Summary: While Christmas is ultimately about giving to others, with all the electronics on sale this is also an excellent time to pick up a gadget for yourself! In today's article Alan rounds up his Top 10 gadgets you may want to be on the lookout for this holiday season.
So without further ado:
10. LaCie Brick 250GB HD ($150)
No one ever has enough hard drive space. After a few months of use, both the person with the 80GB drive and the person with a 500GB drive will have less than 10% free. You will always find ways to use the space that you have and for that reason, buying a hard drive as a gift for a PC enthusiast is always a good idea.
While you can go with something like a Hitachi T7K250 (our Editor's Choice award winning SATA-II drive) or a Western Digital Raptor, most PC enthusiasts have already invested their money into a high-performance boot drive. This means that an external HDD is likely going to see more benefit in terms of providing a way to backup all the music, video, and digital photographs that a power user is likely to have.
I recommend the LaCie Brick simply because it looks like a giant LEGO block. While you are paying a small premium for the French-design and the gimmick factor, the attractive thing about the Brick is that the pricing is actually very competitive. Although you can sometimes find HDDs with big rebates that may or may not be fulfilled, a quick search at Newegg shows that an OEM 250GB drive runs you about $100. An IDE to USB 2.0 enclosure adds about $25. What this means is that you're only spending an extra $25 to get a LaCie Brick instead of a build-it-yourself approach. In fact, the price differential is much less because I'm comparing Newegg discount pricing against the MSRP for the LaCie Brick. Therefore, compared to pre-packaged drives from companies such as Maxtor or Western Digital, Lacie's Brick HDD is actually a bargain.
The creative design may not offer any additional performance to the hard disk, but it does show your recipient that you did more than just buy a random off-the-shelf hard drive and actually put some thought into it. A F.A. Porsche Design USB 2.0 model is also available for the same price, however we prefer the brick. For power users, the Triple Interface d2 hard drives feature USB 2.0, Firewire 400, and Firewire 800. We use the triple interface drive regularly in our own labs.
SIDEBAR: I know. That's why it's number 10 on the list.
9. DVICO Fusion 5 HDTV Tuner or VBOX Cat's Eye ($100 to 150)
For the PC gamer who has everything, consider a PCI HDTV tuner upgrade. Most major metropolitan cities and suburbs in the United States now receive free high-definition broadcasts from NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, the WB, and even PBS. What's nice about the PC HDTV solution is that you can record free off-the-air movies. Once you use your GeForce or Radeon to transmit the image to your regular TV, you now have a TIVO that does high-definition without any subscription fees. Since many movies are broadcast in 5.1 surround sound, you actually have an opportunity to record "better than DVD" quality movies provided that you're willing to fast forward through the commercials.
The ATI HDTV Wonder is the easiest HDTV tuner to find in retail stores, however ATI's Multimedia Center software is not known for its reliability. This won't be a problem with 3rd-party tools such as WatchHDTV or if the HDTV Wonder is being installed into a Windows Media Center Edition PC. While it's virtually impossible to find a DVICO FusionHDTV or the Vbox Cat's Eye in stores, we recommend retailers such as www.pcalchemy.com who have the units in stock.
As you recall, PC Alchemy is one of the best retailers for home-theater PC equipment. They have a wider selection than Newegg, more competitive pricing than Newegg for many items, and even have a perfect 10.0 on ResellerRatings.com.
Between the two HDTV tuners, in general, the DVICO is considered to offer better hardware with the ability to deal with multipath broadcast signals whereas the Vbox has better drivers making it easier to install and maintain.
8. iPod Nano ($200 to $250)
iPod with Video ($300 to 400)
If you're looking for an MP3 player to give as a gift, I'd recommend the Apple iPod nano or the iPod with video. Now, I know there are Creative Zen Micro fans out there or iAudio X5 fans who will say that their players offer better value, better sound quality, and the ability to purchase replacement batteries. Likewise, MP3 players such as the mobiBLU cube offer more style and exclusivity (even though it's sold at Wal-Mart!) in comparison to the iPod shuffle. So why am I still recommending the Apple iPod?
The answer is in the accessories.
6. Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX8 ($300)
5. Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX9 ($350)
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX8 and DMC-FX9 are two ultra-portable digital cameras that can be considered at the top of their class. These are the only cameras in this price range that feature optical image stabilization. With image stabilization, these cameras are able to take sharper shots indoors or whenever the ambient light is a problem without having to resort to a flash. Of course, as with all of the premium Lumix digital cameras from Panasonic, these cameras feature real Leica multi-coating technology.
The FX8 and FX9 are very similar cameras. The difference is that the FX8 is a 5-megapixel camera whereas the FX9 is a 6-megapixel camera with a high-resolution LCD screen. Since both cameras have the same sensor size, the image quality in prints is very similar between both cameras. The difference is primarily the LCD screen. I use a DMC-FX8 myself.
