2014 Geek Gift Guide

Slashdot.org always has the best Geek Gift Guide I see all year... If anyone wants to get me anything from this list (except the nail polish but I always gotta throw in something for the wife), please feel free (I already have a Drone with an HD camera but could always use another...) Additionally, anything kewl from ThinkGeek.Com as well would be right up my alley :-)

Photo by inhauscreative/iStock / Getty Images


Soulskill posted 1 hour ago | from the watch-out-for-robot-santa dept.

With the holidays coming up, Bennett Haselton has updated his geek-oriented gift guide for 2014. He says:Some of my favorite gifts to give are still the ones that were listed in several different previously written posts, while a few new cool gift ideas emerged in 2014. Here are all my current best recommendations, listed in one place.Read on for the list, or to share any suggestions of your own.

Most annual gift guides would only list new items. It would be considered a mortal sin of click-baiting to tell the reader, "Well, the coolest stuff we could tell you about, was stuff that we mentioned this time last year, so first and foremost we're just going to direct you to that."

Well, my job in writing a gift guide is not to dazzle people with "all new hottest gift item" recommendations, my job is to recommend the things that I think you would most enjoy giving and the recipient would most enjoy receiving, and the fact of the matter is that most of the gifts I would most highly recommend, were listed in different previously written articles. I'll provide that list in a second (with links back to the older articles describing them in more detail), but first some criteria for how I make the recommendations.

First, I'm assuming you want to go inexpensive. If you have unlimited cash, you don't need my help finding cool presents -- although for the record, the online store of New York's Museum of Modern Art has the best collection of things that incorporate "visual puns" that I really like, but which are usually overpriced for what the item does. (Check out this image of a set of nesting tables, for example -- which isn't even that much of a "neat idea", by their standards -- and try to guess how much they cost, before looking at the answer on theproduct page.) If you don't mind spending the money, they also sell a dandelion encased in acrylic ($375), a lamp in the shape of an open book ($190), a necklace of small rectangular mirrors creating an interesting 3D effect ($190), a porcelain vase that kind of looks like a crinkled paper bag ($120), a pair of candleholders that interlock without touching ($170), a serving tray that looks like the splash from a drop of water ($130), a clock that evokes an M.C. Escher "infinite staircase" optical illusion ($80), and a vase that exists in the shape of an outline ($65, which at this point sounds cheap). At the end of this gift guide I list some MoMA items that are somewhat more reasonably priced.

Second, I'm assuming you don't need help finding branded merchandise. I'm sure literally every combination of [Star Wars / LOTR / Game of Thrones / Star Trek / Hunger Games] and [coffee mug / beach towel / earrings / Christmas tree ornaments / shot glass / cufflinks] is available somewhere. It's not that these are bad gifts for the hardcore fan, it's that all you need to find them is to Google "Game of Thrones Christmas tree ornaments" and you'll find something. And occasionally you'll will find something in this "branded" category that jumps out as a pretty cool idea, like the TARDIS Tea Infuser or the Game of Thrones Dragonclaw Goblet or the light-up lightsaber chopsticks.

Third, I look mostly for novelty or decorative items that confound your senses or demonstrate some interesting scientific principle (or both), but that can still fit in to a semi-elegant environment without garishly calling attention to themselves. These color changing beadsare kind of neat, but it would look weird having them lying around on top of a living room dresser along with a UV flashlight to demonstrate what they do. On the other hand, a Galileo thermometer can blend in pretty well the decorations on a mantlepiece.

The following are my current most-recommended gift ideas:

Custom Photomosaic

In this December 2013 post I described how to create a photomosaic (a patchwork of smaller pictures that, when viewed from a distance, take on the appearance of a larger picture) using two free (donation-supported) programs, one to download and save pictures en masse from a friend's Facebook profile, and the other to create the photomosaic using those photos. I still think they make amazing gifts, and the only cost is the cost of printing and framing it. You can even give the digital-only version as a gift that costs nothing at all, making a photomosaic from a friend's photos and sending it to them on the other side of the world, where they can print it themselves or use it as a desktop background. Everyone that I've given one of these to, has loved it.

