Five cool tech gifts, and two to avoid

With technology at the top of the holiday sales charts, the season's best gifts are going to be measured by the coolness factor of the underlying technology. Here are a few gift ideas and a few pans to keep in mind.

I have been to Best Buy, Circuit City and CompUSA over the weekend and, according to The Wall Street Journal, so have a lot of other people. It looks like the most impressive gifts this year won't necessarily fit under a tree, and are likely to outshine the lights on the tree, because technology is the hot gift category of 2006. VISA told the WSJ that electronics spending was up nine percent on Friday compared to a year ago.

So, to help you make the tech gift giving a little easier, here are a few suggestions:

  • Sirius Stiletto SL100-PK1 Satellite Radio Receiver. It's a time-shifting portable satellite radio that debuted at DEMO this year. The Stiletto stores up to 100 hours of Sirius programming, so you can set it to catch a program you might not be able to hear when it is scheduled and play it later. But it also has a very slick command, a heart button (I suppose for "I love this"), to record what you are currently listening to from the beginning, so if you realize you like a song half-way through the chorus it can be added to your personal library from the beginning. Like a bit on Howard Stern's show? Save that with a click of the heart button. It also plays MP3 and WMA files and, if you are in a Wi-Fi hotspot, it can stream Sirius channels over the Net. Versatile, compact. Cool. I got one for my wife, who is a radio fanatic.
  • World of Warcraft Burning Crusade. This is a pre-order, because the software doesn't ship until mid-January. But, you can pick up a box with your pre-order at Best Buy or simply order on Amazon and make a card that says the much-anticipated expansion of the WOW game environment will arrive the day it ships. For anyone who enjoys online gaming, this is the savvy gift that will surprise because almost everyone who plays doesn't expect it as a gift this holiday season.

  • Give the gift of a remote backup server. Jeremy Zawodny recently broke down the cost of backing up all his data to Amazon's "S3" Simple Storage Service. He found that he'd save a minimum of $587 over five years by moving away from a home server to Amazon's cheap infrastructure. There are solutions for backing up whole desktop systems, pictures, video and the contents of an iPod or iTunes library, depending on what you'd like to pay for. Browse Amazon's solutions catalog for the right service. It's the coolio geek gift that will intrigue the geek within your friends or family members.

  • Nintendo Wii. This is the top game system of the year (more on the worst game system below), because it is about marrying physical play with virtual gaming. Beautifully executed, as ZD blogger Ed Burnette explains, this system sold out in one minute on Amazon when it was introduced on November 19. Eric Cartman went 500 years into the future to play the Wii. Nor are chances good that you can get the console before 2007. However, you can order a snazzy Nintendo Wii gift card charged with up to $1,000 at Target. Better yet, if you want to give a hacked Target Gift Card for the Wii, you can get the instructions on how to modify the card's LEDs here.

  • Give your parents a blog. They might be 45 or 70 or 90 years old, but they have stories to tell. Get your parents a blog with photo and video support so they can record their lives and their memories of previous generations, whether it is for posterity or their grandchildren. This doesn't have to be expensive--in fact, it would be a great application for S3-based family storage that passes from generation to generation (doesn't exist now, but it should)--yet it can capture something that will pass away into faded memory and oblivion. 

Now, the pans. Just so you don't end up on the short end of the holiday cheer because you gave a crappy gift, beware the Sony PS3 and Microsoft's Zune music player. 

The PS3 debuted to long lines, but the bloom is definitely off the rose. Every salesperson I talked with about the console said they are underwhelmed. That wasn't because they didn't have it in stock--they didn't have the Nintendo Wii, either, but they raved about the Nintendo--and didn't try to sell me the stacks of XBox 360s they did have all over every store I visited. XBox 360 is, by the way, a fine console, but it's so 2005.

Two of the stores I visited had Sony PS3 consoles for people to play, and no one was playing. Shoppers were, however, playing XBox 360 and packed into the Nintendo aisles to get Wii stuff. The PS3 hasn't lived up to the hype. Giving it only shows the learned you have too much money and not enough brains.

The other disaster of the year--and, as with all Microsoft products, this one will get better in future versions, if they stick with it--the Microsoft Zune is dazzlingly ugly, not a lot of fun to use and generally was vomited upon by people I talked to at the electronics stores. Apple's iPod is the standard people hold Zune up against, and it falls miserably short.

With the Beatles reportedly nearing an exclusive deal for digital distribution of their music through iTunes, the iPod is still the reigning champion. And even if your gift recipient is a kid, the Beatles are still the best music they'll hear for the first time any year.