My assignment this week is to seek out high-tech gadgets that are sure to be super-hot this holiday season. Given that my ancient Apple PowerBook takes 10 minutes to download most of the Web sites that would answer that question, I take a lower-tech, off-line route.
I begin by driving my decrepit Honda Civic to a well-known retailer of all things high-tech. Once there, I ask a variety of in-the-know salespeople what's really in, really must-have for Christmas 2001.
The first person I assault is Rick, in the photography department. "So, Rick, what's going to be really in this year? What does every geek need now?"
He summons me to a display laden with shiny, expensive photography equipment. "Here's the digital camera that would really put a lot of joy -- a gleam -- in any geek's eye." Rick holds up a sleek, curved chunk of silver covered in buttons and lenses. "This is the Sony seven-oh-seven." He pronounces the model number as if it were a new stealth space cruiser. Or a hot alien chick's cup size.
"And what makes the, uh, seven-oh-seven so much better than... ?"
"Five megapixels." His tone is the kind most often associated with monster-truck rallies.
"A megapixel means a million dots," he kindly clarifies. "The more dots, the merrier. Five million dots? Very merry. Think of it this way: Five million dots in the space of an 8-by-10 compared to two million dots will give you a much sharper picture." Rick's playing with the camera and really cruising in his sales pitch now. "Another wonderful feature about this camera: a very good zoom, as digital cameras go." He pushes a button to demonstrate. The lens telescopes out with an excitingly smooth, electronic hum. "From 38mm to a 190mm. This is the 5x optical zoom. This is a very nice zoom."
I'm listening to Rick, but I'm also eyeing the price tag. "You'd better really love your geek if you're going to be spending $999.99 on this thing," I comment. Rick counters, "Your geek is absolutely worth this camera. Really, it's not the thought that counts; it's the bottom line."
A digital Whoville
On to the gaming department, where I seek out Brad.
"So, what's hot this year?" No hesitation. "The Microsoft XBOX and the Nintendo GameCube."
"What is the XBOX?"
"The new video-game system from Microsoft," says Brad. "It's one of the two next-generation video-game systems released this year." In other words, it's a console on which to play video games.
"And what makes it so fabulous?"
"The graphics and the technology behind it. It's going to basically blow the doors off of just about every other system that's out there, along with the Nintendo GameCube and the Playstation 2, which are all pretty comparable." The XBOX runs in the neighborhood of $400, and the GameCube can be had for $270.
"So, what if you're looking to spend, well, less money on your geek? Are there smaller items you can get -- things for, say, less than $100?"
Some hesitation. "Well ... you can get some of the digital cameras for less than $100 -- and those are great for e-mail and Internet stuff. And you can also get DVD players for under a hundred."
"What about DVDs themselves? What DVDs are going to be big this year?"
"Well, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is going to be coming out here soon. Shrek was just released." And also Star Wars, Episode I, he reveals. Of course.
"What about Lara Croft: Tomb Raider? Is that going to be a big one?" I ask.
"Ah. Every teenager's fantasy movie."
"Do you want to describe to readers why Lara Croft is, like, every teenager's fantasy?"
Laughter. "It's the, uh, visual side of Lara Croft. That probably says it right there. You know, if they'd put some guy in the video, running around shooting things in a dungeon, it probably wouldn't have done so well. But you put a buxom woman in there and -- bingo -- you sell millions of copies." (Point taken. A friend of mine once pointed out the realistic manner in which Ms. Croft's virtual bosom bounces as she does her tomb-raiding.)
"So, do women ever come in here looking for anything in particular? Are there many female geeks, to speak of?"
"Most women look for the same stuff men do: the DVD players, digital TVs."
But we digress. Brad returns to the theme of the day: "The digital cameras are really popular this year with women, for the same reason they are with men. You know, people who maybe can't make it to the holidays with you, you can send the holidays to them with a snap of your fingers." But before Brad can sell me a digital camera, I head over to the audio area, where several wall-mounted speakers spit out loudish music. A group of 20-something men lounges in a corner. I interrupt to ask my big question: "Hi, guys. Can you tell me what kind of tech stuff is really selling this year?"
Their answer rings in stereo: "Digital cameras." (Do I smell a commission?) Deciding to check the retail world's answers against the wish lists of real-live geeks, I e-mail a friend who works as a systems administrator here in Asheville.
"The big things I'm hearing about are the XBOX and the GameCube," comes the reply. Confirmation! "Other than that, you can't go wrong with hand-helds, MP3 devices and digicams." Another e-mail, to a senior CAD engineer at Integrated Device Technologies (IDT) in Atlanta, yields similar results. Said engineer canvassed his co-workers and responded not just with suggestions, but with URLs where the coveted items can be found: programmable remote control with programmable LCD display (remotecentral.com); programmable-via-Internet picture frame (ceiva.com, "although it's really aimed at tech-incompetent people -- a perfect grandparent gift"); Apple's iPod MP3 player (apple.com/iPod); wireless LAN equipment ("so you can surf the Web from your laptop on the couch"); AND yes, friends, you guessed it -- digital cameras!
A thousand words, indeed.
[Cindy Burda is an Asheville-based free-lance writer who wants nothing more complicated for Christmas than a stainless-steel dish rack. Oh, and world peace, of course.]
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