Connected Home 2007 Holiday Buying Guide, Part 2

Have Yourself a Green Christmas!
Don't get me wrong: There's nothing like some snow to usher in the holidays! In this case, the word green is used to denote energy savings, not a lack of the white stuff. Conserving energy and reducing global warming is all the rage these days, but regardless of your feelings about the validity of that little theory, I think we can all agree that reducing our impact on the environment is the right thing to do. Now you can really give the gift of green. Here are just a few ideas.

Carbon Offsets
Still sometimes derided as a scam, carbon offsets are actually used to offset an individual's carbon footprint (e.g., emissions from airplane flights, car rides, home energy, and other activities) by funding clean energy projects or growing trees. For example, Green Mountain Energy's BeGreenNow project offers various green gifts that include the planting of a tree. And at TerraPass and other places, you can buy Carbon Offsets, gift certificates, and other green gifts.

Kill-A-Watt EZ
Curious how much electricity your sleeping electronics devices are wasting each day? Check out the Kill-A-Watt EZ ($24.99), a small device that sits between your devices and your power plug, providing a readout of the volts, amps, watts, and other measurements.

Smart Strip
Once you're ready to actually reduce consumption, take a look at the Smart Strip ($32.95), a new kind of power strip and surge protector that automatically turns off any PC-connected peripherals when they're not in use. The Smart Strip is interesting because it can detect when your computer is turned off and then turn off any connected peripherals, thus eliminating any power drain.

DIY Christmas
Heading out to your local Best Buy to pick up yet another gift certificate is certainly an option, especially for those especially difficult-to-buy-for members of your inner circle, but here's a throwback idea that might strike a different chord: Try making a few presents this year. No, I'm not talking about breaking out the construction paper and safety scissors. This is Connected Home, after all!

No, I'm talking photo gifts: custom-designed mugs, calendars, and photo books. There’s also magnets, t-shirts, mouse pads, coasters, and poster-sized prints to consider. The possibilities, as they say, are endless. What's amazing about this kind of gift is how personal it can be, and although you have many options in this arena, I’d like to point out one special option that might have escaped your attention: personalized postage stamps. Services such as let you buy sheets of US postage stamps, complete with your favorite family photo, for just $15.99 and up, depending on the number of stamps and type of postage. If there's a better tech gift out there for the grandparents, I haven't seen it yet.

Video Games
To say that everything has changed in the video game world since last year is an understatement of epic proportions. Last year, Microsoft's Xbox 360 ruled the roost, but limited availability of the Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation 3 suggested that both of the newer consoles would be hugely popular in 2007. That's proven only half-true: The Wii has surged ahead of all comers despite a complete absence of technical prowess, and the PlayStation 3 has withered in last place.

Of course, there are portable video game systems to consider, and previous-generation systems such as the PlayStation 2 continue to rack up enormous sales. Here are some systems, accessories, and game titles to consider.

Microsoft Xbox 360
What It Is: Microsoft's next-generation video game system
Pros: Widest range of games; best online service
Cons: Loud, older units were very buggy
Why You Want It: Arguably the most competent system, the Xbox 360 brings it all together

It's been a tough year for Microsoft's HD video game console: A slew of reliability problems caused a record number of failed consoles in early-to-mid 2007, causing Microsoft to institute a $1 billion warranty hit but, curiously, no actual recall. Now, the company is basically just fixing any broken Xbox 360s with no questions asked, and it's made changes so that the versions of the console now being sold are more reliable.

Microsoft offers three versions of the console. The entry-level model is the Xbox 360 Arcade ($279), which features a wireless controller, five Xbox Live Arcade games, and a 512MB Memory Unit (MU) card instead of a hard drive. The next model up, the Xbox 360 ($349), adds a 20GB hard drive and headset but drops the five games and MU. The top-of-the-line Xbox 360 Elite ($449) features all-black components and a 120GB hard drive. Also, for a limited time, you can get the Xbox 360 Halo 3 Special Edition ($399), which comes in special Halo-themed green-and-gold components but is otherwise virtually identical to the standard Xbox 360, with a 20GB hard drive.

