The holiday season is here
again, and merchants are frantic to help you find gifts for your friends
and family. If your intended gift recipient is a computer enthusiast, youíre
lucky; you can choose from an enormous range of gifts to support or enhance
their computer. However, thereís one drawback: most computer-related gifts
require you to know what kind of computer and hardware the gift recipient
has, so you may need to consult with him or her before investing a lot
of money in a computer-oriented gift. So much for surprise. But that's
better than the surprise of having your gift returned.
In this article, Iíll try to suggest a variety of gifts in various price
ranges, but in deference to the title PC Stocking Stuffers, Iíll
omit gifts like new furniture to use with a PC (although a new desk or
chair may be just what your PC user needs). Suggestions will be grouped
into price ranges, although some gifts may span a wide range of costs.
Some gifts would require opening up the computer to install it. Some computer
users arenít comfortable with that, so it would be appropriate to include
installation of such hardware as part of the gift package.
I will also try to mention specific products I like in some categories,
although I havenít conducted exhaustive product surveys, and there are
lots of others available.
Inexpensive Gifts (Under $10)
Monitor screen cleaners
The best monitor in the world is useless if itís too dirty to see whatís
displayed on it. Monitor screens tend to be made of rather soft glass,
and are easy to scratch. And the new LCD monitors are even worse, theyíre
made of plastic, which is really soft. A spritz of Windex wiped off with
a soft cloth will work, but there are other screen cleaners that are both
more suitable for monitors and more convenient to use. I like one called
KleenScreen, which has both a spray-on solution and a cleaning cloth that
you advance with a knob so you always wipe the screen with a clean cloth.
There are lots of others; visit a computer store or department in an office
supply store and see which appeals to you.
Some mouse pads emphasize cute pictures on a plain flat cushioned surface;
others feature built-in wrist rests to help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.
I recommend the latter type, although the cost may be a little over the
arbitrary $10 limit. Using a mouse unsupported causes my wrist to start
tingling faster than using a keyboard; your anatomy may differ. Iíve been
using a mouse pad from Fellowes for over a year, with good results.
If your gift recipient uses their computer for more than 30 minutes
a day, a good wrist rest can extend their comfort and prevent physical
ailments. Available for keyboards and mousepads, wrist rests can be made
of foam rubber or a gel. I like the gel type like the ones by Fellowes,
but either type is better than using no wrist rest at all.
This may not be very glamorous, but if your gift recipient does a lot
of printing, they will appreciate your restocking this essential item.
And you could add a little pizzazz by buying a higher-quality paper
than the plain 20-pound bond paper cheapskates like me use. An extra-bright,
heavy (24-pound) white paper can make printed documents look much more
Medium Priced Gifts ($10-$50)
Still the best way to learn all the ins and outs of today's modern
software, computer books span the entire cost range for this category.
For many years, I have been pleased by the books published by Que, but
there are lots of others available. I continue to be amazed that anyone
would buy a book with the words dummies or idiots in the
title; you're hardly a dummy for finding computer programs hard to learn.
They are complex, non-intuitive devices and the more powerful they are,
the less sense they make. Once learned, most of them are fairly easy to
use, however. There are lots of excellent beginner-level books that don't
make you think you're a dummy if you find a program hard to learn.
Computer-based training programs
If your gift recipient prefers a more interactive approach to learning
about a program or computer than reading a book, a CD-based training program
may be appreciated. The best of these steps you through a process to accomplish
some task, and corrects your mistakes when they happen. It's almost as
good as having a real instructor present, but much cheaper. I've been satisfied
by the Professor computer based training courses.
Computer magazine subscriptions
Computer books contain a lot of concentrated information focused on
a specific task, but don't permit keeping current with new developments
in the computer field. Current developments is the province of computer
magazines, usually published monthly. These contain articles about current
developments in the computer realm, along with analysis and hardware tests.
A year's subscription to a magazine can help your gift recipient keep abreast
of fairly current news and get a better understanding of the technical
aspects of hardware and software. There are several computer magazines
available today. Some of my favorites are:
There are many other computer-oriented magazines, which have their own
area of appeal. Visit the magazine section of a Barnes and Noble store
and pick out some that coincide with the interests of your intended gift
One of the pioneers in computer journalism, PC Magazine covers new products,
technology articles, articles on business applications, and the best large-scale
competitive tests in the industry. Their annual printer issue, for example,
tries to cover every printer available at a particular time. The information
they present is easy to understand, well-explained, and very well researched.
