Holiday gift ideas: Digital photography, video and more

Cameras, camcorders and everything in between

It's amazing to see not only megapixels going up while prices go down, but the size of cameras, both for taking still images and videos, have also gotten so small. This doesn't cover the entire range of products out there in the world of digital photography, it covers the stuff that we were able to try and like here at the office:

Samsung DualView TL225 digital camera

Samsung TL225 digital cameraJust when you thought there was nothing new that vendors could add to simple point-and-click digital camera (except maybe more megapixels), Samsung comes out with a powerful 12.4 megapixel camera with an LCD screen not only on the back but also on the front.

What's the big deal, you ask? Think about it. All those times you tried to take a good shot of yourself standing in front of a tourist attraction. All those times you tried to get yourself and your peeps into the same frame to record that memorable moment for posterity. And you have to try to hold your arm out and aim the camera and get everybody to smile and click at exactly the right time. And the resulting photo never quite comes out right. Well, this camera solves the self-portrait problem because the 1.5-inch LCD screen on the front allows you to take perfect self-portraits.

The other features of the DualView TL225 aren’t too shabby either. The back, 3-inch LCD screen is a touch screen, and there are many features which you can engage such as portrait mode, landscape mode, and smart mode. Smart mode allows you to take a picture without having to adjust for each setting you're in.

The camera also takes video, and offers features such as facial recognition and self-timer. This camera is fun to use, but at times the touch screen can be confusing since it’s also motion-sensored. For example, if you tip the camera on its side, it will shuffle through pictures even though you may not have wanted to. Also, at times you may want a certain setting, such as the flash to be on, but you need to touch the screen before each shot on the flash button to ensure it'll be on because on some settings the default is to have no flash.

Once uploaded onto a computer though, the quality of the pictures are excellent. Overall, this is a light, easy-to-use camera with a 4.6X optical zoom that takes high-quality pictures of everything around you. And it doesn't leave you out of the action.

Cool Yule Rating: 4.5 Stars $349.99

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Reviewed by Deb Weinberg

DXG-125V High-Definition Video Camera, by DXG USA

DXG 125V high-definition video cameraLooking for a 720p HD camcorder? How about one that fits in the palm of your hand and records both movies and stills to internal flash and an SD card, but also has HDMI output as well? Suppose we throw in a 2-inch screen (surprisingly large for a camera of this size), an MP3 player, a compass (how retro!), a case, a battery and charger, all the cables you need, and even a pair of headphones? And, to top it all off, a rugged package? Pretty cool, you say? Yes, indeed – almost.

The DXG-125V is very easy to use, requiring only a short glance at the printed Quick Start Guide to become familiar with the (very limited number of) controls and settings. Some of the controls are a little cryptic, but you'll get used to them with a small amount of practice – not that different from most other portable consumer electronics devices.

We recorded two short videos, one indoors and one out, and found image quality acceptable but not great when viewed on an HDMI monitor (the HDMI connection is, by the way, a terrific convenience). The included software for viewing and editing is pretty limited, and you probably won't use these – other PC and Mac apps are far more capable.

Overall, though, the DXG-125V has form factor and ease of use going for it, but image quality isn't as good as we'd like. But if you're looking for a convenience camcorder, however, this one could fit the bill quite nicely.

Cool Yule Rating: 3.5 stars $139.99

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Reviewed by Craig Mathias

LifeCam Cinema by Microsoft

Microsoft LifeCam Cinema WebcamThis Webcam is very easy to set up. You just put in the CD-ROM, follow the instructions and it's ready to use within 15 minutes. The quality of the picture is excellent. With the 720p HD widescreen view, pretty much the whole room is in view when you're recording, which means on multiple-person chats, you don't have to fiddle with the camera – more people can be in on the chat. Also, the LifeCam auto-adjusts its focus, so that when you're close up or far away it will keep the image sharp. The microphone is built in on the top and picks up sound well. There are also fun effects that you can put on while creating a video or taking a picture, such as different color themes, animated bunny ears and cowboy hats, or effects that bulge and distort your face. It's a rewarding and fun camera to use.

Cool Yule Rating: 4.5 stars $79.95

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Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

Blue Eyeball 2.0 USB Webcam

Blue Eyeball 2.0 WebcamPart of the reason that Webcam chats haven't taken off like you'd think they would with better computers and networks is that the Webcams themselves just haven't improved to the point that most customers would like. Luckily, there's the Blue Eyeball 2.0 USB Webcam to help fix that.

A sleek design in a very portable package, the Eyeball 2.0 Webcam features high-definition audio and video (2 megapixel camera) to give you a much better Web chat experience. The 2.0 version features a retractable camera lens for privacy when you don't want to be seen, and a special monitor adapter lets you position the camera on top of almost any monitor.

