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Tech Toys 2005: A Holiday Shopping Guide, Part 3: Digital Photos and Video

No technologies speak more to the heart than digital photography and digital video, which let you enjoy memories in more ways than ever before. The problem, of course, is complexity: Most consumers aren't sophisticated enough to use high-end digital photo and video solutions. Even digital video recording (DVR)—which lets you record, pause, rewind, and fast-forward through TV programming—can seem like a black art. In this third part of our Tech Toys 2005 guide, I focus on digital photo and video solutions that are aimed at real people, not just the tech elite.

Digital Photography
Like traditional photography, digital photography now spans the gamut from low-end family snapshots to the high-end artistic photography you see at professional sporting events and weddings. Regardless of your bent, there's now a digital solution for every kind of photographer.

Digital Cameras
If you're buying a digital camera, make sure you understand the pertinent specifications. The megapixel rating of the charge-coupled device (CCD—typically a number from 1 to 8, where higher is generally better) and the size of the optical zoom (1x to 5x, where higher is better) are important. Conversely, you can and should completely ignore digital zoom functionality, both during the purchase and after, and you'll want to pay attention to image quality, which will require a bit of research.

When it comes to recommending digital cameras, there are so many different models, and so many different opinions. However, for most snapshot-type photos—that is, most photos taken with digital cameras—you can't go wrong with Canon's PowerShot line. On the low end, try the Canon PowerShot SD400 Digital Elph ($269.99), a 5-megapixel digital camera with a 3x optical zoom, AA battery compatibility (essential for those long road trips, on which you don't want to bring a bulky battery charger), and a Secure Digital (SD) slot for memory cards. Canon's midlevel system, the PowerShot SD550 Digital Elph ($409.99), is even better, with a 7.1-megapixel CCD, 3x optical zoom, and decent movie-making capabilities to boot.

At the high end, look at the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT ($1399.99 for camera body only), which features an 8-megapixel CCD, blazingly fast performance, and the kinds of features that professional photographers expect. You're going to need at least one lens for this puppy, too: A basic 50mm f/1.8 II lens will set you back $74.99, but more esoteric lenses go for as much as $500 apiece. Happy shopping.

Photo Printers and Scanners
Photo printers were once high-priced playthings, but now there's a printer for every budget, and if you haven't seen one in action yet, you'll be surprised to discover that they print honest-to-goodness photos—not just reasonable facsimiles. As with digital cameras, there are so many different printer brands and models that it's hard to even know where to start. But we found a few standouts.

The Epson PictureMate Personal Photo Printer ($130.99) is a terrific solution for printing 4"x6" prints, with archive-level print quality thanks to 6-pigment ink cartridges, compatibility with USB, various memory card formats, and (optionally) Bluetooth capability, as well as a handy onscreen menu. For a bit more money, the Epson PictureMate Deluxe Viewer Edition ($199.99) also includes a color screen, so you can preview and edit pictures right on the printer before committing them to paper.

For larger prints, consider the HP Photosmart 8250 ($171.99). This printer can print up to 8.5"x24", perfect for wall-mounted frames and near-poster prints. The HP Photosmart 8250 is also super-fast, and features a 2.5" color display and multiformat memory card slots for PC-less printing.

Finally, for your scanning needs, consider the entry-level Canon CanoScan 8400F Flatbed Scanner ($129.99), which features batch scanning of negatives transparencies, or the Epson Perfection 4990 Photo ($419.99), which sports both FireWire and USB 2.0 interfaces, and adapters for slides, film strips, medium format, and 4-by-5 film. Both scanners offer traditional flat beds and are ideal for preserving photo memories trapped in legacy formats.

Other Fun Photo Gifts
Digital photos are fun and easy to acquire and share, but one thing most people don't realize is that, to be as good looking as possible, virtually every digital photo needs to be corrected in some way. To do this, you need software. On the Macintosh, check out Apple iPhoto 5, which comes as part of iLife '05 ($79.99, or free with any new Mac purchase). Apple's iPhoto 5 is super-simple to use, features automatic and advanced editing tools, and—best of all—can be used to make stunning photo books (see below).

