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Holiday Gift Guide

Gifts that keep on giving for the special techie in your life. hed: Holiday Gift Guide dek: Gifts that keep on giving for the special techie in your life. by Christy Mulligan

During the holiday season, we all cross our fingers in hopes that when the wrapping paper flies, we’ve bought the perfect gifts–the ones our friends and family will be talking about, and using, until next holiday season rolls around.

This year’s holiday gift guide is filled with ideas that will do just that. If you’re looking to surprise that special someone with the gadget at the top of their list, here’s a look at COMPUTERUSER’s picks of those products that made it to the head of their class in 2001.

For the budding photographer

Canon’s latest digital camera, the Canon PowerShot A20 ($379-$399), is a point-and-shoot camera that would make the perfect gift for anyone who’s been interested in making the transition to the digital world, but doesn’t want or need a high-end, professional camera. So small it can fit in your shirt pocket, the PowerShot A20 outperforms any other digital camera in its class, both in terms of image quality and ease of use. And while it comes equipped with a powerful 3x optical zoom lens, it also offers versatility and room to grow. Users can add a variety of lenses, such as Canon’s wide-angle conversion lens (WC-DC52) or Canon’s 250D 52mm, for close-up shots. All the camera operations are automatic, from focus to flash, so beginners won’t end up with blurry candids (in fact, some users have complained that images were too sharp and needed a bit of softening).

Not only is the Canon PowerShot A20 a strong performer, Canon has improved on the ergonomics and features of its earlier models. Considering the small size of this camera, the buttons aren’t crammed together, and the interface is easy to navigate. The PowerShot A20 also comes bundled with software that lets you display photo images on-screen, print them on paper, or share them with others via e-mail. The software also allows for displaying, downloading, and saving images; resizing and compressing images to be sent via e-mail; and performing simple cropping and color adjustments. The camera even has an optional underwater case that will let you take photos in depths up to 100 feet.

The PowerShot A20’s only drawback, while minor, is that users will need to have a couple of extra memory cards (about $5 per megabyte) on hand, as well as a set of rechargeable batteries (they typically run anywhere from $10-$40). Throw in either one as a stocking stuffer, and the recipient of this gift will be ready to start that basement photo shop.

For your favorite rocker

If you’re looking for a music machine that’s easy to carry and has enough music memory to last through a long car ride or business flight, Intel’s Pocket Concert Audio player fits the bill. While the player may be a little more pricey than most MP3 players on the market (list price $299), its increased memory and other unique features make it worth the few extra dollars.

Intel’s Pocket Concert Audio player weighs in at less than four ounces, fits in a breast pocket, and comes equipped with 128MB of memory, promising up to four hours of music programming or up to 20 hours of spoken-word audio. An added FM radio function even lets users program up to 10 preset stations. And while MP3 technology will never compare to a CD player or an old turntable, this tiny little box won’t leave you feeling like you’ve missed out on the music. The player has 17 levels of bass and treble equalization, and there are no moving internal parts, so you won’t be burdened by annoying skips when jogging or moving around.

The Intel Pocket Concert Audio player comes with a set of behind-the-neck headphones, and is bundled with a software package that lets you download files from the Internet, create a personal CD collection, rip and encode CDs into MP3 or WMA format, manage play lists, and burn audio CDs from digital audio files. Also included is the Intel Audio Sampler, a compilation of independent-label music and spoken-word selections. The player’s firmware is also reprogrammable, so whichever direction the digital music world is headed, your Intel player will stick along for the ride.

Throw in the Intel Audio Accessory Kit as a stocking stuffer ($59.99), and the player will connect to a home stereo dock, multimedia speakers, or a car stereo. The kit also includes two long-life NiMH rechargeable batteries and a carrying case.

For the one who wants her world in the palm of her hand

The Handspring Visor Edge is not the most recently released handheld on the market, and it’s not necessarily the most feature-packed. But if you’re looking to buy a Palm OS-based device that’s reasonably priced and incorporates a wide variety of basic handheld computing functions, the Handspring Visor Edge (list price $299) is a solid performer that has unparalleled expansion possibilities.

If this Handspring has earned itself one superlative, it’s this: It remains the thinnest handheld computer available–the Visor Edge is about half as thick and a half-ounce lighter than the Visor Deluxe or the Visor Platinum. Yet inside, little has been sacrificed. It still has a 33MHz processor (the Motorola Dragonball VZ), it comes with the same 8MB of memory, and it has the same back-lit, 4-bit gray-scale display.

