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2004 Hardware Gift Ideas

Apple has outfitted all Apple Store employees in red t-shirts with the single word "give" emblazoned on the front, next to an Apple logo. Subtle, but we’re sure many people would love to be on the receiving end of a piece of Apple gear. Readers concurred, with the AirPort Express as the device of choice. Also, last year’s suggestions might be slightly out of date, but they are still worth a glance for ideas.


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Although no one actually came out and said they’d like a new iMac G5, PowerBook G4, or iPod, we suspect that’s because it’s a bit too obvious. It’s not like any TidBITS reader would see such a suggestion and think, "Wow, what a good idea! I never would have considered asking for a Mac or buying one for someone else on my own." There’s no shame in giving (or wanting) a new Mac, though we would of course recommend you first read Adam’s "Take Control of Buying a Mac" ebook to make sure you’re getting the right machine. Similarly, Larry Chen’s just-published (a few hours ago!) "Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera" will help you figure out which digital camera would be most appropriate for your needs.

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Music in the Air — Lewis Butler called it when he opined that Apple’s $130 AirPort Express would be the most submitted hardware gift suggestion, thanks to its capability to act as a normal Wi-Fi access point, share a USB printer, and best of all, send music played through iTunes to your stereo. Sean Peisert chimed in with the suggestion of a Keyspan Express Remote ($60) for controlling your tunes without iTunes.



Of course, if you’re getting an AirPort Express, allow us to recommend Glenn Fleishman’s "Take Control of Your AirPort Network" in either ebook ($10) or print ($12) forms.


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Bring Your Video into the 21st Century — You know those old videotapes from your VCR and analog camcorder have a limited lifespan, and your best hope for preservation is to digitize the analog recordings. Travis Butler pointed toward a product that will do just that. "If your budget supports it and you have someone with inclinations towards video hobbyism, you might consider the Canopus ADVC 100.

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"The ADVC 100 is a converter box that lets you hook a standard video source – composite or S-Video, two-channel audio – to a Mac’s FireWire port, and record it with a video capture program like iMovie.

"This is frankly something I wouldn’t have bought for myself; at $300 list, it’s something I don’t use enough to justify the cost. But we picked one up at work this spring to convert our VHS-based training materials to DVD for convenience and durability. The boss gave me permission to take it home and use whenever I want, and I’ve found a surprising number of old videotapes that I wanted to convert to DVD.

"It’s a bit hard for me to judge the ultimate quality of the video circuitry, since I’ve never used it with a maximum-quality video source; a couple of old laserdiscs are probably the best-quality items I’ve had, but my laserdisc player doesn’t have an S-Video output – only composite. That said, I’ve never seen anything come out of the ADVC 100 at a lower quality than went into it, and even the laserdiscs over composite look pretty darned good transferred to DVD.

"As a side note, the combination of iMovie, iDVD, and a video capture box like the ADVC 100 makes it easy and relatively quick to put your old videos on DVD; frankly it felt easier than the times in the past I’ve transferred old records and tapes to CD. And iDVD is capable of doing fairly professional-looking work; I’d like to think the job I did on the original Mind’s Eye laserdisc is better than the professional DVD releases of the second and third collections, though that’s not too hard.

"For those not familiar with them, the Mind’s Eye series was one of the original collections of early computer animation; the second collection (with music composed by Jan Hammer of Miami Vice fame) and later were released on DVD, but the original one never has been so far as I can tell. I’m still not sure why; the best guess I can make is that the animation is relatively primitive by today’s standards. I still think it’s worth having it available on DVD; even if there weren’t historical reasons, some of them were rather cool as works of art."

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Denis Jarvis concurred with Travis’s gift suggestion of an analog/digital video converter. "However," he said, "I bought a Datavideo DAC-100 for $176, including shipping. This is substantially less than his $300 Canopus ADVC 100, yet it seems well constructed, has similar specifications, includes a full set of cables and has performed well for me.

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"During the past month, using DAC-100 with iMovie and iDVD on a 20-inch iMac G5, I have converted my camcorder VHS tapes to several DVDs. I added titles and edited out the boring parts, something I would never have attempted with tape-to-tape editing. With this application alone, I have justified purchase of my new iMac!"

Editing out the boring parts isn’t the only reason to make the conversion from tape to digital, as Jeff Carlson learned last year when he watched his 10-year-old wedding video. VHS tape deteriorates over time, so those memories you think are stored safely on the shelf are likely losing their quality. (For an example, see the following Web page.) Although DVD isn’t an archival-grade medium (the surface materials wear out over time), you can more easily move the digital data to new media later on without further loss of quality.


PowerBooks in the Key of G — Kevin van Haaren wrote: "If you know someone with an older PowerBook who is jealous of users with 54 Mbps AirPort Extreme speeds, wants better reception signal, or wants to take full advantage of that new AirPort Express hub, take a look at the Sonnet Aria Extreme ($80).

"It uses the same chipset as the AirPort Extreme card so no drivers are necessary. First time installation was as simple as powering down, inserting card, booting up (only one AirPort chipset will work at a time, so powering down is required to switch between Aria and a built-in AirPort card.) Once the computer is set to use the Aria, you can pop the card in and out, put the computer to sleep, and so on, with no problems. You just have to make sure the card is inserted at power-on time for it to work (if you have an existing AirPort card.)"

