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Gadget Guidance 2008: Leftovers

Beyond the evergreen categories like cameras and computers, you may find a few other types of gadget occupy a spot on your shopping (or wish) list.

GPS receivers
It helps if you can play with one in a store, so you can see if you like, or at least tolerate, its arrangement of buttons and onscreen interface. Most provide about the same map coverage and routing advice, so their differences tend to emerge in add-on functions. Some GPS receivers, for example, incorporate live traffic updates, delivered through a small FM receiver at an additional cost; this can be a useful addition, but manufacturers have made a mess of it at times.

Bluetooth hands-free capability also makes sense as a GPS feature, but I can't say the same for multimedia options like music playback and photo viewing.

Any GPS receiver will need to have its maps updated at some point to reflect new construction, but your ability to install these updates or upload your own points of interest may be constrained by a vendor's limited software support. Sony and Magellan, for example, require you to run Windows, while Garmin provides both Windows and Mac software for the job.

Digital picture frames
Like GPS receivers, these devices tend to stumble as they try to take on more jobs. The most satisfying frames are often the simplest, combining just a color display and a memory-card slot -- pop a card in from your camera and watch the picture. Additions like music playback and networked photo-sharing haven't worked out enormously well.

When evaluating a few different models, you should look at not just the size of their screens but their resolution. Some cheaper models cut costs by offering a lower resolution than normal for their screen dimensions. At the high end of the market, by contrast, you may be presented with more screen than you can use: Some frames adopt the widescreen proportions of HDTVs, leaving many photos "letterboxed" on two sides.

Pick a storage technology first. MiniDV tape is cheap and widely available, but you have to plug the camcorder into a TV to play back your footage, and transferring recordings to a computer for editing can take time. Mini DVDs require a slightly larger camcorder and don't permit any easy editing, but you can also throw them into just about any DVD player. Hard-drive based camcorders offer massive storage but require the intervention of a computer before you can share your movies with anybody. Lastly, camcorders that take flash-memory cards don't allow for tremendously long recordings on a single card, but you can always pop in another one -- then plug a card into a computer, TV or DVD player (assuming they have the right kind of card-reader slot) for later viewing.

Flash-based models seem to be taking up an increasing share of the market as the price of these storage cards continues to plunge; the future doesn't seem too bright for tape and disc-based units. Some flash and hard-drive camcorders can also shoot in high definition, although that will constrain your recording times.

Most camcorders can also take still pictures, but they tend to perform far worse than digital cameras -- which themselves can record decent videos of their own. You may decide that you don't need a camcorder because your camera already does that job for you.

Two last tips, ones you should already know: Don't buy the extra warranty, and don't buy the fancy cables.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 26, 2008; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Tips  
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Re GPS system: I made the assumption they were all basically the same, but was quite annoyed the day after Thanksgiving after getting up at dawn to get one for $99 - the staff I asked told me this particular item was for the US and Canada. I had to wait in line for the cashier to actually hold the item in my hands, then saw it was only for the U.S. This was not acceptable to me since it was a gift for someone in Montreal. I understand perfectly that it was reasonable to charge more for one that handled both countries, just want to point out that anyone planning to visit Canada would want to be sure that country's maps are included in the system they purchase.

Posted by: CMartin1 | November 30, 2008 6:09 PM | Report abuse

You say that HD footage requires more space but that isn't so. HDV, the format used in these camcorders, has the same storage requirements as DV. HDV just uses a more aggressive compression scheme.

Posted by: keithhooker | December 1, 2008 10:21 AM | Report abuse

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