Happy holidays! We’re pleased to present another double-sized installment of our annual holiday gift issue, complete with oodles of gift suggestions from TidBITS readers. If you’re still trying to come up with that perfect item for your Mac-using friends and relatives, read on for software and hardware, along with a wide variety of miscellaneous ideas that are appropriate for anyone.
Welcome to our annual holiday gift issue, in which we pass along recommendations from readers that help us all decide what gifts to give our loved ones or to put on our own lists. As much as it’s a bunch of extra work to put together this special issue, it’s always tremendously enjoyable to share these suggestions with the TidBITS community.
On to the gift ideas 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!
Apple may be bundling more software with the Mac every year, but that hasn’t prevented independent developers from rolling out excellent independent applications, a number of which were recommended by readers this year. Many recommendations from previous years are undoubtedly still useful as well, so be sure to check them if you’re hunting for the perfect piece of software for that special Mac someone.
A Remote View of the Outside World — You may not have a window in your office to see what sort of weather is blowing in, and even if you did, you wouldn’t be able to see into the future. Don O’Shea suggested a pair of programs that tell you everything you need to know. "We have been surprised and pleased by a wonderful weather reporting program, Seasonality, by Gaucho Software. It’s $25 for a single license and $30 dollars for the family. We keep the locations of others in our family in the list. Also, EarthBrowser from Lunar Software provides a global view with hurricanes, volcanos, earthquakes, webcams, and (ta da!) iceberg tracking. It’s a misnomer to a call it a browser. It’s more like EarthScrutinizer. All this for the paltry sum of $20!"
Channeling Ken Burns — Apple has taken the pan-and-zoom effect popularized by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and added it to the Mac OS X screensaver, iPhoto slideshows, and iMovie. But some people consider Apple’s implementations a pale imitation of Ken Burns, which is why T. P. Hazard recommends the $50 Photo to Movie from LQ Graphics. He noted, "I was impressed by how easy and powerful it was (one can even add voice using its built-in record feature). Plus, you can use an online code, PTM122505, to save $20." Though he knew little about it and no one chimed in on TidBITS Talk, he’s also considering buying a copy of Freeverse’s $30 Comic Life, which turns digital pictures into comic books, for his 8-year-old nephew.
Lick Your Library! Dave Charlesworth wrote, "Got a ton of books or DVDs or CDs? Want to have fun cataloging them? Think about getting Delicious Library ($40), and use your iSight or webcam to scan the UPC barcodes! (You can key the UPC or ISBN or title by hand until you unwrap the webcam too.)"
Food and Movies — No, we’re not talking about nasty popcorn with fake butter, but about a pair of programs from the Little App Factory, recommended by Andrew Cohen. He said, "I’ve become a fan of two fun and affordable programs by Little App Factory. Netflix Freak ($15) lets you manage your Netflix queue in ways that are not available on the Netflix site. For example, you can re-order your queue by selecting and dragging multiple movies. Or you can add notes or custom categories to any movie. Connoisseur ($20) is sort of iTunes for your recipes. You can type in your own recipes, sort them, categorize them, and scale the servings. You can also download free recipes from an online catalog."
And They Never Die — Adam here. If you’ve always liked the idea of keeping tropical fish but could never get over the hump of taking care of them on a regular basis, you can now have a no-maintenance "tank": Allume Systems is selling the $25 Aquazone Seven Seas Deluxe for the Mac now. It’s both a stand-alone application (where you set preferences) and a screensaver. It comes with 40 different species of fish, 20 different tanks, and lighting conditions that change throughout the day. I love the idea of Aquazone, but speaking as someone who does keep fish, it’s not as realistic as promised with more than a couple of fish, at least not on my dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4. This program really wants CPU power to model the fish and light and everything, so although it needs only Mac OS X 10.3 or newer running on a Power PC G4, I’d recommend a G5-based Mac for best performance.
Let Your Fingers Do the Walking — We’re great fans of the keyboard here at TidBITS, and apparently we’re not alone. Alexander Hoffman recommended Proteron’s $15 LiteSwitch X 2.5, which replaces Mac OS X’s built-in keyboard application switcher (invoked with Command-Tab). Dan Frakes concurred in detail, writing, "LiteSwitch is one of those applications whose advantages are easier to see in use than explain, but I’m with Alex on this one: LiteSwitch is a must-have on all my computers. When I use a Mac without it, the built-in Command-Tab function seems clunky. For one, LiteSwitch is quite customizable, both in appearance and behavior; one of the most popular options is choosing which key combination you use to activate the switcher. You can also exclude individual applications from the switcher so, for example, applications you keep running all the time but never switch to don’t clutter it. Conversely, you can view background applications in the switcher. When viewing the switcher, you can perform various actions on the highlighted application: hide/show, quit, force quit, or switch to and hide all others. The switcher also supports drag-and-drop, useful for people who hide the Dock. You can right/Control-click on an application in the switcher to perform various actions on it: Get Info, show in Finder, hide/show, switch and hide others, exclude, relaunch, quit, force quit or relaunch, or quit. Finally, LiteSwitch also lets you choose your window layering approach: standard Mac OS X layering, ‘Classic’ layering (all an application’s windows come to the front when you switch to it), Classic layering for the Finder only, or ‘single-application’ layering, where only the current application is visible."
