What to consider before buying technology this holiday season

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; 9:54 PM

A funny thing happened on the way to the convergence of the computing and electronics industries.

Make that, two things.

Home computers got a lot less exciting and less hazardous to buy - just in time for such once-humble electronic gadgets as televisions and phones to demand much more research before a purchase.

That's welcome news if you need a new laptop or desktop. But it may have you fleeing the store in panic if you walked in hoping to replace your old TV.

All of this makes this year's holiday shopping crunch especially challenging. Of course, some folks got a jump on their technology purchases with Black Friday promotions. But for others who might make their move on Cyber Monday (or the stragglers who will be lucky to make Santa's sleigh on time), I offer advice for choosing among costly gadgets - as well as context about how much the ground has moved under consumer's feet.

The computer's transition from interesting, tricky purchase to near-commodity item owes credit to a few trends.

First, PC manufacturers did the right thing: By steadily chipping away at the cost of a computer's major components - its processor, memory, storage and screen - they made entry-level machines more than capable of everyday home tasks.

Meanwhile, the slowing pace of updates from Microsoft and Apple, combined with an increasing reliance on Web-based applications, has blunted the industry's traditional "Upgrade your computer now!" prod.

Computer vendors also largely standardized on design elements that once set their hardware apart. I can't think of any home laptops that don't include WiFi and a webcam. Aside from Apple's cheapest models, any new machine will have an SD card slot and three USB ports.

In some cases, though, PC manufacturers abandoned worthy opportunities to set themselves apart. They've chosen to settle on the same mediocre lineup of preinstalled, third-party software and almost universally switched to the 64-bit version of Windows 7, even though many home users will only discern its existence when it refuses to run an older program.

Many of the remaining judgment calls in computing don't require any special expertise, just a buyer's sense of what works: Is this laptop's screen big enough? Is its keyboard uncomfortable? Can I reach the expansion ports easily?

Evolution of mobile devices

Gadgets, however, find themselves on the other end of an evolutionary cycle. The same competitive pressures that have pounded down the costs of processing power and storage have allowed computer-like capabilities to bubble up into mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers and even such living-room gear as HDTVs and Blu-ray players.

That's led to a flowering of possibilities among these digital devices. Your phone can take a picture of a product in a store, then tell you what it sells for online and in other stores nearby; your TV or Blu-ray player can serve as an Internet radio and video store.

But in these rejuvenated markets, nothing seems too settled or understandable.

Look at the booming market for "connected TVs." Nobody expects a TV to run Windows; few people even know what operating system whirs away behind their TV screen. (Mine runs a version of Linux, although the only hint of that is a license agreement in the manual.)

But the software coded into your high-def set or the video device parked on a shelf underneath it can determine where and when you'll watch movies and TVs two years from now. If yours doesn't tune in to the right sites and services, you'll be stuck buying add-on hardware to bridge those gaps.

"What Web-media receiver should I get for my TV?" could become 2011's version of the 1994-vintage query "What CD-ROM drive should I buy for my desktop?"

Long-term prospects

The identity of your mobile device's software is more obvious, but its long-term prospects may be just as obscured. How much money do you want to bet on the relevance - let alone success - a year out of Research In Motion's BlackBerry software, Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 or HP's webOS? Which of these has a shot at spawning a worthy tablet competitor to Apple's iPad?

Even the most obvious successes in the mobile space, Apple's iOS and Google's Android, have risky elements. Worthwhile applications can and do get blocked from the iPhone by Apple's curatorship of the App Store; useful Android features have been deleted or replaced by short-sighted wireless carriers.

With all of these electronic items, you now have the sort of worries once confined to forward-thinking computer users. Will I get next year's version update? Are enough developers writing software for my platform? How long until I get herded into buying the next generation of hardware?

It's hard to know what to make of these trends as you read this story on an old laptop parked on the coffee table, then look up at a new HDTV - already downloading its next operating-system patch - anchoring one wall.

In the short term, it could be easier to predict the future of computing by looking at the recent history of electronic devices.

Consider the most innovative computer this year, Apple's MacBook Air. It mainly departs from earlier models by using only flash memory instead of a mechanical hard drive. But mobile devices standardized on flash storage years ago.

In the long term, though, who knows? It's not the end of history for the home-computer business or the start of it for the electronics industry. But we are seeing endings begin and beginnings end in each area, and we're many software updates from seeing how everything will work out.

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