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What Are The Hottest Tech Toys This Holiday Season?

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Aired 12/16/09

Why are those netbook computers so popular right now? What's the newest 3G phone on the market? And, are consumers spending less on tech gadgets this holiday season? We speak to Brian Cooley from CNET about this year's most innovative, and sought-after tech gadgets.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Diamonds are supposed to be a girl's best friend, but a new smart phone might be just as friendly. High tech items from phones to cameras, notebooks to HDTVs are front and center on people's gift lists this holiday. And, although many of us might want to spend a little less this season, it doesn't necessarily mean we have to scrimp on quality. CNET is out with its list of top tech gift items for the holidays. Joining me is my guest Brian Cooley. He is editor-at-large for CNET. Brian, welcome.

BRIAN COOLEY (Editor-At-Large, CNET): Hi, Maureen. Thanks a lot.

CAVANAUGH: Now we invite our audience to join the conversation. Do you have a question about a high tech gift for someone on your list? Are you confused about what to ask for? Give us a call with your questions and your comments at 1-888-895-5727. So, Brian, what seems to be the hottest tech items this holiday season?

COOLEY: Cheap. People are pricing on – or something on price. This is not the year of the must-have gadget. There’s no new game console out, there’s no new truly killer iPhone – hot – smart phone out. The Droid is probably the closest thing to a must-have new smart phone. What we’re seeing are people shopping very much on price and very much looking for good enough is good enough, which is a different trend than we’ve seen in some more flush years. That said, if I had to find a couple of hot shots, it would be these e-book readers like the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook and the pending Sony PRS-900 that comes out in two days. And I would also say people are doing quite a bit of digital camera upgrading, getting their next digital camera and when they’re doing so they want it to be able to shoot HD video, which is a relatively new feature that a lot of the still cameras can do. And so they’re getting a camera and a camcorder in one. Those are definitely two strong areas. And, of course, TVs are perennials and so are GPS units.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you more about each of those items separately but, first of all, when you say the consumers are looking for cheap, are the stores complying with them? I mean, are prices really being cut?

COOLEY: Not like – you’re not going to walk in and your eyes are going to pop out. I mean, stores are not going to sell things below cost. They’d rather just not sell at all. That’s just not good business. That’s just charity. So they’re pulling prices down but you’re not going to go in and say, wow, that TV was $1000.00 last year, this year it’s $300.00. Televisions, for example, have had most of the cost rinsed out of them already, unfortunately, because there wasn’t anything left, not much left, to knock out during this bad economic cycle that we’re still struggling through right now. At some point you have taken all the cost out of an LCD television and you’re down to a very razor thin margin, not much better than what supermarkets run on and that’s it. So what you’re seeing are some eye-popping doorbusters. You’re seeing some promotional specials, and you’re seeing more sales of what are second tier televisions. So, Westinghouse, Magnavox, Olevia, Insignia, these are house brands in many cases or second tier guys. And fewer people are buying the Sony, the Panasonic, the Pioneers that are left that are exiting the business, but a lot of traffic to good enough is good enough.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Just one last question about this. Do you have any sense, is it better to wait until after the holidays to pick up some bargains or is now the time?

COOLEY: You certainly can find some remnants after the holidays. You’re going to have less choice, to be sure. And what’s happening this year is retailers have been a little more cagey about stocking a lot of everything because they don’t want to get stuck with it, so that means that even now, never mind after the top of the year, it’s going to be harder to find the exact model you want. That’s one reason why some consumers, I think, are making the decision to buy without waiting until the very last minute because they’ve heard that stocks are not as deep, and also they’re doing more online/offline comparisons. So the trends we’re hearing about this year is a lot of weekend shopping in stores, then Monday or Sunday night at the computer comparing online. The risk there is the merchant may lose you to an online merchant because that’s the most recent thing you saw and the price may be better, so that’s why a lot of these stores are trying to make the loop, say, hey, shop at our store, shop online, we don’t care. They’re making a very level argument and lots of promotions in both the brick and mortar and their website.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Brian Cooley, editor-at-large for CNET, and we’re talking about this season’s top high tech gifts and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call. Ann is calling from Encinitas. And good morning, Ann. Welcome to These Days.

