Whether you’re shopping for a friend, a loved one, or yourself, everyone is looking for gift ideas this time of year, and I’ve combed through some of my favorite gadgets, games, phones, high end gear, and special experiences to give you a few ideas.
Thanks to our friends and partners at Warner Music Canada, Microsoft, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, and Zip.ca, The GATE is also be giving away loads of goodies for the holidays. Watch the Contest Section on Wednesday, December 3, or stay tuned to our Facebook Page for your chance to enter.
The absolute best gift you can give this season is the one to your community. No matter how little or how much you have to spend among your family and friends, every little bit you can also give to those in need makes a difference.
One great place to donate, which tend to always be looking for donors, are food banks. Most local grocery stores will be accepting donations, or better yet, you can donate money directly to your local food bank. Visit www.cafb-acba.ca to find your local food bank, or for help finding other charities in your area, visit Canada Helps at www.canadahelps.org.
Let me start by saying that if you live in the United States, or have access to stores there, the ideal video camera this season is the Flip Mino or the Flip Mino HD. Since these cameras are inexplicably not available in Canada though, you’ll have to settle for the slightly older, but still incredibly cool and simple-to-use Flip Ultra. Called “The world’s simplest camcorder,” the Flip Ultra shoots up to one hour of video and can be plugged in to a TV. Best of all though, it can be plugged directly into a computer via the built-in USB, and lets users download and edit video through simple software. Video is sized perfectly for sites like YouTube, so it can then be uploaded directly to the web to show friends, or family.
iKaraoke: $49 (U.S.)
Give the wannabe popstar in your life the ultimate add-on for their iPod with Griffin Technology’s iKaraoke. The adapter and microphone plugs right into the iPod and fades out the lead-track vocals on tracks so the singers in the family can sing along to their favorite music. The device also has a line-out, which lets them plug iKaraoke into their home stereo so they can sing along for everyone to hear. Oh, the joy. Available online only through Griffin Technology at www.griffintechnology.com/products/ikaraoke.
Sony MDRNC6 Noise Cancelling Headphones: $79
Whether it’s for the office, at home, or on those long, noisy trips, Sony’s noise cancelling headphones are the ideal choice to remove ambient sounds which sometimes get in the way of our music. Just plug them in and turn them on, and the MDRNC6 uses special sonic technology to block outside sounds, which also means they won’t have to crank their music to hear it. Sony and other companies make fancier and more expensive noise cancelling headphones, but for the average user these are a great buy, and do the job very well.
Skip traditional radio, and the MP3 players this year, and consider giving satellite radio. Sirius has a numerous car kits you can pick up, but the Stiletto 2 is a funky little device that lets you take satellite radio with you, whether you own a car or not. The device is a lot like a big MP3 player, which it is via a memory card input, but it’s also a fully functional satellite or internet radio. The only drawback is that you need to wear special headphones to help boost the signal, or be able to setup the Stiletto 2 with the provided external antennae. The built-in Wi-Fi for internet radio is a nice touch, as is the MP3 player for those times when you’re out of signal range, but it’s definitely an ideal gift for someone who wants to take their music with them, in the car, or otherwise.
Microsoft Zune 120 Gb: $249
While I’m a big fan of the Stiletto 2, my first pick for portable audio is Microsoft’s Zune. Retailing for the same price as the iPod classic, the Zune features a few nifty extras you won’t find on the iPod, including Wi-Fi, FM radio, and a slightly larger screen. It also benefits from a much simpler interface that incorporates a touch-sensitive directional pad, as well as two buttons. While the Zune software is not as powerful as Apple’s iTunes, the Zune is a funky device, now comes with a few free games, and is simply a great music player.
It’s also worth noting that the Zune can plug in to a number of accessories, but the most important is the Home A/V Pack for $89 which gives you a plug-in base, remote control, and adapters to connect the Zune to TV, a computer, or to recharge it via a power plug.
