42-inch Panasonic plasma TV
Panasonic
If this is the year you've decided to go for HDTV, take a look at Panasonic, which makes its own plasma "glass." This 42-inch Panasonic plasma TV, the TH-42PX50U, retails for $3,600 but is widely available at a significant discount.
By Michael Rogers Columnist
Special to MSNBC
updated 12/5/2005 12:16:24 PM ET 2005-12-05T17:16:24

High tech gifting is sometimes a challenge, especially in today’s world of multiplying technical standards. Will Accessory A work with Gadget B? Does your beloved prefer Firewire, USB 1.0 or USB 2.0? And while you may find the coolest case ever made for the iPod Nano, that won’t do your sister much good if she owns an iPod Mini.

Before you give up and resort to Jerry Garcia ties, fluffy bedroom slippers or Shania Twain’s greatest hits, however, here are some high-tech present ideas that should let you think more about compatibility with your loved ones than about with their hardware.

Starting with preteens, here are two good possibilities: first, the new FLY Pentop Computer from Leapfrog. The $99 FLY is an electronic tour de force that’s basically a scanner shaped like a large pen that uses special paper. Write on the paper, and the scanner not only reads aloud, but processes the information — if you write an appointment, it will remember and remind you at the proper time. Write a math problem and the pen solves it out loud. And there’s more: it plays music based on drawings, for example and includes a series of pen-based games. It’s educational, in the Leapfrog tradition, but it’s also so novel that most kids probably won’t figure out it’s supposed to be good for them.

Don’t feel like something educational for Christmas? Also for preteens, but not as vitamin-packed, is the Game Boy Advance SP SpongeBob package, which for $99 gives you the latest Game Boy Advance — with a new back-lit screen — decorated in SpongeBob dressing, along with two games based on the hugely popular cartoon franchise. The new screen is a considerable improvement; the double game is a nice Christmas bonus.

If your teens have iPods, they've probably already bought at least a few of the approximately ten million accessories now on the market. But here’s a piece of hardware that may have been out of their price range: the Altec Lansing inMotion iM7 portable audio system, which works with all iPods except the Shuffle. Unlike many of the smaller external speaker systems for the iPod, the$249 inMotion puts out great sound with plenty of volume, and since it runs on batteries or AC power it can be used either on the road or as a full-time bedroom sound system.

If your teen doesn’t have a digital camera yet, the Canon PowerShot SD200 is an excellent compact camera that’s lately seen price drops and rebates bringing it below $200. It has a large LCD viewfinder, the traditional great Canon optics and electronics and a slim metal body. The price is dropping because its 3.2 megapixel count is low by current market standards — yet that’s still plenty of resolution for most purposes.

Eton FR300
The Eton FR300 is a wind-up emergency radio that can also be run off batteries.

How about new spins on old-fashioned radio? The Delphi MyFi is a pocket-sized satellite radio receiver that can be used in both home and car, as well as (in most locations) on a stroll around the block. Keep in mind that the recipient will also need to pay a monthly subscription fee, but you can throw in an XM gift card to cover the first few months.

The Eton FR300 is a totally different kind of radio: a wind-up emergency model that covers AM, FM, the weather band and VHF television. It also includes adapters to charge a number of the more common cell phone models and is a bargain at about $50.

For the road warrior on your list, check out the 1 GB leather USB drive from AllComponents: a very classy flash drive decked out in an upscale blend of black leather and brushed aluminum.  Also nicely designed is the Iogear Wi-Fi finder, a second generation, key-chain-sized device that reveals the presence of Wi-Fi signals within 500 feet — although you’ll still have to open your laptop to figure out if they’re open or closed networks. And then there’s always the Bose QuietComfort 2 noise-cancelling headphones — pricey at a never-discounted $299, but on long plane flights, every one you see wearing them looks very comfortable.

Back home in the kitchen, here are two possibilities. The Soehnle Bretagne electronic scale is a sleek stainless steel model with an LCD display, gram-to-ounce conversion and an 11-pound capacity, so you can use it for weighing packages as well. On the entertainment side, the Audiovox VE705 under-cabinet LCD TV has a 7-inch 16:9 drop-down screen, a cable-ready tuner, built-in AM/FM radio and a remote for well under $200.

For the whole family, no gift lasts as long as an upgrade to the home entertainment center. If this is the year you’ve decided to go for HDTV, take a look at the Panasonic TH-42PX50U, a 42-inch plasma model. Plasma continues to have a price/performance advantage over LCDs in the larger screen sizes. Moreover, Panasonic makes its own plasma “glass” and remains a leader in reproducing deep blacks and high contrast. This model includes the latest connectors such as HDMI and CableCARD, neither of which you may need now, but may be glad to have down the road. And while Panasonic isn’t the cheapest brand available, it’s widely available at good discounts.

If you already have the big screen — or you’re not ready to replace your current television — then think about upgrading your sound; it’s one of those psychological oddities that great surround sound seems actually to improve your picture. There are two interesting options out now that would permit an almost immediate set-up on Christmas morning. The first is Sony’s DAV-FX100W wireless DVD home theater system. It’s an excellent progressive-scan DVD changer, plus a full AM/FM receiver, along with a small box that wirelessly connects to the six speakers required for true surround sound. Distribute the speakers around the room and in ten minutes you’re watching movies in surround-sound with no wires to run.

An alternative to wireless is the Yamaha YSP-1 Digital Sound Projector — which promises to replace the need for multiple speakers with a single box. When this appeared at the Consumer Electronics Show last year, observers were dubious, but in the year since the YSP-1 has received surprisingly good notices from audiophiles. The Sound Projector is forty inches long, about seven inches high and deep — and contains something like 40 tiny individual speakers, 42 individual amplifiers and two woofers. Through some deep psycho-acoustical science, it simulates the effects of having speakers arranged around the room. Best of all, according to the audiophiles, the YSP-1 has a very high WAF — that’s Wife Acceptance Factor— which may make up for the $1000+ pricetag.

Slingbox
Slingbox
The Slingbox sits on top of your TV and transmits via the Web whatever video you'd like, to your computer wherever you are.
What about the early adopter on your list — the one who always has to be first on the block?  That’s often tricky, because leading edge technology can often turn into a major headache. But this year there’s a brand-new gadget that’s already getting very good buzz: the Slingbox.  The Slingbox connects to your TV and then transmits via the Web whatever video you’d like — live television, TiVo, DVDs — to your computer anywhere in the world. Your early adopter can sit in his London hotel room and watch the local news from home: that’s way cool by any measure. 

Finally, if you’re looking for high-tech bling, take a spin through Neiman Marcus.  If you’re not ready to spring for the $840 crystal-studded Valentino iPod case, there’s the $395 Dolce & Gabbana gold snakeskin MP3 case. Or you could go for the Swarovksi crystal look, in an optical mouse at $100 or $35 crystal mobile phone earbuds.  And Neiman Marcus offers what must be the ultimate early adopter gadget: the $3.5 million M400 Skycar, the world's first "personal vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft." The Skycar is a three-wheeled, folding-wing craft that can travel 350 miles per hour— and it gets 21 MPG on environmentally-correct alcohol.  Come to think of, Santa might just want that one for himself.  Rudolph, watch your back. 

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