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High Tech Gifts for the Holidays

Presents that geeks will love

4 min read

A retro-looking machine
Photo: Richard Nagy/Datamancer Enterprises

steampunk PC

Photo: Richard Nagy/Datamancer Enterprises
CLASSY COMPUTER: A retro-looking machine comes from a past that never was. Click to enlarge.

The Clacker

photo of keyboard

Photo: Richard Nagy/Datamancer Enterprises
Click to enlarge.

This steampunk PC comes from Datamancer Enterprises. Moving parts from an old projector and a flickering LED light make it appear as if the image on the LCD screen is being rear-projected from a film strip, while gears below whir to evoke Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine (both mechanisms can be turned off). The vintage speaker horns have been retrofitted with a modern sound system. The keyboard enclosure and keys are engraved, while the mouse is built from a telegraph key. A gold-foil map serves as a mouse pad. Made to order, the hand-built case will house a current high-end gaming PC. The price for the complete system is between US $15 000 and $25 000.

–Stephen Cass

automaton app

Photo: Bridget Collins
Click to enlarge.

Automatons on Tap

Brought to you by the editors behind IEEE Spectrum’s award-winning Automaton blog, the Robots iPad app (US $5, available on iTunes) is a celebration of mindful machines. Using hundreds of photos and videos, the app has detailed entries for 126 of the most notable robots built from 1961 to today (there’s also a timeline of robotics that goes back to 1495). The first industrial robot, Unimate, the Mars rover Curiosity, and Honda’s Asimo are included, alongside a host of other machines from 19 countries.

Yes, we’re shamelessly tooting our own horn here. But we’re proud of this app, because it captures the passion that animates Spectrum’s robotics coverage and distills it into a rich collection that goes beyond our day-to-day reporting. The highlight of Robots is its collection of interactive graphics. These allow users to rotate a robot through 360 degrees or see it perform an action, such as having NASA’s robonaut lift weights. The interface is structured so that someone with a casual interest in robotics can easily find plenty of entertainment (such as rating the creepiness factor of various androids), while robot mavens can drill down for things like power requirements.


A version of this review appeared online in November.

photo of headphones user

Photo: Parrot

Smart Sound

For less than US $100, you can get several beefy, bass-heavy headphones with 40-millimeter neodymium drivers and a frequency response ranging from a few hertz to somewhere just north of 20 kilohertz. So what justifies the $400 price tag for the Parrot Zik, when it has essentially the same noisemakers? For starters, Parrot has cut the cord. The headphones connect wirelessly to iOS and Android smartphones via Bluetooth or Near Field Communication. And there’s also an active-noise-cancellation system. But the key feature is the gesture control. With the phone in your pocket or on your desk, you can control the volume, skip back and forth, pause a song, and answer a call (using a built-in mic) by swiping or tapping a finger on a touch-sensitive surface on the right ear cup. If you pull the headphones off your ears, a sensor stops the music. The music resumes where it left off when you put the Zik back on. —Willie D. Jones

photo of touchscreen

Photo: Hex3
Click to enlarge.

The Pen Strikes Back

Touch screens should be a natural fit for designing and creating art. Like pencil on paper, a touch screen allows users to see their creations appear on the surface they’re working on. But touch screens are designed to respond to fingertips, which have limited precision.

Simple styluses designed to mimic the electrical characteristics of a finger can help make more precise marks, but changes in pressure are still ignored. This makes it cumbersome to smoothly vary the darkness of a line, for example. The Jaja Stylus (US $90) solves this problem—it’s a pressure-sensitive stylus that can work with any touch-screen gadget equipped with a microphone. The stylus communicates pressure information via ultrasound signals. Currently, only a few apps take advantage of this information—including Autodesk’s SketchBook Pro—but more are expected.

photo of Evernote

Photo: Evernote
Click to enlarge.

For those who prefer the feel of actual paper but still want an easy way to store their notes and sketches digitally, the Evernote Smart Notebook (pocket, $25; large, $30) is the thing. Created through a partnership between notebook maker Moleskine and software developer Evernote Corp., the notebook is printed with dotted lines on each page. When you take a picture of a page with Evernote’s smartphone app [below], the lines provide cues for aligning the page for digital conversion. In addition to a handwriting-recognition system that lets you search entries stored in the cloud, you get a supply of stickers to label entries in the notebook, which Evernote can use to tag notes with keywords such as “travel.”


sub map

Photo: Adafruit Industries
Click to enlarge.

Basic Bytes

At first glance, this stripped-down microcomputer looks as though the words “some assembly required” should appear on the box. But the Model B Raspberry Pi (US $35) is a surprisingly capable PC. Powered by a 5-volt micro-USB connector, it has analog and HDMI outputs capable of providing high definition video. Two standard USB sockets let you hook up a keyboard and mouse (if you want to attach even more peripherals, simply use a USB hub). An Ethernet port provides network connectivity.

The ARM-based processor at the heart of the Raspberry Pi can run a number of variants of Linux. (The operating system is stored on an SD card loaded into a built-in reader.) The primary purpose of the system is to give kids around the world a cheap way to learn programming with something powerful enough to run relatively complex software. But, like the Arduino microcontroller before it, it’s rapidly being adopted by hobbyists for all sorts of home-brew projects.


For more about the creation of the Robot App, see the Back Story, " The Robots Are Coming... to Your iPad."

This article originally appeared in print as "The Gift Guide."

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