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ProfHacker 2009 Holiday Gift Guide

Gifts under the Christmas tree.It’s the Christmahanukwanzaakah season around the ProfHacker offices, and visions of sugar plums are dancing in the heads off all the good little ProfHacker girls and boys.

We’re writing our letters and baking our cookies in the hopes that someone (enter the name of your favorite holiday gift bringing entity here) will leave a shiny present under the tree (or your festive holiday object of choice) to set our little hearts a flutter with holiday joy.

What a perfect time of year for us each to share an item or two (or three or four) off of our own holiday wish lists (or one or two items that we already own and get a lot of use out of) in the hopes that they might help all of you, our loyal readers, in your profhacking endeavors of 2010 (and beyond)

Ethan

I’ve been doing a lot of audio recording and editing (mostly lectures). While I use a wireless lapel mic for recording the actual lecture (which works great for me), I’ve had the opportunity to use an Audio Technica AT3035 mic occasionally for recording intros and outros. I absolutely love this mic. The audio quality is great. And with an entry level audio interface, I can record my smooth dulcet Barry White-like tones straight into Garage Band when I’m laying down mad lecture podcast tracks . . . yo (sorry, got a little carried away there). The kicker is that the AT3035 isn’t exactly cheap. At $350, you are going to have to have a Santa who loves you very much to get you this mic. However, if you know you are going to be doing regular audio recording (interviews, podcasting, intros, etc), and want to invest in a mic that is going to give you consistently solid quality, this is definitely for you. There is a bit of a caveat on this item. Unfortunately, Audio Technica has discontinued this model. You can still find it at some online retailers, but not all. So, what is the alternative? Well, Audio Technica makes a similar mic—the AT2035—which is pretty comparable in features. The good thing is that it clocks in at only $150. Never having used the AT2035, I can’t really speak to whether it is as awesome as the AT3035—but I suspect it is. Happy holidays!

(oh yeah, and I also want Apple to get off its lazy duff and give me that damn tablet I’ve been pining for! And I also want a pony . . . there, I said it)

George

One day, perhaps, we’ll have amazing, full-color, solar-powered reading devices that combine the best features of the printed book with those of digital gadgets. However, until then the reading device that leads the pack, in my humble opinion, is Amazon’s Kindle or the larger-screen Kindle DX. Some of my initial reservations were answered with a recent update that added native PDF support as well as the ability to switch between portrait and landscape orientation. For someone who’s a voracious reader, this would make a great gift. You might check out this review from New York Times technology writer David Pogue. The Kindle is not the only such gadget on the market, of course. I have high hopes for the Barnes & Noble Nook, but given recent reviews it’s probably best to wait until some of the kinks are worked out before taking the plunge.

One the other side of the reading-and-writing coin is the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen, which allows you to takes notes from a lecture or in a meeting while simultaneously recording the audio. That would be just kind of a ho-hum feature by itself, but what’s really cool is that the pen synchronizes the audio and your written notes. Just tap a particular place in your notes to jump right to that place in the audio. You can also transfer both the audio and the notes to your computer, whether a Mac or a PC. (Sorry, but it appears to be incompatible with Linux.) For more info, consider this review from MacLife.

Jeff

[Okay, so I'm not following the rules since I already have this one.] After nearly a year of use, I’d recommend the iPod Touch as a great option for people looking for much of the functionality of an iPhone, but without the expensive data plan (or being tied to AT&T). There are plenty of discussions of the merits of the iPod Touch, the App Store, and Apple itself online, but I will limit my recommendation to the (major) uses I’ve found for it.

First of all, I love the wifi functionality, which is quite good at finding hotspots, even weak or distant ones. It’s not everywhere, but wifi is widespread enough to make this the killer function for me. Second, it works incredibly well as my PDA. I find the mail system easier to use than the Outlook Web Access I have at work. Contacts and calendar were easy to manage once I set up a sync with Google Contacts and Calendar. Notes and shopping lists are easy to take on the virtual keyboard, which is surprisingly good, especially given the effectiveness of Apple’s predictive text. Third, it’s just plain fun. There are lots of fun, free games available in the App Store. [There are many, many paid games, but I haven't actually felt the need to buy them, given the numerous other free options.]

