What To Get That Special Geek Droid or iPhone? Zune or Touch? Netbook or MacBook? With holiday shopping in full swing, Ira Flatow talks with gadget guru Mark McClusky, senior editor for products at Wired magazine, about the top technologies of 2009, and the biggest flops. What gizmos are on your wish list?
NPR logo

What To Get That Special Geek

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121343446/121343432" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What To Get That Special Geek

What To Get That Special Geek

What To Get That Special Geek

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121343446/121343432" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Droid or iPhone? Zune or Touch? Netbook or MacBook? With holiday shopping in full swing, Ira Flatow talks with gadget guru Mark McClusky, senior editor for products at Wired magazine, about the top technologies of 2009, and the biggest flops. What gizmos are on your wish list?


You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, some advice on what to get that special geek in your life. We are in the thick of the holiday shopping season. Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. It's getting a little late to get that gift in, but if you're still looking for a gift for your favorite geek - should you get an iPhone or a Droid, a Zune or a Touch, a Netbook or a MacBook?

Well, maybe there is a technophile in your family who needs a new gizmo, something new, you know, a first adopter maybe. And what should you do? What should you shop for? Well, we have some help for you.

Mark McClusky is the senior editor for products at Wired magazine. He's going to help us sort through the technological stuff you might be considering, and he joins us from KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. MARK McCLUSKY (Senior Editor for Products, Wired): Hey, good afternoon, Ira.

FLATOW: Good afternoon, and our number is 1-800-989-8255. If you've got a question, a suggestion about a geeky or technology question you'd like, 1-800-989-8255, or you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, or go to Second Life.

Mark, is there anything new, any technology standouts this year that are must haves for the geek in your life?

Mr. McCLUSKY: I mean, I think there have been a couple of big technology stories this year. I think, probably the biggest is the continued success of the iPhone and iPod Touch and that whole ecosystem that's been created with all the applications that have been written for it.

FLATOW: Interesting way of putting that, but it is in its own ecosystem, isn't it?

Mr. McCLUSKY: It is. I mean, we're up over 100,000 applications available at the app store, which is just an astonishing change from - if you think two years ago, you and I actually talked about cell phones when Android was announced, and the world is completely different. That conversation couldn't take place in any way, shape or form today.

FLATOW: Well, is there an app that you would say is an outstanding app, if we're talking iPhones - that everybody should have - or an app that helps you find other apps?

Mr. McCLUSKY: I'm a huge fan of a few apps, and there are things that I just find utterly (unintelligible) to in my life. The Pandora application for the iPhone and iPod Touch, Pandora is the streaming radio service, music service, that is just sort of uncannily able to surface new music to you that you find interesting and compelling based on sort of what you tell it about what you like. You sort of rate songs as it plays it, and it gets better and better at sort of divining what you might find interesting, and so I'm a huge fan of that.

And then sort of the social media aspect of things. I'm a big fan of a Twitter application called Tweetie.

FLATOW: Tweetie.

Mr. McCLUSKY: Tweetie, as in the bird by I-E instead of Y. It is just a real great demonstration of how elegant these applications have gotten and how developers have really pushed the boundaries of what you can do on a telephone. It's pretty amazing.

FLATOW: I think one of the really interesting new gadgets out now, speaking of the Internet, is sort of an Internet radio box, like the Squeezebox or something like that.

Mr. McCLUSKY: Squeezebox is a terrific thing. You know, there's a lot of things out there that are sort of streaming media, and I think that's going to be a thing that we hear even more about next year. Actually, I think next year could be the time where that really tips over into the mainstream, where you've got TiVo interacting with things like Pandora and internet radio.

You have a system like Sonos makes, which is a multi-room audio system that is incredibly well-designed. It's just - it's one of those great moments in sort of playing with gadgets where you plug something in, and it just works the way you hope it would. There is sort of no futzing around, which is always kind of a little miniature triumph for sort of good design.

And so I think you're going to see more and more of that happening in the next year.

FLATOW: Now, people are going to be shopping now - as you say, the iPhone is an ecosystem of itself. Second-running now is the Droid. What - how do you compare the two?

