Happy Holidays! It’s time once again for our annual double-size TidBITS Gift Issue, chock full of end-of-year gift suggestions from the TidBITS community. If you’re still on the hunt for that perfect gift for your friends and relatives, read on for hardware, software, and other ideas, some of which are appropriate for anyone, whether or not they use a Macintosh. ("iPod is good. Buy more iPod stuff.") Feel free to tack a few items onto your own list, too!
Welcome to our traditional holiday gift issue, in which we pass along numerous recommendations from readers that help us all decide what gifts to give our loved ones or to put on our own lists. What I like most about this issue is the way these suggestions help me think not just about what I might give someone, but also why I might choose that particular gift. Objects don’t mean as much to me as they used to when there were fewer of them in our life, but the carefully chosen gift can speak volumes. Last year for Christmas, for instance, my family gave us an orchard, which encompassed my father ordering us the fruit trees that family members had selected, installing the necessary deer fence, and helping me plant and care for the trees in their vulnerable first year. Obviously, we can buy fruit at the grocery store like everyone else, but the orchard was a perfect gift because it showed me that my family understood my love of creating beautiful and practical things that last, while acknowledging my frustration with lacking the time to pick up hobbies or start personal projects that require constant attention over time.
On to the suggestions then, and from all of us at TidBITS – Adam Engst, Tonya Engst, Geoff Duncan, Jeff Carlson, Mark Anbinder, Matt Neuburg, and Glenn Fleishman – may all your wishes come true!
Would anyone take exception to receiving a sleek new PowerBook, iBook, iMac, or Power Mac G5 this holiday season? Certainly not us, but our readers aimed for more humble and affordable ideas this year, focusing on hard drives, mice, and, the breakaway suggestion this year, laser printers. For a few more ideas, be sure to check out past hardware gift suggestions; everything on last year’s list would still be welcome to most Mac users.
And not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse — It wouldn’t be a TidBITS gift issue without someone suggesting one of Kensington’s pointing devices, and this year Lorin Rivers sent in his pick, the Kensington Optical Elite mouse. It features five buttons, a scroll wheel, good drivers (the much-recommended MouseWorks software), and legendary telephone support (although Mark McKean later noted that Kensington’s online support didn’t match up to the quality of their phone support in his experience).
Hubba Hubba! TidBITS sponsor Dr. Bott has made some friends with their USB hubs. Michael Tardiff wrote, "Now that I look back on the year, I’ve managed to purchase quite a bit of stuff for my 12-inch PowerBook, but one item leaps to mind as the most useful and used: the Dr. Bott T3Hub Portable 3-port USB hub. It’s little, comes in three colors to match any Mac, and is very portable indeed. What I like most, besides the size, is that it doesn’t require power but still lets me run my USB LED keyboard light along with a USB wireless trackball, or any combination of devices I’ve thrown at it so far. I’ve gone through hell with other inexpensive hubs, but this one’s been great. I gave one to a PC user who loves it as much as I do. For the obsessive-compulsive, it comes with little soft-plastic plugs for all three holes and the male plug. The plugs are easy to lose, but they show attention to detail.
Mike Cohen agreed with the sentiment. "I really love Dr. Bott’s T7Hub. It’s the smallest and nicest looking 7-port hub I’ve seen, and it can work with or without an external power brick, depending on the devices you have attached. It works well with all of my devices, including a Canon N650U scanner. Interestingly, VueScan wouldn’t recognize that scanner using my old Asante 8-port hub, but it does work with the T7Hub.
The Hard Presents — Joseph Jobes made the oh-so-practical (but still more romantic than a weedwhacker, guys!) suggestion of giving your sweetie an external hard drive, along with a good backup program. We recommend Retrospect, but there are others available that do a good job as well. The Maxtor OneTouch series of drives come with Retrospect Express and the clever OneTouch button to launch a backup, and the CMS ABSplus drives (which come in both portable and desktop versions) have their own backup software and launch backups as soon as they’re connected. Of course, you could put one of these on your list, since as Joseph said, "Nothing makes me happier than recovering lost, damaged, or corrupted files!"
Christopher Schmidt was more specific with his choice of hard drives. "I love my SmartDisk FireWire drive because it is as quiet as my flat panel iMac, so I can use it in the living room. Mine is an older FireWire-only model, but it appears that the newer dual interface model uses the same heavy enclosure. At $230, it’s not exactly a stocking stuffer, though."
Jim Foster went in a slightly different direction, recommending a Macally FireWire/USB 2.0 (PHR-100AC) External Hard Drive Enclosure for 3.5-inch drives. He noted, "It’s terrific. My old Bondi Blue iMac had just died, and I needed to access files on the 60 GB internal hard drive I had installed in the iMac a few years back. It was a chore to get the drive out, but it took only a few minutes to pop it into the Macally enclosure. Then I walked it over to my wife’s flat-panel iMac, hooked it up, and there were my two partitions sitting on her Desktop. I was even able to use it as the boot volume for her flat-panel iMac as well as the 500 MHz iBook I am using now. So the moral is, if you are lucky enough to have some spare Macs in your household, having a FireWire drive enclosure handy can get you back up and running quickly if one of your Macs takes a dive."
