Staff Picks: The Best Tech of 2010

The Techerator Team, January 2011

The holidays are over and the new year is here, time to recover from your multiple food-induced comas and get back to work (or school). But before the year 20-double-matchsticks gets under way, we here at Techerator decided to take a  look back at what 2010 brought us.

So here it is: our Best Tech of 2010.

Evan Wondrasek

Web-based Applications and Synchronization

Though not a new concept in 2010, it was something I took advantage of more than ever. WordPress, which is the software this website is built on, lets me and the Techerator writing staff collaborate together online no matter where we are. The interface can be used though a browser without installing any software, and I’ve even written articles from my mobile phone.

With applications like Dropbox, I’m able to sync my documents and media across every computer I use. When I was in college this was critical for keeping my homework accessible on the go (especially when I was away from home for 18 hours with my netbook), and now that I’m working full-time, I find it equally useful.

Although incredibly useful, even my Dropbox usage is being replaced with something else – Google Docs. I’m finding an increased need to collaborate with others on documents, whether planning my wedding or simply sharing a document. Google Docs lets you work with others on a document at the same time, in real-time.

Google Docs is available through any browser so I can easily run a complex, macro-filled spreadsheet for Techerator’s finances just as I would in Microsoft Excel, and access it anywhere I go.

New Gadgets in General

Kindles, Android smartphones, netbooks, tablets, iPods, iPads – the better they get, the more similar they become. I can browse the web from all of these devices, send updates to Twitter and Facebook, and they all support apps (in some form or another). With this level of sophistication in gadgets, it makes me giddy to think back to my childhood days when I thought a laptop computer was the most amazing gadget ever.

Android

The Android operating system and its smartphone hardware companions have easily been my favorite tech in 2010. Instead of rambling on about how great it is, I’ll simply leave you with a picture of my desk:

Kevin Ivanca

Instant Streaming

This sort of idea has been building for the past decade, and it really showed in 2010. Things like Netflix, DVR, and Hulu all give people instant video gratification and enjoyment. Gone are the days when one had to bow down to the movie mogul’s schedule and the TV network’s programming. Thanks to instant streaming and video recording, one can gain video enjoyment at their own personal expense and time. Power to the people!

DLNA HDTVs

Speaking of instant streaming, who doesn’t want a high definition TV that can download Netflix movies and connect to your computers via your network? Now that every device is online, it seems idiotic to keep them from connecting to each other and sharing pictures and videos. If you want to see the future of the living room, don’t look at 3D technology. Look at DLNA.

Google

Now this company had quite the marathon year. Enhanced Google Mapping and Navigation, a better organized Gmail via Priority Inbox and spam filters, the continuous expansion of the Google Android OS and its application market; all this and more were graciously given to us in 2010 by the deities at Google.

And what, pray tell, do they have in store for 2011? Tablets that can actually beat out the iPad? Telepathic communication via brain implants? Robots programmed with snarky comments to provide comic relief? I guess that is for Google to know and us to find out.

Jacob Bean

Android Smartphones

2010 marked the year that I switched from the Blackberry Storm to a Motorola Droid. I’ve come to love the Android operating system, and the phone itself performs smoothly. The camera takes great quality pictures, Google Voice integration is awesome, and customization with Android is unbelievable because it’s open source!

Photoshop CS5

In April 2010, Adobe launched their CS5 creative suite which I’ve come to love. Although I’ve used Dreamweaver and Illustrator, I’m more familiar with Photoshop and saw some awesome improvements from CS4 to CS5. The reason CS5 is superior over CS4 is because it has made complex selection easier, improved RAW to JPEG processing, added new and updated filters, automatic lens correction and an easier-to-use user interface that was much easier to navigate then its predecessor.

Kevin Schulte

Android

Android has been around for a while, but 2010 was the year it blew up (in a good way). The original Motorola Droid came onto the scene late in 2009, but in 2010 we saw Android on dozens of different phone models, portable media players, $100 tablets, $600 tablets, and everything in between.

Thanks to my Android smartphone, I normally don’t even bother taking my laptop on short trips. 95% of the tasks I might need to accomplish on the road I can take care of quickly and easily with my phone, without having to lug around a much bulkier laptop. Also, being a giant nerd, having a near constant Internet connection on me at all times is incredibly awesome.

Apple’s iOS

iOS and Android on the same list? Yes, absolutely. Having never owned an Apple product in my life, this August I bought a new iPod Touch to take advantage of some of the awesome content available in the App Store.

iOS is pretty bland out of the box, but once you jailbreak your device (a necessity in my opinion) you can do all the things Apple doesn’t want you to do. Thanks to Cydia (an App Store-like environment for jailbroken devices), you can install tons of awesome applications not approved by Apple that any self-respecting tech geek would want to fully take advantage of their iPhone or iPod. To quote the great Dustin Patterson, after jailbreaking your iPod, “it’s a whole new device.”

PlayStation 3

Sony will look back on 2010 and see it as the year that the PlayStation 3 finally succumbed to every console maker’s worst nightmare – easily accessible piracy. Prior to 2010, the PS3 had managed to avoid something that all other current consoles, both home and portable, had fallen to relatively quickly.

One of the major selling points of the original PlayStation 3 was the ability to natively install Linux, granting programmers, amateur and professional alike, access to IBM’s Cell processor. However, Sony decided to omit this feature in the Slim revision of the PS3, and after noted hacker George Hotz found an exploit requiring the PS3’s OtherOS feature that granted him hypervisor level access to the Cell early in 2010, Sony released a required system update that completely removed the ability to install Linux on all PS3s.

Instead of putting a stop to tinkering with the PS3’s internals, this move drove the hacker community into a fervor, resulting in an arms race between Sony, releasing frequent mandatory system updates containing nothing but “security features,” and the hacker community, quickly bringing down any roadblocks Sony managed to erect. The arms race may have finally come to a conclusion, thankfully, as at the end of 2010 a group of hackers presented a method to sign homebrew applications with Sony’s private encryption keys, essentially allowing you to run whatever you want on your PS3 with no way of Sony easily stopping you, even with system updates.

