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Personal Tech: Holiday Gift Guide

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Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Friday, December 11, 2009; 12:00 PM

The Washington Post's Rob Pegoraro will be online Friday, Dec. 11 at Noon ET to discuss recent reviews, answer your personal tech questions and provide gadget-buying advice for the holidays.

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Read this Sunday's Fast Forward column early: Netbooks still in need of improvements.

Rob's latest tech thoughts and tips are cultivated daily on his blog Faster Forward.

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Rob Pegoraro: Good afternoon, and welcome to another episode of "What Gadget Should I Get?" I'm here for the next hour to take your questions about the fine art of procuring consumer electronics. Let's get started...

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Brooklyn, NY: Wondering if I can get two for the price of one:

(1) Do you have any recommendations on portable DVD players? I'm leaning towards getting one for my mother-in-law rather than a netbook - since the main purpose is watching DVDs, and the netbooks don't come with built in DVD drives anyway. Should I be rethinking this?

(2) I've been trying out the Kindle DX a bit - am I the only one underwhelmed by the user interface? I'm no Apple fanboy, but perhaps the iPhone has spoiled me.

Thanks and happy holidays!

Rob Pegoraro: And Brooklyn's first out of the gate with a two-fer.

1) I don't have any particular recommendations in that area, but some kind of portable DVD player sounds like the right idea in this case. Remember, as the gift-giver you implicitly accept tech-support calls from the recipient... you'll have less of those with a DVD player.

2) If you think the Kindle DX's UI is underwhelming, you would have outright hated the first one. I don't think it's that bad, but that may be because I object more strongly to the screen's sluggish refresh rate and low resolution and the DRM restrictions on Kindle e-books.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: hey rob, i thought it might be a possible holiday project - keep me out of the mall - to figure out how to connect my laptop to my HDTV.

is there a website that you'd recommend for those of use who aren't IT guys, but who'd like to send internet videos to our TVs and watch them on a bigger screen.

i guess there's the actual 'wires' i need, and how i'd set up the aspect ratio, and whatever other details, maybe the sound, that i need to know about.

i'm coming from a Mac source.

thanks and happy holidays!

Rob Pegoraro: It *shouldn't* be that hard--but, really, is there anything in consumer electronics about which you couldn't make that statement?

A reader posted a link to a good primer in a comment on the last Help File I wrote on the subject: http://www.hillcrestlabs.com/loop/connecting.php

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Alexandria, Va.: Hey,

So, I'm thinking of going to a Mac, but am confused about which one I need. I do basic computing - e-mail, word, take lots of pictures, and have about a 9 GB iTunes library. Is the basic Macbook the one to get, or one of the Macbook Pros?

Also, I need to replace my verizon cellphone. I've tried a couple out for the 30-day trial, but they either sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher or were so tinny sounding that even a 5 minute conversation would give me a headache (even when I had high signal strenght). So - what is the best reception for a verizon phone. I dont need bells and whistles, but I would pay for a more expensive phone to get good sound quality since its my only phone.

Rob Pegoraro: The basic one has more than enough resources for those tasks; I would also consider the $1,199 MacBook pro (which adds an SD Card slot, very helpful for photographers, along with a FireWire port and a backlit keyboard) but nothing more than that.

About Verizon phones--the most recent one I've tested is, of course, the Droid. I think it sounds fine and I haven't gotten any complaints about how I sound from other callers. But I spend so little time on land phones that my standards may have degraded.

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Fairfax City, Va.: I pre-ordered a Nook - Barnes and Noble's e- book reader. I know you haven't had a chance to review one yet but what are your initial thoughts/feelings about this? It has Google's Android OS and is supposed to be open source. With the ability to add 3rd party apps, I am hoping it will become something like what the CrunchPad (not the JooJoo) was supposed to become (maybe that is too wishful though).

Rob Pegoraro: The initial reviews (in the NYT and WSJ, for instance) are apparently pretty bad. I haven't read them yet--despite B&N PR's unwillingness to say when I might ever get a review unit, I do plan on reviewing it and don't want my opinion skewed by reading somebody else's assessment.

I would, however, offer this general warning: Lots of tech gadgets *should* be great, based on their ingredients lists, but fall short based on the way those parts are combined.

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sioux falls sd: It seems odd that you would choose to illustrate an Acer netbook, when this company is the dregs as to electronic and construction quality and forthrightness with consumers.

