If you're buying a gift for your favorite techie this Christmas, 'tis a season of gadgets and peripherals and software. You're sure to find something to please, even if you don't know the first thing about computers.
Two trends dominate this season: the Internet and multimedia (which makes computers sound- and video-capable). Use the suggestions below as a guide to spark your own gift-giving ideas. You can make it a megabyte Christmas.
Gifts for $25 and under
Computer cleaners. It's amazing, but people spend thousands of dollars on computer equipment but do nothing for its upkeep. PerfectData is one of several companies selling computer-cleaning supplies. Its most popular item is the PerfectData Plus, a $9 two-pack that squirts air into those dusty and hard to reach crannies, including keyboards. Or try a pack of 20 pre-moistened StatFree wipes to clear dust and static from your monitor. The $5 box attaches to the computer monitor. Look for them in office-supply stores.
CD-ROM holder. You can be pretty certain your favorite computer user has an ever-expanding collection of CD-ROMs. The challenge: how to store them all. Office-supply chains stock everything from plastic stand-alone holders to modular drawer systems.
Want something with a little more flair? Try a wooden CD-ROM holder with a Coca-Cola logo stamped on the outside from Computer Expressions. $15 to $20.
Gifts for $100 and under
Web Buddy. It's hard to buy someone an Internet gift because they've probably already seen the program and maybe even downloaded it directly from the global network. Still, your geek giftee may not yet have come across Web Buddy, a supersmart program for downloading material from the World Wide Web. Web Buddy lets you decide whether to download a single page, an entire Web site, or something in-between. Web Buddy also can schedule automatic downloads and convert content to various word-processing formats. You can order directly from DataViz (800-733-0030) or get a 30-day free trial by downloading the program from the Internet: http://www.dataviz.com/webbuddy. $49. For Windows and Macintosh machines.
Computer supplies. Even with computers, stuff runs out. Maybe it's a printer cartridge that runs dry or that special glossy paper that makes color prints look really nice. You can try to figure out whether the machine needs print cartridge 51640C or 51640M, but why bother? Buy a gift certificate from a computer store and let the computer genius figure out what he needs.
Portable computer bag. Does Mom or Dad travel with a premium notebook computer stuck in a computer case that looks as if it came from Goodwill? Maybe it's time to upgrade the bag. Targus sells several styles for under $100. If you really want a spiffy look, consider the more expensive leather bags. Available at computer stores.
Gifts under $250
Removable storage. As programs get flashier and files get bigger, computers often run out of space to store them all. That's why companies sell removable storage. One of the hottest models is Iomega's Zip drive. Its Zip disks hold 100 megabytes of data and every time you fill one up, you replace it with another. Consider the larger Iomega Jaz drive for users who work with lots of graphics, sound, or video. Each Jaz disk holds 1 gigabyte (1,000 megabytes) of information. The Zip drive costs $150; the Jaz, $500. Disks are extra. Available at computer stores. For Mac and Windows.
Snappy. This is an incredibly useful gizmo for capturing video shots from just about any machine and getting them into your computer. The Snappy is easy to install. It plugs into the back of the printer port and captures still shots from a television, a videocassette recorder, or even a camcorder. Once you've got the shot you want, the Snappy includes additional software programs that allow you to cut, paste, and modify it into almost anything, from customized greeting cards to calendars. $170. Available at computer stores. For Windows only.
Quick CAM. This is for anyone who's ever wanted to make a movie on a computer. The newest version of the tennis-ball sized camera allows users to record color video and color still shots. The camera is also easy to install (no need to open up the computer's innards). And, at $230, it's a steal.
Gifts under $500
Color ink-jet printer. One of the best ways to spruce up a home computer is to add a color printer. Inkjet printers have become so cheap and versatile that it's hard to resist getting one. And the deals keep getting better as printer companies release new models. Whatever you get should at least be as good as the Hewlett Packard 693. The machine has the capabilities to turn out everything from business letters to colorful school banners. And with a special photographic cartridge, even printouts of photos look realistic. $350. For Windows only.
Internet on TV. If there's someone in the family who wants Internet access without the fuss of learning computers, consider getting him or her a WebTV. It's a little black box that attaches to a TV set and turns it into a Web browser. And you can do it with nothing more complicated than a TV-like remote control. But spring for the optional $60 remote keyboard, especially if the user wants to send electronic mail. Also, make sure he has a phone jack near the TV set. $300 plus $20 a month for Internet access.
Digital photography. Tired of waiting for film processing? Use your computer instead and one of the many digital cameras available. One of the best is the new Kodak DC25. Slightly bigger than its predecessor, it includes several new options, including a built-in flash, a small screen on the back so you can see what photos you've taken, and removable storage.
The new storage system means that once you've taken 16 high-resolution photos on one computer card, you can replace it with another storage card - just like film. The DC25 doesn't include a zoom lens but still ranks as one of the best consumer digital cameras for the season.
Gifts $1,000 and more
Computer system. It's always hard buying a computer for someone else: there are so many options and everyone has personal preferences. Still, there are certain guidelines for a home computer. At a minimum, it should be a 100MHz Pentium machine (or a Macintosh Performa for fans of Apple computers) with a 1-gigabyte hard drive, 16 megabytes of memory, a 15-inch monitor, and a quad-speed CD-ROM drive. One of the most attention-getting computers now coming onto the market is the Toshiba Infinia. The top-of-the-line Infinia includes a TV tuner and FM radio (with real tuning knobs instead of the on-screen controls) as well as fax, answering-machine, and speakerphone functions.
For the best deals this Christmas, look for low-end machines. The industry is dropping prices on them in anticipation of a slew of hardware and software improvements that will begin arriving in January.