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TidBITS Gift Guide 2008

The results of our annual call for gift ideas and subsequent reader ratings of those ideas are in! We’ve exported the numbers, massaged the text file into import-ready shape, and browbeat Numbers into analyzing the data so we can bring you the list of gifts that TidBITS readers really care about, either to give or to receive. Where possible, we’ve let our submitters describe below why they think a particular item would make a good gift.

After you’ve read this year’s top picks as chosen in the survey, be sure to check out the full TidBITS Talk threads: Hardware, Software, Games, Computer Miscellaneous, and For the Macintosh Minded. The discussions are still active, so be sure to read them to find more details about items that didn’t quite make the cut in the survey, along with a slew of gift ideas that came in too late to be included in the survey.

Apple Software — Last year’s top picks – Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, iLife ’08, and iWork ’08 – were no surprise then, making it even less of a surprise this year that those three once again took the top spots. We do have one warning for anyone considering iLife ’08 or iWork ’08 as a holiday gift: it’s extremely likely that Macworld Expo in January 2009 will bring the release of iLife ’09 and iWork ’09, so you may wish to put a placeholder under the tree, with the promise of software to arrive when it actually ships. Also repeating its dead last performance (behind even such specialized
software as Final Cut Express and Logic Express) was MobileMe. Ouch!

Game and Entertainment Software — Despite the huge fuss about it in the gaming world, the Wrath of the Lich King expansion pack for World of Warcraft finished in the middle of the pack. It seems that TidBITS readers are less into massively multiplayer role-playing games and more into casual games like our top two vote-getters, Bejeweled and Solitaire Till Dawn X. Also ranking highly, perhaps surprisingly so, was Kid Pix Deluxe 3X. Seems like we’re all getting older and are more interested in a quick game or something to do with our kids than an immersive game that would consume valuable family time.

Bejeweled from PopCap Games: Andy J. Williams Affleck and his wife favor Bejeweled. They wrote, “Simple puzzle games like Peggle and Bejeweled are great because they have no time commitment. In our busy lives, things that we can do for 5 to 10 minutes in the interstices of our days are perfect.”

Solitaire Till Dawn X from Semicolon Software: Andy also nominated this perpetual favorite once again this year, calling it his “go-to for any kind of relaxation. I submit this each year not just because it’s my tradition, but because I really do just play it that often.”

Kid Pix Deluxe 3X from The Software MacKiev Company: Ron Risley bought this title for his six-year-old kid, but discovered that a family license would be more appropriate because everyone in his family uses it. “It does more than just paint,” he wrote, “allowing children and their parents to create soundtracks and animated slide shows that can be exported to your video iPod so you can impress your friends with your kids’ artistic prowess.”

Utility and Enhancement Software — All play and no work makes for an even worse economy, so programs that help us use our Macs more efficiently are always welcome presents. Last year’s notables, LaunchBar and Fetch, both did well this year, but not quite as well as the second-place entry, Default Folder X, and the runaway top pick, 1Password.

1Password from Agile Web Solutions: The addition of an iPhone/iPod touch version of 1Password enhanced its popularity this year. Lewis Butler wrote about the program, “It automatically stores all my Web passwords, yes. But it also creates passwords on the fly, allows me to access my secure pages easily on my iPod touch, and even lets me create a secure HTML file so that my passwords are always available, anywhere I go.”

Default Folder X from St. Clair Software: This software falls into that category of essential utilities you forget are there until you use someone else’s computer and wonder why it doesn’t work as you expect. Put simply, it makes using standard Open and Save dialogs faster and more efficient, so if you spend a lot of time in those dialogs, give Default Folder X a look.

Productivity Software — Of course, our Macs let us do things that weren’t otherwise possible, create things, track our lives, and more. Managing tasks and information featured heavily in the ideas in this category, and in fact, the trailing three items in the top five were all task or information managers of one sort or another: OmniFocus from The Omni Group, NoteBook from Circus Ponies, and Yojimbo from Bare Bones Software. However, the top two picks were entirely different: Hamrick Software’s VueScan and VMware Fusion. (I imagine Parallels Desktop would also have placed well, though it didn’t appear in the suggestions we received.)

VueScan from Hamrick Software: Jeff Carlson’s mother-in-law lost the use of her old flatbed scanner when she upgraded to a new iMac running Leopard. Although nothing is wrong with the scanner, Canon hasn’t updated its software to support older models. Instead of buying a new one, she’s going to get a copy of VueScan. Reader Tomoharu Nishino, who suggested VueScan as a gift, concurred. “If your loved one has an aging scanner that is begging for a software update the manufacturer refuses to provide (Canon seems particularly egregious on this count), VueScan just might breathe new life into it. It certainly saved my four-year-old Canon scanner from the dustbin. Some owners of even new scanners
may prefer it to the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) software.”

VMware Fusion from VMware: We’ve written oodles about VMware Fusion, the popular virtualization software that lets Intel-based Macs run Windows XP, Windows Vista, Linux, and many other PC-based operating systems. But whether your need for Windows is for compatibility with your employer’s custom software, or revolves largely around running the latest hot Windows-only game, VMware Fusion will extend your Mac’s functionality beyond Mac OS X.

