Gear Guide: Accessories and gadgety gift ideas for the holidays

Sometimes you need some additional materials, whether it's a keyboard, walkman, camcorder or other fun gadget.

Das Keyboard Model S Professional keyboard

US$130

Das Keyboard continues to be one of my favorite peripheral companies - a few years ago they launched their all-black keyboard, which had no labels and was something that touch-typists like myself could brag about their skills. The company followed this up with its Professional line of keyboards, with mechanical keys that make the "clicky" sound, which should remind users of the "golden days" of typing on an electric typewriter or early computer models.

The latest version released this year is the Model S Professional, which continues to make improvements to the keyboard system. The German-engineered mechanical key switches are gold-plated, continuing to give tactile feedback that should appeal to hardcore typists. Other features include a USB 2.0 hub (the keyboard attaches to your computer via USB) that can power additional devices, and Media Control buttons that give you quick access to volume control, mute, stop, pause and "next track" or "previous track" for music applications.

Another nice feature is an extra-long USB cable - this model has a 6.6-foot cable that can help you place your keyboard more efficiently (if you like keyboarding farther away from your computer), or if you just want to have less clutter on your desk.

While the keyboard works with PCs and Macs, they do make a special Mac version. In my tests of this model (the PC one), the inclusion of a blue Function key made it more difficult for me to do the copy/paste keyboard commands I was used to with a previous keyboard. This slowed me down on some of my functions, but eventually you figure out the proper finger combinations. Knowing that there's a special Mac version that addresses this would be helpful if you are buying this for a Mac user.

If you want the benefits of the keyboard but don't want the clicky keys (I gotta admit, at times the clicking can get noisy), a "soft" version is available for $135.

- Keith Shaw

Seagate Backup Plus portable hard drive

$125 (1TB model, Mac USB 2.0); $170 (1TB model, USB 3.0)

Seagate recently changed the branding of its GoFlex portable hard drives to something more simple - the name of the product basically says what it does. In the case of the Backup Plus for Mac, the USB-enabled portable hard drive provides backup functionality for users of Macintosh computers.

The GoFlex nature of connectors, where users can switch from a USB port to something that's faster (in this case, a FireWire 800 adapter or Thunderbolt adapter), still exists, as long as you're willing to purchase those adapters separately. If you're fine with USB 2.0, then just plug it in to your Mac, and the drive will automatically mount to your system. Because this is a Mac product, the system will ask if you want to use the drive for Time Machine backup purposes. You don't have to do this, but it's nice that it can.

The "Plus" side of Backup Plus is a feature that allows you to save Facebook photos to the drive. You can download what you've already put up on the social networking site to the drive, and the software (downloaded separately from Seagate) will also automatically download any new photos that you upload. It's a cool feature that can help protect digital photos that end up being uploaded from a smartphone to Facebook, for example, without going through a PC.

Other than that it's a pretty basic portable hard drive. The 1TB of capacity should be more than enough for most people (unless you have a budding videophile on your holiday list). Backup and storage isn't usually the sexiest holiday gift, but just like we all used to receive socks and underwear in our stockings, think of this as the "socks and underwear" of technology gadgets.

A USB 3.0 model is also available.

- Keith Shaw

Seagate GoFlex Slim for Mac (500GB)

$150

If you're really into slimming down your technology products - let's say you have a MacBook Air or other small notebook - the last thing you want is a bulky external storage drive weighing you down (and your laptop bag). Fortunately, the Seagate GoFlex Slim is there to lighten your load without compromising serious storage capacity.

This version is specifically formatted for the Mac, letting you write files to the drive from a Mac. While you can read those files via a Windows PC, writing to them requires an additional software download from Seagate (although, you could also just buy the Windows version and then download the software for Mac writing).

When you plug the unit into a free USB port on your Mac, a pop-up window asks if you want to use the drive for Time Machine backup purposes. No harm if you don't - you can use the drive and do the old-fashioned drag-and-drop to backup important files.

The unit I tested came with a USB 2.0 port - but if you have a newer Mac with USB 3.0 ports or if you prefer transferring over Thunderbolt or FireWire 800, the GoFlex nature of the drive lets you attach one of those adapters (sold separately) to the unit. This basically future-proofs the drive - you don't need to buy an additional one if the data cable transfer speeds increase.

The super-slim size of the drive creates one downside - you can only get this in a 500GB capacity - if you want to go up to 1TB, you'll need to add some bulk by looking at other models (from Seagate or others). But for the most part (unless you're doing lots of videos), 500GB should be enough for most users.

- Keith Shaw

G-Technology G Drive mobile portable hard drive

$180 (1TB, USB 3.0)

The G Drive mobile offers a very portable hard drive unit formatted specifically for Macintosh computers - it offers a whopping 1TB of storage space in a very compact and slick silver finish. The style and design go hand-in-hand with the silvery finish of the MacBook Pro and other Apple notebooks, but it's more than just a nice-looking drive.

