This portion of our annual gift issue is one of our favorites, since it’s where readers suggest neat little accoutrements that may be inexpensive or even obvious, but which can make a real difference in everyday computer use. Be sure to check out suggestions from years past for oodles of other excellent ideas.
Wireless Internet Access — For the road warrior in your life, Kevin van Haaren suggested the gift of wireless Internet access. "I’m writing this from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport via the Wayport wireless network. If you have a frequent traveller on your gift list, he may appreciate a membership to a wireless access service. Wayport seems to serve a lot of airports and hotels; AT&T Wireless also serves a few airports (they handle Denver International Airport; I’ve yet to be holed up there long enough to consider paying for it). If the recipient prefers hanging out in coffeehouses to travelling, many Starbucks stores offer T-Mobile wireless hot spots."
A more general approach might be to work with an aggregator such as Boingo Wireless, which provides a single account that works with many different wireless network providers, including Wayport. Unfortunately, Boingo’s Mac software isn’t yet available, but they promise it for February of 2003.
World Domain-ation — The budding Internet czar on your list might like to see her name in lights… or at least in pixels. David Weintraub suggested: "Here’s a unique idea. Buy someone their own domain. Buying a domain and a year’s subscription to a site that will handle email and Web page hosting can be had for less than $100 per year. For a bit more, you could buy a domain for a whole family and set everyone up with their own email addresses and Web pages with remote hosting."
If you have your own servers, consider the $55 gift certificate offered by TidBITS sponsor easyDNS. The gift certificate includes domain registration and email and Web page forwarding. We use easyDNS to manage DNS for the TidBITS servers, and we’ve been extremely happy with the service.
David’s initial idea engendered several suggestions for other, less-expensive domain registry and DNS management services, including Active Domain, Virtual Names, and directNIC.
Just Email — If a full-fledged domain with Web hosting is overkill, consider a simple but permanent email address. Dennis Cheung wrote, "After the .Mac debacle, I found a new email service provider: FastMail. They offer great IMAP support, an excellent Web interface, reasonable quotas, and a pretty good selection of domain names such as mailcan.com, imapmail.org, and so on. Basic accounts are free, member accounts cost only $15 (for life), and full accounts, which add spam filtering, cost $15 plus $20 per year. I’ve found the staff to be incredibly responsive and their uptime to be fantastic (neither of which I could say about Apple’s Mac.com service)."
Put on Your Rubbers! Portable computers are wonderful things: take them with you everywhere and have your digital world at your fingertips. But sometimes laptops don’t want to stay where you put them… or (ahem) might be a little too warm where you put them. James Ray suggests: "One of the most useful things a notebook owner can have is carefully applied, large, rubber feet from Radio Shack. They keep the laptop cool by elevating it off your work surface, and more importantly mostly above spill-level. They also hold your computer above your knees. They are Archer Cat. No. 64-2342, self-sticking, heavy-duty, cushion feet, and they come eight to a package. At $2, they’re very cheap. The only trick with the feet is to peel them first, then air cure them for about a minute while you use rubbing alcohol to clean the spots on your notebook where you plan to apply them. With proper surface prep, I’ve seen these things stick amazingly well."
Alan Forkosh noted a variant on this idea, the Traveler CoolPad from RoadTools (also appearing under the Targus name). "It’s a platform for portables that fits comfortably on your lap or can pivot on a table. There are small rubber domes on one end to incline the laptop and provide air circulation underneath. It fits comfortably in most laptop slipcases and costs only $20. I commonly use mine under my iBook on my lap while wireless surfing the Web and watching TV. The pivoting feature is quite useful for plugging in accessories or loading CDs when using the iBook in tight quarters. The larger Podium CoolPad sells for $10 more and lets you adjust the elevation differential using Lego-like blocks."
Full laptop stands are yet another option; just a few days ago, Adam reviewed the Griffin iCurve, the LapVantage Dome, and the Dexia Rack in "The Laptop Stands, But Not Alone" in TidBITS-658, and our ever-energetic readers immediately suggested a number of other alternatives in TidBITS Talk.
Carrying Gadgets? David Weintraub suggested: "Have a friend with both a Palm-style PDA and a fold-up keyboard? Targus makes a nice leather case that holds them both in one place. The PDA side comes with a strap, and the keyboard side zips up. It isn’t something you can slip into your pocket, but it does put everything in one place in a briefcase."
Eliminating Cable Clutter — A rat’s nest of cable surrounds almost every desktop computer out there, and that problem inspired a number of gift suggestions. Bruce McL went low tech, suggesting that "adhesive cable clamps can come in handy and might make nice stocking stuffers for someone you know. They come in different sizes and colors (black or white). Just stick ’em on a wall or desk and clamp in a cable."
Don’t want to stick something to your wall? Harro de Jong commented, "For people who spend a lot of time untangling wires, Velcro cable ties can come in handy. They’re the best solution I’ve found yet for bundling rolls of cable, and they hold up well under abuse. You can find them in professional audio shops as well as computer and electronics stores."
