Tinsel and Tech: The Consumer-Electronics Gift Guide

Yes, Virginia, there is an economic funk. And too many bum 401(k) statements have made Santa more "No! No! No!" than "Ho! Ho! Ho!"

But though the elves might be crying in their workshop over their downsized Christmas bonuses, that doesn't mean you can't make someone else happy this holiday.

For gifts that keeps giving long after navy crew-neck sweaters have pilled and shrunk, and decadent chocolates have become cholesterol and cavities, the smart money is on technology.

After all, if someone you love really wants to watch the stomach-churning ride of the Dow all day long — either on a handheld touchscreen PDA or on a big, honking plasma TV — be content in the knowledge that it was you who gave her that power.

You can throw in the Tums as a stocking stuffer.

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It's true that consumer goods have had a tough ride this year. Electronics-retailing giant Circuit City filed for bankruptcy on Nov. 10, and while it plans to be alive for the holiday season, it's closing 155 of its almost 700 stores.

One survey found that 59 percent of consumers were planning to drastically reduce their overall holiday spending — $1,337 per person on average, down from $1,852 last year.

Still, according to Stacy Janiak of market watchers Deloitte LLP, the gift-giving part of that budget is down only slightly, to $532 from $569.

Retailers such as Best Buy back this up, saying that folks might be eyeballing lower price points and looking for more value, but there really won't be a dip in demand for gadget gifts.

"I think the way that consumer electronics has integrated into people's lifestyles, they just can't imagine [being] without their phone and laptop," says Jonathan Hart, customer-experience manager at a Best Buy store on Lexington Ave. in New York City.

The economic blues will, however, have some effect on tech buying, say experts.

Tim Herbert of the Consumer Electronics Association predicts a paltry 3.5 percent growth in consumer electronic purchasing for fourth-quarter 2008, compared to a 7 percent growth last year.

That growth factor could be impacted further if retailers discount products more aggressively than expected, he says. Likewise, greater discounts will mean more incentive to buy and more bang for the holiday buck.

"Consumers will certainly be watching their budgets closely — our research shows that consumers expect to cut holiday spending, which includes gifts, holiday food, decorations, etc., by 14 percent", says Herbert. "However, they expect to increase their gift allocation to [consumer-electronics] products from 22 to 28 percent."

So if you're willing to take your somewhat-lighter piggy bank shopping, check out these tech gifts.

The Notebook

Best Buy's Hart says demand for laptop computers was hot last year, and will stay that way through 2008. Many smaller-model notebooks boast longer battery lives and come with cheaper price tags.

Sure to get a sincere bear-hug of thanks is a goodie from Apple's new "greener" line of notebooks, starting at $1,299. If those are too pricey, the last of the old line is now available for $999.

If a lot of laptop for not a lot of money is your M.O in gift-giving this year, check out Dell's Inspiron Mini 9 laptop, which packs a lot of punch and starts at $349. There are also other low-powered, low-priced "netbooks" such as Acer's Aspire 5315, which errs on the heavy side, but includes all the basics for around $500.

Other brand names to check out in the $300-to-$500 range are laptops from Asus, Lenovo and HP, some selling at wholesale clubs like Costco.

For the application-phobic computer user on your list, check out the offering from Zonbu. For $279 plus a $14.95 per month fee, you'll get a Everex laptop with 1.5 GHz processor, 512 MB RAM and Wi-Fi, as well as a monthly service that provides anti-virus software, a firewall, backup and plenty of online storage for all your photos and files.

Not-So-Silent Night

Does someone on your list jump into an enthusiastically embarrassing air-guitar session whenever a great song comes on?

For him, there's the Apple iPod, which for the third year in a row is one of the top gifts consumers said they plan to buy this year, according to Deloitte's Janiak. New to stores are the fourth-generation Nano, with a wider screen for watching videos, starting at $149, and the old-fashioned "classic" for $249.

In a tough economy, folks might prefer at-home entertainment over going to the movies or seeing bands. Experts think home movie theaters and video games are going to be big.

Gaming is, by far, showing the most promise for this holiday season, says Phil Asmundson, a vice chairman and senior partner at Deloitte. Twenty-one percent of consumers saying they plan to buy a video game or home console.

The music aficionado in your life already has "Guitar Hero," so run out and pick up "Guitar Hero: World Tour" or "Rock Band 2" (for Sony PlayStations 2 and 3, Microsoft Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, ranging from $50 to $300 depending on platform and bundles) — he's already got the special controllers, after all.

Then there's "Ultimate Band" for the Wii ($50) and Nintendo DS ($30), which lets you "play" guitar and drums without dedicated hardware — just strum the Wiimote, or pound away with the Nunchuks.

Hardcore gamers will prefer the big shooter sequels — "Gears of War 2" for the 360, "Resistance: Fall of Man 2" for the PS3 (both $60).

An excellent title for both platforms, plus high-powered Windows PCs, is "Fallout 3" ($50-$60), which takes you into a Washington, D.C., devastated by nuclear war and populated by the usual mutant zombies.

Don't have anything to play the games on? After another round of price cuts, the Xbox 360 now starts at $199, though you need to spend more for a hard-drive model. Sony's made a bewildering series of bait-and-switches on the PS3's configuration and prices, with the cheapest model now selling for $399.

