Holiday gifts for the discerning geek

I lost count of how many times my girlfriend asked me what I wanted for Christmas this year. After replying with "oh, you know what I want" failed to elicit the desired response, I set about slowly piecing together a meager tally of items I'd like to see wrapped up under our tree. It's a pretty sad list, and the wired remote for my Rebel T2i is the most advanced bit of technology on it. The fact is I'm already pretty well-equipped on the high-tech front.

When you review PC hardware, Christmas morning comes regularly with the delivery of new components ready for review. As a general technology enthusiast, I tend to buy desirable tech products soon after they come out rather than waiting for the celebration of my escape from the womb... or the birth of that other guy. I'm picky about those purchases, and I've made more of them in recent years as a sort of self-serving investment in my career of choice—and a nice tax write-off.

So, yeah, I have a pretty sweet collection of tech toys.

Many of them would make fantastic gifts, so I'm going to mail in this week's blog post with a holiday gift guide. Sorry, my head is elsewhere this week; I'm currently sitting on a mountain of test data for two separate articles, and on top of that, I've got a Transformer Prime demanding my immediate attention. Besides, this may even give you a few ideas for how to best spend gift cards and Christmas cash.

Our Christmas system guide is already filled with rational recommendations for components and mobile accessories. Gifts should be more indulgent than reasoned, I think, so I'm going to focus on a handful of smaller items that deliver a big punch all on their own.

There's no way I'm not recommending an SSD, though. Solid-state storage has long been highly desirable for its wicked-fast performance, and prices have finally fallen enough to make drives affordable luxuries. The fastest SSDs around pair SandForce's SF-2281 controller with synchronous flash memory. Among that bunch, Corsair's bright red Force GT is easily the most festive. The 120GB version costs $200 right now, and a smaller 60GB variant can be had for $115.

Even though the BSOD bug associated with the SandForce controller has supposedly been squashed, I'd avoid buying the Force GT for anyone who isn't a savvy enthusiast. The odds of a problem may be low, but the potential headache could be huge if you're the one ultimately responsible. Crucial's m4 is a safer bet, and the 64GB model is cheaper than the Force GT at $109. You'll have to shell out $210 for a 128GB drive large enough to hold Windows plus a decent selection of games and applications, though.

Although not nearly as sexy as SSDs, peripherals deserve more attention than enthusiasts tend to give them. High-end keyboards and mice can add a lot more to the computing experience than one might expect, and I'm a recent convert to the cult of mechanical key switches. For folks who spends hours of each day hammering away at a keyboard, whether writing eloquent prose, gaming on the WASD triangle, or performing mindless data entry, it's hard to deny the benefits of a quality physical interface. 

Alas, I can't recommend my own mechanical keyboard, the Das Professional Silent, because its glossy frame too quickly turns into a mess of smudgy fingerprints. That said, the keyboard's Cherry MX brown switches have a nice tactile bump that's a real treat for typists. The very same switches can be found on Rosewill's RK-9000BR keyboard for $110—minus the Das' gloss. 

The RK-9000BR isn't much to look at, I'll admit, and gamers tend to prefer the linear action provided by Cherry's black and red switches. The latter populate Corsair's stunning Vengeance K60 and K90 keyboards, which sell for $110 and $130, respectively. I've handled the Vengeance keyboards in person, and they feel excellent. With individual backlights behind each key and gobs of programming options, the K90 is easily the one I'd want for a gaming rig.

Although a good mouse can make just as big of a difference as a nice keyboard, everyone tends to have their own personal preferences, especially when it comes to shape and fit. The slickest one-size-fits-all approach comes from Cyborg Gaming, which offers an awesome adjustable mouse in the RAT 7. In addition to the usual mix of programming options, users can tweak the size, shape, and weight of the mouse to perfectly suit their preferred grip.

The RAT 7 just plain looks cool, and the build quality is excellent. After more than a year of heavy use, mine is showing no real signs of wear and tear. I've been particularly impressed with how useful the on-the-fly DPI adjustment has been not only in games, but also when switching between standard desktop tasks and detailed Photoshop work. The wired RAT 7 can be had for $80 online, and it will actually fit in a stocking.

While some argue that basic audio solutions are good enough for their ears, I wonder how many would go back if they could do better. Lately, I've been doing all my gaming on a pair of Sennheiser HD 555 headphones. These are the cans we use for sound card testing here at TR, and they've always been great for music. They're just as good for games, especially when paired with a sound card or motherboard audio that offers surround-sound virtualization, as most modern ones do.

I've seen the HD 555s for a lot cheaper than the $158 they're selling for now. For a heck of a lot less, Koss' PortaPro headphones offer great sound quality in a much smaller package. This decades-old design has stood the test of time, and I never travel without mine. Total cost? Only $44.

The other audio component that's perfect for an enthusiast's stocking is a quality sound card. Our favorite is Asus' Xonar DX, which offers beautifully balanced playback quality despite costing just $81. Surround-sound virtualization is provided for stereo speakers or headphones, and multichannel audio can be encoded on the fly for digital output to a receiver. With a half-height circuit board that can slip into slim HTPC enclosures and modern PCIe x1 interface ripe for most motherboards, the Xonar DX is flexible enough to work in a whole range of different systems.

The Prime is calling, so I'll wrap this up with a few game suggestions. A lot of really good titles came out this year, and Portal 2 is probably the best gift of the bunch. The first-person puzzler is appropriate for younger audiences, and it's a genuinely engaging game from start to finish—it's funny, too. If you don't grab Portal 2 for $30 now, Valve will undoubtedly have it for much cheaper during Steam's usual holiday sale.

Up until about a week ago, I would've recommended Battlefield 3 alongside Portal 2. The thing is, I've been doing a lot of testing with Batman: Arkham City this week. I tend to tire quickly of repeating the same 90-second test sequence while benchmarking, but I've brawled through one tiny slice of Arkham City no fewer than 40 times now, and I've enjoyed it each and every time. Even with a keyboard and mouse, the third-person combat is deeply satisfying. I haven't progressed enough to comment on the game as a whole, but I am desperate to sit down for a proper session. If more time to play Arkham City is high on my own wishlist, odds are gamers will be pretty happy to unwrap the latest Batman game on Christmas morning. This one probably won't be on the receiving end of hefty discounts until after the holidays.

So, that's my list—or it would be, if I didn't have all those bases covered already. What bits of technological goodness are you hoping to find under the tree next weekend?

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