Return Of The Ultimate Holiday Gift Guide

You need gifts? We've got gifts! We bring you 80 of the hottest, weirdest, and most exciting tech gadgets to give (or get) this holiday season.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

December 5, 2006

49 Min Read

The holidays. They're back and they're bad.

Hey, it's not like you didn't know they were coming. But you've ignored them in favor of that last-minute project you had to take care of -- and now you've got to find perfect gifts for friends, family, and the guy in the third cubicle on the left whose name you got in the office draw.

Yes, the holidays can be tough. Right now you're probably saying to yourself, "What do I get for the person whose idea of a relaxing evening is fighting their way through a virtual 23rd-century world, editing digital videos to post on YouTube, or driving for miles in order to test a new GPS system? Especially if they already own a computer, a camera, or a GPS?"

Remain calm. We've got the answer for you. We hereby bring you our second annual Ultimate Holiday Gift Guide: the most exciting, useful, awe-inspiring, or just plain cool stuff available via the Web.

  • Image conscious? Scout Photographica and Camcorder Heaven for the right gear to turn those creative visions into images and videos.

  • Want to help your favorite geek style up? E-Wearables could convince the most tech-obsessed to raise their fashion quotient.

  • If you want entertainment, check out Gettin' Tuneful, Video To Go, and Video To Stay for media players, displays, video recorders, and associated gadgets.

  • Got game? Go directly (Do Not Pass Go) to The Game's Afoot to find the stuff that will score highest this season.

  • If you're taking it to go, get it from On The Road, including the best in GPS units and several snazzy gadgets for your auto.

  • And finally, if you need some just-plain-weird, it's available for prices ranging from $13 to if-you-have-to-ask in Off The Wall.

Like last year, we are following a couple of ground rules. First, we made it a point that all our best-bet gift ideas must be fun the first day they're received, not in some vaporware-like haze of the future, when the software finally gets written or all the functionality is eventually turned on. Just say no to brand-new platforms. We're all about instant gratification.

Second, the Ultimate Holiday Gift Guide is highly selective. No me-too products. Nothing beige. The high-tech gadgets and high-end electronics that made our list did so because they're white-hot, wicked cool, sick, intense, and insert the totally far-out adjective of your choice here.

So read on. And don't forget to send the URL of anything you really like to your friends, family, and the guy in the third cubicle on the left. After all, you deserve the best this year, too. Gettin' Tuneful

Visions of iPods will probably dance in more heads than sugarplums this holiday season. But while once upon a time it was enough for an audio player to play MP3 files, the visions are bigger this year -- this year's players do FM, satellite radio, and even Internet phone calls.

Sony mylo
If you want to give somebody something totally unexpected this year, give them a Sony mylo personal communicator ($350). The mylo is a Wi-Fi phone; a pocket e-mail, IM, and text-messaging device a la BlackBerry; and even an MP3 player. Forget that it looks like it came out of a McDonald's Happy Meal. Think of it as an iPod with a Web browser.

To play with one for five minutes is to want it forever. Yes, it's pricey, but it's the perfect gift for anyone who's in that stage of life when time is measured in semesters -- or their parents. There are a few minuses: the headset connector isn't standard, for one, and it only takes the Sony Memory Stick Duo memory cards, not the more easily found, less-expensive SD cards.

Apple iPod Shuffle
You might want to remind the intended recipient a couple of times before Christmas that good things come in small packages, because the new iPod Shuffle ($79) is so small it will barely make a bump in the toe of their stocking. It's the closest thing to jewelry yet in Apple's line of jewel-like iPods, and it's gotta be the cutest gift on the planet this year.

The tiny iPod Shuffle is just big enough to find between quarters in your pocket, but it holds 1 Gbyte of music, plays for as much as 12 hours, and it won't break your gift budget. It won't matter if you give one of these to somebody who already has an iPod. They need one anyway, the same way yachts need little lifeboats.

The UltimateHoliday Gift Guide

Ultrasone Edition 9 Headphones
If you have a price-is-no-object person on your gift list this season, here's the gift to give them. The specs on the Ultrasone Edition 9 headphones ($1,499) are definitely high-end -- closed-back design with a frequency range of 8 Hz to 35,000 Hz through 40mm titanium-mylar drivers -- and so is the price.

The Edition 9 design uses speaker placement to create a natural surround-sound effect without additional electronic processing. The headphones include Mu metal shielding to protect the wearer against low-frequency magnetic fields. The ear pads and headband pad are made from Ethiopian hair sheep leather and handmade in Germany. Of course.

Blue Ant X5 Bluetooth Stereo Headset
If you're juggling an audio player and a cell phone, here's a combination that can bring them together. The X5 Bluetooth Stereo Headset ($140) works simultaneously with your Bluetooth-equipped cell phone and any audio player, switching from tunes to talk when you get a call, and back when you hang up. It connects directly to audio devices that support Bluetooth's A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile), and for those that don't, there's a Bluetooth transmitter module that connects through the player's headphone jack. (It also works with a PC for wireless stereo and Skype calls.) The headset microphone is removable, and the headset and transmitter both recharge through a USB port or AC. A marriage made in technology heaven.