I once was foolish enough to buy this brand. Componenets on this Acer Aspire began failing within weeks. Soon I had no audio. Acer "tech help" simply did not respond to numerous e-mails. Before a year, the computer failed altogether and the company simply stonewalled.

MSI Wind and Asus netbooks have received the best reviews. HP and Dell seem to be middle-of-the road w/construction quality.

Why did you choose to illustrate/advertise the worst?

Rob Pegoraro: Note to Acer PR: I think you've lost Sioux Falls, S.D., as a customer.

I included Acer in the review because it's one of the biggest netbook vendors, but also because it's shipping machines with Win 7 Starter--some netbook vendors have yet to do so.

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Topeka, Kansas: My 25 year old son who likes kayaking wants a new camera that is waterproof and tough, like the Olympic Stylus Tuff 8000. After reading the reviews on this camera and some similar cameras, it seems that these have common problems of only fair quality pictures, slow shutter speed, too-limited battery life, and THEY LEAK.

Any GOOD cameras for the son?

Rob Pegoraro: Have a look at last week's chat transcript, where we discussed a variant of this question--somebody wanted something water-resistant to shoot video: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2009/11/27/DI2009112701480.html

Recommendations from the audience included an unspecified Vivitar model and the Pentax Optio W60.

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Greenbelt, Md.: I know you don't recommend standalone GPS devices because of the emerging smartphone technology, but I for one have a strong aversion to paying $80 a month for voice/data services. (My cellphone is a Virgin Mobile pay-as-you-go thing.) So, what would be wrong with getting a basic GPS unit for the car, as long as I put it in the car only for long trips? (I've seen far too many puddles of broken auto glass at my local Metro station.)

Rob Pegoraro: Nothing, as long as you keep it basic--I wouldn't spend extra on any of the step-up features you might see. Also, it's not enough to keep the GPS out of the car; you also need to keep the mount out of sight. (For that matter, thieves will break into cars if they just see the circle the mount leaves on the windshield over time.)

FWIW, voice + date is more like $60.

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San Diego, Calif.: I've decided that I need a bigger internal hard on my iBook G4 (1.2 GHz PowerPC G4 - 1.25 GB RAM). It's 27 GB, with less than 2 GB free. I also have an external hard drive with 80 GB capacity, but it currently has about 4 GB free.

I found a larger internal hard drive online and I looked into getting it and installing it myself, but doing such a swap looks to be way beyond my tech abilities and comfort level.

If I got a new larger external hard drive, could I install my OS X (10.5.8) onto that and use it as my "start-up drive" - or am I going about all this ass-backwards and should just have a pro do an install of a new internal hard drive?

P.S. - I found out that once the current internal hard drive is removed, it can be put into an "enclosure" and used for an additional external hard drive for more storage.

Rob Pegoraro: Making an external drive your boot disk is not something I'd recommend--especially not on a laptop. Get a Mac store (not Apple's, but an independent one) to install the new drive for you.

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Reston, Va: In shopping for a camcorder, I've been viewing tests posted on youtube for several models.

There seems to be a consistent problem in capturing movement. It looks kinda jerky. And yet, a smooth capture of movement is what we are looking for.

Is there one camcorder that stands out that could do this for around a grand?

Rob Pegoraro: Don't exclude operator error - if you're trying to follow the action with a handheld device, it's hard to pan smoothly across the scenery. You could buy a Steadicam to fix that, but a tripod would probably be cheaper.

(If these tests were done on tripods, look for something that doesn't record in HD; that's less work for a camcorder's processor.)

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re: GPS Mount: To avoid the circle, you can get a heavy pad that sits on your dash that you can clip the GPS to. It just sits there when you use it, and when you don't it can store under the seat. No circles to give away that you have a GPS.

Rob Pegoraro: Good tip. (As I recall, these are sometimes called "bean bag mounts.") Thanks...

