12 enormously useful products for the DIY-ITer [Gift Guide 2012]

In honor of 2012, we've selected some of the most interesting, helpful, and unexpected products for geek DIYers.
1 of 11 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

12 enormously useful products and resources for the DIY-ITer

As the aging 2012 slowly slips below the horizon and baby 2013 begins to make those cute gurgling sounds, we turn our thoughts to those hard-working geeks, makers, builders, and DIY-ers we all know and love. While the next few weeks might be a time to reflect, 2013 will be a whole new year, another 365 days for projects, hacks, and the realization of thousands of "I wish someone would invent" musings all across the world.

In this list of products and resources, I've selected some of the most interesting, helpful, and unexpected resources for geek DIYers.

Image courtesy Big Box of Art.

2 of 11 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

StarTech USB 3.0 to SATA/IDE HDD Docking Station

This is a neat little product that makes it very easy to process through all of those old hard drives you might have lying around. I used it this year to quickly image my primary laptop (via the fast USB 3.0 port) before I sent it back for repairs. When the machine came back, I dropped the drive back into the dock, and pumped the image back onto the machine.

What I like: Easy use of SATA drives and fast USB 3.0 connectivity.

What I'd like to see: I'm not thrilled with the spare cable approach to IDE docking. It's just a plastic hole in the box.

Find it here for $88.99.

3 of 11 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

Monster notebook: Sager 9150

This isn't the prettiest notebook in the world, and it certainly isn't the smallest. But it solved a very interesting problem: how to run a whole network of virtual machines on one portable computer.

This machine can be configured with up to 32GB of RAM, the usual high-performance SSD as a C drive, and a 7200RPM second drive (or another SSD, if you want to pony up the cash). It also supports high-performance gaming, and I'm currently hanging two 24-inch monitors off of it.

I looked everywhere for a notebook that could handle 32GB of RAM, and it was only when ZDNet's Jason Perlow suggested this beast that I found the answer I wanted.

Also, points go to the Sager tech support people. I had a few initial problems and they were helpful, responsive, and quick to get me up and running. I didn't expect it, and it was very appreciated.

What I like: Boatloads of RAM, fast, and fast.

What I'd like to see: Some personality.

Find it here starting at about $1,500.

4 of 11 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

Mini Asus and Xotac boxes

There's always a use for another little computer. I use them as backup engines, media servers, server monitors, development staging machines, and more. The point is, these little beasts are under $225, smaller than a printed textbook, reasonably fast (but not, you know, fast), and easy to configure.

You can store a few of them on a shelf, and if it turns out you need a spare computer for something, just spin one up quickly and easily.

What I like: Inexpensive and small.

What I'd like to see: A high-performance option.

Find them here and here starting under $225.

5 of 11 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

Mac mini

When the little Atom-powered Zotac and EEE boxes can't cut it, there's the Mac mini. I'm not a fan of OS X, but I've been hard pressed to find another box this small, this powerful, and this inexpensive.

I have two of these tiny powerhouses. The first is a 2011-vintage Mac mini server, hosting two 7200 RPM drives, and 16GB RAM, all in the service of running the Skype Studio. This thing can run and process multiple video streams, do dynamic rendering, and produce video, all almost silently, and taking up less space than a dinner plate.

I just bought a second one, a 2012-vintage Mac mini, that will run one of my content analysis servers, replacing the Zotac, which is just too slow. In fact, I'm moving the virtual machine running on the Zotac to the Mac mini, and no other configuration will be required, except that I get a heck of a speed bump.

These are great, all-around powerful boxes that fit anywhere. Of all Apple's products, this is the one I most hope they never discontinue.

What I like: Fast, small, and relatively inexpensive.

What I'd like to see: Less Apple attitude.

Find it here starting at about $599.

6 of 11 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

Boinx TV

Speaking of both the iMac and the Skype Studio, the key piece of software that makes it all run is Boinx TV. It's a silly name, but it does dynamic, live post-production, while the show is going on. I've used it to record almost all of the DavidGewirtzTV programs.

What I like: Amazingly capable for a single program.