Mr. McCLUSKY: You know, they're very different pieces of hardware. I actually prefer the Android software to the Droid hardware, as it's currently configured. I find the keyboard of the Droid, itself, not to be particularly compelling, the physical keyboard on there, and so that it just ends up adding weight. I would actually be more interested in a version with the sort of virtual keyboard, and I think we can expect that not too long from now.

But I think the Droid is, you know, a very, very good phone if you're sort of either not interested in sort of getting on the Apple and especially AT&T bus, and in - you know, if you're a Verizon customer, the Droid's a terrific option. It's a very well-done phone.

FLATOW: What about the new electronic books, the new readers.

Mr. McCLUSKY: The new eReaders.

FLATOW: Yeah, is there one that stands better than the others in your mind?

Mr. McCLUSKY: We still prefer the Kindle to - Barnes & Noble has just released, in this past week, what they are calling Nook, which is their eReader. As a piece of hardware, the Nook is a little more interesting. Instead of the keyboard, the physical keyboard that's on the Kindle 2, it actually has a touch screen, but the software on this first version of the Nook just doesn't quite measure up. Page-turning is a little bit slow, and some of the features are a little bit half-baked, and again, that's something you might expect to get better as Barnes & Noble pushes out revisions to the software, but right now, we're still more inclined to the Kindle.

FLATOW: One cheaper object you might want to buy is a SciFri mug, which we have on sale at SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. McCLUSKY: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Non-tech mug. We've heard a lot about the new-media delivery systems like Hulu. I mean, there are people who are getting off the grid, and I don't mean the electric grid, I mean the cable, the satellite grid, and just...

Mr. McCLUSKY: The content grid.

FLATOW: The content grid and going to straight to these sources now, where they can just download at will, right?

Mr. McCLUSKY: It's - yeah, you know, you get sort of a - you get an interesting curve. You know, on the easier end are things like, you know, using iTunes and paying for sort of television. Let's use television as an example.

You're paying for iTune subscriptions or watching Hulu on your computer. You know, those are relatively easy to do. Depending on how much TV you watch, they actually might not be cost-effective, compared to a cable subscription, and then you sort of get into cable and satellite, and you know, those providers are really trying very hard, with varying degrees of success, to make a more compelling offering to their customers in terms of - On Demand, I think, has been something that especially Comcast has looked at as a way to sort of counteract this sense that all this media's available to us whenever we want it online.

And then, you know, at the far end, there's the Wild West of dubious to non-legality of things like BitTorrent, where almost anything you could think of, Iraq, you could probably download. It's just a matter of are you willing to - are you willing to pay the technical and, perhaps, legal costs for doing so.

FLATOW: Or the emotional.

Mr. McCLUSKY: Or the emotional, depending on what you're downloading. It - really, you know, it depends...

FLATOW: Let's go to Marlena(ph) in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Hi, Marlena.

MARLENA (Caller): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi there.

MARLENA: Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

MARLENA: My son is 24 years old. He is on Rusinga Island in Kenya and does not have use of electricity that often. He does have an iMac. I don't know what to get him.

Mr. McCLUSKY: My goodness. I mean, there's a challenging...

FLATOW: Well, they have those wind-up - there's wind-up radio, which I have as my backup radio. Do you know about that one?

Mr. McCLUSKY: There's an idea.

FLATOW: There's a wind-up radio. There's wind-up flashlight. There's a whole wind-up products, right?

Mr. McCLUSKY: Yeah, there's a lot of products that will let you do that, and there's also sort of a whole realm of solar chargers that will allow you to capture, you know, and it's a small solar panel that will allow you to charge various devices, and so...

MARLENA: Solar charger. Where would I find that?

FLATOW: Well, even the wind-up radio has a - that's how I listen mostly. It has a little solar top on it.

Mr. McCLUSKY: Right.

MARLENA: No, I did not know about that. That's a great idea. Anything else?

FLATOW: A fruitcake?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARLENA: Well, I did try to send him a food package several months ago, and the ants got it before he did.

FLATOW: Tough spot there with those ants.

MARLENA: Yes. Well, I think those are two great suggestions, and I really appreciate them.

