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The Only Gadget Gift Guide You'll Never Need

"Where'd you get that?" the kids are always asking. The answer, almost always, is "It came in the mail." Thank goodness for the PR industry, which fills a columnist's mailbox with all manner of clutter, nonsense and, very rarely, a jewel of innovation or creativity.

I take these items home for kid-testing, then pass them along to charities or the dump, depending on the merits of the product. Generally, the goods that flow in fall into four categories:

#1--Fleeting Fun, But You'd Never Pay For It Yourself: This year's primo example of this category is the Marshmallow Blaster and Blower, from the Marshmallow Fun Company. This bit of plastic has great Wow power, and short of the unbeatable comedy power of gravity, shooting things is the most surefire characteristic you'll find in a successful kid gadget. We are talking about a pump-action magazine that propels marshmallows up to 40 feet. Finally, here's a weapon Raw Fisher can endorse without a weasely waving of the United States Constitution. Kids have so few opportunities to shoot things at each other in this anti-fun era of maniacal parental supervision, in which parents insist on vetting the kids' every plaything yet turn around a few years later and turn a blind eye to oral sex and heavy drinking. Go figure. I enjoy a good opportunity to repeat the great Jean Shepherd line from "A Christmas Story"--"You'll shoot your eye out"-- as much as any parent, but come on, folks, these are marshmallows. Anyway, the problem is that they get sticky.

The first few shots--a grand success. Ten minutes in, the whole works get gummed up. And then the kids eat the marshmallows. All in all, a lovely afternoon. But would I spend $23.95 (MSRP)? Not a chance.

Category #2: The Interesting Idea That Bombs

This year's entry in this category is Story Blankets. Speaking of absentee parenting, get this idea: Instead of lying down with the little one and falling asleep in their bed, thereby wiping out that tiny window of adult time at the end of the long day, you could tuck a kiddie in under a blanket that also sings a lullaby and tells a story. No, really: This is a big fluffy duvet cover and comforter that has a big brick of a battery in it powering a three-minute-long sound and light show featuring 133 tiny LEDs and a tinkling tune that you activate by pressing a button in the blanket. Instant intimacy?

No, horrifying nightmare. The kids we tested this on were uniformly appalled or freaked. They called the thing creepy, sick and worse. "If the parent wants to abandon the child, fine, but don't stick them in a room with this thing," my son said. The Story Blankets come with several different story/music combos, including Princess, Kitty, Heroes and Space!

Category #3: The Totally Useless Concept That's Kind of Cool

So, if you want to barbecue, the way I see it, you either get a grill or do it the old-fashioned way, on the beach, in a sand pit. But no: The folks at Industrial Revolution Inc., decided that there is a need for a portable grill that fits in your pocket. I have it right here and it's well smaller than the keyboard I'm typing on. In fact, I just stood up and it indeed fits into my back pocket. And it is a working grill large enough to handle a few burgers and a few dogs all at once. It's a steel, fold-out contraption that in its closed form looks like a flute. I can't imagine anyone ever telling a loved one, "What I really need is a portable barbecue I can fit in my pocket," but when you see the thing, the $29.99 seems almost reasonable.

Category #4: The Amazing Device That Can Change Your Life

As I sit here typing this, I am in the process of unlocking 20 years of my life from its prison down in the basement. The hundreds of records--that dumb old technology that so fascinates my kids, who stand there watching the LPs turn around and around and around--that have been gathering dust since the dawn of the digital revolution are finally back in our lives, and while there are more than a few embarrassing, grim chapters buried down there (can you say "disco singles" or "Joan Baez" or "Foreigner"?) there are also a great many gems, and they're now slowly making their way into the computer and onto CDs, thanks to the LP to digital recording system that I got for the birthday (this one did not come in the mail, but was an actual voluntary purchase.)

The concept is simple--it's a regular old belt-driven turntable, with an output that plugs into your PC, and software that converts the sound into audio files, which you can then burn onto a CD or play through your media player. And the results, though it's slow going because you have to play the records in real time, are enormously gratifying. For years, when the kids asked if we had a particular song or artist, the response as often as not was, "Yes, but it's on record, in the basement." Now, those tunes are are accessible as anything we can click on. All those years of investing in records had seemed like such a waste for so long--but not anymore. If I sound like an infomercial on this one, I plead guilty. The thing is terrific.

