If you're looking for a holiday gift for your favorite geek, you're in luck. There are plenty of cool toys for the technophiles among us.
If you're feeling particularly generous, you could spring for a new PC, but be careful about bargain brands. Some of the cheaper ones require a three-year subscription to an online service. But three years is a long time in Internet years.
This season, Gateway is heavily advertising its all-in-one Astro PC, which starts at $799, but I'm not impressed. It looks nice and is easy to set up, but it's not expandable and doesn't come with a network card, which means it will be harder to connect to a high-speed cable modem or digital subscriber line if you ever get one. In general, however, I like Gateway products because of the company's excellent customer support. The company's more expensive Essential series, starting at $999, is a better choice. My only complaint is that they come with an inadequate 32 megabytes of memory, but for $50 more you can get one with 64 megabytes of RAM.
If the Santa in you scored big on an initial public offering this year, then you could always consider a high-end system such as the $2,500 Dell XPS T with its 700-megahertz central processing unit, 20.4-gigabyte hard drive, DVD player and 19-inch monitor. It's a screamer--I'm writing this column on one now, but it's overkill for most people. Dell and its competitors offer more modest machines with an Intel Celeron processor, about 8 gigabytes of hard drive space and, say, 92 megabytes of memory, which will suit most people just fine and costs less than $1,400.
Be careful about any of the so-called "free" or low-cost PCs on the market. They could turn out to be white elephants. In most cases, they require your recipient to subscribe to an online service, usually for at least three years at about $20 a month. That comes out to an extra $720. That might be OK if you plan to stick with the same Internet service provider for three years, but, for the Internet, that's a long time. You wouldn't want a friend or loved one to be locked into an online contract if a better deal comes along.
If you have plenty of money to spend on a gift, consider a flat-panel liquid crystal display. Unlike standard tubes, LCDs have no flicker and are only a few inches thick, and the displays are bright and easy to read. But they're not cheap. One of my favorites is Samsung's 17-inch SyncMaster 700TFT, but that will set you back about $2,600. Smaller LCDs are a lot cheaper. Viewsonic's 14-inch VP140 display, for example, costs about $900. Don't let the small size fool you. Unlike regular monitors, every inch of an LCD is viewable space, so a 14-inch LCD has a bigger display than a regular 15-inch tube.
The holidays are when people take lots of pictures, but if you give someone a digital camera this year, they won't have to line up Dec. 26 to get their pictures developed. Yes, digital cameras are more expensive than film cameras, but you never have to buy film or pay for developing. Technologically, even expensive digital cameras have lower resolution than film cameras, but most people would never know that just from looking at prints. Lately, I've been playing with Kodak's DC280 Zoom camera, and I'm impressed. At $599, it's a bit pricey, but you get a lot for your money, including sharp-resolution pictures, a 20-megabyte memory card that can store as many as 245 photos, and a 2X optical zoom. Kodak also makes a gold-colored, cool-looking Kodak DC215 Zoom Millennium 2000 camera, which, for about $380, is a pretty good buy. It comes with an 8-megabyte removable memory card and a compact flash reader that plugs into your PC's USB (universal serial bus) port to make it easy to transfer photos between the camera's memory card and the PC.
Olympus has some nice cameras, including the Olympus D-340R, which is available for as low as $249. It's not only an easy-to-use, "point and shoot" digital camera but, with a resolution of 1,280 by 960 pixels and a zoom telephoto lens, it will also give you good pictures. It comes with a 4-megabyte memory card, but you can get optional higher-capacity cards. Olympus also makes an optional floppy disk adapter that lets you transfer pictures from the memory card to your PC via your standard floppy-disk drive.
MP3 is all the rage this year. MP3 is a digital format for music over the Internet, and there are thousands of songs that you can download to play on your PC. You can also take them with you. Diamond Multimedia, which built the first portable MP3 player, has a second-generation player--the $269 Rio 500 weighs 2.75 ounces and has enough memory for more than an hour of music. The Rio now has an adapter that makes it faster and easier to transfer music from your PC. The Rio has no moving parts, so it doesn't suffer from "shock."