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Computerworld's 2012 holiday gift guide

By Computerworld staff
December 6, 2012 06:00 AM ET
New Balance GPS Runner sports watch
The GPS Runner sports watch (credit: New Balance). Click to view larger image.
New Balance GPS Runner sports watch

Got a running enthusiast on your holiday shopping list? The New Balance GPS Runner, which retails for about $100, might be just the gift.

It tracks a runner's pace, speed, distance and calories burned, so it's a nice step up from a typical stopwatch. Yet it's a simpler and less expensive alternative to higher-end GPS sports watches that allow runners to transfer workout data to a computer.

The ease of use makes it a winner. Ready to go for a run? With the GPS Runner, it's as simple as putting the watch in Run mode (where it searches for GPS satellites), pressing the Start button, and putting one foot in front of the other.

The battery lasts for about eight hours of continuous GPS use, and much longer when it's used as a traditional watch. What's especially nice is the display size, which is large enough to read while you're running (that's the point, right?). Note that the watch comes with a USB charging cable, but it doesn't transfer data to your computer. Instead, the watch itself stores data on your 100 most recent runs, so you can compare times and distances of previous workouts.

No bells and whistles here: The GPS Runner is the sports watch for the runner who simply wants to know, "How far did I go, and how fast?"

Note: Although the New Balance site says the GPS runner is temporarily out of stock, it's widely available at other online retailers.

You might also like: The Timex Marathon GPS and Soleus GPS 1.0 sports watches also retail for about $100 and offer basically the same functionality as New Balance GPS Runner, but with slightly different display options and colors. Or take a step up to the Garmin Forerunner 210 (around $250), which allows runners to check their pace on interval training runs and, with some models, track indoor runs and monitor heart rate.

-- Ellen Fanning

Street price: $100 - $110
Summary: An easy-to-use, affordable GPS sports watch for tracking running speed, distance and pace.

Fitbit One activity monitor

If you've got an elite athlete on your gift list, you can safely skip this item. This general activity monitor is for athletic wannabes: people who are trying to become more active by venturing off the couch and away from the junk food, but aren't ready to start Ironman training just yet.

Fitbit One activity monitor
The Fitbit One (credit: Fitbit). Click to view larger image.

For the newly active or those returning to a healthy lifestyle, this type of monitor can serve nicely. Just clip the tiny device on your waistband and it'll track your activity throughout the day.

By counting -- more like approximating -- steps taken, stairs climbed, distance gone, calories burned and some other data, the $100 Fitbit One helps you compete with yourself and others, and share your milestones via Facebook if you choose.

For this audience, knowing exactly how many steps are taken each day isn't quite as important as taking those steps in the first place, or understanding that 5,000 steps is healthier than 500, regardless of how accurate the measurement. Its most important function just might be to remind you to get off that couch in the first place.

The Fitbit One also monitors sleep patterns, automatically syncs to your computer or iOS device and, via the website, allows you to track what you eat each day. It will give you suggestions about cutting caloric intake if weight loss is a goal. There's also a free smartphone app (for iOS devices only; Android is "coming soon") so you can check your progress while, say, power-walking those holiday gifts to the post office.

You might also like: Other good activity monitors include the smaller Fitbit Zip clip ($60) and the stylish Nike+ FuelBand wristband ($149). Neither tracks sleep or food eaten, but they monitor calories expended and steps taken as well as tell the time. They also assign an overall fitness score each day that's based on a proprietary algorithm.

-- Johanna Ambrosio

Price: $100
Summary: A great fitness-motivation tool for people who are competitive and love real-time data.

Philips Wake-up Light

For your friend (or spouse) who hates to get up in the morning, consider this interesting clock radio-lamp combo. Instead of using a jarring alarm sound, it gently wakes up users by increasing the light level in their room.

Philips Wake-up Light
The Wake-up Light (credit: Philips). Click to view larger image.

The light starts getting brighter 30 minutes before the time the alarm is set for, which Philips claims "increases the level of energy in your body" and gets you ready to wake up. The company cites research showing that 80% of Wake-up Light users say they found it easier to get out of bed, and user reviews at both the Philips site and Amazon are overwhelmingly positive, despite the $100 price tag.

The intensity of the light can be varied up to 250 lux -- about the level of standard office lighting, or somewhere between a dark day and sunrise. That makes it bright enough to read by, so the Wake-up Light can also be used as a going-to-sleep light. Besides the replaceable halogen lamp, users can also choose to wake up to the FM radio or to the sound of chirping birds, both of which also start out quietly and ramp up to full volume.

-- Jake Widman

Street price: $75 - $93
Tech specs  |  Phone: (800) 555-0050
Summary: The Wake-up Light makes the process of getting out of bed easier and more pleasant by rousing the sleeper with slowly increasing light.

Blue Microphones Tiki USB microphone

Person-to-person online conversations via services such as Skype and Google+ Hangouts have become increasingly popular -- not only for meetings with remote employees or organization members, but also for chatting among friends and relatives, not to mention impromptu online get-togethers. However, the microphones built into most computers tend to be... not great, to put it charitably. In fact, unless you have your own headset/mike, the quality of your verbal output is probably pretty pitiful.

Blue Microphones Tiki USB microphone
The Tiki USB microphone (credit: Blue Microphones).
Click to view larger image.

If someone on your gift list likes live chat but doesn't relish the idea of a headset, consider giving them Blue Microphones' Tiki USB microphone. This lightweight, compact device plugs into a USB port on a Windows or OS X computer and enhances the audio that it's sending over the net while minimizing background noise.

I tried the Tiki on a low-end Asus netbook, conducting a Skype session with and without the mike. The person I was chatting with reported a definite difference. With the Tiki plugged in, my voice was clearer and less tinny; when I had music playing in the background, the Tiki muted it to the point where she hardly noticed it.

Tiki has an alternate mode called Natural Recording for times when its user doesn't want to mute background noise -- for example, while creating a podcast. I recorded a short voice segment in this mode, and while the volume was slightly softer than with the netbook's mike, it was clearer, and the Tiki effectively filtered out the sound of the computer's fan.

The Tiki isn't really meant for professional podcasts or other high-end audio recording. But somebody who spends a lot of time online chatting with friends or meeting with associates will find the Tiki a great way to make a better impression.

-- Barbara Krasnoff

Summary: Blue Microphones' Tiki USB microphone enhances voice quality for all those Skype calls and Google+ Hangouts.



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