Tech Toys 2006, Part 3: Digital Photos and Video

Many feel that digital technologies tend to isolate people from the world around them, but that's decidedly not true of digital photography and video, which are most often used to store our most precious personal memories. In this part of our annual holiday shopping guide, I examine the products that can help you and your loved ones get the most from these highly personal technologies.

Digital Photography
In 2006, digital photography came into its own, dominating all facets of the photography market, from low-end point-and-click cameras to the high-end SLR models that professionals favor. Finally, we're standing on the edge of an era in which film will be considered a distant memory.

Digital Cameras
When you're seeking a digital camera, it's important to consider a few technical specifications, but overall quality is often based less on specs and more on personal experience, so be sure to shop around. These days, point-and-click cameras are so inexpensive that you don't necessarily have to assume you'll be using a particular device for years in the future. Considering the rapid increases in technical specs and quality, you might want to buy only for the short term and plan to upgrade in a few years.

That said, you have some minimums to consider. The most obvious concerns megapixels, which is a rating that determines the highest-resolution photos that a particular camera can take and thus the largest size of the resulting prints. Although many cell phones are limited to 1 to 3 megapixel shots, you shouldn't accept anything lower than 6 megapixels in a standalone camera, and this year the sweet spot seems to be in the 7-megapixel range. Either resolution should be sufficient for any type of snapshot, as well as even poster-sized prints. Next year, I expect 10-megapixel cameras to be the mainstream choice.

The other consideration is the optical zoom. Most digital cameras support both optical and digital zoom capabilities. Optical zoom represents the so-called "true" zoom, or the physical capabilities of the camera, whereas digital zoom uses software enhancements to provide less accurate and less desirable zooming capabilities. You should ignore the digital zoom rating when you're buying a camera (and ignore it in use as well), but optical zoom is important. As with megapixels, higher is generally better: Look for a camera with at least 2x to 5x optical zoom.

There's such a wide variety of digital cameras available that highlighting just a few is difficult. In addition to the technical specs I've mentioned, you should consider size, weight, and portability, as well as the type of storage medium the cameras utilize: Sony's MemoryStick, for example, tends to be more expensive than the more ubiquitous SecureDigital (SD) format. Price, too, is a concern: You can find budget cameras for less than $100, but it's also possible to spend almost $500 on a high-end point-and-click system. And look into battery options: Some cameras include removable and rechargeable batteries, whereas others use standard AA or AAA batteries.

I've always had good luck with Canon cameras, and the Canon PowerShot SD500 Digital ELPH ($229) is excellent, small, and stylish, and offers 7-megapixel resolution and 3x optical zoom. If you're looking for a middle ground between the size and portability of a point-and-click and the quality of a true SLR, consider the Canon PowerShot A630 ($252.99). This system is a bit bulkier than the SD500, but it offers 8 megapixels of resolution, 4x optical zoom, a flip-out LCD screen, and numerous manual shooting modes, in addition to easily replaceable AA batteries.

Photo Printers and Scanners
Photo printers are now so inexpensive that I expect them to be given away in cereal boxes. There's a model available for every need and budget, including small portable printers aimed solely at printing 4" x 6" prints and larger units capable of 8" x 10" prints and larger. And if you haven't seen a photo printer at work, be prepared to be amazed: The prints they create are true photographs and will generally not fade for decades to come. And heck, if they do, you can just print them again. Digital technology can be so useful sometimes.

If you're looking for a portable 4" x 6" printer, look no further than the Hewlett-Packard Photosmart 375 ($179), which works great with or without a computer, thanks to its integrated LCD screen, media card readers, and PictBridge-compatible camera support.

For larger prints, consider the Epson Stylus Photo R800 Inkjet Printer ($399.99), which supports fast printing speeds, standard prints as large as 8.5" x 11", and both USB and FireWire interfaces. And if you're looking for the ultimate in quality, the Epson Stylus Photo R1800 Inkjet Printer ($549) should fit the bill: This system offers rocket-fast printing, support for amazingly high resolutions, and can print prints as large as 13" x 44".

The market for photo scanners has also been largely commoditized. Although there are standalone devices that can scan only film and slides, many mainstream flat-bed scanners offer this functionality as well, so unless you have a huge archive of slides you'd like to scan in—an odious task—stick with a low-cost flat-bed model. Most scanners include their own complicated software, but you'll often find that the built-in software in Windows, or features in software such as Adobe Photoshop Elements, will be simpler and work just as well.

