Digital Santa: Gadgets & Fun Stuff

All this week, tech guru Larry Magid looks at the latest in high-tech gifts for the holiday season.

After a week as Santa's technology gift advisor, it's time for me to wrap it up with all those miscellaneous ideas that didn't fit into my finely crafted categories. In other words, this last column in the series is about all those cool gadgets that I already have and love or that I might want a digital Santa to put under my holiday tree.

I'm going to start with a gift that may not seem like much fun but is pretty important: a backup system. I'm not going to preach about the evils of failing to back up your computer but I am going to say that a great gift would be an external hard drive that makes backing up a piece of cake.

I'm equally impressed with the 3.5-inch Pushbutton Backup External Storage Hard Drive series from Seagate as I am with the OneTouch External Drives from Maxtor.

Both companies make external drives that plug into the USB 2 port of a Mac or a PC and both come with software that makes it easy to backup your system by simply pressing a button. In addition to the safety factor of having a backup, you can also use them move large amounts of data from one computer to another. Prices start about $150 for a 100 gigabyte drive or about $200 for a 200 GB drive.

Another useful gift is a GPS (global positioning system). I've had a Magellan GPS installed in my car for years and it's gotten me out of being lost on many occasions. Mine is an old transportable unit, with a control unit the size of a large laptop, which takes about ten minutes to move from car to car.

The company now makes smaller units which in some cases offer more features for a much lower price. For review purposes, Santa (truth be told it was really Thales Navigation – the company that makes Magellan) loaned me a Magellan RoadMate 800 (about $900), which not only can get you to any location in the U.S. and Canada, it can also play digital music and display photos.

The device is smaller than a cassette tape which - unlike my transportable unit - makes it easy to carry on a trip to use in a rental car. Its turn-by-turn directions show and tell you where to go.

This GPS-to-go gadget is $1,500 cheaper than the bulky unit I have in my car and if you don't need the MP3 player and photo viewer (and you really don't), you can get the RoadMate 700 for about $600 or the RoadMate 300 for about $400.

Click here to listen to Larry Magid's podcast interview
of Marjorie Costello, Editor and Publisher of Consumer Online News,
on what's hot this season in tech-related gifts.

As long as we're on the subject of useful, be sure that Santa gets you a label printer. I know what you're thinking – boring. But I can no longer imagine life without my Brother QL-500 ($90) that I reviewed when it first came out more than a year ago. This one requires a PC or a Mac but you can get cheaper stand-alone label makers with their own little keyboards for as little as $29.

Most people already have a computer printer but they do get old and they keep getting better.

Hewlett Packard makes a line of photo printers starting with the $69.99 (after rebate) model 5440. Even this cheap one, with its four ink cartridges, prints good pictures and documents but if you want to go first class, consider the $200 HP PhotoSmart 8250 which has card readers that allow you to print directly from a digital camera's memory card or transfer the file, via the printer, to a PC or a Mac and an LCD color display to give you a preview of that picture.

You get photo realistic prints from HP's six print cartridges and the 4 by 6 prints take only about 15 seconds. I've used this printer for both photos and text documents and I came away impressed.

OK, now for the big item. And I do mean big. Are you ready for a high definition TV (HDTV)? If you're buying it for a friend, it had better be a good friend, because even though high definition TVs are cheaper than last year, they're still big ticket items.

Your choices for HDTV include plasma, LCD, rear-screen and plain old cathode ray tubes which, these days, don't necessarily look all that plain. This year you can get a 50-inch plasma TV for as little as $3,000 or a 42-inch screen for as little as $1,500.

If you're looking for the biggest screen size for your dollar, consider getting a rear screen HD projection TV such as the JVC model I reviewed a few months ago.

Today's better rear screens don't have old-fashioned tubes but instead use microdisplay technologies such as LCD, DLP (Digital Light Processing) and LCOS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon). The bottom line is a very good picture at a lower price per inch of screen real estate than plasma or LCD.

Unless you know exactly what you're looking for, I recommend that you shop at a brick and mortar store rather than ordering such a big ticket item online. Whatever you do, make sure the TV is rated for HDTV. Some flat panel screens are EDTV (Enhanced Definition Television,) which, while still impressive, have lower resolution than HDTV.

Speaking of TV, as far as I'm concerned the best thing you can do for your TV viewing pleasure is to get a Tivo or other personal video recorder (PVR).

Don't tell my bosses at CBS but ever since I got my Tivo, I've been watching 60 Minutes in less than 50 minutes by skipping over commercials. I'm also getting to watch programs that I might have otherwise missed.

I know what some of you are thinking: "There's nothing I want to watch on TV." That may be true at any given minute but in the course of a week, I bet there are a lot of programs you'd like to watch, but you just don't happen to be sitting in front of the TV when they're on the air. With Tivo, that's not an issue.

There are lots of other PVRs on the market, but unless you're getting one free or really cheap from your cable or satellite provider, I recommend you go with the Tivo brand. It has, by far, the best interface I've seen in this category, making it easy to use and program.

If you buy someone a Tivo (I've seen them advertised for under $50), be sure to think through the cost of programming. Tivo charges $12.95 a month, which could impact whether your friend or loved one is actually able to use the unit. If you want to be really nice, get them a year's subscription with it.

Just as Tivo frees you from when you watch TV, the Sling Box gives you a choice of where. This ($249) box attaches to a Tivo, satellite receiver or cable box and rebroadcasts your signal via the Internet to any web enabled device in the world. That means you can be sitting in the Bahamas watching programs from your own home TV. There is no monthly service charge but you do need a high-speed broadband Internet connection on both ends.

Here's a gift that keeps on giving every time you send snail mail. lets you put your own or your loved ones' pictures on real U.S. postage stamps. For $17.99, you can get a sheet of 20 stamps 39 cents stamps (that's what first class postage will cost in 2006).

Sure, that's about $10 above the actual postage value but unlike the stamps that the post office prints, you don't have to wait till you're dead to see your picture on a stamp. Just go to their website, upload your favorite photo.

There are some rules, however. In addition to banning porn and a few other categories, the company won't let you upload any image that "depicts celebrities or celebrity likenesses …or politicians." I can live with that.

And, finally, here's something you might think a geek like me would never say. As great as tech gifts are, don't go overlook old fashioned analog presents. There is something to be said for a board game vs. a video game or a book vs. a DVD. In my house, a box of candy gets a more appreciation than a boxed set of software.

Ten years from now, today's hot tech gadgets will be long forgotten but a piece of furniture, jewelry or art that you buy today will still be within its useful lifespan. That's not to suggest you shun technology but it's good to remember that not everything wonderful is made of silicon or software.

Speaking of wonderful: have a great holiday season.

A syndicated technology columnist for more than two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid