Happy holidays! At this time every year, amid the rush of deadlines and holiday preparations, we turn to the TidBITS community for gift-giving suggestions. If you’re looking for something for your favorite Mac-lover, we’ve accumulated oodles of suggestions in a number of categories: software, games, hardware, miscellaneous, and our favorite, the Macintosh-minded. We hope this special issue inspires you to find unique gifts for your friends and families.
Welcome once again to our 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. I suspect I’m not alone in feeling the information overload increasing in the past year, but I especially appreciate it when like-minded TidBITS readers offer suggestions I simply never would have run across in the normal course of events.
Before we move on to the suggestions, allow me to suggest a collection of bits that may not have occurred to you as a gift: our Take Control ebooks. Since we don’t go in for distasteful copy prevention, buying a Take Control ebook for a colleague, friend, or relative is as simple as ordering and then giving them the ebook’s PDF file. They can make the ebook their own by clicking the Check for Updates button on the first page and signing up to receive email notification of free updates. Thus, a Take Control ebook is the perfect last-minute gift, given that you can order at any time and download instantly before sending it to the recipient via email. If you have more time, you could dress the present up a bit by burning the ebook to a CD-R (check out the Take Control CD label available in both PDF and SmileOnMyMac’s disclabel format) or make it doubly useful by presenting it on a new USB flash drive.
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 holiday wishes come true!
We’re always amused when collating software gift suggestions because of their breadth. The Mac may have less software available than Windows, but there are still far more interesting programs than anyone could ever hope to try. Here are a few that our readers especially like. It’s worth checking out suggestions from previous years as well, particularly for people with older Macs.
Collector’s Items — Many people find themselves, at some point in their lives, collecting something: stamps, or coins, or cereal box toys. For some people, the collecting obsession turns to music, and that’s where Jim Kane’s suggestion helps out. "I’ve been a music collector since I bought my first open-reel recorder at 14. I’ve collected music from interesting radio shows and recorded LPs from libraries for almost 40 years now, building a collection that’s diverse and includes artists that I never would have discovered without the introduction provided by ‘free’ music.
"Today I’m recording streams from several Internet radio stations with the same goal: hearing new artists in my favorite genres. These introductions inform my purchases of CDs, so I rarely make a purchase I regret. This year my collecting pleasure was increased immeasurably by two shareware products: RadioLover and MP3 Trimmer. Both products make it fun to be a music collector in the MP3 era.
"RadioLover records MP3 Internet radio streams as individual MP3 songs, automatically tagging each file with artist and album information. It allows you to schedule recordings and even record multiple streams at the same time, with nice integration with the iTunes radio tuner. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and very reasonably priced at $15. For the price of one CD, I have lots of fresh music every day.
"As good as RadioLover is, though, its capability to split a stream into individual song files relies on the broadcast of tag data, which is not always perfectly synchronized with the beginning or end of a song. MP3 Trimmer, another nice piece of shareware, facilitates any cleanup work required. Trim the start, trim the end, or join a pair of files and trim the result. Again, it’s beautifully executed, with tons of attention to detail, and well worth the modest $9 price tag."
Hans de Wolf offered another idea for collectors of books, CDs, and DVDs: the $40 Delicious Library from Delicious Monster. "A lot of people may intend to catalog their books, CDs, and DVDs. Sometime. But it is a lot of work. Boring work. I found that Delicious Library is a great tool to help you. It eliminates a lot of the boring work. It uses the iSight as a barcode scanner, and retrieves all relevant information from Amazon. You can even catalog items without scanning or typing in information: for items in the catalog, it can display similar items (same author, same subjects, same artist, and so on), and if you have these similar items you can just drag them into your catalog. The user interface is beautiful, very similar to the iLife software. Of course you can get a list (like iTunes), but there is also an iPhoto-like view in which your cataloged items appear as photorealistic thumbnails on shelves (the shelves are equivalent to playlists in iTunes, or albums is iPhoto). While the software shows great potential, it is still a 1.0 product. There is still some room for improvement: ‘Smart’ shelves and a way to distinguish items that you own from items that you want."
Lori Brooks-Manas seconded the suggestion, adding to Hans’s description, "Delicious Library syncs with your iPod, keeps track of what you have loaned out to people, and is very simple to use. I tried the demo version for about, well, a minute before I bought it. Check it out!"
The Sky Isn’t Falling — Hans de Wolf returned with a second recommendation. "Another nice piece of software is Freefall: a 3D satellite simulator ($30). It shows more than 800 satellites in orbit around a beautifully rendered earth. You can determine your viewpoint: fixed spot above the earth, or fly along with the satellite. Zoom in and out, select satellite, see how the satellites build radio connections to ground stations. If you do not understand the technical stuff, it still makes a very fine screensaver. Freefall is also still a bit of a 1.0 product: it shows great potential but there are some rough edges. Some features you can only access when you have read the manual, and it would be nice if you could save the animation as a QuickTime movie, or export an image in high resolution."
Get SideTracked — Kevin van Haaren proposed the perfect gift for the PowerBook or iBook user in your life: SideTrack. "SideTrack is a lovely little $15 utility that turns the trackpad on a laptop into an even more functional device. It’s primary use is to make tapping the pad a left-click and turning the regular button into a right-click (Control-click). This makes the trackpad so much more usable. Other features I use are turning sides of the pad into scroll areas, and assigning commands to tapping the corner of the pad.
"I only use vertical scrolling, but horizontal is available too. I run my finger down the left side of the trackpad and the window scrolls down, just as with a scroll wheel mouse. I’m right handed so the left side of the pad doesn’t get much use, this feature never gets in the way of my normal mousing. You can assign scrolling to left, right, or both sides of the pad (or top/bottom for horizontal scroll). Tapping the upper left corner of my pad activates Expose for all windows (same as F9). Lower left is Expose for the current application (same as F10). All settings are per user, so if one user doesn’t like trackpad clicking they can turn it off."
News Junkies — Thanks to Robert McGonegal for thinking of those of us who don’t have nearly enough time in the day. He suggested an RSS newsreader, which can make it fast to browse the headlines on numerous Web sites. "There are several good Mac newsreaders to choose from, but I recommend the full version of NetNewsWire ($40). I’ve bookmarked about 200 Web sites which, despite occasionally having very interesting content, aren’t worth my time to visit on a regular basis. By using NetNewsWire I can find out in about 10 minutes if any new content on those 200 sites is worth loading into my Web browser. As I skim through the newsfeed list, the Web pages I select load in the background and are waiting for me. It’s almost like TiVo for the Web.