Track Your Time, Part 1 — Geoff Hutchison wrote, "I highly recommend the excellent Minuteur, a small, customizable timer for your Mac; donations suggested. It makes it easy to keep track of time you spend on tasks versus time spent on distractions. Definitely a great way to make sure you keep on target for Getting Things Done." The Web site is in French, but a link at the bottom lets you download a version of the program localized in English.
Learn Music on the Web — Jochen Wolters noted, "Musictheory.net is a Web site that’s worth having a look at if you’re an aspiring musician. Utilizing elegant Flash-based animations, musictheory.net teaches music theory in clearly structured and well-thought-out lessons. Although some things could have been explained more elegantly – for example, musictheory.net uses a weird Key Signature Calculation instead of covering the much more intuitive Cycle of Fifths – it covers a lot of ground, and the ear-training features for intervals, scales, and chords should appeal even to seasoned musicians. Ricci Adams, the author, has put the whole Web site under a Creative Commons license and offers a downloadable version. Highly recommended for anyone interested in learning the theories behind the melodies."
Give the Gift of Open Source — It’s the thought that matters, not how much you spend. And if you want to spend more time with that special someone, why not give them some open source software, with your services to help install it and explain how to use it? A TidBITS reader who goes by "wdesolar" wrote, "If software is too expensive at any price and you want to explore open source software, install a copy of Fink, along with Fink Commander. Fink lets you install open source software that has been ported to Mac OS X, and Fink Commander is a graphical front end to Fink. Fink Commander is revised frequently because it is young software. For instance, you might use Fink Commander to install Anacron, which runs the Mac OS X daily, weekly, and monthly scripts that the Unix cron utility is supposed to run, but which may not run if your computer isn’t on at three or four in the morning. And if you need software that will do the same job as Microsoft Office, try NeoOffice instead. NeoOffice is a port of OpenOffice to Mac OS X, so wave goodbye to the X Window System’s ugly fonts."
Time Shift Internet Radio — Can’t listen to your favorite radio program when it’s on? There’s often an Internet radio version, and with Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack Pro or Ambrosia Software’s WireTap Pro, you can record your show automatically and listen to it at your leisure on your Mac or iPod. "wdesolar" commented, "To record a stream, for example from NPR, which is playing through iTunes, use Audio Hijack Pro from Rogue Amoeba. Audio Hijack Pro enables you to schedule when a recording should start and end and starts/restarts iTunes, and when the recording is complete, it can transfer the recording to your iTunes library for easy transfer to an iPod. Audio Hijack Pro can record any audio stream predictably and reliably, and beyond that, it’s inexpensive." This suggestion started a bit of a firestorm on TidBITS Talk because Audio Hijack Pro can optionally use Unsanity’s Application Enhancer (APE) to record audio from programs that were launched before Audio Hijack Pro (the "Instant Hijack" feature). APE has gained a reputation among developers and support people for causing instability, which caused Andrew Laurence to recommend Ambrosia’s WireTap Pro instead. However, Audio Hijack Pro users who don’t want to use APE simply don’t bother with the Instant Hijack feature, avoiding the issue entirely.
For the most part, we don’t play games – real life is challenging enough, and you can’t beat its graphics or immersive experience. But there are still plenty of times when a computer game would be just the thing. 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, and you can probably pick them up cheaply from previous owners or on eBay.
Serious Flight Simulation — Some things are predictable, and one of them is Andy J. W. Affleck’s suggestion of Solitaire Till Dawn from Semicolon Software ($25). He also reiterated his plug for Neverwinter Nights ($50) from last year before heading into new territory. "This year, my new obsession was my birthday present to myself. I got both a Saitek Cyborg Evo joystick ($70) and X-Plane ($80). The two, together, create a fantastic flight simulation which transcends simple messing about in planes. They become a tool for anyone who wishes to learn to fly. I’ve been working through online tutorials that discuss the basics of flight (from the theoretical to the mechanical) and working with X-Plane to practice. I certainly don’t feel that I could take the stick of a plane after the pilots have been overtaken by food poisoning and would prefer to leave things to the Otto Pilot, but I am having a great deal of fun. On my 1.25 GHz 15-inch PowerBook G4, it runs pretty well, though I can’t turn on all the graphical niceties if I want reasonable animation speed. Luckily, X-Plane lets you adjust how much it displays to compensate for older/slower video cards. Do read through their site and make sure you have the right hardware, as the game is demanding. But if you have the right stuff, you can have the Right Stuff."
Five Games to Play with a Five-Year-Old — Andy didn’t stop there – he suggested a slate of games that his five-year-old son likes either to watch or to play himself. The floor is yours, Andy!
Cro-Mag Rally is a great, easy racing game. It’s well worth the $20 fee to unlock the challenging higher levels. If nothing else, it was worth getting so that my son and I can both walk around for a few days afterward saying things like "Sticky tires activated!" and "Whoa!" a lot. Maybe that’s just us.
NoLimits is a fun roller coaster simulator for $30. Its graphics lack polish in some areas (the landscape is filled with flat trees, and water is a flat surface) but the actual ride can be a lot of fun. It’s a lazy weekend morning tradition for my son to climb into our bed, me to get the laptop, and to ride roller coasters. It’s a lot of fun. Maybe that’s just us.
