Gift buying is nice, but if you're a smart shopper, you know that there's no better time to buy for yourself than during the holidays. There are great new products and amazing deals available to you right now.
Of course, it's just as easy to screw up purchases for yourself as it is to blunder on someone else's gift.
That's why I'm here to introduce my third annual "What Not to Buy" guide to ensure your holiday-buying success.
Don't buy: Any PC with integrated graphics.
I promise you that you'll rue the day you saved $200 but did not opt for an nVidia or (ATI) AMD graphics CPU with discrete graphics memory. I contend that discrete graphics capability will speed up your gaming, browsing and video-viewing pleasure.
Maybe buy: A mini PC.
The Apple Mini and HP Slimline are cute and fit in tight spaces, and though they don't offer all the power I'd want, they have more than enough to satisfy most midrange users.
If you're ready for a PC in the living room, don't want to spend more for a full-blown media center and hate the idea of a BTX-style case next to your 50-inch plasma, mini PCs could offer the perfect solution.
Do buy: All-in-one PCs.
Bravo, Dell and Gateway, for taking a long, hard look at the iMac and coming up with all-in-one PCs that either meet or beat the best Apple has to offer.
The Dell XPS One and the Gateway One (and the Sony VAIO VGC-LS25E, for that matter) look like 20-inch HD sets that would fit perfectly in any bedroom, guestroom, or small living room. Plus, they have everything, including, in some cases, HD drives.
The best part is that these systems are upgradeable. Match that, Apple.
Don't buy: A sub-$500 laptop.
I came across a deal for a Dell Vostro for under $400. That seems like a real bargain until you try to visit a flash-driven Web site, view online video or play even the simplest PC-based game on one.
Maybe buy: A $400 One Laptop per Child PC (part of the "Give One Get One" program).
Yes, I know this contradicts my first point, but if your child or grandmother can live with what is essentially a toy PC, you'll be doing a favor for an underprivileged child who could never afford a PC.
Do buy: Any laptop with a widescreen.
Standard 4:3 aspect ratios are yesterday's news, and not just because it's hard to play widescreen video on them.
A widescreen gives you more screen real estate, so you can run e-mail and the AOL Instant Messenger window next to each other without hiding anything on either interface.
Don't buy: A fake media extender.
SanDisk Sansa TakeTV is, to me, a silly device. It extends the media from your PC to your TV via sneakernet. You transfer the media from your PC to the thumb drive, and then plug the drive into a special dock connected to your TV.
Puh-lease! It's a perfect gift for people who stopped thinking in 2002.
Maybe buy: A stand-alone media extender.
A few companies like Linksys and Netgear are selling media extenders that should connect your PC and all its content to your TV and audio systems, but I worry that they're still too complex.
With most homes lacking wired networking and still running 802.11b or 802.11g, these living rooms will be filled with more frustration than image and video enjoyment.
If you're wedded to iTunes on one or more of your PCs, Apple TV could be the shortest distance between your stored digital content and your living room.
Do buy: An Xbox 360.
Your children want an Xbox 360 (yes, they also want a Nintendo Wii).
But you should want one, too, because if you have a full-blown Media Center PC in the house, this gaming console is ready to extend the media from the PC to your TV and audio devices with a minimum amount of fuss.
By the way: This is the perfect pitch for your wife — "Honey, it's two devices in one. I'll be saving us, like, $500!"
Digital Media Players
Don't buy: PC-less players.
Those players from Haier and Slacker sound cool — there's no PC required and music streams directly from a Wi-Fi connection — but the reality is that they're not ready for prime time. The more content you put on Haier's arguably innovative new player, the slower it gets.
Plus, even though Slacker (which works with Internet Radio stations) will work with open Wi-Fi networks, it pulls music onto the hard drive for off-line playback. So how is that so different than what you do with an iPod classic?
Maybe buy: A Zune.
Not everyone owns an iPod or uses iTunes. For these folks, the best choice for a hard drive–based player today is the Zune 80GB.
Like Apple, Microsoft wants you to buy into the Zune ecosystem. Use the Zune with the Zune Marketplace.
If you like that kind of thing and more features than you can find on the iPod classic, the new Zune is for you.
Do buy: An iPod Touch.
The most lust-worthy digital music player ever made simply has no equal.
Don't buy: A standalone copy machine, fax or scanner.
Who has the space for all these devices and who wants to worry about keeping three or more drivers up to date in Windows XP or Vista?
Maybe buy: An inkjet printer.
