability to show HD video, unlimited storage and bandwidth, and archiving of high-resolution originals. They can also replace photos, post items to up to 60 group pools, and get view counts and referrer statistics.
If you’re a grandparent who wants to encourage more online photos of grandchildren, or if someone you know has recently delved into photography, a Flickr Pro membership is something that can pay off every day throughout the year.
Words with Friends (Glenn) -- Words with Friends is an iOS board game that bears a resemblance to Scrabble. That resemblance is called “identity,” coupled with a few strategic shifts of the board layout, which you’ll have to learn. I made some boneheaded moves initially by thinking of the triple-word squares being in the corners, instead of indented.
Since I installed Words with Friends HD four months ago, I’ve played several dozen games with a variety of buddies. I nearly always have a move waiting to respond to. I have both the $2.99 iPad version and the $2.99 iPhone/iPod touch edition, so I can play with whatever device I have in hand. (The developer offers a free version with ads for the iPad and iPhone/iPod touch, too.)
Words with Friends’ key advantage over the licensed Scrabble iOS app is that the developer has its own network for connecting with others. You don’t need to use Facebook, which is a turnoff for some people—you can get a friend’s Words with Friends handle, send an invite via email, or be hooked up with a stranger (casual text, anyone?). Facebook and Twitter matchups are also available.
If you prefer the authorized Scrabble app, it has a fair amount going for it, too. There’s a built-in dictionary to check—but not find—words, including a list of all legitimate two-letter words. You can play against the computer from easy to advanced. It creams me at the advanced level, but it’s a great way to learn to play, and play fast games.
The Scrabble iPad app also pairs with the free Tile Rack for the iPhone and iPod touch where each player in a game can flick tiles from their device onto a shared iPad to play them! Scrabble also has a pass-and-play mode, and a local network mode in which you can play with other people using the app.
Scrabble also lets you cheat: a Best Word feature, which can be disabled, suggests up to four words per round based on your tile rack and the current game board. (Scrabble comes in an iPad edition for $9.99—which seems steep only relative to Words with Friends, but not to the number of hours you’ll use it—and a $2.99 iPhone/iPod touch version.)
Both Scrabble and Words with Friends have a feature that purists won’t like: you can place words on the board, and have the app tell you that one or more of the words isn’t valid. In real game play, an illegitimate word may be played unless challenged. If challenged and found in a dictionary—one you’ve agreed on or that happens to be lying nearby—the challenger loses a turn; otherwise, the player who placed the word removes his or her tiles and loses that turn. (The Scrabble app lets you choose among a couple of dictionaries; its computer player plays only legitimate words.)
Of course, word challenges lead to hard feelings, destroyed friendships, and family turmoil; perhaps it’s best that the apps act as the arbiter of word legitimacy.
Kindle Gift Certificates (Glenn) -- When the Kindle first shipped, I was dubious that people would spend piles of money on books that could be read on only one device. I was wrong about that—plenty of regular commuters and frequent travelers switched to the Kindle to avoid carrying around piles of paper books. And Amazon has opened up the Kindle ecosystem broadly since the first device, while dramatically improving the reader and lowering the price of the 7-inch model.
You can now get free Kindle software for iOS, Mac OS X, Windows, and other mobile platforms. The same ebook may be read on any Kindle device or software, and the last-read place, notes, and bookmarks are synchronized as well.
This makes a Kindle gift certificate a highly reasonable option in place of a paper book. The upside: your recipient can immediately purchase and download whatever they want, or even apply the gift certificate towards the purchase of a Kindle reader. The downside: books can’t be transferred after purchase, unlike a printed book that might make its way through family and friends.
You can also give specific book titles as Kindle gifts; if a recipient doesn’t want that particular book, he or she can convert the gift to a Kindle gift certificate. Also worth noting is that your friend receives an email message when the gift is purchased, so if you want to keep it a secret until December 25th, you’ll need to place the order on that day.
Developer Membership Fee (Matt) -- Got a budding developer in your life? You probably do, because the advent of the iPhone (not to mention the iPad) has brought a torrent of newbies eagerly swimming down Cocoa Touch Creek, tumbling over the Waterfall of Nerdliness and happily getting their feet wet in the Pool of Programming. iPhone apps, in particular, are often so simple and single-minded (and, let’s face it, frequently downright trivial and silly) that they bring out the programmer in all of us, that little inner voice that says: “Hey, I bet I can do this!”
But there’s a catch, as new iOS programmers quickly discover: although the Xcode developer tools are a free download, and although developing an app on your computer and testing it in the Simulator is free as well, if you want to move an app off the computer and onto an actual iOS device, whether it’s for the pleasure of carrying it around with you and playing with it, or to share it with friends or beta-testers, or to make it available in the App Store, you have to be a member of the iOS Developer Program, which requires an annual fee of $99.
