PC World Editors' Holiday Gift GuideThousands of gadgets, systems, games, and other goodies pass through the eager hands of PC World evaluators each year; here's what they want to get and keep for themselves.
Tech gift-giving used to be so easy. Toss an iPod or a new computer game at your favorite geek and you were done. These days, however, tech gifts aren't just for the nerdy. Your Aunt Mabel, whose VCR was blinking 12:00 for 20 years? She's eyeing a Wii and she'll be ready to school you in Tennis as soon as you've digested your Christmas dinner. And with more gadget options than ever before, holiday shopping can lead to major headaches.
Save yourself the trouble of stocking up on Tylenol. Read on to find out what PC World's staffers are getting for their wired (and wireless) relatives, and what they're hoping to find in their own stockings this year.
Photograph by Chris Manners
Harry McCracken already has a Wii, and is hoping Super Mario Galaxy will actually be available in time for the holidays.
"People have been waiting for Super Mario Galaxy since before there was a Wii. And when I attended the E for All gaming show in October, there were so many people waiting to play it that I gave up. But I got enough of a peek to get excited about the new Mario adventure's visuals, gameplay, and characters," McCracken says. He's thinking of asking for it for Christmas, which is a personal milestone in itself: "It'll be the first time I ever requested a piece of software in my stocking."
Meanwhile, Eric Dahl's leaning toward Microsoft's XBox 360 Elite, because "between Assassin's Creed, Beautiful Katamari, Halo 3, Mass Effect, and Rock Band, now is the time. Actually, a year ago was probably the time, but I still don't have one yet." Patience (or procrastination), it turns out, is a virtue. "At least now you get a couple free games with their holiday bundle."
Photograph by Chris Manners
PC World's Game On blogger Matt Peckham is looking for something that will keep his PC gaming experience running smoothly. His preferred stocking stuffer is Nvidia's 9800 GTX, which he describes as "the 'rumored to be coming imminently' but still not formally announced $550-$650 PC video card" that "follows the Nvidia 8800 GTX for absolute top-line PC 3D video card performance."
TV and Home Theater
More traditional forms of home entertainment devices still make for popular choices, as PC World editors look at beefing up their TV and home theater setups. Rebbapragada's considering a 37-inch Vizio LCD TV: "We need a bedroom TV, and Vizio has proven to be good and inexpensive in the past." Dahl did some early holiday shopping and got himself a Samsung LN 4071T HDTV. "It's my new baby," he says. "It's one of the better 40-inch LCD TVs out there; it does 120 Hz so you can make live HD sports events look even more amazing, or completely ruin the look of 'Saving Private Ryan'-seriously, this 120-Hz thing is kind of weird. I managed to snag one for $1699 at Fry's a couple months ago. That was way too good to pass up, and I'm glad I didn't. Now I just want the damn HD disc format war to end so I can start buying HD movies."
Denny Arar recently got an HDTV, and wants to fine-tune its colors. However, she's skipping pricey professional calibration and opting for the DVD of Joe Kane's Digital Video Essentials. "You can buy several versions-including a brand-new $35 HD DVD edition-at Kane's web site, and he links to a retailer who sells the original version. A great gift for someone who's recently bought a digital TV."
McCracken is also a new HDTV owner, but finds himself "in the odd situation of having an HDTV LCD and no HD source material." His wish list includes "a TiVo HD and an HD-capable DirecTV dish and set-top box."
For Gadget Freak columnist Dan Tynan, an even bigger image is better: "I want a Sony Bravia VPL-AW10 direct projector. It's 720p HD native, has HDMI, component, composite, RGB and S-Video inputs, and is literally whisper-quiet-easily the quietest projector I've ever tried, and I've tried a bunch. It does frame correction so film and video frame rates sync up, and it upscales DVDs to its native resolution. It's a snap to set up and use. And did I mention that it's under $1000? I can't find any other projectors that can compare spec for spec at that price."
Of course, there's more to home theater than just video. Albro wants to tickle his ears with Yamaha's YSP-3000 digital sound projector. "I want surround sound, but I don't want all those speakers all over the room. This way I can get surround sound with one box."
Music to Our Ears
The iPod has been the technological gift of choice almost from the moment of its inception, and that's pretty much the same this time year. McCracken wouldn't mind getting the 160 GB iPod Classic, "so I can have fun trying to fill all that space," but it's new Nano and especially the iPod Touch leading the pack. In fact, the Touch tops Tynan's list, "partly because my old iPod Mini is dead, and partly because it combines the really cool parts of the iPhone-that groovy interface, the screen that flips 90 degrees to display videos, Wi-Fi, pocket browsing-without the uncool stuff-the staggering price and the cell plan from AT&T. It still needs a better keyboard, but... damn."
Both Tom Spring and Dahl couldn't wait, and went out and got their iPod Touches already. Says Spring, "It is by far the best dual-purpose portable multi-media device going." Dahl agrees, saying the Touch is "by far the most fun MP3 player I've ever owned. The multi-touch interface is just a pleasure to use, and the integrated Web browser is the best I've ever seen on a mobile device."
Both, however, are chafing at Apple's restrictions. "What I need is something that can help me break the shackles of iTunes by giving me a tool to get the video I own and want onto my iPod, as opposed to the video Apple is pimping," says Spring, but he's angling for a gift: "Apple QuickTime Pro 7 lets me transfer video files into a format that my iPod can play back for only $30. The only problem is that I'm a cheapskate and would love someone to get the software for me." Dahl is more interested in exploring the iPod Touch's other abilities. "Maybe for Christmas I'll Jailbreak mine and throw a bunch of new apps on it."