A Cheap Laser — A surprising number of people suggested buying your loved one an inexpensive laser printer, since nothing says "Happy Holidays" like the smell of melting toner. Kevin van Haaren liked the fact that the laser printer he bought for $100 after rebate, a Samsung ml-1710, is faster than his inkjet, costs less per page, and supports all major operating systems. It’s not a hit with his entire family though: "On the downside – my cat likes the inkjet better. He can watch the paper go in and come out, but the laser printer’s paper tray hides the paper from him part of the time." Some cats prefer laser printers, though, since they’re often warm places to sleep.
Tomoharu Nishino seconded Kevin’s idea, recommending the HP LaserJet 1012, which prints 15 pages per minute, starts up in 10 seconds with instant-on fuser, prints at 600 dpi (1200 dpi simulated), connects via USB 2.0, and works with Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X out of the box. He continued, "It’s quite compact (about the same size as my Epson inkjet) and lightweight. 5,000 pages per month duty rating should suffice for most personal use, and because it’s an HP the toner cartridges are widely available. The only downside is that it is a bit noisy when printing, and its use of USB makes it difficult to stuff in a closet, but for $200 you can’t complain too much."
Curtis Wilcox chimed in. "Last year my fiancee got the Brother HL-1440 (currently about $180). Physically it’s a lot bigger and heavier than LaserJet 1012 but it has a regular paper drawer versus the 1012’s inkjet-style paper tray (which Kevin’s cat might like). It comes with only 2 MB of RAM but can be upgraded (34 MB max) with cheap 72-pin SIMMs, common to mid-90s computers. I heard the LaserJet 1012 yesterday and I’d say it’s about as noisy as the Brother HL-1440 when printing. It works well with Mac OS X and the printouts look good. The Lexmark E220 might also be a good choice in this price range."
Our first inclination when suggesting software is to recommend useful utilities that prove invaluable every day. But software is a big field, with room enough for utility and whimsey, both of which are represented this year. Don’t forget to look through software suggestions from previous years; given the longetivity of many software titles and Macs themselves, older software may still work fine on your machine.
Web Info Where You Need It — TidBITS Contributing Editor Matt Neuburg suggested an inexpensive shareware gift: Alco Blom’s pair of utilities, URL Manager Pro and Web Confidential.
"I run both continuously, and use them constantly. URL Manager holds my URLs, and is far better for organizing and annotating them than a browser; plus it is browser-agnostic, so it doesn’t matter what browser I use. Web Confidential holds my Web passwords (I use a different one for every password-protected page) and my software registration numbers; it carried those numbers through the Panther upgrade process and made it easy and fast for me to start working again afterwards."
Organize Everything — Eric Durbrow made this suggestion. "I think Circus Ponies NoteBook 1.2 would be a good holiday gift for two reasons. First, it’s a catch-all, elegantly designed application for the person who needs to organize something: photos, family trees, writing projects, and hobbies. Second, it’s easy to use, requires little time to master the basics, and has a highly responsive help forum and developer. That means the person you give it to is less likely to call you up and ask you how to get the dohickey to do the do-what. Think of it as a low-maintenance gift."
Think It Through — Along similar lines, Andy Affleck recommended a note-taking application that can serve as a backup brain: "For me, the best purchase I made this year was DEVONthink PE. Part of my job as a Web designer, project manager, and general accessibility/standards maven requires that I read a great deal of information. I read weblogs, articles, how-to’s, etc. in many different areas. I also send and receive metric scads of email. On top of that, the company I work for is highly distributed, so to keep in touch, we use a company-based IRC server, one channel per project. All of my email, IRC logs, and every Web site I find with useful information goes into my DEVONthink database so I can easily search and find what I need, when I need it. I’ve spent years trying just about every kind of information management tool out there. DEVONthink is the first one that I have found (based on recommendations from the TidBITS Talk list) that actually helped me and complemented my daily workflow. All it needs is a text editor with an outliner so I can use it to take notes directly."
Get Your Gift Back — Johann Beda suggested something that people usually only think of when it’s too late. "I have decided to give the gift of backups – I’m going to buy my family members copies of Retrospect, and set up automated backups of the Users directories on their machines. I suffered a horrible drive failure this summer without good backups and lost virtually all of six months of my digital life – photos, email, and work. Hopefully I can prevent similar disasters for others."
Remote Control — Once your extended family is set up to be backed up on a regular basis, make sure you can check their Macs or troubleshoot them from anywhere – without the difficulties that can arise from trying to describe problems over the phone. Lorin Rivers recommended two copies of Netopia’s Timbuktu, "one for the tech support provider (you), and one for the gift recipient. I’m getting this for my mother, but it’s also partly for me because it saves me a drive across town."
Get a GREP — LuKreme obviously got a glimpse of Santa Claus’s list of geek gifts, judging by this suggestion: "What I want someone to buy me for Christmas, so it must be a good gift idea for a certain type of Mac geek, is a copy of BBEdit. It seems hard to explain to someone how a text editor is worth the coin Bare Bones charges, but BBEdit is simply in a league of it’s own."
A Gift to Warm the Belly — Sarah Delancey cooked up an idea that helps create more gifts year-round: "I was looking all over for a recipe program for Mac OS X, and found that most programs in stores were either for the PC or not for Mac OS X. So I did some Google searching and found a little program called Computer Cuisine Deluxe. I love it! I have added about 800 of my own recipes now, and it couldn’t be better. I have no idea why this program isn’t bundled with every Mac. It’s a great little program and I will using it as a stocking stuffer for my Mac friends."
