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.

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" 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.)

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.)

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

E-readers erupt into the market

Although the original Kindle is now two years old, e-readers started really taking off in 2009, and are bound to be a popular item among the digerati this year. These mobile devices use a technology called e-ink, which mimics the look of ink on paper. These e-readers are not only very easy to use, but they're much easier on the eyes than the typical computer or smartphone screen.

The leader in this category is, no doubt, the Kindle, which offers readers a wireless connection to Amazon's huge storehouse of books. However, there are some strong alternatives out there. For example, Sony has several readers available, ranging from the small and inexpensive Pocket Edition to the Touch Edition, which boasts a touch screen -- but not the wireless connection to a bookstore that the Kindle includes.

Another contender here is Barnes & Noble's Nook, which includes Wi-Fi, an online store, a touch screen and a color navigation display. It also allows readers to lend their e-books to friends, with some limitations. Finally, owners of the iPhone and other recent smartphones are opting to bypass e-ink and use apps such as Kindle for iPhone to get their reading done.

As with many of today's devices, which you choose will depend on what you're looking for in an e-reader.

Amazon Kindle 2

Amazon's Kindle 2 has improved on its predecessor with a better screen, slightly more efficient (and thinner) design, a built-in PDF reader and text-to-speech. It retains the built-in and free Sprint 3G wireless connection, along with Amazon's incredible selection of books. According to PC World reviewer Melissa J. Perenson:

In the e-book universe, the Kindle retains a significant edge. Offering built-in Sprint 3G wireless (at no extra cost to users) and tight integration with Amazon's shopping engine, the Kindle handheld delivers a cohesive reading and shopping experience (even the Kindle for iPhone application doesn't allow you to shop within the app itself). Its nearest competitor, Sony's PRS-700 Reader, can't come close: Amazon's library of Kindle e-books, all available for immediate delivery, gives new meaning to the concept of instant gratification. (See the full review)

Kindle 2 from Amazon.com Inc.

Price: $259 | Tech specs | Phone: 866-216-1072

Summary: Amazon's Kindle e-reader is still top in its field and makes books ridiculously easy to purchase via its free 3G wireless network.

Sony Reader Touch Edition

One thing that the Kindle lacks -- and that this Sony e-reader offers -- is a touch screen, allowing readers to page through a book or tap on an icon in a more natural manner than having to push buttons. (The Sony Daily Edition, a $400 device which will have its own 3G wireless connection to Sony's eBook Store, is due to ship later in December). PC World reviewer Yardena Arar writes:

The Sony Reader Touch Edition (PRS-600) is Sony's new flagship e-book reader, offers something we haven't seen in previous Sony Readers: a touch screen and stylus for navigating and for creating drawings and handwritten notes. Whether this innovation enhances the e-book experience is open to debate, but the overall quality of the product is not: Except for its lack of wireless connectivity for purchasing books without connecting to a PC, the Touch Edition is a worthy competitor to Amazon's Kindles. (See the full review)

Reader Touch Edition from Sony Electronics Inc.

Street price: $275 - $300 | Tech specs | Store locator | Phone: 877-865-7669

Summary: The Sony Reader Touch Edition offers a more naturalistic feel to its e-reader, along with a lighter feel and access to a wider range of document formats.

Barnes & Noble Nook

Barnes & Noble's Nook is the latest e-book reader to hit the market, and it adds a bit of color to the mix. The Nook includes the now-expected 3G wireless network (this one from AT&T), a color touch screen that lets you swipe through titles or use a virtual keyboard, and the ability to "lend" out books by sending them to another Nook for up to 14 days. PC World's Jared Newman writes:

The things you'd expect in an e-reader -- Wi-Fi, an online book store, the ability to mark up what you read with notes -- are paired with things that haven't yet become the standard, such as a touch screen, a color navigation display and way to lend e-books to friends. If any e-reader illustrates how badly the Kindle needs a redesign, not just a price cut, this is it. (See the full review)

As of this writing, the Nook hadn't shipped yet, but it's already sold out -- Barnes & Noble will, however, sell you a holiday certificate promising a device as soon as it's ready.

Nook from Barnes & Noble Inc.

Price: $259 | Tech specs | Store locator | Phone: 800-843-2665

Summary: The new Nook, from Barnes & Noble, brings color browsing to the e-book market, giving it the potential to be a real competitor to the reigning Kindle.

-- Barbara Krasnoff

Laptops galore

Know someone on your gift list with a clunky old notebook computer that's barely wheezing along? A brand new laptop will put a spring in her step and a smile on her face. To cover both sides of the OS Mason-Dixon line, we're recommending both PCs and Macs in a range of laptop categories: ultra-slim, all-purpose and entertainment. (If you're looking for netbooks, go to the next section of the gift guide.)

Thin and in

Nothing says "I'm important" like carrying around a super-sleek, ultra-slim notebook. These laptops are for people who want to impress, who value style and portability over computing power. With crisp 13-in. displays, full-sized keyboards and 3-pound chassis that are less than an inch thick, they're perfect for on-the-go pros who need bigger screens, more oomph and more panache than a netbook can provide.

Mac: Apple MacBook Air

This is the computer that set the svelte computing standard, and it's still the one to beat, as shown by the growing list of competitors claiming to be the "MacBook Air killer."

While the earliest January 2008 models were underpowered and extravagantly expensive, today's Airs give a lot more bang for the buck. The $1,500 entry-level Air comes with a 1.83GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics, a native 1280 x 800 display and a 120GB SATA hard drive. The $1,800 model offers the same RAM and graphics with a 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and a 128GB SSD.

Even these specs aren't terribly impressive, though: This is still Apple's slowest computer, and the skinny-minnie design means no optical drive and a dearth of ports and connectors. But that may not matter, as Macworld's Jason Snell explains:

I love the MacBook Air because it's a full pound and a half lighter than the next-lightest Apple laptop. The MacBook Air is designed for people who appreciate the fact that this Mac laptop weighs 3 pounds and measures .76 inches at its thickest point, and are willing to sacrifice all sorts of other features for that lightness. (See the full review)

Sound like anyone on your gift list?

MacBook Air from Apple Inc.

Street price: $1,400 - $1,800 or configure at Apple site

Tech specs | Store locator | Phone: 800-MY-APPLE

Summary: The MacBook Air still sets the standard for svelte computing that makes a statement.

PC: HP Envy 13

HP's aptly named Envy 13 is a worthy PC alternative to the MacBook Air. (Indeed, some have accused HP of following Apple's lead a little too closely in designing the Envy.) Like the Air and other slim laptops, the Envy skimps on ports and leaves out the optical drive but does have a touchpad with multitouch functionality.

Slightly thicker and heavier than the Air, the Envy is nevertheless sleek and drool-worthy, as PC World's Darren Gladstone notes:

1 2 3 4 Page 1
Page 1 of 4
IT Salary Survey: The results are in