Geeky Holiday Gift Ideas

December 3, 2019 Mark Harris

The holiday season is coming! I asked both the Altium community and my Altium Library community what geek gifts they are looking for, and I’ve added some of my own for the first ever Altium Geek Gift Guide! This is mostly for electronics geeks, but there should be something for everyone!

There are so many amazing geek gifts out there it would be impossible to cover them all, so I’ve tried to keep to community suggestions. I then added just a few items that excite me to provide a few extra options in the list.

Lower Priced Gifts

A lot of the suggestions are more expensive gadgets and tools, so I’ll start out with a few suggestions of my own that are very budget friendly.

Star Wars merchandise is really big this year, so if your geek likes Star Wars, there are plenty of possibilities for low cost gifts.

Jedi Bathrobe/Dressing Gown

Star Wars Jedi Bathrobe / Dressing Gown

Rather than socks and underwear, why not consider a bathrobe/dressing gown in the style of a Jedi Robe? Available from many sellers on Amazon, eBay, and other online marketplaces—lightsaber sold separately.

Star Wars Silicone Ice/Chocolate Molds

Star Wars Silicone Ice / Chocolate Molds

Sets of ice/chocolate molds are available from a variety of vendors on most online marketplaces, and come in a range of interesting shapes. These would be perfect for any age, are used for making themed ice cubes, fun chocolates, or pretty much any other liquid you can pour and have set at room temperature or when chilled.

Firefly Playing Cards

Firefly Playing Cards

If your geek plays poker or other games that use a standard 54 card deck, then maybe a set of Firefly playing cards would be the perfect low cost gift. These officially licensed cards are printed on high quality paper stock, with Firefly themed artwork. You can buy them directly from the manufacturer or most online marketplaces.

USB Flash Drive Silver Cufflinks

USB Flash Drive Silver Cufflinks

Novelty cufflinks are always great accessories for formal attire, but these add a bit of a different twist. Your geek will feel a bit like a secret agent with these cufflinks—which have a built-in 32GB USB flash drive—allowing them to covertly transport critical documents and design specs, or a lot of cute cat videos. You can buy them directly from the manufacturer, and they come in a nice case too.

Hot Air Rework Station

858D+ Hot Air Rework Station

The cheapest geek tool in this list comes as a wishlist item from Peter, who hasn’t got around to buying one yet. The 858D/858D+ style hot air rework station was featured in my Electronics Lab Kit article as a great tool to have in the lab. If your geek works on electronics with surface mount components and doesn’t have one of these yet, it’s an invaluable tool for soldering, desoldering, and reworking boards. They are available under a wide variety of brands on most online marketplaces. 

Computer Gadgets/Accessories

Most geeks love new accessories for their computers. I had a couple of great suggestions from the community for these that would help your geek be more productive and are pretty cool too!

Azeron Gaming Keypad

Azeron Gaming Keypad

Michael Perry suggested this gaming keypad, which I would have loved to mention in my Using Altium Designer More Efficiently article. It’s an ergonomic keypad with 26 buttons and an analog thumbstick. Each button can be programmed to a keyboard button-press or a combination of such presses, making it great for software like Altium Designer, which has loads of shortcuts you use all the time. These are custom made per order, with delivery times advertised as high up to 180 days for non-priority orders, so you probably won’t be getting one to put under the tree this year. You can order it directly from the manufacturer’s website.

3D Connexion Space Mouse

3D Connexion Space Mouse Pro

Nick is desperate for a 3D Connexion Space Mouse Pro after reading about it in the Using Altium More Efficiently article. I love my Space Mouse Pro for working in Altium’s 3D view, and especially more so for working in mechanical CAD software. It makes moving around and viewing a 3D model so easy and gets you the exact view you need expeditiously. Many retailers sell these, and you can find good condition used models on many online marketplaces for way below retail price. Take a look at the lineup on the manufacturer’s website.

Logitech M570 Wireless Trackball Mouse

Logitech M570 Wireless Trackball Mouse

This might not be the most desired mouse on the market, but it’s very popular with engineers. I have 7 or 8 of them around the house and workshop, and at a large previous employer, every engineer’s desk had one by choice! I made the switch to the M570 many years ago because I was having a lot of neck and shoulder pain caused by bad posture with a regular mouse. The M570 mouse is also great for desks crowded in projects, as you don’t need to move it around like a regular mouse. If your geek is always battling to find space to move their mouse, or struggles with shoulder or back pain on the right side from using a mouse all day, take a look at the M570. You can find them at virtually every computer retailer or you can find out more about them on the Logitech website.

