In troubling times, we take more comfort in friends and family. Call it cocooning or whatever, the trend translates into better sales for products that a group can share. Those include big-screen TVs, DVD players, and other devices we can crowd around at home.
That doesn't mean having to spend a fortune on high-end gear. Instead, take an interim step toward high-def with the Toshiba XD-E500 DVD player ($100 online), which does the best job yet of upgrading standard DVDs for bigger screens. It doesn't have the picture quality of Blu-ray HD, but those players still cost about $100 more. (They also need Blu-ray disks to show off and don't do as well at displaying standard DVDs.) The player from Toshiba—which, perhaps not coincidentally, saw its competing HD DVD format lose to Blu-ray—is a credible effort to prolong existing libraries of standard movie disks.
Perhaps the most frugal big-screen image comes from a projector, and a bargain is the Olens XPJ ($280). The projector casts a picture up to 70 inches across at quality that's good enough for standard DVDs or older-generation game consoles. But don't hope to use it in a sunlit room—cheaper projectors need a darkened space to work, and that's especially true of the Olens.
A downside to projectors is the cost of bulbs. Olens responds by including a second as part of the package, and additional bulbs cost only $30. Then again, they're rated to last a paltry 300 hours, which an avid gamer can exhaust in months.
PCs increasingly hold a central role at home, thanks to the rise of social networking and downloadable music and movies. The Dell Studio Hybrid ($500 and up) is among a new breed of PCs stylish enough for the move into the living room in its small, rounded case that's available in a variety of colors. It also packs enough power in its low-end, dual-core chip to handle Blu-ray disks, which it can play with an optional drive. The hard drives start at a smallish 160 gigabytes, while memory is at a decent 2 GB RAM to run the installed Windows Vista.
Even fully loaded, this rig still doesn't pack enough power for serious gaming or video editing. But it's an energy miser, consuming perhaps 70 percent less electricity than other desktops. For those who really want to show off their eco-chops, a case sleeve in renewable bamboo is available for an added $100.
Digital cameras remain a steady seller, despite the fact that most U.S. homes already own at least one. The comfortably small Canon PowerShot A1000 IS ($180) offers compact bang for the buck with its 10 megapixels and 4X optical zoom. Ultracompact cameras cost more, and few offer more features than the A1000 IS. Its antiblur hardware helps take the shake out of snapshots, and face-recognition technology keeps smiles in focus.
The camera comes in purple, silver, blue, and gold. It shoots video, has a dedicated dial for shooting modes, and has manual controls for key elements like aperture and shutter speed for more serious snapshooters. Unlike sleeker Canon models, the camera uses rechargeable AAs instead of proprietary batteries. All of these are attractive features. Resist upgrading just to get more megapixels; models with six or eight are enough for most snapshots.
Getting video from camcorder to computer can be a hassle, but not with the Kodak Zi6 ($180). While a bit bulkier and less intuitive than some competitors, the Kodak is the first in its class to add still shots and HD-spec video—though keep in mind there are many levels of high definition, and this is at the low end. Still, it's surprisingly good quality from such a small and inexpensive device. The extra features, along with slow-motion playback, do add clutter to the controls. But it's still push-button simple to start and stop recording.
A pop-out USB connector makes it easy to plug the Kodak into a PC, and there's built-in software for transferring and lightly editing footage. The software also quickly dispatches video to YouTube or as E-mail attachments.
The price doesn't include memory—the measly 128 megabytes of internal storage barely holds 30 seconds of HD video. On the other hand, the Zi6 includes a memory slot for potentially unlimited storage with inexpensive flash cards.