Cool Stuff: Your 2006 Holiday Gift Guide

All the best technology gifts to give (and get) this holiday season

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Home Theater Heaven

Let's be honest -- the "gifts" on this page are really things you're likely to get for yourself. Or perhaps they'll be a family present that you just happen to spend a lot of time with. Either way, you're going to love your living room.

Large-screen plasma HDTV: 50-in. Panasonic TH-50PX60U

Plasma rules. There's just no other widescreen HDTV technology that delivers saturated colors like plasma. The big news this year is that plasma is getting a little less expensive.

There really wasn't much difficulty in picking the best plasma buy this season. It's the 50-in. Panasonic TH-50PX60U, which we found in retail stores on the East Coast for $2,300 on sale (and it's cheaper online). If you sit close to your TV, buy the similar 42-in. TH-42PX60U instead. For most people's needs, bigger is better. You just don't want something so big your head is swiveling back and forth.

The TH-50PX60U supports 480p, 780p, and 1080i. Most HD cable TV is 720p. For right here, right now, this is the widescreen that delivers what you need for HDTV and nothing you don't need, at a savings over last year of at least $1,000.

Vibrant colors are the hallmark of the 50-in. TH-50PX60U plasma HDTV. Courtesy of Panasonic.

Vibrant colors are the hallmark of the 50-in. TH-50PX60U plasma HDTV. Courtesy of Panasonic. (Click image to see larger view)

Next year, plasma sets will probably support the much better image quality of the 1080p standard. If you're big on DVDs and you're willing to shell out for a DVR that supports 1080p, there could be a distinct advantage to a widescreen 1080p HDTV.

Another trade-off for all HDTV sets is that they don't do the best job with standard TV. Believe that, because it's true. On plasmas, the edges between color areas may appear to be a little blotchy or vaguely jaggy. Another way to say it is that the lines aren't sharp. So it depends on how many HD channels are available to you, and what you tend to watch.

But one thing's sure: If you're into HD and saving money, this is the one to get. (product details)

—Scot Finnie

Large-screen LCD HDTV: 46-in. Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR2

Wow! Large-screen LCDs have come a long way over the past year. We put Sony's Bravia 46-in. LCD KDL-46XBR2 through two separate comparisons with plasma, comparing both conventional and HDTV content. Here's what we found: When displaying HD 720p content over cable, the Sony is only a quarter-notch below the best plasmas (such as the Panasonic TH-50PX60U). That's very good company indeed.

The problem with LCDs is their tendency to pixelate high-definition images. You're suddenly conscious of the tiny squares that make up the image you're looking at. It may last only a second or two, but it's jarring. With its current crop of LCDs, Sony appears to have nearly vanquished this problem. Part of the improvement is the higher 1,920-by-1,080-pixel resolution 1080p sets deliver. But there's more to it than that, and it's a good thing.

Sony's 46-in. Bravia KDL-46XBR2 LCD delivers top-quality HD. Courtesy of Sony.

Sony's 46-in. Bravia KDL-46XBR2 LCD delivers top-quality HD. Courtesy of Sony.

Another strength of the KDL-46XBR2 is its brightness. That helps the Sony deliver slightly better standard TV picture quality than plasmas we've compared it with. Technically a 1080p LCD has a tad more to overcome when rendering standard TV than a 720p plasma. But it's all in the conversion algorithms each maker uses. LCD's problem with converting standard TV seems to be muddy colors and a loss of crispness.

Oddly, if you're into DVDs, that's the HD medium that will more quickly support the 1080p standard that most of the better LCDs are offering this season. Watching 1080p video played on a 1080p DVR to a 1080p LCD is a transforming experience; it leaves 720p high-def cable TV on a plasma screen far back in the dust.

Of course, next year, plasma HDTVs will probably be available in 1080p. The question is, how much of the future do you want to buy? LCDs are more expensive too.

Some advantages of LCDs you might not hear about at Best Buy or its ilk are that they use less power, throw off less heat and weigh less. LCD is also a far more proven technology when it comes to reliability. We don't know how long plasma TVs will really last in the real world. That's a test in the making.

Confused? You can't go wrong with either of the HDTVs in the Cool Stuff Gift Guide. And the Sony KDL-46XBR2 (available online from $2,650 to $3,800) is an excellent choice. (product details)

—Scot Finnie

High-definition media center: Lux Dual HD

If you want to make the leap to high definition but you're having a hard time deciding between HD-DVD and Blu-ray (after all, who wants to get caught with the equivalent of a Betamax system?), VidaBox has you covered. And then some.

Built inside a nearly silent, rack-mountable case enclosure, the dual-HD Lux media center uses Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 to deliver a next-generation home theater that can replace your DVD player, audio receiver and TiVo. The system includes SPDIF optical and coaxial audio outputs for Dolby Digital and DTS sound, and it supports up to 1080p high-definition video output. Dual analog and dual HD tuners allow you to record multiple broadcasts at the same time.

The LUX doesn't make you choose between Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Courtesy of VidaBox.
The LUX doesn't make you choose between Blu-ray and HD-DVD.

Courtesy of VidaBox.

At the core of the Lux lies one of AMD's dual-core Athlon X2 processors (either the 3800+, the 4200+, or the 4600+). The system includes 750GB of storage standard, but you can customize it all the way up to a whopping 3.75TB.

This system isn't cheap -- it starts at $3,500 and goes up significantly from there. Want the full 3.75TB? Tack on $2,900 to the base price. And those tandem HD-DVD and Blu-ray drives will cost you, too -- add another $1,400 to the basic model. But isn't that very special someone on your gift list worth it? (product details)

—George Jones

Home-theater-in-a-box: Samsung HT-TQ85

For years, audiophiles have turned up their noses at the concept of home theater in a box, but for hundreds of thousands of consumers, the affordability and ease of use of these full-fledged audio-video systems has been difficult to bypass. The reality is that these days, there's not much compromise in sound quality for these systems.

Samsung's HT-TQ85 system is a sterling example of the convenience and extremely high quality HTIB systems offer. With four sleek main speakers (and an option for wireless rear speakers), a center channel, a subwoofer, and a receiver/five-disc changer, this is truly a plug-and-play solution. At around $500, it's a steal.

Samsung's home theater in a box offers great sound and great value. Courtesy of Samsung.

Samsung's home theater in a box offers great sound and great value. Courtesy of Samsung.

The sound quality of CDs and DVDs is stunning -- we've heard this system in action, and wow. The sleek, modern looks don't hurt, either. (product details)

—George Jones

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