Fourth, it’s a great portable e-book reader. I use both Amazon’s Kindle App and Stanza. The latter is great for access to a large collection of freely available books. The former actually also has been a source of many free books, as Amazon tries to promote the Kindle. It’s a suprisingly satisfying experience to have several books whereever you go. Fifth, for those of you with kids: the iPod Touch rocks as edutainment. Children, even as young as 2, manage to operate the icon-based interface just fine, finding video favorites on YouTube, playing with matching games and educational tools, and even navigating the newest version of the venerable game Oregon Trail (a game I played in a much earlier version on a monochrome text-only screen more than 20 years ago). Sixth, access to social networking — facebook, Twitter — through a variety of free apps. Finally, of course, it’s an iPod. Video and audio, videocasts and podcasts, TEDTalks and tunes. We all know how that works and it all works very well on the Touch.

As with Ethan’s suggestion, your gift giver needs to be generous here. There are several options for the 3rd generation of the iPod Touch based on the size memory you want, ranging from 8GB ($180) to 64 GB ($360). I have a 32 GB model ($270), which is plenty of room for thousands of songs and podcasts, six pages of sixteen aps, and many, many photos.

Oh, and if I’m truly thinking about a wish list that would include things that I don’t necessarily need but would certainly be happy to receive, there’s this toy, the Newertech USB Video Display Adapter, which, for about $100, allows you to add an external monitor (VGA, DVI, HDMI), via a USB port on your computer. As more and more computers, especially netbooks (I’m looking at you Dell), leave off, or choose different, video output modes, a cable like this could be very useful for the presenter-on-the-go to be able to hook up their laptop to various monitors or projectors.

Amy

I know, I know, PowerPoint is evil. But there are times when PowerPoint or other presentation software becomes necessary. For those times, one of the things I’ve found indispensable is a wireless presenter. It lets me get away the from the front of the room and move around the class, which helps maintain student attention and interest. I always have one in my gear bag. The particular model I use is the Kensington 33374, but there are many others. The nice thing is that wireless presenters aren’t particularly expensive, at least as far as gadgets go. A quick search on Amazon shows a choice of presenters ranging in price from $12.95 to $149.99, with most models somewhere in the $35-$50 range.

Natalie

I have an old (slow) flatbed scanner at home, which is fine for art projects and the occasional document. At my department, we are fortunate to have a photocopier that will scan documents directly to PDF. So I periodically carry some paper files into work and scan them there. But in my quest towards an even more paperless life, I’ve had my eye on the Fujitsu ScanSnap series of scanners for a couple of years, and they just keep getting better and better. The one I have my eye on is the S1500, which comes in a couple different packages:

  • S1500 for PC ($405) (comes with ScanSnap Organizer, Adobe Acrobat 9, ABBYY FineReader for ScanScap, and CardMinder)
  • S1500M for Macintosh ($405) (comes with Adobe Acrobat 8, ABBYY FineReader for ScanSnap, and Cardiris 3.6)
  • S1500 Deluxe Bundle (PC only I think) ($430) (in addition to the software listed above, it also includes Rack2-Filer V5.0, a virtual filing cabinet).

It’s pricey, but a good scanner is well worth the money. I’ve used ABBYY Finereader for years as my preferred OCR software, and to have it bundled with the machine is a good value.

Does your giftee already have a laptop/netbook/smartphone/kindle/ipod that you want to dress up a little? Go to Gelaskins for unique artwork on protective skins for a variety of devices ($15 and up). Plus giclee art prints you can hang on the wall. It’s a great way to support contemporary artists and feed your tech habit all at once!

At the other end of the price range, a couple of stocking stuffers I can recommend:

  • a Polder clock, timer and stopwatch on a cord for easy portability ($12)
  • a vibrating timer by Shake Awake (also has sound and flashing light options) ($15) (I haven’t used this brand, but it looks very similar to the now-discontinued Polder timer I’ve used for years)
  • the FlexUSB USB adapter, perfect for awkward media classrooms, printing while travelling, etc ($11)

Julie

For everyone who has a handheld device with a capacitive touchscreen (I’m looking at you, owners of the Apple iPhone, Apple iPod Touch, HTC G1, HTC Hero, Motorola Droid, Palm Pre, Palm Pixi, and a host of others), I recommend a spool of conductive thread. If you live in a cold climate, or if you find yourself wearing gloves of any thickness at any point in the year, here’s a cheap solution—a glove hack, if you will—that will allow you to use your gloves and your capacitive touchscreen device at the same time. Use the conductive thread and these instructions to mod gloves of any size, shape, and thickness, and to your own particular contact areas. Sure, you could purchase a pair of Dots Gloves (or Tavo) or but what if they’re not warm enough? What if the conductive spots don’t exactly match up with your fingertips? Just whip out the needle and conductive thread and mod your winter, spring, biking, skiing (and so on) gloves of your choice. Or, you could just stay indoors when it’s cold outside, prop up your feet, get a cup of tea, and learn some new skills with Sams Teach Yourself HTML & CSS in 24 Hours, 8th edition newly available by yours truly.

