Walt Mossberg

Before Going to Buy High-Tech Devices, Learn the New Terms

Shopping for computers and other high-tech products has always been a challenge, partly because the manufacturers and retailers erect a tower of techno-babble terminology to confuse you into spending more money, and to make poorly trained salespeople who merely memorize jargon seem smart.

This year, that tower of babble is higher than ever, as new terms have come into being, and old ones have come to the fore. So, here’s a quick glossary of some of the current techno terms you may encounter when shopping for a computer, television, digital camera or cellphone this holiday season.

Aero: This is the graphical user interface that’s a key part of Microsoft’s new Windows Vista operating system, due out around Jan. 30. If you want to get the full benefit of Vista, make sure any Windows PC you buy this season is capable of running Aero. Many are not.

Antiblur: Also known as antishake or image stabilization, this is a crucial feature of digital cameras today. Because few cameras have optical viewfinders, users tend to hold them at arm’s length to frame the shot on the LCD screen. This increases the likelihood of shaking the camera. An anti-blur feature can correct that. The best antiblur technology is optical. Digital versions are less effective.

Draft N: This is a new, faster, longer-range version of the popular Wi-Fi wireless networking system, and many new Wi-Fi products are built to comply with it. It succeeds the common “G” flavor of Wi-Fi. But, there’s a catch. As the name implies, this technology is based on a draft of the forthcoming new Wi-Fi standard, to be called “N.” And the final standard could be different enough to make Draft N gear outdated in 12 to 18 months.

Dual Boot: A computer that is configured to boot, or to start up, in two different operating systems, depending on which the user chooses at any one time. The most important example of this currently is on Apple’s Macintosh computers, which now can be set up to run either the Mac operating system or Microsoft Windows using Apple’s free dual-boot software, called Boot Camp.

Dual Core: A type of microprocessor — the brain that runs a computer — which packs the equivalent of two processors into a single chip. The best known dual-core processors in consumer computers are Intel’s Core 2 Duo and Core Duo, but rival AMD also makes them. They are a good bet for most people.

Flash Player: A small-capacity digital music player, like Apple’s iPod Nano and Shuffle. These players use flash memory, a type of memory chip that behaves like a small hard disk to store music, photos and videos. Larger players, such as the full-size iPod and the new Microsoft Zune, use actual hard disks, like the ones in computers. Flash memory is also what’s inside the small memory cards used in digital cameras.

HDMI: This acronym, for High-Definition Multimedia Interface, describes a new kind of cable for hooking high-definition TVs to things like cable boxes and DVD players. It provides a high-quality digital feed, and combines both audio and video signals via a single connection. When shopping for an HDTV, make sure it has HDMI connectors on the back.

HSDPA: An awkward name for a new high-speed cellphone network being deployed in the U.S. by Cingular Wireless. Its full name is High Speed Downlink Packet Access, and it’s intended to compete with successful high-speed networks from Verizon and Sprint called EVDO, or Evolution Data Only. All of these new networks allow Internet access at about the speed of a slow home DSL line, which is a big boost for cellphones. If you care about email and Internet access on a phone, and you are using Cingular, get a phone that can handle HSDPA.

Quad Band: A cellphone that handles all four bands, or frequencies, used in various countries by wireless phone companies adhering to a world-wide standard called GSM. Examples are Cingular and T-Mobile in the U.S., and Vodafone and Orange in Europe. A quad-band phone can be used on any GSM network anywhere, so if you travel overseas a lot, you may want one.

RAW: A file format for digital photographs that is uncompressed and largely unmodified by the camera’s chips, and therefore includes every detail of the color and image. It is prized by professional photographers and serious amateurs, who look for cameras and photo software that can handle the RAW format. But it produces enormous files, so most users should ignore it and stick with the very good, very common compressed photo format, called JPEG or JPG.

Shared Memory: A computer configuration in which the video circuitry lacks its own dedicated memory and must share, or drain off, a portion of the computer’s main memory. This is common in lower-price computers. It’s fine, but it reduces the amount of memory available to the nonvideo functions of the computer, so you may want to add extra memory to a PC of this type.

WAN: Any wide-area network, such as a cellphone network, that can be used to send and receive data. It is distinguished from a LAN, or local area network, such as the wired and wireless networks deployed inside a business or home. Some computer makers use the term for the built-in cellphone modems in their laptops.

Good luck with your gift shopping. Don’t get trapped in the tower of babble.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com.

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