High-Tech Holidays: Gifts for the geek in your family

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It may be hard to detect a geek just by looking at him or her, but you know one when you get within earshot. Geeks toss around terms like “double-data-rate RAM” and “disk defragger” as if they were talking about the weather or a baseball game. If you’re seeking a gift for the geek in your household or in your circle of friends, there are many reasonably priced gadgets that might make their lives a little easier.

For example, if you’ve ever spotted someone struggling to balance a notebook computer on his or her knees, you know how awkward a working position that can be. One solution is the Laptop Desk Ensemble from LapWorks Inc. (877-527-9675, www.laptopdesk.net). The $49.95 bundle includes the Laptop Desk Version 2.0 ($29.95 alone), a folding desktop; the SwivlPad ($19.95), a thin turntable that slides under the Laptop Desk; and the MouzPad ($9.95), a mouse pad extension for the Laptop Desk.

The Laptop Desk is a hinged black plastic panel that opens to form a rigid, 20-by-11-inch-wide laptop desk. The unit has rubberized strips that hold the notebook in place and grooves that allow proper ventilation of the bottom of the machine. The Laptop Desk can also be folded in half and used on a desk to prop up a notebook at a comfortable typing angle. Slip the circular SwivlPad under the Laptop Desk while it’s on a desk, and the notebook can be rotated to share views of the screen with others. The MouzPad clicks onto the side of the Laptop Desk to provide additional real estate for a mouse.

For those who frequently print labels  but need only a few at a time instead of a sheet at a time, Esselte Ltd. offers its Dymo (800-426 7827, www.dymo.com) line of desktop label makers for IBM-compatible and Macintosh computers. The Dymo LabelWriters don’t take up much desktop space and connect easily to a computer via a universal serial bus (USB) port.

The units come with software that adds a little intelligence to a word processor and other applications. For example, with the click of a button, the software can pick out a recipient’s address from a business letter and insert it into the proper part of a label. The software can also check the address against an online database to make sure the correct ZIP code’s been used and it can also apply electronic postage that’s been purchased from Stamps.com (www.stamps.com).

The LabelWriters use thermal labels, so they never need toner or ink. The thermal printing heads in these units can print graphics and photos as well as text, making them useful for printing security badges and other temporary photo IDs. The downside to thermal labels is that they are expensive. For example, Dymo sells a box of two 350-label rolls of 1.125-by-3.5-inch address labels for $19.95.

Dymo recently released a software add-on that allows the LabelWriters to integrate with Intuit Corp.’s QuickBooks financial software (888-246-8848, www.quickbooks.com). The free download inserts a new icon on the menu in QuickBooks and lets a user quickly print a label from the document that’s being worked on, such as an invoice. The software, which works with the 2002 and 2003 versions of QuickBooks, can be downloaded from the Dymo Web site.

The LabelWriter comes in three versions: The $139.99 LabelWriter 315 handles labels up to 1.5 inches wide and prints a label in seven seconds, the $179.99 LabelWriter 330 takes labels up to 2.3 inches wide and prints them in four seconds and the $209.99 LabelWriter 330 Turbo has the features of the LabelWriter 330 but prints labels twice as fast.

If someone you know has a digital camera or will get one this winter, a useful accessory might be the SanDisk Digital Photo Viewer from SanDisk Corp. (408)-542-0500, www.sandisk.com), a device that lets a user view digital photo slide shows on a standard television. The slim unit comes with slots for major types of digital camera memory cards, including CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Sony Memory Stick, SecureDigital and MultiMediaCard.

Once a memory card has been inserted and the viewer connected to a TV, a remote control, included with the unit, can be used to browse through the pictures. Small thumbnails of the photos can be browsed before being viewed in full-screen mode. Photos can be deleted or rotated, and the unit can be set to run an automated slide show.

If the back of your friend’s desktop computer is choked with a spaghetti-like tangle of cables, the new wireless keyboards and optical mice from Microsoft Corp. (888-218-5617, www.microsoft.com) can help eliminate some of the mess. While she may be used to the way the wheel on Microsoft’s old mice let her scroll up and down through documents, the new mice can do some new tricks. If the wheel on the new mice is pushed from side to side, the screen scrolls sideways. Push down on the wheel and instead of going into an express scrolling mode, as was the case with the old mice, she can now jump from one window to the next, thus making it easy to jump between one open program and another. The new mice, like the Wireless IntelliMouse Explorer ($54.95; black leather, $64.95), can go into a light or heavy sleep mode to save battery power when sitting idle.

The Wireless Desktop Elite Keyboard ($104.95), which comes with a Wireless IntelliMouse Explorer optical mouse, is designed with the current versions of Microsoft’s Windows operating system in mind. Special keys let you express to the My Documents, My Pictures or My Music folders on your computer’s hard drive while others offer one-touch access to the calculator, e-mail and the Web.

The keyboard, which has a large, cushioned wrist rest, has five programmable keys that can be assigned to applications or to Web sites. To program them, the user just presses and holds the button while the program or Web site he wants is on his computer’s screen. The new mice and keyboards require Microsoft’s Windows 2000 Professional or Windows XP operating system or Apple Computer Inc.’s Mac OS X operating system version 10.1 to 10.3.

If you can’t find the right geek for one of the above products, maybe a look in the mirror might yield an especially grateful recipient.                     

Robert S. Anthony is a computer columnist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. bob@paperpc.net.