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Avoiding Gift Gaffes...

TechnoFILE's timeless gift giving ideas

by Shirley Mitchell

Regardless of the time of year, it's inevitable that you have to screw up your courage and go gift shopping for the ones you love. Or, maybe just for yourself! Regardless of who your "special someone" is, you may be looking toward the marvelous world of consumer electronics for that perfect gift.

In this column, we'll go over a few rather generic choices, avoiding brand names in favour of general product categories.

Movie Machines…

In the past, VCR's have been popular gifts and now many families are working on their second or third units. If that's where you are, or if you still don't own a VCR, they're now cheaper and better than ever. We'd suggest keeping your current VCR (assuming it still works, of course!) as a secondary unit (or for dubbing) and augmenting it with a newer one. If that's what you want to do, why not consider SuperVHS (S-VHS)? S-VHS offers you a far better picture than the smudgy, runny one you get from regular VHS (it's said to be close to laserdisc quality, though we might argue that), which makes it ideal for recording from TV, camcorders or, dare we say, laserdiscs.

The downside is that there's little pre-recorded S-VHS software, so you're pretty well out of luck when it comes to renting S-VHS tapes. You can still play your old tapes, and rental VHS cassettes, though, so this is really a non-issue.

Or how about adding a DVD player to your home hardware? As outlined elsewhere in TechnoFILE, these are the ultimate video playback machines (at least until everything's replaced by digital toys) that also handle your audio CD's. They're also relatively cheap now, and the software's getting much easier to find.

Speaking of laserdisc, some of these machines are also Karaoke-compatible, which means you can use them as a singalong machine to amaze and impress, or just plain annoy, your friends at parties. Karaoke LD players also play conventional laserdiscs and audio CD's.

Knead Dough?

You've undoubtedly seen the a"bun"dance of automatic bread makers on the market. Panasonic introduced the first one a few years ago (and still make the best of the ones we've tried), and mouths have been watering ever since.

A bread maker is easy to use, relatively quick, and delivers a delicious product. You can also make dough and other neat stuff in 'em, and you can use their built-in timers to delay your loaf to morning, or until your arrival home from work (at which time the whole house has that heavenly, fresh bread smell).

Bird's Eye View…

Satellite TV has been around since the very beginnings of the "video revolution," but never has it been more affordable and/or flexible. Conventional satellite systems, with the big, ten foot diameter dishes, are still popular (especially in rural areas and at bars), but are now being seriously challenged (as is your local cable operator) by the small, new digital dishes.

These are the 18 inch or so diameter dishes that are getting so much hype. They offer you a wide variety of viewing choices, including most of the channels you're accustomed to (though you may have trouble getting the big networks on them if you live in an urban area) and even some specialty audio-only channels that offer all music with no talk or commercials.

Prices on these systems are dropping rapidly as they catch on, and the picture quality is also improving - not that they were any slouch in the first place.

Remember, though, the initial price you pay for the equipment is only the beginning. You'll spend a monthly fee licensing the programming, though it's priced competitively with cable. And some places don't have access to legal programming (Canada is a good example of this - Canadians have to buy their program from South of the border!), so make sure you have a pipeline to the programming you want before you plunk down your hard-earned currency.

Also remember, you need a reasonably clear view toward the equator (a view to the South if you live in the Northern hemisphere - a view to the North if you're in the Southern hemisphere) because the satellites orbit over the equator and if you can't aim at them you can't get their signals. Of course, they don't always tell you this in the store…

The Game's the thing…

Video games are leaping forward in quality and sophistication, like everything else.

Yessirree, forget Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis as being the state-of-the-art, though of course they're still popular and new game titles are coming out all the time. Now, Nintendo has its 64 bit system, and Sony's has its PlayStation - soon to become PlayStation II.

And you've just paid off the last game system the kids whined about until you bought it!

Priced in the area of $250-400 US, and with software running about the same price as the regular video games, these systems are remarkable in their graphics and sound abilities and, of course, are incompatible with each other.

So you may be stuck with an obsolete system a few years down the road, just as the old Atari, Nintendo, and Sega games (and do you remember Mattel's Intellivision?), which are now being found in bargain basements and dustbins.

