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TidBITS Gift Guide 2009

The results of our annual call for gift ideas and subsequent reader ratings of those ideas are in! We have once again analyzed the data gathered from the Gift Guide survey so we can offer you a list of gifts that TidBITS readers really care about, either to give or to receive. Where possible, we’ve let our submitters describe 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 few more gift ideas that came in too late to be included.

Macs — Let’s face it, who among TidBITS readers wouldn’t want a Mac as a gift? And we’re certain that many out there are also considering giving a Mac to a deserving child or relative. But which Mac model is right? Well, in our survey, the MacBook Pro (which now includes the 13-inch model, remember), was the most popular, followed by the iMac, which just saw a refresh not long ago (see “New iMac Models Receive Larger Screens, SD Card Slot,” 20 October 2009). Surprisingly, the Mac Pro outranked not only the unibody white MacBook (see “MacBook Gains Plastic Unibody with
Updated Specs
,” 20 October 2009) and the updated Mac mini (see “Mac mini Updated and Given Server Configuration,” 20 October 2009), but even the sleek MacBook Air. And apparently, readers can’t really imagine an Xserve under the Christmas tree any more than we can – here’s the full listing.

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

Other Apple Hardware — In case you hadn’t heard, Apple sells more than just Macs – a lot more, if you’re looking at numbers of units sold. This year the iPhone took the top spot over the iPod touch (just barely) in this category, which we attribute to the aggressive pricing of the iPhone 3GS and, we suspect, to the likelihood that more TidBITS readers now own iPhones than in the past. Regardless of which device edges (or EDGEs, depending on your cell coverage) to the front, what’s noteworthy is the popularity of the iPhone OS and the App Store. In fact, what we found most interesting about the entire process of
assembling this year’s Gift Guide is that there was almost nothing new on the Mac side at all – people made the same suggestions, voted for the same products, and generally lacked zestful jolliness. In contrast, the iPhone/iPod touch and associated apps got a lot more attention.

Back at the Apple Hardware category, the number three vote-getter was a bit surprising: the AirPort Extreme wireless base station, which ranked higher than the popular iPod nano and even the new Magic Mouse. Could it be due to the increased popularity of the iPhone and iPod touch, which come into their own when given Wi-Fi access to the Internet? We’d speculate that the reason could be Apple’s smooth implementation; yes, you can buy a less expensive 802.11n base station, but none are as easy to configure and maintain as Apple’s AirPort models. To no one’s surprise, the Apple TV and iPod shuffle
anchored the bottom of the list; the iPod shuffle seems to have limited appeal, and the Apple TV remains a partial reply to a half-heard question; it’s one of the few Apple products that seems more focused on making Apple happy than the customer.

iPhone Apps — The breadth of suggestions in the iPhone Apps category was staggering, but the top item in the survey by far was surprising: 1Password touch or Pro (the Pro version offers support for copy-and-paste and additional integration with Mobile Safari), which let you sync your passwords with the Mac and more easily enter them on the iPhone.

After 1Password, the popular vote-getters in the survey varied widely, including:

  • Tweetie 2, from Atebits, is a full-featured Twitter client for the iPhone. It outpolled Twitterrific, another popular and full-featured Twitter client (also available in an ad-supported free version).
  • iBird Explorer (available in various editions), from Mitch Waite Group, and Audubon Birds, from Green Mountain Digital. Michael Logue suggested these initially, and Marilyn Matty chimed in with a recommendation of iBird Explorer, noting that “iBird Explorer enables quick identification of winged creatures based on characteristics such as song, beak size, behavior, etc. In addition to having links to photos and drawings, it features appropriate links to Wikipedia and Flickr.” We had no idea that so many TidBITS readers were birders, but these apps look great for
    anyone interested in bird identification.
  • Things, from Cultured Code, is the iPhone version of the well-received Macintosh task management utility.
  • NetNewsWire Premium, from NewsGator Technologies, is a good RSS reader for the iPhone; note that there’s also a free version that you can try out first.
  • WeatherBug Elite, from WeatherBug, is an excellent weather app for the iPhone, providing full-text forecasts rather than ambiguous icons, zoomable animated radar maps, and concise current conditions. As with others, there’s a free version available you can try first; however, WeatherBug Elite is the best weather app we’ve seen, and paying for it eliminates annoying ads.
  • Epicurious, from Condé Nast Digital, and WhatTheFont, from MyFonts, are notable for being the only free apps suggested, both by Marilyn Matty. About Epicurious she wrote, “You can search tens of thousands of recipes from decades of issues of Bon Appétit, the late, lamented Gourmet, Self, House Beautiful and other Condé Nast magazines. You can search for a dish by ingredient, by category (easy, party snacks, kids’ favorites, etc.) It also creates shopping lists, though this feature took me some time to figure out.” WhatTheFont enables you to identify fonts you see on the fly; Marilyn
    notes that you can also learn the font’s history, buy the font, and explore other fonts from the foundry as well. Perhaps these free apps aren’t great gifts, but they’re certainly something to encourage cooks or type snobs on your list to download.

iPhone/iPod touch Games — Given Apple’s lackluster support for gaming on the Mac over the years, it’s noteworthy that the iPhone, and especially the iPod touch, have become true gaming machines. These devices’ quality graphics hardware (for a portable device) has enabled developers to offer thousands of ways to pass the time.

Perennial favorite Bejeweled 2, a puzzle game where you align jewels to clear them from the board, appears to be cutting into readers’ idle time the most. Bejeweled has been around for years – Jeff Carlson remembers playing it on a Palm OS-based Sony Clié – and is just as entertaining as ever. The game from PopCap Games also includes Bejeweled Blitz, which Andy Affleck described as a “1 minute highest-score-possible game linked to my Facebook account. The smack talk never ends among my so-called friends (all of whom will be crushed). Not that it makes me at all competitive.”

Online play against others also drove Scrabble, by Electronic Arts, into the top five recommendations. You can match your wordsmithing abilities against the computer, against friends on the same Wi-Fi network, or through Facebook.

Other suggestions included Bookworm and Peggle from PopCap (“because it’s Peggle!” said Andy Affleck), Tap Tap Revenge from Gogo Apps, and United Soft Media Verlag’s Catan, an iPhone variation of the spectacularly successful Settlers of Catan board game. Surprisingly, few arcade-style games such as Star Wars: Trench Run made the list.

iPod/iPhone Accessories — The ecosystem for iPhone cases, docks, and speakers has grown so huge that most of the specific suggestions in our survey fared relatively poorly; the lone standout being the Mophie Juice Pack Air. Tomoharu Nishino commented, “It just about doubles the iPhone’s battery life, though of course it also just about doubles the thickness and weight of the iPhone, but it sure beats those battery-on-a-dongle solutions. It’s ideal for intensive iPhone users who are always concerned about running out of juice before the day is up – it has saved me on more than one occasion. Finally, you can actually use the iPhone to
watch video on a cross-country flight, and not have to worry about running the battery all the way down!”

When we asked those who voted for the general idea of an iPhone case to recommend specifics, cases from three companies stood out: Incase, OtterBox, and iFrogz. Even just these three companies make more than 20 case designs, so you’ll still have some selecting to do, but at least we’ve helped narrow it down a bit.

Apple Software — Although last year’s two top picks, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard and iLife ’08, saw their successors, Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and iLife ’09, retaining those top slots, Apple will undoubtedly be pleased to hear that the Mac Box Set, which includes Snow Leopard, iLife, and iWork, took over the third spot from the standalone version of iWork ’09. We suspect that may indicate not so much that people think ill of iWork, but that they see the Mac Box Set as the most economical way to get it, given that it’s slightly
cheaper than buying all three separately.

The most surprising change was that a MobileMe subscription, which ranked dead last in this category in the past two years, moved up to be solidly in the middle of the pack. It could be that MobileMe has redeemed itself somewhat in the eyes of the Mac community with improved reliability after its botched launch, or it could be that its role in offering synchronization and location services (Find My iPhone) to iPhone and iPod touch users has caused people to look at it in a different light.

