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December is well upon us, which means that the season of end-of-year holidays is underway. We’re pleased to present you with our traditional collection of holiday gift ideas, as ably suggested by TidBITS readers just like you. So if you’re still trying to think of that perfect something for that special someone, read on for a wide variety of ideas that are sure to astonish and delight your recipients as much as they did us. Happy Holidays!

Adam Engst No comments


As the snow falls gently outside my window (and it’s about time!), I’d like to welcome you once again to our annual holiday gift issue. We’ve all been working extra hard to massage this special issue into shape, but the true thanks should go to everyone who contributed gift suggestions. We could never have come up with such a wide variety of excellent ideas on our own, and a few of these ideas have already crept onto our own lists.

From all of us at TidBITS – me, Tonya, Jeff, Glenn, Matt, Joe, and Mark – may all your holiday wishes come true!

TidBITS Staff No comments

2006 Software Gift Ideas

The days of worrying about how much software was available for the Mac are long gone, and these days, just trying to keep up with new releases is utterly overwhelming. That’s why we so enjoy being able to present these suggestions from readers – they can help you focus in on some of the best applications. Suggestions from recent years are probably still relevant too, though updates will almost certainly be necessary. If you have additional questions about these suggestions, direct them to TidBITS Talk.

Make a Silly Movie — Whether you want to give a silly movie as a gift, or give someone else the ability to make silly movies, you might check out the $40 iStopMotion from Boinx. Chik Foo explained it thusly: “I’m a fan of software that further adds value to hardware that we already have. This year, the number of Mac webcams out there must have increased dramatically, since most models of Macs come with a built-in iSight. So after sending each other facial contortions via Photo Booth, try iStopMotion, which allows users to create stop-motion animation resembling that from ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas.’ It includes onion-skinning and previews. Both are hard to describe, but are useful in the animation-making process. The movies on the site explain it better.”

Start a Web Site or Blog — If you know someone who’d like to design a simple Web site, give them the gift of getting started on the right foot. If you’ll be providing tech support, the best option is probably the software you are most familiar with, but if you aren’t sure which way to go, Allen Watson recommends the $50 Sandvox from Karelia. He enthused, “If you know anyone who wants to set up a blog, family photo album, or simple-to-moderate Web site, but who does not know HTML or CSS, I recommend Sandvox. Sandvox is template-based, with nice templates, and it produces standards-compliant HTML and CSS. The standard version is all they will need; the pro version benefits only those who know how to craft bits of HTML or JavaScript for insertion into the site. I put together a site for our church in a few days that looks great and serves all the church’s needs.”

Record Now, Listen at Your Leisure — Streaming radio is easy to locate on the Internet, but it’s harder to find time to listen live. Andy Affleck suggests recording Internet radio in the same way that you’d use a TiVo to record television, using the $16 Audio Hijack or the $32 Audio Hijack Pro from Rogue Amoeba Software. Andy wrote, “There’s this wonderful radio show called the Vinyl Cafe, and while you can buy CDs of the show – and I have bought some – the easiest way to follow the show is to listen to it streamed from CBC Radio online. However, I never remember to listen when the show is on. Enter Audio Hijack Pro.”

“I cover Audio Hijack Pro extensively in my ‘Take Control of Podcasting on the Mac‘ book and associated podcast because of its utility in recording podcasts – especially Skype, iChat, and Gizmo interviews – but I use it even more for recording favorite radio shows. Once it records, Audio Hijack Pro automatically tags the file and adds it to my iTunes library. I use the Pro version because I keep finding new, interesting uses for it.”

Noodle with Music — For those who like to play with sound digitally, Andy also gave Apple’s GarageBand a thumbs up: “GarageBand is another audio tool that I find indispensable. I use it for podcasting and for noodling around at home. I connect a large Casio keyboard, which serves as the family piano, to my Mac via MIDI and create all kinds of mayhem in GarageBand, mostly for my own amusement. A friend of mine, singer/songwriter Robert Burke Warren, uses it professionally to create children’s albums (the kind that adults really like listening to as well) under the moniker Uncle Rock, and his latest album, ‘Plays Well with Others,’ uses GarageBand.” GarageBand is free on new Macs and part of Apple’s $80 iLife software suite.

Alan Neubert also had a music-making suggestion: “For those looking for basic music notation software, you can’t beat Finale Notepad, especially at the price – free.”

Give the Gift of Ringtones — Want to turn your noodling (or any other sound on the Mac) into a ringtone for your cell phone? Mark Hamilton suggested the $32 Fission from Rogue Amoeba Software (you can save if you buy it with, or already own, Audio Hijack Pro). Fission is likely near the top of any Mac-based podcaster’s wish list, but you (or your gift recipient) could also – possibly – use it to make ringtones that can then be transferred to a cell phone. Why possibly? You need a USB- or Bluetooth-savvy phone that is capable of accepting free ringtone downloads. They are locked out on most Verizon phones (Wired had a blog post about lock-outs on the Motorola RAZR earlier this year), and you should check a specific phone with a specific carrier before assuming you’ll be able to transfer ringtones to it.

Mark noted, “Fission is a great little piece of software. It doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but what it does – basic lossless editing of sound files and metadata editing – it does very well. There are user-controllable fades at both ends of audio splits, and you can save (through QuickTime) in different audio formats, such as AIFF. The learning curve is pretty much flat. Fission is being pitched, in part, for the ease with which you can turn MP3 and AAC files into ringtones.”

