Business

Tech the halls

Find out the latest on electronics gifts for the holidays, plus get the top picks on laptops, phones, cameras, HDTVs, video games, GPS devices and stocking stuffers.


High-Def TVS

You’ll have to choose one of three technologies. Liquid crystal displays are thin, lightweight and produce a bright picture but images are difficult to see from an angle. Plasma screens have excellent color reproduction but are heavy and images can burn into the screen. Digital-light processing screens are lightweight but images can be blurry.

-------- PANASONIC TH-42PZ7OOU

Price: $1,400

Why we like it: This 42-inch plasma TV is one of the most expensive plasmas of its size. But reviewers at CNET.com and Wired magazine said it was the best.

But watch out for: No picture-in-picture feature.

-------- WESTINGHOUSE TX-47F430S

Price: $1,500

Why we like it: This 47-inch LCD TV performed well in tests, displaying correct color after a few tweaks, according to Wired reviewers.

But watch out for: The menus were slow.

-------- VIZIO VP42HDTV

Price: $1,000

Why we like it: Reviewers at CNET said the picture quality was decent for the price of this this 42-inch television.

But watch out for: Even after tweaks, the picture was oversaturated and too red, Wired magazine said.

— Nichole Monroe Bell, The Charlotte Observer


Video camcorders

Video camcorders are clearly evolving at a faster pace than their camera counterparts. This year marked a strong move to high-definition video, which now is a popular format for many new models. HDV comes in two sizes, 1080 or 720 pixels wide. Either version looks great on your TV, computer or iPod.

Some tips:

 Buy the latest models, since improvements can be significant.

 Video quality suffers with the hand-size, small camcorders.

 Sound recording is better with more sensitive microphones.

 There’s a move away from MiniDV (tape), but don’t count this out if you want to edit video. It’s still the easiest way.

 Canon, Sony and Panasonic are clear leaders in this field. Stick with these makes.

 Just because it says the camcorder shoots still photos doesn’t mean it will be easy.

-------- SONY HANDYCAM DCR-HC28

What it’s for: Folks on a budget

Price: $275

Why we like it: The key components on any lower priced camcorder are ease of use and image quality. This Sony does not disappoint. The menu options are easy to navigate through the 2.5” LCD screen. The DCR-HC28 has several effective shooting modes for different situations such as sports, portraits or nighttime. The most impressive part about this Sony is the 20x optical zoom lens. This alone is worth the price of the camcorder.

But watch out for: It’s not high-definition video, so the image quality will not measure up to other models.

-------- FLIP VIDEO ULTRA

What it’s for: The Internet

Price: $130

Why we like it: A very small camcorder, at a very little price, with low video resolution. If you are looking for an easy-to-use model to share on the Web only, Flip Video can serve your needs. Be sure to get the ultra, which is the upgraded model. It has one-touch uploading to YouTube and AOL, attaches directly to a computer via the USB port and is compatible with Macs. Just don’t plan on showing your work on a TV set.

But watch out for: Make sure you don’t want more than Internet-quality video.

-------- CANON TX1

What it’s for: Video/photo crossover

Price: $475

Why we like it: It looks like a small, silver brick. The TX1 is also built like one. It’s small, delivers good quality HD, 720 pixel quality video and sound. The lens pops in and out for great protection, the microphone sits in a great position for sound capture, and the 7 megapixel photo quality is good, but not great. It records on a standard SD memory card, but you had better get the large 4GB version. This Canon has a big 10x zoom lens, with a great close-focusing macro mode.

But watch out for: It’s so small, however, it can be cumbersome for big hands to operate.

-------- CANON HV20

What it’s for: Videographer in the making

Price: $900

Why we like it: This is one of the best camcorders on the market at any price. The HV20 takes professional quality video that offers great options for sound and shooting. They include a directional microphone that attaches and is synced through the hot shoe; a wide-angle lens attachment designed just for this camcorder and well-designed, user-friendly menu controls. The combination of stunning full high-definition video, shot with a large image sensor, makes the HV20 a good option for even the pro.

But watch out for: You ought to spend the extra money to purchase the Canon DM-50 directional microphone.

