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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,

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