Saturday, October 29, 2005

Uncle Mark is off the mark (2006 Holiday Shopping Guide)

Uncle Mark (Hurst) performs a service for his friends and relatives. His shopping guide is a generally handy service for non-techies, providing a trusted source to weed the many choices and make a straightforward buying recommendation.

But there is a point at which you can oversimplify advice, and this year I think he's done that. While none of his picks are totally misguided, there were two that I thought were far from optimal.

Digital Cameras
I looked long and hard at ultra-compact digital cameras this year. The Canon Digital Elph SD20, while a fine camera and a decent value, is trumped by the Sony DSCP200 for most point-n-shoot photographers. While both take excellent pictures--good lenses and chips--without a lot of work, the Sony wins on what really makes a camera worth having in a pocket cam. Set aside for a moment that the Sony is a 7 megapixel camera for a second--most of us rarely need the kind of resolution. Both cameras are tiny and live inside your pocket all day long.
  1. The Sony battery technology just blows Canon's batteries out of the water. I knew the Sony batteries were good from past experience with video cameras. But even I was surprised by the life of the P200's battery pack. I was used to having to carry my spare Canon batteries with me everywhere I went. I use my P200 every day, with the 2 inch LCD running. (If you're willing to use the viewfinder, you can greatly lengthen battery life, but I'm not a squinter.) I have to charge the battery every four to six weeks. If you buy this camera, you probably don't need a spare battery. I can't honestly say the same thing for the Canons.
  2. The Sony P200 has ultra-fast boot-up times (the time from when you press the power button to when you're ready to shoot.) I often press the power button as I'm pulling the camera out of my pants pocket. By the time I can raise the camera to shooting level, it's ready to fire. My experience with the Elphs is that they take longer.
  3. The P200 is one of the better cameras in the class at reducing between-shot lags. You digital camera owners out there--including you Canon Elph owners--you know what I'm talking about.
My belief is that there are a number of ultra-compacts that all take excellent pictures, so that's not the determining factor. Pocket camera owners do a lot of quick snapshots, and for that one wants a camera that is small, light, and always ready to take a picture. It's on this last point that the Sony rises to the top of the heap.

Personal Computer
Hey, I'm a Mac guy too. My general advice is to buy a computer when you need one, and to buy on the relatively low end of the product line. (My rule of thumb: buy cheap, buy often.) The difference between cheap and expensive computers today will tend to be much smaller than the difference between any computer today and even the cheapest computers in two or three years.

Now is NOT the ideal time to purchase a new Mac, and especially not the time to buy a Mac laptop. The Mac Laptop line has languished on the old G4 processor for years. Now, Apple is poised to make a colossal shift in the next year to Intel chips. While the change should be relatively smooth migration forward for existing Mac users, potential switchers would be wise to take a wait-and-see posture until NEXT holiday season if they can afford to do so. From what we've initially seen 'back at the lab,' there's a good chance that Macs will soon be sold that are dual-boot capable. (They'd run OS X and Windows. Linux, anyone?) Being able to keep one's existing software could be a very important reason to hold off before buying.

Bottom line: Mac users, do whatcha gotta do. Switchers, go ahead now if you're ready for a full cutover; but if you would benefit from straddling both worlds, wait-n-see.

As a secondary note, I'm very cautious about recommending the 12" iBooks to anybody until I'm sure that they hold portability at a premium. That's very limited screen real estate; it's fine for somebody who will literally be carrying their laptops everywhere, but limiting for people who like to manage multiple windows, play games, work on graphics/web stuff, or digital movie making. The 12" screen is hardly a one-size-hits-all solution, and one would be wise to think seriously about the recipient's lifestyle and interests before buying one as a gift. If you just aren't sure, the default should be a 14" or 15" screen. If the recipient is an on-the-go techie who can't be away from their instant messaging window, then the smaller product is the way to go.

The rest of the recommendations look fine to me. He's right about the 20Q electronic game. It's a fun toy for almost any age at less than $10. My wife and I both had fun trying to stump it, and even my preschool-aged son got in on the act answering the questions. (For very young kids, it's actually educational, allowing them to explore the classification of objects.) Good to have in the bag o' tricks on long car rides.


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