Thursday, November 27, 2008

Holiday Gift Buying Guide: Computers

Value shoppers will find plenty of bargains. The biggest question is do you want a laptop or desktop? Desktops are cheaper, but you can’t take them with you. Most people use Windows-based PCs, but Apple’s Mac line of computers are actually easier to use and less trouble prone (I’m considering a switch myself). Macs, however, are generally more expensive for laptops and desktops.
Value Set-ups: Dell’s Inspiron line starts at $279 (without a monitor) and you can customize as you will.
Lower priced/value option: Gateway’s One is an all-in-one desktop that’s easy to set up and has no wires. At a starting price of $1,449, you get a powerful machine for a midrange price. Apple’s iMac is another all-in-one solution that starts at $1,199. Saavy shoppers can visit and shop for refurbished Mac products that come with one-year warranties for heavily discounted prices.
Big splurgers: Apple’s Mac Pro tower starts at $2,200 and you can equipment it with two processors, enough memory to run a small island and easily take you into the $5,000 or $6,000 range. Decked out correctly, it’s one of the most powerful consumer machine available, but if you’ve got to have a PC, check Dell’s XPS line of towers and notebooks. You can even get them with Blu-Ray DVD burners.

Holiday TV buying guide

Looking for a television or computer this Christmas? Now’s not a bad time to buy.
Computers are as cheap as they’ve ever been and prices for HDTVs are dropping. You can buy a 32-inch HD set, a good entry-level size for the technology, for as little as $399, nearly half of what low-end models cost 12 to 18 months ago.
The rectangular-shaped HDTVs, used with equipment to receive HD signals, can deliver pictures that are much sharper than the old box-shaped TV. Plus they’re flatter and much lighter. To get the HD signals, you have to have a set-top box from your satellite or cable TV provider or a TV with a built-in digital tuner and an HD antenna.
Value HD Sets: Smaller is always cheaper. You can find 22-inch sets going for $229.99. But about the smallest you’ll want for everyday use is probably a 26-inch model. Our pick? Westinghouse’s 32-inch W3223 set ($449.99 at most retailers currently or $100 off normal pricing).
Lower priced/value option: Again, it’s about size. Step up in price and you get a wealth of 32- to 37-inch flat screens to choose from. And with HDTV, bigger screens generally look better.
You can also choose a rear-projection DLP set. DLPs don’t give out the crisp pictures that plasmas and LCDs do, and you can’t hang them on a wall, but you get more screen for less money. That’s why our pick here is the 56-inch Samsung DLP HL56A650 ($999.99).
Big splurgers: We think plasmas have better pictures than LCDs. They have deeper blacks, handle fast-motion better and more life-like. If money’s no object, go get a Pioneer Elite 60-inch for $7,000. You’ll think you’re looking out the window. But a better bet, even for splurgers, is to save some cash and get the Pioneer-lite, the Panasonic 58-inch PZ800U, which is $3,100 but generates about the second best picture out there among flat screens.

Videogame holiday buying guide

Best advice
Money is tight these days. We all feel it. And instead of going out and buying brand new games and game systems, you can buy used. Many of the game specialty stores, like GameStop, sell used games and allow you to trade in old games and systems for a credit. So if little Johnny wakes up Christmas morning and asks where did his PS2 go to, just tell him Santa “borrowed” it and show him his new Wii.

Best System
The Nintendo Wii is the best-selling system for a reason. The price ($249.99) is right and the games are fun to play. This machine will get you and your kids off the couch and literally exercising – as well as playing all the hot new games like Madden football or Guitar Hero. Our silver medal goes to Sony’s PlayStation 3, which comes with a Blu-Ray player for Dad’s HD movies.

