Pod people

Surprise! Not all tech gifts come from Microsoft and Apple

This holiday season, the hot items set to turn retail stores into killing fields are the iPod (both video and Nano versions) and the X-Box 360. Even if you have the $400-plus to plunk down on an X-Box 360 with all the necessary accessories (what, you want a game with that?), if you haven't already reserved one — or are not prepared to engage in mortal combat in front of a Wal-Mart at midnight on the release date, Nov. 22 — the 360 is probably going to be out of your reach. As for the iPod, Apple has been pumping out the little status symbols fast enough to stay ahead of demand. However, with price tags of $299-$399 for the video iPod and $199-$249 for the Nano, an iPod and some choice accessories (what, you want to listen to that in the car?) can be a pretty expensive gift. Fortunately, there are some eye-catching alternatives sure to delight this holiday season.

While the X-Box 360 is going to be a difficult score, plenty of gifts remain out there for the gamers on your list. The Playstation Portable (PSP) is now over a year old and finally hitting its stride. A dirty little secret of game design is that it takes programmers about a year to figure out new hardware, so while games for the 360 will initially represent only a small step forward from the current generation of titles, the PSP is finally coming into its own. Check out Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories and see what I mean. As an added bonus, the PSP plays video on the go like the video iPod, and on a much larger screen to boot. At $249, the PSP is expensive, but the combination of gaming and movies make the price a bit easier to swallow.

While we're on the subject of portable gaming, Nintendo has released the Game Boy Micro ($99). A new design of the venerable Game Boy Advance (GBA), the Micro only plays games designed for the GBA (sorry, original Game Boy or DS titles need not apply) on a unit about as large as a chocolate bar (four inches long, two inches tall). The Micro seems like it could be little more than a novelty item meant to cash in on past success, but Nintendo maintains the reduced size of the unit coupled with some tweaking of the buttons and directional pad make this a worthwhile upgrade for Game Boy Advance players. Call it a trendy stocking stuffer for rich kids.

Micro. Nano. This holiday season, size does matter, only we're talking the smaller the better. To that end, Wal-Mart is hoping that they've found an iPod killer in the MobiBLU, a ridiculously tiny MP3 player. Each side of the cube-shaped device measuring about an inch — if the MobiBLU were any smaller it would be an earring. The MobiBLU has half the memory of the 2GB iPod Nano, but it also has half the price, coming in at either $99 for 512k of memory or

$129 for the one gig model. Could the MobiBLU be this year's breakout holiday hit? Stay tuned...

A bit larger than the MobiBLU, but still pretty damn small, is the Karma by Rio. Sleek, small and loaded with functions, the Karma is one member of a full line of music players intended as full-featured competitors to the iPod monarchy. The Rio line of players roughly corresponds to Apple's (think of the Rio Carbon as a Nano alternative, while the Karma is meant to challenge the full-sized iPods). Prices vary, but tend to significantly undercut Apple ($199 for the 20-gig Karma verses $199 for a four-gig Nano), which makes them an attractive alternative to Apple's top-of-the-line offerings.

Of course, Apple wants you to fill that fancy iPod with music and video from the iTunes music store (www.apple.com/itunes), and Wal-Mart hopes you'll stuff your MobiBLU with music from their online shop (www.walmart.com). With new legal download sites popping up almost weekly, and a price war looming, gifting downloadable music is a great idea this year. All of the major players offer some form of gift certificate, and prices range from 99 cents per song/$1.99 per video on Apple's iTunes site, to Wal-Mart's always low price of 88 cents a tune. The iTunes store also sells a music "allowance," which lets you purchase a fixed number of downloads per month for someone else. These downloads can then be redeemed throughout the month without the use of a credit card. Pretty cool, and a great gift idea for parents. MP3s downloaded from any of these sites are compatible with any of the players, so screw brand loyalty.

And just to complicate the music-player market a little bit more, enter the cellphone people. While wireless phones have long been touted as the personal multimedia device of the future, that promise has yet to be fulfilled. Now Samsung is looking to crash the party with the MM-A940. Sexy moniker aside, the MM-A940 ($399 from the Sprint store) is equipped with a two-megapixel camera, a camcorder, a music player, Bluetooth and almost two weeks of standby battery. Oh, and you can watch 30 channels of live or on-demand video streamed from Sprint TV right on the phone. Downloads from the new Sprint Music Store are expensive ($2.50 a song) and there are too many caveats (can't use downloads as ringtones; have to re-download songs to move them to a computer), but you can finally watch Matlock while on the john. And just in time for all those big holiday dinners, too.

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