Macs — Moving from the world of the bit to the world of the atom, it seemed necessary to query people on which Mac models would make the best gifts. We were a bit surprised by these results. We can’t really imagine an Xserve under a Christmas tree, so its last place finish was fine, and the Mac mini is showing its age, but the new MacBook in fourth place? Was the loss of FireWire really that much of a problem that it would fall behind not just the MacBook Pro and the iMac, but the Mac Pro? (And we must apologize – we totally forgot to include the MacBook Air in the survey. We imagine that it would rank between the MacBook and the Mac mini.)

  1. MacBook Pro
  2. iMac
  3. Mac Pro
  4. MacBook
  5. Mac mini
  6. Xserve

Other Apple Hardware — Last year, we bundled all the Apple hardware together, but with so many additional products this year, it made more sense to separate them from the Macs. Intriguingly, the iPod touch was the favorite this year, followed by the iPhone 3G, perhaps because it provides most of the features of the iPhone (other than phone, GPS, and camera) but doesn’t require the expensive monthly subscription cost that might make the iPhone too pricey for a gift.

Also interesting were the two bottom items, the Apple TV and the iPod shuffle (both repeating in those positions from last year). The Apple TV, despite Apple’s significant improvements in 2008, still hasn’t caught fire, and although the iPod shuffle cements Apple’s position in the inexpensive MP3 player market, it just doesn’t stack up in comparison to the far more capable iPod nano.

Miscellaneous Hardware Products — Three of the top four items in this category are storage related. Could it be that our message of “backup, backup, backup!” is sinking in? (We will, of course, take all the credit for increasing people’s awareness of safeguarding their data.) The popularity of other entry, the Flip MinoHD, shows that people want to record digital video but don’t want a traditional camcorder to do it.

d2 Quadra Hard Drive from LaCie (or any other external hard drive for backup): At one point we debated the merits of tape backups, storing data on optical media, and Iomega Zip disks. Now, however, the external hard disk has emerged as the fastest, easiest way to back up one’s data. The LaCie d2 Quadra is outfitted with eSATA, FireWire 400 and 800, and USB 2.0 ports for fast data transfer, and its 750 GB or 1 TB capacity offers a good stretch of Time Machine backups going into the past. Of course, there are plenty of other external hard drives with various ports and capacities; what’s important is that you have something that stores a copy of your data that’s not in
your computer.

Drobo from Data Robotics: Taking the external hard drive concept one (or four) steps further, the Drobo combines up to four bare internal hard drives to create one large, intelligent storage device. Alex Hoffman wrote, “It monitors the drives’ health, and replacing a bad drive or a smaller drive could not be easier! You just take out the old one and put in the new one. Nothing to shut down or wait for.” A USB 2.0-only model is available for around $350 (without drives), and a model with USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 can be had for around $440. The $200 DroboShare device turns the Drobo into a network file server.

USB 2.0 Universal Drive Adapter from NewerTech: Recommended by “doug201,” this contraption can mount any 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch bare hard drive without putting it into an external enclosure. He wrote, “The idea is to use hard drives like floppy disks. You slide a bare hard drive into the dock and it shows up on your computer. There are cases available for protecting the hard drives when not in use.” This adapter is great for creating duplicates of your startup disk as part of your offsite backup strategy.

Flip Video MinoHD from Pure Digital Technologies: The Flip Mino and MinoHD have redefined how people capture video. With one-button recording and a minimum of other features, the MinoHD captures decent 1280 x 720 video and connects to a computer by a built-in USB 2.0 plug.

iPod/iPhone Accessories — The stand-out among various cases and speakers was the 3G Juice External Battery Pack from 3GJUICE. Alex Hoffman wrote, “Does your loved one have an iPhone? Has she ever complained about the battery running out? There are a number of external battery packs available for the iPhone. Most of them hook to the dock connector. There are three main factors to consider when choosing among them: capacity, physical size and price. My recommendation is the 3G Juice, which has a capacity of 1800mAh, costs $53.95, and is a svelte 2.4 inches x 2.4 inches x 0.5 inches (61mm x 61mm x 13mm).”

iPhone/iPod touch Games — The popularity of casual games among our readers caused us to think that iPhone/iPod touch games deserved their own category, so we collected some additional suggestions from Twitter. The top three vote-getters were Bullfrog Touch, Scrabble from Electronic Arts, and MotionX Poker.

Bullfrog Touch from Outer Level is a classic arcade-style game in which you control a frog attempting to eat (and avoid being stung by) a variety of insects. Controls are largely accelerometer-based, and the game features 13 maps and 75 increasingly challenging levels. You can even compare your scores with other players online, though it looks like a guy named Earl is the guy to beat, given that he has 15 of the 16 highest scores of all time.