Slow Down and Chill Out — This suggestion has nothing to do with the usual perky advice about remembering to take the time to hang out under the mistletoe, and everything to do with installing software to mess with the hardware inside a MacBook Pro. Casting aside some discussion among the TidBITS staff about whether this would be advisable (our general conclusion: we’ve heard it works, but it sounds like something you’d disable before calling tech support about a problem with anything), you may know a fellow geek who is truly unhappy about a too-hot MacBook Pro. Tomoharu Nishino explained how to work around the problem without resorting to laptop desks. “A software based approach might be: smcFanControl (free) + CoolBook ($10) = a $10 stocking stuffer.”

“smcFanControl allows you to raise the minimum fan speed from Apple’s default 1000 rpm. At 3000 rpm my MacBook Pro is still quiet (not noticeable unless you are sitting in a silent room), but about 8-10 degrees C (15-18 degrees F) cooler on average. CoolBook allows you to underclock the maximum CPU speed (in increments all the way down to 1 GHz) and undervolt the CPU. For most daily tasks, I rarely use the 2 GHz CPU at full power anyway, so reduced processor performance as a result of underclocking isn’t much of an issue. Undervolting the CPU reduces power consumption (and thus heat dissipation) by reducing the voltage supplied to the CPU. You also get the side benefit of reduced power consumption. With the CPU underclocked to 1 GHz, most ordinary tasks are still quite responsive, and you get an additional 1 hour of battery life.”

“You have to find out how far you can lower the voltage without affecting stability (too low and you will get kernel panics) through some trial and error, but once I found a low but stable voltage, the MacBook Pro has been rock-solid stable. The two combined have generally reduced the CPU temperature (as reported by smcFanControl) by 15-20 C, or about 30 F. Now the MacBook Pro runs somewhere in the reasonably comfortable 45-50 C (113-120 F) range, rather than the toasty 60-65 C (140-150 F) range.”

Optimize Organization — A utility that should make using Address Book as a contact-management center more fun is BuddyPop. Mare had this to say about it: “BuddyPop is a tiny background application that you can use to access your address book without opening Address Book. Press a configurable key combination, and a small window pops up. Type some letters and press Return to pop up the best-matching Address Book entry. Click fields in the entry to copy the phone number or email address; send a message with your preferred email application; dial the number (via modem); and perform various other actions, like opening Address Book to edit a entry. BuddyPop also shows caller ID when your Bluetooth-enabled cell phone rings. There is a universal binary version, and it costs only 10 euros (a bit more than $10).”

Protect Passwords — If organizing passwords has someone on your shopping list in a state of confusion, perhaps password-management software would be welcome. Jochen Wolters recommended Waterfall Software’s Wallet as a great choice: “Wallet’s elegant interface has the same look and feel as Apple’s Address Book, showing a list of groups, the list of entries within the selected group, and the selected entry itself. What makes Wallet special is that, unlike most similar applications, you can create your own groups and freely configure the data fields for entries in each group. For example, the pre-configured credit card group has Type, Number, Security Code, and Expiration Date for each entry, but you could easily add ATM PIN or Emergency Phone Number fields. Additional features include autofilling Web forms in Safari and syncing selected entries with your iPod. Of all the password management applications I know, Wallet is by far the most pleasant to use, and with a price tag of $15, it provides a lot of peace of mind for the buck.”

Adam has long used the $20 Web Confidential for keeping track of passwords and other sensitive data, and the favorite of “Take Control of Passwords in Mac OS X” author Joe Kissell is the $30 1Passwd, which integrates nicely into most Web browsers.

Surf Better with Safari — Any Safari user who is ready to up their power-user rating would likely enjoy Hao Li’s $12 Saft. Allen Watson explained, “For the person who spends lots of time surfing the Internet with Safari, Saft is an indispensable plug-in that adds a host of very useful features to Safari, such as saving bookmarks directly into subfolders from the Bookmarks Bar menus (navigate to the folder you want and select Add Bookmark Here); crash protection that restores pages that were open when you crashed; the capability to consolidate open windows into tabs; and so on.”

Utilize Utilities — A handy utility can speed your work or give you a new way to think outside the box about the way your Finder functions. Ryoichi Morita contributed two ideas for giving snazzy gifts in the form of utilities. “I love utility programs. Two of my favorites are Versomatic, which automatically makes a backup copy of your file every time you make a change to it and Path Finder, which is what Apple should have done with Finder.” The $50 Versomatic comes from Acertant, and the $35 Path Finder is from Cocoatech.

Give Three Wishes to eBay Devotees — If that special someone on your list has turned an eBay hobby into a career, help him keep track of everything with AuctionGenie from Luxcentral Enterprises, which costs $50 for a year-long license. Al Woodcock wrote, “I have found eBay auction-management applications for the Mac to be few and far between, and batch insertion virtually unavailable. Just insert your auction information in AuctionGenie’s item-by-item records, and you are set to make a fortune. You can also use AuctionGenie with FileMaker Pro 5, which is just what I need. It imports data from my database and with a little work on my part, tailors it for eBay batch insertion. The only drawback is that it does not import from later versions of FileMaker Pro. I hope that will come soon. It is a universal application so it will work at top speed on Intel Macs as well as on others running Mac OS X 10.1 or later.”

TidBITS Staff No comments

2006 Gaming Gift Ideas

Sometimes you just need a break from work, if not from your Mac. Sure, you could watch stupid human tricks on YouTube, but why not just play a game? Although the game industry constantly pushes the boundaries of reasonable hardware requirements, yesterday’s games are often still a fine way to while away some spare time, so it’s worth checking out previous years’ suggestions, though you may need to haunt eBay to find copies. Comments on this year’s suggestions are welcome in TidBITS Talk.

