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High-tech gifts for under $100

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In this world of HDTV and plasma TVs, progressive-scan DVD players, souped-up PCs with mammoth flat-screen monitors and hi-fi/home theater components with price tags in the tens-of-thousands of dollars, you can easily buy a new car for what you might spend on high-tech gifts. But, I’m happy to report that this year you have plenty of under-$100 items to choose from as well.

InsertArt(1722095)LAST WEEK I told you about some wonderful gifts you can buy for the tech-savvy people in your life. Guess what? A number of those same items belong right here because they sell for less than $100. And these are gifts that nearly everyone can appreciate

Doing a quick search on the Web, it seems that holiday gifts under the $100 mark are the big sellers this year. Just look at the top sellers on’s electronics store and you’ll find a large number of the most popular items fall under the C-note barrier.

I think this will be a very big year for DVD players. Selling for $1,000 or more just a few years ago, a huge number of DVD players are now available under $100. I’ve seen many single-disc and carousel players from some of the big electronics firms (Panasonic, Toshiba, Zenith, etc.) selling for $99.99 or less — with models from companies like Apex Digital selling for $65 and below.

As the technology improves, prices for the slightly older machines drop. And that, in turn means the newer machines are priced lower too. For progressive scan devices — the latest trend — that means the prices are falling too. I’ve seen one or two off-name-brand boxes selling for just under $100. Do some searching on the Web and you’ll find them.

Same for VCRs. A few years ago a Stereo/Hi-fi VHS deck would have set you back a few hundred bucks. Now I routinely see them advertised for $50 or less. I expect to see the newest creation, a combination DVD player and VHS recorder in one box, to be priced under $100 in the very near future.

Digital cameras: It’s not difficult to find really terrific digital cameras at or below the $100 mark. The 1.3-megapixel cameras - which used to cost hundreds - are now in that magical affordable range. That class of camera can produce good-looking, snapshot-sized prints. Prices for memory cards are on the way down as well. And, they make great gifts by themselves.

At the lowest end of the scale, there’s one of my favorite little toys: The SiPix StyleCam Blink. Not much larger than a postage stamp, the Blink is a digital camera that can also handle rudimentary video and can act as a tethered PC cam. Inside is 8 MB of memory which translates to more than 100 snapshots at VGA resolutions of 640 x 480 pixels or up to 400 pictures at the very small 320 x 240 pixels.

Inside the package is the camera, a wrist strap and a swivel clip, a tilt-base stand to use it as a computer cam, a USB cable to attach it to your computer, one AAA battery, and an amazing amount of software to view, manipulate and store your pictures.

Picture quality is OK but don’t expect to be able to make 8 by 10 enlargements. Then again, the Blink sells for less than $40. I think it’s a great gift for the first-time photographer or someone who just wants a very small camera.

Portable audio: MP3 and CD players are everywhere. And, although you might be wishing for an expensive iPod or Archos’ Multimedia Jukebox, there are plenty of other choices available at great prices. A quick check on the Web shows a number of portables selling for $50-$100. There are a few of the hybrid MP3/CD players (ones that can play MP3s burned onto a CD) selling in the same price range.

My suggestion here is to buy the device with the best features, lightest portable weight, largest amount of storage, or, in the case of MP3-only players, an expansion slot for memory cards.

Whatever you do, dump the headphones that come with the devices. They usually stink. To get the most out of your new portable, go out and buy a Koss KSC 50 or KSC 55 headset. They sound great - and retail for $19.95. These made my tech-savvy list too, because they’re reasonably priced and sound so good. Highly recommended.

PDAs: All PDA prices are going down. You can find a Pocket PC now selling for under $200. Very rudimentary electronic organizers have routinely sold in the two-digit range. And, there have been plenty of refurbished or discontinued Palm OS PDAs that have sold for under $100 but now we have a brand-new one to choose from: Palm’s Zire.

The Zire’s memory is limited, it’s a black-and-white screen and there’s no backlighting, but breaking that $100 price barrier is a very big deal. There are millions of people out there who could benefit from having an electronic organizer/PDA who don’t already own one. That’s exactly the target audience for the Zire. Now, at the least the price incentive is there. I expect this could be a big holiday seller.

Computer add-ons: The price of 802.11b wireless networking is rapidly dropping. Look in the weekly Sunday newspaper ads or online and you’ll see wireless access points and network cards selling for under $100. If you have a high-speed Internet connection and a laptop computer the price is right for going wireless. Even without a laptop, for under $50 you can buy a router/switch to split the incoming high-speed cable or DSL signal and send it to any Ethernet-ready computer in your home.

Wireless mice and keyboards make great, inexpensive gifts too. I’m not 100 percent sure about wireless keyboards (I don’t like typing from across the room), but a cordless mouse is a different story. Some newer designs like the Logitech MX700 rechargeable, cordless optical mouse, which I’ve been testing recently, works like a dream and sells for around $65. It comes with a $20 mail-in rebate. I can report that it works well in my crowded desktop environment without getting in the way of my corded optical mice from my iMac and Linux boxes.

Computer-like devices: Computers are getting cheaper and cheaper, but $199 is about the lowest price I’ve seen for a new PC. But what about people who don’t need a full-blown computer? For them there are a number of devices which sell for under $100 that just might fit the bill.

The granddaddy of them all is what used to be called Web TV and is now called the MSN TV Internet Receiver. (MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC News.) Basically it turns your home television into a computer monitor for very basic email and Web browsing. Reportedly a big hit in retirement communities, the dial-up MSN TV service runs anywhere from $9.95 to $24.95 a month, depending on how much you use it. If it’s only e-mail you’re after, there are a number of stand-alone e-mail appliances out there selling for under $100. I personally would save up for a real computer.

Finally, many accessories make great under-$100 gifts. Batteries, cases, styli, new audio or video cables, DVD or CD cleaning kits, blank recording media - you can come up with other ideas too - can make you the most popular Santa ever. A little imagination and a little money is all you need. Good luck.