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    Strike these tech toys off your shopping list

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Business in Vancouver December 6- 12, 2005 High Tech Office column

    We're deep in the season of buying and gift-giving, deluged by a combination of full-colour ads and guilt. And a lot of friends and family members of all ages have tech toys on the wish list. This week, let's look at some things to avoid.

    Digital cameras: As digital cameras have become a commodity item, they've become increasingly capable and easy to use at the middle price ranges.

    A new low end has emerged, with attractive prices ranging from about $79 to $149. These offer low pixel counts and often lack an optical zoom and even a flash.

    Take a pass. If you want to save money, many retailers mark down older stock. Last year's (or even this year's) mid-range model at a lower price offers far better value than a newer bottom-of-the-line model. (Check reviews at Vancouver's site prior to purchase).

    MP3 players: Only a young child is going to happy for long with a cute but low-capacity (under 512 MB) music player. Even the 512 MB to 1 GB models will prove frustrating for anyone with more than a few CDs in their collection.

    High-end players now feature colour screens and may boast the ability to display video.

    Note, however, that getting movies onto the little players can be at best time-consuming and at worst, a major challenge.

    Wireless networking gear: While last year's mid-range digital camera at a good price may be a good buy, you probably should take a pass on last year's wireless networking adapters and base stations - at least the ones labelled 802.11b.

    They're OK for run-of-the-mill Web surfing, but they won't be able to handle the demands of increasingly popular online video. The faster and more secure 802.11g systems are today's standard.

    Many manufacturers are advertising even faster wireless connection speeds, but in many cases compatibility is limited, at least for the advertised top performance.

    Desktop computers: Again, some incredibly attractive prices, and again, you probably don't want them.

    Read the fine print: only 256 MB RAM? You'll regret having less than 512 MB. CD-ROM drive only? You'll regret not being able to (at least) read DVDs and burn CDs.

    Budget graphics and sound will detract from game, multimedia and online performance. Much better systems are available for only a little bit more.

    Laptop computers: Low-end laptops often have the same specifications as low-end desktops (though costing a few hundred dollars more) and suffer from the same limitations.

    You may decide that the benefits of portability make it worthwhile, however, especially if it's a second system. If it's your only computer, however, budget a bit more and get a mid-range system; these have become increasingly affordable in the past year.

    Storage: Packs of floppy diskettes used to make a useful stocking stuffer. No more. Better would be a pack of CD-R discs, which are almost universally compatible.

    Writable DVD discs, while a huge bargain, can be problematic. Some systems can only write to +R discs; others only use -R discs (newer units can use either) while many users can't burn DVD discs at all.

    Avoid RW (rewritable) CD or DVD discs unless someone has specifically requested them. They cost more and are less compatible.

    Thumb drives, flash memory drives that fit onto a keychain and plug into a USB port, are available in a variety of prices and capacities and can make a nice stocking-stuffer; models with USB2 offer better performance (at least when connected to a newer, USB2-capable computer), which is especially worthwhile for the larger-capacity drives.

    Next week's column will have my annual gift guide: some of the things I would recommend (budget permitting).

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