— Peter Weinberger, pweinberger@charlotteobserver.com


Laptop Computers

Dual-core processors are becoming mainstream. Look for at least: 1 megabyte of memory; least 120 megabytes of hard-drive capacity; and four USB ports. Spring for a high-capacity battery. Solid-state hard drives are expensive but are reliable and fast. Extended warranties and service plans may be worth the price. Understand what sort of tech support is available.

-------- TOSHIBA P205D-S7454

What it’s for: Desktop replacement

Price: $849

Why we like it: 17-inch widescreen display, fast processor and system bus for video editing, plenty of memory, generous supply of USB and FireWire ports and light weight.

But watch out for: 160-gigabyte hard drive capacity could be better.

-------- DELL INSPIRON 1521

What it’s for: Student or business traveler

Price: $850

Why we like it: Fast processor for data-intensive tasks, plenty of memory to support Windows Vista, and an extremely generous 250-gigabyte capacity.

But watch out for: It’s a bit more expensive than its competitors, and half a pound heavier.

-------- ACER EX5620-6830

What it’s for: Frugal shoppers

Price: $600

Why we like it: For home video editors, it has a generous 200-gigabyte and a FireWire port, putting it well ahead of most competition at this price.

But watch out for: Know exactly how and where you’re going to get service if you need it.

— Rod Turnham, The Charlotte Observer


Digital Cameras

Even with more models marketed than ever before, it’s not a banner year for new, innovative digital cameras. Although new features are offered, resulting in many above average models, some of the best bargains include older models at reduced prices.

Each week it seems a new model, or model update, hits the market. Here are the trends:

Small is in. The overall size of point-and-shoot digital cameras continues to get smaller.

Reviewing an image is easier. Rear LCD screens are larger, showing more detail.

Video shooting options continue to improve. This includes sound, which shows the most improvement.

Digital SLR cameras continue to drop in price. For those who like the performance and don’t mind the larger size, this can be a good option.

Megapixels have maxed out. You simply don’t need more than 7 to 8 megapixels unless you’re planning on making prints larger than 20 inches.

-------- SONY CYBERSHOT DSC-D80

What it’s for: Starter model

Price: $200 (7.2 megapixel)

Why we like it: The key ingredient for any beginner camera is picture quality, ease and speed of use. This Sony ultracompact gets high marks in all these areas. The start-up and focusing times compete with more expensive cameras, and it has a big 3-inch rear LCD monitor for shooting and viewing. It even includes an optical viewfinder not found on most budget cameras.

But watch out for: There are not many manual controls for image exposure, with noticeable noise in low light situations without a flash.

-------- CANON G9

What it’s for: For those with improved shooting skills

Price: under $500 (12.1 megapixels)

Why we like it: Disguised as a point-and-shoot camera, this Canon packs a huge amount of technology in a small space. With a 6x optical zoom, manual controls that include an ISO dial on the top of the camera, the G9 even shoots decent video with sound options for recording. It has a 3-inch rear monitor that includes easy access controls for manual focusing. If you want a camera that will grow with your photography skills, the Canon G9 is a strong option at a good price.

But watch out for: Look at low-cost SLRs before buying. Those may fit your needs better.

-------- NIKON D80/D40

What they’re for: Folks who want a camera with more pro features

Price: under $1,000, D80 body (10 megapixels); $550, D40 with 18-55mm zoom lens (6 megapixels)

Why we like them: As SLR prices continue to drop, amateurs can enjoy the benefits of the better performance and many shooting options. Both these Nikons were introduced last year and simply sell for less in 2007. The quality difference between the two cameras is most noticeable in focus and shooting speed, megapixels (and overall body structure. The D40 is smaller and lighter, but not as rugged. The image quality on both models is excellent, especially in low light.

But watch out for: Consider upgrading to the Nikkor 18-70mm zoom, which is a much better lens than the 18-55mm.

— Peter Weinberger, pwein berger@charlotteobserver.com


Smart and souped-up phones

Features to look for: Everyone wants a skinny phone, but if you’ve got big thumbs or just aren’t used to tiny touch screens, look for a keyboard or an old-fashioned stylus. Having wireless Internet capability is handy. Ask some not-so-obvious questions: How big is the address book? Can you take a photo and then immediately e-mail it to someone? Can photos and the address book be downloaded to a personal computer? Does it come with the software? How long does the battery last? How long does the battery stay charged when performing a complex function, such as streaming video?