Samsung EVO Solid State Hard Drive

Samsung EVO Solid State Hard Drive

Ross wants a new SSD for his Altium projects to go on. His opinion is that a new SSD is going to be the single most impactful upgrade possible for his computer to improve Altium Designer’s performance. There are several options available in this series, with the Samsung EVO 970 Plus NVMe being the fastest, but the computer needs to support it and have a spare M.2 slot for it to mount. The older Samsung 860 EVO/PRO models are compatible with more computers but are significantly slower. You can pick one of these up from virtually any computer store, and the more spacious it is, the better!

Piper Computer Kit

Piper Computer Kit

If you have a younger geek, why not let them build their own low-cost computer? The Piper computer kit is intended to teach students about computer science, electronics, and coding through Minecraft and Google’s Blockly language. You can find out more on the manufacturer’s website.

Development Tools/Test Equipment

Every electronics engineer or hobbyist needs more tools, dev kits, and test equipment! There’s simply no such thing as having enough of these devices. 

NVIDIA Jetson

NVIDIA Jetson

Mahmoud Soltan wants an NVIDIA Jetson this year. It’s a lineup of boards intended for developing autonomous machines. These have the same processing cores as a computer graphics card, allowing you to execute the same artificial intelligence or machine learning code you would use GPU processing for on a computer. With a small size and relatively high energy efficiency, they can be integrated into all sorts of machines and robots. Take a look at the NVIDIA website for more information.

Rigol DP832 Lab Power Supply

Rigol DP832 Lab Power Supply

Dan wants a decent benchtop power supply that doesn’t blow up his electronics because of the current limiting kicking in too slowly, or because the output capacitor is after the current limiting circuit as is the case in many cheap power supplies. I’m going to recommend the Rigol DP832 as a good value power supply with lots of functionality. I suggested other power supplies, including the DP832A, the slightly higher precision sibling to the DP832, in the Kitting out an Electronics Lab article, but when it came to purchasing a power supply for my own use, I ended up with a DP832! If your geek likes to build their own electronics, a good quality power supply would be very welcome if they do not already have one. You can purchase Rigol equipment from many online test equipment retailers, or check out the DP800 series lineup on the Rigol website.

LimeSDR Mini

LimeSDR Mini

Altium’s own Ben Jordan wants so many geeky gadgets for Christmas, the most pressing of which is a LimeSDR Mini. This is the much lower cost, 2 channel version of the bigger 4 channel LimeSDR without compromising on the huge power of this tool. It’s a 100 kHz to 3.8GHz software-defined radio module that you can use as a spectrum analyzer, or as a completely configurable receiver/transmitter. You can build your own cellular base station, do some radio astronomy, or do so many other things with this incredibly powerful radio device. You can read more about it on the manufacturer’s website, or purchase one through CrowdSupply.

MiniVNA Tiny+

MiniVNA Tiny+

Next up, Ben wants a MiniVNA Tiny+. This little Vector Network Analyzer is cheap for what it is, since typically, a low-cost 3GHz VNA is in the tens of thousands of dollars. The tradeoff is a limited dynamic range, but a device with limited dynamic range is better than no device at all! If your geek loves working with RF, or is an amateur radio enthusiast, this little device is probably going to excite them. I found a Plus2 model on AliExpress.

PocketVNA

PocketVNA

The PocketVNA is similar to the MiniVNA that Ben wants above, with broadly the same specifications and limitations. The range is extended to 4GHz over the 3GHz of the MiniVNA, however, some reviews I’ve read say that this extra range isn’t perhaps as usable as you might hope. That being said, I haven’t tested it myself, so I can’t say for certain that the online feedback is accurate. You can purchase one from the pocketVNA website.

Basic Oscilloscope

Rigol DS1054Z Oscilloscope

If you have a geek that is just getting started in electronics, Peter recommends getting an oscilloscope, as it is the most important piece of test equipment in the electronics geek’s arsenal. After far too long procrastinating about buying an oscilloscope, Peter bought a Rigol MSO5074 which he can’t live without, and wishes all electronics geeks to have an oscilloscope of their own! I have a Rigol MSO5074 myself and find it to be excellent value for money. For a more entry-level option, consider the Rigol DS1054Z which is very highly regarded by the maker and hobbyist communities as the best value in budget oscilloscopes. Take a look at Rigol’s oscilloscope lineup on their website.

