5 gifts under $50 for open-source geeks

There are better ideas out there than t-shirts and stuffed penguins.

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The weeks of December are flying by, and the new year is fast approaching. While it seems that sales begin earlier and earlier every year, some people (like me) put off gift buying until the last minute. Even if you’re a more responsible gift-giver, it can be hard to pinpoint what someone might like for Christmas or Hanukkah.

If you’re shopping for an open-source geek in your life, but don’t have a ton of money to spend on hardware, there are a few stocking-stuffers and small gifts that can be had for under $50. Here are five affordable options to consider before shipping deadlines pass.

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B

1. Raspberry Pi 3 Model B ($36)

The Raspberry Pi is a great miniature computer that you can use to do all sorts of things, from building robots to playing HD video. (I have a Raspberry Pi 2 that I use for a home DNS server.) The Raspberry Pi 3 is the latest version of the credit card-sized PC and still just costs about $36 on Amazon.

Take note that in addition to the Pi itself, you’ll need a MicroSD card and micro-USB charger at minimum to use it. Kits can come in at about $75 to $80, but if your geek is anything like me, they probably have a drawer (or closet) full of cables, chargers, and other things they can use.

YubiKey 4

The YubiKey 4

2. YubiKey 4 ($40)

The Yubikey is one awesome little device. It primarily functions as a second-factor authentication device. That means that instead of using Google Authenticator or receiving an SMS as a second factor for security, with the YubiKey plugged into your PC’s USB port, all you have to do is touch the gold circle on the device and presto—you’re logged in. The Yubikey is compatible with services like LastPass, Dashlane, Google, Dropbox, and even WordPress. The Yubikey is smaller than a lot of USB sticks, and is durable as heck if you stick it on a keychain. If a service requires a six-digit TOTP code (like the kind Google Authenticator produces), you can use the Yubico Authenticator (for Linux, Windows, and Mac). If you have a YubiKey NEO ($50) you can use the NEO’s NFC chip to unlock Yubico Authenticator (and other apps like LastPass) on your Android device as well as your PC.

The Yubikey 4 can also store a 4096-bit RSA key, and be reprogrammed with other modes. The YubiKey can be used as a second factor (using challenge-response) to unlock a Linux PC that has full-disk encryption enabled using LUKS. Windows users can use the YubiKey for login purposes too.

The YubiKey 4 is $40 at both Amazon and Yubico’s website. The $50 YubiKey NEO has NFC capability, but can only store a 2048-bit RSA key (which is fine for most people, really). While parts of the YubiKey are proprietary (due to the secure element hardware inside), Yubico’s software applications are all open-source.

Intel Wireless-AC 7260

The mini-PCIe Intel Wireless-AC 7260

3. Intel 7260 Wi-Fi card ($20-$30)

One of the great things about Linux is the fact that it can run on older hardware. Older hardware obviously has its limits, but Wi-Fi connectivity doesn’t have to be one of them.

A large number of laptops ship with an Intel wireless card in them. If that laptop is a couple years old, there’s a good chance it still has an 802.11n or g chip on board. In many laptops, you can upgrade the wireless by purchasing an M.2 or Mini-PCI Express 802.11ac card. The Intel Wireless-AC 7260 provides a speed upgrade from the Wireless-N 7260, and is in most cases a simple drop-in replacement for the latter. The only catch is that you (or your hacker) has to be comfortable with cracking open the laptop to install it.

The Intel 7260 is supported in the Linux kernel with the iwlwifi driver, so the OS will be perfectly happy with it. However, be make sure the PC’s BIOS offers support for the Intel chip. Some motherboards can only support wireless cards from vendors that the PC shipped with.

The Intel 7260 can be found for under $30 at Amazon: You’ll want to determine whether you need the M.2 model or the mini-PCIe model. If in doubt, the low price for the part means you can buy both and return the one you don’t need.

The Logitech K400

The Logitech K400

4. Logitech K400 wireless keyboard ($28)

There’s a good chance that anyone who spends enough time playing with Linux has had occasion to build a server. Sometimes that server requires maintenance without the help of an SSH login. That’s when a spare keyboard is needed.