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Nook Remorse: Hi Rob

So I did end up getting my Nook by Dec 9. I used to own a Kindle but returned it when I saw the Nook. Now, I'm having a bit of buyer's remorse. Here are my pros and cons for those who are trying to decide which to buy, the Nook or Kindle:

Nook Pros: - it looks pretty cool

-buying books and browsing books are much easier if a tad slow compared to the Kindle

-turning pages is fun when using the touchscreen to swipe

-reading on the Nook is easy and fun, works just the same as the Kindle

-you can upload mp3s and pictures onto your nook which I haven't tried yet but will soon

Nook Cons: -the main issue is that it is SLOOOOOOOOOOW with loading books, formatting the font if you decide to change it in the middle, turning on, looking up words in the dictionary, pretty much anything where you have to leave the page you're on to do something

-battery life seems a bit weak....I left mine off for an entire day, noting the battery charge was at 85% and when I turned it back on 24 hours later, it was down to 82% and that was in OFF mode...may not be a big deal but I did notice that

-the touch screen gets messed up with fingerprints quite easily

-the virtual keyboard is nice but a bit slow to respond to your touches, kind of like the iPhone

So, my advice to those trying to decide between the Nook and Kindle is to get the Kindle for the wider selection of books which are also cheaper, and also the fact that it seems to not be as slow as the Nook. If you've bought the Nook already, hope and pray that they come out with some software updates to address how slow it is.

Thanks Rob!!!

Rob Pegoraro: And thanks to you for the review! (If you're in the D.C. area, any chance I could take a look at your Nook? I'm not entirely kidding...)

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the Dell Zino home theater pc (HTPC)? I use over-the-air tv and netflix dvds, but my dvd player just broke. I'd like to find a device that would allow me to play dvds and blu-ray discs, and also watch internet-based streaming video like Hulu, Netflix, and Boxee. Are there any HTPCs out now that you like, or any upcoming ones that I should be waiting for?

Rob Pegoraro: I'm interested in it, but haven't had a chance to try it out. I think having more small, home-theater PCs from companies people already know could do a fair amount to make the HTPC concept more of a mass-market reality.

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re: nook: I have a nook and have used it extensively now. I'm not a fanboy, but in the nook's defense, I think the NYT and others may have reviewed a version with software that isn't as up-to-date as the nooks being shipped to consumers. It's certainly no cheetah, but my nook isn't as brutally slow as the reviewers lament. Overall I'm satisfied with it as a first-gen device and I hope that future software updates continue to improve its performance.

Rob Pegoraro: Again, I haven't read the competition's reviews--but shouldn't the Nook be able to update its own software? It would be an unusual computer if it couldn't do that. (It would also be bad PR to send reviewers something that's materially worse than what customers get in stores.)

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Silver Spring, Md.: Any good Wii games or gadgets?

I got one for my sons last year, thinking of what to add to the collection.

They are young, so no first person shooter games. Other than that, I am open to anything.

Rob Pegoraro: What kid-friendly Wii games are we liking these days, chatters? I can recommend Wii Sports Resort, but that's kind of an obvious call.

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Flip cameras: It seems like everyone uses the term Flip camera as if there are no others. But in getting one of those min-camcorders, are there some better than others? What features should I look for?

Rob Pegoraro: There's now a pretty broad lineup. What you get as you spend more is a smaller size and HD video capability. There are also competing, Flip-esque models from Kodak and Sony (possibly more that I can't recall at the moment), but the Kodak Zi6 I tried was not as easy to use as the Flip.

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Montgomery, Ala.: My wife wants two functions from a computer device- to send and receive e-mails and go on the web. What type of product do you recommend I get her? Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: She sounds like an ideal customer for a netbook, if you can find one with the right software bundle. In this case, I would like at one of the models running Linux, where she won't have to deal with Windows security issues. Acer has a nicely simplified version on some of their Aspire models--once you set it up for your Internet connection, she should be in pretty good shape.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Rob, am I insane for asking my wife to buy me a Wifi-enabled scale that will automatically send my weight, body fat, and BMI information to my iPhone and a private website where I can track it? It costs $159 bucks. Made by Withings. My wife says my gadget obsession has reached new lows.

What say you?

Rob Pegoraro: I think your wife makes an excellent point here...

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Delray Beach, FL: Hey Rob, My seven year old son asked for an iPod touch for Christmas, which he plans to use mostly for playing games. Wouldn't a DS or a PSP be a better choice for games, especially at that age? He plays a few age-appropriate games on our PC, but he doesn't have any hand-held devices. Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: If he named any particular titles that aren't available on the iPod touch, you should ask him to clarify his intentions. But if he's set his mind on that iPod (and, of course, you're already planning on getting some kind of gadget for him), then that's what you should probably get.

