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?

Comments closed
    • willmore
    • 8 years ago

    Geoff,

    I’ve got a T1i and I’ve purchased a number of very inexpensive accessories for it from DealExtreme.com. One of them was a wired remote with interval timer and ‘B’ mode exposure control. My brother, who has a T2i, has gotten a few bits as well. If you want the part ##, PM me.

    • heyasuki
    • 8 years ago

    I’m pretty upset with my Asus’ Xonar DX as it always has driving issues! You know it’s bad when some dudes make their own drivers for the card. However I hear all sound card drivers suck. ASUS get some balls and fix this! Once the card is working it’s awesome however you might be slamming your head into the desk before that happens.

    • Chrispy_
    • 8 years ago

    I’m going to +1 the Cyborg R.A.T. 7.
    It even comes in a funky-shaped (yet flat-sided) box to make guesswork of the wrapped item more fun!

    But every geek will appreciate a decent mouse. Even if they already have a good mouse, they’ll just move their old mouse to the laptop bag, so it’s two upgrades for the price of one 😉

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 8 years ago

    [i<]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.[/i<] das not good.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 8 years ago

      Ya, dying to know the thought process. “You touch it with your fingers, how do we make it attractive? I know! Glossy! Fingerprints are purdy!!!”

    • entropy13
    • 8 years ago

    Well, I got myself these earlier:
    [url<]http://a1.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/380888_2866407618598_1212008568_33245118_1506471971_n.jpg[/url<]

    • ronch
    • 8 years ago

    I’m gonna suggest the FX-8150. Apart from being a jaw-dropping, absolutely revolutionary EIGHT-core processor (which Windows 7 has totally no idea how to allocate threads to) it also doubles as a heating element for those cold winter nights when you’re bored to death because you can’t play Skyrim on it at more than 50 frames per second (I think 2500K does >70) and you’re doing nothing but zip files and transcode videos while downloading from BitTorrent and hoping Microsoft re-releases their Bulldozer patch soon (hopefully for real) so you can enjoy an additional 5% (OMG!!) performance improvement.

    Yep. AMD really designed Bulldozer for the future of computing. Somebody shoot me.

      • LocalCitizen
      • 8 years ago

      I gave you a thumb up, even though I’m looking at another AMD HTPC build for myself. The only reason I don’t consider Intel here is the poor graphics support, both hardware and driver. Now that Intel has itself a nice little lead on the CPU front, I hope it would focus on graphics.
      It can’t buy nVidia, but it could hire some talents away from nVidia and ATi. Let’s say it hires 25, which is a lot, some additional support stuff, a new lab. $10M a year is but a blip on their financial reports, but it could push them well ahead (well, at least get closer) with their graphics performance.

        • ronch
        • 8 years ago

        Thanks for the thumb up, bro. May the Cores be with you.

    • Meadows
    • 8 years ago

    $100+ for a keyboard? That’s madness.

      • bhtooefr
      • 8 years ago

      Keyboards are the one technology that doesn’t get obsoleted ever.

      Don’t believe me? I’m typing this post on a keyboard that was manufactured over 27 years ago, adapted to USB. It has N-key rollover, and the USB adapter firmware that I’m using will eventually support macro keys, I believe.

      This keyboard would’ve cost in the $500 ballpark new in 1984 (except I wasn’t around 27 years ago), but it would’ve worked all the way from a 27 year old IBM terminal, to (with a cable swap, and acting a bit wonky, but acceptable) DOS PCs, to (with a driver hack and keyboard remapping software) 32-bit Windows NT/2000/XP PCs, and then with this adapter, ANYTHING THAT SUPPORTS USB KEYBOARDS.

      It gives up NOTHING compared to modern keyboards. Layout is relatively standard (well, it’s ISO layout – I need to open it up and swap some Model M parts into it to convert it to the more normal US ANSI layout – but the 101-key Enhanced layout is heavily derived from this layout (while also borrowing some design concepts from the DEC LK201). It works 100% on any modern computer. It’s loud, while being extremely tactile, but I like that, and I can buy modern keyboards that are that way.

      That’s INCREDIBLY long lifespan for a computing device to stay not only useful, but competitive.

      Even getting into less exotic stuff, once we get into 1985, the Model M comes into play. Want to know the difference between the layout of a 1985 Model M, and the cheap keyboards you advocate? Three keys. The Windows keys and the context menu key. PS/2 is dying, and a lot of PS/2 ports don’t provide enough power for the Model M, but there are plenty of USB adapters that work with Model Ms.

      While I don’t expect that keyboard to last as long as a Model F or as some Model Ms, durability is the only thing keeping it from being the last keyboard you’ll ever have to buy.

        • Meadows
        • 8 years ago

        You haven’t addressed my key concern.

        I’m close to having spent $100 on keyboards… [b<]over the past 10 years[/b<]. To shell that out for one singular piece is beyond my comprehension. Whether it's ergonomic keyboards, flexible keyboards, illuminated keyboards, tactile keyboards, wrist-rest multimedia atomic gamer keyboards, or anything else, I have never seen even a single device that would've warranted a price tag of even $100. Here, I see keyboards notably surpassing that mark, and not even the phrase "...steep price, [i<][b<]but[/b<][/i<]" is anywhere to be seen. As if these things are [i<]supposed to be[/i<] pricetagged through the roof.