Speedy Mac — Computers enable us to do things that are dangerous or impractical in real life, such as modeling nuclear explosions or, of course, releasing your inner Steve McQueen by careening down the road in a muscle car at impossible speeds.

Chuck Goolsbee, who spends his days locked up at our Internet service provider digital.forest, recommended Ambrosia Software’s Redline, a driving game featuring realistic physics and network play. It’s also open for developers to create new tracks, cars, and add-on modes, such as the team-play Smuggler mode: each team has one slow car amid its fast cars, and the object is to let the slow car win the race. Redline is available as a 184 MB download; the unlicensed mode features two tracks and one car.

Chuck wrote, “It is also a bargain. I bought one copy for myself for $25, and each additional copy costs only $5… so I bought eight more for my staff. Now on Friday afternoons when we traditionally shut down the phones for an, um, ‘tech staff meeting’ (cough), we all climb behind our keyboards for some morale-boosting fun!”

Chuck’s need for speed (and, we suspect, to toast his co-workers) also led him to purchase the $100 Logitech MOMO Racing controller, which features a steering wheel, stick shift, and foot pedals. We suspect Chuck will see real daylight again sometime next year.

Put Away the Graph Paper — Who needs 3-D graphics acceleration when you’ve got a pencil and paper? Ambrosia Software has combined a spaceship shoot-’em-up with the age-old practice of drawing your own adventures in the clever $20 SketchFighter. John Welch said, “I’ve not had a game this much fun since junior high school, when I’d do it the hard way. Even if you’re not an old timer, this game is fun, and if you ever did this with pen and ink, it’s truly delightful.”

Wowed by WoW — Speaking of network play, a few people recommended Blizzard Entertainment’s massively popular World of Warcraft. Andy Affleck wrote, “My 14-year-old nephew talked me into it and I bought it, mostly on a lark, and soon found myself immersed in a world that was rich and deep. I quickly fell in with a good group of friends online whom I meet and play with when I have the time. The game can be addictive – I find that you either love it or can’t figure out why it’s worth all the money you pay for it ($40 to $50 depending on what deals you can find, plus a $15-per-month fee). I justify the cost by cutting back on my monthly Starbucks habit. Although much of the time you find yourself performing menial tasks just to advance a skill or to raise your character’s level, it’s the social aspect that keeps my interest. But then, I’ve always been a sucker for online communities and the tools making them possible so while I’m bashing the heads of various baddies, I remind myself that this is my continuing education in my own research into these spaces.”

Lewis Butler pointed to the upcoming expansion World of Warcraft, The Burning Crusade. “It’s not out in time for Christmas (Blizzard is releasing for the Mac and Windows simultaneously on 16-Jan-07), but you can get your favorite gamer a game card for World of Warcraft now and then get The Burning Crusade for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, can’t you? Vermont’s 230th birthday after declaring independence from New York? The 37th anniversary of Buckminster Fuller’s Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects? Yes, you can. There’s a reason over seven million people play: the game is excellent.”

Wii Wish You a Merry Christmas — We prefer to focus on Mac games, obviously, but this year’s attack of console gaming systems spurred a couple of readers to recommend the hard-to-acquire Nintendo Wii.

Lucas Mathis, who noted that the Wii is “white and small and pretty and looks good next to a Mac mini,” praised its unique controller. “Instead of a traditional gamepad, it is controlled using a motion- and position-sensing remote control. Basically, you wave the controller around to play all kinds of games – golf, tennis, baseball, sword fights or bowling. The Wii is targeted at gamers and non-gamers alike, and there are games for children, adults and even for the elderly. In addition to that, traditional games like Super Mario, Zelda or Metroid can be played, too, and to top it all off, the Wii is capable of downloading old favourites – it plays NES, SNES, N64, Genesis (also known as Mega Drive) and TurboGrafx games.”

He also recommends the blog of Steven Frank (of Panic fame), where you can exchange your online code in order to play Wii games online against other Mac users.

The Wii isn’t intended as just a gaming machine, however. Andrew McCann wrote, “There is a photo channel that can display pictures from a camera (the Wii takes SD cards, but there appears to be some internal memory as well) and a Mii channel to create avatars, which can be stored in the remote.”

Sussing Out Sudoku — Andy Affleck noted a game that can help you improve your game. He wrote, “The first part of 2006, I went through a Sudoku phase before I tired of the puzzle and went back to doing crosswords. Part of why I tired of them was that I had learned all of the advanced solving techniques making even the hardest puzzles relatively easy to complete. I have Robert Woodhead’s free Sudoku Susser to thank for that. While this Sudoku game lacks a glossy user interface, it comes loaded with every advanced solving technique on the planet (and links to a Web site that explains them in detail).” Andy also pointed out that yes, this is the same Robert Woodhead, aka “Trebor,” who co-created the original classic Wizardry game back in the 1980s.

Brain-Stretching Games and Puzzles — Not everyone is looking to shoot aliens or roam through three-dimensional environments. Really.

This year Broderick Bohls suggested checking out the various card games and brain teasers like Word Wits and Flower Power at “I have really enjoyed the fun and easy group of games from, which you can purchase individually or as a group via download or on a CD. They are great for winding down or keeping busy if you are surfed out and waiting on a download.”

Stephen Cochran wrote, “If you like a game that’s part puzzle and a whole bunch of amazing graphics, the Enigmo games from Pangea are still some of my favorites. The original Enigmo ($20) is two-dimensional, which is better for those younger ones and those who don’t want lots of controls to worry about. The ability to create your own puzzles also guarantees a long lifetime for the software. Enigmo 2 ($30) can be a little more frustrating to navigate simply because you can now circle around in a third direction. I’d compare it to the difference in learning curve between a driving game and a flight simulator.”