Strandbeest kit

With this $35 kit, which I recommended as a Christmas gift last year, you can assemble a tabletop version of the legendary full-size Strandbeests, the eerily lifelike creatures created by Dutch artist Theo Jansen which walk across the beaches of Holland powered only by the wind. Assembly of the creature takes about 90 minutes, less if you make a family activity out of it and share the labor.

In the last year, a second model has been released, dubbed the "Rhinoceros Mini-Beest (technically, it was available a year ago, but the assembly instructions were only printed in Japanese; now it's available with English directions). I haven't assembled one of these myself yet, but it looks fine in the video.

There is also now a pre-assembled, motorized, remote-control version of the Strandbeest, although honestly, where's the fun in that? Part of the effect of the Strandbeest assembly kit is the feeling that you've breathed life into an inanimate object by putting it together from static parts. A remote-control toy that moves forwards and backwards on the ground is a little underwhelming when you can get an RC helicopter for the same price.

Levitron Revolution and Levitron Cherrywood

The Levitron Revolution ($70) consists of a circular magnetic disc that levitates about half an inch above an electrically powered square base, and can support up to a pound of weight on top of it while maintaining levitation. The Levitron Cherrywood ($35) consists of a top that has to be spun by hand, which levitates almost a full two inches above the cherrywood base containing an embedded magnet. Asdescribed in the first gift guide, the Levitron Cherrywood is more visually impressive because of the extra height of levitation, but the top almost always falls if you touch the top or move the base while the top is spinning. The Levitron Revolution only levitates the disc by half an inch, but you can embellish the appearance by placing other objects on top of it, like the pyrite crystal levitating in this video. (Also, the Levitron Revolution will continue levitating as long as power is supplied to it, making it a good decorative item; the Levitron Cherrywood has to be spun by hand and levitates for only about two minutes before air friction slows it down, so it works better as a toy or party activity.) Both of them take some practice to operate (the Levitron Cherrywood takes considerably more), but they're worth it.

Spare batteries for your friend's phone

I mentioned this in January 2013 as a life hack for smartphones and got pilloried for promoting what people called an "obvious" idea. But two years later, almost nobody that I know is carrying around fully charged extra batteries for their phones. It's easy, it works, and the spare batteries in my jacket pockets have gotten me out of a jam multiple times. If you know what type of phone your gift recipient uses, get them some extra batteries. (T-Mobile sent me extra batteries for my LG Optimus for free.)

The iPhone is the only phone I'm aware of that does not support this, because the battery is not meant to be removed or replaced by the user.

And yes, I know about the portable external battery products that can be used to charge a phone. These aren't as big or expensive as they used to be, but you still have to leave them plugged in to your phone while they're charging it, which is awkward if you're using your phone or carrying it in your pocket (compared to the 10 seconds it takes to swap out the battery).

Heat Wave car heater

This $40 device from Canadian company "Heat & Clean" sits on your dashboard and turns itself on at a pre-determined time, blowing hot air into the interior of the car for 20 minutes, all without starting the car. If all goes well, this means your car will be warm (or at least not as cold as it would have been) when you first get into it in the morning, and you don't have to wait several minutes for the air ventilation system to heat up. The Heat Wave is powered by the car's 12V charger, although Heat & Clean states that "has built-in circuitry to ensure that the health of the vehicle's battery is never compromised."

I can't vouch for the device's respect for your battery (the device unfortunately isn't sold on Amazon, which is usually where I go to find out if something does what it's supposed to), but I ordered one and verified that it works, then gave it to my aunt for her birthday. (If it kills her car, I will promptly make it up to her by taking it out of the gift guide.) Even though I tested the functionality, I didn't get the chance to see if the device actually helps much, because it's not cold enough yet here in Seattle to really feel the bite of the cold when you get into your car in the morning. (The other reason I personally won't get much benefit from this, is that I work from home and leave the house at a different time every day, so I never know in advance what time I'll be getting into my car the next morning.)