An unfortunate byproduct of this breakthrough is that it makes piracy on the platform trivial, but if you want to believe the hackers responsible, it was a consequence brought on by Sony themselves when they removed the ability to install Linux.

Bryant Sombke

Microsoft Visual Studio 2010

As a .NET and, more importantly, a SharePoint developer, nothing made my 2010 more joyous than Visual Studio 2010. It comes with many new SharePoint project templates that make developing new web parts, workflows, event receivers, and more, easy as pie. I no longer have to manually write mountains of XML to create a .wsp package to deploy to my SharePoint farms. It also knows automatically which process to attach the debugger to, making SharePoint debugging almost as seamless as a regular .NET web application.

Firefox 4 Beta

I’m really loving the Firefox 4 Beta release. Upon first use, I noticed immediately the influence Google Chrome has had on the browser market, as Firefox 4 borrows the minimalist UI design from Chrome, moving the tabs to the top of the window and hiding the ancient Menu bar inside an aesthetically pleasing “Firefox” button in the top left.

Of course, Firefox 4 has all the customizability that Firefox users have grown to love, but it also runs faster and has a smaller memory footprint, leaving more precious MBs for the rest of your running applications. Look for the release of Firefox 4 in 2011 to reestablish Firefox as a forerunner in the browser industry.

TurboTax

This program not only is easy-to-use and saved me time, it saved me thousands of dollars. As a recent college grad, a newly wed, and owner of my first home, I don’t appreciate many things more than Uncle Sam returning my hard-earned cash. TurboTax basically holds your hand through the entire process of filing your taxes, and it took me only about half an hour to file my Federal return, along with one State return each for North Dakota and Minnesota. You do have to pay for filing State returns, but it’s a ton easier than doing the math myself. I mean, that’s what computers are for, right?

I’m definitely using TurboTax again in 2011 and I would recommend it to any fellow taxpayer.

Reis Pritchard

Internet Explorer 9

I hate to sound like a Microsoft fanboy here, but they are making some smart decisions in my opinion. Address bar + tabs are uniform, the way they always should have been. No unnecessary space is taken up, and pinning websites like Facebook can definitely be helpful to some.

Fii0 e5 Heaphone Amplifier

I got some great studio monitor headphones for Christmas, but I’ve had my Fii0 e5 amplifier for some time now. Unless you’re a big audiophile, this amp is sure to make a difference in your music-listening experience, and will actually pick out sounds and hidden melodies you never knew existed. It’s really the only amp I know of for about $20, and it works.

Looking back at 2009

Want to get even more nostaligic? Check out our 2009 Staff Picks for our Favorite Web Apps and Favorite Gadgets & Tech.

Have we changed? Flip flopped? Descended into lunacy? Share with us in the comments.

So You Got a New Kindle for Christmas, Now What?

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Like many of you lucky people out there, I got a new Kindle as a present this Christmas (thanks, Mom!).  I’m an avid reader so I know I’ll make good use of it, but I’ve come up with a few simple tips that can help you get the most out of your new toy.

Oh, and did I mention you can get many popular books on your Kindle for free?

Link your Kindle to your Amazon.com account

The Kindle Store in the Kindle is useful, but if you register your device (linking it with your Amazon.com account), you can instantly send books to your Kindle directly from a web browser.  To register your device, open up the Menu, select Settings, and locate the Registration field.  Click Register to link your Kindle to your Amazon account.

If you purchased your Kindle using your Amazon.com account, it’s allegedly supposed to be pre-registered, but mine was not.

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Download free Kindle books

So you have your new Kindle, but what good is it without any books?  Dozens of literary classics are available for free on the Kindle because they are available in the public domain.  Books like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Pride and Prejudice, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – all free.  I’m reading Sherlock Holmes at the moment, which was converted to Kindle by a community of enthusiasts for our enjoyment.

To find more free Kindle books, check out Amazon’s Top 100 Free Kindle Books (updated hourly).  You can also check out user-created lists of free books (including much more than public domain books).

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Read the manual (RTFM)

I’m not usually a person that reads instructions, nor do I tell other smart people to read them.  But check this out, smart people: You should read the included digital documentation to get the most out of your Kindle.  The Kindle is straightforward enough, but because of its simple design, you can remain completely oblivious to many useful features.  Here are a few tips I picked up from the manual:

  • Press ALT + Enter to post selected text to Twitter or Facebook
  • Press the Left directional key on a selected item in your library to permanently delete it from your Kindle
  • Press ALT + Q to insert the number 1, ALT + W to insert the number 2, etc (they’re all available with the SYM key, but this is much faster if you’re just using numbers)

The Kindle User’s Guide is included with every Kindle and is right on your home screen when you turn it on.  It’s a bit lengthy, but definitely worth the time.

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Browse the internet

It might not be the fastest, but the Kindle includes a surprisingly nice web browser.  Don’t expect it to render websites perfectly, but if you want to do some surfing between reading sessions and you’re away from a computer, this will do just fine.

The Kindle browser is available under the Menu –> Experimental –> Web Browser.

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Irony, thy name is Kindle.

Turn off popular highlights

The Kindle lets you digitally highlight text in books by navigating to the selection with the directional pad and pressing the center button to start highlighting. Amazon then stores this information online, and uses it to identify which selections are the most popular among all Kindle users.

If you’re reading a book, you’ll notice that some paragraphs will be underlined and may say how many “highlighters” it has.  This is a feature Amazon enables by default to help you identify popular selections, but in my opinion, it’s distracting.

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To turn off popular highlights, press Menu from the home screen, select Settings, and navigate to page 2 of 3.  Locate the Popular Highlights option and disable it.