Jochen Wolters also likes to while away his down time with the $20 Phantasia by He wrote, “Its graphics, sounds, and music are so well-crafted that the game is a joy to play. And since the difficulty of the game’s 30 levels is well balanced between mildly challenging (so as not to become boring too soon) and not too hard (so as to keep frustration over yet-unsolved levels to a minimum), it is just perfect for those 10-minute workday escapes. Considering Phantasia’s non-violent theme, cute sounds, and impressive graphics effects, though, the game should be just as enjoyable for younger players as well.”

Lastly, let’s hope that Jean MacDonald at SmileOnMyMac isn’t looking for a change of career with her recommendation of the $20 Diner Dash, which “is great if you know people, like me, who do not like shooting things and prefer to do something, um, ‘constructive.’ You wait on tables, with ever more challenging restaurant patrons, like senior citizens (patient but slow), and businesswomen (impatient but fast and good tippers), while your restaurant gets fancier and more complicated as you move through the levels. I just got Diner Dash 2, which has introduced families (you have to remember to bring them a high chair, and you have to mop up the inevitable spills) and cell-phone addicts (who annoy other patrons and cause them to leave).”

Games for Kids — Remember, kids, the computer is not a toy. Oh wait, yes it is! Andy Affleck (who we assume also does non-game computing, but his enthusiasm and multiple gift ideas suggest otherwise) shared some of his six-year-old son’s favorites. Andy wrote, “Although the graphics lack polish in some areas, the actual ride in the $30 NoLimits Roller Coaster Simulator 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.”

Other obsessions include Freeverse’s $20 Burning Monkey Puzzle Lab and the $16 Pocket Tanks from BlitWise and Cornerstone TSP Games, 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.”

The Holidays Are about Tradition — We can’t let this year’s recommendations go out without Andy Affleck’s annual plug for Solitaire Till Dawn from Semicolon Software ($25), and his continuing obsession with Austin Meyer’s X-Plane ($80), which, he points out, compensates nicely for machines that aren’t on the cutting edge.

TidBITS Staff No comments

2006 Hardware Gift Ideas

Hardware would seem to be a pretty easy category: go to Apple’s online store and say, “I’ll take one of everything, please!” What’s more tricky is finding good hardware that adds to the Mac experience. This year’s suggestions range from the practical to the whimsical. Don’t forget to also peek at previous years’ suggestions, and continue the discussion at TidBITS Talk about this year’s picks.

Shuffle and Color Coordinate — Someone had to say it, and Marilyn Matty stepped up to the plate. “The new iPod Shuffle ad campaign, which I think is great, says it all. At $80 plus free shipping from the Apple Store, a second generation iPod shuffle is a great gift for anyone.”

But Marilyn didn’t stop there, since although she may be giving an iPod shuffle to others, what she really wants are the flower-shaped JBL Spyro speakers and subwoofer from Harman Audio. “They look and sound beautiful, and are reasonably priced at $130. An added benefit is that they can be tricked out with optional and interchangeable colored covers. There’s a basic iPod white model, but I’m waiting until after 19-Dec-06 to order the black model to match my beloved new iPod with video.”

(Hard Disk) Space, the Final Frontier — Jim Carr offers a tremendously practical solution to your holiday gift giving dilemmas. He wrote: “As we accumulate more songs, more videos, and more photos, it may well be time to upgrade internal storage if you aren’t planning to replace your Mac. And you need an external backup drive big enough to match your internal storage.” Be sure to buy the right sort of drive for the Mac in question; either IDE/ATA (sometimes also called parallel ATA or PATA) for older Macs, and serial ATA or SATA drives for newer Macs. And remember that laptops take 2.5-inch drives, whereas desktops use 3.5-inch drives.

Lewis Butler chimed in with a recommendation. “I think Seagate is the brand to go with. I used to buy nothing but Maxtor drives, but I’ve suddenly started having a rash of problems with them (four failures in the last year, all on drives under two years old). Sure, they get replaced, but the replacement gains the original’s warranty with no extension, so now I’m looking at a terabyte of Maxtor drives I don’t really trust. I’ve been about to click “Buy” on a 500 GB SATA drive for $150 all day. Not that I need it. I just want it.” Our usual approach when buying drives is to start scanning dealnews or Pricewatch for deals; our last 500 GB PATA drive cost only $150. Also note that Seagate bought Maxtor earlier this year.

Don’t Eat That! Nigel Stanger offered a tasty-looking suggestion, but unless you’re a robot, you probably wouldn’t want to ingest these. “In the Just Plain Weird hardware category, how about a USB drive to match your favourite food?”

Fit to Be Printed — Some gifts offer utility while lacking pizzazz (socks, anyone?), but we certainly wouldn’t be sorry to see Rick Cricow’s suggestion under our tree. “I just bought an HP LaserJet 1022nw ($400) and cannot say enough great things about it. I will say it’s really well priced, prints nicely, and is wireless! I’ve had many laser printers in my life – small little Apple units, huge Canon multitasking digital printer/copier things, and color units. The technology continues to get faster, print better, and the price is amazing. And now, wireless! It installed quickly, saw my network, and shows up nicely using Bonjour. A fine gift for yourself, or for anyone needing a network printer.”