For a snazzier, if more expensive approach to taming those cable snakes, Kei Ishii turned us on to another product. "I have found this in a couple of Tokyo interior design stores, although it’s a Dutch maker: The Cable Turtle. It reminds one of a yo-yo, but is made of soft plastic. You open the rims, roll up the extra cable, close it again, and voila: no cable mess anymore! It comes in different colors and different sizes and costs between $8 and $15. The same company also sells a soft plastic coil which binds cable together.
Transmit Your iPod — Driving with your headphones on is a no-no, so Fearghas McKay offered this alternative. "I just picked up a Cendyne Gruv X FM transmitter for listening to my iPod on my car radio, and I recommend it to others. This tiny device has worked where other units failed miserably, has a little backlit LCD display, and is tunable in 0.1 MHz steps rather than having just a couple of frequencies to choose from. It doesn’t require an antenna or any wires other than the one that connects it to your iPod, and it runs on a single AAA battery.
"It cost only $30 from Fry’s in California and is far cheaper than buying a new car stereo with a jack on the front! For the ultimate present, I would couple the Gruv transmitter with an iPod case from SF Bags and a car mount holder for the case."
Protect Your Laptop — A design flaw in Apple’s current line of portables means that the film of oil from your fingers coats the keys and can leave an imprint on the screen. Kevin van Haaren offered a solution. "A nice inexpensive gift for a PowerBook owner is the PowerBook ScreensavRz. It’s a soft cloth that sits between your keyboard and screen when the top is closed and keeps finger oils from moving from the keys to the screen."
But what about protecting the outside of your laptop? There are numerous cases out there (many of which were recommend in last year’s gift issue), and Jim Rohde added to that collection. "I’d like to suggest (and would love to get) the Go-In-Case laptop sleeve for $40 (available directly or at your local Apple Store). This sleeve is perfect for when you want to protect your iBook or PowerBook, but don’t want to lug along an entire case. The Go-In-Case sleeve comes with fully retractable handles and a detachable shoulder strap, and has a pocket on the outside for an AC adapter and minimal accessories. It comes in a small and a large version (the large one fits a Titanium PowerBook G4 or my PowerBook G3, and the small one appears to be a good size for the iBook). I like the style of the sleeves, too – it should go with most laptops of any kind. To check them out, use the link below and click the second ‘laptop’ (Flash) button from the left."
Back to Basics — We may take simple bits and pieces of hardware for granted, but for the right person, such a gift may be perfect. Jim Beinke suggested giving someone with file sharing needs an Ethernet cable. "What a great ‘discovery’ it was to connect my PowerBook with the office PC and transfer files, then go home to our new eMac and move things there. Jaguar makes it easy."
Rob Russell suggested that a box of blank CD-Rs is still a useful and inexpensive gift for those who like to back up on CD-R or make personal CDs containing favorite music.
Preparing for Theft — As the Monty Python sketch said, no one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition, and too few people expect that their computers might be lost as well. Frequent backups are essential for protecting data, but what about recovering your precious gear? Tomoharu Nishino offered a suggestion that might help. "A set of StuffBak labels might be a nice stocking-stuffer gift for the absent-minded but gadget-laden. You attach a StuffBak label to your device (PDA, cell phone, laptop, MP3 player, and so on). The label contains the StuffBak Web site address as well as their phone number. If you lose your device, and someone finds it, she can return it by calling the number or visiting the Web site and then dropping the item off at a local drop-off center. StuffBak then takes care of packaging the item and shipping it to you. If an item is recovered you pay StuffBak $15 plus the actual shipping charges. You can also offer a cash reward for the recovery of your items.
"How is this better than affixing a business card or name and number to your items? The whole process is anonymous, and it’s far less of a hassle to the people who find your stuff – they don’t have to worry about packaging the items or collecting the shipping costs. The end result, hopefully, is that they are more likely to send your stuff back. Each label costs as little as $2, and you can buy them in packs ranging from $10 to $50. The labels come in various shapes and sizes to fit different gadgets.
"I haven’t heard stories about people actually getting things back through StuffBak (and the Web site doesn’t share any such stories), so I don’t know how effective it is. But it might give people a little peace of mind, I suppose, when dumping their personal electronics into a bin at airport security. And besides, it’s the thought that counts, right?"
Sticky Fingers — If someone you know has kids or co-workers who can’t keep their dirty fingers (and the resulting fingerprints) off their monitor, Mike Millard has a craft project for you. "I haven’t seen anything like this in the shops, but a relatively handy person could surely make a Lucite cover that hangs over the front of a flat-panel monitor to keep dirty fingers off. We just installed two Apple 17-inch flat-panel units in a college art department, whose students often feel the need to point determinedly at the screen. The lab supervisor cut a length of Lucite the width of the monitor and with enough extra length to curve over the top and down about 2 inches (5.1 cm). She heated the Lucite and bent it 180 degrees at the appropriate point, in a wide curve. It works wonderfully. I imagine such a thing should not cost too much for the raw material."
And Aching Wrists — We’ve tried a lot of products for alleviating pain related to carpal tunnel and other repetitive stress injuries over time, but Kevin van Haaren sprung a new one on us with his suggestion of the Imak Smart Glove, which looks as though it works a little like the Handeze Gloves we’ve liked for a long time. Kevin also pointed to a review of the Smart Glove on Ars Technica that’s worth reading first.