Note, BTW, that you'll spend a lot less on software for the iPod than on either handheld gaming system.

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Takoma Park: For the guy who wants to hook his laptop up to the HDTV.

If you don't have HDMI out on your laptop (not many do at this point), there is a combo cable that has the VGA and audio cable in one unit.

http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16812196103&cm_re=vag_cable-_-12-196-103-_-Product

Rob Pegoraro: Hmm. That also costs a lot more than separate VGA and audio cables (which you can always tidy up with some twist-ties).

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Alexandria, Va.: I don't have one personally, but for the person considering a portable DVD player - Hammacher Schlemmer has one that has an antenna and also functions as a portable HDTV, which seems like some nice added functionality.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks...

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McLean, Va.: What is the best way to record TV (FIOS cable) onto a computer and easily store and sort shows without a dedicated DVR? They are so limiting...

Rob Pegoraro: You'd need a computer with a CableCard slot... which I don't think exist. (Right?) So you seem to be at an impasse.

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Silver Spring: For the guy who wants to do Mac to TV, look at an article in yesterday's NY Times covering doing exactly that.

Sorry to promote your rival, but this article is spot on for him.

Summary: Get a mini, connect to HDTV via HTMI cable, and get some way to control the thing from the couch. The remote mentioned in the NYT article is fabulous, but there are other options including the Apple remote.

Rob Pegoraro: I think I read that--it was the one about the family that dropped their cable subscription in favor of a mix of online and over-the-air TV. Good piece.

FYI, the current Mac mini has a mini-DisplayPort output, so you'll need a special adapter to bridge that to the TV's HDMI input. Monoprice.com sells one; I haven't tried it, but apparently it works as advertised.

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Gloves and your iPhone: Hi Rob! For the woman two weeks ago who was looking for gloves that she could wear and still use her iPhone (or other touchscreen PDA) Echo is advertising a glove that will do that. (Hat Tip to Good Morning America - it was part of their gift segment Thursday morning)

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks. I suppose I'll have to contact that company's PR department to try these out--assuming Robin Givhan won't object to me getting into fashion coverage.

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Glenwood, Ore.: Back in April you wrote about the Dish branded digital video recorder and suggested you might in the future write about a couple of home brew options. Is there a link to that column? Thanks for the chats!

Rob Pegoraro: And there that link is, as if by magic...

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D.C.: Until Apple makes one of its own, what would be your first choice for a netbook with Windows 7? (Many models still seem to come with XP.)

Rob Pegoraro: Of the ones I tried... I would probably go with the Acer or the HP and just put in some time stripping out all the junk software. I would also look into upgrading the Acer's memory to get around that silly 1 GB restriction. (There could be other good Win 7 netbooks; those are just the three that I've had time to try.)

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Charlottesville, Va. How close does the Flip HD (mino or ultra) get to HD quality (i.e. as compared to OTA). I'm thinking about one prior to the birth of our first child.

Rob Pegoraro: It looks pretty close to HD with slow or non-moving subjects. Action shots seem to wear out its processor. So you'd probably be OK up until the time the kid reaches the running-around-the-house stage.

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re: Wii Games: - Toy Story Mania

- Beatles: Rock Band

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks!

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I-Pod Touch vs. DS: If he wants to play popular games, like Super Mario Bro or Star Wars, a DS would be much better. Think of it as a portable "Play Station." You can get used games and eBay has good prices for the games.

If he's into word games, puzzles, mazes and some adventure type games that you'd normally find online on game sites, an I-Pod Touch would be a good deal. Games are a little cheaper, but the selection is way smaller. And if he likes to listen to music or watch TV shows, he can do that on the I-Pod.

At 7, I'm thinking a DS would be better, because most 7 year olds I know just play games.

Rob Pegoraro: More on the iPod versus DS issue (I'd send Mike Musgrove a message about this, but it looks like he's logged off).

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Rob Pegoraro: BTW, wanted to solicit your input for a project I've got for later this afternoon. I'm interviewing Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak for our On Leadership blog--what would you want to ask him about on that subject?