VYGR’s Landscape Generator — Peter Miller set his sights on the horizon for this holiday gift idea: "I have often recommended the fascinating apps from U&I Software as stocking stuffers, but this year they have something really hot. Voyager is a unique 3D landscape and scenic image generator (think of a more powerful Bryce). It makes extremely realistic (and surrealistic) landscapes and QuickTime movies at pretty much any desired resolution. Voyager comes with 4 virtual worlds to explore, each about 60,000 square kilometers, the equivalent of three times the size of the Earth. Plus if you’re keen, you can build your own worlds in ArtMatic, U&I’s extraordinary image synthesizer."
A Monastery in Your Mac — Matt Neuburg spoke up again with an recommendation that brings back memories: "I’m not sure whether this counts as software, a game, a multimedia experience, a book, or nostalgia. It’s ‘If Monks Had Macs,’ which started life as a HyperCard stack before I even knew HyperCard existed, turned into a Voyager multimedia CD, and is now available cross-platform, thanks to Runtime Revolution. If Monks (as we like to call it) is impossible to describe. It’s a truly visionary hyperlinked collection of books, music, art, games, and activities, plus several applications you can use separately, such as a hyperlinked journal-writer and an ebook text reader that works with Project Gutenberg files and other free online books. It’s genuine New Media – a multi-dimensional, quirky vision from the mind of an eclectic thinker. If you’ve been wondering (and who hasn’t?) what Chesterton’s Father Brown, Heart of Darkness, Schubert, Thoreau, and the Kennedy assassination have to do with one another, this is your chance to find out. I remember the earliest If Monks incarnations with fondness, so this new version, which I have not seen, is on my wish list."
The Gift to Beat — Paul Atroshenko wrote to recommend a program for the musical among us. "One application which I have used (and fallen in love with) is a music generating program called Easy Beat, by Ergonis, an Austrian company specialising in Mac software. Unfortunately, Easy Beat is not compatible with Mac OS X – it runs best on Mac OS 9.2. As far as I can discover from my music-composing friends who use PCs, there is nothing like Easy Beat for the PC. My friends are very envious." A free demo of the $90 East Beat is available as a 2.4 MB download. Some musical pieces that Paul wrote using Easy Beat are embedded in a few short animations at his Web site.
Project deadlines, financial pressures, trouble erupting in all corners of the world – sometimes you just want to escape it all for a few minutes. That’s where games come in. This year’s gaming ideas touch on both standard fantasy and adventure fare, as well as on novel entrants such as a title that’s controlled by your body movements in front of a camera.
Although the game market itself moves forward at a frenetic pace, don’t discount the games of yesteryear for those people who don’t need the latest and greatest. Graphics and sound capabilities may have improved over time, but plenty of older games still provide great game play. Check out the suggestions from previous years for these blasts from the past and do some hunting around on eBay or discount software sites if the publisher no longer sells the game you want.
For Those Cold Neverwinter Nights — LuKreme wrote, "Probably the best new Macintosh game this year is the BioWare computer role-playing game Neverwinter Nights. One thing that makes the game so appealing, beyond the great look, well-designed interface, and multi-player support, is that there are thousands of modules and expansions that can change the scope of the game radically. If you’re not a fan of the ‘hack and slash’ mentality of most role-playing games, there are modules or servers that emphasize story, role playing, social interactions, and more."
Get Unreal — Karl Kornel offered another role-playing game of the first-person, shoot-everything-in-sight variety: Unreal Tournament 2003 from MacSoft. He notes, "The graphics in Unreal Tournament are amazing, the sound is theater-like (on my little two-speaker-plus-sub system), and it has enough modes of play to give you a fun game even if you only have 30 minutes. There’s also a recent update that fixes many problems that Unreal Tournament 2003 had with Panther and claims a performance increase of 25 percent or more."
Games for the Solitary — Andy Affleck sticks with a perennial suggestion: Semicolon Software’s Solitaire Till Dawn, which is available in separate versions for the classic Mac OS and Mac OS X. "I rarely have time to play games any more but this one is the one I keep finding time for. Or rather, I tend to play games which take very little time so I can squeeze them in whenever I need to. I’ve tried many of the solitaire games for the Mac and this is the one I like best. The interface is simple, elegant, and it just works. It doesn’t have overly fancy graphics, but they’re fine (I use a deck of cards with a picture of my son as the back) and it eschews fluff like an over-the-top splash screen, winning graphics, and so on. You just play cards, and that’s precisely what I want to do."
Nik Friedman provides an alternative suggestion: Burning Monkey Solitaire (or Burning Monkey Mahjong Solitaire) from Freeverse. "It offers great card games, great time wasters, and is appealing to folks who aren’t big gamers but want something fun on their computer."
Let’s Get Physical! Les Carter offered a unique idea for anyone with a FireWire video camera and some extra energy. "I’ve been beta testing a great new game that would be the perfect gift for all the family this Christmas. If your recipient has a Mac and an iSight (or any other FireWire webcam, or DV camcorder) then have a look at ToySight, which is a cool little pack of games for the Mac that are totally controlled by the player’s motion in front of the camera. I can honestly say that I haven’t had as much fun with a game for ages, and I also got a bit of a workout into the bargain!"
Breaking out of the Data Center — Chuck Goolsbee of digital.forest agreed with Andy’s comment earlier about not having much time to play games. So when he’s not watching the digital.forest network that keeps the TidBITS servers accessible to the world, Chuck grabs a quick game of DX-Ball. "My little time waster is DX-Ball, a shareware Breakout-style game, that is very well done. You can play quick little sessions, or all night, if you are good enough, and it’s cheap at $10."
