How did Geek Santa do this year?

Many years ago when I was five years old, I can remember unwrapping my first computer at Christmas. The 48k ZX Spectrum led to a love of technology and gaming, some slightly frustrating early attempts at coding, and was the first ‘social object‘ I can remember that allowed me to chat about games (and swap them) with friends. There wasn’t much else that I can imagine would have allowed me to compete with a teenage family friend in a day long Gauntlet session on an equal footing!

And technology is part of Christmas for most families in the more affluent countries now, with record numbers downloading apps for their new iPhone or Android smartphone, buying books for their new eReader, and hitting the internet on Christmas Day to start buying in the sales. I’m not surprised by eCommerce on December 25th, having long worked on websites which received decent traffic on that day as mainly male readers sought to disapear into their hobby for a while to escape the family.

So how did ‘Geek Santa’ do for my family?



I am finally a Kindle owner, having put off buying one as a luxury rather than a necessity. It was higher on my list than any tablet as I wanted it to solely function as a pure reading device without leading me into checking Facebook or Twitter, or watching Youtube. No waiting around to boot up, no worrying about bright sunlight, and small enough to carry whenever I’m travelling in preference to a slowly roasting lap on the train as I read on my laptop (Although I do continue to use the free Calibre to read eBooks on computers).

So far I’m really pleased with it – I’ve been reading more longform content, and caught up on various things I meant to get around to reading one day. It’s reminded me of the problems of pricing digital content, as particularly niche books tend to be as expensive or even more than the paper equivalent, despite the fact there’s no shelf space being used up for niche sales figures. But I’m slowly finding my way to more and more decently priced books, and I can wait for the foolishly-priced to finally wake up. Lack of additional features also means a great battery life, which was handy as Santa appears to have stiffed me on a mains charger, so it’s the included USB-only option at the moment, and PDFs are reasonably handled, although I have noticed one or two suffer from formatting problems beyond tiny text sizes.

Currently content on their includes Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain by Ryan Blair (preview copy for review), The Flinch by Julien Smith (Not only very good, but also a free download), Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakeur, and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, which is free and something I’d meant to read since discovering the character in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

My son:

He’s now ahead of me, having got his first computer (of sorts) before his fourth birthday. And judging by sales and scarcity, he wasn’t alone in receiving one of the ‘tablet for kids’ devices as a precursor to probably getting an iPad in the next couple of years. It might seem a bit of a luxury, but having visited all the possible future schools for him and seen how they have all integrated iPads and touchscreens into learning for even the youngest children, it made sense to get him used to a touch interface beyond firing up Angry Birds every time I leave my phone within reach.

We were intrigued by the LeapPad and heard good things, but not being able to try one out pre-Christmas, we plumped for the VTech Innotab, and a KidiZoom camera to go with it.

Both are pretty good, and rugged enough to survive for a while. The games and eBooks are proving popular, and he was able to interact without any supervision within minutes, although the push buttons on the camera took a little longer to sink in. You get three free downloads with the Innotab which was handy, particularly as the ratings and reviews for games on the download site are pretty scarce, and at £2.99 each they can soon mount up. Luckily he seems to like our choices, and they’re a lot more accessible than his current selection for his Nintendo DS (Sonic and Mario tend to be pitched slightly higher, and require a lot more help from dad as a veteran videogamer – something I’ll treasure until he soon becomes better than me).

It’s actually the camera which seems to be the biggest hit – although it’s only a 2 megapixel affair which is a bit of a pity. It features a range of special effects you can use on each photo, allowing him to give daddy an even bigger nose than normal, and the built-in voice recorder is pretty cool with some simple pitch effects. The only real annoyance is despite some compatibility between devices, the only way to transfer images etc is either by swapping SD cards (Not included), or by using a PC and proprietary software. They do tend to use plenty of batteries, which is why my first post-Christmas gift is a bunch of rechargeables!

