If you're anything like me, then you're still scrambling to wrap up your holiday shopping. Or wishing you were Jewish. For those of you struggling to find those last-minute gifts for the young students in your lives (college kids are easy: iPads, pizza, cash, and beer all around), I've put together a list by age of the coolest, most useful bits of tech that they'll not only enjoy, but might actually help them learn something. I've organized the list by age group and each group has both a "premium" and an "economy" gift. Premium for your favorite grandson or only child, economy for that bratty niece you still have to buy for to avoid a drunken confrontation with your brother over Christmas dinner.
By the way, the number 1 gift request this year for kids aged 6-12 is an iPad (seriously). Just say no, folks. It takes at least a 13-year old to appreciate an iPad and at least a 15-year old to be mature enough to ask you to wait for the Motorola tablet being announced at CES.
Premium - System76 EdubookI just recently discovered System76, a computer manufacturer that sells Ubuntu-powered laptops, desktops, and servers. I'll be doing full reviews on their netbooks and consumer laptop offerings shortly, but for the K-3 set, the Edubook is a great choice. My 3rd-grader has his choice of computers around the house (including a Windows 7-based convertible Classmate) and various Macs and he has adopted the Edubook that System76 sent me to test. It's their spin on Intel's clamshell Classmate, which forgoes a touch screen for the sake of serious durability and low price (and speaking of a low price, System76 will ship overnight for just $30).
Base price is $399 and there's really no reason to upgrade for this age group. Running Ubuntu Netbook Remix 10.04 (they skipped 10.10 because they didn't feel that the Unity interface was ready for prime time, especially in educational settings), the games and educational software preinstalled has immediate appeal. The computers are well-ruggedized and can survive bumps and bangs without issue.
Economy - Eazyspeak French and SpanishFor $25 on Amazon, you can get either French or Spanish software that actually does a great job of both immersing kids in language, but also assessing their understanding and applying their knowledge. Fun, educational, relatively cheap, and remarkably smart software for PC and Mac.
Premium - Desktop ComputerDesktops are cheap. Really cheap. And they can be upgraded, tinkered with, and repurposed as students get older. They're hard to destroy and require minimal investment to get kids used to typing, accessing the Internet, and searching for what they need. They need supervision, of course, but what better time to start teaching kids about good digital citizenship with a bit of PC maintenance thrown in?
Economy - ThinkGeek.com gift certificatesThey're never too young to start geek indoctrination. And 10 seems to be a magical age at which ThinkGeek starts to have broad appeal. Seriously, what 6th-grader wouldn't want a "rock-enabled interactive shirt"? Your average middle schooler is a pretty goofy kid struggling to find him or herself. Nothing says to be yourself like an "I void warranties T-shirt."
Premium - iPadI only said not to give your 6-year old an iPad. I didn't say anything about your high schooler. While the iPad 2 is on the way and Honeycomb-enabled Android tablets are just around the corner, the iPad remains the gift to get. Instant-on internet access, tolerable on-screen typing, and arguably the best e-reading experience (at least by teenage standards) make this a great choice. The deal with Verizon's MiFi is attractive given the sheer number of other devices that students have that could leverage the portable hotspot, but the available monthly data will go quickly. Watch the bill on that one!
Economy - An inexpensive laptopLaptops can range of the ultra-cheap piece of junk to the ridiculously overpowered gaming laptop. On the low end, however, there are plenty of deals to be had on decent laptops and netbooks. While the iPad has overshadowed netbooks in many ways, $300-$400 will get you a very usable machine that can handle all the Facebooking and essays your student can throw at it. Even $250 netbooks will do the job if price and portability are your primary concerns. $400-$500 won't get your student an ultraportable, but they will get a full-sized laptop with dual core performance and, with a bit of TLC, will get them through high school. Deals can easily be found in any of the big box stores.
Economy Honorable Mention - Gunnar Gaming GlassesI first encountered Gunnar Performance Eyewear last year for a holiday roundup not so different from this one. Given how varied students' interests can be, I had to bring these up again. I wear mine every day (I'm wearing them now) and since I spend almost as much time in front of a screen as the average teenager, they're well worth the money. Whether for the hardcore gamer or simply the kid who spends so much time on a computer that dry eyes and eye strain become an issue, Gunnar glasses are truly useful tools. Sure, you could kick the kid off the Xbox or shut down Internet access, but I'm thinking a cool-looking pair of glasses that protects their eyes is a better choice. My wife would disagree with me. My kids would not.
Not economy enough for you? No one ever turned up their noses at a USB drive or an extra memory card for their phone or camera; just make sure you know what sort of card is compatible with their camera. Worst case? An Amazon gift card will let them buy just about anything on the planet, including some legal MP3s.
Happy shopping! And happy holidays!