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$299 PCs and other holiday bargains

While Santa's elves are toiling away at the North Pole, electronics merchants in the U.S. are whacking prices on select items.

The holidays are always a good time to buy a personal computer, but study the configurations closely.

This week, both Circuit City and Best Buy are selling $299 Compaq-branded PCs with Sempron processors from Advanced Micro Devices, after rebates. Both include an 80GB hard drive and 256MB of memory.

But there are subtle differences. The Best Buy machine comes with a Sempron 3200+, while the Circuit City machine comes with a slightly less powerful 3000+. The monitor that comes with the Best Buy machine sports a 17-inch viewable surface, while Circuit City's touts a 16-inch screen. Finally, Best Buy's features a DVD/CR-RW drive, while the ad for the Circuit City machine says it only has a CR-RW drive.

Hence, Best Buy gives consumers slightly more technology, which isn't completely surprising. The retailing behemoth has increased its market share in recent years and can therefore squeeze better deals out of suppliers.

DVD camcorders
The bargains extend beyond the PC aisles.

Video cameras that record onto DVD discs or hard drives are still somewhat rare in the U.S., but the flood looks set to commence next year. Nearly 85 percent of video cameras on sale in Japan do not use tape to store video anymore, according to industry sources. Items on sale in Japan often turn up about a year later in the U.S.

Prices on these kinds of cameras are coming down now in American retail outlets. Hitachi has cut the price of its mini-DVD camcorder to $399. A few weeks ago, the camera sold for $499. A year ago, some high-end DVD camcorders cost over $900. In 2001, when Hitachi brought out the first direct-to-DVD camcorder, the devices cost $2,000.

Sony, Panasonic and others are selling similar cameras for $549 to $599. Many of these companies have stronger brand names in this country.

Set-top boxes
Here's a flashback: the smart set-top box. Microsoft is once again trying to sell a box for browsing the Web via the television set. It's MSN TV2, but, like its predecessors, it's not taking the consumer world by storm. The company is selling MSN TV2 boxes, which feature a Celeron processor from Intel, for $49.95 at various retailers this month. That's $150 off the ordinary price. In August, MSN TV2 boxes sold for $100 after rebate.

Flash memory
The 2005 holiday season will be a good time for stuffing stockings with memory. SanDisk is selling a 512MB flash card for $24.99 after rebates at various outlets--much less than the price of a year ago. These cards can hold a few hundred 4-megapixel shots.

And back to PCs
Are Apple Computer computers a bargain? It depends on the perspective of the buyer. This week, CompUSA is selling an iMac with a built-in 20-inch LCD monitor for $1,699. It comes with a 250GB hard drive and 512MB of memory.

For about the same price, a consumer can get two high-end HP Pavilion PCs and two 15-inch LCD monitors at the same store. For $844, CompUSA has a bundle that includes the HP model with a dual-core Athlon processor, 1GB of memory and a 250GB hard drive.

Or a shopper could get five Compaq Sempron-based systems (each bundled with a 17-inch CRT monitor) and have money left over.