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Essential Holiday Gifts Necessary for Most Computer Users

By Shakil Ahmed & Rob Kay

It's that time of year again and we'd like to inaugurate the first Ask Shak annual Geeky Gifts for Christmas column, a choice of high tech gifts for that special someone. There is a world of electronic consumer items out there but our selections have one criterion-they must be an essential part of your computer system.

Stay Behind that Firewall

Nowadays a firewall is an absolute necessity if you're going to protect your data. Hardware firewalls (that usually double as routers) are slightly more expensive than the software versions but you have to consider how much your data is worth.

There are many companies that make these products. On the low end we looked at the SMC Barricade Barricade, a four-port, unit, which sells locally for about $140, and should appeal to a wide variety of home or small-office users. It was fairly easy to set up, has built-in print-server capabilities and comes with a lifetime warranty. The only thing that might have been smoother was the support, which although competent, felt very rushed.

On the higher end of the spectrum, you might well consider the Rolls Royce of the firewall world, SonicWALL product line. These are of particular value to small businesses that also have branch or home offices where you need to connect remotely. The real advantage of SonicWALL systems is that they combine both anti-virus protection and offer VPN (Virtual Private Networks). A VPN is the most secure way to access your office machine if you're on the road, and SonicWall has the best and least expensive VPN solution. A small business (under five) might consider the Tele 2 ($500 with VPN capability) whereas if your office consists of more than 10 people go for the SOHO2, which runs about $1000 with the VPN option (without VPN $500).

Wireless Routers/Firewalls

Wireless routers are clearly the hottest thing going nowadays. Why? Here's the secret; one DSL or cable connection can hook up an entire family. If you're setting up a small office system or need to get the kids hooked up to the Internet at home, the last thing you want to do is crawl under the house and string CAT5 cable or drill holes through junior's bedroom wall. With a wireless router all you have to do is add a wireless card to your computer and voila, you're hooked up to the Internet.

Some of the prime candidates in this area are wireless routers by NetGear, Proxim and Linksys. The NetGear device, the MR314, is a heavy duty office system that also acts as a firewall and costs around $300. What we liked about this product was that it integrates SonicWALL's very solid firewall technology. We were told the company will soon be coming out with a home version that will be less expensive and more aesthetically tailored for a residence. The Linksys system, the $200 BEFW11SR EtherFast Wireless Access Point was recommended by our good friend, Jeff Bloom who installed it in his home. Jeff told us it was a breeze to set up and he's very happy with it. The Farralon Proxim Skyline 802.11b, which got great reviews from CNET and runs around $300 is also worth considering for home or small office setting.

Portable Hard Drives

We've been preaching for years about the importance of backing up your data. However, it's not only a matter of backing it up-you've got to keep it your backup in a safe place. There are a couple of portable units available on the market about the size of a small paperback book that weigh about 2 pounds that you can stash in your briefcase (or gym bag!) and take home with you. The LaCie PoketDrive series (built around the IBM Deskstar) ranges from 20 to 80 gigabytes, are fast (7200 rpm) and can link to Firewire cables. The other major vendor of external drives is Maxtor, one of the largest hard drive manufacturers in the world. The top of the line unit, the Maxtor Personal Storage™ 3000DV, has 40 and 80 gig models. Both the LaCie and Maxtor units are very fast and can back data at the astounding rate of 50 MB per second. Both Maxtor and LaCie units can be handy not only for data backup and archiving but can be used for video editing, graphics-intensive games as well as digital music and digital photos storage. Both got favorable reviews in the press but the Maxtor units had much lower street prices. For example on MySimon a 30 gig LaCie Pocket Drive sold for $339 vs $300 for an 80 gig Maxtor. However, as an insurance policy, either of these would make a good investment.

Shakil Ahmed is the founder of PDC Systems, a Honolulu networking and computer company established in 1991. Questions or comments should be addressed to askshak@pdcsystems.com. Rob Kay is a Honolulu-based public relations practitioner who specializes in technology. He can be reached at rkay@pactechcom.com or 539-3627. Suggestions for column topics are welcomed.

Published December 7, 2001

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