By Marc Fisher |  December 19, 2006; 7:45 AM ET
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Comments

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Lps on a good turntable will always sound better than CD's played on the best CD player. MP3's and downloads suck when it comes good sound. Go out and buy a nice Linn Sondek turntable Marc and a nice tupe preamp and power amp from Conrad Johnson in Fairfax and use them to drive somme nice Magnepan 3's.

Posted by: vaherder | December 19, 2006 8:31 AM

An "LP to digital recording system"? I got one of those several years ago. A Radio Shack pre-amp for $20 or so that I could plug the old turntable into, and the audio editing software that came with Easy CD Creator.

Posted by: wiredog | December 19, 2006 8:37 AM

Actually, the portable grill would probably be a great gift for backpackers, campers, fishermen or hunters. If it really can grill up 2 burgers and than fold down to pocket size, I would easily pay $30 to add it to my pack. What type of fuel does it use?

Posted by: Woodbridge Va | December 19, 2006 9:16 AM

I love the idea of the turntable that helps convert LPs to CDs. Anything similar for cassettes?

Posted by: AA | December 19, 2006 9:22 AM

First, Joan Baez put out some great stuff. Can't help you with the Foreigner, though. You should be embarrased about that.

So, anything really good in that collection? And what are you going to do with them after you convert them to digital?

Posted by: Tony | December 19, 2006 9:29 AM

I haven't tried either so can't attest to sound quality, but as far as the turntable device goes, it seems to me that this one would be a lot simpler (though more expensive perhaps) since it is a self-contained unit: http://www.hammacher.com/publish/71860.asp

Posted by: Rosslyn | December 19, 2006 9:35 AM

Marc, nice recommendation on the turntable. I have been looking for a way to do this for quite a while. However, a couple of questions for you: First, the conversion of the sound input to digital files on the computer is a key aspect of this, and as you say software is required. Yet on the link you provided for the turntable unit, no mention is made of software (and I even read the manual for the unit provided at the link). Is the software included with the turntable, or are you using some other software for this piece of the puzzle? If so, what? And is the software (either with the turntable or separate) Mac-compatible, or does it just do Windows? Also, when you make the real-time recording of the LP, is the software smart enough to give you a separate file for each track on the LP, or do you have monitor it in real time to break up the tracks and not end up with two files, i.e. Side A and Side 2, for each LP?

Posted by: John | December 19, 2006 9:47 AM

Actually we have had the capability to convert LP's to digital for years. I have used a cable that runs from my AUX out on the receiver to the USB port on the PC. Add in AudioMagic software and I can convert any LP into either individual songs or one long song ... depends on the album as to which way I use it. The software also cleans up the clicks and pops from the occasional scratches on the LP.

Why Convert? 'Cause I can't play an LP in the car. I still play them at home and the kids are blown away by the quality and depth of the LP compared to their store-bought CD's.

On another note: After following this blog for a few weeks I saw a lot of Marc's negative opinions about guns and weapons in general. I find it ironic that he would use the word "Bombs" in the title of one of the gifts. Seems like a double standard.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 19, 2006 9:55 AM

John,

Have some fiber, man. Marc is a journalist, not a sound technician. Maybe pursuit of your answers will give you a hobby.

Posted by: John's Doctor | December 19, 2006 9:56 AM

John--The converter system I got includes Cakewalk Pyro software (http://www.cakewalk.com/Products/Pyro/default.asp), which does the trick nicely, though there are several other similar programs on the market and the limited research I did show some advantages and disadvantages to each.

Cakewalk does not automatically break each song into a different track. You either have to do that manually or live with each side of a record as a single track. The process is time-consuming because it happens in real time; if you want to add the work entailed in making each cut on the record a separate digital track, you'd have to babysit each record all the way through.

Posted by: Fisher | December 19, 2006 10:13 AM

Marc! I've been searching all over for that turntable (or the similar one sold by Ion), and it's sold out EVERYWHERE. Best Buy, Circuit City, Amazon...all sold out, in stores and online. It's literally the only thing my mom wants this year, and I can't find it. Where did you get yours?