Dell Inspiron Mini 9: $349 and up
The Mini 9 is essentially a super-charged PDA, or a rather small laptop, which gives you enough power to run web, email, and simple applications. Running Windows XP, with a maximum of a 16 Gb solid state drive, 1 Gb of RAM, and a 1.6 Ghz processor, the Mini 9 is perfect for the traveler who just needs access to the basics while on the go. You can also buy an optional external drive, for CDs and DVDs, and the system comes with a built-in webcam, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.
Motherboard Christmas Tree: $7.99
Check this out. Urban Outfitters is selling a 5.5 inch tall Christmas Tree made out of motherboards, and it even lights up. This super geeky gift comes with a battery, which also acts as the tree stand, and will rock the socks off your favorite engineer, computer nerd, or otherwise geeky individuals in your life.
The king of the high tech phones this year was definitely Apple’s 3G iPhone, which debuted through Rogers in Canada. The fun and versatile device incorporates nearly everything you could want into one small package, including a camera, MP3 player, GPS navigation via Google Maps, Wi-Fi, email, and oh yeah, a great phone. The App Store, which gives users access to special add-on programs or games, is also brilliant for business users looking for helpful applications, or anyone looking for a little diversion on the commute to work.
At $199, the 8Gb iPhone also beats the competition when you consider how much you get for that price. The only thing to be careful with is the size of the phone plan, which is essential depending on how much data you end up using to browse the web or download email.
HTC Touch Diamond: $99 (from Bell Canada)
Coming in with decent features, and a great price tag, the Diamond is about as good as it gets for a phone with above-average features, without paying a lot of money. The phone supports Wi-Fi, push email, and has a respectable browser that nearly matches the quality of the iPhone. It does trounce the competition in one place though – the HTC Touch Diamond includes a 3.2 megapixel camera that also captures video, whereas the iPhone camera is only 2 megapixels and doesn’t support video. The interface on the Diamond is also very good, and of course the phone supports MP3s and radio.
Samsung Instinct: $99 (from Bell Canada)
While the Instinct is no contender against the iPhone, or the Diamond, it is a generally great phone for people who just want a great phone with a few simple extras. It can take pictures or video with the built-in camera, and plays music and games, but all in a slightly smaller package. Email is supported through the pre-set Windows Live button, as well as Live Messenger, and Facebook. The phone also supports GPS navigation, but only for an additional fee.
On the one hand, I would recommend the PlayStation 3 for gamers looking for a system that has built-in Blu-ray, and on the other hand the Wii is great for anyone looking for a gaming system that has friendly, party-oriented games. But my favorite console is definitely the Xbox 360.
With it’s brand new interface (dubbed NXE – New Xbox Experience), range of games and accessories, and best of all, their exclusive titles, I just can’t recommend the system enough. Added to the pile of great titles previously available, Xbox has a lot of hot games this year, including Fable 2, Gears of War 2, Lips, You’re In The Movies, not to mention Scene It?: Box Office Smash.
Console prices range from $199 for a basic system with no hard drive, to $299 for a 60 Gb Pro system, and $399 for 120 Gb Elite.
Fable II: $59
My absolute favorite game this year happens to be the sequel to Peter Molyneux’s fantastic original Xbox role-playing adventure. Set 500 years after the events in the first Fable game, you jump into the role of young Sparrow, and must choose your path through life.
Will you help the nearby farmer, or kill him? Learn how to cast spells, or chop down your enemies with a sword? Everything you do in the game affects how you look, how characters react to you, and even how the world will change as the years pass. You can also take up jobs, follow as many quests as you want, get married, or bring your friend into the game to play alongside you in co-operative play. It’s all up to the player.
Scene It? Box Office Smash: $59
Ideal for groups of friends and families, Box Office Smash lets film fanatics prove just how much they know about the movies. Allowing up to four players at once, who each get their own Big Button Pad to buzz in, the game has 22 different puzzles to unravel facts about all kinds of movies. This title also incorporates the NXE avatars into the game, allowing you to show off your brand new virtual self.
