Home and office holiday gift ideas

Cool gadgets are back. A year after the iPhone overshadowed everything else, consumer electronics manufacturers have kicked it up a notch — this year’s offerings in the high-tech holiday gift space are rockin’. Taking our cue from two of the hottest video games (Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero World Tour ), we chose holiday gifts that rocked the house. The gifts on the following pages all have one thing in common — they rocked during our tryouts.

So sit back, relax and enjoy the music as you peruse this year’s guide.


IPEVO Free.2 Skype USB Handset with LCD

Skype i s great, but anyone who has tried to use it via a notebook’s built-in microphone and speaker has probably noticed less-than-stellar voice quality. Often, echoes and other artifacts can detract from otherwise excellent call quality. A handset such as the IPEVO Free.2 Skype USB Handset can correct these problems, and adds a degree of familiarity and comfort that most people enjoy.

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Craig Mathias

Griffin Simplifi

My desk is a complete mess, containing cables, USB hubs, charging cables, media card readers and a whole bunch of other stuff. The Griffin Simplifi helps to “simplify” the desktop clutter by offering a combination iPod/iPhone docking station (with synchronization functions), a USB hub and media card reader into one device. The device includes a power adapter for computers that may need the additional power, but is not required to run the device.

The media card reader can read and write to Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, SD, SDHC, xD and Compact Flash cards, and the USB hub adds an additional two slots for plugging in any USB-enabled device. Installation was pretty easy, just plug it in via USB and you’re ready to go. The only downside – it would have been nice to be able to recharge the iPod/iPhone via the power adapter

when the computer was off. The device is only powered on if the computer is powered on (the power comes through the USB connection, the power adapter is only used if the computer needs it). When turned off, the iPhone charging feature goes away.

Still, this is a handy device that should clean up some of the clutter on desktops if you have a lot of smaller, stand-alone type devices.

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Black & Decker TLD100 Thermal Leak Detector

This cool gadget is a non-contact thermometer (NCT), and, as you might guess, it measures the temperature of objects from afar, without touching them. These devices are incredibly useful, and not just for nerds or techies. I used this Black & Decker model to examine thermal leaks around the house, to verify the temperatures of the oven and refrigerator, and even to check the temperature of assorted computers and other devices around the house. Finding thermal leaks around the house can help you save lots of money by fixing those leaks, keeping heat inside the house during the winter.

The device is very easy to use: point it, turn it on, read it. Resolution is adjustable (check the surprisingly good manual for why you’d want to do this), and readings were within one degree of my reference thermometers. The truly amazing part: this is the least expensive NCT I’ve ever seen, with a list price of $39.99. This belongs in your tool box – yes, the one under the tree.

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StarTech USB Docking Station with VGA

Description: Docking stations and port replicators have been around for years, of course, but the virtual docking station, which provides several physical ports via USB, is a relatively new idea.

This compact unit adds four USB 2.0 ports, speaker and microphone jacks, a 10/100 Ethernet port (no Gigabit Ethernet may be a problem for some), and – here’s the real innovation – a VGA port. While every PC has a display port, of course, the real value here is in being able to add a second display (and all that additional screen real estate) to your PC using the multi-monitor capabilities of Windows.

Apart from a little driver clunkiness, this feature works just fine, producing a sharp image, and it’s easy to use. But what I would like is just the second (or even third) monitor capability without all of the other ports, and ideally without the requirement for an AC adapter. Anyway, this is a solid, functional product and may be just what you need.

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Craig Mathias

Kensington ShareCentral 5

Description: As many homes continue to add multiple computers to the mix, dealing with sharing a new printer, external hard drive, scanner or even just sharing a keyboard and mouse becomes a hassle with cables and networks, etc.

Kensington’s ShareCentral 5 aims to ease the pain. The handy device connects to your first computer via USB, and then has a second port to connect to the second computer. Then, with five additional USB slots, you can connect things like a printer, external hard drive, scanner, digital camera, etc. A press of a button lets you know which computer has access to the peripheral – if you want to switch to the other computer, just press the button again and it goes to the other machine.

The device is relatively simple to set up and easy to get up and running (there is some software installation, but it wasn’t painful). The only downside is that your two computers need to be relatively close to each other, as well as the peripherals that you want to attach. Still, it’s a cool way to solve the problem of sharing devices between two PCs.

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Epson WorkForce 600

Description: It’s an ink-jet printer. It’s a scanner. It’s a copier. It’s a fax machine. It prints color photos. And it’s under $200. That makes it perfect for any home office.

The Workforce 600 is a black, compact, lightweight (18 pounds) machine that can fit nicely into your home office no matter how cramped your space might be. The printer comes with a variety of connectivity options – it has slots for memory cards, Ethernet cables, phone jacks, USB ports. And it can also connect over Wi-Fi.

This gives you several options for taking documents that are on your computer and printing them, or going the other way and taking documents stored on a memory card and, say, converting them to a PDF. You can print envelopes, documents, spreadsheets, presentation materials and even create greeting cards.

Upsides: Setup is easy. The user interface is clear. The software lets you handle a variety of tasks from your PC. One key test of a multifunction printer is how well it prints photos, and this one does a nice job. Dow

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