Out of the box, the unit has three ports for data cables - two FireWire ports and a USB 3.0 port. Three cables are included as well, so you don't have to buy a separate cable if you want to use one port over the other. Because it's formatted for the Mac, the drive pops right up on your computer screen after you plug it in - also, no additional power source is needed.

The drive works with Apple's Time Machine for providing backup for your data, or you can just open the drive and drag-and-drop files and folders as you please. With 1TB of storage capacity, you'll have a very hard time filling it up with content. Believe me, I tried.

While the unit is larger than some other portable drives I've tried, it's still not so big to be a nuisance in your travel bag. If you need the protection of data backup while traveling, this certainly wouldn't be a detriment.

A 500GB version is also available, and you can also downgrade to a USB 2.0 unit with 1TB of capacity - just check the G-Technology website for other models and configurations.

- Keith Shaw

LaCie RuggedKey

$55 for 16GB; $100 for 32GB

The LaCie RuggedKey is a nifty portable USB thumb drive designed with extreme durability in mind. The mechanical drive is contained within an airtight orange silicon case that provides protection from the elements. LaCie advertises the drive as being able to withstand 100-meter drops, as well as being water, heat and cold resistant.

I tested the drive by dropping it from typical, everyday heights, and indeed it held up to all the abuse I threw at it. That's only applicable when the unit is ensconced within the case, however, and that's where the rub comes in: you're paying a somewhat hefty premium for that protective silicon case.

The drive is USB 3.0 compatible, which makes it much faster than its 2.0 brethren - provided you have a computer with a USB 3.0 port - but beyond that it's a fairly typical USB drive. If you find yourself transmitting sensitive information, it's worth noting it also comes with security software to encrypt the data contained on it with AES 256-bit encryption technology.

Overall I was very impressed with the drive, and enjoyed using it. I didn't have any trouble keeping track of it, given the bright orange and larger-than-typical size. Everyone needs to transport data, and if you find yourself often knocking things over or losing your USB drive, this may be the solution you've been looking for. I really like it, and highly recommend for those seeking a tough travel companion you can attach to your keychain.

- Dan Hunt

Plantronics BackBeat Go wireless earbuds

$130

We've seen versions of Plantronics' BackBeat Go wireless headphones in previous years, but we think this year they really nailed it. These very light stereo headphones connect wirelessly via Bluetooth to your music player or smartphone, giving you the ability to hear music (and take calls if you want, there's a small microphone on the wire connecting the two earbuds) without a dangly cable getting in the way.

If you work out, you'll appreciate this fact immensely. During a recent walk on a treadmill, I popped out the cord on another pair of headphones several times, disrupting the walk and almost breaking the music player.

In the case of the BackBeat Go earbuds, the only cable is a small one that connects the left and right side. You can loop the cable behind your head, so when your arms are swaying back and forth during a walk or run, you won't have to worry that it's going to violently tug the cable out of the music player.

These headphones also offer some moisture protection - previous versions tended to short out if you sweat or got some water in them (running in the rain). Plantronics says the earbuds have nano-coating that can protect the earbuds against rain, sweat and other small bits of moisture. You can't go swimming with these things on, but you should be OK during a small drizzle.

The earbuds come with three sizes of ear tips to provide a good fit inside your ears, as well as two stabilizer hooks that help keep them inside your ears without the need to jam them inside your ear canal. Connecting via Bluetooth is about the same process as a phone headset, and the battery life will give you up to about 4.5 hours of listening to music before it needs a recharge.

If you have a runner on your holiday list, check these out.

- Keith Shaw

Sony NWZ-W262 Walkman

$100

Wow, how totally rad! The Walkman is back! Well... sort of. The name is back, but the product is very different. Essentially now, the Walkman is a 2GB MP3 player (also available in 4GB). The cool part though is that it's wireless. The device is built into the headphones, so it's all just one piece; no wires, no fuss!

I was first very nervous about the MP3 player part; if it's not an Apple product, how hard is it to to transfer music? Fortunately, it wasn't difficult. The Walkman will sync with Windows Media Player, iTunes, or you can just migrate music folders onto the Walkman's drive when plugged into your computer. The device will also work through a playlist or use a "shuffle" mode.

I'm a little less enthused about the headphones part. This may just be me, but I found them a little confusing to properly put on my ears. It probably took me about five or six attempts before getting it correct. Then, I found them a little heavy and the headphone strap is way too big for my head, but I have a small head. The strap isn't adjustable. The sound quality was good, but I worried about what if something happened to one of the headphones. It's not like with other devices where you could just buy new headphones. If you damaged a headphone here, you'd have to buy a new Walkman.

