Holiday Buyer's Guide 2006: Great Tech For The Clueless

With so much tech goodness available, it’s all too easy to forget that some of the best products are the ones that don’t require a Comp Sci degree to master. After all, just because you’re a genius and can figure out how to work the latest cell phone, computer, TV or digital camera, doesn’t mean your friends and family can.

To that end we’ve put together a brief list of products and technologies that will make even the most hopeless of users feel like tech gods.

Backup System: Buffalo DriveStation

Getting a technologically challenged person to back up their computer can be a trying experience. The best way around it is to set up a “set it and forget it” type of system, but even these can turn out to be more trouble than they are worth. Buffalo Technology’s DriveStation series of external hard drives on the other hand is pure backup bliss.

The drives are available with USB 2.0 or with a combo of USB and FireWire ports in sizes from 160GB ($150; USB 2.0) up to a massive 1.5TB ($999; combo). The DriveStations are plug and play, automatically setting themselves up without the need for drivers. It works with Windows and Mac computers (though the bundled software is Windows only) and will also power on and off with your computer, so you’re never wasting power. Included security software makes sure prying eyes don’t get access to your personal files.

What makes it the ultimate backup device is the included Memeo AutoBackup software. The app is incredibly easy to get started with, and then once it’s running, it stays running in the background constantly monitoring folder and file changes and backing things up along the way. It also does it without hurting your overall computer performance.

Mobile Phone: LG VX3400 from Verizon Wireless
Many times people buy things that do way more than they need them to. Mobile phones are a good example. If all you do is make phone calls and send the occasional text message on your cell, buy the LG VX3400 or something like it.

Since it’s light on features, technophobes won’t get lost in never-ending menu systems. No camera means you don’t have to worry about environments where camera phones aren’t allowed. And no extra keys means straightforward operation.

Computer: Apple iMac (or any other computer from Apple) with Mac OS X
Seriously people, don’t even try to argue with me on this. Windows is a horrible OS for people that don’t know their way around a computer.

From constant popup bubbles to the need for extreme security measures—especially for those that can’t help opening every e-mail in their inbox—right down to the procedures for uninstalling software, Windows is a giant pain in the ass for the less technically inclined. I’d like to say this’ll all change with Vista, but it won’t, because it’s still Windows.

Mac OS X is a clean, simple solution and the definitive handholding OS. Setting up everything from a Bluetooth keyboard to a wireless network is done almost for you. Since almost all viruses, spyware and malware are made to infect Windows-based systems, there’s little need to worry about security beyond the built-in FireWall and an effective spam filter. And with Intel’s CPUs now running the show, performance is no longer an issue.

True, many, many things —software, peripherals, MP3 players, etc. —don’t work on a Mac. But the technically clueless don’t care and won’t notice. Microsoft Office is available and all the basics for media creation and management are included in the iLife suite on every system.

Alternate: Can’t afford to give that special someone — or yourself — a new computer? Pick up a copy of Xandros Desktop Linux, an easy-to-use full Linux installation that is impervious to pop-ups and other junk. I know there are better Linux versions out there, but if you want fire and forget installations for the non techie, this is probably the best we’ve seen. Feel free to flame in the comments regarding your favorite Linux installs, however.

Wi-Fi Router: Belkin N1 Wireless Router
There are a ton of wireless routers on the market. Belkin’s N1 is one of the easiest to setup thanks to its efficient software and detailed Network Status Display on the front letting you know at a glance the health of your connections.

At $150, it’s not cheap. But if you find the idea of putting together a wireless network daunting, it’s a small price to pay. Plus, it’s loaded with just about every modern capability a router can have and looks pretty sweet.

Television: Mitsubishi Sets with ClearThought Easy Connect and NetCommand with IR learning
If you’re not using a receiver for video switching and don’t know a component input from an HDMI, you’ll appreciate Mitsubishi’s ClearThought Easy Connect and NetCommand features.

Basically, as soon as you connect something to one of the TV’s inputs, the set will recognize the occupied jacks, ask the user to name it (such as DVD or Xbox) and then enters it into the Device Menu, which only shows the inputs that are filled. That way, no matter who uses your TV, they’ll be able to find the right input to watch a DVD.

The NetCommand feature lets you teach the remote control included with the TV to control all your other electronics. Yes, you can find similar features on other sets, but Mitsubishi’s are superior and work very well.

Home Theater: Denon S-301; Sony DAV-FX900W
Properly setting up a home theater is a hassle even when you know what you’re doing. Add in complete inexperience with electronics or inability to grasp certain concepts like inputs and outputs and you’re in for a mess of trouble.

A home-theater-in-a-box system is the definitely the way to go, since it not only makes shopping easier, but set up has generally been refined to nothing more than a few cables and a power cord.

If you can afford to layout some coin and don’t need more than 2.1-channels of sound, Denon’s S-301 system ($999) is the way to go. The only cables needed run from the two satellites to the subwoofer, and then a cable runs from there to the head unit that contains a CD/DVD player. Just connect cables from the S-301 to your TV, plug it in and you’re done. If you get confused, there’s onscreen help to get you out of a jam, accessible through the well-designed remote control.

Back in my round up of HTIBs, I picked the Sony DAV-FX900W for its wireless rear speaker design. But what I didn’t mention was how easily you can get it up and running. Color-coded cables make sure you get your connections right the first time around and an Auto Calibration function helps you place your speakers for the best sound. It can be found for about $640, but it’s a very complete 5.1-channel home theater with a built-in CD/DVD player.

Digital Camera: HP Photosmart R927
While there are plenty of cameras that take better pictures on the market, the R927 is the one you want to give to someone who is completely in the dark about digital photography. The top of HP’s camera line, the $270 8.2-megapixel R927 is at its base a simple point-and-shoot compact camera.

The menu system is uncomplicated, yet packed with the company’s Real Life technologies to help even novice shooters take great shots. It gives you real-time feedback on how to improve a specific picture and settings are given simple in-camera explanations so there’s no guessing what a particular feature does.

Sharing options are plentiful, including a button to directly send for prints through There is also automatic in-camera red-eye removal, a design gallery for adding artistic effects and borders and a slimming feature to help you shed a few pounds before you print.