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Link your social networks

As I mentioned earlier, you can post excerpts you’ve enjoyed to Facebook and Twitter.  To add social networks, press Menu from the home screen, select Settings, and navigate to page 3 of 3.  Open the Social Networks option to link your accounts using the included web browser.

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Use the built-in dictionary

When you think about the advantages the Kindle has over printed books, don’t forget one of the most significant features: you can look up word definitions instantly without digging for a dictionary or using Google’s define: search.  Whenever you encounter a word you want to look up, simply move the cursor in front of it and a brief definition will appear on the screen.

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For a more detailed explanation, simply press the enter key and you’ll be taken to the full dictionary app.  While reading Sherlock Holmes, I had no idea how many different words were used to describe a horse carriage.

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Listen to Audiobooks

I have a 15-minute commute to the office every morning, so I make the most of that time by listening to audiobooks from Audible.com.  I started listening to audiobooks about 3 years ago to pass the time on long trips, and have been completely hooked ever since.

The Kindle can play (and download) Audible audiobooks as well as MP3s, so if you’re torn between carrying your Kindle or iPod, you can bring just one device.  Audible audiobooks you have purchased will appear under Archived Items on your home screen, and you can play MP3s under Menu –> Experimental –> MP3 Player.

Read with multiple devices, never lose your place

The Kindle will automatically store the last page you’ve read online so you’ll never lose your spot in a book.  Because you can read Kindle books on your PC, iPhone, iPad, and Android device, you will be automatically prompted to begin reading where you left off when you use another device.

Conclusion

There are many more great features on the Kindle, so take some time to play with your new device.  And if you find something I haven’t covered in this guide, how about posting it in the comments below?

Happy reading!

Everybody Wins When Google Teaches Your Family About Technology

Ah, the holidays.  A time spent with family opening presents, reminiscing, sharing, and diagnosing any computer problems.  Okay, so maybe that last one isn’t in the normal holiday routine for most people, but for all the tech gurus out there it is all too familiar.

If you are like me, the holiday season is spent diagnosing a cheap router, cleaning up hard drives that were set to automatically back-up files, and showing the older generation how to clear passwords in their web browsers. I mean, not every technological savant has family that keeps up with the trends, right?  Sometimes it is your guidance (and patience) that keeps them connected to their personal computing machine and thus the world.

This year, the people at Google want to ease your pain.

This is for you, the tech gurus of the world.  It’s a website called Teachparentstech.org, and it was created for the sole purpose of building a nice technological care package for that loved one who just can’t keep up with the cool features new computers hold.

The site is pretty straightforward.  Basically, one chooses which tech problems they want solved for their specific loved one by going through the various categories and selecting specific topics.  But here is where Google added their love: they created a video for every single topic you can pick.  So not only will grandma gain the knowledge of setting her background wallpaper, but she also gets a  nice, comforting Google employee showing her every step along the way.  Peachy keen indeed!


People with dog passwords need not watch

Once the desired topics are selected (I’m surprised there isn’t a “Select All” button), you then get to preview the email before sending it off.  All the videos are uploaded on YouTube, so as long as your family member’s computer has a modern internet browser they should be able to see the videos when they click them in the email.

Are you sure they only need to learn four new things?

Make sure everything looks good or else you might be spending the holidays like you always do… on someone else’s computer.

How I Used the Internet to Save Time and Money While Shopping

As I believe I’ve stated on most (if not all) of my past articles, I am kind of lazy. I did not line up at 2:30am on Black Friday in hopes of scoring huge deals. In addition to that, I am in college, therefore I am, let’s say, not as financially well off as I would like to be. An obvious fix for this would be to become less lazy and stand in line on Black Friday and get things for cheap. Or, I could just shop online.

Shopping online has made bargain shopping not only easy, but almost hard not to do. In the past you drove to Best Buy to look at a TV, and if it was in your price range you probably picked it up. You did this because Wal-Mart was on the other end of town and you didn’t want to risk going all the way there only to find it was more expensive and have to drive back. What a pain.

Or, you could wait until Sunday and compare sales ads. These babies told you what the hot deals were, but really nothing else. Sure that TV is only $400, but how many HDMI input ports does it have? Does it even have HDMI? Is it HD as in anything that’s not 480p or is it true 1080p HD?

Add to all of this the fact the abysmal odds of two ads from different stores showing the exact same product on sale, and it’s pretty easy to see that shopping this way also had its drawbacks.

Then came the internet

(Insert angelic voices and rays of sunshine here)

Now, going to Best Buy only takes 5 seconds. Running over to Target to check their deals only takes another 5 seconds. In 15 minutes you have run all over town and checked out every deal available. All without having to put pants on.

This obviously has its advantages (seriously, who wants to put on pants on a Sunday?), but there’s more! Ever find it a bit coincidental that the floor salesman always recommends the most expensive of whatever you happen to be looking for and, that for whatever reason it is better from their place than it would be from another store? No more!

Probably one of the best things I like about shopping online is the customer reviews. I pay a lot of attention to customer reviews because they usually point out incredibly good aspects of the product I’m looking to buy, or some potential problems about them that I might otherwise miss. Some things I take into consideration are manufactures warranty and mail-in rebates. A website may list the price of an item as $20 off with mail in rebate, but if a look at the reviews informs me that getting said rebate is a hassle, I’ll try a different product.

Another way to save money is to take advantage of sites like Woot.com. If you haven’t Wooted yet, I would strongly recommend it. Woot sells one item a day (unless a Woot Off! is going on in which they sell a product until it runs out and then move to another one). This one item they sell is usually hugely discounted from what it normally runs.