As for the Wii, strong demand means it's never been discounted. It's still $249, though unlike the previous two holiday seasons, Nintendo promises there'll be enough units to go around this time.

After all that strumming and shooting, pop in Nintendo's "Wii Fit" game ($119) for relaxation, downtime and burning off that egg nog. It comes with the Wii Balance Board, and it's already proving to be the tough-to-get title for 2008.

Can You Hear Me Now? PLEASE?!

You didn't get it last year, but you really, really wanted it. In fact, you broke up with your boyfriend because he just didn't get all the hints and notes and arrows you drew around it and put on his fridge.

Stop holding a grudge. Buy yourself the Apple iPhone (starting at $199), with its long battery life, multi-touch screen (which tracks more than one finger at a time) and video-playback features.

No, wait. Before you fork over your exhausted credit card, check out T-Mobile's G1 phone featuring Google's Android software, which undercuts the iPhone by 20 bucks and has both a touchscreen and a keyboard. (For the British, they're FREE with a service-and-data contract.)

Meanwhile, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion is elbowing into the super-smartphone market with two new models — the Bold ($299 with AT&T contract), which has a keyboard, and the Storm ($249 with Verizon Wireless contract, minus $50 rebate), RIM's first touchscreen model. You know the IT guy at work would like to check those out (and he's kinda cute). Decisions, decisions.

Show and Tell

Know someone who always leaves the party early just to catch "The Office" on television? If his cable carrier hasn't yet provided him with a digital video recorder, then he could use a TiVo (starting at $149, plus monthly subscriptions) to record all his favorite shows without a fuss.

Even more powerful is Microsoft's Windows Media Center TV Pack 2008, which dances rings around TiVo with its support for up to four TV tuners, an iTunes-like music library, a full-fledged photo sorter, unlimited hard-drive space and no channel-schedule subscription fees.

But you'll need a brand-new PC with a TV tuner and Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate to use it, plus a decent flat-screen monitor — something that will easily set you back a grand or more, though a wise investment if you need a new primary computer.

Once your friend's DVR has given him more time to spend with you, you might want to get him a camcorder to record all the fun things you'll do.

The pocket-fitting Flip from Pure Digital is a bargain at $119. With its 512 MB flash memory, this little gizmo can accommodates about 30 minutes of video, perfect for capturing and sharing online.

The same company's just come out with its first high-definition model, the Flip Mino HD ($229), which packs 60 minutes of 720p video into a box the size of a cell phone.

Speaking of photos, both pocket-sized and price-friendly, Polaroid's PoGo is an instant mobile printer that lets you make use of those images clogging up your cell phone or digital camera. And it will only set you back about one Benjamin.

If you know a clutter bug, why not wrap up the Neatdesk scanner ($499)? Feed it paper receipts or documents, and it'll scan them and export their information to a data file, alleviating the need to save all that paper.

There's also a nifty idea in IRIScard's products, which all scan business cards and export contact information to your computer ($120-$400). I don't think they works with cocktail napkins, though.

For plain old scanning of documents, the Fujitsu ScanSnap S300 has garnered good reviews and sells in the $250 range.

Oh, the Places You'll Go

Your Dad still shudders at the thought of stopping and asking for directions? With gas prices still high, it's no wonder he's anxious — getting lost could mean taking out a home equity loan.

The GPS navigation systems popular last year are bound to be good sellers again. Tom Tom is a leader in this pack with its TomTom Go 930 GPS, which offers navigation including lane guidance, and retails around $400 to $500. Entries from navigation champ Magellan, with its Maestro 4259 at under $500, and Garmin Nuvi 880, a bit pricier at $600 to $1200, are other models to test-drive.

What Recession??

If that long-shot stock really did come back from the dead like your friend said it would, and you've got the cash this year to spend on your man, you could go for that famous 103-inch Panasonic HDTV plasma TV that retails for $150,000 (installation is free).

If you're not that confident in the stock or the relationship — or if he's just not that into TV, how about splurging on Motorola's Aura, a luxury wireless phone retailing at almost $2,000?

For that, you'll get a 62-carat scratch-resistant lens made from sapphire, an all-aluminum keypad and the first fully circular LCD display on the phone, which opens like a Swiss Army knife and boasts a camera, MP3 player, 2 GB of storage and a video player, and works on GSM/EDGE networks such as AT&T's or T-Mobile's.

If you just want your boyfriend's cell phone to sound expensive, you could always purchase some snap-on speakers, like the ones from Sony Ericsson (listed at $50). Download the music onto a phone, then pop on these speakers to the mobile, and he's got portable big sound.

He might also love a Bluetooth headset (many brands, starting at $25), so he can call you without holding a phone to his ear as he's walking down the street. Added bonus: other girls will think he's talking to himself, so they won't go near him.

Scram, Ebenezer

As 2008 comes to a close and our collective minds focus more on belt-tightening than black tie, it's good to know there will be plenty of tech products out there that will get your loved ones' minds off their tumultuous finances.

Just as importantly, you can make everyone on your list happy without making your own wallet queasy. Heck, with the money you save, you might even be able to cut yourself an extra slab of spam and pour another seltzer to celebrate.