"A nice touch to the gift would be to use the newsreader’s Export function to make a custom-tailored list of which newsfeeds you think the recipient will be interested in."
Software Utility Belt — Perhaps we’re weird, but we love utilities – the little applications that provide helpful features and modify the standard ways in which we use our Macs. David Weintraub clearly thinks so as well, considering the four utilities he suggested.
textSOAP from Unmarked Software: $25. If for nothing else, textSOAP is great for straightening out and requoting email messages. It works like a charm in Apple’s Mail, but not so well in Eudora. It cleans up DOS/Unix/Macintosh end-of-line problems, rewraps and unwraps paragraphs, changes capitalizations, etc. (Andrew Laurence agreed with David’s assessment of textSOAP in general, but prefers the Eudora plug-in.)
Path Finder from Cocoatech: $34. Path Finder is Finder replacement. Extra features include a built in Terminal application and the capability to display Word, RTF, PDF, and text files in the preview pane without launching another application. My favorite is the Drop Stack that allows me to drop a bunch of files I’m moving and copying into a spot on the Path Finder window before I actually perform the move. It’s packed full of all the features that Finder should have had in the first place.
LaunchBar from Objective Development: $20/$40. LaunchBar eliminates the need for placing all the applications I want quick access to on the Dock. [David isn’t singing the praises of LaunchBar sufficiently here; it’s a utility that lets you tap Command-Space and then type a few characters from the name of an application, file, folder, volume, URL, or Address Book entry to open the item. It’s a brilliant application, and is improving significantly in version 4. I almost can’t use a Mac without LaunchBar any more. -Adam]
GraphicConverter by Lemke Software: $30. I’m not a graphics person, but I still have to pull GraphicConverter out every once in a while just because program "A" has the picture in one format, and program "B" insists it must be in a different format. GraphicConverter can import about 175 formats and export about 75; it also provides a host of basic image manipulation features.
The Contemplative Mac — Adam here. A word you seldom see applied to software is "thoughtful," and in this case, I mean it literally, as in "full of thought." But I can think of no better label for Brian Thomas’s "If Monks Had Macs," an interactive multimedia CD-ROM title that defies prosaic description. It’s packed with original texts from the like of Henry David Thoreau and G.K. Chesterton, highly readable essays and critical analyses, a visual exploration of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babel painting, a telling of the story behind an underground newsletter called The White Rose from an underground student resistance group in Nazi Germany, and far more. A playful sub-current swirls through everything – there’s an illustrated medieval text adventure game (you’re a monk, needless to say) in which you find cards for a solitaire game. A journaling application helps you record your impressions and musings as you meander through the application’s many byways. "If Monks Had Macs" started out life years ago as a HyperCard stack (now converted to Runtime Revolution, supported by a separate ebook reader), and that retro aesthetic now merely adds to the whimsy. The $30 program works in both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X, as well as in Windows 95 and later, making it the ideal present for anyone with a healthy intellectual curiosity.
All work and no play… hey, wait a minute, that sounds suspiciously close to home. At least TidBITS readers are a bit better about switching away from the productivity applications. Even more so than with other software, we encourage you to check out recommendations from previous years, since many of those games remain extremely enjoyable for those who weren’t exposed to them originally.
Is That a Tank in Your Pocket, Or… Jamie Kahn Genet wrote, "I recommend Pocket Tanks. Anyone who ever loved Scorched Earth will find this $16 Mac OS X artillery game fantastic fun. It’s dead easy to learn with numerous outlandish weapons, each with its own blast pattern. Two player mode is highly addictive and appeals to young and old alike.
"Oh, and for any gamer wanting to be taken seriously by the old school who missed them the first time round, or lost their copy, I recommend the Marathon Trilogy Box Set (but good luck finding a copy) and/or Bungie Action Sack (a lot easier to locate on eBay, plus it has every other pre-Myth Bungie game), Myth: the Total Codex ($25, with new fan-created updates you can play under Mac OS X!) or get Myth:TFL and Myth 2 separately, and System Shock (an amazing FPS/RPG for its time that disappointingly fell under the radar of most Doom-obsessed gamers). There are a wealth of treats to be had from old Mac games if you are so inclined."
Airburst Extreme — Nik Friedman recommended Freeverse’s Airburst Extreme. "Fun for the whole family. Cheap ($30), non-violent (well, pretty much), and it has great multi-player options. It’s a fast-paced arcade game in which you play an alien of some sort sitting on a ring of balloons. You attempt to pop your opponents’ balloons with a bouncing spiked ball. Kind of like a fighting game version of Breakout. Bizarre power ups, a variety of variations on the basic game theme (including racing, grenades, a story mode, soccer, and a seemingly infinite number of other options), and a funky techno soundtrack make for an extremely addictive mix!"
Gish — Jeff Porten wrote, "I don’t recall where I found it, but I’ve been extremely impressed with Gish ($20). You see, you’re this ball of tar, and you’re fighting robots and snarly round creatures and… oh, just go download the demo. What makes this game for me is that the physics of the tarball seem accurate. If you try to stick to a ceiling but you’re moving too fast, you rebound off at an angle. Your avatar is a thick fluid, and reacts accordingly. Takes a while to learn all of the things the guy can do (especially throwing rocks at high velocity), but it’s a lot of fun in the process."
Solitaire Till Dawn… Again — Andy J. W. Affleck commented, "As usual, here’s my annual plug for my favorite game: Semicolon Software’s Solitaire Till Dawn, which is available in separate versions for the classic Mac OS and Mac OS X ($25). I rarely have time to play games any more, but this 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."
A Mixed Bag — Kevin van Haaren concurred with Andy’s recommendation of Solitaire Till Dawn and managed to change the subject several times in almost the same breath. "It’s one of my favorites too, for the same reason. I’d love to have a Palm version as all the Palm solitaires I’ve found aren’t nearly as nice. Speaking of Palm games, I like the quick little games, like some of the solitaires in Solitaire Till Dawn. Bejeweled is probably the most well-known of these types of games. I picked up the Pop Cap Games Pack ($30) that has five of these types of games (Bejeweled and Atomica! are my favorites.)
