MacTech 2005 High-Tech Gift Guide
Volume Number: 21 (2005)
Issue Number: 12
Column Tag: Reviews
MacTech 2005 High-Tech Gift Guide
Gift Giving Goodness
by Michael R. Harvey
Some of the Best Stuff for the Techies on Your Holiday List
It's that time of year again, kids, time for our best picks for holiday gift giving. Whether it's Christmas, Chanukah, Festivus, or whatever, the following is what we think are great holiday gift ideas for 2005.
Sonos Digital Music System
When I bought my home a few years ago, I had the opportunity to wire it before the drywall went up. Cat 5 wire went in all over the place, of course, but I also put in a bunch of speaker wire, thinking I would use that to pump music into every room from a central point in the house. Well, most folks don't have the chance to do that. Sonos has a very cool method for getting the same result without having to run a bunch wire all over the floors or tear into the walls.
The Sonos Digital Music System is a hardware/software combination that takes your music collections, wherever they are stored, and lets you play them in any room in the house.
The Sonos Zone Players are the devices you put around the house that receive the music signal. The first one has to be either plugged into a router, or put inline between a computer and router. Hook up the speakers, plug in the power, and you are ready to go. After that, every additional Zone Player you bring online (up to 32 total) can be connected to your Sonos network via Ethernet, or attached through its own Sonosnet secure peer-to-peer wireless network. On the back of each player are RCA jacks and wire terminals for attaching speakers, as well as a four-port 10/100 switch that lets you attach any additional network devices you'd like.
The Sonos Controller is the device you use to manage the Zone Players, and set what songs play on what Zone Controllers. You can have a different song playing from each Zone Player in the house or link them to output the same song. The controller is easy to use: Pick a song, pick a zone, and push play. You can control any zone from anywhere within range of the network. (It could be a great way to freak out someone in the bedroom from the backyard!) Some other features include:
- The 3.5" backlit color LCD screen is easy to read, indoors or out.
- It's splash resistant; all the seams are gasketed.
- It has a built-in motion sensor so it automatically wakes up when you pick it up..
Run the installer on your Mac (or Windows PC), and it will install the assistant software, guide you through configuring and opening up your network to Sonos, and making your music collections available to the Zone Players. After that, the Sonos Assistant application can manage your rig. With the Assistant, you can name your set up and zones, add/delete additional music collections, and control how the system works and connects. The Sonos system supports MP3, AAC, WAV, and AIFF, among others (although DRM encoded files are not currently supported).
The Sonos Digital Music System is for audiophiles who must have their music follow them throughout the house. This will be a pricey gift. The base system of two Zone Players and one controller will run $1199 (a system including two sets of high performance bookshelf speakers is $1499). Additional Zone Players are $499 each. Go for this and you'll pretty much blow the Christmas budget; though, you will score serious brownie points if you give it to someone instead of keeping it for yourself.
One final note about purchasing a Sonos system: When you do, you get an extra bonus. Because they have entered into an agreement with Get Digital music conversion service, you get a discount on their CD to MP3 conversion service. On an order of 75 or more discs, you get 25 free. A pretty nice deal on a very good service, but we'll tell you more about that later. www.sonos.com
EyeTv and EyeHome
Tivo is a great product. It has a slew of features that make it better than any VCR ever conceived, but it's too easy. It is a consumer device. El Gato has a far geekier solution to get the same functionality, plus a few tricks Tivo can't turn. The combination of the EyeTV 200 and EyeHome units get your TV, Mac, home network, and nerd gene all involved in the digital recording of television content.
