Each year we discover products that don’t fit easily into a regular category, but which are worth the attention in their own right. Be sure also to check out the Miscellaneous Gifts of TidBITS holidays past, as well as the TidBITS Talk discussions that inspired them.
An Extra Hand with CDs — We’ve come across a simple little product from Contoured Edge, Inc. that would make a great gift for people who always have CDs lying around. Called the CD Hold Button, it’s a small polycarbonate thingamajig you stick to the side of your monitor, to your dashboard, to your boombox, or anywhere else you want to hold a CD. Then, rather than setting a CD down and risk scratching it, you can just put the CD onto the CD Hold Button (it grips like a jewel case’s insert). They come in a bunch of colors and cost only $5 for a three-button pack or $9 for an eight-button pack. Simple, clever, and cheap – what more could you want?
Good Quality Headphones — Some TidBITS Talk respondents offered a few sentences of suggestions, but Dan Frakes sent along what was almost a short article about how you can enhance your Mac or iPod. Take it away, Dan.
Many Mac users use headphones regularly: for DVDs on the plane, for iTunes at work or at the library, for games at home, and now with the iPod. The problem is that most headphones… well, they stink. And most of the better headphones don’t get a lot of press – you see ads for Sony StreetStyle and Bose Noise Canceling headphones, but you don’t see many ads for headphones that actually sound good. So as a headphone geek, I’m going to recommend a few headphones that are highly regarded in the audio community. If there’s a Mac/PowerBook/iPod user in your life who uses headphones, get them some that really do their audio justice.
It’s worth noting that there are definitely headphones out there that are "better" than some of the models listed below, from Sennheiser, AKG, Grado, Beyerdynamic, and even Sony. However, few will actually sound better without a dedicated (separate) headphone amp; those listed below will work well directly out of an iPod or the headphone jack on your PowerBook or desktop Mac.
Most of these headphones can be found at a good headphone-only retailer like HeadRoom. A few of the Koss models can be found at the big electronics stores. The Sony V6 headphones are quite hard to find; DJ Mart is one of the few places that still carry them.
For clarification, earbuds are small headphones that sit in your ear, like the ones included with the iPod.
Etymotic ER4P ($250) or ER6 ($120). These are the best earbuds on the planet by leaps and bounds. They actually fit inside the ear canal and provide far more isolation (-28 dB and -20 dB, respectively) and better sound than any noise-canceling headphone on the market. They’re perfect for traveling. The only drawback is that some people don’t like sticking things inside their ears… way inside.
Koss KSC-35 ($30). Not really an earbud but an "earclip" – no headband, so they’re very small, lightweight, and comfortable. Plus they offer some of the best sound under $100. Definitely the best headphone available for exercise and active use, and one of the best bargains in headphones.
Koss KSC-50 ($20). The new version of the KSC-35, they are still excellent, but not quite as good as the original.
Sennheiser MX-500 ($20). Probably the best all-around traditional earbud.
Sony MDR-E888 ($60). Sony’s best earbud is very good, but not quite as balanced as the Sennheiser MX-500.
Lightweight headphones clip over the ear or are connected by a metal or plastic headband. Koss makes portable headphones using a driver that is much better than anything else on the market in this category. All of the following headphones use the same driver, and all sound excellent (though a bit different due to enclosure differences). I’ve listed them in the order I prefer them.
- KSC-35 ($30, earclip)
- KSC-50 ($20, earclip)
- PortaPro ($40, traditional headband)
- KSC-55 ($15-$20, "Streetstyle" headband rests behind the head/neck)
- SportaPro ($20, traditional or behind-the-head band; fits like a vise)
Sealed full-sized headphones fit over the ears and block out external noise; good for travel or home use.
Beyerdynamic DT250-80 ($150). Probably the best traditional sealed headphone that can be powered by a portable.
Sony MDR-V6 ($70). Quite comfortable, and fold up for travel. Also available as the "pro" line MDR-7506 for $40-$50 more. The V6 are different than the MDR-V600, which are nowhere near as good.
Beyerdynamic DT231 ($90) or Sennheiser HD25SP ($85). Not quite as good as the V6, but easier to find.
Koss UR20 or UR30 ($25-$30). The best "bargain" sealed headphone, but a bit boomy in the bass.
Open full-sized headphones don’t seal out noise and tend to be bulkier, but they’re great for listening at home.
Grado SR-60 ($70), SR-80 ($90), or SR-125 ($150). Not the most comfortable, but great sounding headphones for the money – the SR-80 is a major bargain in high-end headphones.
Sennheiser HD495 ($60). Intended for use with a dedicated amp, but still sound very good directly out of a portable or computer headphone jack.
For more headphone info, check out Head-Fi and HeadWize.