If you think you're going to take advantage of Xbox 360's digital media features—Microsoft does offer a number of SD and HD movies and TV shows for sale via Xbox Live—you might want to go with a hard drive-equipped console and skip the Xbox 360 Arcade. But you can always upgrade later, too: Microsoft sells two Xbox 360 hard drives, one with 20GB of storage and one with 120GB, and of course there are a number of useful add-ons that make great gifts, including wireless hand controllers ($19.99), wireless headsets ($14.99), Memory Units ($14.99 to $29.99), custom faceplates ($19.99), and much more. You can also find Xbox 360 Live 12 Month Gold Cards ($49.99) and Xbox 360 Microsoft Points cards in allotments of 1600 ($19.99) and 4000 ($49.99) points, which recipients can use to buy games, TV shows, movies, and other content on Xbox Live. If you're looking for connectivity options, check out the Xbox 360 Messenger Kit ($29.99), which adds a QWERTY keyboard to your Xbox 360 controller and the Xbox 360 Wireless Network Adapter ($99.99). And don't forget the Xbox 360 HD DVD Drive ($179.99), which lets you watch 1080p HD DVD movies via Microsoft's console.

Games for the Xbox 360 tend toward violent, online-oriented multiplayer shooters, but thanks to its rich game title library—more than 300 games are currently available, including another 300 compatible games from the original Xbox—you'll be able to find something for virtually any gamer. Some of this year's biggest games include Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (shooter), Halo 3 (shooter), Assassin's Creed (action/adventure), Mass Effect (role-playing strategy), BioShock (shooter), The Orange Box (shooter), Guitar Hero III (interactive music), Gears of War (shooter), Need for Speed Prostreet (racing), and Dance Dance Revolution Universe 2 (interactive music). Looking for something on the more casual side? Check out Scene It? Lights, Camera, Action, which includes a Wii-like Big Button Pad, or Tetris Evolution. Most Xbox 360 titles are $59.99 when new, but budget games can be had for as little as $19.99.

Sony PlayStation 3
What It Is: The successor to the best-selling video game system from the previous generation
Pros: Beefiest hardware; PlayStation 2 compatibility (80GB version only); built-in Blu-ray
Cons: Most expensive system; weakest game title lineup; lackluster online service
Why You Want It: Don't count out the PlayStation 3 yet: One day, there will be games on the PlayStation 3 that surpass the best the Xbox 360 has to offer

Microsoft's console might have suffered through some serious reliability problems in 2007, but it still managed to outsell the PlayStation 3 by a wide margin, which suggests that Sony's latest console isn't doing much more than bringing up the rear. But a "price cut" in October—really, just a rejiggering of the hardware—improved things somewhat. Though the PlayStation 3 still trails the Wii and Xbox 360 by a wide margin, its sales are improving dramatically. And that's a good sign for anyone who cares to invest in this system.

There are currently two PlayStation 3 models, neither of which were available when the console first launched a year earlier: the PlayStation 3 40GB ($399) and PlayStation 3 80GB ($499). The differences between the consoles go much deeper than the relative storage capacities, however: The low-end model lacks the multi-format media reader that graces the high-end version, and features two USB ports instead of three. But the biggest difference is that the 40GB console isn't backward-compatible with previous-generation PlayStation 2 games. So, if that compatibility is important to you, skip the low-end version.

Both PlayStation 3 consoles include an integrated Blu-ray drive and support all available HD formats. Like the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3 can upconvert standard DVD movies as well, although the Xbox 360 appears to do a better job in my tests. The PlayStation 3 sports only a very basic online service and rudimentary PC media-sharing features.

A number of desirable PlayStation 3 add-ons are available: the Sony Sixaxis wireless controller ($49.99) and Sony Blu-ray Disc Remote ($24.99), for example, the latter of which is particularly important for anyone hoping to utilize the PlayStation 3 Blu-ray capabilities.

Some of the highest-rated PlayStation 3 game titles include Unreal Tournament 3 (shooter), Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (shooter), Assassin's Creed (action/adventure), Time Crisis 4 (shooter, includes "Guncon 3" gun controller), Heavenly Sword (hack and slash), The Orange Box (shooter), Guitar Hero III (interactive music), Medal of Honor Airborne (shooter), Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (role playing), and Resistance: Fall Of Man (shooter). Looking for something a little more casual? Get a Nintendo product, Nancy!

New PlayStation 3 games generally cost $59.99 each.

