I've always been a huge fan of place-shifting appliances, such as the Slingbox family and the Monsoon Multimedia Vulkano product reviewed last year. The idea is simple - take whatever is on your TV and shift it to where you want to watch it, even a mobile device on a wide-area wireless network.
Belkin's @TV Plus is the latest entry in this exciting space, although it is just a repackaged Monsoon product. Basically, the device takes video input (on component or composite jacks, plus stereo audio) and converts this to a video stream over Ethernet or the built-in 300Mbps 802.11n Wi-Fi (single-band 2.4GHz. only). There's an IR blaster that can control a set-top box for changing channels. Screen resolutions up to 1080i are supported.
What's missing, though, is HDMI, and that's basically unforgivable today. It's not that the picture quality suffers (it doesn't, either on the PC or the TV via the the pass-through feature of the device); and, after all, the target device for viewing will often be a handheld. But the convenience of one-cable HDMI is undeniable, and Belkin needs to add this feature to future products. There's also no manual, a serious oversight.
Setup is a fairly long process - plan on about an hour to download the software, update firmware, configure the device, and set your preferences. There's a bug that prevents your location from being properly set, but I got the device working with Verizon FiOS with only a few bad words involved. There's about five seconds of latency with respect to the original signal, but audio and video are nicely synchronized on the PC, and image quality is excellent.
I'm not sure how usable this device will be in the general wide-area (3G/4G, as opposed to Wi-Fi) case, given the increasing popularity of metered data plans and the highly variable response of even LTE data. But the convenience of placeshifting is undeniable - I use it (via a Monsoon product) over the WLAN in my house, and TV is thus available if I want on essentially all of the screens in the house.
Now, if I only had time to watch it.
Assuming the techie on your list isn't quite so busy though, the Belkin isn't a bad gift. I'd personally wait for an HDMI version, but the current product is more than useful.
- Craig Mathias
It's been a while since I've tried out a digital camera - for the most part my cameras these days are dedicated video camcorders or the camera on my smartphone. The last time I owned a digital camera was about eight years ago, a Nikon point-and-shoot (I usually pass out the digital cameras for this gift guide to the other Cool Yule elves).
If you're like me and take more photos with your smartphone, you're missing out on some new and unique features in the digital camera space. I was quite surprised and very impressed with the features of the Samsung Smart Camera (WB850F), both with the hardware and the on-camera software.
First, the hardware details - the camera has a 16.2-megapixel CMOS Sensor, a 23mm wide 21x optical zoom lens and a 3-inch AMOLED screen for viewing photos and videos. Videos can be recorded at 1080p resolution at 30 frames per second. In fact, you can boost the frame rate to 480 fps if you don't mind shooting at a lower resolution (176 x 128) - I may try to make some slow-motion videos with that mode. The camera also has built-in Wi-Fi that lets you transfer photos (and small movie clips) to social sharing sites, email addresses or back up to the cloud (via Microsoft SkyDrive). GPS is used for geotagging images if you so desire.
Buttons on the camera are solidly built, and navigating through menus was easy and intuitive. I've been annoyed by cameras with touch screen interfaces that never seem to register accurately - it was nice to be able to choose options and settings by using a nav-pad and OK button press.
Now, the software. Included on the camera are some really fun modes that you've likely seen on digital cameras before - 3D shooting, Magic Frame, and multiple panorama modes. A split shot mode lets you take two photos and merge them into one image (like put heads on different bodies). In addition, there are several modes and settings that the average pro-sumer photographer will appreciate, including a full manual mode that lets you set aperture and shutter priorities.
My favorite bit of software on the camera was the Creative Movie Maker. This takes photos you've taken and movies you've recorded and mashes them up into an edited movie, complete with your choice of music for the background. You can basically create a cool movie from your photos and videos before you even offload them from the camera. Wicked nice!
The Wi-Fi mode did have some limitations - for movies, you could only upload 30-second clips, and they were sent at reduced resolution (320 x 240) - so don't expect to take a video and automatically upload them.
If you want to graduate beyond your smartphone's camera or point-and-shoot but don't want the huge expense and difficulty of a DLSR, this camera is a great option for you. I can see many happy faces if this is a gift that appears under the tree (or inside a gift bag) during the holidays.
- Keith Shaw
I love this camera! The pictures are stunning. The reaction time is snappy. You have the option of manual or automatic, so you can go out and create your own artsy photos or you can let the camera do the thinking if you're at a wedding and would rather focus on the subject of the candid shots than on the aperture opening. Oh, and it was so simple to use that my 5-year-old nephew was taking pictures within five seconds of saying "Can I try?" However, along those lines, I would never buy this camera for my mother or grandmother who just want to easily take pictures of family and pets. It has more capability than they would need. This camera is more serious than that. Plus, this isn't the kind of camera that will fit into a pocket, but that's not what it's built for.
I really appreciated the settings within the automatic feature. While most cameras have options like "sports" and "distance," this camera has settings that explain more about what the camera will be doing such as "shutter focus" for fast objects.
The only thing I was even remotely disappointed with was the video capability when using the zoom. I think I was asking too much of the camera. I probably zoomed in on something about 40 feet away and then recorded a 3-minute video. Unfortunately, the background wiggles throughout the entire video. The people who I focused on look just fine, but the grass, trees, and everything else behind them are participating in a weird dance party. Other than that, I love this camera. The quality is so high for such a low price.
For those who love specs - the camera features 14.4 megapixels and a 26x optical zoom, with image stabilization. It has a 2.7-inch LCD screen and an old-fashioned viewfinder (I know, I might be the only one left on the planet who likes those). Videos can be shot in full 1080p HD, and the camera includes an HDMI output to connect to a projector or HDTV. For those looking for the manual feature, it has 3200 ISO.
I like how this camera can make you feel like a pro, but at an affordable price.
- Jen Finn