Altec Lansing inMotion im11
This portable speaker unit for iPods isn't the biggest, bassiest box in the world, but then, it isn't the size and shape of a beach ball, either. Altec Lansing's inMotion im11 ($100) is small enough to carry with you (with the iPod dock closed, it's 8.5 x 4.3 x 1.4 inches, plus an external AC adapter) and big enough for life's boom-box moments. It weighs 14 ounces and runs on four AA batteries (or, of course, AC), and comes with a travel bag. The point of having a portable player, after all, is to keep it portable, isn't it?

Sirius Stiletto SL100
There's a contradiction inherent in satellite radio. While it seems like it should set you free, loads of channel choices everywhere, it also ties you to the receiver, which may work only in your car, or only on a desk near a window. For Sirius satellite radio customers, the Stiletto SL100 ($350) means liberation.

You can carry it with you like an audio player, because it stores programming recorded off the air or downloaded from a PC. This newest model captures up to 100 hours worth of Sirius programming and plays downloaded MP3 and WMA files. And indoors, where satellite signals don't penetrate, you can use the Stiletto 100's built-in Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet. Optional car and home adapters connect the Stiletto to speaker systems and recharge it.

Stocking Stuffers
If you need some stocking stuffers for your audio-loving fellow cubicle dwellers, there are several that would be suit. The Macally FM Cup ($60) fits in your car's cup holder and provides a dock connector for your iPod. Connect the cord to the cigarette lighter socket to power the FM Cup (and recharge your iPod while it plays). Do you somebody who has to take their iPod everywhere? The H2O Audio for iPod ($90) is the perfect gift. It's waterproofed for long walks in the rain -- and with optional waterproof earphones it can even submerge to 10 feet. Other housings are available to fit other iPod models. And you can save your loved ones the 10 minutes a day they spend untangling their earbud cords with the Cordgo (two for $10) -- just snap this plastic spool around the cord, and reel and unreel it with one hand.

--David DeJean

Video To Go

'Tis the season when video hardware is finally small enough to go everywhere with you. This year has brought truly portable players with screens in a variety of sizes, battery life long enough to finish playing what they start, and accessories to make connecting to video sources and displays not just possible, but easy.

Apple iPod
There are several intriguing media players on the market. But chances are nobody has asked you for an intriguing tiny media player this holiday season. They've probably asked for an iPod.

There is still nothing that competes with the iPod's sleekness of design and ease of use. This year Apple has reworked the iPod product line; there are two iPods with hard disks, both video-capable: the 30-Gbyte ($249), and an 80-Gbyte ($349) model. If you really love that special someone, you'll give them the 80-Gbyte version -- after all, what can beat watching your favorite space opera on a 2.5-inch display?

Creative Zen Vision:M
The only thing wrong with the Zen Vision:M is that it's not an iPod, so it won't fit all those nifty iPod accessories. But considered on its own, the Zen Vision:M has got features that out-iPod the iPod.

The UltimateHoliday Gift Guide

Like what? Well, like an FM tuner, USB host mode, built-in voice recorder, and personal organizer that syncs with Microsoft Outlook -- to go along with its iPod-like 2.5-inch 32-x240-pixel screen. And because it's not an iPod, street prices are about $50 less -- $250 for the 20-Gbyte model, $300 for the 60-Gbyte player. Perfect for friends who prefer products that aren't quite in the mainstream.

Archos 604 WiFi
If you're serious about watching a portable player, the Archos 604 WiFi ($450) is one serious portable player. It not only plays back video on a 4.3-inch diagonal 480 x 272-pixel touch screen, it records video onto its 30-Gbyte hard disk. Built-in Wi-Fi connects to the Web for downloading videos from YouTube or checking your e-mail (an Opera browser and PDF reader are built in), as well as retrieving media files from your network.

The 604 plays audio and video in just about any file format you can think of, and displays photos in JPEG, BMP, and PNG formats. It also handles a variety of audio, video, and photo formats; and and a variety of accessories make the 604 a set-top DVR or even a helmetcam.

ezVision Video iWear
One way to get right up to the screen is to wear it: These ezVision Video iWear goggles ($400) fit like a pair of glasses and give you the experience of watching a 50-inch virtual screen with a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels. At just four ounces, the goggles include built-in earphones and a rechargeable lithium ion battery; they come with iPod and DVD adapters, and an AC charger.

Neuros OSD
Having a portable video player is one thing -- loading it up with video is another. If you've got a do-it-yourself bent, the Neuros OSD ($230) gives you a video workbench. Use the OSD to record video from a variety of sources and load it into your iPod, PSP, smartphones, laptops -- it even records to SD and Compact Flash cards. It works in the other direction, too, to display downloaded and recorded video on your big-screen TV.

Stocking Stuffers
Video Vault software ($120) runs on a PC to convert unencrypted DVD's, S/VCD's, tapes, and downloaded videos to file formats for devices including media servers and DVD recorders, mobile phones, PDAs, and video players. Meanwhile, handheld video players have to be -- well, handheld -- in order to get the right viewing angle on the screen. The Original EZL ($15) lets you prop up your player for best screen viewing while you use your hands for better things. It's just the size of an iPod or Zen Vision:M (although it works perfectly well with larger players like the Archos) and it folds up flat for storage.

