Ulanoff: What to Buy --and Not Buy -- for the Holidays

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Like it or not, this is the holiday buying season.

You may be waiting for Santa to roll down 34th Street before giving your holiday buying any serious thought, but I promise you, no one else is.

It's time to give in to the urge, polish that credit card, and begin the purchasing process now.

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As I did last year, I'm offering some guidelines for what you should not buy, what you might want to consider, and what kinds of tech products you really ought to buy this holiday season. Ho, Ho ... Oh, whatever.


Don't Buy — A Blu-ray or HD DVD player.

Shame on Sony (SNE) and Toshiba for allowing the battle to go on this long. Consumers are confused and frustrated, and rightly so. I've seen players from Samsung and Toshiba in action. They're big, heavy, expensive and not worth the price.

Maybe Buy — Dual-format HDTV/DVD movies from Warner Bros. and others.

Perhaps the only good idea to come out of this excruciating high-def optical-disc format war is the buy-one-get-two formats idea from Toshiba's partners.

These dual-format (HD DVD on one side, standard DVD on the other) movies are a bit more expensive than regular DVDs, but when the first dual-format players arrive, you'll be one of the few who are ready to enjoy these HD movies.

Do Buy — Anything that gets you a free DVD player.

Many DVD players are reaching the tail end of what I see as a five-year lifespan, which means many people will be thinking of buying a new one. The great news is that the players are so cheap (and they even upscale!) that you may get one thrown in when you buy an HDTV.


Don't Buy — Any entertainment display that can't handle HD.

No component and HDMI ports? Keep walking.

Maybe Buy — An HDTV-ready display.

You'll save money (sets without built-in ATSC digital tuners typically cost less). And if you already have a digital box or two, you're already ready to enjoy the HD fun.

Do Buy — An HDTV with an HD tuner.

The next set you buy will be HD-ready. Don't skimp. You want a built-in tuner, so you won't have to rely on a cable or a satellite box.


Don't Buy — Cheap consumables.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but cheap paper and inks will probably lead to nothing but disappointing print output and user frustration.

As far as I can tell, no one is engineering printers to fail when you use this stuff, but most of today's printers are so fine-tuned — and complex — that off-formula stuff can cause printing problems down the line.

I've used third-party inks that work okay but often end up clogging my ink jet's print heads. I solve this by running the print-head cleaning routine about a dozen times.

Maybe Buy — A cheap printer and any ink and paper you want.

Every home should have an inkjet printer for printing Web pages and kiddie projects, where almost-right colors and okay saturation are just fine.

If you accept that this is not the printer for your precious memories and that it may need more maintenance than a printer that always gets the manufacturer's preferred paper and ink, you'll be fine — and you'll save a ton of money.

Do Buy — A dedicated photo printer.

For under $300, you can get a photo printer that prints 4-by-6-inch prints.

It'll read photos directly from your camera or memory card, and you'll be able to store them on optical media, edit them on a built-in screen, and print out photos that meet or beat what you used to get from your one-hour photo store.

I know many people worry that printing your own photos is too expensive, but the costs usually run between 22 and 35 cents per print.

This can come out to around $6.50 for 24 prints. And they'll be the 24 shots you really want, instead of you having to print out everything on a roll that has maybe three or four keepers.


Don't Buy — A laptop without an optical storage drive.

Most laptops come with around 60 GB of storage. That seems like a lot, but apps, overflowing mailboxes, Web videos, music downloads, photos and documents will soon make that hard drive seem a bit small.

You need a place to offload data. With a CD-R or DVD-R drive (or maybe even a dual-layer one), you'll never worry about running out of space again. Or at least not for a while.

Maybe Buy — A Vista-ready notebook.

Manufacturers and especially retailers are preparing to clear the decks for this winter's anticipated Microsoft Windows Vista release. That means there'll be lots of cheap, underperforming notebooks gathering dust at your local Best Buy (BBY).

Look for models with the specs necessary to support Windows Vista Premium. If you don't find them on the bargain shelves — and my guess is you won't — think about looking for a new model with the Vista-ready label.

Do Buy — A convertible Tablet PC.

2007 could, finally, be the year of the Tablet PC.

As an amateur cartoonist, I've always loved the tablet. And these versatile notebooks are a hit with virtually anyone who buys them.

They let you quickly jot down ideas, scribble notes at lightning speed (which can be converted to reusable, searchable text in, for example, One Note), and, of course, let you create art with digital abandon.

Microsoft Windows Vista will have the Tablet OS features baked in, so you shouldn't have to pay a premium for the OS. Even better, the latest models are thinner, lighter and more powerful than ever.


Don't Buy — Draft-n wireless.

Though 802.11 pre-n impressed us, draft-n has been completely underwhelming, with short transmission distances and inconsistent performance. The routers show all too clearly the unratified nature of the forthcoming "n" standard.

