Welcome to my Fourth Annual Holiday Shopping Spree — a gift list of technology tools and toys I would consider giving to friends and family. This week, we'll look at useful...

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Welcome to my Fourth Annual Holiday Shopping Spree — a gift list of technology tools and toys I would consider giving to friends and family.

This week, we’ll look at useful technology and then next week we’ll shop for toys. I’ll suggest a few items here, and for more ideas you can browse past columns at www.seattletimes.com/gettingstarted.

Laptop tote:
If there’s someone on your gift list who carries a laptop and also cares about fashion, consider giving a stylish laptop bag. For example, the small and thin Timbuk2 Laptop Tote ($80, www.timbuk2.com) has room for a laptop (though not much else), and looks good enough to replace a traditional briefcase.

The Brenthaven Messenger Bag ($84, www.brenthaven.com) is pitched as the sporty SUV for a laptop and other essential gear. It reportedly repairs itself if poked by a pen and resists spilled coffee, though I haven’t put one to those tests. Like an SUV, this bag is roomy and comfortable, but it doesn’t guzzle gas.

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Wireless mouse:

If there are other laptop users on your list, give them a practical gift that’s also very cool — the little BenQ M310 Wireless Optical Mouse ($40 Windows and Macintosh, www.benq.com). Just remove the USB connector/receiver from its storage slot on the mouse and plug it into a USB port. It works right away, with no mouse or receiver cable to get in the way.


Fingerprint-reading keyboard:

For computer users who want to protect their systems from bad guys or protect themselves from forgetting passwords, a fingerprint reader may be the answer. There’s one built into the keyboard of the Microsoft Optical Desktop with Fingerprint Reader ($90, Windows). A little window on the keyboard recognizes a self-registered finger and grants access to password-protected places.

The set’s wireless mouse works like the BenQ mouse and is almost as cute.


Driving directions:

If someone on your list tends to get lost when driving to new places, give Microsoft Streets & Trips 2005 with GPS Locator ($129 PC), to help that driver see where he is and where he’s going. Install the software on a laptop and plug in the GPS locator (no Internet connection needed). The laptop screen displays maps, tracks the car, and provides directions. It can even re-route if the current plan needs revision. There are also adaptors available to use the GPS locator with Pocket PCs and Bluetooth-enabled Smartphones.


Extremely portable USB flash drive:

One of the greatest recent technology innovations is the little USB flash drive. It plugs into a Mac or PC and serves as an extra storage drive. Drag files over to it, eject it, then plug it into another computer and drag the files to its hard drive.

My favorites are the skinny ones that don’t block the other USP ports, and the 512MB models that can transport plenty of photos and music files. Two good examples are the SanDisk Cruzer Titanium 512MB 2.0 flash drive ($130, www.sandisk.com), which is stylish and extremely durable; and the Crucial Gizmo! 512MB USB 2.0 flash drive ($65, www.crucial.com), which is smaller and a lot cheaper.


Portable power source:

Over the dozen years I’ve lived in Seattle, there hasn’t been a single year without a power outage. The Xantrex XPower Powerpack 400 Plus ($150, www.xantrex.com) is about the size of a boom box and provides 400 watts of AC power, enough to run a small appliance. It has two outlets, a light, jumper cables, air compressor to inflate tires and sports equipment, and cables for recharging from an outlet or vehicle. Besides using the Powerpack to survive outages, it’s also for campers who want to enjoy a few electronic conveniences.


More camera storage:

The memory card that comes with a digital camera typically stores only a few HQ (high-quality) images. If there’s an enthusiastic photographer on your list, consider giving a 256MB or 512MB memory card. At Crucial Technology (www.crucial.com), for example, a 512MB xD-Picture Card costs $114. Any digital photographer (who doesn’t already have one) will welcome it.


Electronic encyclopedia:

There’s probably someone on your list without an encyclopedia. The Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2005 ($70, $30, $20 versions, Windows) is a great gift for anyone with a PC. Its text is clear enough for a 10-year-old and comprehensive enough to satisfy an adult’s query. As a parent, I particularly like the Discovery Channel video, interactive atlas and research helper that can, for instance, copy a relevant paragraph and paste it on a note card with citation.

If your family doesn’t have the Encarta, get it as a family gift, too.


Books:

For all those who are struggling to fathom computers, from word processing to digital photography and operating systems, give books that can help them learn. There are plenty — just browse book stores or tech publishers’ Web sites, such as: Oreilly.com, Paraglyph.oreilly.com, and PeachPit.com.

We’ll continue shopping next week.

Write Linda Knapp at lknapp@seattletimes.com. To read other Getting Started columns, go to www.seattletimes.com/gettingstarted.