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Gift guide: Cameras, phones, MP3 players and GPS receivers

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 10:58 AM

Not all gadgets require careful research and parsing of specification sheets. In some branches of the consumer-electronics ecosystem, competition and decreasing costs have turned high-end products into near commodities, with relatively little risk involved in their purchase. (Well, besides dropping the thing on a sidewalk and breaking it the day after you buy it.)

Cameras

Now that just about every phone has a camera, do you need a camera that's not a phone? Yes - for action shots, long exposures, distant shots and indoor photography, among others.

The most important advantage a camera has over a cameraphone is not more megapixels of resolution - a number you can ignore when comparing different cameras - but a feature on most, but not all models called optical image stabilization.

This allows the camera to dampen out vibrations and take clear shots even when the shutter's open for as long as an eighth of a second. Digital image stabilization, in which the camera processes the image to remove evidence of jitter, is cheaper but doesn't work as well.

The next best feature to get is automatic mode selection, in which the camera picks the right settings for a shot automatically (for instance, switching to macro-focus mode when you point it at a subject a few inches away).

You can expect a zoom lens with at least a 4x reach, but try to find a camera with wide-angle reach, too. You'll appreciate that when you don't have to back up as much to get the scene in the frame.

("Ultrazoom" cameras can offer 20x or farther telephoto capabilities, but then you no longer have a device you can fit in your pocket. The same goes for expensive digital SLRs that don't make sense for casual photographers anyway.)

I appreciate physical controls for basic settings - a dial you have to turn to select a photographic mode will always make it obvious which mode you've selected, while a touchscreen interface won't. I also appreciate AA batteries, but too many point-and-shoot cameras now take smaller, proprietary rechargable batteries for me to endorse these models as strongly as I did last year.

Many cameras, even entry-level models, offer high-definition video recording, but you may get less-than-HD results with fast-moving subjects. A Flip video camera, in turn, will make it easier to share videos - but an iPhone beats the Flip on that score.

MP3 players

The iPod is no longer the quasi-automatic choice it has been in prior seasons. The newest version of the iPod shuffle and iPod nano disappointed me, especially the Nano. The iPod touch is a lot better but also more expensive.

On a Mac, where you presumably already have all your music in Apple's iTunes, an iPod will offer the simplest setup.

That's not necessarily so with Windows, and in that case you should also consider Microsoft's Zune HD, with its sleek software interface and HD Radio tuner (that gets you access to some interesting extra, HD-only stations, such as WAMU's bluegrass channel). But it could use a redesign, having gone more than a year without one.

Or you could do what I've done: switch to using my phone as my MP3 player of choice. Given the odds of smartphones continuing to displace MP3 players, it would certainly be a mistake to spend too much money in this category.

GPS receivers

If you have a smartphone - especially an Android device, on which turn-by-turn navigation comes free with Google's own software - you can usually skip the GPS receiver. If you don't, you might as well spend a little extra for a unit with lifetime traffic-data service included. That way, you'll have the same advantage as smartphone users.

But you should allow for the possibility that your GPS unit's service might end at some point. It has happened before.

Another exception to my get-a-smartphone advice is if you need a more specialized GPS unit, such as one optimized for hiking or fishing.

But just as with MP3 players, it would be a mistake to spend too much on one of these things.

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