Think Outside the Box — We’ve long railed about the massive waste involved in packaging and distributing software. We cringe when we receive a large cardboard box filled with more cardboard filler… and a single CD (it was a tad more tolerable when software shipped with instruction manuals, but even those are becoming a rarity). Harro de Jong noted the advantages of bypassing first-run products by picking up items sold by previous owners. "Computer-related gifts are often expensive, but discard the box and shrink-wrap, and prices drop steeply. Since computer hardware often lives much longer than its first owner will use it, those people can usually be persuaded to part with all kinds of neat stuff for a pittance. This year I was able to buy a Wacom tablet, a color inkjet (with 7 spare cartridges), plus a trackball for less than $100. With some cleaning and a thorough check, I’ve got a gift that will make a poor graphic arts student very happy."
Big Letters Make Big Words — Some folks have complained about Apple’s new white-on-black keyboards, but contrast isn’t the only trouble people have when looking at their keyboards. Melinda Stamp’s small gift is providing big rewards. "I bought Hooleon’s large-print key-top labels for my visually impaired father for his birthday and he loved them. They greatly enhanced his experience with his computer. I’m buying him another set for his new Christmas iMac. This is an inexpensive, easy, and thoughtful gift for anyone with vision problems or just ‘over-40’ eyes. The labels are durable, attractive, easy to apply, and come in various colors. Hooleon also offers a variety of custom keyboard products, like Braille large print labels."
Give Your Groove — The age-old tradition of recording a custom selection of songs to a cassette tape has been updated to the digital age. A few TidBITS Talk participants mentioned they plan to send CDs containing, in the words of Mike Cohen, "unreleased tracks, live performances, and other rarities and hard-to-find music." Being digital, however, means you’re not limited to just music. Marilyn Matty plans to add video to her CDs. Or, if you have a SuperDrive-equipped Power Mac, take your videos, still images, and MP3 files and burn them to a DVD using Apple’s iDVD software.
Book Geeks Recommend Geek Books — As publishers, we’re enthusiastic supporters of books. Not surprisingly, a few TidBITS Talk subscribers singled out the printed word as great gifts. With Mac OS X invading our Macs, Mike Whybark recommends building a Unix bookshelf, either from online sellers like Amazon.com or from your local used bookstore. "Since Unix is a mature OS, there are many titles which have been out for a good while that are not utterly obsolescent, as so many computer books become over time. I recently picked up a copy of Unix Unleashed circa 1994 for two dollars, and it’s been helpful!" Some suggested titles include:
Learning the Unix Operating System (Nutshell Handbook), by Jerry D. Peek, et al (O’Reilly, $12)
Apache: the Definitive Guide (With CD-ROM), by Ben Laurie, et al (O’Reilly, $25)
Sendmail, by Bryan Costales, Eric Allman (O’Reilly, $35)
DNS and BIND (4th Edition), by Paul Albitz, Cricket Liu (O’Reilly, $32)
Mac OS X: The Missing Manual by David Pogue (O’Reilly, $18)
Think Local, Read Geek — Steve Harley writes, "Computer books are great gifts, but for more advanced users it can be very hard to know which book. Giving a gift certificate solves that problem, but if the recipient is not local, one might feel stuck with giving certificates from large chains or online behemoths like Amazon. The answer is BookSense, which links independent booksellers and helps them compete while remaining independent."
Holster Your Palm — Since the original PalmPilot, companies have devised all manner of cases, belt clips, and pouches to hold your handheld organizer, and Derek Miller chimes in with an interesting new entry in the field. "Nite Ize makes a line of extremely hardy and practical PDA, phone, radio, and GPS cases, with flexible internal metal frames, called Stand Up Holsters. They not only protect your Palm or other device, but also have extra pockets and flip to stand like easels, clip to your belt, or even hang from something if you like. They’re a bit bulky and geeky-looking, but very practical, even if a tad expensive ($50 Canadian for the PDA case in one store I looked at – about $30-35 US)."