What I'd like to see: A little more programmability in the interface for switching sequences. I've also run into some sound problems that are probably not BoinxTV's fault, but still continue to dog me as I refine the studio.

Find it here starting at about $499. There's some kind of home version for about fifty bucks, but I've never looked at it. If you're doing dynamic video production, spring for the full product.



7 of 11 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

PhpEd and CodeLobster PHP Edition

As a developer, one of the most valuable tools I have in my coding arsenal is the development environment and interactive debugger. There are many IDE options for PHP development, but two that I like are NuSphere's PhpEd and CodeLobster's PHP Edition.

Now, if you've noticed (and you have, haven't you?) the screenshot above is XP. It baffles me why the developers haven't updated their screenshots when their software is constantly updated, but it takes a different set of muscles to be in marketing than to write great IDEs.

One thing to like about CodeLobster is that there is a free edition. I like PhpEd because the debugger is quite versatile, and (after a few bumps in the road), the development environment is quite pleasant to use.

What I like: Good development environments.

What I'd like to see: Meh documentation and support.

Find them here and here starting at under $80.

8 of 11 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

SyncBack Pro

I admit it. I'm something of a sync-geek. I love software that helps me fling files far and wide. I have machines all over the world, doing all sorts of interesting things, and I constantly need to move files hither and yon.

One of my favorite tools for this is SyncBack Pro. This thing has a tremendous number of options and capabilities, can sync locally, to FTP, SFTP, S3, Google storage, and even Microsoft Azure. I use it as the core of my backup strategy, and also use it to keep a wide variety of servers updated with various content bits here and there.

What I like: Easy, reliable, fast, robust, flexible.

What I'd like to see: Easier way to send settings between instances or some centralized management control (which, apparently, is actually in beta).

Find it here starting at about $55.

9 of 11 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

Bosch DLR130K Digital Distance Measurer

I've recommended what I call my "magic measuring machine" before, and I'm doing it again. This thing is a huge help whenever I'm trying to size an area in the house or workshop. This thing is different from sonic-based measuring devices, which shine a light beam just to give you an idea where you're pointing. This uses a refracted laser to measure and, over the past few years, where I've measured things down to the quarter of an inch, it hasn't missed once.

An essential tool for the homeowner and DIY-ITer, especially if you're trying to setup a workspace.

What I like: It works.

What I'd like to see: Easier way to record measurements, perhaps the ability to send them to my phone. Can you imagine this with Siri? Hey, one can dream, right?

Find it here at about $90.


10 of 11 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

ProPrompter HDi Pro2

When I set out to build the the Skype Studio, I knew I wanted a way to look straight into the camera (and not below it, like on a webcam). I also knew that, once in a while, I'd also need to read text Obama-like, right off a teleprompter.

But I wanted something relatively small and light, yet capable. What I hit on was the Bodelin and ProPrompter HDi Pro2, which allows me to use an iPad as the screen. This is enormously powerful, because I use a VNC client on the iPad to reach out onto my network and feed anything I want into the prompter, usually the image of the person I'm talking to on Skype.

One very neat feature of the ProPrompter is there's iPhone and iPad software that talk to each other. I had to do a scripted bit for The Economist last summer and I was able to control the pacing of the prompting on the iPad by tapping my iPhone, which sat on my lap.

What I like: Lots of flexibility.

What I'd like to see: A little bit easier way to insert and remove the iPad without accidentally moving the camera setup by a tiny bit.

Find it here at starting at about $1,200.

11 of 11 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

X-keys XK-24 Programmable Keypad

Now, this thing is just neat. It's a USB keypad, but you can completely customize the buttons. The image above shows buttons that are all square, but you can have wide buttons or tall buttons, you can have buttons that display in different colors, and send different signals.

So, why would you want to do this? In my case, this creates a customized control console for video production, and pressing a single button allows a scene change. For gamers, it allows you to map keys to specific functions (i.e., in World of Warcraft, making key labels that match the various spells and abilities). And, of course, there are tons of uses for customized industrial control and other custom projects.

What I like: Great way to customize keyboard interface to special-purpose projects.

What I'd like to see: Wireless. And, oh, wireless. Did I mention wireless? Yeah, wireless.

Find it here a $129.95.

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