Nintendo Wii
What It Is: Cute and cuddly video game system with innovative controller system
Pros: Fun for parties; a blast for casual gamers; popularity ensures a long life cycle
Cons: Previous-generation graphics; limited availability; fun factor wears off quickly; can't play DVD movies
Why You Want It: Heck, everyone wants a Wii, although I have trouble figuring out why

I've never understood the Wii's appeal, and I find the admittedly innovative motion-sensitive controller system to be a one-trick pony that ceases to be fun after the first couple of hours of play. Clearly, I'm alone in that opinion: As I write this, the Wii is completely sold out and will continue to be so through the holidays, so your biggest concern with this console is going to be how you're going to get one. Here are a few strategies:

1. Stalk the UPS driver and learn when he's going to show up at stores in your area.
2. Order a high-priced bundle from or another electronics dealer. These will include the Wii console and a number of games and accessories that you might or might not want.
3. Pay extra for a console via eBay or other questionable online retailer and hope for the best. Note that many people have been ripped off taking this route.
4. Wait until next year.

If you do find a Wii, take heart, as there's only one standalone version of the console ($250), which includes a single Wii controller, one Nunchuk controller, the console itself, and a game sampler disk. Most Wii owners could benefit from an extra Wii Remote Controller ($29.99), Wii Nunchuk Controller ($19.99), or Wii Classic Controller ($19.99), the latter of which works well with Nintendo's downloadable classic games. The Wii Zapper with Link's Crossbow Training ($19.99) is an intriguing gun controller.

As you might expect, there are a number of fun and innovative Wii games available. Some highly rated examples include Super Mario Galaxy (3D platformer), Wii Play (casual sports), Guitar Hero III (interactive music), High School Musical (interactive music), Game Party (casual games), Dance Dance Revolution (interactive music), and Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (role playing). New Wii games are typically $49.99, although some casual games can be had for as little as $19.99.

Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP)
What It Is: Portable gaming system for hardcore and traditional gamers
Pros: Graphics close to console-quality; excellent game library; large widescreen display; PlayStation 3 integration; digital media features
Cons: Not as widely supported as Nintendo DS; lack of hard drive storage
Why You Want It: If you're a console gamer looking for fun on the go, this is your system

The PSP gets my nod for most capable portable video game system. It features a gorgeous 4.3" widescreen display, the ability to play digital music, video, and photo slideshows, and UMD compatibility, for access to a limited but interesting library of Hollywood movies. If you're familiar with Sony's consoles, you'll feel right at home with the PSP.

There are a number of ways to purchase the PSP, which was recently redesigned to be smaller, lighter, and more reliable, and it now includes TV-out for the first time. A standalone PSP ($149.99) includes just the device, a battery, and an AC adapter. You can also choose from two PSP packs: The PSP Daxter Entertainment Pack ($199.99) features an Ice Silver version of the device, a 1GB Memory Stick Pro memory card, a Family Guy UMD movie, and the hit game Daxter. The PSP Star Wars Battlefront Renegade Squadron Entertainment Pack ($199.99) features a ceramic-white version of the device with a silkscreen Darth Vader logo and the game Star Wars Battlefront: Renegade Squadron.

To take advantage of the PSP's digital media functionality, snag a copy of Sony PSP Media Manager ($24.99), PSP 2000 Composite AV Cable ($19.99), or PSP 2000 Component AV Cable ($19.99). Because this is a portable system, there are a number of useful add-ons, including various additional batteries ($19.99 to $39.99), USB connectivity cables ($5.99 to $19.99), cases ($5.99 to $24.99), headphones ($14.99 to $29.99), and other assorted do-dads. Be sure to buy add-ons that are compatible with the PSP in question, as there are two basic versions of the device, one that is new to 2007 (PSP-2000) and the older model (PSP-1000).

The PSP has an extensive game catalog, and of course there are also hundreds of UMD-based movies and TV shows available. Some of the higher-rated games this season include Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions (role playing/strategy), Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (hack and slash), Grand Theft Auto Liberty City Stories (violent free play), Daxter (3D platformer), The Simpsons Game (3D platformer), Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters (3D platformer), Medal of Honor: Heroes (shooter), and Silent Hill Origins (horror shooter).

PSP games typically cost $14.99 to $39.99.

Nintendo DS Lite
What It Is: Portable gaming system for traditional and casual gamers
Pros: Wide variety of software titles; innovative two-screen design
Cons: Lacks sophisticated games; not for hardcore gamers
Why You Want It: If you're into more casual gaming pursuits, you can't beat the DS

As with the Nintendo Wii, the DS dominates its market not with technical prowess but rather with a sense of fun and innovation. Recently overhauled as the DS Lite, Nintendo's portable video game system features a clamshell design with two screens (one a touchscreen), a smaller and lighter form factor than its predecessor, a stylus, Wi-Fi connectivity, and backward compatibility with GameBoy Advance titles.