Scan Those Slides — Paul Atroshenko must not be quite sure that these newfangled digital cameras are truly here to stay, or perhaps he has a lot of old slides and photos around, since he’s looking at a photo scanner this year. “My vote for the best hardware gift would have to be the new HP Scanjet G3010. For just under AUS$200 one gets an amazing scanner which can do scans of colour slides at 4000 dpi. The advanced sections of the accompanying software give good control of exposure settings. The leap in the quality of the scans is quite astounding. You can process two slides, or two negatives, at a time, but I have found it is best to do one slide at a time. This machine is not for the professional wanting to do big batches of scans at once, but for the genteel photo hobbyist it is more than adequate. The scanner also makes PDF files and does OCR.” We had trouble nailing down the HP Scanjet G3010, which may imply that it’s either an older model or one that’s sold outside of the United States. From what we can tell, though, it’s similar to the HP Scanjet 4850, which costs $150.

Speak Clearly into the Monsterphone — For the Skype aficionados on your list, Taree Vriesman has a cool suggestion. “Verballs are very funky hands-free speakerphones that actually wave when a call comes in!” They’re USB-powered and cost about $55 (though we could find them only from stores in the United Kingdom).

Keep It Simple, Camcorder — Sure, you could spend hundreds, or even thousands, on a digital camcorder, but if you want something small, simple, and cheap, John Droz, Jr. suggested the Pure Digital PSV-351 30 Minute Point-and-Shoot Camcorder. It costs $100 at Amazon, and PC Magazine gave it a positive review. Although no one but Pure Digital seems to mention this, it is compatible with the Mac. John also points out that there’s a seemingly identical product – the RCA EZ101 Small Wonder Camcorder – that may be a bit cheaper.

Prevent VHS Conversion Procrastination! Jim Carr noted that in 2004’s gift issue, the Canopus ADC 100 was recommended as a way to convert VHS video tapes to QuickTime movies. In a thinly veiled hint, he noted that he doesn’t yet own a product to perform this conversion, but he was happy to provide a link to Canopus’s current product lineup. But he’s absolutely right; if you have video you want to save that’s still on VHS tapes, those tapes are 2 years older than they were the last time such a product was recommended. (And yes, we plead guilty to this same sin; finding the time and disk space to convert all those Compact VHS tapes to QuickTime keeps falling off the to-do list.)

Put a USB TV in Your Mac — Between DVDs from Netflix and YouTube videos, plain old TV is looking a bit long in the tooth. But TV still has some life in it, and Paul Brians offered some suggestions for integrating TV with a Mac. “I’m thinking about getting the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick High-Def USB Tuner & DVR for my daughter who lives in a cramped apartment in Manhattan and would like to watch TV on her new iMac. The name pretty well describes the product: a little USB 2.0 device you can use to tune in digital and analog TV signals and feed them to your PC and use the latter as a DVR. It works with Windows Media Center Edition, but that’s not a huge obstacle for someone with an Intel-based Mac with Boot Camp and a copy of Windows Media Center Edition. Pinnacle recommends an external antenna, but reviewers have had success feeding it from an indoor antenna in a window. It can also accept cable coaxial input. It lists for $130, but can be had for less online, such as for $120 at, where the reviews are worth reading, and on The Green Button. It has only composite and S-video inputs, but that’s not too limiting for a relatively small screen. It does require a fast computer with a large hard disk, since it uses about 9.5 GB per hour recorded. Some people have had problems with the included software, including frequent crashes, but others have been very happy. Evidently the included remote control has very limited capabilities.”

Paul continued, “Comparable products include the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950 hybrid USB 2.0 (see reviews at and the Divco FusionHDTV 5 USB (see reviews at AVS Forum).”

TidBITS Staff No comments

2006 Miscellaneous Gift Ideas

The vast majority of this year’s miscellaneous suggestions are related either to the iPod or to Apple’s laptops. Why? They’re cute, they’re portable, and clearly they’re just screaming to be accessorized. Many suggestions from previous years are no doubt still appropriate, and if you wish to discuss the suggestions, check in on TidBITS Talk.

Take Control Books! We couldn’t resist a shameless plug for all the work we spend much of our non-TidBITS time on. You know all the basics about Take Control, we’re sure, but remember that some of our recent books are available as print-on-demand versions, making them a bit more tangible as presents (and if you already own an ebook, you can get the print-on-demand version for less). You’ll want to order soon; it can take from 4 to 10 days to receive a printed book. But normal ebooks make fine presents as well, and you’re welcome to purchase one or more and present them to your recipient on CD, sushi-shaped USB flash drive, or even, for that last-minute present, via email. 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). And lastly, note that our three buying guide titles – “Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera,” “Take Control of Buying a Mac,” and “Take Control of Digital TV” – are on sale through the end of December. Buy one of them and take 30 percent off your entire order.

iSight Foresight — This is too cool. Curt Blanchard gets big points for this suggestion, which we’d never heard of before. “Mungai Mirrors, a small company in the United Kingdom, has developed the Huckleberry, a clever mirror device that slips over the top edge of the MacBook or MacBook Pro screen and converts the built-in iSight camera into a video camera – no kidding! It uses laser-cut reflecting mirror devices that cause the iSight to look forward, instead of backward at your face, thus turning the laptop’s screen into a huge viewfinder. Ever tried to take a video chat buddy on a tour of your garden or of your new kitchen? It’s nearly impossible with the iSight’s normal orientation, but with the Huckleberry, you can!”

“As a bonus, with your registration code, you can download a free copy of Ecamm Network’s iGlasses which will flip the image on your iSight camera so that the mirrored image reads correctly to your iChat buddy (also helpful when reading barcodes for Delicious Library!) One of the best things about all of this is the price: only $20 for the Huckleberry and the iGlasses software. The only drawback now that we’re in December is that these are shipped from England. Even so, if you hurry, it may get here by Christmas; mine only took about 9 days.”