Mac Game and Entertainment Software — Wow, talk about a sea change. Although it’s safe to say that TidBITS readers aren’t major gamers, this category has always seen an entirely reasonable number of ideas and votes in the past. This year, however, just filling up the ten spots in the survey question was like pulling teeth, and when I ran the numbers, only perennial favorite Solitaire Till Dawn X stood out, with World of Goo and World of Warcraft tickling our fancy with their similar names and close rankings. As has become a tradition here at TidBITS, Andy Affleck nominated Semicolon Software’s Solitaire Till Dawn X, and although another solitaire game was
suggested (Goodsol Development’s Pretty Good Solitaire), Solitaire Till Dawn X garnered a far higher ranking in the survey.

We’ve not encountered World of Goo before, but it appears to be a “physics-based puzzle-construction game” in which you use Goo Balls to build structures that enable you to rescue the remaining Goo Balls from some sort of horrible fate. If you’re interested in it, check out the videos on YouTube that show how it’s played (start with the trailer). And, of course, if you have vast amounts of time that you need to fill, you can’t go wrong with a massively multiplayer role-playing game like the hugely popular World of Warcraft. It might also be a good gift for someone whose productivity you’re
hoping to destroy.

Utility and Enhancement Software — We’ve always thought utility software made for great gifts, but perhaps that stems from lusting after Swiss Army knives as children. Replicating its top spot again this year was 1Password, with LaunchBar, Default Folder X, and MacSpeech Dictate filling out the top four.

1Password, from Agile Web Solutions: Agile Web Solutions was caught by surprise by the early ship date of Snow Leopard but managed to get 1Password working shortly thereafter anyway; the company has now shipped 1Password 3.0 with full Snow Leopard compatibility, making it easy for Mac users to use secure passwords anywhere on the Web. Tomoharu Nishino also noted that 1Password has expanded its focus: “1PasswordAnywhere allows you to view your secure passwords from a Web browser in case you have to work cross-platform. And there is an iPhone app that syncs with the desktop.” It warms our hearts to see so much interest in maintaining secure passwords.

LaunchBar, from Objective Development: Sometimes we feel like a broken analogy that people under 30 won’t understand when it comes to praising LaunchBar, which enables you to launch applications (and do many other things) via a simple hot key and keyed-in abbreviations. But then we think, “Tough cookies, LaunchBar is great and we’re not afraid of saying so.” It appears TidBITS readers agree with us, with Ron Risley commenting, “If any Macintosh user you know is still using a Mac without LaunchBar, change their lives and give them a copy. And if you’re not using it, it’s time to treat yourself.”

Default Folder X from St. Clair Software: As with LaunchBar, Default Folder X 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.

MacSpeech Dictate from MacSpeech: Although the program has had some usability-based teething pains, its inclusion of the engine from Dragon NaturallySpeaking makes it not just the only speech-recognition system for the Mac, but one that can offer accuracy equivalent to Windows-based solutions. It could be a great gift for someone who might appreciate speech-recognition and dictation capabilities, but who would be hesitant to buy it for themselves.

Productivity Software — As much as it can be gratifying to see how utility software enables you to navigate both your Mac and the Internet ever more fluidly, sometimes you just need to get some work done. The top two picks in this category – virtualization software VMware Fusion and Hamrick Software’s VueScan scanning software – have nothing in common other than their utility in helping users accomplish difficult tasks. As in the past, organizational products took up the next few slots: iCal replacement BusyCal joined Bare Bones Software’s Yojimbo and NoteBook from Circus

VMware Fusion from VMware: Recently updated to version 3.0, VMware Fusion has become for many the virtualization software of choice for those who need to run Windows XP, Windows 7, Linux, the Chrome OS, and many other PC-based operating systems. Whether your need for Windows is for compatibility with your employer’s custom software, or revolves around running the latest Windows-only game, VMware Fusion will extend your Mac’s functionality beyond Mac OS X.