One thing I do worry about, more than exposure to screen time, is that we’re producing tech consumers, not tech creators. The different between a programmable Spectrum and a downloading tablet for kids is about messing with it. So I can’t wait for the $35 Raspberry Pi at the start of 2012 – I’ll be buying one as an early 4th birthday present for the two of us to mess around with.

My dad:

Completing the male-biased trio of tech gifts comes my dad, who is much like me in character but quite opposite in talent. Whereas my creativity comes from thinking and writing (and some stilted musical attempts), I’ve always been jealous of his artistic skills and ability to make things which don’t have bits missing and immediately fall apart.

So amongst his gifts were a copy of Make magazine for inspiration, and a pack of the amazing Sugru to play with. I’d also bought some as a Secret Santa gift which was revealed straight away when I had to explain what it was to a colleague, but the website does a far better job of explaining the amazing British invention. I’m buying more for myself immediately.

And for all the males:

Ironically the most captivating tech gift of the day for all of us was the most classic. Scalextric! Forget the mini starter sets – that just seems like false economy. And once you get into a rhythm which means you’re not retrieving cars from under the sofa every two minutes, there’s a certain zen meditation feel to watching the cars.

Not just for the blokes:

There’s an important disclaimer in that all the tech gifts went to male family members – it was purely based on requests and interests. I think I may have convinced my mum to consider a Kindle before she finally ends up having to move out of the house to make space for books, plus I’ve also been booked to update her laptop, help set up new internet access, and advise her on possibly getting an iPad!

The new Apple Nano and radio…

This was published just as I was heading out of the office for a short vacation. (Disclosure: I work for Absolute Radio).

If we get a Zune in the office this could be the start of a new series!

A marketing dept in a backpack?

I had a little bit of time to myself, so started messing around with the idea that everything you need to run an entire marketing department could be kept in one medium-sized rucksack.

So, I set up a new page on my Amazon Store, and started trying to put together everything I thought would be needed – See the Marketing Hardware department, here!

Disclaimer: Sadly I don’t own an N95 or a netbook at the moment, but having seen them in heavy use by friends and colleagues, I’m looking to invest shortly – but I definitely want to hear more suggestions and alternatives.

Moleskin Notebook: Normally I’d have just recommended a far more cost effective notepad, but I have to admit I find notetaking more pleasurable, and because I take more care of my notebook, I’m less likely to lose it. It’s almost inspirational in itself.

Bic biros: I should recommend a pen that’s a pleasure to write with – but I don’t have one at the moment – and 20 cheap pens are always handy.

Nokia N95 8GB: The smartphone choice is simple – The Nokia is for creating content, whereas the iPhone etc are more for content consumption.

N95 Phone Car Charger: Should be pretty self explanatory

Asus eee PC 701: With so much available ‘in the cloud’, all you need for most work is to be able to access the likes of Google Docs, Slideshare etc. And you don’t need more than a low-spec notebook to do it.

Spare eee PC charger: It’s always a good idea to have  a spare charger left at home. It only takes one hurried exit from a meeting room/train to leave you struggling for power.

15m Ethernet cable: Always good to be able to go wired, especially in offices which don’t have public wifi.

Firewire cable: Another handy thing to have in case of a need for quick access.

Monopod: Handy to carry for shooting video with the N95. This one can be left at home/office unless needed…

16GB Flash Drive: Despite online storage and file transfer, there are loads of times when sticking something on a USB stick is far easier – plus you can keep a cut down browser on it, along with a security app, and if you need to use another PC, you can use your own software etc.

750GB External Hard Drive: Even if you’ve got everything stored online, I’d always, always, always recommend having a back-up at home. All it takes is a disabled Gmail account, for example, or for a service to go bankrupt, and you could really be struggling otherwise.

And if I had to have the bare minimum:

1 Moleskin notebook, 1 pen, and 1 USB drive would mean I can create, present, take notes etc, as well as use any available computer.

So what have I missed? And would you choose a laptop over a netbook, or a different spec Asus? Would you have chosen an iPhone or G1? And what’s a cost effective pen that’s nice to write with?