Oriented towards gaming, this is a rather technical magazine, which explains
new developments in detail. It is very well written, and makes its technical
explanations easy to understand. The editor and writers take their work,
but not themselves, seriously. There is an undercurrent of fun throughout
the magazine that keeps the technical stuff from being dry and boring.
Its good analytical articles make PC World a worthy competitor to
PC Magazine. The one thing that annoys me is the insistence of compiling
ďtop tenĒ lists of items that donít make much sense. If you can overlook
that annoyance, PC World is a good read.
Several print magazines also publish daily newsletters which are disseminated
online to mailing lists. Subscribe to one or more of these and get really
current news. And theyíre free. Of course, you get to see a lot of online
ads, which I find much more annoying than printed ads.
Specialized paper items for the printer
Lots of possibilities here: photographic-quality paper; greeting cards;
iron-on tee-shirt transfers, business cards; labels for CDs, video tapes,
audio cassettes, diskettes, Zip disks, not to mention letters and packages
ó the list is long. If your gift recipient uses these, theyíll appreciate
having their supply replenished, or getting to try new items they were
too cheap to buy themselves (like I am).
I suspect printer manufacturers use the time-proven marketing approach
Gillette uses for razors: give away the razor and then charge high prices
for the razor blades. Inkjet printers are quite inexpensive, but they use
lots of ink, and itís expensive. So replacement ink cartridges are welcome
gifts for the computer enthusiast. Of course, you have to know what kind
of printer they have. Youíll need to know exactly what cartridge to get
for your gift recipient's printer; there are literally hundreds of different
types available. Hewlett-Packard alone must make 100 different cartridges.
Fortunately, they seem to be standardizing for their most recent printers.
Ink cartridges typically come in two sorts: black (for text) and color,
with the latter actually holding three colors of ink. Some printers use
separate cartridges for each color of ink, so you can replace only one
color when it runs out. And some printers use six different colors of ink,
which lets them reproduce photographs better.
Blank recordable CDs
CD-R and CD-RW disks are inexpensive. These discs have speed ratings
which must match the speed of the CD recorder. Most CD-R discs now support
16X speeds, but newer drives now burn CDs at up to 24X speeds, and I'm
sure they will get even faster. I find the blue dye Verbatim CD-R discs
especially good for audio. If the gift recipient likes to use clear plastic
jewel case containers for their CDs, buy them some extras; they are fragile
and break easily, so often need to be replaced. The half-height slim cases
take less storage space than standard jewel cases.
CD-R labeling systems
Making recordable CDs is lots of fun. But after you make one, how do
you tell it from the other 300 CDs you have made? One way is to apply special
labels, which identify the contents of the CD. Although several companies
(Avery, Neato, CD-Stomper, and others) make CD labels, getting them onto
the CD is not an easy task, especially if you try to align the label manually.
A CD label must be very precisely centered on the CD, or it will cause
vibration and wobbling when the CD is played. Fortunately, there are many
different CD label applicators which provide hardware to make label alignment
almost automatic. However, most of don't work very well, permitting you
to get the label slightly off center, although perhaps not enough so to
affect how the CD plays. My favorite is the Belkin CD LaunchPad, which
uses a pistol-gripped applicator that (for me) always aligns the label
perfectly, and never permits air bubbles to form under the label. It includes
the SureThing software, which has become my preferred CD labeling program.
There are lots of other choices in this field that I havenít tried, including
a new one from Avery.
Mice or trackballs
A modern mouse or trackball can be a real productivity enhancer for
a computer. If your gift recipientís mouse doesnít have a scroll wheel,
get them one that does Theyíll love it!
Lots of different models are available; Microsoft and Logitech. brands
are the dominant ones, and in my experience, tend to last longer. The new
optical mice donít pick up dirt like the mice with roller balls, and can
work on any surface in any position. The Microsoft mice we use in the Resource
Center are good values. If you have a cluttered desk, a wireless mouse
can be a boon.
Even better for cluttered desks are Trackballs, since you can use them
in your lap. They also tend to avoid the stress that can lead to carpal
tunnel syndrome. Some trackballs now have the scroll wheels that have become
almost standard on mice, and let you scroll around web pages without using
Joysticks and game pads
Indispensable for gamers. Joysticks that provide feedback make gaming
more fun, Iím told. Since Iíve never owned a joystick or game pad, I can't
recommend any specific product.
