Strange New World: Tech Picks of the Week

Like it or not, in this strange new world, holiday shopping season starts in earnest on Halloween. Boo! That puts us in the final week of calm before the credit cards get their annual workout.

Gadget makers have been making last-minute tweaks to their lines looking for that fresh angle to bring them some holiday consumer electronics love.

Struggling TV-time-shifter Tivo announced that it will finally offer some support of high-definition television. Microsoft said it will offer a Wii-like riff on the Xbox. And several makers are coming to market with new home media servers, Web content and dual-mode TVs and monitors.

So no matter the weather, expect it to rain gadgets this holiday season.

Here are our picks for the top gadget stories of the week.

Tivo's Better Than Ever, but Can It Turn a Profit?

How many products out there are synonymous with an industry? There's Xerox, Kleenex, and — although the company hates it — Tivo.

Sure, every cable company tries to sell you a cable box with a digital video recorder built in, but that DVR is usually years behind the developmental curve. If you want the newest features in gadgets that record digital content, you still need to go with the originator: Tivo.

The company has revved its product cycle with My DVR Expander ($199), an external hard drive that can store 600 hours — that's 25 days — of standard-definition programming or 60 hours of high-definition programming. Either way, the expander forestalls the fight over what has to be erased: Game 7 or the final episode of "Gilmore Girls."

Tivo will also support multiroom viewing that shares content between multiple Tivos from a single source. And TiVoToGo is being rolled out for Series 3 and HD units, letting subscribers transfer recordings from their Tivo boxes to PCs or mobile devices.

All this good news, though, does not solve the company's major problem: It can't seem to make money. It lost 18 cents a share in the most recently reported quarter. We figure all these announcements just make the company a more attractive target for somebody to buy.

Xbox Says Wii

After feeling the heat from the more family-friendly Wii, Microsoft struck back this week by introducing the new Xbox 360 Arcade ($279).

This Xbox isn't aimed at all you couch-surfing, Master Chief-loving gamers. This is for families — or younger relatives whom you won't let touch your spiffy new Xbox 360. The Arcade ships with a wireless controller, HDMI output and five kid-friendly games: Namco-Bandai's "Pac-Man Championship Edition," Carbonated Games' "Uno," MumboJumbo's "Luxor 2," Electronic Arts' "Boom Boom Rocket" and Sprout Games' "Feeding Frenzy."

Microsoft plans to release even more family-friendly content starring big, scary villains like Shrek and Spongebob Squarepants. We have our doubts as to whether this is really gonna stop people from getting their Wii thing on, but at least Microsoft is putting something like a competitor on the market.

Impact Gadgets … Yet Again

We know all you really want for the holidays is an iPhone or a Wii. But if you already have a cell phone and a game device, don't be despondent. This holiday season you can expect an unmatched level of cool gadgets just aching to end up in your shopping basket, under your tree or beside your menorah.

Here's our ever-growing list of impact technologies for 2008.

Vudu: ($399) It's this simple. Get all those cool Web movies and Web TV on your television. Vudu is about the best iteration of the technology that ports Web content from your broadband network to your television. The unit is still pretty much a nerd-only device — the concept of carrying Web stuff over to the set can be devilishly hard for the non-geek to comprehend.

But with a bit of help and some patience in setting the thing up, even the technophobes among us can make the Vudu work nicely. It's worth the effort: Nothing beats getting YouTube on your tube.

The Viewsonic: NX2232w LCD TV/PC dual -use monitor ($399) Viewsonic has done a very smart thing by turning a nice 22-inch monitor into a TV as well. Dual-use monitors are a great way to wedge both a TV and a PC into tight spots like the den, office or kitchen.

This set comes with all the necessary inputs. And resolution, at 1680x1050, is not bad for TV. If you're looking for a great second set in your house for the holidays, this Viewsonic is definitely worth a look.

Windows Home Server: (Price TBA) If it ever gets out of beta and becomes available in places other than New Zealand, the Windows Home Server will let you store just about any movie, song, photo or digital bit of whatever on your home PC.

The unit, supposedly due out here in America at the end of this year, will provide an easy-to-install home digital network to all you Windows users. Yes it will be cool. Very cool. But we are dubious that Microsoft will provide proper iTunes support. So iPod users can almost certainly expect problems. Still, this is a major step forward in the home media wave.

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.