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PC Stocking Stuffers
2002 Edition

Vade Forrester is older than dirt and only slightly prettier. That's what happens when you hang around Alamo PC forever. 

In an article in the October 6, 2002 San Antonio Express-News titled ďFaster not better for average PC user,Ē  John Markoff wrote 
But computers have reached a point where for the most common home purposes ó Web surfing, e-mail and word processing ó they are already more than fast enough to suit a typical home userís needs.
Apparently, lots of people agree with Mr. Markoff; new computer sales slumped in 2002. However, technology grinds relentlessly forward, so maybe a potential gift recipient would appreciate it if you upgraded his or her computer with some of the latest developments. As I mentioned in a similar article last year, thereís one drawback to buying computer-related gifts: youíll need a fairly detailed knowledge about what kind of computer and hardware your intended gift recipient has, so you may need to consult with him or her before investing a lot of money in a computer-oriented gift. Alternately, get a firm (preferably written) guarantee you can return a purchase without penalty if you buy a gift without first checking with the recipient.

Iíll try to suggest 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. The symbol * indicates that a particular gift may require opening up the computer to install it. Some computer users arenít comfortable with that, so it would be appropriate to include installation costs as part of the gift package. Some items are available in versions that go inside the computer case, or in external versions that plug into a USB or FireWire port. The latter are easy to install and can be shared among several computers.

I will also try to mention specific products I like; but those represent my own limited experience, and you may find something else better suited to your gift recipient. Also, this article is written before COMDEX, where many new items will be introduced.

Consumables are items which are used up during the computing experience. Therefore, these are always gift possibilities.

Screen cleaners
Iím often amazed at how dirty some of my coworkersí monitors screens are. The mere act of cleaning a dirty monitor often turns a painful computer session into a pleasant one. Monitor screens are made of rather soft glass, which are easy to scratch. A spritz of Windex (non-drip version) 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 use Glass Plus Wipes from HEB, but that wouldnít make a very classy gift. LCD monitors are even more challenging to keep clean ó theyíre made of really soft plastic. I would recommend a specialized screen cleaner for LCD monitors, either stand-alone or built into a laptop computer. Computer stores will have a variety of screen cleaners; pick one thatís designed for the type of monitor you use. 

Canned air
Yes, thatís right, you can buy cans of air; compressed, of course! They are one of the most useful tools you can find for blasting dust and debris out of anything from a monitor screen to a power supply, where they help get rid of the dust bunnies that fans suck into the computer. I used compressed air to blow out my keyboard; and was amazed at the crud under the keys. Compressed air cans range in price from $2.50 per can (Samís Club) to over $10 per can. And guess what ó air is air, so cheaper is good. A company called Read Right makes a rechargeable compressed air can for those who use these devices frequently. They have both manual and electric air pumps. Since I use compressed air to blow dust off my LP collection, this item may appear on my Christmas list.

Printer paper
This may not be very glamorous, but if your gift recipient does a lot of printing, they may appreciate your resupplying this essential item. You could add some class by getting a higher-quality paper than the cheap 20-pound copier paper I use. An extra-bright (90 brightness or higher), heavy (24-28 pound) white paper can make printed documents look much more vivid, especially colors.

Specialized paper items for the printer
This category contains many gift possibilities: photographic-quality paper; blank greeting cards; iron-on tee-shirt transfers, business cards; labels for CD-ROMs, video tapes, audio cassettes, diskettes, Zip disks 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
Printer manufacturers are enthusiastic practitioners of Gilletteís time-proven marketing strategy: give away the razor and then charge high prices for the razor blades. Even cheap (under $100) inkjet printers can be quite good, 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 recipientís printer; there are literally hundreds of different types available. Hewlett-Packard alone must make 100 different cartridges. 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.

Recordable CD/DVDs
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 at least 24X speeds, but newer drives can burn CDs at up to 52X speeds. At this speed, the blank CD is spinning at 10,000 RPM, and there have been cases where inferior blank CDs have disintegrated at such high speeds! 