Pocket Tanks ($16) from BlitWise and Cornerstone TSP Games is a modern take on the classic tank game where you adjust the angle and power of a shot and attempt to hit another tank across the screen. In this version, you have a huge number of weapons to choose from (and expansion packs, which can be downloaded for free or for fee) and terrain that can be heavily damaged in often fun ways.
Super DX-Ball Delux ($16), also from BlitWise and Cornerstone, is another "breakout" style game. The main difference with this one is that it can have non-rectangular bricks that create situations where the ball caroms off in less predictable directions. Otherwise, it has the expected assortment of bonuses including the ability to shoot bricks, turn the ball into a fireball that can detonate groups of bricks, and more.
Then there’s the weirdly addicting Snood from Word of Mouse games ($20). Snood has been around for ages, but I discovered it only this year. It’s a puzzle-like game in which you shoot silly/ugly faces up into a sea of other faces. Connect three or more like faces, they vanish, and you get points. Simple. But it’s the faces and the silliness of the whole game that makes it fun. Maybe that’s just us.
Atlantis, Found — Jochen Wolters wrote, "Even though first-person shooters seem to be grabbing most of the game market mind share these days, some software developers are still coming up with stunning puzzle games, and Atlantis by FunPause is one such game. Little robots push sequences of colored balls through bent pipes, and you insert further balls into these sequences by shooting them from a cannon that slides horizontally back and forth in classic Space Invaders style. When you create sequences of three or more balls of the same color, these balls explode, and it’s your goal to make all balls explode before they reach the end of the pipe. Atlantis has great gameplay with cool graphics, decent background music, and nifty extras. It combines a simple game idea with some wicked playing-field layouts to create a highly entertaining game. As an added bonus, unlike most 3D-graphics based games, Atlantis’s gorgeous animations run absolutely smoothly even on not-so-high-end Macs like my 867 MHz PowerBook G4. Atlantis is a great example of a game that you can enjoy thoroughly even if you play it only occasionally for a few minutes. Be warned, though: you may find it more addictive than you’d expect at first sight. Atlantis costs $20, and you can play in demo mode for a full hour before you buy."
Strategy for Free — You don’t always have to pay much for a good game, as Tim Archer found out. "My 13-year-old son and I have recently gotten hooked on the open source game Battle for Wesnoth. A turn-based strategy game, it’s definitely the most elegant freeware game that I’ve seen in a long time (although FreeCiv is a close competitor). There are lots of user-created scenarios available. We haven’t tried the multi-player options available on the Internet (dial-up makes that tough), but there is apparently an active community of players. Inside Mac Games calls it a retro game, so maybe I’m showing my age. Still, my 13-year-old has enjoyed it as much as I. And for us cheapskates, you can’t beat the price!"
Meet Your Inner Gamer — Kate Derie wrote in to say, "I would like to suggest a computer ‘game’ with an interesting twist. The Journey to Wild Divine includes biofeedback hardware and your performance in raising and lowering your energy level is the key to progressing. It would make a great present to anyone interested in reducing stress or increasing their health-awareness." The Journey to Wild Divine costs $160; expansion packs are also available.
Don’t Hold Back, Keyboards Are Durable! This idea came from Andrew Laurence, who, when he’s not helping moderate TidBITS Talk, helps moderate his young son. "Baby Banger offers endless amusement for the very young, and blissful relief for the not-so-very-young. This open source application runs in a full-screen white window. Random shapes, in random colors, appear on the screen in response to key presses, accompanied by delightful BEEP! BOOP! SPROING! sounds. My two-year-old has been delighted by Baby Banger since he could sit up and drool on my keyboard."
Handheld Game Device for Linux Geeks — It was only a matter of time before this happened. Mike Cohen recommended that any Linux geek who enjoys games check out Gamepark’s $190 GP2X. "It’s a hand-held unit about the size of a Sony PlayStation Portable, but it’s based on open source software, running Linux on an ARM processor. It even ships with an SDK so you can write your own games for it. They’re just starting to ship, so they’re in short supply. I ordered one, and I’m still waiting for it."
More Console Gaming — In the hard-core gaming world, Macs don’t have much of a niche, as Lucas Mathis told us. So what’s his solution? "Even though many great Mac games are available, I’ve pretty much stopped gaming on my Mac. It’s easier to play games on consoles. This year’s most interesting console is Nintendo’s DS (about $140). Basically, the DS is a portable console with two screens (one of them a touchscreen) and voice recognition, which allows for some wild gaming concepts. It even plays older Gameboy Advance games. The DS has a wide variety of games for all ages – games for smaller children (such as Yoshi’s Touch & Go or various Pokemon games), games targeted at adults (like Sega’s Project Rub or Trauma Center), and tons of games that defy categorization (Nintendogs, a ‘dog simulator’; Pac Pix, a PacMan game where you draw the PacMan figure you’re playing with; or Electroplankton, a music toy). It supports wireless multi-player gaming – most games support local wireless gaming, and several new titles, like Mario Kart DS and Tony Hawk’s Sk8land, support wireless Internet multi-player gaming. Getting online through an AirPort base station is easy, and online gaming is anonymous, so people can’t find out each other’s address, and there’s no way to chat or talk with each other during games, which should come as a relief to parents who have heard what kids tend to say during online matches. Mario Kart DS in particular seems to be highly popular among Mac users. Steven Frank of Panic Software has a blog entry that is being used as a semi-official friend code (Nintendo’s name for a user’s online ID) exchange point for Mac users. People are even organizing Mario Kart races for Mac users. The DS is suitable as a gift to children or adults. You’ll probably want one for yourself, too, so you can beat the person you gave one in Mario Kart."
