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TR's Christmas gift guide

What enthusiasts want to see under the tree

It's that time of year again. You know, the non-denominational holiday gift-giving season that has most of us begrudgingly making a pilgrimage to worship in the one church that seems to unite us all: the mall. I'll do anything to avoid malls this time of year—seeing throngs of beleaguered shoppers aimlessly wandering through aisles of over-bright retail hell slowly erodes my will to live. But sometimes that's the only way to find something unique for those notoriously hard-to-shop-for people who seem to be on everyone's list.

As it happens, PC enthusiasts can be particularly difficult to shop for. We're a picky lot, and for the uninitiated, finding the perfect gift in a market teeming with options can be a daunting task. To those not in the know, a 16MB USB keychain with a built-in LED flashlight probably seems like a good gift idea, especially when an always-helpful salesperson working on commission insists that it's the latest hip thing for "people into computers."

In an attempt to save PC enthusiasts from unwrapping disappointment, we've whipped up a holiday gift guide outlining what we think are the best gifts of the season. Read on to see what TR's staffers think should be under the tree this year.

Cyril Kowaliski

D-Link's DIR-655 router
After giddily signing up for a shiny new 100Mbit cable/FTTLA Internet connection last month, I decided to get myself an(other) early Christmas present: a router to go with it. Problem is, few routers seem to be fast enough to handle that kind of data throughput. Following a cursory look through this comparison of router performance, I settled on D-Link's DIR-655.

As Xtreme as an Internet router can possibly be

This is a premium piece of equipment with just about everything you'd want from a consumer router: Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, packet prioritization (to ensure file sharing doesn't interfere with web browsing or games), quick boot times, and a fantastic web interface. Best of all, D-Link backs it with an 11-year warranty, so I fully expect to be using it with my 5Gbit GoogleNet connection in 2018. The only downside is the router's hefty $130 street price, but considering the features and warranty, I'd say it's worth every penny.

AMD's Radeon HD 3870
My trusty Nvidia GeForce 7900 GTO has served me well for the past year or so, but its inability to run Crysis even remotely well with the detail turned up has put me in the market for a replacement. Now, I know what you're going to say: "But Cyril, the GeForce 8800 GT is faster than the Radeon HD 3870, why not get that?" Well, I'd love to. Unfortunately, my computer upgrade budget isn't huge, and I like quiet components. Really quiet components.

Diamond's Radeon HD 3870

Call me irrational—I know Scott's noise level tests show the 8800 GT performing admirably—but I just don't trust tiny fans to stay quiet for any extended period of time. And if I throw on an aftermarket cooler, the already-expensive 8800 GT will end up costing a good deal more (especially if it breaks down after I void the warranty by changing the cooler). The Radeon is cheap, more than fast enough for my needs, and it has a big, quiet fan with a sensible cooler that exhausts hot air out the back of the case, so it gets my vote.

Another 2GB of RAM
Right now, my main system is outfitted with 2GB of DDR2-667 memory. 90% of the time, that's more than enough for my needs. The other 10%, I curse [insert new game name here] for taking so long to page out and making my computer all choppy and unresponsive. I could definitely live with the odd bout of choppiness every few days, but with 2GB DDR2-667 memory kits now going for around $40, an upgrade is hard to resist.

Of course, properly taking advantage of all that memory would require me to jump from Vista x86 to Vista x64, and I'm far too lazy for that right now. I guess that's another item for my list of New Year's resolutions.

Western Digital's Caviar SE16 750GB
My current hard drive setup—dual 320GB Caviar SE16s—is rapidly filling up, so I could use some additional storage capacity. For that purpose, I really can't think of a better deal than Western Digital's Caviar SE16 750GB. This drive can be had for less than $160 online, and as we saw in our review, it combines delightfully low noise levels with excellent performance.

WD's three-year warranty is somewhat of a downside, but personally, I find it difficult to care all that much. By 2010-2011, the latest hard drives should have several terabytes of capacity, so I'll be more than happy to upgrade if this one kicks the bucket.

Adam Eiberger

Samsung's SyncMaster 22" LCD
Every day I stare at a huge Mitsubishi Diamond Plus 200 CRT monitor that is way past its prime. I have the brightness, contrast, and color settings cranked way beyond what they should be in order to make it bright enough to use. At these settings, the colors aren't quite right, so it's about time to admit that a Samsung SyncMaster 22" LCD might be a "need." Of course, if we're talking "wants," then I'd rather see Geoff's pick, a Dell UltraSharp 2407WFP-HC, sitting in front of me.

Abit's iDome speakers
What good are great visuals, though, if I can't hear anything? I gave up a nice set of Logitech Z-540 speakers for the new kitchen PC, and still haven't gotten replacements for the office system. Tiring of listening on headphones all the time, I'd much rather enjoy my Pandora stations on Abit iDome DS500s, including the SW510 Subwoofer. I'm sure there are other great options, but man I loved the sound of those when they spent a short layover in my office. Our iDome review was positive, as well, and prices are now quite reasonable.

Abit's iDome speakers, all glossy-like

The audio stylings of Christopher Parkening
But if that big sponsorship deal from a previously unheard-of Taiwanese motherboard manufacturer that's supposed to pay so handsomely doesn't come through... then I'm probably stuck with this dim screen and mini tinny earphones for another year. And in that case my stocking will be more than content stuffed with Christopher Parkening's duet with David Brandon, Virtuoso Duets, or his recent Jubilation, a collaboration with Jubilant Sykes.

Amazing Grace
Although I'm not one to acquire movies, in any format, I do occasionally pick up titles I regard as having potential to become classics and that I'd like my child(ren) to eventually view, preferably multiple times. Amazing Grace, the Michael Apted film of 18th century abolitionist William Wilberforce's unrelenting, life-long effort to abolish first the slave trade and eventually legalized slavery in the UK, is precisely one of those movies. If you haven't seen it, you're really missing something.