’Tis the Season To Be Thrifty

A collection of older, cheaper gadgets that still make great gifts in 2009.

Earlier this year, when the blogger and tech entrepreneur Anil Dash traveled to India to visit his family, he was struck by his uncle’s choice of gadgetry. “We were standing in the middle of a rice paddy in one of the poorest regions of India,” Dash says, “and I saw he was using a pretty recent Nokia Smartphone.” It was the same phone that Dash himself had been using a couple years before—but Dash had gone through three different phones since then.

That observation prompted Dash to wonder what satisfaction he was getting from “chasing novelty.” If his uncle could make do with an old cell phone, why couldn’t he? Thus, a small movement was born: In April, Dash and a few tech-luminary friends launched Last Year’s Model, a one-page site that encourages techies to consider the old before jumping into the new. The response, Dash says, was overwhelming—people posted hundreds of comments on the site and on Twitter and Facebook explaining how the economy, the environment, and general thriftiness had prompted them to stick with old phones, music players, cameras, video game consoles, and other devices.

Dash acknowledges that his movement faces a tough battle during the holidays, when giving something secondhand or slightly out-of-date might be considered uncouth. But let’s help change that. As it happens, Slate has been pushing old stuff since 2007, when Paul Boutin went over all the stuff from 2006 that could still make great gifts.

Here’s another list for 2009. I’ve picked out a bunch of gadgets that work fantastically well yet have been largely forgotten on account of the latest and greatest tech tools. Rather than buy what’s hot today, take a shot at these oldies but goodies—your friends and your pocketbook will thank you.

The first Kindle. A few weeks ago, I warned readers against running out to buy a new e-book reader. My reasons: They’re too expensive, the e-book format is unsettled, and there are too many possibly great new e-reader-like inventions on the horizon. OK, but what if you want one anyway? Well, you’re in luck: There’s an e-reader that’s just as good as today’s models, but it costs two-thirds as much, or less.

I’m talking about the Kindle 1, Amazon’s first e-reader. The most important differences between the old Kindle—which made its debut late in 2007—and the 2009 model are physical. Compared with the new one, the old Kindle is a bit thicker and heavier and has a face that’s slightly off-putting. The Kindle 1 is Luke Wilson in those AT&T ads; the 2009 edition is the Kindle’s circa- Royal Tenenbaumslook.

But, hey, you’re buying the thing for reading, not preening, right? On that front, the old Kindle’s a fine machine—it has a nice E-ink screen, downloads books wirelessly, and holds 200 titles (the new one holds 1,500, but who are you, Harold Bloom?). The new Kindle sells for $259. An old one can be had on Craigslist or eBay for less than $160.

TiVo HD XL. Just before the holidays last year, TiVo unveiled the Hummer of its line—a DVR for people who watch more television than is probably advisable. The HD XL records up to 150 hours of high-definition programming, or a staggering 1,300 hours of standard-def TV (that’s nearly two months’ worth!) It’s got two tuners, meaning it can record two shows at once, and it can be used in place of your cable box. Last year TiVo sold this beast for $600. It’s now going for $380.

Slightly old Apple products. Steve Jobs is a master of the upgrade cycle. No sooner have Apple fanatics settled in to new phones or music players than he’s taking the stage to tout new versions. Then comes the exodus—Macheads rush off to buy the new, shedding the old on eBay.

Turn their loss into your gain. Take, for instance, Apple’s notebooks. Starting last fall, the company began replacing its portable machines with new “unibody” models—laptops that are machined out of a single slab of metal, making them stronger, lighter, and prettier. But $2,499 for the 17-inch MacBook Pro is a bit steep. On eBay, you’ll find last generation’s big-screen MacBook going for $1,500 or less.

Buying yesterday’s Apple doesn’t just work for laptops; you’ll also find great eBay deals on iMacs, Mac Minis, and iPods. And for Apple’s flagship product, the iPhone, you don’t even need to buy used—Apple is still selling the iPhone 3G, which first launched in the summer of 2008. That model has been superseded by the iPhone 3GS, which is a bit faster and includes a compass but sells for $199 plus a two-year contract. At $99 (plus contract), the 3G is the cheapest iPhone you can buy.

Flip Mino HD. If you absolutely must have a small, easy-to-use HD camera, get this one. It’s got 4GB of room for your clips, a wonderfully intuitive interface for transferring files to your computer, and pretty good video quality, too. Last year it went for $230; now, you can have it for $160.

But take note: The Flip faces strong competition from the new iPod Nano, which includes a video camera. The iPod’s video quality isn’t as good as the Flip’s, but it’s close—and the device is much tinier and easier on the eyes. The 8GB model is also cheaper than the Flip—just $135.

WowWee Rovio. This was last year’s hot robot “toy”—a label that’s not quite right, considering that you don’t play with this thing so much as worry over it. The Rovio, which streams live video and audio to a Web-based operator stationed anywhere in the world, is basically a Web cam with wheels. While the robo-gizmo is billed as a “sentry,” I doubt that many people use it for security—if you have a jones for checking in on your pets or kids while you’re away, the Rovio’s for you.

While critics raved over it, many people who bought the Rovio last year panned it as extremely buggy. WowWee has released a few firmware updates since then, and recent reviews have been more positive. Even better, it’s cheaper. Last year the Rovio sold for $300. Now it’s $209.

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