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Tech Toys 2005: A Holiday Shopping Guide, Part 4: Computers, Accessories, and Portable Devices

It's nitty-gritty time. With less than a week to go before Christmas, holiday season 2006 is drawing to a close. In this final installment of our Tech Toys 2005 holiday shopping guide, I examine the computer-oriented gifts you should be on the lookout for.

Desktop Computers
Notebook sales are starting to catch up with those of desktop computers, but traditional PC form factors still offer the best performance, expandability, and—perhaps most important—the best prices. There's never been a better time to buy a computer, especially if you're shopping for a Windows-based PC.

Desktop PCs
If you're in the market for a PC this holiday season, make sure you look for future-proofing technology such as dual-core processors, which provides two microprocessor cores in a single chip. The benefits of such a system are almost endless: They provide virtually the same performance as a true dual-processor system, but they're cheaper and run much cooler. There are two competing, but compatible dual-core designs. Intel offers a dual-core desktop chip called the Pentium D, which is essentially a dual-core Pentium 4. But AMD's design, the Athlon 64 X2, is better because it features better performance than comparable Pentium D designs. So if you want your PC to last as long as possible, don't skimp on the microprocessor. Virtually everything else in your PC is easily expandable at a later date, including the system RAM, video card, display, hard disk, sound card, and other features.

You can categorize desktop PCs into three product segments: budget, midrange, and high-end/gaming. Budget PCs are often characterized by low-ball pricing that's commensurate with the cheaper components those systems usually contain and barely acceptable system specifications. Midrange PCs represent the best deals, with features and functionality that should satisfy all but the most demanding users. And high-end/gaming PCs, of course, target the upper echelon of PC buyers, offering dual video-card setups, massive amounts of RAM, and other expensive amenities.

In the budget market, you're basically shopping for a basic box that can get the job done at a minimum cost, so you're typically going to be shopping for a complete system that includes a display, speakers, and other add-ons. The E-Machines T6520 ($649.99) is surprisingly competent, offering a single-core Athlon 64 processor and PCI Express graphics, along with a serviceable 15" LCD. If you're uncomfortable with E-Machines, however, the HP Pavilion a1240n ($619.99) is an excellent alternative with similar specifications, albeit one that ships without a display.

In the midrange, things get truly interesting. I'd like to recommend one of Dell's excellent PCs, but Dell is stuck with Intel's poorly designed microprocessors. Instead, step up to dual-core nirvana with the HP Pavilion a1250n ($849.99), which features a dual-core Athlon-64 X2 processor, 1GB of RAM, and a dual-layer DVD writer. Or, for a true Media Center experience, look at the HP m7100e series ($699.99 and up), which includes Athlon-64 X2 dual-core processors, up to 2GB of RAM, and high-end graphics solutions, among other niceties.

The high-end is an interesting aspect of the PC market. Here's where Dell's XPS line gets the nod, despite its use of Intel chips, because these machines feature quality high-end components and the opportunity to utilize dual graphics cards, which are often much more important to gamers than pure CPU speed. The Dell XPS 600 ($1749 and up, to over $4000), for example, offers a stunning case design and can include an impressive dual 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX video card setup.

Desktop Macs
This is a tough time to buy a Macintosh, no doubt about it. With Apple Computer set to replace its entire line of Mac systems next year with far more powerful Intel-based designs, purchasing a PowerPC-based Mac now seems like a bad idea. That said, if you absolutely can't wait, today's Macs are the best yet. In fact, I bought one for my wife this holiday season. Here's my thinking: Like many people, my wife has simple computing needs. She needs email and Web, word processing, and not much else. And she isn't really into technology for technology's sake—she just wants to get work done. The Mac is more reliable and less prone to virus or malware attack, so it's a great solution for her. And today's Macs certainly offer enough performance for what she needs.