On the low end, the Canon CanoScan LiDE 60 Color Image Scanner ($71.99) offers an 8.5" x 11" bed, 1200 x 2400 DPI resolution, and speedy scanning. But you might need something bigger, and the Canon CanoScan 8400F Flatbed Scanner ($150) should fit the bill, with 3200 x 6400 DPI resolution, support for batch scanning of 35mm transparencies and negatives, and even faster scanning.

Remember, too, that various all-in-one printers are available that combine laser or ink jet printing, scanning, and photocopying in one device. These machines tend to be more complex than standalone devices, but they can save desk space and provide infrequently needed yet valuable functionality at a reasonable price.

Other Photo Gifts
Regardless of what you're using to acquire digital photos on your PC or Mac, virtually every digital photo needs to be corrected in some way. Thankfully, there are numerous software solutions dedicated to just that.

On the PC, there are two contenders. The first is Microsoft's underrated Digital Image Suite 2006 Anniversary Edition ($49.99), which includes a simple UI, all the photo-editing tools you'll ever need, and a number of free extras that are unique to this year's version. (Note that the software itself is unchanged from last year, however.) If you're looking for an entry into the high-end world of PhotoShop, look no further than Adobe PhotoShop Elements 5.0 ($69.99), which offers virtually all the features of its high-end cousin without the cost. New to version 5.0 are features for automatically correcting skin tone, red eye, color, and contrast issues. You can also buy the Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0 Premiere Elements 3.0 Bundle ($127.99), which combines Adobe's consumer-oriented photo and video products into a single package.

On the Mac, look no further than Apple's award-winning iPhoto 6, which is part of iLife '06 ($69.99, or bundled free with any new Macintosh hardware purchase). Apple's iPhoto 6 is as easy to use as ever and offers much better performance for large photo libraries, new photocasting support (if you have a .Mac account), and integration with iWeb's online publishing features. It's the best photo-management solution on any platform.

Managing and editing photos on a PC is fun and useful, but most people will want to share their memories with others, and one of the coolest ways to do so is to create a beautiful photo book (various prices, depending on style and number of photos). You can use software such as iPhoto for this (on a Mac), but there are also various online services that offer this functionality, including Shutterfly or PhotoWorks. These books are typically available in various sizes, and can come in hardcover, softcover, or snapshot book form. Photo books are an excellent example of what's possible with digital photography.

Other photo gifts include a digital photo frame, which combines a laptop-like LCD screen with a traditional-looking photo frame and integrated storage or a wireless networking connection to deliver constant digital photo slideshows. These products used to be quite expensive, but prices have come down dramatically while quality has gone up. At the entry level, the Westinghouse 5.6" LCD Digital Photo Frame ($129.99) is still a good value, with support for multiple media-card formats and various interchangeable frames for matching room décor. For a larger frame, check out the Philips 7-inch Digital Picture Frame w/Clear Frame ($199.99), which is pricier but offers amazing picture quality.

Finally, remember that any digital camera user can use paper and ink for a photo printer, memory storage cards, or other accessories such as extra batteries, carrying cases and—for high-end cameras—additional lenses. Just make sure you know what you're getting and what the needs are of the person you're buying for.

Digital Video
The process of editing video isn't easy, but there are numerous solutions for acquiring digital video or taking older home videos and converting them to digital formats. But video isn't just about your home movies. Much of the content we enjoy today comes from movies and TV shows, and that content is now available in a variety of ways that might have seemed impossible just a few short years ago.

Although many young couples run out to buy a camcorder to celebrate the birth of their first child or a similar milestone, most camcorders are rarely used. And with digital cameras providing ever-better digital-video features, your best bet might be to stick with one of the digital cameras I mentioned above: Both offer VGA-quality digital-video features and work with the popular SD memory card format, which comes in multi-GB capacities. That said, you're still going to get the best quality from a true camcorder, and if you do intend to go that route, you have plenty of options.

For a budget tape-based DV camcorder, look at the Canon ZR500 MiniDV Camcorder ($279.99), which features a sleek, hand-sized body, 25x optical zoom, and both 4:3 and 16:9 video recording. Canon also offers higher-end models, as well as DVD-based models such as the Canon DC22 DVD Camcorder ($539.77), which records video directly to recordable DVD. Like its tape-based brethren, the DC22 features 4:3 and 16:7 recording, as well as 10x optical zoom.