The first component of the fun is the EyeTV 200. It's a small box that gets your cable TV signal into your Mac. It has a 124 channel analog TV tuner that can take in any basic (unencoded) cable signal via coax, and put it on your computer screen. It also has composite and S-Video video in ports for hooking up, say, a VCR. With those extra connectors you can move old recorded tapes onto your computer via the EyeTV box. Unlike its predecessor, the EyeTV USB, the 200 connects via--and can be powered by--FireWire. FireWire allows the EyeTV unit to move more data into the computer, making recording of higher quality data possible. The EyeTV 200 turns your computer into a DVR, and records MPEG-2 DVD quality data. Pausing live television, time shifting, and recording shows--it's all there. Plus, EyeTV does things your Tivo cannot. With the included and regularly updated software, you have the ability to do basic editing of your saved TV shows. You can also burn saved shows to VCD or DVD, using Toast. Or, you can export your recorded shows into iDVD, or iMovie. Programming of EyeTV is handled through the TitanTV web site. They integrate seamlessly, and it works very well. In fact, you can set up TitanTV and EyeTV to program shows for recording over the Internet. The EyeTV is, by itself, a great product. It's just fun to use.
The next component in this patchwork of geekery is the EyeHome. This is the bit that connects your computer's EyeTV archive of shows with your TV, over your home network. Note, however, that you don't necessarily need a wire to put the EyeHome on your network. El Gato has instructions on their web site that describe how to use an Airport Express to put your EyeHome on the LAN wirelessly. EyeHome has a software component that provides the link to the EyeHome box. The box itself connects to the TV via component or optical cables. When it is turned on, and logged into your computer, you get a menu that lets you access the stored EyeTV shows you've recorded. That's not all, though: The EyeHome allows you access to your iTunes library, your iPhoto library, and the contents of your Movies folder. You can play all the clips you have stored on your computer; something Tivo has been promising Mac users for years but has yet to deliver. EyeHome also has Web access, but it works about as well as WebTV, which is to say, not at all. The menu driven interface is okay; it's not the smoothest operation, but it works and you can watch most anything. It plays MPEG 1, 2, and 4, and DivX. It plays a laundry list of audio codecs, as well as displays jpg, png, gif, and bmp image formats. The EyeHome has it's own remote with pretty standard function keys.; it gets the job done. Even better, though, if you've got a Harmony Remote, you can program it to control any of El Gato's products.
Either of these units, by themselves, are a neat addition to the geek's arsenal; particularly the EyeTV. It could be especially useful in, perhaps, a dorm room, where space is at a premium. Both together, though, are a great joy to use and mess with. The folks at El Gato are constantly improving the features and utility of both units and the software. Any person on your holiday list who loves to mess with stuff, or do things the differently, will really enjoy these two items. www.elgato.com
One for the Kids
The Mac Mini is an excellent little computer for kids. Tiny, quiet, and plenty powerful, it is the perfect computer for your youngster's bed or dorm room. Tack on a LCD screen, keyboard, and mouse, and you have a compact unit capable of anything a school kid might need for around $850. It won't crank on some of the top end games out there, but it will do just about everything else. And, since Apple upgraded the standard RAM to 512 MB, out of the box the system is very usable. If you have a kid who needs a computer, you really can't go wrong.
Lift and Separate
For some time now, conventional wisdom has dictated that tilted keyboards are bad. Ergonomically, the angle your wrists sit while typing on a titled keyboard promote repetitive stress injuries. So, since the PowerBook G3, the ability to angle the keyboard of Apple laptop computers has been missing. While that was good for your hands, it had the minus effect of removing the airflow from underneath the laptop. Heat ensued. There have been a few products released to help with this issue, such as the XStand, which happens to be the perfect stocking stuffer. It consists of a collapsible metal frame which lifts a laptop off the table. It is size adjustable to securely hold any sized laptop computer, as well as height adjustable (you can increase the angle). The one issue is that the minimum angle of the XStand is still too great to type on comfortably. It does produce good air flow underneath it, and places the screen at a more comfortable height off the desk for viewing when you plug in a keyboard. This is a really good gift for the PowerBook user in your life. www.xstand.com
Gigs on the Go
Small, USB thumb drives are becoming standard fare on keychains all over the place. They are great and very convenient, but sometimes they lack the capacity to move the big stuff. Having portable drives that can run on bus power is a great alternative, such as the one from Transcend. The StoreJet 1.8 is a USB 2.0 drive that is backwards compatible to 1.1. It's very compact, smaller than a deck of cards, and quite zippy. Format it the right way, and it will plug into both Windows and Mac systems without a hitch. This is great for moving files between platforms, as well as between computers that lack FireWire ports. It comes in 20 GB and 40 GB sizes. www.transcendusa.com
There are myriad laptop cases and backpacks out there, and our advice (whenever we review them) is to put your hands on it and try it out before buying. That can be difficult to do when gift buying, so you'll just have to take our word for it on these two. Both of these cases are really good choices for someone who wants a good-sized bag that carries a lot, but just as importantly, looks both cool and professional.
