The Best Gadgets of 2006

Last year’s products make this year’s best gifts.

Still wondering what to buy this year for the gadget lover in your life? The bad news: This year’s hottest gizmos, the $400 PlayStation 3 (plus the games) and the $400 iPhone (plus a monthly phone plan), are dubious deals for price-conscious shoppers. A $400 phone? Come on. The good news: If you don’t want to overpay for this year’s tech toys, you can just buy last year’s. There are plenty of premium products from Christmas 2006 that are still worth buying, especially now that you can get them for half-premium prices. With the help of Gizmodo Editor in Chief Brian Lam, I’ve found five gadgets whose prices have dropped substantially since last year but that will still impress the geeks on your shopping list.

Blu-ray or HD-DVD player $200 to $300 with five to 10 free movies (was $1,800)

When Pioneer announced its $1,800 Blu-ray player at a press event in early 2006, my photographer gushed, “Hey, that’s pretty good!” Hope you waited. Amazon lets you choose 10 movies from a limited selection to go with a $200 Toshiba HD-DVD player, or five Blu-ray discs to go along with a $300 Samsung player. Hollywood studios are still fighting over whether HD-DVD or Blu-ray will become the star format, but at this price you won’t feel ripped off if you need to buy the other kind of player in two years. Trust me: Once you’ve gone high-def, it’s hard to go back. (And remember, Netflix will rent you high-def movies for the same price as regular DVDs.)

Microsoft Zune (first generation) $80 (was $250)

Microsoft’s portable music-and-video player gets mocked by iPod snobs, but it’s a perfectly fun gadget. Especially at this price. An iPod that does video will set you back twice as much for a smaller screen and a paltry eight gigabytes of storage. The cheapest Zune, by comparison, has 30 gigabytes of storage. The trick is to ignore Microsoft’s 2007 models and buy the original version, still available just about everywhere. The second-generation models are a bit smaller but otherwise not much improved. They’ve got an iPod-mocking clickwheel that doesn’t actually spin—you can only press up, down, left, or right. Why bother? The old Zune sounds just as good as an iPod to my ears, which is to say much better than most MP3 players. It also works fine with Windows XP or Vista. For the price of iPod chic, you can bundle a Zune with two gift certificates to load it with music and videos. Hit Google Products frequently to find original Zunes on sale for as low as 80 bucks.

TiVo HD $300 (was $600)

As recently as last year, there was a shortage of high-def television. No more. Lost’s tropical island scenery and dramatic close-ups are gorgeous in high-def, and watching the kinetically goofy 30 Rock in HD lets me savor the finesse in Alec Baldwin’s every facial twitch. Along with HD, time-shifting is the biggest breakthrough in TV this decade. If you miss a show, you shouldn’t have to miss the chance to watch it in high definition. To make HD more affordable, TiVo has built a slightly stripped-down version of its $600 HD player. This cheaper model lacks THX audio, which Silicon Valley gossips tell me was a big part of the price. At 20 hours of HD recording or 180 hours of standard fare, it has about two-thirds the storage capacity of its big brother. You don’t get a snazzy, backlit remote, either. But you do get the same video quality and the ability to record two shows at once.

Nikon D40 $475 with lens (was $600)

Cheap, pretty-good cameras are everywhere, but a single lens reflex camera lets a serious shooter take her photos to the next level. SLR means that when you look into the camera’s viewfinder, you’re looking out through the same lens that’s going to take the photo, not a tiny one next to it. Just as important, camera makers buff up their SLRs with interchangeable lens mounts and better digital hardware. The result: more vibrant, realistic colors, without lens artifacts such as perspective distortion and vignetting that make photos look amateurish. Nikon’s easy-to-use, digital, single lens reflex camera shoots sharply enough that pros use it. Load your home computer with a $70 copy of Adobe Photoshop Elements 6 and O’Reilly’s $30 Photoshop Retouching Cookbook, and you can pat down shiny faces, remove unwanted objects, fix bad lighting, even change the perspective in photos with a few mouse moves. A Google Products search for the D40 gets flooded with accessories for the camera. Try Pricegrabber instead; click on the results page’s price column to find the low seller. Make sure the camera you’re buying comes with a lens.

Pioneer 50-inch HDTV $3,500 (was $8,000) plus shipping

Pioneer’s Kuro PRO-1150HD isn’t the $8,000 Elite PROFHD1 that I fell in love with last December but couldn’t afford. It’s a newer series of television, and it has fewer pixels. But as TV experts e-mailed to admonish me last year, unless you get up close and do a point-by-point comparison of the two units during a Blu-ray movie, you won’t be able to detect the pixel difference. For TV-watching, a highest-resolution 1,080-pixel TV is a waste, because broadcasts are still done in the lower quality 720 or 1080-interlaced resolution. Full-on noninterlaced 1080p video—the kind you get from Blu-ray and HD-DVD—hogs about twice as much bandwidth, so broadcasters don’t plan to upgrade soon. What matters more than pixel counts are the set’s rich, accurate colors and the absence of motion blur or other digital-TV artifacts, thanks to more-powerful hardware and smarter software than you’ll find in a $1,500 model. Buying a TV screen today is like buying a computer: Don’t spend extra to future-proof it for the next 10 years. By the time the NFL launches 1080p broadcasts, you’ll be able to buy a 1080p set for not much more than a Zune.