--David DeJean

Video To Stay

The best things in life are, in fact, big-screen HDTVs, killer media center PCs to drive them, and little boxes that convert your video for viewing on an iPod. So go ahead -- microwave some popcorn, grab a drink, curl up on the couch and enjoy. You've earned it.

Westinghouse LTV-46w1
The Westinghouse LTV-46w1 doesn't break the bank -- it merely dents it. This LCD TV serves up 46 inches of HD goodness for $2,099, making it the bargain to beat among LCDs in this size class. OK, but Westinghouse? Don’t they make light bulbs? They do, but it turns out they make a darn fine HDTV, too.

Check out the specs: In addition to supporting both 720p and 1080i HD sources, the LTV-46w1 serves up a built-in ATSC tuner (for viewing over-the-air HD broadcasts), four HD inputs (two component video, one HDMI, and one PC), and a cool input-detection feature that automatically switches to whatever new source is powered-on (like, say, your Xbox).

Serious HD buffs might decry the set's two measly zoom levels and slightly overactive red channel, but those aren't deal-breakers by any means. I've seen the LTV-46w1, I like the LTV-46w1, and I can definitely recommend the LTV-46w1 for budget-minded LCD shoppers. Anyone finding this under their tree will be one happy camper.

ATI TV Wonder 650
Forget pricey TiVos -- with the ATI TV Wonder 650 ($129), you can turn your PC into a full-featured HD-DVR. Just add a powered pair of rabbit ears and you'll be able to view, record, and time-shift high-def shows. The card drops into an open PCI slot and provides two tuners: one for your cable box and the other for an HD antenna. That means you can watch an HD show while recording an analog show, and vice versa.

The UltimateHoliday Gift Guide

The nerd-vana doesn't end there. The TV Wonder also pulls in FM radio stations and can capture video from an analog camcorder or VCR. In addition, you get software that can convert TV recordings to different video formats -- including those used by iPods and PSPs (PlayStation Portable). However, although the TV Wonder also comes with DVR software, your best bet is to pair it with Windows Vista or Media Center Edition 2005.

OnAir GT
Laptops lack PCI slots, so the TV Wonder 650 is out if you want to go mobile. Instead, try the OnAir GT ($179), a USB-powered TV tuner that supports both analog cable inputs and, for out-and-about HD, over-the-air broadcasts. It even comes with a little antenna.

Want to stock your iPod with video without paying those high iTunes prices? Put an iRecord ($200) on your holiday wish-list. This little box transcodes video from just about any source -- TV, DVD player, DVR, etc. -- to a format that's compatible with most portable devices. Specifically, you can record video directly to an iPod, Sony PSP, or USB flash drive. Plug in a media reader and you can even copy shows to a memory card, which you can then pop into your PDA or cell phone.

Admittedly, the iRecord's $200 direct price would buy an awful lot of TV shows and movies from iTunes, but this versatile little gizmo gives you a lot more control over what you can watch -- and how you can watch it.

Mitsubishi HC5000(BL) LCD Projector
Where home theaters are concerned, size really does matter. The Mitsubishi HC5000 projector ($4,495) blows away just about any HDTV by filling an entire wall with your games, TV shows, and movies. Not only that, it future-proofs your living room by offering 1080p native resolution -- the highest currently available. (Most HDTVs top out at a measly 1080i.) That’s pretty amazing from a projector with a price tag not much higher than that of a Sony Wega.

The HC5000 offers up the usual selection of HD and analog inputs, including HDMI, HDCP-compatible DVI, PC, and component video. Mitsubishi promises 5,000 hours of viewing from the lamp and says you can replace it easily,without even taking the projector down from a ceiling mount. I'm being extra good in the hopes Santa will bring me one of these.

HP Digital Entertainment Center z560
Get ready to bow down at the altar of the Windows Media Center Edition 2005 operating system. Properly leveraged, like in the HP z560 ($1,799), it lets you take advantage of a DVD player, DVR, stereo receiver, and, oh, yeah, a PC, all available in a single box.

Let's start with the star attraction: TV. The z560 comes equipped with a dual analog TV tuner and an HD tuner. Translation: You can record two shows while watching a third one live -- and one of them can be high-def! The machine's 300-Gbyte hard drive can store dozens of hours' worth of shows, and if you run out of room, you can always archive them to DVD using the included LightScribe burner. Or just plug one of HP's 300-Gbyte Personal Media Drives into the open bay. Pair this thing with an HDTV and you've got one killer home theater.

--Rick Broida


If you can't figure out what else to get your favorite uncle or that cute guy/gal down the hall, clothing is always good. But before you start looking at funny T-shirts or fancy underwear, try some of these digitally-aware outfits and bags.

For the true tech fanatic, a bag is always a safe bet. After all, even if they've already got one laptop bag, they'll need a different one for that second notebook, right? One of the most popular manufacturers of computer backpacks, messenger bags, and briefcases is Timbuk2, whose distinctive spiral logo can be seen hanging off the back of many a seat at Starbucks. And the Blogger ($80) is a must for the name if nothing else. This vertical shoulder bag has enough room for a 15-inch notebook, along with lots of spaces for all your pens, pencils, and USB storage.