Breakout-style games are enjoying a renaissance, since one is built into the iPod now and LuKreme recommended another. "The $16 shareware Colibricks, which was the first game I played under Mac OS X is still a winner. It’s a game in the style of Breakout, or more correctly, Arkanoid (if anyone remembers that arcade version of Breakout). I really like the physics model in Colibricks, and the insanely difficult levels you can play by using ‘random level’ option, which lets you get a taste for the impossible higher levels without having to play for six hours. It also allows you to save your game, so you can save when you are doing well and go back when you stupidly lose 3 balls in 30 seconds."
The Game of Kings (and Queens) — Kirk McElhearn is tending toward the more cerebral games. "I’m just getting serious about playing chess again, and the best bargain out there is Sigma Chess, which comes in two versions: a free basic version, which will beat the pants off me for a long time, and a $15 pro version, which offers extra features for serious players. The program is fast, attractive and strong."
It’s Just Enigmatic — Christopher Ungeheier and Nik Friedman both recommended the 3-D puzzle game Enigmo, from Pangea. Nik found it relaxing, fun, challenging but not too challenging, and overall just a great game. Chris agreed, adding "You can also download more levels from Pangea’s Web site, and for those who find it too challenging, there’s a level editor so you can create your own fun."
Pull Some Virtual Gs — Now here’s an unusual idea. Tomoharu Nishino turned us on to NoLimitsSimulator from Mad-Data. "It’s a quite realistic roller coaster simulator – nothing beats feeling the G-forces of the real thing, but NoLimitsSimulator comes pretty close. It comes with 50 or so pre-built tracks featuring the world’s most famous roller coasters. It also allows you to build and simulate your own rides; the build environment is robust but complex, making it more like a CAD program than a game. Obviously as with any simulation application of this type, NoLimitsSimulator benefits from a fast computer with a fast graphics card; it’s absolutely gorgeous on a new Power Mac G5 but is still quite good even on an aging 800 MHz PowerBook G4. At $25, NoLimitsSimulator is perfect for the roller coaster junkie or an engineering type."
When we open this category up for suggestions on TidBITS Talk, we normally expect to see a wide variety of neat little add-ons and gadgets that make using a computer a bit more pleasant. This year, however, it appears that almost everyone has iPod fever, and suggestion after suggestion revolved around iPod speakers, iPod headphones, iPod cases, and iPod floor wax. It was enough that we started wondering if perhaps Apple has built little subliminal messages into the iPod that play at a high frequency while you’re listening to your tunes. "iPod is good," they whisper seductively, "buy more iPod stuff." (Anyone who believes that little conspiracy theory can send his iPod to us, and we’ll give it a good home with a sane family.)
The only problem was that Dan Frakes had already written a huge two-part article about iPod goodies, and he was also in the process of revising his headphones roundup article from previous years (look for those in next Monday’s issue). So rather than duplicate his effort, and further bulk up the size of this issue, we decided to give Dan the lead on the iPod and headphones topics, and concentrate here on other items. But remember, if you just can’t think of something for that special someone… iPod is good, buy more iPod stuff.
Oh, and be sure to check out suggestions from years past for oodles of other excellent ideas.
Can’t Find the Right T-Shirt? You wouldn’t think Mac users would have trouble finding a neat shirt (there are always the TidBITS t-shirts, which are of course the ultimate in sartorial elegance), but if none of the t-shirts in your drawer are quite right, Greg Potts has an idea for you: iron-on transfer paper for ink-jet printers. "Anyone with an ink-jet printer and an iron can produce custom t-shirts. Or buy a pack for yourself and go into production, making one-of-a-kind items for friends or loved ones. Buying a paper manufactured to work with your printer does improve the results, and using a different manufacturer’s paper (i.e., HP paper in an Epson) is not recommended. Generic papers (such as those linked below) are cheaper, but for best results, I recommend sticking with paper from your printer’s manufacturer. One more thing: To print the image to a t-shirt, you must mirror the image at printout to make it readable after the transfer. Before you print, make sure your printer driver offers this feature, or flip the image in software before you print it."
Clothing for Your Laptop — As long as we’re making fashion statements, it’s important that your PowerBook or iBook fits in with your wardrobe while remaining protected from the elements. Doug Brown’s holiday wish list includes the Booq PowerSleeve 15 for his new 15-inch PowerBook. "It provides nice messenger bag style, easy access and appropriate thinness/lightness to match Apple’s elegant design. And it won’t break the bank at $50."
Marilyn Matty took her suggestions upscale. "This is a gift suggestion for the ultra hip who also happen to be fashion- and Macintosh-minded: Acme Made’s Slim Bag. I first spotted them when I was down at the Fashion Institute of Technology not long ago. I suspect that the PowerBook-packing Carrie on ‘Sex In The City’ would consider these specially sized and designed sleeves/computer bags to be as essential a wardrobe component as Manolo Blahniks if she did deign to drag her laptop around. She’d probably want a few to coordinate with specific outfits. The prices seem comparable to equivalent, though not as hip, products. I’ve asked Santa for the Cadet Stripes, and I like it so much I will probably spring for it myself if he doesn’t come through."