This season, help someone over that fiscal hump by giving the gift of one year of developer-hood. You probably can’t actually pay the fee directly, because that requires signing in and enrolling as the developer. But you can give the $99 in some other way, earmarked as your contribution to the recipient’s Developer Program membership. This is a great way to say you care. It’s also a great way to express confidence and support for your recipient. When you give a Developer Programmer membership, what you’re really saying is: “This is just an investment; I expect you take this money, enroll in the iOS Developer Program, write a killer app, sell gazillions of copies of it at the App Store, and make me rich!” After all, reciprocity is the essence of gift-giving, as anthropologists are fond of reminding us.
Seriously, a developer membership is a great gift. When I first signed up for my membership, that $99 seemed a mighty tall hurdle. But in the end, even though all my apps are free except for one, and even though that one hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm, I did make enough back in the first year to pay for the membership (but no, not for my iPod touch).
And speaking of shamelessly self-promoting plugs (we were speaking of that, weren’t we?) another way to help your budding developer over the learning curve is with a good book about how to program for iOS. I’m writing one for O’Reilly Media at this very moment, and even though it isn’t finished yet, the bulk of the book is in place, and you can obtain it now in digital form in an Early Release edition, as an EPUB or PDF, or via the Web through Safari Books Online. Just like our own Take Control books (see elsewhere in this article), an Early Release edition has the advantage of mutability: as I write new chapters and revise earlier ones, the changes get pushed out and incorporated into the digital book automatically. Honestly, the programming world changes so fast these days that if it weren’t for this Early Release feature of O’Reilly’s, I don’t think I could have been persuaded to write the book at all.
Backup Products and/or Services (Joe) -- I’ll spare you the sermonette about backups; suffice to say that there are many ways to accomplish this essential task, and making backups easier for a loved one—in whichever way—is a wonderful gift. I’ve used many different backup programs in writing “Take Control of Mac OS X Backups, Fourth Edition,” and “Take Control of Easy Mac Backups,” and I have at least three running regularly on my Macs. Of these, I have a special fondness for CrashPlan, which lets you store your backups in the cloud (via an inexpensive service called CrashPlan Central), on a local hard drive, on another computer you own, on a friend’s computer anywhere in the world, or any combination of the above. Although the standard version of CrashPlan is free, I recommend the not-free CrashPlan+, which (as of 7 December 2010) offers continuous backups rather than a single backup run per day, backup sets, and a built-in subscription to CrashPlan Central. Alternatively, if you want an online-only backup system that’s extraordinarily easy to set up, and inexpensive too, give the gift of Backblaze ($50 per computer per year).
If you choose CrashPlan, you may want an extra hard drive to go with the new backup software, and the one I have my eye on this holiday season is the first 2.5-inch, bus-powered drive with a 1.5 TB capacity: the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex ($184.99 at Amazon.com with a USB 3.0 interface; add a FireWire 800 interface and cable for $24.55 or an eSATA interface and cable for $16.24). Yes, it’s made of atoms, but it packs lots of storage into a very small space—and is quieter than a full-size drive. And, as a bonus—if you’re buying CrashPlan+ for a loved one—you can offer to back up their files over the Internet so they get a great gift that takes up no room for them.
Another space-saving storage option is a Drobo storage device. Drobos hold from four to eight hard drives, and let you freely add or upgrade drives (to increase your available storage space) at any time, with no manual reconfiguration required—so they help you reduce clutter both now and in the future. Of the many Drobo models, I’m most drawn to the five-bay Drobo S, which is reasonably inexpensive at $799 and, thanks to its USB, FireWire, and eSATA interfaces, lets you use it for bootable duplicates if you like.
Fujitsu ScanSnap Scanner (Joe) -- If you want to reduce physical stuff in your home or office, those thousands of pages of paper files are a good place to start. Convert them to searchable PDF files to get all the advantages of digital storage (you can back up your paper files!), and clear out some clutter in the process. There are lots of excellent Mac-compatible document scanners, but if I were buying a new one for myself today, I’d go for the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300, which I reviewed in TidBITS (see “ScanSnap S1300 vs. Doxie: Two Portable Document Scanners,” 24 July 2010). It’s not the fastest scanner on the market but is still reasonably zippy, scanning both sides of each sheet simultaneously at up to 16 pages per minute. It’s inexpensive at $295, has a 10-sheet feeder, includes OCR software, and is compact enough to take with you on business trips. And you can learn all about how to use it as part of a complete process for going paperless in “Take Control of Your Paperless Office ($10).”