Case Closed Bags
If you want something a bit more flamboyant, Case Closed Bags offers several lines of notebook carriers designed for women and ranging from fairly conservative to downright cute. I personally like their Steve Collection ($149 - $199), a set of shoulder totes decorated with vintage flower designs, cowboy prints, and Chinese characters. They've also got an assortment of cell phone cases, iPod cases, and other colorful paraphernalia.

Sputnik 3 Laptop Bag
On the other hand, both males and females who wish we were still pushing the boundaries of space travel will want to show their enthusiasm with the Sputnik 3 Laptop Bag ($75) from Chrome. Made of shiny silver (or dark silver) vinyl, the Sputnik 3 will carry a compact notebook (well, the original Sputnik wasn't very big either), and includes three zippered pockets and a cell phone pouch; it can be used as either a shoulder bag or a backpack.

The UltimateHoliday Gift Guide

G-Tech Professional
It's nice to gift people with bags that can carry their iPod and other media players -- but these bags are the media players. G-Tech makes a bag that, according to the Web site, is the "first iPod control speaker pack." The snazzy Professional ($129) lets you stash your audio device and either listen to it through a traditional headset, or treat the public to your superior musical taste via NXT internal speakers. Controls are on the front flap, and there's a padded internal compartment for your laptop. It even comes in two colors: black and brown. You've got to supply the three AA batteries, though.

ScottEVest Classic Vest
Of course, if you want to keep your music, phone, and PDA available without having to drag along either a messenger bag or a backpack, you can try the ScottEVest line of digital clothing. The Classic Vest ($140), for example, offers 29 pockets (some of them highly specialized -- for example, there's one just for your memory cards), a series of "networked" conduits in the lining that lets you connect your various devices, zippered areas that divide pockets so that one device won't knock against the other... The list goes on.

Steffi Thomas I Love My Hands Free
It was only a matter of time before headsets joined the fashionable crowd. iPod tried to make a start by making their earpods white instead of basic black, but the real innovators in this area are the folks at Steffi Thomas NYC.

Their I Love My Hands Free ($60 - $95 for packaged kits) offers women colorful headbands that can accommodate media players or cell phones by accommodating either a headset (which lets you listen or speak) or a headphone (audio only) in a variety of colors and patterns -- and you can get a color dangle to add even more panache. The headsets offer a 2.5-mm plug and the headphones a 3.5-mm plug; you may need an adaptor for your particular phone or MP3 player.

Stocking Stuffers
OK, so you're not into headbands and dangles. How about super-secret watch-phones, like Dick Tracy used to use? The Chronotech Bluevoice ($128 for analog, $120 for digital) uses Bluetooth to let you talk while you walk. And if you need your iPod while running, skiing, or biking, and you can't afford to get your wires tangled in mid-exercise, then you probably want to check out the Belkin SportCommand for iPod ($80). This device straps to your arm and connects wirelessly to your iPod; large control buttons let you work your music even if you're wearing gloves.

--Barbara Krasnoff

The Game's Afoot

The holidays are all about entertainment. But in the tech world, gaming is a serious business, and gamers are looking at cutting-edge (and high priced) systems along with some seriously awe-inspiring components.

CyberPower Gamer Infinity 1950
While most blow-'em-away gaming systems are well beyond most budgets, there are exceptions to every rule. We found one at CyberPower -- appropriately called the Gamer Infinity 1950.

It offers an Intel Core 2 Quad QX6700 processor (originally rated at 2.67 GHz but tweaked to a somewhat more exciting 3.46 GHz) that's capped with a Cooler Master water-cooling kit for temperature control, and endowed with a pair of ATI Radeon X1950 XTX graphics cards. Aside from being blindingly fast, it's also whisper quiet. In fact, you won't even hear your bank account whimper, because the $3,499 system includes a ViewSonic 19-inch wide screen LCD display and all the amenities you'll need for regular computing as well. That's a bargain among gamers.

Nintendo Wii
If you're just looking for a game console and not a computer, turn your attention to the Nintendo's Wii ($250). Wii? With the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on the market? Yes, Wii. If you put aside the various problems Sony's new PS3 has had (including difficulty in accommodating legacy games, and a resolution glitch that affects its interaction with "older" HDTVs) , you just have to look at the near 2:1 price advantage the Wii enjoys.

And this new gaming system doesn't only offer a simplified control that even somebody over 14 can understand, but it's got another (probably unintended) benefit: Because the Wii controller requires that you stand up and actually move, physically mimicking the things you want to do in the game, Wii may signify the end to coach potato kids and paunchy adults.

The UltimateHoliday Gift Guide

Saitek Gamers Keyboard
Of course, whether computer or console, you’ll need all the gaming gear typical to the art form. Saitek’s backlighted Gamers Keyboard ($60) is, arguably, at the top of the keyboard heap. Put aside the glitter of the adjustable backlight and you still have a programmable command pad to customize for all your games.

Logitech G15 Gaming Keyboard
The Logitech G15 Gaming Keyboard ($100) is also a worthy keyboard; one of its niftier features is a small, foldaway LCD display panel for information read-outs if your game supports it.

Saitek Pro Gamer Command Unit
All right, you already have a keyboard you like using. How about a command pad? It’s going to be tough to beat Saitek’s Pro Gamer Command Unit ($40). With 20 buttons, a shift key, and three possible modes, the Pro Gamer provides 144 programmable commands. And don’t forget the backlighting.