Brian

Since this year has found me with an office that is in another state and 120 miles away from where I live, I finally had a good reason to buy my first laptop this fall. (No, I’m not sure how I ended up writing for ProfHacker either.) Those who follow me on Twitter might remember that I experimented with a netbook, after reading Julie’s perspective on her netbook. I loved the size and the 10.5-hour battery life of the ASUS Eee PC I bought, but I ultimately decided that I needed a larger screen and keyboard since I was going to be working on the machine for days at a time. I’ve been extremely happy with the MacBook Pro that I ended up with, but on occasion I long for the ASUS’s smaller size and certainly wouldn’t mind if elves left me another since I have some conferences coming up. On the other hand, it might be easier to carry my MacBook’s 5.5 pounds of aluminum if I had a better backpack. I’ve been lusting after the North Face Surge (in Bittersweet Brown, please) for several months now. It’s an extremely roomy pack—just right for carrying several Norton anthologies—and offers a separate and protected compartment for your laptop. The North Face’s lifetime warranty on workmanship means that you won’t have to worry about zippers breaking. While the Cordura of the Surge will more than likely be enough for waterproofing, I wouldn’t mind receiving a separate laptop sleeve by Waterfield Designs. The customization of these sleeves is almost as impressive as their construction. The shoulder bags Waterfield makes are impressive as well . . . if I wasn’t trying to save my back. To complete my transformation into an academic Road Warrior, I made sure that I was equipped with a Belkin USB hub, just in case I needed a few more open ports. Throw one of these in the stocking of a hack-minded prof near you! Finally, if said prof has an Apple laptop, check to see if he or she has a Mini DisplayPort to VGA adaptor. I’ll agree with you that it’s silly that Apple products need an adaptor to use the industry standard for digital projectors, but that’s the way it is. And if you’re going to use Apple, you can’t really assume that the right adaptor will be waiting for you at your conference. Make sure you pack your own. Finally, it never hurts to give professors (including me now!) paid access to their temporary offices in the form of a Starbucks gift card (or the wifi-/hot chocolate-purveyor of his or her choice).

If I quickly abandon the theme of mobility for a moment, I’d second Jeff’s recommendation for an iPod Touch for those who want the iPhone experience without the two-year, $720 data-plan cost. There are a number of excellent applications for the iPhone/iPod Touch to help professors with everything from reading asynchronously to taking attendance (see Jason’s moonlighting review at Macworld). Getting apps onto your device isn’t hard, but it will require going through iTunes. I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t like iTunes gift cards (at least now that the music on iTunes isn’t DRM’d). For those who might appear to have everything, also consider a subscription to an online backup provider. While tools like Backblaze or Cloudberry shouldn’t be your only backup solutions, they are an increasingly important part of the landscape.

Billie

As the semester started, I purchased a lot of equipment I thought I’d need. Most of it I have yet to use. I found myself relying on the older equipment and items that were comfortable to me, even if those items weren’t the newst and slickest on the block. Since much of my work deals with digital media, I have found that FlipVideos are wonderfully easy to use and they are not expensive. I’ve used one for a few years personally, and I will use them in classes come the spring. The newer models have longer recording times and some are in HD. However, I’m happy with the simple model. Cheap and easy are good qualities to have in some forms of technology and equipment. This notion holds true with some digital audio equipment. For a while I used a fairly high-end digital audio recorder, and it was very good, but it was also very small. Unfortunately it was so small that I lost it. I have since reverted to an older recorder that I’ve had for a few years (a little larger and just as good). The Olympus Digital Voice Recorder allows me to record interviews with research subjects, record notes to myself while I’m on the go, and with the use of Dragon Naturally Speaking software, I can upload audio files and have them roughly transcribed. To carry all this? George suggested the Tamrac Aero 80 Photo/Laptop Backpack when I started this new job, and it’s proven to be very useful. I can carry camera and video equipment, a lap top (full sized or a netbook), my lunch, and a few other sundry items. It’s bigger than a typical backpack, but it’s small enough to use as a carryon on an airplane. It’s water proof. It’s padded. It’s wonderful. It’s worth the price.

