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Digital Santa: Hi Tech, Low Budget

All this week, tech guru Larry Magid looks at the latest in high-tech gifts for the holiday season.

American love technology gifts but, trouble is, they can be pretty expensive.

Computers typically cost between $300 and $3,000. The newest iPod will set you back $300. Good digital cameras start at about $175 and video game consoles cost between $199 and $399.

Then there are those flat screen TVs that range in price from expensive to absolutely astronomical.

So unless you bought a ton of Google stock at the IPO price or sold Netscape before it plummeted, you're probably trying to think of ways to stuff your friends' and loved ones' stockings without emptying your wallet.

With that in mind, I took a trip to a real brick-and-mortar electronics store as well as a number of e-tail sites to see what type of high-tech gifts I could scrounge up for $100 or less. In some cases a lot less.

Let's start with the obvious. Just about everyone you know has a computer and a wish list of things they want for it. One popular item is those little USB flash drives. They're about the size of your thumb and they store up to two gigabytes of data. You can get a one GB version for under $70 but even a 256 megabyte flash drive, at under $30, can be a welcome present for anyone who wants to move data from one computer to another or carry around important documents or software on their keychain.

For the really geeky, consider the SwissMemory Flight Safe Multitool ($55 for the 256 MB version) that consists of a USB memory stick built into a tool made by Victorinox, the Swiss Army Knife company. It also comes with an LED mini-light, a retractable ballpoint pen and a key ring along with an extension cable for easy access to USB ports. There's no knife or scissors so it's OK to bring on planes.

Speaking of memory, you can never have enough of it. Many people have PCs and Macs that have 128 or 256 megabytes of memory. Unless they plan to get rid of those computers soon, they can enjoy increased performance and reliability by upgrading the memory to 512 MB or even a gigabyte.

It's a very inexpensive way to get a lot more mileage out of their PC. Prices vary depending on your PC and change periodically but last time I checked you could buy 512 megabytes of memory for under $90 (high speed memory required by some computers can be more). You can find 256 MB (often enough to upgrade a system to 512) for as little as $30.

If you have access to the person's PC, visit and try out the site's "check my system" command that analyzes the PC and figures out exactly what memory it has and what memory you can buy to upgrade it. It works with Internet Explorer and Firefox on most, but not all, PCs. Even if you don't ending up buying anything from this site, you'll still get a better idea of what you need.

While we're on the subject, what about the memory in your friend's digital camera? Is it enough to store all their holiday pictures, or could they use an extra Secure Digital (SD) card or whatever card their camera takes?

SanDisk has 512 megabyte SD cards starting at under $60. I saw a high-speed 1 GB card on for $89. Other brands of 512 MB cards can be found for as low as $24. $40 will buy a SanDisk 256 MB card but, again, you can find others for under $20 if you shop around. A 512 MB card can store 40 high resolution pictures from a 5 megapixel camera. Before buying, send an elf around to check your friend's digital camera to find out what type of card it uses and whether or not they already have a high-capacity card.

And don't stop at memory. Anyone with a digital camera probably needs a case for it or perhaps an extra battery or charger. If the camera (or other gadget) takes AA batteries, consider getting them a high-speed charger and some extra rechargeable batteries.

Rayovac makes a line of 15-minute battery chargers that I use all the time for my digital camera and they're great. You can buy a 15-minute charger with two AA batteries on Amazon for under $17 or a 4-position charger (with 4 AAs) for $35. Energizer also makes a 15-minute charger.

Did you happen to catch the Bell Telephone exhibit at the 1964 World's Fair? I didn't think so. But if you had, you would have witnessed the world's first video telephone. Fast forward 41 years and you can now turn a PC or a Mac into a great videophone.

All you (and the person on the other end) need is a webcam and a computer with high-speed Internet access. Webcams are available for as little as $30 so consider buying two: one for you and one for a loved one. If you want the latest and greatest, check out the Logitech QuickCam Fusion ($99). It has a 1.3 megapixel sensor (not bad for a webcam) and very cool video effects that can turn you into an animated avatar, definitely amusing if you have children on either end of the call.

I'm not sure if anyone has ever built a better mousetrap, but companies like Microsoft, Logitech and Belkin are constantly building better mice and keyboards. Wireless mice are all the rage but, personally, I like having my mouse attached to a wire so I don't lose it under all the desk clutter.

Still, if you know someone who could benefit by cutting the cord, consider spending $50 or so on a cordless mouse. And if you have a friend who has an older mouse with a rubber ball on the bottom, an optical mouse would definitely make a good gift. They're cheap (as low as $15 for wired ones) and so much better because they track better and don't pick up dirt.

I'm now testing out the Microsoft Comfort Optical Mouse ($30) and the Microsoft Digital Media Pro Keyboard ($24). The mouse has a button on the side that's programmed to magnify what you see on the PC screen (you can change its function) and keyboards has all sorts of special function keys including a slider that lets you zoom in (enlarge the type) in most programs.

Have a frequent traveler among your close friends or someone who commutes by train or bus? Getting them an iPod is a bit pricey but how about a pair of noise-canceling headphones?

At $299, top-of-the-line Bose headphones are off topic for today's column but you can get some pretty good headphones for a lot less money. I'm pretty impressed with the Targus Active Noise Cancellation headphones, which you can find online for about $40. I wore them all the way from San Francisco to Cairo and enjoyed a reasonably quiet ride, a comfortable feel and plenty of great music.

And if you do have a friend with an iPod, you have plenty of shopping ahead of you. iPod accessories, some with a single-digit price tag, have become a major industry. The accessories department at the Apple store is only one of many places where you can find hundreds of accessories including armbands, cables and docks, car adapters, speakers, voice recorders and more.

Software can be a welcome gift, so long as you know the person's needs and tastes. Warn them not to open the package unless they're sure it's right for them, as most vendors won't let you return opened software.

Other ideas for low cost holiday presents include flash MP3 players, subscriptions to tech magazines (Make from O'Reilly Media at $34.95 for four volumes is a wonderfully unique gift for the needy nerdy), iTunes cards and gel-filled keyboard wrist rests.

Think I'll rest my own wrists right about now.

A syndicated technology columnist for more than 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."
By Larry Magid