Take a byte out of high-tech bargains

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      Recently, while perusing the advertisements and Web sites of a few major electronics retailers, I had several occasions when I was spontaneously moved to declare out loud (even though I was alone) that I couldn't believe how inexpensive some products had become. Take hard drives. I found a terrabyte unit (that's right, a thousand gigabytes) for $329. Admittedly that price only applied to sales via the on-line store, but it's an indicator of what we'll be paying soon in the malls. A little more than two years ago that much storage space cost about five or six times as much.

      Even if you can't remotely imagine what you'd do with a terrabyte of storage, it's easy to locate 500-gigabyte models for less than $200, or 250-giggers for $129 or less. And those are in-store prices, for external drives that you don't have to have installed in your computer or anything. One wire goes into the computer, another goes into a wall socket. (Pay attention and use caution!) External drives are great because you can easily move them over to a new computer, or share one among several machines to back things up.

      Then there's HDTV sets offering full 1080p resolution–the top level of the HD standards we've been chasing this past decade or so. At the beginning of this year, I suggested that people who had held off going HD should wait just a little longer, because 1080p sets had finally arrived and were beginning to drop below the $3,000 mark. I even boldly predicted that some sets might be down to $2,000 by the end of the year. Well, here we are just past the halfway mark, and I've just seen an ad for a 42-inch 1080p set for the new low price of $1,800. And not only is it a flat-panel LCD model but it's even a Sharp Aquos, not some obscure no-name brand.

      DVD players went through the free-falling-price phase a couple of years ago. I can't think of another product that's made such a quick transition from a luxury item to a commonplace commodity. A hundred bucks will get you a respectable brand-name single-disc player that might also (if you pay attention to all the logos on the box) play back other formats besides DVD, such as VCD, MP3, JPEG, and DivX. You can even find players in this price range that convert the outgoing video signal to higher resolutions, matching the capabilities of that nice TV from the last paragraph that you bought.

      Actually that's not quite true–you'll probably have to shell out $125 to $150 to get a DVD player that'll deliver 1080p. But back in the Laserdisc days, making the picture look better on a big screen using a line-doubler cost more than $5,000, so nobody has any reason to complain about 50 bucks or so. Incidentally, if you do have an HDTV set or are considering buying one, you will want to get a player that can "upconvert" DVDs and, of course, you'll want to subscribe to some HD movie or sports channels. Otherwise you won't be using anything near the potential of the picture you paid for.

      While we're on the topic of high-resolution video sources, don't forget those new competing DVD standards: HD DVD and Blu-ray. Those players aren't cheap–yet–but they have become more reasonable than the $1,000-and-up range they started at. HD DVD players start at about $350, and Blu-ray units at $600 or so. You could get one of each and still save $300 to $500 on the price of the vaunted LG Super Multi Blue player, which supports both new formats in one device, but needs to get cheaper to become the darling of that segment of the marketplace caught between early adopting and sitting on the fence.

      I also find it pretty amazing how inexpensive large-capacity flash memory chips are getting. The idea that you can buy a key ring that'll hold four gigabytes and costs around $100 is remarkable. Unfortunately, between all the portable music players, USB flash drives, and other devices coming out right now, it's predicted that there'll be a shortage of such chips for a while, so prices likely won't drop much. One report (cited on www.macrumors.com/) suggested that producing Apple's iPods and iPhones would use up to 25 percent of the world's flash chips this quarter.

      Sure, supply will eventually meet demand, and one day flash-chip prices will resume their drop (RAM chip production underwent similar production plateaux), but the real drawback is that the shortage will delay the development of a type of computer I was really hoping to own soon: a lightweight, compact laptop computer based around flash chips rather than a fragile hard drive. Something easy on battery life, durable, and practical. I'd heard Apple was among the companies working on such things.

      Mind you, there is another such computer. Back in 2002, MIT's Nicholas Negroponte proposed that a US$100 laptop be developed and distributed to developing nations. Five years later, the One Laptop Per Child organization he founded (www.laptop.org/) is in the final testing stages and plans to start making deliveries of the XO in October. It's Linux-based and has an interesting approach to its interface. I'm very impressed. The final cost is currently US$176 per unit, but that's still not too bad. The BBC News Web site has several pages of technical details and some video (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/6908946.stm), but two of the most impressive features are wireless mesh networking to provide shared Internet access plus an instant local area network and ultra-low power consumption, to the point where solar cells or a hand-cranked generator can keep it running.

      I have heard that the XO might be sold to the public, possibly under a deal that would see you pay for two units, with the other machine considered a donation. That seems fair. Otherwise, under the circumstances, I can wait another year or so for the fancy overpriced western compact computers to hit the stores. Let's equalize the number of people with computer access before bothering to build new toys for me and my ilk.