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2006 Miscellaneous Gift Ideas

The vast majority of this year’s miscellaneous suggestions are related either to the iPod or to Apple’s laptops. Why? They’re cute, they’re portable, and clearly they’re just screaming to be accessorized. Many suggestions from previous years are no doubt still appropriate, and if you wish to discuss the suggestions, check in on TidBITS Talk.

Take Control Books! We couldn’t resist a shameless plug for all the work we spend much of our non-TidBITS time on. You know all the basics about Take Control, we’re sure, but remember that some of our recent books are available as print-on-demand versions, making them a bit more tangible as presents (and if you already own an ebook, you can get the print-on-demand version for less). You’ll want to order soon; it can take from 4 to 10 days to receive a printed book. But normal ebooks make fine presents as well, and you’re welcome to purchase one or more and present them to your recipient on CD, sushi-shaped USB flash drive, or even, for that last-minute present, via email. If you want to dress up a burned CD-R and you have CD Stomper labels available, check out the Take Control CD label (available in PDF and SmileOnMyMac’s disclabel format). And lastly, note that our three buying guide titles – “Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera,” “Take Control of Buying a Mac,” and “Take Control of Digital TV” – are on sale through the end of December. Buy one of them and take 30 percent off your entire order.

iSight Foresight — This is too cool. Curt Blanchard gets big points for this suggestion, which we’d never heard of before. “Mungai Mirrors, a small company in the United Kingdom, has developed the Huckleberry, a clever mirror device that slips over the top edge of the MacBook or MacBook Pro screen and converts the built-in iSight camera into a video camera – no kidding! It uses laser-cut reflecting mirror devices that cause the iSight to look forward, instead of backward at your face, thus turning the laptop’s screen into a huge viewfinder. Ever tried to take a video chat buddy on a tour of your garden or of your new kitchen? It’s nearly impossible with the iSight’s normal orientation, but with the Huckleberry, you can!”

“As a bonus, with your registration code, you can download a free copy of Ecamm Network’s iGlasses which will flip the image on your iSight camera so that the mirrored image reads correctly to your iChat buddy (also helpful when reading barcodes for Delicious Library!) One of the best things about all of this is the price: only $20 for the Huckleberry and the iGlasses software. The only drawback now that we’re in December is that these are shipped from England. Even so, if you hurry, it may get here by Christmas; mine only took about 9 days.”

The Long-Awaited iPhone — Well, okay, not really. But we have to admit that Tony D’Emanuele’s suggestion seems like it comes close. “Gear4 has just released the BlueEye Black, a very cool 3-in-1 gadget for the iPod. It is a mobile phone connection, FM radio, and remote control. It lets you take or make phone calls on your iPod (via a Bluetooth connection), with incoming numbers shown on the iPod’s screen.” Alas, it appears to be available only in the United Kingdom for now, for 50 pounds.

Decorate Your Mac and iPod — Somehow we get the impression that Marilyn Matty’s office is extremely jolly. She pointed us to a USB-powered snowman ($12), and a liquid-filled USB mouse ($17) in which Santa Claus has been imprisoned. Sure, they’re a little cheesy, but more elegant is the $25 tux for iPod, an acrylic stand for any iPod that will be spinning tunes for a New Year’s Eve party. She also suggested the iGuy, “an under-$10 way to anthropomorphize an iPod, turning it into a posable, portable, tune-playing pal. Sadly, there’s no option for my new video iPod.”

Hot and Cold Running USB — We sure hope someone gives Marilyn Matty a high-power USB hub to run all her devices. She wrote, “A few years back I recommended a multitasking hardware device that I’ve become very fond of – a USB-driven cup warmer ($15). Someone recently sent me a link to a product that extends the concept to the dog days of summer, a $30 USB-based cooler that I immediately put on my list of things to buy if I don’t receive it as a holiday gift.”

Friends Don’t Let Friends Work without Backups — We’d recommend that you start with Joe Kissell’s “Take Control of Mac OS X Backups,” but Chris Pepper is absolutely on the right track with this suggestion. “Give the gift that keeps on saving: backups! You can give your friend Retrospect Desktop (about $100). You can install it on your family’s computers for them, and set up scripts, and provide blank media. You can stand over your parents until they complete a full backup. For extra karma points, offer to host a friend’s backup drive, perhaps in exchange for them hosting your own.”