SIDEBAR: If you absolutely refuse to buy an iPod, those three products I listed are good alternatives. mobiBLU for a budget MP3 player; Creative Labs Zen Micro instead of a iPod nano; iAudio X5 instead of the iPod.
4. Sennheiser HD-590: $130
If you're buying a gift for a music lover who doesn't already have a set of high-end headphones, I recommend either the Grado SR60 ($70) or the Sennheiser HD-590. Unlike other audiophile headphones which may require accessory amplifiers, both of these headphones work well when connected directly to a portable device such as the iPod or a laptop. These headphones are an open design, which means that other people will be able to hear the music just as loudly. Although the cables that come with these headphones are too long because they're designed for home use, this is a small sacrifice for the sound quality that these headphones offer.
The HD-590 is substantially better than the Grado SR60. When it was first introduced in 2000, these headphones sold for a staggering $300! While audiophiles debated whether the sound quality of the HD-590 was up to the $300 price tag, at the close-out price of $130, there's no doubt that you'll find it difficult to find a better headphone for the same amount of money.
The Grado SR60 ($70) would be a good competitor in terms of value. It's a smaller headphone, which makes it a bit easier than the HD590 to use with portable equipment. Although it has always been a $70 product, the SR60 is consistently considered a headphone with exceptional value. If it weren't for the close-out pricing on the Sennheiser HD-590 at stores like Audio Advisor (because the HD-595's have been released), there's no doubt that the Grado SR60 would have been my top pick.
3. Nikon D50 Digital SLR Kit ($700).
Although Canon digital SLRs tend to be more popular among photography enthusiasts thanks to the larger selection of mid-grade accessory lenses, the Nikon D50 offers the best value of any digital SLR, particularly when you find it at retailers selling the kit at $700 ($100 below MSRP).
The Nikon D50 offers virtually identical image quality to the more expensive D70. The difference in price is due to fewer photographic features available such the number of shots that can be taken during a burst or the fastest shutter sync. Still, for the person who wants digital SLR image quality without any hassles, the D50 is a great choice with the closest serious competition being the Canon EOS Rebel XT which is several hundred dollars more expensive.
SIDEBAR: I'm a Canon D-SLR user myself.
2. Monster Music SuperDiscs ($25)
A tried-and-true technology gift under $25 is a DVD movie or a music CD. If you know what your recipient actually wants, it's automatically a personalized gift. But what if you don't? Well, if you're buying for a music fan, my top pick would be Monster Music's Charlie Brown SuperDiscs.
Monster Music is the recording label of Monster Cable and they're focusing on the multi-channel experience. But what makes SuperDiscs very cool is that they provide the freedom of choice. An inherent problem with multi-channel music is deciding what goes to what speaker. The sound engineer can decide to make an aggressive mix in which you feel like you're on-stage with the band or he can make more conservative mix that aims for realism, using the rear speakers just for ambience. Which approach is better? It depends on your mood and the music, and the great thing about SuperDiscs is that you get to choose. Monster Music SuperDiscs always offer multiple surround sound mixes.
There will still be those who prefer to listen in stereo, and so each SuperDisc has both a 24-bit 96 kHz PCM soundtrack as well as a separate 16-bit, 44.1 kHz standard music CD. With portable audio being important, Monster Music also includes non-DRM'd AAC and WMA files that are encoded from the digital masters. Since the WMA's and AACs are encoded from the original digital masters, these files can be encoded at 24-bit 48 kHz instead of 16-bit, 44.1 kHz you would get with ripping it from the CD. In addition to stereo AAC and WMA's, they have Dolby Headphone encoded 2-channel AAC's and WMAs which allow you to experience the 3D sound from regular headphones. Lossless AAC for use with iPods are also present (no WMA Lossless though).
So basically, a SuperDisc takes an audiophile-grade recording and allows you to experience it in any of the following ways:
a) Stereo Music CD
b) Dolby Digital 5.1 Mix #1 (aggressive/dynamic)
c) Dolby Digital 5.1 Mix #2 (conservative/realistic)
d) DTS 96/24 Mix #1 (aggressive/dynamic)
e) DTS 96/24 Mix #2 (conservative/realistic)
f) 24-bit, 96 kHz high resolution stereo PCM
g) 320 kbps 48 kHz AAC Mix #1 using Dolby Headphone (aggressive/dynamic)
h) 320 kbps 48 kHz AAC Mix #2 using Dolby Headphone (conservative/realistic)
i) 320 kbps 48 kHz AAC Stereo Mix
j) 320 kbps 48 kHz Apple Lossless Stereo Mix
k) 192 kbps 48 kHz 24-bit WMA9 Mix #1 using Dolby Headphone (aggressive/dynamic)
l) 192 kbps 48 kHz 24-bit WMA9 Mix #2 using Dolby Headphone (conservative/realistic)
But all this technology wouldn't matter if the music wasn't interesting. Usually, most "audiophile" recordings are of music that's designed for an older crowd. What's nice about these discs is that the Charlie Brown Christmas Specials have a much broader appeal.