ANN (Caller, Encinitas): Hi, good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Hi.

ANN: I was wondering if your guest had an opinion on smart phones. I’m curious about the iPhone versus the android.

COOLEY: Yeah, the iPhone, of course, remains the category leader. Everyone uses the phrase ‘is this [whatever it may be, the new android phones, whatever model you’re looking at], is this the new iPhone killer?’ There has yet to be an iPhone killer, so know that right off the bat. In general, overall, nothing is better than an iPhone. That’s the handset and the operating system. The network we feel and many people feel is an Achilles heel, being stuck on AT&T, A, because you have no other choice of network carrier, and, B, because there are a lot of gripes about AT&T’s network and, you know, class action suits don’t just come out of thin air. I think the other thing to look at is the android phones are newer. They’re less mature, so realize that there’s really rapid development right now on things like the Motorola Droid, the Droid Heiress, many of these HTC phones and more that are coming out. I feel a little nervous about buying an android phone right now because I think there’s going to be another flurry of them in January, another flurry a couple of months after that. I would like to wait until the hardware settles a little bit in early mid-year.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, Brian, for those of us who don’t know, what is an android phone?

COOLEY: Well, an android phone refers to the software that runs the phone. So every smart phone is basically a computer and every computer has an operating system, either Windows or Mac on your desktop, for the most part. And on phones, it can be the iPhone operating system, it can be android, which is something that Google has sponsored or fostered. Google doesn’t make phones, by the way, but there are phones that have the Google brand on them because they have Google’s android operating system. And there is Symbian, which runs most Nokia smart phones. There’s Palm, which is still out there, runs the Palm Pre.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

COOLEY: And, of course, there’s Windows, Windows Mobile, which runs a lot of phones. So you have more operating systems in phones than you do on computers, which makes it confusing. Some of those are going to necessarily lose and drop away, and android is Google’s entry but they don’t own it as much as they promote it and contribute to it. It’s what’s called an open source model, it’s not tightly controlled the way Apple does their system but it’s just another choice for the actual interface of the phone, where the icons are, how the menus work, what programs run on it, so it’s analogous to Windows or the Mac OS.

CAVANAUGH: Why do you say there’s nothing better than the iPhone? Is it because of all these thousands and thousands of apps?

COOLEY: It’s just everything. I mean, our reviews look at everything from the screen to the touch interface to the keyboard if there is one, to the apps that it runs, the speed of the processor, the quality of the camera, how much storage capacity is it available with, how you expand it, how is the battery life, and how is the network coverage and call quality. All those things combined with some areas there that are Achilles heels, the iPhone is still the one to beat. It has, as you mentioned, far and away the most apps, the most programs. So imagine if you bought a computer and it could run far fewer programs. Well, Macintosh users had this problem for many years and, you could argue, still do have far less choice in programs although there’s an excellent base of them now for the Mac but for many years, you’d go to a software store, back when there were software stores, and you’d see shelves and shelves and shelves of Windows programs and a little, you know, nook over here with a couple of Mac programs, and that was really frustrating. Well, it’s kind of like that for some other smart phones. The iPhone is the Windows of its category.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

COOLEY: Everything is written to run on the iPhone in terms of apps. So you have a lot of choice there, that’s one of the reasons.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about high tech holiday gifts. My guest is Brian Cooley, editor-at-large for CNET. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Rick is calling from Spring Valley. Good morning, Rick. Welcome to These Days.

RICK (Caller, Spring Valley): Good morning. Hey, Brian, I was wondering, I’ve seen these chargers where you can put your telephone on and all you do is just put it on top of there and you can put your earphone on there, too. Do you know what those are?

