Last week we wrote about the presents we'd most want to get as geeks. This week we present the flip side: gifts you should never buy any self-respecting geek.
Christmas is always a minefield for those people described as 'doing something with computers' by non-tech savvy relatives. You'e in a cleft stick on this one; relatives want to get you a high-tech gift, but lack the knowledge to make it a good one.
So if you are worried, forward this list on; it might make the holiday season slightly easier to cope with.
Honourable mention: Windows 7
Shaun Nichols: OK, put down the torches and pitchforks, Microsoft fans. This isn't a direct shot at the new version of Windows per se, but rather the circumstances surrounding its release and installation.
As you may have heard, Windows Vista wasn't the most popular release Microsoft has ever had. In fact, we think it's one of the worst, and a lot of other users seem to agree. As such, a great many people still use XP, and this is where the problem arises.
If your PC runs Windows Vista, upgrading to Windows 7 is almost painless and can be done without losing any data. Upgrading from Windows XP, however, is a different story. To install Windows 7 from XP one must delete the entire hard drive, which means backing up important data and reinstalling all of your essential applications after upgrading the OS.
Between the screaming children, eggnog hangovers and cheesy Christmas specials, the holidays bring enough headaches without having to perform a complete wipe and reinstall of your operating system.
Iain Thomson: When Shaun first suggested this I had my doubts. Windows 7 is rather good, if only because it's not Vista.
Sadly, I suspect rather a lot of people have been asking for Windows 7 this Christmas, usually eldery relatives asking the younger generation to buy it for them. If this rings a bell don't do it. "What a lovely present" will quickly be followed by "Can you help me install it?" Trust me, I speak from experience.
Now I'm the first to point out that there are plenty of tech-savvy pensioners who could show the younger generation a thing or six about computers. If you've got one of these, fine, but if not be very, very careful if you don't want to spend the festive season sorting out device drivers.
Honourable mention: Home recording
Iain Thomson: For the past five Christmases I've received a card from an old friend containing a CD - his (and for a few years his wife's) choices of the best music of the year.
It was a much anticipated gift, and led to me buying an awful lot of music based on what I'd heard. As someone who tends to listen to Radio 4, finding out about Lacuna Coil, Magnetic Fields and Stephen Lynch was a joy. But this year I just got a card, with a letter explaining that he was stopping the CD because of the current litigious climate. The recording industry might hail this as a win, but it's bad news for a lot of people.
For example, Boston University doctoral student Joel Tenenbaum has just been ordered to pay Warner Brothers $250,000 for sharing 10 songs. Imagine getting that kind of bill in your Christmas stocking
So don't give the gift of new music this year, and explain why you're not. We might finally get people stirred up about the ridiculous situation we find ourselves in.
Shaun Nichols: On top of gifts, I would also like to add home movies to the list. With the various advances in video editing tools in recent years, proud parents have taken to mixing their own home movies of the kids.
Unless you are the parent or the grandparent of the child, you really don't want to watch a four-minute montage of junior rolling on the floor or walking from the couch to the TV set to a soundtrack of John Mayer. A holiday card with a picture works just fine, thank you.
Mix CDs aren't much better. It used to be that making someone a music mix was a very personal sign of affection, as it involved carefully choosing the music and sitting in front of a tape recorder to dub each song by hand. When you can just drag and drop a bunch of songs from an iTunes playlist, the gesture loses a lot of its meaning.
10. Samsung Android handsets
Shaun Nichols: Google's Android operating system has become one of the hottest commodities in the mobile handset market. Many vendors are scrambling to integrate the shiny new OS and its many features into their products.
At least one vendor, however, is moving away from Android. Samsung has recently launched Bada, a new developer platform that the company hopes to ship in the early months of 2010. Pretty good news, unless you happen to have already bought one of the Android phones Samsung released this year.
Now, I doubt that the Android handsets will be dropped by Samsung or its carriers any time soon, but it's pretty safe to say that the company's focus isn't going to be with Google's competing OS.
On the plus side, when you do dump your Android phone for a Bada handset, at least you know it will be easily disposed of.