Last year, HD camcorders were a luxury item, but this year, they're finally coming down in price and are accessible to mere mortals. The portable Sony HDR-HC3 Handycam ($1499.99) features true 1080i resolution for the ultimate in HD-quality home video, as well as 10x optical zoom and a 2.7" LCD display.

Thanks to TiVo and the widespread penetration of Microsoft's Windows Media Center system, digital video recording (DVR) is finally mainstream. There are two basic options for this functionality, which lets you to watch and record TV shows; control live TV by pausing, rewinding, and slowing motion; and find new TV content. TiVo works with virtually any cable, satellite, or antenna-based TV system and is incredibly easy to use, making it the perfect gift for beginners. If you have a Windows XP-based PC, you can also use a TiVo Series 2 device to access photo and music content on your PCs. Finally, you can use the free TiVo To Go service to copy recorded TV shows to Windows XP-based PCs and notebooks, and portable devices such as Portable Media Centers, iPod with videos, and Sony PlayStation Portables (PSPs).

On the high-end, PCs based on XP Media Center are still more expensive than TiVo, but they're also more capable. These systems feature DVD movie and audio CD playback, digital photo slideshows, digital music, and digital-video playback. Media Center PCs can also be used to access any Windows-compatible software, be it the latest version of Microsoft Office or high-powered video games such as F.E.A.R. or Oblivion.

For TiVo, 2006 brings both good and bad news. On the good-news front, you can now purchase TiVo's low-end devices for free or next to nothing, thanks to healthy rebates. But TiVo has done away with its lifetime service contract and now offers only monthly plans in addition to 1-, 2-, and 3-year contracts. The 80-Hr TiVo Series2 DT DVR (free with rebates, or $69.99) offers dual tuners, 80 hours of standard-definition recording time, and an integrated network adapter. Meanwhile, you can jump up to a 180-Hr TiVo Series2 DT DVR ($169.99) or TiVo's new high-end 300-Hr TiVo Series3 HD Digital Media Recorder ($799.99), which offers an HDTV tuner plus two standard-definition tuners, 32 hours of HD recording time or 300 hours of standard definition, and other advanced features.

Unfortunately, all these devices will also require service contracts to be useful. The TiVo service is $19.95 per month, but you can save money by purchasing a 12-month service contract ($199), a 2-year service contract ($299), or a 3-year service contract ($349, but currently offered for $299).

If you want more than TiVo can offer, a full-featured Media Center PC is the way to go. I use and recommend two excellent HP models: the HP Digital Entertainment Center z500 Series ($1799.99 and up), which somewhat resembles home stereo equipment, and the more traditional HP Pavilion d4650y Series ($899.99 and up), which offers a standard tower form factor and Intel's speedy new Core 2 Duo processors.

Video Software for PCs
Editing video on a computer isn't as simple or quick as managing and editing photos, but it's getting easier than ever, thanks to steadily improved software. But you should know that video editing is time- and processor-intensive and will require hours of your time for each edited video.

On the PC, look into Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0 ($79.99), which is fairly complex but incredibly powerful. You can also acquire this software in a bundle imaginatively titled Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0 Premiere Elements 3.0 Bundle ($127.99) that also includes Adobe's highly regarded photo-management application.

There are precious few good DVD-making applications for the PC, but the best is still Sonic MyDVD 8 ($69.99), which features a simple, task-based UI, photo slideshow features, 16:9 and HD widescreen support, and TiVo compatibility.

On the Mac, your choice is simple: Simply use Apple iMovie HD 6, which comes as part of iLife '06 ($69.99, or free with any new Macintosh hardware purchase). This product is as easy to use as ever and works with high-definition and widescreen video. Also recommended is iDVD 6, another part of iLife '06, and still the best DVD movie-making application on any platform. This tool is reason enough to own a Mac.

Other Video Gifts
Finally, if you're looking for video-related gifts, don't forget Mini-DV video tapes, blank CDs and DVDs, carrying cases, lens cleaners, portable and stationary disc holders, and other related trinkets. Also, remember that services such as Apple iTunes Store offer downloadable TV show and video content. A gift certificate (various prices) is always appreciated.

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