From Brenthaven, a perennial favorite here at MacTech, is the ProFile 12/15 case available from the Apple Store. This $129 case is an excellent combination of size, looks, and luggablity. It is nearly square in shape, a bit thicker than some other shoulder cases you might come across, but very comfortable to carry on your shoulder. There are numerous pockets to carry any number of cables, accessories, papers, or you name it, a strap built into the side that you can slip over the handles of your roll away luggage, as well as the ultra secure laptop compartment that can handle up to a 15" laptop. Class and utility. This is a perfect choice for the business traveler on your list. www.brenthaven.com
Now, Timbukt2 cases haven't ever really been known for staid, classic looks. Cool and wild are more fitting labels. However, they do have the Laptop Zip Briefcase, which boasts a very classy look while still being cool. This bag, made of ballistic nylon, is cavernous. If they made a 35" laptop, the Zip Briefcase could likely handle it. It has a very comfortable shoulder strap and handles (more comfortable than the Brenthaven), two outside pockets--one perfectly sized to hold plane tickets--and a well-padded interior. The wild comes into play on the colors. The design and look of the Zip Briefcase is very professional, but in olive green or Navy blue, and it becomes a little more cool, something other cases of its ilk lack. It's an excellent option for the young, mobile professional. www.timbuk2.com
Lots of Fun
While there haven't been a lot of games released this year for the Mac, compared to earlier years, the quality of those games has been particularly good. Here are some of the best, gift-worthy picks for your favorite gamers this holiday season.
Let's start right at the top with the very best: Lego Star Wars. Ported over from the console arena, this game is more fun than should be allowed. Played from the third person perspective, you take on roles of over 30 characters from the first three Star Wars movies, from Jango Fett, to Jar Jar Binks, to battle droids. Play through various scenarios of the first three movies as Legos. Game play is very easy. There is very little difficulty to playing, so anyone can quickly get up to speed and start enjoying this game. Having said that, the simplicity of this game is what makes it so enjoyable. You don't have to worry about solving complicated puzzles or anything like that: You just have fun being a little Lego dude. It's great fun for anyone in the family to play. Bonus items collected through a level help you build a Lego version of a ship from that level (a pod racer for example). Collect Lego bits along the way, as money, and buy add on items. For example, you can give everyone mustaches, or (and this was my favorite) turn all the light sabers purple. Because it began life as a console game, Lego Star Wars plays best using a game controller. The Nyko Ariflow, reviewed earlier this year in MacTech, is one of the better choices. It is very comfortable, has good, easy to use, set-up software, and best of all, has a fan that pushes air through vents in the controller, cooling your hands and keeping them from getting sweaty. www.aspyr.com
Next is Command and Conquer Generals: Zero Hour. The original Command and Conquer game was ported to the Mac, but the sequels haven't been seen on our platform until last year when Aspyr ported the latest incarnation, Generals. Zero Hour is an excellent add-on pack for Generals. It provides new units, buildings, maps, and additional game play that gives you many more hours of fun with this game. If you or yours is a fan of real-time strategy, Command and Conquer is the best there is. www.aspyr.com
Another great strategy game is Rise of Nations. In this universe, you control the powers that make civilization. You begin in ancient times, with a single village, and grow from there, building your civilization through the ages. This game is much like the old Civilization games, but instead of being turn-based, you play this one in real time. Conquest is the main goal, building your armies to take over any of the 18 other civilizations you may face. You can also build Wonders of the World, from which you receive bonus abilities. There are two other game play modes. One is multiplayer, where you can set and manage the parameters of the scenario, and have others join in via LAN or internet. The other is Conquer the World, a series of linked scenarios that take you through time in an effort to take over the world. www.macsoft.com
Then we've got Project Nomads, from Freeverse Software. This game is a third person perspective shooter, essentially, but it's also more. It's got a very interesting story, and one of three characters to play the game with. Each character has his or her own strengths that you leverage to complete missions. The world in which you operate is one where your planet was destroyed, leaving massive islands of rock floating in the ether. It reminds me a lot of the novel The Integral Trees by Larry Niven. Your mission is to find those who caused the destruction of your world and destroy them. You have the option of LAN or Internet multiplayer gaming action. One of the really cool things about this game is the freedom of movement. Fly from island to island, with no boundaries. It's fun getting to explore outside the confines of your current mission. www.freeverse.com
Fifteen Minutes of Fun
This this day and age, you often don't have time to commit to playing an involved game like the ones above. Sometimes you just to want to kill a few minutes with something fun. GooBall and Jammin' Racer are two excellent choices.
