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2005 Annual Gadget Guide

From Apple to Zipit

Shopping for electronics this holiday season? You might be surprised by some of the bargains - and some of the latest features - to be had in cameras, cell phones, televisions, computers and more.

By DAVE GUSSOW
Published November 28, 2005


  photo
This iPod plays video.
Pez MP3 player holds up to 120 songs and certainly is funky looking.  

Sony PSP is gaining fans and sales momentum.
Radica's Cube World, put two or more cubes together to see them interact.  

JVC Everio holds up to 37 hours of video on its hard drive

Canon Digital Rebel XT was a smash at its spring debut.
The Zipit Wireless Messenger lets teens do instant messaging away from the computer.

It's a ritual in shopping for electronics. The price never seems quite right, so people wait for the proverbial bargain.

For the cost-conscious, as the holidays approach, there's a twist. Even when prices come down, consumers often go for higher-priced, more feature-rich gadgets. Instead of a 42-inch TV, they go for a 50-inch model. Instead of a 5-megapixel camera, they go for 6 or 7 megapixels.

"It's not just about the item price," said Stephen Baker, director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a market research firm. "It's about price and value, and that doesn't always mean you get more or perceived more for your money."

Over the past five years, the average cost for a variety of popular electronics - including computers, MP3 players, digital TVs, DVD players and digital cameras - has come down.

DVD players, for example, cost less than half of what they did in 2001, according to NPD figures. But many people are looking at DVD recorders, which are more expensive.

Taking all of that into account, we've been doing our annual scouting for gadgets and places to check online for research and prices.

So here is some food for thought. Prices are always subject to change, and Web sites are provided where possible.

For the ears

MIGHTY MUSIC MACHINE: The iPod $99-$399, www.apple.com/ipod) has become the mightiest music machine around, and it's likely to remain that way for holiday shoppers.

AWESOME ACCESSORIES: If you think the player is popular, just do an online search for iPod accessories. For example, the Logitech mm22 Speakers $79.99, www.logitech.com) pump up the volume and travel easily.

FUN AND FUNKY: Consumers have other choices in players, in all shapes and sizes. The PEZ as in the candy MP3 player ($99.99, www.pezmp3.com) holds up to 120 songs and certainly is funky looking.

HIP TO BE SQUARE: The mobiBLU DAH-1500 $129.72 for 1 gigabyte model, www.mobibluamerica.com/) comes in six colors, holds up to 10 hours of music and is shaped like a cube. For more traditional choices, models by Creative, iRiver and Dell get noted for performance and value.

HOME NETWORKING: To take advantage of home networking, the Squeezebox $249-$299, www.slimdevices.com/) lets you listen to your music anywhere in the house. It comes in wired and wireless network models.

For the good times

If you don't have an Xbox 360 by now, good luck. Supplies are likely to be tight throughout the holidays, possibly into early 2006. And prices on eBay will be out of sight.

But the gamer in the family doesn't have to do without.

PACKS A PUNCH: After a slow start in the spring, the Sony PSP $249, www.us.playstation.com/psp.aspx) is gaining fans and sales momentum. "It's pretty buzzy with our audience," said Tom Merritt of CNET, a technology and online media site, noting that its audience tends to be more tech-oriented. More games and movies have helped it along.

HELMET! CAMERA! ACTION!: Attach the Tony Hawk HelmetCam $99.99, www.playdigitalblue.com/) to any helmet, take a few minutes of video, edit it on a Windows PC and you have your own action movie.

GOING RETRO: For classic game connoisseurs, the Atari Flashback 2 $29.99, www.atari.com) includes 40 games, such as Pong, Centipede and Missile Command, and claims to be compatible with all TVs.

TIME'S A-WASTIN': The Pet Rock died, but the stick men live in Radica's Cube World ($29.99 for two). Watch one perform solo, or put two or more cubes together to see them interact, such as one climbing from his cube to a connected cube. Just don't let the boss see it.

CLIMBING THE WALLS: How often do you get a toy with instructions to avoid the light switch? The radio-controlled Air Hogs Zero Gravity Humvee $69.99, www.spinmaster.com) travels up walls at up to 4 inches a second. It's light, 11/2 pounds and its battery lasts about 10 minutes between charges.

