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Buying power: Understand the lingo before you make your purchases

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During the holiday season, technology parades around in shiny wonderment — everything from 3D TVs to cell phones that somehow know where you are and how to get where you want to go.

Purchasing the latest gadgets can be intimidating. Buyers are faced with questions like: plasma or LED? Wi-Fi or 4G?

So what do all those acronyms and tech terms mean?

Before making such a purchase this season, let's review some of the most popular tech lingo.

Plasma or LED

"(An LED) is an LCD flat-panel television whose picture screen is illuminated by light-emitting diodes or LEDs," said Brian Colley at CNET TV.

Imagine there is a micro version of Lite-Brite behind the screen and each pixel of the screen is illuminated by its own light.

LED TVs are generally the very thin and stylish. They are more expensive, and they have struggled to reach the absolute-black color that plasma TVs are able to achieve.

The plasma screen, on the other hand, is a little more complicated to understand.

"Ultraviolet photons interact with phosphor material coated on the inside wall of the cell," said Tom Harris of How Stuff Works in explaining how a plasma TV functions.

What does that mean in practical terms? Who knows? But let's talk about whether it's worth buying.

"Plasmas still offer the best value in the 50+ sizes and the best contrast and color reproduction, which any videophile will tell you is way more important than brightness, which seems to be the sole reason why the masses prefer LCD," said Ben Drawbaugh of Engadget.

In short, a plasma TV is a cheaper option with beautiful color and contrast, but not as bright or stylish as the LED. The LED enjoys a beautiful design and a brighter screen but struggles with darker colors. Also, it will hit the wallet harder than the plasma TVs will.

Wi-Fi and 3G, 4G

Is the geek in your life looking for a cell phone or iPad, but wants it to be 3G? Or wait, does he or she need it to be Wi-Fi enabled, but doesn't need a 3G or 4G connection?

Maybe what you really want to know is, what on earth is Wi-Fi and what on earth is a G?

When most people use the term Wi-Fi, they are really saying WLAN — a wireless local area network.

Wi-Fi is the Internet connection at your home or office. It's also what people use when they're on their laptops at Starbucks or the public library. Wi-Fi allows the user to get onto the Internet at a specific location, but the connection can't go with you.

Enter the G's or generations. Most cell phone carriers use a 3G or 4G network to provide Internet access to their on-the-go customers. The higher the number in front of "G," the more up-to-date and potentially faster the network is.

Why would you need a 3G or 4G network as opposed to the many Wi-Fi hot spots around town? Convenience.

While holiday shopping to find the perfect gift for your little brother, if you are 3G or 4G ready, you can check the Internet to see if another local store has that item at a better price, and, if another store has it cheaper, having on-the-go Internet access allows you to get turn-by-turn instructions from where you are to where you need to go.

Blu-ray, 3-D TVs

Blu-ray is the victor of the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD format war. That format war was very similar to the VHS vs. Betamax format war of the 1980s, which ended when Warner Bros. finally joined Team Blu-ray.

Blu-Ray and HD-DVD wanted to replace the DVD in the same way DVD replaced VHS, and both were offering pretty much the same thing DVD did back in the day with more space for content and better picture and sound quality.

Blu-ray has absolutely delivered on its promises with a beautiful picture and more than six times the storage capacity of regular DVD. However, Blu-ray has landed at a really interesting time. More and more people are wanting movies delivered digitally, just like their music. Also, old Blu-ray players do not work with the latest 3-D formats, with the exception of the PS3.

Now, consumers have to consider whether or not Blu-ray will even be around for any length of time, and if it is, should they invest in the more expensive 3-D technology?

"Short-term, Blu-ray is fine. But long-term, I'm not sure about the viability of either," said MG Siegler, senior writer for TechCrunch. "Blu-ray will clearly be replaced by Internet distribution, and 3-D TV still seems more of a gimmick for the time being."

Consumers are now left with a tough decision this season, but then again, that's the nature of technology.

"Stick with what you need, not just want," Siegler said. "Tech updates so quickly that in a few months, you may find yourself filled with regret about a purchase unless you really needed it."