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KELLNER: Shopping tips for dads, grads and you

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Although Mother's Day is just behind us, the spring-summer gift-giving season is by no means over. For graduates and for dads, a tech gift might loom large. (And if Mom wasn't happy with the "Hunger Games" book set you presented, something tech-oriented might get you out of the doghouse.)

Here are some suggestions on what to buy - and what you might want to avoid - when shopping.

Do find out what your recipient is using or would like to use. Someone steeped in Microsoft's Windows operating system may want to switch to Apple Inc.'s Mac OS, but may not. The reverse is even less likely to be true, from my experience. But regardless of computing platform choice, knowing what someone's using (and how happy he or she is with the choice) is an important first step, I believe.

If someone wants to switch platforms, an all-in-one device such as a notebook computer or a desktop computer/display combination is, I believe, a good place to start. Good ones are available on the Windows side, and for Mac devotees, the iMac is, of course, a wonderful choice.

One of the challenges with hardware purchases at this time of year, however, is to make sure that whatever you buy is new enough to be usable with the next version of major operating systems. Starting in June, a public "beta" of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 8 is expected to be available, with a release date of October 2012 being anticipated. Apple is due to bring out the next release of OS X, called Mountain Lion during the summer, although media reports the past few days suggest it could launch as early as June.

If you buy a brand-new current-year model PC or Mac this week or next, you should be fine in terms of being able to run these new operating-system versions. (It's always a good idea, in my view, to buy machines with as much RAM, or system memory, and as large a hard disc drive as you can afford.) But if there's a cut-rate offer on a 2011 (or earlier) model, examine the specifications very closely to make sure what you buy will still be a good deal in a few months.

For those wanting to switch computing platforms, it may be best to wait until that new operating-system version is released. At launch, both Apple and computer makers that support Microsoft Windows generally offer some new models with the operating system pre-installed, sparing the hassle of both upgrading and learning new features on top of something you're already learning, which is a new computing environment.

Some of the same principles apply to other tech-related purchases, particularly in the sphere of discounted items. The QVC home shopping network recently was promoting a Fujifilm digital camera with a 30-power zoom lens. It was a fair bargain, but the QVC host admitted one reason for the sale price was that the product was to be replaced shortly by a new model. If money truly is an issue, I wouldn't worry, but just knowing that something newer and better might be around the corner usually makes me want to wait.

This is, of course, a continuous tension for tech buyers: Do you wait for the next new thing or get something right away? My answer over the years hasn't wavered - if you need it now, get it now. The productivity gains you can bank by buying now typically will outweigh the advantages of waiting for the newer model.

That said, it's also wise to be a bit discerning. If that "bargain" purchase can meet your anticipated needs six months out, great. If you have any hesitation, hang on, because a little patience might be profitable.

One last gift thought: E-readers, such as Amazon's Kindle or Barnes & Noble's Nook, are very popular items. But it might be better to get an iPad or a small Android tablet that will support the software readers for either Kindle or Nook titles. Why? Those tablets will allow multiple e-book formats, while the proprietary devices are, largely, just that.

Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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