Well, it's hard to find cheap steals in electronics, so I'll just go ahead and recommend them, and you can view it as a nostalgic symbol of better times:
1. Wii Yes, it really is that great. See the post that will follow immediately for a list of video games, but yes, even a 35 year old woman (albeit, one whose electronics fetish has won her a description as a "bewitching combination of yuppie and 14-year-old-boy) can be very, very glad she owns it. If you have a family, or entertain at all frequently, you'll want to order a couple of extra remote controllers and nunchucks so that four can play at one time.
2. Wii Fit The Wii Fit is both surprisingly fun, and a surprisingly good workout. It won't challenge you if you're a real gym rat, but for the rest of us, the strength and yoga exercises especially are actually pretty good at increasing strength. And the balance work is good for nearly everyone, because unless you're a dancer or a gymnast, that's a skill most Americans never work on.
Many of the included games, like ski jumping, are actually fun, but the Wii Fit also opens you up for games like cheerleading, which is on my wish list for this Christmas.
3. Sony Blu-Ray Player My housemate, who is a massive film buff, owns this, and I was somewhat surprised to find that even for a casual filmgoer like me, the quality really does make a difference. Films like Blade Runner are astonishing on a Blu-Ray player and a good television. If you're sure you'll never want 7-channel surround sound, you can buy the cheaper model, the S350, which offers most of the other features for $100 less; you'll still get the crystal clear picture and sound.
You don't want this player if your television is smaller than 40 inches; the housemate, and several electronics publications, aver that you won't be able to see much difference.
4. Panasonic Viera 50-inch television This is the TV that is gracing my housemate's crazy media room in the new place. It remains CNET's second best-rated HDTV (the first best, Pioneer's Kuro, is by all accounts the best HDTV out there for any money. It also retails for $4500. Even my housemate isn't that crazy.) The picture is beautiful, and the features are not only actually useful, but easy to use, which is a plus when your housemate likes to fiddle with colors and aspect ratios while muttering. Fair warning: if you want to wall mount it, or put it on a stand, you'll need something fairly substantial, because these weigh quite a lot.
5. Tivo HD I know--I'm like a crazy broken record, telling you that you want to spend hundreds of dollars rather than just get the DVR that your cable company rents you for $5 a month. But now the better recording features, simpler menus, and superior search and recommendation technology are not the only things recommending the Tivo. Now TiVo lets you download content from Netflix and Amazon Video On Demand, which makes it a vastly superior value proposition. It can also handle podcasts, and your music and photos, making it a pretty good stand-in for a media server.
I used to recommend the higher end models, but I no longer think it's worth investing in them, because you can attach external hard drives to the TiVo to get extra storage space. (Warning--you can't use the external hard drive for anything else; TiVo formats it for its own use). That's a lot cheaper, and more flexible, than buying a pricier TiVo.
I do recommend, unless your television happens to sit next to your ethernet, investing in a TiVo wireless adapter, which will let you hook it into the wireless network.
All TiVos now let you use cable cards, giving you dual tuner capability--you can watch on one channel, and record on another. You can also transfer content between TiVos, which I dream of doing when I finally become a two-TiVo family.
6. Kindle Still love it. The machine is expensive, but the books are cheap--and they no longer threaten to crowd me out of house and home. Seriously, I've probably saved the cost of the Kindle in forgone paper books and new bookshelves to hold them. And for travelling, there's nothing like it. If you, like me, are used to hauling around a huge pile of books on vacation, this will save your back, your temper, and your excess baggage charges. It's also great for people like my mother, who's on a so-far unrequited quest for the perfect reading glasses.
7. iPhone Yup, it's great. I never knew before that I wanted to read my Google reader in taxicabs and get my email on the train. But I do. It's also a good enough phone that my mother, who is technophobic, got one.
Two weird things that might hold you back (besides the price): My mother's fingertips tend to be very cold, an artifact of all the chemicals she used to refinish our house. It took her a while to get the hang of making the screen work, so if you have diabetes or something, it might not be a good phone for you. Also, it's delicate. Both my mother, and Peter Suderman, with whom I waited in line for the phone, managed to break theirs pretty early into their ownership.
If you do get one, a couple of recommendations: buy AppleCare, and a good case. I have the Griffin Wave, but there are a ton of great cases out there.
8. Shure noise cancelling headphones Anyone who flies frequently, or commutes by train, shouldn't be without these. They have three advantages over those famous ones sole by Bose:
1) They're smaller, which means that you can sleep in them, and also that no one will mistake you for an air traffic controller trying to land cargo planes in World War Two Borneo. Also, a lot easier to carry--you'll use these for every day.
