3 recession-busting gadgets

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Recession or not, Americans love their high-tech toys more than ever.

Try to take away their laptops, cell phones and cameras, and you might hear an echo of Charlton Heston’s famous National Rifle Association slogan, “From my cold, dead hands!”

But the length and breadth of this downturn has many looking to cut back expenses anywhere they can.

“Consumers are looking for areas even within technology to cut back,” says Shawn DuBravac, research director of the Consumer Electronics Association. “So as much as these lower-priced products offer them the ability to still spend on technology — but do so at a lower price point — it’s attractive to them.”

Retailers and service providers have responded with new classes of computers, cell phones and cameras that appeal to consumers hoping to save a buck while still enjoying the benefits of high-tech gadgetry.

Here are three cash-saving products that allow consumers to get the features they need without paying for bells and whistles they’re unlikely to use.

Pay-as-you-go phones

If your cell phone bill feels a little bloated for today’s lean times, consider prepaid service. Unlike traditional contract-based cell phone service, pay-as-you-go services charge you only for the minutes you use.

Although the per-minute rate is often higher compared with contract-based plans, prepaid models offer three advantages for consumers: a big reduction in monthly service charges, no long-term contract and typically no credit requirements. 

“Consumers are looking for areas even within technology to cut back.”

For years, prepaid phones were consigned to the fringes of the cell phone marketplace. But pay-as-you go services have become more attractive as carriers expand their range of models and offer improved technology in their products.

“A lot of the high-end features that maybe were born in smart phones have been slowly trickling down,” says Michael Morgan, mobile devices industry analyst for ABI Research.

Although flagship smart phones are still mostly the domain of traditional “postpaid” providers, features such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Internet browsing are starting to penetrate the prepaid market, Morgan says.

Morgan says a few prepaid providers offer an all-you-can-eat service — unlimited voice, text and data — for as little as $50 per month, about half of what you’d pay for the same service from a postpaid provider. 

Prepaid services do have a few disadvantages. Unlike phones from postpaid providers, most prepaid phones must be bought upfront with little or no subsidy to reduce the cost.

Prepaid providers’ networks may not be as robust as those offered by postpaid providers. If you do a lot of international calling or roam outside a prepaid service’s coverage area, charges may be higher than they would be in a postpaid plan.

Many prepaid plans also require you to use minutes you’ve purchased within a given time frame, or risk losing them. And, of course, if you’ve recently signed a long wireless contract, the fees you’d incur by breaking that contract may outweigh any price benefit of switching to prepaid service.

Still, that fat monthly cell phone bill is a big target for budget cutters, and the flashy, new generation of prepaid phones undermines postpaid providers’ claims that their services justify higher costs, Morgan says.

“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 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.”