Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Camera and Photography Edition

While most smartphones and even tablets nowadays have great cameras attached to them, they still can’t beat the quality of a dedicated camera. In the fast-paced and ever-changing world of digital phototography, it’s easy to get left behind on what makes and models are the best. And if you’re pondering the idea of giving that special someone a snapper this Holiday season, this is where our camera and photography gift guide will come in handy.

Let’s take a look at some of the best point-and-shoots and DSLRs money can buy.

Point-and-Shoots

Shopping on a budget:

Canon PowerShot A2200

  • 14.1 megapixel CCD sensor
  • 4x optical zoom
  • 720p at 30 fps HD video
  • Less than $90

The A2200 is the perfect camera that will take decent photos and decent HD video, yet isn’t so expensive that you must baby it. If your special someone has clumsy hands, consider getting them this cheap, but still very decent shooter.

I can splurge just a little:

Canon ELPH 300 HS

  • 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor
  • 5x optical zoom
  • 1080p at 30 fps Full HD video
  • $150-$160

If you’re looking to get a little more out of your photos and videos, Canon’s ELPH 300 HS is a very good option. On top of the already-mentioned specs above, the 300 HS has a wide 24mm lens, an 8.0fps burst mode and comes packing with a DIGIC 4 processor (the same one that’s in the 1D Mark IV). Overall, it’ll take really great photos and videos without overdoing it for the novice crowd.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH25

  • 16.1 megapixel CCD sensor
  • 8x optical zoom
  • 720p at 24 fps HD video
  • $150-$160

If you’re looking for something with a little extra megapixelage and zoomage, you can’t beat Panasonic’s DMC-FH25. The 16.1 megapixel sensor is sure to impress and the 8x optical zoom is certainly nothing to scowl at. If you’re wanting to negotiate between quality images and price, the DMC-FH25 is a safe bet.

Get Me The Best Point-and-Shoot You Got:

Canon PowerShot S100

  • 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor
  • 5x optical zoom
  • 1080p at 30 fps Full HD video
  • $420-$470

From its face, it doesn’t seem to be much different from the 300 HS mentioned earlier, but take a deeper look inside and you’ll find full manual controls, ability to shoot in RAW, GPS capabilities and the new DIGIC 5 processor powering it all. If you have the cash and want to give your sweetheart the best compact camera around, this is it.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5

  • 10.1 megapixel CCD sensor
  • 3.8x optical zoom
  • 720p at 30 fps HD video
  • $340-$360

If you’re looking for a slightly cheaper alternative to the S100, then the LX5 just might suit your fancy. The specs are just slightly less impressive, but it still comes with full manual controls and all of the goodies that point-and-shoot photo-taking enthusiasts love, including its own mount for an external flash.

DSLRs

I’m Not Made of Money:

Nikon D3000

  • 10.2 megapixel DX sensor
  • 18-55 mm VR IS Lens
  • Six auto-focus settings
  • $450-$460

If your sweetheart is just starting out with photography and you just happen to not have a full wallet, you’re in luck because the D3000 is a good starter camera for photo enthusiasts because of its great user-friendliness. For a DSLR like this under $500, you really can’t go wrong.

Canon EOS Rebel T3

  • 12.2 megapixel CMOS sensor
  • 720p at 30fps HD video
  • Live View
  • $470-$500

The Rebel T3 is also a good budget option if you prefer to go with the Canon brand. It has all the bells and whistles a budget DSLR should have and is topped off with 720p HD video capabilities, making it a great device for budget video-making hobbyists as well.

I Need A Little More Oomph:

Canon EOS 7D

  • 18 megapixel CMOS sensor
  • 8.0 fps continuous shooting
  • 1080p at 30 fps and 720p at 60 fps HD video
  • $1,600

If you’re looking for something with a little extra kick (okay, a lot more), the 7D boasts quite the spec sheet while keeping the price at a respectable level. It comes with a 28-135mm lens, although I personally suggest springing for the 18-135mm option for just a tad more. You’ll thank me later.

Gimme Something I Can Really Use!

