It’s beginning to look a lot like, well, a lot like another tough holiday season for retailers, with sales trending lower through the fall, stressed by rising fuel prices, falling property values, and recalls of tainted toys. Retailers like Wal-Mart held early “secret” sales on specific items, recalling the brutal competition of last year, especially with price-cutting of digital televisions.

This is good news in the short term for consumers, though, as we can expect continued dropping prices and more pre-holiday sales. Plus online shopping continues to give consumers more power to compare prices and find good deals.

Hot gift ideas this year start with portable devices — media players, mobile phones, and portable navigation systems. But this is also the season of high definition — digital cameras sport multi-megapixels, flat-panel widescreen televisions are finally dropping to a price point where you’re ready to buy, and you can step up to shooting your own home videos in high-definition. But with these new opportunities come a sometimes bewildering variety of choices and associated technologies that require some serious thinking before you can make the best decisions for your needs.

So here’s a review of the key trends for the holidays in HD electronics. Just be warned that prices continue to change drastically, especially in the holiday season, so the numbers listed here are a snapshot as of early winter. See the Digital Media Galleries on my Manifest Technology website for more on these trends and individual products, with details, links, and related products (www.manifest-tech.com/ce_gallery).

For “how-to” guides and tips on connecting digital devices, also see the Digital Tips site from the Consumer Electronics Association, covering digital TVs (HDTV), home audio, MP3 players, and digital cameras, camcorders, and accessories (www.DigitalTips.org).

Digital TV’S : High-Def & the Analog Sunset

This is the year of the TV. Prices have been slashed and now the really big TV is in reach of nearly everyone. Out with the old tube TV, invented right here at Sarnoff in the middle of the last century, and in with the wall-mounted, slim screen 21st century TV. But which TV to choose? It’s no longer as easy as figuring out which size will fit into the entertainment center.

The biggest news in television for 2008 is the impending “analog sunset.” As part of the transition to digital TV (DTV), traditional over-the-air analog television broadcasts will be turned off on February 17, 2009, and your rabbit ears will only be able to pick up static. This is a government-mandated change, which frees up portions of the spectrum currently used for analog broadcasts to be auctioned off to raise an expected $10 billion.

After February, 2009, you will need a DTV tuner to receive broadcast digital TV broadcasts (this is just for over-the-air TV; your existing cable or satellite TV connection will continued unchanged). Of course, many stations are already broadcasting in DTV, with some channels in high-def, and some multicasting — broadcasting multiple digital channels simultaneously.

As of this holiday season, all new TV sets should include a digital tuner. Then early next year you will see a big push from the government and the consumer electronics industry to explain this change and help consumers prepare for it, especially with DTV converter boxes that allow older analog sets to receive the DTV signals. The federal government is even getting set to issue up to two $40 coupons to each household to help defray the cost of converter boxes.

If you’re ready to buy a flat-screen TV for the holidays, make sure that it is ready for the change. Not all flat screen are digital, not all digital TVs are widescreen, and not all widescreens are full high definition.

Some issues to consider:

Screen size. Big wide TVs are sexy, but you only need a set large enough to fit the space in your room. You should sit back from the TV some two to three times the screen size — any farther and you lose the HD detail that you paid so much for, and any closer and you’ll see the individual dots on the screen. (As a rough approximation for a close view, you can divide the screen size in inches by 10 and use the result as the viewing distance in feet. So screen size of 52” for a large room needs a viewing distance of at least 5.2 feet.)

Widescreen. You need a true widescreen (16:9) display to watch HDTV and movies on DVD. Otherwise they will be squished to standard (4:3) aspect ratio, or displayed with black bars on the top or bottom. The TV should have easily-understood options for fitting different types of sources to the screen — both adjusting the aspect ratio, and scaling up standard-def signals to the full screen size (also called upconversion).

Surprisingly often, retail stores show standard-def TV shows stretched out too wide on widescreen displays.

True HD. Some “standard definition” (SDTV) digital sets only have 480 lines of resolution (called 480i), which is equivalent to the old PC VGA display format that we now regard as ridiculously low resolution. Then there’s “enhanced definition” (EDTV) sets, which are part-way to full HD, for example 850 x 480 resolution. But to watch real HD video, you really should get a “true” or “full” HDTV set (720p or 1080i).

The difference here is that some HD sources use 720p format (1280 pixels by 720 lines, progressive — each frame with full detail for a more movie-like look), and some use 1080i (1920 pixels x 1080 lines, interlaced — more vertical detail, but alternating from frame to frame, which can cause flicker). For the best viewing, get a set that supports both formats. But while smaller and less expensive LCD sets may be able to display these formats, the actual display may not actually have the full resolution, and may be only something like 1366 x 768 native resolution. A “full HD” set should have the full 1920 x 1080 dots on the display.