Home

Geek gadgets around the home can help reduce costs, make life a little easier, and are simply fun to have too.

Hydrawise Wi-Fi Sprinkler Controller Products

Hydrawise Wi-Fi Sprinkler Controller - Hunter

If you live in a very hot environment, like Darren Moore in Australia, you’ll know that your garden dies within a couple of days without regular watering. Darren’s already geeking out over his Hydrawise sprinkler controller, which he has recently installed. And he’s pretty excited that on an upcoming hot day, it will decide to water the lawn for a little bit longer than it otherwise might have. The Hydrawise will not only keep his garden looking great, but also give him opportunities to save water as the controller looks at the weather forecast to decides how much water to use. Take a look at the manufacturer’s website to learn more.

Nest Learning Thermostat

Nest Learning Smart Thermostat

If you’re not looking to throw barbie over the holidays, then you’re probably not looking for a new watering system for your house. Don’t worry, you can have a gadget control your heating instead! There are plenty of smart thermostats on the market, but among them, the Nest consistently reels in positive reviews and is readily available all around the world. By learning your heating and cooling requirements, any smart thermostat is likely to save you money in the long run on energy costs. You can pick up a smart thermostat at major hardware and electronics stores, or online at Google’s store.

Neato Robotics Botvac

Neato Robotics Botvac

I’m not a huge fan of vacuuming the house, and neither is my wife. But we have a shetland sheepdog that sheds... a lot. Without regular vacuuming, we’d be snowed under with fur, so for the past 3 years we’ve had a Neato Botvac in the house. Unlike other robot vacuums we’ve owned, the Botvac is intelligently designed with a laser scanner on top. The laser scanner completely maps the house as it goes, so it cleans the entire house perfectly without missing any spots. This also means it doesn’t crash into things violently as it cleans, so you won’t find your dining chairs in the lounge damaged after the vacuum has finished. If you have a large house, the vacuum cleaner will continue where it left off if it needs to charge its battery. I could write for hours about how amazing a good robot vacuum is, but I’ll spare you today! Our house gets vacuumed every day at 13:30, and all we need to do is pull dog toys out of the huge brush when our dog tries to get the vacuum to play with her, and empty the bin of fur every couple of days. Ignore all the other robot vacuums, take a look at the Botvac for your geek!

The Vintage Nixie Tube Clock

The Vintage Nuvitron Nixie Tube Clock

Sandra thinks that a cool nixie tube clock is exactly what her house needs this holiday season. Built with old stock soviet nixie tubes, the Nuvitron nixie tube clock is as vintage as geekiness can get. This is geek chic to the core, nixie tubes have such a wonderful appeal to them that you can’t get from modern displays or LEDs. Beyond just telling the time, this clock also features an alarm function. Take a look at the Nuvitron website to find out more.

Audio Equipment

Line6 Helix

Line6 Helix

I mentioned earlier that Ben had a few gadgets he wanted, and the Line6 Helix is another device that Ben would love to have. I have to admit that I know nothing of audio equipment, especially something as advanced and full of features as this! Eli Hughes seems to want one, and other community members I’ve asked think it’s pretty good as well, so I’m sure if your geek is into guitars, they would love this piece of equipment too. Reviews rate it very highly and it really seems to be overflowing with features! The Helix is available from a wide range of music retailers, and you can find out more details on the Line6 website.

Fractal Axe-Fx III

Fractal Axe-Fx III

As above, I don’t have much idea about guitar audio accessories, but when I asked community member Ross (who does know about guitar audio) about the Line6 Helix, he suggested I also mention the Fractal Axe-FX III. It has similar functionality to the Line6 Helix that Ben suggested. The new Version 3 has a huge amount of increased digital signal processing (DSP) power compared to the previous models. Take a look at the Fractal Audio website for more details.

Robot Underlings

Ok, so that title is probably a little over the top, but what else should I call the little machines that build things for me? No geek gift guide would be complete without at least one 3D printer, so I’m going to give you three, followed by yet another little robot project just for the electronics geek.