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

  • 21.1 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor
  • ISO sensitivity up to 25,600
  • 1080p at 30 fps Full HD video
  • $2,800-$3,000

While there are DSLRs out there with better spec sheets and with more to come (EOS-1D X), the 5D Mark II is one of the few that strikes a good balance between resolution, quality and performance. It’s definitely the camera to get for that special someone if you have the wallet for it.

Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Build a Gaming PC Edition

This year I decided to use my holiday wish-list to build an entire desktop PC. I mean, as long as a majority of the parts needed to build a high performance machine are gifted to me over the holidays, in the end all of them can be combined for the common goal of playing Skyrim for 100+ hours with the maximum refresh rate and graphics settings.

So from one PC gamer to another, here are a few essential and non-essential recommendations to build a high-end gaming machine. Let the PC gaming rig wish-list begin.

CPU / Motherboard

The year 2011 showed the world some great processors (most notably Intel’s Sandy Bridge architecture and AMD’s Bulldozer), and it should not be difficult to pick out one for the list that satisfies all your gaming needs (as well as your Secret Santa’s budget).

1. Intel Core i7-2600K or Intel i5-2500K CPU ($220-$320)

This is where it all begins

According to this article by Tom’s Hardware, Intel has the best CPUs around for $200-$300. In the article, the quad-core i5-2500K is recommended for its lower cost and 3.3 GHz clock frequency with the Sandy Bridge architecture, but the i7-2600K gets a step ahead with its 3.4 GHz processing speed and by having hyper-threading technology (essentially making it 8 cores instead of 4) as well as an integrated memory controller that quickens the access rate of the DDR3 RAM.

In the end, the only noticeable difference here is price ($220 for the i5, $320 for the i7), so don’t immediately jump on the Core i7 train if you don’t think the family will fork out the extra $100.

2. EVGA Z68 Motherboard ($299)

Once the CPU is picked out, be sure to then find an appropriate motherboard suitable for the architecture. This EVGA board was chosen not only because it has the right socket for the Core i5 and i7 (the LGA 1155), but mostly because it has six PCI-Express 2.0 slots. That’s right, six. That means that technically you could put six video graphics cards in parallel and run them simultaneously. Furthermore, it allows for DDR3 Memory with speeds up to 2133 MHz (which is fast, by the way) and plenty of SATA/RAID connectivity.

Sounds like a bit overkill for the wish-list? Then I guess the ASUS P8Z68 would work as well. That one is under $300 and comes with just two PCI-Express 3.0 slots for graphics cards.

Graphics Card / Memory

Speaking of graphic video cards, there are lots of beautiful options to choose from this 2011 season and each one has its share of pros and cons (see: Tom’s Hardware for more research). But most notably, here are two options from both ends of the arena.

3. GeForce GTX580 or Radeon HD 6950 ($269-$499)

Two graphics card options; two different prices. The GeForce GTX580 is from EVGA and comes with 1.5GB of video memory and a 772 MHz clock, while the Radeon HD 6950 is from HIS and comes with 2GB of memory and an 840MHz core clock. Both allow for DirectX 11, 2560 x 1600 screen resolution, and at least three DVI/HDMI ports for output.

So why the price difference? Well the GTX 580 is SLI capable, meaning that it can be run in parallel with a similar device (like a second or third GTX580) and share the graphics processing power. How crazy is that? The only issue there is that if one wanted to run two at a time, that means that at least $1000 would have to be spent to achieve this goal. So maybe save one of them for next year.

4. G.Skill Ripjaws 8GB DDR3 Memory 2100MHz ($50-60)

Nowadays, memory comes in sticks of two and runs with DDR3 from 1300 MHz to 2100 MHz. These G.Skill Ripjaws (really, they are called that) are at 8 GHz and can run up to 2133 MHz. And they’re not $300, which is a pretty nice change from the other items on our wish-list.

Since the motherboards I’ve recommended in this article come equipped with four DDR3 dual channel slots, up to 16GB of memory is possible.

