Computeractive offers you a guide to the computer gifts that any Christmas tree would be proud to model. Part 3 looks at storage devices, serious fun and games, and how to be nifty and thrifty
PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES
Even we get confused by the formats for CDs and DVDs, with all the abbreviations and symbols that are used, but here's a simple guide. The 'R' stands for 'record' as in once only. 'RW' stands for 'rewrite', so a disc can be recorded on again and again. Drives marked as 'ROM' (read only memory) can't be used to record or 'burn' a disc at all.
DVDs come in four formats, although most new drives will read or write to the two most popular, which are called 'plus' and 'minus'. You'll recognise them and their discs by their symbol: DVD-RW (for minus format) and DVD+RW for the plus format. Also on offer is DVD-RAM (quite scarce these days) and just emerging is dual-layer, which can store almost double the amount of data as a plus, minus or RAM disc.
Western Digital Media Center £246
Sometimes, biggest is best. Storage at the upper end of the scale is valued in pounds per gigabyte, and Western Digital's 250Gb model socks it to the competition at 98p per gigabyte. It's a little ungainly, but to be fair isn't designed to be lugged around. What it will do is make sure that all current work is saved when you press its Off button, to guard against accidental data loss. Throw in a built-in, eight-in-one memory card reader and what's not to recommend?
Contact: Western Digital www.westerndigital.com
MSI X52P £34
Time is cruel to technology. It seems that items have barely established themselves before the next big thing comes along to knock them down. DVD has done pretty much that to the CD, but while DVD gives you far more storage for your money, not everyone needs all that space.
The good news is that old technology means cheap technology so, if a CD will happily meet all your storage needs, try the MSI X52P. It will read DVDs but record a 700Mb CD in less than two minutes, and recording software is supplied.
Contact: MSI Computer 020 8813 6688 www.msicomputer.co.uk
Lite-On SOHW-832SX £110
Storage isn't exactly the most glamorous aspect of home computing, but is vital all the same. Lite-On hasn't tried to win any style awards with its SOHW-832SX but its beauty goes deeper than some of its rivals. It is one of the growing number of DVD rewriters that supports the dual-layer format, which means you can store almost double the amount of data on each disc as older standards.
What really impressed us, though, was its price: £110 is good value for this type of device. That's why it won our Best on Test award, despite having only a USB 2 and not a FireWire socket.
Contact: Lite-On www.liteonit.com
Ximeta NetDisk £100
It's amazing how quickly your music, digital photo or video collection can eat up the hard disk, especially when you have a house full of eager users. Ximeta's NetDisk provides a space that can be shared if you have two or more PCs running in the house. It uses the PC's network socket and is good value for money, but its main strength is that families can access common files, such as music, while keeping space on their own hard disk free for other items.
Contact: Ximeta 020 8358 5858 www.ximeta.com
Freecom FHD-XS 20GB £140
Carrying large files around is becoming a part of life for some people. Students in particular can benefit from being able to pack up their study materials on a single device. Freecom's FHD-XS is smaller than a CD case, although markedly heavier, but that's to be expected when you can cram 20Gb of material on to it. Ease of use couldn't be simpler, as it plugs into a standard USB socket. At this size, £7 per gigabyte is good value.
Contact: Freecom www.freecom.com
The internet has always offered new gaming possibilities and the adoption of broadband has widened this to include action games. Broadband does not charge you by how long you are on the internet, making it ideal for gamers. And it can send information much faster making real-time games possible.
There are three main types of online game: first-person shooters such as Call of Duty, strategy games such as Warcraft and massive multiplayer games such as Dark Ages of Camelot and Everquest. You should be aware that popular multiplayer games charge a monthly stipend for their servers, so you should add this to the cost of buying the game.
Most games that are also playable offline are free to play online. If you want to see what games are available to play online, look at Gamespy Arcade. This website hosts lots of game servers and if you subscribe you can look for games to join in with.
Ideazon Zboard £40
Keyboards that are good for gaming are rarely good for typing but the Zboard solves this problem with an original idea. The keys can be removed and replaced with a set designed for a particular purpose. There is a general purpose keyboard and a gaming keyboard included in the box and you can buy a special set for Doom III, with more for Warcraft and Everquest on the way.
The Zboard connects via USB and includes a two-port hub on the back. There is a host of shortcuts keys for launching media player or changing the volume.
Contact: Zboard www.zboard.com
Call of Duty £40
A firm favourite of Computeractive's at lunchtime in the office, Call of Duty is one of the best World War 2 first-person shooters. The missions span the British, American and Russian armies and each country has its own distinct feel. The intelligence of the computer-controlled allies and opponents is very good and you can rely on your companions not to walk blindly into a hail of bullets.