While it may seem silly to buy a printer that does nothing more than print color images and decent (sometimes excellent) photos, these can be perfect second printers for the home. Put them in Junior's room or the office as a backup.
Do buy: An all-in-one machine.
All-in-one printers now handle photos (with output that looks as good as those from dedicated photo printers), faxing, scanning and copying at levels that should please any home or small business. Canon's Pixma line is a consistent standout.
Don't buy: Solid-state drives.
These fast hard drives are starting to show up in some laptops, but they're still way too expensive compared with what you pay for the same number of gigabytes on a spinning hard drive. I say wait until next year.
Maybe buy: Another hard drive for your PC.
Hard drives are cheap, and if your PC has only one, it's probably maxed out on programs, PC games, video, music and photos.
Another drive could help you free up some of that space and possibly speed your system operation since the virtual drive will gain some breathing room.
Do buy: Back-up drives.
You can get them in different sizes, ranging from 4GB to a half terabyte. Some are portable and dead simple to use, like Maxtor's OneTouch 4 Plus.
If you don't know why you need them, spend the next few minutes going through your digital photo archives.
Don't buy: A single-format high-definition video disc player.
I know Wal-Mart and other retailers are tempting you with $99 and $200 Blu-ray and HD DVD players, but please, just say no. If you buy one or the other and the format war ends with one or the other format victorious, you could be stuck at a dead end.
Maybe buy: A dual-format HD DVD–Blu-ray player.
Whether you get it in your next PC or you pony up for an LG or Samsung unit, having all your format bases covered is one sure way to future-proof your high-def optical disc collection.
Do buy: An HDTV.
What are you waiting for? This is the year of the HDTV. The prices are amazing. Westinghouse recently showed me a 50-inch LCD for $2,400. Wal-Mart is selling 32-inch LCDs for under $600. And you can't turn around without bumping into another sub-$800 42-inch plasma deal.
Digital Cameras and Camcorders
Don't buy: A digital camera with less than 5 megapixels.
The deals on 7-megapixel-and-above cameras are simply too good.
Obviously, 4 megapixels will print decent 4-by-5-inch photos, but 8-by-11-inch and larger images (yes, you may someday print larger ones) need more resolution.
Plus you can't zoom into detail on a 4MP image the way you can an 8MP one. You'll be surprised at what you see when you look closely enough. ("See, Honey? I was wearing my wedding ring on that business trip.")
Don't buy: A point-and-shoot camera lacking facial recognition.
I usually hate gimmicky features, but I've seem more than my share of out-of-focus faces and crystal-clear lampposts to know a good idea when I see one.
The best part about this technology is that it really works. Now you can just point a, say, Fuji camera in the general direction of your family and get a good shot.
Maybe buy: A camera without a viewfinder.
I will probably never get used to using a digital camera's LCD to frame a shot, but I also know that I'm hopelessly old school. Those who never used an SLR probably won't miss the viewfinder, and with it removed there's more room for an even larger LCD.
Do buy: An HD camcorder that shoots 16:9 HD video.
It seems as if many people are about to upgrade their 4- to 7-year-old camcorder (digital or analog), and that means it's the perfect time to make the leap to HD and a 16:9 ratio, especially if you follow my HD advice.
Trust me, you do not want to be showing stretched 4:3 video on your 1080p display.
Don't buy: Linux.
The world's cheapest operating system is the darling of every do-it-yourselfer and the potential bane of every cheapskate user.
You'll save money and, I bet, lose your mind if you switch to Linux.
Note to DIYers: This advice is intended for middle-of-the-road tech consumers. You, with the screwdriver in your hand, please feel free to download as many copies of Ubuntu as you want.
Maybe buy: Vista.
It's a good operating system and does improve speeds, security and access to all files, but it's still not a must-have.
Do buy: A new PC.
You won't know how slow you're going until you bring home a brand-new PC that's pumped full of high-end graphics, bottomless storage and loads of RAM.
If you skimp on any of these areas, you'll be sorry. It may not be today or tomorrow, but it'll happen someday and likely continue for another three years until your next PC purchase.
Don't buy: Cathode-ray tubes.
You know this, right?
Maybe buy: 17-inch LCDs.
Ultra-affordable 17-inch, 4:3 displays are good for second PCs and a kid's room, though your child may disown you.
Do buy: A 20-inch widescreen.
You can get an excellent, near-HD-quality, 20-inch widescreen display for well under $200. No, it won't have digital input, but it will look and work great.
Pay $200 more and you'll have a true HD display with digital input and amazing picture quality — it can even double as an HDTV, if connected to your Media Center PC.
Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.