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    Microsoft flights of fancy and other Christmas 2006 gift guide favourites

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business in Vancouver
    December 5-11, 2006; issue 893
    High Tech Office

    It might seem that the most hyped tech gifts this season aren’t available this holiday season.

    Microsoft’s would-be iPod-killer Zune has been released in the U.S. but not in Canada (and its Windows Vista and Office 2007 software won’t be on shelves until January). Sony’s Playstation 3 game console is officially released but no one seems to have it in stock.

    But no need to despair: there are still lots of tech toys worth putting under the holiday tree.

    Among my favourites:

    Let’s not get lost

    Streets and Trips 2007 Microsoft’s Streets & Trips has long been a nice piece of software, combining road maps of Canada and the U.S. with route and trip planning. The $49 2007 standard edition offers newly updated information, but the $155 Streets & Trips 2007 with GPS Locator package ups the ante, bundling the software with a compact SiRF Star III GPS unit. Plugged into a USB port it works with the software to turn your notebook into a large-screen in-car navigation tool, displaying maps and route information in real time. Searching for “coffee,” “gas,” or “ATM” quickly shows what’s nearby at any point en route.
    Flight Simulator X If you would rather fly without leaving the comfort of home, Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X ($60- Standard, $80- Deluxe) updates this classic airborne simulation with planes and landscapes that are more realistic than ever. This 25th anniversary edition offers more aircraft types and detailed city and landscapes along with new optional missions, making it more like a game, while keeping the realism that has long made it a favourite with both real and wannabe pilots alike. Flight Sim players can now interact with others worldwide, from their virtual cockpits. (Note: you’ll need a hefty free 15 GB of drive space for this one).

    It’s not an iPod, but that’s OK

    Creative Zen V Creative’s Zen V and Zen V Plus MP3 players compete with Apple’s popular iPod Nano products, but arguably offer more features in a cuter (and scratch-resistant) package at a better price. With one-gigabyte, two-gigabyte and four-gigabyte durable flash-memory versions, (prices ranging from $110 to $220) all models include a bright colour display for storing and showing photos and include an FM radio receiver and voice and line-in recording capabilities. The V Plus models, for a modest $10 to $20 premium, add video playback capabilities. Weighing a svelte 44 grams, the curvaceous body fits neatly into jean coin pockets.
    Creative Zen Aurvana

    Creative’s Zen Aurvana light-weight in-ear earphones ($150) come with two sets of three different sized rubber inserts ensuring comfortable fit for most ears, and offer good sound quality while blocking out much background noise. Both high-end and bass sounds are noticeably better than the headsets bundled with music players. They come with a nice travel case, an airplane adapter and a tool to remove ear-grunge. And, yes, they work fine with music players from other manufacturers.

    On the phone

    GE Skype phone Skype is perhaps the most popular way to use the Internet to reduce long-distance phone charges. But Skype users are typically forced to make their calls from their computer. GE’s DIC 6.0 phone leads a double life, however. Plugged into a telephone socket, it’s a standard wireless phone. But the cradle also sports a USB connector: plug it into a computer with an Internet connection and it becomes a Skype handset, able to make your Internet-based calls simple and comfortable. $200 for a two-handset package (the phone supports up to six handsets from a single base system, using only one phone jack).
    LG 8500 Chocolate LG’s LG8500 Chocolate mobile phone is about the size and shape of a chocolate bar and includes a 1.3 megapixel camera with digital zoom and night mode, mobile music and video players, Bluetooth connectivity, MicroSD memory card storage, a pull-down glowing keyboard and high-speed EVDO networking. Instant messaging supports the popular MSN and Yahoo services. $130 with a three-year Telus plan ($330 with no plan).
    LG Migo kid-phone And the LG1000 Migo is a cellphone that parents may want to give to a child who’s not quite ready for a full-fledged phone. Cute in a bulbous sort of way, Migo lacks a full phone keypad. Instead there are a handful of programmable buttons, allowing the child to call just a few parent-approved numbers along with an emergency button. (Mom and Dad can call it, however, to stay in touch with their child wherever he or she may be). Free with a Telus plan ($100 with no plan).

    Prints when you want them

    I’d bet that most High Tech Office column readers already have digital cameras, perhaps from previous holiday seasons. And they’re probably going to get used taking photos this holiday season. One of everyone’s favourite features of digital cameras is the ability to look at the photos right away. But getting quality prints doesn’t require a trip to the photo finisher.

    HP Photosmart A716 HP’s new lineup of photo printers, for instance, is faster than ever at getting those prints into eager hands. And while they can be used for printing digital images stored on your computer, you can also connect many models of digital cameras or insert your camera’s memory card.

    I especially like the new Photosmart A716 Compact Photo Printer ($199), which boasts a one-touch PhotoFix button to remove red-eye and sharpen blurry shots and includes four gigabytes of memory to store thousands of photos. With one of these, you can take digital photos of your holidays, and have 4x6-inch glossy printouts just moments later, without having to go out in the rain.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan