Computerworld's Mac gift guide

Editor’s Note: This story is excerpted from Computerworld. For more Mac coverage, visit Computerworld’s Macintosh Knowledge Center.

With Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday now behind us, the holiday shopping season is in full swing. Last month, Computerworld offered our Holiday Gift Guide to help you sort through this year’s gadgets and techie toys.

But shopping for Mac users and Apple fans can sometimes be a challenge—especially if you want to get something other than the obvious choices, or if you’re not as big an Apple fan as the person you’re shopping for. With that in mind, here are 10 great gift ideas for the Mac user on your list.

Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard

If you’re shopping for a die-hard Mac fan, chances are good that he has already upgraded to Leopard, which has been out since Oct. 26. Many users, however, delay making a major upgrade like this for weeks or months—sometimes for cost-related reasons, sometimes to make sure those first-release bugs have been found and fixed. Others wait until they’re ready to buy a new computer so that they can simply get the latest operating system included.

With more than 300 new features and revamped apps, the $129 Leopard is a great gift for someone who’s been on the fence about when to make the jump to the operating system. Even for nontechnical users, Leopard is a holiday winner because it includes Time Machine, the easiest (and coolest) backup software on the planet, and screen-sharing via iChat.

If you’re the power user in the family who always gets stuck with the “something’s wrong with my computer” phone calls, Leopard is a gift that keeps on giving—to you. That’s because screen-sharing with iChat works great as a remote troubleshooting tool for family and friends.

If you’re eyeing Leopard as a gift, keep two things in mind. First, make sure the people you’re buying for haven’t bought it already (or plan to buy it in the immediate future). Also, you’ll want to be sure that their Mac meets the minimum Leopard system requirements. (Among other things, they need a computer with at least 512MB of RAM, a PowerPC G4 or better chip running at a minimum of 867 MHz and a DVD drive.)

An external hard drive

Since we mentioned Time Machine as a reason to give Apple’s latest operating system, let’s move on to another smart gift idea for Leopard users (or as a companion gift to the operating system): a large-capacity external hard drive. Time Machine makes backing up easy, but it’s best to use it with an external hard drive. The bigger the drive, the better the safety net Time Machine can provide.

So, how big is too big? There’s no such a thing as too big when it comes to data storage. However, a 500GB drive is probably ample for most Mac users to maintain solid backups of their systems and digital media such as photos, movies and music. Apple’s online store currently offers a deal on a 500GB USB 2.0 drive from Iomega —priced at $169.95—that’s worth considering.

iLife ’08

Many Apple fans went out and bought copies of iLife ’08 when it shipped in August, but as with Leopard, there are no doubt a number of Mac users who didn’t upgrade immediately, figuring that they’d get a new version of iLife with their next Mac. ILife ’08 is a perfect gift for these users, particularly if they never warmed to the earlier versions of iLife because iMovie seemed slow to import video or GarageBand seemed too complicated.

Apple addressed these issues and added handy enhancements to every application in the suite, making it well worth the $79 price tag. For those who like to share photos and videos online, the updates to iWeb and the .Mac Web galleries are impressive enough on their own to make iLife ’08 a great gift.

If your giftees have already upgraded iLife and spends a lot of time working with iMovie and/or GarageBand, you might consider getting them Final Cut Express 4 or Logic Express 8. Although these are a little pricey at $199 each, they offer an introduction to the realm of Apple’s professional video- and audio-editing tools for budding videographers, musicians and DJs.

The more budget-minded should consider iMovie plug-ins such as those from Gee Three and cf/x, which offer enhanced special effects and other features, or Jam Packs that add all manner of audio loops and add-on tools for GarageBand. The Gee Three software ranges in price from $29.95 to $49.95, but you can save money when buying more than one. The cf/x plug-ins range from $1.50 to $9.95, making them the digital equivalent of stocking stuffers, while Jam Packs go for $99 each.

Note: At present, iMovie ’06 is required to use plug-ins because iMovie ’08 is a complete revision and the plug-ins don’t yet work with it. That’s why iMovie ’06 is left in place when iLife ’08 is installed; it’s also available as a free download from Apple.

