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3G or Wi-Fi-only Kindle? Advice for cost-conscious holiday shoppers

Need some help deciding whether to pay for the more advanced version of your favorite gadgets for the holidays? Ask Maggie has some advice.

You finally know which gadgets you're buying for friends and loved ones this holiday season. But now you're stumped about whether to shell out the extra bucks for features like 3G on the Kindle Touch or higher resolution on the Roku video-streaming box. Have no fear; Ask Maggie is here to help.

Kindle Touch: 3G or Wi-Fi-only?

Dear Maggie,
My sister wants an e-reader for Christmas. I am going to get her the Kindle Touch. But I'm not sure if I should spend the extra $50 to get her a 3G version of the device. She has Wi-Fi at home. So does she need the 3G version?


Dear Beth,
The Kindle Touch is sure to be a hot gift this year. At $99 for the Wi-Fi-only version of the e-reader, it's hard to resist. In fact, I plan on buying one as a gift this year too.

But if you tack on the additional $50 for the 3G version, that great deal starts to look a little pricey, at $149 a pop. So is 3G connectivity worth the added cost? Or will your sister be happy with the Wi-Fi-only version?

Amazon Kindle Touch

I asked John Falcone, executive editor for CNET Reviews, this very question. He said that for most even slightly tech-savvy people, the 3G version is overkill. He recommends the Wi-Fi-only version for most people.

"I'd rather spend $50 on books than an additional $50 on the device," he told me.

I agree with him. First, let me explain what you get with the 3G version of the Kindle Touch. Unlike the Wi-Fi version of the Kindle Touch, the 3G version allows you to download books and magazines anywhere you can get access to AT&T's cellular wireless network. It doesn't require you to enter any passwords for a Wi-Fi hot spot. Instead, it connects to the Internet via the AT&T wireless network straight out of the box, so you can start downloading books as soon as you turn it on.

The cost of the wireless service is bundled into the cost of the device. This differs from tablets, such as the Apple iPad. If you have a 3G version of the iPad, you have to subscribe to a data service from either AT&T or Verizon Wireless to get wireless service anywhere.

But even though you get more ubiquitous access with the Kindle Touch 3G without subscribing to a data service, which is a nice convenience, I just don't think that it's really worth the additional $50. And the reason why is that the 3G wireless access you get only allows you to download books, newspapers, and magazines. Unlike the previous Kindle 3G, now called the Kindle Keyboard 3G, the Kindle Touch will not allow you to browse the Web over the 3G network. You can only use the browser for more general Web surfing in Wi-Fi.

Amazon clarified this point in a statement issued after the Kindle Touch was announced this fall:

"We apologize for the confusion. Our new Kindle Touch 3G enables you to connect to the Kindle Store, download books and periodicals, and access Wikipedia--all over 3G or Wi-Fi. Experimental Web browsing (outside of Wikipedia) on Kindle Touch 3G is only available over Wi-Fi."

Amazon also allows you to download documents on the Kindle Touch via 3G, but you may be charged extra for that service. The 3G version of the Kindle Touch will also work with some wireless networks in other countries, but Amazon's terms of use explains that you may have to pay for access to those wireless networks to buy a book.

Since most people can easily find a Wi-Fi hot spot when they want to download books at home or while they are traveling, I think it makes little sense to spend the extra money for the 3G version of the Kindle Touch e-reader.

That said, there are some instances when the 3G version might be a good fit for some people. For example, if your sister doesn't have broadband or Wi-Fi access at home, I'd recommend the 3G version. Or if your sister is completely tech-illiterate, and you fear that the Wi-Fi set-up will be too complicated for he, I'd recommend the 3G version, since it's so easy to use.

But for most people, the Wi-Fi version will work very well.

Good luck, and happy holidays!

Roku for Christmas

Dear Maggie,
My 68-year-old aunt has had a Netflix account for years. She loves the selection of foreign films and documentaries. I told her about the streaming-video service. And now she really wants to stream video to her TV too. Do you think the Roku LT Streaming Player is a good gift for her? I noticed it is only $50 on Amazon. But I'm wondering if I should spend a little more and get her a more advanced model? What do you think?


Dear Jake,
Save your money! The $50 Roku LT Streaming Player is all your aunt needs to enjoy tons of great streaming content from Netflix, as well as from other online "channels," such as Amazon, Hulu Plus, and Crackle TV.

Roku now has four different devices that it sells, ranging in price from $50 for the Roku LT Streaming Player to $90 for the Roku 2 XS Streaming Player. For most people, who are mainly interested in watching streaming video using the Roku box, the lower-cost Roku LT is perfectly fine. The extra $40 you would spend on the higher-end model doesn't offer enough of a feature difference to make it worthwhile.

Roku LT Streaming Player

Here's a list of the features included in the higher-end device--and my rationale for why it doesn't matter:

1080p high-definition video resolution: The biggest difference between the low-end and the high-end Roku boxes offered right now is that the lower-end Roku LT device offers high-definition video at 720p resolution. The high-end Roku 2 XS offers HD at 1080p resolution. Of course, the 1080p means that the resolution is a higher quality (more pixels on the screen,) but for average consumers, such as your aunt, it's a difference that is barely noticeable, according to John Falcone, executive editor for CNET Reviews.

David Katzmaier, CNET's TV expert, said in an article discussing the difference in HDTV resolution that 720p can still look great. In fact, he said that unless you have a very large TV, you'll have a hard time telling the difference between any of the HDTV resolutions.

What's more, not all video content that is offered for streaming is transmitted at 1080p. Also, depending on the quality of her broadband connection, your aunt may not get the full resolution, anyway. So the bottom line is that paying extra for 1080p on the Roku isn't really worth it.

Bluetooth and Enhanced-RF remote: Another thing that the Roku 2 XS offers, which is not available on the low-end Roku LT, is the enhanced-RF remote with motion controls and Bluetooth connectivity. Once again, for people most interested in watching streaming video, these features are frivolous. They are geared toward people who want to play online games on their TV. I'm guessing that your 68-year-old aunt is not a big gamer. Therefore, if you forgo the Bluetooth and enhanced-RF remote, and go with the cheaper version of the Roku, she won't even notice.

Angry Birds: The high-end Roku device has access to the Rovio game Angry Birds for free. Unless your aunt is an Angry Birds fanatic, I don't think the extra $40 is worth it for access to this game.

Ethernet port: The Roku 2 XS is the only Roku device that offers an Ethernet port for connecting to the Internet. But if your aunt has Wi-Fi connectivity in her home, then this should not be an issue. In fact, most people prefer to use Wi-Fi, since their broadband modem or router may not be near their TV. Also, it means fewer cables strung behind the TV.

If you use Ethernet for the broadband access, then the Roku device, which connects directly to the TV via an HDMI cable, will have to sit next to or close to the broadband router. If you use Wi-Fi, then the broadband connection can be across the room, and you can still set up the device.

I hope that this advice is helpful. Good luck with your Christmas shopping. And happy holidays!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET, offering readers a double dosage of advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.