The Long-Awaited iPhone — Well, okay, not really. But we have to admit that Tony D’Emanuele’s suggestion seems like it comes close. “Gear4 has just released the BlueEye Black, a very cool 3-in-1 gadget for the iPod. It is a mobile phone connection, FM radio, and remote control. It lets you take or make phone calls on your iPod (via a Bluetooth connection), with incoming numbers shown on the iPod’s screen.” Alas, it appears to be available only in the United Kingdom for now, for 50 pounds.

Decorate Your Mac and iPod — Somehow we get the impression that Marilyn Matty’s office is extremely jolly. She pointed us to a USB-powered snowman ($12), and a liquid-filled USB mouse ($17) in which Santa Claus has been imprisoned. Sure, they’re a little cheesy, but more elegant is the $25 tux for iPod, an acrylic stand for any iPod that will be spinning tunes for a New Year’s Eve party. She also suggested the iGuy, “an under-$10 way to anthropomorphize an iPod, turning it into a posable, portable, tune-playing pal. Sadly, there’s no option for my new video iPod.”

Hot and Cold Running USB — We sure hope someone gives Marilyn Matty a high-power USB hub to run all her devices. She wrote, “A few years back I recommended a multitasking hardware device that I’ve become very fond of – a USB-driven cup warmer ($15). Someone recently sent me a link to a product that extends the concept to the dog days of summer, a $30 USB-based cooler that I immediately put on my list of things to buy if I don’t receive it as a holiday gift.”

Friends Don’t Let Friends Work without Backups — We’d recommend that you start with Joe Kissell’s “Take Control of Mac OS X Backups,” but Chris Pepper is absolutely on the right track with this suggestion. “Give the gift that keeps on saving: backups! You can give your friend Retrospect Desktop (about $100). You can install it on your family’s computers for them, and set up scripts, and provide blank media. You can stand over your parents until they complete a full backup. For extra karma points, offer to host a friend’s backup drive, perhaps in exchange for them hosting your own.”

“You can give (or ask for) an external backup drive. I suggest making sure it has FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 ports for performance and future proofing; FireWire 800’s extra performance bump seems generally irrelevant for most people’s backups, although $300 is not bad for a 500GB OWC Mercury Elite-AL Pro FireWire 800/400+USB2 Combo Storage Solution with cables.”

In terms of executing the backup, Chik Foo chose the easy option, setting up SuperDuper ($28) to run a scheduled backup to an external hard disk.

For extra peace of mind, Chik also makes online backups of email, photos or digital media. Sites such as Flickr, SmugMug, and Fotki offer private backups of full-sized photos for less than $50 annually. “There are variances in Web site presentation, bandwidth limits, uploading software, and other features. Personally I forward all my ingoing and outgoing mail through Gmail as a form of offsite backup. It’s amazing how many people spend money on items more mundane than protecting irreplaceable digital data. Apple’s Time Machine sounds good… but you’ll still need a backup before you install Leopard.”

Wrap with Your iPod — Whether or not you have any rap on your iPod, Randy Singer offered an inexpensive way to put some wrap on your musical friend. “Several companies are offering what I think is the ideal way to keep your iPod safe from scratches, without adding bulk or harming its looks. Basically they are repackaging 3M Protection Film, cut to fit your iPod. This is the same stuff that 3M sells for use on the front end of expensive cars to protect the paint from being chipped. It is invisible and almost undetectable once applied. The skin can be removed without any trace left behind. This film is being sold for various iPods for as much as $30, but Best Skins Ever has it is for $5 to $7, depending on the model. It covers the entire iPod, front (including the screen and scroll-wheel), back, and sides.”

Avoid Burnt Thighs — TidBITS Editor at Large Geoff Duncan wrote, “Over the last few years, many PowerBook and MacBook owners have been overjoyed with their portable systems, but less-than-thrilled about the lap- and hand-searing heat emitted by these notebooks, formerly known as laptops. If you’d like to use your notebook on your lap, a number of ‘heat shield’ products are available. Most seem to keep the heat off a users’ lap well enough, but they tend to fall down in other areas: they’re too slippery, they’re too fragile, or (in some cases) they significantly increase the internal temperature of the computers.

“However, several folks I know have had good luck with the Lapinator, a ‘laptop desk’ available in 13- and 18-inch widths. It uses 3M Thinsulate Ultra insulation with a cross-linked molded foam bottom that reduces overall contact with your lap, coat, desk, or what-have-you so you’re not only comfortable, but your laptop actually runs cooler than it would on a flat surface. It comes with a 4-inch velcro strap for taming any stray cables, and a separate $10 Mousitizer can be connected to either side as a surprisingly effective mousing surface. At $25, it isn’t quite cheap, but it’s lightweight and reasonably portable, though the foam bottom means it will take up a fair bit of space in a bag. So far, my friends have found it reasonably durable and give it high marks for making the ‘laptop’ experience not only feasible, but downright pleasant again.”

Fearghas McKay chimed in with a similar suggestion. “The iLap, at about twice the price – but possibly less bulky and lighter – does a similar job. It also has a wrist support at the front, which is removable. I have used laptop desks similar to the Lapinator, and I find the iLap more comfortable because there is less contact and more air between the desk and my legs.”

Dan Frakes came down on the side of the Lapinator, and offered a few other options. “The iLap is actually bulkier when you take the stand and wrist pad into account. Having used both, I personally prefer the Lapinator; it’s lighter and, in my experience, more comfortable (both for my lap and for my arms – I didn’t like the angled position into which the iLap forced the latter). But I know the iLap has many fans.”