Some of the set pieces such as the defence of Pegasus Bridge or attacking German positions in Stalingrad get the heart racing. Multiplayer gaming is also included and the design of all the levels is very good.
The Sims 2 £40
The Sims deserves a category all of its own and has a very loyal base of fans. You take control of one or more virtual characters and their passage through life. Expect them to react realistically to their environments and your decisions but this means they might react illogically as well. You can customise your Sim in great detail, including hairstyles and what they have in their homes.
Characteristics are passed down to Sims from their parents so you can form your own dynasty. It's not a game with non-stop action but few games offer this much depth. And if the first version is anything to go by, you can expect plenty of expansion packs in the coming years, meaning that The Sims 2 really is the gift that carries on giving.
Trainz Railway Simulator: Passenger Edition £30
Everyone wants to be a train driver when they are young and this is the easiest way to get a feel for doing just that. Trainz covers all kinds of trains from the heydays of steam through to modern diesels and electrics. You can choose to drive the train with authentic controls or just a simple faster/slower control.
In addition to driving the trains around, you can attempt to keep the economy in a scenario supplied with all the goods its factories need to produce their wares. There is an editor to create your own scenarios and there are lots to download on the Trainz website, so you can see what others have done.
Contact: Just Trains 01480 462748 www.justtrains.net
Saitek X45 Flight Stick £80
Flight simulators are no fun without a joystick and they don't come much better than the X45 Flight Stick. It comes in two halves: one is the control stick and the other is the throttle control. Each has a wealth of buttons so you should never have to use the keyboard.
To help you understand all the functions there are helpful diagrams on the bases and lights on the throttle control to show which set of controls you are using. The Saitek Smart Technology software lets you set up the joystick for individual games and perform several keystrokes when a single button is pressed.
Contact: Saitek 01454 451900 www.saitek.com
NIFTY AND THRIFTY
Humax F2-FOXT £90
Digital terrestrial television has moved from being the joke it was two years ago to a way of getting a good set of extra television channels without having to pay a subscription, and all for the one-off price of a digital set-top box.
The Humax is the best one we've looked at over the past year, and it features automatic set-up, an optical digital output to connect it to your hi-fi system, and fantastic picture quality. It also, of course, comes with a remote control to change the channel, volume and settings. It's small, neat and good-looking, and comes at a decent price.
Contact: Humax 020 8547 4240 www.humaxdigital.com
Plantronics M2500 £50
Bluetooth headsets for mobile phones are becoming more popular, but they still make the wearer look as though they've just stepped out of a science fiction television series. The Plantronics M2500, however, is a little more discreet than most, and is comfortable and pleasant to use, to boot.
You get a good volume and quality of sound and, because most of the electronics are tucked away behind your ear, you don't look like Mr Spock when you're out and about.
Contact: Plantronics 0800 410014 www.plantronics.com
Amplio X-Player £50
With digital photography it's easier to view your pictures; you no longer have to wait for them to be developed, and it doesn't cost anything to see them. The X-Player makes it even easier. Just plug your memory card in one end (it supports all major formats except xD) and plug the other into a television to view your pictures on the screen.
Alternatively, if you plug it into a computer using USB it acts as a standard card reader allowing you to transfer pictures to and from the memory card.
Contact: Amplio 01672 542150 www.ampliotech.com
Buffalo Flash Drive 512MB £59
While some may still have use for floppy disks, the USB flash drive has made it easy to transfer and exchange much larger amounts of data in the palm of your hand. The simplicity of plugging one of the key-fob-sized tools into a spare USB or USB 2 socket is hard to beat and, with many people now exchanging larger files such as music, they make a handy gift for all types of users.
The Buffalo model featured here offers almost a CD's worth of storage and is compatible with USB 2, so you won't have to wait long to copy data to and from it.
Contact: Buffalo 01753 555000 www.buffalotech.co.uk
If you have to make a lot of Christmas phone calls, you might find that you can save money by making voice phone calls over your internet connection. You can do this for free using a service such as Skype providing the person you are calling also uses the service.
But instead of using the speakers and microphone on your computer, you can plug the TYN-200 handset into your computer's USB port and use it just like a normal phone. It will work with a number of other services as well as Skype, and you can buy a pair for a complete connection with someone.
Contact: Computer Solutions 01932 269616 www.computer-solutions.uk.com
Z-List The Fish £24
Why hold a mouse when you can grab a fish? This odd looking device is a mouse really, and is designed to ease the strain on your wrist. It's amazing how easy it is to master, with the scroll wheel operated by the thumb. The index finger wraps around the underside to operate the buttons.
You don't have to press it on a flat surface, so it's ideal for people who like to compute while snuggled up in an armchair. It has a two-metre cable and works on both PCs and Macs.
Contact: Z-List www.zlistltd.com
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