What the true geek really wanted for Christmas (it's not too late!)

Sure, you've got an iPhone. But if you're a real techie, your list would have included these cool toys, too

Christmas means many things to many people, but the joy of giving to others as well as to oneself is universal. Sometimes, though, those presents from others don't quite fulfill your own cravings. Thus the days after Christmas often involve satisfying those unmet desires. For IT pros and technology lovers, those desires include gadgets and cool apps.

Before the holiday shopping season got off in earnest, InfoWorld highlighted several possible gifts that real geeks would love -- eschewing the obvious tech toys such as the Nintendo Wii, Apple iPhone or iPod Touch, and Alienware Area-51 gamer's dream notebook. In case your friends and family didn't take the hint, we're again presenting seven items (and a new honorable mention) that go beyond regular cool so you can satisfy that unmet desire for a real geek's toy.

InfoWorld's must-have gadgets
Sun Microsystems Project Sun Spot Development Kit sensor and robotics kit
Honorable mention: Trossden Robotics Phidgets sensor and controller kits
Vudu Box movies-on-demand server
Amazon.com Kindle wireless e-book reader
Fujitsu PalmSecure PC Login Kit biometric mouse
AMD ATI TV Wonder 650 Combo USB HDTV converter for PCs and Macs
T-Mobile HotSpot @Home base station for cellular/Wi-Fi combo phone service
Data Robotics Drobo intelligent backup drive

And if you're still looking for a new smartphone, be sure to check out our iPhone evaluations and our head-to-head smartphone comparison.

Sun Microsystems Project Sun Spot Development Kit sensor and robotics kit

Why you must have it: If your happy childhood centered around your Heathkit radio, computer, or home audio electronics kits, you'll drool over Sun Microsystems' Project Sun Spot Development Kit, a battery-operated platform for development of radio-controlled sensor networks, robotics, and personal consumer electronics. Each kit comes with a base station and two Spot devices, each of which, in turn, includes a processor, a radio, a sensor board, and battery. You can also add servo motors and your own sensors on top of the acceleration, temperature, and light sensors that come with each Spot. You program and build the Java VM-based Spots to do whatever it is you want to build; examples of Spot applications developed so far include microwave detection, robotic-arm control, and slot-car control.

Your chances of having the first one on the block: Very high, as supplies are limited and frequently need to be back-ordered.

What you should know: The Sun Spot technology is decidedly not commercial — it's more like an open source hardware/software platform. So be warned: If you're not willing to go deep into the tech thicket and work with an evolving technology, Sun Spot is not for you. The kits can be ordered only from Sun.

What you need: A PC running Windows XP, Mac OS X 10.4, and Linux (Fedora Core 5, SuSE 10.1, and Ubuntu 6.06 have all been tested). Sun has not formally tested Sun Spot on Vista or Leopard, but users report that it works on those operating systems. Each kit costs $550.

Honorable mention: Trossen Robotics' Phidgets are also a cool way to get into electronic kits. You can assemble I/O boards, sensors and controllers into modules that connect to your PC via USB, then create programs for them in any Microsoft .Net language, Flash, Visual Basic, VBA (Microsoft Access and Excel), LabView, Java, C, and C++. Prices for the components (some available in kits) range from $7 to more than $500.

Vudu Box movies-on-demand server

Why you must have it: Sure, it's a bit clichéd to get yet another entertainment box, but the ongoing industry transformation to digital media delivery gives you no choice. The cable and satellite companies have been pushing video on demand for years, so why bother with the Vudu Box? The answer is that you get to keep your movies with Vudu — sort of like an iPod that can store your digital movie collection and move them to your TV. And you're not tied into your current TV provider's offerings. Vudu uses a broadband connection to download the movies, which you can either rent for 24 hours or buy, and there's no monthly subscription fee. The HD-capable Vudu Box can access about 5,000 movie titles — though it only store about 100 movies at a time. When Vudu upgrades its software next year, you'll be able to store movies on a USB 2.0 hard drive (the Box has two USB ports). Another option: Store them on Vudu's Web site, and they'll be streamed back down when you want to watch them. 

