Season?s Gifts

High-tech picksFor the careful consumer, a little can go a long way this holiday season. Thanks to falling prices of memory chips and computer hard disks, for example, the digital music player you buy today may cost the same as last year?s model, but may hold twice as much music.

Case in point: Apple Computer?s fourth-generation iPod nano, which comes with 8 gigabytes (GB) of data storage (up to 2,000 songs) for $149, or with 16GB (4,000 songs) for $199. By comparison, last year?s nano came in 4GB and 8GB versions at the same two price points. In 2005, the first year of the nano, $249 would have only gotten you 4GB or 1,000 songs worth of memory.

The 2008 nano is Apple?s thinnest digital music player to date at just under a quarter-of-an-inch thick. Still, the 1.3-ounce unit has room for a two-inch, 320-by-240-pixel-resolution video screen sharp enough for enjoying short videos at short range. It comes in nine colors and, Apple says, provides 24 hours of music playback or four hours of video playback per charge.

The Federal Communications Commission-mandated switchover to digital over-the-air TV signal as of Feb. 17, 2009, means that viewers without cable TV will have to invest in new TVs or outfit their old analog sets with digital-to-analog converter boxes. The result? Booming TV sales, Consumer Electronics Association representatives say. ?Television has had a remarkable 2008,? says Tim Herbert, senior director for market research.

Vizio Inc., a fairly new entry in the U.S. television market, has carved out a significant slice of the market by packaging its flat-panel LCD and plasma sets in boxes that essentially sell themselves.

Vizio?s boxes offer product photos and list all specifications, allowing shoppers at warehouse stores like Costco to understand what each unit offers without the need for sales help. The company says it?s now tied for third place in flat-panel TV sales with Sharp and trails only Sony and Samsung.

Vizio?s newest LCD TV offerings include the 32-inch VOJ320F ($629.99) and the 37-inch VOJ370F ($799.99), both of which are designed with stylish cases aimed at blending in with a home?s d?cor.

Both offer full 1080p HD, meaning that they deliver 1,080 lines of progressive, high-definition screen resolution as opposed to the 720-line HD displays found in less expensive models.

This may not be the right season for expensive cell phones and some manufacturers seem to have gotten the word. The new Pantech Matrix, sold by AT&T Wireless, offers both a slide-down standard keypad and a side-sliding QWERTY keyboard, but will sell for just $80 after a promotions and rebates, with a two-year service plan. The double-slider is similar to the Pantech Duo, also carried by AT&T Wireless, but instead of Microsoft?s Windows Mobile software, which is aimed more at heavy e-mail and Web users, the Matrix uses simpler, proprietary software that focuses more on text messages and music.

The Matrix, comes with a 1.3-megapixel camera that can also capture short videos and has a slot for a removable microSD memory card, thus giving you more room to store songs or other data. Also built in is a GPS receiver, which allows the phone to be used with navigation services, and Bluetooth technology, which lets you use the phone with wireless headsets and speakerphones.

While desktop PC sales are in a funk, notebook sales are still strong, according to the CEA. Dell Computer?s diminutive Inspiron Mini 9 notebook comes with an 8.9-inch display, a solid-state (and thus noise-free) 4GB, 8GB or 16GB hard disk, weighs just 2.28 pounds and starts at $349.

Even with less cash to spend for gifts this winter, a careful shopper can prevail and still come home with a sizeable byte of holiday cheer.