The Xconomy 2010 Gadget Gift Guide

12/3/10Follow @wroush

If the people on your holiday gift lists have asked for clothes, sports equipment, beauty products, or fancy food, I can’t help you. But I do know electronics, and this week I want to point you toward a few of the products that I think are among the most enticing on the market this year. As a total gadget freak, these are the products I’d want the most—if I didn’t already own most of them!

I’m arranging these puppies in order of most affordable to least affordable. But if you don’t want to splurge, or if the person you’re buying for already has one of these devices, there are alternatives. In each case I’m attaching ideas for accessories or add-ons that make these products more useful and that ought to fit almost any budget. (Update, December 20, 2010: I’ve also published a list of the best paid iPad apps to give as virtual stocking stuffers to lucky new iPad owners.)

Note: There are some very hot products this season, like the Microsoft Kinect sensor for the Xbox 360, that didn’t make my list because I haven’t had a chance to try them yet. If you have your own favorite gadget gift ideas, please leave a note in the comment section.

Roku Player lineRoku Streaming Player — $59.99 to $99.99 at shop.roku.com

The Roku line of Wi-Fi-connected set-top boxes, from the starter HD to the XD and the XD|S, open up a whole world of Internet TV viewing right on a big-screen TV. Netflix’s selection of Watch Instantly movies and TV shows are the main attraction on the Roku, but there’s also Hulu Plus, Amazon Video on Demand, Pandora music, and much more. Truth be told, this is all stuff that broadband subscribers can already access right on their laptop or desktop computers. But the Roku, which connects to a home Wi-Fi network, organizes it all so that it’s easy to browse and navigate from 10 feet away.

For the full rundown on the Roku and its main competitor, the new Apple TV, see my comparative review from two weeks ago. I think both devices make great gifts. But keep in mind that they’re only useful to people who have fast Internet connections and Wi-Fi networks at home.

Add-ons/accessories: To get the full benefit of a Roku Player, you need a Netflix subscription. Fortunately Netflix makes it really easy to give a subscription as a gift—at $7.99 a month for the Watch Instantly, no-DVD plan, or $9.99 a month for the Watch Instantly plus 1-DVD-out-at-a-time plan. You can choose to prepay someone’s subscription for 1, 2, 3, 6, or 12 months.

Apple TVApple TV — $99 at Amazon or Apple Stores

The Apple TV is like the Roku Player, done the Apple way, meaning it has a slicker interface. And in addition to tapping Netflix, it’s a gateway to all the movies, TV shows, and podcasts in Apple’s iTunes Store, as well as YouTube and Flickr. The Roku Player can access a wider variety of content, but the Apple TV is probably the better gift choice for people who already have large iTunes libraries or who use other Apple products such as iMacs, MacBooks, iPhones, or iPads, since it can also stream content stored on those devices. Again, refer to my comparative review for all the details.

Add-ons/accessories: The coolest thing to get someone who already has an Apple TV would be an iTunes gift card, which would allow them to buy or rent TV shows or movies, or perhaps even an entire season of their favorite show. Or if you want to give something a little more personal, you can go into iTunes, pick out a particular show or movie, and make that a gift.

Amazon KindleAmazon Kindle — $139 (Wi-Fi only) or $189 (Wi-Fi + 3G) at Amazon

The Kindle 2 was a pretty great gadget, but for the third version of the handheld reading device, released in August, Amazon has outdone itself. Amazon’s screen supplier E Ink has increased the contrast of the device’s screen by 50 percent, so it looks even more like paper. Amazon gave the new device Wi-Fi connectivity, meaning it can download books faster. It increased the internal memory to 4 gigabytes, enough for 3,500 books, and it improved the battery life, to roughly 10 days when the wireless modem is switched on and 30 days when it’s not.

I’m not going to get into a long debate here about the relative merits of the iPad and the Kindle as e-reading devices—I’ve already done that. I’ll just say that the Kindle remains the best dedicated e-reading device on the market. When it comes to reading long-form content like non-fiction books, novels, and magazine articles, it’s got some real advantages over the iPad, namely its lower price and its smaller size and weight, making it far easier to hold and transport. The Kindle is a great gift for any avid reader.

Add-ons/accessories: This one’s a no-brainer: an Amazon gift card that the happy new Kindle owner can use to buy some books.

Flip Ultra HDFlip Ultra HD Video Camera — $170.99 at Amazon

I’m including two video cameras on my gadget list. The first is the point-and-shoot Flip Ultra, which is utterly foolproof (it’s operated using a big red button on the back) and can record up to two hours of high-definition (720p) video on its internal flash memory. The flip-out USB connector means the camera can be plugged straight into a computer, without cables, to download recorded video for editing, sharing, viewing, or publication on the Web. The Flip line of cameras is great for family events, vacations, and anywhere else someone just needs a camcorder that’s quick, reliable, and easy to use.

Accessories/add-ons: The Flip is pretty self-sufficient—which is the whole point. But there’s one fun accessory that makes the Flip even more useful: a tripod. The $9.88 Flip tripod sits on a table and the $14.95 Flip Action tripod fits on a bike helmet or bike handlebars.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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