Remember the 1980s? Adam here. Tristan, who’s nearly 7 years old, has shown little interest in computer games, but as a historical learning exercise and to avoid the highly immersive nature of many modern games, we’re considering getting a $30 Atari Flashback 2 Classic Game Console. The games look primitive, of course, but I remember them having excellent gameplay from when I was a teenager. Even though they’re available for the Macintosh-compatible version of the Stella Atari 2600 emulator, the console moves the experience to the TV, which is already considered an entertainment device, and provides the two joysticks necessary for all the two-player games, which is what we plan to concentrate on.
Hardware just isn’t the thing this year, it seems, with relatively few suggestions other than Derek Miller’s extensive collection of ideas for anyone interested in podcasting. If you’re casting about for more, suggestions from previous years might be slightly out of date but are still worth checking out.
USB Convergence — USB devices seem to breed like bunnies, but you can reduce their impact on your desk with the Kensington PocketHub Media Center ($50), recommended by Dan Frakes. He wrote, "This tiny (4" wide, 2.4" deep, and .8" high; 10.1 x 6.1 x 2 cm), aluminum-clad package combines a 3-port USB 2.0 hub with a 15-in-one memory card reader. It’s small and light enough to throw in your laptop bag but has enough functionality to use at home. Although it doesn’t come with an AC adapter, it does have a power input jack so you can use it as a powered hub if you like. You can get a USB hub and a ‘universal’ card reader for less money separately, but I like the PocketHub’s compact design and having one less peripheral to plug in and clutter my desk."
Keep Your (PowerBook) Cool — Although a nice, warm PowerBook can be cozy during the winter here in the northeast United States, sometimes that heat can be a problem. Dan O’Donnell wrote, "One of my internal clients runs very large numerical simulations on his PowerBook. He also happens to run it on his 23-inch monitor so the PowerBook runs at 100 percent power with the lid closed. Since considerable cooling is normally supposed to happen convectively up through the keyboard, these machines get hot. (Really hot!) I discovered the old MacMice iBreeze platform that has a pair of built-in USB-powered fans. At the same time we bought one for the client, I got one for my machine so I could see how well it worked. It works well – the machine never heats up while it’s on the fan-stand. MacMice is long gone, but the products live on at Mac Pro Systems and Software. The clear stand costs $25 and the silver version is $20. The fans make a small fannish sound when running, but the cool blue LED in the USB connector has geek chic. Assuming that heat is an enemy of PowerBooks and electronics in general, it could extend the life of any laptop which it provides cooling to and save money in the long run."
Jaws for Radio — John Trapp wrote, "I strongly recommend the Griffin Technology Radio Shark AM/FM Desktop Radio ($44 from Amazon). Think of it as TiVo for radio. I record NPR shows and AM sports broadcasts for timeshift listening on my iPod. If you like AM, be sure to get a Terk Technology AM-1000 Advantage Passive AM Indoor Antenna ($34 at Amazon). It is amazing how good the signal can sound. The only drawback to the Radio Shark is that it does not allow you to save streams into segments, so for that I use Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack Pro, which can segment saved streams by size or time, a must for playing files on an iPod."
Widen Your View — You can never have too many pixels, and Mac mini owners in particular might still be using substandard monitors. We haven’t seen these particular screens, but if you have a store near you, it’s always worth taking a look at monitors in person before buying. For a utility display, we once bought a 14-inch LCD monitor from Best Buy for the then-amazing price of $150; it’s perfect for its intended use, but the quality would make it unbearable to use for long as a primary monitor. For this holiday season, Fred D. suggested a new screen, "If you know someone who still has their Mac mini hooked up to an old CRT monitor, consider the Westinghouse LCM-17w7 LCD widescreen 17-inch monitor. It’s on sale at Best Buy for $200. It features 1280 by 768 native resolution, 15 ms pixel on/off, DVI-D and VGA input ports, two built-in speakers, and white-silver bezel trim that complements the Mac mini’s case. It doesn’t have the best brightness and contrast ratings (400 cd and 600:1), but $200 is a great price for such a monitor."
Paul Guinnessy chimed in, "You also can’t go wrong with the Dell 20-inch widescreen display (2005FPW) when the price drops to $380." Dell often has deals; it’s also worth checking the dealnews listing for sales on this and similar displays.
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Dive into Podcasting — Pretty soon everyone will have their own podcast, it seems, and if you want to get started, we recommend reading Andy Williams Affleck’s "Take Control of Podcasting on the Mac" and checking out Derek Miller’s suggestions for podcasting-related hardware below. Take it away, Derek!
If you or a friend are interested in getting into podcasting or recording with GarageBand, some quality (but not necessarily expensive) recording equipment can greatly improve the sound of the material. There are, of course, thousands of possible gear combinations. Three resources I recommend you peruse are TweakHeadz Lab for independent digital recording equipment reviews; PodcastRigs.com for more podcasting-specific gear combinations in tiered-price packages; and Harmony Central, which offers moderated user-review forums for musical and recording equipment, with a high signal-to-noise ratio and a massive database. I always check Harmony Central when evaluating new gear.
