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Sometimes the newest gadgets are too far out on the bleeding edge. They don’t work out of the box, and they have a few too many bugs in their initial versions. They’re also usually too expensive. But the following list of 10 cool gift ideas focuses on products or services that have been around for a while. The kinks have been ironed out and the prices are lower.
They have sold well enough to move past the first generation, and now they have been refined into something that is far more useful, practical and inexpensive for consumers.
1. iPhone 3GS. The Apple iPhone debuted a couple of years ago and is now worth buying. Apple’s premiere cell phone is still the best smart phone around and is the gateway for more than 100,000 new apps that take you into the era of mobile computing. The 3GS, which debuted this summer, has features that earlier models should have had: multimedia messaging, video recording, and voice dialing. It’s also a lot faster and capable of displaying high-quality videos and 3-D games on the iPhone’s 3.5-inch touchscreen.
Available apps, including plenty of games, are turning into outstanding experiences. And with everything from Google Maps to the New York Times to a built-in compass, the 3GS brings a wealth of information that you need while on the go. Naysayers believe that other phone makers are going to catch up with Apple soon. But I don’t see that happening with any phones on the horizon. Price: $199 for 16 GB version with two-year AT&T plan and $299 for 32 GB version.
2. PlayStation 3 Slim. Sony debuted the PS 3 for $599 in 2006 — a crazy price for the typical video game player. This fall, it finally brought the machine down to earth, launching the smaller and slimmer PS 3 Slim at the reduced price of $299. This machine is finally starting to look like a bargain. It has a built-in Blu-ray player. What’s more, game developers such as Naughty Dog have finally created games (Uncharted 2: Among Thieves) that look far better than anything else on the market.
There are plenty of exclusives coming, including such games as the online multiplayer game MAG and the God of War III game that will make this console a must have. It’s time for both Microsoft and Nintendo to step up their game, or they may face some actual market share loss as Sony makes a comeback.
3. Amazon Kindle. The time has come for eBook readers. There are thousands of electronic books now available on the Amazon Kindle eBook reader, which has a six-inch screen. You can also get top newspapers, magazines, and blogs wirelessly downloaded to the device, which displays books in black and white. This week, Amazon extended the battery life of the Kindle by 85 percent — giving it seven days of battery life — and it upgraded the Kindle so that it can read Adobe PDF documents.
The overall eBook category is starting to move faster, with new devices in the offing. If you want to wait for something cooler, next year will bring new eBook readers from Plastic Logic, Barnes & Noble (whose Nook is sold out for now), and Spring Design. But the Kindle has a huge book selection, and it is working out its kinks on a daily basis. Price: $259.
4. Livescribe Pulse smartpen. Livescribe recently introduced its own app store for the Pulse smartpen, which is a writing pen that has a computer and display built into it. It can record the words you’re listening to as you write them and then will play back the recording as you move the pen over your written words. There are 5,500 apps makers working on new software to run on the pen. Some of the apps are creative; you can translate words from English to Spanish just by writing them and tapping a translation icon on the paper. You have to buy special paper for the pens, but there are lots of cool things you can do with them. They’re now on sale in 25 countries and at various retail outlets. Price: $169 for 2 gigabyte model; $199 for 4 GB.
5. Logitech Harmony 700 universal remote. This remote is pretty smart. It helps you take control of the jungle of equipment sitting in your AV rack around the TV. To program it, you look up the model numbers for all of your devices. The remote is compatible with 250,000 devices. Then you log into the Logitech web site and enter the devices. The remote will then set up special buttons such as “Watch TV.” The remote will turn on the TV and also set it to the right channel needed for viewing TV. It will leave your Tivo alone if that recorder has to be on all the time. And it will switch the inputs to the correct setting if you are playing an Xbox 360 game on an HDMI input or watching a DVD movie on a video input. In short, it gets rid of a lot of the hassles you have if you have multiple remotes and set-top boxes. It comes with rechargeable batteries. Price: $149.99.
