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Tempting tech toys for the holidays

You may ask, what do these very special geese have to do with a high-tech holiday shopping guide? Keep reading to find out!
You may ask, what do these very special geese have to do with a high-tech holiday shopping guide? Keep reading to find out!
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If the big guy is listening, I want a new computer, PDA, cell phone, digital camera, MP3 player, satellite radio, a giant HDTV and lots more. I’ve even made a shopping guide to ease Santa’s pain — until, of course, he sees some of the price tags!

I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the relatively short history of personal computing when the number of affordable offerings is so plentiful. Whether you’re a fan of Windows, Macintosh or Unix/Linux there are a lot of choices out there at great prices.

You have to really try hard these days to spend more than $1,000 on a desktop PC. (OK, it’s not that difficult.) Dozens of choices in the $400-$800 range (without a monitor) fit nearly every need. There are so many, in fact, that I can’t even begin to list them all. Here’s what to look for:

A low-end computer will have a Celeron or slightly slower-speed Pentium 4 processor, which is fine for most normal computing tasks (Web surfing, e-mail, Word). The absolute minimum amount of memory you should consider is 256MB. 512MB is better; 1 GB even better still. The machine should come with a CD/DVD read-only drive, a 30-40 GB hard drive, a built-in modem and an Ethernet jack for connecting to the Internet.

Spending more money gets you more options: a faster Pentium 4 or Athlon processor, more memory, better video circuitry, larger hard drive, maybe a combo drive (plays CDs and DVDs and burns CDs) or a super drive (plays and burns CDs and DVDs) or maybe both and lots more.

Add all of the bells and whistles to a top-of-the-line PC and you have a Media Center PC, a computer made for home entertainment. Think of it as a TiVo and computer in one box. The second version of Microsoft’s Media Center software (it’s really Windows XP with lots more built-in software) offers a lot more integrated features and is actually a lot of fun to use. Prices start at $1,500.

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If you need portability, there are now Media Center laptops from manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba. I’ve been playing with an H-P Pavilion zd7000 machine which, while it’s less than 2 inches thin is not really very portable at 9.3 pounds. It does have nearly every bell and whistle you could imagine and a 17-inch screen. Prices start at under $1,400.

If you need a lot less in a laptop you can sure find a lot to choose from there too. Check out what Dell, Gateway, H-P and Toshiba have on their Web sites. I think you’ll be surprised at how much you can find for less that $1,000. Remember, 256 MB of main memory is just enough; 512MB is better.

Apple fans also have a lot to cheer about. If you prefer Macintoshes you should seriously consider any new machine with the OS X 10.3 Panther operating system. EMacs (with G4 processors) start at $799. The all new 12-inch iBook G4 notebook is $1,099. And, the new, 64-bit, Power Mac G5 desktop starts at $1,999. If you currently own a G3 (with USB ports) or a G4 I suggest you seriously think about upgrading to Panther — it’s much faster than previous versions and with its new Expose feature it handles multiple open programs with aplomb. At $129 it’s also a wonderful gift to the Mac zealot in your life.

For your listening pleasure
The again, how about upgrading the sounds coming from your computer? First, you probably need a new and better sound card. Think in terms of the best: At $199.99, Creative’s Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum is a 24-bit, digital/analog sound card system that can handle almost anything you throw at it — up to and including 5.1, 6.1 and 7.1 channel surround sound speaker systems. You can also listen to the new DVD-Audio disks!

As for speakers, I’ve been listening to Logitech’s new Z-5300 speaker system. 280 watts of power, four surround speakers, a center channel (five) and a big subwoofer (point-one) makes for a great sounding 5.1 channel system — especially because it sells for $199.99. THX certified, too! Great for anyone who listens to music on their computers, not to mention gamers. If you still need more, Logitech also has a $400 model (the Z-680) that boasts 500 watts of sound.

For carry-around sound there is, of course, the venerable Apple iPod and its many competitors. For a slightly different approach, take a look at DiskOnKey’s latest offering. A few years back, DiskOnKey came up with the idea of little plug-in, USB keychain memory devices that allow you to take documents, presentations and almost anything else you can think of with you. So, why not music?

DOK’s M Systems is now making an MP3 player “shell” that any of their memory devices (32MB to 1GB) slides into. Music transfers are super-fast and drag-and-drop when the DiskOnKey drive is plugged into your computer. The SmartCaps MP3 player (and built-in voice recorder) has a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $129.99, which includes a 128MB DiskOnKey.

For even more listening pleasure, there’s now satellite radio for your home stereo. Kenwood is the first to bring a serious Sirius hi-fi satellite radio tuner to market. Sirius is one of the two satellite radio companies out there — and I think the one with the slightly better music programming (although XM may have the slight edge when it comes to signal reception quality and overall hi-fi sound). The DT-7000S comes with both analog and digital outputs, is beautiful to look at and to listen to and retails for $299.95. Sirius service is additional at $12.95 a month.