Iain Thomson: Samsung's first foray into the Android market was a confusing one. Why bother if they were about to build their own?
For owners of Samsung's Android handsets the future looks pretty bleak in Shaun's assessment, but I'm not as concerned as he is. Samsung's a big company after all and it'll carry on supporting the phones for a reasonable time, not least because it knows the tech press would give it a hiding if it doesn't.
I'm not quite sure what has happened to Samsung these days. The company turned out some crackingly good phones when it entered the market, particularly its clamshell ranges. But of late Samsung seems to be playing catch-up in the mobile sphere, and I fear it has a long way to go before it can catch up with the market leaders.
9. Wi-Fi clothing
Iain Thomson: OK, I'll admit that the first time I saw someone wearing a T-shirt that detected Wi-Fi signals and displayed them dynamically I thought it looked really cool - for about 10 seconds.
Unless you are giving one of these to someone really, really geeky - the kind of person who has not only jail-broken their iPhone but is running a new operating system on it - then hold off. These things are the kiss of fashion death.
Twenty years ago the equivalent of the Wi-Fi t-shirt was Global Hypercolour clothing that reacted to your body heat. A couple of washes later and all you had was an unattractively coloured t-shirt. I suspect the same will be true for this kind of clothing.
Shaun Nichols: It was a fun idea when it first came out, but in practice a T-shirt that displays Wi-Fi strength is less an icebreaker than it is a large flashing sign informing any member of the opposite sex that they can just go ahead and move on past you.
What could be cool, however, would be if someone were to take this a step further and integrate art into the equation, perhaps a T-shirt with a design that reacted to Wi-Fi and other signals by changing its colour and design. Not just some cheesy signal meter, but something that was visually appealing.
OK, so that would still be completely geeky, but at least you would have a decent conversation-starter.
8. Mouse mats
Shaun Nichols: It used to be that a funny or artistic mouse mat was a safe bet for any computer user at Christmas time. Everybody needed one, and even if you did have one, it was nice to have a new, clean spare in the desk drawer in case you had to wash or replace the existing model.
Unfortunately, these days the multi-surface optical mouse is nearly ubiquitous, and the old square mouse pad is looking to go the way of flying toasters and the 5.25in floppy drive. Save for those users who operate a mouse on a glass tabletop, at least.
As such, the mouse mat as a gift is a bit of a technological faux pas that ranks only a few steps above a plaid sweater or a Ricky Martin greatest hits album. Probably best to just put that funny mouse pad down and get junior a nice new MicroSD card or thumb drive instead.
Iain Thomson: Sad to say for mouse mats, Shaun, but even now we are getting laser mice that can run on a glass surface, albeit not very well.
The mouse mat used to be one of the ways computer users differentiated themselves from each other. For staff toiling in office cubicles full of beige boxes, the style of mouse mat you had was about the only form of self-expression available, short of the terminally naff 'You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps' mug.
To be honest, I'm amazed we still see so many mouse mats on sale. These days they are about as much use as a chocolate teapot.
7. Bogus anti-virus software
Iain Thomson: There's a lot of bogus security software about this year and well-meaning friends may even be tempted to send it to another person.
You should only be buying security software from a commercially recognised vendor, no matter how cheap a deal you are being offered. Anything else is likely to be loaded with malware and completely ineffective as a form of protection.
You might think that it's pretty unlikely that someone would give you this, but in the past year I've come across a couple of cases of people doing just that, usually adults doing it for elderly parents.
The problem of bogus security software isn't going to get better any time soon. It's one of the most popular forms of malware because it's insanely profitable. So be smart and protect your system properly.
Shaun Nichols: Just as you wouldn't give friends and family members software that you suspected to be infected with a virus, you don't want to accidentally give those you care about bogus security software.
These days there are tons and tons of fake security scams that use pop-ups, phoney system scans and even exploits to install bogus security software on your system. And once installed, it can be as hard to remove as any other piece of malware.
What's worse, rogue anti-virus tools can leave the user believing that they are protected and thus subject them to further malware attacks. Definitely the last thing you want to do to a less-savvy loved one.
