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The future is looking good

Remember the days of instant cameras, with those washed-out photos that developed in moments? Yep, we’re trying to forget those times, too. With these digital cameras, any holiday will be merry and bright.

At today’s exchange rates, a picture’s worth more than the epigrammatic thousand words. When TV ads tout digital pictures from disposable cameras, you know that computer-based images are part of the mainstream. But nobody wants to get a disposable camera for the holidays. To put a real smile on your loved ones’ faces–one that’s worth photographing–you need to look at still-image cameras with at least two megapixels of resolution, preferably three or more. Anything less than that won’t look good when you print it out at more than 3-by-5 inches. You need to consider moving video images too–and software to edit them up into something worth watching. The result: a holiday season worth remembering, with plenty of images to remind you.

Capturing images

Canon Optura 20: Got a big budget? A grand will buy a well-designed digital camcorder in Canon’s Optura 20–which provides outstanding image quality in well lit and low-light conditions alike. Other great features include 16X optical zoom, nicely clustered and easy-to-use controls, and the manual focus ring. But what you really pay for is great image quality and convenient extras: You get an 8MB MMC and a separate battery charger, so you can charge a battery while using the camera. List price: $999.

JVC GR-D200US: The image quality from this JVC handheld camcorder is very impressive, and its easy-to-handle controls are great. You can snap 1.3-megapixel still images with flash too. Though low-res by digital-camera standards, they’re great for a camcorder. The large button controls over the LCD let you adjust backlight, focus, night vision, and exposure–an impressive set of tools. While playing back, they work as VCR controls. All in all, this makes for a handy video recording experience. List price: $899.

Casio Exilim: What do you get when you take a deck of playing cards and throw half of them away? Something a little larger than the Casio Exilim EX-z3 camera, that’s what. But you can’t take 3.2-megapixel photos with half a deck of cards, or get 3x optical zoom, or take 30-second MPEG movies. The stills look great even when printed out on 8-by-10-inch paper (even though the MPEGs are a little too grainy for my taste), and the device is small enough to take anywhere. Just make sure you don’t lose it. Stick it in your shirt pocket–it will barely spoil the line of your clothes. List price: $349.

Photo3-D: Three-dimensional pictures are always “in”–just look at a ViewMaster or “Spy Kids 3D” if you have any doubts. So the Photo3-D package is bound to raise eyebrows on Christmas morning. You mount any digital camera onto the stand, take a picture, slide the camera down the stand, and take a second picture. The software melds the two pictures into one, and view or print the single 3D image. It also prints out the two pictures for viewing in a stereoscopic viewer. Hey, it’s a one-trick pony, but so is ViewMaster, and that’s been popular for decades. List price: $129.

Processing images

HP DVD Movie Writer dc3000: Everybody’s editing their own digital movies and writing DVDs these days, but we’re squeaking by with an analog video camera and budget PC without DVD writers. No matter…with the HP DVD Movie Writer dc3000, we’re one step ahead of the crowd. This device lets you record old VHS and analog camcorder tapes to digital video, encode them into MPEG streams, and burn them straight onto a DVD-RW or DVD-R disc. The DVD writer is built into the sleek box, along with good-quality MPEG encoding hardware. It’s not instantaneous–it takes a while to convert to digital video–but the results speak for themselves. You need a Windows XP or 2000 machine to control the process, but the box itself takes care of the work. Alternatively, you can capture old VCR footage to digital video to store on your PC, then edit them up using the included video-editing software, and then record them to DVD. List price: $349.

PaintShop Photo Album 4: Most digital photo-editing software is enough to turn you into the opposite of Will Rogers–you’ve never met one you didn’t dislike. They’re either too rigid, too flexible, or too expensive. That’s what’s so nice about Photo Album 4–it’s none of the above. It corrects color and contrast automatically, it provides “keepsake” layouts such as faded-edge framing, and it stitches multiple images into panoramas. It burns slide shows to Video CD format that you can play on DVD players, and it creates photographic screensavers. In the season of goodwill, you owe yourself some software that won’t scrooge you up. List price: $49.

Archos Video AV320: You’ve got an MP3 player for your digital music. That’s cool–but do you have a portable player for your digital video? Well, you have now. Archos Video AV320 is a portable 20GB hard drive with a 3.8-inch color display on it that can transport MPEG-4 movies anywhere you want to go. Don’t have MPEG-4 movies already? You can record them just by plugging in a VCR or DVD player and pressing Record. The base unit can be built on with add-on adapters like a video or still camera attachment, FM tuner, and CompactFlash reader. And its three-hour battery lets you watch almost all of “Titanic” at a sitting. List Price: $599.95.

DVDs and more

Gateway Connected DVD: OK, this is not strictly a computer product, it’s a Gateway DVD player that plugs into a TV set. So what’s it doing in ComputerUser? Well, it’s also a Wi-Fi media center that taps into your PC’s Windows Media Player library, and can stream audio and video clips from your den to your television set. For anyone who collects PC video clips or has amassed a great audio library on their PC, it’s a great way to experience them in comfort, control them by remote, and get away from your computer for the holidays. And isn’t that what the holidays are all about? List Price: $249.

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