COOLEY: Yeah, this is a new area, Rick, that is still developing. I think it’s a little early to buy one of these unless you’re an early adopter and that’s totally cool. The idea is it’s called – it’s cordless charging or contactless charging. And what you do is, you just lay your portable device, whatever it is, on a map that is typically about the size of a mouse pad, you’ve seen them, and it just charges. It’s like if you have one of these electric toothbrushes, like a Sonicare or something and it’s – it goes into a base. There’s no metal connection. There’s no metal-to-metal, there’s no actual plug. It’s just laying next to electricity. It’s not a lot of wattage, it’s not going to make you sick or anything. The downside to these products is at this point you still have to add a cradle or an adapter clipped onto your portable device, whether it’s an MP3 player or a phone or what have you, to allow the charging to get into your phone. In the near future—near might mean a year away—I would like to see smart phones have that built into them so there’s no additional thing clamped on them that allows them to use inductive charging. That’s when it starts to get elegant. But if you really like the idea now, you can go, let’s see, Wild Charge is one brand, Duracell has a pad now, and several others. You can go just Google that or go to our site and look for the reviews, and you can find the one that works for you at the right price and see what adapters they have to clip onto your portables. That’s going to be the essential thing to me. Beyond that, they all work the same, and they do work.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Cynthia is calling from Rancho Santa Fe. Good morning, Cynthia. Welcome to These Days.

CYNTHIA (Caller, Rancho Santa Fe): Good morning. I would like to ask a question about GPS options. We have a son who’s nearly 17, he has a Toyota Corolla and he’s on, you know, very tight restrictions. No radio listening allowed while he’s driving. He’s been very good so far. And we don’t know if we should get him – We would like him to not have to look at like Mapquest or Google Map while he’s driving. So we know about the Gar – We have a Garmin portable but it doesn’t stick very well to the windshield, it makes you crazy. I know there’s a new kind that you can put in that actually you take out your radio. We know someone who apparently bought this. And you stick it in the car, and it’s a radio and a GPS. Now our cars came pre-fitted with GPS, my husband’s and mine, but we don’t know what to do for him.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, Cynthia.

COOLEY: Yeah, I wouldn’t go with that idea. You’re talking about a dockable GPS where you’ve got a – you put a new car stereo in, it’s what’s called a double din unit, so it’s one of those tall, kind of square car radios, and you can fit that to most cars. I don’t know about his Corolla per se but usually you can. And then there’s inside the face of it, you’ve got this dockable GPS unit you can clip in and you can take it out and use it portably. Those are a niche. The way to go is, honestly, to go buy a new clamp for the one you’ve got. Just go to eBay and just go find a new Garmin, or whatever it is, suction mount. I mean, what you’ve got now if it’s working is, there’s no huge revolution in GPS in terms of basic directions. There are revolutions in it in terms of other ways but in terms of basically showing him where to go and having a screen that is up within his eye line as opposed to looking down at a smart phone or down at a piece of paper, that still works fine. What is interesting today is you can use a smart phone, any of them really, to do navigation. There are apps on the iPhone, on the Palm Pre, on the Blackberry, on the Windows phones, all of them, on the android phones, which allows you not so much to have a better experience but to have one that is unified in one device. It reduces clutter and there’s one less device to buy, charge, carry and lose.

CAVANAUGH: Don’t you have a TomTom on your best list of high tech gifts this year?

