New gadgets really work, so shopping simplified

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November 24, 2005|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

This is the best tech holiday season I can remember - and for a very simple reason. It's the first time I can say with reasonable confidence that the cool gadgets we buy for family and friends will work when they take them out of the box.

That doesn't mean we've reached a state of digital nirvana. It just that yesterday's cutting-edge technologies are a lot less edgy than they were.

Take computers. PCs are so cheap and powerful that for basic computing purposes - Web browsing, word-processing, financial records, e-mail, music and even digital photography - almost any machine on the shelf will do. Yes, I promise to produce the annual PC buying guide column this year, but it's becoming less and less critical.

Still, there are some interesting wrinkles this season. One is the presence of so many computers running the Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) operating system.

These machines are designed to deliver music, photos and video to television sets and home theater systems as well as to standard computer monitors. More advanced units have built-in TV tuners and TiVo-like video recorders.

They're a sign that the long-predicted "convergence" of computers, consumer electronics and entertainment may actually occur. Microsoft does a decent job of explaining what this is all about at www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/mediacenter.

It's also no coincidence that Microsoft's second-generation video game console, the Xbox 360, made its appearance this week. For $400, this is an incredibly hot gadget - a powerful computer with software that goes beyond game playing and turns the device into a media center extender. That means it plays movies and video stored on MCE computers elsewhere on a home network. More about that in a future column.

This is also the year when two great consumer technologies have come of age - digital photography and music.

Market surveys predict that digital cameras will be the No. 1 electronic gift this year, and for good reason. Basic, point-and-click models are just as easy to use as their film counterparts, and not all that expensive.

Meanwhile, the price of superb, single-lens-reflex models from Canon, Nikon and other traditional camera makers has dropped well below $1,000. That gives serious amateurs a shot at digital, too.

To the average eye, the quality of photos from the latest cameras - even low-end, five megapixel models - is virtually indistinguishable from film. I don't take chances with my vacations, but I've given up my old habit of taking a film camera along. I'm a digital guy, now.

The other big camera news this year is the emergence of "super-zoom" consumer models in the $500 to $800 range. They live up to their name with long lenses that can capture sports action anywhere on a soccer field. Get one with image stabilization or bring along a tripod.

Printer manufacturers are making it easier to get prints without using a computer - by printing directly from the camera or using built-in memory card readers. Buy a camera and printer equipped with "Bluetooth" wireless technology and you won't even need a cable to hook them up.

The downside is you'll spend a fortune on paper and ink, which is where printer makers make their real money. But there are plenty of alternatives to doing it yourself, including storefront and online services that deliver excellent quality prints for a quarter or less.

To find thorough reviews of new digital equipment, including sample photos, visit Digital Photography Review at www.dpreview.com

Thanks largely to Apple, digital music has emerged from the twilight world of illegal file sharing and into mainstream commerce. Credit the iPod, Apple's name for a series of incredibly slick and easy-to-use music players that that are selling at the rate of 25 million to 30 million a year. Last week, iPod models claimed three of the top five search terms on the Shopping.com Web portal. The others were digital cameras and the Xbox 360.

Apple's iTunes player software for PCs and Macs, along with the company's online iTunes music store, are the other pieces of this happy puzzle. With a huge selection of current CDs and back titles for 99 cents a track, iTunes proved to the music industry that it could sell content to its customers instead of just suing them for online file trading.

Although they're hard to spot in the iPod glow, there are many other perfectly good music players by companies such as Creative Labs, Archos, Rio and iRiver. They've teamed up with services such as Rhapsody and Napster to sell music online - but Apple has them beat for ease of use.

One thing you don't want to buy this season is any music CD from Sony BMG - unless you're buying it for someone you don't like.

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