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Is It Time to Upgrade?

We survey the latest technologies (from digital cameras to Blu-Ray players) to separate the must-have-right-nows from the stuff you can hold off on until the next generation arrives
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Entourage, July/August 2009

Say you already own a functional digital Doohickey that basically gets the job done—should you be upgrading to Doohickey 2.0? Sometimes a new model represents a genuine leap in the right direction. Other times it's just the same old thing with a few added gewgaws and minor embellishments, and not worth laying out your hard-earned cash for an upgrade. Our aim here is to look at several tempting tech categories and advise you on whether now is the time to take the leap or if it's wiser to wait until something better comes along.

We will set aside the mundane matter of paying the bills in a tough economy, and start by looking at products in which tech innovation delivers dramatic improvement over previous generations. Audio gear just hasn't changed much in several years, for example. Digital cameras and camcorders, on the other hand, have seen tremendous advances, opening up exciting new photo and video opportunities in the process.

High-def TV sets have seen only incremental technological changes of late, but the amount of stuff to watch on them has grown tremendously. Prices have hit new lows, and many early adopters are at the point where they're asking, Is my old HDTV good enough?

A year ago when I wrote about Blu-ray players, I resisted recommending you run out and buy one, despite the indisputably superior picture and audio quality they deliver. Now I'm softening my stance, and that's not just because the competition that caused uncertainty in the market, the HD-DVD high-def disc system, is now interred in the Failed Format Graveyard beside 8-track and Betamax.

While upgrading to a new computer for more processing power is unnecessary for most folks who purchased within the past two or three years, I'm a sucker for portability. The older I get, the more my computers shrink, and we've seen delightful diminution in computers lately. My advice in five hot categories follows:

Digital Cameras

Perusing the latest digital camera ads with their massive megapixel counts may have you thinking your current model is an underpowered antique. There's a lot more to taking good photos than megapixels, though. In fact, if you currently own a camera with 5-megapixel resolution or thereabouts, you're perfectly fine unless you plan on blowing up your photos to gallery-size proportions. Shots taken with a 12-megapixel camera won't look any sharper on-screen, or even in 8'' x 10" or 11" x 14" prints, if you're one of those traditional souls who still output photos to paper. In fact, with many small cameras, squeezing more megapixels onto an image sensor actually results in poorer picture quality. The tiny individual light receptors become even tinier when more of them are squeezed into a limited space, which can make images grainier and colors duller, particularly when shooting in low light.

On the other hand, moving from a pocket-size compact to a full-size SLR (single-lens reflex) model can make a big difference in the photos you take. An SLR accepts interchangeable lenses, so you can use a long telephoto zoom for capturing close-ups from a safe distance, and also pack a wide-angle lens for shooting scenic panoramas or squeezing everybody into the frame in a group shot. SLRs also work faster than pocket cameras, making it less likely you'll miss that perfect moment. And while image quality from many compact cameras is very good today, SLRs have larger image sensors that produce better-looking photos even when the pixel count is the same.

There's good news for SLR wannabes: we've recently seen a flood of consumer-priced SLRs with impressive performance, at prices ranging from about $500 to $700. I chose the Canon EOS Rebel XSi to feature here, but Nikon, Olympus and Sony all have worthy contenders. Here are five recent camera introductions that open up new photographic possibilities, an embarrassment of riches that goes way beyond me-too thinking to put new photographic power in your hot little hands.

Nikon D700 This is undeniably an expensive camera, priced at $3,000 plus the cost of a lens. But if you're serious about photography, the D700 is a great deal. In late 2007, Nikon stunned pro photographers with its Nikon D3, delivering breakthrough low-light performance at $5,000 plus lens. Why fire a flash in someone's face when you can get crisp, gorgeous images by the light of a single candle? This year, the company followed up with the D700—same extraordinary 12.1-megapixel image sensor for phenomenal available-light shots, same crystal-clear high-res LCD screen, same near-instantaneous autofocus system, but in a smaller camera priced 40 percent lower than the D3. If my wife didn't see the credit card statements every month, I never would have returned the review sample they loaned me. $2,999.95 plus lens, nikonusa.com