The important thing to remember with Woot is that the only way you’re saving money is when you’re buying something that you would have had to buy anyway at a higher price. If you bought every good deal that was available on Woot.com you would probably make a purchase every day (and have about 394 Roombas). Another thing to note with Woot is that sometimes they will sell refurbished products (which accounts for a better-than-average deal). It is always stated on the product information if they are new or refurbished, so it might be worth checking if the warranty is still intact, etc.

Another great place to find deals is with Gizmodo’s Dealzmodo. Once a day, the Gizmodo team puts together a list of great deals from all around the internet. The deals come in all shapes and sizes: TV’s, game consoles, iPhone apps, etc.

Gain an advantage with research

One great, money-saving way to use the internet is to educate yourself. Exactly what about that laptop makes it so expensive? Maybe it’s because it has a dedicated graphics card and a quad-core processor. It doesn’t take a lot of research to figure out that you don’t need that if you’re just going on the internet and writing Techerator articles.

The same thing applies to almost any item. If you do some research, you can often find exactly what you need and not have to pay for extras you aren’t going to use.

Research can also let you in on some secrets such as how marked-up the prices of some products are in department stores.  For instance, talk to anyone that works at a Best Buy and ask them how much mark-up is added to cables and accessories. It’s ridiculous and might make you a bit nauseous. Online sites that make their own cables and sell them without ridiculous mark-ups can literally save you hundreds of dollars.

Last time I checked, the cheapest HDMI cable I could buy at my local Best Buy was around $25 (for a 6′ cable). I recently bought a 25’ HDMI cable to go from my Xbox 360 to my projector and paid $27 at www.monoprice.com. That same 6 foot cable you buy at Best Buy will cost you about $3 at monoprice.com.

Conclusion

The internet has saved my wallet over the years. I pride myself on getting good deals, especially on electronics, and I know I’ve saved hundreds of dollars just by buying all my cables online.

What are your online money-saving secrets? Do you have a site you like to frequent because of some great money-saving deals? Let us all know in the comments.

Holiday Gift Guide: The Gifts You Want (But Can’t Necessarily Afford)

As Mick Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want.”  And around Christmas time, this statement holds especially true.  In a time of giving and sharing, Christmas is always about making a personal wish list, checking it twice, and waiting for the 25th to roll around to see what items can be crossed out and which ones can’t.  For most of us, that list is still quite full on December 26th.

It’s just a cold hard fact of holiday gift giving: you don’t always get everything you asked for.  But this is most certainly not a bad thing.  Just look back on your childhood for example.  For five years, you asked for the $200 Star Wars Millennium Falcon Lego building set, but did you get it?  No. You always got the $30 X-Wing set or something similar.  But of course, this did not hamper your dreams of flying Lego Han Solo around the galaxy/living room.  It’s ultimately the feelings of excitement and hope that makes compiling that Christmas list a joyful task every year.

So for all of those people out there with high-priced gadget wishes this Christmas year, don’t get discouraged.  Here are some Millennium Falcons to consider placing on that holiday wish list.

Tablet PC

Price: $1,000 to $2,500

Something that hasn’t quite hit mainstream computing yet is the idea of the tablet laptop.  But what a great idea they are!  On one hand, they have the same components, features, and processing power as a normal laptop computer.  At the same time they allow the user full access of the screen to draw, write, and select items with a unique stylus pen.

Considering that the classroom and workplace gets more and more digital every year, why shouldn’t your note-taking do the same?  Tablet laptops can easily be found at your local electronics website, and range from $300 netbooks to $2000 laptop machines.  If I had to pick any gift from this reasonable list, it would have to be this.

DSLR Camera

So many choices

Price Range: $400 to $3,000+

It’s official: thanks to technology, anyone can be a professional photographer.  But let’s be honest here, if you want to be a true professional, you’ve got to spend the dollars on a good digital single-lens reflex camera, or DSLR.  Made by Canon, Nikon, and others, DSLR is all about taking your photography skills to the next level.

Using advanced focus technology with  high resolution imaging options (why have 4 mega-pixels when you can have 22?), and many other obvious and important features (like anti-dust technology), why wouldn’t you want to spend 500 dollars or more?

Granted, most DSLR cameras will run you around $400 – $2000.  But if you are completely photo passionate, then ask for the Canon – EOS-1Ds Mark III 21.1-Megapixel Digital SLR for Christmas, to the tune of 6,999 dollars.  Your artistic side will thank you.

3D Camcorder

Price: $1,400

Cameras and photos are nice to have around for the family gatherings, but camcorders bring back the memories in an entirely different way.  And to make things even better, Panasonic has upped the ante of video recording by developing a 3-D camcorder for personal use.

Yes, you heard me right, a 3-D video recorder.  Called the Panasonic HDC-SDT750K, it is being labelled as the world’s first 3-D shooting camcorder.  Full-HD 1080/60p resolution, progressive movie recording, 9.15 mega-pixels, auto-focus; this camera has it all.  Just think of how excellent it would be to strap on those 3-D glasses and literally immerse oneself in the family Christmases of old.  It’s almost like you were there!  And now that YouTube allows for the uploading of 3-D videos now, it appears that this camcorder came right on time.

HDTV

In HD, that guy on the left looks even more surprised than usual

Price Range: $600 to $5,000

If you ask any retailer what their number one selling item was on Black Friday this 2010 season, it would unanimously be flat screen TV’s.  LCD, LED, Plasma, 3D – they all have their positives and their negatives.  Most good HDTV’s have 1080p resolution, 120Hz refresh rate, and a few HDMI connections.  And of course, no new HDTV is complete without a brand new Blu-Ray player and an ethernet cable to connect it to the interwebs.

In all honesty, though, some of these TV’s have come a long way since their conception ten years ago.  If you are lucky you might even snag a TV capable of connecting to every other major gadget in your house (thanks to the Digital Living Network Alliancenow wouldn’t that be nice to know how to do).  Because of their widespread popularity, one can easily find a TV that matches their price range.