You can see what I’ve managed even without the FireWire interface/mixer at my podcast of original instrumentals. (If you want to buy my CD album – now being duplicated – of that material as a Christmas present, I wouldn’t object either.) In particular, I recommend the following equipment:
A quality microphone, for recording voices and instruments that you can’t plug in directly to your Mac. Sure, you can get a $20 Radio Shack special or a USB headset, but to sound really good (and why do it if you won’t?) you should spend more money. Options include the Behringer B2 Pro condenser mic (less than $150) and AKG C1000S condenser mic ($200), both good general-purpose microphones, and the Heil PR40 dynamic ($375 list, $275 street), which is excellent for the money but more specialized for podcast and radio speech recording (and not necessarily so good for louder singing or instruments).
A FireWire audio interface or mixing board. Condenser microphones need phantom power (a small power current through the cable, or via a battery), which Macs can’t provide directly through the audio-in jack. Besides, the audio-in on most Macs (that have it at all) tends to be noisy, and doesn’t support the three-conductor balanced ("XLR") connectors used by good microphones. So you can either get a basic FireWire external box, like the Presonus Inspire ($200) or FireBox ($300), or a full mixer with FireWire outputs, like the Alesis MultiMix 8 ($400), which gives you built-in digital effects (reverb and so on) too. All three (and their many competitors) digitize the signal so your Mac doesn’t have to, and provide much more flexibility for recording simultaneous tracks, mixing, listening, and generally mucking with your sounds (from mics, instruments, and so on) at high quality. They usually come with more powerful (but harder to use) software than GarageBand. I recommend against USB solutions, although they’re cheaper, because even USB 2.0 isn’t as good as FireWire for moving lots of time-sensitive bits around.
A microphone stand, either tabletop, floor-standing, or desk-mounted. These are available from any music store, Radio Shack (now The Source here in Canada), and elsewhere for $15 and up.
Anyone recording podcasts or audio on the go might not want to lug a PowerBook. Until recently, iPods weren’t a feasible option because even with third-party add-ons their recording quality was crippled, so I recommended the inexpensive iRiver IFP series MP3 player/recorders ($100 and up), which record directly to MP3 at very high quality and have an external mic jack. Alas, their user interface is extremely obscure (showing why Apple is winning the MP3 player race) and you must use the included iRiver Mac software to transfer the files – as with iPods, you can’t just drag files from a mounted USB drive. Now, of course, the video-capable 5G iPods can record CD-quality WAV file audio, but it doesn’t look like there are any adapters or microphones to let you do that quite yet. Still, if you need an excuse to buy a fifth-generation iPod…
Add good connector cables ($10 and up), and you have all your recipient needs to sound amazing for a maybe a few hundred bucks. Even a few years ago, sound quality like that was impossible without spending thousands – and the results were harder to get to an audience.
While Dan Frakes’s 2002 and 2003 "Music To Your Ears" articles about headphones are probably the best resource for buying new "cans" as gifts, I can specifically recommend two $100 pairs of "sealed" (traditional, big around-the-ear, noise-isolating) headphones. Sennheiser’s HD 280 Pro, which I use, can take a bit to break in so that they don’t clamp your head too tightly, but they sound great. Then there is AKG’s K141, which is widely used in recording studios and broadcast setups. Both headphones let little sound in or out, and so are good for listening to yourself or backing tracks while you record, without leaking the sound you’re hearing to be re-recorded by your microphone.
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The suggestions in this category all have at least something to do with the Mac or the iPod, which, surprisingly, garnered far fewer ideas than last year. Read on for a slew of great ideas (and as before, don’t ignore previous years’ suggestions!).
Take Control Ebooks! We couldn’t resist a small, if shameless, plug. We’re sure you know all about our Take Control ebooks already, so we won’t belabor the point other than to note that you’re welcome to purchase one as a present for a friend, relative, or colleague. Since we use no copy prevention technologies, you can easily give someone a purchased ebook’s PDF file via email, by burning it to CD, or by copying it to a USB flash drive (thus making the gift even more useful). If you want to dress up a burned CD-R and you have CD Stomper labels available, check out the Take Control CD label (available in PDF and SmileOnMyMac’s disclabel format). Our four consumer electronics titles – "Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera," "Take Control of Your iPod: Beyond the Music," "Take Control of Digital TV," and "Take Control of Buying a Mac" – are on sale for 50 percent off through 26-Dec-05; the link below has the necessary coupon code embedded in it.
The Elusive Power Squid — We have to agree with Geoff Hutchison on this one – it’s on our lists too. He wrote, "I’ve had my eye on the oddly named but highly useful PowerSquid, which replaces traditional power strips. It may look strange, but its squid-like design makes it much easier to use all the power outlets when you have several brick power adapters. $15 at ThinkGeek."
Hand-Picked Music on CD — Tonya here. If you’d like to give a homemade gift, but cookies and crochet don’t appeal, try a hand-mixed CD that combines tracks from a variety of artists. To make it more interesting, though, don’t pick the tracks yourself. In making such a CD for Adam last year, I asked about 20 of his friends to suggest a few tracks – ideally available via the iTunes Music Store – that they thought Adam had never heard, but would like. I also asked them to send me a paragraph or so, explaining why they thought the songs would be good for Adam. Lots of suggestions came in, ranging from a rap selection – "Wordy Rappinghood" – from Tom Tom Club, to "Penguins" by Lyle Lovett and "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)" by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The explanations were often touching or funny, and usually personal in nature. I chose one song from each friend’s suggestions, and I bought the songs in iTunes (except for two selections that weren’t available that way – I bought them on their respective CDs). I also made an iMix of the track samples in the iTunes Music Store to share with everyone; you can find it here:
I combined all the paragraphs into a long document that I rolled up in scroll form and tied with a ribbon. Then I burned the CD from iTunes and printed a case liner using the options in iTunes. I ran out of time to get fancy with a disc label, but if I had the time, I would have used disclabel from SmileOnMyMac, which makes it easy to create nifty effects like circular text (there’s a new 3.0 version out that has more templates, improved text handling, and more).