VueScan from Hamrick Software: Faster processors and advanced software continue to justify refreshing your Macs every few years, but that old flatbed scanner with its years-old technology continues to work just fine. Or rather, it would if only the manufacturer hadn’t stopped updating the scanner’s software. Even with improved scanner support built into Snow Leopard (check the Print & Fax preference pane), VueScan remains a popular recommendation for providing a hassle-free way to scan.

Miscellaneous Hardware Products — With another year’s worth of digital photos, videos, and music occupying our Macs, it’s no surprise that the number one miscellaneous hardware recommendation this season is an external hard drive; a Toshiba 500 GB USB 2.0 Portable Hard Drive was cited by readers, but any reliable drive would fit the bill. We rely on hard drives for data backups, and this portable model makes it easier to maintain backups while traveling, especially since it draws its power from your Mac’s USB port – no bulky power adapter to carry along. For desktop use, we prefer drives that offer data transfer speeds that are faster
than USB 2.0, such as FireWire or, if you’ve added it to your machine, eSATA. Another product recommendation along the same lines was the NewerTech Voyager Q hard drive docking station, which lets you mount bare internal hard drives temporarily; it’s a great solution for making bootable duplicates that you later move offsite.

The rest of the list was more varied, including the well-reviewed Novatel Wireless MiFi, a portable wireless hotspot (with 3G wireless service offered by Sprint or Verizon), landing in second place. Kevin van Haaren wrote, “I use the MiFi every day at work to stream music to my iPod touch (most streaming sites are blocked at work). I’ve also used it to make VOIP and Skype calls from my iPod. I carry it with me around town as well. It’s my preferred email access method now, over my Blackberry Tour. I wouldn’t use it continuously with a laptop because it has a 5 GB cap on the data. But a day or two to avoid an onerous hotel
Internet fee is certainly acceptable.”

Clever little iHome Rechargeable Mini Speakers were the next most popular item, also suggested by Kevin, who noted that the only downsides were very bright LEDs and a cable that tangles easily. Wacom’s multi-touch Bamboo pressure-sensitive tablets also ranked high, though the reader who suggested them, William Seligman, said, “Don’t get this for a serious graphics professional; it’s a cheap toy to them. But for someone who’d enjoy playing around with beginner’s art projects, or who might benefit from an extra-large trackpad, it’s a nice gift.”

For the Macintosh-minded — Every year, people suggest gift ideas that have nothing to do with the Mac or the iPhone, or indeed with the entire computer industry. These are the ideas we most enjoy, since they’re so wonderfully random, and we especially encourage you to read the full set in TidBITS Talk.

The Beatles Box Set, from EMI: Conrad Hirano made this suggestion, and the fact that it quickly leapt to the top of this category probably indicates the age of the average TidBITS reader. He wrote “The mono box set is a limited edition set and is targeted for the hard-core fan. The mono mixes are considered the real version of many of the albums as the Beatles themselves and George Martin were involved with the final mixes. Stereo was still a bit of a novelty, so the stereo mixes were left as an afterthought. The mono box set doesn’t include “Yellow Submarine,” “Abbey Road,” and “Let It Be” as these albums were released only in stereo. The stereo box set includes all of the albums. These are the mixes more familiar to listeners in the United States, so it’s probably a better choice of the two sets for the casual fan.”

Donation to Heifer International: Although charitable donations haven’t been suggested much in recent years, for a few years in the early 2000s they were popular recommendations, and the organization that showed up every year was Heifer International, which gives animals to needy third-world people. The animals provide income, food, and offspring, and Heifer International asks that recipients pass on one of the their animal’s offspring to another needy family. It’s a good approach, and although you’re not actually donating a specific goose or cow, the effect is the same and the results are real.

The Prisoner,” from A&E Television on iTunes: David McMurray first found this on iTunes, noting “In case you hadn’t noticed, Patrick McGoohan’s “The Prisoner” is now available from the iTunes Store. It’s standard definition but an absolute steal nevertheless – $30 for the classic 17-episode series.” David’s message to TidBITS Talk prompted quite a few replies; it sounds like “The Prisoner” has more than a few fans among our readers.

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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