Strange New World: Tech Picks of the Week

Things were just plain spooky this week in the strange new world of technology.

Apple, in a misguided effort to foil hackers, stooped to a new ├╝ber-paranoid low by refusing to take cash for iPhones. In other tech-related oddities, a new video game hit the market that essentially does away with plot as we know it. And finally, it turns out that the small independent electronics retailer in your town may actually be just as cheap as the big-box store. Who would have thunk it?

Here, then, are our picks of the week.

Your Money Is No Good With Apple

If you want to buy an iPhone, leave the cash at home and bring the plastic. To fight against what they call "unauthorized resellers," Apple is limiting sales of its iPhone to consumers with credit or debit cards only. On top of that, shoppers may buy only two units at a time.

Now, as far as we can tell, the greenback is still legal tender in this country, but apparently not so in Cuppertino, Calif. The word on the street is that Apple also will not let you use gift cards purchased with cash to buy an iPhone, so you might want to find an alternative stocking stuffer for the kids.

In all seriousness, this not being able to play nicely in the techno sand box is becoming a real problem for Apple, its users and the company's investors. Yes, you can muscle around your market when you serve a nice docile niche. But now that Apple is the leader in portable devices, even Steve Jobs must learn he can't boss around an entire culture.

Sure, we understand the need to protect iPhones, but accepting only credit isn't going to stop anybody on Craigslist from selling cracked units.

These moves will almost certainly trigger litigation and plenty of bad publicity. You have to wonder whether Apple will ever outgrow its damaged child, niche-market past.

'Hellgate London': It's 'Doom' With ADD

This was supposed to be our Halloween story, but once we took it out for a spin "Hellgate London" blew us away. So here goes. Are you a gamer? Do you like to blow stuff up, slay aliens and score big points but can't be bothered with crazy plots like who's the queen of what and who's got it out for whom? Well, "Hellgate London" is made for you.

This title completely avoids all the funky plot nonsense that has ruined many a good video game. There is no attempt to dream up compelling narrative lines -- there are no aliens to be cleared from the lower level so you can get the ammo you need to go to the next level and face yet more aliens.

Rather, the folks at Flagship Studios have broken "Hellgate" down to randomly generated 3-D areas and very simple problems (read: aliens to be vanquished). Once those areas are cleared, the player is usually rewarded with a small payout, with one area often having little to do with another.

The effect is a cross between delving headlong into, say, "Doom" or "Quake" and casually playing the Wheel of Fortune slots at the Bellagio. So, sure, in the beginning "Hellgate" feels like something is missing, but once you get over it, this is one rippin' game. And it's sure to spawn many an imitator.

We predict Flagship Studios will soon become the Jerry Bruckheimer of the video game world.

This Winter Try Celebrating Independence Day

It's no secret that we will never be spokespeople for a big-box electronics chain. Sure, they're nice places to get batteries and the like. But for real purchases like a flat-panel TV? Nothing gives us techno hives faster than wandering row after row of audio and video technology with little or no sales support.

So every year around this time we like to hype what many folks don't know: Smaller local electronics sellers provide excellent service -- and can be very competitive on price.

Sure, big-box stores sell more stuff, but they have high costs, too: marketing, supporting all the suits back at HQ and paying all that rent. So it is tough for them to cut prices below a certain point. Notice that Tweeter and similar bigger retailers ain't doing so well. On the other hand, independent audio-video stores -- those that have managed to survive the onslaught of the big-box stores -- have gotten cagey.

They have banded together to buy goods on relatively the same scale as the big boys through so-called buying groups like Nationwide Marketing Group or the MARTA Cooperative of America.

Obviously, the smaller store can be more expensive, so don't be afraid to shop around. If the store is way out of line, more than 10 or 15 percent higher than the box store, stay away. But take it from us, if the local guy is anywhere close on price -- which he probably is to still be in business -- go with him.

The service you get more than makes up for the $100 more you will pay on an average TV. Smart shoppers know that electronics are increasingly like top-quality produce -- it pays to stay local.

Jonathan Blum and Dan Evans co-host "Strange New World," a weekly syndicated radio show. Blum hosts the blog and Evans is a features editor at PC Magazine.