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Electronics Gear Confuses Some

December 1, 1997

Electronics Gear Confuses Some

NEW YORK (AP) _ The Rolodex Rex is in. So are personal computers costing under $1,000, head-knocking stereo systems and big-screen TVs.

But holiday shoppers are biting cautiously on the new DVD players and hand-held computers.

Like an ill-tuned TV set adrift between stations, consumers so far seem ambivalent about the latest electronics gear _ promising a mixed selling season for makers of gizmos and computers.

Analysts and retailers expect electronics sales to modestly exceed last year’s holiday season, which was hurt by the lack of a major hot item. Helping sales this year are a fresh wave of interesting gizmos, the strong economy and demand from optimistic consumers who until now have held back from buying.

But strength is expected to be spotty.

One hot product is the Rex. The new computer is literally the size of a credit card, weighs just 1.4 ounces but stores up to 2,500 names and addresses, appointments, to-do lists and other items _ all displayed on a high-contrast little screen. The high-capacity version costs $159 and is sold under the Rolodex brand name by Franklin Electronic Publishers.

``I think it will sell out,″ said David Goldstein, president of Channel Marketing Corp., a research firm that tracks store sales of computers.

Also in demand are improved versions of old standbys.

Just ask George McIntyre, who was cruising the Nobody Beats The Wiz electronics store in midtown Manhattan the other day checking out the banks of TV sets and stereo systems.

The building superintendent, who lives with his wife in Brooklyn, is using part of his raise this year to upgrade the entertainment system in his bedroom to a larger screen and theater-quality sound. One prospect was the new surround-sound system, which was down to about $1,500 from thousands more several years ago.

``I want something I could hook up into the TV system,″ said McIntyre. ``I like to be as comfortable in the bedroom as possible.″

But nearby Carl Grzybek was holding back. He decided against buying one of the new DVD players because some makers had proposed a competing technical standard that could make the video equipment obsolete.

The high-capacity digital video disks, appearing in stores for the first holiday season, are supposed to eventually replace video cassettes because they show crisper, clearer movies and games. But the players start at $500 _ roughly double VCRs _ and don’t record programming,

``I’m going to sit back and wait. I really don’t know what’s going to happen,″ Grzybek said.

Shoppers also tentatively approached the displays of hand-held computers at the DataVision computer store 10 blocks south. Priced at $600 and higher, the much-hyped computers cost nearly as much as the cheapest desktops but are more limited in what they can do and sport cramped keyboards.

``With technology moving as fast as it does, there’s no reason to be so self-indulgent,″ said John Curtin, a self-described electronics aficionado who was cruising the DataVision aisles.

One exception is the PalmPilot, a computer made by a unit of 3Com Corp. The $300 device is smaller and lighter than other hand-held computers, but ably performs simple tasks, such as stowing an electronic calendar and address-book data downloaded from a desktop PC.

Also in demand are the new sub-$1,000 personal computers that include monitors and features such as multi-media technology. Thanks to these cheap PCs, sales of all desktops are expected to increase by up to 22 percent during November and December, up from 14 percent a year ago, according to Channel Marketing.

And more consumers are expected to check out the new digital cameras, though cautiously. Makers of the filmless gadgets have lowered prices and improved the picture-taking quality to levels that analysts say is expected to finally attract Christmas shoppers.

But consumers still need to spend $600 and more for a model that takes photos as good as a film version costing less than half that price.

``It’s definitely growing, but it’s not a huge category,″ said Chuck Cebuhar, general manager of home and office electronics for Sears Roebuck & Co.

Others say it’s just a matter of time before the new technology catches on. Demand is perking up for $300 drives that enable people to play DVD games and other software on their desktop computers. Just last year, DVDs were not even in stores yet, and many people hadn’t even heard of digital cameras.

``That’s the difference between last year and this year. Last year, it was a hope _ this year it’s out there,″ said Steve Nickerson, vice president of consumer products for Toshiba America Inc.

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