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. The half-height slim cases take less storage space than standard jewel cases, but are harder to insert cover art into.

Recordable DVDs are not inexpensive, but they are rapidly dropping in price. I recently saw  DVD-R discs for about $1.20 each, much cheaper than their original $10 or so. You must know what type of DVD burner your gift recipient has, since there are three main types, incompatible with each other. See the section on DVD-burners.

CD-R labels
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. Youíll need to find out what kind of applicator your gift recipient uses; alternately, you could buy him or her a new one. My favorite is the Belkin CD LaunchPad, if you can find it.

CD/DVD storage
Once your gift recipient has burned and labeled a CD or DVD, what do they do with it? Leaving it out unprotected invites damage. A variety of CD/DVD storage containers would make good gifts. The first type is a CD envelope. Basically just a small envelope the size of a CD, with a plastic window that lets one read the label, these are made from either paper or the much stronger Tyvek. Their advantage is that they are cheap and take a minimum amount of storage space. One can stick labels on the back of the envelope with information about the CD.

Plastic jewel cases are the traditional containers for CDs, and they are readily available for low prices. Half-width versions are half the thickness of the standard jewel boxes in which audio CDs are packaged, and so take less storage space.

CD organizers
These look like notebooks with special sleeves that hold CDs or DVDs. Some have some nylon outer shells, while others have hard plastic shells. Iíve seen them with capacities of 264 CDs, but they are available in smaller and cheaper sizes. These are especially great for carrying a collection of audio CDs in your car.

Accessories are items that can enhance the computing experience in many ways. They can help you use your computer and software, train you, or expand the ways you use your computer. They can also make your computing experience more comfortable.

Computer books
Still the best way to learn all the ins and outs of todayís 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 hundreds of others available. There are lots of excellent beginner-level books that donít make you think youíre 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. Itís almost as good as having a real instructor present, but much cheaper, and more patient. 

Computer magazine subscriptions
Current computing developments are covered in computer magazines, usually published monthly. A yearís 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.
  • Computer Power User (CPU). 
    This magazine began publication during 2002, and, like Maximum PC, caters to the technically inclined and power game player. Itís still very readable, and has interesting features like a monthly competition between the editor and staffers to see who can design the best computer.
Webmaster's Note:  And, of course, don't forget PC Alamode.

Many other computer-oriented magazines appeal to other areas of interest. Visit the magazine section of your local Barnes and Noble store and pick out some that coincide with the interests of your intended gift recipient.

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. Even if you have an optical mouse, you still slide the mouse around on a surface, and a mouse pad can provide a smooth, even surface to improve your control of your mouse.

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. Wrist rests benefit an optical mouse user just as much as mechanical muse user. I like gel-filled wrist rests.

Copy holders
Relics from the day of the typewriter, these devices hold pieces of paper close to your monitor so itís easy to view them as you type. Many of these stick to the top or side of a monitor so the user can swivel them out of the way when theyíre not in use. Other models sit on a desktop beside your monitor and look like small easels that hold pages to be typed. Prices range from $1.60 upward.

USB Notebook Lights
If you use your notebook computer in dimly lit environments, you may wish for light to see the keyboard. This accessory plugs into a USB port and draws power from the notebookís battery to provide a little bit of illumination for your work.

Mice or trackballs
A modern mouse or trackball can greatly enhance productivity. If your gift recipientís mouse doesnít have a scroll wheel, get them one that does Theyíll love it!

New mouse designs show up weekly. Microsoft and Logitech are the dominant brands, and in my experience, tend to last longer. Optical mice donít pick up dirt like the mice with roller balls, and can work on any surface in any position (even upside down). 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 some of the stress that can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. Some trackballs now have the scroll wheels like those which 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. 

Although prices are no longer at their all-time low, memory is still so cheap, thereís no reason to skimp on having sufficient memory for your computer 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.

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 donít have their own power supplies, like some Zip drives. Make sure the hub is certified to work with USB 2.0 connections, which are much faster than previous versions.