Another solid gift choice: iWork ’08 ($79), which offers full compatibility with Microsoft Office and great tools for making presentations, newsletters and all manner of graphically rich spreadsheets. Although not the most exciting gift for many, iWork is a great idea for the workhorse in the family, as well as for moms and dads who may need, for instance, to manage soccer teams or other extracurricular school activities.

.Mac

Apple’s .Mac service has been called a waste of money. In fact, just last year it was possible to get all the features of .Mac using various free services. But much can change in a year—and in this case, it has. Now, in addition to an e-mail account, Web hosting and external storage space, .Mac offers an array of impressive extras.

One new feature already mentioned is the stunning Web galleries that create a shared space for people to easily share photos and video online.

Other additions include Back to My Mac, which allows Leopard users to instantly access all of the files on their computers (or simply share the screen) from anywhere on the Internet, as well as the ability to sync an impressive array of data settings (including e-mail accounts, contacts, calendars, System Preferences settings, Dashboard widgets and more) across several Macs. All of these make .Mac, which goes for $99.95 a year, a strong gift choice.

iPod, iPhone and accessories

No gift list would be complete without an iPhone and the latest iPods. Every iPod model makes a great gift and has its own set of advantages, whether in features, size or price.

The iPod touch is, of course, the most impressive as it boasts the same touch-screen display as the iPhone and can function as a mobile Internet device when in range of a wireless network. However, the iPod classic is also a great gift, particularly for users who have large collections of music, movies and photos that they want to carry with them.

The iPod nano and iPod shuffle work for the more budget-conscious. The nano is now the lowest priced video-capable iPod ever available and is a great gift for anyone on the go who wants a small fully powered iPod. Prices range from $79 for the iPod shuffle all the way up to $399 for the 16GB iPod touch.

So much has been said about the iPhone, now just $399, that there’s little need to describe it. Without a doubt, it will make a great gift, and we’ve heard plenty of people of all ages (from teens to seniors) already asking for one.

The one thing to keep in mind is that the iPhone requires an AT&T contract. If you’re buying for users who have existing cellular service on a different carrier, you may want to consider the length of time left on their contract and the availability of AT&T service in their area. (How you ask them about those topics without giving away your gift plans is up to you.)

IPod and iPhone shopping isn’t limited to the hardware; there’s an entire ecosystem of iPod and iPhone accessories that make great stocking stuffers. Pick from an assortment of cases for protection and transparent screen protectors like Power Support’s Crystal Film Set.

Other possibilities include travel chargers, FM transmitters such as Griffin Technology’s iTrip and Monster Cable Products’ iCarPlay series to listen through a car radio, and all manner of iPod docks and speaker systems.

Apple TV

Apple TV made a lot of news when it was released last March, two months after its debut at Macworld Expo—and then promptly fell off most people’s radars in the wake of the iPhone. But for anyone with an HDTV sporting component or HDMI connections (or even a standard-definition TV —though these are not officially supported), Apple TV is a great idea.

Apple TV brings all of the music, video and photos on a person’s computer (Mac or PC) into the living room. Anything purchased from the iTunes Store can be viewed or listened to. Video podcasts can be watched like any TV show. And the screensaver includes a 3-D grid of floating pictures that offers a great way to have an ever-changing array of family photos in the background whenever the TV isn’t in use.

One of the coolest features of the device has to be the ability to browse and watch YouTube videos from the comfort of the sofa using a remote control. Any YouTube fan will love this—and it will probably make new YouTube fans as well.

Apple TV comes in two versions: One has a 40GB hard drive and sells for $299; the other has a 160GB drive and sells for $399.

Elgato’s EyeTV and Turbo.264

If that special someone already has an Apple TV, then check out the offerings from Elgato Systems, which has two product lines that make excellent gifts. First is the EyeTV family of products, a series of TV tuner and personal video-recording devices for the Mac. In plain language, the EyeTV devices and bundled EyeTV software let users watch and record TV directly on their computers.

The devices offer digital-recording capabilities similar to TiVo and the DVR boxes offered by many cable and satellite providers—but without the monthly subscription. The EyeTV software, which comes bundled with each device in the EyeTV lineup, also makes it easy to convert recorded programs for other uses (such as syncing to an Apple TV, iPod or iPhone, or burning to DVD).