Creality3D Ender-3/Ender-3 Pro

Creality3D Ender-3/Ender-3 Pro 3D Printer

If your geek is looking at getting into 3D printing, this printer consistently reviews as the best budget option. But just because it’s budget, doesn’t mean it’s lacking anything! These printers give very decent prints right out of the box and there are plenty of upgrades on Thingiverse which you can print yourself to further enhance the machine’s capabilities. The build platform is relatively large for an entry-level priced printer and the extruder is of good quality which means your geek won’t need to spend any extra money on the printer to get it to print well. You can find the Ender 3 or Pro model on every online marketplace (Amazon, eBay, etc), and you can read more about it on the manufacturer’s website.

AnyCubic Chiron

AnyCubic Chiron 3D Printer

If your geek already has a 3D printer, and is complaining about the size of model they can make, consider getting an AnyCubic Chiron. This is an enormous printer—the build volume of 400mm x 400mm x 450mm is simply huge. The bed probing tool attaches to the extruder to map the build platform which alleviates any distortion on such a huge bed, giving you excellent first layer adhesion even on gigantic models. I bought one of these myself earlier this year for printing some large electronics enclosures that my other 3d printer can’t even begin to think about printing. There are mixed reviews of the printer, as early prototype units were sent to reviewers that were a little lacking in quality. AnyCubic took heed of the feedback and made a lot of changes to the machine, which is evident from the execellent post-release reviews for the printer. Like the Ender-3, you’ll find this quite affordable printer on all the online marketplaces, and you can read more about it on the manufacturer’s website.

AnyCubic Photon/Photon S

Unlike most 3D printers geeks are most familiar with that deposit melted plastic from a spool in layers to form the part they are printing, the Photon prints using UV cured resin. A couple of years ago resin printers were incredibly expensive, as were the resins used. In the past year, a flurry of small resin printers have been released, and the Photon S tends to have the best reviews and best specifications of them. The original Photon is still available at a lower price. The build volume is quite small compared to a typical 3D printer, as it uses a 5” LCD screen as a mask for the resin curing which limits the build size. That being said, the print quality is spectacular and it can be difficult to tell the difference from an injection molded part. The printer will print layer heights of 10 microns with ease, and the pixel size is 45uM, allowing incredibly fine details. Resin printers do have more mess involved and need some extra equipment, such as UV light for post-curing the prints and alcohol bath or ultrasonic cleaner for washing the prints, but that’s easily justifiable for the incredible print quality. You can find the AnyCubic Photon at all the major online marketplaces and can find out more information from AnyCubic’s website.

OpenPNP - Electronics Pick and Place

If your geek is assembling a lot of electronics by hand, especially complex boards, they will probably be very interested in the OpenPNP project. OpenPNP is software to run open source pick and place machines that assemble circuit boards with relatively low cost, making them perfect for saving neck and back strain from leaning over a PCB for hours placing tiny parts. There’s not much in the way of fully assembled machines available, as open source pick and place machines are in a similar place to where 3D printers were 10 years or so ago, but you can buy the hard to source dual nozzle pick and place head and machined frame brackets from BetzTechnik to get your geek’s build started! The rest of the machine is built from relatively common components you might find in a 3D printer, and OpenPNP has an excellent community that supports new builders.

Other Ideas For Electronics Geeks

I’ve mentioned a few pieces of test equipment and electronics tools, but if your geek is just getting started in electronics or working on building up their home electronics lab, I wrote an article earlier this year on everything you might want for an electronics lab. There’s a huge range of equipment, storage ideas, tools, and everything else you might need, which could be considered a bit of a geek wish list of it’s own. There’s typically multiple price point options for all the major equipment, so why not take a look at the Kitting Out an Electronics Lab in 2019 guide for some additional ideas.

About the Author

Mark Harris

Mark Harris is an engineer's engineer, with over 12 years of diverse experience within the electronics industry, varying from aerospace and defense contracts to small product startups, hobbies and everything in between. Before moving to the United Kingdom, Mark was employed by one of the largest research organizations in Canada; every day brought a different project or challenge involving electronics, mechanics, and software. He also publishes the most extensive open source database library of components for Altium Designer called the Celestial Database Library. Mark has an affinity for open-source hardware and software and the innovative problem-solving required for the day-to-day challenges such projects offer. Electronics are passion; watching a product go from an idea to reality and start interacting with the world is a never-ending source of enjoyment.

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