"I also see Bejeweled 2 is available ($20), although the version for Mac OS X doesn’t appear to be available yet. And the Web version doesn’t want to work for me in Safari or Camino.
"Another great game for Mac OS X is the free Bubble Pop from Lobotomo Software."
Neverwinter Nights — Andy also expanded his game playing beyond cards. He continued, "Even though I plug Solitaire Till Dawn every year, I do try other games. This year I played another game so much that I have to recommend it as well: Neverwinter Nights."
Set in the Dungeons and Dragons fantasy realm, Neverwinter Nights is a role-playing game that provides the visuals and action you may remember from days of rolling 12-sided dice.
"I downloaded the demo (240 MB) on a whim and fully expected to play it for a minute and then toss it. I ended up buying the game ($50), completing it over a few months, buying expansion packs and downloading modules, and getting my buddy to buy the game so he and I could play online. It’s that good. Certainly get the demo and see for yourself. Note that you need some hefty graphics processing power to get the most out of it, but it is well worth it."
Battlefield 1942 — You’d think that putting out a TidBITS issue every week and working on other projects would be enough computer exposure, but Managing Editor Jeff Carlson likes to relieve stress occasionally by playing the first-person World War II shooter Battlefield 1942: Deluxe Edition ($50).
He wrote, "Although it doesn’t have the best graphics on the market, Battlefield 1942 features some of the best online play: liberate Stalingrad or defend Britain with dozens of other players, using airplanes, submarines, tanks, and other equipment. I like to jump into a game for small chunks of time and not worry about having to spend hours completing a mission – though you can play an entire campaign as a single player against the computer."
Apple has outfitted all Apple Store employees in red t-shirts with the single word "give" emblazoned on the front, next to an Apple logo. Subtle, but we’re sure many people would love to be on the receiving end of a piece of Apple gear. Readers concurred, with the AirPort Express as the device of choice. Also, last year’s suggestions might be slightly out of date, but they are still worth a glance for ideas.
Although no one actually came out and said they’d like a new iMac G5, PowerBook G4, or iPod, we suspect that’s because it’s a bit too obvious. It’s not like any TidBITS reader would see such a suggestion and think, "Wow, what a good idea! I never would have considered asking for a Mac or buying one for someone else on my own." There’s no shame in giving (or wanting) a new Mac, though we would of course recommend you first read Adam’s "Take Control of Buying a Mac" ebook to make sure you’re getting the right machine. Similarly, Larry Chen’s just-published (a few hours ago!) "Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera" will help you figure out which digital camera would be most appropriate for your needs.
Music in the Air — Lewis Butler called it when he opined that Apple’s $130 AirPort Express would be the most submitted hardware gift suggestion, thanks to its capability to act as a normal Wi-Fi access point, share a USB printer, and best of all, send music played through iTunes to your stereo. Sean Peisert chimed in with the suggestion of a Keyspan Express Remote ($60) for controlling your tunes without iTunes.
Of course, if you’re getting an AirPort Express, allow us to recommend Glenn Fleishman’s "Take Control of Your AirPort Network" in either ebook ($10) or print ($12) forms.
Bring Your Video into the 21st Century — You know those old videotapes from your VCR and analog camcorder have a limited lifespan, and your best hope for preservation is to digitize the analog recordings. Travis Butler pointed toward a product that will do just that. "If your budget supports it and you have someone with inclinations towards video hobbyism, you might consider the Canopus ADVC 100.
"The ADVC 100 is a converter box that lets you hook a standard video source – composite or S-Video, two-channel audio – to a Mac’s FireWire port, and record it with a video capture program like iMovie.
"This is frankly something I wouldn’t have bought for myself; at $300 list, it’s something I don’t use enough to justify the cost. But we picked one up at work this spring to convert our VHS-based training materials to DVD for convenience and durability. The boss gave me permission to take it home and use whenever I want, and I’ve found a surprising number of old videotapes that I wanted to convert to DVD.
"It’s a bit hard for me to judge the ultimate quality of the video circuitry, since I’ve never used it with a maximum-quality video source; a couple of old laserdiscs are probably the best-quality items I’ve had, but my laserdisc player doesn’t have an S-Video output – only composite. That said, I’ve never seen anything come out of the ADVC 100 at a lower quality than went into it, and even the laserdiscs over composite look pretty darned good transferred to DVD.
"As a side note, the combination of iMovie, iDVD, and a video capture box like the ADVC 100 makes it easy and relatively quick to put your old videos on DVD; frankly it felt easier than the times in the past I’ve transferred old records and tapes to CD. And iDVD is capable of doing fairly professional-looking work; I’d like to think the job I did on the original Mind’s Eye laserdisc is better than the professional DVD releases of the second and third collections, though that’s not too hard.
"For those not familiar with them, the Mind’s Eye series was one of the original collections of early computer animation; the second collection (with music composed by Jan Hammer of Miami Vice fame) and later were released on DVD, but the original one never has been so far as I can tell. I’m still not sure why; the best guess I can make is that the animation is relatively primitive by today’s standards. I still think it’s worth having it available on DVD; even if there weren’t historical reasons, some of them were rather cool as works of art."
Denis Jarvis concurred with Travis’s gift suggestion of an analog/digital video converter. "However," he said, "I bought a Datavideo DAC-100 for $176, including shipping. This is substantially less than his $300 Canopus ADVC 100, yet it seems well constructed, has similar specifications, includes a full set of cables and has performed well for me.
"During the past month, using DAC-100 with iMovie and iDVD on a 20-inch iMac G5, I have converted my camcorder VHS tapes to several DVDs. I added titles and edited out the boring parts, something I would never have attempted with tape-to-tape editing. With this application alone, I have justified purchase of my new iMac!"
Editing out the boring parts isn’t the only reason to make the conversion from tape to digital, as Jeff Carlson learned last year when he watched his 10-year-old wedding video. VHS tape deteriorates over time, so those memories you think are stored safely on the shelf are likely losing their quality. (For an example, see the following Web page.) Although DVD isn’t an archival-grade medium (the surface materials wear out over time), you can more easily move the digital data to new media later on without further loss of quality.
