Thoughts on giving technology for Christmas

22 Dec

December 22, 2008

By Geoff Meeker

With so many cool gadgets on the market, the temptation is always there to buy the latest technology for your loved one.

However, you have to make such purchases with care, especially if you know very little about the devices on your shopping list. Don’t assume that your loved one wants something just because it’s ‘the latest thing.’ There are so many gizmos and gadgets out there – most requiring some degree of learning curve – that people have become more discriminating about what they will use and what gets left on the shelf.

In other words, the device must add in some way to people’s quality of life, in order for them to adopt and use it. With that in mind, I have offered some suggestions on what to consider, and perhaps what to avoid, for Christmas gifting.

USB turntable

Do you have a computer-literate baby boomer on your list, who happens to have a basement fill of vinyl albums? Then consider the ION USB turntable. I have written twice about this subject over the last two years, each time prompting loads of questions and comments from readers, so I know this component strikes a chord with people.

The ION USB turntable plugs into your receiver, as usual, but it also connects directly to your computer. You can convert songs to mp3 files in real time, as records are playing. The software is easy to load and extremely easy to use.  And since writing the last review, I’ve learned that software is everything in a device like this. One reader told me he had purchased an ION some time ago with a different brand of conversion software, which never worked for him, rendering the entire device useless. Check the box contents carefully if you consider buying this for someone, and don’t buy if the EZ Audio Converter software isn’t included.

Blu-Ray DVD player

Blue-Ray is now the only high definition – or hi-def – DVD format out there, but I wouldn’t rush out and buy it, unless your giftee is a TV buff who has specifically requested it. The image quality is breathtaking, but here’s the thing: you need a large-screen TV – 40” or more – to really appreciate it.  On smaller screens, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference.

There’s also been talk that Blu-Ray may be in trouble, despite winning the format war earlier this year. Apparently, sales of Blu-Ray players have been slow, which means DVD sales and rentals have also been lagging. Some observers suggest that the format may fizzle. In my view, consumers have decided it’s easier to watch hi-def movies on cable or satellite, where they can actually record programming on their PVR and watch it later.

Nintendo Wii

The Nintendo Wii is great for the obvious audience – children – but keep it in mind for anyone who is looking for a fun way to exercise at home (it’s the only game console  popular with seniors). The controllers require physical movement of the arms – indeed, the entire upper body – and if you add the Wii Fit peripheral with exercise games, you’ve got a home workout studio. I have tried it, and the on-screen action, along with the text prompts, were fun and possibly even addictive.

The Wii is wonderful for younger children, but if you’re buying a game console for ages12 and up, think twice. My children, aged 14 and 16, have been playing the Wii less and less, as their interests graduate to the more typical ‘action’ games that dominate PS3 and Xbox.

Handheld devices

They are neat looking gadgets, but you should not buy a smartphone or PDA for a loved one unless you’ve discussed the matter with them first. First of all, you can get many features in such a device, including mp3 player, camera, web browser, email, calendar, GPS, cell phone, bottle opener, and more, so you really need to tailor the purchase to what your loved one wants.

Secondly, smartphones can have high monthly operating costs, and you don’t want to saddle your loved ones with such an obligation without some prior consultation. As well, you can get a nice cell phone for free or a handheld for much less if you sign a contract with the phone service provider – something you have to do anyway – which is another reason to involve the giftee in the decision. Bottom line: it can be a nice gift, just don’t try to make it a surprise!

iPod Touch

Young people who like – but don’t need – mobile Internet will appreciate the iPod Touch. It’s an mp3 player, available in eight, 16 and 32 GB models, that looks and works like the nifty Apple iPhone (without the phone). More importantly, it locates and connects automatically to wireless Internet connections wherever you roam. In other words, you mooch off available signals and get free Internet on the go. This is great for people on a budget (I am thinking university students here) who don’t mind on-again, off-again Internet. Coupled with a basic cell phone, this is pretty much all many of us really need. Price range is $230 to $400, for eight to 32 GB models, respectively.

As a general rule, the less you know about a new technological device, the more cautious you should be in buying it as a gift. Try sitting down with your giftee and innocently talking about their likes, dislikes and ‘wants’. This is the best kind of research you can undertake.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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