Best Games For Everyone
Fifa 08: If you like soccer, this game is as real as it gets. It’s also beautiful to look at on your Xbox 360 or PS3 in high-def. EA Sports did a wonderful job of capturing every nuance of the game.
Kung Fu Panda (all console systems and handhelds): It looks just like the movie your kids loved and it’s a fighting game without brutality. For all ages.
Madden ’09: It’s the best sports game ever made and this year it’s better than ever. EA Sports seemed to listen to critics and created a good-looking, fun-playing football simulation that you can personalize down to creating your team’s stadium.
Mario Kart (Wii): An optional wireless steering wheel gets you onto 16 futuristic race tracks and you can play with up to 11 players. The action is fast and furious – and (cartoonish) explosive.
We Ski (Wii): Using the Wii balance board, you hop on and swivel your hips and go down virtual mountains using the numchuck controller attachment like ski sticks.

Best Games For Teens and Grownups
Grand Theft Auto IV:
It’s violent, it’s misogynist and if it were a movie, it would be rated MA-17. It’s also one of the most thoroughly entertaining videogames to come along in several years. You truly feel like you are a living character in a film about slipping into the crime-ridden underworld in the big city.
Guitar Hero: The top-selling franchise lets you become part of a rock band, down to playing (real-enough) instruments. And here’s your “Economy Tip”: If your family hasn’t tried this yet, you can get an older version on the cheap, new or used, and still enjoy the same type of game play.
Metal Gear Solid 4: A little safer bet for teens than GTA IV but with plenty of violent action. Game hero Solid Snake has aged and his skills have, too. Makes for an interesting few hours of gaming.
Wii Fitness: Who knew a videogame could help you get your workout on. Stick this in your Nintendo machine and it will calculate and track your weight loss goals and have you doing calisthenics, Yoga and even running (in place).

Saturday, November 15, 2008

"Gears of War 2", violent, amazing; Bond's "Solace" not so much

Microsoft Game Studio's “Gears of War 2” is a beautiful and violent video game, and it's awfully popular, too. It sold more than 2 million copies, in this terrible economy, in just seven days.

The game picks up six months after the end of the original “Gears of War,” which was released in 2006 and detailed a battle between mankind and the Locust, two-legged man-monsters that remind me of the lead character from the “Predator” movies.

Since the original ended, the Locusts have become incredibly powerful and the humans are fighting a disease called rust lung. Rather “Matrix-like,” the humans have gathered in one of their last cities not destroyed by enemies so strong they can almost suck a city underground from below.

This game, which is rated M for blood, gore and heavy violence, is engrossing. The worlds are huge and incredibly detailed. This game pushes the Xbox 360 to some serious limits. “Gears 2” is full of weaponry and fights for survival, but it also has a big emotional element to it.

You can become attached to your digital family and friends (who can help heal you when you're injured; you can even have them duck and crawl low across battle lines).

This game was thoroughly entertaining, but is far too violent for anyone under 18, I'd say.

Rating:***1/2 (Microsoft, for Xbox 360.)

‘Quantum of Solace'

The new James Bond movie hits theaters this weekend. It's about a week behind the game, which allows you to play as the latest Bond, actor Daniel Craig.

The game was built using the award-winning engine from “Call of Duty 4,” but despite having a long-enough story mode and several multi-player options, this Bond is boring.

You don't have to think much. Bond is like Superman. His health regenerates far too fast and his tricks leave his enemies, oftentimes, baffled and running scared.

I wanted more “spy” in this game, more sneaking around. You do get to take guys out from behind but you're allowed to walk up behind anyone whose back is toward you and take them out. They never know you're there – sometimes even if you fire a weapon.

This Bond is pretty to look at, but I sure hope the movie's better.

Playing the game gets rather dull quick, Q.

Rating:*1/2 (Activision, for all game consoles.)

‘Call of Duty: World at War'

This title recreates World War II fights and is violent, well-drawn and addicting.

You fight in Hawaii, Russia and Germany – and the enemy AI has been ramped way up. The new Bond title is based on a similar game engine but feels night and day from this game.

You can play with up to four players online, which was fun, but I enjoyed the single-player story mode, grabbing a flamethrower and wiping out the bad guys. Kiefer Sutherland (Jack Bauer on TV's “24”) lends his voice to the game and gets you started on a raid of a Japanese camp.

This game starts quickly and the missions come up one after the other. This one will get your palms sweating – in a good way.

Rating:***1/2 (Activision, for all console and handheld systems.)