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Geeky Gifts

For many, Black Friday marks the start of the holiday shopping season.  For others, it’s the newly coined “Cyber Monday.”  Some of you might have even started on December 26th last year.  So my apologies in advance, but I don’t fall into any of those categories.  I wait until at least the Thanksgiving leftovers have been polished off before I start thinking about it.  We’ve still got over two weeks to go, after all!

Before we get started on the geeky gift ideas, I just wanted to quickly share a few helpful resources.  First, you’ll want to check out Google’s special Holiday Shopping Search.  This is great for tracking down products and comparing prices from different vendors all in one shot.  Also helpful, you’ll see the top searches shoppers are using this holiday season – great to find out what the most popular gifts are (looks like video games, music players, and digital cameras top the list), and may also give you some ideas.  Secondly, you’ll absolutely want to refer to DealHack’s list of Holiday Shopping Deadlines.  There’s over 150 of the top Internet retailers listed with their shopping & shipping deadlines – if you like to wait til last minute as I do, it will come in handy to know you’ll be able to receive items in time.

So on with a couple ideas!

1. Duracell Pocket Inverter 175

The Duracell Pocket Inverter is a DC to AC power inverter.  Basically, it’s a device you plug into the cigarette adapter in a vehicle’s dash that provides you with a standard AC power, like an electrical outlet in your home.  This allows you to plug your gadgets in while on the go without buying special mobile adapters for each one.  This Duracell is one such model, however inverters come in many shapes and sizes from many manufacturers.  What stands out on the Pocket Inverter 175 is a USB port in addition to the AC power outlet.  Lots of devices nowadays recharge via USB power from a computer (like iPods & iPhones, digital cameras, etc.), so those devices plug right in as if you were recharging them at your computer.  Shop around for other models if you wish, however, understand that “bigger isn’t necessarily much better” if you’re looking for something portable – it’s just more expensive and probably overkill.  A typical vehicle cigarette adapter is rated at 15 amps, which can provide 180 watts of power: 12 volts * 15 amps = 180 watts (thanks Dr. Ohm!) So this 175 watt Duracell model is juuust right.  (Larger inverters serve special purposes: larger appliances in boats, motor homes, et cetera… and would just blow a fuse in your car if loaded to their capacity!)  An inverter the size of the ‘175 is perfect for portable games, music players, cell phone chargers, laptops, portable TVs and DVD players, and other such devices.  It’ll only set you back about $40, which in some cases is less than a single specialty adapter for just one device. (Search for it!)

2. Antworks Space Age Ant Habitat

The Ant Farm is a classic educational toy and cultural icon, dating back to 1956 when Uncle Milton’s began selling them.  In 2003, NASA brought ants into space to perform gravity experiments, and devised a nutrient “gel” to meet the food and water needs of their 6-legged passengers.  Back on earth, Antworks combines the nutrient gel and Ant Farm concepts, and we’ve got a space-aged makeover of the classic Ant Farm fit for a new century.  Ant Farm is a trademark of Uncle Milton’s of course, so Antworks instead produces an “Ant Habitat.”  Fill up the container with your nutrient gel, give the tunnels a head start, add ants (yes, they still come in the mail when you’re ready for them), and sit back and watch your colony thrive. There’s even an accessory light to give your colony a cool blue fiber optic glow.  If you’re partial to the original, Uncle Milton still makes ’em, as well as their own updated gel version too.  $15-25 for the Antworks Habitat (shop around!), $13 for the lighted base.  (Search it!)

3. USB Cell AA Rechargeable Batteries

These are an absolutely ingenious idea sure to score a perfect “10” on the nifty scale with any nerd.  They look like regular AA batteries, and they are, sort of.  Flip the top back to reveal a USB plug.  The battery plugs right in to a USB port for recharging.  USB Cell managed to fit a rechargable battery, re-charging circuitry, and the USB plug itself all inside the normal form factor of a regular AA battery.  These are NiMH rechargables that work like any other rechargable battery as far as your devices are concerned.  When you’re out of juice, you can plug it right in to your computer or any powered USB port, which are nearly ubiqutous on a lot of electronic equipment these days.  There’s some drawbacks: they don’t last quite as long as normal rechargables, take a bit longer to recharge, and are a little more pricey.  But the geek-chic coolness factor trumps some of that.  They are however a perfect match for battery powered things that hang out near the computer anyway: wireless keyboards, mice, game controllers, and they’d be handy for traveling if you’re bringing a laptop anyway and want to avoid the battery charger too.  $20 for a pair.  (Search it!)