Display technology. There are four major types of display technology for large-screen TV, depending on your budget and space: plasma (for largest flat screens), LCD (less expensive for smaller sizes, and lighter), rear projection (big screen but bulky), and front projection (the big-screen movie experience). LCD sets are typically brighter and have less glare in bright rooms, while plasma can have a sharper picture with deeper blacks.

Connections. It’s a truism in the computer electronics industry that many HD TV sets are proudly brought home, and then hooked up to plain old standard-def analog connections. Make sure you understand the right connectors to use to get the best digital signal (video and audio), and from all your sources.

You’ll want multiple inputs for broadcast TV, cable or satellite, digital video recorder, and/or DVD. Also get a good surround-sound audio system to really enjoy the full sound experience. In particular, the new HDMI connections pack all the video and audio signals into one convenient cable, and also support the copy-protection technology required for the new high-def DVD formats.

Hot trends for this season as flat-panel TV technology continues to improve are better pictures with deeper blacks, video processing for smoother motion (especially for sports events), and full-up 1080p resolution.

TV is broadcast at 60 Hz (fields per second), while movies are shown at 24 Hz, rates that don’t compute well together. TVs now can display at a native rate of 74 Hz, offering more natural viewing for movies. Some new sets offer 120 Hz, called double rate. These provide smoother motion, especially for sports fans, by actually generating in-between frames from the incoming material.

Another improvement for LCD displays is using LEDs to provide the lighting for the display — punching up the colors, and even turning off behind sections of the picture to provide deeper blacks.

The ultimate in resolution, however, is 1080p — full 1080 lines, progressive, without any interlacing artifacts. This can provide great pictures with the right video sources (including gaming systems), but is less needed with smaller displays.

As you go shopping, you’ll recognize a lot of familiar brand names in the digital TV business, with companies including Panasonic, Pioneer, and Sony staking out the higher end, and LG, Samsung, and Sharp innovating to expand their market share. In a more recent development, new brands like Vizio and Westinghouse Digital are taking advantage of outsourced manufacturing to open up the market with new definitions of affordable pricing.

For example, the Westinghouse Digital TX Series of full 1080p LCD HDTVs range from a 42 inch model at an estimated retail price of $1,399 to a 52 inch model for $2,499 (www.westinghousedigital.com). The 42 inch set is 42.2 x 27 inches square, only 5.5 inches thick, and weighs 61.1 pounds. Westinghouse Digital also offers TV/DVD combo models with an integrated HDTV tuner and front slot-load DVD/CD player.

But no matter what your preference for a digital TV set, be sure to check the set up and picture quality with your specific types of video inputs, especially to view how the sets scale up lower-resolution video (like from DVD) to the full screen. For more on preparing for digital TV, see the DTV transition campaign site from the National Association of Broadcasters (www.DTVAnswers.com). The CEA AntennaWeb site also can help in selecting an antenna for your zip code (www.antennaweb.org).

Also see Wikipedia for a nice summary of high-definition television formats and issues (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-definition_television).

To the North Pole With Help From GPS

Car navigation systems using GPS (Global Positioning System) have taken the guesswork out of driving for more and more travelers as their prices have dropped. But the new trend for the holidays is mobile navigation systems — breaking away from the dashboard with a new generation of portable hand-held units that can get your car to your destination, and then detach to help you find your way on foot.

For example, we tried out the $249 LG LN735 Portable Navigator this summer in and around Princeton, and then traveling the Eastern Seaboard, up through New England, on the streets of Boston, and winding our way along the shoreline of Cape Cod. It’s not quite pocket size at 4.3 x 3.2 x 0.7 inches and 1/3 pounds, but it’s easy to carry and easy to fit in the car, even when loaded up for a trip (http://us.lge.com/navigation).

After all, navigation is not just for long exotic trips to new destinations. We found the system useful even around Princeton when we wandered onto unfamiliar back roads and were not sure which direction was which. And it was very helpful in finding several weddings, getting to an out-of-the way church near Philadelphia, and providing enough warning to turn left along a busy highway in north Jersey.

Even when traveling on known routes, it was still helpful to have a reminder of an upcoming highway exit, just in case we were too involved in listening to the audio book and not paying attention to signs. The display also counts down miles to the next turn, which helps address the dreaded “Are we these yet?” syndrome.