USB-based flash memory devices
These items (sometimes called mini drives or keys) are basically a flash memory chip attached to a USB connector and encapsulated in a protective plastic or metal shell. When you plug them into a USB port, their onboard chips tell Windows XP, Me, or 2000 that these devices are external drives and you can read data from them  or write data to them. With capacities up to two GB, these drives offer a very useful alternative for exchanging data between computers with USB ports. The cost depends on the capacity of the drive along with other factors; Iíve seen a 32 MB version for $33.

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 Klez virus infested environment, is easily the most important program you can buy. McAfee and Norton antivirus programs are among the most popular, and they have saved my computer from virus attacks. My Norton Antivirus program catches several attempted Klez invasions every day!

Windows XP upgrade
Windows XP is one of the best upgrades I have ever installed; itís much more stable (fewer crashes), 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, at least 128 MB of RAM, and a reasonable amount of space on your hard drive, Windows XP should be pretty speedy. In fact, it should be faster than Windows Me, which is not saying a lot. You can save money by buying an upgrade version Windows XP if your gift recipient has Windows 98 or later; Windows 95 and earlier versions will require a full, non-upgrade version. For most users, the Home edition of Windows XP is quite sufficient. However, Bill Machrone of PC Magazine disagrees. I contend that most of the uses Mr. Machrone cites are not likely to be bothersome to the average home user, but itís worthwhile to look at the article to see if his objections would affect you.

Voice recognition software
It still doesnít work very well, but itís fun to play with. But when you have some serious work to do, youíll still use your keyboard.

Major hardware upgrades add or replace significant parts of your computer. Often you will have a choice of an internal or external version of the hardware. If you opt for an external version (which doesnít require opening the computer case to install it), be prepared to spend a bit more money, and to have additional desk space available. Be sure any external hardware upgrade you buy has a high-speed interface, preferably USB 2.0. 

*CD burners 
Every computer should have a CD-recorder, usually called a CD-burner. 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 introduce during the past year offer dramatically faster performance, and prices have dropped to amazingly low level. The fastest CD burners (usually with 48X burn speeds now cost as little as $80 (often offset even further by rebates), but slightly slower models sell for even less. External models will run $100 or more.

*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 real soon now. More importantly, numerous 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. Although specifications for FireWire connections say itís slower than USB 2.0, some tests I recently saw indicate otherwise.

If your gift recipientís 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. Windows XP provides a fine FireWire driver.

*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 have a maximum speed of only 12 MB per second, so they can be overloaded by really fast items like digital video or external hard drives. A newer version of the USB specification, version 2.0, 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. My (much cheaper) Orange Micro card has worked flawlessly with both USB and FireWire. Windows XP provides fine drivers for both interfaces.

Surge Protectors
Computers are vulnerable to electrical surges, which may be caused by lightning strikes on power lines, TV cables, or telephone lines. Surge protectors range in price from $10 to over $100. 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.

MP3 players
These devices store digitized files in the MP3 format on internal memory chips, hard drives, or CDs. Most will hold an hour of music; those that use hard drives or CDs hold much more. The nice thing about the memory chip 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 cares? 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 from your audio CDs, which is 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 OCR (Optical Character Recognition) , 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 I would look for a scanner with a USB 2.0 interface if I were buying one today; it should be faster.

*DVD burners
DVD recorders are becoming popular 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 MB 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. 

Computer DVD recorders have dropped in price over the past year; some costing $300 or less, and blank recordable DVDs have dropped to as low as $1.20 each, with even cheaper ones expected soon. As Dale Swafford cogently chronicled in the October 2002 PC Alamode, 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 youíre considering is capable of creating such files. 

*Internal hard drives 
If your gift recipientís hard drive is small (10 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, in todayís newspaper, one store offers a 120 GB drive for $200! Be aware that some extremely large drives will need new controllers, since the standard EIDE connection supports drives ďonlyĒ up to 137 MB. 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 Seagate drives, but be aware that all drives eventually crash. The mean-time-between-failure ratings drive makers quote in their specifications are not at all realistic for normal use.

