Tech gifts – Five lessons about what’s hot and what’s not

Around the technology media universe, it’s time for holiday gift guides, and Network World is no exception ( see our list of favorite products ).

After reviewing more than 100 products for this year’s guide, I’ve spotted some trends for the 2006 holiday season. Take a gander at five lessons learned:

Lesson No. 1: 2006 = iPod speaker system.

We were flooded with a variety of speaker systems that let you connect an iPod directly so you can blast your playlists to everyone else in the room. Last year’s list favored systems that let you network the devices, but apparently that was too hard for people, so this year, individual, portable speaker systems really will shine.

Two of my favorites? The very portable Nyko Speaker Dock 2, and the slightly larger Logitech AudioStation.

While Microsoft’s Zune digital music player (launched November 15) may have an impact on Apple’s iPod dominance in the future, at the moment it’s all about the iPod, as witnessed by the barrage of speaker systems. (Photo: Nyko Speaker Dock 2)

Lesson No. 2: For GPS, it’s still about the maps.

Several portable GPS devices were submitted for the gift guide, and while they continue to add nice features — full maps on Secure Digital cards, digital cameras and the ability to play music — a lot of the systems still are hindered by poor maps.

The old phrase “garbage in, garbage out” applies to many of these devices.

On one device, I was told constantly that my home (built in 1987) could not be found.

That’s laziness on the part of the map creators, and GPS device manufacturers should demand more from their mapping providers.

My suggestion: Ditch the GPS device and download the VZ Navigator application on the Verizon Wireless network, or try TeleNav‘s service on Cingular, Sprint and other networks, and run them off your smart phone (Treo, BlackBerry or even certain cell phones). In our testing, these applications worked as well as, if not better than some of the stand-alone devices. (Photo: TeleNav service)

Lesson No. 3: Computers are boring.

I’ve argued before that computers have become commodity items, and there’s nothing really that exciting about any new features on notebooks or desktop systems. We tried several systems this year, and apart from some high-end notebooks (the Alienware Area-51, Toshiba Qosmio AV-650 and Fujitsu LifeBook Q2010 come to mind), I had a hard time staying awake during the testing. Intel Core 2 Duo? Yawn. Why do you think Microsoft is so intent on hyping the Xbox 360 and the Zune player? Is anyone really that excited about Vista?

Computers are the new microwaves and toasters. (Photo: AlienWare Area-51)

Lesson No. 4: Digital photo frames are getting better.

When these devices first appeared, frame makers were obsessed about putting a network connection on them so users could add or delete photos over a network. Those devices are gone, and this year’s frames have media card support, larger hard drives and better LCD technology that makes the photos look outstanding when displayed. I was really impressed with frames by Pandigital.

Lesson No. 5: Old school rules.

My absolutely favorite device from this year’s guide is the TEAC GF-350, a record player that lets you take old vinyl albums and record them onto a CD-R disc.

If you or someone you know has a box of old record albums, you’ll make their holiday by getting them this device, which unlocks all that music for the digital era — you probably could even pick up a Zune on Christmas Eve for them to put the songs on.

(Photo: TEAC GF-350)

For more interesting gift ideas, go to our sister site for Editor’s top holiday gift picks: stocking stuffers.