Itís so cheap, thereís no reason to have less memory than a computer
needs to operate efficiently. Adding memory to a computer with only 64
MB will make it seem like youíve bought a much faster computer. For Windows
Me, Iíve found 256 MB is optimum. Windows XP recommends 128 MB minimum,
but it will perform better with more; 256 MB is a realistic amount. You
will need to know exactly what type of memory your gift recipientís
computer uses. The Crucial
memory site has a calculator that tells you exactly what kind of memory
your computer needs. Crucial is one of the few US companies that still
makes memory chips and their prices are quite competitive, and never force
you to send in for a rebate which may never come.
Thereís a huge variety of software available, starting around $10 and
going much higher. Many games are offered in this price range, along with
some very useful utility software. Virus checker software is usually priced
under $50, and in todayís environment, is possibly the most important program
you could have. There really are lots of viruses out there, and they can
do really nasty things to your computer. Look over the PC Alamode
issues from the past year to see some good reviews of many programs. If
your gift recipient recently upgraded to Windows XP, chances are they will
need new utilities to work with that operating system.
If the gift recipientís computer has the USB connectors hidden in the
rear of the computer, or the two measly USB ports that came with the computer
are not enough for all the shiny new USB devices the gift recipient wants
to use, a USB hub can add additional USB ports, and in a location like
the desktop that is within reach. USB hubs now start at about $20 and go
up to $80. A powered USB port provides power for those USB devices
that don't have their own power supplies, like some Zip drives.
Moderately Expensive Gifts ($50-$100)
Windows XP upgrade
I was prepared to dislike Windows XP, but I was wrong. It's not only
more stable (fewer crashes), but also more logically organized, and therefore
easier to use. Not for older computers, Windows XP needs at least a 300
MHz processor (and really, even faster processors are better). But if you
have, say, a 700-MHz processor, Windows XP should be pretty speedy. In
fact, it should be faster than Windows Me, which is not saying a lot.
Voice recognition software
It still doesnít work very well, but it's fun to play with. But when
you have some serious work to do, youíll still use your keyboard.
Every computer should have a CD-recorder. Why? Itís a good backup device,
a good way to copy your audio CDs to make spares to play in your car, and
a great way to send graphics files to other family members who have slow
Internet connections. Even if your gift recipient already has a CD burner,
you may want to consider giving an upgraded model. CD burners have improved
substantially over the past year, offering dramatically faster performance,
and virtually eliminating the possibility of making a defective CD (often
referred to as a coaster). The very fastest CD burners (usually with 24X
burn speeds) still cost up to $300, but slightly slower (16X) models sell
for much less; with a little shopping, youíll find one for around $100.
Be sure your selection uses the technology that makes error-free CDs; itís
called Burn-Proof, or something similar.
This is a super-floppy drive that works with removable medium-capacity
cartridges to store data. There are two versions: a 100 MB capacity version,
and a 250 MB capacity version. The latter can use the 100 MB cartridges,
but tends to be somewhat slow with them. These drives may be internal or
external. External Zip drives are available for connections to your parallel
port, USB port, SCSI port, or FireWire port.
Zip drives are easy to use and provide lots more storage than a floppy
drive, but the Zip cartridges are rather expensive on a dollars per megabyte
basis. For backups, youíll need lots of the expensive cartridges. To me,
recordable CD-ROM drives are better buys.
FireWire (IEEE 1394) ports
This is a very high-speed (400 MB/second) connection to your computer.
Designed by Apple Computer (who named it FireWire), itís also called an
IEEE 1394 connection, and is beginning to show up on more computers. Itís
especially useful for connecting to digital video cameras, and downloading
the huge files they create for video recording. The FireWire connection
is also the official connector of high-definition TV, coming to San Antonio
in 2003. More importantly, new accessories like external Zip drives, hard
drives, and recordable CD drives are being released with FireWire connections,
which makes them faster than other such devices. At least, until USB 2.0
If your gift recipient's computer does not have a FireWire port, you
can buy an internal expansion card that will add ports in the rear of the
computer. Installation should be easy.