On the PC, things are a bit more complicated, as usual. One of the best photo-management tools, Google's Picassa, is free, so it doesn't make for much of a gift. But take a look at Microsoft's under-appreciated Digital Image Suite 2006 ($59.99), which features a handy task-based interface that makes editing and managing photos easier than ever. If you're looking for a more advanced tool, don't overlook Adobe PhotoShop Elements 4.0 ($88.99), which offers virtually all the features of its high-end cousin—without the cost.

Most of this software will help you create wonderful photo books (various prices, depending on the style and number of photos), but you can also use online services such as Shutterfly or PhotoWorks to give what might be the ultimate gift, in hardcover, softcover, or snapshot book form. In this day of gift cards and impersonal gift ordering over the Web, it's fun to actually put a present together yourself and have it mean something: Photo books are a great choice.

Another unique gift is a digital photo frame, which is essentially a small LCD screen, set in a traditional-looking frame, which provides integrated storage, memory card slots, or even a wireless networking connection to deliver digital photo slideshows. It's possible to spend a lot of money on this kind of gift, but I think it makes sense to start small, especially since many recipients of this present aren't likely to be as connected as you are. Consider the Westinghouse 5.6" LCD Digital Photo Frame ($149.99), which features three interchangeable frames (to match almost any décor); CompactFlash (CF), SD, MultiMediaCard, Memory Stick, and xD-Picture Card memory card compatibility; and 8MB of internal storage. Or look at the Pacific Digital USB Digital Photo Frame ($239.99), which can be installed in any 5"x7" picture frame and is compatible with any USB-based digital camera.

Finally, don't forget the basics. Any digital camera user has a constant need for paper and ink for a photo printer, memory storage, or accessories such as carrying cases and lenses for high-end cameras. Just make sure you know what you're shopping for, as well as the particular needs of the person you're buying for.

Digital Video
Many of us have boxes of home videos gathering dust in a closet or under the TV. But getting the content off of those soon-to-be-ancient film cassettes has never been easier, and newer camcorders either feature modern DV or HDTV cassettes or—if you're really lucky—dispense with cassettes all together and use DVDs or even hard disks. 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.

If you're on a budget, look to the Canon ZR300 MiniDV Camcorder ($374.99), which features a sleek, hand-sized body, a 22x optical zoom, and both 4:3 and 16:9 video recording. Another excellent choice is the Sony HCR DCR-H42 MiniDV Handycam ($549.99 after mail-in rebate), which features 12x optical zoom and 4:3 and true 16:9 widescreen video-recording capabilities.

Finally, for the ultimate camcorder, check out Sony's cool HDR-HC1 HDV ($1999.99), which features true 1080i resolution for the ultimate in HD-quality home video.

DVR pioneer TiVo is less expensive than ever this holiday season, thanks to hearty mail-in rebates that reduce the cost of TiVo devices remarkably. A 40-hour TiVo Series 2 ($49.99 after a $150 mail-in rebate) is probably enough DVR for just about anybody, but TiVo also offers an 80-hour TiVo Series 2 for just $149.99 (after $150 mail-in rebate). Note that any TiVo device will also require a service contract to qualify for these prices. A 12-month service contract is $155.40, and the lifetime service is available for $299. Note that you can also purchase the service monthly for $6.95, but the rebates won't apply.

Why is TiVo so wonderful? It lets you watch and record TV shows, and it lets you control live TV by pausing, rewinding, and slowing motion. It even helps you find new TV content you might like. TiVo works with virtually any cable, satellite, or antenna-based TV system, and it's 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 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 XP-based PCs and notebooks, and portable devices such as Portable Media Centers, video iPods, and Sony PlayStation Portables (PSPs).