Monster Cable offers "A Charlie Brown Christmas: Vince Guaraldi Trio", which is an audiophile remaster of the original 1965 release. Unique to Monster Cable is that they've made their mix from the original 3-track master source, something that has never been done before. For a 40-year-old soundtrack, it's amazing to see what modern sound processing can do. The better of the two Charlie Brown SuperDiscs is "40 Years, A Charlie Brown Christmas." This SuperDisc is a remake of the original but has covers from music talents such as Vanessa Williams, Toni Braxton, Chaka Khan, Brian McKnight and David Benoit. The modern interpretations work exceptionally well, and you of course have the advantage of higher quality recordings. Although the "behind the scenes" footage shows a Shigeru Kawai grand piano, it was a Steinway that was used.
SIDEBAR: The original Monster Music CD was a selection of recordings from Telarc.
1. Logitech G7 Mouse ($80)
Microsoft has successfully challenged and overtaken its competitors in
every market it has focused on ranging from operating systems to web
browsers. Even the Xbox 360 looks like it will be providing Sony with fiercer competition than anyone could have predicted 5 years ago. Still, there is one market where Microsoft has never been able to win – the computer mouse. Since 1981, Logitech has been producing the best mice on the planet. Logitech continues to outsell Microsoft and as most gamers can confirm, Logitech mice are virtually bullet proof. I have a Logitech mouse myself that's over 10 years old and is still running strong. Logitech's new G7 mouse is the best product to come out of Logitech's design team for some time.
A few months ago, I described building the Ultimate Gaming Rig. If you recall, I recommended finding a discontinued MX700 over the new MX1000 due to size and balance. Well, it seems like Logitech's design team had the same ideas as I did because the G7 has returned to the MX700 ergonomics, and brought back some of the proven ergonomics of the MouseMan+ such as the single thumb button. The distinctive feature of the G7 is the 2000 dpi Laser sensor and "gaming grade" modifications such as the extra-large Teflon feet which provide a smoother glide. The mouse also features two buttons which allow you to alter the sensitivity of the mouse without having to enter a control panel. This means that you can keep the mouse in the default mode for day to day Windows use, then decrease your precision when you're working in Photoshop and finally increase your precision when playing games. This happens in hardware and on the fly without needing to go into the mouse control panel. Before using the G7, I would have called this feature a gimmick but after using the G7 as my primary mouse for an extended period of time, I now realize that this is one of the best features of the product.
With the MX700, users were expected to charge their mouse in the cradle each evening. This became a problem and I ended up using my own high capacity 2200 mAh NiMH batteries and a 15 minute charger to deal with the power-thirsty mouse. With the G7, Logitech includes two battery packs where the second battery back is always charged so that it's possible to swap a used battery for a new one in a matter of seconds. Depending on your use, the G7 batteries last anywhere from 2 to 4 days
Ever since the original bear-claw design, Logitech has always a popular mouse of choice for gamers. Over the years, Logitech has made evolutionary changes and the G7 represents the best mouse from Logitech I've seen since the MX700. The balance is spot on and so there's no need for counter weights, and the wireless signal works with the same fluidity that you expect from a wired mouse. (It samples at 500Hz) The attention to detail that Logitech has put into the G7 is even seen through small touches such as the way the mouse shows you the current sensitivity whenever the mouse is moved and fades to the current battery level when the mouse isn't moving.
Check out the G7 in action
I can think of no other product I've reviewed in the last 7 years that has impressed me so much. A few years ago, I gave the MX700 a 97% score and an Editor's Choice Award. The G7? It's a 99% Editor's Choice product. As you know, FiringSquad is typically tougher when it comes to handing out scores – the 99% means that the G7 is truly that impressive. There are no gimmicks – just pure performance. If the G7 was a bit lower in price, it would probably be the second product in FiringSquad history to receive a perfect score. Of course, I'm assuming that you're not left-handed.
I spent the most time detailing the Logitech G7 and Monster Music SuperDisc because they're truly the best of the bunch. In fact, I would be just as happy in my Holiday Buyer's Guide talking about just those two products. There is no right-handed PC enthusiast who wouldn't enjoy using the Logitech G7 and no audiophile (who enjoys Christmas music) who wouldn't want to own "40 Years, A Charlie Brown Christmas."
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