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2005 Hardware Gift Ideas

Hardware just isn't the thing this year, it seems, with relatively few suggestions other than Derek Miller's extensive collection of ideas for anyone interested in podcasting. If you're casting about for more, suggestions from previous years might be slightly out of date but are still worth checking out.

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USB Convergence -- USB devices seem to breed like bunnies, but you can reduce their impact on your desk with the Kensington PocketHub Media Center ($50), recommended by Dan Frakes. He wrote, "This tiny (4" wide, 2.4" deep, and .8" high; 10.1 x 6.1 x 2 cm), aluminum-clad package combines a 3-port USB 2.0 hub with a 15-in-one memory card reader. It's small and light enough to throw in your laptop bag but has enough functionality to use at home. Although it doesn't come with an AC adapter, it does have a power input jack so you can use it as a powered hub if you like. You can get a USB hub and a 'universal' card reader for less money separately, but I like the PocketHub's compact design and having one less peripheral to plug in and clutter my desk."


Keep Your (PowerBook) Cool -- Although a nice, warm PowerBook can be cozy during the winter here in the northeast United States, sometimes that heat can be a problem. Dan O'Donnell wrote, "One of my internal clients runs very large numerical simulations on his PowerBook. He also happens to run it on his 23-inch monitor so the PowerBook runs at 100 percent power with the lid closed. Since considerable cooling is normally supposed to happen convectively up through the keyboard, these machines get hot. (Really hot!) I discovered the old MacMice iBreeze platform that has a pair of built-in USB-powered fans. At the same time we bought one for the client, I got one for my machine so I could see how well it worked. It works well - the machine never heats up while it's on the fan-stand. MacMice is long gone, but the products live on at Mac Pro Systems and Software. The clear stand costs $25 and the silver version is $20. The fans make a small fannish sound when running, but the cool blue LED in the USB connector has geek chic. Assuming that heat is an enemy of PowerBooks and electronics in general, it could extend the life of any laptop which it provides cooling to and save money in the long run."

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Jaws for Radio -- John Trapp wrote, "I strongly recommend the Griffin Technology Radio Shark AM/FM Desktop Radio ($44 from Amazon). Think of it as TiVo for radio. I record NPR shows and AM sports broadcasts for timeshift listening on my iPod. If you like AM, be sure to get a Terk Technology AM-1000 Advantage Passive AM Indoor Antenna ($34 at Amazon). It is amazing how good the signal can sound. The only drawback to the Radio Shark is that it does not allow you to save streams into segments, so for that I use Rogue Amoeba's Audio Hijack Pro, which can segment saved streams by size or time, a must for playing files on an iPod."

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Widen Your View -- You can never have too many pixels, and Mac mini owners in particular might still be using substandard monitors. We haven't seen these particular screens, but if you have a store near you, it's always worth taking a look at monitors in person before buying. For a utility display, we once bought a 14-inch LCD monitor from Best Buy for the then-amazing price of $150; it's perfect for its intended use, but the quality would make it unbearable to use for long as a primary monitor. For this holiday season, Fred D. suggested a new screen, "If you know someone who still has their Mac mini hooked up to an old CRT monitor, consider the Westinghouse LCM-17w7 LCD widescreen 17-inch monitor. It's on sale at Best Buy for $200. It features 1280 by 768 native resolution, 15 ms pixel on/off, DVI-D and VGA input ports, two built-in speakers, and white-silver bezel trim that complements the Mac mini's case. It doesn't have the best brightness and contrast ratings (400 cd and 600:1), but $200 is a great price for such a monitor."

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Paul Guinnessy chimed in, "You also can't go wrong with the Dell 20-inch widescreen display (2005FPW) when the price drops to $380." Dell often has deals; it's also worth checking the dealnews listing for sales on this and similar displays.

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Dive into Podcasting -- Pretty soon everyone will have their own podcast, it seems, and if you want to get started, we recommend reading Andy Williams Affleck's "Take Control of Podcasting on the Mac" and checking out Derek Miller's suggestions for podcasting-related hardware below. Take it away, Derek!