What would be in your essential backpack to do your job?

(Incidentally, until I can afford a backpack with solar-panels to help charging on the go, IKEA do a great compartmentalised backpack for a laptop and everything else for £15…)

Gadgets aren’t important, but tools are

I’ve just been reflecting on a weekend visit by my parents. I’ve been lucky enough to always have a good relationship with them, especially as they’ve always had a particularly youthful taste in music and films, which means we’ve always had some common ground, and we always have a new band or film to recommend to each other.

In the old days, we’ve each end up bringing CDs and DVDs for entertainment, but things have changed:

I played them new music on, as recommend by @stephenfry.

We watched some classic Rallycross on Youtube, which we were at when I was a child. (For the record, one of my favourite drivers and cars of all time was the black Audi Quattro of Dimi Mavropoulos, even when he was up against local hero Will Gollop. In those days, the top Rallycross cars were the awesome vehicles which had just been banned from Group B rallying for being too fast!

We looked at recent holiday pictures on Flickr.

And I helped them do some shopping on Amazon, before catching up with a TV programme on iPlayer.

The only mainstream media which we all actually shared in as a family was the original Swedish language Wallander shown on TV (and far superior to the new English-language version with Kenneth Brannagh).

And it all reminded me that laptops, digital cameras, and mobile phones are no longer ‘gadgets’. They’re tools.

A gadget is a small technological object (such as a device or an appliance) that has a particular function, but is often thought of as a novelty. Gadgets are invariably considered to be more unusually or cleverly designed than normal technology at the time of their invention. Gadgets are sometimes also referred to as gizmos. (From Wikipedia)

It’s why I don’t really care when Michael Arrington claims netbooks are underpowered, too small and hard to type on. Or Wired doing a side-by-side comparison of the specs of the Apple iPhone vs the T-Mobile G1.

The specifications of each device only matter to the geeks – the possibilities matter to everyone.

That’s why I’m so excited about the fact Barack Obama is putting investment and accesibility to broadband at the forefront of his recovery plan for the U.S. I only hope the UK’s copying of U.S. policy extends to one of the best ideas, as well as many of the worst, and one of my Christmas wishes for 2009 comes true!

It’s not about processing power or battery life – my backup laptop is old enough to have been upgraded to Windows 98, and just managed to run Open Office and the unfortunately named Gimp. But that’s more than enough for my partner to check her social networks and interact, and for me to run my blogs, do my dayjob, and keep up with everything.

Snow shovel by cindy47452 on Flickr (CC Licence)

Snow shovel by cindy47452 on Flickr (CC Licence)

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and enthusiasm of obsessing over every minute detail when it comes to technology. The iPhone, N97 or G1 show what’s at the cutting edge, but the INQ is at a more accessible price – and the content and value of your emails will be the same whichever device you use.

You can use Myspace, Blogger or WordPress to write a blog, and the message will have the same value (even if I’d always recommend a hosted WordPress blog!).

It’s all about what you’re doing with what is available that counts. Especially if your budget buying is being cut back at the moment – don’t worry about what you can’t afford, but figure out how to maximise what you can do with what you’ve got.

And remember, the days of broadband, a laptop, or an internet-enabled mobile phone being just a gadget are over.

I’m not an early or late adopter. I’m a cheap adopter…

That’s why my latest purchase isn’t a top of the range iPod Touch or an Alienware PC, as much as I’d love to have the cash to spend.

Nope, my latest gadget purchases were a £10 1Gb discontinued Technika MP3 player (closest one I could find online is this), and a £9.97 Technika MP3 cassette adapter, due to the fact both of the cars in my possession come from a time when cassette players were the standard equipment.

The joy of being able to drive around in an open top car, and not being forced to listen to the radio! Now comes the dilemma of which online MP3 store to register with to keep things nice and legal. I suspect the only real viable option involves an ‘i’, at least until Myspace gets into gear.