Kevin van Haaren prefers the laptop/messenger bag from Timbuk2. He wrote, "I’ve gone through lots of backpacks and laptop cases and this is the best I’ve found for me. Timbuk2 has adjusted their product line since I purchased mine. (I was able to custom build the entire bag, picking the colors for each individual panel. Now you’re limited to particular schemes on the laptop bags.) The bag has lots of interior pockets for accessories and such, plus a large open compartment for more gear. The best feature is how quickly I can get to my laptop – no zippers to fumble with, just open the flap and grab your laptop, which is great for getting through airport security quickly. Normally I don’t bother with the front clips, but in an airport I clip the flap down and cinch them tight. Nobody can get in the bag without my knowing it then.
"Timbuk2 also makes an iPod/PDA adapter that attaches to the shoulder strap, but I’m hoping for a future shoulder strap that incorporates a remote control so the iPod can be in the bag but controlled from the strap."
Michael Tardiff offered another alternative, seconded by Tomoharu Nishino. Michael said, "The thing that gets me more comments than my 12-inch PowerBook itself is RadTech’s PowerSleevz, a custom-sewed slipcase for the PowerBook that’s made of a heavier gauge of the same microfiber cloth used for the ScreensavRz cloths that keep laptop screens free of nasty oils from the keyboard. The PowerSleevz fits my PowerBook like a glove and comes in sizes for both iBooks and PowerBooks. People see it and ask if the PowerBook came with that neat sleeve. It protects the case from scratches, and could even be used to clean the screen if I didn’t already have the ScreensavRz. It won’t protect against a drop, but it helps me avoid scratching or smudging up my PowerBook as I carry it around the office, or the house, or anywhere I want to travel really light."
Some Like It Hot — To keep your FireWire port blazing along, Alan Charlesworth recommended FireWire Depot’s $24 FireWire port isolator, a 12-foot long, 6-pin male to 6-pin female FireWire cable with the power pins not connected. You plug other FireWire cables into it, and it protects your FireWire port from stray power sent down normal cables from self-powered devices.
If you need to use a FireWire drive that doesn’t have its own power adapter (since it uses bus power), Alan suggested either a powered FireWire hub, or a $30 FireCABLE FireWire power adapter, which feeds power into a 6-pin cable.
Better TV — We’re not sure what’s happening, since Andrew Laurence didn’t recommend a TiVo this year, as he’s done reliably since at least 1984, even though there’s a cool new TiVo from Pioneer with a DVD recorder built in for saving shows.
Nevertheless, others suggested their favorite television-related devices. Francis Pressland wrote, "I know what I want: the new EyeTV 300 Digital Satellite box which connects via FireWire. As long as it can record my subscription channels (which is not at all clear from the press release) as well as the free-to-air channels available in the UK, then I will give this to myself as a Christmas present!"
Ray Davison seems to have found a solution for the problem of juggling multiple remote control devices. "After it was mentioned in TidBITS, I went out and bought the Harmony SST-768 universal remote control. It is the only universal remote I have tried that all members of the family have no trouble figuring out how to use (we have a somewhat complicated setup with DVD, CD, Macintosh, cable box, etc., connected through a surround-sound receiver). It works by entering your setup on a Web page and then programming the remote by connecting it to your computer (PC or Mac). The new SST-659 looks like it might be even easier to use, and it’s cheaper.
"When I have had to ask questions, they were answered quickly and fully by the helpful staff at Harmony. In addition, when my house was robbed, the thief took my PowerBook and all the cables lying next to it. One of those cables was the Harmony Remote’s USB cable. I emailed Harmony to find out where I could get a new cable, and they sent me a new one at no cost."
Give the Family to the Family — Marilyn Matty suggested a creative art project made easier by technology. "How about a fun and educational arts and crafts project? My nephew did some genealogy research for a school project and asked me about printing out decorative copies of a family tree on his inkjet printer to send to family members as a holiday gift. I found some free and paid resources. Anyone with some familiarity with an illustration, page layout, or photo editing application with vector capabilities can easily put something fancy-schmancy together that approximates the paid formats. Those not familiar with design software can easily recreate a very attractive box format in a word processor or spreadsheet.
"The layouts I liked best are at the Martha Stewart site, where they also provide a free PDF fan template. I really like this layout, and though recommended for hand lettering, it looks like it can very easily be done by putting text on a path and printing it out on colored paper on either an inkjet or laser, and here’s an excellent free tutorial from Wendy Peck’s Production Graphics on how to do it in Illustrator that even the most design challenged can do, which can be adapted to just about any application."
<http://www.marthastewart.com/page.jhtml?& amp;type=content&id=channel172118& amp;page=1>
Laptop Goodies — Apart from an iPod ("iPod is good. Buy more iPod stuff"), what better stocking stuffer for your laptop-toting loved ones than some PowerBook or iBook accessories? Paul Durrant suggested, "Perhaps some Wildeepz for anyone with an iBook (post-clamshell) or PowerBook? They’re little foam spacers that stop laptop lids from rattling when closed. I’ve only just ordered some, so I can’t give a personal recommendation yet, but they look like they should be perfect for stopping my iBook lid rattling when closed."
Tomoharu Nishino chimed in with a few additional gift ideas for the PowerBook or iBook owner, starting with a set of Torx screwdrivers, assuming you think the recipient is capable of opening up their laptop without harming it. We like the Wiha tools.
