Welcome to the official 2013 edition of our ZDNet DIY-IT Gift Guide. This year, in honor of 2013, we present to you 14 interesting and useful products that the DIY-ITer in your life will find particularly useful, fun, or cool.
You probably noticed the puppy image above. Clearly, any DIY-ITer would love a puppy, but that little guy isn't really on our recommended gift list. It was just, you know... Puppy!
What? Puppy! Puppy! Puppy!
We now resume our regularly-scheduled gift guide programming...
Image courtesy GraphicStock.com
Let's kick off our list with something truly geeky and wonderful at the same time. Monoprice offers the 4X4 True Matrix HDMI Powered Switch w/ Remote ($142.35), which allows you to switch any four HDMI inputs to any four HDMI outputs. Cool, huh?
Imagine having, say, your media center PC, your XBox, your Roku, and your Apple TV connected to your main screen in the living room. You can easily switch the big screen TV between any of the inputs. So far, so good, right?
Okay, now let's punch it up a notch. Let's add two smaller TVs on each side of the big screen. After all, as I'll show later in this guide, you can get a 24-inch smart HDTV for less than $200. Now, if you want to watch Netflix on the big screen, your wife wants to fiddle with Facebook on one side screen, and Junior wants to battle XBox zombies on the other screen, you can.
If you want to move the Roku to a side screen and the media center PC to the main screen, you just select an input, and an output and there you go. You're up and running.
Many of us often have to move the contents of one drive to another, especially if we're upgrading PCs. But what if you want to do that, but don't want to tie up one of your computers to do it?
Enter the StarTech UNIDUPDOCK Universal SATA/IDE Dual Hard Drive Duplicator ($229.99). The company sent me this handy little beast, which works by plugging one drive into the input, one drive into the output, and pushing a button. Like magic (mostly), the drive duplicates.
Here's a hint for copying a hard drive to an SSD: you need to make sure there's a little extra space on the SSD for everything to function smoothly. So try to move from, say, a 120GB hard drive to a 160GB SSD. Sometimes, if you move same-size HD to SSD, you'll get an error.
Even with that caveat, this is an amazingly useful device.
Okay, so this isn't a gift for the DIY-ITer, but an easy gift (if you have some time) from the DIY-ITer. Most of your family members are probably still running at least one laptop with an old, crappy 5400 RPM (or slower) laptop drive.
If you want to be a champ, upgrade that machine to a branny-new, super-fast SSD. It's a relatively cheap upgrade and the performance difference can be phenomenal. You might even want to use the StarTech disk duper I discussed in the previous frame.
By the way, while I'm showing a SanDisk SSD in the picture above, courtesy Amazon, you can choose from many of the better brands and get yourself a sweet, fast upgrade.
Sometimes, I get tech requests I never expect. That was the case with the product I'm about to spotlight here. I was asked if there was a way to OCR sheet music. My wife sings in a choir and wanted to hear what her songs would sound like, so she could practice the music.
It made sense. After all, if you can process text into its digital equivalent, you could theoretically do it with music. Music scoring is a consistent language that's represented in a similar way to text.
As it turns out, the Musitek SmartScore X2 Pro ($399) does just that. It's actually quite amazing the first time you run it. We scanned in a copy of her choir music, imported it into SmartScore, and the software played the music. It was a little eerie.
Now, here are the cautions: this is deeply complex software for the music professional. We only tapped a very small portion of the overall capability of the system, which includes ways of tuning the OCR for recognition, and even allowing you to assign different instrumentals to different parts of music, to get the software to automatically orchestrate the music.
It's incredibly cool, but you probably should read the manual. The company just updated the software and the update they sent me hasn't arrived here yet for testing. But the previous version is pretty amazing, and I feel comfortable recommending it to anyone with an interest in turning a computer into a 21st century player piano (and so much more).
It would be fair for me to tell you that until this recent purchase, I thought smart TVs were stupid. After all, if you have a Roku or an Apple TV, why in the world would you want a smart TV, with all the normal manufacturer shortcomings that come from those mashups?
I still, sort of, think smart TVs are stupid, but I recently found a pretty good reason for buying one anyway: cheap, multi-function monitors. The one I'm bringing your attention to is the VIZIO 24-inch Class Razor LED Smart TV ($199) and the reason I'm bringing it to your attention is that it's under two hundred bucks.
Since 24-inch monitors are running about $150 these days, if you spring for an extra fifty bucks, you get a screen with speakers, and the ability to drop into Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube. Granted, the implementations of these services are pretty sucky, but the ability to get double-duty from what would normally be just a monitor is a pretty good deal.
