Great tech gifts keep on giving

Ah, the days after Christmas, when all good gift cards go back to the store for a belated spree of shopping goodness and all bad gifts are hoped to do likewise.

Did you get a set of USB-powered hedge clippers for Christmas? Was Santa off the mark with the portable breathalyzer for your tea totaling grandmother? Was your stocking filled with floppy discs instead of DVD-Rs? There is hope, for stores are still stocked with tech gifts that will make the holidays truly merry and bright.

First, I have to acknowledge that the days of the bad gift may be numbered. The National Retail Federation’s fourth annual Gift Card Survey estimated that gift card sales this past holiday season would shoot up by $6 billion over the 2005 season, from $18.48 billion to $24.81 billion. That’s up by more than 32 percent.

They also predicted an increase in the amount people would spend on individual cards, up to $116.51 from $88.33 — another 32 percent. And more than two-thirds (79.7 percent) of consumers polled said they planned to give at least one gift card this year, while 52.8 percent said they wanted to receive one (obviously fearing they’d get a fruitcake or a snowman sweater instead.)

Well, between the gift cards and those who didn’t get Christmas shopping quite right, people will be heading back to the store in droves this week, making the return lines nearly as long as the sales lines were during the height of holiday shopping.

So, looking for a few ideas on how to spend those return dollars and make use of the gift cards? Here’s my list of goodies:

• It’s probably too late to really pay off for Christmas or Hanukkah 2006, but there’s a clear need for every household to have at least one tool such as the OpenX ($4.95), which is designed to extricate the average gadget, goodie and lusted-after tech toy from the increasingly impossible-to-open sealed, plastic clamshell packaging that they all now seem to come in.

Manufacturers are finally admitting that they’re getting more complaints than praise about these mini-Fort Knoxes and promise changes will come, but with more and more products showing up in them in the last year, I’m skeptical.

It’s time to pull out the specially designed plastic clamshell opener, before someone gets hurt opening a box of self-adhesive bandages. Stick one in your car, too. You can never tell when you’ll need that tech goodie right there and then.

• Now that we’ve got the technology out of the package, we naturally have to plug it in. Herein lie two challenges: (1) How do you get your cell phone, computer, digital camera, PDA, iPod, camcorder, DVD recorder, DVR, satellite television box, LCD television, multi-function printer, cordless phone, portable game system, cable modem, network hub and digital picture frame all plugged in when at least half of them still have a big brick of a plug on the end of their power cord? And (2) How do you make any of it look neat?

Well, the answer comes in the form of (1) the Powersquid and (2) the PowerStation charger.

The Powersquid basically looks like a squid, only instead of legs, it has power connections. That means there’s nearly unlimited room for those oversized plugs, plus surge protection. It comes in three versions, including one with lighted connectors, ranging from $55 to $80. It could be the last multi-outlet adapter you ever need.

The PowerStation ($25) is a plastic box with a series of clamps on the top that hold three devices in place while they charge. Inside is a hidden power strip that allows you to connect all the individual cords, which run inside the box, leaving the exterior clean, neat and organized. I’ve also seen this concept done inside a fancy wooden box, for Brookstone, with spots for six devices, if you’ve got a high style quotient or more gadgets, and $75. Put one of these on your kitchen counter or dresser and you’re ready to grab that charged cell phone and go.

• I have to admit that there’s one gift still at the top of my personal tech-toy wishlist: the Nintendo DS Lite ($130). This is the newest version of Nintendo’s portable gaming system, lighter, fancier and backward-compatible not only with previous Nintendo DS games but also GameBoy Advance games. It’s got a stylus for its touchscreen controls, wireless connectivity and even two screens for easier play.

The thing that’s kicked the DS Lite into the spotlight — to the point where it was not available in most stores at the height of holiday shopping — seems to be its wide range of games. In addition to the traditional portable platform-type games and some console classics, there’s Nintendogs, which is the latest version of an electronic pet game, complete with interactive features if you run into someone else who is playing the game. You even get to choose different breeds.

There’s also Brain Age, which is being marketed at those worried about those “senior moments,” under the theory that exercising the brain regularly makes it age more slowly, reducing memory loss, etc. And Cooking Mama orients some traditional game concepts into a more female-friendly mode and even makes use of the touch screen in unique ways — you can shake the skillet when making an omelet. And, of course, there’s Sudoku. Bottom line: Between the novice gamer-friendly Wii and the range of games on the DS Lite, Nintendo stands to bring in scores of new gamers this year.

• Don’t want your boss to catch you training your Nintendog but need a little digital stress relief on your desktop? I’ve become enamored of the little Cube World people — tiny digital stick figures who live in their own individual cubes. Sure, each character, with their individual personalities, does some cute little tricks, interacts with your shakes or turns of the cube, and comes with a built-in game.

But the real magic comes when you connect them to each other. They’ll visit each other’s cubes and do all kinds of additional things, from four-man brawls to bungee jumping from one cube through the ones below. I’ve even seen rope-carrying Whip lasso dog-lover Scoop’s pet pup into his own cube. They come in sets of two cubes ($25-30), two sets in each of three series, so far — 12 in all, with a fourth series anticipated. A perfect belated stocking stuffer and entirely addictive.