“If you’re looking for a more-portable solution, LapWorks’ Laptop Desk 2.0 and UltraLite easily slip into a laptop bag. I covered them, the Lapinator, and a few similar products earlier this year for Macworld. I highly recommend the Laptop Desk UltraLite for road warriors.”

“Another approach,” Dan said, “is Speck Products’ new SeeThru, which I also wrote about for Macworld. Designed as a protective, polycarbonate case for the Core Duo MacBook Pro (with versions for the MacBook and Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro on the way), one of the SeeThru’s unadvertised features is that it lets you use your MacBook Pro on your lap – while, in my testing, still allowing the notebook to cool normally.”

Cheap iBook Levitation Tricks — Alaska Jack wrote, “If you’re a laptop owner with an extra monitor lying around, I think the best sub-$10 investment is the Nexgen Small Stacking Shelf. Combine it with the widely available iBook monitor spanning hack (which for me has worked perfectly) and you’re off to the races. I have it set up so that the mousing area is directly underneath the raised iBook.”

“The shelf would probably work for most Apple laptops, but it is almost perfectly designed for the 12-inch iBook. It’s cheap, sturdy, and the perfect height, and its white vinyl-coated metal grid keeps the computer cool while not blocking ports. It has these flanges on the side, which I thought I would have to bend off. But it turns out that they hold the iBook perfectly in place if you just slide the iBook under them.”

“There are a couple of minor drawbacks. If you leave the right-hand flange in place, you won’t be able to eject or insert CDs. If that’s a problem, though, you could always just bend that flange back or remove it. Also, you can’t close the iBook’s lid, unless you remove the flanges. Of course, the iBook doesn’t support operation while the lid is closed anyway.”

iPod Speakers with a Dock — iPods aren’t just for carrying your music around with you; Chik Foo found the Logitech mm50 iPod speakers to be surprisingly useful. “I used to turn my nose up at these class of speakers: surely lots of speaker sets had aux-in port already? Surely having a built-in iPod dock equals planned obsolescence? And I was already playing music on my hi-fi system via AirPort Express. I bought the mm50 because I kept picking up an iPod nano that was not fully charged. The mm50 on eBay cost about the same as a dock plus a remote plus an iPod charger, and contained speakers. Surprisingly, I found myself continuously listening to my music and podcasts on the mm50, and my AirPort Express is now barely used.”

“The trick is that I have come to embrace smart playlists that contain music and podcasts that I haven’t listened to, and the randomness of ‘shuffle all.’ I find myself listening to music that I would never have chosen manually. The remote control still allows me to skip tracks. And the mm50 continues playing even as I sleep or restart the Mac. My iPod has gone from being just a portable music player, to being a music-playing mule, and I love it more for that!”

“The mm50 is small and shaped well enough to carry around. In fact, on recent trips, I could listen to my iPod nano in the car (via aux-in), in the plane (via earphones), and in the hotel room (via mm50). Seamless! And it keeps the nano charged too.”

eMusic to Your Ears — The iTunes Store may rule the online digital music market, but it’s not the only alternative for Mac users. Nik wrote, “A great gift is a subscription to eMusic! Subscribers get a certain number of downloads every month of high quality MP3s from independent artists. No DRM, so it works as well on iPods as on any other player. It’s an especially good gift for someone who really likes exploring music and finding new artists they haven’t heard. (No Top 40s in there – it’s all indies!)”

DJ the Night Away — Clearly we don’t go to the right sort of parties, but for those who traded the desire to be in a band for the more realistic goal of being a DJ, Marilyn Matty has just the thing to play all those indie tracks from eMusic. “DJs can forget the vinyl as long as they can put two iPods on an iPod DJ Station. I’ve never used it, and I’m not planning to, but I’m thinking of chipping in for it (it’s $180) as a present for my nephew, who is an aspiring DJ.”

A Tale of Two Headphones — Just because Apple includes a pair of earbuds with the iPod doesn’t mean you’re limited to them. Kevin van Haaren owns two different headphones for different purposes. “I keep the Koss Sparkplugs wrapped around my iPod case. They’re my emergency earbuds. They aren’t the best sounding set I have, but they’re totally acceptable and were way better than nothing when I was stuck in a tire repair place because I had a flat. They’re actually the best noise-reduction phones I’ve tried, so I use them on planes as well, and they actually stay in my ear, unlike most other earbuds. And at $15 (list price, I paid $10 for mine), they can be easily replaced after taking a lot of abuse. I’m on my second set.”

“At work I want something a little better-sounding and a little less noise-blocking (I need to hear the boss yelling at me). So I use a $60 pair of Sennheiser PX 100s. They’re the cheaper end of Sennheiser’s line and actually got a better review than two more expensive Sennheiser headphones at Dan’s Data. They come folded up in a hard case for protection when traveling (I usually throw them in my carry-on luggage and use the Koss Sparkplugs while in transit, and the Sennheiser PX 100s when I get there.) They have a funky folding mechanism that takes me a couple of tries each time to get them folded correctly, but they do travel well.”

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2006 Gift Ideas for the Macintosh-Minded

We generally focus on the world of the Macintosh, but if there’s one thing that sets a Mac user apart, it’s an interest in the outside world. As in previous years, the suggestions we’ve garnered in this category, well, defy categorization. Read on, then, for ideas that are absolutely safe for anyone, whether or not they use a Mac, and if you want to provide any feedback after the fact, TidBITS Talk is waiting.

Garden of Eatin’ — Our readers tended to assume that any Mac-minded giftee would be happy to receive a kitchen contraption, and we agree. Let’s face it: Mac people are food people. You know what we’re talking about. They don’t call those Aqua buttons “lickable” for nothing!

