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Technology gift pitfalls to avoid

December 7, 2006

The latest, coolest gadgets can make compelling gift purchases during the holiday season, especially when they promise improved performance or cheaper prices.

But the old saying "Buyer beware" applies just as much as ever — and maybe even more — for technology purchases since a mistake can leave the recipient stuck with equipment that makes them wish they had looked the gift horse in the mouth.

Here are some tips to avoid getting burned when purchasing some of the most prominent gift ideas this year.

Xbox 360? PlayStation 3? Wii have a problem

The console wars are on in earnest, with Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.'s PlayStation 3 taking on Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 console for high-powered, high-definition video game supremacy, and Nintendo Co. Ltd. launching its innovative Wii machine.

The PlayStation 3, launched on Nov. 17 in North America, promises graphics that border on reality thanks to the power of the Cell processor. Its capabilities rival the supercomputers of just a few years ago. But few games available for the console take advantage of the system's abilities, largely because Sony finalized its specifications during the summer, leaving little time for developers to exploit the machine.

Sony also had numerous production problems as they rushed to make enough systems to reach sales targets. They fell notoriously short, halving their target for consoles shipped by year-end to two million, down from four million.

Previous video game consoles rushed out for launch have experienced big problems. Microsoft in February 2005 recalled 14.1 million power cords for its original Xbox launched in 2001, after reports they sparked fires, and some early adopters found that the hard drives failed after a few months. Some owners of the sophomore Xbox 360, launched in November 2005, said they had problems with the first run of machines sold, experiencing crashes, system errors and overheating. Sony recalled AC power adapters for a revised version of its PlayStation 2 console in September 2005 after reports they could overheat and melt, or cause a fire.

Nintendo's Wii (pronounced "we"), which had its worldwide debut in North America Nov. 19, is not immune to problems either. Owners have reported that a strap to secure the motion-sensitive controller to the wrist as gamers wave it around to manipulate in-game action can break, turning it into a missile that can smash television screens, windows and other fragile objects. Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said the company is investigating.

There are likely to be fewer problems with new Xbox 360 machines since their manufacturing processes have been ironed out, while Sony is still fine-tuning its fabrication system, experts say. The Nintendo Wii is based on current, rather than cutting-edge technology, which is more likely to be proven and therefore less prone to technical problems.

Blu-Ray or HD-DVD?

The game console battle is also at the forefront of a new high-density, blue-laser DVD video format war that echoes the VHS-BetaMax videotape battle of the 1980s.

Red lasers have long been used for DVDs and other optical media but the new generation of high-definition discs employ blue lasers that are capable of reading more densely packed data than a red laser.

The competing formats for blue-laser DVDs — Blu-ray and HD-DVD — have the hallmarks of a potentially costly standards war like the one in the 1980s that forced people to choose between VHS or Betamax videotape player.

Sony's Betamax format lost that battle, leaving those who had bought Betamax players stuck with an obsolete and unsupported technology.

Microsoft is backing Toshiba's HD-DVD disc format and Sony is using its own Blu-ray technology. Analysts predict that Sony's huge back catalogue of movies from its film division is likely to help it establish Blu-ray as the technology to buy and cement the PlayStation 3 as the dominant console in the process.

But the point could be moot.

British company New Medium Enterprises (NME) in September said its method for cheaply creating multi-layer DVDs solves a production problem that results in faulty discs that are unsuitable for storing data — a technology that could avoid the potentially costly format war.

The company says its technology, which is compatible with common DVD players, makes use of space that is wasted in current manufacturing processes. NME says as a result, its technique can store more information to create a red-laser compatible high-definition DVD and allow movies encoded in multiple DVD formats to be stored on a single disc.

The discs are also compatible with new blue-laser compatible DVD formats.

And Warner has filed a U.S. patent for a DVD that would simultaneously store information in the competing Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD high-definition formats.

What does all of this mean for consumers? Wait for the shooting to stop and a clear victor emerges. If the red-laser high-definition discs win, it would mean no one needs to replace their existing DVD players.

Window on Vista and personal computers

Microsoft Corp. is facing a third battle, only this time it's fighting against itself.

Computers are a popular holiday gift, especially for people with a student on their list. But the introduction of a new version of Microsoft's Windows operating system called Vista is leaving some consumers confused as they must decide whether to buy a computer at all and which version of Vista to get.

Two versions of Vista available only to businesses launched on Nov. 30, and three consumer versions are set to launch Jan. 30, 2007 after repeated delays. Those delays mean that computer manufacturers are only now starting to get a chance to design machines to work with Vista.

Although many computer retailers are offering discounts and Windows upgrade certificates for PCs sold ahead of the Vista consumer launch, there is no guarantee that the systems will be 100 per cent compatible with the new operating system.

A new study by technology vendor Softchoice Inc., released on Dec. 7, found that 50 per cent of the existing business PCs being used in North America today are incapable of handling Vista's needs, and 94 per cent are not able to run the premium version of Vista.

Most analysts say it will be a year to 18 months before Vista is deployed widely in businesses.

Meanwhile, the study's author, Dean Williams, said that consumers will be the early adopters since operating system software typically ships with every new computer sold.

But until they do, the safest option for consumers is to delay buying a computer until models built specifically to work with Vista start hitting store shelves toward the end of winter.

Waiting for Wireless N? Keep Waiting

Computer users looking to pump up their wireless Internet connection can be forgiven for wanting to rush out and buy the latest generation of wireless routers capable of handling data at speeds up to ten times faster than current models.

But the latest technology — dubbed Wireless-N — has some issues which consumers might want to investigate.

The biggest issue is also the most fundamental — the organizing body in charge of wireless standards isn't expected to approve Wireless N until June 2007.

The IEEE first developed a set of standards — designated 802.11 — for wireless fidelity equipment in 1997. Each upgrade of the standard carries a letter of designation. Most laptops computers currently use wireless routers designated 802.11b or 802.11g, which have a typical data rate of about 6.5 megabits per second and 25 megabits per second respectively.

The IEEE published the draft of 802.11n standard — dubbed wireless-N — earlier this year.

That was apparently enough for manufacturers to start coming out with versions of the routers based on the drafts and calling themselves Wireless N. Intel even announced last month its new Centrino computer chip would include a pre-standardized version of Wireless-N technology.

All of which should be cause for concern for consumers, who have no way of knowing if these pre-N routers will be compatible with later routers once the standards are finalized. Unless you really need the speed now, it's probably best to wait until the dust has cleared.

Avoid sending the wrong signals

While on the subject of wireless technology, the new Nike+iPod Sport Kit received some unwanted attention earlier this month after University of Washington researchers revealed the device sends a signal which can be tracked from 18 metres away, a feature they said could be used by thieves or stalkers.

One component of the device fits into the runner's shoe and transmits a signal to an iPod Nano, giving information about the speed and distance travelled. The researchers crafted a number of monitoring devices, which could track the whereabouts of the runner using the same signal, raising the possibility the device could pose a security risk to users.

It's been a familiar problem for consumers of wireless tools: anyone tuned to the same frequency can pick up the signal. Most of the time picking up the signal was an unintended consequence: a baby monitor picking up voices from a nearby cordless phone, for example.

Encryption techniques used by digital spread spectrum devices which bounce back and forth within a range of frequencies — and use of higher frequencies like 5.8 GHz for phones, has prevented eavesdropping from being as easy as tuning a scanner. But consumers should look into the range of the wireless devices that are out there and see if they have multiple or DSS frequency options to avoid sending out unintended signals. And remember, you can always turn it off when you're not using it.

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