If you’re thinking GPS as a holiday gift, there are a lot of options available, from companies like Garmin and TomTom, which are focused on navigation, and from major consumer electronics brands like LG and Sony. Many of the new navigators do much more than tell you when to get ready to make a left-hand turn. They can make phone calls, provide musical entertainment, forecast weather on the road ahead, and store photos to show off after they guide you over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.

Today’s GPS navigators work well. They start up in under a minute, get synchronized to the signals from the GPS satellites, stay on track, and recompute routes quickly when needed. The LG actually worked well for us even when sitting on the console (and not installed on the dashboard mount). It lost the signal occasionally, and took longer to lock on when starting up, but otherwise stayed on track.

The LG has a good driving interface on the 3 1/2 inch touchscreen display, with options for 2D (overhead) and 3D (perspective) maps, plus a night mode with a darker display (there’s also a brightness control in the menus). The display can orient to north, or from the car’s current direction. Like other systems, the LG goes beyond text displays to provide voice prompts for upcoming turns (in multiple languages), with warnings when getting near, and then when the turn is reached. Importantly, it also speaks the specific name of the road (and optionally the highway number).

While these navigation systems are happy to tell us where to go, we may have other ideas. They will notice that you did not take the suggested turn, and then re-compute the route and display a new plan (typically within 10 seconds or so). For example, in driving from Princeton to the War Memorial in Trenton, the LG’s computed route was down Route 206, but we wanted to go on the highways via Route 29. Once it saw us head down I-95, the unit adjusted accordingly and lead us the rest of the way.

Besides the dynamic map display, the LG also has screens to review the entire trip, with step-by-step directions. And you can scroll and zoom the map for more detail, or to adjust your destination.

For route planning, the process of entering destinations still can be rather clunky, so I find it easier to update the LG Navigator at home by entering new destination favorites, instead of trying to do it on the fly in the car. Destinations can be entered based on address or cross streets. As you type, the GPS will display matching names from its built-in database (the LG includes both the U.S. and Canada, and data for other countries can be downloaded.

The new navigation systems also have millions of points of interest in their databases, from restaurants and hotels, to gas stations and ATMs, to entertainment locations. You also can enter waypoints to pass through along a route, and download destinations from a computer.

But once you have a portable device with display and audio, in these days of integrated devices there’s so much more it can do. With a nice color display and speaker, these navigation systems can do double duty as a portable media player. The LG can act as music player and photo viewer, with the files stored on an optional SD card. Just drag and drop media files though the USB connection. LG also includes software to install new and updated maps, back up settings, and import your own custom favorites.

Using Bluetooth wireless, navigation systems can become the interface for hands-free mobile calling, routing calls from your phone through a built-in speaker and microphone. Some GPS systems are adding real-time traffic updates and reports on weather conditions.

Digital Cameras:

Beyond Megapixels

While cameras in cell phones have become ubiquitous, and are great for informal shots, there’s still plenty of reason to use a digital camera for higher-quality shots. Today’s consumer cameras have plenty of resolution, friendlier interfaces, and amazing assists for automatic focus, exposure, face finding, and red-eye reduction. Choosing a camera has become an issue of comfort and style. Beyond the basics of lens and resolution, it’s really an issue of finding the right size, shape, and interface controls for you.

The key point about digital cameras is not to get caught up in the “Megapixel War.” You just do not need more than five or six megapixels of resolution, certainly for Web photos or normal prints, or even for blowing up to 11 x 14 inch posters. See David Pogue’s article on “Breaking the Myth of Megapixels” for a real-life comparison (www.nytimes.com/2007/02/08/technology/08pogue.html).

The idea here is that cramming too many pixels into a camera requires more and smaller image sensors, which will pass a point of no return and just result in more noise in the image. Instead, spend your money on a better lens to capture a cleaner image in the first place.

More megapixels also means bigger image files, which fill up the camera memory (and your hard disk) faster. One advantage of higher-resolution images, however, is that you can use them to do a kind of zoom — cropping a portion of the image and still having enough resolution for a good print.

As just one example of current camera design, the new Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200 is a compact but very usable camera with a huge 3.5-inch diagonal LCD display, featuring a touch-screen interface — with menus replacing all those tiny buttons (www.sonystyle.com, $359).

The T200 has 8.1 megapixels of resolution, a 5X optical zoom lens, and 31 MB internal memory. All of that picture power is squeezed into a rectangular body that’s only 3.7 x 2.3 x 0.8 inches and 6.6 ounces. The lens is folded into the body (it’s all optics and mirrors), so that the front cover slides down to expose the lens, which does not protrude from the camera.

The T200 also has some nice features like optical image stabilization, face detection, exposure bracketing, extra close-up macro mode (closer than 3 1/2 inches), VGA-res movies (640×480) with optical zoom, and a variety of portrait modes, and features to make the most of low-light situations.