Posted by: jw | December 19, 2006 10:15 AM

Fun post, marc.

Posted by: Mark | December 19, 2006 10:34 AM

Too late. When we moved into the condo, several years ago, we sold all of the vinyl.

Oddly enough, I'm happy with that decision. The reissues on CD often have extra tracks that were not on the originals.

While I'm not an expert, I sometimes wonder if the "vinyl gives deeper sound than digital" is maybe a bit of snobbery. Frankly, my CDs give much better and deeper sound than my vinyl ever did (of course better speakers, a sub-woofer, and better electronics may have something to do with it.

Posted by: Catcher50 | December 19, 2006 10:41 AM

Fifty one years ago I was playing at a friends house when I was shot in the right eye by a BB fired from the next yard. After an operation to stop a hemorrhage and save the eye, I spent a week in the hospital and seven more weeks lying in bed at home with a patch over my eye listening to my Mom read to me while my friends enjoyed the summer vacation. I was able to get up and move around just in time for the start of school. Thanks for bringing back the memories, Marc. Oh well, at least I didn't turn a blind eye to sex and drugs...

Posted by: kurosawaguy | December 19, 2006 11:04 AM

If you're stumped for a gift for the woman who has everything, and Marc's gift suggestions aren't quite right, go to Liz Kelly's blog, and click on the link for the Justin Timberlake music video near the end of her blog.

Your woman will thank you.

Posted by: Mister Methane | December 19, 2006 11:12 AM

So with the Marshmallow Blaster , you get to "bite the bullet" before or after shooting it.

Posted by: jmsbh | December 19, 2006 11:31 AM

Sears sells (through their internet store) turntable systems that include a cd player, AM/FM radio, and casette player. They also sell a system that records lps to cd. I'm going to buy the one that has the arm which holds multiple lps.

Posted by: WB | December 19, 2006 12:09 PM

Please note the safety warning for the marshmallow blaster: DO NOT EAT THE MARSHMALLOWS AFTER SHOOTING.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 19, 2006 3:50 PM

CD Wave (http://www.milosoftware.com/cdwave/) is the niftiest, easy to learn software to split .wav files into discrete tracks, perfect for this purpose (no financial gain for me, I just use it all the time).

Posted by: Hemisphire | December 19, 2006 4:04 PM

I bought a used CONSUMER CD-Recorder which is a rack-mounted electronic (not computerized) device. It connects to my receiver. I record CDs straight from LP, 45, and cassette without using ANY of my computer time. Total cost on ebay: $127. It requires "special" "Music" CD-Rs that are more expensive than "data" CD-Rs, but the price difference at costco is about $0.07 per CD or like $14 for the 200 blanks I bought and have still not used up. I would recommend that everyone get such a device for their LPs that are not released on CD, however if you have a massive library of major label LPs to convert, check out www.yourmusic.com for new $5.99 cds from about 60% of the major artists of the 60s-90s. It's a record club subscription concept, but I endorse it due to the price.

Posted by: Bethesdan | December 19, 2006 4:13 PM

I think vinyl to CD is an interesting gadget. For those interested, the Wall Street Journal's tech columist, Walter Mossberg, talked about 2 vinyl to CD units last Wednesday. See Walter S. Mossberg & Katherine Boehret, Bringing Your Dylan Records Into a Digital Age, Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2006, page D7.

Posted by: David R. White | December 19, 2006 5:46 PM

Hey wait a minute. Joan Baez? A great singer and humanitarian! No wonder you bought her albums

Posted by: Ken Holley | December 19, 2006 8:39 PM

As in the Joan Baez who used to sing great duets with Pete Seeger and less great with Bob Dylan. One of the most magnificant voices and if you can download (okay, or find the record......) of her version of Silent Night, you'll find it was well worth the trouble of looking for it.

Posted by: Dungarees | December 21, 2006 12:09 PM

Nice clue. All you needed was a conventional turntable with rca plugs and an IMic, which cost thirty dollars. USB-enabled turntable...that's ridiculous.

Posted by: Matt | December 21, 2006 4:58 PM

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