The lean economy's collision with the holiday season makes these already frightening conditions even scarier, leading us into an era of diminished expectations where we must get used to the idea of giving (and getting) less.
The lean economy’s collision with the holiday season makes these already frightening conditions even scarier, leading us into an era of diminished expectations where we must get used to the idea of giving (and getting) less.
At the same time, you don’t have to give up quality, status or coolness in the gifts you give, even if you may be spending less. With this in mind, here are a handful of suggestions that cost less than competitors, but still have a cachet.Only the truly fortunate will get a full-featured computer this year, so a needed upgrade will have to wait. On the other hand, the world of diminished expectations doesn’t have to be boring.
For those who still have a little money to spend, the new category of netbooks, sub-laptops designed for personal and Internet use, exemplify the idea of living with less. This also contradicts the idea that a computer is somehow inferior if it can’t do all the latest stuff. All it really needs to accomplish to be useful is a fast, clean connection to the Internet. With that, you can forgo features such as the ability to make movies.
Netbooks strip out ancillary features like a CD-ROM drive, but considering the breadth of downloadable, inexpensive applications, you can find software that is capable enough to get the job done.
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Sylvania’s G Netbook Meso ($370) has the best specs — this month. It contains an 80 GB hard drive and is available with either Windows XP or a version of Linux. It is available in four fashionable colors and brings back the days when someone came up to you in a cafe and admired your laptop.
One product that uses its obsolescence as an advantage is the iPod Shuffle. Its personalization potential turns it into a little thing that can mean a lot. It has no screen, which takes away control of what you are hearing. On the other hand, its simplicity is refreshing. And the price has fallen to $50, which is in reach of many gift budgets.
Any Shuffle purchased through the Apple online store can be engraved free (although if you want this as a gift you need to order this now). The second path to personalization is to preload the unit with appropriately personal content. This could be a single new album or a book, or you could spring for a deluxe Bob Dylan, U2 or Stevie Wonder digital box set. This pumps up the price, but you can include as much — or as little — as desired.
The Flip Mino ($159), a USB video camera now in its second iteration, already has upgraded its abilities to high definition. So much for diminished expectations. While the original Flip is still available, the new version points up its shortcomings. The next phase is the Kodak Zi6 ($180), which is about $50 less than the Flip Mino HD ($230) and records directly onto memory cards. So with enough AA batteries and memory cards, your recording potential is endless (the Flip has internal memory and batteries, so you are limited to about two hours between downloads and recharges).
Mini-video cameras lack a decent zoom or an eyepiece, so you will need a good editing program to make the results ready for prime time. These will never gain snob appeal but nevertheless are used by small newspapers that want to present video coverage without having to equip every reporter with an expensive camera.
If a new computer isn’t in the cards this year, there are a few ways to spiff up the old one — even if it won’t change performance. Many frustrated Windows users hoping to get a new Mac for the holidays will appreciate the Apple Keyboard, ($50; $70 wireless) a no-frills device that satisfies Mac envy in a low-budget kind of way. While you still can’t spill coffee without serious damage, the ability of the keys to create a flat surface when pressed makes it a lot easier to clean.
Another way to upgrade the computer experience is with a new mouse, the slickest option this season is the Microsoft Arc Mouse ($60), a folding unit that allows you to grab around the side for a more interactive feel. It’s not cheap by mouse standards, but it has an alluring — and practical — design. The transmitter fits neatly into the USB slot and doesn’t need to be pulled out in transit. It’s designed for a portable, but can also clean up your desk just a little bit.
Printers, once a vital part of every system, have been marginalized, as every essential printer function can be duplicated online. E-mail, electric bill pay and digital photography may soon send the printer the way of the floppy drive and 8-track tape. In the meantime, Hewlett-Packard is selling the Deskjet D2545 for just $44. It prints all colors but is mostly green, as it is made up of recycled plastics and uses ink cartridges made from recycled plastic resins.
This is a good replacement printer for someone who doesn’t need high-quality imaging. And its price puts it in the range of what many of us will be able to spend on gifts this year. Unfortunately, it shares the iPhone’s disadvantage, requiring two new cartridges every 200 pages or so. So it is a compromise — like everything else we will give or receive this year.
Charles Bermant is a frequent contributor to Personal Technology and technology coverage in The Seattle Times.