High, as this movie server has been available only since September.

What you should know: The encoding technology is proprietary, so you cannot move over TiVo'd or other view files to the Vudu Box. The company offers about 5,000 titles, so the selection is about as much as a large video-rental store's inventory. There's a risk that if the company goes under, you'll lose access to any movies you've bought but not stored locally. HD films play only over the Vudu Box's HDMI connections, not over its composite interface.

What you need: A broadband connection of at least 2Mbps, plus the ability to run an Ethernet cable from the Vudu Box to your router. HDMI input is required for HD playback. The Vudu Box costs $399.

Amazon.com Kindle wireless e-book reader

Why you must have it: E-book readers have always sounded like a great idea. But until now, they've generally fallen short. The Amazon.com Kindle is the first e-book reader you might actually want to use in real life. What makes Kindle different from predecessors such as the Sony Portable Reader and various PDA-based software readers is that it doesn't need a computer. Instead, it uses Sprint's EvDO (evolution, data optimized) 3G cellular connection to download the books you buy or the magazines, newspapers, and blogs you subscribe to, such as the New York Times, Le Monde, Time, Atlantic Monthly, and the Huffington Post. About 88,000 titles are available. You don't pay for the wireless access, just the books you buy or publications you subscribe to, as their price covers the wireless charges.

Your chances of having the first one on the block: High, as the Kindle was released just before Thanksgiving, and the $399 price is offputting to many people.

What you should know: The biggest issue for most tech-savvy buyers is that the Kindle does not support the Adobe PDF format. The battery life is good for about two days of "normal" use, and it takes two hours to recharge The Kindle holds about 200 titles (books cost about $10 each), so you're not likely to run out of reading material in a hurry. The inventory of books is relatively low, though Amazon says it is adding several dozen a month. Books and publication subscriptions can be purchased through Amazon.com's Kindle Store only. Books with images that are complex or that require color reproduction, will not be made available, given the Kindle's 167-pixel, grayscale display.

What you need: A PC with a USB 2.0 port if you want to transfer audiobook files. The Kindle costs $399.

Fujitsu PalmSecure PC Login Kit biometric mouse

Why you must have it: Biometric security is both easy to use and hard to defeat, so it's no surprise that finger scanners are popping up on notebooks and as PC peripherals. But once you've swiped them, anyone can use the computer. Fujitsu has taken the biometric protection concept one step further, making it continuous. It's done so with its PalmSecure mouse, which has an infrared scanner that reads the pattern of the veins in your palm as you hold the mouse, all without adding more desktop clutter or replacing your biometric-less laptop.

Your chances of having the first one on the block: Extremely high, as Fujitsu has not yet begun selling the PalmSecure PC Login Kit.

What you should know: The PalmSecure works only on Windows XP and Vista. If you want to have managed multiuser authentication across an enterprise's PCs, you'll need the authentication server edition.

What you need: A Windows XP or Vista PC with USB 2.0 port. Pricing is not yet available.

AMD ATI TV Wonder 650 Combo USB HDTV converter for PCs and Macs

Why you must have it: For many of us, our PCs double as a TV — at least occasionally. There's been no shortage of cards and dongles to bring TV into a PC, but chances are the gadget you have isn't ready for HDTV. The ATI TV Wonder 650 Combo is. When an HD antenna is attached, this inexpensive USB-connected box will pick up HD signals over the air, as well as conventional analog signals. (There's also a PCI version for desktop PCs.) It can not only receive digital signals from the standard free networks and local stations; it also has cable/satellite inputs to get signals from your paid service, including the unencrypted ClearQAM HD channels that you may be getting from your cable provider but can't see on your regular TV without a compatible HD tuner.

Your chances of having the first one on the block: Medium, given the mania around digital TV and the low cost of the device.