GooBall, from Ambrosia Software, is odd, quirky, and really nice to look at. You are, well, a little ball of goo, with four eyes and a zipper, trapped in a bubble, winding your way through various levels, reaching the finish line as fast as you can. You have the ability to leap over gaps and stick to walls. It makes for some vertigo inducing perspectives. The level variety is astounding and very imaginative. It's a blast to play. www.ambrosiasw.com
Next up is Jammin' Racer from DanLabGames. Here, you compete in various dune buggy races, trying to, obviously, win the race. Each Cup (there are several) has four races which must be won in order to advance. Drive your sand rail in all manner of environments, even on the moon. There are a bunch of customization options for your ride, and you can also go head to head with two player gaming. It's a bunch of fun. www.danlabgames.com
A Little Light Reading
The Unofficial Lego Builder's Guide, by Allan Bedford, is the book for the person in your life who still, to this day, has their very first Lego set, and who still pulls it out for periodic assemblage. This book is not for a seven year old; it's for serious Lego freaks. It shows you, among other things, ways to put Legos together, how to sort and store them, and even gives you a step-by-step for building a space shuttle. Very cool. From No Starch Press.
These next books are some pretty heady stuff. The Apple Training Series, from Peachpit Press, is an Apple Certified series of technical books designed to help you, or yours, pass the exam for the various Apple certifications. Edited by the likes of Owen Linzmayer and Schoun Regan, these volumes are packed with information on supporting Mac OS X, laptops, desktops and servers. These babies are essential additions to the library of any system administrator or techie looking to become Apple certified.
Nobody gets enough sleep anymore. There just isn't time, or you can't shut your brain down, and it runs and runs, keeping you awake into the wee hours. Medication can help, but popping pills isn't a long-term solution. There is another way. Pzizz is a very interesting little program that will run on your Mac and generate naps that you listen to on your iPod, helping you get that power nap, or couple of hours of sleep.
The interface looks a bit like a collapsed iTunes window, and using the program is as simple as using iTunes. Clicking on the generate nap button will do just that. You can configure how the nap, or sleep, will be generated from within the Configure Naps window (below). Here you set the length of time, volume, whether or not there is a voice, as well as view the stored configurations you already have set up.
I tried Pzizz on a red-eye flight from L.A. to Boston and it was wonderful. I have trouble sleeping on planes, but I got four good hours with the four, one-hour long sleeps I created. I got to Boston rested and ready to go to work. Compare that to the same flight a year earlier, when I showed up ready to go to bed and couldn't get my act together for a day and half. Running four one-hour long programs on the iPod ate the battery, though. You might want to create smaller sleep files to increase battery life.
Xeric Design, the makers of Pzizz, have the product broken down into two parts: The main part is the program itself and the energizer module. There is also the add-on sleep module, that lets you create the longer sleeps. Pzizz is $39.95, including the nap module, while the sleep module is an additional $19.95. www.xericdesign.com
You know you have someone in your life with stacks of CDs and a nearly empty iPod. They, like almost all of us, simply lack the time to put each disc through iTunes and convert it. In the past, the only options for conversion services were college kids in their dorm rooms, and the results were as varied as the quality of the dining commons lunch menu. Now, Get Digital is on the scene to put a professional face on this type of service.