Power Supply / Drives

Now that the brains of the gaming PC have been chosen and added to the wish-list, the next step is to pick the other internal organs that complete the base computing components.

5. Corsair 750W Power Supply ($90)

This is the component that will give your future Frankenstein PC life, so don’t be stingy on the wattage or the price when adding this one to the list. This 750W beauty by Corsair linked above is an acceptable option for giving juice to the overpowered components, but if you’re feeling the need to go overboard the 950W option goes for just $150. That’s almost a thousand watts of gaming power!

6. Hard Disk Drive ($119-$249)

Right now, hard drives are not that cheap. So for the sake of the wish-list as a whole, a 500 GB drive at 7200 RPM is a good starter at a slightly reasonable price of $119. Western Digital still seem to be the king of the hill in terms of reliability and operating speeds, so any one of their Caviar Black, Blue, or Green products would be sufficient for one’s wish-list.

7. LG DVD/Blu Ray Drive ($65)

This is no-brainer for computer components: If you buy a PC game, most likely you will have to insert a disk of some sort to install/play it (unless one has jumped onto the digital download bandwagon). So when building your new PC, it wouldn’t hurt to add the Blu Ray reader/burner drive option to the holiday list just in case that whole digital streaming revolution doesn’t pan out.

Peripherals / Externals

Now that the internals have been selected, it is time to add the external inputs to the list as well. These recommendations are a bit fuzzier than the others, mainly because the price of these components will depend on how much your Secret Santa feels like spending on you (case in point, an optical mouse can be as cheap as $7 and a keyboard as inexpensive as $5).

This looks 'shopped. I can tell by the pixels

8. A Good LCD Monitor or Two ($190 each)

For a couple hundred bucks each, one can get their monitoring set up quite nicely. The LCD monitor shown in the picture above is a standard 23″ monitor with a 1920 x 1080 screen resolution and DVI/HDMI ports. Just don’t stare too long at it, you may hurt your eyes.

9. Gaming Keyboard ($9-$199), 10. Optical Mouse ($12-$69), 11. Audio Speakers ($20-$49)

In reality, these are going to be based on your personal preferences. Once again, for the sake of the list I would recommend going cheap on these so that money can be spent on the more crucial components, but if you’re curious as to what might be “cool” and “extreme” for your PC, here are some options.

For a keyboard, the $110 AZIO Levetron Mech4 seems to be right up the alley of gamers with its mechanical keys, modular design, and anti-ghost technology. For a mouse, try out the $69 Corsair Vengence M60, designed with a special “sniper” button and FPS gaming in mind. And finally, for a simple audio speaker bundle try out the $45 Creative Inspire T3130 speakers with 2.1 watts of acoustic harmony.

12. Computer Case ($40-$300)

Keep your computer from running around naked. Buy a tower for it.

Finally, let’s pick a computer case to drop all these gifts into. Again, this choice is entirely based on preference. Pick a case that suits your personal likes and dislikes (preferably medium to large to fit all these beastly components) and add it to your wish-list. The Antec Nine Hundred mid-size case for $99 is not a bad choice in terms of space and affordability.

Grand Total

So now, here’s the brilliance of this combinational theory. Since your family and friends will be buying your components individually, they can expect to spend around $100 to $400 for just one gift. But once all the computer gifts come together, you end up with a single PC gaming work horse at a total cost of about (let’s see here…carry the one, subtract the two, divide by the sales tax): $1500 to $2400. So just think, the bigger your family is, the more they can spread this cost over all your gifts!

One other thing to note is the factor of un-gifted gifts. It is a known fact that during the holidays, we don’t always get what we want. But the beauty of the theory is that even though you may get only 7 out of the 12 computer component items I mentioned, those 7 are still bundled to a common goal and value, so you still feel like you accomplished something with your wish-list. Let’s see Aunt Edna’s knitted socks gift do that.

So PC gamers, if you’re in the market for a serious new platform this holiday season, be sure to put my theory to work. What could possibly go wrong?*

*Actual results may vary, things might actually go wrong.

Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Consultants and Traveling Professionals Edition

Being a consultant or traveling professional comes with some unique challenges compared to the standard 9-to-5 job. We’re constantly on the road, talking on the phone, guzzling coffee, chowing down, and trying to find street addresses in neighborhoods we’ve never been in before.

I’ve put together this gift guide to help make life a little easier for the consultant on your shopping list this Holiday season.

1) Colgate Wisp

I can’t recall exactly how many times I’ve traveled out to a client’s location for the afternoon, which usually means that I get to eat my lunch on the road. By the time I’m done eating and I arrive at my client’s office, I oftentimes wish I could brush my teeth. Thanks to Colgate, this is no longer a problem.

With the Colgate Wisp, I can brush my teeth anywhere without all of the hassle of finding a restroom, carrying around toothpaste, and having a place to spit and rinse. These single-use toothbrushes contain toothpaste “beads”, which are available in many flavors, and much more convenient than a tube of toothpaste. Now I can brush my teeth on the go and simply throw away the brush when I’m done. There’s not a consultant on your shopping list that wouldn’t love to have a box of these under the tree.

2) Bluetooth Headset

Unless you have a car with built-in Bluetooth, a Bluetooth headset is an absolute necessity for a traveling consultant. Considering the amount of time consultants spend on the phone while driving, being able to talk hands-free will save countless lives and trips to the dry cleaners.

There are endless varieties of Bluetooth headsets available from many different manufacturers, which can range from below $20 to well over $100. While many cheaper models are likely to perform about as well as some of the more expensive models, keep in mind that in general, you do get what you pay for. The cheapest models likely won’t last as long or work as well as the upper tier, preventing your gift living up to its potential.

3) Garmin nüvi GPS

Cell phones are a great tool without a doubt. However, relying too much on my cell phone can be a real hassle, especially while traveling. Consider using your phone’s GPS function while dialing in to a conference call and eating your lunch, all while keeping your attention on the road ahead. Talk about a headache.

Stand-alone GPS units, such as my personal favorite Garmin nüvi, are an excellent solution to this problem. Since receiving one as a gift a couple of years ago, my phone is completely free to use for phone calls – imagine that! Having a device dedicated to GPS requires less multitasking, making my drive much safer. No consultant should be without one.

4) Laptop Attaché

Having a laptop carrying bag is a necessity for consultants and IT professionals alike. Traveling with a laptop also means traveling with power cords, wireless mice, and the occasional sandwich (among other important accessories), so it is important to have an attaché with plenty of pockets for items besides the laptop itself.

5) The Best Travel Mug

Here it is, the Holy Grail of travel coffee mugs: A heated travel mug complete with USB and car adapter! Not only will it plug into your car to keep your coffee warm during the early morning trip to the client far, far away, but you can also plug it in to your laptop once you get there. Unless you like cold coffee, it doesn’t get any better than this.

I’ve had many coffee mugs in my day, and every day I wish I had one of these. If anyone out there’s feeling extra generous this holiday season, send one my way. I’ll appreciate it, I promise!

Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Shopping on a Budget Edition

In case you haven’t been following the news over the past few years, the economies of most countries around the world are failing. This means a lot of people will be tightening their belts this year as they seek to hold onto what little they have left in the way of assets.

This means those extravagant, expensive gifts such as televisions and laptops bought in previous years may be out of the question this holiday season. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still buy a gadget which will brighten the heart of any geek you have in your family. It’s all about choosing your gift wisely in order to remain under your budget.

Headphones & Speakers

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An expensive desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, or MP3 player is pointless without the right audio equipment. Buying a set of headphones or speakers can make all the difference to the geek in your life. And you don’t have to spend a fortune to do so.

High-end speakers and headphones are fantastic, granted, but who has $100-and-up to spend on the latest ‘Beats by Dr. Dre’ or Altec Lansing speaker systems? Logitech and Creative are recommended for budget 2.1 systems, while capsule speakers outperform for their size and stature. Sony, Sennheiser, and JVC all come highly recommended for affordable but classy headphones.