USB 2.0 ports
The original universal serial bus (USB) connection has proved to be
wildly successful; itís easy to use and lots of accessories take advantage
of its plug and play simplicity. But older versions are somewhat slow;
with a maximum speed of 12 MB per second, they can be overloaded by really
fast items like digital video or external hard drives. So a newer version
of the USB specification, version 2.0, has recently been implemented, which
transfers data at up to 480 MB per second. Although that should make it
a strong competitor to FireWire, I suspect the use of FireWire for HDTV
will mean that connector will be around for quite awhile.
Like FireWire expansion cards, you can buy internal USB 2.0 cards for
a computer. And like FireWire cards, their installation should be easy.
Orange Micro and Adaptec make cards that provide both USB 2.0 and FireWire
connections. Clarke Bird and I recently added Orange Micro cards, and installation
was reasonably easy.
Expensive computers are vulnerable to electrical surges, which may
be caused by lightning strikes on power lines, TV cables, or telephone
lines. Protection against those electrical surges is essential. Surge protectors
range in price from $10 to over $100, but those in this price range offer
the best value. Look for protectors with insurance policies, which will
insure your equipment against damage. Make sure the surge protector protects
all connections to the computer: electrical plugs, telephone cables, TV
cables, and network connections. Any connection that goes into your computer
is potentially a conduit for electrical power surges.
Very Expensive Gifts ($100 Up)
These look a little like Sony Walkman players, but store digitized
files in the MP3 format on internal memory chips. Most will hold an hour
of music; some even use hard drives to store much more. The nice thing
about most MP3 players is that they have no moving parts, and are good
for listening to music while exercising. The bad thing is the fidelity
of MP3 files is lower than CDs, due to a lower sampling rate and lossy
compression algorithms. But while youíre jogging, who caresí Now that Napster
is gone, the primary source of free MP3 files is cut off, so you either
have to pay for the music you download (what a concept!) or rip your own
MP3 files using your normal CDs, which is a lot more work.
Scanners take pictures of things on paper and convert those images
into graphics files a computer can read. Scanned images are normally graphics
files, but additional software (called OCR [Optical
software), converts scanned images of text into files that you can edit
with your word processor. Scanners range from under $100 to really expensive
models. More expensive units tend to be faster, and have greater resolution
(dots per inch) and bit depth (expressed as bits, where 32-bit color is
equivalent to 4,294,967,296 colors, the most my graphics card will display).
Keep in mind that the popular JPEG file format uses only 24-bit depth or
16,777,216 colors, and GIF files use 8-bit depth, permitting only 256 colors,
so scanners that produce 32, 36, or 48 bit depth are just wasting file
space for viewing images on the screen. And printers are even less capable;
the best inkjets use only six colors of ink, which are mixed on the page
to develop multicolor capability. I checked specifications for several
printers, and none gave color bit depth information. Which is a long way
of saying ďDonít be too impressed by large color bit depth specifications.Ē
DVD recorders are just beginning to show up in the marketplace. As
the name suggests, these drives, which look just like CD recorders, allow
you to record data onto DVDs. Think of these as CD recorders on steroids,
since a DVD will hold 4.7 GB of data instead of a CDís 700 MB ó almost
seven times as much as a CD! When you consider that DVDs were originally
designed to hold digitized movies, you can understand the difference in
DVD recorders for computers cost $500 or more, and blank recordable
DVDs cost $10 and up. The real drawback right now is that there are several
competing formats for DVD recorders, and theyíre not compatible. That may
not matter if youíre interested in using one of these to back up data (a
great use for the drive), but if you want to create video files that play
back on a normal DVD machine, make sure the drive you're considering is
capable of creating such files.
I suspect DVD recorders will be a much better buy next year, but if
you canít wait, at least thereís something to buy now. Hewlett-Packard
has said that beginning early next year, they will stop making CD burners
and focus only on DVD recorders.
Hereís a list of some of the recordable DVD formats available (or soon
to be available):
||Playable on Video DVD
||Rewritable up to 100,000 times
||Won't play in most DVD players
||Rewritable up to 1,000 times
||Playable on Video DVD with firmware upgrades
||Available soon; rewritable
My pick for probable winner of the DVD format contest. Compatible
with large number of formats, including DVD video
Internal hard drives
If your gift recipientís hard drive is small (8 GB or less) or almost
full (80% or more of its total capacity is used), a new hard drive will
provide a much-needed capability. And todayís hard drive prices are at
an all-time low. For example, I recently saw a 100 GB hard drive for only
$270 ó incredible! And Maxtor has announced a 160 GB drive! Be aware that
very large drives will need new controllers, since the standard EIDE connection
supports drives ďonlyĒ up to 137 GB. Iím sure that the makers of such drives
will be happy to provide upgraded controllers. The PC BIOS may need to
be upgraded also.