But since it is Christmas and this is an item going on your wish list, try getting the family to gift your the $6000 Samsung – 65″ Class / 1080p / 240Hz / 3D LED-LCD HDTV.   You know what they always say: bigger is ultimately better.

Alienware Alien-51 ALX

Why not?

Price Range: $3,999 to $9,000

If you know anything about computer gaming (even Bejeweled counts) , then you know that Alienware is the Bugatti of computers.  The best of the best, the cream of the crop, the most expensive computer you will ever buy.  But they are worth every penny.

With options like the Intel I7 980 CPU operating at 4 GHz, dual Video cards operating with SLI technology, and a special gaming keyboard, it is not hard to see that this is as good as it gets.  Not only are all your friends going to be jealous of it (when they actually get around to visiting you at your house), but your family will be happy that $6,000 was well spent.

Seabreacher

Price: $65,000 to $85,000

As long as we are dreaming up holiday gifts to add to that wish list, why not shoot for the stars with something along these lines.  It’s a boat… it’s a dolphin… it’s a dolphin boat?  Yes indeed, it is a fiberglass boat built to look and act exactly like a dolphin.  And it is plainly obvious that this is truly what you want for the holidays.

Sure, if you live in Northern regions it might have to be stored until May or June, but just look at this thing zoom around on that lake.  The massive amount of enjoyment it outputs makes the wait completely worth it.  This specific boat is called the Seabreacher X, and can be custom made for about $60,000 to $80,000.

That may sound a bit expensive, but is money going to get between you and a great Christmas?  It wouldn’t be the first time the issue of a dolphin boat ruined the holidays.  Don’t make the same mistake.

Solid Gold iPad

Proceed to Checkout?

Price: $185,000

Last but not least is the most desired portable item this holiday season: the iPad.  We all know that we can buy an iPad pretty much anywhere these days, but a solid gold iPad?  Those things sell so fast they can’t stay on the shelves in most stores.

At a reasonable price of 129,995 British Pounds, your family would be foolish to not take up such a great deal when shopping for you this December.  I would circle and underline this one a few times on that wish list to make the need for it especially evident.

Flickr Images Courtesty: basvandenbeld, penmachine, retrocactus, and williamhook

Holiday Gift Guide: Something For The Whole Family Edition

For some, holiday shopping is a joyous and fun task, but for others it’s a difficult one. A lot of the difficulty stems from not knowing what to get someone. Being a person that loves shopping, let me give you a little guidance for buying gifts for the whole family.

Gift Ideas for Grandparents

My grandparents live down south, but they love to keep in touch with me and the rest of my family. If I had lots of money to spend this holiday season, I know exactly what I would purchase them – Cisco Umi.

Webcams/Video Conferencing

Cisco Umi is a consumer-focused telecommunications system that offers the ability to connect with people via videoconferencing on HDTVs. Cisco Umi comes with a high-definition camera embedded with a microphone, a set-top box, and a remote. In order to use it, however, you must possess internet service and an HDTV – if you are really feeling generous this holiday season you could buy them an HDTV as well, just in case they don’t have one.

In essence, Cisco Umi is a product that offers extremely high-quality videoconferencing.  It can bring your grandparents into your living room and vice versa. (Note: in order to use Cisco Umi, both parties must possess it.)

Cisco Umi retails for around $599.00 plus a $24.00 monthly fee.

If you aren’t interested in spending that much money on your grandparents, I have a few other suggestions:

  • Buy them a webcam and tell them about the magic of Skype.
  • Buy them a notebook, laptop, or computer with a built in webcam and then tell about the magic of Skype.
  • Or buy them a plane ticket to come visit.

Digital Picture Frames

A much cheaper gift idea that would bring you guys closer is a digital picture frame. Digital picture frames are picture frames that digitally display pictures – for this they generally use a memory card to store the pictures. They have been on the market for a few years now, but have dropped significantly in price so that they are more affordable.

When they digital picture frames first came out they cost a few hundred dollars, but now you can purchase one for around $50 dollars. I actually bought my grandparents and my mom one for Christmas this year (hope they aren’t reading this). I bought them on Black Friday for only $40.

They can be purchased in assorted sizes (from 6” to 26″), assorted colors, styles, and brands. There are even have digital photo frames available now that connect to the internet so you can post your favorite pictures to the web, or even print pictures off using a built in picture printer.

Gift Ideas for Parents

Electronic Book Readers

Being huge fans of reading and books in general, I think a perfect gift for any parent that likes to read would be an electronic reader. Electronic readers are a great gift idea because in the long run it will cost you less money since eBooks are much cheaper than print books, it saves on paper (yay! for the saving the environment) and it will clear up some clutter in your parents’ house (my dad has books everywhere).

Electronic readers (eReaders) read electronic books (eBooks). They also do much more than just allowing you to read. They allow you to take notes and look up definitions. Some allow you to access the internet, play music, and even watch movies.

eReaders have only been around for the past five years or so, but have really caught on. A lot of colleges and classrooms have adopted eReaders, opting out of traditional books. When looking for eReaders, you will come across brands including Sony, the Nook by Barnes and Noble, The Cruise Tablet by Borders, The Kindle by Amazon and the Apple iPad (more of a tablet computer, but does have the iBook app), among other brands. Each one has their advantages and disadvantages, but I will leave the brand choosing up to you. I will say that The Kindle remains the most purchased and highest rated eReader on the market.

eReaders retails for as little as $80 and go as high as $600. The average, however, is right around the $200 mark.

Gift Ideas for Teens

Smartphones

There are so many great gift ideas for teenagers, today more than ever, thanks to the tech-savvy world we live in.

Even though cell phones have become a staple in our society, I think they are still a great gift – especially now that so many great smartphones have hit the market. Connecting with each other has become such a large past time thanks to texting, emailing, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. With a smartphone, you can get all that in one device.

When shopping for a smartphone, I highly suggest looking into an Android smartphone. Some of Android’s biggest advantages over other smartphones (dare I say the Apple iPhone?) is the ability to multitask (yes this can be done on iPhone 4), upgrade to new versions of Android, choose carriers (iPhone is locked into AT&T), an open market (consumers drive the app store, not the producers – store also isn’t censored as heavily as the Apple Store), customizable home screens, integrated with Google, and there is a larger selection of phones (this comes in handy when shopping with a budget).

Android smartphones range in price and availability depending on the carrier.

Apple iPad

If your teen already has a smartphone, then why not splurge a little and get them an Apple iPad? I was against it at first, because I have a computer and an iPod Touch and an iPad is basically those two things combined. It is those two things combined, but it’s a really slick device. There is so much you can do with it – listen to music, surf the web, watch movies, play games, study, write papers, etc. It’s a great item for travel and great to use while lounging around the house.

I love sitting on the couch and playing with the iPad, whether it’s reading a good book, playing a game, or connecting with people on Facebook and Twitter. It’s really a universal item that makes a great gift because it does so much!

Gift Ideas for Preteens

Gaming Systems

What better gift to give a preteen than a gaming system?

I would recommend getting them any of the major gaming systems: Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, or PlayStation 3. Those are great gifts because they are fairly universal as well. By universal, I mean you can do such much more with them than just playing games. They act as DVD players (excluding Wii), a Blu-Ray player (if you get the PS3), connect to the internet, and so much more.

If you purchase an Xbox 360 make sure to also purchase Kinect, and if you purchase a PS3 make sure to purchase Playstation Move. They provide the game with a more interactive experience by using motion, and gets kids active. Long gone are the days where you just sit down and play video games, now people of all ages can be active while playing – even exercising. It’s really a great gift for the entire family because it’s something that can bring the family together. Game nights have never been so much fun!

Gift Ideas for Kids

Educational Gifts

In my opinion, one of the best gifts you can give a kid is the gift of education. Sounds boring right? Not necessarily. Last year I bought my niece a LeapFrog Tag Reader for Christmas. It’s a special pen, that when used with LeapFrog Tag Books, will read the story out loud to the child. With each touch of the pen, words are read out, pictures come alive, and overall the book becomes interactive. It redefines the reading and learning experience for kids.

My niece uses it constantly and it really improves a kid’s reading skills. LeapFrog has a library of over 40 books, including story books, game books, and map books that contain kids’ favorite characters (SpongeBob, Toy Story, Disney Princess, etc). The LeapFrog Tag Reader Pen retails for around $30, with the books costing anywhere from $10 to $20 (most of them are $13.99).

Art Gifts

Another great gift idea is the Color Wonder Magic Light Brush from Crayola. This is one of the gifts under my tree  for my niece already, and I’m excited for her to open it on Christmas because I really want to play with it. The product uses specially coated paper and a fiber-optic brush. It only works on the right type of paper – making it mess free. It retails for right around $20.

Another cool product from Crayola that’s worth checking out is the new Crayola Glow Station Day and Night. With the set, kids can create images in either light or the dark. In the light, the drawing turn out bright purple; in the dark, they magically appear to be bright green. This one retails a little higher at $25.

These are two products that are great gift ideas for kids because they are mess free (no more writing on the walls) and encourage kid’s imaginations and creativity.

Gift Ideas for the Whole Family

Google TV

I thought a good way to finish up this gift guide would be to suggest a gift that the whole family can use. Seeing that the TV is an item that generally brings the family together, I thought a great gift for the family would be the Google TV. Google TV combines television and internet into a seamless entertainment experience. It allows you to search your TV so that you can find exactly what you want to watch, and adds perhaps one of the best channels ever – the internet. You can also download hundreds of apps from the app store including some of the most popular apps: Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, Weather, News, etc. Your Android smartphone, iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad can even be used as a universal remote to control the TV.

There are three products when it comes to the technology of Google TV. There is the Sony Internet TV (an HDTV with internet built in) which starts at $599. There is the Sony Internet TV Blu-Ray Player (which is a Blu-Ray player with internet built in that connects to your existing HDTV and retails for $399. Finally, there is the Logitech Revue (which is just a set-box, running Google TV, that connects to your existing HDTV and retails at $299).

With hundreds of dollar differences in the price tags, one wonders how the products differ. In essence, the main difference between them is that one is a TV, one is Blu-Ray player, and one is a set-box. If you already own an HDTV, then I recommend going for the Sony Internet TV Blu-Ray Player, because from reviews it seems run faster and have a cleaner interface than the Logitech Revue, and it’s a Blu-Ray player.

Conclusion

I hope by reading through this guide you got some ideas for Christmas presents. Happy Shopping!

Holiday Gift Guide: Snowboarding and Skiing Edition

Do you have a skier or snowboarder on your Christmas list, but have no idea what it means to shred the gnar or hit the deep pow? Worry not, because buying them anything on this list is sure to give them the same tingly feeling as making first tracks on virgin snow (it’s a good thing, trust me).

GoPro HD Hero

The GoPro HD helmet cam is an indestructible, waterproof, go-anywhere-do-anything kind of camera.

So much function in such a small package

The tiny size of it is nothing to scoff at. This baby does 1080i recording @ 30fps for beautiful HD and 720p @ 60 fps for silky smooth slow motion. It also records at 720p @ 30fps and a 4:3 aspect 960p @ 30fps.

The GoPro HD comes with a wide assortment of mounts to attach to helmets, boards, chest mounts, wrist straps and more, making it incredibly versatile. The battery lasts 2.5 hours and there are settings other than typical record video. You can take still shots with it if you want. The GoPro HD has a 5MP sensor, but no display screen or viewfinder. Also there is an option to have the camera take a picture every few seconds or minutes.

I’ve owned one of these for a little over a year and have been very surprised what has been packed into such a small casing.

