More Gamble Than Gift: This Holiday Season's High-Tech Duds

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, November 20, 2008

Buying any sort of high-tech product involves risks not faced with most other purchases. The sweater you get for yourself probably won't cost dramatically less next year or be replaced in stores by a vastly upgraded Sweater 3.0, but your new laptop, camera or phone can become overpriced or obsolete within weeks.

We accept that risk as the price of constant innovation. But some technological products represent too much of a gamble.

These things may not cost an insane amount of money; some have even drawn initially positive reviews in this space. They do, however, incorporate too many question marks -- about their compatibility, their programming, their future prospects -- and individual users can do little to turn that punctuation into periods.

You're better off leaving these things on the shelf and hoping that the companies behind them get their act together next year:

· Blu-ray players. Prices for these high-definition video disc players have not dropped as much as many people once hoped -- budget $250 or more-- while the selection of Blu-ray titles remains far smaller than what's available on DVD. (Netflix stocks "nearly 1,100" Blu-ray titles, about one-hundredth of its DVD catalogue.) Some cheaper Blu-ray players don't support such interactive features as "BD-Live" games and widgets and can't be upgraded to add them.

Yes, if your DVD player burns out tomorrow, you'll need a new one. But for a third of the price of a Blu-ray player, you could pick up a DVD player that "upconverts" regular discs, amplifying their picture to near-HD quality; for two thirds of the price, you could buy an upconverting model that also records TV shows on rewritable DVDs.

· Satellite radio. The merger of former competitors Sirius and XM has mainly yielded confusion and anger, as customers have found favorite channels disappearing from these still-separate programming lineups with no notice. The company says it's giving each service's listeners a chance to enjoy channels once confined to the other, but in the process, good, original programs have gone silent and familiar DJs have been kicked to the curb.

A receiver that could tune in to both Sirius and XM broadcasts would address this problem, but no such thing is in stores. Until this company puts one on the market, stops gutting its programming and starts communicating its plans clearly to customers, why reward it with your money?

· Set-top Internet video boxes. The idea of bringing Internet video to a big screen has enough appeal for dozens of companies to sell Internet-connected receivers that plug into TV sets. But these devices usually come handcuffed to one or two sources of online programming.

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