Tech Toys--Holiday Guide 2002

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Each holiday season, the consumer electronics and PC industries stage massive product rollouts aimed at the consumers who inevitably flock to malls and e-commerce Web sites, eager to snatch up the most recent high-tech gadgets. This year, we've put together a collection of some of the most useful, trendsetting, and fun gift ideas from a variety of categories: PDAs and cell phones; digital-imagery, digital-audio, and digital-video products; wireless and mobile technologies; input devices; and video and computer games and accessories. (We can't cover every available product because of space limitations, but we've tried to assemble a collection of must-have products.)

PDAs and Cell Phones

Former Apple Computer CEO John Sculley coined the term Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) in 1992, and though competitors such as Microsoft tried to avoid using the moniker, the name stuck. Ironically, Apple is no longer a player in the PDA market, which Palm revitalized in 1995. Since then, Palm, with its Palm OS, and Microsoft, with its Pocket PC line, have duked it out for control of this hotly contested market.

Cell phones, meanwhile, have integrated themselves into our daily lives in a way not seen since the television was popularized in the 1950s. Predictably, the more advanced cell phones integrate PDA-like functionality and synchronize with PCs. And as is always the case with technology, the best is yet to come. US cell-phone users will soon have access to so-called third generation (3G) wireless technologies, which will offer quick data transfer speeds that might make cell phones of the future useful add-ons for laptops. In the meantime, there are plenty of cool products to examine.

Palm OS PDAs. Palm OS—based PDAs are known for their simplicity, and products from companies such as Palm, Handspring, and Sony are currently among the most widely used. Sony has opted for higher resolution, transflexive color screens, multimedia features, and dazzling industrial design in its CLIÉ line of Palm-based PDAs. The CLIÉ PEG-SJ30 ($300) is an excellent example of the company's design prowess and multimedia-feature integration, with a 320 x 320 high-resolution color Thin Film Transfer (TFT) screen; a thin, small form factor; 16MB of RAM; and a Memory Stick expansion slot. If you want to work with digital audio, the CLIÉ PEG-T665C ($400) includes all the features of the PEG-SJ30 but adds a built-in MP3 audio player with remote control. At the top of the line, models in the CLIÉ PEG-NX series ($500—$550) feature a built-in video camera and a unique flip screen that exposes a built-in thumb-based keyboard. All the CLIÉ models include applications for digital video and photos. Sony also offers a variety of add-ons for its CLIÉ devices, including Memory Stick—based memory cards, cameras, keyboards, styli, and carrying cases.

If you're looking for a more traditional (and cheaper) PDA, Palm's products lack the high-resolution screens and multimedia functionality of Sony's devices but offer great value and rock-solid stability. The entry-level Palm Zire ($99) is a good place to start, with 2MB of RAM. The Palm m515 ($350) features a thin, light design; 16MB of RAM; and a rechargeable internal battery. A fledgling wireless product, the Palm i705 ($400), features 8MB of RAM and a grayscale screen; its most innovative feature is its Palm.Net wireless service, which lets you securely access Internet features such as the Web and email.

Pocket PC PDAs. Microsoft's hardware partners have worked hard to create PC-like devices, right down to a Windows-like Start menu and PC-like processing power. As a result, Pocket PC devices tend to be more powerful than the Palm OS competition, with more out-of-the-box memory, higher-resolution screens, built-in multimedia functionality, and a suite of Microsoft Office—based Pocket Office applications that integrate easily with their desktop-based counterparts. On the downside, Pocket PCs tend to be more expensive than Palm OS devices.

Hewlett-Packard's (HP's) iPAQ line of Pocket PC devices is the market leader. Once owned by Compaq (which recently merged with HP), the iPAQ hasn't changed much since its original release, although an early 2002 refresh added some subtle design cues and resolved some hardware problems. The iPAQ 3835 Pocket PC ($450) features a 206MHz Intel processor, 64MB of RAM, a brilliant 65,000 color TFT screen, SD expansion slot, and the usual range of Microsoft software, including Windows Media Player (WMP), Pocket Internet Explorer (IE), Pocket Outlook, Pocket Excel, and Pocket Word. The expensive iPaq 3975 ($750) offers a 400MHz Intel XScale processor and integrated Bluetooth wireless connectivity for desktop synchronization. HP and an array of third-party hardware companies make various hardware add-ons for the iPAQ line, including CompactFlash (CF) and PC Card expansion slots, cameras, and memory.