What they don’t tell you: Focus on the features you use most. If taking sharp pictures is important, for instance, you’ll want more than the common 1.3 megapixel camera. Check on which wireless technology the phone is compatible with, either CDMA or GSM.

-------- APPLE IPHONE

Price: $399 with a two-year contract with AT&T

Why we like it: You still can’t beat the iPhone, though your gift won’t have the cachet it might have when the revolutionary product launched earlier this year. A touch screen that’s easy to use, a screen that makes watching videos a dream, and it automatically syncs photos with your PC or Mac when you dock.

-------- NOKIA N95

Price: $699 (2-gigabyte model) and $779 (8-gigabyte version), both at nokiausa.com

Why we like it: Considered one of the best phones for snapping photos, the N95 has a 5-megapixel camera. Has Wi-Fi, GPS, and cool slide-out keyboard and music controls.

-------- NOKIAE61I

Price: $499.99, nokiausa.com

Why we like it: This is no slim pocket phone, but the qwerty keyboard and wide screen make e-mailing and Web-browsing easy. Has Wi-Fi, and MP3 player, a 2-megapixel camera. A good choice for business use.

-------- PALM TREO 755P

Price: $249.99 with a two-year contract with Sprint; also works with Alltel

Why we like it: The keyboard is easy to use, as is the touch screen, and it sure looks slick in burgundy or midnight blue. There’s no Wi-Fi and that great qwerty keyboard means this won’t be the slimmest phone, but the touch screen features bold, easy-to-read letters and the phone is of a size that’s difficult to lose.

— Amber Veverka and Christopher D. Kirkpatrick, The Charlotte Observer


Media boxes

Coolest features to look for: Depending on your needs, look for features such as allowing you to watch shows or sporting events from your TV on screens in other locations, showing videos and pictures from your computer on your TV and giving you high-speed access to movies via the Internet.

What you may not know: You must have high-speed Internet for all of the selections here to function at their best.

-------- TIVO

Price: Three models range from $100 to $600, plus a monthly subscription of up to $13.

Why we like it: TiVo pioneered the idea of attaching a hard drive to your TV. But new versions let you set up your own TiVo channel to share home movies with friends and family, program a recording remotely over the Internet and transfer recorded shows to your laptop.

-------- SLINGBOX

Price: Three models range from $108 to $230.

Why we like it: These devices allow you to watch content from your cable, satellite box or DVR on your computer or mobile phone.

-------- VUDU

Price: The device costs $400. Movie rentals range from $1 to $4 and purchases from $5 to $20.

Why we like it: Think of this device as a mini-Netflix in a box. It delivers 5,000 movies — more than two typical video stores’ inventory — over the Internet. Once you rent or buy a movie, it’s stored on the box to plug in and watch on any TV.

— Anne Krishnan, The (Raleigh) News & Observer


Music Video Games

Two music video games will duel for supremacy this holiday season — reigning market leader “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” vs. upstart “Rock Band.”

What you buy will depend on your budget, game console and whether the recipient seeks singular guitar-god status or virtuoso variety.

Both games score players on how well they hit color-coded buttons or notes that flash on screen in synch with songs.

Activision Inc. released “GH III” in October. Harmonix Music Systems Inc. releases “Rock Band” on Tuesday.

“GH III” comes with game software, some 70 songs and a plastic Les Paul Guitar controller (the PlayStation 2 version comes with a Gibson Kramer Striker shape.) “Rock Band” is bundled with software, 58 songs, a fake Fender Stratocaster guitar/bass, an ersatz five-piece drum set and a mike.

Both games allow users to download more songs off the Web.

Here's the skinny:

-------- Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock

You’re buying this for: That certain air guitarist.

Price range: $90-$100

Coolest feature: The Nintendo Wii guitar controller emits feedback and vibration, amplifying the reality factor.

What they don’t tell you: You can’t download songs yet with the Wii version. And, just so we’re clear, this is just a toy — it won’t turn anyone into a real guitar hero.

What we like: Hats off to Activision for making the guitar controller bigger and better and less like a Fisher Price toy.

-------- Rock Band

You’re buying this for: Musical control freaks; gamers with friends.

Price range: $160-$170

Coolest feature: The mike doubles as a tambourine or cowbell.

What they don’t tell you: No wireless guitars for the Xbox version. There’s no Wii version of the game yet. Can’t buy instruments/mike a la carte — for now you have to buy the bundle.