Saitek Cyborg Evo Wireless
Joysticks are the easy way into gaming and there are a ton of them out there. Picking the best of the bunch without spending hours and hours of seat time with each of them in hand was tough. I finally settled on Saitek’s Cyborg Evo Wireless joystick ($60) as the top dog. It has a rapid-fire trigger, five fire buttons, an eight-way "point-of-view" hat switch, and a 3D twist for rudder control. As well, Saitek promises 50 hours of play from a single alkaline battery.

Logitech G25 Racing Wheel
Driving with a joystick is a pain. However, NASCAR and, yes, even F1 fans are in luck -- they can give the Logitech G25 Racing Wheel ($300) a spin. Once you get over the sticker shock, you’ll probably find the hand-stitched leather-covered (I don’t know if its Corinthian or not) steering wheel gets you as close to a real racing experience as you can get without paying exorbitant insurance rates. The G25 has a dual motor-driven force-feedback feature, a six-speed shifter (also leather wrapped), and stainless steel accelerator, brake, and clutch pedals.

Saitek P440 Force FeedbackWheel
You can save a pile of cash with Saitek’s P440 Force Feedback Wheel ($80). It offers four wheel-mounted thumb buttons, a rapid gearshift, non-slip rubber grips, and a secure clamping mechanism. The main downside is that it’s a bit more gamish than the G25, with only two pedals and no leather anywhere to be found.

In either case, remember that both of these are force-feedback wheels. If you slam into the wall at turn three doing 160mph, you’ll see it happen on screen, you’ll hear the crash through your speakers, and you’ll definitely feel it in your hands.

CH Products Flight Sim Yoke
Of course, if you’re pilot-minded, you should probably give a lot of consideration to CH Products' Flight Sim Yoke ($150). This USB device features five buttons and two toggle switches (should you need that many), and three programmable throttles mounted on the top right side of the yoke itself. (It’s a trimmed-down version of CH’s >Throttle Quadrant.) CH Products has an industrial division that makes these things for real -- as a result, the game side may be scaled back a bit but the quality is top-notch.

Logitech Cordless Rumblepad 2
Not to forget game consoles, we give the top nod to the Logitech Cordless Rumblepad 2 game controller ($40). Let's face it -- wireless is in and 2.4-GHz is where it's at. If a 30-foot range and a promised 100 hours of battery life isn't enough, there's always the thrill as the dual motor-driven force-feedback courses through your hands. The Rumblepad 2 features programmable action buttons, plus Mode and Vibration selectors, and 8-way D-pad analog control. Software is included to help customize buttons, and you can download game profiles, assign shift-button options, and more

--Bill O'Brien


This year you don't have to settle for a digital camera that's almost what you wanted. Digital photography has grown up. Cameras -- and printers -- offer every level of price, features, and quality. Wait no longer. The future is here, and it's digital.

Leica M8
The Leica M8 ($5,300) is the first digital camera that is likely to be as highly prized 50 years from now as it is today. It's the latest model from the historic maker of 35-mm cameras, and while it's a fully digital camera, it’s a full member of the M series of camera bodies and lenses that Leica has been manufacturing since 1954.

The M8 combines a 10.3-megapixel image sensor with the ability to accept almost all Leica M series lenses. It is emphatically not a snapshooter’s camera -- it's for serious photographers habituated to the look and feel of the Leica rangefinder focus (to say nothing of the legendary quality of Leica optics and mechanics). This is as good as a digital camera gets.

You can find the M8 for about $4,795 or so, but don't even think about the money. Just think about this: What other digital camera could you get this year that will still be treated with the reverence paid a Bugatti or a Patek Philipe 50 years from now? Available in either black or chrome. Chrome is more traditional, but black is s-o-o-o-o-o cool.

Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi
Flickr, the photo-sharing site, has a new Camera Finder feature that shows you the most popular cameras used to take pictures uploaded to the service. And the overall winner? The Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT digital SLR. The latest version, the EOS Digital Rebel XTi ($767 - $940), moves up to a 10.1-megapixel sensor and a 2.5-inch LCD monitor. You'll want to buy it with Canon's EF-S 17-85 mm f4-5.6 IS USM zoom lens. This pumps the price up to $1,200 to $1,399, but the longer zoom range and built-in image stabilization are worth the extra money.

The UltimateHoliday Gift Guide

Panasonic Lumix Digital Cameras
Panasonic's Lumix line of digital cameras isn't as widely distributed as others, and it's focused on the broad middle of the marketplace -- no headline-grabbing digital SLR that costs as much as a college degree here, but no drugstore snapshot junk hardware, either. Just nicely designed, well-made, easy-to-use cameras in a variety of price ranges:

The top of the line is the DMC-L1K 7.5-megapixel SLR ($2,000 list) with an interchangeable 3.6X Leica lens in a Four-Thirds mount. This affordable digital SLR gives experienced 35-mm photographers familiar controls over focus, exposure, and "shutter speed," and provides a range of automatic exposure and focus options as well, all with optical image stabilization to help prevent blurry shots.