The end result was a meaningful, personal, much-appreciated gift. I highly recommend the idea, though I also suggest that you get started early. It took a while to put everything together, and I had to do most of the work when Adam wasn’t home, so he couldn’t hear me listening to possible songs and testing the final CD.
Fun and Games with USB — You thought USB was for keyboards and mice, but Marilyn Matty has some far more frivolous uses in mind with her suggestions. "I just ordered this 4-port USB hub/coffee cup warmer, so I can’t swear how well it works (if at all), but for $17 it looks like a great gift. There’s also a light-up, musical Santa that operates via USB or batteries for $20, which could be a cool office decoration for the holidays, plus the Piggy USB FM Radio."
Anyone Can Learn Design — Tonya here again. For those on your gift list who enjoy desktop publishing or creating Web pages, I recommend "The Non-Designer’s Type Book, 2nd Edition" written by Robin Williams. The 240-page book dives deeply into topics of concern to designers, and conveys a great deal about the history and use of type with a particular focus on helping develop their design sensibilities. Readers will be treated to clever wit, good humor, detailed information about how to achieve certain effects in common desktop publishing programs, and a layout that demonstrates the principles explained in the book. Topics covered include leading, kerning, hyphenation, uses of different font styles, mixing and matching fonts, and proper use of white space. The book is written for Macintosh and Windows users. It would make a great gift on its own, or – even better – when combined with "The Non-Designer’s Design Book, 2nd Edition" which explains the basics of layout in an engaging way (both about $15).
You can even buy the pair in a boxed set, which also includes Robin’s "The Non-Designer’s Web Book" and a t-shirt. It’s currently for sale exclusively at Borders for $42.
If the book sounds a little advanced for your cousin who needs to start with the basics, I recommend a prequel to "The Non-Designer’s Type Book," either "The Mac is Not a Typewriter, 2nd Edition" or "The PC is Not a Typewriter" (both about $10).
An Organizer for Your Digital Hub — Geoff Hutchison suggested, "Last year, I picked up a few $12 DiscHub organizers for CDs, DVDs, etc. At first, I thought they might be a solution in search of a problem, but they really do make it easier to cut down on desk clutter and keep your software, music, and movie discs organized."
For Keeping Laptops Off Your Lap — It’s always tricky to use a PowerBook as your main Mac if you want to use multiple monitors, which triggered Tom Friedmann’s suggestion. "If you have an external monitor you can set your PowerBook up to be the second (or first) monitor and position it at a good height using the $40 Griffin iCurve laptop stand."
We reviewed the iCurve and several other laptop stands in "The Laptop Stands, But Not Alone" in TidBITS-658, and Dan Frakes chimed in with another suggestion. "On a similar note, if you don’t mind spending $80, I’d suggest the new Lapvantage Loft, which features a polished acrylic platform, steel pedestal, and swiveling base. One of my issues with the iCurve is that if its rubber "bumpers" get dirty, your laptop can slide down the stand; the Loft has a near-horizontal platform that’s a bit more stable. It’s more expensive than the iCurve, but it’s quite a bit more substantial."
iPod Pets — Now here’s an iPod accessory that boggled our minds. Gail McGovern told us, "I bought a new pet, I-Dog, as a gift for my own 60th birthday, and I highly recommend it. Plug it into your iPod or place it near a speaker, and it responds by flashing lights keyed to the music, moving its ears, shaking its head, barking, and making whirring sounds! The I-Dog only cost about $25 and it even has a built-in speaker."
iPod Accouterments — Interestingly, other than Gail, only Marilyn Matty suggested iPod-related ideas this year, but she did a bang-up job of standing in for the rest of the TidBITS readership. The floor is yours, Marilyn!
Here are some great stocking stuffers for that are priced right – free! The Pod Gourmet has collections of gourmet, vegetarian/vegan and bartender recipes. They aren’t extensive, but if someone is planning a quickie dinner or party and wants to make shopping/cooking decisions in the supermarket (where you of course have your iPod), they can come in very handy. iPod owners in major cities should be sure to check out the free subway maps for cities around the world, including New York, London, Hong Kong, Boston, Washington DC, San Francisco, and more. And lastly, for those of us who live in New York, the piPod pizza directory is a collection of mini-reviews of pizza places throughout the city that’s easily navigable by location, compliments of the people who run the best pizza blog in town.
I don’t know if this fleece hoodie with an iPod pocket, audio jack and built-in, washable speakers actually works, but my 11-year-old nephew asked for one as one of his friends has it. It’s a great example of wearable tech, and if they made it for women, I’d buy one for myself, especially since it’s only $30. It’s rather silly, I think, to make it just for boys.