For the eyes

The script to follow for buying a high-definition TV remains the same: Do a lot of research, know the jargon (which is substantial), then follow your eyes.

Some good places to check include CNET's HDTV World hdtv.cnet.com; Digital TV magazine (www.dtvmag.com) and Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org)

For those who want specific recommendations, places we checked showed a variety of most of the top name brands (Sony, Sharp, Dell, Panasonic, etc.) leading different lists.

PC World (www.pcworld.com) has a good feature on 10 myths about HDTV. The HD Beat blog suggests reading the fine print in ads to make sure the attractive price is for a true HDTV. And PC Magazine (www.pcmag.com) includes a great suggestion in its holiday gift guide: Take along a favorite DVD so you can watch it at the store on the model you're considering. That way, you can gauge something familiar on the screen.

Here are more ideas for the videophile:

* Goodbye, tape: Camcorders keep shrinking but adding features, such as eliminating tapes and discs and adding hard drives. The JVC Everio $799, www.jvc.com) holds up to 37 hours on its hard drive, depending on video quality. Testing it for Personal Tech, a neighbor successfully managed to leave his analog thinking behind and figure out the digital. One thing that struck him was the size. He put the camcorder on a lanyard so it was within easy reach.

* Hang it: If you think that expensive plasma TV hanging on the wall needs some dressing up, Panasonic Direct offers frames $495, www.panasonic.com) for two of its models.

* Old to new: Converting old VHS tapes to digital, then burning them to DVDs, is one of our frequently asked questions. One solution is to buy a combo VCR-DVD recorder - and hope it works. Another is to try something such as ADS Tech's DVD Xpress $99.99, www.adstech.com) It's a fairly simple device that connects the VCR to the computer, and its software copies the video to the hard drive or burns it directly to a disc. In our tests, copying to the hard drive worked better than direct to disc. But it worked.

* TV to go: This is no video iPod. The idea behind the Slingbox $249.99, www.slingmedia.com/) is to let you watch TV from anywhere you are on a PC with a high-speed Internet connection. Not just in the house, but even if you're traveling.

"I think it's cool," said Tom Merritt, editor of CNET, a technology and online media site. It may be too techie for some, but Merritt thinks it has a chance.

* TV to go II: The PocketDISH $329-$599, www.dishnetwork.com) does the music-video-photo thing portably. Most notably, it works with more than just Dish Network content, including TV, computers and VCRs.

For the shutterbug

The forecast in cameras calls for mostly digital SLR (single lens reflex) models with a good chance of lower prices.

Chris Chute, a senior analyst with the IDC research firm, expects entry level digital SLRs to be in the $650-$700 range this year and, for procrastinators, about $500 (after rebates) a year from now.

Many people prefer the simplicity of point-and-shoot models that are smaller and don't require them to change lenses. A year ago, according to Chute, the average price was about $340 for a 4- to 5-megapixel model with a zoom lens.That drops to $300 this year for a 6- to 7-megapixel model.

BE A REBEL: The popular Canon Digital Rebel XT (consumer.usa.canon.com/) was a smash at its spring debut at $999. It's even better now at about $750 (after rebate) with one lens. And Costco.com has a deal on it with two lenses and a printer for $899.99.

GOOD DEALS: It's just one of the good choices available for less than $1,000 in the digital SLR category, including the Nikon D50 (www.nikonusa.com) which has dipped below $700 and the Olympus E-500 (www.olympusamerica.com) which dropped to about $800 with two lenses.

NOVELTY PURCHASE: If you like Post-it notes stuck to everything, Post-It Digital Sticky Picture Paper $4.99 for 25, www.3m.com) lets you print pictures, peel off the back and stick them up.

For staying in touch

A teenager at the Web 2.0 tech conference this fall told an audience that he spends $50-60 on ring tones a month, according to a blog of the event.

RING-A-DING: The Ring Factory $19.99, www.ringfactory.net/) lets him make all the ring tones he wants for a year on one phone, plus any text charges from the cell carrier. Setup was easy, it worked flawlessly based on our tests, and you should check the Web site to make sure your phone is compatible.

