Macworld Magazine, December 1992

The Desktop Critic by David Pogue


The Desktop Christmas ’92


Coming up with original holiday gifts for the Mac owners on your list is never easy. I mean, how many years in a row can you give somebody a mouse pad? You can get by with giving disk wallets or dust covers, I guess, as long as you don’t mind seeing a lot of that expression people have when they get ties.


After weeks of exhaustive research (going through five or sLx catalogs, at least), my elves and I merrily offer the following more creative suggestions. Each item meets our stringent East Pole qualifications: (1) Nothing over $50. (2) No games, because they’re covered elsewhere in this issue. (3) Nothing buggy, cheesy, or predictable.




After Dark for Macintosh 2.0

After Dark (Berkeley Systems, $49.95) is the screen saver made famous by the absurdist Flying Toasters. When you haven’t used the Mac for several minutes, After Dark blackens the screen, and until you touch the mouse or keyboard again, colorful, animated images—like fish, or space invaders, or of course, winged toasters—bounce around the screen. The ostensible purpose of a screen saver is to prevent a static image from burning a permanent ghost picture into the screen. But come on—have you ever seen a permanent image etched on the screen? Me neither.


No, you give someone After Dark for more important reasons. First, status; watching one of those complicated-looking, Spirograph-type After Dark animations, you can’t help but conclude that the Mac’s owner is a super-proficient brainiac. Second, After Dark’s spin-offs can take care of the next few years’ worth of year-end gifts; next December you can give More After Dark (Berkeley Systems, $39.95), a set of additional goofy and wonderful modules, like the Lawnmower Man who drives his tractor across your spreadsheet. Year after that you can give Art of Darkness, a disk with still more modules, tucked into the back cover of a funny, fluffy trifle of a book of the same name (Peachpit Press, $19.95; written by Macworld contributing editor Erfert Fenton, if that makes any difference). And if computers still require screens at all in 1995, you can complete the collection with Cool Mac After Dark, another book-disk set (Hayden Publishing, $19.95; written by Ross Scott Rubin).






Surge Reactor Remote

I know what you’re thinking: as holiday gifts go, a surge-protected power strip has about as much holiday cheer as a tub of axle grease. It’s not even imaginative; you can get a power strip at any hardware store. And even though these strips let you turn on all your computer appliances with one button, you have to crawl around behind the furniture to get at the on/off switch.


Good ol’ American ingenuity solved the problem, coming up with a dandy new riff on the old multiple-outlet theme: a remote-controlled power strip (Global Computer Supplies, $43). The surge-protected outlets on this rugged baby lie amid the dust bunnies behind your desk. But the on/off switch is on the end of its own 4-foot cord, which you can mount at desk level, strap to your thigh, or whatever. In one fell swoop, you’ll protect both the recipients’ equipment (against those troublesome lightning bolts) and vertebrae.



From Alice to Ocean

From the title, you might assume that this coffee-table oeuvre is an alphabet book. Nope; it’s a stunningly photographed, brilliantly written account of a 27-year-old woman’s solo camel ride across the Australian desert. It was photographed and produced by Rick Smolan, that guy who first created the A Day in the Life photo-book series. The beauty of this book takes the breath away, and the writing’s wit, insight, and honesty is remarkable. (Typical candor: Author/camelist Robyn Davidson reveals that photographer Smolan’s lurking presence on the trip was a major irritant.)


What makes the book a Mac lover’s gift, though, is the CD-ROM bundled inside the cover. It contains a photo-rich, narrated slide show of the story, complete with maps, interactive detours, and QuickTime video clips. The disc makes the overall package (Addison-Wesley, $48.95) a doubly fascinating and appealing gift for the armchair traveler who’d rather read, watch, and hear about a 1700-mile desert than cross it.


(There is a second silvery disc included: a Kodak Photo CD filled with pictures. The Photo CD and the regular CD-ROM each requires a special disc player, of course. If your gift recipient isn’t quite so equipmentally endowed, mention that the discs make wonderful earrings.)





When they first started selling those cute, fuzzy mouse covers that look like actual mice with big doleful eyes and adorable little whiskers, I smiled—but I swore they’d never catch me dead with one of those on my mouse. For the red-blooded, fast-lane American, those fluffy slipcovers are lethal to whatever studly machismo you’ve managed to make part of your social image.


At last, there’s something to cover the mouse that’s more the style of the image-conscious powermonger: a fire-engine-red Corvette. It’s sleek, shiny, and snaps easily onto the mouse (concealing it completely except for the telltale gray cord snaking out from under the front grille). You rest your hand on the roof and click on the hood to activate the mouse button. (If you’re the kind whose self-esteem blossoms by tinkering with the innards, you can adjust the feel of the clicking by adjusting a screw that’s—where else?—under the hood.) The AutoMouse (Suntime, $19.95) looks sporty on your desk, and when you’re on a boring phone call and nobody’s looking, you can drive it up and down the sides of your Mac and make bbbrrmmmmm sounds with your mouth.



Wrist Rescue III, Wrist Saver, Mouse Paw

The designers of the Macintosh PowerBook wowed the industrial-design community with their cleverness: by shoving the keyboard closer to the screen, they created a handy wrist deck. As you type, your palms rest on this flat, smooth zone—to the horror of typing instructors everywhere, no doubt, but much more comfortably than on any other laptop computer.


If your gift-list people are stricken with PowerBook envy, get them either the Wrist Rescue III (Precision Line, $7.95) or the Wrist Saver ($14.95), which do for normal keyboards what the wrist rest does for PowerBooks. The former is a simple, thick foam pad that snuggles against the edge of the keyboard. The latter is a larger, Plexiglas affair on which the entire keyboard sits, so that the foam-padded part is always held in perfect position relative to the keys.