At a more moderate price point, the DMC-FZ7K ($350) offers six megapixel images, optical image stabilization, and an exceptionally long 12X optical zoom lens in a compact SLR-shaped package. If you prefer something more compact, the DMC-FX07 ($350 list) is a 7.2-megapixel point-and-shoot camera that boots up very quickly, and includes image-stabilization to help prevent blurry shots. Its 3.6X Leica lens zooms out to a wide 28 mm (35 mm camera equivalent) for landscapes and group photos. And even the bottom end of the Lumix line, the DMC-LS2S ($180), offers five megapixel images and optical image stabilization.

Epson Stylus Pro 3800
Photo printers are growing up, literally, and just in time: every serious photographer needs a printer that works bigger than 8.5 x 11. The Epson Stylus Pro 3800 ($1,295) fills the bill: It produces prints on cut-sheet media from 4 x 6 up to 17 x 22 and uses Epson's Ultrachrome K3 ink system. The Ultrachrome inks come in eight colors and are pigment-based for greater fade-resistance -- Epson claims a life of 200 years, and who's going to be around long enough to dispute that?

In addition to regular multisheet paper feeding, the 3800 has not just one but two single-sheet feeders -- a top-loader for fine-art papers, the other a front-loading straight-through path for materials up to 1.5 mm thick.

Canon PIXMA MP600
If you haven't got room for separate photo and document printers, the Canon PIXMA MP600 ($200) is a multifunction print/scan/copy machine that's particularly strong on photo printing. It produces high-quality (and very fast) color prints, and does document printing and scanning as well (no negative or slide scanning, though).

Stocking Stuffers
More good digital pictures are probably ruined by camera movement than any other single cause. If you can't carry around a tripod, the Bogen 676B Digi Monopod ($29 - $35) sets up quickly with its three quick-lever locks, goes from 18.9 inches collapsed to 60.6 inches fully extended, and weighs just 14 ounces. It has a rubberized grip and wrist loop so you can keep a secure hold on your camera. If you're carrying around a lot of images, then the Epson P-5000 ($700) is a photographer's media player. It's got the basics -- 80-Gbyte hard drive, four-inch 640 x 480 LCD screen, video out to TV -- and adds slots for Secure Digital and CompactFlash cards, and compatibility with JPEG and some RAW image file formats. And if a bad sky is ruining a good digital photo, try Clouds & Sunsets ($70), a CD that contains 72 stock 300dpi images of dramatic skies ready to be combined with your favorite landscapes.

--David DeJean

Camcorder Heaven

Digital camcorders just keep getting better: adding more pixels for high-definition recording and subtracting dollars for more affordable filmmaking. Here’s a selection of goodies designed to outfit budding Spielbergs from top to bottom.

Sony HDR-SR1 Handycam
The future of digital moviemaking probably looks a lot like the Sony HDR-SR1 Handycam ($1,500). This baby not only shoots high-def video, it also records it to a built-in 30GB hard drive -- enough to hold about four hours of 1080i footage (or a lot more if you switch to SD recording -- but why would you want to?).

Other drool-worthy perks include a 3.5-inch touchscreen LCD, HDMI and component-video outputs, Dolby Digital 5.1 audio recording, and a cool slow-record feature that’s great for analyzing that golf swing or tennis serve. All this in a camcorder that weighs about 1.5 pounds.

The lack of tape capability is either good or bad depending on your shooting needs. If you’re on vacation, for instance, and run out of space on the hard drive, that’s a problem. But for prosumer moviemakers who want high-def recording for a relatively affordable price (competing models cost considerably more), the HDR-SR1 looks like a definite winner.

Sony VCTD680RM Remote Control Tripod
Photographers and videographers alike know that even the slightest bit of movement can result in blurry images. That’s why a good tripod is essential gear, and Sony’s VCTD680RM Remote Control Tripod ($100) makes a perfect match with Sony cameras and camcorders.

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Compatible with most models, the unit includes a set of remote-control buttons in its grip handle, thus allowing you to start, stop, and zoom the camcorder without actually touching it. There’s even a button for capturing still photos (if your camcorder offers that capability). As for the tripod itself, it features the usual perks: telescoping legs, height adjustment from 19 to 57 inches, a carrying case, and a built-in level bubble.

Sima Xenon Video Light SL-9X
Adequate lighting can mean the difference between crisp, clear video and blurry, blotchy video. Few camcorders can adequately compensate for low-light environments, which is why it’s critical to pack your own light source. The Sima Xenon Video Light SL-9X ($50) not only has a cool name, it also works with just about any camera, camcorder, or camera phone. That’s because it comes with a universal mounting clip, though it can also screw into a tripod mount or slide into a shoe.

Powered by a pair of rechargeable AAA batteries (included), the 50-lumen SL-9X promises better illumination than you get from incandescent or halogen bulbs. But it’s compact enough to toss in a camera bag, making it the perfect gift for on-the-go videographers.

Steadicam Merlin
That shaky-video look is fine for documentaries and gritty cop shows, but it tends to ruin home movies. A camcorder’s image-stabilization features will get you only so far; for truly rock-steady video, you need a Steadicam Merlin ($850). This handheld, affordable camera mount promises the same smooth shooting as those massive, Ferrari-priced harnesses worn by Hollywood cameramen.