So, my wife has a Mac mini ($499 and up) to look forward to on Christmas morning. These little wonders feature 512MB of RAM, a 1.25MHz or 1.42MHz Power PC G4 microprocessor, a combo drive or SuperDrive (DVD burning), and built-in wireless capability on some models. The beauty of a Mac mini is that it offers an amazingly small form factor—I've owned larger external hard drives—and that it can simply use the PC display, keyboard, and mouse you probably have lying around from your last machine. The Mac mini is the cheapest way to get into Apple's computer line, and it's a lovable little addition to your home office.

In the midrange, Apple offers a revamped iMac, which is thinner than its predecessor but still offers the same all-in-one form factor, in which the computer's guts are hidden behind the screen. The iMac comes in two versions, one with a 17" widescreen display ($1299) and one with a 20" widescreen display ($1699). You might complain that Apple's prices are typically higher than comparable PCs, but that old complaint isn't valid with the iMac. Indeed, the 17" model in particular is quite thrifty, considering all you get.

Apple's high-end computer line, the Power Mac G5, is overly expensive and—given next year's revamp—my advice is to skip out on these machines unless you absolutely need one for work (in which case, it's likely not a gift anyway). The G5s come in various configurations from $1999 to $3299 sans monitor, and the high-end version features two dual-core 2.5GHz Power PC G5 microprocessors, which sounds pretty impressive and should be for the price.

Notebook Computers and Tablet PCs
Portable computers have come a long way from the backbreaking Compaq luggables we used to haul around airports. Now, you can get a portable computer to match any need. There are huge desktop replacements, many of which feature true desktop microprocessors. There are traditional notebook computers in a variety of sizes, and Tablet PCs that feature pen-input options and come in convertible notebook and slate form factors. And there are ultraportable computers, many of which are so small that I can't even type on their tiny keyboards. You'll need to decide which type of portable computer matches your needs, but even doing that won't dramatically reduce the number of options. There are just so many fine machines to choose from this year.

For now at least, portable PCs offer huge advantages over their Mac counterparts, thanks to energy-thrifty yet powerful Pentium M processors and Centrino chipsets. Here, unlike the desktop market, Intel's designs are best, offering better performance and energy savings over comparable offerings based on AMD chips and chipsets.

In the ultraportable market, you're going to see small and light machines that typically offer integrated graphics but few other concessions. A great example is the highly regarded Dell Inspiron 700M ($999 and up), which weighs just 4.1 pounds and yet offers a 1.7GHz Pentium M processor and a widescreen display. Not small enough? The Dell Latitude X1 ($1649) weighs just 2.5 pounds but drops the optical drive and sports an ultra-low voltage 1.1GHz Pentium M processor.

Move up to the midline, and your options explode. The Dell Inspiron 600 ($789 and up) and Dell Inspiron 9300 ($1149 and up) might look pedestrian, but both offer widescreen displays, a choice of various Pentium M processors, and rock-solid reliability. I'm also a big fan of the HP Pavilion dv1000 series ($699 and up), which can be had in a wide variety of configurations, all with widescreen 14" displays.

If you're looking for the ultimate in performance, you have a number of options. The stylish Acer Ferrari 4000 ($1999) features a Ferrari-inspired design, but it's the tech that counts: This machine includes a 64-bit AMD Turion 64 processor, a 15" widescreen display, and a slot-loading DVD drive. Yikes. If you're more of a gamer, look at Dell's beautiful XPS line of notebooks, including the XPS M170 ($2399 and up), which can be had with a 2.26GHz Pentium M chip, a 17" widescreen display, and a 256MB NVIDIA GeForce Go 7800 GTX graphics card.

And let's not forget Tablet PCs. These pen-driven marvels are now available in a variety of shapes, sizes, and types, but the best versions are typically convertible laptops that you can use in normal notebook mode most of the time. My favorite is still the Toshiba Portege M200 ($1609 and up), although I'm not a big fan of Toshiba's keyboard layout. This machine features a stunning high-resolution 12" display and can double as a more typical notebook. Another great option is Lenovo's new ThinkPad X Series Tablet ($1499 and up), which offers a great combination of ThinkPad quality, the small size of the X Series form factor, and Tablet PC functionality.

