Christmas presents: To pick the best Christmas gadgets, take a look into the future

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When it comes to electronic gizmos, there are gifts to suit most tastes and budgets. Steve Homer examines some of this year's favourites.

Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat ... well the shelves of the electrical stores are heaving with electronic turkeys anyway. So how do you avoid falling for the fowl and how do you spot the fair when it comes to Christmas gadgets and gizmos?

Well the best bet is to take a long hard look and not rush into anything. Also try and look a little into the future.

For example, the vast majority of television sets are sold at this time of year. But have you thought about buying a wide-screen television? No. Well if you buy a conventional-style television and you decide to sign up for digital television next year you may well end up kicking yourself. (And don't forget, modern TV sets last just about for ever.)

Many digital television programmes will be transmitted in the wide-screen so-called 16:9 format (that means the picture is 16 units wide for 9 units high - a third wider than today's television pictures).

But, and it is a big but, picture-for-picture wide screen televisions are still very expensive.

The problem is that because they are wide a so-called 28in set costing around pounds 750 is only fraction taller than a 21in conventional set, costing around pounds 350 and is significantly less tall than a 25in set at around pounds 550. But these sets are worth a look. They are brilliant for watching movies on and they are certainly the way of the future.

One other thing to look out for on televisions this Christmas is Surround Sound. This allows you to sit in your sitting room with sound effects similar to what you get in the cinema. Part of the sound comes from behind you. Conventionally this has been done by putting a pair of small speakers at the rear of the room. But having speakers at the back of the room means trailing wires all over the place.

A couple of years ago JVC came up with a clever system for bouncing sound off the wall behind the TV which, by using a time delay, was made to sound like it came from behind you. Most competing manufacturers fell around laughing saying it would not work but many have since introduced their own version.

So what are you going to watch on your television? You could do worse than buy your offspring a games console. The technology is amazing and the price unbelievable. The incredibly sophisticated Nintendo 64 is gathering recruits. It is on sale at pounds 99 but that does not include a game. These will set you back a sobering pounds 40 to pounds 60. The good news is that they will teach your children the value of money! Sony has cut its price too to around pounds 130 for the Playstation but this includes extra memory and two controllers so little Johnny can play with a friend. The Sega Saturn is still on sale but has essentially lost the war. It is on sale at pounds 99.99 where you can find it. The advantage of the last two systems is that games are about pounds 10 cheaper than Nintendo games.

But if you want to buy a game for a spouse how about a computer game.

There has been a bumper crop this year. Computer mega-company Microsoft has finally come up with a truly great game called Age of Empires. This allows you to help your band of Stone Age savages to develop into a great civilisation - and then destroy everyone else. It may not sound much but it is addictive and stunning. Then there is Tomb Raider II, Blade Runner and many more besides. (There are even one or two games around this Christmas that might appeal to the less destructive of our number. One called Worms II could appeal to kids of all ages from 9 to 90.) All these will set you back around pounds 40.

If you are strapped for cash and the price makes the colour drain from your cheeks don't worry. There are some real bargains around.

A lot of older computer games are again on sale this Christmas at real bargain prices. These are not remaindered games but really good classics and playing them now can be better than first time around.

A lot of games when they first come out push computer technology to the limit so, on the sort of computer that normal folks have, they can be a bit slow and/or jerky. But if you put one of these games from two or three years ago on a modern computer, all the game play is still there, but they run more smoothly and are basically more fun to play.

So games like the original (and wonderful) Sim City retail at pounds 15 and the original Dune (not as good as Dune II however) retails at an unbelievable pounds 4.99. The fantastic Railroad Tycoon will set you back about a tenner, the incredibly absorbing Command and Conquer and the well regarded Civilisation II both retail for around pounds 15 and even that ground-breaking shoot-em- up, blood and gore game Doom is on sale for a miserly pounds 13.99.

Oh, and if you don't just want to play games some of the superb earlier Dorling Kindersley titles, such as the Human Body and How Things Work, are on sale for under pounds 15.

If you want to get out and about with an electronic gizmo why not get the ultimate gadget - a GPS navigation system. These units, which will tell you where you are anywhere on the surface of the earth to within 100 meters, are getting cheaper and cheaper.

One of the most popular models at the moment is the Garmin III. This device takes your position and combines it with a stored map (which shows all motorways, A roads and major towns) to show you where you are, let you calculate distances to your destination and work out your estimated time of arrival. At around pounds 450 it is more expensive than some of its rivals but it is certainly good fun!

But if you want to organise your trip you are going to want some sort of organiser. The Psion 5, at around pounds 400 to pounds 480, is proving popular according to retailers. This machine is a pocket computer that does all of the things you want your computer to do. It now comes with much improved connectivity software and improved, though very small, keyboard.

There are all sorts of clever gadgets in this sector - notably the Apple Newton MessagePad that can read your handwriting quite well these days. Another device that takes in what you write is the Palm Pilot which costs between pounds 219 and pounds 299 for a more sophisticated model. The difference is that with the Pilot you have to learn its slightly odd special script. This only takes a short while and once you have learnt it, it is absolutely wonderful.

What makes the Pilot so good is its limited ambitions. It is something you use as well as your computer not instead of it. Its main delight is its ability to almost instantly synchronise the data on the Pilot and your PC. You pop the Pilot into its cradle, push a button and that is that. Diary dates made on your Pilot move to the PC and vice versa with any clashing information highlighted for you to sort out. Fantastic.

But if you are going out and about why not pick up a Mini Disc player. MD has been slow to take off. MD uses recordable discs about half the size of a CD and stores music brilliantly. There is very little pre-recorded music available in record shops but there are 750 titles you can get by mail order. Where the system does come into its own is recording your music to take with you. Companies like Sharp and Sony have wonderful tiny players and recorders that will easily disappear into a jacket pocket without ruining the line of your suit. However they cost around pounds 180 to pounds 300.

Another area of rapid advance is camcorders. Digital camcorders have been around for over a year now and they are simply mind-blowing but prices start at around pounds 1,000. This new market has pushed the price of conventional video cameras down and you can pick up an excellent video camera for under pounds 500.

Using image stabilisation technology developed for video cameras, Canon have come up with a range of truly superb binoculars. They are pricey - from pounds 400 to pounds 1,000 - but unbelievable to use. With powerful binoculars, even the slightest hand motion makes the image jump about all over the place. These binoculars make the image rock solid.

Finally let's not forget the mobile phone.

It is an old gag but true - a mobile phone is not just for Christmas, it is for life - well for 12 months anyway.

Until very recently, to buy a mobile phone for a loved one was to buy a millstone to put around their necks. The problem is that the cost of the phones themselves are so highly subsidised that you have to pay high monthly bills. So you get granny a phone but she then has to pay the bills and the fees are so high she soon has to be carted away to the residential home - but no more. Fees in general are getting more reasonable, with pre-paid phone services and the like, people know exactly what they are paying and there are even very cost-effective tariffs that let two people use two phones on one account.

As for the phones themselves, they just keep getting better and better. The choice is virtually endless. If you do buy a phone it is worth splashing out a little to get a decent one. You will most likely keep your phone for two years so it is worth paying an extra pounds 2 a week to get a decent one.

Whatever type of electronic gizmo you buy yourself, your family or a loved one this Christmas don't worry about it too much. By this time next year it will be out of date anyway!