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The gadgets on everyone's list

From the coolest must-haves to what actually works: a holiday gift guide

Every year I get inquiries from baffled friends, family, and readers who want to know two things: What the hottest gifts for geeks are and what to buy for the "tech challenged."

Technology gifts are expected to be hot this year. About three-quarters of US households say they'll purchase at least one this season, according to a survey by the Consumer Electronics Association. Prices are down, and there's a deluge of gadgets to choose from.

When it comes time to shop, what's hot may not always be the best yardstick for making a purchase decision. A recent survey by CNET showed that while the under the under-35 crowd is wowed by stylish devices with an entertainment focus, over-35 types care more about ease of use and gadgets that "make life easier."

So, does that mean younger folks on your list may want to that cool, sleek-looking digital music player, while us over-the-hill types just want something with clearly marked buttons?

I'm not sure that I buy into that generalization, but when it comes to buying electronics it certainly makes sense to think about what works as well as what's cool.

What's hot?

Apple's iPod is popping up frequently on this year's gift guides. The iPod routinely gets high marks for style and ease of use. For $499 you get the 40GB version of this much-recommended digital music player. It holds up to 10,000 songs and works with both Mac and Windows computers. Pricing starts at $299 for a unit with less storage, sans accessories such as a dock.

Other top-rated digital music players that are a little easier on the pocketbook include the Rio Nitrus ($249) which holds about 20 hours of digital music, and Dell's Digital Jukebox ($249).

Aside from anything related to digital music, other "must haves" this year include big flat-panel TVs, DVD recorders and diminutive players, digital cameras and camcorders, personal video players, and pumped-up cellphones. Here's a look some of the options.

Gifts for early adopters

Is there an early adopter on your list -- somebody who just has to have the latest thing? Buying for them can be fun, but do a reality check before you leap. For instance, a cheap ($99) and cool-looking new video player, the ZVUE! from Handheld Entertainment, plays movies in the palm of your hand. And it's an MP3 player to boot.

However, currently the only video it will run is in Handheld's proprietary format, meaning that for the short term your gift recipient would have to purchase video from Handheld to watch. According to a spokesman for the company, an upgrade that plays industry standard MP4 is in the works. But hey, if your gift recipient cares more about being the first on the block than having it all, the ZVUE! is a contender for an affordable stocking stuffer.

You probably have someone on your list who owns a digital camera. And by now they may be bored with those ubiquitous photo-sharing websites. How about a gadget that takes 3-D still photos? Mission 3D's Photo3D kit ($129) attaches to any digital camera.

The kit contains a tripod, camera mounting plate, 3-D glasses, and software that helps you create the images. You connect your camera to the plate, take the first picture, slide the camera over and take a second picture. That gives you a left-eye, right-eye "stereo-pair" of images which you load into a computer and use the included Photo3D Mixer software to create a 3-D picture. Photos can be printed, saved to disk, and e-mailed.

As with 3-D movies, you do have to wear 3-D glasses to look at the photos, otherwise, all you see is blur.

I found the device easy to use, and it's fun viewing the images, but unlike with most photo-sharing options you'll have to distribute the 3-D glasses to friends and family before they can share in the fun.

On the cheap

While your budget may not be able to handle a pricey home entertainment system, a one-month gift subscription to Netflix.com, the online DVD rental service, will only set you back $19.95.

If you're feeling a little more generous, you can tack on additional months, up to a full year for $239. And forget about figuring out what kind of music to buy your nephew. Let him pick out his own tunes with a gift certificate or prepaid card that can be redeemed at an online music store such as iTunes or Napster.

I'm a big fan of "storage on a stick," USB Flash drives, that many folks use these days to transport files instead of a floppy disk. These devices are small in size and generally small in price. Storage capacity has gone up, and some of these key-chain size storage sticks, such as the IBM 256MB USB 2.0 Memory Key ($129) now include security options that let you password-protect them in the event that they're lost or stolen. Verbatim's Store `n' Go USB Drives range in size and price from 32MB for $29 to 1GB for $349. Iomega's Mini USB Drive ($150 for 256MB) features something they call ActiveDisk (www.iomega-activedisk.com), which runs applications right from the device, such as MusicMatch Jukebox and an office suite called OpenOffice.org that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, and drawing program.

Other cool pint-size stocking stuffers: Philips' Audio Key Ring MP3 player (64MB for $129; 128MB for $149 with neck strap remote control) and Camera Key Ring ($99) make for stylish neck wear.

Using digital devices can mean juggling storage cards in a variety of formats: CompactFlash Type I and II, SmartMedia, SD, MultiMediaCard, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, and xD-Picture Card. The stylish SanDisk 8-in-1, USB 2.0 card reader handles them all, transferring data from card to computer for a measly $40.

Know someone who's a CD-burning fiend? TDK's Dig-It CD-Rs, emblazoned with stylish designs, come in a 10-pack for $8.99.

Talk among yourselves

If you're considering a cellphone for someone on your list, you probably know that camera phones are hot. But another add-on that's gaining steam is "walkie-talkie" service. Sprint's "Ready Link" service works with the Sanyo RL2000 and RL2500 phones. Both have built-in speakerphones and buttons optimized to work with Ready Link.

Using it was a no-brainer. You simply push a button on the side of the phone, select a number from a pre-stored list, and jabber away. It works nationwide, and you can talk to up to five people at once. Suggested retail price: $299, plus the cost of a phone service plan. (There's currently a rebate of up to $150 depending on the plan you select.)

Nextel, which got the buzz going on walkie-talkie style service, offers the i730 ($249); Verizon's "Push to Talk" service that works with the Motorola V60p ($199.99 with 2-year contract) is aimed at business types. All the phones come with the usual lineup of color screens, voice mail, and text messaging, and you can manage your list of walkie-talkie contacts via a website.

There's nothing worse than being left hanging by a dead battery. If you don't have an extra battery or electrical outlet nearby, you're out of luck unless you have a Sidewinder standing by. The Sidewinder, a hand-cranked gizmo that recharges cellphone batteries, runs $24.95. Crank for two minutes and you get about six minutes of talk time. The Sidewinder works with most Nokia, Motorola, and Ericsson phones.

Tired of the kids tying up the computer instant-messaging their friends? Hand over a Motorola IMFree and let them IM wirelessly. You plug IMFree's base into a USB port on your computer and the IMFree will communicate with it up to 150 feet away. The device, which has a built-in keyboard and works with AOL's IM, is about $100.

Michelle Johnson is a freelance writer. She can be reached at mijohn@mail-me.com.

Holiday shopping guide
<b>Camcorders</b><br>
Take a look at some of the more popular digital camcorders for this holiday season, such as the Panasonic VDRM30. Camcorders
Take a look at some of the more popular digital camcorders for this holiday season, such as the Panasonic VDRM30.
 Camcorder shopping guide
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