The Merlin weighs about 12 ounces and folds up for easy storage or shoulder-mounted shooting. It can support camcorders ranging from half a pound to five pounds, and it features a quick-release mounting system. There’s no better solution for videographers who want their movies to look their best.

Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0
It’s getting tough to distinguish consumer-level video editing programs from their pricey pro counterparts. Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0 ($100), for instance, packs enough features to turn a birthday party of soccer game into a Fellini-caliber work of art, but wraps them all in a friendly, accessible interface (compared to the last version, anyway).

New features include the Sceneline, which lets you assemble movies, titles, and transitions using thumbnails instead of the more complicated Timeline; support for the latest devices, including hard drive-based and high-def camcorders; and a cool stop-motion capture tool for creating time-lapse movies. The software also lets you output your movies for viewing on a variety of mobile devices, including iPods and cell phones. All this helps make Premiere Elements 3 a more compelling choice than Pinnacle’s notoriously buggy (though similarly priced) Studio 10.

--Rick Broida

On The Road

The difference between a road warrior and roadkill often lies in the gear. Roadkill doesn’t bother with backups; road warriors carry portable hard drives. Roadkill shivers inside a cold car; road warriors step into warm cars that were started remotely via cell phone. So which would you rather be? Thought so.

Mio DigiWalker H610
Styled more like a PDA than a GPS receiver, the Mio DigiWalker H610 ($500) nonetheless guides you door-to-door via preloaded maps of the U.S. and Canada. And unlike most "personal" GPS devices, the DigiWalker is as well-suited to walking or bicycling as it is to driving. In addition to its suction-cup windshield mount, it comes with both a wrist strap and a neck lanyard.

Hang on -- it’s a media player, too. Just stuff an SD or MMC card with MP3s, videos, or photos -- the DigiWalker will play them all. It also comes with four games, a currency converter, a world clock, and other goodies. In other words, it's the Swiss Army knife of GPS units. Now if we could just get a phone and Pez dispenser in there, we’d have the ultimate handheld. As it stands, the H610 comes close.

Maxtor OneTouch III, Mini Edition
A road warrior’s arsenal just isn’t complete without a portable hard drive, and the Maxtor OneTouch III will be many a traveler’s weapon of choice. Available in capacities ranging from 60GB to 160GB, the OneTouch ($100 for the 60GB model) works equally well for transporting files, moving large chunks of data between PCs, and making on-the-fly backups. It even comes preloaded with sophisticated software for the latter activity.

Not bad for a drive that’s smaller than a paperback and barely seven ounces. Despite these Lilliputian proportions, the Mini manages an 8MB cache and 5,400-rpm rotational speed. Just don’t forget the USB cable; it’s not permanently attached, the Mini’s only shortcoming.

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Apricorn MicroKey Flash
Housed in a crush-resistant aluminum enclosure, the MicroKey ($79 to $229) is no ordinary USB flash drive. It’s a tank, able to handle tough environments like factory floors and war zones. Capacities range from 1GB to 8GB.

A must-have for weekend mechanics, the CarMD ($90) combines a handheld diagnostic gizmo with a Web site that troubleshoots your car. Just plug the tester into almost any car manufactured after 1996, then wait a few seconds while it connects to the onboard computer. A green light indicates an OK engine; yellow points to possible problems, while red likely means a trip to the dealer.

But wait, there’s more. When you plug the CarMD into your PC’s USB port and connect to the company’s Web site, you’ll get a detailed diagnostic report -- complete with information about what parts you may need and even what they cost. That’s pretty good information to have when you head to the mechanic. Finally, the mysteries of the Check Engine light solved!

Have you called your car lately? With CellStart, it’ll actually answer. Well, not in a Knight Rider sort of way, but with a few presses of your keypad you can remotely start the engine and unlock the doors. What’s more, if someone breaks into your car, it’ll notify you via text message (kind of like calling for help).

Just a few catches: CellStart is currently available for Cingular customers only, and it’s on the pricey side at $99 per month (which includes 100 uses; the 200-use plan costs $149 per month). You also need a two-way remote starter system, though you can pick up one of those for around $50. Fortunately, it doesn’t require professional installation. The only real challenge is trying to refrain from calling your car "KITT."

CardScan Personal
Like it or not, business cards remain a staple of the business world. It’s the rare traveler who returns from a client meeting or tradeshow without a stack of new cards that somehow need to find their way into Outlook (or whatever contact manager you use). Business-card scanners have long offered to simplify this process, but they’ve traditionally been bulky, office-rooted devices.

Not so the CardScan Personal ($160), a compact, USB-powered model that can easily go where you go. Just feed your cards into the scanner and it automatically converts the information into electronic contacts, which you can then export to Outlook, PDAs, smartphones, or even an iPod. The CardScan software also makes online backups and lets you access your contacts from a browser. Sure, the character recognition still isn’t perfect, but cleaning up a few misplaced letters is still a lot faster than entering all that contact info by hand.

Stocking Stuffers
Birthed in the “Why-Didn’t-Anybody-Think-of-This-Sooner?” department, the USBCell ($23 for two-pack with delivery) is a rechargeable double-A battery that charges by plugging into any powered USB port. The NiMH cell can be used like any ordinary battery; a few minutes of "top-up" charging promises several hours of use. And why settle for a Bluetooth headset when you can connect to a Bluetooth speakerphone? The Mvox MV900 ($130) can clip to your car’s visor or be worn around your neck for anytime, anywhere hands-free conversations. (You can even connect it to your PC to use with Skype or another VoIP service.)