But what make the Visor Edge such an ideal handheld are its size, price, and expandability options. It includes an edge connector and Springboard adapter, which give it an edge over other Palm devices. The Visor Edge also comes with a redesigned USB cradle, and it uses the latest version of the Palm OS (v. 3.5.2 H2), which includes Date Book+, an advanced calculator, and a world clock. And, the Visor Edge is fully compatible with the Palm OS, so you can run all Palm OS software programs. A Silent Alarm lets you use a flashing LED rather than an audio alert, and a Fast Lookup function lets you find contacts quickly and easily without using the stylus. Handspring has also thrown in a set of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which last about one month with typical use.

At this writing, Handspring was offering a free Visor phone with any handheld purchase. If you miss this deal, for just $49 throw one in as a stocking stuffer.

For the one who’s still using that clunky old cell phone

It’s not surprising that many have predicted Samsung’s latest phone, the SPH-N200 ($150-$200), will be a big hit among consumers this holiday season, considering that its predecessor, the SCH-3500, is one of Sprint’s best-selling phones of all time. And Samsung has made a long list of significant design improvements to the SCH-3500 in the SPH-N200.

Even though Samsung has slimmed the SPH-N200 down to less than one centimeter thick and has reduced the size of the number-key pad, users report that dialing is remarkably easier on this phone than on others of larger size. This is especially true considering the addition of a convenient “joystick” toggle key that makes navigating through menus and tracking down presaved phone numbers a breeze. A stronger wireless Internet connection and larger LCD screen (the SPH-N200 now displays four gray-scale tones and eight lines of text) make simple online functions much easier than with most phones. Samsung has also upgraded the short message service and upped the memory capacity so that you can store up to 1,000 phone numbers.

The Samsung SPH-N200 also includes a calendar, a to-do list, a calculator, multilingual capability, voice-activated dialing, and an airtime tracker that lets you check the length of your last call, as well as the number of minutes you’ve used in a given month. As a stocking stuffer, throw in a hands-free headset ($20) or a data cable ($50), which lets you connect your phone to your computer’s serial port. This is one phone you’ll be wishing you could give to yourself.

For the film buff

For the most part, portable DVD players haven’t been a big success. Since most laptops these days play DVD discs, most consumers are opting to go the laptop route. That’s all changed, though, since Toshiba released two portable DVD players that offer on-the-go, high-quality progressive-scan images. The SDP-1500, the better of the two, doesn’t come cheap (list price $1,100), but it deserves mention here because it is far and away the best portable DVD player available, and it’s the perfect gift for anyone aiming to wow the socks off the whole family.

The Toshiba SDP-1500 has the industry’s largest portable widescreen LCD display (8 inches), and it includes a 10-bit, 27MHz Video DAC and ColorStream Component Video output. It also can play DVD-video, DVD-R, CD-audio, video CD, CD-R, and CD-RW discs. You can also plug the SDP-1500 into any home entertainment system, an added bonus for those who want the convenience of a portable player but would also like the capability of playing DVDs on a full-sized screen.

The player comes with built-in reflex-style stereo speakers as well as two headphone jacks, so the kids won’t be arguing over who gets to listen on that long airplane ride. Toshiba includes a lithium-ion battery that promises more than three hours of viewing time, but you can also opt for an extended-life battery that delivers an additional five hours. You can turn off the LCD monitor when playing audio CDs to conserve battery power.

If you know someone who’s a movie nut, or someone who spends a lot of time on the road, this is one gift that won’t let you down. The player’s list price is steep, but shop around. At this writing, the average price listed at various online computer stores was around $700. Throw in a DVD release for each of the kids as a stocking stuffer, and this will be a holiday season your family will never forget.

For the gamehead

Last holiday season there was a general consensus among video-game fans–it was Sony Playstation 2 or nothing. But this year, the number of game consoles on the market has increased, and Microsoft and Sony have some stiff competition. Tops on the list with young and old gamers alike this year will undoubtedly be Nintendo’s new GameCube, one of the first game consoles in a long time that’s devoted solely to gaming–not to DVD viewing, not to Internet access. Visit any game site on the Net, and you’ll see that the GameCube has earned big points among serious gamers. It’s expected to generate a lot of incentive among software developers; the standard it sets will let them concentrate on great content instead of hardware compatibility issues and the like.

Not only that, the GameCube has loads of gee-whiz appeal. At just four inches high, it’s the most compact of all the next-generation consoles. It’s also the only console with a carrying handle on top. Those who have had a chance to review the GameCube have raved about Nintendo’s new ergonomic controller design-each button has a distinctive feel and look, eliminating the need to glance down and make sure your figures are on the right buttons. Nintendo has also made this the most powerful game console available, equipping it with a 128-bit processor.

At press time, the GameCube release had just been pushed back to mid-November. Nintendo’s Web site has more details, plus a long list of games that will be available for the holidays, with many more rolling out just after the new year. Most gamers are talking about “Luigi’s Mansion,” but visit Nintendo’s site for the complete list.

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