Canon EOS Rebel XSi I shot with a lot of reasonably priced SLRs this year, but kept returning to the Rebel XSi. There isn't some arcane feature that accounts for my preference: It's just that I found it extremely comfortable, well sculpted and balanced for easy shooting, with a clear, comprehensible menu system and the expected compatibility with a huge array of high-quality Canon lenses. The 12-megapixel camera can be set to auto and produce great results by pointing and shooting, with beautifully saturated color and razor-sharp details. As you get more comfortable shooting with an SLR, though, you'll find a host of options that will tweak camera settings and fine-tune your photos. The price is right, and you won't outgrow the XSi any time soon. $799.99 with lens, usa.canon.com

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 Olympus and Panasonic announced a whole new camera format this year called Micro Four Thirds. In one way these cameras are like SLRs, since they accept interchangeable lenses. But while you can peer through a small electronic eyepiece to frame your photos, Micro Four Thirds cameras also offer a nice big LCD on the back of the camera for lining up your shots. And the "Micro" in Micro Four Thirds refers to a size compromise: not small enough to fit in your pocket, but significantly smaller and lighter than most SLRs. The Panasonic Lumix G1 is the first Micro Four Thirds camera to hit store shelves, and it's a winner: compact enough to carry easily, fast enough to catch active scenes and generally fun to use. My only significant quibble is the price, which seems high compared with more full-featured mid-range SLRs. On the other hand, you get early-adopter bragging rights with your purchase, and the photographic quality won't disappoint. $799.95 with lens, panasonic.com

Casio EXILIM Pro EX-F1 and EX-FH20 Frankly, I don't usually look to Casio for technological innovation, but the company amazed me this year with a pair of cameras that shoot more photos faster than anything else on the market. First came the EX-F1, a $1,000 powerhouse that can take up to 60 high-resolution photos in a single second. (You can also stretch those 60 shots across a longer span, which makes more sense in most circumstances.) That makes the EX-F1 the ultimate consumer sports cam. (Hockey dads and moms, take note!) Catch your kid at precisely the moment of contact, with the perfect triumphant facial expression. Or better yet, have your kid shoot you as you swing a golf club so you can figure out precisely where your elbow and shoulder are doing you wrong. The camera can also shoot video at an unbelievable 1,200 frames per second—at that speed, when you pop a water balloon, it seems to take ages before the water realizes it's supposed to fall. I found the ultra-slow-mo movies, with their relatively low resolution, lost their gee-whiz appeal pretty quickly, but high-speed photography will never get old. And if a grand seems a bit, well, grand for a digital camera, the follow-up EX-FH20 delivers a still unbelievable 40 frames per second for $400 less than its more photographically sophisticated brand-mate. EX-F1, $999.99 with 12x zoom lens, 6.1-megapixel resolution; EX-FH20, $599.99 with 20x zoom lens, 9.1-megapixel resolution (7-megapixel for high-speed photography), casio.com

High-Def Camcorders

Maybe you've been waiting to step up to a high-def TV—another week of "Dancing with the Stars" in standard definition could actually be a godsend, given the age of some of the contestants. But you only get one chance to capture your family memories on video, though, and there's no question that you (and your descendants) are going HD eventually. High-definition home videos are strikingly superior to standard-def, with color, detail and even surround-sound audio that provide an unmatched right-there sensation. At this point, consumer high-def camcorders are expensive but not outrageously priced, the technology is mature (no new format is going to pop up any time soon to make your brand-new HD model seem antiquated) and video quality is superb. And high-def camcorders can send standard-def signals to a regular TV set, so your relatives without HDTVs won't be able to escape the pleasure of watching your fascinating family videos when you come to visit.