You may wonder who needs such huge drives. The answer is: anyone doing
serious video editing, graphics work, or collecting music files.
Modern EIDE hard drives spin at a speed of 7200 RPM, which provides
a noticeably faster response than older drivesí 5400 RPM. There are still
some 5400 RPM models around at budget prices, but these should be used
only when drive speed doesnít matter. Normally, you should be careful to
buy a faster drive; it makes the computer perceptibly faster.
Adding a second hard drive not only gives you more storage space, but
also a meaningful backup option. You can copy the contents of one hard
drive to another, and if the first drive crashes, the second one can provide
an identical duplicate you can use with little trouble. Which drive should
you buy? Visit the Drive
Service Website for a rating of current drives. They like Fujitsu and
IBM drives, but be aware that all drives eventually crash.
The mean-time-between-failure ratings drive makers quote in their specifications
do not reflect my real-world experience, nor that of most of my friends.
External hard drives
External hard drives offer an easy way to increase a computerís storage
capacity without the hassle of opening the case and fooling around with
hardware. And they provide several other advantages: you can share them
between two (or more) computers, and you can use them for backing up your
main hard drive (disconnecting the drive after the backup is completed
to prevent virus infections). External hard drives can connect via USB
or FireWire cables, with the latter being substantially faster. Unfortunately,
external hard drives are rather expensive; at least twice as much as an
equivalent internal drive. Thatís logical, since external drives must have
cases and power supplies.
Video cards create the image that is displayed on a monitor. Better
video cards have elaborate video processing chips that are specialized
for graphics tasks, and download those tasks to the video card instead
of requiring the CPU to perform them. Video cards also have their own memory
ó up to 64 MB of it ó freeing up main memory for better uses. Video chips
tend to specialize in creating three-dimensional images, which is a very
demanding task that plays a big part in making games more realistic. It
doesnít do much for standard business computer applications, however.
Several cards use nVidiaís blazingly fast GeForce 3 chip. ATIís new
Radeon 8500 chip may be even faster than the GeForce 3, but competition
is fierce, and manufacturers typically release completely new chips twice
a year. However, software doesnít adapt to these new chips as fast as they
are released, and so may not be able to take advantage of the latest capabilities.
NVidia has a new GeForce 3Ti 500 chip which should be even faster than
their earlier GeForce 3 chips. It never ends.
Some video cards have additional features that may appeal to a user.
For example, several cards have an output connector that let you display
the video image on a standard TV. Some have video capture capability that
let you capture video images from a DVD as individual graphics, which you
can edit and use in other programs. Other cards provide hardware decoding
of DVD images, which is usually faster than software DVD decoders and produces
smoother onscreen displays.
Sound cards systems
If thereís been any area to single out for significant development
over the past year, itís the sound system. I started to call this section
sound cards, and then realized that some of these systems arenít really
cards. The biggest trend is the breakout box, which moves functions out
of the computer into a small box on the desktop. There are two reasons
why this makes sense. First, the interior of a computer is an electronically
noisy environment, and keeping that noise out of a sound system is a chore.
Second, a standard audio card must have all its connectors on the back
of its plug-in card, which is extremely limited in space. Breakout boxes
provide additional space on which to place connectors. If youíve ever seen
a professional CD recorder, you can see how much flexibility a wide variety
of connectors affords a user.
Two sound systems by mainstream audio companies Onkyo and Yamaha use
completely external boxes which connect to the computer via USB connectors;
no sound card is needed. The Onkyo SE-U55 provides many audio and digital
connectors in its external box, including optical TosLink connectors that
my digital audio tape recorder uses to transfer information in the digital
domain. The Yamaha RP-U200 adds an FM tuner to its external box, along
with 14 watt (RMS) per channel amplifiers that make it possible to use
speakers that aren't specifically designed for computers. That opens up
a wide range of speaker options not usually available for computers. The
Yamaha would make a great gift for a college dorm dweller who lacks space
for a separate audio system, since it provides most of the functionality
of separate systems. It lacks features that may be important to gamers,
like EAX and Direct Sound 3D, however.
