When I look for gifts for a lot of my friends, the most important thing on my mind is finding things that are hackable. Is the gift modifiable, open source, and fuel for future projects? Does it teach you something? These are essential qualities in a hacker gift.
In this guide, you’ll find a collection of gadgets, books, and gear that have carefully been selected for their fundamental hackability and technical awesomeness.
The list starts off with an obvious gift candidate, the open source/open hardware Arduino.
The Arduino has quickly become the platform of choice for hardware hacks and physical computing projects requiring a microprocessor. The devices are cheap, fun to program, and there’s a healthy community of Arduino hackers publishing both software libraries and hardware add-ons. For many applications, you’ll want to check out the Arduino Duemilanove, which is compatible with snap on “shield” daughterboards like the robot friendly MotorShield or the XPortShield ethernet adapter. A lot of projects can also benefit from the ultra small footprint and breadboard compatible Boarduino, which you can assemble yourself for only $17.50.
Price: $17.50 – $34.99
A great gift idea for someone who’s new to Arduino is the Arduino Starter Kit. It’s currently backordered, but if you order quickly you can still get one in time for Christmas. It includes an Arduino Duemilanove, a huge pile of electronic goodies, and the book Making Things Talk by Tom Igoe.
Take your digital life, wrap it up inside a bean bag, make it boot Linux, and put it where you can play with it. That’s a Chumby. The best part about this device is that it’s completely open source and designed with third party developers in mind. Chumby can run custom Flash applications in its default touchscreen widget interface, or you can tear deeper into the OS and create your own custom embedded appliance.
Even proprietary devices can have a certain built-in level of hackability. Sometimes the utility of the device makes up for its closed nature by opening up other project opportunities. Or maybe they have some cool capabilities if you can deal with a voided warrantee.
The H2 is great for recording podcasts, notes, or jam sessions. With 2 stereo inputs, it can record 4 tracks of 360-degree audio at up to 96KHz. If you’re not satisfied with that, check out the field recorder hack that replaces the microphones with 4 line-level inputs, perfect for high-quality recording on a budget.
Make a robot that can send email. Write PHP that controls real-life devices. Talk to GPS hardware and other circuits from your own devices. Making Things Talk is filled with a ton of direct, practical howtos for connecting and networking physical objects using open source hardware like the Arduino.
I’ll give Neal Stephenson’s latest novel a solid recommendation, despite it’s recent panning on Slashdot and XKCD. Maybe it resonated with me because it’s essentially about a society of hacker-monks, separated from society, left to focus on the pursuit of theoretical knowledge and philosophy. Maybe it’s because Stephenson explores the topic of mind-hacks from a multiverse-consciousness, quantum-computing perspective. Or maybe it’s because I like to throw around words like Fraa, Jeejah and Praxis, knowing that only the real Avout will know what I’m talking about. Hackers need to read too, you know.
These two books are the hacker’s perfect companion for exploring the universe. The Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders is the ideal book for for new astronomers looking to locate and identify objects in the deep sky. Astronomy Hacks complements this, providing the tools and know-how for hacker astronomers looking to apply some digital expertise to their love for the night sky.
The i-SOBOT humanoid robot was recently discontinued and is selling for about half price, just under $100. It’s not a bad deal for a 17DOF desk toy, and with a bit of work, you could perhaps give it eyes and a soul with an active IR sensor and an Arduino.
iPhone hacker Erica Sadun was hacking apps for the iPhone before Apple released an official software development kit. It’s written toward programmers who want to learn the nuts and bolts of iPhone development through practical examples. This would be a great gift for anyone who might be more inclined to upload to the App Store.
The right tools make the world a better place to hack. The Make team put together a substantial starter kit that will equip a budding electronics geek with the essential tools of the trade. The kit includes a soldering iron, wire cutters, desoldering tools, a mini vise, and a digital multimeter, everything you need for robot building and circuit bending.
Take the NSLU2, plug in a couple of USB hard drives, toss it on your home ethernet network, and you have an instant network storage server that you can save and share data on from all of your home’s laptops and desktops.
The SLUG does a nice job of this out of the box, but what’s cool is that the device runs Linux and you can replace the standard firmware with a more hacker-friendly NSLU2-Linux distribution, turning the device into anything you want, be it a small web server or an embedded server for network enabling a physical device.
CHDK is a replacement firmware for many Canon consumer-grade digital cameras. With CHDK, even a low end camera can be given a high-end feature set, including the ability to take RAW photos, run bracketed shots, and display a live histogram in the LCD window. My favorite feature is that you can write custom scripts for doing things like time-lapse photography or motion detection.
You may have to hunt a bit for one that you know will be supported, but there is a pretty healthy list of CHDK compatible Canon devices. Consider some of the cheaper, low-end models—it’s a lot less risky to do a lot of hacks with inexpensive tools. Someone might be more inclined to attach a camera to a kite if it’s not a $500 model.
For more ideas, stop by the Maker Shed store. It’s a one stop shop for hacker-friendly, open source/open hardware gift ideas, including Arduino & Arduino accessories, electronic kits, robotics kits, our HACKS books, back issues of MAKE & CRAFT, and much more.
I’m sure I’ve missed a great hacker gift idea or two. Please make sure to share your own in the comments.