FLATOW: Google solar, wind-up electronics and see what you have.

MARLENA: I will do that right now.

FLATOW: And happy holidays to you, Marlena.

MARLENA: Thank you so much. Bye, now.

FLATOW: There are lots of interesting - speaking of which, there are these solar chargers for your phones now, right, these little trickle-charger things for your dashboard and...

Mr. McCLUSKY: There are. There are lots of solar chargers. There's going to be some more that we start seeing next year. We've had some looks at some things that are going to be announced at the electronics show, which is right after the first of the year.

And then there's also, as we're talking about charging, another thing that we had in the magazine for our gift guide is a company called Powermat does a sort of cable-free charging thing. So basically you put a case on your iPhone or your Blackberry or whatever device you have and set it on a special mat, and it charges that device without plugging anything in. It's a magnetic induction system, which could be an interesting thing moving forward, especially if manufacturers start building that capability into the device, and you don't need the separate case for it.

FLATOW: I have a suggestion for a green idea that I just switched over to, and you can give it as a gift. I think it's actually free. It's - you know, we have - you have these, here in the east, we have what's called EZ passes. You know, the kinds of things for going through toll booths.

Mr. McCLUSKY: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: And you can get a green one if you have a Prius, I have one - you know, one of these cars, they'll give you 10 percent off as you go through the toll booth for having a green car.

Mr. McCLUSKY: Interesting.

FLATOW: And you can - and it actually is green.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCLUSKY: Oh, it's literally green.

FLATOW: Yeah, it's literally green. So you can give that to somebody, you know, if they have one of these systems, they are all different places around the country, maybe that's a nice gift for going green�

Mr. McCLUSKY: For sure.

FLATOW: �for somebody different. Anything else that is a must buy, Mark?

Mr. McCLUSKY: One of the strangest items that we have found almost completely obsessive at Wired is something called buckyballs, which is a set of 216 small, ball-bearing-size magnets, which I know as I say that, you might be thinking, why would I possibly want that? But...

FLATOW: Thinking of (unintelligible) here.

Mr. McCLUSKY: If you're the sort of person who likes to be fiddling with something with your hands, which, not into broad conclusions, but lots of�

FLATOW: Captain Queeg.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCLUSKY: Yeah, in fact, lots of us are. It's actually incredibly gratifying. You can sort of, like, pull it into various shapes�

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. McCLUSKY: �make cubes and triangles and hexagons and make all these very complicated geometric shapes with it.

FLATOW: Hey, I like that.

Mr. McCLUSKY: It's really fun. It's deeply - I will warn you that if you get one, Ira, you will�

FLATOW: Addictive.

Mr. MCCLUSKY: �you will find yourself utterly addicted to it.

FLATOW: I still like that little - that globe that you pull in and out, you know, that expands, a big piece of plastic that gets�

Mr. McCLUSKY: Yes.

FLATOW: That's - I think that's just genius form of engineering.

Mr. McCLUSKY: Yes. This is the even more mathy version of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Are there things - are there real flops? Stay away from this technology, it's not going anywhere.

Mr. McCLUSKY: You know, personally, I would - Windows 7 has just come out, and while it is certainly a vast improvement on what happened with Windows Vista, I'm always a believer that you would do better to let Microsoft to do a first service pack on a lot of software before you make a big investment. You know, if you buy a new computer, it's going to - a new PC, it's going to come with Windows 7 at this point. And I don't think you should be afraid of buying a machine with Windows 7. As I said, it's�


Mr. McCLUSKY: �a radical step forward. But I would not be rushing out to buy a Windows 7 upgrade personally until they have a little more time out in the marketplace with it.

FLATOW: Right. Pam(ph) in Shawnee, Kansas. Hi, Pam.

PAM (Caller): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi there.

PAM: Thank you for taking my call.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

PAM: I need to buy a new computer. I want a laptop, and I want it to have a built-in signature pad for my work.

FLATOW: All right. So, a signature pad so you can sign documents�

PAM: Yeah.

FLATOW: �like in Word or something?

PAM: Yeah, exactly.