What we like: Tommy Lee devotees take heart — the drumming comes close to approximating the real deal. And the mike offers the next best thing to being Mick.

— Mike Drummond, The Charlotte Observer


Video-game consoles

Since the introduction of the Atari more than 30 years ago, children and adults have been enthralled by graphics and sound of video-game consoles. The stick figures are long gone. This year, the three major console makers have introduced high-definition, wireless enabled consoles.

-------- NINTENDO WII

Price: About $250. Also several major retailers are offering bundle packages that includes games and accessories, ranging from $389 at Best Buy to $677 at Wal-Mart.

Why we like it: Requires players to move, jump and swing, to play its games with wireless controllers. Its easy play also has made it a favorite and plays all Nintendo GameCube video games.

But watch out for: The game is really a workout. To play Wii games, lots of running in place, swinging and jumping are required.

-------- SONY PLAYSTATION 3

Price: $400 for console with 40 gigabytes of memory; $500 for 60-gigabytes memory.

Why we like it: Online play; Also plays music CDs. Exclusive console for “Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.” The hardware has a built-in Blu-ray Disc DVD player.

But watch out for: Blu-ray Disc remote costs an extra $25.

-------- MICROSOFT XBOX 360

Price: $279 for its Arcade edition, which includes five games, including Pac Man and UNO. Bundles priced up to $600, including those with Guitar Hero II and Madden games.

Why we like it: Gamers can voice chat with others via Xbox Live service. Online play. Has the exclusive on Halo 3 video game.

But watch out for: A high-definition DVD player attachment costs an additional $179 or more.

— Delawese Fulton


Global Positioning Systems

Features to look for: Decide how much portability you need. GPS systems are categorized as “handheld,” “portable” and “in-dash.” Handhelds are the smallest and can be put in a pocket, but typically have the fewest features. Portable units are larger, have more features and can be plugged in the car. In-dash units are installed directly into the car and typically can’t be removed. For the clearest directions, look for models with voice prompts and text-to-speech features.

What they don’t tell you: International maps vary on each model. Models with the coolest features often require additional purchases or subscriptions.

-------- GARMIN NUVI 200W

Price: $350

Why we like it: This system, not much larger than a smart phone, has a straightforward, sleek design. Has settings depending on your mode of travel: pedestrian, bicycle or bus.

But watch out for: Has voice directions, but doesn’t have text-to-speech.

-------- TOM TOM ONE 3RD EDITION

Price: $250

Why we like it: When you enter your destination, this device asks if you need to get there by a certain time. If you do, it will calculate your arrival time based on your current location. Users can ask for alternative routes if the first choice is undesirable.

But watch out for: Has voice directions, but doesn’t have text-to-speech. Also, reviewers at CNET.com said the point of interest database was outdated.

-------- MAGELLAN CROSSOVER

Price: $500

Why we like it: This device is loaded with features. Maps include marine cartography, which allows users to navigate during boating and fishing trips. Has the ability to provide live traffic reports, and an mp3 player is included.

But watch out for: The marine maps must be purchased separately, and traffic reports require a subscription.


Stocking stuffers

Great high-tech gifts don’t have to be expensive. These stocking stuffers are both handy and easy on your wallet.

-------- USBCell AA Rechargeable Batteries: Recharge these batteries by plugging them right into the USB port on your computer, no charger or adapter needed. ($19.95 at Shop.com)

-------- Dual Bladed EZ Clam Shell Opener: Slice through the hard plastic packaging that imprisons many high-tech holiday gifts. ($4.99 at ThinkGeek.com)

-------- Mobile Edge WiFi Signal Locator: Find WiFi wherever you are, using this keychain gadget. The locator allows you to pinpoint the direction from which the strongest signal is coming. ($29.99 at CircuitCity.com)

-------- SportSync: This AM/FM radio allows you delay play-by-play radio announcers to match the action on the TV screen. What’s more, it plugs in so you can listen through your home theater speakers. ($39.95 at SportSyncRadio.com)

-------- Turbo Charge for Phones: The device, which allows you to make calls immediately after plugging it in, comes with 10 adapters to fit Blackberries and all major cell phone brands. ($19.95 at Sharper Image)

— Anne Krishnan, The (Raleigh) New & Observer

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