Though I prefer the pristine look, my 2-year-old iPod is looking rather scuffed and distressed these days. Playing the skin game with your handheld devices does look exceptionally fun with products from SkinIt. Though I’ve never been one for stickers, this collection of skins for iPods, cell phones, handhelds, and game devices looks great. They have a lot of cool designs (organized in categories, such as animals, alien, 60s, bling, landscapes, etc.). A skin for a regular iPod or cell phone in one of their many designs is $10, and for an extra $5, you can upload a photo that they’ll turn into a skin.
This idea is even sillier, especially since it’s a little late for Halloween, but your iPod might like a costume from iAttire. They’re not cheap at $40, but how else can you dress your iPod as Santa or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?
Because of the ridiculous pricing of iPod cases and cozies, last year I recommended a number of easy-to-make and attractive do-it-yourself knitting, crocheting, and sewing patterns available for free that would yield beautiful, customized gifts for pennies that can be combined with matching scarves, earbud/earwarmer covers, hats, armbands, etc. On some of the sites I mentioned, there are even more patterns available now, and I also provided links to "how to" sites for crafty newbies. Now there are great patterns for mini bags as well.
This year, however, I’ve come across some iPod cases that seem like they are actually worth the money. Your Sister’s Mustache has a bunch of cool carriers for $20 each. They can also do build-a-bags (for iPods, laptops, purses) with collages made from pictures you supply.
Fred Flare has a retro styled carrier with built-in speakers that can turn an iPod into a woody boom box for $50, and a very handy iGuy that can also hold your cell or cordless phone, keys, etc. for $45. Also for $45, Wishing Fish has a cooler/beach bag that also holds your iPod and has built-in speakers.
Finally, for a mere $5, you can get a handy Cordster to keep your earbuds organized.
We started this category purely to pick up some of the wacky suggestions that come our way every year. And we have to say, there are some truly odd ideas in this year’s collection, but if you need even more strange ideas for unusual gifts, suggestions from previous years also remain relevant.
It Vacuums, It Mops, but It Doesn’t Do Windows — We can enthusiastically endorse at least half of this suggestion from reader "acorn_1" – the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner and the soon-to-be released Scooba robot mop from iRobot."The iRobot Roomba Discovery is nice. It is much better than the first model. I like mine, but I can use all the help I can get. Moreover, having the Roomba is an incentive to minimize the clutter." We love our Roomba too (see Tonya’s "Roomba: A Robot Underfoot" in TidBITS-787 for a full review), but we’re less sure about the Scooba, which can use only special cleaning solution and which seems likely to clean only a single room at a time. Since the Scooba isn’t out yet, we’re reserving judgment.
USB Missile Launcher — Jim Carr clearly works in a cubicle. Why else would he have his eye on a USB-controlled missile launcher that can send what look like foam darts across the room? They’re sold by Marks & Spencer in the UK for about $34, and the description claims compatibility with both the Mac and Windows. Good luck laying your hands on one, even if you live near a Marks & Spencer. From what we’ve seen in online discussions, most stores are out of stock, and folks outside the UK will have to resort to eBay, where enterprising souls are reselling them at a tidy profit (search on "USB air dart" or "USB missile launcher").
I Need Less Power, Scotty! Sometimes less is more. Geoff Hutchison wrote, "Like many of us, I’m trying to cut down on energy use at home and in the office. I’ve found that a good electricity use monitor like the AC Cost Control ($30) is helpful for finding devices that pull power even when ‘off.’ I then use timed outlets, programmable switches (of course!), and other tricks to turn equipment on only when needed. Smarthome is a good source for such items." We’ve also seen the Kill A Watt ($40) device and the Watts Up Pro AC Power Meter ($150) advertised for this task, but we don’t have any first-hand knowledge for comparison.
Track Your Time, Part 2 — Dan Frakes wrote, "I don’t wear a watch anymore, and I know quite a few people just like me – now that I’ve got my mobile phone with me all the time, I just don’t need a watch hanging on my wrist. But what about those times when I have to turn my phone off (on a flight, for example)? Or when I don’t have it with me? I find myself a bit lost (in time, that is). Tempo’s Time Tag is simply a tiny digital clock that clips onto your bag, backpack, jeans pocket, or even your shirt. (I have one "’permanently’ attached to my laptop bag.) I wish it had a backlight to make it easier to see in the dark, but it’s still a handy accouterment. And despite its tiny size, the Time Tag never fails to attract attention – people who see it often want to know where they can get one. It’s $18, but you get two in the package."
Back in the Analog World — Although most Mac users would probably use iPhoto for this task, Paul Brians took another approach. "My elderly father is one of those people who appreciates being remembered, but doesn’t want new objects around the house. His memory is fading, but he still enjoys looking at picture books. I assemble collections of my photographs and lay them out as a captioned photo book at Shutterfly. For $30 plus shipping the result is a handsome 20-page hardbound book that is both personal and professional looking. Only a limited number of page layouts are available, so I do a planning layout ahead of time in InDesign, then upload the pictures in the order I’ll be using them, which saves a lot of time and effort. If you have a stash of old family photos, scanning them and printing a memory book can be a great gift for an older person whose short-term memory is weaker than memories of the distant past."
Dibs on the Green Ones — This suggestion from Marilyn Matty is the sort of thing that could only happen in a computer-controlled factory. Perhaps there’s a G5 running the assembly line… She wrote, "This idea isn’t strictly computer related, but it is fun… you can order M&Ms with your own message (up to 7 characters) and in custom colors." Beware that so many people want these that you won’t be able to receive them before Christmas.