The Onkyo SE-U55 similarly works through a USB port, but produces stereo
output only. Itís really for someone who want to make the PC part of a
stereo sound system.
Hercules was one of the first companies to design an audio card that
plugs into the computerís internal bus, and also uses an external breakout
box. Its breakout box also contains a variety of connectors that increase
the flexibility of working with other devices.
The latest audio system to hit the shelves is Sound Blasterís Audigy
series, which has several variations. All Audigy versions use a 24-bit/96
KHz chip to decode the new DVD Audio discs, as well as normal CDs. Some
Audigy models have breakout boxes, both internal and external. Sound Blaster
is the industry standard and the Audigy should increase their market share.
The monitor is the principal way the computer user sees the output
of their computer, so itís exceedingly important to have a monitor with
sharp images and vivid colors. Any desktop system with a 15-inch monitor
is begging for a monitor upgrade. Seventeen-inch monitors are now the smallest
size one should consider, and 19-inch monitors are becoming quite common.
Monitors with flat screens are preferable to those with curved screens,
since they produce more accurate images, and are less prone to producing
distracting reflections. I recently had the opportunity to use a flat-screen
21-inch monitor for laying out pages of a plan at work, and it was a real
treat, even though it was attached to an unfamiliar McIntosh computer.
monitors produce gorgeous images, but are still two to three times as expensive
as standard CRT (Cathode
monitors (like a TV). But prices have dropped so that 15-inch LCD monitors
can be purchased for $400, while more useful 17-inch LCD monitors cost
as little as $600. The size of LCD monitors is not directly comparable
to CRT monitors; the latter tend to provide one inch less viewable images
than the size of the picture tube, while LCD panels produce images equal
in size to their rating. In other words, a 19-inch CRT monitor really produces
only 18 inches of viewable picture (at best), while a 19-inch LCD monitor
would produce a full 19 inches of viewable picture. Some LCD monitors are
noticeably slower than CRT monitors, and may have trouble keeping up with
fast motion in DVD video. Finally, if you decide to buy an LCD monitor,
be sure itís compatible with the video card in the computer.
Hereís a rule of thumb: buy laser printers for fast, inexpensive printing
of high-quality text and gray scale graphics, and inkjet printers for color
and moderate-quality text printing. Some inkjets have ports that let you
insert CompactFlash or SmartMedia chips from digital cameras and print
pictures directly, without even using your computer.
Most people select inkjet printers for home use, since they want to
print color. I recommend a name-brand printer like Hewlett-Packard, Epson,
Canon, or Lexmark. Before you buy, make sure that ink cartridges are readily
available, and check their prices. Inkjet cartridges tend to be rather
Thereís no test for printer quality like the direct eyeball test. In
other words, visit a store with a number of printers on display, and print
out sample copies of documents which include both graphics and text. Be
sure the text is smoothly formed, and doesnít look jagged. A good test
for text quality is to ask yourself the question, ďWould I want to print
my résumé with this printer?Ē Actually, the text from some
inkjet printers is quite good. Graphics should have good color fill, free
from bands that can occur when the print head moves across the page.
Speakers that come with most computers are minimal. If your gift recipient
likes to listen to music seriously, play games that feature well-developed
sound, or view video DVDs on their computer, upgraded speakers will be
a welcome gift.
Serious speakers for computers come in two forms: two-channel or surround
sound. Surround sound for computers comes in four channels plus a subwoofer,
or five channels plus a subwoofer. Home theater sound systems usually consist
of five channels plus a subwoofer, although some are beginning to feature
even more than five channels. For speakers that are hung on the side of
a monitor, or placed very close to the monitor, four-channel systems should
be fine. If the front left and right channels speakers are placed some
distance from the monitor, the center-channel speaker in a five-channel
system may be useful.
Speaker choice is very personal, and what sounds good to one person
may sound terrible to another. However, Klipsch speakers always get good
reviews, especially for gaming systems. The fact that they have 400 watts
of amplifier power probably has something to do with their high ranking,
or perhaps itís their heavy-duty subwoofers, which can reproduce truly
deep bass. Their best speaker systems are THX-rated, just like home theater
Try to listen to any speakers you are considering before buying them.
And get return privileges.