--Rick Broida

Off The Wall

Weird gear often makes the best gifts. Seriously, what card-carrying geek wouldn’t like a USB flash drive that looks like R2D2, a PC that looks like R2D2, or a little plastic bunny that announces the news and relays text messages while wiggling his ears? (No, we’re not making this stuff up.)

Digital WiFi Detector
In the old days (think 2004), Wi-Fi detectors did little more than light up when you were in proximity of a hotspot. The Digital WiFi Detector ($70) does much more. Its four-line backlit LCD screen displays not only signal availability and strength, but also network SSID, channel, and encryption status (WEP or WPA). It identifies both 802.11b and 802.11g networks and has a range of about 200 feet. This can save you a ton of time -- now you’ll know what’s available, and whether it’s open for public access, before you even hit the power button.

PowerSquid Surge3000 Calamari Edition
Who says a surge protector can’t be sexy? Okay, maybe sexy is the wrong word for a six-outlet power strip designed to look like an octopus, but there’s no debating the PowerSquid Surge3000 Calamari Edition ($80) looks cooler than any other surge protector. It’s also extremely functional, letting you bend its six plugs (two of which glow neon-blue) any which way so everything fits -- even oversize power bricks. At the other end, coaxial-cable and phone-cord jacks offer protection for your cable and/or DSL modem.

Now that USB flash drives have officially supplanted the floppy and the rewriteable CD as the media of choice for toting files, all that remains is to choose the drive that best reflects your personality. For example, maybe you’re the type who likes Star Wars figures with oversize heads. If so, grab a Darth Vader, Chewbacca, stormtrooper, or R2D2 Mimobot. Priced at $80 (1GB), $120 (2GB), and $170 (4GB), these weird little drives let you reveal your inner geek. The company also offers a couple dozen other styles, all of them cartoonish, kitschy, and unequivocally unique. Perfect for the gearhead who has everything.

Every dreamed of looking down at your coffee table and seeing your own book on it? That’s just one of the possibilities at Blurb, a service that lets you create actual, physical books and even sell them online. And not just spiral-bound Kinko’s-style throwaways, either, but heavyweight hardcovers with four-color dust jackets. (Budget-strapped self publishers can opt for less-expensive softcovers.) Using Blurb’s free software, you mix words and pictures to create cookbooks, baby journals, portfolios, or whatever.

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A caveat: This is strictly for families, friends, and your own ego -- these books do not come with an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and so aren't sellable at Amazon or your local book store. Prices start at $19 for a 20- to 40-page softcover and $30 for a hardcover -- not including shipping.

Brando USB Heating Gloves
Everyone talks about having cold hands, but no one does anything about it. Well, if you’re sitting near a PC (or any other device with a powered USB port), you can jack in and warm up with Brando’s USB Heating Gloves ($22). Made of wool and available in both men’s and women’s styles, these hand warmers are just the thing for anyone suffering from frosty fingers.

What’s particularly smart about the gloves is that they have open fingertips so you can continue to type and use a mouse. But if your hands really get cold, you can pull the mitten-style cover (which has a second heating pad inside) over your fingers. The gloves have two heat settings and a disconnect plug so you can walk away from the PC without having to unplug the USB cable. Admittedly, the wires tend to get in the way a bit (and make you feel a bit like a Borg), but that’s a small price to pay for warm hands.

The 914 PC-BOT
The 914 PC-BOT ($4,995) is the closest you’re ever going to get to having your own R2D2. It’s a mechanized, motorized PC (complete with drive bays, webcam, and Windows XP) that bears more than a passing resemblance to C3PO’s little buddy. It supports both the Microsoft Robotics Studio and Linux platforms, meaning serious hobbyists can program it to their hearts’ content. The only thing it can’t do is erase our memories of Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III. Maybe next year’s model...

See, it’s a rabbit. A Wi-Fi rabbit. Called Nabaztag. And it talks. Ah, hell, we can’t explain it. But it’s impossible not to love this little desktop gizmo, with its flashing lights, oscillating ears, and built-in voice synthesizer that announces news, weather reports, RSS feeds, and text messages. It also notifies you when friends come online or you’ve received new mail. And it can play music and sound effects. You can even "marry" it to another Nabaztag (and without the risk of a population explosion; they’re not real rabbits, after all). The price for the existing model is $150; the not-quite-shipping Nabaztag/tag (which offers WiFi support and an RFID scanner, among other goodies) had not been set at press time.

ThinkGeek USB Snowbot
Cross one of Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons (the robot kind, not the sexy blonde kind) with Frosty the Snowman, add a USB cable, and what do you get? The creepy-cute ThinkGeek USB Snowbot ($13), a perfect accessory for any office cube. It features a scanning LED eye (you can switch between menacing red and calming blue), articulating metal arms, and a decidedly Cylon-like sound effect (which, mercifully, you can turn off). At $13 apiece, they’re cheap enough for every geek on your list -- yourself included.

--Rick Broida

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