I have one mounted as second monitor, and if I don't need the extra screen real estate for a while, I often switch it to Netflix and run a Top Gear in the background. Fast cars keep me calm.
Oh, and I didn't show you a picture of the front of the TV, because it looks like every other TV. The interesting bit are the connections on the back. It's got both WiFi and a network adapter, along with the usual connection suspects. My only complaint is I wish this thing had two HDMI inputs, but for under $200, I can't really bust on it much.
Granted, there's nothing particularly exciting about a USB hub, but when you get a working, powered USB 3 hub, things start to get interesting. After all, USB 3 is very fast, which means that you can add things like external drives on through USB 3 and see smokin' performance.
I'm using the D-Link DUB-1340 4-Port Superspeed USB 3 Hub ($49.99) and I've plugged phones, hard drives, scanners, and more into it, and it just works. Not bad for fifty clams.
Wow! Directory Opus. How to explain this thing?
Okay, let's start with this. If you're a heavy Windows user and always wished you could supercharge your desktop file management, Directory Opus might be for you. When the company sent me a copy, I thought it would interesting. I didn't expect it to be off-the-charts nuts-cool.
The product is one of those special breed of PC products that have been around for more than a decade, is aimed at one specific problem, and continues to add feature after feature after feature until it becomes an amazingly deep product for a relatively narrow need.
There are quite literally too many features for me to describe. Even the feature upgrade videos for a point upgrade run ten minutes, just describing a few new features. The best thing I can say is visit the Directory Opus ($49 Australian, roughly $44 US) site and look for yourself.
If you want serious power from your file management (to an almost Tim-the-Toolman extreme), this is your software. More power!
So, yeah, this is interesting. I did a review a while back looking at a variety of media center keyboards and one of them was the Logitech Bluetooth Illuminated Keyboard K810 ($99). I panned the product and indicated I was going to be returning it, because it was yet another item that needs regular charging, rather than replacement batteries.
That didn't happen. I now own five of them and I'll probably buy a few more.
There are a few key features that make this keyboard special. It's small, but not too small to type on. So it's not just useful on the couch, it's also nice at my desk, and frees up desk space as well.
It can dynamically switch between three Bluetooth systems, so if you want it to talk to your media center PC, your PS4, and your Apple TV, you can -- at the touch of a button.
And it's lighted. As soon as you hover your hand across the keys, they light up. Interestingly, even with backlit keys, the thing seems to last a full one to two weeks with active use, on a single charge.
A few months ago, the nice folks at Buffalo reached out to me and asked if I wanted to review their Buffalo LinkStation 420, a small two-drive NAS. At the time, I was doing a lot of NAS testing, so I thought it would be interesting.
They sent me the device and I immediately yanked out the two 1TB drives that it came with and slapped in two 4TB drives. I powered it up, and, well, bad news (although there's good news later in this post).
When I attempted to replace the 1TB drives with 4TB drives, I found it impossible to do. I made three calls to very friendly tech support folks, and we determined that (a) Buffalo specifically does not support replacing the drives with larger drives, and (b) it doesn’t work even if you try it.
Worse, apparently the device is only supported running the specific drives it was designed for and while it may work with other manufacturers' drives, once again Buffalo support said that the practice was unsupported.
I found that to be unacceptable for a mirrored RAID device. The entire reasoning for a mirrored RAID is that if a drive fails, you can easily swap it out with another drive to continue running the RAID. The need to be sure that the drive used as a replacement is a match for the originally shipped drives severely limits the appeal of the unit.
As it turns out, many RAID devices have the matching drive limitation. I'm so spoiled with the substantially more expensive (but incredibly easy to work with) Drobos, that my tolerance for perfectly matched drives has substantially diminished.
Third, the RAID firmware doesn’t live on the unit, but on one of the drives. According to Buffalo support, it specifically boots off the firmware on drive 1 (and specifically not off drive 2). That makes for another issue in terms of reliability. Basically, the box is dumb and not available for recovery in any sort of situation where drive 1 gets sick.
Fortunately, there was a nice bit of good news. I sent back the LinkStation 420, and they sent me a LinkStation 421e ($169.99). This unit is designed as an enclosure where you're supposed to add in your own drives. I once again slid in my 4TB friends, and this time the system ran like a charm.
Although I'd almost always recommend going with a Drobo if you want to spend the cash (and have the space -- the Buffalo is about a third the size), the Buffalo LinkStation 421e is a very sweet little device that does what it's supposed to do. It will be a welcome addition to any DIY-ITers network.
Despite the fact that I really dislike fixing family and friends' computers and networks, there's always the necessity once in a while.
