Whatever is under your tree or its equivalent this holiday season, odds are good it plugs into the wall, runs on batteries, or is controlled by a silicon chip. Computer technology is not only around us; it has become the foundation of how we work, communicate, and play. For older consumers, the cost of falling behind on the technology curve has moved far beyond an uneasy or bemused embarrassment. If you can't function in a digitized world, you risk being excluded from what have become mainstream social activities.
One good result of the increasingly central role of digital devices is that their makers and marketers have had to make them intelligible to mass markets and not simply to geeks and other early adapters. A second benefit is that today's hot hardware and software products are doing things that are common—if not essential—to everyday life. Becoming "tech savvy" is more about meeting your needs than learning some arcane language or keyboard shortcuts you will never use.
[See the Biggest Tech Flops of the Decade.]
With that in mind, U.S. News scoured the Web and reviewed scores of "hot technology" lists and news stories to come up with 10 personal technology products. As a final reality check, we looked at Wired magazine's roundup of the "100 Best Geek Gifts" for the holidays. Nary a one shows up on our list. Whether you buy any of these products or not, you should learn about what they do and how they can change what you do, for the better.
Windows 7 from Microsoft
Most people use PCs and not Macs. So coming to terms with Microsoft's new PC operating system is a big deal. Windows 7 pretty much requires a clean wipe of your hard drive before installation. Even tech-savvy PC users may be challenged to move all their program files to a remote hard drive, clear their PC, install Windows 7, then move their files back onto their PC. Despite an ad campaign that, for Microsoft, actually borders on being hip, the world of Windows is challenging. It will be easier for many people to simply buy a new PC, but this still means lots of thinking, and work, about migrating existing files and software.
iTunes from Apple
Accessing the exploding world of digital content—music, podcasts, videos, books, articles—is a necessary ticket to staying connected. While there are many ways to do this, iTunes is a free and relatively intuitive tool for the job. It is still true that Apple products don't play nicely with PCs, but the inconveniences are tolerable in relation to the benefits of iTunes. In the works, according to Apple watchers, is the capability for users to access iTunes files from any Web browser. iTunes files thus could be played anywhere. This might also involve a new business model of one-time listening rights as opposed to purchases. Google will be hard on Apple's heels, so expect iTunes to draw some very serious competition.
The Nook E-Reader from Barnes & Noble
Making the transition to virtual books may be one of the greatest technological divides for older consumers. Before deciding that this is a game you don't want to play, you should at least try reading books or lengthy text files on your computer. There are free readers for this, and many public-domain book titles you can explore without incurring purchase fees. And if you decide to make the jump to a dedicated book reader, you will have solid choices. The latest challenge to the Amazon Kindle, the Nook can download books and other texts wirelessly. It also has a touch-based navigation screen. The unit has been delayed and is sold out for the holidays. That may be good news, as operating flaws have been noted by early reviewers, and software upgrades are in the works.
Flip from Cisco
Another big generational divide is the explosion of user-generated video content. Like it or not, communication is becoming a more visual process. If you want to make the leap, consider the Flip. This cellphone-size camcorder can be partnered with a wireless device that will transmit files from a computer to a receiver connected to a TV. With FlipShare TV, users can share videos with other FlipShare TV users, in effect creating their own private TV networks.
Wii from Nintendo
Gaming systems once seemed only for guys who wanted to kill a few thousand zombies before breakfast. And it's true that male-oriented shooter and sports games still tend to dominate the bestsellers for PlayStation and Xbox users. However, the Wii has emerged as the video-gaming system for the rest of us, thanks to a motion-based remote that permits users to engage in a growing range of sports, physical fitness, and family-friendly games for people of all ages.
Silhouette by Silhouette
Technology is increasingly enriching hobbies and other creative activities. Digital paper cutters, for example, are increasingly being linked to personal computers. One of them, the Silhouette, looks like a paper printer but users a small blade to cut whatever designs or fonts the computer tells it to. Many older consumers find that they lack the digital dexterity and endurance for the repetitive and detailed handwork required for crafts. Digital devices can shoulder a lot of the physical burden.
Roku HD [high definition] player from Roku
For consumers taxed by hooking up their TVs to digital antennas, this one may be a stretch. But in many homes, it's the TV—not the computer—that has become the focus of digital convergence. Hook the Roku to your TV and a high-speed Internet connection, and you can watch an exploding library of video programming from the Internet, often for free. Take a good look at your DVD collection because it may be obsolete very soon.
Ion TTUSB from Ion Audio
Raise your hands if your basement or attic is home to a decaying inventory of records, tapes, and other analog media that have been left behind in the rush to digital content. It's getting easier and cheaper to salvage these old treasures, thanks to companies like Ion, which makes digitization products to convert old-format records, audiocassettes, videotapes, photographs, and slides. Its turntables, for example, will play your old vinyl records over your stereo and also convert the tracks into MP3s or CDs.
Mindflex from Mattel
Mindflex isn't really all that important. It's just cool. Mattel has introduced mind control to electronic gaming. By hooking up Mindflex's head sensor, your powers of concentration literally can guide physical objects in competition with other players. Now, if it could only get husbands to take out the garbage.
Goggles from Google
Could this be the cure for the senior moment? Goggles is for users of cellphones with Google's new Android operating system. Take a picture of something with your cellphone and the photo can trigger a Google search. Great for those unknown landmarks, mysteries of nature, and the growing list of things whose name has just escaped us.