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 yearseeing 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.
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.
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.
Call me irrationalI know Scott’s noise level tests show the 8800 GT performing admirablybut 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 setupdual 320GB Caviar SE16sis 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.
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.
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.
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.
Corsair’s Survivor flash drive
Everyone and their mother has a USB flash drive these days, but most offer relatively low capacities wrapped in flimsy plastic enclosures. Corsair’s Survivor line of flash drives is a little different, boasting four, eight, or 16 gigabytes encased in aircraft-grade aluminum shells that are, for practical purposes, indestructible. I’ve run my Survivor over with a car, sent it off a high diving board into the deep end, and even put it through the wash with barely a scratch to the casing. Survivors aren’t cheap, of coursethey run from $37 for the 4GB model up to $160 for 16GB, with a high-performance 8GB Survivor GT selling for $142but their bombproof excess puts a unique spin on an otherwise practical gift.
The iPod is arguably the most popular gadget evera cultural icon whose market domination has endured for years with no signs of weakening. Just about everyone wants one, and among those who have already joined the iMasses, I’m betting most wouldn’t mind an upgrade to one of Apple’s latest models. That alone should validate the iPod’s gift potential. The new nano is easily the most compelling, offering up to 8GB of flash-based storage for as little as $180 online. With that you get support for audio and video playback, games, and compatibility with programs like Winamp if you’d like to avoid iTunes. If the geek on your shopping list has a larger media library, try the 80GB classic, or if you want to ride the bleeding edge, the multi-touch-enabled, er, touch.
Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Premium
I’m a long-time PC gamer, and while I still prefer the platform for some genres, it’s hard to argue with the ease of use, unique games, and overall value offered by the latest generation of consoles. Among them, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 is my favorite. Not only does it have the horsepower to produce impressiveand more importantly immersivevisuals, it also benefits from a deep lineup of quality titles, a handful of excellent exclusives, and the best online service in the business. New “Premium” consoles are also equipped with HDMI output, and if you dig around, you can find plenty of interesting bundles with the latest games. If you’re looking for a console for your mother, go with a Wii. For real gamers, however, an Xbox 360 should be under the tree.
American McGee’s Alice Soundtrack
Looking for a unique stocking stuffer? Try the haunting soundtrack to American McGee’s Alice. Composed by ex-Nine Inch Nails programmer Chris Vrenna, the Alice soundtrack is thick with atmospheric tracks as beautifully bizarre as the game itself. Even if you’ve never played Aliceand if you haven’t, you really shouldthe soundtrack stands on its own as one of my favorite albums of all time. And hey, this isn’t just the Alice soundtrack; it’s American McGee’s Alice, which, uh, adds something, apparently.
Valve’s The Orange Box
While I’m not crazy about having to pay for Half-Life 2 all over again with The Orange Box, the bundle offers value unparalleled by PC games released in recent memory. Just $45 gets you not only Half-Life 2 with both episodic expansions, but also Team Fortress 2 and Portal. There’s a little something for everyone, whether you’re looking for an engaging single-player experience, fast-paced multiplayer mayhem, or a first-person take on more cerebral puzzles. And unlike some of this season’s AAA titlesI’m looking at you, Crysisthe Source engine’s modest system requirements ensure that you don’t need a bleeding-edge PC to enjoy The Orange Box‘s payload in all its glory.
Dell’s UltraSharp 2407WFP-HC
If there’s one thing I lust after this holiday season, it’s Dell’s UltraSharp 2407WFP-HC LCD monitor. Well, more specifically, two of them. Sure, Dell’s 30″ panel gets more attention, but I’d much rather have a pair of 2407s side by sidea setup that costs less than a single 3007WFP, I might add. With a 1920×1200 native resolution, 1000:1 contrast ratio, 6 ms response time, true 8-bit panel, and HDCP support, it’s hard to argue with the 2407’s credentials. Heck, it even has an integrated card reader, integrated USB hub, component input options, and support for picture-in-picture. Yeah, I’ll take two. Please.