The company claims that people have been loving the tiny foam Mouse Paw ($7.95), too, which Velcros onto the mouse and provides a wrist-resting station for it. My hands must be longer than the Mouse Paw designers’, because my wrist winds up overshooting the back end of the Mouse Paw—but consider it a stocking stuffer for your small-wristed friends.







Fun Physics 1.2

In high school you learned about physics. Remember? It’s the study of bowling balls dropped off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and people on infinitely fast skateboards throwing balls to each other in outer space, and returning to Earth before they left. Or something.


Turns out that physics didn’t crumple up and die when we graduated. The darned thing is everywhere, as demonstrated by this cool program (Knowledge Revolution, $99, which violates my $50 rule, but that’s life). Instead of irrelevant things like balls falling off buildings, Fun Physics illustrates (with animated line drawings) how physics affects important things—basketballs hitting the backboard, dominoes falling, and baseball games on the moon, for example. By adjusting the settings, you can see how dominoes would fall in zero gravity, or how a baseball bat would work if coated with rubber cement.


If you’re really motivated, you can use Fun Physics’ built-in drawing tools to create your own objects, each with its own mass, velocity, air resistance, and surface stickiness, then set them all crashing into each other in various nerdy ways. Seeing everything slowishly animated on the Mac screen doesn’t have quite the visceral splatteriness of, for example, David Letterman dropping watermelons off of the GE building. But there’s much less inconvenience to passersby.




Heizer Templates

If you really want to surprise your gift recipient, order something from Heizer Software’s catalog of Excel and HyperCard projects. You can almost always find something useful—or at least bizarre. For example, this year there’s the one and only Phone Number Names spreadsheet ($12). You type in your phone number, and Phone Number Names gives you every possible combination of English words you can make out of it (so you can tell people that your number is 1-800-HOW-R-YOU, or something). It also does the reverse, translating JKL-MNOP into 555-6667 so you don’t have to hunt and peck.


Other Heizer offerings are ideal if you have friends who will soon be hearing the pitter-patter of little feet. Depending on which kind of little feet we’re talking about, consider either the Baby Name Scrambler or the Horse Race Analyzer. The former ($9) digs into its database of 1500 boys’ and girls’ names, and generates over 1 million possible combos (Luther Dean, Ethel Stella, Xerxes Norman, and so on), and the latter ($15), of course, analyzes horse races.


Finally, consider giving your company’s resident speechmaker Speech Master ($15), a HyperCard stack. You paste in the text of the speech, and the stack tells you how many minutes you’ll be on the podium droning away. Good way to give some gasbag a hint. (Perhaps you’d best be a secret Santa on this one.)



System 7 Pack

If one of your buddies is continually complaining about how System 7 makes the Mac slower, gift-wrap this little shareware beauty from Insanely Great Software and toss it under the tree. Written by teenage New Jersey wunderkind Adam Stein (whose shareware act is so together that he has an 800 number and takes credit cards). System 7 Pack clobbers a bunch of System 7 annoyances: (1) it speeds up file-copying in the Finder by three times; (2) makes windows open faster; and (3) adds a Quit menu to the Finder, so you can reclaim that precious 300K of memory when you’re juggling programs. What I find fascinating is that several commercial-software companies—no doubt aghast at the low cost of this profoundly useful shareware morsel— have rushed into the market with shrinkwrapped imitations. I say dial up America Online (or hie thee to a user group) and get the original ($29.95 requested).


(And if your mom, like mine, would say that handing over a gift-wrapped floppy disk rates a tad too high on the tackiness scale, consider Scotch-taping the disk to a nice box of chocolates.)





Beyond CyberPunk

Just as rumors of HyperCard’s demise started cropping up at Macworld Expos, somebody came along and injected fresh weirdness into the stack world. Beyond CyberPunk (The Computer Lab, $29.95) is an obvious labor of love: a 5-megabyte HyperCard voyage through the technofuturistic minimovement known as cyberpunk, where counterculture meets high techy Max Headroom meets Brazil, and small-circulation cult magazines fan the flames.


This sound effects-laden, graphically intense electronic book contains a series of essays on cyberpunk. The article topics vary dramatically between fact and fantasy; real world and future world; movies, modems, art, the future, comic books, sci fi, and so on. The only common traits among authors are (1) a fascination for high tech; (2) a belief that (Blade Runner director) “Ridley Scott is God,” as the stack puts it; and (3) an unshakable belief that there’s an apostrophe in the possessive word its. No matter; in its childlike wonder, it’s fascinating and fun.




Crisp Mountain Apples

This is the gift for the Mac owner who’d consider a computer-related gift to be a wee bit on the geeky side. It’s a 5-pound box of apples (we’re talking actual fruit, here, the kind that Steve Jobs ate in elementary school). It’s not a pun or anything—just really huge, juicy, unblemished, hand-packed, air-expressed, perfect, shiny apples for which you will be profusely thanked. I couldn’t resist mentioning them (Harry & David, $19.95).


Bundle the box with a QuickTime movie of yourself in a silly Santa suit—or a Word file with a holiday poem—or a HyperCard stack that spells out your good wishes—and you’ve got yourself a blockbuster present that means something, doesn’t cost much, and tastes pretty darned good.




Contributing editor David Pogue wrote the ideal gift for the Mac novice—the hilarious and informative Macs for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, 1992). When it comes to self-promotion, he claims to have no shame.