CELL PHONE EXTRAS: Cell phones are adding capabilities, such as bumped-up megapixels in the cameras, slots for memory cards for music and data and keyboards. For example, the LG VX9800 $349.99, www.verizonwireless.com) surprised us with its size, particularly when we saw everything included: the phone, camera and memory card slot visible on the outside; but when flipped open, it has a small video screen with speakers, a full keyboard for e-mail and instant messages and a navigation controller. Video on the small screen seems to be an acquired taste, but the selection includes CNN, ESPN and music.

HEARING VOICES: Voice over Internet Protocol more commonly referred to as VoIP is becoming the phone service of choice for a lot of people. Phones such as the UTStarcom F1000 ($100, www.utstar.com/) let people call using their wireless home network or wherever they can find a Wi-Fi hot spot. It doesn't have the coverage one would get with a cell phone, but VoIP service is cheaper than cell plans.

GET THE MESSAGE: To avoid family spats over computer time, the Zipit Wireless Messenger $99, www.zipitwireless.com/) lets teens do instant messaging away from the computer. The portable device weighs 8 ounces, has a keyboard and runs on batteries.

This and that

STORMY WEATHER: Just in case you don't think you have everything you need for next hurricane season, you might consider the Storm Station Emergency Power Station $99, www.blackanddecker.com) It provides light, a radio and a place to charge cell phones and plug in a cordless phone base station.

HOW-TO GUIDE: Digital photos/music/video are popular, but it's sometimes difficult to navigate editing, adding special touches or other techie touches. Family Computer Fun ($24.99, Que) was written by Ralph Bond, consumer education manager for Intel. The book leads people through projects in easy-to-follow steps that avoid the jargon.

STOP THE SNOOPS: The Lazer Trip Wire $29.99, www.thinkgeek.com) shoots beams of light to its units, just like in the movies. If someone or something interrupts the beams, an alarm goes off.

EASE THE STRAIN: The ShoulderSaver $12.99, www.imakproducts.com/) uses small beads in a sleeve to help spread the weight from lugging notebooks and other paraphernalia on weary shoulders.

STAYING JUICED: The Power Pocket Powerpack $119.95, www.Xantrex.com) is a backup power supply for small electronics.

For the geek

You know it's getting interesting when a video-game console (Xbox 360) carries a higher price tag than a new computer (there are deals this year for $299). And PC World magazine recently took a look at $500 notebook computers.

The question for those considering a computer is simple: Buy now, or wait for 2006 changes coming from Apple Computer and Microsoft?

Apple will be shifting to Intel Corp. chips. Microsoft says Windows Vista will be released in time for next holiday season. Intel has announced a new chip called Viiv that promises more functions for home entertainment.

But if you need a new computer now, says CNET's Merritt, then by all means go ahead and buy. While it might be nice to bump up some PC features, such as more memory in preparation for Vista, he says it's not essential.

"If you don't have the budget to go up, make the conscious decision that you're just not going to upgrade for a while," said Merritt, adding that CNET recommends waiting for the first service pack to be released before people upgrade Windows anyway.

Apple computers last a long time, he said, so a machine bought now will continue to be functional.

Notebook computers, which have improved features and battery life, have been popular this year. And Media Center PCs have picked up, too, though Stephen Baker of NPD Techworld thinks that's more for people to manage digital media than to stream video or watch TV.

Issues to consider in the Mac vs. PC decision: Apple's operating system has been immune from the security/spyware/virus problems that afflict Windows machines. PCs have a price advantage.

If you are interested in Vista and upgrading next year, get a lot of memory, at least 1 gigabyte, a graphics card separate from the motherboard and a big hard drive.

- Times correspondent Jeff Gussow contributed to this report, which includes information from Times wires. Dave Gussow can be reached at dgussow@sptimes.com or 727 445-4165.

Online shopping resources:

General information/reviews:

CNET: reviews.cnet.com

Consumer Reports: www.consumerreports.org

Digital Photo Review: www.dpreview.com

Epinions: www.epinions.com

PC World: www.pcworld.com

Steve's Digicams: www.stevesdigicams.com

Comparison sites:

BestWebBuys: www.bestwebbuys.com/books/

Dealio: www.dealio.com/

Dealmac.com: dealmac.com

Nextag: www.nextag.com

Shopzilla: www.shopzilla.com

SquareTrade: www.squaretrade.com

A few places to tech shop:

TechBargains: www.techbargains.com

Thinkgeek.com: www.thinkgeek.com

[Last modified November 25, 2005, 09:41:03]


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