Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Toys please

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about what I thought someone of a geeky persuasion might like for Christmas. Not that I have any first-hand knowledge, you know…

You can get the audio online, or read my notes below.

(And good luck for your Christmas presents )

Q: What should the computer geek be hoping for this Christmas?

A: Ahh, there’s a good load of gadgets out there! Let’s just work our way around the field! There’s the wi-fi detecting T-shirt. It’s a T-shirt with a wi-fi pattern on the chest, and the bars in the pattern light up according to the strength of wi-fi signal you can see. I’d say that’s a pretty important garment, wouldn’t you?

And there’s the usual crop of USB drinks warmers and coolers, USB aquariums and USB rocket launchers. And my own personal favourite, a USB device that looks like a nuclear trigger – not that I’ve ever seen one of those, but I can dream – with three arming switches that have to operated in the right order so you can then press a great big button in the middle.

Q: What happens then?

A: They won’t say, but you’d hope for something pretty damn devastating!

Q: Right. So what about the gaming market, what’s out there at the moment?

A: The Nintendo Wii is cleaning up, basically. It’s a very cool little gaming console that you work by physically waving its controllers around. You get quite a lot of exercise in the process, and it’s a pretty good family toy. Eveyone can join in, and there are a lot of sporting-type games for it. Now you can play tennis even when its raining! The Wii is easily the biggest seller at the moment, and its about $500.

The other two big ones of the moment are aimed at rather more serious gamers.

Q: There are serious gamers?

A: Oh, believe me, there are serious gamers. There are lots of people out there for whom gaming is a lot more than, well, a game. The two big sellers are Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3. They have both come down a long way, and the Xbox is now much the same cost as the Wii, and the PS3 is about $800. These are both very powerful machines. Games will set you back maybe $120 each – they actually make the money on the games, not the consoles – but you should be able to score one or two with the new console. There are a couple of titles doing huge business in the States at the moment – Rock Band and Guitar Hero – with those games, you get specialized controllers that are like instruments, and you and your friends can play along together. This is going to be really important, it’s going to change they way that lots of people experience music. More on that in another programme, perhaps. Anyway, those games currently work on Microsoft or Sony only, not the Wii, but maybe they will come out on the Wii later.

Q: And you recommend?

A: If you are looking for something for your family to do in between overeating and playing beach cricket this year, I’d get a Wii and toss it in the car when you go away.

Q: And what else have you got for us? Phones?

A: And there’s the usual crop of phones. One of the best is probably the Nokia N95 which pretty much does everything apart from pour you another beer. It doesn’t come cheap at around $1,600, but feel the quality! Or you can get a Treo smartphone like mine, or one of the many other brands. And, incidentally, if you are a laptop or computer user, you can get a piece of software called Salling Clicker which lets you control your computer using your telephone. You need a reasonably smart phone which does Bluetooth or wifi, and its amazingly useful. I use to drive presentations – you know, next slide, last slide, make the screen go black, but you can use it to control pretty much anything. You can try that for free and its only $20 or $30 if you want to keep it. In the links for today.

But the uber-phone, the Jesus phone as some are calling it, is of course Apple’s mighty iPhone. It might not do as much as some smart phones, but it does it so well and so seductively. Although they aren’t officially on sale here you can get them if you know where to look.

Q: So you want one?

A: Ah no, I’ll wait till there’s a 3G one out next year. In the meantime, you can get the iPod touch which is basically an iPhone minus the phone – its still gorgeous and does all those cool Apple-y things, and you can sell it on on TradeMe when you eventually get the iPhone! An iPod Touch will set you back around $600, but if you hold it near your head people will think you have an iPhone!

Q: Ok, so what about computers. What should people be looking for?

A: Don’t you just love the way they keep getting better, faster and cheaper all at the same time? One of the biggest examples of that is the way the displays have come down. You wouldn’t get less than a 19 inch flat panel these days. I use a 23 inch panel for most of my work. And that’s not just for bragging rights, its really useful, I can stick two documents up next to each other is a decent readably-sized font and still have room for email and a calendar.

The next thing – nobody has a good word to say about Windows Vista. If you must have Windows, go to one of the shops that will let you have the old Windows, called XP. XP’s been around for over 5 years now and it’s pretty solid if a but uninspiring. Maybe Microsoft will get Vista going and may be it won’t, but don’t get caught.

Q: What’s the problem with Vista?

A: Several things, but I’ll just hit one now – it’s a resource hog. It runs very slowly, and with reduced functions on all but the most highly specified PCs. And it comes in a number of flavours – the Home Basic one doesn’t have all the new Vista features, but its all many PCs will run, even some which have the “Vista Ready” stickers on. There’s a class action suit on this in the States as we speak. Like I say, don’t be caught.

We should mention the Mac cult of course, with some beautiful machines out there now all running the brand new Macintosh operating system called Leopard. This is pretty good. Its got compatibility problems with a few bits of software but these are mostly being fixed. Leopard’s really good feature is its automated backup system called Time Machine. If you’ve already got a Mac it’s worth paying for Leopard for Time Machine alone – you’ll need to buy one of those hard drive in a box things if you haven’t already got one, but they are getting down to $2-300 dollars. Just use Google first to check that all your favourite software runs on it.