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If you or a friend are interested in getting into podcasting or recording with GarageBand, some quality (but not necessarily expensive) recording equipment can greatly improve the sound of the material. There are, of course, thousands of possible gear combinations. Three resources I recommend you peruse are TweakHeadz Lab for independent digital recording equipment reviews; for more podcasting-specific gear combinations in tiered-price packages; and Harmony Central, which offers moderated user-review forums for musical and recording equipment, with a high signal-to-noise ratio and a massive database. I always check Harmony Central when evaluating new gear.


You can see what I've managed even without the FireWire interface/mixer at my podcast of original instrumentals. (If you want to buy my CD album - now being duplicated - of that material as a Christmas present, I wouldn't object either.) In particular, I recommend the following equipment:


  • A quality microphone, for recording voices and instruments that you can't plug in directly to your Mac. Sure, you can get a $20 Radio Shack special or a USB headset, but to sound really good (and why do it if you won't?) you should spend more money. Options include the Behringer B2 Pro condenser mic (less than $150) and AKG C1000S condenser mic ($200), both good general-purpose microphones, and the Heil PR40 dynamic ($375 list, $275 street), which is excellent for the money but more specialized for podcast and radio speech recording (and not necessarily so good for louder singing or instruments).

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  • A FireWire audio interface or mixing board. Condenser microphones need phantom power (a small power current through the cable, or via a battery), which Macs can't provide directly through the audio-in jack. Besides, the audio-in on most Macs (that have it at all) tends to be noisy, and doesn't support the three-conductor balanced ("XLR") connectors used by good microphones. So you can either get a basic FireWire external box, like the Presonus Inspire ($200) or FireBox ($300), or a full mixer with FireWire outputs, like the Alesis MultiMix 8 ($400), which gives you built-in digital effects (reverb and so on) too. All three (and their many competitors) digitize the signal so your Mac doesn't have to, and provide much more flexibility for recording simultaneous tracks, mixing, listening, and generally mucking with your sounds (from mics, instruments, and so on) at high quality. They usually come with more powerful (but harder to use) software than GarageBand. I recommend against USB solutions, although they're cheaper, because even USB 2.0 isn't as good as FireWire for moving lots of time-sensitive bits around.

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  • A microphone stand, either tabletop, floor-standing, or desk-mounted. These are available from any music store, Radio Shack (now The Source here in Canada), and elsewhere for $15 and up.


  • Anyone recording podcasts or audio on the go might not want to lug a PowerBook. Until recently, iPods weren't a feasible option because even with third-party add-ons their recording quality was crippled, so I recommended the inexpensive iRiver IFP series MP3 player/recorders ($100 and up), which record directly to MP3 at very high quality and have an external mic jack. Alas, their user interface is extremely obscure (showing why Apple is winning the MP3 player race) and you must use the included iRiver Mac software to transfer the files - as with iPods, you can't just drag files from a mounted USB drive. Now, of course, the video-capable 5G iPods can record CD-quality WAV file audio, but it doesn't look like there are any adapters or microphones to let you do that quite yet. Still, if you need an excuse to buy a fifth-generation iPod...


  • Add good connector cables ($10 and up), and you have all your recipient needs to sound amazing for a maybe a few hundred bucks. Even a few years ago, sound quality like that was impossible without spending thousands - and the results were harder to get to an audience.

  • While Dan Frakes's 2002 and 2003 "Music To Your Ears" articles about headphones are probably the best resource for buying new "cans" as gifts, I can specifically recommend two $100 pairs of "sealed" (traditional, big around-the-ear, noise-isolating) headphones. Sennheiser's HD 280 Pro, which I use, can take a bit to break in so that they don't clamp your head too tightly, but they sound great. Then there is AKG's K141, which is widely used in recording studios and broadcast setups. Both headphones let little sound in or out, and so are good for listening to yourself or backing tracks while you record, without leaking the sound you're hearing to be re-recorded by your microphone.

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