COOLEY: Yeah, and this is a nice one because it’s – has a new trend in it that, again, is one of the new innovations. It’s a connected GPS, Maureen, so what it is, it does all the normal stuff a GPS does, the directions and showing you maps and giving you prompts and all that live, but what it also does is it has a wireless connection to the cellular network. I forget which carrier it connects to and it doesn’t matter. And it allows you to go to Google right on the screen…

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

COOLEY: …search for things. Like, let’s say you’re driving somewhere and you want to stop off and get a burrito. You can search for burritos along your route, see them ranked by ratings, by user reviews, say, okay, I want to go to that one, take me there, add that to my route. So it completes the circle because today the model is your GPS is in the car and you come to the car with a Post-it note with some scrawly direction or some address written on it, and you laboriously plug it into your unit. That’s starting to feel like a really yesterday idea compared to finding what I want and getting to what I want, all being done in one device.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Brian Cooley. We’re talking about high tech gifts. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. You know, Brian, going through the CNET’s list of top gifts for this year, I had to stop and do a double take when it got to the touch screen computer that you call the start of the kitchen computers. And I thought, my goodness, this is not a bad idea at all.

COOLEY: We got…

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that.

COOLEY: Yeah, you know, computers are just about everywhere now, right? We’ve got lots of portables. Everyone’s buying notebooks and netbooks these days. The desktop is kind of an old idea. And, of course, we all have desktops everywhere at work and home, and smart phones are computers as well, and some cars even come with computers so where do we not have a computer yet? I guess the kitchen.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

COOLEY: You can – Obviously, a lot of folks have been bringing netbooks and notebooks into their computer (sic) for quite a while because, you know, cooking is an interesting experience where you’re looking for recipes, looking for tips, and there is so much video content about cooking techniques on the web, little short nuggets of all kinds, like we have a site called Chow.com and there are many others that have quick tips so if you’re sitting there doing something and go, you know what, I don’t know if I know the best way to poach this egg.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

COOLEY: You can go quickly, pull up a video in the kitchen and it’s the kind of thing where, you know, you’re in the middle of cooking, your hands are wet, you got stuff on the – in the mixing bowl. You don’t want to run out to the den and do that. So that’s where the affect comes from and, yes, there are computers that are just touch screen because the keyboard is kind of the Achilles heel in the kitchen. It takes up space on the counter because it’s horizontal and not vertical like the screen and, of course, it wants to get all wet and gunky and stop working or be hard to clean. So having a touch screen computer is kind of the perfect thing for the kitchen. I don’t think it’s a revolutionizing trend but, you know, certainly in our part of the world, where we have more than a few foodies, it…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

COOLEY: …it has some interest.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Cathy is calling from Chula Vista. Good morning, Cathy. Welcome to These Days.

CATHY (Caller, Chula Vista): Hi. I am very much interested in the iPhone except that I – all I want is a connection to the internet when I’m out and about, and I really don’t want to pay the thirty bucks or more per month just to have occasional internet connection…

CAVANAUGH: We…

CATHY: …so I’ve…

CAVANAUGH: We’ve got you, Cathy. Your connection is a little disturbing to listen to so we’re going to take that question and, Brian, she wants to connect to the internet on – but she – with something better than the iPhone.

COOLEY: Well, it sounds like she’s interested in the iPhone but doesn’t want to pay for the data to have it constantly…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

COOLEY: …there, like she’s a minimal user. She might want to consider, well, buy an iPhone and it’s a little difficult to get it without a data plan. I don’t recall AT&T’s current policy. She should just check with the carrier and see if she can get – I don’t think there’s a way to get it without a data plan without some crafty social engineering. Seems to me there is a way but I don’t recall if it’s official or just doable, and maybe a friend down at the store, when you activate, will help. The other thing is to get an iPod Touch, which is the iPhone that doesn’t have a phone. And if she has a small phone she likes, a lot of people do this, they carry an iPod Touch to have everything else. It becomes their iPod, it’s their portable video player, and if you travel a lot it’s a lifesaver, and it’s their portable web device and e-mail device. It’s everything but the phone. And it’s kind of the lesser known hero of Apple’s I line in terms of portables and it just uses Wifi. The downside is you’ve got to get to a hotspot that you either have access to or that is free and open but, you know, there’s a lot of coffee shops. McDonalds just lifted their fee, I think, yesterday on Wifi and made it free. So hotspots aren’t that hard to find.

