THERE'S PROBABLY NOT
a Christmas tree big enough to cover this season's technology must-haves. Eight nights of Hanukkah? Too few.
Never fear, though. We surveyed a sampling of tech retailers, in cyberspace and on land, in an effort to uncover the gems of the 1998 giving season. Sorry, no more Furbys, but who really needs a fluffy interactive doll when there are plenty of sound cards and graphics accelerators to go around?
Early indicators show an increasing number of holiday shoppers flocking to tech, especially in cyberspace. Darryl Peck, CEO of Cyberian OutpostFor a look at where to find unusual gifts online, see "Holiday Shopping Online."
Meanwhile, back in the world of brick and mortar, holiday traffic appears brisk even as sales numbers dip. On a recent trip to the CompUSA on the corner of 57th St. and 8th Ave. in Manhattan, customers bustled about kicking the tires and questioning the fleet of red-shirted sales people.
CompUSA corporate spokesperson Ann Shelton says that the company expects holiday sales to be slightly lower than last year's. Nonetheless, the company attributes this year's expected shortfall to sagging prices, not dwindling traffic. "Almost everything has dropped in price compared to last year, and across the board you get an incredibly nice piece of equipment for less money," Shelton says.
Despite the recent buzz of a technology migration from the desktop, personal computers still make up the lion's share of tech retail. And more than a year's worth of price cutting and undercutting has made PC shopping in 1998 a lot like VCR shopping in the early days. No Betamax, please.
The prettiest model on the block is still Apple's iMac, a green and plastic sensory delight. After a stunning debut, there are signs of slowing sales, but a CompUSA salesperson attested that customers were still banging on the sleek, black iMac keyboard on the showroom floor.
At around $1,300, iMacs are cheap, but the lowest-priced personal computer we found at our neighborhood CompUSA was Compaq's Presario 2266, selling for $699. That makes sub-$1000 sound quaint, but wait, the limbo contest continues. Cyberian Outpost offers PrecisionTec's Gazelle GZE-20 for $399. It's a compelling price point, but the specs have fish-bowl-in-waiting written all over them: 200 MHz processor, 1.2 gigabyte hard drive, and 16 megabytes of storage. Nonetheless, Peck says early holiday sales of the model have been strong.
Dropping prices and improving performance have propelled several other tech items onto holiday shopping lists. Digital cameras are moving robustly, according to our retailing sources, thanks to price points near $300. "There were precious few cameras that you would even want to sell last year under $500," says Richard Farlow, product manager-team leader at NECX, a privately held computer reseller.
At CompUSA, Kodak's popular DC-200 goes for $399.97. Of course, for those wishing to mix their digital and doll needs, there's always Mattel's Barbie Photo Digital Cam, a must-have accessory retailing for $59.99.
Even if your Barbie isn't a budding Annie Liebowitz, she could probably use something to keep track of all of her friends and appointments. On that front, most retailers suggest the Palm III, 3Com's newest iteration of the personal digital assistant and a consensus runaway bestseller.
Cyberian Outpost's Peck says that there has been no comparison between sales of 3Com's PDA and those models operating on Microsoft's Windows CE platform. "It's not even close," he says. "No Windows CE [machine] has ever shown up on our best-seller list."
Another online retailer, CDW, is offering a holiday PDA package, joining the Palm III with a Targus carrying case and a trial subscription to Tap Magazine, "the premiere publication written exclusively for PalmPilot users," for the sale price of $327.69.
Post-holiday feast, post-Tap Magazine read through, chances are your tech lover will head for the console or the PC for a round or two of entertainment software fun. 20 years after Space Invaders, video games still stir the juices of home-alone, game-til-you-drop teenagers, as well as a growing core of casual users.
NECX's Farlow reports that sound cards and graphics accelerators are climbing up the sales charts as more and more game enthusiasts soup up their machines to keep up with the software. Diamond Multimedia's Viper V550 and Creative Labs' Graphics Blaster Riva TNT top the accelerator lists, while Creative Labs' Sound Blaster Live! "is a runaway hit," Farlow says.
"Gamers are sort of known for being willing to spend a lot of money to upgrade their systems. And they'll upgrade again and again and again," says Farlow.
Of course, not everybody wants their stocking stuffed with peripheral computer equipment. And if the games are still your thing, there's plenty of new software to stuff. Among the season's most popular titles are Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator, Lucas Arts' Grim Fandango and Sierra Studios' Half-Life.
And the recently released Tomb Raider III (Eidos Interactive), featuring cyberheroine Lara Croft, is expected to lure a crowd of young and old. "That's almost a no brainer," says Farlow.
Electronic Arts' new Tiger Woods vehicle, Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf, is also on prominent display at CompUSA. We tried to get Tiger out of a bunker on a challenging par 4, but watched in disbelief as our well-timed five-iron dribbled right back into the sand. Must have been the joystick.
Speaking of joysticks, no enthusiast's game room is complete without a vibrating model. Farlow says NECX has been moving Microsoft's SideWinder, a force-feedback device that takes flight simulation and shoot-'em-up games to the apex of home enjoyment. The Sidewinder sells for $99.95 on NECX. At CompUSA, a bored salesman was hogging the model, so we lost out on the good vibrations.
Another set of PC add-ons is threatening to send holiday gatherings into cyberspace for good. For the multiple PC home, Diamond Multimedia offers a wireless networking package called HomeFree. The product sells for under $200 and is also a great option for families looking to communicate with minimal interpersonal contact.
Similarly, Intel's Create & Share Camera Pack (priced around $200) provides the home or home-business user with the capacity to send streaming video and voice clips to long-lost relatives or tech enthusiasts in the room next door.