He also recommended a new (or spare) laptop battery, including high capacity versions from Newer Technology. "There has been some discussion about batteries wearing out. Most people (including myself) don’t do the things that are necessary to reduce the wear on rechargeable batteries over time, so if someone owns a PowerBook more than a year or so old, chances are they are getting only half the charge that it originally held. It was a nice surprise that replacing the battery on my 1.5 year old PowerBook with a new high capacity battery nearly doubled the usable time."
More Laptop Loot — Christopher Ungeheier has started to trick out his new iBook with useful additions. "I read on a message board that people were using the Griffin Technology iCurve to prop up their iBooks, then using the Kensington Fly Fan to blow air across the bottom of the iBook. Works like a charm, and my iBook stays nice and cool." He also decided to add some decoration to the iBook’s sparse exterior. "The MacSkinz is just a neat cover for the back of the iBook screen (I chose the Bio Hazard design)."
A Quieter Cheese Grater — Alan Charlesworth found a low-tech method of quieting the vibration of his Power Mac G5’s aluminum case: set the G5 on top of a 8- by 12- by 2-inch piece of open-cell foam, which should fit between the bottom handles. It could be a perfect gift for someone who has been complaining about the sound.
An Inexpensive Spare Small Office Printer — John Slavin discovered a way to make one of his machines pull double-duty. "This is for those who have a small office with a photocopy machine. Look into getting a network card for your copy machine. We bought a Ricoh copy machine used off lease, a model 450. The store had several and one had a network card. They swore it wouldn’t work with a Mac, but using Gimp-Print drivers it works great. So now on our network, in addition to the HP 6MP, we have a backup 45-page-per-minute printer. There is a short delay in starting the print job, but for text applications, particularly long documents, it really moves along once it starts printing."
TiVo for Radio? Christopher Ungeheier is also looking forward to Griffin’s RadioSHARK. "It’s a great idea for someone who likes to listen to the radio but isn’t around to hear all of the shows they would like to hear. The only problem is that it isn’t available yet."
A potential alternative, according to Curtis Wilcox, is the Radio YourWay from PoGo! Products. "It’s a portable MP3 player with an AM/FM tuner and the capability to record radio broadcasts (it also has a built-in microphone). There are a surprising number of MP3 players which have recordable FM tuners but what sets this apart is the ability to schedule recordings. The $150 model has only 32 MB of storage (it says you can record 4 hours of radio broadcast on it) but it can be expanded with MMC or SD flash cards.
"The catch? It doesn’t seem to be Mac-compatible at this time. The program that uploads and downloads MP3 files is available only for Windows. It also records to its own .RFV format which can be converted to WAV by the Windows program. While it’s not uncommon for MP3 players to come out with firmware updates to make them USB Mass Storage (UMS) devices and therefore mountable on a Mac, the Radio YourWay would still have the obstacle of converting the .RFV files to something playable on the Mac. Even so, it may be satisfactory as a standalone device. If you occasionally wanted to save something it recorded, you could connect its headphone jack to a microphone jack on the Mac and re-record the audio."
Sock Away Some Memory — Do you have most of your main gifts picked out, but want some smaller things to give as stocking stuffers? Marilyn Matty took advantage of falling prices to pick up some portable memory devices. "I just decided to give some inexpensive portable USB flash drives in pen and keychain configurations. To add a fun twist to the gift, you can create a holiday card and save it on the drive. It would make a nice stocking stuffer or reasonably priced gift that’s more novel than a basic keychain. TidBITS sponsor Small Dog has some interesting models at good prices."
TidBITS certainly focuses on the world of the Macintosh, but we’re always impressed by the breadth and depth of knowledge that our readers display in other fields, so it comes as no surprise that many people can’t resist making gift suggestions that have absolutely nothing to do with the Mac or even with computers. Ideas from previous years remain relevant if you’re looking for additional unusual gifts.
Wireless Sound — Geoff Bronner said, "My recommendation is the gift I gave myself last year. A Sony SPIAR Wireless Speaker System (SPIAR stands for "Sound Playing In Any Room"). Why is this a good item for the Mac enthusiast? Because it just works and looks cool while doing it. The system has two parts, a transmitter and a speaker, each with an AC adapter, but the speaker also has a built-in rechargeable battery which enables you to move it anywhere you like for three to four hours. The transmitter is not very large and accepts input from RCA connectors or a stereo headphone plug. We have it connected to our home theater system and sitting on top of the stereo cabinet. The speaker is a single unit with a plastic reflector that glows with a blue light to match the Sony TiVo. But this single unit puts out stereo sound that will fill a room. We use it to bring music into different parts of the house or out onto our patio. It also solves the problem of having two people watching the same TV from different parts of the house: instead of turning the volume way up on the TV, you can use the SPIAR speaker to have a comfortable sound level everywhere.
"If that isn’t enough, you can buy additional speaker units that use the same transmitter. Sony also sells wireless headphones that are compatible with these speakers. The system uses the 900 MHz range, so it does not conflict with our active 802.11b wireless network. It generally gets along with the 900 MHz phones used in the house and can change channels if there is interference. Sony is not the cheapest brand on the market – the speaker and transmitter will cost you $180 list – but you get what you pay for. This product is better than anything else I could find in this price range… just like my Mac."
Good Christmas Music — So what are you going to play on your wireless speaker system? Some of us were ecstatic to read Andrew Laurence’s next suggestion. Andrew wrote, "How about non-sucking, non-syrupy, non-schlock holiday music? Each year we’re assaulted in shops and malls with the most horrific schmaltzy dreck, and most folks don’t know that there exists holiday music with pep, verve, and a more than a little bit of fun. Here’s a list of favorites that I return to year after year."