An example of how advanced today’s in-camera processing has become, the DSC-T200 not only detects up to 8 faces to track focus and exposure, but it also has a “smile shutter mode” that shoots automatically when a selected subject laughs, smiles, or even grins.

But there’s more happening with digital photography than the cameras themselves. There are all kinds of interesting accessories for shooting and sharing your photos, which can make great holiday gifts for friends and relatives who want to do more with their snazzy new cameras.

High-res cameras and HD camcorders demand more careful attention to shooting higher-quality images — there’s only so much you can do to clean up shaky or underlit material after the fact. One great help is a tripod to hold the camera steady as you focus on shooting a scene. Even a small tripod can be tremendously helpful — like the Joby Gorillapod, with flexible bendable legs that bend and rotate, and stay steady with rubberized ring and foot grips (www.joby.com). You can set it up on a car or a rock, or wrap and hang it to take advantage of vertical objects like trees or doors.

The Gorillapod is available in three sizes: The Gorillapod Original for compact digital cameras, under 1.6 ounces, is $24.95. The Gorillapod SLR for lightweight SLR cameras and camcorders up to 1.75 pounds is $44.95, and the Gorillapod SLR-ZOOM for heavier pro cameras up to 6.5 pounds is $54.95.

For shooting events, full-size tripods can be clumsy to carry around and obtrusive to set up. Instead, I’ve found monopods tremendously useful for informal shoots. They are much easier to collapse and carry, and I can just sit in the audience at an event and shoot quietly with my camcorder on a stick. It’s even possible to pan and zoom a bit without being too obtrusive.

The Trek-Tech TrekPod offers the best of both worlds — a line of monopods that you also can use as a walking stick (www.trek-tech.com), and then open with a set of tripod legs (the bottom section is actually three tripod legs held together with a Velcro strap). These also use an innovative MagMount attachment system with a powerful magnet — just screw the one plate into your camera to make it very easy to quickly mount and unmount from the TrekPod head.

The original Trek-Tech TrekPod extends from 47 to 62.5 inches as a monopod, or 43 to 57.5 inches as a tripod ($139.99). The new Trek-Tech TrekPod Go! adds a more collapsible design that fits diagonally into an overhead carry-on ($199.99).

Must-Have Camera Accessories

Once you shoot all those beautiful photos, how do you share them? Today’s consumer photo software products like Apple iPhoto and Adobe Photoshop Elements offer a wonderful variety of options.

For tangible gifts, you can make prints with all kinds of fancy papers, or use online services to order prints, professional-looking photo books, greeting cards, photo stamps, and other fun items including flip books. Or for electronic sharing, you can create animated electronic slide shows to play on a computer, burn to CD or DVD disc, or to post on the Web. And, of course, you can post your images to free Web photo sites like Flickr.com to share around the globe.

Another hot gift option, particularly for people who are not big into photos on computers, is digital photo frames. You can load one up from a computer or a memory card from a camera, and then have it automatically display favorite photos or a continuous slide show.

But then wouldn’t it be great to be able to update the photos remotely, so the show could change to display new images for your relative or friends — or even send fresh shots directly from your mobile phone?

One device that lets you do just that is the CEIVA Digital Photo Frame, which includes a phone jack to dial in to the CEIVA service each night to download new images to display (www.ceiva.com). You post the shots, and grandma can enjoy them the next day in her Boca Raton lanai. The seven inch frames are $139, and eight inch frames are $184, plus the CEIVA service for $9.95 a month or $99.95 a year.

Or there’s the Parrot MMS Digital Photo Frame, due in Europe before the end of the year (www.parrot.com). This frame accepts a phone SIM card with a dedicated call number built directly into the photo frame, so that you can dial in directly to update the photos. The Parrot frames also include a position sensor that automatically rotates photos when you tilt between portrait and landscape, and a light sensor that adjusts the brightness.

But why fuss with manually transferring photos at all? With wireless connectivity, your devices should just take care of such details. Enter the Eye-Fi SD Card — a 2 GB memory card with built-in Wi-Fi networking (www.eye.fi). Set it up on your home network to interface with the Eye-Fi software on your PC or Mac, and whenever it is in range of your network it will automatically transfer new photos from your camera to the Eye-Fi service, which then can upload to share on a variety of Web photo sites. You can transfer and store photos on your home computer using the Eye-Fi software, or you can transfer them directly over the Internet via the Wi-Fi site.

Camcorders Go HD

Meanwhile, high definition is not just for watching. Smaller camcorders and falling prices have brought HD gear into the hands of consumers. But this is only part of the overwhelming profusion of choices now available for shooting video. There are three ranges of resolutions — Web/mobile, standard-def, and high-def — and at least four recording formats — tape, DVD disc, hard drive, and memory cards.

