Is there a new tech toy or gadget in your future? With the launch of new products for the holiday season and the next generation of offerings on the way, there will be no shortage of gadgets competing for our attention in 2011 — not to mention our cash!

Curious? Here’s a look at some of this year’s trends.

E-readers

It’s getting easier and cheaper to carry a library of books, magazines and newspapers with you wherever you go. While some experts think they’ll be overshadowed by tablets, the easy-on-the-eyes screen continues to be a big advantage.

Before Christmas, a new generation of e-readers hit store shelves with more features and improvements — like faster page turns, free books, wireless access and games. All the competition has driven prices down too. For instance, Kobo, Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook (available in the U.S.) have basic readers for around $150, and Sony’s Reader Pocket Edition comes in a little higher at $179.99.

Colour displays and touch screens are some the latest must-have features — and $300 will go a long ways.

Of course, the sticker price doesn’t include content, accessories and Internet access. However, more libraries are building digital collections and there are free resources like Project Gutenberg to keep your reading habits on budget. Free e-book management software like Calibre, even lets you convert, manage and create digital content. (Check out our article on e-readers for more information.)

If you already own an e-reader, keep your eye open for software upgrades to improve functionality and add new features.

Smart phones

Mobile devices universally top the list of tech trends for 2011. Making phone calls is becoming passé with all the features like internet browsing, email, cameras, video, texting, social networking and hundreds of games and applications — plus the networks are getting bigger and faster with 4G. In recent months, some big names have launched their new offerings, like the Blackberry Torch, iPhone 4 and the Palm Pre.

Operating systems are also a hot topic these days with Google’s Android gaining popularity and Microsoft now in on the act — you may have noticed TV characters “Binging” on their new Windows Phone 7 enabled phones lately.

If you’re getting wise to this trend, make sure to carefully compare the cost of data plans and weigh the pros and cons of contracts.

Tablets

These handy devices offer a little of everything including internet browsing, email, touch screens, games and e-reader apps. Until recently, Apple has had the proverbial corner on the market with its groundbreaking iPad currently priced between $549-$849. Samsung recently launched its Galaxy Tab line ranging $539-$699 (not including service packages through Bell or Rogers). The HP Slate 500 is also available in some areas for about $699 USD, and LG’s E-Note H1000B recently launched overseas.

However, you may want to wait to make this purchase. More companies will enter the market this year, including Research in Motion with its Blackberry Playbook. Industry watchers are already debating what the next generation iPad will look like, and prices could come down as competition heats up.

Another tip: Now that tablets have been around for a while, watch for more accessories like covers, keyboards, adaptors and docking stations.

Netbooks

Often referred to as the smaller cousins of notebook computers (also known as laptops), these devices are perfect for travelling and commuting. They’re smaller in size — with screen ranging 8.9″ to 10.1″ — and cheaper, ranging $269-$550. However, they do maintain much of the power and functionality (like a full keyboard) that tablets are lacking.

Netbooks aren’t meant to replace your main computer because they don’t have the peripherals (like internal disc drives), as many features or as much memory. The keyboards and pointing devices are downsized too, making them a little trickier to use for long periods. There are many makes to choose from, and sometimes they’re even free if you commit to a long-term mobile internet package.

Until last fall, Apple had steered clear of the netbook market but the 11″ MacBook Air is flirting with netbooks. Expect to pay a steeper price — these lightweight devices are more than twice the price at $1049.

Controller-free gaming

The whole-body action of the Nintendo Wii made gaming fun for all ages, bringing new audiences (like older adults) into the gaming realm. However, the latest generation of gaming systems eliminates those controllers you have to strap to their arms. The Kinect system for the Xbox 360 has built-in cameras that track your movements from a variety of angles — letting you twist and turn to control your avatar.

If you already own an Xbox, you can get Kinect-ed for about $149. Buying new instead? Look for bundled systems starting around $300- $400, depending on hard drive size. Expect to pay around $50 for additional games.