This year, the DS Lite is available in a startling range of options. There are Gold (Limited Edition), Crimson & Black, Coral Pink, Onyx Black, Metallic Rose (Limited Edition), and Polar White versions of the device ($129.99), though availability will vary depending on your location. Nintendo also sells various bundles that include whatever version of the device and a game.

A wide range of accessories are available, including travel kits ($39.99 to $59.99), cases ($5.99 to $29.99), replacement batteries ($14.99), screen protectors ($4.99 to $9.99), stylii ($4.99), AC adapters ($14.99), and more.

What really differentiates the DS from the PSP is the game selection: Although you’ll find a wide variety of traditional games on the DS, there's an amazing number of non-traditional titles that are both innovative and fun. These include such titles as Brain Age and Brain Age 2 (brain exercises), Flash Focus (vision training), Nintendogs (various versions, virtual dog raising), and My Word Coach (vocabulary), among many others. If you're looking for more traditional video games, consider The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (role playing), New Super Mario Bros. (3D platformer), Mario Party DS (casual games), or Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (shooter). But the sheer number of kid-friendly and educational titles could put the DS over the top for any parent concerned that video games are typically too violent. Look around: You'll be amazed by what's available on the DS now.

DS games run from $19.99 to $29.99.

Previous-Generation Video Game Systems
With all the emphasis on next-generation video games such as the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii, one fact gets lost: Previous-generation video game systems such as the PlayStation 2 and Xbox continue to do big business. In fact, the PlayStation 2 is still the best-selling video game system on Earth, and even the original Xbox continues to outsell the PlayStation 3.

Of these systems, only the PlayStation 2 ($129.99) is still viable as a new gift, and it's available in black and silver versions, having been remodeled into a newer, slimmer form factor earlier this year. Some bundles are available too, including the ceramic-white PlayStation 2 SingStar Bundle ($149.99).

The most highly rated PlayStation 2 games will seem familiar, because it reads like a who's-who list of the top-rated games for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3: Guitar Hero III, Madden NFL 08, Lego Star Wars II The Simpsons, and High School Musical are all represented. Best of all, PlayStation 2 games tend to cost less than games for other systems: You'll typically pay $19.99 to $49.99 for new PlayStation 2 titles.

PC Gaming
Finally, let's not forget PC games. Although a $3000 gaming rig is an unlikely gift (unless you're rich enough to be taken by those Lexus Christmas ads), there are plenty of great gifts for the PC gamers on your list. There are a variety of great game controllers out there, including Microsoft's Xbox 360 Wireless Controller for Windows ($49.99), which brings the console game-play experience to the PC and the Xbox 360 Wireless Gaming Receiver for Windows ($19.99), the latter of which makes any Xbox 360 peripheral PC-compatible. Gamers will also appreciate gamer-oriented keyboards, such as the Razer Tarantula ($99.99), and mouse devices, such as the Razer DeathAdder 3G ($59.99). Don't forget the headsets, speaker systems, sound cards, and graphics cards, either: DirectX 10.1 support is required for 2008 and beyond.

As for games, you can talk up console gaming all you want, but the best selection is still on the PC, and this year, the list of award-winning games is long and deep. Some of my favorites include Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (shooter), The Orange Box (shooter), Crysis (shooter), Unreal Tournament III (shooter), and BioShock (shooter). But if you're looking for something a little different, there's always World of Warcraft (online role playing), The Sims 2 (various versions; God games), or Sid Meier's Civilization IV (God game).

Portable Music and Video
Apple's iPod has been at the top of many people's wish lists for several years now, and although that's still true this year, the company finally has some serious competition. Here are some compelling portable audio and video devices that should please virtually anybody, in a variety of form factors and price points.

Apple iPod nano
What It Is: Flash-based MP3 player with 4GB or 8GB of memory
Pros: Highly portable; multiple colors
Cons: Screen too small for serious video viewing
Why You Want It: It's the best iPod nano yet and still a fashion statement

The iPod nano ($149.99 to $199.99) is available in two versions, a 4GB model that comes only in gunmetal gray and an 8GB version that comes in gray, blue, green, black, or red. New this year is video and game support as well as a new UI that includes the cool CoverFlow navigation.