Leading off the EyeTV lineup is the EyeTV Hybrid, a very compact device that retails for $149.95 and supports viewing and recording both HD and analog television on Macs with a G4/G5/Intel processor (though for HD content a dual-core G5 or Intel Mac is required).

While the EyeTV Hybrid is a great choice for newer Macs (particularly those with Intel processors), older Macs may see better performance with the EyeTV 250 Plus ($199.95), which includes video-encoding hardware and doesn’t rely solely on the Mac's processor.

And for homes with multiple Macs, the $199.95 HDHomeRun allows all Macs to access television signals over a home network and supports two separate Macs recording different content at the same time.

The Turbo.264, which sells for $99.95, is a separate product that connects to a Mac and accelerates the conversion of video to H.264, a format that offers high quality and small file sizes and is used by iTunes, Apple TV, iPod and iPhone.

If you can’t afford the turbo.264, another possibility is Techspansion’s $23 Visual Hub, which allows users to convert video but doesn’t augment the Mac’s own processing power. The turbo.264, in contrast, offloads the processing, resulting in much faster conversion and freed-up resources on the Mac for other uses.

A laptop case

Laptops need protection, too. Cases and bags are always on my wish list—with good reason. MacBooks and MacBook Pros account for the majority of Macs sold. They are great laptops that need to be protected and carried securely, meaning a good quality case is a must.

Bags and cases come in a wide range of sizes, styles and prices that can fit every individual. But be sure that the case will fit the computer that will be carried in it. Some offer compartments designed only for certain sizes (like one I bought for my 15-inch MacBook Pro that said it fit “up to a 14-in. laptop” in fine print—no chance of squeezing my laptop in that case).

Another thing to remember is that backpack designs offer some flexibility for other uses. Keep in mind that while a bag that practically screams “I love my Mac” is nice, it will also scream “I’ve got a laptop.” Thieves will appreciate that.

An extra battery

When buying battery-operated toys for kids, my family always wraps up batteries as a gift to go with them. Even though portable Macs and other Apple devices use rechargeable batteries, that doesn’t mean an extra battery is a bad idea. They can extend the usefulness of the device when away from a power source, or they can be used to replace aging batteries that no longer hold a charge.

If you know an iBook or PowerBook owner whose computer is a few years old and no longer holds a good charge, a replacement battery makes a darn nice gift. Costing just over $100, a battery can greatly extend the usefulness of an older computer for a few more years. Replacing batteries in Macs is easy and doesn’t require specialized installation.

Replacing an aging iPod’s battery is a different matter. It requires physically opening the iPod up, which isn’t a user-accessible process. Some iPod battery replacement services are available, but in many ways, you’re probably better off buying a new iPod as a gift, given the cost of batteries and the replacement service.

External batteries and power packs are a different matter. Energizer now offers an inexpensive portable power pack for iPods called Energi To Go (available online for around $25 to $30) that runs off two AA batteries, making it an excellent low-cost gift idea.

Custom widgets

Most Mac users who have used Mac OS X Tiger or Leopard are used to Dashboard, the simple interface that allows mini-applications called widgets to be viewed on top of the current Desktop. In Leopard, Dashboard received some major updates, including Dashcode, a tool for developing Dashboard widgets.

Full-on widget creation may seem daunting, but Apple has provided a wide range of free templates for such things as countdown timers, maps, daily quotes or news stories, photo-of-the-day widgets and more. Using these templates, you can actually build widgets without ever writing code.

By experimenting a little, you can create fun custom widgets for family and friends with no cost. It will also show that you care enough about the recipients to spend some time on their gift, with the added bonus of making you look like the most impressive Mac user your family has ever seen.

(Note that widgets created in Dashcode can be used only on Macs running Leopard.)

For comparison’s sake, building a custom widget with Dashcode isn’t as easy as building a Web site with iWeb (part of iLife ’08), but it’s not terribly hard either. And who would turn down a widget designed especially for them?

[ Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. ]

Subscribe to the Apple @ Work Newsletter

Comments