Smartphone Cases & Covers

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You may not be able to afford to buy your loved ones the latest smartphone such as the iPhone 4S or Samsung Galaxy Nexus, but you can help them deck their handset out in style. Covers for smartphones cost just a few dollars but can help make them stand out from the crowd in a big, bold way.

The options available are virtually limitless. Classic one-color designs which give a smartphone a classy look and glossy feel; pink, shiny, sequined affairs for the most glamorous girls; retro covers to make a modern-day phone look like it belongs in the 1980s; a design for the zeitgeist, from Angry Birds to fashion labels.

USB Flash Drives

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OK, so a USB flash drive isn’t exactly the most inspiring or exciting gift someone could open on Christmas day. But it beats socks and toiletries. It’s also an essential weapon in any computer user’s arsenal. Most people will be able to back up their most important data – photos, documents, bookmarks – to a flash drive without any problems. And doing so regularly could save a great deal of anguish should their hard drive ever fail.

Prices of USB flash drives have dropped so much that you now need only spend a few dollars to get 8GB, and doubling the price will pretty much double the amount of memory.

Tablet/eBook Reader Accessories

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An iPad or Android-based alternative is an expensive item by anyone’s standards. A Kindle or eBook Reader is more affordable, but still possibly out of range for most people in these times of austerity. Thankfully there are accessories aplenty available for this hardware. All of which cost just a few dollars but which make great gifts.

These range from covers and cases, through sleeves and skins, to reading lights and power adapters. Oh, and wireless keyboards which gives tablet owners the option of turning their device into a notebook. All completely unnecessary but desirable additions for these mobile form factors.

Video Games

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Gamers come in all shapes and sizes these days, and more importantly, in all age groups. Which makes video games a worthy purchase for all who like to spend time staring at a screen for hours at a time. Assuming they actually own a console or high-end PC, of course.

The latest releases on PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii retail at anywhere between $30 and $60 from new. Which is relatively cheap for an item that can literally provide hours of entertainment. But there are bargains to be had by buying older games. All three home consoles have now matured, so there are classic games released around launch that can be picked up for just a few dollars. Or you can buy pre-owned software and lower the price even more.

Blu-rays

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Blu-ray players are still relatively expensive to buy. Unless you’re also a gamer and have the luxury of one being built into your PS3, which, incidentally, is one of the cheapest top-end Blu-ray players you can buy right now. But the actual Blu-ray movies themselves have come down in price considerably, meaning they’re a viable gift idea for anyone on a tight budget.

Even the latest Blu-ray releases are highly affordable, retailing at around $20. Box-sets can be more expensive, but classic and highly watchable series such as The Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter are all available for under $100. Just check that the recipient actually has the hardware in place before you start updating their movie collection for them.

Conclusion

As you can see, you don’t have to spend a fortune in order to give someone a present from the technology category. So what if none of the above compete with a new 50-inch LED TV or iPad 2, I’d be ecstatic to receive any of them wrapped up and sitting under the Christmas tree. And your bank manager will stay nicely contented as well.

Image Credits: TheDarkThing, kaeru.my, emilydickinsonridesabmx, Nedko, bfishadow, Rad Jose, Michael_Spencer.

Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Gamer’s Edition

Temperatures are slowly creeping towards sub-zero. Radio stations and malls everywhere are switching on the holiday music. Pine trees and other decorations are going up all over the world. And once again millions of people are procrastinating on their holiday shopping.

Lucky for you, gamers are an easy bunch to buy gifts for. Skip the throngs of mad shoppers and harried store clerks and order everything online!

While buying the games themselves may be simple, deciding which ones specifically can be a bit trickier. To help you out, I’ve compiled a list of recently released, universally acclaimed games which almost anyone should be able to find some joy in.

Let’s get started!

PC: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

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Dragons. A word that evokes images of majestic, fearsome, flying creatures. And in Skyrim you get to stab them in the face.