“You can give (or ask for) an external backup drive. I suggest making sure it has FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 ports for performance and future proofing; FireWire 800’s extra performance bump seems generally irrelevant for most people’s backups, although $300 is not bad for a 500GB OWC Mercury Elite-AL Pro FireWire 800/400+USB2 Combo Storage Solution with cables.”

In terms of executing the backup, Chik Foo chose the easy option, setting up SuperDuper ($28) to run a scheduled backup to an external hard disk.

For extra peace of mind, Chik also makes online backups of email, photos or digital media. Sites such as Flickr, SmugMug, and Fotki offer private backups of full-sized photos for less than $50 annually. “There are variances in Web site presentation, bandwidth limits, uploading software, and other features. Personally I forward all my ingoing and outgoing mail through Gmail as a form of offsite backup. It’s amazing how many people spend money on items more mundane than protecting irreplaceable digital data. Apple’s Time Machine sounds good… but you’ll still need a backup before you install Leopard.”

Wrap with Your iPod — Whether or not you have any rap on your iPod, Randy Singer offered an inexpensive way to put some wrap on your musical friend. “Several companies are offering what I think is the ideal way to keep your iPod safe from scratches, without adding bulk or harming its looks. Basically they are repackaging 3M Protection Film, cut to fit your iPod. This is the same stuff that 3M sells for use on the front end of expensive cars to protect the paint from being chipped. It is invisible and almost undetectable once applied. The skin can be removed without any trace left behind. This film is being sold for various iPods for as much as $30, but Best Skins Ever has it is for $5 to $7, depending on the model. It covers the entire iPod, front (including the screen and scroll-wheel), back, and sides.”

Avoid Burnt Thighs — TidBITS Editor at Large Geoff Duncan wrote, “Over the last few years, many PowerBook and MacBook owners have been overjoyed with their portable systems, but less-than-thrilled about the lap- and hand-searing heat emitted by these notebooks, formerly known as laptops. If you’d like to use your notebook on your lap, a number of ‘heat shield’ products are available. Most seem to keep the heat off a users’ lap well enough, but they tend to fall down in other areas: they’re too slippery, they’re too fragile, or (in some cases) they significantly increase the internal temperature of the computers.

“However, several folks I know have had good luck with the Lapinator, a ‘laptop desk’ available in 13- and 18-inch widths. It uses 3M Thinsulate Ultra insulation with a cross-linked molded foam bottom that reduces overall contact with your lap, coat, desk, or what-have-you so you’re not only comfortable, but your laptop actually runs cooler than it would on a flat surface. It comes with a 4-inch velcro strap for taming any stray cables, and a separate $10 Mousitizer can be connected to either side as a surprisingly effective mousing surface. At $25, it isn’t quite cheap, but it’s lightweight and reasonably portable, though the foam bottom means it will take up a fair bit of space in a bag. So far, my friends have found it reasonably durable and give it high marks for making the ‘laptop’ experience not only feasible, but downright pleasant again.”

Fearghas McKay chimed in with a similar suggestion. “The iLap, at about twice the price – but possibly less bulky and lighter – does a similar job. It also has a wrist support at the front, which is removable. I have used laptop desks similar to the Lapinator, and I find the iLap more comfortable because there is less contact and more air between the desk and my legs.”

Dan Frakes came down on the side of the Lapinator, and offered a few other options. “The iLap is actually bulkier when you take the stand and wrist pad into account. Having used both, I personally prefer the Lapinator; it’s lighter and, in my experience, more comfortable (both for my lap and for my arms – I didn’t like the angled position into which the iLap forced the latter). But I know the iLap has many fans.”

“If you’re looking for a more-portable solution, LapWorks’ Laptop Desk 2.0 and UltraLite easily slip into a laptop bag. I covered them, the Lapinator, and a few similar products earlier this year for Macworld. I highly recommend the Laptop Desk UltraLite for road warriors.”

“Another approach,” Dan said, “is Speck Products’ new SeeThru, which I also wrote about for Macworld. Designed as a protective, polycarbonate case for the Core Duo MacBook Pro (with versions for the MacBook and Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro on the way), one of the SeeThru’s unadvertised features is that it lets you use your MacBook Pro on your lap – while, in my testing, still allowing the notebook to cool normally.”