          • Dygear
          • 8 years ago

          If you ever got one in front of you, you’ll know why it’s worth $100! I use the Leopold Tenkeyless Tactile Touch Keyboard, and I love it! With Cherry MX Brown switches, it’s great for gaming but it’s also a joy to type on. I find myself being quite a bit more accurate when hitting a key on this keyboard then I do on any other. I’m not really sure why this is, but I know this keyboard is making me better at typing. While gaming, this keyboard truly comes into it’s own, playing battlefield, checking the score, lobbing a grenade while running and strafing at the same time, is 4 keys. They are all in the same area, if I had done that on any other keyboard I would of stoped running and crouched or something ridiculous like that. This is due to ghosting, where you press some keys in the same area of the keyboard, and other keys are reported. This does not happen on a $100 keyboard, so not only does it make you a better typeset, it makes you a better player!

            • Meadows
            • 8 years ago

            I don’t consider myself a bad gamer and I can type reasonably error-free and quite fast as it is. (In fact, I’m pretty sure that my typing speed is assisted by the very light effort it takes to use rubber dome keys.)

            Once or twice I was accused of being a bot in Quake Live because I put down two complete lines of conversation before someone else could even muster a five word sentence. I’ve never used anything but basic $10 keyboards which still last many years unless accidents or abuse happens.

            • I.S.T.
            • 8 years ago

            I’m using a keyboard that came with an old HP PC. It’s got to be a decade old, and HP was producing this keyboard model for probably a year or two before this one was manufactured. I type reasonably fast, and the keyboard is still going strong.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            To me a good keyboard isn’t about speed or accuracy – it’s all about comfort.

            • Meadows
            • 8 years ago

            I actually find the low effort associated with el cheapo rubber dome keyboards comfortable, so in a sense, I’m all set and this is a futile argument. And I’m touch-typing as it is, so nobody’s going to convince me that I’d be better off with a lettered spring board. [i<]Oh, the pun.[/i<] That's not to say I use [b<]complete noname[/b<] boards, there are a few Chinese brands I specifically buy and recommend.

          • cegras
          • 8 years ago

          > I’m close to having spent $100 on keyboards… over the past 10 years

          What’s the difference, then, in spending $100 for a keyboard that lasts ten years?

            • Meadows
            • 8 years ago

            It’s a notably bigger investment and there’s no guarantee that it *will* last as long.

            • cegras
            • 8 years ago

            It probably will, and although you might say it all comes down to preference I rather like typing on cherry blues as opposed to rubber domes.

            At the very least if you’re going to buy a rubber dome a keytronic is necessary.

      • Krogoth
      • 8 years ago

      2/10

      Nice try.

    • TakinYourPoints
    • 8 years ago

    For anyone interested in a good mechanical keyboard, Elite Keyboards is currently selling Leopolds with every single Cherry MX switch available (black, brown, blue, red, and even clears) in full size and tenkeyless configurations.

    [url<]http://elitekeyboards.com/products.php?sub=leopold[/url<] I recently picked up a white tenkeyless with the clear switches and I love it. I actually like it more than the Filco Majestouch with brown switches I picked up last year. Anyway, they're great, no-nonsense keyboards.

    • Sargent Duck
    • 8 years ago

    I know for me it would be a new USB 3.0 stick, either the 16GB or 32GB variety. I love my 16GB Corsair Flash Voyager USB 2.0, but I’d be lying if I wasn’t eyeing the 32 GB Flash Voyager USB 3.0.

    • Spotpuff
    • 8 years ago

    Batman AC is totally awesome. It’s too bad it was marred by DX11 problems and a delayed PC launch, but rarely (for me anyways) has a game combined storytelling, action, ambience, music and comic lore so well.

    You feel like you’re batman and you can take down criminals. It’s pretty awesome.

      • travbrad
      • 8 years ago

      [quote<]You feel like you're batman and you can take down criminals.[/quote<] Can I take down terrible game developers in it? If so I'm sold :p

        • paulWTAMU
        • 8 years ago

        Hidden level 😛

    • indeego
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<] 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.[/quote<] Hence why you recommend Sandforce drives for your two upper-tier systems in the Systems Guides?

      • Dissonance
      • 8 years ago

      I’d consider our readers to be savvy enthusiasts. We’ve got m4 alternatives throughout the guide, too.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 8 years ago

        I’m just glad it’s a Corsair recommendation over OCZ here. I have seen both companies’ tech support in action first-hand and Corsair won hands down.

        • cegras
        • 8 years ago

        But why does being savvy automatically mean you’re willing to deal with the headache of reinstall, flashing, and trouble shooting compared to getting a SSD that works? The big jump is from the hard drive anyways, switching between models is pretty lateral to me. At least, for regular, mundane tasks and gaming.

          • internetsandman
          • 8 years ago

          It means you’re more likely to be able to deal with it, but you know, nobody’s forcing you into buying either brand. If you want the easier use and peace of mind that an M4 gives you, go right ahead. If you want to squeeze out that little bit more speed, go with the GT. These are just merely suggestions after all, they point this fact out in every single system guide

      • heyasuki
      • 8 years ago

      I recommend getting the Force GT, I had the BSOD issue however with the latest fix it’s been smooth sailing for the last few weeks!

    • JohnC
    • 8 years ago

    I find the combination of the HUGE Corsair’s Force GT photo and the following sentence “Even though the BSOD bug associated with the SandForce controller has [b<]supposedly[/b<] been squashed, [b<]I'd avoid buying the Force GT[/b<] for anyone who isn't a savvy enthusiast" extremely amusing. I understand what you were actually trying to say and the actual reason for it, but still...

    • squeeb
    • 8 years ago

    Arkham City is great, but I’ve barely played it since most of my ‘gaming’ time has been consumed with BF3 and now the xpac. I’ll get around to it one of these days..

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