Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Great Gifts for the Digerati

By John Avignone

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  So you've got a computer geek on your gift list but you don't know your RAM from a hole in the ground. Just because that automatic computer-controlled combination pencil sharpener/shoe-shiner the salesman told you any geek would love went straight to the garage last year is no reason to give up. Buying a gift for the digerati can be pretty intimidating for the average human. We've put this gift guide together so you can please even the pickiest geek this year. Plus, most everything here is under $100, so you won't have to hock the family farm to bring a smile to your favorite technophile's face. Of course, the ultimate geek gift is a brand-new computer system. I know you're sick of hearing this, but there's never been a better time to buy a system. Really. Top performance desktop systems are now available for under $2000. Basic systems are less than a grand. In a top-quality system, look for a Pentium II processor, as much hard drive space as possible, and at least 32 megs of RAM. My favorite place in town for great deals is the Dell Factory Outlet. What they lack in ambiance and service they more than make up for with great prices.

Other than systems, there are two basic categories of geek gifts. Some gifts require you to know something about your pet geek's computer, some do not. In general, highly specialized items should be avoided. It is quite possible your nerd has very strong opinions on, say, X2 technology versus K56 Flex, or DVD versus CD ROM, or tastes great versus less filling. If you don't know their preferences, stick to the basics. Same advice applies if you can't answer basic questions about their system. And we don't mean PC or Mac. We'll try to point out where you need special knowledge.


Hardware & Upgrades

Hardware upgrades make a great geek gift, but you need to know what you're doing. Is your geek still struggling along with a 4X CD ROM? For about $100 you can replace it with a blazing 16X or even 24X model. Do they still have a 28.8 modem? High speed modems, either X2 or K56 flex, can now be found for around $100, though the top brands like U.S. Robotics run about $150.



The Logitech TrackMan Marble is among the front runners for trackballs.

Ultima Online from Origin Systems is a visually compelling game that pits one player against other live players.

How about a keyboard that sounds great? The Concert Master Multimedia Keyboard, $100, comes with built-in stereo speakers, an amplifier and 3D surround sound (http://www.nmbtech.com). While we're on keyboards, how about a Microsoft Natural Keyboard, about $100 (http://www.microsoft.com)? It's ergonomic design cuts down on repetitive stress injuries. Other good keyboard choices include Acer's Future Keyboard, also ergonomic and featuring a unique touch pad, about $100 (http://www.acer.com). For the kids, the kidBoard, about $60, is colorful and extremely durable.

I know, the pencil sharpener/shoe shiner idea was a bust, but your pet geek will probably love the Active Home Automation System from X-10 USA (http://www.x10.com). This thing will still control the coffeemaker, but it also performs many other household tasks automatically. Turn the lights on and off, control alarm systems, or control any AC-powered device from your home computer. Very handy for around $100.

A new joystick or game pad is always a big hit with gamers. The Microsoft Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro is the hot item this year, but it's $150 price tag will dissuade many. Worth every penny, though. This puppy uses a feedback system that allows you to "feel" the action on the screen. Many other controllers are available for well under $100. For joysticks, look for four buttons and thrust control. For game pads, the Microsoft Sidewinder Game Pad rocks at under $70.

Drawing tablets can be very expensive, but the Learn'n'Sketch tablet from CalComp (http://www.calcomp.com), retail $79, is a perfect answer for kids. The included software has all sorts of cool features your kids will love, including the ability to add multimedia effects. Have you seen what Industrial Light and Magic is paying for computer artists and animators? After your kids get this one down you can put 'em to work!

Does your geek have a laptop? Laptops are stolen at (ahem) alarming rates. A tiny box weighing only a few pounds but costing thousands of dollars makes a pretty attractive target for thieves. Get your geek the DefCon 1 Security System. If someone tries to steal their laptop, a 110-decibel alarm sounds, pissing off everyone within hearing range and discouraging most crooks. $50 from Port, Inc. (http://www.port.com)

And finally we come to the mouse. Everyone needs a mouse. If your geek is using the two-button mouse that came with the system, you can easily get them something better without having to take out a loan. The absolute best deal in town on mouse devices is the Dell Factory Outlet. Here you can pick up a Microsoft two-button mouse, about $80 retail, for $10.

Some users prefer trackballs or touch pads over the conventional mouse. With a track ball you use your thumb to move a large ball which moves the pointer on the screen. Touch pads are small pads that allow you to use your finger tip to move the pointer. The Logitech TrackMan Marble (http://www.logitech.com) and the Kensington Obit (http://www.kensington.com) are the front runners for trackballs. Both sell for about $100. The Obit is also great for lefties. Kids will love the Easy Ball from Microsoft, $55, with its big yellow track ball to make things easier for tiny hands.

There are a lot of touch pads under $100, but I like Cirque's GlidePoint, $80 (http://www.cirque.com), because of its oversized pad. There are also many other good choices for input devices. Does your nerd do a lot of word processing? IBM offers a mouse that has a pointer that can scroll through documents without using the scroll bar. Do they do a lot of 3D design or CAD/CAM work? A feedback mouse, like Finalist Immersion Corp's Feelit, $140, allows your geek to "feel" the texture of objects on the screen.