What about hand held games? Watch for them to go 3D as well. Nintendo plans to launch it’s 3DS in the early spring for around $249 USD — complete with 3D glasses and a suite of new games. (Don’t worry — you’ll be able to play in two dimensions as well.)

HDTV and 3D

LCD, LED and Plasma high-definition televisions of all sizes are making their way into more and more homes — and there’s a never ending string of sales. New features like built-in wireless internet access and memory card readers are making them an attractive buy.

While some models run a few thousands dollars, you don’t have to have a huge budget to get into this trend. Many reasonably sized HDTVs ring in at $600-$1000, but you can hook up your bedroom or kitchen with a smaller model for much less.

And 3D isn’t just for movie theatres — now you can enjoy it in your home theatre as well. While this particular trend didn’t take off in 2010, industry experts are predicting a better showing in 2011. Watch for manufacturers to step up their offerings — and offer alternatives to those awkward glasses.

However, the TV is just part of the package… To really take advantage of the technology, you’ll also need HD cable, a Blu Ray player and a good sound system to round out the experience.

Multimedia Devices

You’ve got lots of electronics — like computers, stereos, DVD or Blu Ray players, video recorders and televisions — now make them all play together. Multimedia devices let you share files, videos and music across all your equipment with wireless technology. With streaming video and services like Rogers OnDemand and Netflix stepping up their services in Canada, there are a variety of options to harness.

But what do you need? Depends on what you have and what you want to do. For instance, the Apple TV (which retails for $119) lets you stream music and videos to your TV and stereo system. You can even add an app to use your iPhone, iPad or iPod as a remote. The Boxee Box ($199) offers similar functionality, and the Sling Media PRO-HD Slingbox ($339) connects your home devices with your mobile ones — letting you watch TV and play the tunes on your laptop or PDA.

Digital cameras

You can’t go wrong with this ubiquitous item, but they do tend to slow down over time and performance can wane. However, if you’re looking for a replacement today’s basic point-and-click cameras sell for as little as $100-$200 — and you don’t need to be an expert to go beyond “automatic mode”. The latest cameras offer more features including bigger view screens, greater zoom, wide angle (perfect for travel photos) and image stabilization (which compensates for a little “camera shake”). Many cameras aren’t afraid of the dark with night portrait, night landscapes and fireworks settings. And if you’ve got a busy youngster or a pet, there are settings to capture them on the move too.

In addition, some of the latest digital Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras have more features to help you set up the shots — like showing you the best aperture or shutter speed for local lighting conditions. They tend to be on the pricier side, so keep an eye out for sales just because a new line comes out.

As always, watch for more megapixels (i.e. more detail), faster speeds and bigger memory cards. Some cameras now have built-in memory as well. Take the time to try out some of the settings, and watch for deals or kits that include accessories such a spare battery, case, memory cards and lenses.

The Cloud

True, this isn’t a gadget per se — in fact, this trend is as intangible as the name suggests. Cloud computing means we’ll be doing more things (and storing more things) online instead of on our desktop. For instance, instead of purchasing word processing software to install on your PC, you’ll access and use the software through the internet. Instead of storing documents on your hard drive at work, they’ll be stored in a common online space where your collaborators can access and edit them. The idea is that you can access software and documents online from anywhere from just about any device.

Cloud computing isn’t new — we’ve already had a taste of it with web-based and applications like Google Documents. With tech trending towards mobility and hand-held devices, experts think cloud computer is set to take off in a big way this year.

Regardless of what toys you plan to purchase, let us offer one final piece of advice: do your research. There will be lots of deals out and new products coming out, but you’ll need to do a little work to find the best choice for you. Get to know the products and their market value and shop around. When in doubt talk to people you know who own and use the product, and check out online reviews for the inside scoop.

Sources: The New York Times, Consumer Reports, MacWorld, PCWorld.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Edward Bock

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by:
Elizabeth Rogers