Scrabble from Electronic Arts brings the traditional word game to your iPhone or iPod touch. Shake the iPhone to shuffle tiles, and use standard multi-touch gestures to place tiles and zoom in and out. The game provides multiple difficulty levels and lets you customize the rules, and you can play either by yourself or with another person in Wi-Fi Multiplayer mode.

MotionX Poker from Fullpower Technologies is a dice poker game that utilizes the iPhone’s accelerometer and advanced mathematical algorithms to simulate the rolling of real dice. The gameplay is simple but engaging, and aims to maintain long-term interest by allowing you to unlock different dice graphics and betting tables as you earn more money in the game.

iPhone/iPod touch Apps — Moving beyond the quick distraction of the iPhone games brings us to full-fledged apps. Task management featured highly here as well, with iPhone versions of OmniFocus and Things in the four most highly regarded apps, joined by Twitterrific and MyWeather Mobile. We suspect some of the popularity of these programs may be related to the fact that three of the four have highly regarded Mac versions as well.

OmniFocus from The Omni Group won a 2008 Apple Design Award for Best iPhone Productivity Application, and the fact that it syncs with the Mac version of OmniFocus has endeared it to many die-hard OmniFocus users. But OmniFocus doesn’t just display your tasks on the iPhone, it also uses your location to create a custom list of tasks to complete nearby. You can also capture tasks with OmniFocus on the iPhone using text, photos, and voice recordings.

Things from Cultured Code competes directly with OmniFocus, being a task management utility that syncs with a Mac version (available for free as a pre-release). Things for the iPhone eschews iPhone-specific features for a faithful (but appropriate) translation of the features of the Mac version, making it easy to enter, edit, schedule, and arrange tasks so you can easily figure out what to focus on.

MyWeather Mobile from MyWeather provides current weather data, graphical forecasts, climatic trends, and animated looping radar images for multiple locations. It’s also location-aware, so you don’t have to enter new locations as you move around. Attractive and easy to use, it suffers only from the lack of text-based forecasts.

Twitterrific from The Iconfactory is one of several Twitter clients for the iPhone, and the only one suggested in TidBITS Talk. It features a well-considered interface for displaying posts, replies, and direct messages, provides easy access to user profiles, and has a mini-browser for displaying linked pages without leaving Twitterrific for Safari. Interestingly, although Twitterrific rated highly overall, it generated strong feelings – people either liked it a lot or not at all.

For the Macintosh-minded — There has to be at least one category that collects all the “other” ideas that don’t fit anywhere else. This year’s top suggestions are a varied lot that Mac users will no doubt appreciate.

WALL-E on DVD from Pixar: The critically acclaimed animated feature (which benefited from some conceptual design work by Apple’s Senior VP of Industrial Design Jonathan Ive) may be the perfect movie to collapse to after your holiday feast. Marilyn Matty wrote, “Can a tattered and obsolete SE/30 find true love with a sexy, sleek, and shiny future iMac? Pixar’s WALL-E, now available on DVD, has the answer. The first half of the movie, which is virtually sans dialog, had me floored. An added plus for the Macintosh-minded are all the Mac and iPod references. It’s great viewing for all ages.” The movie is also available for download from iTunes, but you don’t get the
bonus features included with the DVD or Blu-ray versions.

Audiobook Gift Certificate from Audio books are great gifts for those with long commutes, or New Year’s resolutions involving hours on the treadmill. Alex Hoffman wrote, “We all have MP3 players of some sort or another (likely an iPod or iPhone), and while too many of us have stopped reading books, we might listen to books. So, what about an gift certificate? I never got around to reading President-elect Obama’s two original books (“Dreams from My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope”), but I cannot tell you how much I am enjoying listening to him read them now. If your loved one doesn’t want to hear Obama, there are
thousands more possibilities.”

Scanning of Analog Photos by ScanCafe: Based in California, ScanCafe will scan your photos and negatives, put the images online, print the images you choose from their Web site, and then charge you for only those prints at prices between $.25 and $.29 per photo for standard resolution. Dan O’Donnell said, “All this talk of digital photography brings to mind the thousands of photos I have that are still on film (slide and negative, 35mm and medium format). No doubt many other people have zillions of these also. One alternative is to scan them ourselves, but the time investment required to become competent at scanning, color correcting, and dust or flaw elimination is not a luxury many people have.
Perhaps a better alternative is to have ScanCafe scan the slides, negatives, and pictures.” Gift certificates are available.

Harmony One Advanced Universal Remote from Logitech: After losing his Harmony 890 remote, Kevin van Haaren was in dire need of remote-control convenience. He wrote, “The Harmony One allows you to control boxes simultaneously by telling it what you want to do. For example, I’m watching a DVD and want to watch my Apple TV. On the remote I press the Activities button and press Watch Apple TV. It will then set the TV to HDMI input 2, set the stereo to CD/SACD (the input I use for Apple TV’s optical output), and turn the DVD player off. I don’t have to do each step manually.”

That’s it for this year, but as we mentioned earlier, be sure to check out the ongoing TidBITS Talk threads for more gift ideas from readers. Thanks to everyone who contributed to the lists and voted for your favorites!

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