PowerBooks in the Key of G — Kevin van Haaren wrote: "If you know someone with an older PowerBook who is jealous of users with 54 Mbps AirPort Extreme speeds, wants better reception signal, or wants to take full advantage of that new AirPort Express hub, take a look at the Sonnet Aria Extreme ($80).
"It uses the same chipset as the AirPort Extreme card so no drivers are necessary. First time installation was as simple as powering down, inserting card, booting up (only one AirPort chipset will work at a time, so powering down is required to switch between Aria and a built-in AirPort card.) Once the computer is set to use the Aria, you can pop the card in and out, put the computer to sleep, and so on, with no problems. You just have to make sure the card is inserted at power-on time for it to work (if you have an existing AirPort card.)"
Bluetooth Headset — Kevin also noted, "The Jabra BT250 Bluetooth headset ($100) works nicely with my Mac and Windows boxes. Unfortunately I don’t have a Bluetooth phone to test with.
"I was reluctant to buy initially because all the pictures made me think I was going to have this huge thing hanging from my ear, but it really is pretty small and most of the bulk is behind the ear. It’s balanced well enough that it doesn’t feel like it’s pulling on my ear, and doesn’t interfere with my glasses.
"At first I started to have a reaction to the silicon ear piece but washing it in warm water and soap, per the instructions, fixed that (I have allergies to perfumes so it was probably a coating of some sort that washed off.)"
Swiss Army RAM — Marilyn Matty (seconded by Roy Morita) writes: "Here’s a gadget that I think anyone Macintosh-minded will yodel about – a Swiss Army knife elevated to a new level of geekdom – a model tricked out with between 64 MB and 512 MB of removable USB storage ($65 to $160).
"These highly functional devices come with a knife, a red LED flashlight, a nail file/screwdriver combo, and a scissor. A no-knife version (great for frequent flyers who don’t want to get hauled into security at the airport for trying to carry it on board) has the flashlight and a ballpoint pen in addition to the memory card.
"It’s encased in a clear plastic version of the traditional – and cool looking – Swiss Army housing, and sports a handy keychain ring. And it’s Mac-, Windows-, and Linux-friendly, making it a great gift for even non Mac-minded geeks. I don’t have one yet, but I will be ordering one for myself and some for gift giving."
The Well-Loved Mac — Just because a Mac is old doesn’t mean it’s useless, a fact Roger Adams reminded us of. "I am planning to give my wife a PowerBook G3/500 (Pismo) to replace her aging Wallstreet model."
If you’re looking for a reliable source of older Macs, check out the listings from TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics.
Contributing Editor Matt Neuburg raced to support Roger’s suggestion. "At the risk of belabouring the obvious, I’d like to point out that there’s a lesson for us all concealed here. The Pismo is an old model, so Roger is planning to give his wife a used computer. It might be his own old Pismo, or he might get it from somewhere else (e.g. eBay). Let’s presume the former. I too am planning to give my used Pismo to a family member. Although giving a used object as a gift is traditionally regarded as somewhat iffy, in the case of computers it’s entirely appropriate, and even advantageous.
You prevent waste. The machine goes to a good home and someone gets use out of it. Better than recycling or throwing away the machine, for sure.
On eBay, the machine is near worthless, so getting money for it won’t be a satisfying experience (especially when you remember how much you paid for it). But to the recipient it feels as valuable as it did to you when it was new, which is satisfying to both of you.
If it’s your own old machine, you are familiar with its specs and can be helpful.
Family involvement, as a recent report on NPR pointed out, is a primary force in getting people to use a computer; if it’s your own old machine, that’s actually an encouragement to the new user.
Computers do age and things can go wrong over time, but the more common case is that they just keep working fine for a very long time, so used is almost as good as new.
You contribute less to rampant consumerism. Not to mention saving money.
"So I think ‘my old computer’ (scanner, hard drive, etc.) is an excellent gift idea in the hardware category. The one mistake one can make, I think, is to give a device that’s not powerful enough to make the recipient’s life easy. Make sure that what you give is fast enough, has enough memory, or whatever, for the use to which the recipient will put it. The device you are giving should be a useful tool, not a bottleneck whose shortcomings the recipient must struggle with."
Kinesis Contoured Advantage USB Keyboard — Sore hands from typing? Andrew Laurence offered a possible solution, the Kinesis Contoured Advantage USB Keyboard. "Kinesis has kept the same basic design since my 1998 review (see "Kinesis Ergonomic Contoured Keyboard" in TidBITS-454). The keyboard is still rock-solid, well-built, programmable, and remappable. The Mac/PC key switching is now accomplished via firmware. I’ve seen a lot of ‘ergonomic’ keyboard designs, but this is the only one that seems designed with actual ergonomics in mind – the keyboard is broken into halves, with each half at the outer border to minimize ulnar deviation, and each half is shaped like a bowl, allowing fingers to travel their normal range of motion. (RSI solutions are very subjective, however – the keyboard that works for me may not for another user.) At a list price of $300 it ain’t cheap, but to this day my hands hurt if I use a standard 101 layout keyboard for any length of time."
Serious Sound — Managing Editor Jeff Carlson wrote, "A few years ago while on vacation, I rented a house that had no stereo system. No problem, since my PowerBook was nearby – but the built-in speakers just weren’t going to cut it. This was back when Outpost.com offered free overnight shipping, so I ordered an inexpensive set of computer speakers that have been adequate, but not stellar.
"Earlier this year I replaced them with a set of Harman/Kardon SoundSticks II. What a difference! The sticks themselves produce clear sound, but it’s the jellyfish-looking subwoofer that kicks the gear into a great-sounding system. They plug into the audio-out port of my PowerBook; previous SoundSticks were USB-based.
"$200 may sound like a lot to pay for computer speakers, but when you listen to music while working, as I do, the cost is completely worth it."
Last year we joked about how Apple must have built a subliminal message into the iPod: "Buy more iPod stuff," the voice would whisper. The voice apparently hasn’t shut up, since quite a few of our reader suggestions are for products to protect or enhance your iPod. Laptop users aren’t ignored, though, so read on for a slew of great ideas (and as before, don’t ignore previous years’ suggestions!).