Packing Digital Heat — Your cell phone rings, your Visor’s alarm goes off, and you’re scrambling for your digital camera before that perfect picture disappears. Augh! Many of us find ourselves carrying a variety of handheld electronic devices these days, but carrying your devices in a way that keeps them accessible and at least moderately attractive has proven tricky. Adam wrote, "My current solution comes from Personal Electronics Concealment, a company that has taken designs from shoulder holsters and created a flexible set of e-Holster products for all your devices. You can combine a two-shoulder e-Harness, a one-shoulder e-ShoulderStrap, or a belt-mounted e-BeltSnap with one or more e-Pouches in a variety of shapes and sizes to match your devices. I have an e-ShoulderStrap with a pair of e-Pouches, one hanging underneath the other, sized perfectly for my cell phone and either my Canon PowerShot S100 or Palm V. Access to the velcro-fastened e-Pouches is fast and easy, and although I generally wear the e-ShoulderStrap over my head and across my chest for a more secure fit, you’re supposed to drape it over one shoulder like a purse. Either way, it fits well under a jacket, and although the black leather or ballistic nylon construction leans toward the FBI look, I haven’t gotten so much as a strange look yet. I also find myself wearing running clothes that lack pockets a fair amount of the time these days, and it turns out that the e-Pouch that normally carries either my Palm or camera can instead hold my wallet and, thanks to the slight bulk of the small, rectangular Leatherman Micra on my key chain, my keys as well. I still sometimes just shove my cell phone in my pocket and leave, but whenever I want to carry multiple devices, I grab for the e-Holster. If you want to see me modeling the e-Holster, find me at Macworld Expo in a few weeks."
Carrying in Style and Safety — Another offshoot of Apple’s digital hub concept is that you’ll likely carry more devices, which begs the question of where those devices are stored when your hub is rollin’ rollin’ rollin’. TidBITS Managing Editor Jeff Carlson has been quite pleased with a Tom Binh Brain Bag backpack ($130) and G4 LapDog ($50) securely carrying his PowerBook G4, camcorder, digital camera, and cables.
Julio Ohep has had an eye on cases designed with photographers in mind by Tamrac, while Marilyn Matty points out the advantages of using bags that don’t look like obvious computer cases. "Having done a lot of traveling for work that involved a lot of schlepping, I learned the hard way that it’s a good idea to have bags that mask the fact that you’re carrying expensive equipment. Laptops, video cameras, etc. have high street resale value, and people carrying them are targets for thieves who case the airports. Even with the National Guard and increased security at the airports, thefts of equipment will probably not go down significantly – they are there for protection against terrorists, not thieves. By carrying a bag that looks like a regular backpack and not an equipment bag, you’re somewhat minimizing your risk. I’ve found that carrying bags from L.L. Bean, Lands’ End, Tough Traveler, Eagle Creek, or Patagonia are the best in terms of durability, functionality, features and good looks. Because they’re designed with weather and extreme use in mind, they hold up exceptionally well when compared to computer bags. I’ve been using versions of these L.L. Bean backpacks for years and I love them, along with my Tough Traveler."
Matty also points to a pair of wholesalers, Campmor and Sierra Trading Post, who "offer name brands, not irregulars, at great prices."
A Digital Photography Primer — Speaking of camera gear, Phil Lefebvre happened upon a book geared for owners of Nikon cameras but also useful for anyone using a digital camera, Mastering Nikon Compact Digital Cameras by Peter iNova. "It is a $50 well-designed PDF ‘book’ (you can print it out if you want) on taking great digital photos, containing a digital photo editing tutorial, third party camera manual, and a collection of Photoshop filters on a CD. Together, they can take any amateur point-n-shooter and quickly bring him or her to a high level of competency in digital photography. It is written in a style that fully respects the audience’s intelligence, along with a sense of humor that prevents it from getting dry. I am (was!) totally ignorant in photography, but still breezed right through all 325 pages, and was applying things I learned the first day. Even a non-digital pro photographer could learn from the extensive number of clever tips in using digital technology, and the Nikon cameras in particular. Just learning about using my camera with a microscope has already made the book pay for itself. Finally, while the book and software are both Windows and Mac-compatible, the author is unashamedly a Mac user, and it is nice to see all the pictures of his PowerBook, and all the screenshots from a Mac."
Everybody in the Pool! For some of us, email and Internet access is almost like oxygen. Johann Beda suggests giving Internet access to friends and family members who aren’t yet online. "A few years back I gave my adult siblings, both of whom had computers with modems, memberships in their local community network/free-net. Some of these types of organizations require proof of local residency, so I did the whole online setup part for them, then downloaded and filled out the appropriate forms, and got a stamped envelope and first year’s payment cheque ready, and had everything set to go. On Christmas morning, the gift recipient only had to sign the forms, photocopy the proof of residency, and drop them in the mail. The cost for the lowest level of access for these networks is usually less than $30, and some are even completely free or by donation. While this type of access may not provide graphical Web browsing, even the most limited of text email is still an amazing thing compared to no email at all. It feels a bit like buying someone a phone at the turn of the century."
A similar idea comes from Kate Binder, who advocates buying a personal domain name for your sweetie. "I registered virtualcrate.com for my family last year around this time, and it’s been great having a permanent online home all year. We’ve all changed access providers, but our email, family Web site, and FTP space have stayed up and running all year long."
To add to this, we can highly recommend easyDNS as a site to register and manage DNS names – we moved the tidbits.com domain there and have been very happy with their interface and services.