Microsoft Zune 4/8
What It Is: Flash-based MP3 player with 4GB or 8GB of memory
Pros: Smaller and lighter than the iPod nano
Cons: Not compatible with iTunes Store content
Why You Want It: You're tired of Apple but want something high quality

Microsoft's iPod nano killer comes in two models as well, although there are fewer color options: You can get 4GB or 8GB of storage, and each is available in pink, red, black, or green. The Zune 4 ($149.99) and Zune 8 ($199.99) can also be purchased through Zune Essentials with detailed laser-engraved artwork, which makes for an interesting gift.

SanDisk Sansa View
What It Is: Flash-based MP3 player with 8GB or 16GB of memory
Pros: Low prices; nice screens; memory-expansion capabilities
Cons: Not compatible with iTunes Store content
Why You Want It: If you're looking for MP3/WMA compatibility and want to save some money, SanDisk is the way to go

SanDisk makes a wide range of portable media players in a variety of form factors and price ranges, but the Sansa View is the most intriguing: Available in 8GB ($149.99) and 16GB ($199.99) variants that cost as much as the 4GB and 8GB iPod nano, respectively, the Sansa View supports full-motion video, includes a built-in FM radio, and has better battery life than the iPod or the Zune.

Apple iPod touch
What It Is: Flash-based MP3 player with large touch screen and 8GB or 16GB of memory
Pros: Gorgeous high-resolution screen; touch-enabled UI
Cons: Expensive; not enough storage for a video player
Why You Want It: It's the portable status symbol of 2007

Think of the iPod touch as an iPhone without the phone functionality, and you'll be pretty close to the mark: It's thinner and lighter than the iPhone, too. The iPod touch comes in 8GB ($299) and 16GB ($399) versions, each of which features a huge screen, Wi-Fi capabilities, access to the iTunes Mobile Store, and a Web browser.

Microsoft Zune 80
What It Is: Hard drive-based MP3 player with 80GB of storage
Pros: Large screen; large capacity
Cons: Not compatible with iTunes Store content; screen is relatively low-resolution
Why You Want It: It's a much better player than the comparable iPod classic, offers much more storage than the iPod touch

With Apple turning toward touch-capable devices, it's interesting that Microsoft would create a better iPod than the iPod classic. But that's what the Zune 80 ($249.99) is: a large capacity traditional MP3 player but with a large, high quality screen that blows away what's available in the iPod classic and comes pretty darned close to what you get with the iPod touch. If you value capacity over screen size, the Zune 80 is a great choice.

Apple iPhone
What It Is: A smart phone with iPod capabilities, mobile Internet functionality, a touch-screen UI, and 8GB of storage
Pros: Coolest smart phone on the market; touch-enabled UI; integrated Internet features
Cons: Dog-slow wireless network; extremely expensive; requires two-year service agreement; not expandable
Why You Want It: Still a compelling choice, the iPhone is like the professional version of the iPod touch, with phone functionality and native email support

Apple's smart phone-like communications device is no longer the darling of the tech media, but it's still a compelling all-in-one solution with phone, iPod, and Internet functionality. The iPhone ($399 plus a two-year service contract at $70 or more per month after fees and taxes) is expensive and is saddled with AT&T's lousy EDGE network. But it's also a leading-edge device that will be opened up next year to support third-party applications.

Archos 605 Wi-Fi
What It Is: Competent portable video player with expansive screen and 30GB-160GB of storage
Pros: Among the largest of screens in the portable media player market
Cons: Can be expensive; best when used solely for video
Why You Want It: If portable video is all you care about, this is the way to go

Looking for a pure video device? Look no further than the Archos 605 ($299 to $399), which is available in several versions—with 30GB, 80GB, and 160GB of storage, respectively—all of which include integrated Wi-Fi capabilities. The big draw on the Archos is its screen, a 4.3" wonder with 800 x 480 resolution. It's one of the nicest pure-video devices on the market, and it's not much more expensive than lower-capacity iPods.

More Music
There's so much more, of course. Users of iPods, Zunes, and other devices need headphones, chargers, cases, and other accessories. There are speakers, headsets, power adapters, and screen covers. Apple fans will want to check out Apple Gift Cards ($25 to $2500) and iTunes Gift Cards ($10 to $100). And Zune fans will appreciate a Zune Marketplace Music Card ($15 to $50).

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