Clearly, Marilyn has sugar on the brain, since she also couldn’t resist another similar suggestion: "an Etch-A-Sketch/lollipop combination could help with mousing/drawing skills while providing a tasty incentive. At $40 per dozen, I don’t think I can resist!"
The Shirt Off His Back — Nik Friedman understands that even the more technical among us need to present the proper face to the world, and what better way to do that than with a t-shirt. "Geeks need t-shirts. They’re sort of the uniform for the elite geek set. The best tees are found at Threadless. Get your favorite geek a gift certificate or a few sharp shirts by one of the many artists who contribute to the site." Of course, if you’re looking from some truly geeky t-shirts, you simply must check out the collection from ThinkGeek as well.
iPod My Baby — Marilyn Matty, who always has an eye out for iPod-related items, offered this idea for the littlest ones on your list. "I doubt if the volume control will work, but these iPod-decorated onesies will look cute on the babies of the iPod-minded." They’re $16 each, and a long-sleeve t-shirt version is now available too.
Geek Pinups? We can already imagine the comments this suggestion from Patrick Gilmore will provoke, but the Geek Gorgeous calendar is as much about challenging stereotypes of intelligence and beauty as anything else. The models are, of course, attractive, but the calendar focuses as much on their technical skills, and the producer (a senior Java developer) hopes to raise enough money from calendar sales to create a self-sustaining scholarship fund for women who want to study computer science. Read what she has to say.
Holiday Music — Once again, Andrew Laurence is back with some ideas for holiday music. "I wanted to do another full list of quality holiday music, but when you’re culling the cream from the dregs you eventually run out of cream. So, only two holiday entries this year." Take it away, Andrew!
"Dig That Crazy Christmas" – Brian Setzer Orchestra: Brian Setzer returns with another Christmas album, in full high-octane form with his rockabilly-infused big band orchestra. We get their versions of "Dig That Crazy Santa Claus" and "’Zat You Santa Claus" (faithful listeners recall these tunes from Rhino’s superb "Hipster’s Holiday" collection), along with a superb "Angels We Heard on High." Bust out the martini shaker, because you know they do things right when the upright bass has a flame job.
"The Ho! Ho! Hoey! Complete Collection" – Gary Hoey: You probably haven’t heard of Gary Hoey, and that’s a darned shame. Amongst a career of hard rock and surf guitar, he turned out three superb holiday collections with a punny name, collected here on a two-CD set. Imagine if Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai issued a holiday album of searing electric guitar. They may play the Ray Conniff Singers at the office party, but your cubicle will be cruising on a Stratocaster sleigh.
If We Buy It, Can We Vote in Texas? J. R. Rosen (hmm, mighty suspicious initials there), provided perhaps the oddest suggestion of the year. "OK guys, you asked for it: The Texas Land Deed! It’s totally unrelated to Macintosh – except that the owner told me that it is created on a Mac, and produced with a Mac. That’s right, you can buy a square inch of Texas for only $9.95! This is not a joke! Although it is a true novelty, the buyer is really buying a square inch of land in Texas. So what does the buyer get for $9.95? 1) The Texas Land Deed – a personalized, registered, and numbered Warranty Deed of ownership to property in Liberty County, Texas. 2) Property Description – how to get there. 3) Texas Fact and Figures – information about the great state of Texas. 4) Certificate of Authenticity – identifying the Texas Land Deed as "REAL"! I am told that they have been selling the Texas Land Deeds all over the country and the world!"
Returning to Basecamp — Paul Guinnessy recommended Basecamp (for project management) and Backpack (for personal organization). He noted, "I’ve been addicted to Basecamp since I used it for a project two months ago. Although Web-based, it’s everything a Mac product should be, easy to use and extremely powerful." Basecamp subscriptions cost between $12 and $99 per month, depending on your needs, whereas Backpack ranges from free to $19 per month.
Play Offline Too — Robert Salsbury wrote, "This is a repeat, but last year’s suggestion from Rick Holzgrafe for board games (the new, ‘German Style’ games such as Settlers of Catan) caught my eye. It took a good few months to follow through, but my friends and I have had a blast many a late evening this past year playing those games. Settlers is most easily described as a multi-player, board game version of Civilization, but everyone is always doing something, no matter whose turn it is. I’d highly recommend them as gifts… we even bought the expansion pack to allow for more players and a larger board."
Supporting the Less Fortunate — Geoff Hutchison continued our annual trend of suggesting donations. He wrote, "I always try to include a charitable donation among my gift-giving. There are many worthwhile causes, and many of you may have already donated time, money, or other resources to excellent causes. But if you’re still looking to find an organization, try the Network for Good."
Tony Meyer also jumped in on this suggestion with his nod to suggestions from previous years. He also noted "A similar idea is to make a donation to the recipient’s favourite provider of free online content. This might be a favourite podcast, a free newsletter (like TidBITS!), a resource (such as SourceForge), an open-source project, or something else. These organisations don’t have the need that charities have, but many do rely on volunteer contributions to enrich the lives of those that use their services. A nice feature of this gift is that you’re, in some ways, giving two gifts: the recipient of your gift gets to feel that they are supporting the provider, and the recipient of the donation gets to feel supported."