2) They're several hundred dollars cheaper.
3) They work better. Rather than using white noise, these block your ear canals so sound can't get in. It takes a while to get used to the sensation, but after you do, they not only give you better sound quality, but also actually protect your hearing from excessively loud noise.
For obvious reasons, do not wear these while driving or riding a bike.
9. Olympus digital voice recorder This is a gift for people who use a PC. It is not a sexy gift, to be sure, but for a journalist, a good voice recorder is indispensible. This one delivers really sterling sound quality--I've recorded interviews in the middle of very crowded rooms, and gotten every word. Possibly the best feature is that the device itself is a USB key that you just plug into your laptop, so there's no wondering where you put that cable
10. Logitech laptop headphones After more than a year, these are still indispensible. I use them not merely for Bloggingheads, but for nearly all my phone interviews; a $14.95 plug-in for Skype allows me to record my phone calls without expensive equipment. They're also extremely good, and comfortable, headphones. And they're designed to work either with or without USB (there's a little adapter) which makes it easy to switch computers, or plug them into my iPod, as I've done more than once.
11. Western Digital Passport drive Bigger than a USB key, smaller than a massive external, this is what I travel with for backups. If you're lazy about backups, you should have one of these in your laptop bag, making it easy to back up on a whim. It's easy to use, good looking, and most importantly, it fits neatly into a laptop pocket. I also found it useful when my music maxed out the hard drive of my laptop; I just moved it to the external drive.
12. Western Digital One Terabyte external drive Now that they're less than $150, every family should have one for centralized backups; your pictures are worth more to you than a couple of shifts at McDonalds. You can also use one to expand your TiVo's capacity, much more cheaply (and more storage) than buying a bigger TiVo. Or turn an old computer into a media server attached to your television, with the drive holding music and movies.
13. Verizon wireless modem This is a deductible business expense for me, but I highly recommend this for anyone who moves around a lot. It's taken the place of expensive wireless purchases at airports and Starbucks. I work on the train, in libraries with no wireless--basically anywhere I can get a cell phone connection. While I get my cell phone with AT&T, I'm still loyal to Verizon's superior network for my data card.
14. Logitech Harmony Universal Remote If you are going to have a TiVo, a Blu-Ray player, perhaps a decent stereo, you are going to need a universal remote, or a prescription for powerful antipsychotics. This is the mid-range model, and I'm on my second one (the first having been tragically crushed in the Flight From New York). The setup is slightly tedious, but once you've set up your activities (watching movies, listening to music on the media server, etc), it vastly simplifies your life--you can even control the lights with it, if you have the right sort of dimmer. I particularly like this one because it's rechargeable. The only downside is that I now can't cannibalize its batteries in extremis.
15. Sony Cybershot H3 This is the camera I bought two years ago for some professional work; it's still plugging along. It takes beautiful amateur photos with a variety of settings that are pretty easy to use. Most importantly (to me) it has a 10X optical zoom, which gives you a great deal more flexibility than most point-and-shoots. It's elderly now, and I'm sure has been replaced by something even snazzier. But frankly, at this point, the upward ratchets in megapixels are counterproductive for most amateurs--what you gain in pixelation, you lose in the fussiness of the picture-taking requirements. (Among other things, the more pixelation, the more exacting the lighting requirements). I'm hard put to think of a feature this doesn't have that I'd want.
16. iPod connector cables I find these much more useful than a sound dock--you can connect your iPod to any stereo, rather than spending extra to get a connection to just one, usually inferior, system. These cables also let you connect any iPod with video capability to your television, and power up at the same time with the attached USB jack. I use mine all the time, and take them with me when I travel.
17. Brother Multifunction Printer I cannot overstate how great it is, in a multi-computer house, to have a multifunction printer with built-in networking. The biggest problem is that I am now the most popular person among my circle of friends and family, as everyone stops by to do a little printing, a little faxing, and drink my coffee. Luckily, I am very social, and have a big coffeemaker.
A note from the housemate, who is, er, a little obsessive about electronics right now: the best time to buy a television will apparently be next weekend, when most videophiles think the LCD market will bottom with the pre-Christmas sales. Manufacturers overproduced in August for a Christmas season that has turned out to be considerably less merry than expected. So if you're going to buy a flat panel, wait a week. I know you may want it under the tree, but a picture will be nearly as magical.
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