How to Buy Smartphones and MP3 Players
On top of my column today, which focuses on how to buy computers, digital cameras and televisions this holiday season, here's a little more guidance on two other common gadget gifts.
Smartphones play multiple roles: They put the Web in the palm of your hand, let you check your e-mail anywhere, keep you on top of your calendar, play your MP3s and look cool. But not all fulfill these roles equally well. Here are some things to keep in mind while shopping:
* If the smartphone's primary job is to replicate your computer's contacts list, calendar and to-do list, it's hard to beat the comprehensive way Microsoft's Windows Mobile ties into Microsoft Outlook. Palm OS devices, such as the Treo and Centro, also pair well with Outlook--but if you want to connect them to a Mac, get ready to spend some extra money. Even Palm executives say they expect their Mac customers to drop $40 for Mark/Space's Missing Sync software, which syncs a Palm to a Mac's Address Book and iCal software.
* The iPhone, meanwhile, rules this category if you regard a smartphone as either an extension of your music library or as a pocket-sized window to the Web. But it's near-useless as a notepad and, for now, doesn't support add-on programs.
* If you most enjoy playing extra software, Palm OS devices--despite a serious slowdown in the development of new Palm programs--still offer the widest variety of third-party applications, many of them free.
* I think the BlackBerry is horribly overrated, between its ugly, clumsy desktop software, its atrocious Web browser and its inefficient interface. But the BlackBerry Pearl is one of the thinnest, best-looking smartphones around. And if you feel strangely compelled to have constant access to your work e-mail, a BlackBerry will do that just fine with some help from your office's IT department.
IPod or not? That's where most people start their shopping, and they should. If you're not sure if a gift recipient wants an iPod, check! You do not want to guess wrong on this.
* Anybody who uses a Mac needs an iPod, period. Most non-iPod players rely on Microsoft software, either Windows Media Player or Zune, that isn't available for Mac OS X. The same goes for anybody who's shopped at length on the iTunes Store, since most of those downloads can only be played on an iPod.
* Conversely, anybody who has purchased or rents music from one of the major non-iTunes stores will need a player compatible with those downloads. A "PlaysForSure" model should support stores besides iTunes and Zune, while only Zune players--shockingly enough--work with the Zune Marketplace. And if you'd like to download audiobooks from your local library, you'll almost always need a PlaysForSure device to listen to them.
* If you want to listen to podcasts, get an iPod. The Zune's podcast support is embryonic in comparison, but far outclasses what comes with other non-iPod players.
* Unless you want to carry around your entire music library or watch full-length movies on a player, stick to models that use flash memory. The solid-state storage in these devices shouldn't conk out if you drop one on a sidewalk, unlike the hard drives in higher-capacity players.
* Among flash-based iPods, I prefer the iPod nano. The iPod touch looks flashier but is more trouble to use, thanks to its lack of physical controls for such basic functions as adjusting the volume. And the iPod shuffle is too basic for anything but workout use.
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