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ShackWatch Returns: Special Christmas Edition!


By Brendan I. Koerner

Like all y'all, I ve been noticing a definite uptick in Radio Shack's ad campaign as of late. You know what I'm talking about—those holiday-themed commercials in which wannabe lotharios, car-crazed burnouts, and emasculated husbands sit in a comfy chair, stare into the camera, and request a Radio Shack gift for Christmas (or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or Winter Solstice). I was actually thinking of dissecting the ads for my Hype Sheet column, but they're sadly not online. That's the Shack's loss—I was gonna rave about their decision to get rid of annoying spokespeople Howie Long and Teri Hatcher. (Though I do suspect that the latter celeb simply became too expensive with the success of Desperate Housewives.)

So I'll settle instead for reviving my semi-regular ShackWatch feature, which made its glorious debut in early October. This time, the accent is on last-minute gift ideas, keeping in mind that you're probably pretty broke at this point. But with your family's annual festival of egg nog and emotional recriminations just a few days away, you still don't know what to get your geeky cousin, do you? I mean, the cousin you don't exactly dislike, but don't want to spend too much on, either. Have no fear, fellow skinflint; the Shack has more than enough sub-$20 gadgets for you to pick up on the fly. All the handpicked ShackWatch goodies after the jump. PLUS: A very special holiday appeal for help!

Let's begin on the really low end of the spectrum with the Electronic Bartender, which provides 500-plus recipes for drinks. Face it, your expertise probably stops at the Harvey Wallbanger (key ingredient: Galliano), and despite your protestations to the contrary, you're still a little clueless on the intricacies of the sloe gin fizz. It's a steal at $4.97, albeit in brick-and-mortar stores only—I guess the Shack wants to do its part in fighting the scourge of teenage drinking. But beware some spec-sheet pitfalls the max operating temperature is really only 50 degrees Fahrenheit?

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Far hardier, one would hope, is the Battery-Operated Coin Sorter (pictured atop this column), which features a "powerful 3-volt motor." This strikes me as a sensational idea, especially for those of us who don't want to deal with the "Penny Arcade" machines at our local Commerce Bank branch. (Definition of no fun: Getting in line behind a woman pouring 48 years worth of her recently deceased husband's pennies into the sorter.) And at $19.99, it sounds pretty reasonable—one of those gifts that is hawked as "paying for itself." But does it really work? The Shack, as we all know, is extraordinarily hit-or-miss on QA testing, so some duds slip through. If you know the scoop on the $19.99 coin sorter, lemme know.

I can, however, certainly vouch for the general loudness of the Shack's powerhorns, as exemplified by this nifty 50-watt model. I know because my elementary school teacher used one to herd us up for assembly, and it was like being front-row at a Scorpions concert, circa 1983 (the Love at First Sting tour, IIRC). The Shack rates this one out at 102 decibels—not deafening, but plenty annoying. I'd recommend buying this for the cousin whose dad is the uncle you hate—kill two birds with one wrathful stone.

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Sometimes, of course, a $20 limit just won't cut it. No, you want to go above and beyond the call of duty, and spend $23.99, just to show them how much they're loved. When that spirit hits, turn your gaze upon the Extra Loud Amplified Ringer, a product blessed with one of the most self-descriptive names this side of the stun gun. Yes, it amplifies your ringer, rendering its ring EXTRA LOUD. Snark aside, this is another really useful item—not just for the elderly, but those of us who a) listen to music at ear-piercing levels, and b) frequently lose the cordless beneath a sofa cushion. It's not a sexy gift, but they'll thank you for it. Eventually.

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HOMETOWN STORIES: Frequent readers of this space already know that, aside from occasional jaunts to Denmark or Peru, I'm pretty much stuck up in Harlem, U.S.A. most of the time. Alas, this severely limits my access to low-end stores—true, there's a zillion around my neighborhood (including my ultra-beloved Gem Gem Gem), and I can hop the subway or bus elsewhere in New York City (at least when there's not a crippling transit strike taking place). But despite my fellow New Yorkers' occasional protestations to the contrary, Gotham is not the only city that matters. Your hometown does, too, which is why I need your help as '05 bleeds into '06.

For the New Year, I want to highlight some low-end vendors from across the United States, or even the globe—places where you can buy dishwashing detergent as you purchase a new Motorola handset, or stores filled with goods that obviously fell off a truck (with a little assistance from the proprietors' 'roided-out "friends"). Got a candidate? Even better, got a picture of the establishment in question? Do tell, and I'll get this feature off the ground as soon as humanly possible. Bonus points if you can get a snapshot of yourself standing alongside the owner. Just don't do anything foolish—you don't want to be banned from the local Cell Hut, now, do you?

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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