When giving someone else security tools, it's always best to use a known and trusted vendor, and to do very thorough research on any new tools. If you wouldn't feel comfortable putting it on your own PC, don't give it to someone else.
6. Computer books
Shaun Nichols: Back in the late 1990s computer books were all the rage. Everything from turning on your PC to surfing the web to writing source code was explained for the novice user.
Apparently the books worked pretty well, because these days there aren't so many 'Dummies' and 'Complete Idiots' who need to figure out how to turn on their computer and launch a web browser. Now the uneducated masses can get themselves online and look up one of the tens of thousands of reference sites and help forums for just about anything to do with a computer.
This doesn't mean that tech reference books are dead by any means. On the bus you can always tell the designers and developers because they're usually nose-deep in a Java or Ruby on Rails reference book. Unless you are an unusually observant and particularly dull individual, however, you likely won't be buying anyone you love the Essential Guide to ColdFusion Implementation.
Iain Thomson: I did once give my sister a guide to programming in Perl for her birthday, but only to see the look on her face before telling her the concert tickets she wanted were inside.
There are some excellent computer books out there, but there is also a lot of dross. Some of the books being hawked around are little more than rewritten web sites and the information they contain is available in a more accurate and up-to-date form online.
That last point is critical. When you consider how long it takes to get a book from idea to the shelves and the speed of software development, it's a running certainty that most of the more advanced software manuals will be out of date almost as soon as they are published.
5. Blog books
Iain Thomson: Blogs are part of mainstream internet life these days and some are very popular indeed.
To publishers it seems like a sure bet. They know the author already has a proven audience, many of whom will buy the book, so why not? The reason why not is that blogging and writing a book are completely different: one is a series of short sprints and the other is a marathon.
We've had a number of truly awful books foisted on us as a result. Of all the blog books out there, I can only think of two that are worth reading: Steve Dublanica's Waiter Rant and Abby Lee's Girl with a one track mind - although the latter is for adults only.
The only time when a blog book is an acceptable gift is if you know the recipient is already a fan of the blog, and if they're that much of a fan they probably have the book already.
Shaun Nichols: I can count the number of blog books I would ever give to a loved one on one hand. Much like a book made from newspaper columns, a blog book can leave the reader very much burned after a few pages unless he or she is a loyal reader.
And in the coming weeks and months it is only going to get worse. Along with books made from blogs, there have been deals made to publish books composed entirely of Twitter entries, Facebook updates and text messages.
I'm guessing that, more often than not, recipients will be less than thrilled to get a book composed entirely of the things that they normally skip over when using social networking sites.
4. Gunnar glasses
Shaun Nichols: Last year at CES I stopped by the table of a new company that produced a line of glasses specially designed for computer users.
Gunnar Optiks was the name of the company and its aim was to produce glasses that reduce the eye strain and fatigue that comes from sitting in front of a computer. We tried them out and, while I can't say I noticed a huge difference in the very short time I used them, I did notice what I looked like in the mirror: a guy wearing sunglasses.
Now, I don't mind looking like a guy wearing sunglasses when I'm, say, outside wearing sunglasses. But when I'm in the office, well, I'd rather not be known as the guy who wears sunglasses. With their sporty frames and amber tinted lenses, they make the wearer look like a DJ dressed up for church.
The company has a pretty cool idea, and I hope that eventually they can develop some models that look a bit better when worn with normal office attire. Until then, however, I plan on returning any Gunnars that happen to find their way into my stocking.
Iain Thomson: When Shaun told me about these I had to visit the Gunnar web site to check the whole thing wasn't some kind of spoof. Few things are more ridiculous than someone wearing sunglasses indoors.
Having done some reading on the topic I'm still slightly sceptical. There seems to be very little these glasses do to reduce eye strain that couldn't be done by varying the settings on your monitor and going for a five minute walk every hour or so - something that's advised anyway.
3. 18-button mouse
Iain Thomson: In the past I might have taken the mickey out of Apple users for being unable to deal with more than one button on a mouse, but the 18-button OOMouse is even more ridiculous.
