What Not to Buy for Christmas

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I'm one of those people who used to be appalled when he saw Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving.

But times change, and now, thanks to the Internet, it can be Christmas all year long — and it's oh, so much easier to shop for holiday gift goodies surreptitiously whenever we want.

So who am I to say when someone should or shouldn't throw up a wreath?

With that in mind, I thought I might offer some very simple guidance to help you figure out what you should and shouldn't buy for your friends, family and even yourself this holiday season.


Do not buy — 802.11b: You'll save money on yesterday's wireless connectivity standard, but it won't leave you in good stead for all the fun broadband entertainment coming in 2006.

Maybe buy — 802.11g: "G" is faster than "b," and dual-g can even handle porting video around your home (remember what I just said about broadband entertainment). But it's about to be supplanted by "n."

Do buy — 802.11 pre-n: Here's what we learned in the rush to 802.11g: It's still safe to buy pre-standard stuff. Many of us bought pre-g (often called 54G) before the 802.11g standard was ratified, and virtually all of that equipment works now (or only needs simple firmware upgrades).


Do not buy — CRTs: CRT monitors are space hogs, weigh a ton and generate lots of heat. Yes, they're dirt cheap, but the shipping costs alone should dissuade you from buying one.

Maybe buy — large-screen CRT HDTVs: This is a tough call. All the best technology can be found elsewhere, but if you want big-screen high-def display at sub-$1,000 prices, this may be the only way to go.

Do buy — LCD TVs and plasma displays: They're thin, gorgeous, and bright, and prices are tumbling faster than a barrel on Niagara Falls. If it's within your budget, this is the right display to buy for the home or office.


Do not buy — another ten-pack of 3.5-inch floppy disks: I don't care how cheap they are. These are now useless. The only thing you should be doing with 3.5-inch disks is making sure that every last bit of your legacy data is off of them. Then recycle them into a snappy jacket or lounge chair.

Maybe buy — CD-R discs: Writable CDs are super cheap and hold roughly 700MB of data. That should make them a good value for a long time. The only problem is that with super-storage burnable DVDs on the horizon (HD-DVD and Blu-ray — both of which can hold anywhere from 30GB to 50GB of data), you'll likely be porting your data over to them and throwing out the CD-Rs.

Do buy — thumb-sized flash drives: Definitely one of my favorite inventions of the last ten years. Flash drives have made the idea of portable data a true reality. I know, I could always carry around a couple of 3.5-inch floppies in my backpack or back pocket, but the disks are fragile devices and have precious little storage. Flash drives, on the other hand, hold up to 2GB of data (or more), fit virtually anywhere, and are nearly indestructible. Buy a half dozen and give them to friends this holiday season.


Do not buy — a cheap desktop: I'm warning you now. Getting roped into a sub-$500 PC from Dell, Gateway, or any other company will only lead to heartbreak. Those systems lack key components like a dedicated graphics card and CD-R/DVD-ROM drives (you might only get a CD-R, or worse yet, a CD-ROM drive). They also have, perhaps, half the memory and hard drive space you really need, and of course, a bargain-basement CPU (2-GHz Celeron is a favorite for the budget-minded). These systems will underperform in almost every respect. They'll even stutter on the Internet, where flat HTML has been replaced by DHTML, Flash, audio, and more recently, video.

Maybe buy — a cheap laptop: These systems are often stuffed with the same sort of underperforming hardware as their desktop cousins, but the space-saving portability almost makes up for it (even if sub-$700 notebooks tend to be on the heavy side).

Do buy — a well-equipped desktop (or laptop): If you're going to buy a desktop, please get as much hardware as you can squeeze in. Get the biggest hard drive (at least 80GB), the most memory (at least 1GB), and the best graphics card (128MB of video memory minimum), and make sure the vendor throws in an LCD monitor. Better yet, buy a laptop — a nice, powerful, sub-5-pound one with built-in 802.11g, a dual-layer DVD burner, a wide screen, and enough hard drive space and memory to make you not wish for a desktop.


Don't buy — a sub-3-megapixel digital camera: Look, mobile phones now have 2-megapixel cameras. A true digital camera, which will have a much bigger lens and far more photography bells and whistles than the camera phone, should have at least 3 megapixels. There will be $99 2- and 3-megapixel cameras on the market this season. Ignore them as you would a rotted post-Halloween pumpkin.

Maybe buy — a 4- to 5-megapixel camera: There are going to be tons of great deals on these, especially as 6- to 8-megapixels cameras have become more the norm. The truth is that most 5-megapixel digital cameras will produce excellent 8-by-10 images, and many offer surprisingly rich feature sets.

Do buy — 6- to 8-megapixel SLRs: Everyone loves to take pictures, and I think most people hold themselves back by shopping only in the point-and-shoot range. Digital SLRs give you vastly more control over your images, and in their program modes, they're just as easy to use as a point-and-shoot. They'll cost you a bit more, but the resulting images will be so much better.


Do not buy — 256MB Flash-based MP3 players: Some of these players are awfully cute and are often well under $50, but they only hold 50 songs or so (more if you significantly lower the bit rate and sound quality).

Maybe buy — 1GB MP3 players: Digital music players like the iPod shuffle are passable for people who like music but buy only about half a dozen CDs a year. Music buffs will quickly grow disenchanted with the itty-bitty storage space and lack of impressive features like displays, audio–recording capability and FM radios.

Do buy — at least a 4GB MP3 player: The iPod nano is a great starter player for virtually anyone, and it could also happen to satisfy someone who owns more than 100 CDs. Of course, those who are really into music will be looking at 20-, 30- and 60GB models.

Ignore this advice and suffer the consequences. And, oh yeah, happy holidays.

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