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Bluetooth Headset — Kevin also noted, "The Jabra BT250 Bluetooth headset ($100) works nicely with my Mac and Windows boxes. Unfortunately I don’t have a Bluetooth phone to test with.

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"I was reluctant to buy initially because all the pictures made me think I was going to have this huge thing hanging from my ear, but it really is pretty small and most of the bulk is behind the ear. It’s balanced well enough that it doesn’t feel like it’s pulling on my ear, and doesn’t interfere with my glasses.

"At first I started to have a reaction to the silicon ear piece but washing it in warm water and soap, per the instructions, fixed that (I have allergies to perfumes so it was probably a coating of some sort that washed off.)"

Swiss Army RAM — Marilyn Matty (seconded by Roy Morita) writes: "Here’s a gadget that I think anyone Macintosh-minded will yodel about – a Swiss Army knife elevated to a new level of geekdom – a model tricked out with between 64 MB and 512 MB of removable USB storage ($65 to $160).

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"These highly functional devices come with a knife, a red LED flashlight, a nail file/screwdriver combo, and a scissor. A no-knife version (great for frequent flyers who don’t want to get hauled into security at the airport for trying to carry it on board) has the flashlight and a ballpoint pen in addition to the memory card.

"It’s encased in a clear plastic version of the traditional – and cool looking – Swiss Army housing, and sports a handy keychain ring. And it’s Mac-, Windows-, and Linux-friendly, making it a great gift for even non Mac-minded geeks. I don’t have one yet, but I will be ordering one for myself and some for gift giving."

The Well-Loved Mac — Just because a Mac is old doesn’t mean it’s useless, a fact Roger Adams reminded us of. "I am planning to give my wife a PowerBook G3/500 (Pismo) to replace her aging Wallstreet model."

If you’re looking for a reliable source of older Macs, check out the listings from TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics.


Contributing Editor Matt Neuburg raced to support Roger’s suggestion. "At the risk of belabouring the obvious, I’d like to point out that there’s a lesson for us all concealed here. The Pismo is an old model, so Roger is planning to give his wife a used computer. It might be his own old Pismo, or he might get it from somewhere else (e.g. eBay). Let’s presume the former. I too am planning to give my used Pismo to a family member. Although giving a used object as a gift is traditionally regarded as somewhat iffy, in the case of computers it’s entirely appropriate, and even advantageous.

  • You prevent waste. The machine goes to a good home and someone gets use out of it. Better than recycling or throwing away the machine, for sure.

  • On eBay, the machine is near worthless, so getting money for it won’t be a satisfying experience (especially when you remember how much you paid for it). But to the recipient it feels as valuable as it did to you when it was new, which is satisfying to both of you.

  • If it’s your own old machine, you are familiar with its specs and can be helpful.

  • Family involvement, as a recent report on NPR pointed out, is a primary force in getting people to use a computer; if it’s your own old machine, that’s actually an encouragement to the new user.

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  • Computers do age and things can go wrong over time, but the more common case is that they just keep working fine for a very long time, so used is almost as good as new.

  • You contribute less to rampant consumerism. Not to mention saving money.

"So I think ‘my old computer’ (scanner, hard drive, etc.) is an excellent gift idea in the hardware category. The one mistake one can make, I think, is to give a device that’s not powerful enough to make the recipient’s life easy. Make sure that what you give is fast enough, has enough memory, or whatever, for the use to which the recipient will put it. The device you are giving should be a useful tool, not a bottleneck whose shortcomings the recipient must struggle with."

Kinesis Contoured Advantage USB Keyboard — Sore hands from typing? Andrew Laurence offered a possible solution, the Kinesis Contoured Advantage USB Keyboard. "Kinesis has kept the same basic design since my 1998 review (see "Kinesis Ergonomic Contoured Keyboard" in TidBITS-454). The keyboard is still rock-solid, well-built, programmable, and remappable. The Mac/PC key switching is now accomplished via firmware. I’ve seen a lot of ‘ergonomic’ keyboard designs, but this is the only one that seems designed with actual ergonomics in mind – the keyboard is broken into halves, with each half at the outer border to minimize ulnar deviation, and each half is shaped like a bowl, allowing fingers to travel their normal range of motion. (RSI solutions are very subjective, however – the keyboard that works for me may not for another user.) At a list price of $300 it ain’t cheap, but to this day my hands hurt if I use a standard 101 layout keyboard for any length of time."



Serious Sound — Managing Editor Jeff Carlson wrote, "A few years ago while on vacation, I rented a house that had no stereo system. No problem, since my PowerBook was nearby – but the built-in speakers just weren’t going to cut it. This was back when offered free overnight shipping, so I ordered an inexpensive set of computer speakers that have been adequate, but not stellar.

"Earlier this year I replaced them with a set of Harman/Kardon SoundSticks II. What a difference! The sticks themselves produce clear sound, but it’s the jellyfish-looking subwoofer that kicks the gear into a great-sounding system. They plug into the audio-out port of my PowerBook; previous SoundSticks were USB-based.

"$200 may sound like a lot to pay for computer speakers, but when you listen to music while working, as I do, the cost is completely worth it."

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