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Holiday Gift Guide 2010: What to buy your favorite geek this year

holidaygiftguide

The holidays are right around the corner, and we figured it's time to start coming up with some useful, thoughtful and hopefully interesting gift ideas for the geek (or geeks) in your life. Most of these are quite affordable, so you might not have to pick just one.

Gifts that keep on giving: online subscriptions

There are tons of great subscription-based online services. Picking out just a few was a real challenge, but here goes:

  • Safari Books Online: Nerds are brainy people, and brainy people have been known to read. For US$42.99/month, your favorite geek will get unlimited access to a catalog of over 9,000 tech titles by O'Reilly and other big-name publishers. It's not just dry coding stuff, either; heck, your geek might even learn to cook! Note that Safari also has more affordable subscription options, down to $10/month for the 5-book bookshelf.

  • Lynda.com: If your geek is more of a visual learner, you really can't beat Lynda.com. While Safari Bookshelf does feature some video content, Lynda.com is the king of online video courses. Lynda's 917 online courses range from 1-2 hours, all the way to 14-hour-plus courses covering graphics and desktop applications, programming languages, web development, and even just general creativity with their Creative Inspirations series.
Flickr
  • Flickr or SmugMug: Flickr seems to be the consensus amongst photo-sharing buffs and, at $25.95/year, is more affordable than SmugMug. You get unlimited photo uploads, and to be a part of a huge, vibrant community. On the other hand, if your geek likes to have their own domain, SmugMug may be the way to go. SmugMug rates start at $40/year, but that plan doesn't offer much more than Flickr. Where it does get interesting is with the $60/year plan, which is more than twice of what Flickr costs. But you do get the option to use your own domain name, a selection of 50 themes, opting out of search engines, site and gallery passwords, HTML/CSS/JavaScript customization, and more.
BackBlaze
  • Backblaze: Now that we've taken care of your loved one's education and artistic expression, it's time to think about data protection. BackBlaze offers unlimited online data backup at $5/month, and their Windows client is very nice. You just install it, and your computer starts uploading all of your data to the cloud. Once the initial transfer completes, it continues backing up changes as they happen (not just once every 24 hours). Backblaze also supports private encryption keys, for added privacy. I just wish they'd add an easy way to perform test-restores so you can make sure your backup is actually okay. That's the only concern I have after two years of using their service, but as far as I know, no online backup service currently offers test restores.
  • Dropbox Premium or SugarSync: While Backblaze handles online backup, Dropbox and SugarSync add a second layer of security, while making it very easy to synchronize multiple machines and share files with friends. At $9.99/month for a 50GB option, Dropbox is certainly pricy, but it works very well. Then again, SugarSync plans start at $4.99/month for 30GB. SugarSync seems to be more feature-rich than Dropbox, which also makes it more complex – when I've tried it recently, the experience wasn't as smooth as Dropbox. Still, either of these would make a great gift.
Grooveshark
  • Grooveshark: So we've covered reading, watching videos, sharing photos, and backup. The only thing left is music, right? At $3/month, Grooveshark is a very affordable way to listen to tons of music with no ads and no interruptions. It also comes with an Android app.

Applications

Now that we've covered a ton of online services, it's time to look at three desktop applications that could really make a difference in a geek's life. If you're not a geek, these might not seem exciting. But they can each make a huge difference in productivity, and be something your geek uses every day, all day long. Here goes:

TC

  • Total Commander: I've been known to gush over this superb piece of software engineering, but what can I say? This is the file manager for Windows. I have it running every day, all day long. Once your nerd gets used to this one, there's no going back to Windows Explorer, and every time they use this, they'll be thinking of you. Not bad for a one-time $38 payment. Note that Christian Ghisler, Total Commander's developer, has made each and every upgrade to the application free for registered customers so far. So your gift will never become antiquated – your geek could probably just keep upgrading Total Commander for years to come using the license you buy them now.
  • Directory Opus: This is a strong alternative for Total Commander. At 85 AUD (83 USD at the time of this writing), it is far more expensive than Total Commander. I've never tried it myself because it seems like an obscene amount of money to spend on a file manager, but then again, it could make a wonderful gift: It's one of those things many people would never buy for themselves, but might be grateful if someone bought it for them.
  • Oops!Backup: Yes, I know; I have a backup fetish. But there's a big difference between backup in the cloud, and local time-machine style backup. I use both options, and I usually restore using Oops!Backup. It has saved me more than once, and at $37 it can pay for itself the first time your geek loses an important piece of work.
  • JetBrains IDE: A programming environment is a very personal choice; this is not a gift you should buy without consulting with someone who's familiar with your geek's coding habits. Having said that, JetBrains makes some truly fantastic IDEs. I've used RubyMine and was much impressed by their code intelligence, spell checking, and the general elegance of the editor. It's a chunky piece of software, and it's Java-based (which may be a turn-off for some), but I think it's just fantastic. And at $99 for a commercial license, it's not very expensive. Note that if your geek is actively involved in an open-source project, they may qualify for a free license – if they don't know this, that could make an even cooler gift.

Physical presents (shipping required)

Okay, enough with the bits and bytes already! Sometimes gifts are all about tearing off the wrappers, opening the box and finding out what's inside! Let's look at some ideas for nerdy gifts that actually weigh something.

Chocomize
  • Chocomize chocolate: Chocolate is great, right, but what can possibly be nerdy about it? Well, it's nerdy if you design it online! Chocomize has a beautiful multi-step interface for designing your own personalized chocolate bar. You choose the chocolate, add all sorts of toppings ranging from conservative stuff like walnuts, all the way to organic flax seeds or real bacon (yes, bacon on your chocolate, that is not a typo). They then make the chocolate and ship it all the way to you. My girlfriend recently got three of their tablets, and reports that shipping to Canada was very prompt, and the chocolate itself was absolutely delicious. She didn't go for the bacon option, though.

That's it, folks!

I hope I've given you some ideas for interesting and original gifts. Feel free to let me know about other great gift ideas in the comments – I might even post a follow-up with reader suggestions!

Tags: christmas, gift, gifts, guide, hgg, holiday, holiday gift guide, HolidayGiftGuide, presents, xmas

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