Apple's portable computer offerings are divided into product lines: the consumer-oriented iBook and the prosumer-focused PowerBook. Both will be replaced next year with far more powerful Intel-based notebook computers that feature better battery life to boot. So, for the most part, I can't honestly recommend Apple's portable machines right now.

The iBooks ($999 and up) are technically unimpressive, with aging G4 microprocessors and lackluster 4:3 XGA displays. On the other hand, iBooks are tough, thanks to their polycarbonate plastic shells. Indeed, they're far more durable than today's fragile PowerBooks and are thus perfect for students.

The PowerBooks ($1499 to $2499), meanwhile, are a mixed bag. The 12" version ($1499) is basically just an iBook in a more fragile case, with the same lackluster 4:3 XGA screen. The 15" ($1999) and 17" ($2499) versions add widescreen displays, but the new 15" model has been stung by complaints about the quality of the display, and the 17" model, of course, is larger than some cars, making it inappropriate for tight spaces such as airline seats. All of the PowerBooks are expensive compared to similarly equipped PC notebooks.

I love Macs, but this clearly isn't the right time to buy an Apple portable. Stay tuned for some big news from Apple in early 2006.

Computer Accessories
The market for computer accessories is as large as it is varied. There's no way to cover the entire spectrum of devices, add-ons, and doo-dads that you can attach to a PC, but let's take a look at some of the more desirable upgrades.

If you spend any amount of time sitting in front of a computer, don't ignore the quality of your display. Although LCD panels are all the rage for their small form factors and relatively light weights, there's an even better reason to go LCD: These displays offer eye-pleasing, rock-solid video output and are usually very adjustable. Widescreen is all the rage these days, too, so check out Dell's stunning (and budget priced) UltraSharp 2005FPW 20.1-inch Wide Aspect Flat Panel LCD Monitor ($463), which features a height-adjustable stand and 1680x1050 output. Dell also sells a 24" version, UltraSharp 2405FPW 24-inch Wide Aspect Flat Panel LCD Monitor, for just $899. This monster features 1920x1200 HDTV-quality resolution.

Portable storage has never been hotter. For portable hard drives, I'm partial to the Western Digital WD Passport portable hard drive ($169.99), which features 80GB of storage, a stylish small form factor, and USB 2.0 compatibility. For USB thumb drives, the standard is the SanDisk Cruzer Mini 1GB ($79.99), although a 2GB Cruzer Mini version ($126) will soon be widely available.

Looking to network your home? PC users should start with a high-speed wireless router, such as the D-Link 108G Wireless Gaming Router DGL0-4300 ($149.99), which features up to 108Mbps wireless access and four Gigabit Ethernet ports, and is optimized for high-bandwidth usage, including online gaming. You'll need comparable networking cards as well, of course. I recommend D-Link's High-Speed 2.4GHz 108Mbps CardBus Adapter DWL-G650 ($54) for notebooks, and the D-Link High-Speed 2.4GHz 108Mbps PCI Adapter DWL-G520 if you must connect a PC wirelessly (most PCs now include Ethernet ports).

On the Mac side, Apple's AirPort Extreme Base Station ($199) is far too expensive, but the AirPort Express Base Station ($129) is priced right and offers a space-saving design. All Macs include wireless and wired networking functionality out of the box, so you won't need to worry about adapters.

There's a lot of good PC and Mac software out there, of course, but if you're looking for the best office-productivity bargain, consider Microsoft's bargain-priced Office Student and Teacher Edition 2003 ($124.99) for the PC, which includes full versions of Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint, or Office Student and Teacher Edition 2004 for Macintosh ($124.99), which provides full versions of Word, Excel, Entourage, and PowerPoint. But if you don't need an email application, Corel offers an even better bargain: Corel WordPerfect Office 12 Student and Teacher Edition is just $84.99 and comes with WordPerfect 12 (word processing), Quattro Pro 12 (spreadsheet), Paradox 12 (database), and Presentations 12 (slideshows). There's a catch with all of these products, of course: You must be a student, teacher, or the parents of a student. But that's a big slice of the population, so it's easy to save money on office productivity if you know where to look.