CAVANAUGH: So in other words, you get any kind of phone and you get – and this iPod Touch for everything else.

COOLEY: Yeah, and just carry a very small compact, flip voice phone which is kind of nice sometimes because you’re just carrying a symbol – a simple thing, a device when you just need a phone and there are times when a simple phone just feels better. It flips open, it has, you know, just a simple, dedicated keypad, it, you know, the iPhone, of course, is all touch screen so you got to like that when you’re using it as a phone and sometimes just a simple phone is almost a little more of a positive engagement. I don’t know how to explain it.

CAVANAUGH: Right. No, I know what you’re talking about. And I want to thank Cathy for that call. I’m sorry we had to cut you off but it was going through my head, I couldn’t take it. Barbara is calling from Vista. Good morning, Barbara. Welcome to These Days.

BARBARA (Caller, Vista): Thank you so much. You have a great show. Thank you again for that.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

BARBARA: We are going to be replacing desktops with a laptop and we require a larger screen so I would like to know from your guest what he would recommend in a – what we should be looking for in a good laptop that is, you know, that has a large screen and a long battery life. And could he possible recommend any by brand. I don’t know if he can, but if he could we’d appreciate it if he would do that.

COOLEY: Yeah, one thing that is – to bear in mind when you talk about large screen and long battery life, those, in my mind, tend to pull different directions because a large screen laptop would be a 15 at least, probably a 17-inch. And that’s what we call desktop replacement, which sounds like what you’re doing. And that’s not a machine you’re going to carry much. You’re just going to leave it plugged in on the desk and use it portably occasionally, maybe move it to different places in the home. But even then you might just plug it right back in, so make sure you don’t – you aren’t mixing values here in terms of needing a desktop replacement, laptop that doesn’t need to be portable. Therefore, your pressure on the battery life is much less. There are many to choose from. This is what we do, so go to CNET.com and just click on laptop reviews, which is right there on the left side of the website and you can sort by the things you’re interested in. In your case, screen size is probably where you want to start, and you can sort by either our highest review or the most recent reviewed which is sometimes useful, so you’re looking at products that are currently on the market.

CAVANAUGH: I want to see if we can get in a couple more calls. Steve is calling from Bonita. Good morning, Steve, and welcome to These Days.

STEVE (Caller, Bonita): Oh, hi. Two things. One is a previous caller had problems connecting their GPS to the windshield. There’s some companies do offer alternatives setups so that you can connect the GPS or just put the GPS on the dashboard, and they offer equipment for doing that. And then I had a – Garmin offers such gear, for example. And then I had a question. I’m interested in your guest’s opinion about the Kindle versus the Nook.

COOLEY: Yeah, interesting question and that’s, of course, the battle of the e-readers right now, the electronic book readers. They obviously do basically the same thing. They let you download electronic books to the device. They can hold anywhere from hundreds to even over a thousand or more books in electronic form. They both have a six-inch screen that is black and white, that isn’t backlit like a computer. Therefore, it’s not hard on your eyes. That’s one of the key differences here. Where the two diverge is the Amazon Kindle, of course, gets its bestsellers and new titles from the Amazon store. The Barnes & Noble Nook gets its from the Barnes & Noble store. Both of them can also open PDF files, which is important for a lot of business users, and any user, and can also open what’s called—well, the Barnes & Noble Nook can’t—can open what’s called the e-pub format, which is becoming kind of a more standard format. So Amazon’s kind of building up their camp, keeping it more Amazon specific and Sony and Barnes and some others are also embracing a second format along with their own. Sony, for example, is going to be all e-pub, they’re not going to support anything else, which is this more open standard. The takeaway from that is it’s a little messy right now in terms of who you want to hitch your wagon to. My gut tells me the Kindle wins by a whisker…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