For some more information check out their website, and you can buy the GoPro HD Hero and an assortment of mounts and accessories at Amazon.com.

Smith Optic Skullcandy Bluetooth Bombshell Audio Kit

iPod not included

Helmets are good. They allow me to do stupid things without having to worry so much about dying.

What they don’t do, however, is allow me to comfortably listen to music or use my phone. Smith and Skullcandy have collaborated to make a product that fixes this problem (the music, not my affinity for stupidity on the slopes).

Skullcandy, the headphone maker, has developed a system that integrates with any Bombshell Construction, Smith Optics helmet. This system allows you to hook your music player AND phone to a blue tooth transmitter that sends signal to the wireless headphones made to snap into the helmet. Mitten friendly large buttons on the headphones make it a snap to switch between your music player and phone.

The helmet and audio system are sold separately.

DaKine Heli Pro DLX 20L Backpack

Room for everything you need

If you’re a serious border/skier you need a good bag. What you put in that bag is up to you. It could be some munchies for a mid day snack, different colored lenses for changing light conditions, or some extra layers in case weather takes a turn for the worse.

If that’s all you want to throw in there, go ahead and buy any bag.
But, if you want to carry all that plus a camera in a waterproof, fleece lined dedicated pocket; a bottle of water in an insulated, deployable water bottle pocket; have snowboard and ski carry; 1200 cubic inches of storage; and a quick draw sleeve for you ice axes you need the DaKine Heli Pro DLX 20L.

If you want to look fly doing it, I recommend the CHECKS or HOMBRE color options.

Music Infused Apparel By iThreeSixty

Affordable, hassle free music

If you’re not looking to drop about $300 on a Skullycandy Bombshell Audio Kit, but think your winter enthusiast could use some music in their life, check out the headgear offered by iThreeSixty.

iThreeSixty apparel works by creating a neoprene, moisture-proof pocket for your iPod or mp3 player. In that pocket is a headphone jack that connects to two speakers integrated into the hat or headband. Plug it in, push play and you have music without having to run annoying wires and headphones inside your coat.

iThreeSixty apparel works with all the iPod Nanos except 3rd generation. Other MP3 players may fit, make sure and check out the website if you have something different. Overall it’s a very cost effective way to get some music without having to mess with headphones and coat pockets.

Check out their website, or pick one up at Amazon.com.

Transcend Goggles by Recon Instruments

Ridiculous..

Does the snowboarder/skier in your life think they have everything? Is every piece of equipment they own the cream of the crop, and do they insist they cannot be done one better? If so, and if you have $500 to spend to prove them wrong, I will go as far as to guarantee they do not own a pair of these goggles.

Lets run down a list of features, yes, features… for goggles.

  • Auto color adjusting lenses for changing light conditions (adjusts from light yellow to dark amber)
  • A heads-up display that shows you your current speed and altitude, and odometer for distance traveled, stopwatch, outside temperature, oh and a clock.
  • Did I mention all of this information is viewable in real time?

Check out their website for more information.

Conclusion

There’s my list – from the affordable to the ridiculous, there is something there every winter enthusiast would enjoy.

Images courtesy of Amazon.com & DaKine.com
Special thanks to Nick Danforth for helping me put this list together.

Holiday Gift Ideas: President of Adobe Edition

Getting the right present for a special person can be a real challenge, and finding the perfect gift for President and CEO of Adobe Systems Incorporated Shantanu Narayen is no exception.  This holiday season, let’s give back to Adobe what they have so generously given to us – unnecessary icons all over our desktops.

(In case you’re new to computers, Adobe is notorious for installing icons on your desktop for software like Reader every time you update the software – even if you had previously deleted the shortcut.)

Thanks to Bret Shiers for this image.

Stay connected & save: 6 tips for padding your bank account in the New Year

With the New Year just around the corner, saving money seems to be on the minds of many people. Being a graduate student, I am not among these people, because Academia pays huge sums of money for almost zero work.

Let’s be serious, I’m broke, and I need to save some dough.  New Years is just the time to start padding my savings account and cutting my costs.

I had an interesting conversation recently with my friend Brianna that went something like this…

Brian: “Bri, buy me pizza.”
Brianna: “Buy it yourself.”
Brian:  “I can’t. I don’t have any money.”

I think this exchange goes a long way in describing my need to slash some expenses. I spent the rest of my evening making a plan for January 1st that will dig me out of my financial sinkhole. The only rule is that I don’t want to live like a monk—I need some entertainment and, of course, Internet access.

So where do I plan to make the cuts? *Straps on helmet* Come with me.

1.  Choose your connection—Mobile Device vs. Cable Internet

At the moment I have a cell phone with Internet access as well as high-speed cable Internet access in my apartment. I’ve got to face the facts…I can’t afford both. Your situation may differ, but I personally don’t use my mobile device for much other than convenient email and the occasional Tweet, so my choice is obvious, sack the data plan on my phone.

However, if you’re the kind of person that doesn’t need super bandwidth at home, you may opt for a data plan that allows you to tether your computer and phone. There’s a swanky deal that will save you $40 or better. In my case, by shedding the data plan on my mobile device (and downgrading my anytime minutes), I’ll be saving $45. Cha-ching.

Worried about losing your ability to text? Fear not. Gmail and Google Voice allow you to SMS your contacts from your PC.

Pro-tip:  If you require mobile device Internet and Email access for work, ask your employer if they would be receptive to a co-pay plan. Some of my friends have had success with this.

2.  Choose your entertainment

Entertainment overload can be surprisingly stressful.  I have an Xbox Live subscription, Netflix, an enhanced Cable package, and I’ve been toying with the notion of Hulu Plus. Seriously, there aren’t enough hours in the day to enjoy each of these in the way the creators intended, so why cut yourself short?