Tunes on the Road — Wires, wires, everywhere! There is a better way. Roger Adams plans to present his daughter with a Griffin RoadTrip ($80) "so she can listen to her iPod without all the wires that normally clutter the car when she drives to work. It’s a great addition to the iPod and one that I have myself and use during the 65 km drive to my office here in Bangkok, Thailand."
Andy J. W. Affleck recommended another Griffin product for listening to an iPod in the car: the Griffin iTrip ($35, reviewed in "Taking an iTrip: Three FM Transmitters" in TidBITS-681). "I got one during the Apple Store one-day sale and it’s excellent. Although it’s annoying to change stations while driving (so much so that it’s best to pull over to do it), which makes it a bit of a pain on long trips where you pass through multiple metropolitan areas and need to change frequencies."
I Need More Power, Scotty! Apple puts a lot of effort into long battery life on the iPod, but the simple fact is that if you’re using it a lot, it’s going to run out of juice eventually. For people with regularly drain iPods, Tony D’Emanuele recommended the Solio, a backup battery system that can recharge itself from an electric outlet or via its integrated solar panels. The Solio can also recharge a host of other battery-powered mobile electronic devices with additional tips (not included). It’s apparently available only from UK distributors for about 50 pounds (US$95) at the moment, but perhaps one of them will ship to other parts of the world (be sure to verify that you can plug it in your area).
Protect that iPod! Of course, practicality should be foremost in your mind when looking for an iPod case, but since we are talking about an iPod, style can’t be ignored, and Marilyn Matty certainly isn’t one to ignore either aspect. She wrote, "There are many high-fashion gift-giving options available this holiday season for the iPod-minded. Though I do have a pair or two of Manolos and Jimmy Choos mixed in with shoes from the 9 West Outlet in my closet, as well as Furla, Coach, and Kate Spade bags, I am totally horrified at the price points, design, and overall tackiness of premium iPod carriers. In addition to not liking to wear someone else’s initials, I can’t see paying $200 for a Gucci iPod case that forces you to remove the iPod to access the display and controls, and I’m equally shocked by the $220 Dior Black Tie version.
"As someone who had to give up knitting and crocheting years ago due to carpal tunnel syndrome (I had to choose between crafts or the computer), I was appalled by the $30 cost of the tacky, machine-knitted-in-what-looks-to-be-cheapo-acrylic-yarn iPod Socks that Geoff mentioned in a recent issue:
"The materials to knit an iPod Sock would cost pennies, and it doesn’t even involve making much of a pattern, since you won’t see the controls or display when your iPod is covered. It would take minutes and cost about a dollar or two as most for ultra premium yarn. Even the most inexperienced knitter or crocheter could easily craft a beautiful, stylish, and functional carrier that would keep your iPod snuggly warm in inclement weather. And there is a chance, however remote, that your design might be featured on a runway at Fashion Week or on display at a design museum.
"Before I hauled out my old needles and yarn, I did a quick search and found that other fashionistas and craftistas have come up with a number of attractive designs with easy-to-make patterns – some have attached arm or wrist bands, pockets for earbuds, etc. Best yet, all patterns are easily customizable. And you can easily whip together coordinates to tie in your iPod to outfits with covers for your earphones, as well as scarves, hats, wristlets, ponchos, wraps, and any number of other chi-chi items.
"There is a veritable iPod fashion show in the eight pages of comments and links to patterns for iPod cozies on the following URL’s bulletin board – all of them can by easily slimmed down for iPod minis by trimming off a few stitches on each end of the pattern. Some of them have pockets on the back to store earbuds, and other handy features.
"Not inclined to knitting and don’t know anyone you can convince? I did find two pre-built knit iPod covers that are useful, fashionable, and reasonably priced ($24): C. Ronson’s iPod hoodie and the Chuckles iPod cozy ($18).
"For those who want to learn to knit, or want to encourage someone to do so, there are free instructions and online videos here."
iPod (and iBook) Decorations — Tired of Apple’s white-on-white color scheme? You have options for customizing your iPod. Josh Rafofsky wrote, "Here’s a unique accessory that’s sure to tickle the fancy of your favorite iPod owner. The iPoDonut is a glow-in-the-dark sticker that illuminates your click-wheel. You can choose from an assortment of cool designs, and the envelope it arrives in from Japan is quite charming. This sticker is a tad pricey at $10, but that does include shipping to anywhere in the world. According to the FAQ: ‘The iPoDonut is made from silicon, so it will not leave any sticky residue on the surface of your iPod’s touch wheel.’ The FAQ also mentions that the iPoDonut ‘is not edible.’" In case you were wondering.
Marilyn Matty offered another idea. "Know anyone who’s a little bored at having the same old iPod like everyone else? Hewlett-Packard has a $15 Tattoo system that can give a fourth-generation iPod a customized makeover. It’s only $15 per Tattoo for the kits that include 10 sheets of the adhesive skins, each of which lasts about a month. Intrepid do-it-yourselfers can risk printing out and pasting direct from the PDFs. I personally prefer the unadorned, classic pearl white look, but I suspect my 14-year-old nephew might like a Tattoo. I might throw one in with the knitted iPod covers I’ll be making."
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Tomoharu Nishino pointed at a different option. "If you want something that doesn’t leave the corners exposed like the HP Tattoos and don’t think the slight increase in bulk will be an issue (as well as cost – $30 for matching front and back), check out PodSkinz. The patterns are somewhat limited, but you might find one that someone on your list would like.
"And if you want to go all out, you can do roughly the same thing for an iBook with a custom painted lid from Painted Bytes ($140). You can either mail your laptop to them in Maryland or install the new lid yourself, but note that installation will void your warranty unless performed by an Apple-authorized technician. Personally, I’m not too keen on the art that the various artists have come up with, but the solid color options they offer might be just the ticket to hide those scratches that are starting to become visible on my mother-in-law’s iBook. Heck, if you are the creative type, you could even order an unpainted iBook case from them ($70), and paint an unique iBook shell for that special someone."
Conquer Cable Clutter — If your laptop bag is anything like ours, you have phone and Ethernet cables snaking around in the bottom, probably doing unspeakable things with the FireWire cable. If you’d like to tame the cable beasts, check out Nik Friedman’s suggestion. "The RoadWired CORDZ Multi-Connection Survival Tool is an excellent little package of gadgetry for $25. Basically, it’s a spooled Ethernet/phone cord with a variety of extra connectors to share a connection or create a crossover cable for connecting two computers. Great for the road warrior or Internet cafe addict."