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 2.0 or FireWire cables. External hard drives are somewhat more expensive than internal equivalents; but prices fell during the past year. You still pay a little extra for their have cases and power supplies.

Zip drives
This is a super-floppy drive that works with removable medium-capacity cartridges to store data. There are three versions: a 100 MB, 250 MB, and a new 750 MB version, which touts high speed (50X50X50X). However, Iomega doesnít say what that speed rating means; an article in Maximum PC says they are slower than 48X CD burners, and the Zip disks are much more expensive. The 750 MB Zip drive can use the 250MB cartridges as well as its native 750 MB version. These drives may be internal or external, except for the 750 MB version, which is external only. 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, especially considering how fast the current crop is.

*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 128 MB of it ó freeing up main memory for better uses. High-end 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 4 chip; however, ATIís new Radeon 9700 Pro chip currently holds the title as fastest game video card. 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. 

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 
If your gift recipientís computer has its sound system built into its motherboard, he or she might like an improved sound card. These come in either a card that plugs into an internal PCI expansion slot, or one that also has an external 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. A new design from Creative Labs, the Soundblaster Extigy, connects to the computer via a USB port, so doesnít require opening the case. That makes it very useful to someone who wants to upgrade the (usually pitiful) sound from a laptop computer.

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.

Sound Blaster is the industry standard. Their Audigy series of video cards may be the most popular in use today; and come in several versions. 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. These move the connectors from the back of the computer into a panel on the front of a computer, or into a separate box that sits outside your computer. The advantage of a breakout box is that it makes room for more connectors and is easier to reach.

If your gift recipient is interested in using their computer for serious audio editing, be aware that the Audigy cards do not really produce high fidelity quality sound, although theyíre fine for game audio reproduction, DVD sound, and casual listening to CDs. Someone who wants to do serious, professional grade audio editing will need a specialty card that may be a bit expensive, but thatís beyond the scope of this article. They are available at local music stores, like Mars or Hermes.

The monitor is the principal way the computer user sees the output of their computer, so itís quite 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. 

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 as little as $400, while more useful 17-inch LCD monitors cost as little as $500. And 18 to 19 inch LCD monitors are beginning to drop in price. 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, TV, or games. 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. 

For a useful comparison of current printers, visit PC Magazineís web site.

Speakers that come with most computers are aurally challenged. 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. If the gift recipientís computer has a mediocre sound card, expensive speakers are a waste of money.

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. Sonyís better cameras use lenses made by respected optician Carl Zeiss, while Panasonic cameras use Leica lenses (and Leica cameras use Panasonic bodies).

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 above 6 megapixels for semi-pro cameras. A 3 megapixel camera should produce a decent 8X10 print, while higher resolution cameras will produce even better prints or good larger prints, if your printer handles larger paper.

A huge megapixel count wonít do the user much good if the camera is hard 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 wash out 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 the buttons 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 camera’s memory faster. So keep a few extra CompactFlash or SmartMedia chips handy if you’re planning to shoot lots of pictures. Or use a hard drive memory card to store up to one 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 don’t 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 tend to lose their charge over time. The user will need to recharge the batteries before a photo shoot.

I couldn’t begin to recommend a camera for your gift recipient, but take a look at PC Magazineís Web site for a comparison of current cameras.

Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)
If your gift recipient has erratic electrical power (which San Antonio often does), 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 stuff?
Forresterís Axiom of Computer Purchases, which says: ďBuy computer hardware locally and software wherever you can find the best priceĒ has not failed me yet. 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.

If you would rather buy online, there are lots of sites, and I canít begin to list even a representative sample. So Iíll give you my favorite of the moment. This store focuses on computer supplies and accessories, just the type of things discussed here. For a better selection of major computer parts, like video cards, I would look elsewhere.

In closing, many people donít feel the need to spring for a whole new computer. By upgrading parts of their computers, you can maintain near-state of the art performance and keep the computer enthusiast happy with their old machine.  

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 will be even newer/faster/better hardware and software on the shelf in December, when this will reach you.

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Alamo PC Organization, Inc.
San Antonio, TX USA