HP isn't the only Pocket PC player worth investigating. Toshiba, a relative newcomer to the fold, has confounded critics with a well-received line of PDAs that meet or exceed the iPaq challenge. The Toshiba Pocket PC e310 ($400) includes 32MB of RAM, an SD expansion slot, and a brilliant TFT full-color screen—standard fare, but nicely priced. The Toshiba Pocket PC e740 ($600) raises the stakes with a 400MHz Intel XScale PXA250 processor, 64MB of RAM, and integrated Wi-Fi networking—a feature unique to this model.

Cell phones. When it comes to cell phones, Sony Ericsson's T68 ($200) invariably heads the list, with its low price, color screen, joystick-like navigation button, and 3-hour battery life. The Sony is Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM)—compatible, meaning that it works with various wireless networks, letting you roam more freely without losing access.

The GSM-compatible Motorola V60 and Motorola V70 ($350—$400) offer a unique tiny design with a swiveling cover that reveals the keypad and enables the earphone. The keypad, however, is tiny as well, making these phones difficult for large hands. But the Motorola's design will likely win over many converts.

Integrated devices. In the world of integrated devices, Research In Motion's (RIM's) BlackBerry wireless email products are a best seller and well regarded by users. BlackBerry devices offer always-on, always-connected wireless access to email from virtually anywhere in the United States—an increasingly important feature for mobile workers. Using an oft-copied but never improved-upon thumb-based keyboard, the RIM devices integrate with existing email systems, feature Triple Data Encryption Standard (3DES) security, and are surprisingly easy to use. BlackBerry devices require a monthly service charge.

Handspring's Treo 270 and Treo 300 ($500 each) combine a full-fledged Palm OS device with a cell phone. Both products feature GSM compatibility, a color screen with virtual keyboard for dialing numbers, a small thumb-based physical keyboard for alphanumeric entry, and compatibility with Palm OS applications. Like most PDA/cell phone hybrids, the Treo is a bit awkward and more bulky than most cell phones, but it's an interesting first-generation approach to what will likely be the future of the cell phone.

For a Pocket PC-based approach that's similar to the Treo, check out T-Mobile's Pocket PC Phone Edition ($550), which combines a Pocket PC's functionality and application suite with a mobile phone that, like the Treo, is a bit wider and more awkward than conventional mobile phones. The T-Mobile includes a full-color screen, integration with Pocket Outlook Contacts (for quick dialing), compatibility with a nationwide General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) network, and SD memory expansion.

Accessories. Regardless of the type of PDA or cell phone you prefer, you're probably going to need some add-ons. If you want to turn your PDA into a minicomputer, check out Belkin's G700 Series Portable PDA Keyboard ($80), which comes in versions for the CLIÉ or various Palm series. I also recommend Targus's Stowaway Portable Keyboard ($70—$100), which is available for most PDA models. Most PDA keyboards, including the two recommended here, fold into a small package that you can easily transport. Avoid rollable keyboards, which feel mushy, aren't foldable designs, and are more difficult to carry.

Like PCs, virtually any PDA will benefit from a memory upgrade. This fact is doubly true for Pocket PCs, especially if you plan to use them for email, Word-document editing, or Windows Media Audio (WMA) and MP3 song playback. For memory upgrades, check out Viking InterWorks's CF (8MB to 512MB) and SD (16MB to 64MB) memory cards (prices vary).

Belkin also offers a range of useful PDA add-ons, including Belkin USB Sync Charger ($20) products for various CLIÉ, Palm, iPAQ, and Toshiba models. The devices let you charge and synchronize PDAs without using a bulky cradle, a boon for frequent travelers who like to keep weight to a minimum. The company also offers a an interesting range of Bluetooth wireless connectivity products, including a Bluetooth USB Adapter, Bluetooth PC Card, and Bluetooth PDA Adapter Card, which lets you add Bluetooth compatibility to PDAs and PCs for wireless synchronization.

If you're shopping for mobile phone gadgets, the first stop should be a headset, or hands-free kit, which is available from a variety of manufacturers. Belkin makes various hands-free kits for $20 to $50, as do other companies. Another must-have is a car power adapter, which will help keep your phone charged while you're on the road.