If the cables that cause you conniptions are your iPod earbuds, Jeff Carlson offered another solution. "I’ve been meaning to write about the Sumajin Smartwrap ($5) for a while, but I don’t have much to say besides: cool! It’s a silicon rubber, peanut-shaped bit of industrial design simplicity that you wrap your iPod (or other headset) cord around to keep it from getting tangled. It’s great for wrapping and storing my earbuds in my bag without having to fight and untangle the thing each time I want to listen to tunes."
Protect that PowerBook! Nik Friedman piped up with a suggestion that would be appropriate for any laptop user. "How about a nice backpack that can lug around their laptop? Or maybe a computer sleeve and a nice strap for it? Or maybe they’re more the briefcase type? Nothing says ‘I care about your PowerBook’ more than a Tom Bihn backpack or case and Brain Cell or Monolith laptop sleeve/insert. They’re excellently made (hand stitched in the USA), there’s a variety of products at different sizes and prices, and they’re even somewhat customizable.
"Add to that a Snake Charmer cable bag and your favorite PowerBooker will be all set. Personally, I have a Brain Cell (size 5 for my 12-inch PowerBook) and a Brain Bag with a Snake Charmer and a Freudian Slip insert (sort of a backpack-mounted filing cabinet). Great for getting to work/class/everywhere else. My wife has a similar setup, plus a large Cafe bag which is her favorite purse ever. (And she’s owned a lot.) Can’t say enough good things about the company."
Andrew Laurence recommended another brand. "For the laptop user who demands the very best conveyance for his/her Mac, look no further than Brenthaven. Their cases, packs, and luggage are marvels in strength, durability, and attention to detail. Shoulder straps are padded and contoured, and their backpacks feature an iPod slot and cord route for the earphones. The company started in backpacking, and the knowledge of engineering for ‘human as pack mule’ shows. Apple’s Professional cases are made by Brenthaven."
Lorin Rivers suggested a different way of protecting your PowerBook. "I am a big fan of Vix’s TiArmor line of protection products. They are die-cut clear urethane shields for the palm rest area (and elsewhere) that protect the finish of TiBooks and AlBooks ($14 to $30). After the beating my caustic skin dealt my TiBook, this is one of the first products I bought for my new AlBook."
Other protection ideas come from James Ray and Keith Dawson. James wrote, "I love my iBook’s Radio Shack rubber feet! They are Archer Cat. No. 64-2342 self-sticking heavy-duty cushion feet, and they come eight to a package for $2.19. (I like sticking on more than just 4, for stability and to keep the thing up out of carpets.) The only trick with these feet is to peel first to let them cure in the air for about a minute while you use alcohol to clean (on a molecular level!) the spot on your notebook to which you’re going to apply them. I’ve used these on four Apple notebooks so far, and they’re the first thing I buy when I get a new one."
Keith also recommended little rubber cushions, but for your laptop’s screen, rather than the bottom. "RadTech Wildeepz are tiny neoprene stick-on cushions that you place in strategic spots around your iBook or PowerBook screen bezel. With Wildeepz in place, a closed laptop feels much more solidly closed. When I bought my set eight months ago, printed instructions were included showing where to place the cushions for each laptop type. Now RadTech has downloadable graphics (zipped GIFs) that, when opened in Preview in Full Screen mode, show clearly where to place the little beasts. Brill! $12 to $16 depending on laptop model."
He continued. "Plus, the Marware keyboard cover protects your iBook or PowerBook screen, when closed, from whatever has accumulated on your keyboard. The cover doubles as a screen-cleaning cloth. $7."
Pockets Galore — Just carrying all your geek gear can be a chore these days, but Miraz Jordan suggested a completely different solution. "By the time you’ve gathered your iPod and accessories, cell phone, digital camera, keys, sunglasses, cash, plastic cards, and all the other paraphernalia of stepping outside the front door you’re about ready to order the extra large backpack. Or you could pick up a clothing item from Scott eVest.
"This technology-enabled clothing has pockets beyond count, but is designed in a way to make the pocket contents invisible, rather than hanging out as bulges and lumps. There’s even a pocket sized to hold a small laptop!
"I’ve recently received a fleece jacket ($130) and the cargo pants ($110) and am still finding all the pockets. The clothing is well made and very comfortable. Magnetic closures, zips and deep pockets keep all your stuff from falling out. Special channels in the clothing allow you to install your iPod earbuds. The pocket design gives easy access, and yet keeps stuff separated.
"The budget-minded may choose a baseball cap ($20) with secret pockets for a key and credit cards or an older model windshirt ($40). For the big spenders there’s the solar system jacket with built-in solar panels ($535). In between are various possibilities.
"The help desk response was efficient, friendly and helpful, but international readers should beware: the quote for shipping to New Zealand was horrifyingly expensive. Although Scott eVest were sympathetic, they gave me a perfectly understandable reason why they couldn’t offer a cheaper rate. If you’re outside the U.S., find someone in the U.S. who can receive the clothing and send it on."
Keep It Simple, CD — Although the mix CD we’re making for a few people this year will have a snazzy label created with SmileOnMyMac’s disclabel application, Brian Wessels wrote in with an idea that’s more appropriate for situations where you just want to scrawl a few words on the surface of the CD. "Sometimes the little things delight (or perhaps I just amuse easily). Put a package of CD-R marking pens in someone’s stocking, and they never have to worry again about whether or not they’re using a CD-safe felt-tip pen. I got a package of four colors, Memorex-branded I think, at K-Mart about a year ago."
Online Identity — On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog… unless you have your own online identity. You could consider buying someone their own i-name for $25 (good for 50 years; see "Persistence Pays: The Return of XNS" in TidBITS-752 for more details), or, you could go with David Weintraub’s more traditional idea. "Last year, I recommended getting someone their own domain name. Since then, two things have happened: the price has dropped, and the .name top-level domain has finally been released. You can register a domain with GoDaddy for less than $10 per year. For that price, you get automatic forwarding to whatever mailbox you’re using (heck, they give you over 100 mail forwarding addresses you can use. I’ve set up email addresses for my entire extended family). For a bit more than $10 per month, they’ll actually host your domain. If you’re not Smith or Jones, there is still a good chance that the .name domain is still available for your last name."