However, your kids will still get at least a few years of rock 'em, sock 'em mayhem out of the machines and, if all you want is a game platform, they can be a good investment. They plug into your TV, so you don't need to buy a special monitor and set up a specific games area in your your home.

If you want something that does more than just play games, though, you might want to buy the family a personal computer.

Does Not Compute…

A PC, and we recommend the IBM-compatible market rather than the Macintosh (nothing wrong with the Mac, but would you shop for a beta VCR these days?), is the ultimate home information/entertainment and productivity platform. And most top titles for the game platforms are available (or will be) for PC's, while some games that are only available for PC will totally blow away the game platform titles - like strategy games and simulations.

Remember, though, that most PC-based games are usually one-player affairs (unless you're playing online against other people) and if your computer is set up in its own place you might find it a bit crowded with everyone gathering around the monitor to rubberneck the player. Extra controllers are available for multi-player games, but you may also need to beef up your interface so there's somewhere to plug 'em in.

Of course, a PC is also great for lots more than games and that's why you'll spend three to four times the amount of a PlayStation for the privilege of owning one.

The Softer Side…

If you already have a PC, adding some new software to it can be a nice gift idea. If your hardware is up to snuff, you can upgrade to Microsoft's Windows 95 or NT 4.0 operating systems. They both do a really nice job of making your computing life easier and will also allow you to run the scads of new software that's already hitting the market. NT is more high end than Windows 95, though - and Windows 95 is compatible with more existing Windows and DOS software.

Other than that, how about some new games or applications?

A good family gift could include one of the many multimedia encyclopedias or reference works available on just about every topic from cooking to health to Mozart.

We won't get into the many other programs and games available; there isn't enough room here! Besides, we add reviews of as many of these products as we can get our collective hands on, so keep surfing back to TechnoFILE!

Remote Possibilities…

Just about every time you pick up a new audio or video product, you get a new remote control to add to that growing pile on your coffee table. This can lead to confusion as you search for the right one, and frustration when you finally discover it's not even in the pile; junior took it upstairs to use as a "Jabba the Hutt sail barge."

Fortunately, there's a good selection of "universal" remotes on the market. Ranging from "cereal box giveaway" pricing to several hundred simoleons, these remotes control many different components from many different manufacturers.

The easiest of these come with the codes already programmed it. All you have to do is look up the brand and/or model of your particular piece of electronics on the supplied list, then punch the appropriate "key" into it and zap happily away.

Others "learn" the codes from your actual remote; you do this by pointing them at each other and teaching it the various buttons.

Whichever type you find, get one that's backlit or has big, easy-to-find-in-the-dark buttons. You may give up some flexibility in the number of functions you can operate, but if you're like most people you only use the basic ones anyway (like Play, FF, REW, Record, Channel, etc.), so it's probably not a big deal.

So, while your universal remote won't let you throw away your other remotes, you will be able to put them someplace a little more out of the way.

Of course, this can lead to "remote control wars," when more than one person has custody of a remote and they simultaneously zap different signals at the beleaguered electronics. Check out our remote control buyers' guide for some more advice.

For those with hangups…

Phones are hot. You can get big phones, simple phones, cute phones, obnoxious phones, cellular phones (but beware the airtime charges!), cordless phones, answering machine phones, even videophones!

Of all these, the generic cordless phone is a great home/family gift. They've gotten to the point where most of them are pretty quiet unless you're hovering around some other electronic device, and even the inexpensive ones give you more than one channel to cut down on interference.

Stocking Stuffers…

You can never have enough blank tape, batteries (rechargeables are making nice strides toward respectability - unless you're a pink bunny), or other accessories. Headphones are nice for the person whose musical tastes (or preferred volume) may not be able to coexist with the rest of the family's.

You can also think about upgrading the speakers on your PC, if it came with cheesy little ones. You'll be amazed how much more enjoyable your computer becomes with a good set of speakers or a better quality sound card. Likewise, a good joystick or other game controller can be a bonus to the serious gamer.

Naturally, we're only scratching the surface here; it would take more megabytes than there are on earth to cover everything you can give as a gift. Clock Radios. See? Hopefully, however, we've helped stimulate your own "creative buying juices" and you'll now sally forth proudly and confidently to make whatever buying decisions make the most sense for you.

Good luck!


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January 31, 2006