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A stockingful of options

Deciding on a computer these days doesn't require special expertise, just a sense of what works for the buyer. Electronic gadgets, however, are another story. Santa's hand holding a Christmas stocking --- Image by © Vstock LLC/Tetra Images/Corbis (photo illustration by Dwuan June)
Deciding on a computer these days doesn't require special expertise, just a sense of what works for the buyer. Electronic gadgets, however, are another story. Santa's hand holding a Christmas stocking --- Image by © Vstock LLC/Tetra Images/Corbis (photo illustration by Dwuan June)
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Sunday, November 28, 2010

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 consumers' 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 discern its existence only 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?


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