With the holiday season come certain traditions: hopelessly tangled Christmas lights, gridlock at the mall parking lot, that bloated feeling after the office party -- and, not least, a blizzard of buzzwords in consumer-electronics advertising.
Some of these alleged must-have features are new, some make repeat appearances and some are actually worth the extra bucks. Here's what they add up to in four popular tech-gift categories:
For most movie watchers, DVD players are becoming a commodity product, and the extras you see spotlighted in ads are just that. Consider the issue of three- or five-disc changers vs. single-disc players: For my money, the reason to upgrade to a DVD changer would be to eliminate the need for a separate CD changer.
You'll have three options for connecting the player to a TV. Composite video is the minimum, S-video is better, and component video , which splits the signal sent to the TV into three channels, is the next step-up option. Your TV lacks component-video inputs? Then S-video will do just fine.
CD-RW compatible means the machine can play back compact discs created on a computer, including both write-once CD-Rs and rewritable CD-RWs. This is worth the (minimal) extra cost. Some CD-RW-compatible DVD players also feature MP3 compatibility -- fill a data CD with MP3s and you can listen to it on your stereo system.
If a digital television seems as though it might be in your future, progressive-scan output will mean a better picture when you upgrade your set. How? Regular, interlaced TVs only update half of their 480 scan lines of resolution at a time, leading to fuzziness and flickering. With progressive-scan, all 480 lines are updated at once.
Ads for portable digital-music players employ fewer buzzwords but fuzzier math. They often tout how many hours of music these gadgets can hold -- an estimate that assumes a low-quality, 64-kbps MP3 encoding that will sound more like AM radio. Support for Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, which use less space than MP3s, gets you closer to the advertised capacity but still requires a tradeoff in sound quality.
Here's some simpler math: Figure a minute of music for every megabyte of storage. Get a player that uses removable memory cards -- this way, you can buy a bigger card later on. Or get an MP3 player that uses a hard drive to store music, such as the Creative Nomad Jukebox, the Archos Jukebox or Apple's iPod-but realize that the USB connections the former two use will make transferring music a slow affair.
The cheapest option is an MP3-compatible portable CD player -- if, that is, you already have a CD-RW drive on your computer.
The magic number with digital cameras is "megapixels," shorthand for "millions of picture elements." The rule of thumb is that one megapixel or less is fine if you only plan to display your shots on a computer screen, while two megapixels will be enough for 5-by-7-inch printouts and even an 8-by-10 if you don't crop your pictures much. Anything over three megapixels is probably overkill .
Most digicams come with optical zoom as well as digital zoom. The former, using a real lens, is better than the latter. Another good tie-breaker in deciding among models is the camera's storage. Some Sony Mavicas use a floppy disk for cheap, easy-to-find and very limited storage. Most other cameras rely on flash memory cards but only ship with a four- or eight-meg card -- woefully inadequate if you can't get a 16-, 32- or 64-megabyte card as a promotional freebie when you buy the camera.
These memory cards come in four incompatible flavors: CompactFlash, SmartMedia, MultiMedia/Secure Digital and Memory Stick. The first two are the cheapest, with 64-meg cards going for $40 to $50. Smaller MultiMedia and Secure Digital cards run $10 or $20 extra for the same capacity, and Memory Sticks -- used only in Sony digital cameras so far -- cost the most, at $70 to $80 per 64 megs.
Prices for Palm-compatible handhelds have dropped but the factors to consider when comparing the offerings of Palm, Handspring, Sony and HandEra haven't. (Cost and complexity make Pocket PC-based handhelds from Hewlett-Packard and Compaq a poor fit for most users.)
Think internal memory first. The two megabytes in the entry-level Palm m100 leave little room for add-on software compared with the eight megs on other Palm OS devices. A color screen can be tempting, but only the Palm m505 and Sony Clie N610, N710 and N760 include a reflective LCD that will remain viewable in bright sunlight. (Those last three, along with the new Clie T415 and the HandEra 330, also include a high-resolution screen-handy for viewing photos and maps.)
All of the Handspring and Sony handhelds -- plus the Palm m125, m500 and m505 -- feature USB connections to synchronize their data to personal computers. USB is faster and simpler to set up than the serial cradles of Palm's older handhelds and HandEra's 330 -- but Windows 95 and NT users can't use USB in the first place. (All Palm handhelds except some Clies sync just as easily to a Mac as to a PC.)
Whatever you do, don't sweat this tech lexicon too much. You can read up on buzzwords until your eyes fall out, but that won't stop the gadget you bring home from being discontinued and replaced with a better, cheaper model in six months.
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