Toshiba’s Portege R500 ultraportable laptop
As a guy who runs a website, I have a keen interest in mobile devices that will let me work from anywhere other than my office. A couple of years ago, my search for the ultimate ultraportable led me to the Sharp M4000 WideNote, which I purchased sight-unseen on the basis of a juicy specs list and strong reviews. These days, I’m starting to get the itch to upgrade, and my current favorite ultraportable is Toshiba’s Portege R500. Again, I’ve not seen this system in person, but the specs tell a wondrous tale. The ultra-thin 12.1″ display has an LED backlight, and when outdoors, its transreflective screen uses sunlight as illumination. One configuration of the R500 has a 64GB solid state drive with no moving parts and no noise, and that config weighs in at just 1.72 lbs. Another configuration includes a DVD RW drive, which is uncommon in a laptop this small. How small? 11″ wide, 8.5″ deep, and just 0.77″ tall. Toshiba bills the R500 as having the world’s longest battery life in this form factor, too.
Oh yeah, and it has a dual-core processor and all of that jazz. The big catch with a fancy Japanese laptop, of course, is price. The R500’s cheapest config weighs in at $1999 direct from Toshiba. If you’re constantly on the go, though, this looks like one heck of a way to stay connected.
Seems like everyone these days is jaded about nearly everything. All I can say is that when it comes to the iPhone, you should believe the hype. This is not just a phone; it’s a little mobile computer that’s a more-than-competent web client and media playback device. The multi-touch user interface is incredibly easy to use, a true revolution in mobile UI design. No other “smart phone” or anything else comes close, in my view. If you don’t believe me, spend ten minutes playing with one. You’ll be a convert.
Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes
Several years ago, I was plagued by a number of health problems. I was overweight, on medication for acid reflux disease, suffering debilitating bouts of fatigue at the end of each day, and facing more serious potential health problems that worried my doctor. I was also planning to quit my job in order to work at TR full time, and I knew I had to improve my health if I was going to succeed. I decided to give the Atkins diet a try, and it worked incredibly well for me. Within days, my fatigue was gone, replaced by incredible reserves of energy. Shortly thereafter, my acid reflux problems ceased, and I was able to quit taking the medication. And the pounds started melting offabout 40 of them over the next six months. After that, my waistline shrunk even when my weight didn’t, as I added muscle in place of fat. My doctor was very pleased. To this day, I stick to the basic tenets of the diet. The weight remains off, and my health is much improved.
Everything that worked so well for me flew in the face of conventional wisdom about diet, nutrition, and health, which raised some big questions. Science reporter Gary Taubes has now asked and answered some of those questions in his impressive book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. Taubes recounts how the conventional wisdom formed on a range of topics related to diet and weight loss, including saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, exercise, and disease. The story he tells chronicles a sad history of incomplete science, sloppy interpretations of data, and study results being misinterpreted to fit preconceptions.
It’s a gripping story, but this is not light reading. The book’s 400-plus pages are packed with dissections of study results and technical explanations of metabolic processes. Taubes’ goal was obviously to present a well-researched and convincing antidote to the conventional wisdom, and doing so doesn’t make for breezy prose. This is, however, an important book, especially if your health depends on it.
Lately, too many folks have decided that a gorgeous-looking game like this one can’t possibly be any fun to play. They seem to think that great graphics and good gameplay exist in some kind of opposing, polar relationship. From the first time you sneak up over a ridge and gaze down into a cove at sunrise, Crysis demonstrates why that’s so wrong-headed. Watch a bullet splash into the water 400 yards behind your intended target’s noggin, and you’ll be hooked. The realistic graphics and excellent physics modeling in the game make for an amazingly immersive world, and surprisethat’s fun! The nano-suit stuff works much better than I expected, too. You’ll have to get over the fact that your graphics card won’t run the game at “Very High” or probably even “High” settings, but so what? Crytek pulls all of the elements together into a first-class shooter that advances the genre.