6. HP TouchSmart PC. With the Windows 7 operating system, touchscreen computers are getting better and better. I remember when HP introduced its first touchscreen desktop computer in January, 2007. You couldn’t do much with it except tap on the screen as if you were clicking a mouse. Now, HP has introduced its third generation of the machines. With Windows 7, the touchscreen can recognize your gestures, much like you can pinch to resize images with two fingers on the iPhone. The software comes with built-in touch apps such as Hulu Desktop, Netflix (pictured right), Pandora, Twitter, and the HP Music Store by Rhapsody. You can just touch the screen to pick and play movies, music, or send messages.
The good thing about these models is that HP is including more software that makes use of the touchscreens. You can use the webcam to snap your picture and then use the software to create a virtual character based on your image. You can then distort the image and have a ball. It’s the same kind of fun program that is built into Apple’s Photo Booth application. The all-in-one TouchSmart 300 and HP TouchSmart 600 desktops have wide screens for high-definition content. The 300 version has a 20-inch diagonal screen, and the 600 (available Oct. 22) has a 23-inch model. The 300 starts at $899, and the 600 starts at $1,049.
7. Nanovor. OK, I cheated. This is actually a new product. (Then again, the latest fighting toy product isn’t new in a lot of ways. Webkinz managed to marry plush toys with codes to activate web experiences a while ago. And Pokemon has created an addictive, fun game play for years.) But Smith & Tinker’s Nanovor has taken a fresh crack at the idea of doing hybrid toys and web sites. You can connect two toy Nanoscopes together to fight with a friend in person, or you can manage your Nanovor creatures online and then fight in online battles. This hybrid model has a lot of promise. You can start playing for free on the Nanovor web site and then pay for upgrades as you need them. Online, you can customize your creatures, download them to the Nanoscopes, and then challenge other players to fight your custom creation. The Nanoscopes cost $49 for a pair.
8. Seagate FreeAgent Theater+ HD Media Player. Crowding around the PC to check out a bunch of family pictures is just no fun. Seagate’s second version of its theater product is built for people who don’t want to go to much trouble just to connect a PC to a flat-panel TV in a living room. You simply transfer your photos, videos or music to a FreeAgent Go external hard disk, which serves as a backup drive. Then you take the hard disk and plug it into the Seagate FreeAgent Theater+ HD Media Player. The theater plugs into the TV via an HDMI cable. (The earlier version didn’t have HDMI and was missing other essential features as well). With this setup, you can use a remote control to display all of your photos in a slide show on the TV set. You can also watch videos and listen to music. There are other ways to get your photos on your TV these days, but this one is pretty darn simple. And that’s what matters most these days. It costs $269 with a 500 gigabyte FreeAgent Go drive included.
9. EasyBloom Plant Sensor. If you don’t have a green thumb, this sensor will help you. You stick it in the ground for a day or so and wait as it collects soil and other data. Then you plug it into a computer and it recommends what you should grow in that soil. It takes into account the sunlight, moisture, and soil quality. It will tell you if it’s OK to grow tomatoes by the patio or parsley on the window sill. The sensor and web site make their recommendations based on horticultural expertise that takes into account micro climates and how various plants do in various settings. It makes sense to try it out, since most plants that Americans buy or plant die within the first year. Price: You can get it for $40 on Amazon.com. Also sold in Home Depot, Burpee and Brookstone stores.
10. Shutterfly photo books. These books have been around for a while. But it’s much easier these days to upload photos into a Shutterfly account and then create nicely designed photo books from them. You can pick which pictures will go on the cover and on the inside. The software automatically lays out the page, based on how many photos you want on each page. Once you’re done adding photos, you can press publish and the book will be shipped (at your cost) wherever you want it sent. It lets you have an instant self-published photo book. These are perfect gifts for kids, who have the fun of having a book all about them, or grandparents who have never seen photo books with this kind of good production value. It’s a lot of work to upload photos, but it’s not so bad once you get the hang of it. Price: $29.99 for an 8.5 x 11 photo book. Prices vary for other sizes. A 5 x7 photo book with a soft cover is only $12.99.