The first choice you'll make when shopping for a high-def camcorder is how the video will be stored. You'll still find HD camcorders that record digital signals to MiniDV tape cassettes, but these are becoming less popular: editing your movies shot on tape using a computer requires a cumbersome conversion process, and the tapes themselves will also deteriorate over time. And while there have been a few attempts at camcorders that record high-definition video directly to Blu-ray discs, they haven't received rave reviews. The all-digital formats that rule today at least record to built-in hard disk drives, built-in, solid-state ("flash") memory or removable memory cards, while some camcorders offer a combination of memory solutions: internal memory plus removable cards, for example. The advantage of hard-drive camcorders is tremendous storage capacity. The advantage with flash memory or removable cards is fewer moving parts and a more compact housing, although your shooting time is limited. Often you'll find essentially the same camcorder from the same manufacturer available in multiple memory formats. You pays your money, you makes your choice—none of these formats strike me as intrinsically superior to the others.

Panasonic HDC-HS300 Sometimes playing the waiting game can make you a real winner. Case in point: Panasonic's latest high-def camcorder, the HDC-HS300. I was a fan of it's predecessor, the HS100 when I tried it in 2008, but the updated HS300 provides a host of truly useful improvements, starting with double the recording capacity: it's now an astonishing 46 hours of full 1920 x 1080-resolution high-def goodness stored on a built-in 120-gigabyte hard drive. The HS300, like the HS100, also accepts removable SD memory cards—particularly useful if you want to upload a quick YouTube clip from your computer without connecting the camcorder, or for shooting still images. Speaking of still images, the HS300 will provide much sharper results than the HS100 as it raises resolution from the previous 2.1 megapixels to a far more respectable 10.6 megapixels. Like the HS100, the HDC-HS300 employs a three-image-sensor design (one each for red, green and blue) to deliver standout color clarity, but the individual sensors are now larger, to reduce the speckly image noise that's especially troublesome when shooting in low-light situations. The camcorder's Leica lens has been improved for better low-light video too. Panasonic even listened to user gripes about the strange and impractical positioning of the USB and HDMI connectors inside the battery compartment on the HS100 and moved them to the side of the camcorder where you can get at them easily. All in all, the camcorder got a major update at a relatively modest $200 price boost, to $1,399. panasonic.com.

Canon VIXIA HF11 Dual Flash Memory Camcorder This compact flash memory camcorder includes 32 gigabytes of internal memory—enough to record up to 12 hours of high-def video—plus an SD memory card slot to boost the video capacity and ease camera-to-computer file transfers. The HF11 shoots at the highest bit rate available on a consumer camcorder; that bit of technobabble translates into unbeatable image quality, especially if you want to burn your own Blu-ray discs (maybe not today, but you never know . . .). And while I still prefer to shoot photos with a digital camera and video with a camcorder, the 3.3-megapixel stills you can grab with this model are pretty impressive. $1,199, usa.canon.com Sony HDR-TG1 A great HD camcorder doesn't have to be a bulky beast. This Sony, which shoots up to 85 minutes of full 1920 x 1080 video out of the box, measures just 4.7" x 1.3" x 2.5" and weighs a scant 10 oz. The HDR-TG1 records to Sony's own Memory Stick PRO Duo format, and while I'd rather use industry-standard SD cards, we're talking Sony here—you're not going to have trouble finding a Memory Stick when you need one, and up to 110 minutes of high-def video fits on each. The bright touch-screen display folds out from the camera when you're shooting or reviewing your video, then flips down (turning the camcorder off in the process) for jacket-pocket portability. And I really like the included Handycam Station cradle. Leave it connected to your TV, and watching video is as simple as slipping the camcorder into the cradle and pressing play. $900, sonystyle.com

HDTV

If you already own a high-def set that's big enough for the room it's perched in, there's probably no compelling reason to upgrade at this point. Yes, I know, all the Sunday circular ads trumpet 1080p as the must-have version of high def. And if you're going out to buy a set today, I'd certainly recommend you go with a 1080p set, assuming you're looking at something bigger than, say, 36 inches. But here's the shortest possible explanation of HD resolution standards. For the first few years of HD growth there were two major formats: 720p and 1080i. A 720p set creates a picture using 720 horizontal lines and draws each one 60 times a second. (The "p" stands for "progressive.") The 1080i set uses 1,080 lines, but only draws half of them each time it refreshes the screen ("i" stands for "interlaced")—in other words, you get the full 1,080 lines 30 times a second. Sharp-eyed men with testosterone tied to their purchases argued over which standard was better, to no avail. Then 1080p arrived, offering the best of both worlds. 1080p is technologically better. But is it visibly better? Maybe if you're watching a pristine Blu-ray disc (some of the only content that makes full use of the 1080p resolution—broadcast, cable and satellite TV don't, even with programs in HD) and you have the eyes of a hawk. But I certainly wouldn't chuck a perfectly good HD set just to get to 1080p.