Maybe Buy — Pre-n.

If you can find any pre-n routers and adapters, you might want to buy them. They're faster than any other wireless option out there, and they may be upgradable to the final ratified standard (whenever that arrives).

In addition, they could make the dream of wirelessly streaming video from PC to router to access point to the destination point of your choice a reality.

Do Buy — Cat 5e cabling.

Ultimately, the best Internet and online video experience comes with wired technology. If you don't mind drilling some holes, fishing some cable and generally getting your hands dirty, you can create a rather robust home network without too much fuss.

Remember that Windows XP (and eventually Vista) makes setting up a network relatively easy, and routers and hubs can use DNS to assign Network IPs and subnet IDs automatically without your so much as lifting a finger.

Do Buy — Powerline networking.

I know. I know. I'm breaking my own rule by having two "Do Buy" options, but I can imagine that some of you are totally freaked out by my Cat 5e suggestion.

Don't want to drill holes? Powerline networking is finally affordable enough and works well enough — including Quality of Service (QOS) features — to be a viable home-networking alternative. And you won't have to drill any holes or fish any wire. There. Happy?


Don't Buy — A 100 GB hard drive upgrade for your PC.

The world of online and home digital video is making our hard drives seem smaller and smaller, but don't get suckered into buying yet one more drive for your aging PC. It'll be a quick fix that, when you've chewed through all that space, will wear out its welcome in a hurry.

Maybe Buy — Small portable hard drives.

Seagate's got some nice 6 GB and 8 GB portable hard drives that are good for porting music libraries, photo collections or a few videos between PCs. Because they're true hard drives, they're more susceptible to damage than thumb drives. They're still small enough to fit into a pocket or bag, though.

Do Buy — Network Attached Storage (NAS):

Remember that network we talked about? Here's the real payoff. Attach an Infrant Ready NAS, Yellow Box NAS or another similarly well-reviewed device, and let it back up all your crucial data (Microsoft Word documents, e-mail, photos, videos, and more).

Most NAS will help you during configuration and give you the option of creating redundancy within the server (RAID 1). And no, one terabyte of storage is not too much storage space.


Don't Buy — A compass.

Unless you're also carrying a whip and your name is Indiana Jones, you'll look downright silly with this 19th-century device.

Maybe Buy — A map.

Actually, you don't need to buy one. You can visit Yahoo! Maps, Google Maps or MapQuest to get all the directions you need.

Do Buy — A GPS device.

They're still not cheap enough, but almost all of today's GPS devices are faster and more powerful than before (thanks to the SiRF Star III GPS receiver).

For roughly $400, they come with the entire map of the U.S. and can probably prevent you from ever getting lost again. They're also small enough to take anywhere and easy enough for anyone to use.


Don't Buy — Preorder Microsoft Vista.

The operating system will be in your next PC (if you buy one next spring). Why not wait until then?

Maybe Buy — A new security suite.

Norton, McAfee and Trend Micro finally seem to understand that less is more.

Sure, the latest suites offer powerful PC protection and can be impressively rich and deep. But these new versions hide some of the suites' more complex features, or actually leave them up on Web servers so you can download the functions if you want them.

What's more, they're all starting to include dead-simple "Fix" buttons (kind of like Staple's "Easy" button). This is smart thinking that could get a lot more people using security software.

On the other hand, if you have a solution you like and are keeping all signatures and subscriptions up-to-date, there may be little reason to switch or upgrade.

Do Buy — Software.

I often wonder if consumers ever buy applications beyond what's given to them for free on a Windows PC or Apple (AAPL) Mac. Most systems come with basic word processing, image management, personal information managers and even financial management.

Still, there's a world of other applications waiting out there to help you become a better artist, typist, business person, videographer and more. Productivity software makes an excellent stocking stuffer.


Don't Buy — A wireless digital camera.

Sorry, but I don't get the fascination with this feature. It's easy to remove memory cards or hook your camera up to a PC.

Do we really need to transmit photos to the PC or directly to someone else the moment we take them? Most of the time, the person you might send them to is standing right in front of you. I think they'd appreciate a printout even more.

Maybe Buy — A dual-lens camera.

I kind of like the idea of a stronger telephoto lens and larger wide-angle coverage all on an ultracompact camera, and if the only way to do it is with two lenses, so be it.

Do Buy — Bigger lenses.

No, I'm not talking about the kind of extra telephoto lens you might slap onto a D-SLR.

Still, it's instructive to look at D-SLRs as the model for what digital photography can be. Notice the big lens. It's like an eye, or really the pupil of an eye, opened wide to let in more light.

These larger lenses take better pictures. If you understand this, then you know why camera-phone pictures are typically so crummy. They lack clarity and depth.

A superzoom with a big lens gives you all that, and you can get it without going all the way to a D-SLR.

That's my list. What buying caution and advice can you offer readers?

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