Digital Imagery Products

No digital media experience hits home quite like digital imagery, probably because most of us grew up with photo snapshots and photo albums. Thanks to today's digital-imagery technology, we can get near-instantaneous results with digital cameras and our PCs. For those not yet ready to make the leap to digital, scanners let you retain your legacy film—based cameras and still transfer great looking prints onto the PC.

Digital cameras. If you're considering a digital camera, be sure to look for a few obvious features. First, a camera should offer at least a 3-megapixel charge-coupled device (CCD), which will let you create prints as large as 11" x 17" and still offer a high-enough resolution. Also, look for at least a 2x or 3x optical zoom, which represents the physical zoom capabilities (digital zoom is software-based and rarely high quality). Also consider memory expansion options: Big photos take up a lot of space, and the amount of built-in RAM in today's digital cameras is woefully inadequate. CF currently offers the largest expansion possibilities.

One excellent choice is Canon's highly rated PowerShot G2 ($650—$700), which features a 4-megapixel CCD with 2272 x 1704 resolution, 3x optical zoom, and CF memory expansion. Yes, it's a bit expensive, but the PowerShot G2 is durable and well made, with a unique flip-out LCD display that's beyond the reach of greasy fingers and noses. The Canon camera also takes some of the crispest photos of any digital camera, including most professional-grade models. If picture quality is your number-one concern, the PowerShot G2 is the way to go.

Nikon's COOLPIX 995 ($500—$700) is another highly regarded choice. This model features a cool swiveling body that splits the lens and the 3.3-megapixel CCD, an amazing 4x optical zoom, and CF memory expansion. The Nikon also produces superb photos, though novices might find its software interface a bit challenging because of the overly complex menus. But photography buffs will love the Nikon, thanks to its market-leading zoom and almost infinitely adjustable settings.

Casual snapshot takers will likely find everything they need in the Eastman Kodak EasyShare family of products, which includes an optional base unit for synchronizing with non—Windows XP PCs. The EasyShare DX4900 ($350) features 4-megapixel resolution, 2x optical zoom, and CF expansion. For tighter budgets, the EasyShare DX3900 ($300) includes the same features with a slightly lower 3.1-megapixel resolution. Both cameras share identical bodies, good picture quality, and Kodak's legendary ease-of-use. Users who choose the optional dock (at extra cost) can easily recharge the camera when it isn't in use—a plus that arguably should be included with every camera.

Another excellent digital camera to consider is the Olympus CAMEDIA C-4000 Zoom ($499), which features 4-megapixel resolution, 3x optical zoom, and CF memory expansion. Like most digital cameras, the Olympus sports a fully automatic mode for snapshots, but it also includes six preset scene programs for portrait, sporting events, and other shooting conditions. The camera even includes black-and-white and sepia-toned options for mood shots.

Scanners. If you aren't ready to move to all-digital photography or just want to bring existing prints into the digital age, a flatbed scanner is your best option. Today's typical scanners use USB connections, 48-bit color, and 2400dpi to 4800dpi scanning. (Unfortunately, most scanners are still fairly slow, especially when scanning at higher resolutions.)

Microtek's ScanMaker 4900 ($150) is an exemplary flatbed scanner with an 8.5" x 11.7" scanning area; a transparency, slide, and film adapter; relatively speedy performance; and high-quality results. The unit includes several hot buttons, which you can individually program from within XP or Microtek's bundled scanning utility, and a slew of valuable software, including Adobe Systems' PhotoDeluxe, Ulead Systems' Ulead Photo Explorer and Ulead DVD PictureShow, and ABBYY Software House's FineReader Sprint.

Visioneer's OneTouch 9000 ($99) includes high-speed USB 2.0 support—offering blazing performance when connected to a USB 2.0-capable PC—but is also backward-compatible with the far more common USB 1.1. What this product lacks, however, is the ScanMaker 4900's crisp picture quality and transparency, slide, and film adapter. Still, for the price, the OneTouch 9000 is one of the quickest scanners you can buy.