Most cars can be modified so they can be started remotely, so that they're warmed up by the time you go outside and get into them, but that modification usually costs a few hundred dollars. You might as well try the Heat Wave first to see if it does the job almost as well.

(To me, the obvious question is: Why not make a version of the Heat Wave that can be turned remotely, as well? For people like me who usually don't know the night before what time they'll be getting into their car the next day, but who often do know at least 20 minutes in advance, so they can turn it on remotely and start heating the car. The company does make a very different-looking product called theHeat Stick which can be activated remotely -- but at $300, that's more than it costs to add remote start to the actual car.)

It's Nuts 3D puzzle

Distributed by Grand Illusions in the UK, the It's Nuts 3D puzzle consists of a bolt and a pair of nuts threaded onto the bolt. As you can see in the video, when you rotate one nut, it moves in the direction that you'd expect, following the threading on the bolt -- but when you rotate the other nut the same way, it moves in the opposite direction. There are no hidden moving parts to make the illusion work, and you can unscrew both nuts right off of the bolt and examine them.

Having acquired one, I can say that the secret is a little bit easier to figure out when you're holding it in your hand and looking at it closely, than when you're watching the video. But it still makes a nice novelty conversation piece.

As a brain-tickler, this feels a bit overpriced at $40 - costing more than the aforementioned Levitron Cherrywood, which actually levitates. I bought It's Nuts mainly to fill out my collection off oddities since I already owned most of the other items in this list. Of course, unlike the Levitron, this takes no skill to operate (only a little bit of smarts to figure out the secret). I wouldn't foist the Levitron on my grandfather, but he would probably enjoy this one.

(Note that if you buy from the Grand Illusions website to ship to the United States, you'll pay the non-VAT rate -- but then you'll have to add about $14 in air mail shipping to the U.S. So you might want to combine this order with some other items from Grand Illusions -- search this article for "Grand Illusions" for the other recommended items, or browse their site and pick your own.)

Inverter Magnet

The Inverter Magnet, from Grand Illusions (also available from Amazon at a slightly higher price), consists of one disc magnet encased in rubber, which holds a second disc magnet in a permanent "force field" a few millimeters away when the two are slid across a table.

At $40, this might be more of a "collection filler-outer", since especially as a magnetic toy it compares unfavorably with the Levitron Cherrywood, which, to repeat, can actually fly. But again, the Inverter Magnet also takes no skill to operate.

Magna Nails

This nail polish (about $7 used on Amazon) forms a stripe pattern when you hold a magnet near your fingernail while the polish is trying. (There are many similar products on the market, searchable under "magnetic nail polish.") The appeal to young science geeks is that the iron filings in the nail polish align themselves along magnetic field lines in the vicinity of the magnet, forming the stripes.

I don't wear glittery nail polish (at least not as "Bennett Haselton"...), but I took one for the team to see if this works. It does. That's my thumb. (Apparently it looks better if you apply a "top coat" after the nail polish dries, but I didn't have any.) If you plan on testing it out before giving it as a gift, remember to pick up some nail polish remover to get it off.

A few things from MoMA that we can actually afford

  • An appetizer serving dish complete with toothpick holder that looks like a porcupine ($28). This item probably has the highest price-to-cool-factor ratio of anything on this list, just barely within the limit of what I'd recommend, but it's elegant in addition to being funny, and the recipient would probably use it.
  • A faux-wood cube clock ($38). This is interesting mostly for looking like a visual impossibility -- how can the digital numbers appear on the side of a block of wood, even fake wood? Unfortunately I think the photo is doctored, because this youtube video shows an undoctored shot of the cube clock, and you can easily see the un-illuminated LEDs on the side, which don't quite blend in with the wood. But it still makes for an elegant optical illusion.

Miscellaneous "Visual Puns"

Of course, if you're now craving one of these items for yourself, order one and try it out before re-gifting, or set up an Amazon wish list in the last two weeks before Christmas. And remember to be good!