Keeping a spare wired keyboard tethered to a server machine or Raspberry Pi can be a pain. Logitech’s cheap wireless model keeps things simple, and the Unifying wireless receiver means that you don’t have to bother setting up Bluetooth from a console environment. The Logitch K400 (available for $28 at Amazon)  will work right out of the box, though some people report sticky keys every once in a while. (Since this should really serve as a backup or maintenance plank, that’s not as much of an issue.)

The K400 also comes with a track pad, which allows for mouse input in a desktop environment (like LXDE on Raspbian), while only using a single USB dongle.

Max Keyboard custom backlight-compatible keycaps for backlit keyboards.

Max Keyboard custom backlight-compatible keycaps for backlit keyboards

Custom keycaps ($3-$50+)

Linux users really work out their keyboards, so it’s always a good idea to invest in a quality model. But because keyboards can be pricey, there’s a way to spice up a worn board that makes use of Cherry MX mechanical switches: custom caps.

One great thing about so many manufacturers using Cherry switches is that the keycaps are, for the most part, interchangeable. That means different companies can make all kinds of keys to suit different tastes. Both Max Keyboard and WASD Keyboards offer custom keycap sets and single caps. Both companies allow you to customize an entire keyboard, including font appearance and the use of a Tux or Ubuntu graphic for the Super (Windows) key. Max Keyboard even offers keycaps for backlit (LED) keyboards, which is great for those who like lighting effects. For budding programmers, WASD offers Vim cheat-sheet keycaps. (To do this, design a custom keycap set, change the alphanumeric layout in section 2, and scroll down until you see the vim layouts.)

Both companies allow you to upload your own art in a variety of formats, but it’s probably a good idea to stick to vector graphics (SVGs) like the monochrome Tux logo.

Other ideas

If buying (and shipping) hardware won’t work out, there’s always the good old fallback of giving money. Fifty dollars is a lot of money for some, and there are plenty of services a Linux lover could spend it on:

Encrypted online backup

Spideroak’s Spideroak One service is notable because it provides “zero-knowledge”—that is to say, encrypted—backups to its users. Files are backed up by Spider Oak’s software before it leaves your PC, which means that in the event that Spider Oak’s servers are compromised, your data is still safe.

Unlike a lot of other desktop backup providers, Spideroak’s software runs on Linux, which means that backups are easy and automatic. For $5 per month, you can get 100GB of storage, or up to 1,000GB for $12 per month. With a $50 budget, that comes to 10 months or four months of backup storage, respectively.

Scalable online backup

Backblaze has one of the cheapest online storage rates there is, and can even beat Amazon S3. The catch is that there’s no easy interface on Linux—Backblaze's consumer desktop service doesn't run on Linux—but a few cleverly written scripts can automate backups for you using the enterprise Backblaze B2 service. If it's not already clear, this gift is suitable for an advanced Linux user.

Storage providers like Amazon S3 and Backblaze’s B2 use a different model for storage, which is usually based on how much data is stored, and how much data is downloaded. I looked at Backblaze’s B2 price calculator, and $50 can buy you 500GB of initial storage, along with 75GB of uploads per month, 5GB of deletions per month, and 10GB of retrieval per month for 10 months. That’s over 1TB of storage for the better part of a year for under $50.

Digital Ocean VPS

Virtual private servers are pretty much just what they sound like: virtual machines that you get to treat as your own private server. Digital Ocean is the heavyweight in the VPS scene for small projects and personal use. (Amazon’s AWS can be a bit overkill for personal use.) For $5 per month, you can get a dedicated server with one CPU core, 512MB of memory, 20GB of storage, a traffic quota of 1TB. It also offers single-click instances for apps like WordPress.

For $50, you can run a blog or experiment with a live webserver for 10 months. All without exposing a server on you home network to the ‘net.

Donate in a person’s name

While many people would prefer to get stuff for themselves, there are some who would rather not receive gifts for whatever reason. Maybe they don’t want (or need) any more stuff. Maybe they just don’t want to feel guilty about not getting you anything.

If this is the case and you still feel compelled to get that person something, you can always consider making a small donation to an open-source cause in their name. It probably won’t offend their sensibilities, and they won’t have to worry about storing (or re-gifting) something they never really wanted in the first place.

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