The service itself is very many things: Very fast, very professional, and very good. When you order their service, they send you all the packaging materials you need to get your CDs to them, including a prepaid FedEx label (the level and cost of which you set when you order the service). Once you get your collection to them, it takes mere days to completely digitize your collection into 192kbps MP3 files (or higher, if you'd like), including full, and accurate metadata, which they load onto DVD media or your iPod (or other MP3 device), if you choose to ship it to them. It's then reloaded into the sturdy shipping boxes and sent back to you, also via FedEx. Oh, they send all the discs back to you in the same order you sent them in, making it much easier to get them back into their jewel cases. A very nice touch.
The pricing and options on the service are another very as well: very reasonable. The base price of the service ranges from 99 cents to $1.49 per disc, based on the number of CDs you send them. The standard return method is DVD, but you have the option of purchasing a Maxtor external drive, with options that begin at 100 GB for $185, and have your music loaded onto that instead. Sending them an iPod to load incurs no additional cost. And, for $1 they will drop a three-ring binder in the shipping box, with a color catalog of your collection, showing cover art, and tracks (the catalog is in alphabetical order).
I sent them 69 discs and tried to drop a few zingers in to trip them up (a really old Mozart CD, and an obscure country music disc, among others). They got all the data right and could not find cover art on only two CDs. Not too bad, at all. And don't forget the deal you get with the Sonos system! www.getdigitalinc.com
iPod Shuffle Accessories
In an earlier issue this year, I put the iPod Shuffle at the top of my list of must have iPod accessories. So as not to make the Shuffle feel inadequate, here are a few of the best in Shuffle accessories. Any of these will be a welcome stocking stuffer come Christmas morning.
Belkin Hi-Speed USB 2.0 hub
Now, this hub from Belkin is, in essence, much like every other USB 2.0 hub. It is powered, backward compatible to USB 1.1, and all that other stuff. The one thing that sets it apart is a port perched atop the hub, making it easily accessible for your iPod Shuffle. Getting around to the back of your iMac, or pretty much any other computer, except the G5 tower, is tough, especially when adjacent ports are already in use. With the Belkin hub, it's dead simple to hook up the Shuffle. www.belkin.com
DLO Action Jacket
Exactly 42 seconds after the Shuffle was announced, 15 different companies shipped some form of protective covering for it. And they are all pretty much the same: Varied bits of plastic in various colors. Yawn. The DLO Action Jacket, though, stands out. It's a good pick because of its versatility out of the box. It comes with both a belt clip and an arm band. The padded case is made of neoprene, so it's a nice protector against moisture (like sweat), as well as from bangs and scratches. Pull the case off the belt clip or arm band, and just have it hang around your neck with the standard Apple lanyard. The belt clip is strong, and lets you rotate the Shuffle 180 degrees. The arm band will fit almost any arm thickness, from scrawny to brawny. A very good all-in-one solution. www.everythingipod.com
XtremeMac AirPlay Shuffle
One of my favorite iPod accessories has always been FM transmitters. XtremeMac came out with the first one for the Shuffle. It's a small unit that plugs into the power port in your car which charges the Shuffle, as well as transmits the signal over FM. It has a small LCD screen showing the current frequency it's on. Also, and this is its nicest feature, it has three preset buttons, allowing you to retune it with one press. A good idea considering the numerous distracted driving laws floating about these days. www.xtrememac.com
Look Ma, No Hands
Speaking of hands-free cell calls and distracted driving laws, we had the chance to try out a couple of hands free headsets, either one of which will work great for gift giving, depending on the cell phone.