An electrician friend once came over to my house at 4am after I blew out the power for my entire apartment building (I was just adding a light in my closet and the wire I tapped into seemed okay). He helped me fix things before the authorities got called.
When someone is willing to get out of bed in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, and help you fix your handyman mistakes, it's only fair that you return the favor and help him with his network. I have a lot of those stories, plus my elderly family members.
One ongoing issue has been maintaining network connectivity. Earlier this year, I hit on a solution that's been working very well. Using Cisco's Cloud Connect system, I can remotely connect to and talk to their routers, and see whether there's a connection, what devices are connected, MAC addresses, and more.
It's a great way to say, "No, Uncle Bill. Your cable isn't down. Please check the blue wire behind your laptop," and know, to a reasonable certainty, that he pulled it out again.
Cloud Connect comes as part of the Cisco Linksys router products. The one I've pretty much standardized on is the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router (I got the EA3500 model for about $100). Seems to work pretty well and everyone seems happier. What more could you ask?
See also: CNET's review
Image courtesy CNET.
Here's something you might not expect at the cusp of 2014. I'm going to recommend a wired headset for your smartphones. I know. Yes, I've heard of Bluetooth. No, the 1990s aren't calling my name.
I'm recommending the NoiseHush NX70 Crystal Clear Conversation Multimedia Headset ($24.99) in addition to your regular Bluetooth headset because this little package doesn't require charging. I can't tell you how often I've found myself with my Bluetooth headset just out of juice and I needed to make one more call.
The NX70 is the answer. I like that it has a "tangle-free" coiled cord and comes with a mobile to PC-audio 3.5mm adapter, and volume control on the cord.
But the real benefit is it's cheap, you can leave it sitting in a box on your desk or the glove compartment of your car forever, and if you need a headset in a hurry without worrying about whether it's been charged, you've got one.
My wife and I are scanner junkies. We have two Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 and we use them to scan in tons of documents for office management, personal management, and my research projects.
But I've recently started using a small, single-sheet scanner at my desk, the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1100 ($159 from Amazon). My purpose is decluttering.
For years, I've always had a stack of business cards (yeah, I know they're pretty much out of style, but we still get them), notes on 3x5 cards, and lots of little, individual sheets of paper. Now that I'm using Evernote, I want all that stuff in my Evernote and off my desk.
The little pocket-sized S1100 scanner takes almost no space on my desk and immediately scans in everything from credit cards to documents, right into my Evernote.
Now, some of you are going to tell me that (a) Evernote supports business card scanning in Premium, and (b) almost every smartphone has some sort of camera-to-scanner app.
This is true, but I've found that the time it takes to hold the phone, open the app, position things perfectly, and otherwise fiddle just reduces my productivity. It takes a second to drop any paper into the S1100 and be done. And that time savings is worth a lot to me -- and it might also be to you, too.
One of the very best gifts I can recommend is the Chromebook. It's slightly larger than a stocking stuffer, and at $199 to $1,500, it's a bit more expensive, too. The Chromebook is clearly not the main computer for anyone doing a lot of work, but it's both amazingly useful and amazingly cheap (except for the Pixel) for light office work.
After the overheating incident with the HP Chromebook 11, I did return my HP. But within about two weeks, I went back out and bought the Samsung 11-inch Chrromebook, which has proven to be quite helpful.
If you have someone who needs to go online, is a Chrome user, and wants to be able to use all those wonderful Chrome extensions, the Chromebook is a relatively inexpensive, yet impressive gift.
With products like Photoshop and Illustrator, there's no doubt Adobe sets the gold standard for graphics tools. Even so, these products have historically been quite expensive individually and when packaged as a suite, like the CS6 Master Suite, they've been really quite costly.
At $2,000 and up, access to the entire Adobe library has been unattainable for many professionals, and certainly for many students. Adobe recently changed up its sales model, going from packaged software to a subscription service called Adobe Creative Cloud.
Adobe provided me with a subscription to Creative Cloud, which is priced at $29.99-per-month for students (also for CS5 and CS6 upgrades, otherwise $49.99), which is a price most people interested in graphics can afford. That nets out to about $350 a year, which is far less than the price of the Master Suite.
The company is also offering a $9.99/mo Photoshop CC and Lightroom deal, but I'm not sure how long that's going to be available.
The jury is still out on the overall market acceptance of a monthly fee for previously packaged software, but if the success of Office 365 and Creative Cloud are any indication, a monthly software bill is likely to be the wave of the future. Surprisingly, given the added features, support, and capabilities, that might actually be a win for users as well as a win for vendors.