I still think this is a neat gift, but it's probably ideal for someone with a larger head (a man perhaps) who is really into having cool and non-cumbersome running gear. Especially because the headphones are sweat-proof and it comes with a little booklet from Olympian and marathon runner, Meb Keflezighi, featuring running and nutrition trips, as well as suggestions for a playlist. Personally, I liked Keflezighi's musical suggestions, and his tips were helpful. The Walkman is a neat idea, it just didn't fit me well.

- Jen Finn

Belkin @TV Plus

$190

I've always been a huge fan of place-shifting appliances. The idea is simple - take whatever is on your TV and shift it to where you want to watch it, even a mobile device on a wide-area wireless network.

Belkin's @TV Plus is the latest entry in this exciting space. Basically, the device takes video input (on component or composite jacks, plus stereo audio) and converts this to a video stream over Ethernet or the built-in 300Mbps 802.11n Wi-Fi (single-band 2.4GHz. only). There's an IR blaster that can control a set-top box for changing channels. Screen resolutions up to 1080i are supported.

What's missing, though, is HDMI, and that's basically unforgivable today. It's not that the picture quality suffers (it doesn't, either on the PC or the TV via the the pass-through feature of the device); and, after all, the target device for viewing will often be a handheld. But the convenience of one-cable HDMI is undeniable, and Belkin needs to add this feature to future products. There's also no manual, a serious oversight.

Setup is a fairly long process - plan on about an hour to download the software, update firmware, configure the device, and set your preferences. There's a bug that prevents your location from being properly set, but I got the device working with only a few bad words involved. There's about five seconds of latency with respect to the original signal, but audio and video are nicely synchronised on the PC, and image quality is excellent.

I'm not sure how usable this device will be in the general wide-area (3G/4G, as opposed to Wi-Fi) case. But the convenience of placeshifting is undeniable - I use it over the WLAN in my house, and TV is thus available if I want on essentially all of the screens in the house.

Now, if I only had time to watch it.

Assuming the techie on your list isn't quite so busy though, the Belkin isn't a bad gift. I'd personally wait for an HDMI version, but the current product is more than useful.

- Craig Mathias

Sony Handycam HDR-PJ260V

$1000

I really liked this camcorder. Simple setup is always a plus in my book, and this was certainly easy. This was a product that my 4- and 5-year-old nephews were able to figure out (needless to say, when I was reviewing the videos afterwards, I found some interesting/adorable surprises). In addition to being easy to use, it has some of its neater features defaulted on. That way, if you don't read the owners' manual until after you use the camera, you don't lose out. For example, when this camera is in video mode, it will also take still photos any time the camera detects smiles, known as the "smile shutter." So in addition to recording a video, the camera surprises you with a bunch of cute stills. Of course this feature can be turned off if you don't like it.

The camera also lets you make basic edits to your videos right on the Handycam. For example, you can split one video into multiple parts, which can be particularly nice if you want to delete parts, such as those awkward moments at the beginning or end of your video. The supplied software also lets you merge two (or more) videos together, but on the computer instead of the camera.

The coolest feature of the camcorder, though, is the projector. While you can play back recorded videos on the flip out, 3-inch LCD screen, you can also use the built-in projector and show them on a wall (or screen). In our tests, I attended a wedding and we were able to review my boyfriend's best man speech the next morning on the wall of our hotel room. Setting up the camera to project and focus on the wall was very easy to do. My only complaint - the touch screen to select what videos to watch wasn't as responsive as I wanted. That said, the camera does come with a remote control, which makes selecting videos to watch more accurate than a finger.

In terms of video quality, it was a bit difficult to judge, as the majority of my videos were taken at a distance with low lighting, so they ended up being a little blurry on my HDTV. They did look great on the camera's smaller screen, as well as the hotel wall. When zoomed in or with a better light source, the videos looked great on the TV. The camera does film in full 1080p HD with an 8.9-megapixel camera for still images. It has a 30x optical zoom, which works very nicely, and those images were crisp and even. The camera has an internal memory of 16GB, but you can also record to an SD card for additional space. Fully charged, the battery would last for 140 minutes of recording.

Other nice features are that you can instruct the camera on how to focus. For example, choosing "face priority" keeps people's faces on focus; "tracking priority" lets you tap the screen to tell the camera to focus on something specific (the manual suggests using this when filming pets). The camera can group videos by date recorded or by location recorded, using its internal GPS. This could be helpful if you want to see all videos from a vacation, or perhaps all the videos you filmed at grandma's house, for example.

Another default feature I enjoyed was voice detection for the microphone's volume, and detection for whether the unit is on a tripod, or if the camera should minimize movement if you're walking and recording. The microphone also records voices from a variety of locations, so if you watch videos with a 5.1 surround sound system, you'll get the full benefit of that sound.

I feel this camcorder would appeal to several types of users - from those who want something easy to those who like to maximise their camera to perform many functions. The projector feature alone makes it a unique and fun way to share recorded videos in real time.

- Jen Finn

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Keith Shaw

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