"Elvis’ Christmas Album" – Elvis Presley
Originally issued in 1957, this album remains a classic. Side One contains the pop tracks, from his famous renditions of "I’ll Be Home For Christmas" and "Blue Christmas" to the seminal rock tune "Santa Claus is Back in Town." Side Two is sacred material, the first hint we had that, aside from being the King of Rock ‘n Roll, Elvis was an amazing singer. It includes a beautiful "Silent Night" and an ethereal "(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley."
"Original Soul Christmas" – Various Artists
This album came out when the boys in the band dressed like gentlemen and the women were dressed to kill. Clarence Carter sets the mood with "Back Door Santa." Along the way we get Otis Redding on "White Christmas" and "Merry Christmas Baby," King Curtis’s "What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve" and Joe Tex’s "I’ll Make Every Day Christmas (For My Woman)." The CD reissue adds a few extra tracks, including Ray Charles’s "Christmas Time."
"Hipster’s Holiday: Vocal Jazz & R&B Classics" – Various Artists
Eartha Kitt’s "Santa Baby," a rather naughty rendition of waiting for Santa, is worth the entrance fee alone. We also get Oscar McLollie’s "Dig That Crazy Santa Claus," Louis Armstrong’s "Zat You, Santa Claus," and Big John Greer’s hysterical "We Wanna See Santa Do the Mambo." Pearl Bailey offers a pragmatic holiday wish, "Five Pound Box of Money."
"In The Christmas Spirit" – Booker T. & the MG’s
You know every cut on this record. You’ve heard each one a thousand times but didn’t know it. When you’re in a store, realize that the instrumental piece you’re hearing is a rock ‘n roll holiday arrangement and think, "Hey, that’s actually good!", you’re listening to this album. Booker T’s organ sizzles across each cut. It’s so good that three of the cuts are also on the aforementioned "Original Soul Christmas." Ignore the duplication and revel in the artistry of master musicians.
John Haffner, Paul Brians, and LuKreme also jumped in with their recommendations.
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" – Vince Guaraldi Trio
John wrote: "I bought this album at Starbucks a couple years back and it remains one of my favorite Christmas albums thanks to its cool, laid-back music for the season. It also takes some of us back to childhood years."
"Go Tell It on the Mountain" – Blind Boys of Alabama
Paul noted: "This new album by the classic gospel group has hard-driving excitement, unusual arrangements, and several guest stars, including Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, George Clinton, and Chrissie Hynde. It’s quickly become one of my favorites among my 200+ Christmas albums. I bought my copy at Starbucks." (Who knew Starbucks was the place for hip Christmas music?)
"And the Angels Sing…" – Various Artists
LuKreme said, "My favorite holiday recording is produced by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, perhaps as a fund-raiser. Nevertheless, it has 22 tracks of classic Christmas carols, and no ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ or ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ so it gets major bonus points from me."
Yes, Mother — Marilyn Matty has a different answer of what to listen to that you probably wouldn’t have expected. "Amy Borkowsky, a former advertising copywriter turned stand-up comic, recently released a followup CD to her successful ‘Amy’s Answering Machine’ CD and book. If you haven’t already heard, or own, the originals, I highly recommend both. They are compilations of actual messages left on her answering machine by her overprotective mother, and they proved to be the most popular elements of her comedy routines.
"I couldn’t imagine there could be any better concern about computer ownership conundrums than this first message from Amy’s mother… at least until I heard the second one:
"’You know, it just occurred to me… what do you need a laptop computer for? What if you get all farmisht and leave the computer on a table at a diner? That’s like leaving a three thousand dollar tip for an egg on a roll.’
"’Amila, I’m having second thoughts about that little palm-size computer that you bought. You could swallow it and, God forbid, choke. I just read an article about a fellow who lost a tiny cell phone and when he dialed his own number to try and locate it, he heard a ringing sound coming from his dog.’
"Underlying the New York accent is a loving, concerned and devoted heart that anyone’s child can relate to, which make the CD and book wonderful gifts and party entertainment. Even if you’re not a single, 35+, New York City female, you’re bound to get a big kick out of Amy’s mother’s advice."
Internet Radio Subscriptions — Amy Borkowsky’s CDs won’t last forever, but Tomoharu Nishino’s next suggestion will provide a year of listening pleasure. "I recommend a one year subscription to ‘Wait, wait, don’t tell me…’ on Audible.com. I love that show on NPR, but am never near a radio when it’s on. I could listen to it from their Web site, but that ties me to a computer. The Audible.com subscription isn’t exactly cheap at $45 for 12 months ($10 for 1 month), but it lets me easily download the shows to my iPod and take it with me. Of course, depending on the tastes of the recipient, you might think about other shows, too. ‘Car Talk’ comes readily to mind."
Of course, for a different approach that has only one-time costs, check out the 2003 Miscellaneous Gift Ideas article earlier in this issue for devices that let you record radio – Internet or AM/FM – to your Mac.