What you should know: Use of ClearQAM to transmit unencrypted HD signals to digital TVs is very uneven, so there's no guarantee that the Wonder 650 will give you access to HD channels your analog converter box can't detect. There's also no guarantee your provider will continue to send any ClearQAM transmissions it now delivers in this transition period to the FCC's 2009 digital TV mandate. So consider ClearQAM support as a bonus that may in the end deliver little or nothing at your specific residence. Check out AntennaWeb to see what your over-the-air HD signal coverage is.

What you need: A USB 2.0-equipped Windows XP or Vista PC with a DirectX 9 or later graphics card, or USB 2.0-equipped Mac running Mac OS X 10.4.10 or later (an OpenGL 2.0 or later graphics card is recommended). An HD antenna (about $30 to $50) is required to receive HDTV signals over the air. The ATI Wonder 650 Combo costs $150.

T-Mobile HotSpot @Home base station for cellular/Wi-Fi combo phone service

Why you must have it: It's nuts to have a cell phone and burn minutes at home, where you're already paying for broadband service and probably a regular or VoIP line to boot. For several years, T-Mobile has said it would change that equation, delivering cell phones that use your broadband connection at home — without incurring minutes — and then switch to the cellular network when you're out of range. This year, T-Mobile delivered, with its HotSpot @Home service. Plus, when in range of a U.S.-based T-Mobile HotSpot (such as many Starbucks Coffee stores) anywhere else, your phone also uses Wi-Fi rather than the cell network so that you're not burning minutes in those locations, either.

Your chances of having the first one on the block: High, given T-Mobile's small market share compared to AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless.

What you should know: You'll need a compatible phone, which means you're limited to the Samsung T409, Nokia 6086, and the RIM BlackBerry Curve. You can use Wi-Fi connections outside your home network and T-Mobile HotSpots, but you could get lower voice quality due to contention with data traffic. T-Mobile's coverage can be weak out of major metro areas, and the carrier has no 3G offerings and almost nothing in the way of data services on its cellular network. As with a Wi-Fi network, the service is subject to interference, which is more noticeable on a phone call then when browsing the Web.

What you need: A T-Mobile cellular service plan, plus the additional HotSpot @Home service ($20 per month). You can also get a $50 T-Mobile router for home to give phone calls priority over data traffic and to reduce the phone's battery usage when using Wi-Fi.. However, this T-Mobile device can work in access point mode when it's attached to your existing router, rather than force you to replace what you already have in place.

Data Robotics Drobo intelligent backup drive

Why you must have it: MP3 files, TiVo videos, vacation photos, you name it — a lot of precious information now resides on our hard drives, vulnerable to becoming so much electronic dust in case of a system crash or a drive failure. The Drobo takes a step beyond the large external drives widely available today by adding intelligence and configurability to the device, both simplifying operations and giving you more control. The Drobo enclosure can take up to four half-height or full-height SATA hard drives and combine them into a massive, multiterabyte backup system — no need to figure out RAID settings or worry about whether the drives are the right capacities to work together. And as you add or replace drives within Drobo, it handles the updating and migration of affected backup data automatically. It also initiates the backup for you, so there's no need to have backup software on your PC or Mac.

Your chances of having the first one on the block: Very good, as Drobo has been available only a few months.

What you should know: To support both Macs and PCs simultaneously, Drobo drives should be formatted with FAT32 partitions. Drobo has no network interface for LAN-based backup, but users have successfully connected it to a USB-equipped Apple AirPort Extreme wireless router to enable network backup in all-Mac environment. The company says Windows-only and mixed-platform network backup should be possible if you use another vendor's USB 2.0-equipped router (AirPort requires that attached devices use Apple's HFS+ partitions for storage).

What you need: A USB 2.0-equipped PC running Windows 2000, 2003 Server, XP, or Vista, or a USB 2.0-equipped Mac running Mac OS X 10.4 or later.

Oh, you didn't get the cool phone you wanted after all?

Whether or not you got the true geek gifts in InfoWorld's list for Christmas, maybe you did not get the smartphone you also crave. Maybe you're torn between buying an iPhone or some other mobile device. (After all, as cool as the iPhone is for personal use, it's not yet enterprise-class.) Not to worry. InfoWorld can make help you make that decision a little more easily, too.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.