It may be stretching things to consider this as a PC accessory, but
try using one without a PC. A full treatment of digital cameras would warrant
a separate article, but here are some rules of thumb. First, a camera is
a camera, regardless of whether itís digital or a film type. Any good camera
must start with a good lens. Traditional camera companies like Nikon, Canon,
Olympus, and Minolta (to name a few) have reputations for excellent lenses.
And Sony uses lenses made by respected lens maker Carl Zeiss on their better
The most often-quoted specification for digital cameras is the number
of megapixels (millions of picture elements) the digital imager provides.
A higher number of megapixels produces more detailed graphics picture files,
which support larger printed images. Megapixel ratings start at one megapixel
for budget cameras, and go up to 5 megapixels for higher-end consumer cameras.
Professional cameras offer even higher pixel ratings, but at prices well
An important consideration when buying a digital camera is how easy
it is to use. It should have both an optical viewer for aiming the camera
at the object youíre photographing, and an LCD panel to preview pictures
you have taken. Some cameras use their LCD panels to aim the camera, but
LCDs tend to be very hard to see in bright daylight. And using the LCD
a lot tends to use up the cameraís batteries faster. The layout of the
controls is a big factor in ease of use. If they are awkwardly placed,
or too small, the camera will be hard to use.
Digital cameras use removable memory chips to store pictures. The most
common types of camera memory chip are SmartMedia and CompactFlash, while
Sony uses a proprietary memory stick. Sometimes called digital film, the
small chips can be replaced when they are full, enabling the user to continue
taking pictures. The downside of the higher pixel images is that they take
huge amounts of storage space, which fills up your cameraís memory faster.
So keep a few extra CompactFlash or SmartMedia chips handy if youíre planning
to shoot lots of pictures. Or use a hard drive memory card to store up
to 1 GB of pictures. CompactFlash or SmartMedia chips would make good gifts
for someone who already has a digital camera.
Digital cameras have a voracious appetite for batteries, but often donít
come with rechargeable batteries to keep prices low. So rechargeable batteries
(and chargers) can be a great gift for the digital camera enthusiast. NiMH
batteries are often recommended for digital cameras, but in my experience,
tend to lose their charge over time.
Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)
If your gift recipient has erratic electrical power, or canít afford
to lose work if the power goes off for any reason, a UPS can be a great
gift. Basically, these devices use rechargeable batteries to provide power
for a short time if the electrical power to the computer goes off. Most
UPSs will run for 10-15 minutes, allowing you to save your work, and power
down the computer correctly. Most UPSs also have excellent surge protection
capabilities, as well. Prices start around $100. Of course, if youíre using
a laptop computer, its internal batteries serve as a UPS, but donít forget
to use a surge protector.
Where should you buy?
I stand by Forresterís Axiom of Computer Purchases, which says: ďBuy
computer hardware locally and software wherever you can find the best price.Ē
The advertisers in PC Alamode offer some great values,
so I suggest starting there. As with any gift purchased during the holiday
season, be very clear what the return policy is, in case your gift recipient
isnít thrilled with the gift, or the gift is incompatible with the computer.
Avoid stores that impose a restocking charge on gift merchandise. Itís
a good idea to get the return policy in writing.
Since they are so common, I feel constrained to mention a marketing
abomination in current use: rebates. Rebates allow advertisers
to claim truly low prices, but such prices include a rebate from the manufacturer
or store. According to data I have seen, only about 2% of customers bother
to submit rebates, so the rebate ploy is obviously achieving the goal of
getting the customer to buy items at substantially higher prices than listed.
Does anyone besides me have any objections to the ethics of this practice?
The answer is: yes. The Federal Trade Commission is currently investigating
shoddy rebates practices by several large companies.
Even those rebates that are submitted are often rejected without explanation,
for the flimsiest of excuses. And even if you do receive a rebate, it is
often long after you submit it, and not associated with a particular product.
The worst offenders are the Internet rebates. Offering discounts up to
$400, these are really deferred payment plans, which lock you into specific
Internet Service Providers at high costs, and sometimes canít be cancelled.
Many people who recently bought computers donít feel the need for more
speed that normally justifies buying a whole new computer. But the parts
of the computer can be upgraded to maintain near-state of the art performance
and keep the computer enthusiast happy. This is the year of upgrades, so
take advantage of that when composing your shopping list.
||Publishing deadlines required this article be submitted
by November 10th, so prices and availability are current for that point
in time. The major computer sales event, COMDEX, took place in early November,
so there may be even newer/faster/better hardware and software on the shelf