Cool Stuff: Your 2007 Holiday Gift Guide

More than 50 amazing gifts for the technology lovers in your life

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Home Theater


Yes, we know: You're not really likely to buy a plasma HDTV or a high-def DVD player for a friend. But these home theater knockouts make great family gifts -- which means you get to enjoy them, too.

Large-screen HDTV: Will that be plasma or LCD?

Plasma: 50-in. Panasonic 1080p TH-50PZ700U

In a world in which the real-world performances of hot new consumer electronics products rarely live up to their billings, we have the antidote: Plasma HDTVs really shine.

Early this year, leading plasma HDTV makers issued the first 1080p plasma TVs, an advent I'd been waiting for. After an intense round of specification and visual comparisons, I selected Panasonic's 50-in. 1080p plasma HDTV, model number TH-50PZ700U.

I paid more than $3,000 for it, but you won't have to. The prices have dropped, and you can buy it online for $2,200 or in big box consumer electronics stores for around $2,600.

TH-50PZ700U, courtesy of Panasonic.

50-in. 1080p HDTV (model TH-50PZ700U), courtesy of Panasonic.

Over the six months I've owned this HDTV, I've been extremely happy with this it. The picture quality is superb, the sound quality is very good (even with just the built-in speakers), and it does a very good job with standard definition TV.

Just recently, independent testing by Consumer Reports confirmed my assessment of this model, picking it as the best-performing plasma in its test. This is the one to get if you want the state of the art without paying for features you don't really need.

But do you really need 1080p? That depends on what kind of programming you want to view. You can get away with a 720p plasma screen -- such as Panasonic's 50-in. 720p plasma HDTV, model number TH-50PX75U, which will save you $1,000 or so -- if you're mostly focused on HDTV and not all that interested in watching movies at their very best.

If you're a movie buff, however, the first time you connect a Blu-ray or HD DVD player to this plasma model, you'll experience the proverbial "aha" moment. That's what 1080p is all about. (1080p sets also handle HDTV just as well as 720p sets.)

There's no question that if you want the best picture quality, plasma is the way to go. The other flat-screen technologies are improving, and they come close. But nothing matches the overall plasma experience. Go to a Circuit City or Best Buy and compare with your own eyes. You'll see what I mean.

LCD: 46-in. Sony Bravia 1080p KDL-46V3000

Plasmas are for quality purists. Practical people should give strong consideration to the very best LCD flat-screen HDTVs too. For one thing, many 50-in. plasma TVs suck up 600 to 700 watts of power whenever they're turned on, while comparably sized LCDs run in the 200-to-300-watt range. Plasmas are also much heavier than LCDs, a factor that complicates installation and leads to safety concerns. And the reliability of plasma over time is less well known.

On the other hand, LCDs don't display shades of black as well as plasma, and their colors are less saturated. And HDTV LCDs tend to display ghosting and lack plasma's crisp edges when playing standard definition TV.

Sony's Bravia line, however, successfully compensates for these minor shortcomings. Bravia LCDs are very bright, but the light is controlled so it doesn't wash out the colors. Up close, you'll see some pixelation, but Sony's Bravia HDTVs do a pretty good job on fast-motion scenes, such as sports action.

All in all, Sony's LCD models excel. We recommended them in last year's holiday gift guide, and we still can't find a cost-effective LCD product model lineup that beats them at displaying HDTV, DVD, and standard definition TV.

Bravia KDL-46V3000, courtesy of Sony.

Bravia KDL-46V3000, courtesy of Sony.

Over the summer, Sony released nine new high-end Bravia models (the W, XBR4 and XBR5 series), but they're pricey. The model we're recommending is the more economical 46-in. Sony Bravia LCD 1080p KDL-46V3000. It's this year's mild update of the KDL-46V2500, which Computerworld's Ken Mingis purchased late last year by. He's been very happy with it.

The 1080p KDL-46V3000 is available online and in big box stores in the $2,050 to $2,500 range.

—Scot Finnie  

TH-50PZ700U from Panasonic Corp. of North America

Price: $2,200-$2,700 | Tech specs | Store locator | Phone: (800) 405-0652

Summary: Panasonic's first 50-in. 1080p plasma offers gorgeous, deeply saturated colors, superb HDTV and DVD playback, and very good quality standard-definition television.
46-in. Bravia V series KDL-46V2500 from Sony Electronics Inc.

Price: $2,050-$2,500 | Tech specs | Store locator | Phone: (877) 405-7669

Summary: Sony's 46-in. KDL-46V3000 1080p LCD HDTV occupies the sweet spot on the price/performance scale, offering near-plasma picture quality for a bit less money than plasma -- and it uses a lot less power.

