Under the Desktop: More Gifts for the Creative Geek
Self-censorship can be a bugaboo for any writer, and so I discovered for myself while plugging away on Creativepro's first annual holiday gift guide. I purposefully relegated many useful items to the cutting-room floor, worrying that readers would consider them a digital equivalent of the proverbial lump of coal or a pair of socks.
"Gee, a new CAT5 Ethernet cable," the recipient might exclaim while wondering what he or she had done to deserve this treatment. "Great?"
Despite this concern, I've modeled the column on the "director's cut" of movies and restored the products lost from the official release. Trust me -- the following list was compiled with love (or at least, a love of improved productivity for the creative professional). You will find the following gifts useful, practical and even better, inexpensive; most are in the stocking-stuffer price range.
Striking a Cord
In the classic (hardcopy) version of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," there's a running gag about Sam Gamgee's wish for a bit of rope. For the hobbits, this rope is both practical and a plot saver. The same could be said for rope's modern equivalent: computer cables.
We don't often think about cables -- other than that they are usually an unsightly mess. Certainly, most of us never consider their potential impact on performance. For example, an improperly shielded cable can interfere with the proper flow of data along the cable and thereby degrade performance.
Of course, the performance irregularities from a bad cable can mimic many other system problems. It's often difficult to pin things down to the cable as culprit, so the problem is usually discovered when the cable fails entirely.
A while ago I had a problem with my DSL Internet connection (it stopped working) and several inspectors trooped on site to investigate the problem. Although the issue turned out to be with central switch, one of their hardware tests uncovered a problem with the cable that connected the DSL modem to my router. It was one of my home-spliced jobs, cobbled together when I installed my network.
From the outside, the cable looked fine and seemed to be working properly. But the test said otherwise. That dicey cable may have caused intermittent timing errors or slowdowns -- but who could tell, since that description could be the result of any number of problems, local or remote.
So, I suggest everyone have a couple of replacement Ethernet CAT5 cables on hand. I like Belkin's so-called "snagless" patch cables. Unlike my home-brewed cable, these lines have extra protection on each end including a soft plastic hood over the clip on the plug. With ordinary cables, this clip is easily caught on things and can be bent out of shape or broken off, effectively ruining the cable. A 25-foot version costs less than $10.
As I mentioned in a previous column, an Ethernet crossover cable is also a useful item to have about. It can connect a pair of computers, even Macs and PCs, allowing for quick file exchange of very large files without the need of an Ethernet hub or file server. The 25-foot Belkin version (in yellow) is priced under $15.
For designers on the go, Belkin offers several retractable cables (see figure 1). Like a tape measure, a click of the button will retract the cable automatically. There's a $14.99 model for connecting modems with a 10-foot length, and another offering a 7-foot Ethernet cable, costing about $23.
Figure 1: Belkin offers these round cable holders with either a retractable phone modem line or Ethernet line. They are both high style and easy to pack.
All Fired Up
A few years ago, FireWire was considered primarily a connector for digital cameras. Nowadays, it's used for an increasing number of devices, such as hard disks, DVD drives, VCRs and scanners. And that trend alone can bring its own share of cable headaches.
Firstly, there are two different physical interfaces for FireWire connectors -- 4-pin and 6-pin versions. The smaller connector is familiar to digital video camera owners, while the larger 6-pin interface is found on computers and drives, and can provide power to attached devices. Chaining devices together can be tricky, depending on the selection of cables available in your camera bag.
Granite Digital offers a variety of FireWire gender changers and adapters. Costing $19.95 each, the adapters can convert a cable from 4 to 6 pins (or vice versa), or extend the reach of a FireWire connection by joining two cables together.
In addition, FireWire users would do well to consider upgrading their cables. Most cables that ship with drives and other products are low-cost versions -- it's an easy way for vendors to shave some cost from a package. High performance cables offer better reliability and performance from additional shielding and gold-plated contacts.
Granite's FireVue line of 1394 cables also feature a diagnostic LED that tells the strength of bus power. There are 4-pin-to-4-pin, 4-pin-to-6-pin, and 6-pin-to-6-pin versions in lengths from 3 to 32 feet. The cables cost from $24.95 to $89, depending on length.
Another very useful addition to those increasing their participation with the FireWire lifestyle is a hub. This lets you add many more devices, extend the reach of connections in your office, and use the devices more conveniently, since they don't need to be daisy chained together. Granite Digital offers several models in its FireVue line. I like the $69 model with six powered ports. The company also has a stylish $59 portable 3-port repeater hub that can extend lines; however, to provide solid bus power you will need the $29.95 optional power supply.
Bytes and Pieces
Here's a hodge-podge of geeky gift items:
A power outlet tester is an essential piece of equipment for any creative professional. Without one, there's no way of knowing whether your outlet is grounded properly or if even if it's wired correctly. Most people simply plug in a surge-suppressor strip into an outlet and feel everything is taken care. No way -- once upon a time, my brother's television was burned out by an incorrectly wired outlet.
These inexpensive testers are often available in the electrical section of home fix-it stores, although a number of online shops have discontinued listing the devices. Here's one at BuyTester.comto give you an idea of what they look like.
A very flexible piece of equipment is Griffin Technology's PowerMate controller for Macs and PCs. The $45 device is an aluminum knob and switch combo that connects to your computer via USB (see figure 2).
Figure 2: Griffin took a minimalist-but-elegant tack when designing its PowerMate USB controller. The device comes with a batch of preset controls and functions for many applications, such as the obvious use as a volume controller. It has a blue light on the bottom that glows, providing a visual feedback to tasks such as volume control.
The PowerMate lets you quickly scroll through a large document or can be used as a jog wheel in a video editing application. In fact, it can do almost anything in any application, since you can assign any key-command to the device. (By the way, Griffin has been featured before on creativepro.com -- as a case study in site design!)
Longtime readers may know I'm a believer in hoods for monitors -- glare and reflections can disturb the evaluation of color on the screen, whether CRT or flat panel. Hoodman USA offers a range of hoods for stand-alone monitors as well as laptop screens. Their E2001 fits 19- to 21-inch monitors and costs $79.95. The $39.95 E2000 is an interesting fabric tent that shields laptop screens. The company also offers shields for digital cameras.
Finally, here's a premium gift: Marantz's PSD300 CD Recording System. If you are into recording live audio, this $999 machine is a complete bag of tricks -- it's a portable digital recording studio.
The PSD300 integrates two drives, one a CD player and the other a CD-R/RW writer. Of course, you can record directly to the writer, but even better, you can mix-in the audio from a disc in the player. Controls on the box let you adjust both the tempo and the pitch from the CD player. Amazing.
Check that List
So, are these bad gifts? No way! As the rabbinic saying goes: "The person who gives little with a smile gives more than the person who gives much with a frown."
All of these items are sincere and useful for digital professionals. A pair of socks will keep your feet warm and a replacement cable will ensure your productivity.
Say after me: "Ethernet cable -- just what I needed!"
Read more by David Morgenstern.