And on the Linux side of things, the big news is the latest version of Ubuntu, which is jaw-droppingly good and, of course, totally free. If you have some time on your hands and not a lot of cash, get yourself ‘bare bones’ computer – that’s code for one with no Windows on it, you might have to try a few computer shops but you can get these things and they are a lot cheaper because Windows is expensive – and put a copy of the latest Ubuntu onto it. That’s version 7.10, called Gutsy Gibbon, the last time I checked Dick Smith still had the old one. Check on Trademe and there are plenty of copies for a few dollars only.

Try this and you’ll be impressed. It does everything a Windows box will do and a lot more. There’s an absolute ocean of free software of amazing quality that you can tell the machine to get and install for you. You can even set up a copy of Windows running in a window as it were, on top of Linux – get the free Virtualbox software. You’ll need a legit Windows CD to make that work.

Q: Anything else out there which takes your fancy?

A: I’d love a GPS, and there’s a very neat one out there called TomTom. You know how us males will never stop to ask directions? Well, with a machine like that you’ll never have to! It has a four inch screen showing you a map of where you are, it talks you thorough every turn you need to make to get from A to B and it does Bluetooth so your laptop will talk to it. A mere $600.


As always, discuss this at

A website full of essential geek toys including the Wi-Fi T-shirt.

Control your computer from your mobile phone with the Salling Clicker.

A US consumer article that says your Vista Capable PC might not be capable of running Vista.

Which Mac or Ipod to buy.

Ubuntu’s latest – download it here or get CDs from LinuxCDMall or Copyleft.

Virtualbox virtualisation software for people who want to simulate multiple computers.

A review of the TomTom GPS.

posted by colin at 11:15 am  


  1. Hi I heard your talk on RNZ today and it raised a couple of interesting thoughts. I had been thinking about looking at linux although my XP has been very stable. So it was great to receive info about Ubuntu. When you were talking you also mentioned laptops. I didn’t see the dialogue in your listing and I wanted to reread what you said as my daughter is interested in purchasing a laptop or possibly the eee? Final point I didn’t hear you talk about the best Ipod or Mac as I am at work so I thought I would click on the link but it takes me to the TShirt. This is another family discussion we are having at the moment. Thanks Sue

    Comment by Sue Watts — 13 December 2007 @ 11:43 am

  2. Hi Colin
    I enjoyed your talk today as always. One correction though: Guitar Hero III is available for the Wii. DSE New Zealand link:

    Comment by Andrew — 13 December 2007 @ 9:12 pm

  3. Sue: I was looking at a friend’s Asus eeePC today – very dinky, very cute! She tells me battery life is not good (about 2 hours). It’s extremely small and lightweight.

    Whic Mac to buy? Well, there are 4 main possibilities: laptop or on the desk, consumer or Pro level. The laptops cost more but have the advantage of being totally portable. My MacBook has about 5 hours battery life and is great. My MacBook Pro has much shorter battery life and gets hot as anything.

    Screen size can be bigger in the desk machines.



    Comment by Miraz Jordan — 14 December 2007 @ 3:56 pm

  4. Hi there! Sorry about the slow response, I’ve been off-net for a day or so in the West Island.

    Sue: you can experiment with Ubuntu without getting rid of XP. Just download and burn an Ubuntu CD, or buy one through the links, then restart your computer with the CD in the drive. You will have the choice of running Ubuntu as a ‘Live” CD which won’t install anything onto your hard drive but will give you a flavour of Ubuntu, or installing as a ‘Dual Boot’ which will install it on your hard drive and give you a choice of running Ubuntu or XP every time you switch your computer on.

    Regarding laptops, the Eee is a very cool little machine. It runs Linux, although by downloading something called Wine you can make it run most Windows software on Linux. But it’s not a full size laptop and it doesn’t have much space due to having no hard drive. If you want a more traditional laptop look at the Macbook for $1,500-2,000 (from memory, best to check) which is a lovely machine, or if you want to try something cheaper go down to Dick Smith and kick the tyres as it were. Don’t buy a cheap one with Vista, though, get XP because it will run much faster.

    iPods – I would look at a Nano for size, a Classic for the ability to hold all my CDs or a Touch for sheer gorgeousness.

    Andrew – thanks for the pointer to GHIII on the Wii. This may be the spur I need to go and buy one! Not sure if Rock Star, the competing title to GHIII is out on Wii as well.

    Miraz – thanks for your pointers on Mac laptops. I’m in the market for a replacement high-end Mac laptop myself and I’m holding off until the Pro range gets revised, because it’s been a while since the last revision. Reviews on the current Mac Book (non-Pro) are relentlessly positive, but I’ve convinced myself I need the Pro features since I use it as a desktop replacement. Check out


    Comment by colin — 15 December 2007 @ 8:49 am

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