• Also still on my list is something many of you will have already — a flat-panel television. The manufacturers have realized that people want smaller, flatter televisions and aimed squarely at that market, also realizing that they’re much lighter and therefore easier and cheaper to ship. They’re moving away from manufacturing any CRTs at all, and lowering their price points on the flat-panels.

While many of us would love to have Santa drop off a 52-inch plasma TV ($2,700 or so), I’ve been looking idly for a moderate-quality 20-inch LCD screen ($400 and up) to replace my 15-year-old classic CRT. Based on the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy I saw for cheap 20-inch LCD televisions, I’m not alone.

But this is a hit-or-miss proposition, as quality is often lacking on the lower end of the scale at the same time that new manufacturers are making strides toward combining affordability and quality. And buyers deciding to go for a flat-panel screen now will have to consider high-definition compatibility as analog television broadcasts are set to come to an end in 2009.

Will you buy another TV before then, if you get one now that’s not HDTV compatible? Or will you buy a $50 converter box and live with the current level of picture quality? And do you buy a television with an HDTV tuner built in or rely on your cable or satellite provider to provide one for you?

It may be that the best choice is to wait until prices, technology and quality stabilize at a compromise level, where good quality is affordable and HDTV-ready sets are the norm. That’s not good news for early adopters such as myself. Unless a great deal comes along, I’m going to sit on the fence for a while and wait that one out. But those of you ready to take the plunge are well advised to check your local warehouse clubs for the best bargains.

• The digital video recorder (DVR) and DVD-recorder are also becoming a staple in the average home. I lucked into one of the last built-in DVR boxes that DirectTV offered in partnership with TiVo. While other DVRs are getting better, the consensus still seems to be that TiVo leads the pack by a substantial measure. With my prior box being a DishNetwork-brand DVR, I have to agree. If I were buying now, it would be a TiVo box with compatibility to your current cable/satellite provider.

I’ve had little luck convincing my parents to go for this option, though it’s becoming the standard for new hookups for both satellite and cable companies, and can be had for free after rebate, and less than $250 regardless.

The bottom line is that a DVR can — and perhaps should — change the way you watch television. You watch only what you want to watch, whenever you want to watch it. You keep your recorded programs until you want to delete them or until you run out of room (40 hours or more), making a “Lost” marathon leading up to new episodes very much possible.

You also get the luxury of pausing live television to make another bowl of popcorn, or rewinding to watch a key play or listen to that quote you missed the first time through. And the smartest of these boxes — particularly TiVo-equipped ones — do a pretty decent job of understanding how to record your favorite programs without catching a dozen re-runs, as well as recommending (and automatically recording, if you wish) programs that you might enjoy but would otherwise miss.

• Those who have a DVR might look instead at a Slingbox ($180 and up), which will use the Internet to transport your recorded media from your DVR or let you control and view your cable shows on your laptop or even your cell phone, all while you’re away from home or in another room.

• Another excellent companion to the DVR is the DVD-recorder, and they’re now increasingly commonly packaged together. This way, you can archive your favorite recordings when your DVR starts to get full, as well as make copies of your home movies to send to the relatives.

The watchword on DVD recording these days is multi-format compatibility. Much as the high-definition DVD battle is still working itself out, and much as the old VHS/Betamax war left some with the short end of the stick, the DVD-R and DVD+R format division left some early adopters in a bad place. But most newer boxes these days at least play both formats and some even will record in whichever you choose. Some also record DVD-RAM, which is the equivalent of a VHS tape in that it can be re-recorded numerous times — useful if you don’t have a DVR and want to record your favorite shows each week and then record over them.

Be warned, though — more inexpensive brands of DVD recorders have a reputation these days for lasting less than a year before their lasers burn out and either cannot burn DVDs or cannot read them. This maybe one area where a little investment is warranted, as well as that extended warrantee.

• Finally, I’m recommending that everyone who lives in this area, or who has a home here, should get one particular item: the emergency radio/flashlight. We’re not talking about the one with four C-size batteries inside to run down and replace when you might not have the luxury of a run to the convenience store. Instead, the key is a self-powered feature, such as a handle to wind or a shake-powered option, or even solar power.

After Hurricane Katrina, I think we’re all more aware of the vulnerability of coastal areas to Mother Nature’s wrath, and I’d like to think we’re all a little more prepared. But the growing affordability of battery-free emergency technology is the best excuse to make sure that you can at least keep up on the weather alerts and find your way out of a dark house should the area’s weather hit the extreme without sufficient warning.

Most of the newer units also offer cell-phone charging — good if the area’s cell towers are unaffected or repaired quickly. Some offer television or National Weather Service alerts and radio, and many offer emergency sirens, which could be useful if you or your family are trapped inside your house or car.

You can now get a basic crank-powered LED (long-life bulbs) flashlight with a siren, radio and cell phone charger for less than $15. At that price, I’d recommend you do it, and maybe take the extra step for TV and NWS radio/alerts. Get a couple — one for each car and level of your home.

While we’re at it, look into solar power for a number of your other tech tools and toys — it’s now available for everything from your cell phone to your iPod or PDA. That not only means freedom from pollutant-reliant household current but also portable recharging and emergency backup should you need some entertainment or information when your device’s batteries would otherwise be drained.

Most of these items will not only provide a great addition to the great technology gifts you did get this year but great gifts for friends and family next Christmas, so keep them in mind when you’re looking for something more creative than a gift card without risking those USB-powered hedge clippers.