High-definition DVD player: Sony BDP-S300 Blu-ray disc player

The war is still raging between Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD, the two new high-definition DVD formats, but my mind has been made up for some time about which format is best. That's why I'm not going to recommend you hedge your bets and buy a dual player that can handle both formats. Blu-ray is going to be the winner. There, I said it.

In light of that, my recommendation for a midrange player is from Sony. I didn't just test the player myself, I toured retail stores asking sales managers what they'd recommend and why. What I came away with was that the Sony BDP-S300 is known in the industry as a workhorse of a machine that can play movies 17 hours a day -- day after day -- and never freeze a single frame.

BDP-S300 Blu-ray Disc player, courtesy of Sony.

BDP-S300 Blu-ray Disc player, courtesy of Sony.

While most of the people I talked to agreed that there isn't much difference among players when it comes to picture quality and durability, the BDP-S300 excels in both. The player handles DVD Video, DVD+R/+RW, DVD-R/-RW4, and CD playback. The BDP-S300 retails for $499, but you can find it online for $385 or so.

—Lucas Mearian  

BDP-S300 Blu-ray Disc player from Sony Electronics Inc.

Price: $385-$500 | Tech specs | Store locator | Phone: (866) 909-7669

Summary: If you believe that Blu-ray is the DVD format of the future, then this is the player you want for picture quality and durability.

Video stabliizer: Grex

As time goes by, your DVD movie collection keeps getting larger, and you're probably using that old VCR less and less, if at all. But there are moments when you wish you could convert some of those copyright-protected VHS movies onto DVDs so you can clear out the space those huge tapes take up.

There are a variety of conversion software and hardware products available for this purpose, but one of the easiest to set up and use is the Grex advanced video stabilizer from Dimax Ltd. in Tel Aviv. The $89 Grex plugs in between your VCR or DVD player and your DVD recorder using RCA connectors or S-video cables and allows you to copy, capture and view almost any copyright-protected content from protected TV channels via satellite or cable TV, set-top boxes, or PVR, DVR and TiVo units.

Grex video stabilizer, courtesy of Dimax.

Grex video stabilizer, courtesy of Dimax.

The Grex works well, though on some VHS-to-DVD conversions, a very light banding can be visible on the screen when playing the copied DVD.

One great use for the Grex is to burn backup copies of DVD movies to take on a car trip with the kids or on a plane on a business trip so you don't have to worry about losing or damaging the original discs.

—Todd R. Weiss  

Grex Advanced Video Stabilizer from Dimax Ltd.

Price: $89 (online orders preferred) | Tech specs

Summary: Here's a small, easy-to-install device that makes it simple to transfer your old VHS tapes onto DVDs and to make backup copies of copyright-protected DVD movies you already own.

LP-to-CD recorder: DAK System

Along the same lines, here's a gift that will get the music lovers on your list into the 21st century by providing a way to convert favorite LPs, 78s and 45s -- even reel-to-reel or cassette tapes -- into great-sounding CDs or MP3s that are ready for mobile music players.

The LP to CD System ($219) from DAK Industries includes a turntable with an aluminum platter, tone-arm lift, tone-arm balancing system and antiskate control for good audio quality, as well as a specially designed preamp mixer box, customized DAK conversion software, cables, a detailed online tutorial and good e-mail technical support. (It can also be purchased for $70 without the turntable if you want to use your own.)

DAK LP to CD System, courtesy of DAK.

DAK LP to CD System, courtesy of DAK.

Plug it all into the line-in jack on your computer's sound card using the detailed video instructions available online, download the two needed software applications from DAK's Web site, and you'll be set to go after watching the online tutorials. (Laptop users need an additional $39 USB line-in jack.) There is a learning curve, but 30 to 60 minutes of practice will produce great CD recordings of your old albums.

Once recorded and saved, you separate the tracks using the software, and can then save them in WAV or MP3 formats. It works right out of the box, and the sound quality is great, almost as if you are listening to the albums but without the pops and clicks, thanks to software that filters them out.

Not all the music you want is available on CDs, but it might be sitting right there in your closet. With this system, any audiophile can burn CDs from albums with great results.

—Todd R. Weiss  

DAK LP to CD System from DAK Industries

Price: $219, or $69.90 without turntable | Phone: (800) 808-6628

Summary: Know an audiophile who wants to convert old vinyl record albums into CDs and MP3s? Here's the perfect gift.
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