Printers. If you're the do-it-yourself type and don't want to print every digital photo you take, an inkjet printer is a fine addition to your digital-imagery arsenal. Today's inkjet printers produce photolike prints that are often indistinguishable from store-bought prints. If you haven't seen a modern inkjet printer produce a photo recently, you're in for a pleasant surprise.

One excellent consumer-oriented and extremely affordable choice is Canon's S750 Color Bubble Jet printer ($140). The Canon printer offers 2400dpi x 1200dpi resolution, USB and parallel interfaces, and compatibility with a range of Windows and Mac OSs. For the truly thrifty, Canon's S520 Color Bubble Jet printer ($130) is even less expensive with similar specs.

For about the same price, the HP Deskjet 940c ($125) offers excellent color printing on virtually any kind of paper, plus an option to connect through a network connection rather than directly to a PC (a cool addition for small offices/home offices—SOHOs).

Portable printers, such as the HP Photosmart 130 ($180) and Sony's DPP-MP1 ($280), let you print 4" x 6" photos without a PC. Portable printers are small and typically offer CF (the HP) or Memory Stick (the Sony) memory slots. If you or someone you know needs to see results immediately, portable printers are a great gift idea.

Accessories. If you're looking for digital-photo—related gifts, you have many excellent choices. Digital camera users can always use more memory, and the highly recommended Viking InterWorks CF memory cards I mentioned earlier offer fast speeds. Digital-camera buffs should also check out online photo services, such as Kodak's excellent Ofoto, which offers print ordering; frames, albums, and other gifts; personalized photo cards; and a cool photo-sharing system. And anyone using an inkjet photo printer will need paper, such as that offered by HP.

Digital Audio Products

Copying your audio CD collection to the PC opens up your music library to a new range of sharing possibilities, including custom audio mix CDs and portable devices of all shapes and sizes. Today, the only limit to audio sharing is cost: If you want to take it with you, you have many available options.

The most elegant of these options, of course, is Apple's iPod, a portable digital audio player that ships in 5GB ($300), 10GB ($400), and 20GB ($500) versions for both Macs and PCs. Most iPods are virtually identical, with elegant scroll wheels, simple UIs, and MP3 compatibility. The Mac versions work with Apple's iTunes software, whereas the Windows versions include a special version of MUSICMATCH's Jukebox.

If a hard disk—based audio player is too expensive, consider a CD player that can also read data CDs in MP3 and WMA formats. A typical example is SONICblue's RioVolt SP250 ($180), which features 8 minutes of shock protection, an FM tuner, two headphones, an on-wire remote, a carrying case, and an AC adapter. Less-expensive models—such as the RioVolt SP90 ($100), which includes only one set of earphones—are also available.

For a more svelte design, try iRiver's iMP-350 Slim X ($150), an amazingly thin CD player that also supports MP3- and WMA-formatted disks. The Slim X offers great battery life, a removable remote, and an amazing array of on-unit functionality.

If you prefer something a little smaller, consider a Flash RAM—based unit, such as SONICblue's Rio 900 ($250), which offers 192MB of built-in memory, or Rio 800 (prices vary), with 64MB or 128MB of RAM. Such units never skip but offer limited memory compared with hard disk— or CD-based units.

Creative's intriguing NOMAD MuVo comes in 64MB and 128MB variants ($130 and $170, respectively). The NOMAD MuVo offers a two-piece design: One piece includes a USB adapter that you plug directly into a PC's USB port for copying music or backing up data; the other piece interfaces the memory with the headphone jack and battery. The NOMAD MuVo's unique design is cool-looking and functional.

Gift-giving audio lovers should consider blank CD-Rs. Such CDs are available from a variety of manufacturers.

Digital Video Products

Digital movie making is difficult and time-consuming but fulfilling, especially when you're working with home movies. With the right equipment and some patience, you can perform a range of digital video tasks on a modern PC. Thanks to ease-of-use gains initiated by Apple and its iDVD software, the process of making DVD movies is going mainstream.

You'll need a good Digital Video (DV) camcorder. Panasonic's PV-DV702 ($900) works with the MiniDV tape format and offers USB connectivity in addition to FireWire (IEEE-1394) connection. The PV-DV702 offers an SD slot for still images, although such images tend to be low resolution.