If you have a little extra cash— and this is something that absolutely aided in my sanity keeping this semester— a subscription to Sirius radio could be a welcomed gift to someone (yourself?). Sirius sells a number of products that allows you to listen to your choice in music in the car or in the home. They have recently expanded their services to include online radio and radio services that can be accessed through portable devices. If you watch their site, they often have very affordable deals on their services. Brian mentioned iTunes gift cards and loaded Starbucks cards as great gifts or stocking stuffers. Additional stocking stuffers could include Lush Bath Bombs. (OK, these have nothing to do with technology, productivity, or teaching, but we all have to bathe. There’s no reason why we can’t smell good when we are done.) Lush Bath Bombs are made from natural ingredients, they are made by hand and they smell amazing.

Lastly, George mentioned the Kindle as a good gift but they can be a bit pricy ($300 or so). However, a gift for a Kindle owner could be the very affordable newspaper or magazine ($15 to $30).

Jason

Gift guides for a general audience are hard to pull off well. I mean, how many times can you recommend The Wire, or the new Dickens biography by Michael Slater, or Boys and Girls in America?

The best gadget-type gift that I know is the Eye-Fi family of wireless HD memory cards. (They start at around $50.) If you have a digital camera and a wireless network, you never again have to think about uploading your photos to your computer. In fact, you can set it to simultaneously upload to your computer and to Flickr, Picasa, or other services. If your camera is on, and within range of your network, it will automagically start uploading your pictures. Some of the models even support automatic geotagging. It’s close to magic.

A wireless keyboard and mouse are also way more fun than they might seem.

Something a little spendier, and probably more work-related, is a second monitor. Screen real estate is getting less expensive, and if your computer can power two monitors, such that you’re able to have several windows fully open at the same time, your eyes will thank you

Software-wise, Things is a remarkably clever and well-designed to-do manager. The desktop client is Mac-only ($49.95), but there’s a spiffy iPhone app, too ($9.95). It’s so simple and easy-to-use that it almost makes work seem effortless. The other cool gift for the Mac user in your life is 1Password, which is exactly what the name suggests: a dead-simple password generator, which saves you the trouble of inventing new—or, more likely, insecure—passwords for all the different sites you visit. (And don’t forget Snow Leopard! Don’t make the mistake of believing that an operating system can’t be a cool gift—I was given Leopard a couple of years back, and it was totally fun.)

Some more miscellaneous recommendations:

  • For kids: a 1-yr LEGO Brickmaster subscription. Every other month, they get a magazine, plus an exclusive LEGO set. (That’s right: $39.99 upfront gets the kid in question 6 awesome sets.) Backup: Hexbug Nano robot. For $8, you get a startlingly realistic robotic insect.
  • For anyone: a GeekDad t-shirt (never let it be said I don’t protect the shield)
  • For anyone: Lifter Puller: Vs. The End of . . . Lyrics, photos, and testimonials to all the songs by Lifter Puller, the Minneapolis-based band where Craig Finn and Tad Kubler got their start. In addition to the book, you also get a download card for all 50-odd songs in their catalog.
  • For anyone: @Twitter-style jewelry by Survival of the Hippest (I would *totally* start wearing a tieclip for @jbj), which is in part run by Ashley Albert, who fronts The Jimmies, an excellent rock band for kids.
  • For anyone: MaxineDear, on Etsy, makes these awesome wallets out of old book covers. They’re swell.
  • The best gift of all, though, is enough.

Nels

There are people in my life who consider me to be something of a techy, and that’s true compared to those who consider email to be all the social networking they need (with AOL addresses at that). I’ve learned, though, that while I like to play with new toys now and then, few of them stick with me for long, but I always love to receive a Moleskine notebook now and then. It’s the top-notch paper and binding that I love. I sometimes like to doodle or take notes with a range of colorful Sharpies, and the pages are thick enough for the ink not to bleed through. Those who saw the photo of my backpack’s contents last September will remember seeing my mini-Moleskine that I always have just to jot down that random thought or image. I’ve added a large, ruled notebook, which I use for notes during lectures or random library visits. Check out the Moleskine store at Amazon for the range of classic and functional options.

[Image by Flickr user Alan Cleaver. Licensed under Creative Commons.]

 
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