Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Christmas is coming; don't buy your geek the wrong gift

It’s almost Christmas and you haven’t done any shopping yet.

You know what to buy for your parents, your siblings and all the little kids, but what do you buy for the geek of the house?

Your first concern is obviously price. The more you’re willing to spend, the easier your decision will be. The world is full of expensive geek toys. If you’re willing to devote some cash to the project, you can get your geek a game console. If they already have one, they probably want the other one. If you’re stuck trying to figure out what game system or software titles your teenager (or console-friendly adult) wants, just ask them.

Or, if you’re a purist, committed to the idea of a Christmas surprise, call their best friend on the phone and ask which games they want to play together that they currently can’t.

This is an important step that many people forget when buying gifts. It’s easy to make a mistake here. Parents and spouses who are not tech-savvy can end up with wasted money and hurt feelings if they buy their geeks the wrong hardware. Making the choice between Xbox and Nintendo, Wii or PS3, or PC and Mac is a big deal.

Some parents think all computers are created equal, but when you commit to a brand, you’re locking your kids into a specific platform, and if it’s not the same system that their friends have, you’ll end up wasting time and money on a gift that will never be used.

I remember when my parents gave me an Atari 800XL in a year when all my friends had Commodore 64’s. The Atari was a better machine at a better price, but I couldn’t share software or play games with my friends, so it served as a very expensive word processor until the world went to IBM.

Twenty years later and the dynamic hasn’t changed. The holiday shelves will be full of cheap knockoffs that are designed to look like popular name brands, promising to be “just as good” as the Xbox or the iPhone. But in the world of consumer electronics there’s nothing more frustrating than an off-brand gift.

If you’re bewildered by the array of gadgets and game consoles available on the shelf this season, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find out who your kids game with and ask their friends (or their friends’ parents) to do some spying for you. Find out exactly what make and model of game console they use and don’t forget to write it down. Have them take a cell phone picture of the console if they have to. And make them spell the full names of the video games you’re supposed to buy.

Pay special attention to sequel designations here. Your geek may smile and say thank you when he opens the box, but don’t waste your money on Mass Effect when he really wants Mass Effect 2.

A lot of people get new phones for Christmas, but buying a cell phone as a gift is a tricky business. People are very picky about phones. If you try to give a flip phone to a person who prefers the candy bar style, they may not complain on Christmas day, but they’ll complain about it every day for two years.

A lot of people are switching to smart phones this year. Remember. iPhones are great but they’re not for everyone. If you want a video iPod that surfs the web and takes phone calls, get an iPhone. If you want a phone for serious texting and business applications, get a Blackberry.

The physical/non-physical keyboard thing is a matter of personal preference, and for some people, it’s a deal-breaker. A tactile keyboard fan will never be truly happy with an iPhone, and a person who walks around with white earbuds 24/7 needs a phone that will play nice with iTunes.

If you have the luxury of choosing a new cell phone carrier, get a list of the top five people your geek plans to call and find out which company they use. Teenagers inevitably exceed their cell phone minutes and getting the right kind of mobile to mobile deal can save you hundreds of dollars in overage charges.

It sounds perverse, but if all your teenager’s friends are on Sprint, it may be cheaper to put her on a solo plan instead of adding her to the family AT&T. Don’t assume a family talk plan will save you the most money. Your teenager may spend 60 minutes a week talking to you on AT&T, but she spends 500 minutes a week talking to her boyfriend on Sprint. Make your decision based on who they actually call and get don’t get sucked in by the “convenience” of a single bill. Paying $40 bucks a month to another company can save you hundreds in overage charges, if you understand how mobile to mobile works.

Apple has lots of toys available at attractive price points, but most geeks will already have a music player by now. You have to make sure the iPod you spend money on is a true upgrade. Again, this will require some research.

You don’t have to be James Bond to get this information out of them. Just ask them to show you their current music player and pretend you’re buying a gift for someone else. Ask them to write down the brand name and capacity of the one they already have and ask them what the next logical step “up” would be. If you’re worried about forgetting it, have them find the item online and send you a link.

Every year parents and grandparents waste money on expensive, well-intentioned gifts that end up collecting dust because they listened to the guy at the store instead of doing their homework. Most geeks are so used to getting the wrong electronics they don’t even mention it anymore, but a family member who takes the time to buy the right brand with the right numbers on it will be remembered forever.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

November 25, 2009 at 15:33

Posted in Apple, Columns, Games

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