4. Logitech Harmony series Universal Remote Controls

Logitech has a whole series of programmable, universal remote controls.  These can be a little pricey, but these aren’t your typical remote control.  They’re universal remotes, which means they can control every piece of AV equipment in your home – Logitech can boast close to a quarter million different devices supported, and the remotes can “learn” from other old remotes that aren’t otherwise supported.  Unlike cheaper generic universal remotes, these can control several devices at the same time.  There’s no switching between “TV” or “Receiver” functionality; press the volume button, and it controls your receiver volume.  Press the channel buttons, and the channels change on your cable box.  You configure the remote control to your AV environment, so the controls for the buttons go to the right device, every time, the way it should work! The remotes are fully programmable and customizable via a computer interface connected by USB connection (Mac or PC compatible), so you don’t have to worry about punching in all this information on the remote itself.  The best feature are the “activity centered” buttons.  Think of the steps you might take now to watch a DVD: power on the TV, power on the receiver, power on the DVD player, set the TV to “input 3”, set your receiver to “input 2”, whatever your setup calls for.  How about a button that says “Watch DVD” that automates all those different button presses for you?  That’s exactly what you can program these remotes to do.  They’re a great gift for somebody to tidy up their huge collection of remotes, or somebody who struggles with working their complex AV system – but beware, you WILL need a little tech-savvy to set these up, so this might be a gift best given FROM a geek to a non-geek, along with a little configuration help to send them on their way.  The remotes retail from $99 to $499; there’s a whole slew of options, shapes and sizes, even customizable color screens and rechargeable models.  Shop around and you’ll find them for less than those retail prices.  (Logitech Website for Harmony series)

5. An HD Radio

Not sure what an HD radio is?  You’re not alone.  These are the greatest new products that either nobody has heard of, or doesn’t understand what they are.  I’ll try and break it down, short and sweet.  An HD radio is a digital radio, that picks up over-the-air signals, like an AM/FM radio.  An HD radio IS NOT a satellite radio, although it boats similar sound quality and features.  You pick up local stations, that are broadcast for FREE; there is no subscription required.  An HD radio is most similar in concept to the new digital TV broadcast scheme that’s forcing consumers to either upgrade or use converter boxes to keep using their rabbit ears.  Unlike the DTV transition, there’s no deadline set for a conversion to digital radio.  There likely won’t be one set for some time to come – so don’t get worried that you have to upgrade – but if you have a radio afficianado on your shopping list, they sure will appreciate the upgrade.  These radios are all over the charts when it comes to prices and options – they come in many varieties from table top and alarm clock size, to stereo component size, to units for installation in the car.  (Some ’08 and many ’09 vehicles will start shipping with HD radios standard… and there’s no portable models as of now, the electronics required haven’t been shrunken down small enough just yet!)  Your one-stop-shop for information on HD radios is the aptly named hdradio.com.  On the site, you’ll find a station locator to see which stations broadcast in HD in your area; in the Buffalo area there’s already about two dozen stations. You can still tune into regular AM & FM stations with these, but when you tune into HD stations you’ll get much better sound quality: AM now sounds like FM, FM now sounds like CD, and there’s never any fuzz or hissing.  Like DTV, some exisiting stations broadcast multiple versions at once, so you can pick between different tunes on the same station, and some are even commercial free.  Pictured is a Cambridge Soundworks Radio 820HD, which is a great choice for a mid-range, entry level, mid-priced table top model.  Retails about $129 – but again, shop around, you might beat the factory direct price.  (Cambridge Soundworks site)

What did you get for your geek this Christmas?  Leave a comment and share your idea with us!