This holiday geek-giving season is proving to be my most challenging one yet. Prices for the best toys are high, and the availability for some of them is iffy.
For example, I've been haunting the Landmark Center Best Buy and Cambridge Micro Center for weeks, hoping to snag a Wii at its much-touted $250 retail price. I simply refuse to pay some reseller $400 just because he or she beat me to the store.
And while the iPhone looks great, I'm afraid my wife would dump me if I bought her a gadget obviously meant for myself. I also know better than to blow $400 on Amazon's Kindle e-book reader. I expect serious readers will find the $400 black-and-white device as boring as Sony's Reader Digital Book. Even toys I really like, such as Ugobe's Pleo, are available only for pre-order. (Picture your child's tears if Santa's elves fail to crank out enough copies of the robo-dino.)
So I'm taking a bit of a different path, into the growing landscape of parent-child engineering projects and iPhone alternatives, where you might learn something new and save a bit of money - all in time for the holidays.
For NFL fans
Ambient device keeps tabs on scores
Cambridge-based Ambient Devices (ambientdevices.com) today announced a wireless display that does just one thing: provide the current standings and line scores for every pro football team, in every division.
The battery-operated Ambient Football ScoreCast updates scores every quarter.
The ScoreCast measures 8 by 5 by 1 inches, so it won't dominate your bookcase when you prop it up on its kickstand.
The ScoreCast is not nearly as pretty as the wood-trimmed Liveboard (myliveboard.com), an ambient device that displays up-to-the-minute baseball stats and scores on a baseball diamond. Rather, the ScoreCast looks like Ambient's other LCD numbers-watchers, the WeatherWizard and MarketMaven.
The ScoreCast also provides more raw data than the Liveboard can at any moment. And at only about $125, the ScoreCast is much less expensive than the Liveboard. The ScoreCast also requires no PC connection, since it pulls its data directly from Ambient's wireless InfoCast network.
Alas, the ScoreCast will not help you keep tabs on those winter bowl games. Future versions of the device might include college football scores, however.
Voyager soars with touch screen, sinks with Web browser
Is your partner an Apple-phobe, but one who lusts after the iPhone's shiny looks and touch screen?
LG's me-too smartphone, the Voyager, approximates Apple's handheld marvel in some respects. In others, it comes up short.
The Voyager (about $300 from Verizon Wireless, with a two-year contract) has a classy, black finish, a gorgeous, three-inch touch screen, and a 2-megapixel camera. It also flips open to reveal a full keyboard - something you don't get with the iPhone.
The Voyager can play MP3, WMA, and unprotected AAC files, as well as content from the Verizon V Cast Mobile TV and Music services.
The Voyager also has a microSD memory slot that holds up to 8 GB of memory - all of which your partner will need, if he has an appetite for digital media.
The Voyager's keypad makes messaging, and entering URLs, very easy. But browsing the Web with the Voyager is a chore. Verizon's browser and limited Web page optimization service provide only tiny slices of the Web. My favorite blogs, via Verizon's browser, looked awful.
Crafting, materials science wrap into one cute puff ball
My friend Kathy (myluckychicken.typepad.com) is a crafty one, a lover of vintage fabrics and home projects. She is also a bit of a geek - a perfect test subject for International Fashion Machines' ElectroPuff Craft Kit.
The kit (less than $28 at ifmachines.com) contains all you need to make your own pompom lamp switch. It has the same recycled carpet and conductive yarns that IFM's Maggie Orth uses in her own colorful e-textile creations.
Kathy said the ElectroPuff Craft Kit "does a nice job, blending the crafty and gadgety." An experienced pompom maker should be able to kick out a finished ElectroPuff in 20 minutes - longer if you are working with kids, she said.
Make your own wind farm
The Kidwind Project (kidwind.org), which originated in the Boston area, sells a number of killer build-your-own turbines to get your kids jazzed about alternative energy.
The WindLab Jr., for example, is a $35 kit that includes a turbine with blades, a tower, and an output board. You can also buy three of these babies in a package for $90, to create your own, wee wind farm. The WindLab Jr.'s output board can be used to light a small bulb or play music. You can also hook it up to other renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and fuel cells. The Kidwind website has downloadable materials for teachers. Any one of the company's kits should prove more interesting in the classroom than the old potato-as-conductor project.