If TiVo is a bit tame for your tastes, you have other DVR options. A full-featured Media Center PC, such as the excellent HP Digital Entertainment Center z500 Series ($1499.99 and up) provides the most powerful home-entertainment experience possible, combining world-class DVR features (such as those found on the TiVo) with DVD movie and audio CD playback, digital-photo slideshows, digital music, and digital-video playback. Media Center PCs are based on XP Media Center Edition 2005 and can therefore also be used to access any Windows-compatible software, be it the latest version of Microsoft Office or high-powered video games such as Half-Life 2.

If you want more than TiVo, and you like the Media Center interface, but you aren't inclined to put a complicated Media Center PC in your living room, check out the LG LRM-519 Digital Media Recorder ($599.95). This innovative set-top DVR features 160 hours of recording space, supports various DVD and CD formats, and can connect with various digital devices such as digital camera and camcorders. Best of all, the LRM-519 includes Microsoft's Media Center interface. However, you have to subscribe to the Microsoft Program Guide Service, which costs $149 for a lifetime subscription, or $9.99 per month. Think of the LG as a TiVo for power users.

Video Software for PCs
As with digital photos, there's no such thing as a perfect home video. In fact, the video that comes out of your camcorder is likely in far worse shape than your photos and in need of serious editing. The problem? Video editing is slow and monotonous, and no one wants to sit in front of a PC for hours, watching video render in real time. Fear not: Plenty of decent video-editing solutions are available, and real humans can use them!

On the Mac, your choice is simple: Simply use Apple iMovie HD, which comes as part of iLife '05 ($79.99, or free with any new Macintosh purchase). This product is still incredibly easy to use, works with HD and widescreen video, and features the most full-featured editing tools I've ever seen in an entry-level package. Also available in iLife '05 is iDVD 5, which is still the best DVD movie-making application on any platform. Mac users have it good.

On the PC, unsurprisingly, things aren't quite so clear-cut. There are a number of movie-editing and DVD-making applications available for Windows, but most are pretty horrible. Adobe Premiere Elements 2.0 ($88.99) is an exception, and although it's pretty complex because it's modeled after the high-end Premiere Pro solution, it works with virtually every movie format on Earth and features exceptional editing tools.

My favorite PC-based DVD maker is still Sonic MyDVD Studio 6.1: It's no iDVD, but it's the most consumer-friendly DVD maker on the PC, and it features a simple, task-based UI, photo slideshow features, 16:9 widescreen support, and TiVo compatibility. For an even simpler solution for home movies, check out Ulead VideoStudio 9 ($49.99 after rebates), which might just be the quickest way to get your DV videos ported to DVD movies.

Other Video Gifts
With the proliferation of remote controls in the typical living room, virtually anyone can benefit from a universal learning remote, which learns how to control all your devices so that, hopefully, you can make do with a single remote. The Kameleon One For All URC 9960 ($99.99) is an excellent choice, with a cool Electro-Luminescent display that combines the best features of a traditional button-based remote with the touchpads you see on more modern devices. The remote can control as many as eight separate devices, including DVRs and cable/satellite systems. If you prefer a traditional remote with an LCD screen, consider one of the many Logitech Harmony remotes. The Logitech Harmony 688 Universal Remote ($124.99), for example, features dedicated buttons for TiVo and other DVRs, and features a backlit LCD screen. For a truly high-end experience, check out the programmable Philips Pronto TSU3000 ($199.99), which can control as many as 13 devices.

This is still an emerging market, but there's a growing range of portable devices that can display movies on the go. The first generation of Portable Media Centers are a bust and should be avoided, but newer devices, such as the iPod with video and Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP), mentioned in Parts 1 and 2 of this guide, respectively, are much more successful as portable video devices.

But there are other options more clearly geared toward video, offering larger screens and better battery life. The Archos AV500 comes in 30GB ($449.99) and 100GB ($657.99) variations. Both devices feature a gorgeous 4" color display, up to 4.5 hours of battery life, and USB 2.0 compatibility. Meanwhile, the Palm LifeDrive Mobile Manager ($499.99) combines the best features of the simple Palm OS with a slew of digital media functionality and a serviceable 4GB hard disk.

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.

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