The device has 18 programmable buttons and its own joystick. Yes, really, a joystick. It’s been built with Open Office users in mind apparently, but I know a lot of Open Office users and none of them has 18 fingers or the cranial capacity to remember the button sequences needed for its 52 programmable settings.
This really is a case of technology gone mad. Sometimes it can be a good thing to build something pointlessly overspecced (the Bugatti Veyron springs to mind) but in this case the end result is just too bizarre to make it in the real world. It looks like RSI in the making and should be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Shaun Nichols: God bless the incredibly understanding parent, spouse or significant other that would not only accept a person's enthusiasm for Linux, but also purchase hardware to further encourage it.
The 18-button mouse is a monstrosity only the very dedicated could love. Few users have more than maybe five or six tasks that they would ever care to automate as a single-button command, so this device looks to be a classic example of a solution looking for a problem.
The technology is not new - there are many applications that let users script tasks to run with a single keystroke or combination, so aren't the dozen or so programmable keys on the keyboard enough?
Granted, it would be a fun bit of gear to use while playing a fighting game. You could basically program any move or combination into a single button and give your opponent a nasty surprise.
2. Twitter Peek
Shaun Nichols: Every day we get pitches and announcements for some strange products and companies. Few, however, compare to the Twitter Peek in terms of absurdity.
The Peek is a device that allows you to post Twitter updates on the go. You can use the small tablet device to post Tweets without having to be at a PC. That's all it does - posts and displays Tweets.
In other words, you get to pay a couple hundred dollars and carry around a device that does something your phone likely already does for free, unless you don't have a smartphone yet, in which case you're very likely not the type of person who wants to post Tweets from everywhere anyway.
In short, the Twitter Peek is a hardware device that somehow manages to be even more pointless and absurd than even the most useless of Twitter musings, and that's saying a lot.
Iain Thomson: I remember Shaun and I laughing really quite hard at the thought of the Twitter Peek, and we have yet to see any reason to moderate our smirking.
Surely someone in the product design meeting must have twigged that, if you want a device that can send and read tweets, a standard phone will do just fine, thank you, and it has the added bonus that it can play music and even, gasp, make phone calls.
Single-use devices are the best and the worst of the IT industry. At their best they are unparalleled in their usefulness, for one specific task. High-end GPS systems for ships and planes are a good example of this.
But at the other end of the spectrum there are devices that just do one thing reasonably well. For example, point and click digital cameras are on their way out because you can get a phone camera that does as good a job, if not better. The same is true for this ill-fated device.
1. Facebook gifts
Iain Thomson: OK, I'm keeping calm but seriously, what is going through the mind of someone who gives out Facebook gifts?
More and more often Facebook users are getting bombarded with little virtual gifts, some of which have been bought at not inconsiderable cost. Maybe I'm not down with the kids, but it seems both a colossal waste of time and also rather insulting.
Getting a Facebook gift is the 21st century equivalent of getting something that was obviously bought in a 24-hour garage at the last possible opportunity. It's useless, not something you'd ever use and will continually remind you negatively about the sender.
If you want to buy someone a bottle of Scotch then make it a good single malt, non-chill filtered for taste and wrap it well. Send someone a virtual one and, if they love whisky, they'll hate you for a long time. The same goes for virtual rings, flowers and even eggs, forsooth. Just because some people value them it's not for everyone, and the gift should always suit the recipient, not the sender.
Shaun Nichols: This year I have resolved that anyone sending me a virtual gift via Facebook will receive in the mail a Polaroid of a thank you letter.
I guess I can see the idea behind the Facebook gift, a light-hearted way to celebrate the season, but is it really asking too much of someone to just leave a nice comment on your profile page instead? Heck, even the old cut and paste 'Merry Christmas' is better than getting a pixel of a jack-in-the-box and link to some useless Facebook app installer.
Which brings me to my next point: spam. That little kitten 'gift' you sent out to your friends may be cute, but it also likely tells them that they should respond in kind and download some new application that they otherwise would never want. It's a bit like sending someone a Christmas card packed with magazine subscription forms.
I know that we are more connected and into social networking than ever, but sometimes an old-fashioned gesture of appreciation can mean a lot more.