Lower Web-resolution video is part of the user-generated content (UGC) revolution exemplified by YouTube. It’s about having fun shooting and posting short-form videos, and not so much about the production quality and resolution. You don’t even need a video camcorder to get in on the fun. The mobile phone is blowing past traditional cameras as the photo-taking device of choice, and soon the majority of mobile phones will be video-enabled — to both watch and shoot videos. Similarly, digital cameras are shooting better-quality video, at full standard-res.

Dedicated camcorders like the RCA Small Wonder (www.mysmallwonder.com) and Pure Digital Flip (www.theflip.com) are great for quick and fun shooting of Web-resolution videos — and cost less than $100.

Meanwhile, the options in digital video camcorders are exploding, with SD and HD cams from $500 to under $1,000. The challenge is in choosing the recording format: DV tape, 3-inch mini-DVD disc, hard disk drives (HDD), and solid-state memory (SDHC) — as well as various combinations of the same.

Mini-DV tape camcorders are proven, reliable, and inexpensive. They can record for a solid hour, interface well with existing software, and use less-aggressive DV compression, which is easy to edit. The physical tape also serves as is an inexpensive archive. However, tape is clumsy for fast access and searching, and the mechanical tape transport mechanism weighs down the camcorder and can cause alignment or other problems over time.

DVD disc camcorders with mini-DVD discs are really convenient for consumers. Just pop them into a set-top player or computer to watch your clips. However, the profusion of DVD formats is confusing, and the storage capacity, even with double-sided discs, is limited for higher-quality formats. These cameras record in the more compressed MPEG-2 format used on DVDs, which has lower quality and is clumsier to edit. The disc also can serve as a inexpensive archive. Future DVD camcorders still can grow in capacity with the use of the high-def disc formats (HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc).

Hard Disk Drive (HDD) camcorders have become more popular as storage capacity has grown into the multiple 10s of gigabytes, and prices have come into the range of the alternate formats. The greatest benefit is immediate access to your video — just attach the camcorder to your computer to access the clips. However, the media is not removable. Once you fill the camera in the field, you need to hook it up to a computer and a bigger disk in order to copy the data and free up the internal storage. In addition, like DVD camcorders, HDD camcorders typically use more aggressive compression in order to squeeze more video onto the disk.

Solid-state memory is coming on fast as almost the best of all worlds for camcorder storage, as its capacity keeps doubling and prices keep dropping. Memory cards offer the instant-access convenience of hard disks, and the easy removability of tape and DVD. The new SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) format expands the SD card format to higher capacity and faster speeds. Cards up to 8 GB cards are now readily available for under $150, and can hold 80 minutes of HD video.

These solid-state camcorders are particularly fun and light — basically the size of a soda can, with a lens on the front, some controls on the back, and a pop-out LCD display along the size (but no optical viewfinder).

For example, the Panasonic HDC-SD5 AVCHD camcorder shoots in full 1920 x 1080 high-def, and records around 10 minutes of video per GB in highest quality mode ($999, www.panasonic.com/consumer_electronics/sd). As a result, a tiny 4 GB SDHC card priced at around $50 can hold 40 minutes of HD video, while 8 GB is dropping to around $100 and can hold 80 minutes — or longer than a DV tape.

For even more portable shooting, the rugged and water-resistant Panasonic Palmcorder SDR-S10 standard-definition camcorder ($399) is only 4.49 x 2.48 x 1.22 inches and 0.4 pounds, and records from 12 to 50 minutes of MPEG-2 video per GB of storage.

However, HD video has required new compression formats to squeeze similar amounts of video to the same physical media. DV camcorders typically use the HDV format, designed to fit an hour of HD video on DV tape. Other mini-disc, hard drive, and memory card camcorders use the even newer AVCHD format.

The downside in shooting HD is the open question of how you are then going to share your videos. You can play back from your camcorder, but you can’t burn HD video to regular standard-def DVD — and the new Blu-ray and HD DVD formats are not yet readily available enough to serve the same function (though the Sony PS2 and Microsoft Xbox can play these respective formats).

You can edit and play back HD video on computers, but while these formats are starting to be supported in video editing software, there’s still some catching up to do. And sharing the huge HD clips over the Internet is still a slow process.

The bottom line: If you’re doing fun things that you’d like to shoot and preserve in HD, go ahead and get started with a HD camcorder. You won’t be able to easily edit and share in high definition just yet, since it will be a while before the technology catches up. But you’ll have your memories saved in HD for the future.

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