Small and light is also popular. As much as Tynan is wowed by the iPod Touch, he says he'll "settle for a new the iPod Nano. it's an amazing form factor. makes my now-broken Mini look like a Tonka toy." The Nano is also Melissa Perenson's first choice, though she says she's "been tempted by the sale prices on the first-generation Zune."
Photograph by Rob Cardin
Music and Movies, Anytime, Anywhere
Photograph by Marc Simon
Spring, meanwhile, is a fan of SanDisk's Sansa TakeTV Video Player. "It's not sexy tech, but extremely practical for those not interested in crawling behind their home entertainment center yet again to try and hook up a media bridge, only have disappointing results." He prefers the TakeTV scenario, where the USB device is plugged into a small dock connected to a TV, and plays back any video files you've copied to it from your computer. "This is a great way to skip futzing with Wi-Fi set-ups, transcoding, and burning DVDs.
Perhaps not surprising for a publication named PC World, many editors are looking for new computers. What's surprising is the range of computers they want, and what they want them for. Memo to Intel and AMD: Maybe "faster" and "more powerful" aren't the only incentives to buy new computers. (Speed and power remain factors, though. McCracken's wish list includes "a desktop PC that can run Windows Vista's Aero interface better than the HP machine I'm currently using, which is less than a year old.")
Tynan likes Hewlett-Packard's TouchSmart IQ770 PC for use outside of the office. "We had one in our kitchen for a while; we put it where the toaster was. It's the first kitchen computer I've tested that actually made sense in the kitchen."
The key, it turns out, is the design: "It's a touchscreen all-in-one unit, with Windows Vista Media Center built in and a beautiful large screen that rises, lowers and tilts. It's super easy to use. HP really put some thought into the design, made everything accessible on the front or side, and added big stickers telling noobs what to push next."
Photograph by Courtesy of Apple
Spring also has server duties in mind for his desired new PC. He'd like "Windows Home Server hardware from any one of the vendors selling devices, which currently includes HP and Iomega. At its core, Windows Home Server platform allows home users with multiple PCs to manage system backups and share files. It also gives home users and invited guests remote access to the server. HP tweaks the platform to add extra features, including photo-sharing capabilities." The Windows Home Server software can be bought separately for $180, to turn an old PC into a home server, instead of leaving it in the closet.
Embracing the spirits of both giving and receiving, Spring is also enamored with One Laptop Per Child's $400 XO laptop. "When you buy one, the makers of the laptop will give a notebook to a needy person in a developing country. The XO is water- and sand-proof and can run off a car battery if needed. The 7.5-inch LCD display has high-resolution black and white mode for reading in direct sunlight. Built-in Wi-Fi allows the XO to function as a mesh network node that can connect and communicate with other XO laptops even when no Net connection is available."
Never Get Lost Again
The holidays mean travel, which inspires Liane Cassavoy's very short wish list. "I've been known to lose my way on road trips, so I'm hoping for a GPS this year. Tops on my list is the TomTom Go 720, a $500 model that impressed our reviewer. The compact unit finds room for a 4.3-inch screen, and, with an optional $30 cord, I can connect my iPod to the device. That means I can play my music collection over my car's speakers without getting lost, as the music will pause automatically when directions are broadcast."
McCracken just needs to update his existing GPS. He'd like "a Navteq DVD with the current maps for the GPS system in my Mazda 3, which is still running off four-year-old maps that. among other things, tell me to go home from work via an exit on the highway that no longer exists." We can see where that could be problematic.
Photograph by Marc Simon
Arar also recommends either a Belkin or Linksys travel router for the road warrior in your life. "At most hotels that provide Internet access via ethernet, one of these gadgets sets up a 802.11g Wi-Fi network, allowing you and your companions to share the single hookup. Both kits are small; Linksys integrated the electrical outlet into its unit so you don't have to cart around a separate AC adapter."
Apple's iPhone hasn't completely captured our editors' imaginations. Rebbapragada is waiting to see if the BlackBerry Pearl 2 lives up to its promise, saying the "slimmer, cuter BlackBerry is for me. I need a messaging device but don't want to go as bulky as a full-sized BlackBerry."
McCracken's desire? "Nokia's laptop-like E90 superphone, with a wide keyboard, big screen, and GPS." But he'd really prefer to receive it as a gift. "I can't bring myself to spend more than $900 for it."
Sometimes it's not about the tech, but what what you use with it. Danny Allen wouldn't mind an Optimus Maximus PC keyboard, if only to satisfy his curiosity. "Is it vaporware? Will it actually cost $1000?" he asks.
Rebbapragada likes the eco-friendly Targus EcoSmart series of laptop bags "They're made of PVC free material, and the whole eco-smart line looks cute. I like the messenger bag the best."
Spring's new iPod demands better than the standard Apple earbuds, and he's been considering Shure's SE530 Sound Isolating Earphones. "These in-ear, sound-isolating headphones claim to block 20 dB of outside noise." Although pricey at $500, he says "there's nothing like a quiet listening environment on your way home on the subway. One cool feature is a Push To Hear button that lets you flip a switch to listen to the outside world through the headphones-no need to remove the headphone from your ears."