The InfoWorld 2011 geek gadget gift guide

10 cool gadgets and tech toys for the special geek on your list

2011 InfoWorld Geek Gadget Gift Guide

The kind of gifts the guys from “The Big Bang Theory” would appreciate

Christmas and the rest are fast approaching, and shorter days have geeks across America thinking even more about techno-toys. In the spirit of spreading holiday cheer of the gadget variety, InfoWorld.com presents its picks for the coolest gadgets for Christmas 2011 for that special geek in your life (or just for yourself!).

Our guide includes a few “crown jewel” items that may already be on your list -- or already in your loved one’s possession. The rest are gifts you probably won’t find at a Best Buy, so you know they’re special -- the kind of items the guys from “The Big Bang Theory” would appreciate.

PlugBug

PlugBug charging adapter for MacBooks

If you own a MacBook, chances are you also own an iPad or iPhone. And if you travel, you’re probably carrying a separate wall charger for your iOS device. TwelveSouth has a better way: An add-on for the MacBook charger that provides a USB charging port capable of the 10 watts an iPad needs, while providing whatever power the MacBook needs as well. The $35 PlugBug snaps onto the MacBook charger, so not only do you no longer have to carry two independent chargers but you use only one wall outlet -- a big advantage in many hotel rooms.

Soundfreaq and Apple TV

Wireless stereos: Apple TV and Soundfreaq

One of the really cool capabilities in an iPad or iPhone is AirPlay, which lets you stream music and more to wireless speakers or an HDTV. But AirPlay speakers are usually very expensive. One good option for your home entertainment center is the $99 Apple TV, especially if you use iOS devices and a higher-end stereo system with HDMI or optical inputs.

But for the rest of the house, you want something simpler that still sounds good. Soundfreaq has two really good wireless stereos with good sound, stylish looks, and broad compatibility. The $180 Sound Platform SFQ-01 is compact but doesn’t have the tinny sound most such compact stereos have. You can wirelessly transmit music over Bluetooth to it from iOS, Android, and BlackBerry devices, as well as dock an iPhone or iPod Touch directly into it. It also has an auxiliary port for connecting pretty much any audio device via cable, and has a built-in FM radio tuner. My only gripe is that the remote’s shiny black finish and small button text makes it hard to figure out what to press; you’ll likely want to use its iOS remote control app instead on your mobile device.

For even better sound, check out Soundfreaq’s larger $400 Sound Stack, which could replace a traditional stereo in many homes and lets you dock an iPad in it -- plus it has a remote control app for both Android and iOS. But skip the midsize $150 Sound Step: Although it can dock an iPad, its sound quality is disappointing.

Bheestie Bag

Bheestie Bag water remover

Liquids and electronics are a bad combination, usually resulting in a short circuit that can fry the device. But spills and rain downpours happen, so you might want to have a $20 Bheestie Bag handy. Remove the battery from your water-logged device and put the device in the bag overnight. The bag’s water-absorbent material will draw out all the moisture it can -- and perhaps dry out your device before it’s damaged. No guarantees, but it’s worth a shot. Plus it can be used repeatedly (until its water-absorbing beads lose their blue color, which the company says takes about a year under normal circumstances).

Mindstorms NXT 2.0

Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 robot kit

For the budding geek, check out Lego’s robot kit, the $240 Mindstorms NXT 2.0. Lego kits have long been great toys for the engineering-inclined creative kid, and the Mindstorms takes this creative play further by including a microprocessor, sensors, and both Bluetooth and USB connectivity so your favorite kids can not only create robots but actually make them function.

Apple iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

Apple iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

Last year, the original iPad was on our geek gadget must-have list. Since then, it’s gotten more amazing in its slimmer, lighter new iPad 2 version, and the recent iOS 5 update takes the iPad 2 to an even higher level. So it’s more of a must-gave than ever: The iPad 2 is a wonder lightweight business computer, portable gaming system, and personal media center -- and it makes a great gift from a geek who already has one to someone they love. Prices start at $500 for the 16GB Wi-Fi-only model and $630 for the 16GB Wi-Fi + 3G model (available for both the AT&T and Verizon Wireless networks), but you’ll probably want the 32GB models for $100 more. Also be sure to get Apple’s beautifully designed, innovative $40 polyurethane or $60 leather magnetic Smart Cover. And if you’re new to the iPad 2, check out my $10 book “Exploring iPad 2 For Dummies”; its iOS 5-updated edition should be available next month.

If you just can’t bear buying an Apple product -- there’s a species of geek that just can’t go there -- the best alternative is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, which runs the Android 3.0 operating system. And Samsung promises that the Galaxy Tab 10.1 will get the Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” update. Plus you get a choice of white or metallic gray bezels. The Wi-Fi-only 16GB model costs $500 and the Wi-Fi-only 32GB model costs $600. Models that work on the Verizon Wireless 3G network cost just $30 more, and if you’re a T-Mobile customer you can get 3G models at a subsidized price in exchange for a two-year data-plan contract.

Soft Kitty

Soft Kitty singing plush toy

If you watch the geek sitcom “Big Bang Theory,” you know that Sheldon -- the neurotic scientist with the emotions of a 10-year-old -- consoles himself with the “Soft Kitty” song his mother used to sing to him as a child. Well, you can now get the $30 Soft Kitty plush toy -- it sings the song, of course, when you squeeze its paw -- for geeks of all ages who need a little TLC. And you don’t need to be neurotic to want one.

Robot tea infuser and drip tray

Robot tea infuser

Here’s a stocking stuffer for a geek who likes to relax with a cup of tea: Kikkerland’s $10 Robot Tea Infuser and Drip Tray. No, the robot doesn’t move or make noise -- you wouldn’t want to submerge a real robot in hot water. The robot-shaped infuser works the old-fashioned analog way: It holds the tea leaves as you immerse it in the hot water.

‘Code Monkey’ T-shirt

‘Code Monkey’ T-shirt

You’re a developer and proud of it. That’s what the $19 “Code Monkey” T-shirt from ThinkGeek.com proclaims, in a clear but tasteful way. Only those in the know would realize the term comes from Jonathan Coulton’s hilarious but hardly politically correct “Code Monkey” anthem celebrating the unappreciated programmer.

Kindle Touch 3G

Kindle Touch 3G

For that avid book reader, Amazon.com’s Kindle Touch 3G should be high on the geek gift list. The $189 Kindle Touch 3G does away with all those ungainly buttons from previous Kindles and features the same E-Ink high-contrast, gray-scale screen that works great in sunlight and other bright conditions. Plus you can download books from anywhere. Even if you have an iPad or Android tablet, the Touch 3G is a great companion for use outside or when someone else is hogging the iPad.

Power2U U-Socket USB wall power outlet

U-Socket USB wall power outlet

Now that USB is the de facto standard for charging smartphones, tablets, and more, wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to have USB chargers taking up your wall outlets’ receptacles? FastMac’s $30 U-Socket outlets give you two grounded three-prong U.S.-style outlets plus two USB outlets so you can power both standard and USB devices without using adapters. They’re available in both standard faceplate and Decora versions in ivory, almond, and white. Do note that although the company says they comply with Underwriters Laboratory specs for electrical safety, they are not UL-certified; they also require that you have 16-gauge or better electrical wiring.