There are many other great hardware gifts. Quick cams allow users to capture video images and engage in live video conferencing. Black & white models are available for under $100. Iomega, producers of the popular Zip drive, have released Buz, $199. With Buz you can take your home videos, digitize them to your hard drive and edit offline. Depending on your software, it also allows you to add a wide range of digital effects to your videos. It used to cost several thousand dollars for a card that could do this.

Speaking of Iomega, a Zip drive, $139, is a great add on for PC or Mac. A Zip drive is a removable hard drive. Each disk holds 100 megs. Handy for extending your hard drive and very portable. You can take your Zip drive with you and use it on any computer. Disks run from $10 to $20 each, depending on the brand. Oh, get the external model. Internal is fine, but it's not portable.


Software & Games

The coolest software gifts are games, but we'll get there in a minute. A great software gift for anyone with a PC is Oil Change, $39.95 (http://www.cybermedia.com/). This handy program scans your hard drive, then automatically finds updates, upgrades, drivers, and more for everything on your system. It will also automatically download and install any updates it finds, if you choose. The price includes a one-year subscription.

There are also subscription game services. Some, like the Total Entertainment Network, $9.95 per month (http://www.ten.net/) allow you to play many popular games online in head-to-head competition with other users. Others, like Austin game company Origin's Ultima Online, $64.95 for the game plus $9.95 per month (and a valid credit card game installation), are dedicated to a single game. BTW, Ultima Online rocks! Say hi to Lord British while you're there.

But most computer games do not require an online service. This year, many of the best titles are sequels to successful games. There are also a few hot newcomers. As usual, many of the most promising looking games didn't make it out in time for Christmas, so we'll save them for next year. Almost all of the games here are under $50.

My top game for the year is LucasArts' Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, (http://www.lucasarts.com/org_index.html), the long awaited sequel to the excellent Dark Forces. Jedi Knight uses a new game engine to render a full 3D environment. Star Wars characters and mission oriented levels make this first person shooter a big winner. There's even light saber battles! Unlike Dark Forces, this one also supports network play.

Another great game, MDK, from Interplay (http://www.interplay.com/mdk/index.html) just missed Christmas last year, but is good enough to still be included this year. This first person shooter boasts over 40 wide-open 3D environments. MDK also has the best 3D graphics of any game. Humor also helps break up the mayhem as you wipe out clownish robots who mock you with squeaky voices.

Tomb Raider2, a sequel to the very cool Tomb Raider (http://www.tombraider.com/) also features great 3D graphics. This game has a strong storyline and object-oriented missions unlike the usual blast everything in sight games. Hexen II (http://www.activision.com) is another winning sequel.

One of the hottest game sequels of the year is bound to be Riven (http://www.redorb.com), the sequel to Myst, the most popular role-playing game ever. A new game engine, better graphics, and all sorts of surprises will make this one a big hit. Diablo Hellfire (http://www.blizzard.com/diablo/diablo.htm) is another sequel to a popular role player that's sure to be a big seller.

Other sequels to watch include the helicopter simulator Longbow 2 and the space combat simulator Wing Commander Prophecy, both from Origin Systems (http://www.origin.ea.com). Wing Commander Prophecy is the fifth release in this wildly popular series. This one features lots of Hollywood-caliber cinematic cut scenes with even more action than Wing Commander IV and a better 3D game engine.

Still in the sequel vein, X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter is a welcome addition to the LucasArts space combat simulations based on the Star Wars universe. Fans of the series will love the new goodies in this release. Another LucasArts game released earlier in the year is only a sequel to the Star Wars movies, but Yoda Stories will please role playing fans and Star Wars fans alike.

For family fun, check out the latest in the Magic: The Gathering series, Spells of the Ancients (http://www.microprose.com). This add-on pack comes with new cards, new decks, a new game engine, coupons for free time on the upcoming online version of Magic, and a bunch of other cool stuff. Other hot family titles this year include The Curse of Monkey Island (http://www.lucasarts.com/products/monkey/index.html), another sequel from LucasArts, Virtual Pool II, the best computer pool game, a bunch of Barbie games (http://www.mattelmedia.com/barbie/) and The Simpsons: Virtual Springfield from Fox Interactive (http://www.foxinteractive.com).

The Berkeley Systems people offer up You Don't Know Jack III (http://www.berksys.com), another, you guessed it, sequel. If you haven't played any of the Jack games, you're missing out on the coolest trivia games ever. Hip, fast paced, and always entertaining, this series has caused many to move their computers into the living room to play at parties.

Sports games are always popular family fun. Three new games from established series deserve special mention. Links LS 1998 (http://www.accesssoftware.com) is the latest release in what is, bar none, the best series of golf games anywhere. NBA Live 98 (http://www.easports.com) is also a winner with its great graphics and smooth play. Also from Electronic Arts, NHL 98 still holds the title of best computer hockey game.

Strategy fans will love Red Barron II, the WW I flight simulator and strategy game; Dark Reign, from Activision; Imperialism, a game of 19th century conquest; NetStorm, one of the first strategy games designed specifically for Internet play; Panzer General II or Sid Meir's Gettysburg, depending on their preferences.

There is much more good stuff, but this should be enough to get you started. So forget about last year and go out, bravely, to face the maze of aisles of geekdom, armed with a list of gifts any geek would love. And just keep telling yourself, "As long as I don't open it, they can always exchange it."


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