COOLEY: …but one thing to think about is does the keyboard on the Kindle matter to you? It has an actual button keyboard. Or do you like the touch screen keyboard that the Barnes & Noble Nook uses? And the keyboard’s important. That’s how you’re going to search for books, use the interface, that’s how you’re going to make annotations, access things like blogs and periodicals so you do use a keyboard on a reader, not as much as a computer. And the sharing is different. Amazon doesn’t have as much of a sharing as they have an assignment policy. You can own multiple Kindles and you can move your books between them. Barnes will let you actually share an e-book to someone else who has a Nook, even if it’s not registered to you. So that’s more like true sharing, whereas Amazon has multi-Kindle synching but they all have to be registered to you. And the other thing is previews. Amazon let’s you preview the first chapter of any book for free. Barnes & Noble will let you preview a synopsis or if you’re connected in one of their stores on the Wifi network, you can look at the entire book for free. So they give you a deeper preview if that matters.

CAVANAUGH: And I also want to mention on your list of high tech gift items, there’s the PlayStation 3 Slim for gamers. Why is that a good option?

COOLEY: Well the PS3 is nice for several reasons. One, when you buy that, you get a PlayStation and you kind of get a Blu-Ray DVD player thrown in, so if you are looking for a high definition Blu-Ray disk player, which is the only way you can see DVDs in High Def, this is kind of like getting a free one. The PS3 Slim costs $300.00 and it comes with, you know, a controller and all the things you need to do the gaming and it’s obviously a hot game console but then you get a Blu-Ray deck built in so you can watch Blu-Ray movies. It’s kind of the best value for that sort of thing and this is a very affordable version of the PlayStation 3, and it has 120 gigabyte disk drive built in, plus it’s also a connected device. Game consoles today connect to the internet, allowing you even more choices to get media from the web so television content, movies, video downloads, that sort of thing, which is a hot, quickly developing but still relatively nascent area.

CAVANAUGH: We are running out of time, Brian, but, you know, since we are closing out the 2000s, I wonder if you could just take a look back in the next minute or so and go through your mind and tell us what you think might have been the biggest tech gadget flops of the 2000s.

COOLEY: Well, you know, I think flops are – they tend to be very focused. I’d have to call out specific products and they’d be so – and since they were flops, they didn’t matter in the first place.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

COOLEY: But the things that we’ve moved beyond…

CAVANAUGH: Right, yes.

COOLEY: …I think include the idea of, you know, digital picture frames were supposed to be a huge revolution.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

COOLEY: They never have become one. They’ve been around for most of the last decade and they just umm, never really got there for whatever reason. They’re – it’s a little condensed in one device. I think the idea of anything that is not connected doesn’t work anymore. So that’s why the game consoles are all connected now. The idea of a television that isn’t connected to the internet is going to seem really odd even a year or two from now.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

COOLEY: That’s a big change coming out of the last ten years. But, you know, flops are relatively few. I mean, I could point to a few smart phones, a few cell phones, a lot of phones that Motorola made over the last few years that never took market and, remember, they owned the phones base in the first part of this decade with the RAZR.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

COOLEY: It was the hot phone. And then all of a sudden they just dropped off the map. And they’re struggling now for relevance and their homerun with the droid is a real different story for them after many years of drought. Look at the Palm Treo. The Treo was the king of smart phones. It was the iPhone, the very first iPhone in many ways, and the iPhone just put it to bed.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

COOLEY: So there’s a story of feast to famine. So the smart phone business has been a big part of that, and also the desktop computer was not a flop but it’s largely dead.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

COOLEY: We have become a netbook and notebook nation and the desktop is sort of that other low cost, high power, ‘yeah, I guess we have to have one but not really’ device.

CAVANAUGH: Brian, we have to leave it there. Thank you so much. I appreciate talking with you today.

COOLEY: Sure, my pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks a lot. Brian Cooley, editor-at-large for CNET. If you’d like to check out the list of top high tech gifts, go to CNET.com. Or and you can go to KPBS.org/TheseDays to post your comments. Stay with us for hour two of These Days right here on KPBS.

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