Although they don’t provide registrations of .name domains, we recommend easyDNS in general for domain registration and hosting. They’re not the cheapest option, but if reliability is as high on your list as it is on ours, you’ll appreciate easyDNS’s service.
Store More Pictures — Digital cameras are great for holding far more pictures than was possible with rolls of film, but memory cards can still fill up at the most inopportune times. If you, or someone you know, runs into that situation, Roy Morita noted that "prices for memory cards seem to keep dropping. A 1 GB CompactFlash or Secure Digital card can be bought for a bit over $50. Digital camera buffs can never have enough memory cards. They will always be appreciated." If you’re looking to compare prices on memory cards, try the dealram Web site.
The USB Christmas Tree — Looking to spruce up your desk during the holiday season? Or perhaps you’re just pining for a little holiday cheer? Melanie Watts pointed out that "the USB Christmas Tree is just the thing to bring holiday cheer to your workspace. Just plug it in to any USB port and the glowing LEDs cycle through a number of colours – red, green, purple, white, and light blue – stopping at each colour for about five seconds. It’s the perfect gift for the person whose name you drew in the office Christmas exchange." If you’re too cool for a tree, there’s also a USB snowman, though he cycles through only four colors.
We’re always impressed at the wide range of interests and experience of our readers, so we love seeing what totally random gift ideas come through in this category. Ideas from previous years also remain relevant if you’re looking for additional unusual gifts.
Meanwhile, at his night job… Travis Butler wrote, "Steve Jobs’s other company, Pixar, has done a simply superb job with their latest hit, The Incredibles; it’s the first movie in several years that I’ve gone back to see a second time. It’s a good movie about family, it has a cool (and frankly more honest than other recent superhero movies) take on superheroes, has a number of fun riffs/homages for fans of the Bond movies, and is just generally a helluva show. Recommended." And if it’s not still in theaters at Christmas, we’re sure the DVD can’t be far behind.
More Good Christmas Music — Tired of the same old bland holiday songs and arrangements? Andrew Laurence comes to the rescue again this year (be sure to read last year’s list, linked below, for other holiday music recommendations.)
Andrew wrote, "How about another list of toe-tapping, heart-stopping, roof-raising holiday music? My first attempt for this year’s list was to find artists who had run afoul of the law, if only to tweak Adam for pulling last year’s Phil Spector entry. An "I Found The Law" holiday list, if you will. Alas, ’twas not to be. My first rule is that the music must keep your toe a-tapping, and that keeps the list pretty short."
"Christmas Collection: 20th Century Masters" – James Brown
Culled from Brown’s three holiday albums in 1966, 1968, and 1970, these 17 tracks crackle and sizzle with the Godfather’s special brand of funktastic soul. Most cuts are originals, belying other artists who phone in their holiday albums. "Soulful Christmas" is a hypnotizing groove, and "Santa Go Straight to the Ghetto" is a plea for the less fortunate. "Santa Claus, Santa Claus" is a straight blues reading of holiday loneliness, tempered only by a lascivious reading of "Merry Christmas, Baby."
"Boogie Woogie Christmas" – Brian Setzer Orchestra
Polish up the hot rod and grease your hair into a duck tail. Brian Setzer’s big band orchestra (and his crisp lead guitar) lead the way through this collection of holiday classics done right. "Blue Christmas" and "Santa Claus is Back in Town" give us an idea of what Elvis might have sounded like with modern production, while Brian gets playful with Ann-Margret on "Baby It’s Cold Outside". "Nutcracker Suite" is a nod to Duke Ellington, while "(Everyone’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag" has a swagger all its own.
"Billboard Rock ‘N’ Roll Christmas" – Rhino Records
God bless Rhino Records. Rock ‘n’ roll is littered with little jewels of holiday rock bombs, but they’re usually buried amidst horrifically pedestrian dreck. Rhino saves us the trouble of making like a truffle-hunting pig and puts all on one disk: George Thorogood’s "Rock And Roll Christmas," the Kinks’ "Father Christmas," the Beach Boys’ seminal "Little Saint Nick," and, at long last, Dave Edmunds’ authoritative "Run Rudolph Run." Oh, and let’s not forget Cheech & Chong’s, er, slightly confused "Santa Claus and His Old Lady."
"A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector" – Phil Spector
(if only to trust the art and not the artist…) This is the album that all pop stars try to imitate when they record a holiday album. For my money, this album contains the canonical renditions of many holiday tunes. We get the Ronettes performing "Frosty the Snowman," "Sleigh Ride," and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause." The Crystals give us "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but best of all is the thunderous "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Haul the volume knob all the way to the right, baby, ’cause this one goes to eleven.
Kitchen Geek Gear — Nik Friedman acknowledged that some of us appreciate good design in other parts of our lives. "If you have a Mac-head who cooks, or just someone who appreciates a finely made kitchen appliance that’s simple to use and trouble-free (just like a Mac!) take a look at a Kitchen Aid food processor or mixer for them. I’ve had great experiences with the company (and their truly no hassle, you break it/we replace it, warranty) and their products are top notch."
And All Through The House — First the kitchen, now the loo. Aaron Roth succinctly noted, "Here’s something that’s suitable for nearly everyone: The LavNav Lavatory Navigation Toilet Night Light ($20)."
Of course, that endorsement prompted Marilyn Matty to suggest that the LavNav "could be augmented with a purchase of an iToilet, which, while little retro in iDesign, would be useful in theory."
Roomba Does Floors, not Windows — In keeping with the housewares theme, Marilyn also offered this idea. "I don’t have a Roomba robotic vacuum ($150 to $280), but two friends recently got them, and think they work quite well and are happy with them. One friend told me that although it isn’t as fastidious a vacuuming job as if she does it, it’s more than good enough and much preferable to doing all the vacuuming yourself. So I’m most definitely putting this up on my wish list for the holidays. They have good prices at Amazon, J&R, etc., and it’s worth reading the reviews on Amazon."