A bigger picture on the other hand—well, that's another story. And with giant 50-inch-and-above flat panels both better looking and less expensive than ever before, the time is ripe to own a really big screen and move that puny 42-incher to the den. Here are three big-screen favorites.

Panasonic Viera TH-50PZ800U LCD sets are outselling plasmas by a healthy margin in the market today, but to my eye, you can't beat the picture quality of a top-end plasma, especially when it comes to watching movies or fast-moving sports action. Overall, Panasonic does a wonderful job producing plasmas with impressive picture quality and rock-solid build at a fair price—more expensive than those warehouse club bargain brands, sure, but worth it. This 50-inch model is a prime example from the upper tier of the company's product line, with a gorgeous picture and plenty of ports to connect every game system, disc player and gewgaw you can imagine. And if 50 inches isn't big enough to feed your massive ego, there's a 58-inch model for $3,700. $2,449.95, panasonic.com

Sony Bravia KDL-55XBR8 Sony, the leading maker of LCD HDTVs, introduced a new technological wrinkle this year with the Triluminos RGB Dynamic LED backlight system. Basically, each little dot in a plasma screen emits light, but for an LCD panel the dots just produce color and require some kind of light source from behind. The solution for lower-cost sets is fluorescent lighting, which can work reasonably well if designed right. A better solution is LED lighting, which provides a smoother, more even backlight. The Triluminos system takes it one step further, using tiny groups of red, green and blue LEDs instead of the usual white lights. This has two advantages. The colors look deeper and more lifelike and the individual LEDs can be dimmed in dark picture areas to produce a darker, more realistic black background. It's cool tech, it works and it's available in this giant 55-inch model that somehow manages to look great even when it isn't turned on. $6,999.99, sonystyle.com

Blu-ray

Until recently I admired the picture and sound quality of Blu-ray movies, but still advised my friends and readers not to buy a player, even when the format war between Blu-ray and rival HD DVD ended in a rout. My hesitation was twofold: I felt Blu-ray players were just way too expensive at $600 to $800 or more, and they lacked the Ethernet port needed to connect to the Internet and take full advantage of the online features promised by the Blu-ray format. This year, thanks to lower player prices and wide availability of Internet-ready models, making the leap from DVD to Blu-ray makes sense if you want to squeeze all the entertainment oomph possible from your HDTV and surround-sound system. Of course, if they don't hurry up and release The Big Lebowski in Blu-ray format soon, I take back every nice thing I just said.

Panasonic DMP-BD55 With videophile-pleasing quality and all the features you'd expect in a top-quality Blu-ray player, the DMP-BD55 handles all the audio formats supported by the Blu-ray specification (including the highest-quality Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, which are frequently omitted from lesser players), plus the online BD-Live features starting to arrive on movie discs, and high-def playback of your digital camera photos via an easy-to-access SD memory card slot. $399.95, panasonic.com

LG BD300 This Blu-ray player leads a dual life, pumping out high-quality disc-based movie playback but also reaching out over the Internet to stream online movies from Netflix. While the Netflix DVD and Blu-ray rental system is a national treasure, with nearly any disc you can think of available quickly and with no late fees, the online streaming system is a work in progress, providing adequate AV quality in 4:3 (i.e., not wide-screen) format and a limited selection of content. That said, the choice of online movies, TV shows, concerts and more is growing in interesting ways (bolstered, no doubt, by the announcement that Netflix streaming is now available on the Xbox as well), and there's no additional cost for the streaming service beyond the basic Netflix membership fee, which starts at $4.99 per month (though plans with the features you'll want start at $8.99). $350, us.lge.com

