What to buy for the geek on your list

It’s a season of twinkling lights, family gatherings and, for many, the perfect time to give and receive cool and useful high-tech gadgets.

There are compelling reasons why big-selling tech baubles from the past few years are expected to show up under many a Christmas tree this year.

Computer sales have been up this year, spurred in part by the release of the newest version of Windows, Vista. Apple Inc., which has seen sales of its computers grow impressively this year, also just released its latest operating system, Leopard.

Digital cameras are better and cheaper than in past years, with cameras that shoot with the sharpness of 7 megapixels now starting around $150.

And with the end of analog TV looming in early 2009, expect to see many gifts of the LCD or plasma screen variety. Good-sized LCD sets now can be found for under $700.

The Herald scoured dozens of consumer tech Web sites, consulted gift guides and asked several dozen businesspeople, techies and acquaintances what digital treats they’re hoping to give or receive. Here are just a few of gadgets, from practical to entertaining to frivolous, that we found.

iPhone, new Zune

This year, Apple’s hottest MP3 player may be the one that also can make phone calls. The $399 iPhone, which has a fantastic touch-screen interface, has an 8-gigabyte flash drive and can play songs, movies, take photos and surf the Web via Apple’s Safari operating system. It also does phone calls. The iPod touch doesn’t do calls or take photos, but it has just about everything else, including that touch-screen. It’s $399 for the 16-gig model. And Microsoft’s new version of the Zune, with an 80-gigabyte capacity for $249, gets reviews that compare it favorably with the iPod.

Wii Zapper

Serious gamers still can argue which console is best, but for the rest of us who play video games more casually, Nintendo’s Wii has become a gotta-have hit. It may be hard finding a Wii this year, as the one-year-old console continues to outsell Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3. If you already have a Wii or you just want to buy a Wii accessory until the consoles are back in stock, try the Wii Zapper. The Wii’s remote controllers snap into this $20 device to provide better play for shooting-style arcade games. The Zapper comes bundled with “Link’s Crossbow Training” game, testing a player’s targeting skills. Next year, the Wii Balance Board — sensitive to stepping pressure — will debut.

Play like a rock star

Get a few friends and, after arguing over who will play lead guitar and who will sing, crank the volume up to 11 with the “Rock Band” video game. The game for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 comes with a wireless guitar, drum pad and microphone so you can play and sing along to 58 rock songs from the past five decades, including tracks by the Rolling Stones, KISS, The Clash and Nirvana. The whole package is about $170. More songs will be available for downloading with a fee. If you don’t like sharing the limelight in your living room, opt for the game’s solo mode or buy the new “Guitar Hero III,” which runs less than $100 and is available for Wii.

Digital dino

Ugobe calls the Pleo a “Life Form,” because this robotic dinosaur is so life-like. It also comes with a price tag that would buy a real pet: $350. It’s available for order at big-box stores and online, with the first shipments due next week. Highly anticipated and then delayed since last year, the Pleo is designed to look like a two-week-old camarasaurus. Running with an open-source operating system and 40 different sensors, the Pleo interacts with people, reacting to other movement, expressing emotion and exploring. With a free software upgrade next year, Ugobe promises it also will learn and develop “a unique personality based largely upon how he is raised.”

Electronic readers

E-books and e-book reading devices haven’t caught on big yet, but there’s something to be said for a gadget smaller than the typical hardcover book that can download books, newspapers and Web content wirelessly. It seems like a dream for readers who regularly spend time on buses, trains or planes. Amazon has introduced the Kindle, a $400 digital reading device that allows users to download, for a fee, books without needing a computer. It doesn’t charge for using Sprint’s wireless network. The Kindle isn’t totally unique, however, as the second generation of Sony’s Reader, the PRS-505, came out just a couple months ago. It’s cheaper, at $300, it’s sleeker and it uses the same high-contrast E Ink technology as the Kindle for easy reading. But Sony’s Reader has to be connected to a computer to download.

You-see TV

The range of ways to get movies into your house keep expanding, from basic video-on-demand from the cable and satellite companies to Netflix. But the $400 The Vudu set-top box aims to be an easy-to-use “Netflix in a box,” as one reviewer put it. Hook it directly to a broadband Internet connection and a TV and play movies from a library that is starting with about 5,000 titles, including new movies the week they come out on DVD. There’s no monthly subscription. Movie rentals are $1 to $4 a viewing, or you can buy a permanent download of a movie for $5 to $20. The Vudu has a built-in 250 gigabyte hard drive, and the digital video quality rivals that of DVDs.

Kid cameras

One of the toys that was impossible to find last Christmas was Fisher-Price’s Kid Tough digital camera, which retails for $55 to $70. This year, there are more choices in this category, including VTech’s Kidizoom, which is priced similarly. These are real digital cameras, surrounded by enough bouncy plastic to protect them against inevitably being dropped or roughly handled by little ones. The photo quality is about that of a cell-phone camera — the Kidizoom snaps 0.3 megapixel photos. But it stores up to 120 shots or five minutes of video and it allows kids to edit them with wacky effects or play them back via a TV or PC.

Blackout-proof charger

Too many Puget Sound area residents last winter experienced days without electricity, which spurred many to put together emergency kits. A good piece of deceptively simple technology to have around is a hand-cranked radio and cell-phone charger. Eton Corp. sells American Red Cross-licensed emergency radios for $50 to $60 via its Web site at www.etoncorp.com. Most models incorporate a water-resistant radio that receives AM, FM and Weather Band broadcasts, a flashlight, siren and a cell-phone charger that are all powered via batteries or a dynamo crank mechanism.

Let there be LED

For that hard-to-shop-for person, candles have been a reliable standby gift. But it doesn’t take long for most people to accumulate too many candles. The new twist on candles are flameless LED candles, which don’t emit smoke or heat or melted wax, just a flame-like light bulb. In a frosted votive cover, they can fool just about anyone, and some models can even light up or go out with a quick puff of air, just like blowing on a birthday candle. Most models can light for a few hundred hours on one set of batteries, not a bad thing to have for Northwest winters.

Moving picture book

“High-tech” doesn’t always require batteries or a screen. Gift-givers who want to encourage reading, but with a cool twist, can check out “Gallop!”, the first children’s book to incorporate Scanimation. This $10 to $12 book by Rufus Butler Seder uses the patented technology to create pictures that look nearly animated. The text is geared toward young children, who will really like the animal pictures that seem to move across the page.

A few more: Slippers are a tired gift idea, but few people probably own USB-enabled slippers. Plug their USB cords into your computer and keep your feet toasty. Selling for $20 to $30 at www.usbgeek.com and other sites.

The EyeClops Bionic Eye, about $40 at toy stores and online, is a handheld toy that magnifies just about any object 200 times and shows the image on your TV. The bionic eye plugs directly into most TVs; no software needed. It includes built-in illumination lights and an observation dish.

It’s the ultimate Internet-age gift: a domain name. At www.giveaurl.com, it’s easy to reserve someone their own personalized domain name or URL. The cost starts at $19.

Squawkers McCaw, an animatronic parrot available at most toy stores, can be taught to speak, responds to touch, makes sounds and dances to music. The toy, about $70, also gives a kiss when his beak is touched.

Shopping for someone who’s running late? Someone who you don’t mind annoying? Clocky, an alarm that jumps off the night stand and rolls on the floor until it’s turned off, can be found online for about $50. The Flying Alarm Clock is $25 and a bed-shaking Sonic Bomb clock are at www.thinkgeek.com.

Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or fetters@heraldnet.com. For more on technology, check Eric Fetters’ blog at heraldnet.com /techblog.

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