WATCH: Photo and video gift ideas

By , Network World |  Hardware, digital cameras

Netgear NeoTV MAX

$70 (buy.com)

This is an easy-to-use video streaming device that links Internet-based HD content to your TV, opening up a world of movies and other content available online. It would make a great gift for someone with an HDTV, a Wi-Fi router, a fast Internet connection and a basic cable subscription they want to augment.

The device itself is dead simple: a tiny box with a power cord, an HDMI cable and an Ethernet port (It's also got an audio/video port and cables). The power cord plugs into the wall, the HDMI cable plugs into the TV and the Wi-Fi in the box connects to the local Internet-connected Wi-Fi router via an easy-to-follow setup wizard displayed on the TV screen.

After that, browse the Internet or use dedicated site buttons (Netflix, Hulu Plus, VUDU, Pandora, YouTube and CinemaNow) to find content on the Internet, sit back and enjoy.

Note: not all streaming video is equal. A viewing of Discovery's "Eating Giants" video revealed less-than-HD quality, even in scenes shot in a studio. (This is a fascinating yet grim portrayal of crocs eating hippos and elephants that you won't want to watch before bedtime. Or mealtime.) But a YouTube streaming of the creditable "Killing Bono" indie movie had video quality indistinguishable from that of an HD video rental via FIOS.

The device comes with its own remote, which was a little finicky and required pointing it carefully at the box. There's also an Android app that turns a smartphone into the remote, but during testing it downloaded but wouldn't install on a Samsung Droid Charge.

NeoTV MAX can also stream from laptops that support Intel Wireless Display, enabling browsing for video content via mouse and keyboard rather than the remote. Or the feature can be used to turn the TV into the screen for whatever is going on on the PC.

- Tim Greene

Sony Cybershot WX150

$250

This camera is a really sweet little gift. It's extremely slender, and could fit in the pocket of a pair of jeans, but still takes very crisp pictures.

My only complaint with this camera is one that I feel I've been having with most point-and-shoot cameras lately: the speed is too slow. It felt like after taking one photo, the camera takes a significant amount of time to reset in order to take a second image. I used this camera at a wedding - while the bridal party was walking down the aisle, I tried to take each couple's photo. At this particular wedding, the couples were about 15 feet apart. I could get a nice shot of the first bridesmaid and groomsman, but the camera wasn't ready to take another photo until the third couple was on their way. I missed the second couple entirely. Perhaps I should have used the multi-shot feature, as this claims to continuously shoot 10 frames per second, but I didn't realize this until after the wedding.

However, the images that you do capture are very high quality, at 18.2 megapixels. The camera also sports a 10x optical zoom and the unit has a 3-inch LCD screen. It can record videos in full 1080p HD. Other features include the "smile feature," which snaps a photos when the camera recognizes a smile, and something similar that doesn't take a photo if someone is blinking. A "natural flash" tries to auto-correct colors, and the "soft skin" feature aims to reduce blemishes on a subject's skin, as well as even out the skin tone. Another feature focuses the foreground and blurs out the background, putting emphasis on the subject.

This camera is a great gift for someone who loves to read manuals and test all of the features. If someone wants to get a lot out of their camera, this is the perfect one. If however, they simply want something to point and shoot with ease, this may not be the product for them.

- Jen Finn

Sony Handycam HDR-PJ260V

$600

I really liked this camcorder. Simple setup is always a plus in my book, and this was certainly easy. This was a product that my 4- and 5-year-old nephews were able to figure out (needless to say, when I was reviewing the videos afterwards, I found some interesting/adorable surprises). In addition to being easy to use, it has some of its neater features defaulted on. That way, if you don't read the owners' manual until after you use the camera, you don't lose out. For example, when this camera is in video mode, it will also take still photos any time the camera detects smiles, known as the "smile shutter." So in addition to recording a video, the camera surprises you with a bunch of cute stills. Of course this feature can be turned off if you don't like it.

The camera also lets you make basic edits to your videos right on the Handycam. For example, you can split one video into multiple parts, which can be particularly nice if you want to delete parts, such as those awkward moments at the beginning or end of your video. The supplied software also lets you merge two (or more) videos together, but on the computer instead of the camera.

The coolest feature of the camcorder, though, is the projector. While you can play back recorded videos on the flip out, 3-inch LCD screen, you can also use the built-in projector and show them on a wall (or screen). In our tests, I attended a wedding and we were able to review my boyfriend's best man speech the next morning on the wall of our hotel room. Setting up the camera to project and focus on the wall was very easy to do. My only complaint - the touch screen to select what videos to watch wasn't as responsive as I wanted. That said, the camera does come with a remote control, which makes selecting videos to watch more accurate than a finger.

In terms of video quality, it was a bit difficult to judge, as the majority of my videos were taken at a distance with low lighting, so they ended up being a little blurry on my HDTV. They did look great on the camera's smaller screen, as well as the hotel wall. When zoomed in or with a better light source, the videos looked great on the TV. The camera does film in full 1080p HD with an 8.9-megapixel camera for still images. It has a 30x optical zoom, which works very nicely, and those images were crisp and even. The camera has an internal memory of 16GB, but you can also record to an SD card for additional space. Fully charged, the battery would last for 140 minutes of recording.

Other nice features are that you can instruct the camera on how to focus. For example, choosing "face priority" keeps people's faces on focus; "tracking priority" lets you tap the screen to tell the camera to focus on something specific (the manual suggests using this when filming pets). The camera can group videos by date recorded or by location recorded, using its internal GPS. This could be helpful if you want to see all videos from a vacation, or perhaps all the videos you filmed at grandma's house, for example.

Another default feature I enjoyed was voice detection for the microphone's volume, and detection for whether the unit is on a tripod, or if the camera should minimize movement if you're walking and recording. The microphone also records voices from a variety of locations, so if you watch videos with a 5.1 surround sound system, you'll get the full benefit of that sound.

I feel this camcorder would appeal to several types of users - from those who want something easy to those who like to maximize their camera to perform many functions. The projector feature alone makes it a unique and fun way to share recorded videos in real time.

- Jen Finn

3M Projector Sleeve

$230

The 3M Projector Sleeve is a portable projector about twice the size of an iPhone that you can slide an iPhone 4 or 4S into and dock. Its lightweight, and there are no additional apps to install, as it works directly with apps already on your iPhone.

You can play movies, TV shows and videos from iTunes - you can also go into your photos and play slideshows or videos youve taken with your device. The unit works directly with Netflix and Hulu streaming apps. The picture quality was good, and you can project up to 60-inches diagonally. It holds a charge for up to 100 minutes of projection time and can recharge your iPhone in a pinch.

I only had two issues with the device. First, it didnt work with the new YouTube app - while it works fine from the YouTube website, it didnt work with the app. Second, you cant project your photo album in static form. You have to run it as a slide show in order to see your pictures.

In the end this is a nice consumer projector that would work well on a camping trip, or to provide some entertainment when the lights are out - but as long as you have a way to recharge your phone, as this eats up battery life.

- Tom Lupien

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