Sony's DCR-IP5 ($1200) uses the new MICROMV digital tape format, weighs just 12 ounces, and is not much bigger than a deck of cards. You pay a premium for the portability, and the MICROMV format isn't compatible with many video-editing software packages, but the trade-off might be worthwhile for many people. If you're looking for a lower-cost solution, try Canon's Elura 40MC ($900), which features a small form factor, MiniDV tape format, and a street weight of slightly more than 1 pound.

Most Macs come with FireWire ports, but many PCs don't, so you'll want an expansion card. The Maxtor 1394 PCI Adapter Card ($45), with two external FireWire ports, is an excellent choice. Consider an Adaptec AUA-3121 USB 2.0/1394 Combo Card, also known as the Adaptec DuoConnect ($90), which offers four USB 2.0 ports and three FireWire ports on one card.

For DV recording, consumer electronics—based Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) such as the TiVo Series2 ($300) and SONICblue's ReplayTV 4500 series ($400—$1400) offer hard disk—based recording, live-TV pausing, automated recording, and other features. These products also come with subscription charges. For a PC-based solution, check out SnapStream Media's SnapStream Personal Video Station ($50), which features a beautiful UI, remote access with video streaming, and no monthly fees.

For the ultimate home video experience, consider the new generation of DVD recorders, such as Pioneer's excellent DVR-A04 ($400), which works with the DVD-R and DVD-RW formats, or Sony's DRU-120A ($400), a two-way DVD+RW and DVD+R model. Generally, DVD-R offers the best compatibility with consumer-oriented DVD players. But DVD+R will likely surpass DVD-R in the future, thanks in part to support in future Windows versions.

Wireless and Mobile Technologies

Wireless networking is hotter than ever, and the current generation of 802.11b-based wireless hardware and software is responsible for this trend. Several relative unknowns in the home-networking world are bringing wireless technology to the masses. And if you're a road warrior who likes to stay connected while away from the office, you have a wide selection of products from which to choose.

Wireless networking. Microsoft Broadband Networking products are setting a new baseline for ease of use. The company offers two kits: the Wireless Desktop Kit ($180), which includes a wireless base station and wireless USB adapter, and a Wireless Notebook Kit ($180), which includes the base station and wireless PC Card adapter. Microsoft is selling just about every wireless adapter you'd need as well. Microsoft's efforts are marked primarily by excellent software, which guides you step-by-step through various types of network setups.

Belkin is taking the ease-of-use route with its line of wireless 802.11b routers, Access Points (APs), CF adapters (for PDAs), and USB adapters ($80—$180). Belkin's devices sport cool enclosures and an excellent Easy Install Wizard that quickly and easily sets up your router without any information from your ISP.

If you're looking for a faster type of wireless, check out Actiontec Electronics' 802.11a-based 54 Mbps Wireless PC Card ($130) and 54 Mbps Wireless Access Point ($220). These 802.11a-based products run in a different frequency than 802.11b, offering faster speeds with less interference. Actiontec includes simple software and color-coded hardware for error-free installation.

Mobile devices. DVD movie players are small portable devices that let you watch movies in bed, on an airplane, or from anywhere you can stretch out and relax. Mintek Digital's DVD-1710, also known as the MP-1710 ($350), offers a 7" screen and compatibility with DVDs, MP3 CDs, Video CDs (VCDs), Super Video CDs, and Audio CDs. And battery life is just right for most movies, delivering between 2 and 2.5 hours per charge. For a slightly bigger image, try Toshiba's SD-P2000 ($1000), which features an 8.9" screen; DVD-Video, audio CD, VCD, and MP3 CD playback; and virtual surround sound.

Mobile accessories. For those red-eye flights when you have to work, check out Kensington Technology Group's FlyLight ($20), a slender wandlike light that plugs into your laptop's USB port and illuminates your keyboard. You can easily bend the FlyLight, and the product comes with lights in various colors, including white, blue/white, and red. Kensington also makes the cool (literally) USB-based FlyFan ($25), a fan that sits on the end of a USB wand. This product can be a lifesaver in poorly ventilated areas or grounded airplanes trying to preserve power.