I have a pile of Xbox 360 games still in the cellophane (including Dragon Age, ARGH!) so there is no question that I’ll be ditching my Live subscription. With all the free TV and movies available on Hulu and Netflix, is there really any reason for me to have enhanced Cable that I don’t watch?

By dropping Xbox Live and ditching my cable package (aside from internet), I’ll be saving $41 per month. Huzzah!

3.  Join a food co-op

After looking over my monthly expenses, I was shocked to see how much I spent on food. Between going out to eat and spending a small fortune at my local coffee house, my monthly food bill was approaching $450 each month.

I wept. I swore. I found an alternative.

Local food co-ops will help you pinch your pennies by providing you with a place to buy bulk commodities, such as grains, rice, soup mix, and basically any other dry food you can imagine. Bring your own container and taste the savings. Better yet, many co-ops offer year-round selections of local produce, such as tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, and so on. You know what that means? You’ll be forced to be healthier and more attractive as you save money. The nerve of these people.

Most co-op purchased fruits and vegetables are organic. Organic?! Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!!

The co-op in my city costs $100 to join, but it is a fee that will be refunded when you leave the co-op. Plus, it gives you part ownership of the co-op. Pretty good deal. Aside from the initial cost, my new carefully planned food budget has slashed my culinary deviance by $150. Yeah, that’s right. You don’t like that–do ya, gut?

4.  Park the car. Leave it parked.

I drive too much. You drive too much. We as Americans (and some Europeans) drive too much.

We pay tax dollars to support a public transit system that we almost never use. At the moment I spend $75 on gas each month (3 tanks). As a student, I get free access to all city buses. Also, during the summer I’ll be riding my bike and hopefully getting some sun on this dreadfully pasty skin of mine.

My goal is to cut out one tank of gas each month, and I think that’s very conservative–a savings of at least $25 each month. Bazinga!

Pro-tip: Driving less will save on regular car maintenance, like oil changes. On a related note, don’t be tempted to skimp on car maintenance, as you already know deep down that it will bite you in the ass eventually.

5.  Save power AND quarters—a laundry tip

Some people may think this is silly, but take a second and think about your laundry. How many loads do you do in a month? How much electricity does it eat up to dry them? Or worse—how many quarters?

My parents recently purchased a drying rack to accompany their washer, and between the two of them, they save $6 each month on electricity. Pretty cool! I did some thinking and realized that I probably spend more than that each month in quarters drying my clothes at the laundromat. For shame!

A friend was quick to inform me that letting your clothes hang dry is a good way to increase their lifespan. That’s $6 per month in savings, and probably more. Let it rain!

6.  Ice those credit cards and make a friggin’ budget

We’ve been hearing this forever, but few of us actually do it. The average American has over $8,000 in credit card debt with an average APR of 14.4%. No need to bust out those calculators, that’s over $1100 that we hand over each year…

Studies have shown that people who stick to a monthly budget and limit their credit card usage usually pay off their credit card debt within 18 months. Are you up for the challenge? I am, because I’m tired of paying for Citi-branded Corvettes.

Head over to Google Docs and grab some of their pre-made Budget templates and tailor it to your own expenses. Then, set up an account at Mint to closely monitor your spending and upcoming bills. We can’t fail, amigo.

As an average American, a clean credit card balance means a savings of $96 per month. Bonzai!

Conclusion

If I follow my plan closely, I’ll be saving $363 each month. That’s $4356 in a year! My friends, that’s a lot of cheddar. What could you do with that kind of cash? A mattress of dollar bills, perhaps?

With a little discipline, the savings from these small lifestyle adjustments will alter the course of my ‘pizza’ conversation by this same time next year.

Brian: “Bri, buy me pizza. Psych! I’ll buy it myself…With real money. And guess what—you don’t get any. Ok, you can have ONE PIECE…but I get to choose the toppings. And I’m taking the toppings off your piece.”

Sorry, Bri, the wealthier Brian is insufferable.

Happy savings, and happy holidays, everybody.

Techerator’s Holiday Gift Guide 2010

Buying gifts can be a challenge (and you don’t want to be the person that only gives gift cards for presents, do you?) so our team is putting together some great holiday gift guides this season to help you out.

This list will be updated as new guides are published, so keep checking back for new ideas!

 

Commuter’s Gift Guide

by Bryant Sombke

Technology has drastically increased the number of entertainment options the typical day-commuter has for the boring trips to and from the office. Whether your loved ones take the train, bus, or carpool with others, here are five great gift ideas that they are sure to love.

 

Gamer’s Gift Guide

by Kevin Schulte

Gamers can be a tricky bunch to buy for. Taste in games varies wildly, and if you’re unlucky you might accidentally buy Kinect Sports for someone who was hoping to play Fallout on Christmas morning. Talk about embarrassing.  This guide will give you great tips for PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, Nintendo DS, and Sony PSP.

 

Snowboarding and Skiing Gift Guide

by Derek Johnson

Do you have a skier or snowboarder on your Christmas list, but have no idea what it means to shred the gnar or hit the deep pow? Worry not, because buying them anything on this list is sure to give them the same tingly feeling as making first tracks on virgin snow (it’s a good thing, trust me).

 

Gift Guide for the Whole Family

by Jacob Bean

Shopping for the whole family – grandparents, parents, teens, preteens, and kids – can be a big challenge.  Being a person that loves shopping, let me give you a little guidance for buying gifts for each of these groups, and some gifts that the whole family can share together.

 

Delightfully Expensive Gift Guide

by Kevin Ivanca

It’s a cold hard fact of holiday gift giving: you don’t always get everything you asked for. For five years during your childhood, you asked for the $200 Star Wars Millennium Falcon Lego building set, but did you get it? No. You always got the $30 X-Wing set.

So for all of those people out there with high-priced gadget wishes this Christmas year, don’t get discouraged.  Here are some Millennium Falcons to consider placing on that holiday wish list.

 

… more guides coming soon!

Image credit: Alex Tran