Skyrim is the fifth installment in the incredibly popular Elder Scrolls series. The Elder Scrolls games are all about freedom, and Skyrim proves to be no exception. Once past the relatively brief introductory quest you’re free to roam the province of Skyrim’s roughly 16 square miles of digital land mass. Exploration is encouraged, with dungeons littering the landscape and NPCs just aching to hand out quests. It’s pretty much expected that on your way to finish one quest your journal will fill up with five new ones.

Five years have passed since the release of the last game in the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion, and it shows. Skyrim is packed with tons of little details that will continue to surprise you. Not to mention it looks gorgeous. With high-end hardware and a bit of tweaking you can capture some pretty amazing looking screenshots, but even on default settings with middling hardware you’ll often catch yourself staring in awe at Skyrim’s beautiful landscapes.

Skyrim is without a doubt one of the best games released this year, and pretty much anyone will be able to find dozens of hours of entertainment within its wintry borders.

Note: While the PC is probably the premiere platform to own Skyrim on, it is also available for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. If your giftee’s PC isn’t powerful enough to play Skyrim, or if you aren’t sure, it’s still certainly worth playing on either of the other two platforms.

Alternate suggestions:

Minecraft (again)
Bastion (also available on Xbox 360)
Battlefield 3 (also available on Xbox 360 and PS3)

Xbox 360: Forza Motorsport 4

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Like last year’s Gran Turismo 5, Forza Motorsport 4 attempts to bring the expensive and dangerous sport of car racing into your living room in as realistic a fashion as possible, and for the most part it succeeds.

Similar to its predecessors, most of your time in Forza 4 will be spent in its extensive career mode, traveling the globe, winning races, and building up your impressive stable of cars. Forza 4 boasts an impressive roster of more than 500 fully modeled cars, so you’ll have your hands full trying to collect them all.

If you happen to own the Kinect add-on you’ll see some integration with that as well. Ditch the controller completely and steer with just your hands (I’m guessing it’s just as uncomfortable as it sounds), or use it to augment your existing experience and let it translate your head movements while still using traditional controls.

Forza 4 also features an in-depth paint job editor. Now you can finally own that My Little Pony themed Lamborghini Gallardo you’ve always wanted!

Alternate suggestions:

Batman: Arkham City (also available on PC and PS3)
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition
Saints Row: The Third (also available on PC and PS3)

Playstation 3: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

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Drake’s Deception has you once again stepping into the shoes of Indiana Jon… I mean, Nathan Drake, as he circles the globe searching for some lost treasure or other. Along the way you’ll encounter the usual baddies out to kill you, scale crumbling walls, and generally experience the action and explosions of a standard Michael Bay film. The Uncharted series might be getting a bit formulaic at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.

At its core the Uncharted series is a cover-based third person shooter, but there are some other gameplay elements like hand-to-hand combat and stealth sections that help to break up the monotony of shooting people in the face. While I may a joke about Uncharted’s striking similarities to Indiana Jones, there really isn’t anything wrong with that. Drake’s Deception perfectly captures that wonderful Indiana Jones-y feeling of adventure and intrigue.

Alternate suggestions:

Resistance 3
Dark Souls (also available on Xbox 360)
Metal Gear Solid HD Collection (also available on Xbox 360)

Wii: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

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The Legend of Zelda is one the longest running currently active video game series, and holds a special place in many gamer’s hearts. Skyward Sword manages to shake up the traditional Zelda formula a bit, but many people are calling it the best game in the series since Ocarina of Time.

The biggest departure from previous Legend of Zelda games is how Skyward Sword controls. It requires the Wii MotionPlus controller add-on, and instead of just wildly flailing your arms to swing Link’s sword like you might have done in Twilight Princess, in Skyward Sword your arm movements are mapped directly to Link’s movements on-screen. Enemies in Skyward Sword are designed in such a way that you usually have hit them in a certain manner to do damage.

With its charming art style and top-notch gameplay, Skyward Sword makes an excellent gift for anyone on your list, regardless of their age.

Alternate suggestion:

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Conclusion

There you have it, four games that any gamer would be happy to find under the Christmas tree. If you have any additional suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments below!

Image credit: tsmall