This column is devoted to issues related to technology at the University of St. Thomas. It is a joint effort of Computing and Communication Services, Instructional Support Services and the university libraries. Please send your comments to tech_column@stthomas.edu.

By Naomi Kritzer, Computing and Communication Services

Is there a techno-head on your holiday shopping list? Or maybe you’re the one hoping that Santa will bring you a PalmPilot this year? Keep reading for gadget gift ideas and tips on where to find more information for all your holiday technology purchases!

Home Computers

You’ll need to make the basic decisions before you buy — PC or Macintosh? Laptop or desktop? However, almost all new home computers will come with certain basic equipment: CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive, speakers and modem. If you spot a discount special that looks too good to be true, make sure that the monitor is included.

When buying a home PC, we’d suggest that you get a reputable brand. UST leases Dell PCs; there are plenty of other good brands, but beware of the “shop-mart special.” Ultra-cheap computers may contain substandard parts that won’t work once you’ve put them together.

For more advice on purchasing a home computer, along with recommended models, check out the article about home PC purchases in PC Magazine Online. (This page also provides information comparing the iMac to the Macintosh G3.)

Digital Cameras

Like home computers, digital cameras have gotten a lot cheaper and a lot better since they first were introduced. You can buy a simple digital camera for as little as $100; more expensive models will provide significantly better pictures (images with more pixels, allowing for more detail) as well as features like zoom lenses (to let you take pictures from far away). Most digital cameras store the images in memory, and let you download the pictures to your computer with a cable. Sony Mavica digital cameras store the images on ordinary floppy disks.

You can read more about how to choose a digital camera on the ZDNet/Computershopper site. (This site also sells digital cameras online.) You also can find reviews of digital cameras, including a review of an $89 digital camera designed for kids.

Scanners

With a scanner, you can digitize existing photos to tweak them electronically or put them on the Web. With OCR (optical character recognition) software, you also can scan in text and translate it into a text file. Like digital cameras, scanners vary widely in price, but you can find scanners for under $100.

You can read more about how to choose a scanner on the ZDNet/Computershopper site. (This site also sells scanners online.) You also can find reviews of scanners (along with comments from customers) on the ZDNet site.

PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants)

For many people, “PDA” is synonymous with “Palm Pilot,” but there are a lot of other palmtop computers out there. PDAs typically are used most often for their task and calendar functions, but depending on their capabilities you also can use them for tracking addresses, connecting to the Internet, jotting notes to yourself and even playing games.

You can read the Tech Column article about PDAs that ran a few months ago for more information about their capabilities. You can read more about how to choose a PDA (and what you’d do with one) on the ZDNet site; you can also find reviews of PDAs.

Software and CD-ROMs

CD-ROMs are available on thousands (if not millions) of topics — you can find the complete National Geographic (all 109 years), the Encyclopedia Britannica, and excerpts from the Library of Congress archives. Looking for games? You can fly your own pod racer in the Star Wars Episode One: Racer game. If planetary domination is more your style, check out Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. You can find reviews of the PC Magazine Top 100 CD-ROMs on ZDNet.

If you decide to purchase a software title or a CD-ROM, be sure to check whether that company offers an academic discount. Many companies have lower prices for students, faculty, and staff of academic institutions. Check the St. Thomas Bookstore, or a mail-order company that specializes in the academic market, such as the Technology Resource Center.

Lego Mindstorms

For the kids (of all ages) on your list, check out the Lego Mindstorms sets. These sets help you build and program your own robots, using a simple visual programming language. Kids have used these sets to build robots that water the plants, take photographs and set off an alarm when their sibling goes into their room. Some sets require a PC, others are entirely self-contained. For more information, check out the Lego Mindstorms site.

Happy Holidays!