Input Devices

When you spend most of your time in front a computer, the right peripherals can make all the difference. An ergonomic, split-layout keyboard and a large mouse or trackball can delay that nasty case of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Keyboards. When it comes to ergonomic keyboards, Microsoft is difficult to beat. The company makes several ergonomic keyboards, including the PS/2-style Microsoft Natural MultiMedia Keyboard ($50), which features a nicely designed blue and white fascia and a number of programmable multimedia keys. Wireless fans can opt for the stylish Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop Pro ($85), which features a professional-looking silver and black finish and a bundled wireless mouse.

Mouse devices. The Microsoft Optical Mouse Blue ($35) and Microsoft Wireless Optical Mouse Blue ($45) are bare-bones models with two buttons and a scroll wheel; the Microsoft IntelliMouse Explorer ($55) and Microsoft Wireless IntelliMouse Explorer ($75) feature five buttons and a scroll wheel; and the Microsoft TrackBall Explorer ($55) is an optical trackball with four buttons and a scroll wheel. Any of these mouse devices are large enough to use safely for long periods.

Video and Computer Games and Accessories

Hard-core gamers go for the latest and greatest video game consoles, games, and peripherals. And PC game players won't want to be caught with the wrong game controller.

Gaming consoles. The hottest consoles this year include Sony's PlayStation 2 ($300) and the Microsoft Xbox ($300). Both systems offer high-resolution graphics with surround-sound effects and fast-action gaming. The PlayStation 2 offers DVD playback out of the box but no connectors for online play. The Xbox includes the connectors and offers the Xbox DVD Movie Playback Kit ($30) separately. Which system you buy depends on your game preferences.

For the ultimate in portable gaming, Nintendo's Game Boy Advance (GBA—$80) offers a compelling experience in a small package. Available in various colors, the GBA features a 3" color screen (which isn't backlit), a 32-bit processor, and game-padlike controls. The system is lightweight, easy to handle, and instantly appealing, with fun graphics that hearken back to the days of SuperNES. And the GBA runs on two AA batteries.

Games and accessories. For PlayStation 2 owners, the Network Adapter for PlayStation 2 ($50) adds dial-up and broadband connections to Sony's console and includes some playable game demos. Leading PlayStation 2 game titles include Grand Theft Auto III, Medal of Honor Frontline, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, or Tekken 4 (about $50 each). Sony's DUALSHOCK 2 analog controller (about $25) is a must-have because the PlayStation 2 ships with only one controller.

If you're searching for Xbox-oriented gift ideas, consider best-selling game titles such as Project Gotham Racing, Halo, NFL Fever 2003, or Techmo's Dead or Alive 3 (about $50 each). Microsoft also makes two hand controllers: the original Xbox Game Controller ($40) and a smaller version, the Xbox Controller S ($40). For $50, you can get 1 year online with the Xbox Live online gaming service, an excellent deal if you have a broadband connection.

To get the most out of the GBA, you'll want to make up for the lack of a backlight, and this is where the unit's top-mounted expansion port comes in handy. Many companies make GBA lights, but the most cost-effective solution is Nyko Technologies' Worm Light Advance ($10). To keep your GBA running longer, grab Mad Catz's Battery Grip ($15), which replaces the system's bottom with a grip-shaped rechargeable battery pack. And you'll need some games. I recommend Super Mario Advance ($25), Wario Land 4 ($25), The Sims ($40), Super Mario Brothers Deluxe ($30), Sonic Advance ($30), and Ecks vs Sever ($20).

PC game controllers. For a Nintendo-like experience, Gravis's GamePad Pro USB ($20) offers 10 action buttons, a digital interface, and plug-and-play for immediate gaming. If the GamePad Pro is too meek for your liking, the company's Eliminator AfterShock ($40) adds two analog controls and rumble feedback for a more visceral interface. And Gravis's ultimate game pad, the Xterminator Force Feedback Game Pad ($50), provides true force feedback, proportional control D-pad and flippers, 10 programmable buttons, and on-click Precision Mode for better accuracy.

Microsoft also offers some controllers that might be of interest, such as the Microsoft SideWinder FreeStyle Pro ($50), a game pad that features a unique internal mobile sensor that lets you translate hand motions into in-game responses. A more typical joystick, the Microsoft SideWinder Force Feedback 2 ($100), offers 100 types of force feedback, numerous programmable buttons, a USB connection, and profiles for many of today's most popular games.

Whether you're shopping for a loved one or yourself, there's never been a better time for tech toys. Have a great holiday season—and happy shopping!

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