See America By Book — Adam here. I’ll admit that as much as I like looking at pictures, big coffee table photo books seldom hold my interest for long. That hasn’t been true of Rick Smolan and David Elliot Cohen’s new book, America 24/7, which brings together more than 1,200 photographs taken over a single week by both professional and amateur photographers (see "America 24/7 Digital Photo Project" in TidBITS-679 for the initial announcement). 25,000 people submitted more than one million photos, and this book represents the cream of the crop. The variety is what held my attention, I think, and I find myself picking this book up time and time again and flipping through a few more pages, reading the captions and imagining what the lives of the people pictured must be like. The book lists for $50, but it’s on sale at Amazon for 40 percent off right now, bringing the price down to $30, which is more than reasonable for 300 full-color oversize pages.
The Ultimate Travel Mug — This year, Andrew Laurence addressed a problem that many of us may not have even realized we had: the need for a high-quality traveler coffee mug. "A confession. I have an irrational obsession with traveler/thermos coffee mugs. I’m constantly in search of the perfect mug. The lid should seal and be reasonably leak/spill-proof – no leaks around the edges when I corner in the Miata, thank you very much. If I drop the cup because the baby just lunged out of my arms, I’d like to be reasonably sure that the lid won’t explode on impact and spill my precious coffee all over the landscape.
"For years I’ve imagined a good thermos mug with a dead-man’s trigger – the lid’s natural state is closed, and you have to squeeze a trigger to drink of the goodness. For a while I thought I had it with the Traveler mug featuring the Closer lid. However, the lid easily breaks upon disassembly for cleaning. And you can’t just buy one in a store – it seems to be available only as logo-ware in bulk.
"I’ve been eyeing the Thermos/Nissan tumblers for years, after seeing them for sale in places like Brookstone, Sharper Image, and various coffee houses. At upwards of $30 each, however, I never quite made the leap. Then last night my wife found a twin-pack of their JMH402 mug at Costco, for only $20! For my money, it’s the perfect travel tumbler. It holds a healthy 14 ounces of elixir, with a tight screw-on lid. The lid sports a lever-action dead-man’s trigger, and is very spill-resistant. Beautiful stainless steel on the inside and outside; Thermos claims that it’ll keep hot liquids hot for three hours, and cold liquids cold for six hours. Mmmm, coffee…"
The Right Tools for Any Job — Although it’s important to have the right tools for the job at hand, Tomoharu Nishino also noted that sometimes it’s good to have tools for whatever the job may turn out to be. "I always carry two things in my briefcase: a Leatherman Juice XE6 multi-tool and a pocket-sized Maglite flashlight. I must confess that I am a multi-tool addict and have tried quite a few (not to mention a few Swiss Army knives), and the Leatherman strikes the right balance between size, variety of tools, safety, and usability. Both the Leatherman and Maglite are incredibly useful things to just have around; you’d be surprised how many dark or dimly lit corners there are in an average office building. I’ve even performed an emergency hard disk upgrade on a Power Mac G4 with the Leatherman while peering into it with the Maglite flashlight held in my mouth (not that I am recommending this, mind you – the computer was secured under a desk with an anti-theft device). Now if we can only convince Leatherman to add a couple of Torx screwdrivers."
Johann Beda qualified this suggestion, "LED flashlights are the way to go these days. They have great light and amazing lifetimes for batteries and the LEDs. For lots of fun (albeit not super bright light) getting a clear magnetic induction LED flashlight would make my day. You shake the cylinder and a magnet bounces back and forth in the shaft, past some coils which charge a capacitor, and when you flip the switch the capacitor powers the flashlight for a few minutes. There are also crank powered LED flashlights available that are useful but not as nifty."
Curtis Wilcox agreed, but cautioned, "I have one of these magnetic induction LED flashlights in my car. The light is indeed rather weak (not the fault of the LED) but its main appeal is that there are no batteries to replace or have die on you when you finally need to use it. It is an electromagnet, so you wouldn’t want to carry it in your pocket with your wallet."
Where Am I? John Slavin asked, presumably rhetorically, "What about a GPS device? Route 66 has released Route USA 2004 for Mac OS X, which gives us mapping and route planning software. The next thing is a GPS to go with it. Of course, there are options for connecting full-blown GPS receivers, but I am intrigued by this MacProf article which suggested that the PC card-based GPSes from Haicom will work with Route USA 2004. Haicom also makes some nifty little hybrid models."
We can second this recommendation. During a recent trip to Boston, where the extensive highway system was designed by cows and clearly labelled in Braille, a Garmin eTrex Legend GPS filled with local maps proved invaluable in answering the basic questions of "Where the heck are we?" and "Where on this map do we want to be?" (The answers were, respectively, "where the little arrow is pointing," and "enjoying dinner with Andy Ihnatko and Rich ‘Mr. BBEdit’ Siegel at Zaftigs in Brookline.") We weren’t even late, though that was more a function of having left an extra 45 minutes to be lost.
Act Local, Think Global — Lastly, although suggestions of donations to specific charities didn’t appear from readers this year, perhaps in part due to the weak economy through 2003, we encourage you to think of others as well. Local state, county, and city budgets are being slashed around the United States as government funds are redirected elsewhere, and worthy programs are suffering from the effects. So this year, why not find a local organization that could use your donation of time, goods, or money to make your community a better place to live for everyone?
And if you’re of the opinion that we’re all in this together and you want to extend your efforts to those in other countries that have even more significant challenges, we recommend Heifer International, a group that links your donations directly to the gift of farm animals to needy third-world families. The animals may provide income, food, and offspring, and Heifer International asks that recipients pass on one of the their animal’s offspring to another needy family. Besides, how else could you give someone a water buffalo?