Watch It on the Big Screen — Christopher Schmidt is clearly pining for something a little larger when it comes to watching TV. He wrote, "This week my family rented a vacation house with a home theater, based on an outstanding projector, which went straight onto my own wish list: the Panasonic PT-AE500U LCD Projector ($2,500). Projected onto an 80-inch Vutec screen in a windowless room (a converted garage), it was plenty bright, even in the bulb-saver setting. (Aside: Bulbs are about $350, and the fan is quieter in the bulb-saver setting.) The overall effect was a lot like projected film. Although the LCD was only 720p, it produced an impression of being a more detailed image than apparent on our 1080i Sony tube-based WEGA at home – presumably because the projected image was big enough for me to see the image detail better (sitting about 10 feet back from both screens).
"And having just lived without our TiVo for the week, I will add that HDTV needs TiVo too: DirecTV HDTV TiVo ($1,000)."
Long Range Photos — Most digital cameras have relatively pitiful zoom lenses, making it difficult to get shots from far away. And sometimes you want to be far away from your subject, leading to Marilyn Matty’s next suggestion. "I’ve been researching a gift for a wildlife photographer and stumbled across this very nifty Bushnell binoculars/camera combo that offers a 30 second instant replay feature ($330). The other combos I found used the lens of the camera, rather than the binoculars, to focus, and at long distances, this could mean a lot of surprises with misframed shots. It’s out of the price range for this particular gift, and I haven’t even seen a real model, but it looks incredibly cool and the feature set is great. If Santa brought one for me, I certainly wouldn’t return it."
Improve (Don’t Destroy) Your Television — It wouldn’t seem like Christmas if Andrew Laurence didn’t recommend TiVo. Unlike previous years, the TiVo options have expanded quite a bit. He wrote, "Are you or your gift recipient tired of slaving to the television networks’ inane and inconvenient schedules? Get a personal television butler, TiVo! TiVo recorders come in two categories: ‘standalone’ recorders that can be used with any television provider in the US, and DirecTV ‘combo receiver’ units. Both can do all the wonderful things discussed in previous TidBITS coverage. DirecTV units have two tuners, and can record two shows at once. TiVo’s low-end standalone recorder can store up to 40 hours of content, and can be had for $80, after rebate, from Amazon. Toshiba and Pioneer sell TiVo recorders that are also DVD recorders; these units can save shows to recordable DVD media. Standalone recorders come with the TiVo Basic service, essentially an intelligent VCR. Upgrading to the TiVo Plus service gets the Season Pass, Wishlist, Home Media Option, and Suggestions features. TiVo Plus service costs $13 per month ($7 per month for each additional recorder in the household) or $300 for the lifetime of the recorder. TiVo Plus gift certificates are also available."
If you need more space in your TiVo, look to WeaKnees.com for upgrades, which we wrote about in "Upgrading the TiVo" in TidBITS-644.
The only problem with TiVo is that you’re still limited to the crud that passes for entertainment on the television stations. If you just can’t stand the shows any more (or paying high monthly rates for shows you don’t want to watch), you could always do what Adam and Tonya have just done and cancel your cable service. After clearing out the 100+ hours of backlogged shows on their TiVo, they plan to follow Diane Ross’s suggestion. She wrote, "A gift subscription to Netflix would be a sure winner. Even if the recipient already has a Netflix subscription, they can redeem it for service. Netflix recently reduced their rates, and a one month gift subscription costs $18." (We covered Netflix in "Worthy Web Sites: Get Your Kicks with Netflix" in TidBITS-604.)
Games with Atoms, Not Bits — Did you know that multi-player games exist where you don’t have to fuss with network settings or make sure everyone has a fast-enough Mac? Rick Holzgrafe, when he’s not programming Solitaire Till Dawn, has some suggestions. He wrote, "I almost submitted these suggestions in the game category, but these are board games – no computer required! You may not find these at Toys-R-Us, but your town probably has a store or two dedicated to games, and that’s where you’ll find these gems. They are also widely available on-line: try Amazon, or just type the game’s name into Google.
"These are examples of the relatively new ‘German-style’ board game. They hit a certain sweet spot in gaming: there is strategy, but they aren’t intense skull-crackers like Chess or Go; they are social, but they are not party games that require the players to behave in silly ways; and they are not dumbed-down for children and are immensely enjoyable by teens and adults. The boards, pieces, and ‘bits’ are well-made and often feature beautiful artwork.
"These make great family games if your kids are in middle school or higher. The rules may seem overly complex at first, but once you’ve played a game or two, they make sense and the games flow along very easily. At $30 or $40 apiece, the prices may strike you as a bit high, but compare them to the price of taking a family of four to the movies, and suddenly they seem downright cheap. A movie only lasts a couple of hours, but these games have real staying power! Here are some of our family favorites:
The Settlers of Catan: 3 or 4 players compete to build prosperous colonies on an island. Compete for resources and room in which to build roads, settlements, and cities. The board is assembled from shuffled tiles, giving you a new geography every time you play. This is the classic "gateway game" that is responsible for addicting thousands of new players to the German-style games.
Puerto Rico: Perhaps the most popular board game of the last 10 years! A bit complex, but very rewarding. Again you are colonizing, but the game mechanics are different from Settlers of Catan. In each player’s turn, the player chooses a particular function (building, producing goods, shipping products, etc.) and all players get to perform that function even though it is not their turn. The player who chose the function gets an advantage over the others, and by choosing appropriately can further his own game and impede his opponents. Many choices and many paths to victory give this game enduring appeal.
El Grande: Compete against your opponents to gain political influence in medieval Spain! Seize opportunities to place your caballeros in positions of power, and to scatter and diffuse your opponents. Like most of the German-style games, this is not a war game: you are maneuvering for position, not engaging in combat. El Grande has been a model for many subsequent games.
Carcassonne: A game with very simple rules: draw a tile at random, and add it to a growing mosaic of a medieval European countryside. Win points by claiming and completing cities, roads, monasteries, and farmland as they appear. This game is good for any number of players from two (it makes a great head-to-head game) to five. Once you’ve mastered the basic game, expansion sets are available that add new things to build and new ways to score.
"And finally, a great resource for anyone who enjoys board and table games: BoardGameGeek.com. This incredible site has over 1,500 table games listed, described, categorized, rated, reviewed, photographed, and discussed! Click Games by Rating to see the hottest games in the opinion of the thousands of members. You must be a member to participate in ratings and discussions, but membership is free and you can browse all you like without being a member."