Marilyn Matty weighed in (hmm, maybe that’s not a very felicitous expression in this context) with the Cup-A-Cake cupcake holder, which she called “a marvel of outstanding design, engineering and market need assessment” – in other words, it’s Mac-like! “Any standard sized cupcake will fit, and it allows for a generous amount of icing (my favorite part), and will remain unsmeared, uncrumbled, unsquished, and unsquashed – even if the cupcakes are stacked or squeezed into overstuffed bags. You can even store your cupcakes upside down or sideways (though if the frosting is very creamy, it might spread a little).” Who knew that cupcake storage was such a major problem? For just $3 each, it’s a great stocking stuffer. And for good measure, Marilyn provided not one, not two, but three cupcake-related recipes so you can stuff that stuffer.

To wash down those cupcakes, Kevin van Haaren recommended Kade’s Coffee, where they roast your order just before sending it out. He particularly praised the $12.25-per-pound Tanzanian Peaberry. We hope that’s not one of those coffees that’s pre-digested by small animals.

Alex Hoffman noted Amco’s excellent citrus squeezers, color-coded according to size and citrus type (orange for oranges, green for limes, and yellow for lemons). He added: “They are incredibly quick to use, cost between $16 and $18 and, according to Cooks Illustrated, get at least as much juice as any other method (roughly twice as much as hand squeezing).”

And speaking of colors in the kitchen, Alex also pointed out this high-tech, instant-read digital food thermometer from ThermoWorks, the Thermapen. Its colors are not meaningful, but there plenty of choices; at these prices ($85) you wonder why they don’t offer free name engraving as well.

Let There Be (Green) Light — Mac users are civic-minded and technologically savvy, so while you’re thinking about spending money this holiday season, you might want to put some into saving energy. Andrew Laurence pointed out that compact fluorescent light bulbs utilize a fraction of the energy of incandescent bulbs of equal brightness; they cost more up front, making them something that many people would have trouble buying for themselves, but the energy savings can be dramatic. (Although we’ve purchased compact fluorescents only from local stores, and both appear to have decent Web sites and competitive pricing.) Styles are getting better and better; they now come in traditional bulb shapes, and some are even suitable for dimmer and 3-way applications. Kevin van Haaren acknowledged that compact fluorescents have reduced his house’s energy usage, but said that he dislikes the light (too dim, too yellow). An alternative for places where relatively low light is appropriate, he noted, might be LED bulbs from ThinkGeek; lighting sites like and may have wider selection and better pricing.

Music Hath Charms — Music and music-related products have always been a popular category in the TidBITS gift-giving roundup, and never more so now that the iPod is part of the Apple line-up. Marilyn Matty observed that, for the person who has everything, you can actually get outerwear and backpacks with integrated iPod controls.

Marilyn also added her vote for some real music, recommending The Cat Carol as sung by Meryn Cadell. “Though it’s sad, and has yet to leave a dry eye among those I’ve shared it with, it is a beautiful message about sharing and charity that’s appropriate even for non-animal lovers of all ages.”

Chris Hutcheson suggested Graham Howes’s new jazz Christmas CD, featuring “eleven unique treatments, including some seasonal songs, a few carols, and an original. The five musicians on This Quiet Night include Mike Murley on sax and Neil Swainson on bass, both of whom are internationally regarded.” Chris added there there was even a Mac tie-in: he mastered the recording on his Mac.

Car 54, Where Are You? Stephen Keese wrote in to recommend Garmin’s Nuvi 350 automotive GPS, favored by himself and some friends in the real-estate business. “It is small (almost pocket size), well designed, easy to operate, read, and understand, and speaks clearly. It has a suction cup mount and lasts for several hours before needing to be recharged. It has MP3 capability but none of us use it. We’ve found refurbished devices for around $500 on the Internet.” Needless to say, if you’re considering a Nuvi, be sure to check out Adam’s reviews of other GPS car navigation devices.

Fun and Board Games — For those who have forgotten, before there were computer games, a “game” was something played in the real, tangible, physical world. Intriguing board games always make good gifts, and Jean MacDonald wrote in about a fascinating new one called Blokus, to which she’s recently become addicted. The pieces are regular combinations of up to five squares, and the idea is simply to touch your pieces to one another, corner to corner, starting at your corner of the 20×20 board, in such a way as to play all your pieces or block your opponent, who is doing the same thing. Up to four people can play at once. Jean added: “The pieces are high-quality clear plastic in four different colors, so the finished game makes interesting patterns. It’s simple to learn, but endlessly challenging.”

Games are also at the heart of this year’s charity giving suggestion, from Kevin van Haaren. Kevin recommended Child’s Play, a movement to counter the negative media image of gamers by donating to children’s wards in hospitals. You can order directly from an Amazon wish list set up by a particular hospital, or you can send money (none of which is diverted to the charity’s administrative costs).

Roll Your Own — Mac users “think different,” so they like to make up their own minds. For those of you who just want to be left alone to form your own choices, our readers recommended some interesting guides and catalogs. Marilyn Matty told us where you can learn to dress your giftee like a Mac. That’s like the Mac in Apple’s TV ads, not like a Mac for Halloween.

Kevin van Haaren liked Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools, featuring tools people have found useful in their job or hobbies; American Science and Surplus, which features “lots of sciency-type things like beakers and flasks, but also very weird things like the ‘nun chuck‘ (a hand catapult that flings a little nun doll)”; and, of course, good old ThinkGeek, for gifts with an obviously computer-related theme.