The holidays can be an unhappy time of year for us technology enthusiasts, for three reasons. First, everyone in the extended family wants free tech support. Second, we never understand why the amazing electronics we give as gifts fail to impress grandma. Third and most of all, the gifts we receive -- although well meaning -- tend to fall flat.
"Uh, thank you! A digital-photo keychain from Brookstone. What? No, yeah, I love gadgets. It's, uh, fine -- I mean great..."
If you're a gadget geek (like I am), make sure your loved ones "accidentally" read this (mine will). It's exactly the kind of guidance they're looking for.
What Makes for a Great Gadget Gift
I'm not supposed to tell you this, but here's the big secret behind understanding the psychology of the gadget-obsessed geek in your life: This person is a big kid, and the gadget gift they want is really a toy.
But not just any toy. It has to have one or more of the following characteristics:
New. If a gadget was available last holiday season, it's not going to be a great gift this holiday season. Geeks don't want old-and-busted. They want new-hotness.
Advanced. As a general rule, great gadget gifts have more compute power than NASA used to land men on the moon. And the closer you get to Space Shuttle technology, the better.
Unnecessary. Practical, useful gifts are no damned fun. The best gadget gifts are items nobody needs, and are maybe even utterly pointless.
Challenging. Gadget geeks don't want to just wind something up and passively watch it do something. They want to tinker, modify, experiment. It's great if the gift works right out of the box. But make sure it can be used for arbitrary, unanticipated purposes.
Empowering. Every gadget geek secretly wants to be Batman. We're just regular people, but through personal technology want to be given super powers. X-ray vision. Super strength. Invincibility. All make desirable gifts.
Uncommon. Novelty is huge for gadget geeks. If any friend, family or co-worker already has one, game over. It's got to be so unique that your tech-savvy gift receiver has never even seen one before.
Japanese. Nobody does gadgets better than the country that brought us Godzilla, anime and live rhinoceros beetle vending machines.
Where to Buy Great Gadget Gifts
Before I tell you were to buy the greatest gadget gifts, I'll tell you two places to never, ever buy them: The mall and the electronics superstore. If something shows up in on shelves at one of these two mundane locations, chances are it's already too ordinary to be a truly great gadget gift.
If you really want to knock this one out of the park, you're going to need the Internet.
Here's where to buy the ultimate gadget gift:
I Want One Of Those
I Want One Of Those is an unusual online store with an unusual name. It's a UK company with prices displayed in pounds sterling, but they take dollars and ship to the U.S.
One example of what you can buy: A product called Treasure Seekers is a metal detector built into flip-flops. Instead of walking around with grandpa's massive, expensive and lame metal detector, these enable a constant search for buried treasure without attracting unwanted attention.
Spy gadget catalogs represent a dark alley of the gadget world. These online stores sell a lot of questionable stuff that could be useful to creepy weirdoes, stalkers and snoops.
But if you ignore all that, you can also find fantastically cool devices for security, surveillance and fun. One of the bigger catalogs is Brickhouse Security. Their best new item is a $599 weather-proof, ruggedized, battery-operated, motion-activated camera called the Global Watchman.
It can be taken camping or set up anywhere, inside the house or outside -- in just about any weather. It uses a cell phone data connection to transmit images. The Global Watchman is ideal for spotting bigfoot or busting burglars. It even takes clear pictures in total darkness! Your loved one can monitor the feed on a Web site, or just have pictures sent to a cell phone.
The Think Geek catalog is totally devoted to nerdy fun. The site has a lot of tech-themed but low-tech products, like Internet-meme t-shirts and video game ice cube trays. But they also have hardcore nerd gadgets. One of my favorite is the $495.99 SRV-1 Blackfin Mobile Surveillance Robot, which the Think Geek crew calls a "Mars Rover for your home."
It's basically a Web server on tank wheels with a webcam attached. The device will connect to the Internet anywhere there's a Wi-Fi connection. The robot can live at home or in an office, and they can see through its camera and control its movement from anywhere in the world. It requires some technical skill to set up, and it's fully programmable.
Not only is the device a wacky electronic toy, it's also an elegant piece of kit. The cockroach is rechargeable, and the remote-control unit doubles as the recharger. GizMine also specializes in crazy alarm clocks and nutty USB devices.
Japan Trend Shop
Another cool purveyor of fine Japanese devices is the Japan Trend Shop. Anyone with an iPhone or iPod Touch would love this $83 HypnosEye Projector and Screen Set. It simply throws whatever's on your device's screen up onto a wall, which is great for watching movies, giving presentations or sharing photos.
These are just a few examples -- model gadget gifts and sites to get you started. This year, don't disappoint the geek in your life: Give the ultimate gadget gift!