Cool stuff: Your 2009 holiday gift guide

Find the best HDTVs, laptops, smartphones and some surprise goodies to give this year

Didn't get all your holiday shopping done on Black Friday? Not to worry: We're here to help you find the perfect gifts for the technology lovers on your list.

This year we thought we'd try something different by asking Computerworld readers what they want to receive for the holidays. Your top five responses were HDTVs, e-readers, laptops, netbooks and smartphones, so we're focusing most of our gift guide on those five product types.

But we couldn't stop there. We've also got a "More great gifts" category with 10 more presents that we found too cool, luxurious or just plain useful to leave out. (Also don't miss our video gift guide with ideas for giftees in the hard-to-please 18 to 30 age range.)

We've done our best to provide all the info you'll need to buy these products, including how much you can expect to pay for each one. Note that prices fluctuate constantly, particularly as manufacturers and retailers have sales throughout December, but you should get a general idea of how much each product costs. Whether you're shopping online or in a store, check to be sure you're getting the most recent model of any product. As always, if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Now, let the drooling begin!

HDTVs for the rest of us

The No. 1 item on Computerworld readers' wish list for the holidays is a new HDTV, and who can blame you? Just because there's a recession on doesn't mean we don't want to watch movies, sports and our favorite shows on a glorious, crystal-clear flat-panel display.

The good news is that high-quality HDTVs are more affordable than ever. Former luxuries such as "full HD" 1080p resolution are now widely available in moderately priced models, bringing incredible viewing experiences within reach of ordinary budgets.

We won't take a stand on the LCD vs. plasma debate here, especially because many of the noticeable differences between the two have lessened as new technologies have been introduced. For example, LCDs have traditionally had trouble keeping up with fast-action sequences in movies and games, but refresh rates of 120Hz or higher are available in many newer models and have, in many cases, brought them on par with plasma.

Not all differences have been erased, of course: LCDs still weigh less and tend to be more energy efficient, while plasma TVs still offer a wider viewing angle and are generally better at showing deep blacks and rich color saturation. (New LED-backlighting technology in LCDs alleviates the color-saturation shortcomings, but it's expensive and manufacturers are still figuring out the best way to implement it -- best to wait a year or two before purchasing an LED-backlit LCD.)

Bottom line: Some folks prefer plasma, some prefer LCD, so we're recommending one of each. You can find much cheaper and much pricier models than these -- this holiday season may include some real bargains -- but they represent the sweet spot of quality and value.

(Oh, and once you've brought your new HDTV home, see "How to Install Your HDTV" and "How to Optimize Your HDTV" for help setting it up.)

Samsung LN40B650 40-in. 1080p LCD HDTV

With a 120Hz refresh rate and 1080p resolution, the LN40B650 offers a sharp, crisp image. In fact, PC World named this 40-inch model "tops in overall picture quality" of all HDTVs tested this year. (Samsung's LNB650 series also includes 32-in., 37-in., 46-in., 55-in. and monster 65-in. models with 1080p resolution.)

Samsung LN40B650

Samsung LN40B650

(Click to view larger image)

It's easy to set up and use, with excellent sound and a striking design -- the red-tinged black bezel and transparent pedestal make it stand out from the crowd. This TV has fully embraced the Internet, giving you direct access to a variety of online content through your broadband router. PC World reviewer Lincoln Spector explains:

The LN40B650 makes good use of its Ethernet port. Once you've connected the TV to your router, you can enjoy Twitter, YouTube, an assortment of Yahoo widgets (Video, News, Sports, Flickr, and so on), and games such as Sudoku. The YouTube interface is intelligently designed. Unfortunately, the set lacks support for Netflix, though Samsung recently rolled out support for Amazon's and Blockbuster's streaming services. (See the full review)

The list price for the 40-inch LN40B650 is $1,500, but it's widely available from various retailers for $1,050 to $1,300.

LN40B650 HDTV from Samsung

Street price: $1,050 - $1,300  |  Tech specs

Phone: 800-SAMSUNG (800-726-7864)

Summary: Top-notch picture quality, ease of use and excellent Internet connectivity make Samsung's LN40B650 LCD HDTV a sure bet.

Panasonic Viera TC-P50G10 50-in. 1080p plasma HDTV

If it's plasma you're after, Panasonic's 50-in. TC-P50G10 model offers a superb THX-certified 1080p display with sharp images, rich color saturation and the blackest of blacks. (The Viera G10 series is available in sizes ranging from 42 to 54 inches.)

Panasonic Viera TC-P50G10

Panasonic Viera TC-P50G10

(Click to view larger image)

The G10 is easy to set up and is attractive as well, trumping basic black models by adding a dusting of silver along the bottom bezel. And like Samsung, Panasonic is highly focused on Internet connectivity: The G10 features Panasonic's Viera Cast service, which includes access to YouTube, weather info, Bloomberg stocks and headlines, your Picasa photos, and Amazon Video on Demand.

The Viera TC-P50G10 lists for $1,600 but can be found at a street price of $1,250 to $1,550. While you can certainly find 50-in. plasmas for less, the G10's superior image quality make the slightly higher expenditure worth it.

Viera TC-P50G10 HDTV from Panasonic Corporation of North America

Street price: $1,250 - $1,550  |  Tech specs

Phone: 800-211-PANA (800-211-7262)

Summary: With rich colors and deep blacks, the Panasonic Viera TC-P50G10 plasma HDTV offers a superb picture at a price that won't break the bank.

-- Valerie Potter

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