Audio is often ignored in the Webcam experience, so it's nice to see – err, hear – good quality during Web chats. Blue, the company, comes from the studio microphone market, so their quality gets transferred to their consumer computer products. It's a great trend in this space. When was the last time that you saw the microphone portion of a Webcam be larger than the video lens?

The best part of the Webcam? Driverless installation, with no CDs or long wait to get up and running. All you need to do is plug this into a USB port, and then utilize your favorite Web chat program (Skype, Google Talk, etc., are all supported). The design of the Blue Eyeball is also very impressive, as the base station doubles as a storage compartment for the USB cable.

The only downside – you're still relegated to using your headphones to hear the other person on the Web chat – or you can rely on your computer's speakers, which could introduce feedback/echo. I would love to see Blue Microphone come out with a headset, or a combination device that includes the Webcam, microphone and headphones (now I should just go invent something).

Cool Yule Rating: 4 stars $79.99

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

PictureMate Charm personal photo lab, by Epson

Epson PictureMate CharmEpson continues to impress me with its PictureMate line of portable photo printers, which originally came out about four years ago, and are still going strong. We were able to test the Charm unit this time around, a completely white unit but with all of the features we've come to know and love.

The unit lets you print photos from a memory card (most types supported, including the SD line and Memory Stick versions) and onto 4x6-inch paper. Epson says each photo can be printed in as fast as 37 seconds, and you can choose several layout options or color effects (color, black and white, sepia tone) on the 2.5-inch LCD screen before you print the photos. You can also create wallet-sized photos, mini wallets and a proof sheet, as long as it fits on the 4x6 paper.

The quality of the prints from the Charm are outstanding – I printed up a bunch of photos and compared them to another Lexmark printer we had received for the gift guide, and the prints from the Epson were more colorful and less flat than the ones from the Lexmark (which were still good, by the way). I got better prints from the Epson Artisan 810 printer, but that uses the Claria high-definition inks, where the Charm uses a single PictureMate print cartridge. On the other hand, the Charm's portability makes this the preferred choice if you want to bring the photo printer along with you on an event or out and about.

If you’re looking for a photo printer that can give you photo lab-quality prints in an easy-to-use and extremely compact frame, you can’t go wrong with the PictureMate Charm.

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 stars: $150

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Vue Personal Video Network

Vue Personal Video NetworkHome network video Webcams (sometimes known as nanny cams) have been around for a while, but they're usually difficult to set up, require power, and either a wired network connection or wireless connection to a router. This causes more difficulty in setup, memorizing of IP addresses (for viewing videos over the Internet), etc.

So if you're looking for a quick and easy way to connect tiny Webcams to your home network (or maybe for viewing at a remote location, like a summer house), the Vue Personal Video Network system is worth a look. The basic system consists of a wireless base station that connects to your home router, and tiny battery-operated Webcams (no power needed!) that synchronize to the base station.

Once synchronized, you can view the cameras via a Web browser, either on your network or across the Internet. The cameras can record content, and you can share clips with others as well if you want.

Setup is completely simple - just connect the base station, move the camera within 12 inches of the base station, hit the Synch button and wait about 5 seconds. The system also includes tiny ball mount platforms that you can stick on or screw into a wall, and the cameras can swivel on the ball in order for you to point in the right direction. Unfortunately, the Webcams don't have pan, tilt or zoom features, so you have to position them the right way in order for you see what you want to see. You can buy additional cameras and synchronize them to the base station, creating a bigger network of cameras to view.

Picture quality is ok, not great, and a lot depends on the lighting in the room that you want to monitor. Fortunately, you can adjust the camera for high, mid and low light situations. I tested this on a gray rainy day inside and it was on low light most of the time.

This is a great start for the product line - As cameras improve I'd like to see better cams and maybe some with pan, tilt and zoom features, maybe some motion-sensing capabilities, and even improvements to the Web software. But you can't beat the ease of use for setting up the cameras.

Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars: $300 for the base station and two cameras. Additional cameras are $100 each.

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Pandigital 8-inch Digital Photo Frame

Pandigital 8-inch Digital Photo FrameThe Pandigital digital photo frame is a great gift for anyone who loves photos and is low on space. It has an 8-inch screen with a really good picture quality, 800 x 600 pixel resolution with 4:3 aspect ratio. The colors appear vivid. It has a 512MB internal memory and can also display pictures directly from a camera's memory card, it supports multiple types. Pandigital says the frame's internal memory can hold up to 6,400 pictures! It works beautifully as a digital photo frame.

It has to be plugged in for it to work. You can access some features by touching the screen or all features can be accessed by the supplied remote control. When I first saw the remote, I thought it was just another remote I would lose or confuse for something else. But no, one of the really nice features about this frame is that the remote is actually magnetized to stick to the back of the frame! I wish more remotes on gadgets were like that!