Mac users have nothing to fear from viruses and other malware, at least not yet, but PC users are going to need protection. This year, skip the bloated security suites from Norton and McAfee and go right for the best solution, Zone Labs Zone Alarm Internet Security Suite ($69.95), which offers a two-way firewall, antivirus and anti-spyware protection, and a lot more.

Portable Devices
Smartphones are starting to eat away at the market for traditional PDAs, but many people—myself included—still find these tiny and often inexpensive devices to be indispensable digital companions. As has been the case for years, there are two basic types of PDAs: those based on the Palm OS and those based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile platform.

Palm OS
In the Palm OS camp, Palm itself is essentially the only major player, but its products are almost uniformly excellent. For a budget look at Palm's easy-to-use portable device OS, check out the Palm Z22 ($99), which is so inexpensive it's almost disposable. Despite its lowball pricing, the Z22 sports a nice color screen and basic organizer functionality, but its 32MB of internal memory isn't expandable, so it's really only appropriate for those on a budget. Palm also sells a fun Flexi Case pack ($14.99, coming soon) that supplies white and baby blue wrap-around protection for your new organizer.

My favorite Palm device, and the one I use regularly, is the Palm TX ($299), which features a gorgeous, high-resolution 320x480 screen that can be viewed in landscape or portrait mode, a blazingly fast 312MHz processor, built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth functionality, 128MB of internal RAM, and expansion via a Secure Digital (SD) slot. The Palm TX is a multimedia powerhouse and, coupled with the optional Palm Universal Wireless Keyboard ($69.99), can actually be used as a notebook replacement. For accessories, consider a case—the Palm Hard Case ($39.99) and Palm Leather Case ($39.99) are both excellent—and of course SD memory cards (various sizes, various prices) are always appreciated. Desktop PC and Mac users might also consider the handy Palm Cradle Kit ($49.99), which dispenses with the need for separate charging and sync cables.

The ultimate Palm device is the Palm LifeDrive Mobile Manager ($499), which essentially marries a high-resolution 320x480 screen with a 4GB hard disk and the latest version of Palm OS. The LifeDrive does everything any Palm device does, but it specializes in music, videos, and photos. There's even a voice recorder. For options, consider the Palm Hard Case ($49.99) to protect your investment, or the aforementioned Cradle Kit.

Any Palm user could use software, and Palm offers a wide variety. I'm quite partial to Palm's 15,000-title-strong eBook selection ($6.99 each and up), and you'll want Palm's eReader Pro ($9.95) for the best experience. Be sure to check out cool Palm game titles such as Bejeweled 2 ($19.95), Madden NFL 06 ($29.99), and Zuma ($19.95), and you can always be productive with DataViz Documents To Go 8 ($49.99, with upgrade pricing)

Windows Mobile 5.0
Windows Mobile is in a strange transition phase, where most of Microsoft's efforts are clearly going into the Smartphone category, and most vendors are starting to shy away from traditional PDAs. That said, the best Windows Mobile 5.0 handheld is Dell's stunning Axim X51v ($399-$582), which features a market-leading 624MHz processor, a VGA-quality 640x480 screen, 256MB of ROM, 64MB of RAM, a dedicated graphics chip, integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability, and CompactFlash (CD) and SD expansion. There are a variety of Axim accessories available, including the cool Bluetooth GPS Navigation System ($229), the Dell Leather Flip Case ($29), and the Dell Extended Battery ($99).

Happy Holidays!
Well, that wraps up our 2005 Tech Toys buying guide. I hope you enjoy the holidays, and spend some time away from technology and with your families and friends. We'll be back next week with our final Connected Home Express installment of 2005.

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