Retailers around the country are reporting a slower-than-usual holiday shopping season this year. But 2008 has been a terrific year for those who love consumer electronics - whether they are buying or just looking.
During lunch hour at the Midtown Manhattan outpost of Best Buy, the largest consumer electronics chain in America, the checkout line is 30 people deep and counting. That's no surprise to Nicholas Thompson, a senior personal technology editor at Wired magazine.
"It's been a cool year," says Thompson. "There has been lots of stuff introduced that's faster, smaller, sleeker, cheaper, better than anything we've had before."
Thompson adds that product design also has improved this year, partly as the result of Apple products.
"Apple makes beautiful things, and these things sell. So now everyone is making beautiful things!"
One of the new products that Thompson believes deserve high marks for both design and affordability is the Sansa Fuze. It's one of dozens of handheld digital music players on sale here.
"It's about $80, which is much less than it would have cost a year ago, [and] you can watch TV shows. You can watch movies. You can listen to music, and you can look at photographs you can put on it, all your little media files."
Thompson soon heads straight for the camera aisle, where he unhesitatingly picks up a stylish Sony T700. Unlike most digital cameras, which have smallish viewing screens, the entire back portion of the T700 is designed for viewing photos. He says people often put their photographs online, but relatively few people trouble themselves with viewing.
"But if you have a nice screen on your camera, it makes it a lot easier to share your photos with your friends," he says.
Another important feature of the Sony T700 Thompson touts is its Smile Shutter technology, which is able to detect when a person the camera is aimed at smiles. It then shoots the photo without the user having to press a button.
Nearby, shoppers are snapping up a surprisingly small and simple looking video camera called the Flip Ultra.
"Video cameras used to cost $300 to $400," recalls Thompson. "And for a lot of people, all you want to do is take a little video of your dog and stick it on YouTube. And why pay $300 for that?"
In contrast, at $129, the Ultra is relatively inexpensive. It also has what Thompson considers another virtue: almost no buttons.
"Buttons can sometimes be good, but they can also confuse you. This very simple, very nice present for someone."
Video games are bigger than ever in 2008. Thompson's favorite this year is the FIFA 09 virtual football game based on the teams in the World Cup.
"For example, say you want to be the United States, or you want to be Brazil," explains Thompson, "You actually have the simulation of all the soccer players who play on that national team. And if Brazil plays the United States, Brazil wins!"
When this Voice of America reporter asks him just why Brazil is sure to win, Thompson is quick to laughingly opine, "Brazil is better!" He adds that in the football-oriented video games of the past, the players would all look the same
"… and they would kind of run in the same direction, kick as hard, run as fast as each other. Now everybody is an individual," he says.
Thompson says hard-core couch potatoes who want excitement from their electronic toys without exercise - even of the virtual kind - will love Samsung's new top-of-the-line, large-screen flat televisions. The store's demonstration model uses liquid crystal display technology enhanced with light-emitting diodes as backlights.
"The colors are truer. The blacks are a lot better, and it's much easier to watch for a long time," Thompson says. "You actually feel like you are in a movie theater even though are just sitting in your own living room."
Soon, a chase scene from The Dark Knight, the franchise's most recent Batman film, begins to play on the television monitor. But Thomson says that virtually zooming through the streets of Gotham City at 250 kilometers per hour in the Batmobile - while sitting in one's own living room at the same time - is only one of the high-tech thrills in store for gadget lovers during the 2008 holiday season.