smart spending

3 recession-busting gadgets

"Considering the recent $50 all-you-can-eat price plan, it's a tough argument," he says. "Earlier, I would have said maybe rollover minutes and the extra benefits like that can help you out. But with these current offerings, it's tough."

Netbooks

Netbooks are smaller, lighter and less powerful versions of conventional notebook computers. These little devices have gained a following among students, frequent travelers and others looking to pay for exactly as much computer as they need and nothing more.

"The netbook is not going to be able to do everything that a full-featured laptop can do," says DuBravac. "But it's going to do most of those things."

In a January 2009 report, ABI Research said it expects manufacturers to ship 35 million netbooks this year alone, even as sales of traditional PCs founder.

Often powered by scaled-down versions of laptop chips, netbooks tackle basic tasks -- such as word processing, Web browsing, e-mail and video playback -- for $500 or less, making them a cheaper alternative to laptops. Most models weigh in at 3 pounds or less and shun expensive, high-end operating systems for the older Windows XP or open-source Linux operating systems.

Netbooks offer consumers a combination of value and performance that is difficult to resist in today's economy, DuBravac says.

"(A netbook) comes at a less expensive price point, and typically it tends to come with less features," DuBravac says. "But it also provides a lot of things that consumers aren't getting from the desktop or the laptop."

“The netbook is not going to be able to do everything that a full-featured laptop can do. But it's going to do most of those things.”

For example, the small size and light weight of netbooks make them easier to transport, and the devices use less energy than traditional desktops and laptops, DuBravac says.

Morgan says netbooks also make good companions to older, more full-featured computers.

"Fifty percent of the people that purchased netbooks bought them as a secondary device," Morgan says.

Still, don't expect a speedy, high-tech powerhouse from a netbook. "You don't get the performance or the large screen or the great keyboard -- all the same things that you sacrifice when you miniaturize anything," says Lori Grunin, senior editor of digital imaging at CNET.com.

Miniature camcorders

It seems like only yesterday new parents were picking up $2,000, bazooka-size cameras just to get a short video of their toddlers taking a few steps.

Now, thanks to the proliferation of small camcorders like Pure Digital's Flip, you can shoot basic video on the cheap and share it instantly with friends and family all over the world via e-mail or YouTube.

These pocket-size cameras record video onto lightweight, reliable flash memory cards rather than tapes or power-sapping hard disks.

"They're extremely easy to use -- there's basically one button," Grunin says. "They're very small and light. They're bigger than a cell phone, but not by a lot. You can stick them in your pocket or your bag. Ease of use, size and the fact that you can get an HD camera for under $200 -- those are the three draws."

There are a few drawbacks. Camcorders like the Flip are designed primarily for ease of use rather than for maximum control and professional-grade, polished video quality. In addition, users capture only about two hours of video before the storage is full.

"They don't have every feature you could imagine," DuBravac says. "Those who just want to have something that they can throw in their pocket and take to their kids' soccer game or that they can tape to their bike helmet before they try a back flip -- that's when these less expensive, flash-based camcorders are coming in."

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