I'm told that Santa is a bit of a gadget freak, but he's also on a budget this year - even the North Pole isn't recession-proof. Fortunately, bargains abound, whether Santa opts for a handheld organizer, a digital camera, a neat accessory, a new cell phone or even a full-blown PC.
Last year, Palm organizers and PocketPCs were quite popular, and now that they're even cheaper, they should do well this year. too. Palm now offers the Zire organizer for $99. It has the same operating system and software as the more expensive Palms, and at 3.8 ounces, it's the lightest of the bunch.
Like most Palm devices, you input data via a stylus, but if you know someone who would prefer a keyboard and you're willing to spend $299, consider the Handspring Treo 90, which has a small keyboard near the bottom of the device. Handspring also makes versions of its Treo with built-in cell phones. Your friends and loved ones can look up a number and call the person with the same device, but it will cost you. These devices range from $249 to $499 plus the cost of the cell phone service.
If money is no object (say $600), Toshiba has one of the most interesting handhelds around. The Toshiba Pocket PC e740 has a super-fast processor chip and built-in WiFi wireless networking. Like handhelds that run the Microsoft PocketPC software, it features a color screen, the ability to play MP3 music files and "pocket-sized" versions of Microsoft Office application software.
If you're looking for a reasonably priced combination pocket organizer and cell phone, check out the Sidekick from T-Mobile. I've been playing with this little wonder and, frankly, I'm very impressed with it, though T-Mobile's cellular service - at least in my neighborhood - leaves much to be desired. The $199 six-ounce device has about everything you could want in pocket electronics. Aside from being a cell phone, it's also a pager and an instant messenger terminal (including access to AOL Instant Messenger). Although it doesn't come with either the Palm or PocketPC operating system, it is also a personal organizer and can synchronize data with your PC.
You've seen those little flashlights that attach to a keychain. Now you can get key chain-size computer memory that you can use in lieu of a floppy disk drive to store up to 512 megabytes. DiskOnKey, which pioneered the concept, offers a line of small memory-based storage systems that connect to a PC or a Mac via the USB port. The devices, which range from $24.99 for 16 MB to $349 for 512 MB, make it easy to transport large files from one machine to another. SanDisk's Cruzer is a variation on the theme. It's a bit bigger than the DiskOnKey, but it allows you to swap out memory cards. Prices range from $39.99 for 32 MB to $164.99 for 256 MB.
Digital cameras are becoming more popular, and why not? The image quality is starting to get at least reasonably close to that of film and the prices have come down considerably. If you never plan to print larger than 8-by-10s, you can get away with a 2 megapixel camera (2 million dots per image) in the $200 price range. The Canon PowerShot A40 2 MP is a nice choice because it has a "3x" optical zoom, which lets you get closer to the action. All digital cameras offer an optical zoom, but that doesn't really mean much because digital zooming causes a loss of picture quality.
If zoom is important to you, make sure it's optical. Both Kodak and Hewlett-Packard now have cameras that work with an optional docking station, making it very easy to transfer images to the PC and recharge the camera's battery at the same time. I've used a number of Kodak EasyShare cameras and have always been pleased by both their ease of use and photo quality. At Kodak's online store (http://www.kodak.com/US/en/corp/store/), you can buy a reconditioned DX3500 for $139.95. The camera has a 2.2 megapixel lens but no zoom. The EasyShare dock is $79 extra, and any reconditioned equipment could be out of stock by the time you order. The camera I use (the 3 megapixel EasyShare DX3900 with a 2X zoom is now on sale for $249.
I usually don't recommend PCs as holiday gifts but, with prices starting at under $400, they might just fit into Santa's plans. I am writing this column using Gateway's 300 series PC and I'm impressed. It has everything most people will need, including a CD-burner. For $399, it doesn't come with a monitor, but $699 will get you one with a very cool 15-inch flat-panel display. Dell has a similar deal on its Dimension 2350 desktop.
MP3 music players have been around for a while and are growing in the amount of music they store while shrinking in price. My favorite is the Apple iPod that starts at $299 for a 5 gigabyte model that stores up to 1,000 songs. For $499, you get a 20 GB version with room for 5,000 songs. The iPod completely changes the nature of the way you relate to music because it holds all the music you could possibly want to hear. Of course, there are much cheaper alternatives, such as the Samsung Yepp Hip-Hop 32 MB Digital Audio Player that's on sale at Amazon.com for $49. The trouble with units like this is that they only have enough memory for about one CD. My favorite low-cost solution is to buy a portable Walkman type of CD player that can also play homemade CDs with MP3 files.
Personal video recorders have been on the market for a few holiday seasons, but people are starting to take them more seriously. Devices like the TiVo Series2 40 Hour Digital Video Recorder allow you to record all of your favorite TV shows on the unit's internal hard drive without having to bother with videotape. A word of warning: A TiVo won't do you much good if you don't subscribe to the service that provides the data it needs to find the shows you want to record. That service costs an extra $12.95 a month or you can purchase lifetime service for $249. That's the lifetime of the product, not your lifetime.
Printers are getting cheaper and better. I like Hewlett-Packard's new line of PhotoSmart printers that start at $149.95 but - fair warning – HP gets you on supplies. The printers come with an initial supply of ink, but all three replacement cartridges add up to $80.
LCD screens are going to be very hot this holiday season because they're thinner and easier on the eyes than those big old-fashioned TV-like computer monitors. Name-brand 15-inch LCD screens, like the Samsung SyncMaster 151S or ViewSonic VE500 start at about $350. The 17-inch monitors that give you more than enough room start at about $550.
If you're in the chips this year and want the mother of all LCD screens, consider getting a 42-inch plasma display. (Gateway offers the cheapest for $2,999, but you can find better ones starting at about $5,000.) But don't waste these gorgeous screens on a computer. Hook them up to a DVD player or a satellite dish and kick back and watch some movies.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
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