Gears of War 2: $59
This insanely popular shooter ups the ante in the Gears franchise, providing a much bigger, and tougher chance to fight the Locust before they can destroy the planet Sera. You once again step into the armoured boots of Marcus Fenix, a tough-as-nails sergeant. The game has an immersive story mode, but a lot of gamers are probably most excited by the chance to face off online and prove who is the better fighter.
The grandfather of the instrument-gaming titles returns with a full band edition that lets up to four players perform killer tunes on the virtual stage. The full kit of World Tour comes with a guitar, microphone, and drum set, which can be played on five different skill levels. You can also buy an extra guitar to play bass. Modes in the game let gamers play as a full band, against each other, or in full career mode to unlock more music. New music also becomes available for download frequently, and there is a music studio component that lets gamers create their own tracks to play or share online.
This franchise also has numerous extras or accessories that make great gifts, including guitar stands, cases, faceplates, and even real guitars and drums that have been fitted to work for the game.
For the Wii: Wii Fit ($99) and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed/The Clone Wars: Lightsaber Duels ($49)
As I said, the Wii is a fantastic system, and the Wii Fit is a great example of how Nintendo has reached out and found new ways to be interactive. The challenges are not only fun, but also make for a decent workout. Meanwhile the two Star Wars titles, The Force Unleashed and Lightsaber Duels make excellent use of my favorite accessory, the glowing Lightsaber Wiimote that retails for $29 in most stores. Finally, a good reason to stand in the living room, waving a lightsaber around in the air.
MICE AND KEYBOARDS
This might just be the best mouse I’ve ever used, and while it comes with a moderately high price tag, there are very few mice that can compare. Whether it’s for a desktop or laptop, the BlueTrack lets users surf on any surface – carpet, wood, granite, or nearly anywhere someone might work, or play. The mouse also comes with a wonderfully tiny recharging base that won’t clutter up your desk.
Microsoft SideWinder X6 Keyboard and X5 Mouse: $89 and $69 each
There are lots of gaming mice and keyboard combinations out there, but I’m a convert to Microsoft’s camp for the sheer style, and usability in the new X6 keyboard and X5 mouse. While the keyboard lacks a few minor features, it has over 30 programmable macros, a swappable number pad, adjustable backlighting, and basic media controls. The mouse has three DPI adjustment buttons, for precision, and two thumb buttons. This combo may not make anyone a better gamer, but it does make some tedious elements of roleplaying a bit simpler.
Road Mice: Ford Mustang GT: $44 (U.S.)
While the first two mice I mentioned were for sheer usability, the Ford Mustang GT from Road Mice is really all about the design. This miniature car is actually a wireless mouse, with working headlights that light up when you click. While this may not be the best mouse on the market, it is a great gift for car enthusiasts and Road Mice makes a number of other models, including Camaro, Dodge Charger, and even the Police model of the Dodge Charger. Only available currently from www.roadmice.com.
VIA Rail: www.viarail.com
Travel experiences are a great way to stop buying more junk for your loved one’s home, and start doing something together that they’ll remember forever. Out of all the possible trips you could take, my ultimate favorite would have to be riding VIA Rail. The train can take you from one end of the country to the other, offers rates comparable to flying, and best of all, feels like a vacation unto itself. For the best results, pick a round-trip destination that includes an over-night stay in a sleeper car, or take advantage of luxury travel with VIA 1.
Plan A Weekend Escape
Following the concept for the VIA Rail gift, take things a little bit further and why not wow someone with a whole weekend escape?
First, think about where you want to go. There’s nothing wrong with a local trip, and for those Torontonians looking for a vacation spot there are loads of places, like Niagara-On-The-Lake, Niagara Falls, or maybe a small-town inn.
Next, consider how you will get there. If it’s a drive, how can you make the trip part of the present?
Finally, once you arrive, plan an evening filled with dinner, and an experience. Check with local venues to see a play, a musical, or maybe a concert.
The price tag for this one can be really as much or as little as you like, but it’s a memorable way to say Happy Holidays.