How to be smart about buying an ebook reader, digital camera, or HDTV

This week, my CBC Radio tech column focused on holiday gadget-buying. I looked at three gadget categories: ebook readers, digital cameras, and HDTVs. The focus wasn’t on what to buy, but rather, how to be smart about buying it.

I do my columns eighteen times every Tuesday (on most CBC Radio One afternoon shows). Here’s an MP3 from one of my hits, with Peter Brown of CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active: [audio:]

[Click here to download the MP3]

Ebook readers

There’s certainly a lot of choice out there: The Sony Reader. The Amazon Kindle. The Kobo, which is Canadian technology. Plus, a number of tablet computers (iPad, Samsung Tab) can be used as e-readers.

Personally, I think one of the most important questions you need to ask yourself when considering an e-reader for someone else is, “Where will they get their ebooks from?” If they want to read older stuff (Alice in Wonderland, or Little Dorrit), there are several places to download free, public domain books that’ll work on pretty much any e-reader. But it becomes more complicated if they plan to buy or borrow books.

Most e-readers on the market have an ebook store that goes along with them. For instance, Apple has the iBook store. But here’s the thing: the selection of books isn’t the same in every store. So, I really suggest you check out the different ebook stores. See if they have the kinds of books that appeal to the person you’re buying for.

Also, I know that many Canadian public libraries have started to offer digital downloads, so if you’re buying for a library user, make sure the device works with the system their local library uses.

Also, “where does this person do most of their reading?” Some ereaders are better suited to reading outdoors in direct sunlight, and others are better suited to reading in low light.


First thing to ask is: “how far away from the TV will I be when I’m watching?” That will help you calculate what they call the “optimum TV viewing distance.” There are several online tools that you can use to calculate this. You type in, say, the distance from your couch to your TV stand, and it’ll tell you the ideal TV size. Or, you can type in the size of the TV you want, and it’ll calculate how far away from it you should sit. And I know it’s hard to believe, but yes, it is possible to buy a TV that’s too big.

If you go HDTV shopping, you’ll hear a lot of tech specs. People will talk about 1080i versus 720p. They’ll talk about refresh rate: 60Hz, 120Hz, 240Hz, and on and on. These are the sorts of things that really matter to videophiles, but for most people, the biggest factors are the size of your TV, and how close you sit to it.

Another choice you’ll be faced with is going with an LCD versus a Plasma TV. Historically, a big part of the debate has been about which is better for fast moving proogramming like sports or video games. Historically, plasmas have been better for that, but these days LCD technology has improved significantly.

My advice: set a budget, figure out the optimal TV size for your room, and get the best you can for the size and price you’ve set.

Digital cameras

When it comes to choosing a camera, there are a lot of factors. And people have very different priorities: for some people, size and portability are really important. For others, it’s all about how easy it is to use. For others, it’s about expandability – can I add new lenses or accessories? Everyone has their own set of preferences. Which can make buying a camera as a gift quite difficult.

And, like with TVs, there are a lot of tech specs you can get caught up with. Most notoriously: megapixels. My advice: don’t get caught up in the megapixel game. At this point, it’s a marketing thing, and the biggest factors that’ll affect the photos you take are the lens and the sensor size. NOT the number of megapixels — anything on the market right now is more than what the average consumer needs.

I want to tell you about a website that I have found incredibly useful for choosing a camera. It’s called Basically, you go to this site, and it asks you a bunch of questions: what’s your budget? How important is size? Do you prefer a certain brand? That kind of thing. Then it gives you a list of cameras that it thinks will be good. And the best part of this is that you can answer these questions as though you’re the person you’re buying for. I tried this with my mother-in-law, and the camera that Measy recommended was an updated version of the one she already owned.

A word on extended warranties

I can’t go without mentioning extended warranties. Stores push these warranties so hard because they make huge profits from them. But Consumer Reports (the non-profit, independent consumer rights organization) calls them “notoriously bad deals,” and generally advises against them.

Their research has found that, products usually don’t break within the extended-warranty window, and when they do break, the repairs, on average, cost about the same as an extended warranty. They say the only possible exceptions are laptops, netbooks, or tablets. Personally, I’ve only every bought one extended warranty, and it was on a laptop. Other than that, I avoid them like the plague.