Need a great-sounding portable? Especially one that pulls in the AM, FM (stereo through earphones) and all the shortwave bands? I just tested the Eton/Grundig 550PE and thought it was terrific. Best of all, it retails for less than $100 and comes with a case, stand, batteries, and even a shortwave listening guide — all the markings of a great stocking stuffer.

Digital Cameras

Just under $100 seems to be the starting point for great digital cameras as well. Take the Gateway DC-T20 — please! It’s a great 2.0 megapixel digital for $99.99. But the Gateway line doesn’t stop there: There’s the just announced T-23 ($129.99) and new 4-megapixel M-42 at $249.99, or the 5MP DC-M50 (large in size) for $249.99 or the 5.1 MP DC-T50 (much more compact) for $299.99. They even have the DV-S20, a tiny 2MP still camera and MPEG4 video camera in one little package ($199.99). It uses SD memory cards instead of tape. I’ve taken some great pictures with the one I’m testing, but don’t forget the cost of a large memory card — and of rechargeable batteries, it eats alkaline batteries alive.


I could fill an entire column with all the great new PDAs to choose from. At the low end is the Palm Zire 21, a black and white unit with 8 MB of memory for $99; its older brother, the original 2MB Zire, is now selling for $79. At the other end of the scale is the Palm Tungsten T3 ($399) with a great slide-out chassis, Garmin’s IQue 3600 with built-in GPS locator system ($589), and the HP/Compaq iPAQ h4155 ($449.99) with built-in WiFi and Bluetooth wireless networking. All have all tested well. Plus, Toshiba is introducing a new device with a larger, 4-inch screen and 128 MB of memory: the Pocket PC e805 ($599).

Another great gift for your short list should be a new Smartphone. Currently, there are two models available in the U.S. market: the AT&T/Motorola MPx200 ($299) which I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing and the just announced Verizon/Samsung i600 ($399). Both are modern-day cellular phones with a fully functional Pocket PC PDA inside. Both are small, comfortable to use and incredibly powerful. Best of all, they fulfill the promise of true one-handed operation. Check them out.

There’s never been a better time to unwire your home or office for Internet access. 802.11b and 802.11g devices, also known as WiFi, have never been priced so well. With a little digging, you can probably find “b” access points for under $40 and 802.11g (faster) access points for well under $100.

You can choose from many brands including Netgear, Linksys, SMC, Apple Airport, Microsoft, D-Link and US Robotics, just to name a few. My current favorites come from Buffalo Technology. In addition to producing a great “g” access point (MSRP of $119.95) they now make “g” repeaters ($99.99) - wireless devices that re-broadcast your WiFi signal to “dead zones” in your building. In recent tests they work exactly as promised (although the repeaters only work with other Buffalo gear).

When the sky's the limit
If money is no limit, I have a few things I’d love to see under the Christmas tree. Let’s start with an ultralight high-tech ski jacket. Italian sportswear manufacturer Belfe has created a terrific-looking, super-warm down jacket that weighs in at 388 grams (less than 13.7 ounces). How do they do it? Special feathers!

I’m not kidding. They get their down from the breast and neck of a certain breed of Siberian geese and insert it into the jacket using a super-secret, special process. I’ve worn the jacket during the recent cold-snap in the Northeast and I have to report that it really keeps you very warm while weighing almost nothing. It’s also the first down jacket I’ve seen that doesn’t make me look like the Michelin man. Retail price: $688.

After you come in from the cold, how about some entertainment? What would you do if I tell you that there’s a new listening device that plugs into your home stereo and uses lasers to read information from a music disc? You’d probably say: “Who cares? CDs have been around for 20 years.” But what if I told you that this laser device played 12-inch vinyl disks?

The ELP Corporation’s LT (Laser Turntable) is incredible. It actually does for vinyl what CD players do for aluminum. Without using a needle, 5 lasers read the information from your old records (45’s, 78’s and 33’s) and reproduce the music. You also get all the bells and whistles normally associated with CDs — such as number of cuts per side, time remaining, and cut programming and skipping.

Here’s the rub. Each one of these devices is custom built in Japan and shipped directly to the buyer. Current “introductory” prices start at $10,500 and go up to $14,300! Only one new device is making the rounds between reviewers, so I haven’t gotten my hands on one to play with. Analog music guru Michael Fremer of Stereophile Magazine was first on the list; check out his write-up in the next issue.

Finally, I’ve come to realize that I like watching large TVs. There’s nothing better for movies and sporting events. I think I’ve found the TV I need for my apartment: Mitsubishi’s Alpha WL-82913 Projection TV. Look closely at that model number, especially the first two digits. We’re talking about an 82-inch (6 ft., 10 in.) projection HDTV screen. The enclosure is 6-feet high and 7-feet wide. The screen is capable of 1080p by 1920 pixel resolution. As Mitsubishi puts it, this is the “world biggest bigscreen.”

Of course there’s a downside: the 82913 has a retail price of $21,000. To put that into proper perspective: it’s the same price as another Mitsubishi product, the 2004 Galant LS automobile. I wonder how many miles to the gallon the TV gets? Doesn’t matter! I’d still like to take it for a test drive.