If there's a computer user in your house, you'll never have to worry about finding the perfect Christmas gift. There's a program or gadget out there for everyone.
On the gadget front, my first recommendation is that you buy a multimedia upgrade. This is a pretty big gift, but it's worth it. A multimedia kit consists of a CD-ROM drive and a sound board for IBM-compatibles and a CD-ROM alone for Apple Macintosh computers, which come factory-equipped with sound capabilities.
A CD-ROM drive (short for Compact Disk-Read Only Memory) uses the same kind of CD you use in your home stereo. But computer CDs store vast amounts of programming, data, graphics, sound and video clips. Software publishers have produced a virtual explosion of CD-ROM titles from full encyclopedias to national phone books to interactive video dating games.
A sound board gives your computer the ability to play back sound, voice and music.
Good sound boards are available for $100 to $200, while CD-ROM drives run $200 to $500. If you don't have either, I recommend buying a multimedia kit. These include the drive, the sound board, a set of inexpensive speakers and a handful of CD-ROM titles. Buying a kit also eliminates the hassle of getting your sound board and drive to work together.
Make sure the CD-ROM that comes with the package is a new "double-speed" drive. These are much faster than earlier models. Also make sure the sound board is compatible with Creative Labs' Sound Blaster card, the closest thing to an industry standard. A label that the kit is MPC2 compatible is a sign the hardware is the latest design.
Two popular kits are Creative Labs' Discover CD 16 Upgrade Kit and Media Vision's Fusion DoubleCD 16 - both under $500. If you have a Mac, CD-ROM drives start at about $300.
If you're squeamish about opening up your IBM-compatible PC to install these items, buy them from a computer dealer and pay him to do the job. …