FLATOW: Wow. What do you�

PAM: Because I know they've been made before, and I think it was Acer that made them before, but I'm not quite sure about that.

FLATOW: You can get an add-on, you know, one of these writing tablets, can't you?

PAM: Yeah, and I have that. But�

FLATOW: Right.

PAM: �I have that�


PAM: Right now, I have an Apple computer and they don't talk to each other. I work�

FLATOW: Right.

PAM: �in fields that I need to get myself a PC, a regular, an IBM-based or whatever.

Mr. McCLUSKY: Yeah.

FLATOW: Sure. Well, let me just remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Okay, Mark. Go ahead.

Mr. McCLUSKY: The - I would say you have two options. One is I would check Lenovo, the PC maker, has typically been kind of pushing the boundaries in terms of input devices on laptops. And I believe - I'm not 100 percent positive on this but I believe that in the past, they've had a laptop that did have sort of the - the company's name is Wacom - a Wacom tablet�

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. McCLUSKY: �into the laptop itself. So that's one thing to check. The other is�

PAM: And what was - one more time, what was the name of that company, Lenova?

Mr. McCLUSKY: Lenovo, which is the Chinese company that bought IBM, so they make ThinkPads.

PAM: Oh, okay.

Mr. McCLUSKY: And they make terrific machines. The other thing that you could check out is - one thing that's very interesting about Apples right now is that you can run software on them that allow you to virtually run Windows in a separate�

PAM: Yeah.

Mr. McCLUSKY: �application.

FLATOW: (Unintelligible) parallels, those too.

Mr. McCLUSKY: Yeah, exactly.

PAM: I know they've had success with that. I bought Parallel and I bought - what was before Windows 7?

Mr. McCLUSKY: Windows Vista?

PAM: X - no, I bought XP.


Mr. McCLUSKY: Okay.

PAM: And I couldn't get it to work. And I went to my local Genius Bar at the Mac store, and they said, this isn't our problem, this is their problem. And then I went to where I bought the Windows XP, and they said�

FLATOW: Not our problem.

PAM: �well, this isn't our problem. That was a Mac problem.

FLATOW: Go online. There are a lot of users group. Mine is working fine. There are lot of users groups that will help you out on that one.

PAM: Maybe that's what I should do.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right�

Mr. McCLUSKY: Yeah, I would not give up on that.


(Soundbite of laughter)

PAM: All right. Thanks, Mark. Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: What about - anything new for, you know, the Xboxes, the Wii, anything like that, those games that you got to have anything that - any game or an attachment or something that?

Mr. McCLUSKY: I think the most interesting thing in that realm this year is actually a new version of the PlayStation 3 itself. If - the first generation of PlayStation 3 was a really big machine. It was just a big, bulky guy. Sony has released a slim version of the PS3 this year. And if you have not taken the plunge for a PlayStation 3, and especially if you're looking for a Blu-ray player, financially, you know, it's sort of a toss up between just a standalone Blu-ray player and a PlayStation 3, and I would urge you to look at the PlayStation 3 if you're thinking Blu-ray.

FLATOW: Some people have done away with their whole computer system by just configuring it the right way and running everything on their television, you know?

Mr. McCLUSKY: It's, you know - it's really, you know, between things like the PS3 and the Xbox 360, which have all of these - hooks into all these services and, you know, sort of a generation of set-top boxes that includes, you know, Boxxy, which is a sort of online media aggregating piece of software. They actually have a dedicated box coming out very soon, a very small little box, which could be a very compelling thing. I really think, as I said, that moving forward you are going to see a lot of people sort of cobble together their own media universe outside of Comcast and DirectTV.

FLATOW: So the whole thing - the whole idea of a computer itself is going to go by the wayside.

Mr. McCLUSKY: I don't think the idea of a computer, I think that it's one of those things where computers end up everywhere.


Mr. McCLUSKY: If that sort of makes sense, that it's not going to be, I'm going to sit down at my desktop PC and word process now. It's going to be, you know, my phone - you know, the computing power in an iPhone or an Android phone is, you know, the same sort of stuff we were doing on the desktop five years ago, it's not�

FLATOW: Way, way before we were all born, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCLUSKY: Exactly. Back in the Dark Ages.

