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PC Stocking Stuffers


Vade Forrester is a long-time contributor to PC Alamode and is a past president of Alamo PC Organization.

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.

Mouse pads
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.

Wrist rests
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. 

Printer paper
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 vivid.

Medium Priced Gifts ($10-$50)
Computer books
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:

  • PC Magazine
    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.
  • Maximum PC
    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.
  • PC World
    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.
  • Online magazines
    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.
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 recipient.
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).

Inkjet cartridges
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 scroll bars.

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.

USB hubs
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.

CD burners
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.

Zip drives
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 becomes widespread.

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.

Surge Protectors
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)
MP3 players
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 Character Recognition] 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
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 capacity. 

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):
Format Capacity Description Compatibility
DVD-R 4.7 GB Write-once Playable on Video DVD
DVD-RAM 4.7 GB Rewritable up to 100,000 times Won't play in most DVD players
DVD-RW 4.7 GB Rewritable up to 1,000 times Playable on Video DVD with firmware upgrades
DVD+RW 4.7 GB 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
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. 

LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) monitors produce gorgeous images, but are still two to three times as expensive as standard CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) 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 expensive.

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 speakers.

Try to listen to any speakers you are considering before buying them. And get return privileges.

Digital cameras
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 cameras.

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 above $1000. 

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. 

In closing
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.

Authorís note:  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 in December.

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