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Sun City, Ariz.: I don't understand why anyone would even consider a netbook in today's market. First, there is virtually no difference in price between a netbook and a low-end notebook (e.g. Walmart has a Toshiba this week-end for $299! -- and there have been many similar deals since November 1). Second, the chance for buyer's remorse is greatly reduced. Many people buy the netbook and become aware immediately that they would like to be able to do many other tasks that even the most basic laptop could do. Oops! I could go on, but you get the picture. Yours truly, Scrooge :)

Rob Pegoraro: The low-end laptops are likely to be a lot heavier and have much worse battery life than most netbooks. If you're only looking for a cheap coffee-table computer, that's fine... but not everybody is.

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Baltimore Md. : I would love to jettison my landline and its $60 a month bill for call waiting, voicemail etc. But I have DSL from Verizon (as is my landline). Is there such a thing as standalone DSL service from any provider? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Yes: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/17/AR2009071703847.html

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High Springs, Fla.: I want to hook my Dell laptop into my Philips flat screen, which has all of the new inputs, HDMI, S-video, RCA. The Dell has only a VGA (25 female recepts). I've gotten mixed info about which cable I need. Please inform and suggest an online supplier.

Thanks, Greg

Rob Pegoraro: You just need a VGA and a standard audio cable. (I'm assuming your HDTV has a VGA input... they pretty much all do.)

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Greenville, S.C.: I am trying to decide what point and shoot camera to buy my daughter for Christmas. She had a great one that was stolen from her car.

I have a PowerShot S80 Cannon camera that my husband and I purchased 4 years ago. We specifically bought this camera because it has an underwater casing (we are scuba divers). However, it does not take good pictures: they always seem to be slightly out of focus. Another problem with the S80 is that after you take a picture there is a delay of 5 to 10 seconds before you can take the next shot.

In purchasing a new camera, I would like to avoid these problems. My daughter needs a simple to use camera that does not break the bank. Additionally, she has a video camera so she does not necessarily need video on a digial camera.

Do you have any recommendations?

Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: Have you checked out the camera advice I offered a few weeks ago? If not, it's at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/27/AR2009112703997.html

If she knows her way around your Canon's interface, you can lower the learning curve by getting another Canon--look for an A- or SD-series with what Canon calls "Smart AUTO," or the ability to pick the right picture-taking mode on its own. That kind of automatic scene mode is a big upgrade in general, and a lot of point-and-shoot models now offer it.

Shutter lag has gotten a lot better since 2005, too.

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Anything but an "i": My son wants an mp3 player that is NOT AN iPod-anything. If you were to choose between the Sony mp3 player and the Zune, which would you pick? Son does NOT want "apps" of any kind, just wants to play music.

Rob Pegoraro: Sony's got some cheaper options than the Zune, which Microsoft seems to be positioning as a premium sort of alternative to the iPod. Does your son have strong feelings for/against Windows Media Player? With non-Zune, non-iPod player, you can keep using WMP; the Zune only works with the Zune software.

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Alexandria, VA: RE: CPU to TV - For what it's worth, my first-gen Westinghouse HDTV came with a DVI port, so you might just want to check if your computer and TV both have one - it could be simple as that.

Also, if your cpu has a DVI port, but your TV only has HDMI inputs, you can get an HDMI to DVI converter cable for very cheap at Monoprice.com.

Rob Pegoraro: Good points--thanks, Alex.

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for the guy who wants a computer DVR: Check out the lacie Lcinema BLACK Record. Has DVR functions if your PC has a tuner card.

Rob Pegoraro: Never heard of it, but I'll pass the suggestion along...

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Glove girl: I love you chatters! Thanks for keeping my hands warm : )

Rob Pegoraro: You're welcome. We're all about value here...

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Long Beach, NY: How does the HTC Hero compare to the iPhone?

Rob Pegoraro: It's a good choice, but not as good as the Droid. Here's my review: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/09/AR2009100902161.html

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D.C.: What's the most reliable and effective way to irretrievably delete your data from a computer that you plan to sell or donate?

Rob Pegoraro: A free program called Eraser: eraser.heidi.ie (or, if it's a Mac, just use the Secure Empty Trash command).

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Washington, D.C.: Do you have any gift suggestions for a person's whose Christmas list included a Roku last year and a Slingbox this year ... already has a Kindle ...

Rob Pegoraro: Maybe a book, a nice bottle of wine or something else non-technological?

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Rob Pegoraro: I've gotta run - thanks for all the great questions (and for the Woz interview suggestions). I'll be back one last time next Friday... see you all then!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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