First up is the Jawbone made by Aliph. This headset uses what Aliph calls Adaptive Technology to cancel outside sound while also picking up your voice more effectively than other hands free units. In testing in noisy environments, the Jawbone worked very well; my voice was clear to the caller and I could hear easily. The ear piece is pretty comfortable, too, albeit a bit heavy. It is easily adjustable to fit into either ear. There is a clip about half way down the wire, which houses the Jawbone's circuitry. The clip also has a button that acts as either an accept/end call button, or mute button, depending on which phone you model you use, as well as an on/off slider to activate or disable the adaptive aspects of the unit. The catch with this unit is the connector: Because the Jawbone interacts with the phone's software and needs to draw power from the phone's battery, it only works with a limited set of Motorola, Nokia, and Sony Ericsson phones that have data ports on the bottom. You will have to check the Aliph web site to make sure a phone is compatible. If it is, it's a good choice. www.aliph.com
For those of us lacking a phone supported by the Jawbone, Shure has an option that is at least as good. Shure makes high-end audio equipment, including head sets and ear buds. Their sound isolating designs work better, in my view, than the best sound canceling technology out there. They have extended this design genius to a hands-free cell phone unit. The QuietSpot Boom headset (model numbers QSHB3 or QSHB4) is a great, light-weight, ear piece, with tiny boom mic that plugs in, out of the box, to the hands-free port on most every phone made. Those few who don't have the proper 2.5 mm jack can get an adapter to make it fit. This unit fits instantly into either ear, as it's held in place by wrapping the wire over your ear. Check the web site for a complete compatibility list. It's very comfortable. The sound, both in and out, is also excellent. The noise canceling boom mic, which eliminates up to 70% of outside noise, picks up your voice very well. The ear plug (the unit comes with an assortment of sleeves to fit any ear canal) does an outstanding job of keeping outside noise out, making it very easy to hear who's calling you. www.shure.com
More Free Sound
Bluetooth is cool; it makes wires go away. The things that can be done with it have the potential to make wires utterly obsolete. A move in that direction is the iCombi, a wireless headset unit designed to receive signals from, among other things, your iPod.
iCombi isn't the first unit of this type, but it is, so far, the best. The design of the headset is pretty compact. The materials are strong, and the unit is well-built. It has a folding design to make it easier for compact storage. Built-in batteries are charged via USB or wall charger. While it's heavier than most headsets, it's not uncomfortable. You can keep it on for long periods of time.
The headset itself is only half the equation. It links to the other, and more important, half. With a dongle designed to attach and be powered by your iPod, you can listen to your tunes without getting caught up in the wire snaking from your iPod to your ears. It's great if you're active, say running, skiing, or the like. It can also connect to a variety of other devices, and your computer can feed sound to the headset. If your computer doesn't have Bluetooth built-in, iCombi has an optional USB dongle designed to make the link. Also, iCombi has a general audio dongle for connecting to standard audio devices, like a stereo, giving you another way to play tunes wirelessly on the headset. And, just to be clever, the iCombi headset can also act as a hands-free device for your cell phone with its built-in mic. Just pair the headset to your Bluetooth cell phone and you can move, with the press of a button, from listening to music to answering calls. www.icombi.com
The National Geographic Back Roads Explorer is a map geek's dream come true. Delivered to you on 18 CD-ROMS, this package has detailed topographic maps of the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. With this application, you can plan trips, annotate and print out maps, and transfer and view them on either Palm or Pocket PC devices. The CDs are loaded with over 2,000 U.S. Geographical Survey maps, with road and trail overlays, giving you a very detailed overview of any area. Plus, you can use the Back Roads Explorer to program your GPS to get you where you're going, as well as get the coordinates for over one million locations.
The installer comes on Disc 1 and loads up the application, named TOPO, and lower detail maps of the US. You can copy the more detailed maps of each state by copying the directory from the state's CD to the TPO_DATA folder on the hard drive. The interface isn't the prettiest thing you ever saw. You can tell this is a port, but it is usable, and feature complete. If you have someone who is into maps or geography, or would like a way to build really detailed travel routes, or just find interesting things in the places you are heading to, this is a great box to put under the tree. maps.nationalgeographic.com/topo/backroads/
Michael R. Harvey is the reviews editor here at MacTech. He's only almost died twice while diving, and while he is bent, that's more a mental health issue than poor dive planning. Questions, comments, and directions to good Southern California dive sites can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.