Tools Of The Trade: The best of the techs this Christmas

The machines that will bring more power to your elbow ... and your lap and the palm of your hand
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The Independent Online

Seasonal shopping may be more readily associated with personal gifts such as perfume or jewellery, but there is no need to overlook something to liven up the office. The range of high technology on offer is greater than ever, with equipment to suit every budget as well as every pocket, briefcase or desk.

Perhaps the ultimate computer for the home office is Apple's latest iMac, the G5. The company has acquired a reputation for clever designs with its iMac line, and the latest model is no exception. Hardly bigger than a flat-panel display, the machine manages to pack in wireless networking, a fast processor, a DVD writer and up to 160GB of hard disk space.

The machine comes in two models, 17 and 20 inches. At £1,349 including VAT, the 20- inch version is particularly good value, as LCD screens that size do not come cheap even without a computer built in.

Apple also offers probably the best suite of home media applications on the market, and these, along with AppleWorks office software, are included free. The iLife bundle -- DVD editing, video editing, photo managing and editing, music making and Apple's iTunes jukebox - comes with the iMac. And there is even an optical digital output to connect to a home cinema amplifier, so the machine should earn its keep after office hours too.

An alternative approach to the computer/media centre device is Toshiba's oddly named Qosmio laptop. The Japanese giant produces a range of these portables, running Microsoft Windows Media Center. This provides advanced audio and video playback, as well as the ability to record TV programmes to the computer's hard disk.

Toshiba claims that the Qosmio can play CDs, DVDs and live TV within seconds of start-up, by circumventing the operating system and the need to sit through the (tedious) boot cycle for Windows XP. This makes the PC a much more entertainment-friendly proposition than it would be otherwise.

Toshiba also includes a remote control, which will make the Qosmio that much more appealing to couch potatoes.

This is not a PC for the road warrior: the battery life is around two-and-a-half hours, against four for Toshiba's business-oriented laptops. The 17-inch model has the best screen, but is rather too bulky. Our vote goes to the 15-inch F10 model. This will at least fit in most briefcases and, at £1,599, is also the most competitively priced in the Qosmio range.

Laptop users, in particular, should make sure that their computers are protected against viruses and other malicious attacks, as there are no guarantees of access to a secure network on the road.

Advising someone to buy Symantec's Norton Internet Security bundle as a gift is rather like wrapping up a family medical dictionary and a bumper pack of malaria pills for someone who's about to set off on their travels.

But the package includes Norton AntiVirus, Norton Personal Firewall, privacy controls, and anti-spam and parental controls in an easy-to-use format. Everyone who is on a broadband connection should have this, and even computer users who are not should give it serious consideration. Symantec has a justified reputation for making computer security about as easy as it can be, and the £55 price tag is a small price to pay for peace of mind. There is also a five-user pack for small offices, and a Mac version.

Lighter and cheaper alternatives to laptops came in all shapes and sizes this year. The surprise hit among business users has been Research in Motion's Blackberry, which has become an enormously popular way to gain access to email on the move. The "classic" Blackberry, the 7230, is rather like an overgrown pager: it has a small but clear colour screen and a keyboard below. With practice it is possible to type at quite high speeds using just your thumbs.

The downside of the Blackberry is that it comes with a limited number of applications, and runs a proprietary operating system. But it has a good battery life and is easy to use.

An all-inclusive Blackberry subscription with T-Mobile costs from £10 a month, in addition to a voice plan starting at £12 a month. The device itself costs from nothing to £149, depending on the tariff.

With all the focus on smartphones, basic PDAs (personal digital assistants) have attracted less attention. However, they remain good buys. Now that 3G phones are on sale - but, with the exception of some devices on "3", no 3G smartphones are on the market - the phone-free PDA could be set for a comeback in 2005. Pick a model with built-in Bluetooth and it will connect to most current and future phone designs.

There is a good choice of models running Microsoft's PocketPC operating system, but unless you need to run a specific PocketPC application, a Palm-based device will give a better price-performance ratio and better battery life as well.

PalmOne's Tungsten T5 is the direct successor to the original PalmPilot handheld, with all the main Palm features such as excellent organiser software and handwriting recognition. But the T5 has a crisp colour screen, plenty of memory and that all-important Bluetooth connector to hook up to a mobile phone. Bluetooth also works to connect the Palm to a PC, doing away with the need for cables.

A huge development community is writing software for the PalmOS, and pretty much any software that anyone could wish for on a handheld is available online for Palm, much of it free. The T5 costs £330 including VAT.

Finally, if you want to buy a genuinely useful gift for a tech-head, and don't want to spend hundreds of pounds on the gift, go for a good bag. Even the best-built laptop will take plenty of knocks during its working life, and a proper container is a worthwhile investment.

But some computer bags scream "mug me", especially those with a computer company's brand on it. Two discreet alternatives come from Samsonite and Body Glove. Samsonite has added high-quality laptop cases to its luggage range: the City-friendly, leather Caractacus is a stylish if pricey buy at £195.

Travellers who prefer a more casual look, or will be carrying their computer over rougher terrain, should take a look at the Body Glove range. The backpack, at £49.99, is comfortable and protects both computer and user from travel-related strains.

Contacts: Apple, www.apple.com/uk; Body Glove, www.gowithit.com; PalmOne, www.palmone.com; Samsonite, www.samsonite.com; Symantec, www.symantec.com; Toshiba, www.toshiba.co.uk; T-Mobile, www.t-mobile.co.uk

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