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December 12, 2008

Tech, G.P.: Techie gifts for geeks and non-nerds

If you're making a list, and checking it twice, you may find that it's hard to think of something suitable for everyone, and time is running out.

If some of those people are kind of geeky, like me, maybe I can help with ideas. Some of these gifts may even appeal to normal people. A couple of years ago I compiled a list, and actually had some positive feedback from it, so I'm doing it again.

I've made a suggestion list for 2008, with a little help from my son Josh, the second-generation family techie. We'll begin with items that are less dear to the budget, and work our way up.

In the summer, I wrote a column about the amount of electrical power that different kinds of devices use and what each of the things cost to leave running. A lot of people commented on the current-measuring device I used to come up with the findings, so let's start with that. It's something not only a geek, but also a skinflint, would love. There are several brands, but the most popular one is Kill-a-Watt, at Home Depot for between $40 and $50.

Another item that would appeal to regular people, in addition to us nerdy types, is a gift subscription to an online movie DVD rental service such as Netflix or Blockbuster. You order the movies online and they are delivered by mail. The selection of movies is unbelievable, so almost anyone should be able to find flicks they like. I've been using Netflix for a few years, and I'm still finding movies I want to watch.

The cost starts at $5 a month for the most limited plan and goes to $17 a month for a deluxe plan, which includes 3 DVDs sent at a time and unlimited DVD exchange.

Continuing in this vein, if you have someone who likes to watch DVD movies, the next natural thing to think about is a popcorn popper.

Now, you should know, I'm a popcorn connoisseur. I have tried all kinds of popcorn over my lifetime, from air-popped (worthless) and Jiffy-Pop burned over a campfire to the irresistible yellow stuff you get at the movie theater. Health food it's not, but it sure tastes good. I even have a small professional style popper in my house.

You can make it in any kind of a pot on the stove, but you'll have better results if you use something like a Whirley-Pop. It's a pot with a crank, which turns a mixer inside like a professional style popcorn maker. It's even made in the USA. They cost about $30 and are easy to find online.

One of the things on the list two years ago, which still makes a great little gift for the tinkerer, is a small flashlight. This year, go for an updated version that uses a light-emitting diode instead of an incandescent bulb.

The most popular of these is the nearly indestructible mini Maglite LED 2 AA cell flashlight, at about $15. With an LED bulb, the batteries last an amazingly long time, and the flashlight is small enough it can be conveniently worn on a belt, staying out of mind until it's needed. It'll also fit into a purse without trouble.

Another take on the flashlight idea is a LED headlamp. The recipient will have to be pretty geeky or be someone who works with both hands in dimly-lit places to wear one of these. The only thing I can think of that would beat one of these in "nerd factor" is a propeller beanie.

As long as we're talking nerdy, I might as well mention the wireless Bluetooth-enabled headset for use with a cell phone. It attaches to your ear and lets you talk on your cell phone hands-free. The cell phone must have Bluetooth capability, so make sure before you buy a headset, which run $40 to $100.

How about a digital picture frame? There are lots of them in local stores, but they're not as cheap as traditional frames. It might be just the thing for the kind of person who likes to have many pictures of their grandchildren on display in one convenient place.

If money is not an issue, a handheld GPS unit, available locally, makes a great present for someone who travels a lot.

A Blu-Ray video player for the person who already has a high-definition TV is another great present.

For the housework-challenged nerd, why not a Roomba? It's a robotic vacuum cleaner that vacuums the floor all by itself. Josh has one and says it works pretty well at keeping the place clean, but you still have to break out the regular cleaner for heavy-duty grime. I think some stores sell this locally, although he ordered his online.

If you can find one, and money is no object, the Nintendo Wii game platform is a great gift, costing about $250. They've been on the market for a couple of years, but are still selling out. If your recipient already has one, there are loads of add-ons that make great gifts, from a Wii Fit exercise board to the Guitar Hero package.

Good luck with your shopping and happy holidays. Hope I helped a bit.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at