Gadgets that beep and glow are perennial gift-giving favorites -- and potential gift-giving disasters. Will the new hardware provoke squeals of delight when it's unwrapped? Or will you hear "You shouldn't have!" when the recipient realizes it's incompatible, too hard to use or too slow?
The difference is usually in the details -- the inscrutable, hard-to-memorize particulars that you probably won't have explained to your satisfaction if you must ask in the store. From consumer electronics to computers, there's a lot to remember, and I have only 950 words today. So here we go:
TVs are hard to fit under a tree, let alone disguise with wrapping, but, well, who doesn't like TV? Hence this section's cover story, which I encourage you to read if you're shopping. My own advice: Buy the cheapest analog set available, but wait if you're interested in a digital high-definition set. Too many aspects of digital TV remain unsettled, such as the tuners to pull in over-the-air signals (rarely built into HDTVs), the digital connectors to wire them to future video gear (also largely absent), copy-prevention provisions and the digital-cable receivers that might show up in new HDTVs sometime next year.
DVD players, however, are as safe a video purchase as you'll find. A model with S-Video and component video outputs will offer the best picture any analog TV can deliver. Get progressive-scan capability if a digital set is anywhere in your future. MP3 playback is useful if your computer has a CD-RW drive to make MP3 CDs, but SACD or DVD-Audio compatibility is a dubious investment for non-audiophiles.
If you're eager to prune the collection of remotes on your coffee table, a DVD changer can replace your CD changer; a DVD/VCR combo can do the same for an old VCR. A home-theater-in-a-box system will radically simplify things by combining DVD, FM/AM tuner and receiver in one unit, with a matching set of surround-sound speakers in the price.
DVD recorders are now available for under $800 but are mired in a pointless format war. Get a DVD+RW recorder; DVD-RAM is incompatible with nearly all players.
Personal video recorders, such as TiVo and ReplayTV models, are the finest TV-recording technology yet and start at just $300, but nearly all come with monthly fees for their on-screen programming guides. None offers any convenient way to share recordings but videotape. I love the concept but don't like the way it's been implemented so far.
Among video-game consoles, a PlayStation 2 offers the biggest selection of games and greater all-around utility -- it plays DVDs without extra hardware. Many buyers, however, want a console to play particular titles. Among recent hits, Metroid Prime, Super Mario Sunshine and Star Fox Adventures are available only for the Nintendo GameCube; Grand Theft Auto Vice City, Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec and Ratchet and Clank are PlayStation 2 exclusives; Halo, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell and Unreal Championship are Microsoft Xbox-only.
MP3 players are approaching commodity pricing, but the cheapest kind remains the MP3-compatible portable CD player -- provided your computer has a CD burner. If you get a flash memory-based player, 128 megabytes will ensure two hours of listening. Higher-capacity players use a hard drive but take too long to load without a USB 2.0 or FireWire port (if your current PC doesn't have either connector, your next one will). Yes, the Apple iPod is the coolest of them all, but it's also the priciest one, dollar for gigabyte.
If you're looking for a digital camera, decide if you take photos for fun or as a hobby. If you've only ordered 8-by-10 prints once or twice, then a camera with 2 megapixels of resolution should be fine. (Beware of low-end digicams without a flash.) If your own blowups hang on your walls and you know what terms like "aperture priority" mean, get a 3- or 4-megapixel model with at least 3x optical, not digital, zoom.
Digicams use one of five incompatible storage cards -- CompactFlash, Memory Stick, SmartMedia, SD or xD. CompactFlash offers the highest capacities at some of the lowest prices, while tiny SD Cards cost a little more but also offer high capacity and can be shared with many handheld organizers, MP3 players and even cell phones.
Of the others, SmartMedia is on its way out, Memory Sticks stop at 128 megabytes and largely limit you to Sony hardware, and new xD cards offer nothing special compared with the competition and don't work in most cameras or card readers.
If a friend already has a digicam, here are two cheap gift ideas: Find out what kind of memory that camera uses, then get a 128-megabyte card or a USB card reader to simplify copying photos to a computer.
Among handheld organizers, Palm's $99 Zire is so stripped down it's emaciated, but it will handle the basics (it's equivalent to a three-year-old Palm V, which is still enough handheld for many people). If you want a color screen, Sony's Clie SJ30, with its high-resolution display, is a good deal at $250. If you prefer a hybrid Palm and cell phone, Handspring's Treo communicators are the best option -- but they require Sprint PCS or T-Mobile.
Among Pocket PC models, Dell's Axim X5 at $199 (after mail-in rebate) is a great buy but often awkward to use. You have to want your handheld to be a miniature version of Windows, not just a replacement for paper, to get the most out of a Pocket PC device.
Looking for a computer? See my Nov. 24. column (www.washingtonpost.com/ffwd).
Still confused? Books, CDs and bottles of wine also make excellent gifts.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.