We wish you a techie Christmas

Surprise! This holiday season's gadgets and gizmos are more powerful and cheaper than last year's

Trends

December 11, 2005|By LARRY WILLIAMS | LARRY WILLIAMS,IDEAS EDITOR

It's a seasonal miracle that never fails. Last year's high-priced technological sensation can be had for just a fraction of its former price, while this year's wonders promise more.

If the pleasure of the latest marvels threatens to be ephemeral, you should know that there really is more in the newest technological toys - more memory, more computing power, more pixels, and, above all, more utility for users of every age.

In fact, the extraordinary scope of the flood of technological innovation into our day-to-day lives becomes apparent when one considers the diversity of tech gear likely to be received by family and friends this year.

Americans are expected to spend an estimated $236 billion on gifts this Christmas season, with the average family's holiday spending anticipated to be $738. More than a third of the spending is expected to go to consumer electronics.

The hottest product this year is the Apple iPod. The MP3 music player category that it leads ranked first on a list of 10 most-desired gifts compiled from a recent telephone survey by the Consumer Electronics Association. The iPod category didn't even make the list last year.

You can get an iPod for anywhere from $99 to $399. The top-of-the-line version, which offers videos as well as music, is most popular. An array of excellent MP3 players can be had for far less but won't have Apple's carefully cultivated cachet.

The iPod's magic is contagious this year, with retailers offering lots of appealing but expensive accessories, ranging from the $300 Bose iPod sound dock to an iPod clock radio, and the elegant Tivoli Audio iSongBook portable iPod music system for $329.99.

IPod and other MP3 players are expected to outsell portable CD players for the first time this year. Expensive toys like the iPod used to be reserved for adults, but more and more kids are convincing their parents they have to have one.

If iPods seem pricey, consider the new Microsoft Xbox 360 game console, which lists for $400 but is nearly impossible to find in a store at any price this season. For gift givers with promises to keep, the new game machine could be found on eBay last week for premium prices ranging from $550 to $900.

And don't forget to buy a couple of Xbox games to play. They typically go for between $55 and $60 apiece.

Excitement over the Xbox 360 has helped push video game machines from ninth to third place on the list of most-desired products.

Digital cameras, which have enjoyed growing popularity over the last four or five years, were ranked second on the list. Despite the fact that digital cameras can already be found in nearly half of American homes, consumers are moving up to newer designs that have more pixels for higher-quality images, more features - like instant sound movies - and are easier to use.

Last year, nearly 20 million digital cameras were sold, producing $4.7 billion in industry sales. This year 23.1 million units are expected to bring in an estimated $6.1 billion in sales. The average digital camera price is expected to increase from $251 in 2004 to $265 this year.

High-quality digital SLR cameras that offer near-professional-quality photos at relatively affordable prices are a hot new category, with the Nikon D50 and Canon Digital Rebel XT leading the pack. Both cameras can be found for less than $1,000 with two lenses.

Digital cameras are a technological sales bonanza for retailers because they bring sales of increasingly sophisticated printers, photo paper, inks and other accessories.

Thanks to lower costs of screens and other components, some popular tech products, like plasma screen TVs and portable DVD players, are more and more affordable. Portable DVD players, which recently cost as much as $800, can be found for $130 or less with a 7-inch screen.

The price of HD-ready big screen flat-panel plasma TVs has dropped by more than 40 percent since 2004. Smaller flat-panel LCD TVs can be found for less than $1,000, and experts see flat-panel prices continuing to drop as production capacity grows to meet demand.

Thanks to cheaper memory and screens, and relentless competition, basic home computers and laptops have never been cheaper. Name-brand laptops and PCs with monitors can be found for less than $500.

Of course, those who want more style or speed can pay more. A sleek, full-featured lightweight Sony Vaio TX laptop starts at $2,000.

Cell phones with cameras and other designer features are cheaper this year, frequently under $100, but the super-slim Motorola Razr and other high-end competing brands go for $250 or more. Shopping for someone who yearns for e-mail and Internet access along with a cell phone and personal organizer may mean spending $300 or more for a BlackBerry, Trio 650 or similar model.

Beyond phones, there are other wireless toys, particularly slick new portable receivers for the competing Sirius and XM satellite radio systems, and slim, affordable Global Positioning System units to get an accurate reading of where you are - in cars and on the trail.

If all of that weren't enough, the friendly consumer electronics companies have dreamed up some other nifty, new chip-controlled products, among them a robotic vacuum cleaner that is getting good reviews, a blender with a brain, a digital Breathalyzer, a helmet-mounted video camera, and a crank radio that will also charge some cell phones.

Of course, those who are feeling overwhelmed can wait until next year, when all of this will be cheaper and there will be other expensive new toys.

larry.williams@baltsun.com

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