Sony PlayStation 3 The most powerful Blu-ray player available isn't, strictly speaking, a Blu-ray player; it's the PlayStation 3 gaming console, which, in addition to allowing users to engage in spectacular feats of digital violence, handles playback of Blu-ray movies with video and audio quality that equals or surpasses any stand-alone player on the market. The brains of the PS3 is a microprocessor that could probably run a small country; it can certainly manage high-def media decoding with ease. The PS3 doesn't look like a traditional AV component, but to my eye it certainly doesn't look bad. You'll probably want to invest in an optional $25 AV-style remote control (easier for movie playback than a game controller), but the real threat to your wallet will come when the movies are done and the game playing starts. It's taken a good two years, but there are finally some discs for the PS3 worth playing, from the spectacular sci-fi epic BioShock to the play-a-level-or-build-your-own whimsy of LittleBIGPlanet. $399.99, us.playstation.com

Computers

When shopping for a high-def TV, the fun part is going big. For computers, it's just the opposite—small and ultraportable is where the excitement lies. Whereas once you needed to invest in a full-size desktop computer to handle all but the most basic computing tasks, the right lightweight portable can now crunch numbers in your toughest Excel spreadsheet, create a drop-dead-gorgeous presentation and, in the hotel room after the meeting, let you edit your garage band's album in full multitrack splendor. I have two beautiful portables to recommend, along with an inexpensive "subnotebook" that tackles basic road warrior tasks for a song, and a tiny desktop that makes a superb multimedia companion to your big-screen HDTV.

Voodoo Envy 133 They call it "Envy" for a reason—this sleek, sophisticated system delivers a gorgeous 13.3-inch screen in the slimmest laptop anywhere. (Yep, at 0.7 inches, it's even thinner than Apple's fabled MacBook Air.) The tech specs are all up to snuff without being knock-your-socks-off, but the combination of sensational design and highly desirable extras put this system over the top. I like the instant-on system that lets you access the Web and Skype Internet telephony without taking time to boot into Windows. And the ingenious power supply block that also wirelessly connects your laptop to the Internet if you're using a wired Ethernet network. And the built-in LoJack antitheft system, in case someone of low moral fiber finds your Envy 133 laptop as irresistible as I do. Custom configured from $1,899, voodoopc.com

MacBook Air The second generation MacBook Air solves the problems I had with the original model (slowpoke graphics and a too-small hard drive) while maintaining the system's pure, slender sex appeal. The three-pound portable boasts a lovely 13.3-inch display with LED backlighting for true, rich colors, now with a powerful NVIDIA GeForce graphics processor to provide the requisite visual muscle. The MacBook is short on showy features beyond its good looks, but it does offer more storage space than the Voodoo (120GB hard drive or 128GB solid state drive depending on model for the Mac versus 80 gigabytes for the Envy), and comes with that distinctive Mac-owners attitude you either love or hate. $1,799-$2,499, apple.com

MSI Wind For those who need a roadworthy machine but don't require a lot of computing horsepower while traveling, a subnotebook could be the perfect answer: lightweight, Internet-connected and inexpensive. The MSI Wind is a prime example of the burgeoning subnotebook (sometimes called "netbook") category, with battery life of up to 8 hours, the Windows operating system to run your productivity software, a nice 10-inch screen and even a built-in webcam, all in a compact 2.6-pound package starting at under $300. Configurations from roughly $289-$429, msimobile.com

Dell Studio Hybrid I want a computer in my living room—for a number of reasons. First, I want my entire music collection at my fingertips. Then, I want to be able to visit the TV network sites, and Hulu and Joost and a dozen others, and watch entire TV shows and movies and stupid little video clips from the comfort of my couch. I want digital photo albums on my big-screen HDTV. What I don't want is a big honking PC sitting like an eyesore next to my sleek AV gear, or a laptop with an expensive screen I'm not even using because it's hooked up to my TV anyway. What I want is a Dell Studio Hybrid, a cool-looking, ultracompact 8.8-inch-tall computer that is available in a virtual rainbow of color choices, with an HDMI port to connect seamlessly with my HD set, an optional Blu-ray drive for when I want to use the Hybrid for high-def movie watching and prices that start at just $449. Custom configured from $449-$1,049, dell.com

Steve Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor who frequently writes on technology issues.

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