Give a Kiva Loan (Rich) -- I admit to having the terrible habit of buying things I want and need as I find them, making gift-giving holidays ridiculously complicated for my friends and family. Odds are that you have a few similar people on your holiday list. When my wife and I got married, we solved this by asking people to donate to our favorite charities, rather than giving us yet another duplicate kitchen item. The problem with charities as a gift is all you usually get is a nice letter, and it isn’t like you can play with your donation. Kiva changes all that by mashing up a charity, video game, and financial management system.
Kiva isn’t a charity per se; it’s a microcredit program that provides small loans to startup businesses in developing nations. The participants are all financially vetted and required to pay back the loans. But rather than sending your money off to some unknown face to make all the decisions, Kiva allows you to choose who you provide loans to, and how much, through a dynamic Web application. You browse entrepreneurs, their proposals, and funding requests and choose to provide financing to the ones of interest. As you invest, and loans are repaid, you manage your portfolio and can choose to continue loaning to new projects, donate money for Kiva operating costs, or remove the funds via PayPal.
Since the average repayment rate is 99 percent, and Kiva has funded over 460,000 entrepreneurs, your gift can go a very long way. Kiva can also be addictive, thanks to its portfolio management and lending interface. It may feel like a financial game, but with every click you’re helping small businesses and local economies throughout the world.
Books, E- and Otherwise (Michael) -- I’m a book person—big time. So big time that I not only have bulging shelves of books around me, but a storage locker a few miles away from my home bursting at its seams with even more books. Yet, as much as I love the talismanic power of a bound hardcover codex, I have also become a big-time fan of ebooks, and have loaded my iPad and iPhone with them. And not just ebooks from Apple’s iBookstore, but from Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, and several other ebook publishers and vendors (like Take Control!). If you happen to have family members or friends who have iPads, Kindles, Nooks, or other ebook readers, and you happen to be reasonably clueful about your gift recipients’ tastes, an ebook or two, or a gift certificate for the same, can make a great gift. What’s more, there’s no wrapping paper to end up in the landfill once the gift is received.
With that said, here are two books I’ve recently enjoyed that might make a good gift for the right person on your list.
“The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1”: Published 100 years after Twain’s death, the autobiography consists of an enjoyable and highly readable set of free-wheeling recollections, reminiscences, and ruminations that Twain dictated from his bed in the last years of his life, and to which he added newspaper clippings, letters, and various other items at need or on a whim. Twain wanted the work withheld until he had been in his grave for a century, and although portions of it have been printed over the years, the University of California’s Mark Twain Papers and Project has prepared this authoritative edition and published it in both paper and electronic form (and that latter format Twain himself had even foreseen!). A Kindle edition of it is available for under $10, and can be purchased as a gift from Amazon’s site.
“CryoBurn”, by Lois McMaster Bujold: For the science fiction fan on your holiday list, this most recent self-contained novel in the Miles Vorkosigan Saga from the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Bujold is a satisfying science-fiction mystery adventure that touches upon issues of deep philosophic and political import while never failing to entertain. What makes it a good addition to this bits-not-atoms gift list, though, is the CD-ROM included in the Baen Books hardcover edition, which contains ebook versions of almost all of the Vorkosigan Saga novels and stories (including “CryoBurn” itself) in a variety of formats: EPUB, Mobipocket, HTML, RTF, and others. What’s more, there is no digital rights management imposed on these ebook versions. The hardcover with CD-ROM is available from Amazon as well as most bookstores (remember those?).
Take Control Books -- Obviously, we highly recommend our Take Control ebooks, which consist of easily transferred bits instead of bulky atoms, offer thousands of pages of great information on a wide variety of topics, and feature free or discounted updates.
To buy one as a gift, you can buy the ebook as you would normally and then either send it via email (for instant gift-giving satisfaction) or copy it to a CD or thumb drive and deliver it the old-fashioned way (postal service, delivery service, or right jolly old elf). It’s not quite in keeping with bits-not-atoms, but you could order a print version using the Buy Print Book button located on each ebook’s Web page. If you go this route, do it Real Soon Now, because the printed books, unlike the ebooks, don’t ship instantly and can’t be updated.
If you want to give something tangible, while staying within the theme of this article, perhaps reference it in a simple holiday card: “Dear Steve: This year, I bought you an ebook that will answer all of your questions about reading email on an iPad. I’ll help you install it when I visit you next week. Love, Eudora.” Then you can send the actual PDF (or EPUB, or Mobipocket file, for most titles) via email later.
Whether you’re shopping for a loved one or looking for ideas to put on your holiday list, all the ebooks sold from the Take Control site are 50-percent off through the end of December, in honor of Take Control’s recent seventh anniversary.
That’s it for our recommendations for this year, but as always, feel free to contribute your favorite bits-not-atoms gift suggestions in the comments!