Cheap iBook Levitation Tricks — Alaska Jack wrote, “If you’re a laptop owner with an extra monitor lying around, I think the best sub-$10 investment is the Nexgen Small Stacking Shelf. Combine it with the widely available iBook monitor spanning hack (which for me has worked perfectly) and you’re off to the races. I have it set up so that the mousing area is directly underneath the raised iBook.”

“The shelf would probably work for most Apple laptops, but it is almost perfectly designed for the 12-inch iBook. It’s cheap, sturdy, and the perfect height, and its white vinyl-coated metal grid keeps the computer cool while not blocking ports. It has these flanges on the side, which I thought I would have to bend off. But it turns out that they hold the iBook perfectly in place if you just slide the iBook under them.”

“There are a couple of minor drawbacks. If you leave the right-hand flange in place, you won’t be able to eject or insert CDs. If that’s a problem, though, you could always just bend that flange back or remove it. Also, you can’t close the iBook’s lid, unless you remove the flanges. Of course, the iBook doesn’t support operation while the lid is closed anyway.”

iPod Speakers with a Dock — iPods aren’t just for carrying your music around with you; Chik Foo found the Logitech mm50 iPod speakers to be surprisingly useful. “I used to turn my nose up at these class of speakers: surely lots of speaker sets had aux-in port already? Surely having a built-in iPod dock equals planned obsolescence? And I was already playing music on my hi-fi system via AirPort Express. I bought the mm50 because I kept picking up an iPod nano that was not fully charged. The mm50 on eBay cost about the same as a dock plus a remote plus an iPod charger, and contained speakers. Surprisingly, I found myself continuously listening to my music and podcasts on the mm50, and my AirPort Express is now barely used.”

“The trick is that I have come to embrace smart playlists that contain music and podcasts that I haven’t listened to, and the randomness of ‘shuffle all.’ I find myself listening to music that I would never have chosen manually. The remote control still allows me to skip tracks. And the mm50 continues playing even as I sleep or restart the Mac. My iPod has gone from being just a portable music player, to being a music-playing mule, and I love it more for that!”

“The mm50 is small and shaped well enough to carry around. In fact, on recent trips, I could listen to my iPod nano in the car (via aux-in), in the plane (via earphones), and in the hotel room (via mm50). Seamless! And it keeps the nano charged too.”

eMusic to Your Ears — The iTunes Store may rule the online digital music market, but it’s not the only alternative for Mac users. Nik wrote, “A great gift is a subscription to eMusic! Subscribers get a certain number of downloads every month of high quality MP3s from independent artists. No DRM, so it works as well on iPods as on any other player. It’s an especially good gift for someone who really likes exploring music and finding new artists they haven’t heard. (No Top 40s in there – it’s all indies!)”

DJ the Night Away — Clearly we don’t go to the right sort of parties, but for those who traded the desire to be in a band for the more realistic goal of being a DJ, Marilyn Matty has just the thing to play all those indie tracks from eMusic. “DJs can forget the vinyl as long as they can put two iPods on an iPod DJ Station. I’ve never used it, and I’m not planning to, but I’m thinking of chipping in for it (it’s $180) as a present for my nephew, who is an aspiring DJ.”

A Tale of Two Headphones — Just because Apple includes a pair of earbuds with the iPod doesn’t mean you’re limited to them. Kevin van Haaren owns two different headphones for different purposes. “I keep the Koss Sparkplugs wrapped around my iPod case. They’re my emergency earbuds. They aren’t the best sounding set I have, but they’re totally acceptable and were way better than nothing when I was stuck in a tire repair place because I had a flat. They’re actually the best noise-reduction phones I’ve tried, so I use them on planes as well, and they actually stay in my ear, unlike most other earbuds. And at $15 (list price, I paid $10 for mine), they can be easily replaced after taking a lot of abuse. I’m on my second set.”

“At work I want something a little better-sounding and a little less noise-blocking (I need to hear the boss yelling at me). So I use a $60 pair of Sennheiser PX 100s. They’re the cheaper end of Sennheiser’s line and actually got a better review than two more expensive Sennheiser headphones at Dan’s Data. They come folded up in a hard case for protection when traveling (I usually throw them in my carry-on luggage and use the Koss Sparkplugs while in transit, and the Sennheiser PX 100s when I get there.) They have a funky folding mechanism that takes me a couple of tries each time to get them folded correctly, but they do travel well.”

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