Unfortunately, there are some other options that are far from perfect. First, you can load MP3s into the frame and play along with slideshows created on the internal memory. This is a fun feature, but it would be amazing if you could create different playlists for different slideshows. Unfortunately, you can't. So if you tailor songs for your Friends slideshow folder, you'll also be stuck listening to those songs for your Vacation folder, even if Queen's "You're My Best Friend" doesn't sync so nicely with pictures of your family reunion. Of course, there is a way to turn the feature off so you're not listening to the same list of songs every time you turn on your photos.

Speaking of the different folders, I was originally thrilled with this idea. I love organization and scrapbooking. I was thinking of how nice it would be to section off pictures. For example, a grandmother could have folders for all of her different sets of grandchildren, so whenever grandkids came over, she could put on their folder to play and they will always feel like the favorites. Or a couple could have "his friends" and "her friends" folders and play the corresponding folder depending on which group was coming to visit. Except that you can't do any of that. The Pandigital Digital Photo Frame will only allow you to use the five preloaded folders (Family, Friends, Vacation, Event, Other) and you can't alter them. It's still a neat feature, it's just not as neat as could be if control freaks like me were allowed to really personalize the frame.

Another sweet feature is that this digital frame also holds recipes, making it a terrific addition to someone's kitchen. It displays the recipe without having to balance a cook book or finding much counter space for it. The frame comes loaded with about 12 recipes from The Best of Bon Appétit and has the option for adding more when you purchase Bon Appétit cookbooks off the Pandigital Web site. Unfortunately, that is the only way to add more recipes to the frame. I tried to add a PDF recipe from Martha Stewart's Web site and was unsuccessful in getting it to display on the frame. But if you love cookbooks by Bon Appétit and want another way to use them in your kitchen, this might be the feature for you!

All in all, it's a cool gift. As with any photo frame though, I would suggest preloading some photos in for your loved one. While the instructional manual is very helpful, the frame is not the easiest technology gift to get started up and running immediately. Give your loved one something special to look at as soon as they turn on the frame.

Cool Yule Rating: 3.5 stars $99.99

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Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

Photo Book by Ditigal Foci

Digital FOCI Photo BookThe Digital Foci Photo Book is a stylish, thin, one-function device that displays digital photos on an 8-inch display. You can add music if you want to create a multimedia slideshow of your photos. The device fits into a spiffy leather case that opens up like a photo album.

So it's supposed to look like a photo album and then you open it up and, voila, it's got digital photos. Somehow, this is supposed to make it more appealing, but I'm not sure why you would take a digital photo viewer and try to make it look like a traditional photo album. It's kind of like building a cell phone in the form factor of a desk phone.

Anyway, Digital Foci touts this product as "the perfect family brag book and business presentation tool." I don't know about your business presentations, but I don't think this baby runs Excel or PowerPoint. And I don't know about your family brag books, but if you own a laptop, why do you need one of these? In fact, why spend $189 for a one-trick pony, when you can buy a netbook for less than $300?

Beyond that, the device falls short of competing products that can connect to your home network and provide additional functionality and applications. For example, HP's DreamScreen sports a Wi-Fi connection and an Ethernet port. This photo book doesn't have a USB port, Wi-Fi or an Ethernet port. The input methods are: directly from your computer, directly from your digital camera or directly from a memory card.

Cool Yule Rating: 2 stars $189

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Product Web site.

Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

Mini DV MD80 Pocket Camera Recorder

Mini DV MD80 Pocket Camera RecorderI see two uses for the Mini DV MD80 Pocket Camera Recorder – one is borderline illegal, and the other is impractical because there are cheaper, better options.

The unit itself is quite small – about the size of a small thumb. It records in color and captures sound, and is charged via mini-USB. The battery holds a charge for about two hours of use. It comes with a 2GB mini SD card, which is on the small side but acceptable. It’s easy to use and comes with many accessories, such as clip holders and the, uh, white leathery rubber cover that goes over it. It seems fairly durable on its own, so the white translucent “sheath” covering it only helps in that regard. It comes with plenty of other accessories as well.

You can use it as a Webcam. Logitech makes cheaper units, many of which are bigger. The other use, which is more of less stated on the box, is to spy on people. Because of the small size, I imagine it would be fairly easy to conceal the camera in places where others won’t see it. I think that’s kind of creepy, but I’m old fashioned. There’s also a light on it, so you’ll have to figure out a way to block that out.

I honestly don’t see this being a practical video recorder for everyday life. The quality might be a little better than that on a cell phone (maybe), but it’s not HD quality. You’re better off getting a big memory card for your cell phone, because you’re carrying that anyway and your mobile phone is probably made by a company you’ve heard of. It does seem like a well built device, but I have no idea how long it will last.

So, in summation, the Mini DV MD80 Pocket Camera Recorder is recommended with reservations for spying on people. 

Which you shouldn’t do.

Cool Yule rating: 1.5 stars: $99.99

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Reviewed by Daniel Hunt

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