FLATOW: All those Dark Ages of five years ago. Wow. Stay with us, Mark, for a few more minutes. Can you? Thanks.

Mr. McCLUSKY: Absolutely.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break and come back. More with Mark McClusky, who is senior editor for products at Wired magazine. 1-800-989-8255. Maybe you've got a suggestion for us, as a well as a question. We'll be right back after the break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Mark McClusky of Wired magazine. We've got time for just a couple more questions. Let's see if we can go to the phones and talk about them.

Let's go to Alaska. Hi, Tony(ph) in Anchorage. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

TONY (Caller): Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

TONY: I got a couple of suggestions for maybe the college student or media junkie in your life.

FLATOW: All right.

TONY: First would be a new wireless router from NETGEAR. It's called the WNDR3700. And it's an amazing wireless router, simultaneous dual band. And if that means anything to you, it just means really, really fast Internet connection inside your house. And it also has a built-in UPNP and DLNA-compliant media server.

FLATOW: Can't live without it. Yeah.

TONY: It means take all your movies and music and everything and plug them directly into your wireless router, and then you can stream them to other computers or directly to your TV via my next pick, which is by Western Digital. They just released a product called the WD TV Live. It's just a little box, maybe three-by-three inches, and you plug the HDMI directly into your new high-def TV and you can stream all that media content that you had on the router, or you can plug a hard drive directly into the media player and play all your content in HD, almost regardless of what format it's in.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow. You don't need your cable anymore up there in Anchorage.

TONY: Nope. And that WD media player also plays Internet media content like YouTube and Hulu, so�

FLATOW: Mark? Yeah. Mark, comment?

Mr. McCLUSKY: Yeah. I mean, I'm out of a job with�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCLUSKY: No. The WD Live is great. Seagate also has a very similar product. And it's interesting to see these companies that traditionally have made hard drives sort of get into this market because storage then becomes a big issue with all this content.

FLATOW: Yeah. As you say - you're saying and he's saying that the TV that we used to think of, the cable, you know, wireless TV is a thing of the past. People are just avoiding it.

Mr. McCLUSKY: They are, you know, and you're starting - another thing that's happening is you're having a lot of that built into the TVs themselves.


Mr. McCLUSKY: That there's a lot of Internet connectivity in the television so that it'll bring in - you know, if you're watching an NFL football game, it'll bring in your fantasy football team�

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. McCLUSKY: �and have a little sidebar telling you how your fantasy football team is doing.

FLATOW: Right. As long as we can get our baseball on those things, I'm okay. One last question for you before we go. And this is probably a key. And CJ Atwood(ph) sends a tweet in on this. And this is what a lot of people are thinking. Should I buy a computer now or after Christmas?

Mr. McCLUSKY: Oh, the dreaded, when to buy a computer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCLUSKY: It's�

FLATOW: When is that Lenovo price coming down, I think he wanted to know.

Mr. McCLUSKY: Exactly. You know, it's - so let me answer it in two parts. If you are buying an Apple computer, Apple traditionally will release new models in January. And so, if you are really desperate for, like, the latest and greatest and it's going to break your heart if six weeks later there's a slight tweak to the processor speed, you might want to hold off. It does leave you with nothing under the tree or to unwrap.

Generally, I think that we aren't seeing the sort of velocity of change in hardware specs that we saw three years ago. You know, that - we've had -computer speeds have plateaued a little bit, that there's plenty of processing power and that what we're really seeing is the prices come down for equivalent powers. But we're not seeing that sort of, like, oh, now there's a computer out six weeks from now that's twice as fast as what I just bought for the same price. You know, that isn't happening as much anymore.

FLATOW: All right. Well, there you go. Thanks, Mark. Thanks for all the stuff you've suggested today.

Mr. McCLUSKY: You're welcome. Thanks for having me on.

FLATOW: Have a - happy holiday to you and great geek stuff.

Mr. McCLUSKY: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Mark McClusky is a senior editor for products at Wired magazine. He joined us from KQED in San Francisco.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.